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

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Second Reagan Revolution (Part 5) 

Turns out that, for the Obama administration, there are things other than intimidating Iran in which everything is on the table.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Brief Note on the British Election 

Eventually, New Labour had to subject itself to the judgment of the voters, and the campaign has been underway for several weeks. After 12 years of pursuing policies of privatization, liberalization of the financial markets, expansion of public surveillance and, of course, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Labour Party finds its Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and its parliamentary candidates generating little enthusiasm. Tory leader David Cameron finds himself in a similar situation, although the greater likelihood of victory necessarily energizes them a little more.

But the dirty secret of the campaign is the lack of any meaningful economic differences between them, and the other major party, the Liberal Democrats, as noted by lenin three weeks ago:

The 2010 general election will result in a victory for the nasty party, whoever wins. All three major parties, having supported the mammoth bank bailouts, stand for the deepest cuts in the public sector for over 50 years, far outstripping anything accomplished by Thatcher. Outdoing Thatcher in the cuts stakes is, in case the point passed you by, as nasty as can be. The chancellors' debate - which, underscoring the poverty of alternatives, was won by the drab former Shell economist Vincent Cable - reinforced this quite starkly. There is only a difference of emphasis and timing between the parties, and these differences all sound eminently reasonable and plausible within the terms of the discussion - but they are largely technocratic differences with policy flavours attached. And even if New Labour pretends to be protecting frontline services, the fact is that it is already driving cuts through the education sector. It is continuing its savage cuts in the civil service. Health departments are already budgeting for big cuts. For example, the London NHS Trust is conducting secret meetings behind locked doors, in which no notes are taken, in order to plan approximately £5bn in cuts. And that's just one city. Already, cutbacks in other areas, such as maternity wards and A&E departments in the north-east are causing difficulties for sitting Labour MPs - Gordon Prentice, the left-wing Burnley MP, is having to fight his own government over the closure of an A&E department in Burnley. To which the other parties say, amen, and faster, please!

If anything, the situation has gotten worse as a consequence of Greek financial crisis with commentators warning that, without the imposition of severe austerity measures, the UK could soon find itself in the line of fire.

The surprise of the campaign has been the emergence of the Liberal Democrats as a plausible alternative to Labour and the Tories. On a number of issues, the LibDems are better than Labour. They have resisted the curtailment of civil liberties and increased electronic surveillance implemented by both Blair and Brown. They opposed the invasion of Iraq and consider the modernization of the UK's nuclear submarine force, the Trident, a hideous waste of money, although they don't go so far as to say that they will promptly scrap it. Led by a young, relatively charismatic leader (remember, this is the UK), Nick Clegg, and promising the prospect of transformative political change by overcoming the duopoly, the LibDems now poll slightly ahead of Labour and slightly behind the Conservatives, a result that, if it is confirmed on election day, will bring about a hung Parliament.

Accordingly, for some on the left in the UK, the LibDems have an allure. With policies that appear to be less militaristic than either Labour and the Tories, while refusing to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment (which Brown has done, while privately describing his target audience as bigots), the LibDems have a reformist sheen, especially when one adds their insistence for proportional representation into the mix. Rightly or wrongly, many on the left believe that the adoption of PR will permanently cast the Tories into oblivion, with future electoral results that mirror the purportedly social reality of the UK as a center-left country.

But it is a little more complex than that. As Seamus Milne noted yesterday in the Guardian:

The Liberal Democrats, after all, have form. As Clegg demonstrated in last week's leaders' debate, the Lib Dems are more independent in foreign policy, and progressive on civil liberties, than New Labour. But in a dozen councils across England the party has opted to ally with the Conservatives – even when Labour is the largest party – and voted through cuts, closures and privatisations.

His conclusion is brutal, but accurate:

It's also becoming clearer that if Labour were to end up coming third in the popular vote, far from opening up opportunities for its revival on a more progressive basis, this could even risk its disintegration and the effective exclusion of any working class or union presence from mainstream politics.

Yes, indeed. The collapse of Labour will push the UK even more rapidly towards the political model of the US, where the working class has been almost completely erased from the process. In this sense, the comparison of Clegg to Obama is apt, as Obama is finishing the project of creating a purportedly classless society started by, probably Carter, but most certainly by Reagan and Clinton. For British workers to have any political voice, however faint, Labour must survive. Without question, that voice is a faint one. But, for those on the left in the UK who believe in the electoral process as the means for achieving political change, and still embrace a class conscious politics, the preservation of the power of the trade unions and activists within a compromised Labour is essential, even if it looks like a desperate rear guard action.

Just as in the US, it is hard to imagine the circumstances by which an effective class based left politics can emerge there, although, for now, there are more resources for it in the UK than in the US. The Labour Party was created in the service of the principle that the working class could peaceably take power through the electoral process, and more equitably distribute the fruits of the society for the benefit of all. With participation in the UK political system dependent upon larger and larger sums of money and media access, such a mission seems more implausible than it has ever been. Accordingly, the UK election is more evidence in support of the notion that liberal democracies are now only capable of reconstituting governments in the thrall of capital, or, as Baudrillard called it, alternation. Only in a region of the world where such a system has not yet firmly rooted itself, South America, is it possible for socialist alternatives, however pallid, to survive. As for the rest of us, we are on our own, until we find a way to collectively organize beyond an electoral process rigged against us.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Belated Five Year Anniversary 

Just the other day, I was thinking that it seems like I've been posting here for quite awhile. Yesterday, I entered the subterranean passages of Blogger, and searched for my first post. Turns out that it was appeared here on April 9, 2005, over five years ago. What was it about? The occupation of Iraq? The mendacity of the Republican majority in Congress? The mendacity of the Democratic minority in Congress? Lewis Libby? Arnold Schwarzenegger? The ongoing subsidization of one of the most enormous transfers of wealth in history?

None of the above. After being invited by Joe Wezorek, the creator of this blog, to post here after having participated avidly in the comments section, I sent him a post about . . . the death of Pope John Paul II: How Does a Secular Leftist Respond to the Pope's Death. Reading it again after five years, I am struck by how I emphasized one of my enduring themes, the capacity of people to think and act for themselves:

This is the terrain upon which the record of this Pope and this Church must be confronted. By rejecting the Church's insistence that people, if left to their own devices in their own communities, will invariably abuse and exploit one another, we can say that, on the contrary, people can intelligently use contraception, while expressing a profound respect for life as we show compassion for all around us. We can assert that our open acknowledgement of homosexuality and the civil marriage of gays and lesbians will not impair the Church's ministry. We can persuasively contend that a vibrant, diverse culture, and all of its artistic creations, even the most abrasive and confrontational, enrich our lives in every respect, even spiritually.

Over the course of time, such a perspective lead me to a recognition of anarchism and an embrace of its identification of hierarchical social relations within capitalism as the source of much of the world's violence and oppression. It was the end of a long journey, with only the final stages documented on this blog. In my 20s and 30s (the 1980s and 1990s), I could best be described as an anti-imperialist liberal, a liberal who considered the technological transformation of that time favorably, if not inevitable, with the hope that it would result in a vibrant economy that would result in the downsizing of the US military around the world. If only we could elect a Democratic President, and there would be no tactical nuclear weapons or troops on the ground in Central Europe, no more aid to the Contras and support for pluralistic, economically independent countries in Eastern Europe and the former republics of the USSR.

Yes, I was rather naive, wasn't I? Upon his election in 1992, President Clinton instead proceeded to exploit all the opportunities for expansion of the reach of the American Empire. Shock therapy in the East reduced the countries that had just liberated themselves from the autocracy of really existing socialism to dependent creditors of transnational banks and investors centered in Western Europe and the US. With NAFTA, Clinton shattered the remaining power of the American working class while simultaneously opening Mexico to US investment, intensifying the flow of undocumented immigrants. He was extraordinarily successful because of his emphasis upon economic coercion instead of military force. Or, as the amoral academics would say, he emphasized soft power instead of hard power. Because of this, Chalmers Johnson was on the money when he said that Clinton was a better imperialist than his successor.

But the most disturbing aspect of the 1990s was the willingness of liberals to not only accept Clinton policy, but celebrate it in the name of political expediency. With a lot of liberals having become middle to upper middle class during the Reagan era, they now had no trouble espousing socially progressive economic views while supporting a Democratic President that was privileging capital over the proletariat to a degree not experienced since Grover Cleveland. Not surprisingly, they also supported US air strikes against what remained of Yugoslavia, appeasing liberals by characterizing it as a humanitarian intervention to protect the Kosovars from genocide and ethnic cleansing. But, after Clinton had rendered the Serbs prostrate, neither he nor his liberal supporters expressed any concern, much less took any action, to stop the ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Kosovars. With the opening of the Serbian economy to foreign investment and a new, state of the art military base, Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, US policy objectives had been achieved. And, anyway, as Thomas Friedman, always at the ready to advocate for collective punishment when it doesn't involve Americans or Israelis, said, the Serbs were getting exactly what they deserved. Both the air war in Kosovo and Serbia and the Iraqi sanctions foreshadowed subsequent interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the people of Balkans remain amongst the poorest on the European continent.

As the sun set on the Clinton presidency, the United States was the world's preeminent economic and military power. His economic advisors, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, along with Federal Reserve Board Chair, Alan Greenspan, freed speculative capital from the chains of the US regulatory system. There was no longer any separation between investment and commercial banking, and transnational firms were now free to create a proliferation of exotic financial instruments for investors for distribution all over the world. Meanwhile, these same instituitons, through the US controlled World Bank and International Monetary Fund, forced countries all around the world to reduce spending on essential public services like health, education and welfare, so as to create conditions favorable to speculative investment. And, then, seemingly out of nowhere, the lightening bolt struck in Seattle in November 1999.

The protests against the World Trade Organization were a warning sign that the newly created neoliberal order was too turbulent to be sustainable over the long term. But liberal democracies like the US and those of the EU no longer had any place for social democratic reform. Political figures like Blair, Clinton, Schroeder and Chirac interred the prospect of achieving Social Democracy within representative democratic systems initially advocated by the German SDP at the dawn of the 20th Century. Lenin may have been discredited as a consequence of the authoritarianism of the old USSR, but his condemnations of electoral political processes ring as true today as they did when he made them. One finds an echo of this perspective in my Vote or Die series on the failings of the US political system. But I could never be a Bolshevik. So, I began to engage with the social vision of anarchism, a socialist alternative equally suspicious of the false claims of social inclusion put forward by liberal democrats.

It didn't happen right away, though. In 2000, I hoped that Ralph Nader could garner a sufficient percentage of the vote to obtain federal campaign funds for the Green Party, and thus provide a stronger, institutionalized left alternative to the two major parties. In other words, I still placed too much emphasis upon the political process as the primary means for transforming American society. Given the capture of the Democratic Party by finance capitalists, I wasn't surprised when Democrats provided only token opposition to the Bush program of war, curtailment of civil liberties, centralization of the media and increased subsidization of the wealthy. All, to varying degrees, were at the center of the Clinton project, and, in the aftermath of 9/11, probably would have been pursued in a similar fashion. Greenspan remained at the head of the Federal Reserve with bipartisan support, where, after the bursting of the stock market bubble he blew in the mid to late 1990s, he proceeded to inflate an even larger one in real estate. The bubble generated enough money to be distributed all around, especially in the Congress, until the music stopped in 2007.

In 2004, I took the Trotskyite advice of Tariq Ali, and urged a vote for John Kerry, despite his many flaws, persuaded by Ali's claim that the electoral defeat of the neoconservatives would energize global opposition to US imperialism. Somewhere along the line, Ali and I forgot to notice that there are a lot of Democratic neoconservatives, too, or, even worse, failed to recognize that the term itself is used to deflect attention from the imperial aspirations that have defined the US since its inception. I guess that I still couldn't let go of the glamour associated with the political process, one of the great spectacles ever produced, it puts Cecil B. DeMille to shame. If his most recent New Left Review article is any indication, Ali gets it now, at least as far as the Democratic Party is concerned.

During the period, I paid close attention to developments in South America, more so than liberals and even many leftists, and it was there that I began to perceive an alternative. Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina have all been known for the prominence of direct action social movements that have pushed their countries to the left. Accordingly, I periodically post on events in these countries, but more from a social than a political perspective. Each country has moved left to varying degrees, but none of them have decentralized power and attacked the concentration of wealth necessary to effectively challenge the global capitalist order. I have drawn two lessons from the South American experience. First, that any meaningful change within the US and the world will result from mass, direct action social movements, organized around non-hierarchical collective values, and, second, that such movements will only succeed if they confront the core principles of capitalism, private property, wage labor and commodification.

The collapse of the global financial system in 2007 and 2008 has brought this conflict into sharp relief. Everywhere (with the possible exception of the People's Republic of China), the solution is the same, the expropriation of wealth from the bottom 90% to 95% for the top 5% to 10%, with the expectation that their recapitalization will regenerate the investment capital required to finance the reignition of the global economy. Perhaps, it will work, but the social turmoil associated with the effort will be extreme, so extreme that the social control measures required to contain may be too costly for the system to sustain itself. At this time, anarchism is the only credible socialist alternative, one unencumbered with the autocratic baggage of Marxist-Leninism and the accomodation of Social Democracy. Capitalism took centuries to attain its preemince, so, too, it may take centuries for the prefigurative collective social vision of anarchism to take root. People will have to rediscover their capacity to collectively organize themselves within their communities, and relinquish their attachment to the hierarchies and gratification associated with nationalism, private property and wage labor. It will take many collaborative, visionary projects, and many will fail before such a powerful, entrenched social order is overcome. But is there enough time?

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Highway 99 

A California state highway that traverses one of the epicenters of the current economic crisis in the US, as recently profiled by Gifford Hartman in Turbulence 5:

Running south of Sacramento, through the heart of the Central Valley, is Highway 99. For decades the towns and cities of the Central Valley have been amongst the fastest growing in the US, and as you drive along the highway you pass through all these places that until recently had all the garish optimism of boom towns. The first big city you reach after Sacramento is Stockton, home to a deep-water sea port that connects major rivers with the San Joaquin Delta, the Bay and trans-Pacific trade. In the earlier years of the decade, Stockton was at the centre of the speculative housing bubble. In 2008 it had the highest rate of foreclosures in the country. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates and Forbes magazine recently rated it the ‘most miserable city in the US’. Further south there is more of the same American consumer culture: shopping malls surrounded by massive parking lots and a huge Christian high school in the town of Ripon. In places railroad tracks and changing yards run alongside 99, but many of the tall grain silos and food processing facilities have been abandoned. The next big city is Modesto – the number one city in the US for car thefts and number five on Forbes’ ‘most miserable’ list. Here the fertile farmland has been concreted over to build ‘affordable’ housing for commuters, some of whom endure a two-hour each-way drive to the Bay Area. Continuing south through Merced – with the second highest ‘official’ unemployment rate of any US city – there’s yet more malls and chain stores, but also reminders of the agricultural industry: a few orchards and livestock pens along the highway, as well as dealers in tractors and other farm machinery. You can also see the plentiful irrigation canals that move water from the wet north to the Valley’s dry southern end. What is striking is how much of the industrial and agricultural infrastructure appears to be rusting away. Many plants display huge ‘For Sale’ signs.

Two hundred and seventy kilometres south of Sacramento, you reach Fresno, California’s fifth largest city, with a population of half a million. Fresno is the hub of the San Joaquin portion of the valley and it always seems to be in a haze of brown smog, especially during the stiflingly hot summer months. It is the ‘asthma capital of California’, a result not only of vehicle and industrial pollution, but also the airborne pesticides and other toxic chemicals used in agriculture. Fresno County is the most productive and profitable agricultural county in the US. Until recently it was also home to three large downtown tent cities, as well as other smaller encampments scattered throughout the city and along the highways.

The first tent city, on Union Pacific railroad property, was evicted in July 2009. It was literally toxic: sludge was discovered oozing out of holes in the ground in the summer of 2008, possibly due to the site’s previous use for vehicle repair. ‘New Jack City’ – after the 1991 film about violent crack-dealing urban gangs – earned its name because two murders have already occurred there. The third tent city is more like a shantytown because many of the living spaces are built with scavenged wood. It is called ‘Taco Flats’ or ‘Little Tijuana’ because of its many Latino residents. These are mostly migrant agricultural labourers, unemployed because of the economic crisis and because a three-year drought has severely reduced the number of crops being planted.

Of course, there is more, much more that warrants reading Hartman's article in its entirety. Not surprisingly, the Governor, both parties in the legislature and agribusiness have concluded that the solution is to provide more subsidized water for agriculture.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Banksy Goes on Vacation in San Francisco 

With the release of his film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, in the US, Banksy, the British graffiti artist, has now apparently graced the walls of Chinatown and the Mission District in San Francisco with his work. For photographs of them, please go here and here and here. Rumor has it that another one has been seen south of Market at 9th and Howard Streets.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Breaking the Law of Return 

Yet another manifestation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Hat tip to Jews sans frontieres.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

The Iranian Problem, Again 

Charlie Davis has an excellent post summarizing the policy that Defense Secretary Gates wants to pursue in relation to the Iranian nuclear program:

. . . Iran could remain a signatory to the NPT while maintaining a virtual weapons capability is a concession that developing such a capacity is perfectly legal under the treaty. That being the case, what then would be the justification under international law for taking action -- in the form of economic or aerial warfare -- to stop Iran from possessing the enrichment capacity and knowhow to possibly someday build nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so (which even U.S. intelligence agencies don't believe the Iranians have decided to do)? My money's on a Security Council resolution.

Still, what is clearly illegal under international law and the NPT is not having a nuclear breakout capacity -- as Iran stands accused not of possessing, but seeking to possess -- but the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any States, as the non-proliferation treaty itself notes. That's something to be remembered the next time a U.S. official declares all options are on the table when dealing with Iran, and contrasted with the Obama administration's recently stated policy in its Nuclear Posture Review of maintaing the right to use nuclear weapons against those it deems in violation of the NPT (e.g. Iran).

I periodically encounter people who don't believe that the US will attack Iran. Eli Stephens over at Left I on the News has expressed this view over the years, and I have tentatively come around to agreeing with him.

But, maybe, we shouldn't be so sanguine about it. Consider this historical nugget, offered to us by Uri Avnery when he evaluated the issue in July of 2008:

On the basis of all these considerations, I dare to predict that there will be no military attack on Iran this year - not by the Americans, not by the Israelis.

As I write these lines, a little red light turns on in my head. It is related to a memory: in my youth I was an avid reader of Vladimir Jabotinsky's weekly articles, which impressed me with their cold logic and clear style. In August 1939, Jabotinsky wrote an article in which he asserted categorically that no war would break out, in spite of all the rumors to the contrary. His reasoning: modern weapons are so terrible, that no country would dare to start a war.

One wonders, what does Avnery think in 2010? Has his opinion changed, and, if so, why? There are a number of reasons to support a belief that an attack is now more probable: the failure of the protests to topple the Islamic regime, the naivete of a new President who acts and speaks as if he must actually confront issues, such as health care, social security, Medicare and financial reform, among others, not to mention the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that he asserts have been wilfully evaded and the possibility that US pressure on Israel, no matter how slight, to enter in a peace agreement with the Palestinians is a pragmatic display of realpolitik designed to lessen the global backlash in the event of military action.

Recall that, in 1991, President Bush called a Likud government to the negotiating table in Madrid after Operation Desert Storm. Recall also that the Iranian regime tries to mitigate global opposition to its repressive characteristics by positioning itself as the preeminent advocate for the Palestinian people. Because of its alignment with the maximalist goals of the Israeli right, the second Bush administration could not take the step of brokering a peace deal in order to open the way for an attack upon Iran, while the Obama administration can. Even so, on the merits, I remain agnostic.

If addressed rationally, as Admiral Mullen has done on a number of occasions, the consequences of an attack upon Iran are frightening to contemplate, even for an institution as powerful as the Pentagon. Everyone knows that the US military is overstretched in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and an attack could ignite an even more intensified period of violence by both state and non-state actors. Unfortunately, though, as we all know, people don't always act rationally, as the Jabotinsky column remembered by Avnery reminds us.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Goodbye, John Paul Stevens 

An excellent summation of the judicial career of Stevens, written by Alexander Cockburn at Counterpunch:

With the impending departure from the U.S. Supreme Court of Justice John Paul Stevens at the age of 89, we lose one of the nation’s last substantive ties to Great Depression and to the effect of that disaster on the political outlook of a couple of generations.

Stevens’ father, Ernest, owned a famous hotel in Chicago – the Stevens, with 3,000 rooms, now the Hilton. It was built in 1927, and there young John Paul met Amelia Earhart, Charles Linbergh and Babe Ruth.

But by 1934 hard times took their toll. The hotel went bankrupt. John Paul’s father, grandfather and uncle were all indicted on charges that they’d diverted money from the Illinois Life Insurance Co. (founded by the grandfather) to try and bail out the hotel. The uncle committed suicide, and Stevens’ father was convicted. The Illinois Supreme Court exonerated him two years later, stating, there’s not a scintilla of evidence of any concealment or fraud.

Thus did John Paul, still in his teens, acquire his life-long skepticism of police and prosecutors. Between the year he went on the Court (put up by Gerald Ford in 1974 on the recommendation of Ford’s attorney general, Chicagoan Edward Levi), and 2010, John Paul Stevens voted against the government in criminal justice and death penalty cases 70 per cent of the time. Only one justice – William O. Douglas, whose seat Stevens took over – served longer on the Court. When Justice Harry Blackmun retired in 1994, Stevens became the senior associate justice and, thus, able to assign opinions to the justice of his choice. Stevens played his field expertly, time and again maneuvering the swing vote – Anthony Kennedy – onto his side by assigning him the task of writing the opinion.

The most famous case of this sort was the 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas, which became the equivalent for gay rights as Brown v. Board of Education for racial discrimination. Among other Stevens-written or Stevens-influenced landmark opinions: Atkins v. Virginia, where Stevens successfully won the necessary majority for the view that executing the mentally retarded constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Stevens was also the Court’s most powerful opponent of the so-called doctrine of unitary executive power, which takes the view that the U.S. president and his executive wield constitutionally unchallengeable power. Stevens – again, a true conservative – opposed all such assertions and extensions of dominance by the executive. The relevant case was Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Stevens wrote the majority opinion that Bush Jr. could not unilaterally set up military commissions to try detainees in Guantanamo.

Cockburn's piece is additionally worth reading for his evaluation of the frontrunning candidate to replace him, Elaine Kagan. Why is she the frontrunner and probable selection? The answer is obvious, because, as related by Cockburn (and others in the last week), she is an unabased proponent of the unitary executive and the powers that have been ascribed to it in order to prosecute the war on terror. And, beyond that, there is the fact that she has enthusiastically put her legal and intellectual credibility at the service of the Democratic establishment over the years.

Kagan is, if one may be so impolite to say it, a hack, willing to take on any task assigned by the party leadership. Furthermore, she is much beloved by Republicans who are delighted by the prospect that, after putting several ideologues on the Court in recent decades, the Democrats may respond by replacing one of the Court's great civil libertarians with a centrist who defers to the power of the federal government when it is asserted against individuals, but skeptical when it is directed towards corporations.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Dance of the Lemons 

Every now and then, I run across a piece of quality journalism in one of my northern California newspapers, one that goes beyond the immediate subject and provides real social insight. Invariably, I find them in the San Francisco Chronicle, and not my local one, the Sacramento Bee, which has become an embarassment.

Today, I ran across this story in the Chronicle:

A group of Oakland parents, frustrated by a nearly two-year battle to remove a reportedly abusive teacher, went on strike Thursday, pulling their children out of school and onto a picket line at the district's downtown headquarters.

Close to 80 percent of Lazear Elementary School's 300 students didn't show up for school Thursday - a loss of almost $9,000 in state funding for the day - and apparently a wake-up call for district and teachers union officials who met with the parents Thursday afternoon to try to resolve the issue.

The boycott was a last resort for the parents, who were tired of the time-consuming and egregious process of getting rid of someone they say is a bad teacher.

In nearly two years of teaching at Lazear, the veteran third-grade teacher has repeatedly left his pupils unattended in the classroom and on the schoolyard, physically manhandled students, told children to shut up, and at one point locked a girl in the classroom because she wasn't moving fast enough, said Olga Galavíz González, a parent organizer at the school.

As you might have guessed, Lazear Elementary serves a predominately lower income population, in this instance, a Latino one. And, they have been forced to pull their children from school in order to protect them from someone they describe as an incompetent, abusive teacher. Turns out the people like the families at Lazear find themselves confronted with the worst teachers in their district quite often:

Thursday's strike exemplified one of the more common complaints in public education. Too often, the solution to bad teachers is to shuffle them to another school to avoid the costly two-year process to fire them - what is known as a dance of the lemons.

Lazear parents said they don't want the lemons landing in their yard. At the same time, many stressed that they love most of the children's teachers.

Our kids deserve better teachers, González said. Just because we're here and not up in the hills, they deserve the same teachers.

By here she meant Lazear, a predominantly low-income elementary school with a large Hispanic population on the other side of a chain-link fence from Interstate 880.

Schools like Lazear can feel like dumping grounds for tenured teachers the district can't or won't fire, said Oakland school board member Noel Gallo. The third-grade teacher at the center of Thursday's controversy had moved around the district before he arrived at Lazear in fall 2008, he said.

If the families don't speak English, so what? said Gallo, who stood with parents on the picket line. They deserve the same fairness, equity, treatment and quality.

Similarly, as revealed in the sad case of Zachary Cataldo in 2008, students threatened by the violence of their classmates face the same sort of problem. Cataldo, a 7 year old student in the same district at the time, was frequently bullied and eventually attacked by another student while awaiting the arrival of his caregiver to take him to day care after the school day had ended. His strategem of hiding in the bushes until the caregiver arrived finally failed. His school, Piedmont Elementary, was notorious for violent incidents among the students.

One might have thought that transferring Cataldo or the other child to another school was a possible solution, but, no, as with the teacher at Lazear, that's not nearly as easy as it sounds:

Piedmont Avenue Elementary appears to be a school of last resort in the Oakland district, one where your child ends up if you are still standing when the music stops. Once there, getting your child transferred to a safer school is about as probable as escaping a French tropical penal colony.

After all, if school district officials transfer your child, how can they explain not transferring the other 247 students with no record of violence? Of course, as previously reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the district is now willing to consider whether Zachary should be transferred after Cataldo sought legal representation.

In other words, if you didn't get it the first time, the district was only willing to consider permitting Cataldo to transfer only after he was attacked, and presented the district with the prospect of legal exposure.

Access to public education is one of the linchpins of the common belief that the US is a meritocracy, a place where one is rewarded for one's educational achievement and work ethic. But, as these incidents suggest, public education doesn't provide the same opportunities for everyone.

There have been a number of attempts to approve voucher schools through the initiative process here in California. They have failed, primarily because lower income people and people of color perceived these efforts, quite rightly, as partially motivated by the intention to even further segregate the schools and drain resources from the public system for the benefit of the upper middle class. But one wonders what would happen if a more egalitarian voucher proposal was submitted for public approval.

And, finally, there is the fact that California education is undergoing a remorseless process of budget cutting, necessitated by the economy and a state government that is unwilling to adopt solutions other than the neoliberal shrinkage of public services. For students like Cataldo, and those at Lazear Elementary, things look to get worse before they get better, if they ever do. Meanwhile, money flows liberally into the war on terror as manifested by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Film Notes: loulou 

As feminists have noted for decades, the cinema, whether Hollywood or Mosfilm or Bollywood or Hong Kong, has been one of the most effective disseminators of patriarachal values. Indeed, it has masterfully reinterpreted them within a context of global capitalist development. Male characters and concerns are to the forefront, with women cast in subordinate roles, subject to boundaries established by the male dominated family and workplace.

Perhaps, this is why one experiences such a shock when watching loulou, a 1980 film directed by Maurice Pialat with a screenplay by Pialat and Arlette Langman. Anton Bitel of Film4 was apparently one of the few critics who recognized its combustible engagement with class, gender and sexuality. Curiously enough, although the film is named for the male lead performed with the usual muscular dynamism associated with Gerard Depardieu, it is the character of his lover, Nelly, portrayed by Isabelle Huppert with an extraordinary range and subtlety, who grounds the narrative.

At the beginning of the film, Nelly is married to Andre, and works for him as well. Although unclear, it appears that Andre has a prominent position in advertising or television in Paris. Andre is her intellectual mentor, and the dominant figure in their bourgeois marriage. Andre is captivated by Nelly's spontaneity, Nelly by his formalistic rigor. But there is a problem. Nelly is sexually unfulfilled.

Nelly meets Loulou at a dance club where, contrary to American expectations, all classes mix liberally. She dances with him, has a nasty argument with Andre (he finds pop music coarse and primitive) and leaves with Loulou. Loulou is an ex-con, but excellent in bed and surprisingly down to earth in his communication with women, all qualities that Andre lacks. He can be crude, but also surprisingly empathetic and tender, and Nelly is immediately drawn to him.

Nelly is, in effect, shattering the patriarchal demand that women subordinate their sexual and emotional needs to men, and, upon discovering that her bourgeois marriage to Andre is incapable of satisfying them, she abandons it. During the course of doing so, she discovers that Andre cannot, until it is too late, separate affection from possessiveness. Pialat presented all this naturalistically, with the use of a hand held camera, generating audience empathy with Nelly's journey. Along with Langman, he told her story by means of a script that emphasizes emotional insight and conflict over melodramatic convention.

It is precisely the centrality of Nelly to the narrative that makes loulou so compelling. I recently had the opportunity to watch two Godard films from the late 1960s, La Chinoise and Le Gai Savoir, and one gets the impression that Godard subconsciously accepted the old Marxist-Leninist doctrine that the contradiction generated by the exploitation of women was a secondary one, secondary to the primary one between the proletariat and capitalists, and one that would be resolved upon the attainment of a classless society. Neither film, despite the prominence of female characters, addresses the reality of gender relations confronted by Pialat and Langman in loulou. If anything, there is an undercurrent of androgyny in both films, with Godard treating sexuality as a frivolity.

Similarly, I also watched two Eric Rohmer films, My Night at Maud's and Chloe in the Afternoon, and while Rohmer deserves great respect for his emphasis upon marriages between equals, marriages between educated professionals, his primary interest is the allure of bourgeois marriage for men. The wives, as well as the temptresses, serve the purpose of assisting the enlightenment of Rohmer's male protagonists. One wonders what sort of movies Rohmer would have made if he had focused upon the wives instead of the husbands.

In any event, Nelly seeks a transcendent, self-actualizing relationship in the arms of, for lack of better term, a lumpen proletarian. In France and Italy, the 68 generation derided the notion of wage labor, and Pialat suggested that Loulou was one consequence of it, a petty ex-con who doesn't work, and, moreover, lacks any comprehension about how to go about doing so. Alternatively, one can relate to Loulou as representative of that part of French society that historically resisted the capitalist rationalization of the country, that uncouth, raucous part that Hausmann, and, later, DeGaulle, sought to eradicate through their reconstruction of Paris. Pialat's camera explores a Paris where gentrification, a phenomenon that, ironically enough, Andre condemns even as he profits from it, is accomplishing what Hausmann and DeGaulle could not, the explusion of the lower orders from the city.

As Nelly tells Andre, Loulou can't find a job, but she can, and so, she pays the bills and why shouldn't she? It works, but not perfectly so. Loulou worries that Nelly is just another women who loves his cock, failing to recognize that she sought out his cock to discover that there was more to being a woman, more to being a person, than her life with Andre. Andre sarcastically asks her how she talks about literature with Loulou, and she responds that reading it is enough. In other words, she doesn't need Andre anymore, but she does need Loulou, even as she worries about Loulou's dependence upon her. Ultimately, the film ends on a somber note, as both Nelly and Loulou realize that their relationship is ill-suited for a society in which commerce and commodification is ascendant.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Free Fire Zone Afghanistan (Part 8) 

The preliminary stages of the anticipated Kandahar offensive:

American troops raked a large passenger bus with gunfire near Kandahar on Monday morning, killing as many as five civilians and wounding 18 and sparking anger in a city where winning over Afghan support is considered pivotal to the war effort.

The American-led military command in Kabul called the killings a “tragic loss of life” and said troops fired not knowing the vehicle was a bus and believing that it posed a threat to a military convoy clearing roadside bombs from a highway.

The killings triggered a vitriolic anti-American demonstration, infuriated officials and appeared likely to harm public opinion on the eve of the most important offensive of the war, in which tens of thousands of American and NATO troops will try to take control of the Kandahar region, the spiritual home of the Taliban, this summer.

Note the subsequent demonstration after the killings is described as vitriolic. You know, those emotional, irrational Afghans just can't avoid overreacting to the excesses of the NATO presence. Given all that US and NATO forces have done for them, can't they at least politely protest with signs like We appreciate your hard work, but please stop killing us? Or, maybe, Don't be so scared of us, we really do like you?

Meanwhile, the anticipated Kandahar offensive looks more and more like a slaughterhouse that will permanently define the US/NATO presence in the country. Afghans will the ability to do so will leave the city for sanctuariers in the countryside, while poorer and incapacitated ones will remain. Upon entering the city, US/NATO forces will blame them for their own deaths and injuries, as US troops did in Fallujah, and as the Israeli Defense Force does in Gaza. To be impoverished and infirm renders one Taliban, whether one likes it or not.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Support the Troops (Part 2) 

On Wednesday, Charlie Davis posted an entry asserting that we shouldn't support the troops for their actions in the Middle East and Central Asia. As long time readers of this blog know, I have expressed similar sentiments for years, some of which can be accessed by clicking on the "Support the Troops" label at the bottom of this one. Most criticisms tend to focus upon the brutalities inflicted upon the populace in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and rightly so. But there is something that often gets ignored.

Liberal peace activists who have pushed the support the troops mantra reduce the people who enlist in the military and perpetuate these occupations into an amorphous, unthinking mass, a reduction that characterized the collectivizaton of the peasantry in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the determination by urban planners like Corbusier that proletarians should be required to live in sterile, strictly controlled environments. In other words, people who enlist in the military lack any free will and historical agency, a perspective easily refuted by the many people who have returned after military service and candidly described what they did.

Of course, we shouldn't be surprised. Liberals have adopted a similar perspective with the middle and lower middle class generally, as it purports to speak on their behalf while insisting that they continue to politically support Democrats that implement neoliberal policies to their detriment. There is a vanguardism here, one that appears to be driven primarily by the fear that the people from whom they purport to speak may actually begin to speak for themselves. Hence, the apparent contradiction between their espoused identification with progressive economic beliefs and the actual policies that they support is readily explained. By intensifying the insecurity of the groups for whom they claim to represent, they preserve their monopoly of speech, and all the power that it entails.

Prior to his death, there was a vigorous debate about the support the troops attitude at Steve Gilliard's blog, The News Blog, probably sometime in 2006. Steve took the support the troops line, while I, and a few others, insisted that those who enlist should take responsibility for that decision and their subsequent actions. At one point, I suggested that some troops may actually rebel, and that if that ever happened, we should publicly support any such action. Oh, my goodness! Now, that really terrified the liberals who posted there, because, after all, just think about all the terrible things that could happen if troops started disobeying orders. They might even disobey the President.

As far as many of these liberals were concerned, better that they continue to kill Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis, than refuse to do so. My response to this hysteria was straightforward: the Democratic and Republican parties have taken away far more of my rights in the last 30 years, and remain a threat to take away more, a much greater threat than the people enlisted in the military. The contempt that many of them had for people who served in the military, based upon intellectual and class bias, came out quite clearly. I came away with the impression that while many liberals claim to want to downsize the military, they believe that it perpetuates a necessary system of social control.

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Friday, April 09, 2010

Free Fire Zone Iraq (Part 3) 

Dahr Jamail has published a harrowing article about the indiscriminate violence that has marked the occupation of Iraq:

Truthout has spoken with several soldiers who shared equally horrific stories of the slaughtering of innocent Iraqis by US occupation forces.

"I remember one woman walking by, said Jason Washburn, a corporal in the US Marines who served three tours in Iraq. He told the audience at the Winter Soldier hearings that took place March 13-16, 2008, in Silver Spring, Maryland, She was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading toward us, so we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was full of groceries. She had been trying to bring us food and we blew her to pieces.

The hearings provided a platform for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to share the reality of their occupation experiences with the media in the US.

Washburn testified on a panel that discussed the rules of engagement (ROE) in Iraq, and how lax they were, to the point of being virtually nonexistent.

During the course of my three tours, the rules of engagement changed a lot, Washburn's testimony continued, The higher the threat the more viciously we were permitted and expected to respond. Something else we were encouraged to do, almost with a wink and nudge, was to carry 'drop weapons', or by my third tour, 'drop shovels'. We would carry these weapons or shovels with us because if we accidentally shot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent.

Hart Viges, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army who served one year in Iraq, told of taking orders over the radio.

One time they said to fire on all taxicabs because the enemy was using them for transportation.... One of the snipers replied back, 'Excuse me? Did I hear that right? Fire on all taxicabs?' The lieutenant colonel responded, 'You heard me, trooper, fire on all taxicabs.' After that, the town lit up, with all the units firing on cars. This was my first experience with war, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the deployment.

Vincent Emanuele, a Marine rifleman who spent a year in the al-Qaim area of Iraq near the Syrian border, told of emptying magazines of bullets into the city without identifying targets, running over corpses with Humvees and stopping to take "trophy" photos of bodies.

An act that took place quite often in Iraq was taking pot shots at cars that drove by, he said, This was not an isolated incident, and it took place for most of our eight-month deployment.

Of course, if you haven't figured it out already, you should read the article in its entirety.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Vote or Die: The United Kingdom 

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Vote or Die (Part 8) 

[Explantory Note: Vote or Die is a periodic, ongoing series of posts that challenges the conventional liberal perspective that the electoral process constitutes a plausible means for people to compel the government to implement policies for their benefit, as first explained here. For anyone interested in previous posts in this series, click on the Vote or Die label at the bottom of this post.]

During the recent congressional debates on the reform of health care and the student loan program, Jane Hamsher of firedoglake exposed the revolving door that high level Democratic advisors go through as they travel back and forth between the government and the private sector. She emphasized two case studies: Rahm Emanuel and Jamie Gorelick. Gorelick was a Deputy Attorney General during the Clinton administration. Emanuel, as we all know, is the current White House Chief of Staff.

Gorelick left the Clinton White House in 1997 for an appointment to Fannie Mae, a government sponsored enterprise that serves as the leading market maker in the secondary mortgage market, serving under Franklin Raines as Vice Chair. She received over 26 million dollars in bonuses despite serious accounting irregularities during this period. Upon leaving in 2003, she became a lobbyist. According to Hamsher:

Gorelick has benefitted tremendously as lobbying money has flowed to the Democratic side of the aisle. In addition to SLM Corp (Sallie Mae), she also represents the scandal-plagued investment bank Lazard Freres. She’s also lobbied for JP Morgan, BP America, Lucent, the Medicines Company and Google in the past.

Not surprisingly, Gorelick recently profited from her Democratic Party pedigree by lobbying against a student loan program reform that shifts billions of dollars from banking fees to the provision of more loans for students. Another former Clinton administration figure, John Podesta, did so as well. Amazingly, this one actually got through Congress as part of the reconciliation process used to pass the health care reform bill, one of the rare instances in which the Obama administration carried out a progressive policy against the wishes of transnational financial institutions.

Rahm Emanuel worked in the Clinton White House as well, serving as a senior advisor until 1998. He then took a position as an investment banker, earning 16.2 million dollars in bonuses between 1998 and 2002. In 2000 and 2001, he served on the board on Freddie Mac, another government sponsored enterprise that serves a market maker for mortgages, earning $320,000 in bonuses. Financial and accounting irregularities at Freddie Mac, and Gorelick's old employer, Fannie Mae, subsequently played a prominent role in the meltdown in global financial markets in 2007 and 2008, necessitating an enormous bailout, a bailout that is ongoing and without limitation.

As noted by Hamsher, the Chicago Tribune reported that Freddie Mac inflated bonuses to board members like Emanuel by using dubious accounting practices to misrepresent earnings:

Before its portfolio of bad loans helped trigger the current housing crisis, mortgage giant Freddie Mac was the focus of a major accounting scandal that led to a management shake-up, huge fines and scalding condemnation of passive directors by a top federal regulator.

One of those allegedly asleep-at-the-switch board members was Chicago's Rahm Emanuel—now chief of staff to President Barack Obama—who made at least $320,000 for a 14-month stint at Freddie Mac that required little effort.

Hamsher responded by submitting, along with Grover Norquist, a demand that Attorney General Eric Holder investigate Emanuel's activities as a Freddie Mac board member. Pro-Obama liberals were, quite predictably, more outraged at Hamsher for submitting the complaint along with Norquist than they were about the possibility that Emanuel may have personally benefitted from fraud at Freddie Mac. Jane, G-d bless her, she still believes in the system, and probably Santa and the Easter Bunny, too.

But, for those of us on the left, the experiences of Gorelick, Podesta and Emanuel raise more troubling questions about the plausibility of implementing progressive policies that prioritize people over capital. In my first Vote or Die post, I emphasized the failings of US electoral politics, the extent to which it disenfranchises millions of people, the difficulty of discerning what the candidates really mean and the fact that it is used to legitimize governance by claiming that we all have a voice in the process when, in fact, we don't. Other entries have addressed the power of large corporations and international capital in dictating outcomes and the unwillingness of elected officials to even respond to our inquiries. Most recently, I observed that the recent Supreme Court campaign finance decision intensifies these problems, and even empowers large, undemocratic unions to speak for us, despite the fact that they don't do it very well.

Hamsher's disclosures about Gorelick, Podesta and Emanuel reveal yet another problem: the fact that, even if you elect the President you want, despite all the impediments, the President and his staff are personally motivated to implement policies dictated by capital. Upon leaving office, Obama, like Reagan, Clinton and the Bushes, will receive millions of dollars for speaking appearances. Obama, as the first African American president, will, in all likelihood, demand fees substantially greater than any President who preceded him. But there's a catch. He's not going to get those fees, and the adulation that comes with them, if he seeks to become the next FDR, or even the next TR. The US political system no longer has a place for the progressivism of past presidents.

For aides, the inducments, as shown by Emanuel and Gorelick, are seductive. Does anyone really believe that Emanuel knew anything about investment banking in 1998? Yet, there he was, making 16.2 million dollars in bonuses over 5 years, after participating in an administration that entered into NAFTA, implemented a telecommunications reform that allowed the emergence of a large media oligopoly and took down the wall between commercial banks and investment ones. In January 2009, he returned to the White House with the perspective of the bankers that he worked with so profitably. Meanwhile, Gorelick made even more in bonuses, over 26 million, and parlayed her personal relationships and access for well paying financial clients, asserting their interest over the public interest. And they are just two examples among many. The career path is obvious. As long as you facilitate policies for the benefit of capital, you can get unimaginably rich yourself.

Or, to put it differently, by serving the lords of capital, you can become one, too. Emanuel, it should be noted, started out in politics as part of a consumer rights organization, Illinois Public Action. For us on the left, though, the troubling question is, how can we expect a movement towards Social Democracy in the US, given the obstacles and perverse incentives of the existing political system? And, the answer is, of course, we can't. Certainly, not a very comforting one, but one that is difficult to refute. As long as economic power resides in the hands of a few, political power will as well, regardless of the outward appearance of a participatory system.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

C'mon, Let Us Shoot 

Given that the organization that has released this 2007 video, wikileaks, is being described as a threat to national security by the Pentagon, I believe that it is important to disseminate it as broadly as possible.

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Free Fire Zone Afghanistan (Part 7) 

Investigations into the February 12th night raid in Khataba village in Afghanistan are discovering that the truth is worse than we could have imagined:

US special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened, Afghan investigators have told The Times.

Two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother were shot on February 12 when US and Afghan special forces stormed their home in Khataba village, outside Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. The precise composition of the force has never been made public.

The claims were made as Nato admitted responsibility for all the deaths for the first time last night. It had initially claimed that the women had been dead for several hours when the assault force discovered their bodies.

Despite earlier reports we have determined that the women were accidentally killed as a result of the joint force firing at the men, said Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Breasseale, a Nato spokesman. The coalition continued to deny that there had been a cover-up and said that its legal investigation, which is ongoing, had found no evidence of inappropriate conduct.

A senior Afghan official involved in a government investigation told The Times: “I think the special forces lied to McChrystal.”

Why did the special forces collect their bullets from the area? the official said. They washed the area of the injuries with alcohol and brought out the bullets from the dead bodies. The bodies showed there were big holes.

As you might have guessed, US media reported on this raid by credulously accepting the NATO explanation, until Afghan investigators and the London Times forced the truth out into the open. In an excellent article posted at Salon today, Glenn Greenwald places this incident within the larger context of NATO's success in persuading the media to accept its false, propagandistic descriptions of events in Afghanistan. Interestingly, Greenwald documents how an Afghan newspaper published, right after the attack, a more nuanced, more accurate description of it, primarily because the reporter talked to the residents of Khataba as well as NATO press officers.

And therein lies the problem. US newspapers and cable channels, to the extent that they attempt to cover the war in Afghanistan at all, look to official sources for the most accurate information. Conversely, like some American feminists, they consider the accounts of Afghans themselves to be the least credible, and, as noted by Greenwald, don't bother to even inquire about them, much less report them.

It is tempting to ascribe this phenomenon solely to nationalistic pressures associated with war coverage, but that would be a mistake. Elite newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have always practiced this method across the board, even before there was a war on terror. Articles invariably follow a pattern: official US sources first, other friendly official sources second, and, if the reporter gets that far, local accounts and concerns. Of course, sources from governments or groups considered hostile by the US are presented last, with an appropriately dismissive tone. The pattern, with minor variations, is followed without fail regardless of whether the subject of the article is a foreign or domestic subject.

And, as we have learned in relation to the invasion of Iraq and a possible attack upon Iran, off the record official US sources are considered more credible than on the record statements from anyone else, even more credible than direct evidence that refutes them. So, what we have here is a style of propagandistic journalism, a style that predates the war on terror and invasion of Iraq, but one that has become more crude and transparent because of the sensitivity of public opinion.

Of course, the New York Times has finally reported that US troops were responsible for the deaths in Khataba, but, naturally, placed the following emphasis upon it:

The disclosure could not come at a worse moment for the American military: NATO officials are struggling to contain fallout from a series of tirades against the foreign military presence by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who has also railed against the killing of civilians by Western forces.

The dead Afghans, it seems, are merely a backdrop for those poor US and NATO officials that now have to deal with the unpleasantness of being caught out in a lie, a kind of deceased human scenery, as it were, like mannequins used to display the lastest fashions at Saks Fith Avenue. Or, perhaps, like a multitude of Banquo's ghosts, causing panic attacks among officials and American reporters alike. And that Karzai! Can't someone get him to shut up? Note the use of the verb railed in the characterization of his objections to civilian killings by US and NATO forces, a subtle way of suggesting that he is either hysterical or exaggerating them.

And, then, finally, there are those pro-war feminists again. Maybe, someone can get around to asking them how the war in Afghanistan is for the benefit of the women there, when US troops are shooting and killing pregnant women, and then, afterwards, carving the bullets out of their bodies.

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

O = W? 

Or, maybe worse, because, unlike W, O is serious?

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Incomprehensibility of Liberals for Obama 

Being a high profile Obama supporter, as Melissa Harris-Lacewell is, creates some problems of cognitive dissonance, as well as an impairment of one's ability to interpret historical events:

I often begin my political science courses with a brief introduction to the idea of "the state." The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion. If an individual travels to another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor's money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation.

To the extent that a state is challenged as the sole, legitimate owner of the tools of violence, force, and coercion, it is challenged at its core. This is why "state's rights" led to secession and Civil War. The legitimacy of the central state was challenged, then reestablished. It is also why the Civil Rights Movement was so powerful. The overt abuse of state power evidenced by the violence of Southern police called into question their foundational legitimacy. The federal government had to act or risk losing its authority as a state altogether.

Which leads us to March 2010.

The Tea Party is a challenge to the legitimacy of the U.S. state. When Tea Party participants charge the current administration with various forms of totalitarianism, they are arguing that this government has no right to levy taxes or make policy. Many GOP elected officials offered nearly secessionist rhetoric from the floor of Congress this weekend. They joined as co-conspirators with the Tea Party protesters by arguing that this government has no monopoly on legitimacy.

I appreciate the parallels to the civil rights movement drawn by the MSNBC crowd, but they are inadequate. When protesters spit on and scream at duly elected representatives of the United States government it is more than act of racism. It is an act of sedition.

John Lewis is no longer just a brave American fighting for the soul of his country- he is an elected official. He is an embodiment of the state.

There is much to admire about Harris-Lacewell, and her approach to social life and politics. In the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign, I appreciated the way that she conducted herself in her confrontation with Gloria Steinem. She has championed the plight of the people of New Orleans since Katrina, and certainly doesn't deserve being demeaned by being described as a whore, even if she was defending the refusal of the Obama administration to release torture photographs, and believes that reconciliation is a better approach for dealing with the perpetrators than prosecution. But her recent article in The Nation about the tea party movement is one of the oddest expressions of progressive thought that I have encountered in quite some time.

Where to begin? Well, first of all, there is the unquestioning acceptance that the state's monopoly on the use of violence as a modernizing force, one that results in greater security and prosperity for all. Is she not unaware that the slave trade was facilitated by the British state and its American colonies, and then accepted and institutionalized by the US one that followed? Slavery was not part of the underground economy, it was legally accepted by both the UK and the US, and regulated by both. People could invest in slave ships, and call upon the legal system to enforce their contract rights, obtain redress against fraud and, of course, recover their property or the monetary equivalent. Indeed, the US Supreme Court acknowledged it with the notorious Dred Scott decision in 1857.

Conversely, figures like Nat Turner and John Brown acted outside the state, and, necessarily, outside the law, when they sought to induce African Americans to liberate themselves. And this is not a question of historical antiquity. Today, it is the state that criminalizes drugs and controlled substances, it is the state that incarcerates poor people and people of color in large numbers as a result and it is the state has enforced neoliberal policies that have impoverished the lower middle class and lower class, policies that, coincidentally, continue to be mercilessly implemented by the man Harris-Lacewell supported for President, Barack Obama.

Her belief that the federal government finally enforced civil rights because it would have otherwise lost its authority strikes me as implausible. Even if it had not done so, the federal government possessed the military and police power to maintain order, with the covert suppression of the Black Panthers as an example of what it would have done more broadly had it been necessary to do so. Instead, there are more prosaic explanations for the end of segregation: the rejection of it by millions of Americans in their personal lives, and a recognition by capital that integration could serve as the foundation of a new American brand with trasnational appeal that would increase its economic and cultural power at home and abroad. Just Do It with Michael Jordan and the multicultural allure of the US in Europe and Asia are unimaginable if segregation had persisted. Of course, the US may have taken on more fascistic characteristics had it persisted in preserving segregation, but it, contrary to what she says, had the power to do so.

Internationally, the picture is equally bleak. Around the world, middle class people have been increasingly proletarianized, and lower middle class ones sub-proletarianized, that is, informalized, required to work without a guaranteed minimum wage, health care or pension, without any labor protections, because of the power of the state to enforce the demands of capital. Resistance is suppressed through economic coercion, and, if necessary, through military force, all carried out through state instrumentalities. Furthermore, it is the state that now asserts the authority to seize anyone anywhere in the world and subject them to indefinite detention and torture.

But, never mind, Harris-Lacewell is worried about the Tea Party. Admittedly, there is much to find contemptible about it, many of its participants espouse beliefs that are highly objectionable and often offensive. But the notion that the Tea Party constitutes a threat to the legitimacy of the U. S. state is absurd. The Tea Party participants are not anti-state, rather they want to take control of the government at all levels in order to impose their vision of society, as muddled as it is. They would not dissolve state structures, nor would they diminish the power of the police and the military, both of which rely upon the state for resources and legal authority.

No doubt, there would be more turmoil if the Tea Party attained any significant political power, but all states experience turmoil, and to analogize such turmoil with a crisis of legitimacy such as the USSR experienced in the 1970s and 1980s is not very credible. One need only look at the intensity of violent protest that has taken place in the People's Republic of China in recent years, protest that goes far beyond the Tea Party, to understand that states can weather quite a lot of turmoil. And, more importantly, the Tea Party, much like the most radical elements within 1960s protest movements, cannot generate support with most middle and lower middle class Americans. It will soon fade, but there is no sign that the economic distress that afflects most Americans will, and that is far more dangerous than Tea Party participants.

But that's the point, isn't it? Harris-Lacewell, as an Obama supporter, can't malign him, and baldly state, as Frank Rich often does, that Obama's policies present the peril of greater and greater social unrest, unless abandoned. As with health care, where the Tea Party served as Rahm Emanuel's New Model Army for the defeat of tepid progressive demands for a public option and an overall redistributive proposal for the benefit of middle and lower income Americans, it now serves the purpose of creating a binary opposition between Obama and the Tea Party that permits Obama to continue to govern in the interests of transnational capital. One or the other: choose now. You are either with us or against us. Sound familiar?

Finally, Harris-Lacewell's contention that yelling obscenities and spitting on John Lewis constitutes sedition is, there is no other way to politely say it, bizarre. Offensive, yes, a low level battery, possibly. But sedition? Old school politicians of the days when large cities were governed by machines would have found this assertion comical, and rightly so. And, what about her statement that John Lewis was more than just John Lewis, he was, in this instance, an embodiment of the state?

Was I the only person who read this and thought, wait a minute, how can Lewis be an embodiment of the state, when the state that he purportedly represents has rejected most of his recommended policies for decades? I guess she meant it symbolically, but, even then, what makes Lewis more of an embodiment of the state than you and me? It's hard to answer, isn't it, because there isn't one. And, what is the importance of him being an embodiment of the state, anyway? Does this mean that Harris-Lacewell now considers flag burning a seditious act, too? Apparently, there is an of elitism that runs through her political thought, an elitism that contains a thread of the royalism of past centuries.

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