'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Blackwater Free Fire Zone 

From a McClatchy article:

On Sept. 9, the day before Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Congress that things were getting better, Batoul Mohammed Ali Hussein came to Baghdad for the day.

A clerk in the Iraqi customs office in Diyala province, she was in the capital to drop off and pick up paperwork at the central office near busy al Khilani Square, not far from the fortified Green Zone, where top U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work. U.S. officials often pass through the square in heavily guarded convoys on their way to other parts of Baghdad.

As Hussein walked out of the customs building, an embassy convoy of sport-utility vehicles drove through the intersection. Blackwater security guards, charged with protecting the diplomats, yelled at construction workers at an unfinished building to move back. Instead, the workers threw rocks. The guards, witnesses said, responded with gunfire, spraying the intersection with bullets.

Hussein, who was on the opposite side of the street from the construction site, fell to the ground, shot in the leg. As she struggled to her feet and took a step, eyewitnesses said, a Blackwater security guard trained his weapon on her and shot her multiple times. She died on the spot, and the customs documents she'd held in her arms fluttered down the street.

Before the shooting stopped, four other people were killed in what would be the beginning of eight days of violence that Iraqi officials say bolster their argument that Blackwater should be banned from working in Iraq.

During the ensuing week, as Crocker and Petraeus told Congress that the surge of more U.S. troops to Iraq was beginning to work and President Bush gave a televised address in which he said "ordinary life was beginning to return" to Baghdad, Blackwater security guards shot at least 43 people on crowded Baghdad streets. At least 16 of those people died.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ellsberg: A Coup Has Occurred 

I think nothing has higher priority than averting an attack on Iran, which I think will be accompanied by a further change in our way of governing here that in effect will convert us into what I would call a police state.

If there's another 9/11 under this regime ... it means that they switch on full extent all the apparatus of a police state that has been patiently constructed, largely secretly at first but eventually leaked out and known and accepted by the Democratic people in Congress, by the Republicans and so forth.

Will there be anything left for NSA to increase its surveillance of us? ... They may be to the limit of their technical capability now, or they may not. But if they're not now they will be after another 9/11.

And I would say after the Iranian retaliation to an American attack on Iran, you will then see an increased attack on Iran – an escalation – which will be also accompanied by a total suppression of dissent in this country, including detention camps.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The House Congress Leads the Way to War 

UPDATE 2: Apparently, the resolution is a sense of the senate one, and does not carry the force of law, so Bush will not be signing it, but I doubt that it makes any difference, as explained over at A Tiny Revolution. Does anyone believe that these subtleties matter to Bush?

The resolution has also been amended to purportedly limit the use of US military force against Iran to within the borders of Iraq, but the designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization still opens the door to direct military action against it, even within Iran, which is why the amendment was accepted, as it allowed both sides to characterize it as they wanted upon passage, with Bush being, of course, the ultimate decider.

UPDATE 1: Predictably, the Senate has jumped in front of the parade as well:

Meanwhile, the Senate on Wednesday, voted 76-22 in favor of a resolution urging the State Department to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.

While the proposal, by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., attracted overwhelming bipartisan support, a small group of Democrats said they feared labeling the state-sponsored organization a terrorist group could be interpreted as a congressional authorization of military force in Iran.

As it most certainly does. Upon signing this legislation, Bush can attack Iran whenever he wants.

INITIAL POST: In a country where there is no organized opposition to neoconservative foreign policy, we shouldn't be surprised when the House of Representatives legitimizes the demonization of Iran by overwhelmingly voting for the imposition of more rigorous economic sanctions:

The US House of Representatives aimed a sharp jab at Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Tuesday, slapping new energy sanctions on Tehran, and branding its Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group.

A measure targeting the elite military corps and the lucrative Iranian energy sector sailed through the House by 397 votes to 16, hours before Ahmadinejad's speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

The legislation is aimed at depriving Iran of proceeds from energy sales which could be diverted into funding its nuclear program, which the West says is intended to produce atomic weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

Its top sponsor, veteran Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, Tom Lantos, said the bill was needed because Iran's denials of a nuclear weapons program could not be believed.

"I wish that we could take Ahmadinejad at his word, but we obviously cannot," Lantos said.

"This is the same man who yesterday said, 'Our people are the freest in the world, and there are no homosexuals in Iran.'"

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the committee's top Republican, added: "Too many foreign energy firms have become functional allies in Tehran's efforts to build a nuclear bomb."

The bill sanctions foreign companies with US subsidiaries which invest in Iran, particularly in the oil and gas sectors.

It also prohibits civilian nuclear cooperation with nations that support Iran's nuclear program and calls on the US government to urge foreign states and banks to divest from Iranian interests.

The predictability of such an action should not, however, be confused with construing it as benign. It is pernicious in ways almost too numerous to mention. Obviously, the vote makes war between the US and Iran more likely, with all of the dire consequences that would result from such a conflict.

As policy, it is utterly bankrupt. Increased economic pressure on the Iranians will induce the populace to reflexively support the government, as such pressure makes Iranians from all sectors of society more and more dependent upon it for their daily needs. This is what transpired in Iraq as a consequence of the sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War in 1991. The Iraqi middle class lost whatever social and political independence that it possessed prior to being subjected to the extreme poverty experienced by everyone else except Baathist leadership figures.

Accordingly, the sanctions had the perverse effect of consolidating Saddam's power instead of diminishing it, and we will see the same thing happen in Iran with Ahmadinejad. So, it is probable that the Iranian government is going to become even more intransigent about its nuclear program instead of becoming more cooperative.

Perhaps, this is what is intended. Tom Lantos, the Democratic Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who sponsored this bill, voted to authorize the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was also a passionate advocate of the Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2005, an act that expressly authorized the expenditure of funds for regime change.

In other words, the House is engaging in a nonsense discourse, one created out of whole cloth by people who have wanted to overthrow the Iranian government since 1979. There is nothing that the Iranians can do to satisfy the neoconservatives in both parties like Lantos other than unilateral disarmament, an agreement to allow the US government to permanently station troops, the privatization of its oil resources and the delivery of oil to the Israeli economy.

The Iranian nuclear program is merely one of the pretexts that they have seized upon to justify the coming war, along with allegations of Iranian involvement with the Iraqi resistance. By allowing Lantos and his allies to dictate policy in regard to Iran, Republicans and Democrats, together again, as they were in November 2002, when they authorized the invasion of Iraq, are leading this country into another disasterous conflict. The voices of people in Congress who know better, who understand what is actually happening, have been intimidated into silence.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

How come a fake news show gets the best interviews? 

Fyi, Evo Morales is going to be on Jon Stewart tonight. Should be interesting.

Back to Les Banlieues 

Sarkozy enlists in Bush's Middle East crusade:

Allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons could destabilize the world and lead to war, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the United Nations on Tuesday.

In his maiden speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sarkozy said: "There will be no peace in the world if the international community falters in the face of nuclear arms proliferation."

Iran was entitled to nuclear power for civilian purposes, he said, "but if we allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, we would incur an unacceptable risk to stability in the region and in the world".

In a broader warning against the dangers of appeasement, the new French leader said: "Weakness and renunciation do not lead to peace. They lead to war."

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the West suspects the Islamic Republic of enriching uranium to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

Underlining French support for tougher sanctions against Tehran, sought by the United States but opposed by Russia and China, Sarkozy said: "We can only resolve this crisis by combining firmness with dialogue."

In other words, the US and France believe in the urgency of destabilizing the world now, and killing lots of Iranians in the process, to avoid the prospect that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability might do so in the future. Doesn't make much sense, does it?

Perhaps, though, it is easier to explain in relation to the French when one recalls that Sarkozy, as the French Interior Minister in 2005, described rioting Muslim youth "rabble" or "scum" after civil unrest erupted in response to the accidental electrocution of two young boys running from the police.

After all, Sarkozy specifically said that he wanted to clean out les banlieues with a Karcher, a high pressure cleaner manufactured in Germany. The predominately Muslim people of North African descent who reside in these suburbs believed, with good reason, that Sarkozy was referring to them.

In the past, one gets the impression that the French, like former President Jacques Chirac, advised caution in regard to issues involving US force in the Middle East, for fear that French support for US neoconservatives could result in a violent explosion within France. Sakozy, however, has no fear of it. Indeed, if you have a conspiratorial turn of mind, you have good reason to suspect that Sarkozy is actively instigating a US attack upon Iran to provoke even more intense unrest in les banlieues in order to justify a brutal domestic assault upon his own North African Muslim minority.

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A Must Read: Neither Bollinger, Nor Ahmadinajad 

Sunday, September 23, 2007

An Aerial Barbarossa? 

From the Sunday Times:

THE United States Air Force has set up a highly confidential strategic planning group tasked with “fighting the next war” as tensions rise with Iran.

Project Checkmate, a successor to the group that planned the 1991 Gulf War’s air campaign, was quietly reestablished at the Pentagon in June.

It reports directly to General Michael Moseley, the US Air Force chief, and consists of 20-30 top air force officers and defence and cyberspace experts with ready access to the White House, the CIA and other intelligence agencies.Detailed contingency planning for a possible attack on Iran has been carried out for more than two years by Centcom (US central command), according to defence sources.

Checkmate’s job is to add a dash of brilliance to Air Force thinking by countering the military’s tendency to “fight the last war” and by providing innovative strategies for warfighting and assessing future needs for air, space and cyberwarfare.

It is led by Brigadier-General Lawrence “Stutz” Stutzriem, who is considered one of the brightest air force generals. He is assisted by Dr Lani Kass, a former Israeli military officer and expert on cyberwarfare.

The enterprise is so brazen, and yet much of the world remains silent. One society already destroyed, the prospect of another such catastrophe looming over the horizon. Are millions and millions of Iranians to be consigned to the same fate as the people of Iraq, indiscriminate sectarian violence, in many instances, assisted by the Americans, deaths in the hundreds of thousands, an infrastructure in ruins, a child mortality rate among the worst in the world?

Once commenced, war planning develops an inevitability that can't be stopped. Here at home, the mainstream media is performing an essential role in the demonization of Ahmanijedad during his UN visit, working with their allies in the administration to create the psychological conditions for public acceptance of the coming conflict. Meanwhile, the Iranians have made clear how they will respond; they will launch missile strikes against any country or any facility that facilitates the attack. Their future, and the future of many others around the world, depends upon the extent to which they will be able to do so successfully.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

But They Will Take Money From Corporations 

From an SFGate article of a couple of years ago:

Tommy and Leona are having sex on a tree stump in the middle of a Norwegian clear-cut. Leona, with a mop of brown dreads and a lip ring, looks dreamily across the demolished forest as Tommy, a little shaggy in nothing but a knit hat, works his magic.

A few minutes earlier, Leona and Tommy stood at the same spot lecturing about the evils of industrial forestry. But now they're moaning in feral ecstasy, overcoming the powerful negativity of the place -- the broken branches and dried-out logs -- with the juices of the life force itself.

Welcome to F--forforest.com (FFF), a porn site with a difference. Along with raw, explicit images and videos with scenes like the one described above, FFF is well stocked with facts about the world's forests. On the Web site, naked sylphs share space with graphs of forest loss over time and exhaustive lists of the benefits tropical rain forests provide to society.

It's a novel approach to eco-activism, certainly, but one the duo hopes will help save the planet. Indeed, in its first year of operation, this unlikely project has raised nearly $100,000 for rain forest protection through the sale of paid memberships.

"Everyone must try to create something good using what they have," Tommy told me by phone from the apartment the couple shares in Berlin. "We had nothing, just our bodies." With backgrounds in progressive and green theater and teaching troubled teens, Leona Johansson, 21, and Tommy Hol Ellingsen, 28, wanted to do more than just protest the state of the world -- they wanted to make a difference. To them, eco-porn is the obvious choice. "Porn makes really, really a lot of money," Tommy continues in his soft Norwegian accent, "so why not use that money for good?"

Easy enough, right? But, so far, the pair's biggest challenge has been giving the money away.

It's a conundrum they didn't anticipate when they got their start in their native Norway, where they managed to obtain seed funding from the federal government. "We said we were starting an alternative environmental organization," says Tommy.

Most of the material on FFF features the gentle Burning Man-esque couple and/or their friends romping in every imaginable combination. The great outdoors is a favorite setting, of course, but scenes are also set in apartments, photo studios, sex clubs and elsewhere. The sex runs the gamut from couplings involving vegetables used as sex toys to performances by scary-looking shaven-headed German Goths and is unflinchingly graphic. Like those of most porn scenarios, the plots of the video segments are vestigial at best, but in written material and between the scenes, Leona and Tommy share their feelings for the forest with visitors to the site.

But even Norway has its limits. In front of 5,000 people at a music festival last summer, the couple delivered a brief talk about human impacts on natural forests. Shedding his clothes, Tommy asked the crowd, "How far are you willing to go to try to save nature?" He and Leona, grinning, then launched into a raunchy live demonstration of precisely how far they'll go for the forest. Front and center on top of a speaker, the pair ground into each other while a local band played a heavy metal dirge called "Go Forth and F--."

Leona and Tommy, along with the band, were charged by authorities in Kristiansand, Norway, with staging a public sex show. When Tommy dropped his pants in the courtroom, the couple was fined the equivalent of $1,500 each, but they refused to pay. Instead, they moved to more liberal-minded Berlin, where FFF is now produced.

The notoriety has done wonders for FFF. Norwegian news outlets covered the trial with the sort of overblown salaciousness typical of media in quest of cheap ratings. Yoko Ono -- whose 1969 Bed-ins for Peace with John Lennon made international headlines -- reportedly called the whole affair the best art project she had seen in Norway.

The site now has more than 1,000 paying members, and its forest fund continues to grow. Even better, FFF is getting help from all over the world -- ranging from detailed ecological data for the site to donations of pornographic videos and other imagery.

As the green community still wrings its hands about the "death of environmentalism" in the wake of the re-election of George W. Bush, eco-activism seems to have lost its way. FFF's success in entirely sidestepping the staid mainstream at this moment is a breath of fresh air.

"A lot of environmental organizations are too boring, too serious," says Tommy. "It scares people away. It's possible to use irony and play around with this negative information about the state of the world and still get the information out without being too radical or angry. It's important to have fun."

And the work he and Leona do on FFF certainly looks like a lot more fun than knocking on doors gathering signatures or writing yet another letter to out-of-touch decision makers. "We have fun when we have sex, and we have fun when we have sex with others," Tommy told me.

It's no secret that sex sells do-gooder causes just as well as it sells cars and soda. Long-running campaigns by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that pair scantily-clad women with heads of lettuce and barnyard animals perennially attract a lot of attention -- attention supporters must defend against accusations of sexism. But FFF's approach is very different. The site features real people, not airbrushed sex objects, and the diary Leona contributes to the site is affecting and sweetly humanizing.

"Sex-positive erotic expression and environmentalism naturally go hand-in-hand," says Bay Area writer and cybersex pundit Annalee Newitz. "Both are efforts to show what is beautiful and valuable about the natural world."

Other sex-themed sites make donations for green causes: Bay Area-based vegporn.com, for example, which features "a cast of sexy vegans and vegetarians," gives 5 percent of its profits to vegetarian groups each month. But the site's owner, who calls herself Furry Girl, says the site is not designed mainly for this purpose. "Some of us vegans just like looking at naked vegans," she says.

FFF, perhaps the only porn site specifically created to raise money for a cause, boasts a mission-centered approach as far removed from the sleazy and exploitative milieu of the mainstream porn industry as its fund-raising work is distinct from more traditional tactics.

"It's good to see environmentalists thinking creatively," continues Newitz, "and acknowledging that we wouldn't have nature without sex."

But not everyone shares this enthusiasm for FFF's brand of environmental education. In one session featured on the site, Leona, in a blue wig, starts the lesson by flogging another woman with a huge leek. This unorthodox approach hasn't ingratiated FFF to mainstream environmental organizations, who Leona and Tommy feel are too prudish to embrace the potential of porn -- or even to accept its money.

"WWF (formerly known as World Wildlife Fund) Norway didn't want to speak with us -- they pushed us out of the office," says Tommy. "We wrote to WWF in the Netherlands; they said they couldn't take our money, either. After the court case, suddenly, nobody wanted to talk to us at all."

Though they're perpetually seeking funds, mainstream environmental organizations seem allergic to money raised through porn. Major Bay Area-based organizations I contacted for this story responded with terse brush-offs. "There are just certain stories that there is no upside to being quoted in," said one staffer at a national environmental organization based in the Bay Area.

"What is morality when people are destroying the world?" counters Tommy. "It all started so innocently. We never imagined it would be so much trouble to give away the money -- it's blowing us away how surreal it all is."

Because they've had no luck with mainstream groups, Leona and Tommy are instead moving forward on a project in which they will work directly with indigenous communities in Costa Rica and the Brazilian Amazon. "It makes much more sense to just go somewhere and help an Indian tribe directly and avoid the administrative costs," says Tommy.

As if being on the lam from the Norwegian courts and getting the cold shoulder from environmental groups isn't enough, FFF's sudden success has swamped Leona and Tommy, who still operate the site themselves. They bear the brunt of not just most of the copulation on the site but also the billing, Web-page creation and other business elements.

"The project is too big for us alone -- we're sitting in front of the computer 24 hours a day now," Tommy told me. "We never imagined it would be so big so fast. Now we want it to become more like a community -- we want people to be able to run it and upload content without us."

In spite of these growing pains, the site's success has been lucrative. FFF now has $90,000 in the bank earmarked for forest conservation. It's a considerable achievement for a shoestring 1-year-old organization of two people, suggesting that the pair has tapped into an undiscovered fund-raising wellspring. Can porn save the planet? "We wanted to create a trap to capture a lot of people who were never interested in the forest but were interested in sex -- everyone's interested in sex," says Tommy. "Many of these people have never given to the environment before."

I recall seeing this article when it was originally posted, and was mildly amused in a salacious sort of way, so much so that I glossed over the primary theme: the unwillingness of organizations associated with environmental protection to take money from people who publicize their sexual activity.

And, the question is, why? The sex is, by all accounts, voluntary, and they don't otherwise commercially exploit it, except, perhaps, to pay for some of the slight costs associated with their Berlin squat, a rent payment here, a grocery run there. Even then, what would be the problem if they did?

OK, they are obviously exhibitionists, but again, why is that such a big deal? They were willing to donate substantial sums of money to environmental groups, and there is no indication that they were requiring any public attribution for it, unlike many of their corporate, establishment donors. Perhaps, that was one of the problems, they are more comfortable with people who donate to exploit a commercial advantage from the relationship.

Aye, there's the rub (no pun intended). Environmental organizations won't take money from a couple of anarchist, self-described sex-positive individuals, but willingly solicit it from businesses and wealthy donors who profit from a system of capitalist consumption that destroys rain forests as part of a broader catastrophe of environmental degradation. Much like health care programs funded by cigarette taxes, they perpetuate themselves with money obtained from the evil that they purportedly exist to eliminate.

Apparently, something more subtle is at work. We have fun when we have sex, and we have fun when we have sex with others. Too threatening, so much so for environmental organizations built upon a professional, middle to upper middle class American model that they'd rather turn down the money than use it to achieve the goals of their organization. And, horror of horrors, can you imagine what would ensue if Tommy and Leona actually came to one of their events?

Definitely not good, not good publicity in the mainstream media world where they crave attention, even as that same media obstructs what they try to accomplish. So folks, I think that what we have here is a classic instance of social and class bias, and the primacy of reinforcing what they used to call in the old days, bourgeois morality, even if it facilitates the clear cutting of a few more trees.

Fortunately, the story had a happy ending, at least back in 2005. Rejected in their attempts to give money to mainstream organizations, some of which are known for a bureaucratized approach with unnecessary administrative costs, Tommy and Leona decided to contribute the funds directly to indigenous communities in Costa Rica and the Brazilian Amazon.

Tommy and Leona got to continue joyously copulating for the forest, and the recipients receive funds without any behind the scenes strings associated with non-profits financed by corporations and foundations. Hopefully, it has worked out well for all concerned.

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CNN Report on Blackwater Attack on Iraqi Civilians 

One gets the sense that this incident is becoming a major turning point in the persistence of the occupation. In Iraq, the government is being compelled to confront Blackwater, and by implication, the US. In the US, the media is not letting go of the story.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Somebody Gets It 

UPDATE: The Richardson Surge

INITIAL POST: A rare moment of rationality during the presidential campaign:

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson on Wednesday called for the U.S. to end the war in Iraq, arguing that the troops exacerbate the sectarian violence and the billions spent could be used for health care and other needs.

"We're a nation that spends $5.5 billion in cancer research - that's two weeks of the Iraq war," Richardson told The Associated Press. "It shows the misguided priorities."

"We are being bled dry by an invasion that is costing us $500 billion so far - $500 billion," he said, stressing the cost. "And it's detracting from American security objectives in dealing with terrorism, with nuclear proliferation, with energy independence."

In an hourlong interview with AP editors and reporters, the New Mexico governor argued that all combat and non-combat troops should be removed from Iraq because their presence is only contributing to violence instead of bringing security.

"There's no question there's tribal and ethnic hatreds," Richardson told The Associated Press. "But when those tribal and ethnic hatreds are fueled by American policy of hostility, then you make the situation worse."

For once, a prominent national political figure talks about the occupation without reference to inside the beltway talking points. No nonsense about the success of the surge, no claims that the Congress will set deadlines for withdrawing some troops someday in the future, no blaming the Iraqis themselves for the chaos inflicted upon their society as a consequence of the 2003 invasion.

Being a retail politician of the old school, elected governor in a small state, New Mexico, where personal contact is essential, he apparently struck upon the rather quaint notion of listening to what the Iraqis themselves have to say about the occupation. Indeed, Cindy Sheehan could have scripted these remarks for him. If this were 1968 or 1972, Richardson might get somewhere with it. But, it's 2007, going on 2008, and the media will effectively submerge his message by classifying him among the irrelevant candidates based upon his inability to raise incomprehensible sums of money.

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UPDATE: A couple of eyewitness accounts from McClatchy:

Two survivors of Sunday's shooting at a busy Baghdad traffic roundabout said Tuesday that security guards for a State Department convoy opened fire without provocation, contradicting assertions by the guards' U.S.-based employer, Blackwater USA, that they were responding to enemy fire.

Hassan Jaber Salma, 50, a lawyer who suffered eight gunshot wounds in the incident, said he and other motorists were attempting to clear a path for the convoy when the Blackwater guards suddenly strafed the line of traffic with gunfire.

Sami Hawas Karim, 42, a taxi driver who was shot in the hip and side, said he, too, had stopped for the convoy when he saw the guards suddenly open fire on a car bearing a man, a woman and a small child. The guards then opened fire on maintenance workers in the square, the car in front of him, the car behind him and a minibus full of girls.

When he felt the pain of his two wounds, he opened the door of his car and fell to the ground; his 13-year-old son in the car with him wasn't harmed.

"I thought about my family and my five kids," he said. "I remembered my two brothers who were killed, and I said to myself, 'I'm going to be the third.'"

Juan Cole says that the infant shot by Blackwater was subsequently found melted to the mother's chest after the car exploded, but provides no citation for this statement.

In the initial post, I expressed suspicion that anything will ultimately be done to Blackwater, but the McClatchy article, along with several others, does cause one to wonder whether this incident is the beginning of the unwinding of the occupation. Public pressure could force the Iraqi government into a showdown with the US, although I still remain dubious. US diplomatic personnel remain confined to the palatial quarters of the Green Zone until the dispute is resolved.

INITIAL POST: From today's New York Times:

A preliminary Iraqi report on a shooting involving an American diplomatic motorcade said Tuesday that Blackwater security guards were not ambushed, as the company reported, but instead fired at a car when it did not heed a policeman’s call to stop, killing a couple and their infant.

The report, by the Ministry of Interior, was presented to the Iraqi cabinet and, though unverified, seemed to contradict an account offered by Blackwater USA that the guards were responding to gunfire by militants. The report said Blackwater helicopters had also fired. The Ministry of Defense said 20 Iraqis had been killed, a far higher number than had been reported before.

Meanwhile, according to The Independent:

The death toll from the shooting on Sunday rose to 11, with 13 wounded. Blackwater has refused to apologise and claimed that those shot, who included women and children, were "armed insurgents and our personnel acted lawfully and appropriately". It has also been claimed that as well as shooting at civilians, the Blackwater guards exchanged fire with Iraqi police and soldiers.

Blackwater, as reported by Jeremy Scahill, is one of the most extreme manifestations of a chilling 21st Century phenomenon: the privatization of military activities and covert operations:

A decade ago this company didn’t exist. It was little more than a 5,000-acre plot in North Carolina near the Great Dismal Swamp and the private fortune of its rightwing Christian bankroller-of-the-President founder, Erik Prince, whose family had a long history of backing Republican Revolution causes and the rise of the religious right. The company was started officially in ’96, began building up in ’97 as a sort of training facility for the federal forces, local and state law enforcement, as well as the military.

After 9/11, it became an all-out mercenary outfit and now has many, many government contracts. One of them alone with the State Department has generated $750 million for Blackwater since June of 2004. The company guards the senior US officials in Iraq, trains forces in Afghanistan, has been deployed in New Orleans. They have 2,300 men actively deployed around the world, another 20,000 contractors at the ready. It’s really the Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration’s global war on terror.

Apparently, John Pike said more than he intended in a response to an Agence France Press journalist question about the value of private military contractors like Blackwater:

John Pike of the GlobalSecurity.org defense and intelligence information company believes the fact they do not work under the same constraints as the armed forces can be an asset.

"One of the reasons they make good money is that they will kill assailants without blowing up the whole neighborhood," says Pike. "These people are killers. You can't say that of ordinary soldiers."

Certainly not the best justification for the existence of Blackwater as it appears that the killers failed to utilize the purported precision praised by Pike, and did, in fact, make a good start on blowing up the whole neighborhood. Given the centrality of Blackwater within the religious right and Republican politics, it is hard to believe that the Iraqi government will take any kind of action that impairs the ability of it to operate with impunity.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

What Else Would You Expect . . . . 

. . . from a man who became an American war hero, and got elected to the Senate, by exploiting his capture during a bombing raid upon a North Vietnamese light bulb factory?

So, we shouldn't be surprised at John McCain's impersonation of George Wallace when he insisted that MoveON.org participants ought to be thrown out of this country, as the link above to Left I on the News indicates, he has always been a man who celebrates the use of violence against defenseless people to achieve the imperial ends of the US. It is difficult, if not impossible, to name a prominent American political figure who has advocated the use of military force as frequently, and as intensely, as John McCain.

In other words, a loathsome individual, and, while I don't pay much attention to the presidential campaign, the self-destruction of John McCain has truly been a joy to behold. The three most dangerous presidential candidates are McCain, Clinton and Giuliani, and, at least we can rest easily knowing that McCain is not going to be entering the Oval Office in January 2009. He's so politically tone deaf that he doesn't even recognize that MoveON.org rationalizes the continued occupation of Iraq through specious, carefully contrived opposition.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Chinese Road 

From the most current issue of the New Left Review, an article by Richard Walker and Daniel Buck:

Modern China is undergoing a relentless process of transformation, from the forests of construction cranes in its coastal cities to the gargantuan infrastructure projects in its interior. Its economic trajectory has been equally dramatic: China is now ranked 4th in the world by GDP, rising from 11th in 1990. A range of developments testify to its rapid progress along the path to a capitalist economy: the commodification of land and labour, emergence of private firms, formation of finance capital, among many others. Yet China scholars have been curiously reluctant to apply the classic Marxist idea of a transition to capitalism—and its corollary, primitive accumulation—to the Chinese case. Instead, they quite loosely use terms such as globalization, marketization, post-socialism, reform era and market socialism, seemingly unaware of how closely the transformations under way in China compare with the development of capitalism in Europe and North America—not to mention many other ‘late developers’ in Asia and Latin America.

Comparison with historical experience of the rise of capitalism in the West can act as a useful counterbalance to three shortcomings of contemporary China studies. The first common error is to exaggerate China’s uniqueness vis-à-vis the general process of capitalist transition. This does not mean adopting the flat-earth neoliberalism of Thomas Friedman or a unilinear Marxism in which the rest of the world must recapitulate the economic history of Britain or the United States. While capitalism has universal elements, the road to capitalism follows many routes, depending on history, geographic circumstance and politics. Like a virus, capitalism cannot survive without living hosts, whose dna it alters in order to reproduce. Therefore, one can certainly refer to ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’.

A second pitfall for China watchers is an obsession with the socialist past. Certainly, the Maoist era shaped the country’s present course to an important degree, and China shares characteristics with other ex-socialist countries. But it differs profoundly from most post-Soviet and East European countries in that it did not undergo a sudden implosion of state, party and economy. Instead, an autocratic state has maintained a close hold on economic policy and the Communist Party continues to monopolize political life. Nonetheless, China in the twenty-first century can no longer sensibly be called ‘late’ or ‘market’ socialist.

A better comparison, in our view, is with the experience of capitalism in the West. But here lies a third danger, of drawing parallels only with contemporary developments around the world, from Internet search engines to mega-malls. Less well understood are the striking parallels with the past in Europe and North America, such as mass rural-to-urban migration and the gradual creation of a banking system. Such processes unfold over decades, and much of China is still pre-capitalist by any measure. Nevertheless, a generation after the prc was set on the road to capitalism by Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in 1978, the Communist leadership can no longer return the genie to its bottle. ‘Market imperatives quickly proved uncontrollable’, as Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett have put it; the ‘Chinese economy now operates largely according to capitalist logic.’ Or, as Robert Weil wryly notes, instead of the reformers ‘using capitalism to build socialism’, they ‘used socialism to build capitalism’.

Central to Marx’s presentation of primitive accumulation are the expropriation of the producers to create a working class, the emergence of a capitalist class with a stock of original capital, and the development of the home market. To these must be added the commodification of land, the rise of cities and extension of the spatial division of labour, and the transformation to a modern bourgeois state. We shall consider each of these in turn.

The discussion here focuses on cities, where the transition to capitalism is especially intense, but this is not to say that agrarian transformation has not been essential to the whole process. Indeed, the era of ‘reform’ was launched in the countryside with the break-up of the communes and introduction of the household responsibility system after 1978, followed by the explosion of town and village enterprises (TVES). Over the last twenty years, however, industrialization, proletarianization, accumulation, property development and consumerism have accelerated in the cities—though these are still deeply linked with the commodification of land, labour and consumption in rural areas and the extraction of surplus from the peasantry and rural industry.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this scholarly article is the assertion that China's capitalist transformation is being primarily generated by domestic factors instead of foreign direct investment:

Chinese firms depend most on the domestic market, where household consumption constitutes over 50 per cent of GDP. To view exports as the sole engine of development in modern China is therefore to repeat the classic mistake of liberals who see trade, rather than production, as the heartbeat of economic growth.

The authors also possess a nuanced perspective about recently publicized efforts to alleviate poverty, mentioned here last year (click on the China label below):

In 2000, state investment was reoriented to focus on the poor inland areas of central and western China, and the new government of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao has declared its intent to alleviate rural poverty. A common interpretation is that these measures are designed to head off growing social unrest due to glaring inequality.It is true that state spending creates jobs and income in the short term, but measures such as rural electrification and road building are ultimately designed to incorporate poor areas still ‘off the grid’ more fully into the circuits of capital, thus increasing the size of the home market and the effective demand for China’s domestic industries.

Well worth reading in its entirety.

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Iraqi Civilian Deaths in Excess of 1.2 Million? 

A possible confirmation of the laborious work done by the John Hopkins survey teams, and so simply and elegantly done. And, how long can liberals persist in claiming that there is any humanitarian purpose to the presence of US troops in Iraq? The US invasion has caused a catastrophe almost beyond comprehension, the destruction of a 20th Century nation state.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

The Other September 11th 

You know, I always mean to write about the Chilean coup every time 9/11 rolls around but never do. Anyway, amnihilist remembers Víctor Jara, Chilean musician and activist, who was murdered in days following that '73 coup as follows:

On the morning of September 12, Jara was taken, along with thousands others, as a prisoner to the Chile Stadium (renamed the Estadio Víctor Jara in September 2003). In the hours and days that followed, many of those detained in the stadium were tortured and killed there by the military forces. Jara was repeatedly beaten and tortured; the bones in his hands were broken as were his ribs. Reports that one of Jara's hands, or both of his hands, had been cut off, are however erroneous. Fellow political prisoners have testified that his captors mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them as he lay on the ground. Defiantly, he sang part of a song supporting the Popular Unity coalition. After further beatings, he was machine-gunned on September 15 and his body dumped on a road on the outskirts of Santiago, and then taken to a city morgue.

The only good thing about the US spreading democracy in the Mideast is that it seems to have distracted it from spreading democracy in Latin America.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Who Are the Extremists? 

From a post over at the Angry Arab, citing a Gallup World Poll:

As a starting point, Muslims do not hold a monopoly on extremist views. While 6% of Americans think attacks in which civilians are targets are "completely justified," in both Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia, it's 4%. In Europe, Muslims in Paris and London were no more likely than were their counterparts in the general public to believe attacks on civilians are ever justified and at least as likely to reject violence, even for a "noble cause."

After analyzing survey data representing more than 90% of the global Muslim population, Gallup found that despite widespread anti-American sentiment, only a small minority saw the 9/11 attacks as morally justified. Even more significant, there was no correlation between level of religiosity and extremism among respondents.

So, the answer to the rhetorical title of this post is, a small percentage of people in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. And, yet, the neoconservatives have sought to exploit 9/11, as described earlier today, to promote a so-called clash of civilizations, between two dubious abstractions, Western and Islamic civilization.

But, wouldn't it have been interesting to compare the percentage of Americans who believe that the invasion of Iraq was justified with the percentage of Muslims who believe that the 9/11 attacks were morally justified? If anything, such a comparison would have probably revealed that most of the extremism exists on the western side of the Atlantic.

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The Failed 9/11 Celebration 

For the neoconservatives, 9/11 was an episode of orgasmic wish fulfillment. After all, it was the Project for a New American Century, the preeminent neoconservative think tank, that promoted the need for imperial conquest by stating, Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor.

On 9/11, they got it, and they quickly focused their attention upon what they considered to be most important, Iraq:

With the intelligence all pointing toward bin Laden, Rumsfeld ordered the military to begin working on strike plans. And at 2:40 p.m., the notes quote Rumsfeld as saying he wanted "best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H." – meaning Saddam Hussein – "at same time. Not only UBL" – the initials used to identify Osama bin Laden.

Now, nearly one year later, there is still very little evidence Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. But if these notes are accurate, that didn't matter to Rumsfeld.

"Go massive," the notes quote him as saying. "Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

By the afternoon of 9/11, the victims were no longer very important, except to the extent that they could be exploited to initiate open-ended conflicts around the world.

9/11 remains central, however, to the neoconservative attempt to create an enduring symbolism, the equivalent of a national holiday, like Veterans Day or Memorial Day, to fuse the American civic identity with overt wars of conquest. If yesterday was any indication, that effort has failed.

All around the country, rememberances were subdued, with lower attendance than in the first years after the attacks. By and large, it appears that they were deliberately depoliticized. From the accounts that I have seen, there were few, if any, attempts to associate the war in Iraq with 9/11. It seems that, paradoxically, the administration and their allies in the media are permitted to dishonestly defend the invasion of Iraq as necessitated by 9/11 every day of the year except 9/11 itself.

Needless to say, such reticence is not conducive towards the creation of a new patriotic holiday to inspire the populace towards greater and greater sacifices in the prosecution of the purported war on terror. The media is, naturally, apprehensive about this development. In the days before 9/11, reporters emphasized, with an undercurrent of anxiety, that most people were disinterested.

While tempting, it is not possible to solely explain this phenomenon in terms of the catastrophic failure of the invasion of Iraq. Going back to the infamous PNAC quote, the neoconservatives would have liked the public to embrace 9/11 as a generation embraced remembrances of Pearl Harbor, but they have fundamentally misunderstood the context of the public commemorations of what happened in Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

Pearl Harbor is not something that the post-World War II generation remembered as a defeat, as a moment of victimization, but rather, they understood it as an event that ignited the participation of the US in World War II. Pearl Harbor set in motion the US victories in both the European and Pacific theatres of the conflict. Pearl Harbor is therefore an episode, albeit a very important one, within a large, grand narrative of US success, a success so great that the US, upon the conclusion of the war, was one of the world's two remaining superpowers.

By contrast, one cannot incorporate the attacks of 9/11/2001 within such a story. 9/11 is a manifestation of defeat and despair, a defeat in Iraq that worsens with each passing day, and despair over the inability to capture Osama Bin Laden, an embarrassment that he underscored with the release of a video tape and an audio message.

If there was any unifying theme in the 9/11 remembrances that took place all around the country, it was the helplessness of individuals involuntarily caught up in the intensification of global violence over which they have no control. The victims of 9/11 are therefore the kindred spirits of the people who have died in US airstrikes and suicide bombings in Iraq, the dirty wars of the Caucasus, Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon and the religious turmoil in Kashmir.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Dear Lawyers in New York ... 

Regarding the current cover of The Nation, I had nothing to do with it. They didn't even contact me, and it isn't my work -- actually when I do do the damn mosaic it's a lot better e.g. they didn't crop the hats which screws the image up. Anyway if you're planning on sending any letters, send them to The Nation.

That is all.

Race and Education 

Even in San Francisco, a lot of people don't want their children educated in schools with African Americans:

Last spring, Cal graduate student Mandy Johnson wrote a paper looking at why parents picked certain schools in the choice-based San Francisco district.

"I just thought it would be interesting," says Johnson, who is now a policy analyst for the district. "I realized that it could be explosive if I could prove this."

Working at Cal's Goldman School of Public Policy, Johnson analyzed the data from the 2006-07 school year. The two top factors correlated with high demand for a seat in a particular school were its academic performance and the availability of special classes like language immersion.

The top factors correlated with low demand were the prevalence of low-income students and - here's the really troubling one - race. Specifically, Johnson found, "as the percentage of African American students in the school increases, kindergarten demand decreases."

By the way, for those assuming this is something that can be explained away by the interplay of race and poverty, it isn't. Johnson said she used a statistical tool called regression analysis, which allowed her to isolate factors such as income and skin color. For example, the researcher found no correlation between school choice and the number of Latino students, who are disproportionately lower-income.

The consequences go beyond segregated schools, indeed, the final outcome can be no school at all in African American neighborhoods:

. . . San Francisco school board President Mark Sanchez, who is a teacher, has decided to speak up. He read Johnson's report and is attempting to use it as a way of starting a dialogue about something "our society doesn't want to talk about."

"We need to bring this out on the table and have a discussion," says Sanchez. "Nobody is going to come out and say they didn't choose a school because it had too many black kids. But they don't have to."

Sanchez isn't just interested in this as a moral issue. There's a practical matter, too. With African American families leaving San Francisco, schools are losing black students. But as Sanchez says, when students leave those predominantly black schools, "nobody is willing to fill those seats." The result is that schools in minority neighborhoods are continually threatened with closure because they are losing enrollment.

"It's a bad outcome," Sanchez says. "We know that there are so many things these kids are up against, to have their school, their community center, close is difficult."

As Chris Rosenberg, the principal at Starr King elementary observes:

Skeptics will say we are exaggerating the problem. After all, it may not be racial. Who wants to send their kid to a school in a bad neighborhood? Rosenberg admits that Starr King is not far from the Potrero housing projects.

"I get a lot of questions from parents about safety," says Rosenberg, a white man who majored in African American studies in college. "But John Yehall Chin Elementary (on Broadway) is a really good school with a lot of strip clubs around it. Do you think they get asked about safety? The fact is, people don't care so much about the environment when it does not include black people."

All in all, we shouldn't be surprised. After all, even highly educated whites tend to avoid having their children educated in schools with substantial numbers of African Americans. Rice University researchers discovered that more highly educated whites were more likely to less educated whites to select a school for their children based upon racial composition.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

DePaul Pays Norman Finkelstein to Go Away? 

Despite being denied tenure, Norman Finkelstein had intended to return for his final year under his contract with DePaul University. However, DePaul cancelled his classes for the year, and placed him on paid administrative leave. Ironically, his scheduled course for the fall was called Freedom and Empowerment.

Finkelstein threatened to engage in acts of personal civil disobedience, including a hunger strike, but, on Wednesday, Finkelstein and DePaul reached a settlement that required his departure. The settlement additionally provided for the issuance of the following statements as the only public comment:

Norman Finkelstein and DePaul University issued the following statement today in connection with the resolution of their dispute over the University's denial of tenure to Professor Finkelstein. Except for this statement there will be no public comment regarding the resolution of our controversy or the terms of our agreement.

From Professor Finkelstein: I came to DePaul University in 2001 and was put on a tenure-track position in 2003. To get tenure I had to demonstrate a credible record as a teacher, scholar, and citizen of the university. During my six year stint at DePaul I consistently received among the highest student evaluations in my department. I have published five books to critical acclaim from leading scholars, and they have been translated into 46 foreign editions. I have been recognized as a public intellectual at many of the leading universities in the United States and Europe and have become an internationally recognized scholar in my academic specialties. Based on this record, I should have received tenure. Indeed, after extensive scrutiny of my academic credentials, my department voted overwhelmingly to tenure me as did the college-level tenure committee, which voted unanimously in my favor. The only inference that I can draw is that I was denied tenure due to external pressures climaxing in a national hysteria that tainted the tenure process. The outpouring of support for me after the tenure denial from among the most respected scholars in the world buttresses this conclusion.

Although DePaul's decision to deny me tenure was a bitter blow, I would be remiss in my responsibilities if I did not also acknowledge DePaul's honorable role of providing a scholarly haven for me the past six years. It is a fact, and I would want to acknowledge it, that the DePaul administration kept me on its faculty despite overwhelming external pressures. It is also a fact that my professional colleagues displayed rare rectitude in steadfastly supporting me. It is also a fact that DePaul students rose to dazzling spiritual heights in my defense that should be the envy of and an example for every university in the United States. I will miss them.

It is now time for me to move on and hopefully find new ways to fulfill my own mission in life of making this world a slightly better place on leaving it than when I entered it.

From DePaul: Today we have reached a resolution of our dispute with Professor Norman Finkelstein. As a part of that resolution he has agreed to resign effective immediately. With this issue behind us, we can once again turn our full attention and energy to discharging our most important duty: the education of DePaul students, who have placed in us their trust and faith.

Granting tenure is a guarantee of lifetime employment. DePaul's standards for tenure are demonstrated and sustainable excellence in teaching and scholarship as well meaningful service to the University. Every DePaul faculty member seeking tenure is evaluated by the same standards: it is an evaluation of faculty conducted by faculty.

Throughout the tenure process, our faculty ensured that the established standards for tenure were their only consideration. Upon receiving the recommendations from the lower level faculty committees, the University Board on Promotion and Tenure -- DePaul's highest academic committee -- voted to deny Professor Finkelstein tenure, and the President of DePaul accepted that vote. We understand that Professor Finkelstein and his supporters disagree with the University Board on Promotion and Tenure's conclusion that he did not meet the requirements for tenure. The system is designed to give every applicant the same opportunity to achieve tenure, and has proven to be fair and effective. In every tenure case, the final decision is one of balancing the various arguments for and against tenure.

Professor Finkelstein has expressed the view that he should have been granted tenure and that third parties external to the University influenced DePaul in denying tenure. That is not so. Over the past several months, there has been considerable outside interest about the tenure decision. This attention was unwelcome and inappropriate. In the end, however, it had absolutely no impact on either the process or the final outcome.

Professor Finkelstein is a prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher. The University thanks him for his contributions and service.

Both parties are satisfied with the resolution of their dispute and wish each other well in their future endeavors.

In his remarks, Finkelstein strikes to the heart of the matter. DePaul accepted him for a tenure track position in 2001 with full knowledge of his academic history. He was already well known as a scholar that addressed contentious subjects related to the Holocaust and Israel. It was preposterous for DePaul to subsequently claim that it had decided to deny him tenure because of his personally combative nature.

As for the DePaul statement, it is transparently untrue. The university abandoned its principles of free intellectual inquiry to appease Zionist critics of Finkelstein. As noted by the Angry Arab:

Did you notice that the language that was used by the president of DePaul University to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein was the same language used by Alan Dershowitz?

Indeed, DePaul not only sacrificed Finkelstein to satisfy them, but acquiesced completely by legitimizing the language of character assassination used to intimidate it into doing so. As Chomsky said a couple of days ago: Of course, the whole affair was an utter outrage, a cowardly attack on academic freedom.

Dershowitz abandoned DePaul after getting his way. Like most bullies, he preserves his contempt for those who give in to him:

Dershowitz expressed outrage at the apparent compromise Wednesday, especially a written statement from the university that declared, "Professor Finkelstein is a prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher."

"The university has traded truth for peace," said Dershowitz. "The statement that [Finkelstein] is a scholar is simply false. He's a propagandist."

Hopefully, Finkelstein got some money out of DePaul so that he can comfortably ponder the future.

I can't help but recall what Tariq Ali said in his autobiography of his youthful life of radical activism in the 1960s, Street Fighting Years. After coming to Britain to study at Oxford, he rejected a career path that would have lead to a position in academia, consciously choosing an alternative life as a radical artist and intellectual. He concluded that life at the university was just too constricted.

Perhaps, DePaul has involuntarily forced Finkelstein in the same direction, although he comes across as someone who truly loves to teach, with the awards to prove it, and he has told his supporters that he will be able to teach at another university. One suspects that this is why Dershowitz is so angry, Bent upon the personal destruction of Finkelstein, he is frustrated that his efforts have yet to succeed.


Thursday, September 06, 2007

14 Sleeping Iraqi Civilians Killed in US Airstrike 

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Backstory: People of Color and the Housing Bubble 

From today's San Francisco Chronicle:

Minorities were far more likely than whites to be given high-cost subprime mortgages last year, according to a study to be released today by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an advocacy group.

In the Bay Area, the disparity between high-cost home loans made to minorities and whites was particularly pronounced, even among borrowers with similar incomes, the study found.

"This is a problem with risky loans, not risky people," said Lindsay Gebhart, development associate at ACORN in San Francisco. "A vast majority of these loans were given to people who do not have bad credit. Especially minorities were given loans far worse than what they qualified for."

Nationwide, the study found that African American home purchasers were 2.7 times more likely to receive a high-cost loan than white borrowers, while Latinos were 2.3 times more likely to receive subprime loans than whites. (The report uses a federal definition of high-cost loans as those with an annual percentage rate at least three points above the rate for comparable U.S. Treasury securities.)

For home refinances, high-cost loans were made to African Americans 1.8 times more often and to Latinos 1.4 times more often.

The racial disparities were even more noticeable among homeowners of similar incomes. Among upper-income borrowers - defined as those with incomes 120 percent or greater than their area medians - African Americans were 3.3 times more likely than whites to receive high-cost loans, and Latinos were three times more likely than whites.

Here, in a nutshell, we have that historic intersection between race and American capitalism. People of color here are more analogous to the people of Central and South America, or, to cite a more high profile example, the people of Iraq, than they are to whites. They retain the residue of their past experience as colonial subjects, still perceived by too many as opportunities for unscrupulous profit and expropriation. In other words, too many still believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that they aren't entitled to be treated like whites, and whites have every right to proudly enrich themselves off them.

The current abuse of people of color during the housing bubble is consistent with past history. As a result of the New Deal, whites received government subsidized home mortgages that were unavailable to people of color, and the creation of home equity wealth over the decades partially explains current income and wealth disparities. Redlining, the practice of denying or increasing the cost of services, insurance and loans to communities of color, was official US government policy, and persisted into the 1960s, and, possibly, beyond.

Along with an inability to obtain mortgages, or limited access to ones with higher rates of interest, people of color were also excluded from post war housing developments by racist realtors and home builders. Modernist home builder Joseph Eichler was an exception, selling homes to people regardless of religion or race. He resigned from the National Association of Home Builders in 1958 when it refused to support a policy of non-discrimination.

Beyond the more idealistic world of Eichler's developments, and the efforts of the United Housing Foundation in New York City to build integrated housing cooperatives, suburban neighborhoods excluded people of color, with a classic example being the San Fernando Valley, where, during the 1960s, there was an actual housing shortage for African Americans, who were confined primarily within South Central Los Angeles. Similar conditions prevailed in virtually all major urban areas, in cities such as Chicago, New York, Newark, Atlanta, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, Houston, Miami, Saint Louis . . . indeed, it is impossible to identify any major American city that had not been effectively segregated.

By the 1970s, it was no longer acceptable for state and federal governments to promote or even passively accept discriminatory lending practices. The Community Reinvestment Act was passed in 1977, prohibiting redlining and requiring lenders to establish that they have served all of the communities within their market area. Predictably, financial institutions have sought to weaken, if not repeal, the Act.

The extent to which the Act has successfully required financial institutions to provide loans, including mortgages, to people of color is highly disputed. It is increasingly apparent, however, that the proliferation of exotic financial instruments for home purchases, instruments such as adjustable rate mortgages with low introductory teaser rates that reset to ones substantially above the 30 year rate within a few years, including ones with introductory rates so low that the borrower is experiencing a negative amortization, has created unprecedented opportunities for engaging in discriminatory lending practices.

It is easy to recycle the right wing rhetoric: no one made them sign for these loans. Such a perspective, probably emphasized predominately by realtors, mortgage brokers and their allies, ignores the fact that many of these loans were fraudulent. Even so, even if we accept this criticism as valid, it doesn't address the fundamental problem, the creation of two separate capital markets for home mortgages, one primarily for whites, who obtain the more favorable terms, based upon a sincere effort to tailor the mortgage to their needs, and a separate one for people of color, with more unfavorable terms, generated by an either conscious or subconscious belief that they exist for the purpose of financial exploitation.

Back when I first posted on the housing bubble, I speculated that the consequences would be two migrations, one of millions of people out of foreclosed homes, and another of many of these same people to other parts of the country, possibly even into homelessness, upon discovering that they could no longer even afford to rent in the communities near their lost properties. Because of the lending practices exposed by ACORN, it is probable that people of color will be disproportinately represented in both of them. They will form the backbone of the incremental, ongoing sub-proletarianization of the US.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Needs a Hard Left Turn 

For Labor Day, I thought that a posting of this 2005 interview of Bill Fletcher by David Bacon would be appropriate. In the liberal blogosphere, it is an accepted sine qua non that the decline, and potential future collapse, of organized labor is the result of external conditions such as globalization, the shift of population from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, conservative politicians and judges, media hostility and, of course, that classic old stereotype, the heartless boss.

But, just as the liberal blogosphere self-censors subjects such as the war in Iraq, a possible war with Iran and the economic success of the Bolivarian Revolution, it also refuses to recognize that the leadership of labor itself bears significant responsibility for the movement's current condition on life support. Limiting itself primarily to expressions of support for organizing campaigns, it yet again reveals its inherent social conformity, its fear that a dialogue about what is really required to exit this market dominated neoliberal period will render them irrelevant.

So, here is Fletcher, confronting the difficult questions that so many would like to ignore:

Bill Fletcher is president of TransAfrica, a national policy organization in Washington dealing with issues surrounding Africa. After the reform administration of John Sweeney was elected in 1995, Fletcher became the labor federation's director of education, and later an assistant to AFLCIO President John Sweeney. Forced out over his radical politics, Fletcher has since proposed a wide-ranging set of ideas for a truly new direction for US unions. They clearly need it.

As the AFL-CIO prepares to meet in Chicago on Monday, the percentage of organized workers in the US (overall 10%) is lower than it's been since the 1920s. While unions are debating structural changes, and some threaten to leave the AFL-CIO entirely, Fletcher says labor's problems arise because unions have stopped being the radical organizations they once were. The current debate is too limited, he says. Instead, the labor movement needs a profound change in political direction. He was interviewed this week by labor journalist David Bacon.

Q: I'd like to ask you about the criticism you've been leveling at the debate itself, more than either of the two parties in it. You say the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the AFL-CIO itself are not really fighting about the right issues. Quoting from your most recent piece, you say, "these contentious debates make a dangerous assumption: that the decline of unions is largely the fault of the structure of the AFL-CIO and/or how the AFL-CIO has operated." What do you mean by that?

A: First, the bulk of the resources in the union movement don't exist at the level of the AFL-CIO, while individual unions themselves are responsible for organizing. This is a prerogative they have cherished very deeply. In this debate about the AFL-CIO and its structures, there's very little discussion about the actual practice of the various affiliate unions.

What I feel is missing from this debate, is a thoughtful, rigorous analysis of the economic and political conditions we're facing and the implications they have for the kinds of organizing unions should be doing, and the structures they need to accomplish that. In the absence of that analysis you can make all kinds of structural suggestions but they may not necessarily get to the problem.

Our problems include what's happening externally - the economic and political situation - and the lethargy that exists within the labor movement. Our unions suffer from a profound conservatism, a failure to recognize the kinds of changes that are going on, and therefore our need for a very visionary movement.

Q: You mention the conservatism of the US labor movement. I think for anybody who's had much contact with unions from South Africa to Central America, even Canada, we seem quite conservative by comparison. During the Cold War, those people who really did have a radical vision were mostly driven out of our labor movement. So aren't' you expecting a lot? Where would a more radical vision, like the one you're describing, come from?

A: I am expecting a lot, but what I'm suggesting is what I believe is necessary, not simply wishful thinking. If we're going to have a renewed labor movement, these are steps we need to take. As they say, we can keep rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but the ship is sinking. My concern is, what do we do? What kind of analysis do we need? And, therefore, what changes do we need in the practice of trade unionism in order to succeed and build power?

Does that mean radical solutions? Damn right it does! We need a different kind of leadership. Most of the leaders in the labor movement really should retire. Unfortunately, people have gotten very comfortable, but, more important than that, they've made certain wrong assumptions about the politics and economics of this country. Unions are not accepted in this country by the governing elite. They're not accepted by capital.

Q: One of the issues you point to is globalization, and how unions approach the way capitalism operates on an international scale. The Service Employees have a proposal in their 10-point list that talks about how unions should conduct their international relationships. It calls for unions to find partners in other countries, even to organize them, in order to face common employers. That's what I heard AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka say in New York ten years ago, when the Sweeney administration was in the process of being elected. At the time this seemed like a big change from the Cold War, that unions would cooperate with anyone willing to fight against our common employers. Now this doesn't seem so radical. What's the limitation there that you're pointing out?

A: You're right, it's not radical anymore. A number of unions have been doing this, like the UE and the Steel Workers. It's an important example of what I call "pragmatic solidarity," and it should be done. But what's missing from this discussion is a response from the labor movement to US foreign policy.

Q: Like the war for instance?

A: Exactly, like the war, because the international situation is about more than multinational corporations. Corporate globalization and military intervention are intertwined. In the labor movement there's an absence of understanding about the relationship between the two. That's why we get manipulated in the response to 9/11, by justifications for the war. Unions in the rest of the world are not simply asking us whether we will stand with them against General Electric, General Motors, or Mitsubishi. They want to know: What is your stand about the US empire, about aggressive wars or coups de etat? If we have nothing to say about these things, how can we expect to have any credibility?

Q: In some ways it seems to me that US corporations operating in a country like Mexico or El Salvador are, in some ways, opportunistic. They're taking advantage of an existing economic system, and trying to make it function to produce profits. They'll exploit the difference in wages for instance, or their ability to require concessions from governments in order to set up factories in their countries. The question unions rarely ask is what causes poverty in a country like El Salvador? What drives a worker into a factory that, looking at it from the United States, we call a sweatshop? What role does the US play in creating that system of poverty?

A: You've got it. In our union movement, we don't have that kind of discussion. We destroy education departments, or we turn education into simply a technical matter. We don't really work with our members to develop a framework to answer these questions. So our movement becomes ineffective in fighting around these issues. This is part of what is missing entirely from this current debate over how our unions are structured. Simple solutions are being put forward for very complex problems, often with a high level of arrogance, from both sides.

Q: I see the AFL-CIO campaigning in Washington against CAFTA, for instance. Labor lobbyists will go up to Capital Hill and mobilize pressure on Congress to defeat it. To a certain extent, unions will go out to their local affiliates and will ask that members make phone calls or write letters to Congress. But what seems to be missing is what you're pointing to - a kind of education at the base of the labor movement. Actions in Washington often don't have a lot of force behind them because there's so little effort to create a conscious, educated union membership that's prepared to take action.

A: The root of this problem is a kind of American pragmatism that disparages education. There's also fear that an educated membership may rise up and demand change. But that's why, in this current situation, people need to demand more from both sides of the debate.

For one, the whole notion of threatening to pull out of the AFL-CIO is, at best, a tactical mistake. Those people who want change lose credibility and the moral high ground. That's turned this debate towards an extremely personalized exchange, like firing missiles across the demilitarized zone. What's needed right now, desperately, are voices saying, let's pull back for a moment and engage in the kind of discussion we need. For example, I read a letter from Tom Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists Union. I disagree with him on virtually everything, but he asked a very important question. What percentage of the workforce do we actually need to unionize to make a qualitative change in our situation? It leads to asking ourselves, what do we mean by power?

Q: You mean people say we need more members, but don't say how many or in what industries?

A: Exactly, and if you say we need to organize 30% of the workforce to make a qualitative change, that's an enormous difference from where we are. But at least if you ask the question, then you can start talking about the structure unions might need, or the strategic implication of that objective. Those who are talking a lot about restructuring might have to propose even more radical ideas in order to accomplish a goal like that. But as the saying goes: if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. When you have various structural solutions that are put forward in the absence of clear strategic objectives, it's really just a gut-level response.

Q: Talking about organizing 30% of the workforce seems so far away that I think it's hard for people to imagine what might really be necessary to make such an advance. Despite the best, even spoken, intentions, since Sweeney came in 10 years ago there was only one year in which the AFL-CIO increased the percentage of union members in the US work force. Every year other than that we've still gone down. And I don't think it's for lack of trying, although we can talk about what trying consists of, and what the drawbacks to those efforts were. Nevertheless, I remember when I was an organizer in the late 1970s and 1980s. There was no consensus then in the US labor movement that we even needed to organize new members at all. So let's take one of the barriers that inhibit that kind of growth - racism in the US workforce, and racism in the US labor movement as well. How should the labor movement discuss that issue, that would be different from the kind of debate going on right now?

A: The discussion of gender or race right now mainly ends up focusing on diversity - how many people are at the table, how many people are in leadership? This is a discussion of whether or not the racial and sex complexion of the leadership of the labor movement reflects its base. While that's important, the more fundamental discussion is one of inclusion. Who is making the decisions? You can have a union executive board where 30% of the leaders are people of color. But if mostly white people are still making the decisions, it's basically window dressing.

What I don't hear is a discussion about changing the culture of unions, so that we change the decision-makers, and are really inclusive. That would represent a dramatic change. Moving against racism, against sexism, means changing the way we do business within unions. The informal networks of the people who actually make decisions now will have to be broken up.

Q: What else would be different?

A: One common experience for most workers of color is that we are often asking community-based organizations to do something for us. But it's not always a two-way street. We have to start building partnerships with communities of color, and that means back and forth. It does not mean we are going to agree all the time, but it means unions need to be there around issues communities feel are important. Years ago in St. Louis and Boston, union locals actually started and helped to build organizations in working-class communities. They took the issue of race very seriously.

Unions have missed the boat by not taking up an urban strategy. Right now working class people have to fight just to stay in the cities. They're being driven out, and this has a disproportionate impact on workers of color. Unions and central labor councils need to look at economic development, and issues of housing and job creation. That would start to give us something we lack, a compelling vision - something people will rally to. I find the current debate very disturbing because it often feels technical and corporate. What's missing is any sense of why hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of unorganized workers should rally to unions. Unions were once a source of inspiration to community-based organizations, particularly in the '30s and '40s. You don't feel that today. We need a very different approach if we are going to organize millions of unorganized workers.

Q: Of course, these days joining a union usually means risking your job. You talk about what the labor movement puts in from of workers to inspire them to do this. Primarily, the kinds of arguments made to workers are economic - that they need a wage raise, more security, and pensions that aren't going to disappear. They need healthcare coverage, which is becoming increasingly unavailable. These are all pretty important items. But you're talking about a kind of vision that goes beyond that, aren't you?

A: I definitely am. We absolutely need to appeal to people to act on their immediate economic interests. But we're also talking about a movement that inspires people with a broader vision of social justice, not simply what happens in the workplace. So we also need to be flexible about the forms of organizations people join. Sometimes it might be associations, or groups based on occupation. At other times people join groups based on industry, or craft.

Q: Are you saying that you want workers to be against the system? Do you think that that's too much?

A: I think we have to take on the system. We have to be prepared to talk about something we've been afraid to say out loud - that capitalism is harmful to the health of workers. It crushes workers every day. Our standard of living is declining. People are fighting everyday to pay for health insurance, if they even have it. Workers often have to choose between paying their rent, or their mortgage, and having healthcare. So yes, it means taking on the system. There's something fundamentally wrong with the priorities of this society, and we have to be courageous enough to say it.

Q: Looking back at labor's history, there were two eras when a substantial section of the labor movement did say things like that. During the period of the Wobblies in the early 1900s, or the period of the CIO during the 1930s, the left was strong. There were organized political parties critical of capitalism, which called for other kinds of social systems. Today that kind of left in the United States is very weak and small. So who is able to put forth that kind of vision? The labor movement itself? Who can do what left wing parties did in that earlier time?

A: We need left-wing political parties, desperately. We need a voice that's explicitly anti-capital, with no apologies. But we can't sit back and wait to build them, before we can do anything else. Within the union movement, we can have that struggle too. In the past, the Wobblies and the CIO were also influenced by the existence of radical workers, who were looking for radical answers. That's one reason why we need to be open about having debates about how the way this country, or even the planet, is going.

Q: Do you think the debate that's taking place in the AFL-CIO now, over structure, could become a larger debate over politics?

A: It has to be revamped. Currently, it doesn't hold a candle to what we've had in the past, or what we need now. The current debate is not only of very little use, but it's potentially very destructive. In the absence of real political discussion, personal attacks have emerged. So we end up with assaults on John Sweeney, or Andy Stern. The debate ends up becoming very personal, rather than a real discussion of substance, about the future of our unions.

The AFL-CIO no longer has a place for Bill Fletcher, which partially explains why it faces such serious difficulties today.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Massive Airstrikes Planned for Iran 

From the Sunday Times:

THE Pentagon has drawn up plans for massive airstrikes against 1,200 targets in Iran, designed to annihilate the Iranians’ military capability in three days, according to a national security expert.

Alexis Debat, director of terrorism and national security at the Nixon Center, said last week that US military planners were not preparing for “pinprick strikes” against Iran’s nuclear facilities. “They’re about taking out the entire Iranian military,” he said.

Debat was speaking at a meeting organised by The National Interest, a conservative foreign policy journal. He told The Sunday Times that the US military had concluded: “Whether you go for pinprick strikes or all-out military action, the reaction from the Iranians will be the same.” It was, he added, a “very legitimate strategic calculus”.

Yet again, we encounter the hubris of empire. The Pentagon, like the Wehrmacht when it prepared plans for Barbarossa, like the Red Army, when it entered Afghanistan, believes that, as the aggressor, it will dictate the beginning and end of any conflict, as well as the nature of combat.

Too bad that for the US military that Saddam is dead. If he were still alive, he might warn about the arrogance of assuming that the Iranians can be easily defeated. After invading Iran in 1980, with US and Saudi support, he was forced to rely upon the use of poison gas to avoid defeat (again, with US and Saudi acquiescence) during the course of a brutal war that lasted eight years. Of course, no one would listen.

(Hat tip to Tim.)

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

20 Years Ago Today in Concord 

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