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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The international community is directly guilty for this latest massacre 

A compelling, essential article by journalist Nir Rosen on the catastrophe in Gaza:

Once again, the Israelis bomb the starving and imprisoned population of Gaza. The world watches the plight of 1.5 million Gazans live on TV and online; the western media largely justify the Israeli action. Even some Arab outlets try to equate the Palestinian resistance with the might of the Israeli military machine. And none of this is a surprise. The Israelis just concluded a round-the-world public relations campaign to gather support for their assault, even gaining the collaboration of Arab states like Egypt.

The international community is directly guilty for this latest massacre. Will it remain immune from the wrath of a desperate people? So far, there have been large demonstrations in Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The people of the Arab world will not forget. The Palestinians will not forget. "All that you have done to our people is registered in our notebooks," as the poet Mahmoud Darwish said.

I have often been asked by policy analysts, policy-makers and those stuck with implementing those policies for my advice on what I think America should do to promote peace or win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. It too often feels futile, because such a revolution in American policy would be required that only a true revolution in the American government could bring about the needed changes. An American journal once asked me to contribute an essay to a discussion on whether terrorism or attacks against civilians could ever be justified. My answer was that an American journal should not be asking whether attacks on civilians can ever be justified. This is a question for the weak, for the Native Americans in the past, for the Jews in Nazi Germany, for the Palestinians today, to ask themselves.

Please consider clicking on the link and reading the article in its entirety.

There is a desperation associated with these attacks, attacks that are deliberately launched by Israel at times to ensure the loss of large numbers of civilian casualties:

This isn't the time to speak of ethics, but of precise intelligence. Whoever gave the instructions to send 100 of our planes, piloted by the best of our boys, to bomb and strafe enemy targets in Gaza is familiar with the many schools adjacent to those targets - especially police stations. He also knew that at exactly 11:30 A.M. on Saturday, during the surprise assault on the enemy, all the children of the Strip would be in the streets - half just having finished the morning shift at school, the others en route to the afternoon shift.

This is not the time to speak of proportional responses, not even of the polls that promise a greater share of Knesset seats to the mission's architects. This is, however, the time to speak of the voters' belief the operation will succeed, that the strikes are precise and the targets justified.

Take, for example, Imad Aqel Mosque in Jabalya refugee camp, bombed and strafed shortly before midnight on Sunday. These are the names of the glorious military victory we achieved there - Jawaher, age 4; Dina, age 8; Sahar, age 12; Ikram, age 14; and Tahrir, age 17, all sisters of the Ba'lousha family, all killed in a "precise" strike on the mosque. Another three sisters, a 2-year-old brother and their parents were injured. Twenty-four neighbors were wounded and five homes and three stores destroyed. This part of the military victory did not open our television or radio news broadcasts yesterday morning, nor did they appear on many Israeli news Web sites.

This is the time to speak about the detailed maps in the hands of IDF commanders, and about the Shin Bet advisers who know the exact distance between the mosque and nearby homes. This is the time to discuss the drone planes and the hot air balloons fitted with advanced cameras floating over the Strip day and night, filming everything.

As I first posted in a 2006 entry, Zionism, whatever collective aspirations one believes were initially attributable to it, has been reduced to nothing more than a social enterprise of perpetual militarism and occupation. Having failed to starve the Palestinians in Gaza into submission, an effort that began in 2006 (!) with the complicity of the US and Europe, Israel now finds itself left only with the use of indiscriminate military violence to maintain control over the Palestinians. Rosen correctly observes that the effort will eventually fail, and that the Israeli state, like the USSR and Ottoman Empire, will recede into the mists of history. The opportunity for a two state solution, which was, in any event, a construct of the US and Israel designed to preserve as much of their imperial dominance as possible, has passed.

But how and when will it happen? Rosen has an insight:

A Zionist Israel is not a viable long-term project and Israeli settlements, land expropriation and separation barriers have long since made a two state solution impossible. There can be only one state in historic Palestine. In coming decades, Israelis will be confronted with two options. Will they peacefully transition towards an equal society, where Palestinians are given the same rights, à la post-apartheid South Africa? Or will they continue to view democracy as a threat? If so, one of the peoples will be forced to leave. Colonialism has only worked when most of the natives have been exterminated. But often, as in occupied Algeria, it is the settlers who flee. Eventually, the Palestinians will not be willing to compromise and seek one state for both people. Does the world want to further radicalise them?

Sadly, for now, the answer is yes. But it does not have to be that way. Daniel Gavron has an alternative:

Having made the paradigm shift, Gavron now reads history - biblical and Zionist - in a way that gels with the one-state vision he offers. Ancient history, he contends, is far more supportive of the idea of a multiethnic society than an ethnocentric Jewish one. "King David, if the Bible is to be believed, conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and then shared the city with them," Gavron writes. "He made use of Canaanite officials, had a Hittite general, enjoyed good relations with the Phoenicians, and (after some bloody conflicts with them) deployed Philistine units in his army, the Cherethites and Pelethites."

Judea, during the Second Temple period, also had a mixed population. "One can argue, then, that the establishment of a multicultural nation, rather than a specifically Jewish state, is a true expression of Zionism in that it is reconstructing a model similar to the historical entities of ancient Israel and Judea," he posits.

Gavron even enlists the father of modern Zionism in explaining his shift to binationalism. In "Altneuland," he says, Herzl describes a political entity with a Jewish president and Arab vice president.

Having established the historical underpinnings of his new, multiethnic state, he lays out the steps needed to create it: Israel's annexation of the territories, accompanied by a pledge of full equality for all residents of the new, enlarged state, and democratic elections within three months. These, he estimates, will produce some 40 Arab members in a 120-seat parliament. Drafting a constitution will be one of its first tasks.

As for the vexing problems that have frustrated all attempts so far to unlock the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - borders, Jerusalem, settlements, the Temple Mount - they all melt away once sovereignty over the land no longer needs to be split.

On the issue of citizenship, Gavron offers Jews and Palestinians a trade-off: Jews will agree to annul the Law of Return and Palestinians will forgo their insistence on the right of return. Anyone who wants to become a citizen of the new state will have to undergo a naturalization process akin to that in other Western countries.

Hebrew, Arabic and English - "the language in which most Israeli-Palestinian dialogues are held," writes Gavron - can all be official languages. Since Israel and Palestine will both be mutually unacceptable names for the new country, he proposes the "state of Jerusalem," "Yerushalayim" in Hebrew, "Ursalim al-Kuds" in Arabic.

Finally, Gavron suggests a governing structure that would allow maximum ethnic, religious, cultural and educational autonomy for the communities that will comprise the state of Jerusalem. "Apart from the Muslim Arabs and the secular Jews, this autonomy can be granted to communities, such as the ultra-Orthodox Jews with their special requirements. It will also solve the problems of the various Christian communities in the country. These include the Arab Christians, the significant number of Christians who have arrived from the former Soviet Union in the past decade, and the large community of foreign workers who have come in the same period.

Perhaps, Gavron is too romantic, too idealistic. Even so, he has given serious thought to the type of social order that will replace Zionism in Palestine. It is an important project, one that provides a slight chance of avoiding the horrors of the deterministic outcome of displacement described by Rosen. Yes, a slight chance, but, if it is abandoned, there is no chance at all.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

20 9/11s 

According to the Angry Arab:

By comparison

Michele sent me this: "In an effort to help Americans get a sense of the death & destruction in Gaza, I came up with the following figures yesterday.

Gaza pop = 1387276 and .02% is 277

Israel pop is 7337000 and .02% is 1,467

US pop is 305505444 and .02% is 611,011*

I've double checked my figures and believe they are correct...for yesterday. Can you imagine how we Americans would react and feel if 611,011 Americans had died in the last 3 days from bombs?"

* Correction: 02% of American pop is 61,101

Posted by As'ad at 11:20 AM

Now, antiwar.com states that at least 364 Palestinians have been killed and over 1,500 wounded. In order to stop missile attacks that have been embarrassingly ineffective, Israel, with US support, has launched airstrikes that have killed a proportion of the population of Gaza equal to twenty 9/11 attacks within the US. But, of course, this reported justification is pretextual, the real purpose of the airstrikes, along with the blockade that has impoverished Gaza for months, is the removal of the elected Hamas government.

Imagine, however, if countries on the receiving end of US violence were considered justified in directing such force against the US. The US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been exponentially, if not, according to the mathematical definition of the term, infinitely more destructive than the Hamas missile attacks. Hence, if the same standard were applied, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the Iraqis and Afghans would be entitled to exterminate the entire American population.

Similarly, the missile attacks have bordered on symbolic resistance if compared to the Israeli violence directed against Gaza over the last two years. Prior to the recent increase in attacks, Israel refused to respond favorably to overtures from Hamas for peace negotiations centered around a two state solution as it continued to strangle the economy of Gaza. Such a decision was a predictable one given as its historic policy has been the elimination of any independent voice to represent the Palestinians. Here again, if the Palestinians were considered justified in responding to Israeli violence with the same degree of force as the Israelis are using now, the outcome would be the killing of everyone within the state of Israel, whether Jewish, Arab or Bedouin.

Beyond this, there is something extremely disquieting about this situation a sense that, as with Afghanistan, the violence with the Middle East is about to spiral even more out of control. Even worse, a feeling that the violence that is being directed against Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinians will soon escape the confines of the region and erupt elsewhere, say, Europe or here in the US. In this respect, the substitution of Obama for Bush as the President of the US looks increasingly like a footnote, one noted in passing as the fundamental policies that ignite such violence are not only perpetuated, but intensified.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

From the Archives: Obama and the Existential Crisis of American Capitalism 

[First posted on November 7, 2008: The third and final selection of the Obama series. It remains fairly close to what I think of Obama today.]

On Tuesday, Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States. On Wednesday, US forces in Afghanistan launched an airstrike that killed at least 40 civilians and probably many more. Drones continue to launch missile strikes within the nearby border regions of Pakistan, although it is unclear whether these strikes are being done with the approval of the Pakistani government. Meanwhile, approximately 150,000 US forces remain in Iraq as the US and Iraqi government negotiate over the terms of over their future presence.

Today, the Labor Department announced that the US economy lost 240,000 jobs in October, and revised the number of jobs lost in September from an initially reported 159,000 to 284,000, in addition to revising the number jobs lost in August from initially reported 73,000 to 127,000. Accordingly, it is quite reasonable to suspect that the total number of jobs lost in October is in excess of 350,000. Both GM and Ford are hemorraghing cash, and an anticipated merger of GM and Chrysler may result in the loss of 200,000 jobs. The federal deficit is now over 10 trillion dollars and growing as the bailout is implemented.

Accordingly, as the euphoria over his decisive victory fades, the contours of the challenge facing Obama are coming sharply into focus. A country experiencing one of the most severe economic downturns in its history simultaneously finds itself militarily overextended around the world. It is tempting to construe them, as most liberals do, as the consequences of the policy failures of the Bush presidency. Bush, like LBJ, pursued utopian policies in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres, acting as if American resources to achieve its goals were unlimited.

Domestically, as Robin Blackburn observed, Bush substituted the promiscuous extension of credit for governmental expenditure as a means of constructing his own Great Society:

The Bush administration’s vision of the ‘ownership society’ somehow latched onto codicils of Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ to encourage the poor to take on housing debt at the pinnacle of a property bubble. The quality of the arrangements made for poorer mortgagees was manifestly inadequate—they had no insurance provision—and also avoided the real problem, which is the true extent of poverty in the United States and the folly of imagining that it can be banished by waving the magic wand of debt creation.

Internationally, an even more grandiose Bush went far beyond the messianic anti-communism of LBJ in Southeast Asia and launched a self-described global war on terror that has resulted in two open ended wars in the Middle East and the prospect of a third. The US military budget is currently about one trillion dollars, and nearly equals the military spending of all other countries in the world. It constitutes about 8% to 9% of US gross domestic product.

It is therefore tempting to blame Bush for a deindustrialized, bankrupt domestic economy and military entanglements that have spun out of control, but such a personalized analysis obscures the real nature of the problem. In her concise book, Empire of Capital, Ellen Meiksins Wood describes the current capitalist order, one that aspires that impose itself upon the entire world, as one that requires the US to maintain and deploy the most expensive and most technologically advanced military ever created. It is essential, in her view, for the US to preserve unquestioned military supremacy as a means of effectively arbitrating disputes between competing nation states, all of whom accept the necessity of this supremacy.

Of course, there are ancillary features associated with this order, such as the use of the US military to intimidate what the US rather theatrically defines as rogue states, and the need to periodically display the frightening destructive capability of the military to discourage any country that might be inclined to resist the softer aspects of US coercion as exercised through social and financial institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that, while important, should not distract us from recognizing the fundamental problem at hand.

The US is broke, and, as already recognized by Giovanni Arrighi in 2005, it has failed in this endeavor to impose neoliberal capitalist values upon the world. Soft power, as exercised by US dominance within global institutions, such as the ones already mentioned, along with the financial clout of banking firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citicorp, has been curtailed by a financial crisis that has grown into the first global recession since the 1970s. Hard power, in the form of the US military, has been degraded by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hence, Obama finds himself taking office when the principle around which his campaign was organized, his intention to marry neoliberalism with multiculturalism, is no longer relevant. Walter Benn Michaels has enunciated this principle most precisely:

This is also why the real (albeit very partial) victories over racism and sexism represented by the Clinton and Obama campaigns are not victories over neoliberalism but victories for neoliberalism: victories for a commitment to justice that has no argument with inequality as long as its beneficiaries are as racially and sexually diverse as its victims. That is the meaning of phrases like the ‘glass ceiling’ and of every statistic showing how women make less than men or African-Americans less than whites. It is not that the statistics are false; it is that making these markers the privileged object of grievance entails thinking that, if only more women could crash through the glass ceiling and earn the kind of money rich men make, or if only blacks were as well paid as whites, America would be closer to a just society.

It is the increasing gap between rich and poor that constitutes the inequality, and rearranging the race and gender of those who succeed leaves that gap untouched. In actually existing neoliberalism, blacks and women are still disproportionately represented both in the bottom quintile—too many—and in the top quintile—too few—of American incomes. In the neoliberal utopia that the Obama campaign embodies, blacks would be 13.2 per cent of the (numerous) poor and 13.2 per cent of the (far fewer) rich; women would be 50.3 per cent of both. For neoliberals, what makes this a utopia is that discrimination would play no role in administering the inequality; what makes the utopia neoliberal is that the inequality would remain intact.

Thus, acutely aware of the tensions lying beneath the surface of American capitalism in its present neoliberal manifestation, it was Obama's intention to construct a winning electoral coalition around the concept of releasing them, or at least the ones associated with racial and gender bias. He obviously succeeded, but failed to take power before contradictions of a more serious nature erupted. Now, as FDR did, he finds himself compelled to preside over an attempt to reform American capitalism in order to save it.

FDR is, naturally, the optimistic scenario, one that invokes that American positivism that the country can overcome any crisis. There are, however, gloomier ones. For example, that old anti-semitic Communist, Vladimir Zhironovksy, has apparently described Obama as an American Gorbachev, a figure that, in his view, will destroy the country through his naive efforts to reform it. While the notion that Obama will destroy the country is over the top, there is some merit to what Zhironovsky says.

Gorbachev initially tried to revitalize Soviet society through mild reforms that did not imperil the Communist monopoly of power. As each successive reform effort failed, he was forced to adopt more and more aggressive policies that reached higher and higher into the leadership. Radicals found such efforts inadequate, and moved into open opposition, while conservatives eventually sought to remove him from office. He was never able to reinvigorate the moribund Soviet economy and the apparat, having masterfully aligned themselves with nationalist forces in the provinces, compelled the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. By the time he recognized this threat, he no longer possessed the capability of forcibly preventing it.

Obama is likely to follow a similar trajectory initially, but with different, unpredictable outcomes. His economic policies are awowedly neoliberal, and, if he persists with them, as is likely, he will fail. In order to move forward, he must bring resources home for economic development by downsizing the US military, but, instead, he has said that he will increase defense spending to provide for an additional 90,000 troops in addition to his commitment to send more troops to Afghanistan. An escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan could entrap Obama, rendering it impossible for him to dedicate any meaningful resources to domestic renewal. Such proposals are consistent with the voracious appetite for military activity associated with the global reach of American capitalism as described by Wood, but the country cannot support it.

What will Obama do then? The American left believes that he will embrace a socially progressive program, and there are at least some indications that his advisors are considering a substantial public works program. Even if they implement such a program, which remains to be seen, it is doubtful that they will eliminate subsidies to the financial sector and reduce the US military presence around the world. So, for now, we can look forward to a meek version of the sort of guns and butter that pushed the US economy into the dark days of stagflation in the 1970s.

Facing economic collapse, Gorbachev, to his credit, withdrew the Red Army from Eastern Europe. Will Obama withdraw US troops from South Korea, Germany, and even Iraq and Afghanistan, to jump start an American recovery? It seems unlikely. He looks too cautious for such a daring move. If forced to choose between aligning himself with the elite, as he has always done, and suppressing social unrest, or bending to the will of popular movements from below, and bravely transforming the power relationships within society, he would probably, unlike Gorbachev, choose the former. Furthermore, he would have to consciously implement policies that would abandon the US imperial role as the arbiter of global capitalism. In short, he would have to consciously bring down the curtain on the American empire.

No doubt, his supporters feel differently. They should, however, ponder a number of things. First, Clinton and Bush have expanded the power of the government over private individuals through surveillance, police action and incarceration. Will Obama consciously refuse to use it if challenged from the left? If so, he would be the first President to do so. Second, while the mass movement created by Obama is celebrated, and rightly so, there is a sinister side to it. Obama has a large group of people that he can call upon to not only agitate on his behalf, but, potentially, in difficult times, to intimidate those who oppose him.

Obama's personality, especially his cautiousness, makes such conduct hard to imagine, although we should not underestimate what political figures are capable of doing when pressed to the wall. In the 1970s, capital interests responded to a global crisis of similar severity by embracing neoliberal policies that rendered the lives of workers more transient and insecure, policies ultimately adopted by both Republicans and Democrats. If capital determines that a merciless regime of subproletarianization of the workforce is required, including recourse to extreme methods of suppression, why should we feel confident that Obama will resist? Obama has skillfully fused his political skills with new technologies to excite millions, but it remains to be seen whether his efforts will ultimately be empowering, alienating, or even a more refined method of social control.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

From the Archives: Election Ennui 

[First posted on July 10, 2008. Part 2 of the Obama series. It speaks for itself.]

Nothing is more enervating for people that actually care about the substance of political and social issues than a presidential campaign year. During the primaries, the candidates, like circus magicians, purvey the illusion that the campaign is really about issues of importance, that we face electoral decisions of grave importance, even as they creatively repackage predictable positions.

Once the nominees become apparent, however, the dialogue, such as it was, is even more circumscribed. Recognizing the power of the corporate media in regard to framing the issues and defining the candidates for a credulous public, any pretense of engaging the public about fundamental questions that affect our lives is abandoned. After all, a presidential campaign is primarily a media driven exercise in mythology. It is more important to present oneself to the media as innocuous, as yet another in a line of safe, conformist political figures, so that the media can, paradoxically, present the candidate as larger than life, capable of forging a profound emotional bound with the public so that he can comfortably assumes powers of near omnipotence.

This is what we observe transpiring on a daily basis with Barack Obama. He's getting tougher on Iran, he's signalling a willingness to be flexible about how he will withdraw US troops from Iraq, he's now for the death penalty even in instances without the loss of life and he wasn't willing to fight to prevent Congress from granting immunity to telecommunications companies that illegally wiretapped US citizens at the direction of the White House. It's all about showing how reasonable he is, you see. It's a long way from working as a community organizer in Chicago, but Obama probably draws upon similar skills to effectively disarm his media critics.

Obama closed the deal as they say when he willingly played the game of stigmatizing black men for social dysfunctionality found across the racial spectrum. Whites are allowed to have children out of wedlock without comment, but blacks are not, and Obama displayed his knowledge of this double standard, and the essential role that it plays in justifying racial bias towards African Americans. Tim Russert and his mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would have been proud.

For a brief period, there was an opening that suggested that this stale politics could be shattered, but Obama's defeat in Texas and Ohio, primarily at the hand of working class whites, closed it. It did not deny him the nomination, as I thought it would, but it did force him to abandon any radical notions that he may have had about transforming the US political system. Since then, Obama has scrupulously followed the rules, as he will do when he enters the White House. Obama recognizes that he cannot pursue even a palled progressive agenda of demilitarization, an agenda that is an unavoidable precondition to confronting the declining standard of living for middle income, lower middle income and poor Americans, if it is opposed by the proletarian base of the Democratic Party.

As for the rest of us, it means millions of more American foreclosed out of their houses, driven to the unemployment lines and pushed to the margins of this credit dependent economy, with an increasing likelihood that Obama will be just as willing to attack Iran as McCain to divert attention from this catastrophe. Because, having left the forces within this country dictating these interrelated outcomes unexposed and untouched, Obama will soon discover that he is just as much a prisoner of them as you and I. Like Bush, he will govern symbolically instead of realistically, because the alternative is politically suicidal in the absence of a social movement to support it.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

From the Archives: Obama: the Resurrection of American Liberalism 

[First posted on January 7, 2008: Part 1 of the Obama series. My response to his victory in the Iowa caucus was, for me, uncharacteristically euphoric.]

The extraordinary emergence of Barack Obama as the probable Democratic nominee for President is exposing fissures within American liberalism, fissures that will revitalize it as force for progressive change. Yes, I admit it, I exaggerate a little here, these fissures have already been increasingly visible over the course of the Bush presidency. A populist liberalism, one that initially emphasized aggressive activist opposition to the Bush agenda has now matured into a movement that recognizes that the transformation of the Democratic Party is essential if any of its goals are to be achieved.

But Obama's success in shattering the Clinton machine (a task that he will complete tomorrow in New Hampshire) has brought these fissures to the fore front, and hastened the creation of a new progressive coalition. The Clinton machine, while disliked by many for its political expediency, released liberals from the necessity of confronting basic questions about themselves, their methods and political values. With Hillary the presumptive nominee, the only challenge facing liberals was how to persuade themselves that voting for her was an affirmative act. It was understood that the Clintons were going to make all the tough calls, and even, when they deemed necessary, revile their own base to preserve their power.

Hence, there was no need for self-reflection, just a willingness to celebrate the mercenary ruthlessness of the Clintons as essential to electoral success. As a consequence, liberalism no longer possessed the attributes of a social philosophy, a perspective about the relationship of people to each other and their government, a means of inspiring people to believe that they could act to change the circumstances of their lives for the better. Instead, it had been reduced to the practice of power politics for the benefit of an entrenched elite within the Democratic Party, as embarrassingly exposed by the willingness of congressional Democrats to rescue Joe Lieberman despite his primary loss to Ned Lamont. That's all in the past now. Obama, along with Edwards, has destroyed a Democratic Party apparat constructed over 16 years since 1992.

Accordingly, many liberals find themselves disoriented, adrift in unfamiliar waters. Some still hold tightly to the hierarchical Clinton political model. They uncritically parrot false Clinton attacks upon Obama: he's inexperienced, he's just a mesmerizing speaker, he lacks substance. Even the most cursory investigatory effort reveals that all of these criticisms are untrue. His experience compares quite favorable to Hillary's once one discounts her pitiful attempt to expropriate her husband's achievements as her own, he directly engages people in a low key manner in any type of forum and his policy initiatives are well reasoned.

Sadly, there is a racial undercurrent in some of the more extreme expressions of these themes. For example, to see people at some liberal sites, like, for example, firedoglake, perpetually harping on Obama's lack of substance in the debates implies that, well, of course, how could a black man possess extensive knowledge of political subjects in a debate with a professional white woman like Hillary Clinton? I wouldn't have thought that there was a racial dimension to this criticism until I actually spent the time to watch the Saturday debate in New Hampshire.

After reading numerous comments to this effect, predominately on the firedoglake site, but also at Daily Kos, I expected to hear Obama speak in vague, unsubstantiated generalities, sort of like if Tony Robbins ran for President, while Hillary, the reputed policy wonk, ran rings round him. Imagine my shock when Obama displayed a confident command of the issues, effortlessly refuting Hillary's desperate attempts to distort his record. She came off especially poorly during a protracted exchange about their health care proposals. I remembered one of my more ascerbic political remarks that I make to close friends, some white liberals are white before they are liberals.

It gets especially distasteful when you read remarks posted by some apparently female Clinton supporters on these sites, as well as the New York Times (I say, apparently, because I am taking the gender of the Internet handles at face value). They openly assert that nominating Obama is a bad idea because it will be impossible to elect a black man President of the United States. If required to create a category for this sort of criticism, we might call it backhanded racism, the expropriation of concern about racism to engage in a racist attack upon an African American political figure. Some of Hillary's supporters seems to come from feminists who have little, if any, interest in the civil rights struggles of African Americans, much less sympathy for it.

But this is a digression that distracts from the real problem as far as the Clintonistas and their liberal supporters are concerned. Such accidental expressions of racial animus are being generated by something else: the fact that Obama, like Samson, is destroying the hierarchical temple of political power constructed by the Clintons and their corporate sponsors. The Clinton model enforces the rule that political needs must be channeled up to the top of the pyramid, where the Clintons and their operatives, people like Rahm Emanuel, decide to what extent they should be addressed, if at all. Nothing is more frightening to them than the prospect of real political empowerment, real political participation by a significant portion of the public. Accordingly, the Clinton model places a priority upon the demoralization of social movements, and the substitution of symbolic gestures for material rewards.

Thus, one reads numerous posts at firedoglake and Daily Kos decrying the demogoguery of Obama, posts that express the preposterous fear that Obama is multicultural pied piper leading his guileless supporters over the abyss. Leaving aside the hilarity of people decrying Obama precisely because he motivates people to support him, and inspires otherwise alienated people to participate in the political process, these posts reflect anxiety that Obama is refashioning American liberalism in a way that is open and inclusive. Hillary and her liberal supporters, permanently attached to the hierarchical Clinton model, and the power they possess within it, have no way to challenge Obama other than through character attacks, distortions of his record and coded racist references.

Obama is going to succeed in this endeavor, and his success is going to transform American politics. John Edwards understands it, which is why he volunteered to serve as Robin to Obama's Batman, and openly maligned Hillary as part of the ossified status quo in Saturday's debate. It will take some time for the liberals that accepted the Clintonian mantras of polarization, incremental change, triangulation, concealed political agendas and the marginalization of social movements as necessary pillars of progressive politics in America. But probably not too long, because the longer they stay with the Clintons, the more isolated they will find themselves as the new Obama coalition of Democrats, independents, and, yes, even some Republicans, coalesces. By the time the results from South Carolina come towards the end of the month, most of them will have performed the required acts of obeisiance for their survival. Fear of political oblivion concentrates the mind wonderfully.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Holiday Schedule 

I am traveling with my family to visit relatives until next Tuesday. In the meantime, I have scheduled the reposting of three commentaries relating to incoming PresidentBarack Obama, ones that I originally posted over the course of the year. As you will see, my perspective about him has markedly changed. Does that reveal more about me or more about him? Or, a little of both? You decide. Meanwhile, I'll be back next week, and enjoy the holiday.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Are We Going to Lose a Generation of Activist Non-Profits? 

It happens about once every couple of weeks. I get an e-mail from a non-profit to which I have contributed in the past, imploring me to send more money to help avoid a substantial curtailment in services and political activity, or, even worse, closure.

This is one of the consequences of the credit crunch and the ongoing global recession that has not been recognized, the prospect that an activist infrastructure constructed over several decades is about to be lost. Accordingly, if you have the ability to do so, please consider donating to non-profits that have a mission that you consider worthy of support.

For me, that means organizations like the Middle East Children's Alliance, AK Press, the Central Committee for Conscientous Objectors, Common Ground Relief, Critical Resistance, and, yes, even my son's day care provider, a cooperative, among others. You undoubtedly know of additional organizations with socially important goals. Again, please consider donating to them, and volunteering as well, because, if we don't support them, who will? And, how will we replace them once they are gone?

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Deflation 101 

Altair provides an essential summation for why it is nearly impossible for the US economy, and, indeed, the global one, from escaping a deflationary spiral. But when will it stop? And what will the world look like when it does? Very different from the one in which we live today, but that's not very helpful, is it? Responses to Altair, responses that can be found in the comments section to this post over at Calculated Risk, are well worth reading for an engaged, enlightened debate about the nature of the problem, and whether it will invariably be deflationary or inflationary.

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Friends of Rick Warren 

From Reuters:

Pope Benedict said on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

"(The Church) should also protect man from the destruction of himself. A sort of ecology of man is needed," the pontiff said in a holiday address to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration.

"The tropical forests do deserve our protection. But man, as a creature, does not deserve any less."

So, it seems that, when it comes to environmental issues and homophobia, the Pope and Rick Warren on the same page. Note also that Rick Warren has also been invited to give the keynote address at the Annual Martin Luther King Commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on January 19th. One can only imagine what the gay and lesbian community in Atlanta, and for that matter, elsewhere, feel about this voluntary legimization of one of the most notorious homophobes in this country .

Indeed, it is one of the most bizarre consequences of Obama's election, an emerging coalition of African Americans, descendants of the civil rights legacy of King, with fundamentalists, identified primarily for their bigotry towards gays and lesbians and hostility to reproductive rights. Interestingly, conservative Catholics remain in the background. Gaius observes that E. J. Dionne interprets it as an effort to generate fundamentalist support for a progressive economic program, but he remains dubious, as do I, and for good reason. Obama is, after all, a banker's president, as reflected by his moderate to conservative economic appointments.

Obama may achieve some short term tactical successes, but, in the longer term, it will be catastrophic. Beyond instigating conflict between African Americans and proponents of gay rights, such a coalition will crash into a brick wall of demography. Americans under the age of 40 are increasingly supportive of gay rights, more and more so as their age declines, and, consistent with such a stance, reject religious fundamentalism as well. Just as Southern Democrats branded the Democratic Party as a racist one for decades, Obama is in the process of staining the Democratic Party with homophobia.

There may be a compelling necessity for such an alliance. If Obama is going to implement economic policies primarily for the benefit of the financial elite, then, he requires something other than class interest to sustain his coalition. Conservative religious and social values, in other words. Hence, he has already displayed his willingness to use gays and lesbians, and their supporters, as foils to buttress his support in Middle America. But, in the end, as Tariq Ali often says in relation to some other superficially alluring, but ultimately impractical enterprise, it can only end badly.

Hat tips to Eli over at Left I on the News and Gaius at Undemocracy in America.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Shoe Thrower Apology to Bush the Result of Torture 

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American Express Finds a Way to Reduce Credit to African Americans 

From today's Atlanta Constitution:

Kevin D. Johnson returned from a dreamy Jamaican honeymoon in October eager to check out wedding photos and help his new wife open stacks of beautifully wrapped wedding gifts.

Before getting distracted by the fun stuff, the 29-year-old entrepreneur opened the mail. Johnson’s mood soured when he got to a letter from American Express, saying it had slashed the credit limit on his account.

Kevin Johnson, 29, sits in his Peachtree Street office. After returning from his honeymoon, American Express informed him it was lowering his credit limit.

Johnson was surprised, since he has a perfect payment history and a high credit score. And he was floored by one of the reasons American Express cited: It didn’t like where he shopped.

“Other customers who have used their card at establishments where you recently shopped have a poor repayment history with American Express,” the letter said. Johnson complained to American Express by phone and letter.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with whether I’m a paying customer or not,” he said in an interview.

Johnson checked his charges to try to figure out what might have raised a red flag in the American Express data-mining model. He didn’t see anything but typical transactions, including purchases at Amazon, Ruby Tuesday, Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Federal Express.

“I understand the need for and the power of predictive analytics,” Johnson said, “But I think they have crossed the line.”

American Express declined to discuss Johnson’s account. But it confirmed that it examines spending patterns. It’s just one of many tactics that credit card companies are using to try to keep default rates from growing higher. Along with studying shopping habits, American Express considers which mortgage lender a customer uses and whether the customer owns a home in an area where housing prices are declining.

These factors are combined with a review of other details to decide whether to adjust a credit limit.

Mr. Johnson, if you haven't already guessed is black, as you can clearly see from his photograph, which accompanies the story. He is also a successful executive, as explained in the article as well. One can only imagine how many African Americans less fortunate have already experienced reductions in credible regardless of their history of payment. Just as people of color were disproportionately victimized by the housing bubble, they are likewise going to be targeted to during the recession.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

From Dystopia to Reality? 

Do they know more than we do? From the Phoenix Business Journal:

A new report by the U.S. Army War College talks about the possibility of Pentagon resources and troops being used should the economic crisis lead to civil unrest, such as protests against businesses and government or runs on beleaguered banks.

“Widespread civil violence inside the United States would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security,” said the War College report.

The study says economic collapse, terrorism and loss of legal order are among possible domestic shocks that might require military action within the U.S.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn warned Wednesday of economy-related riots and unrest in various global markets if the financial crisis is not addressed and lower-income households are hurt by credit constraints and rising unemployment.

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., both said U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson brought up a worst-case scenario as he pushed for the Wall Street bailout in September. Paulson, former Goldman Sachs CEO, said that might even require a declaration of martial law, the two noted.

The Pentagon and the CIA have perceived the future in terms of social unrest related to declining resources and the spread of disease for quite some time. Could it possibly be, as NFL coach George Allen said in the 1970s, the future is now? If so, have no doubt. Obama will give the order to fire if it is necessary to prevent the collapse of American capitalism from within.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Pattern and Practice 

One of these days, I will get around to writing a film review of Oshima's Violence at Noon, a film that I was fortunate enough to see at the Pacific Film Archive recently. Truly, they don't make them like they used to.

Instead, there are some residual themes that must be addressed in relation to Obama's selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Curiously, people still tend to perceive Obama's conduct in isolation, as if this sort of decision is an aberration. It is not.

Let's travel in the time machine back to late 2007 and early 2008. Obama was being subjected to a smear campaign by right wingers and Clinton supporters to the effect that he was a closet Muslim. He responded in a quite calculating way, to the effect that he most certainly was not, he was a Christian. Despite numerous opportunities, he consistently refused to speak favorably on behalf of American Muslims. He refused to challenge the implicit assumption of the smear that there is something illegitimate about being Muslim. Nor did his staff. Finally, in October, Colin Powell did so.

Later, during the summer, Obama gave a highly publicized speech criticizing African American men for their poor performance of their parental responsibilities. Despite the obvious fact that there are fathers of all races that fulfill their parental obligations in a desultory manner, Obama declined to make similar speeches on the same subject in relation to them. He therefore reinforced the specious notion that dysfunctional family life in the US is uniquely within the province of the African American community.

Now, we see Obama selecting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration based upon the bizarre justification that he is practicing the politics of inclusion, despite the obvious irony that Warren expressly prohibits gays and lesbians from becoming members of his church. It turns out, however, that Obama parcels out such opportunities carefully. For example, Obama has refused to have his picture taken with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom after Newsom had ordered the clerk to perform gay marriages.

As Newsom said earlier this year:

One of the three Democrats you mentioned as presidential candidates, as God is my witness, will not be photographed with me, will not be in the same room with me, Newsom told Reuters, even though I've done fundraisers for that particular person - not once, but twice - because of this issue.

But it's different with homophobes, Obama is quite willling to publicly associate himself and his political movement with them. And, Warren is not the first. In late 2007, Obama toured South Carolina with gospel singer Donnie McClurkin. McClurkin is a self-proclaimed ex-gay who counsels gays on how to become straight. Upon being confronted with McClurkin's offensive views, the Obama campaign said that McClurkin would not speak to this offensive subject, but, during the last concert, he said that I tell you that God delivered me from homosexuality.

And, yes, you guessed it, the Obama campaign stressed his vision, the big tent, to join together, build on common ground, and engage in a civil dialogue even when we disagree, when challenged. But, even if we accept this absurdity, there was no dialogue in South Carolina, as there will be none on January 20th, just McClurkin telling the audience that God had saved him from homosexuality, just as Warren is frolicking on the airwaves, celebrating his new found respectability.

Based upon these episodes, one can't avoid the question, is Obama an evangelical himself? We can't dismiss the possibility. We can, however, say with confidence that Obama is afflicted with an ingrained tendency to cater to evangelicals without concern as to how it is perceived by others. He is unwilling to challenge their core assumptions about gays, lesbians, Muslims, and, in some instances, African American men, no matter how ridiculous and offensive. Within a broader context, he is incapable of challenging the stereotypes by which such people are often judged. Much better to manipulate them to one's personal political advantage.

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Obama's War 

The US remains a country governed by an elite that retains the delusional belief that its resources to act domestically and globally are still infinite, despite the obvious evidence that it is insolvent.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why Not Just Invite the Grand Wizard of the Klu Klu Klan? 

I've had my disagreements with firedoglake in the past, but site creater and frequent commentator Jane Hamsher has been courageously on the cutting edge of liberal opposition to the rightward drift of the incoming Obama administration since its inception. Here, she calls out Obama on the selection of Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation during his inauguration. She rightly recognizes it for what it is, a cynical effort by Obama to insulate himself against political pressure from the left while using gays and lesbians as a foil to appeal to what they used to call Middle America.

If more liberals possessed Hamsher's candor, liberalism would still retain credibility as an ideological alternative to the bipartisan consensus by which the country is currently governed. She stands in marked contrast to the cynical calculation of the Huffington Post and the worship at the altar of political pragmatism that personifies the Daily Kos community. Does Obama realize that, by selecting Warren, he has stained his inauguration with the bigotry that his election as President was supposed to overcome? Doubtful.

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Misery Index 

From the Food Bank for New York City:

The NYC Hunger Experience Report Series tracks annual trends in difficulty affording food among New York City residents. The Food Bank For New York City contracts with Marist College Institute for Public Opinion to conduct telephone interviews with a random and representative sample of city residents. Socio-demographic findings identify which populations throughout the five boroughs are having the greatest difficulty affording food throughout the year in order to inform policy solutions and address the problem of food poverty. This research includes six years of trend analysis from 2003 (the earliest year the poll was conducted) through 2008. Data for 2007 were collected in February 2008 and released in NYC Hunger Experience 2008.

This report, NYC Hunger Experience 2008 Update: Food Poverty Soars as Recession Hits Home, (reflecting 2008 data collected in November) was expedited in order to gain information on how the current recession is impacting New Yorker City residents.

Recent data have confirmed what New Yorkers have been experiencing for some time – the U.S. officially entered into a recession in December of 2007. Since then, 1.9 million jobs have been lost and the pace has only been accelerating over the past few months (average monthly job losses were more than 400,000 from September through November as compared to approximately 80,000 earlier in the year) pushing the unemployment rate up from 6.5 percent in October to 6.7 percent in November, the highest since 1993 and up two percentage points from a year ago. Job losses in November reached 533,000 (the largest monthly loss since the 1970s) and there are now 10.3 million people unemployed in the U.S. (up by more than 3 million since last year). In addition, under-employment levels (people who work part-time yet want a full-time position) rose to 12.5 percent in November (the highest on record since tracking began in 1994) an increase of 621,000 people since October and up by 2.8 million from last year. In total, there are 19.6 million people in the U.S. who are unemployed or under-employed — approximately one out of every eight people in the labor market. Economists expect unemployment to continue to rise and predict that it will increase to 9 percent or more in 2009.

Difficulty Affording Food: In the midst of job losses, rising costs and the credit crunch resulting from the economic crisis, the number of New Yorkers having difficulty affording food has spiked to approximately 4 million in 2008, almost doubled from approximately 2 million in 2003 (the earliest data available) and up from 3.1 million in 2007, a 26 percent increase. While hardship is not a new experience for millions of New Yorkers, as we have seen a steady increase in difficulty affording food since 2003, the rise within the last eight months (from February to November 2008) represents the highest increase in the history of the poll. It should be noted that as the November 2008 poll reflects difficulty affording food over the past year, the data capture findings since the start of the recession. Therefore, the dramatic rise in difficulty is likely an indicator of how New Yorkers feel about their financial situation in the midst of the crisis and rising costs (from 2003 to 2007, the cost of groceries in the New York metro area has increased by 15 percent and increased an additional 7 percent from January to October 2008).

Loss of Household Income: In addition, as residents’ financial situations deteriorate, more and more New Yorkers are using up their savings. Almost one out of four or 1.9 million New York City residents would not be able to afford food for themselves and their families immediately after losing their household income (up from 1.3 million in 2003 and from 1.6 million in 2007)and 3.7 million would not be able to afford food within three months of losing their household income (up from 3.3 million in 2003).

Concern About Needing Food Assistance: In this current climate of skyrocketing unemployment, a staggering 3.5 million people are concerned about the possibility of needing food assistance within the next year. More than 2 million of those concerned have never accessed assistance before and would be turning to a soup kitchen, food pantry or the Food Stamp Program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for the first time. Already, 1.3million New York City residents rely on emergency food organizations, up 24 percent from 1 million in 2004. Soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the five boroughs are also facing rising costs and anecdotal reports show they lack food at a time when demand is increasing. Findings show that low and middle-income New Yorkers, households with children and seniors are among the most vulnerable. The percent of residents with difficulty affording food include:

73 percent of New Yorkers with household incomes of less than $25,000 per year, a 49 percent increase from 49 percent in 2003.

59 percent of New Yorkers with household incomes of $25,000 to $49,999 per year, almost tripled from 21 percent in 2003.

56 percent of New York City households with children, an increase of 75 percent from 32 percent in 2003.

47 percent of seniors ages 65 and older, more than doubled from 23 percent in 2003.

The poll findings are consistent with research by Columbia University showing that throughout the U.S, residents need at least 200 percent of the poverty level (approximately $34,000 for a family of three) to afford necessities and that in New York City, residents need an income of at least 250 percent of the federal poverty level (approximately $43,000 annually for a family of three) to meet basic needs.5 Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 3.1 million New York City residents (38 percent) live below 200 percent of poverty and 4.4 million (53 percent) live below 300 percent of poverty (approximately $51,000 for a family of three). The findings are also consistent with recent data showing that 56 percent of voters in New York City report that they are worse off financially than they were a year ago and 49 percent describe their finances as not good or poor, as released by Quinnipiac University in November 2008.

Meanwhile, in a more affluent part of town, things are a little different over at American International Group. Executives are, it seems, continuing to eat quite well.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Death of Detroit (Part 4) 

Canada will suffer severely if the Big 3 automakers don't receive assistance:

A whopping 582,000 direct and indirect jobs would be lost in Canada over the next five years if the ailing Big Three US auto makers shut down their Ontario operations, said a study Tuesday.

If output is reduced by 50 percent, 296,000 jobs would be lost nationally, said the 11-page report prepared for the Ontario Manufacturing Council.

"The economic consequences of either a partial or total shutdown of the Detroit Three are stark," said the report.

"Either scenario is sufficient to push Ontario into a deep recession while the nation may barely escape one in the 50-percent reduction scenario."

Initial job losses of between 157,000 and 323,000 at assembly plants, parts manufacturers and others, depending on the scenario, would rise to between 296,000 and 582,000 by 2014, said the report.

The job losses would continue to mount after the first year because a weaker economy would depress investment, discourage immigration and half new housing construction, leading to a negative economic spiral.

To quote Gaius again about the perverse opportunity created by the global recession: Played right by the globo-capitalists, wages would collapse, unions would disappear, and America could be pushed into ending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a lot more of what social democracy we actually have.

But Gaius is actually too optimistic. As this article suggests, the globo-capitalists have ambitions that are go far beyond the US. In the 1970s, finance capitalists exploited stagflation to impose the neoliberal model on much of the world, a model that has persisted to the present day. There is no alternative, as Margaret Thatcher famously declared.

Now, they intend to push the model to its logical conclusion. They intend to destroy all protections for labor, consumers and the environment, with the exception of those few that facilitate commerce. They are especially targeting workers who retain a residue of collective solidarity created in earlier times, as they are here with the United Auto Workers by withholding financial assistance to the US automobile industry after releasing trillions for Wall Street. Meanwhile, much of the work force is going to simultaneously discover that their access to credit has been sharply curtailed, if not eliminated, while social spending for health, education and other social services is reduced to to pay for the debt incurred to bail out financial institutions.

It is a quite alarming development because of its global character. The imposition of neoliberal policies from the 1970s to the present day required ever escalating levels of state violence, the military dictatorships of South America, death squads in Central America, sanctions against Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of children, two Gulf Wars, and ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. One shudders to think about the intensity of the violence required to force through this anticipated tranformation of the world economy. Obama, you say? I doubt that he is going to be of much help.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

The Clash of Fundamentalisms 

Turns out that the shoe throwing reporter rejected the extremism of the US and Iran in Iraq:

Family members expressed bewilderment over al-Zeidi's action and concern about his treatment in Iraqi custody. But they also expressed pride over his defiance of an American president who many Iraqis believe has destroyed their country.

"I swear to Allah, he is a hero," said his sister, who goes by the nickname Umm Firas (mother of Firas, her oldest son), as she watched a replay of her brother's attack on an Arabic satellite station. "May Allah protect him."

The family insisted that al-Zeidi's action was spontaneous — perhaps motivated by the political turmoil that their brother had reported on, plus his personal brushes with violence and the threat of death that millions of Iraqis face daily.

Al-Zeidi joined Al-Baghdadia television in September 2005 after graduating from Baghdad University with a degree in communications. Two years later, he was seized by gunmen while on an assignment in a Sunni district of north Baghdad.

He was freed unharmed three days later after Iraqi television stations broadcast appeals for his release. At the time, al-Zeidi told reporters he did not know who kidnapped him or why, but his family blamed al-Qaida and said no ransom was paid.

In January he was taken again, this time arrested by American soldiers who searched his apartment building, his brother, Dhirgham, said. He was released the next day with an apology, the brother said.

Those experiences helped mold a deep resentment of both the U.S. military's presence here and Iran's pervasive influence over Iraq's cleric-dominated Shiite community, according to his family.

"He hates the American physical occupation as much as he hates the Iranian moral occupation," Dhirgham said, alluding to the influence of pro-Iranian Shiite clerics in political and social life. "As for Iran, he considers the regime to be the other side of the American coin."

Somewhere, Tariq Ali is smiling. His classic piece in response to 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, Letter to a Young Muslim, seems to capture al-Zeidi's perspective perfectly. Yes, it appears that he is a secular leftist who, as related by As'ad Abukhalil, believes in the hammer, sickle, and shoe.

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Folk Hero 

From today's New York Times:

A day after an Iraqi television journalist threw his shoes at President Bush at a news conference in Baghdad on Sunday, his act of defiance toward the American commander-in-chief reverberated throughout Iraq and across the Arab world.

In Sadr City, the sprawling Baghdad suburb that has seen some of the most intense fighting between insurgents and American soldiers since the 2003 invasion, thousands of people marched in his defense. In Syria, he was hailed as a hero. In Libya, he was given an award for courage.

Across much of the Arab world on Monday, the shoe-throwing incident generated front page headlines and continuing television news coverage. A thinly veiled glee could be discerned in much of the reporting, especially in the places where anti-American sentiment runs deepest.

Muntader al-Zaidi, 29, the correspondent for an independent Iraqi television station who threw his black dress shoes at President Bush, remained in Iraqi custody on Monday.

While he has not been formally charged, Iraqi officials said he faces up to seven years in prison for committing an act of aggression against a visiting head of state.

Not surprisingly, Zaidi isn't being treated very well by the authorities:

Witnesses said that Mr. Zaidi had been severely beaten by security officers on Sunday after being tackled at the press conference and dragged out. One of his brothers, Maythem al-Zaidi, said Monday that the family had not heard from Mr. Zaidi since his arrest, and that a police officer who picked up Mr. Zaidi’s cellphone at midnight on Sunday had threatened the family.

So much for civil liberties and human rights in the liberated Iraq. The incident also raises a prickly moral question. What if Zaidi had used a gun instead of his shoes? On what basis could an attempt by an Iraqi to kill Bush be condemned? Given the brutalities that Bush has inflicted on the country, it is hard to maintain that an Iraqi is morally and ethically prohibited from using violence against someone who has directed violence against him.

An abhorrence of vigilantism would seem to be the most compelling reason to caution against such an act, as well as the extreme elitism, if not authoritarianism, of an individual making such a decision, a decision that results in adverse consequences for many without any prior consultation. But that's inherent in most political situations in which individuals, even leaders of nation states, decide to resort to violence, isn't it?

Along these lines, I vaguely remember a passage from Machiavelli's Discourses, a passage wherein he condemns a man for not assassinating a corrupt Pope when he had the opportunity. Of course, Machiavelli isn't crude enough to actually use words like assassinate or kill. Instead, he rather elliptically describes it in a way something like this (I am working from memory here): an act for which he would have been universally praised by those contemptuous of the manner in which these corrupt figures conduct themselves. Perhaps, Gaius will stop by and provide a precise recitation.

Machiavelli, of course, was no egalitarian, no democrat. Hence, it is not surprising to see him advocating an act of personal violence consistent with an elitist view of history. History as made by those willing to manipulate violence towards the achievement of their ends. Conversely, Marxists, with their belief in the collective mission of the proletariat, condemn such violence as adventurism, because it distracts from the necessity of a mass politics to transform capitalism. Anarchists, however, with their emphasis upon direct action, have historically advocated it from time to time, seeing it as both a form of self-defense and a means of inspiring the working class to revolt. Of course, I'm speaking philosophically here. Marxists, once in power, were as equally willing to assassinate people to facilitate policy as anyone else.

In this sense, propaganda by the deed can be traced back to Machiavelli, expropriated in the service of a radical politics. Initially, the pragmatism of Machiavelli and the anarchists appears to more historically accurate that the utopianism of the Marxists. The asssassinations of prominent political and social figures have undoubtedly chaged history on many occasions, but, curiously, not necessarily in the manner contemplated by the perpetrators. Such acts often crystalize public perception in surprising ways. Lefebvre aptly described the unpredictable, frequently contradictory outcomes of such historical events and movements as dialectical irony.

But this doesn't make it very different from any other form of political activity. In order to believe in the plausibility of politics as a means of instigating social change, one must resist the allure of chance, randomness and nihilism. After all, in relation to the slight act of leafletting, for example, who knows how the recipient is going to respond to it? Perhaps, they don't like the font, the way the message is conveyed or the appearance and speech of the person who gave it to them. Maybe, they just had an argument with a friend or spouse. And, even if the recipient responds favorably, it is merely a grain of sand on a large beach.

As Sam Smith of the Progressive Review once explained to high school students in regard to political activism: You never know how it's going to work out. . . .or when. . . One might therefore say that the assassin possesses a condition of extreme faith, an absolute faith that he or she will succeed in the perpetration of the act, and that the world around them will respond as anticipated. A pretty reductionist perspective, in other words, a sort of meglomania. Much like, strangely enough, the behaviour of a president who ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and found himself overwhelmed by the social turmoil unleashed by his conduct.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog 

According to the New York Times:

President Bush flew to Iraq on Sunday, his fourth and final trip to highlight the recently completed security agreement between the United States and the country that has occupied the bulk of his presidency and will to a large extent define his legacy.

But his appearance at a news conference here was interrupted by an Iraqi journalist who shouted in Arabic — “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog” — and threw one of his shoes at the president, who ducked and narrowly avoided being struck.

As chaos ensued, he threw his other shoe, shouting, “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.” The second shoe also narrowly missed Mr. Bush as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki stuck out a hand in front of the president’s face to help shield him.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Legal Farce of the Menezes Inquest 

As explained by lenin over at Lenin's Tomb:

Last week, you will have heard, it was reported that the judge presiding over the inquest into the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes told the jury that they were prohibited from reaching a verdict of unlawful killing. This was a disgusting low point in a story that has included lies from day one, calculated smears directed against the deceased victim, seemingly endless cover-ups, and the most obscene rhetoric from the former Met commissioner, Sir Ian Blair.

Now, it seems that we were not even told the whole truth about what subsequently happened. A gag order imposed by the judge meant that we were not informed of protests made by relatives of Menezes, who quite rightly disputed the judge's claim to be acting impartially or fairly. They decided to withdraw their cooperation from the inquest on that basis. At a certain point in Judge Wright's summing up before the jury, he instructed the public and media to get out of the court - offering no other explanation than that he had reached a 'sensitive' point in his summing up. The family and members of the public refused, and a stand-off ensued for one hour and forty minutes. When the public were eventually cleared out, the family made a decision to try to storm the court, to register their conviction that any impartiality in the process had disappeared. All of this drama had to be suppressed in order for the charade to proceed, undisturbed.Now, it seems that we were not even told the whole truth about what subsequently happened. A gag order imposed by the judge meant that we were not informed of protests made by relatives of Menezes, who quite rightly disputed the judge's claim to be acting impartially or fairly. They decided to withdraw their cooperation from the inquest on that basis. At a certain point in Judge Wright's summing up before the jury, he instructed the public and media to get out of the court - offering no other explanation than that he had reached a 'sensitive' point in his summing up. The family and members of the public refused, and a stand-off ensued for one hour and forty minutes. When the public were eventually cleared out, the family made a decision to try to storm the court, to register their conviction that any impartiality in the process had disappeared. All of this drama had to be suppressed in order for the charade to proceed, undisturbed.

For those of you who may have forgotten this notorious incident:

On July 22, 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes was shot numerous times and killed by police as he entered a train at the Stockwell tube station in South London. Officers followed him from a residence believed to be associated with terrorist activity into the station. Metropolitan police commissioner Ian Blair conducted a press conference afterwards, and said that Menezes had "acted suspiciously" and fled from officers when challenged. Subsequent evidence, including videotape, contradicted his statement, as well as the claim that Menezes had been wearing a bulky coat, indicative of the possibility that he was a suicide bomber. Blair also denied independent investigators access to the scene of the shooting, maintaining that it would impair an ongoing terror investigation. An inquiry into Blair and officers involved in the shooting is ongoing, with a recently announced effort into the dissemination of this false information by Blair.

Apparently, the British legal system is as unwilling to deal with these situations as the American one. It has taken the British legal system nearly two and a half years to demonstrate that it is incapable of regulating the excesses of the security services. To its credit, the jury rendered the only verdict available to avoid collusion, an open one.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The California Plan 

As many of you already know, the state of California is running a budget deficit of approximately $15 billion for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. The legislature is currently conducting a special session to address the problem. In most instances, a revised budget would be sent to the governor with the usual combination of service cuts, tax increases, hiring freezes, and, if unavoidable, public employee layoffs.

But that's not happening here in California. The reason? California requires 2/3 Assembly and Senate approval for the passage of its budget instead of a simple majority. The substantial Democratic majority can't get a budget to the governor's desk without some Republican support. They can't get the Republicans to even discuss it unless they agree to repeal numerous labor, environmental and consumer protections previously enacted by majority vote with the signature of the governor.

Yesterday, the Republicans made their demands quite clear yesterday:


Employment law flexibility

Employee schedule flexibility: Allows employers to avoid paying overtime for working more than eight hours in a day by shortening work schedules on other days.

Expanding health care options for employees (health savings accounts): Opens the health savings account concept to more workers.

Reducing unwarranted litigation: Makes it harder to sue for alleged violations of workplace rules on issues such as meal breaks.

Overtime for high wage earners: Gives employers more flexibility in not paying overtime to workers making $100,000 a year or more.

Meal and rest clarification: Simplifies rules on meal and rest breaks to allow more flexibility for workers and employers to take breaks when practical.

Eliminate "needs test" to allow more apprenticeships: Would allow companies to use more nonunion apprenticeship programs.

Business development

Design-build: Allows state agencies to consolidate contract bidding processes to cover both the design and construction phases.

Public-private partnership: Increases the use of private firms by state agencies when there are economic and efficiency reasons for doing so.

ADA compliance: Gives businesses more leeway in complying with regulations for providing access to the disabled.

Streamline small business certification process for micro businesses and sole proprietorships: Reduces paperwork for one-person or mom-and-pop businesses.

Reclassify "destination management companies" (DMS) as consumers rather than retailers (Senate Bill 1628): Exempts companies that help stage tours, stage shows and deal with airport arrivals from having to collect sales tax.

Streamline the permitting process (THPS, development): Streamlines Timber Harvest Plan regulations to shorten logging permit process.

Contracting out: Allows more use of private companies for state work currently restricted to state workers.


Extending deadlines for engine retrofits (on and off road

Extending deadlines for greenhouse gas regulations (Assembly Bill 32)

Both provide more flexibility for meeting requirements when construction equipment is not in use because of the economic downturn. Both also would lift a requirement that companies fit equipment with clean-air devices that may make the equipment unsafe to operate.

Carl Moyer program changes: Extends a state program that provides funds for voluntarily making equipment "greener" to also cover making some improvements that are required by law.

Regulatory flexibility for agricultural industry: Provides farmers more wiggle room in meeting environmental rules for equipment.

Third party analysis of economic impact of ARB regulations: Allows use of an outside party to determine costs of meeting air quality rules in disputes between private firms and the Air Resources Board.


A new employee tax credit for businesses that hire out-of-work Californians: Creates incentive for hiring unemployed workers.

A manufacturing investment credit to help businesses purchase the equipment they need: Creates incentive for buying new equipment.

Capital gains reduction for businesses that invest in California: Creates a tax break to lure companies that sell to Californians but don't employ Californians.

Modification of the tax code to encourage companies to locate jobs in California: See above

Rarely does one encounter a public political document, as one does here, that confirms the Marxist analysis that capitalism aspires to the the seizure of the powers of the state to flourish. Here, the Republicans want to transform California into one in which taxpayers subsidize the business activities of investors and corporations while rendering it nearly impossible for workers and consumers to challenge their conduct. In effect, they want to carry out a legislative coup to implement a program that has never and could never receive a majority vote of the populace or the legislature independent of the budget crisis.

But that assumes that the Republicans are serious. I doubt it. Instead, it appears that they have deliberately issued a list of impossible demands to prevent approval of a revised budget. If that happens, approximately $5 billion in state construction projects could be halted. My impression is that the Republicans want to force a financial emergency so as to drive California into bankruptcy for the purpose of destroying the power of state labor unions and eliminating spending on social services that they find so abhorrent.

Gaius has posted an illuminating comment on this mentality over at Undemocracy in America. In response to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty's proposal that we should immediately proceed to require a balanced federal budget, he observes that it would not only lead to a global depression, as recognized by Yglesias, but provide a historic opportunity to eliminate the enduring progressive economic measures of the New Deal: Played right by the globo-capitalists, wages would collapse, unions would disappear, and America could be pushed into ending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a lot more of what social democracy we actually have.

Pawlenty, unlike California Republicans, is much more subtle about how he is trying to achieve these ends. He emphasizes a balanced budget, while remaining silent about specific assaults upon workers, consumers and the environment. Here in California, the Republicans need not be so circumspect. It is now a race against time. Can the state remain afloat until an incoming Obama administration and a Democratic Congress provides billions in assistance to local governments? Or, will the congressional Republicans, with the assistance of blue dog Democrats, succeed in derailing it? If California is left to its own devices, the rest of the country will soon experience a similar fate.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Clockwork Orange 

From the Associated Press:

Blaring from a speaker behind a metal grate in his tiny cell in Iraq, the blistering rock from Nine Inch Nails hit Prisoner No. 200343 like a sonic bludgeon.

"Stains like the blood on your teeth," Trent Reznor snarled over distorted guitars. "Bite. Chew."

The auditory assault went on for days, then weeks, then months at the U.S. military detention center in Iraq. Twenty hours a day. AC/DC. Queen. Pantera. The prisoner, military contractor Donald Vance of Chicago, told The Associated Press he was soon suicidal.

The tactic has been common in the U.S. war on terror, with forces systematically using loud music on hundreds of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the U.S. military commander in Iraq, authorized it on Sept. 14, 2003, "to create fear, disorient ... and prolong capture shock."

Now the detainees aren't the only ones complaining. Musicians are banding together to demand the U.S. military stop using their songs as weapons.

A campaign being launched Wednesday has brought together groups including Massive Attack and musicians such as Tom Morello, who played with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave and is now on a solo tour. It will feature minutes of silence during concerts and festivals, said Chloe Davies of the British law group Reprieve, which represents dozens of Guantánamo Bay detainees and is organizing the campaign.

At least Vance, who says he was jailed for reporting illegal arms sales, was used to rock music. For many detainees who grew up in Afghanistan - where music was prohibited under Taliban rule - interrogations by U.S. forces marked their first exposure to the pounding rhythms, played at top volume.

The experience was overwhelming for many. Binyam Mohammed, now a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, said men held with him at the CIA's "Dark Prison" in Afghanistan wound up screaming and smashing their heads against walls, unable to endure more.

"There was loud music, (Eminem's) 'Slim Shady' and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this nonstop over and over," he told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. "The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night for the months before I left. Plenty lost their minds."

The spokeswoman for Guantánamo's detention center, Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum, wouldn't give details of when and how music has been used at the prison, but said it isn't used today. She didn't respond when asked whether music might be used in the future.

FBI agents stationed at Guantánamo Bay reported numerous instances in which music was blasted at detainees, saying they were "told such tactics were common there."

According to an FBI memo, one interrogator at Guantánamo Bay bragged he needed only four days to "break" someone by alternating 16 hours of music and lights with four hours of silence and darkness.

Ruhal Ahmed, a Briton who was captured in Afghanistan, describes excruciating sessions at Guantánamo Bay. He said his hands were shackled to his feet, which were shackled to the floor, forcing him into a painful squat for periods of up to two days.

"You're in agony," Ahmed, who was released without charge in 2004, told Reprieve. He said the agony was compounded when music was introduced, because "before you could actually concentrate on something else, try to make yourself focus on some other things in your life that you did before and take that pain away.

"It makes you feel like you are going mad," he said.

Over the centuries, the military has always been a refuge for sadists, I guess. In this instance, we are encountering a particularly American form of modernized cruelty, one chronicled by writers as diverse as Melville, Faulkner, McCarthy, Ellroy and Ellis, among others.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

The Taliban Stimulus Plan 

And, yet again, here. While US politicians dither, while everyone else is keeping their money close to the vest, forcing factory closures all over the world, from Chicago to Guangdong province, the Taliban are doing their part to stimulate demand and combat deflation.

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A Perverse Invocation of Keynesianism? 

Under the current circumstances, I have accepted the need for a major stimulus program to spur employment through infrastructure improvements. I have done so for two reasons: (1) as a means of staunching the loss of jobs; and (2) sharing the promiscuous expenditure of government largesse with others outside the financial services industry. It has been almost universally agreed that such a program would be consistent with the measures that economist John Maynard Keynes, one of the architects of the post-World War II prosperity, has advocated in such a dire situation.

But is this true? Or is it a rather perverse distortion of his economic analysis? Consider the following, from Martin Wolf of the Financial Times:

As I have pointed out previously, the most interesting feature of the global imbalances has been the corresponding pattern of domestic financial imbalances. The sum of net foreign lending (gross savings, less domestic investment) and the government and private sector financial balances (the latter the sum of corporate and household balances) must be zero. In the case of the US, the counterparts of the net foreign lending this decade were, first, mainly fiscal deficits, then government and household deficits equally and, finally, government deficits, again (see chart). During recessions, the private sector retrenches and the government deficit widens. Similar patterns can be seen in other high-income countries, notably the UK. Housing booms helped make huge household deficits possible in the US, the UK, Spain, Australia and other countries.

So where are we now? With businesses uninterested in spending more on investment than their retained earnings, and households cutting back, despite easy monetary policy, fiscal deficits are exploding. Even so, deficits have not been large enough to sustain growth in line with potential. So deliberate fiscal boosts are also being undertaken: a small one has just been announced in the UK; a huge one is coming from the incoming Obama administration.

This then is the endgame for the global imbalances. On the one hand are the surplus countries. On the other are these huge fiscal deficits. So deficits aimed at sustaining demand will be piled on top of the fiscal costs of rescuing banking systems bankrupted in the rush to finance excess spending by uncreditworthy households via securitised lending against overpriced houses.

This is not a durable solution to the challenge of sustaining global demand. Sooner or later – sooner in the case of the UK, later in the case of the US – willingness to absorb government paper and the liabilities of central banks will reach a limit. At that point crisis will come. To avoid that dire outcome the private sector of these economies must be able and willing to borrow; or the economy must be rebalanced, with stronger external balances as the counterpart of smaller domestic deficits. Given the overhang of private debt, the first outcome looks not so much unlikely as lethal. So it must be the latter.

In normal times, current account surpluses of countries that are either structurally mercantilist – that is, have a chronic excess of output over spending, like Germany and Japan – or follow mercantilist policies – that is, keep exchange rates down through huge foreign currency intervention, like China – are even useful. In a crisis of deficient demand, however, they are dangerously contractionary.

Countries with large external surpluses import demand from the rest of the world. In a deep recession, this is a “beggar-my-neighbour” policy. It makes impossible the necessary combination of global rebalancing with sustained aggregate demand. John Maynard Keynes argued just this when negotiating the post-second world war order.

In short, if the world economy is to get through this crisis in reasonable shape, creditworthy surplus countries must expand domestic demand relative to potential output. How they achieve this outcome is up to them. But only in this way can the deficit countries realistically hope to avoid spending themselves into bankruptcy.

In other words, countries like Germany, Japan and China must lead the way through stimulus, not the US. Admittedly, one can certainly argue that Japan is too constrained by public and private debt, approximately 350% of GDP, to participate, as is Germany because of unfunded future health care and pension obligations. So, that would leave China alone.

The implications of such a policy are significant, however. As Wolf suggests, there is a fundamental imbalance in the global economy resulting from subsidized export in the US and UK economies. As access to the credit necessary to finance the purchase of these goods has evaporated, along with the credit required to sustain growth in private business activity, there is only one relatively sustainable path forward: a rebalancing of global trade whereby the US and the UK export more and import less, while countries like Japan, Germany and China import more and export less.

Of course, this is not a new perspective. Cassandras have been predicting serious disruptions in the global economy because of these imbalances for decades, all the way back to the Reagan era. But, finally, with the glorious ascendency of neoliberal finance, their predictions have beem confirmed. Indeed, neoliberal finance, and the turbulence associated with it, was the inevitable outgrowth of a trading system whereby countries perpetually exported into the US and amassed imcomprehensible sums of US dollars through current account surpluses, but that is a subject for another day.

Eventually, with the restoration of a reliable network of trade and finance, all economies would grow through increased production and commerce. But there is a major price to be paid by the US and the UK before entering this brave new world. For an indefinite period of time, due to the reduced availability of credit, and the need to save to finance economic development, there is no way to avoid a reduced standard of living, with its attendant insecurities, as I observed in July 2007. Former Federal Reserve Board Chair, and high level Obama economic advisor, Paul Volcker has been hinting at this as well in his recent statements.

But is this politically feasible? The US has been centered around the American Dream wherein each succeeding generation aspires to live better through increased consumption than the ones before them. It is hard to imagine Americans engaging in delayed gratification, as the Germans, Japanese and Koreans did after World War II, to rebuild the economy. If anything, the gradual decline of Argentina througout much of the 20th Century seems more plausible, with the emergence of a domestic form of Peronism to administer the distribution of increasingly scare resources. Obamamania may, in fact, signal the birth of this kind of politics within the US, an entertainment oriented, personality based movement in a landscape of shattered party structures, a landscape where collective action imbued with any ideological overtones is impossible.

And, then, there is the enormous elephant in the room, a US military industrial complex that costs approximately one trillion dollars a year, if not more. Cold War Keynesians will say that such expenditures stabilize the economy and provide technological benefits for domestic industry. Such an invocation of the 1950s and 1960s misses the obvious fact that economic conditions have changed radically since that time, when the US was the dominant economy on earth, not to mention that many believe that massive military spending is partially responsible for our current predicament.

Cold War Keynesianism was sustainable in an era of growth and surplus, but, now, how can the US evolve from running current account deficits to current account surpluses unless funds are redirected from the military to the domestic economy? How can the US avoid a catastrophic collapse in living standards, and the social unrest associated with it, if Americans are going to be required to reduce consumption and save to not only finance economic development, but also preserve the most expensive military organization in world history? Obviously, it can't.

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