Monday, June 16, 2014

A Better Way is Possible

My wife Alma and I traveled up to Calabasas over the weekend to take a guided walking tour of the King Gillette Ranch. The ranch, situated on some 400 acres of mountainous desert chaparral, was one of the tribal areas of the Chumash peoples before Spanish colonizers arrived in the16th century.

Our guide for the tour explained how the Chumash lived intensely integrated lives with Nature. The Chumash did not have domesticated agriculture but did rely heavily on the products of the wild, among them acorns from the desert oak (used to make a kind of flour), the various varieties of sage, wild berries, and the Yucca plant (used for its sharply pointed stalks which made a type of needle).

During the walk, the guide produced from his knapsack a string of beads that he said were replicas of beads used by the Chumash. These beads, as it happens, were used as a form of currency. Most of the Chumash economy was transacted as 'barter.' For those items for which barter trade could not be arranged, beads were used to exchange value. When 'wealthy' Chumash died, the guide noted, their beads were buried with them.

When the guide said this, it came as a shock to me. Because with beads buried, the productive assets the beads as currency represented remained available for all to use.

Such a foreign way of thinking, to bury one's 'wealth' with one at death. Most Americans are unaware that the principal source of wealth in this country is not 'hard work,' or even 'chicanery.' Instead, the principal source of wealth is 'inheritance,' the passing along of accumulated assets from one generation to the next. What if, instead of that wealth being passed along, it were 'buried with its owner'? The assets that produced the wealth would still be here, still producing the stuff we want and need. But the accumulation and concentration of that wealth would last only for a single generation.

Chumash were not real big on 'owning' land, either, as I understand it. Although their tribes had an economic and social structure, organized around guilds and clans respectively, with a priesthood handling interactions with the spirit world and a tribal Chief providing executive direction, they were not a capitalist culture in any sense of the term. They were, in fact, a form of primitive communalism where the means of production were publicly controlled and where the produce of the society were shared according to tribal members' needs. (The guide related how tribal members each had their individual stores of acorns but the Chief's hut retained a larger granary from which tribal members could make withdrawals on an as-needed basis.)

I do not wish to romanticize the Chumash. No doubt they lived lives of hard work and privation. But I do think their example shows us that other ways are possible. Better ways perhaps. Einstein once famously remarked that he doubted whether modern man is any happier than his predecessors of 400 years earlier. Sure, we have more technology. We have more control. But with that technology and control comes alienation and spiritual decadence. I'd wager the average modern man or woman is no happier and indeed probably a lot more unhappy than his Chumash predecessors.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Trading with the Enemy: Imperialism, Desertion and Duty

I had the paper but I did not read it because I did not want to read about the war. I was going to forget the war. I had made a separate peace.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Wow, is this American POW story gathering steam or what? It now turns out that the American soldier who was recently exchanged for five Afghan resistance fighters in a deal brokered by the Gulf state of Qatar may have gone AWOL or even deserted prior to being taken captive by the Afghan resistance.

According to the New York Times, Bergdahl left behind a note "saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life." In the ensuing manhunt for Bergdahl, perhaps as many as six U.S. soldiers died in ambushes and firefights linked to the search for him.

New York Times story

Reading this story today prompted some memories of the last time America was involved in a prolonged imperial boondoggle of invasion and occupation: Vietnam. Then as now a few American GIs became disillusioned with the moral bankruptcy of the American cause and chose to express their resistance by deserting to the NLF or NVA forces. (I do not know how many, no doubt no more than a handful.)

The ensuing years have vindicated those GIs who deserted the U.S. military in Vietnam and I have little doubt that the years to come will vindicate Bergdahl's act of resistance as well. For now, though, the military and right-wing busily fan the flames of 'stab in the back' resentment directed at Bergdahl, his father (who grew a beard in support of his son and is now excoriated by Fox News for 'looking like the Taliban') and, most importantly, Obama and his top aides. The Praetorian Guard that our military has become since the waning days of Vietnam with its poverty draft enlistees and ticket-punching business executive officer corps, is all puffed up with outrage that Bergdahl is getting treated as a quasi-hero. He's a deserter, these mercenary soldiers of fortune claim, and should be prosecuted under the UCMJ for desertion in a time of war.

Watching the ruling class tear each other to shreds over L'Affaire Bergdahl in paroxysms of rage brings forth a delicious sort of schadenfreude. After all, Obama made the fateful choice to escalate, to 'surge,' in Afghanistan shortly after his inauguration, at the urging of NeoCons and NeoLibs in his vaunted 'team of rivals.' Bergdahl was captured in late June of 2009 . . . after Obama's inauguration. So it is fitting that the chief architect of the Afghan escalation now face the music when its chickens come home to roost.

However enjoyable the spectacle of seeing Obama and his war mongering cadre brought to account, the Bergdahl matter brings forth a more pressing question. When one finds oneself trapped in and supporting a war crime like the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, what is one's duty? Does one try to work within the system to ameliorate the effects of that crime? Or does one borrow a page from Ernest Hemingway's stoic hero Frederic Henry and resolve to quit the affair entirely or even to go over to the other side? What is our duty to resist imperialism when we ourselves are trapped inside an imperialist venture?

I do not have an answer to that question but it is one that must be asked even if no answers readily come to hand. Perhaps each of us must strive to make 'a separate peace'.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Trading with the Enemy: A Chance for Peace?

The news today is full of stories about a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Afghan resistance. In return for the U.S. freeing 5 Afghan resistance fighters held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Afghan resistance (aka "Taliban") agreed to release one U.S. captive, Bowe Bergdahl, held since his capture in 2009.

Reuters' Condensed Timeline of Events

The prisoner swap -- akin to those we hear about frequently between Israelis and Palestinians -- was mediated by the Gulf state of Qatar (home to the Al Jazeera network). Terms of the deal are that the 5 Afghan resistance fighters must stay in Qatar for a year, with Qatar making suitable assurances to that effect to the U.S. government.

The news today is also full of the predictable expressions of outrage from Republicans at this exchange. Republicans forget that one of their saints, Ronald Reagan, negotiated with Iranians to provide them with arms in return for their assistance in convincing Hezbollah in Lebanon to free American captives (the so-called 'Arms for Hostages' component of Iran-Contra). Republicans' outrage is buttressed by a law that was passed and signed into law last year requiring the Executive to give Congress 30 days' advance notice of any prisoner exchanges involving Gitmo detainees. Schadenfreude is a wonderful feeling, as President Obama signed the law with an accompanying 'Signing Statement' that he would not obey the 30 days' notice requirement necessarily, as doing so would impose a violation on his powers as Commander in Chief. When Dems protested Bush's use of 'signing statements' back in 2001-08, Republicans pooh-poohed the outrage. Now the shoe's on the other foot and it makes me happy to see the Republicans hoist with their own petard.

However, and this is a big however, we were constantly told that the Taliban were 'terrorists' and that, furthermore, the U.S. government never negotiated with 'terrorists.' Thus, we could never 'win' our war on terrorism, short of killing every terrorist on the planet. Even if one accepts that nomenclature, one must surely recognize that we negotiated with our enemies on this prisoner swap. So either the Taliban were not terrorists OR we do negotiate with terrorists when it suits us. The point is that the whole charade is revealed as the empty rhetorical gesture it always was, is and will be.

Absent the total annihilation of one's enemies, the only way to end an armed conflict is through negotiated terms. We have shown that we can negotiate with the Afghan resistance to bring about mutually beneficial prisoner swaps; now we should try to negotiate for a lasting armistice.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Whose Plantation Is It, Anyways?

The recent contretemps over the racist remarks uttered by Donald Sterling, the owner of the professional basketball team The Clippers reminded me of a long-ago quote by Anatole France:
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.
I don't know much about professional basketball and care even less. Oh, sure, I played basketball as a child and even tried out for the 6th-grade team. (My parents couldn't afford the regular commute to practices, the gear and what-not associated with the sport so, alas, my career in jockdom was rather short-lived.) So aside from catching a few moments of coverage on TV during the annual March Madness, the amount I know about basketball wouldn't fill the thimble of  a height-challenged person.

Here's what I do know. The owner Sterling is a billionaire real estate developer who happens to be white. Many of the athletes on his team are millionaires who happen to be black. And here's some of what Sterling allegedly told his mistress, one V. Stiviano:
It bother me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to? . . . . You can sleep with (black people). You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it … and not to bring them to my games.
And here's the thing: those of us who work for a living would be fired immediately were we to say 1/10 of what Sterling is alleged to have said. But when you're the plantation owner you can say anything you want and face only token consequences. At most, Sterling may be forced to sell his team? So what? He'll net several hundred million dollars from its sale. But he won't lose his livelihood. And, odds are, he'll continue on with his decadent, amoral lifestyle pretty much unscathed, unremorseful, unrepentant.

As for the Clippers team members, both minority and white? You'll forgive me if I don't give much of a shit how upset they are as they continue to rake in multi-million dollar salaries FOR PLAYING A FUCKING GAME! If they had any self respect, they would refuse to play at all. But too much money rides on keeping the plantation system up and running. Sure, the players will piss and moan about their evil plantation owner. But these players are the  'house slaves' on the plantation They've got a stake in seeing that that plantation system continues exactly as it has with, at most, a shuffling of personalities at the top.

Sterling may think he owns the plantation and, most of the time, his house slaves will do little to rock that comfortable world view. Lord knows, Sterling has his overseers, his Los Angeles Police Department, Sheriff's Department, FBI, NSA and so on, to preserve and safeguard his status as the plantation's owner. But every once in awhile, the veil slips and we see that the plantation owner and his house slaves only derive their unjust and obscene privileges from the value they extract from those doing the actual work to keep the plantation running.

Meanwhile, in the real world, those of us who must work for a living must try to be decent to one another, to look past non-essential characteristics such as the amount of melanin produced by our genetic makeup and manifested in our skin to more fundamental qualities like honor and integrity. to what we share that unites us. It's a constant struggle and, Lord knows, I've had more than my share of lapses over the years. But if we aren't struggling for this, then why struggle at all? When we are ready, we will come together to overthrow this plantation system once and for all. And then we will watch the Sterlings of the world tremble in fear..

Author's Note: In using the metaphor of plantation and slaves, I meant in no way to equate the situation today to the abomination in American history known as chattel slavery, intended never to diminish the suffering of its millions of victims, nor to demean in any way the heroic sacrifices made by actual slaves before 1865

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Has Obama Committed an Impeachable Offense?

I was talking with my wife this morning about the dust-up between the CIA and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (chaired by California Senator Dianne Feinstein) that came to a head earlier this week when Feinstein, in the well of the Senate, denounced the CIA for searching her Committee's computers without a warrant to find out the source of the supposed leak of the so-called Panetta Review to her Committee.

In the process of reviewing all the developments that had taken place, I happened to mention that the McClatchy newspaper chain reported separately this past week that Obama's CIA, apparently with Obama's blessings, has withheld from the Committee over the past five years some 9,000 pages of  documents that pertain to the CIA's secret torture programs from 2001-04.  "If proven," I said, "that allegation in the McClatchy story clearly rises to the level of an impeachable offense."

The McClatchy Story

"You know," I continued, "they impeached Nixon over a lot less." I immediately corrected myself. "Well, they didn't actually impeach Nixon. Nixon resigned before the full House voted on Articles of Impeachment, because Senator Barry Goldwater told Nixon that, impeachment in the House now certain, Nixon did not retain enough support in the Senate to survive the resulting trial. Nixon  may have wanted to preserve his pension benefits by resigning."

My wife said, "Oh, I wish you would write about this so I could share it with everyone on my Facebook list."

Being a dutiful husband, I had no choice but to accede to her wishes.

Thinking about Nixon's impeachment and the long chain of events known collectively as 'Watergate' brought back some vivid memories, of Sam Ervin's Committee, of Judge John Sirica, of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the Saturday Night Massacre, of Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein, of Rosemary Woods and the missing 17-minutes of tape. And Tricky Dick himself. I had just finished my freshman year of high school and would be starting my sophomore year that coming September of 1974, so I listened to these events on the radio - my family not owning a television - with a morbid fascination, neigh obsession, that only an adolescent teenage male in a persistently rebellious state can muster.

I remember the House Judiciary Committee considered several proposed Articles of Impeachment, among them the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia, the obstruction of justice enveloped in Nixon's instructions to his aides to use the CIA to interfere with the FBI's inquiry, the abuse of power contained in ordering Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office burglarized to try to get dirt on Ellsberg. Eventually, the House Judiciary Committee settled upon Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Justice as the principal Articles of Impeachment.

So has Obama's stiff-arm of the Senate Select Committee for the past five years risen to the level of an impeachable offense? And is it worse than what Nixon stood accused of? I must tentatively but sadly answer "yes" to both counts.

Article II, Section 4 of the United States Constitution provides that "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." Historically, this has meant that the House hears the case for impeachment and votes it up or down. A vote in favor of impeachment - analogous to a grand jury indictment in criminal court - results in a subsequent trial being held in the Senate, upon the conclusion of which the impeached official is either acquitted and remains in office or convicted on a 2/3 vote and removed from office.

These procedural niceties aside, what exactly constitutes an impeachable offense? Bribery and Treason are fairly unambiguous but what does "other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" mean? For an answer to that, we should turn to then-Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan who stated, a few years before the main events of Watergate had transpired, that "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers [it] to be at a given moment in history.” (Ironically, Ford said this on April 15, 1970, just as Nixon, Kissinger and other goombahs were ginning up the secret land invasion of Cambodia that would lead to the tragedy of Kent State and Jackson State Universities.) Was Ford articulating the -- gasp! -- secular humanist notion of 'moral relativism'? Was the Republican Ford of the party of  'Family Values' a covert apostle of situational ethics?  Hardly. Instead, what Ford seems to be getting at is that an impeachable offense and the impeachment process is always fundamentally political in nature, relying as it does on notions of a 'majority vote' and so on (as opposed to a criminal trial where a guilty vote must be unanimous in order to convict).

So, at its most base level, Obama's decision to allow the CIA to withhold 9,000+ documents from the Senate Committee could easily be deemed an impeachable offense by any House determined to check the powers of the Executive Branch. If such is the case, then why hasn't a rabid Republican House already impeached Obama? Leaving aside the crass political consideration that House Republicans will never impeach Obama for actions they would like a Republican President to have the power to do and thus do not want to establish a precedent that could be applied to future Republican presidents, there are other reasons why the House may not have impeached Obama yet. At this point, Obama would be unlikely to be convicted in any Senate trial where Democrats have a majority, even though his alleged offense has been against the Senate. At this point in his second term, Obama is still personally liked by most Americans, even though increasing numbers are beginning to disapprove of his conduct in office. Even with that mounting disapproval, though, I suspect few Americans yet believe that Obama has committed offenses worthy of the label of 'high crimes and misdemeanors'.

Here I must disagree. As Charles Pierce put it in a magisterial column in Esquire's The Politics Blog this past week, "By the Constitution, this isn't even a hard call. The Senate has every legal right to investigate what was done in the name of the American people during the previous decade. It has every legal right to every scrap of information relating to its investigation, and the CIA has an affirmative legal obligation to cooperate. Period." To the extent that President Obama has been ordering the CIA, or authorizing the CIA, not to comply with its obligation to cooperate with the Senate, Obama is abusing the powers of his office and obstructing justice. That, my friends, constitutes a 'high crime and misdemeanor.' That, my friends, is an impeachable offense.

The Charles Pierce column

Ah, but is it worse than what Nixon did? I would argue that it is not as evil as the secret bombing of Cambodia, one of the high crimes of which Nixon stood accused, since that crime comprised within it what the Nuremberg trials had established as the 'supreme crime against the peace.' But the secret Cambodia bombing was not an Article of Impeachment voted out of Committee. (Maybe Dems wanted their own presidents to be able to bomb other countries secretly without congressional approval or oversight? Nah, can't be, because Dems have principles. Right  . . . and if you believe that I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.) So, of the articles that were voted out of Committee, namely abuse of power and obstruction of justice, are they less serious than Obama's offense?

I think so, because Nixon abused his powers to single out another political party and individuals opposed to his policies in southeast Asia. But Obama is abusing his powers to obstruct the workings of a co-equal branch of government. Co-equal - that means that the Legislature is the equal of the Executive, not its inferior. In ordering the CIA to withhold documents from a co-equal branch with constitutionally-ordained oversight responsibilities, Obama undermines the very fabric of our constitutional order. That is a far more serious offense than anything with which Nixon was ever charged.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Grey Lady Pimps The Ukraine Crisis

It's a fun pastime among the cognoscenti to bash The New York Times for lapses in its journalistic practice or ethics. Such efforts grew more significant after Judy Miller helped Cheney's cohort pimp the war in Iraq on bogus claims that Iraq was seeking uranium yellowcake from Niger. Then there was the case of Jayson Blair, the Times reporter who fabricated stories and quotes out of whole cloth and was unmasked in the summer of 2003, around the same time Miller's journalistic treason was coming unmasked.

I had been late to that Times-bashing party and feared I might never get my chance, seeing as how the Times charges subscription fees now once one exceeds a monthly limit of story views online. With the crisis in Ukraine unfolding, I had been going to the Times'  front page each morning to see whether I needed to prepare my wife and I for impending nuclear Armageddon. For a couple days there, I was seriously sweating it. On this past Monday and Tuesday, though, my concerns had begun to abate somewhat as Crimea's de facto secesssion from Ukraine seemed on the verge of becoming de jure and, two days ahead of a scheduled referendum by Crimea's residents, all that remained was for the U.S. and its EU allies to bleat about how Crimean secession violated 'international law' or some such nonsense. (See my earlier posts.)

So it was with some dismay this morning that I saw, on the left-hand rail of the online edition of the Times, the  following:

"Obama Raises the Stakes With Russia Over Ukraine"

The one-paragraph blurb was also alarming:

In a meeting with Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, interim prime minister of Ukraine, President Obama vowed retaliation if Moscow follows through with threats to annex Crimea.

Them are pretty strong words, 'vowed' and 'retaliation' and 'threats.'

So, wondering if we needed to pack the car and start our departure from LA to less-urban climes, I decided to burn one of my free-story allotment to find out how close the nuclear clock stood to midnight.

The story proper

I was relieved upon clicking to find a far less incendiary headline above the story proper:

"Obama Makes Diplomatic Push to Defuse Crisis in Ukraine"

The first and second paragraphs of the story proper also told a much less anxiety-inducing tale:
WASHINGTON — President Obama and Ukraine’s interim prime minister opened the door on Wednesday to a political solution that could lead to more autonomy for Crimea if Russian troops withdraw, as the United States embarked on a last-ditch diplomatic effort to defuse a crisis that reignited tensions between East and West.

The tentative feeler came as Mr. Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to London to meet with his Russian counterpart on Friday, two days before a Russian-supported referendum in Crimea on whether to secede from Ukraine.
The striking and obvious dis-connect between the headline and lead-in on the front page threatening war and the headline and lead-in of the story proper reporting on diplomatic efforts beg me to ask this question: is the Times hyping a story merely to drive traffic to its site? Is the Times stating that there will be U.S. "retaliation" if Russia carries through with "threats" when its own reporters are reporting no such thing?

Well, it makes sense. I've heard stories, make that "internet gossip," that the Times is in grievous financial shape, losing money and flirting with bankruptcy protection. Its readership has declined substantially, part of the larger shift in audience preferences that has killed off the traditional newspaper industry in my lifetime. But perhaps part also of a general distaste for the shoddy journalistic practices of a vehicle that would give the lies of Judy Miller front-page prominence, that would allow a new reporter to sling along its entire editorial staff for so many months on utter air and trifles and that, now, apparently, will publish inflammatory headlines bearing very little connection to the stories it itself publishes. Is the Times really that desperate for readers? Is the Times so lacking in editors who can write headlines and paraphrase accurately a story's contents?

To all readers of the Times, I say 'beware.'

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ukraine: When the Imperial Mask Slips

 You have to give it to the New York Times' writers. Only they could write a paragraph that seemingly cancels itself out within the very paragraph itself.
Although President Obama has made it clear that the United States does not want to escalate the Crimean crisis, the Pentagon stepped up training operations in Poland and sent fighter jets to patrol the skies over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, three former Soviet republics with sizable populations of ethnic Russians.
New York Times article

Let me make sure I've got this straight. At the same time that Obama is making it clear that the U.S. does not want to escalate the 'Crimean crisis,' he's escalating the Crimean crisis!

And how exactly has Obama 'made it clear'? With clarity like this, one hopes that Obama never seeks to 'muddy the waters.'

The article goes on to report that those dastardly Russkies may suspend provisions of the START treaty calling for a regime of live, on-site verifications. All to retaliate against the U.S. for its imposition of sanctions. Of course, no mention is made anywhere in the article that the U.S. had previously promised NOT TO EXPAND NATO's SPHERE OF INFLUENCE EASTWARD.

Yeah, that's right. Back when the USSR was dissolving, U.S. President George H.W. Bush promised Soviet Premier Gorbachev that there would be no eastward expansion if Gorby allowed the USSR to dissolve peacefully, a promise we promptly proceeded to break starting with Clinton's administration and proceeding steadily thereafter.

I really don't know why anyone takes anything the U.S. government says seriously any longer. Aside from the very real fact that the lunatic NeoCons and Russo-phobes have control of a huge thermonuclear arsenal and would no doubt use it were their grip on power to face existential threat.

All I can do is say that I support fully President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev and the DUMA on this matter. Putin should only use his nuclear arsenal if the existence of the Russian Federation itself is threatened. But President Putin should take no other option off the table in this tit-for-tat war of escalation.

I'm so angry about the Times' prevaricating and propagandist coverage that I am not going to quote it further. Instead, here's Reuters' rather dry reportage of the Russian riposte.

Russia may suspend nuclear arms inspections set down in a treaty with the United States in reaction to Western sanctions over Ukraine, Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed defence ministry source on Saturday as saying.
The source said the ministry was studying the possibility of suspending on-site inspections agreed in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between Moscow and Washington.
 Reuters article

Friday, March 7, 2014

Crimea, Ukraine, Obama and International Law

So yesterday, according to the McClatchy newspaper chain's reportage, Obama bleated from the White House briefing room that the Crimean parliament's near-unanimous vote -- 8 abstentions but no, repeat ZERO, votes "Nyet" -- to secede from Ukraine violated Ukraine's constitution and 'international law.'

McClatchy Story

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as noted 18th-century wit Samuel Johnson had it, then one could also say that 'international law' is the last refuge of a charlatan. Obama remained somewhat vague on exactly which statute of international law Crimea was in violation. And well he should, since international law, such as it is, gives mixed messages about the rights of regions within nation states to secede. Recent precedent reveals that Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia back in 1991, following a path remarkably similar to that being pursued by Crimea -- legislative approval followed by popular referendum. And while France and the UK screeched then about how Croatia was violating international law, Germany approved secession and recognized the newly independent Croatia. In a crowning fit of historical irony, one of the first nations to recognize Croatia was . . .. you guessed it . . . . Ukraine! (You can't make this shit up.)

It's another whole level of irony for Obama to cite international law to chide any nation or peoples. Because, you see, prior to March 20, 2003, the supreme international law was the U.N. Charter. You know that pesky little agreement we helped draft and to which we were original signatories back in 1947, the document that says that, absent an imminent threat, only the U.N. Security Council can authorize military action. Well, on March 20, 2003, the U.S. decided it was no longer bound by international law and invaded and occupied the sovereign nation of Iraq without the prior approval of the U.N. On March 20, 2003, the U.S. stuck a knife in the back of 'international law' and all that remains of that heretofore glorious institution now is a rotting corpse, fit to intone hollow hypocritical obsequies over but not much else. That the lawyer Obama now cites 'international law' introduces a whole new level of hilarity into the discussion. Where did he get his law degree, out of some Cracker Jack box?

This whole kerfuffle over Crimea's desire to secede from an anti-Russian fascist Ukraine reminds me of a debate my father - a died-in-the-wool Jarhead -- and I - a rebellious teenage punk at the time -- used to have.

"The South had a right to secede from the Union," I would announce rebelliously.

"Of course they had a right," my father would reply, "provided they had the military force to back it up!"

In this case, bleating about 'international law' -- dead and in the funeral home since at least March 20, 2003 -- is a false canard. Does Crimea have the military or allies sufficient to enforce its right to secede? Of course it does. Is there any 'international law' that prevents Crimea from seceding. Of course not, and Obama would do well to stop citing it, lest his obvious hypocrisy make him the utter laughing stock of the entire civilized community of nations.

If there's any law at play now, it's the 'law of the jungle,' a jungle in which Russia is a tiger, Ukraine a weak gazelle waiting to be culled from the herd but still stomping its hooves in one last futile, defiant gesture, and Obama and the U.S. little more than paper tigers.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ukraine: Should Progressives (Socialists) Support Russian Military Intervention?

Another day, another fascinating debate on Being A Socialist which has rapidly become my favorite FB hangout, a page I check in on regularly to test my own thoughts, feeling and knowledge against the larger socialist community. Nothing like a good old-fashioned sectarian slug-fest between Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists to get the brain cells firing on all cylinders and the blood pumping at hyper speed. And yet the stakes could not be higher for Ukraine and for workers worldwide.

So yesterday one of the site's administrators posted a provocative thread:

Anyone who supports the idea that Russia invading Ukraine would be a good thing and would, "stop Fascism" has no idea what Fascism even is, nor how to fight it.

"I will take the most simple and obvious example. In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers!" -Leon Trotsky

You dont fight Fascism by tailing Imperialists, all you will have to show for that is, a new Fascist. You fight Fascism by making Socialist Revolution.
The poster (a site administrator named 'Ben') believes that only workers organized amongst and by themselves can move socialism and a socialist revolution forward.

A few words about context for my readers who have not been following developments in Ukraine closely. (A word to the wise: in my opinion, developments in Ukraine constitute a story you should be following closely, as though your very lives and futures depend upon it.)  Last weekend, the democratically elected Ukrainian government of President Yanukovych was overthrown by an uprising spearheaded by fascist militia and irregulars. Yanukovych subsequently fled to regions unknown (probably eastern Ukraine or Crimea), whence he issued a video denouncing what he termed a 'coup' as the product of 'bandits' and 'fascists.' Yanukovych headed a party called "The Party of Regions" and its parliamentary members also fled Ukraine's capital Kiev in complete and utter disarray.

Following the overthrow of Yanukovych and the flight of Party of Regions deputies, the remnants of Ukraine's parliament proceeded to rule by decree, naming leading Fatherland Party dignitary Turchinov acting president, releasing jailed Fatherland Party figure and former PM Tymoshenko from a prison hospital where, various groups alleged, she was being held as a political prisoner, and formally impeaching Yanukovych and issuing 'arrest warrants' for him and other high-ranking members of his administration.

As the weekend turned into the week, though, questions began to be raised about various figures behind the overthrow (which I'm going to call a 'Putsch,' given its unconstitutional nature), specifically the gun-toting and Molotov Cocktail-throwing forces that had battled with Ukraine's gendarmerie in the days and weeks before Yanukovych was deposed. During those battles, some 100 protesters were killed by police but the Ukrainian police were targets of armed assault by members of Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) and members of far-right party Svoboda. Reports began to emerge of attacks by members of these extreme right militia on Ukraine's 300,000 Jews, its independent trade unionists and, most importantly, its ethnic Russian minority population.

By the end of the work-week, most people on the Left had begun to concede that the Putsch was brought about by fascist (Sovboda) and neo-Nazi (Right Sector) forces, although the degree of popular support for the Putsch remained an item of hot contention.

Enough context. Ukraine for reasons of history dating back before the USSR's creation but extending into its post-Stalin days, consists of a Ukrainian-speaking segment in Western Ukraine and a predominantly Russian-speaking minority in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. The Putschists have on numerous occasions declared their enmity to Russia and to the Russian people. On numerous occasions they have loudly declared their enmity to Ukraine's Jewish population (currently some 300,000) and to the Jewish faith in general. Finally, they have declared their enmity to trade unions and trade unionists.

Russia is no longer a great force for socialist change or revolution. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia (and the larger Russian Federation) has reverted to a fairly primitive form of state capitalism epitomized on one hand by the creation of these immensely wealthy Russian oligarchs and on the other hand a citizenry that has faced enormous poverty and privation at the same time. Let's be clear. Russia is no workers' paradise. At the same time, however, Russia has faced catastrophic internal conflict (in Chechnya and other Muslim areas) and an increasingly aggressive EU and NATO who constantly seek to expand eastward, even into core provinces like Georgia and, now, Ukraine. Because behind this Putsch stood a gaggle of EU and US interests egging on the protesters, failing to denounce the fascists and even threatening Russia with grave consequences should it intervene.

So the issue as framed by Being a Socialist is that Russian military intervention in Ukraine would not defeat the fascist forces ascendant there but merely usher in another fascist ("a new Fascist").

I disagree.

Russia is capitalist and may, under Putin, even harbor some imperial ambitions. But Russia, under Putin, is not fascist by any stretch of the imagination. There is no one-party rule in Russia's Duma, there are no coordinated race- and gender-based attacks in Russian society (although homophobia has been and remains a pressing human rights issue). There is no coordinated attack upon Jews in Russia, no coordinated attack upon workers, upon the very idea of democracy.

But in the Ukrainian Putschists' ranks these ideas are dominant, starting with vile anti-semitism and virulent Russo-phobia. Certain figures among the Putschists have uttered vile attacks against Western liberal ideas AND against Soviet and Russian egalitarian ideas, asserting instead some idea of Ukrainian racial superiority as a counter to both. In short, the Putschists are fascist and even (in the case of Right Sector) neo-Nazi.

The Facebook post that got this ball rolling uses Trotsky's example of the UK intervention in Brazil a century earlier to assers that both sides (the EU\US Axis  and the Russian Federation) are equally bad and thus to rely on Russian military intervention to smash Ukraine's fascist spearhead will not produce any benefits and will merely replicate the existing order under new foreign leadership. Instead, this post argues, the focus should be on building a Socialist revolution from purely Ukrainian proletariat resources.

Leaving aside the relevant question of whether it is fair to equate Ukraine with Brazil and Russia with the 19th-century UK, this Trotskyist position ignores the fact that the crisis is happening now and that there currently exists no organized left in Ukraine around which a purely Ukrainian resistance could organize. It also leaves aside the fact that the Russian and Jewish minorities in Ukraine have legitimate fears, based on Ukraine's past and the behavior of some of its current actors and that no other external power is prepared to come to their assistance. In other words, Russia is all they've got.

No one except sadists and war fetishists ever thinks war is a 'good thing'. But sometimes one must reluctantly support war (or, in this case, Russian military intervention) against a greater evil, in this case the  resurgence of European fascism and the further eastward expansion of the NATO\US empire. Russia has very legitimate national security concerns rooted in its distant and not-so-distant past and has an obligation to defend those interests against a NATO\US proxy on its very doorstep. As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, the U.S. Civil War was a horrible, barbarous affair and yet logic and simple human decency require us to support the alliance between North and West against the South, even as we simultaneously acknowledge that war's barbarity and horror.

Already today, reports are surfacing that Russian troops (or Crimean militia in tune with the Russian military) have occupied two airports in the Crimea. Additional reports have surfaced that Russian forces from the naval base at the Crimean Black Sea port of Sevastopol are patrolling that city's streets. Boom! And so begins the distant and faint drumbeat of war, a percussive echo that harkens back 100 years to another clash of imperialist powers on the European land mass. If was is to come, let it be swift and its outcome - the smashing of Svoboda and Right Sector - certain. If war comes, let its victor (almost certainly the Russian Federation) show mercy to the non-fascist vanquished. And let us hope that workers use this war as an occasion to make further gains against the ravages of global capitalism-imperialism.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ukraine: Where Should Progressives (Socialists) Stand?

There's a fascinating debate going on about Ukraine at a Facebook page I frequent called 'Being a Socialist'. The debate consists of two questions (and subsidiary questions branching out of each):

1) How do revolutionaries push forward an independent socialist alternative, in the midst of a civil war where both sides are backed by reactionary imperialists?


2) how do revolutionaries recognize which side to side with in different circumstances?

In Ukraine currently, there are at least two sides: that of the Putschists, whose parties Fatherland, UDAR and Svoboda are backed by the EU and US and that of the democratically-elected government (now deposed) whose party, the Party of Regions, is backed by Russia.

So question #1 asks us as revolutionaries whether it is possible to create an independent socialist alternative when both sides (Russia and EU\US) are imperialist. Further complicating matters is that one axis of this imperialist standoff is using fascist and neo-Nazi shock troops (from Svoboda and Right Center) to seize power from the legitimate government and upend the democratic process. But that democratic government is supported by the other side of the imperialist standoff.

So in a struggle between two imperialist powers (the US and Russia), what position should Socialist revolutionaries take? Or should Socialist revolutionaries declare, like Mercutio, "a plague on both your houses" and not have anything to do with either side?

There is no easy answer to this question, which may be why it is so fascinating to me. While my normal proclivity is to respond that Socialists must never side with any bourgeois society that uses fascists and neo-Nazis, I also recognize that EU\US democracy may be slightly more advanced with regard to certain  interests of the working class than the Russian autocracy. Is that slight advantage enough to lead me to set aside my moral scruples to make common cause with the side relying upon fascists? Not on your life. So the only question that remains for me is whether the need to smash European fascism and neo-fascism is important enough for me to set aside my scruples about backing autocracy. I have not yet fully decided although I am deeply sympathetic to Russian interests in Ukraine, based on history and demographics.

Question #2 poses a more interesting philosophical problem which is what method revolutionaries should use to decide with whom, if anyone, to side in these imperialist squabbles. Some argue that smashing fascism should be the top priority, which makes backing the Party of Regions and Russia logically follow. Others argue that both sides are capitalist-imperialist which argues for not taking either side. Finally, there are a couple voices arguing that western-style imperialism (the EU\US variety) is more advanced in terms of 'internationalism, liberalism and democracy' than the autocratic traditions underneath the Russian Federation.

Given my background in modern European history, I find myself drawn to the first position: that smashing European fascism should be the highest priority. Thus, even though the deposed government party Party of Regions and its leader Yanukovych represent the interests of a decadent bourgeois state, they are better for workers' long-term interests than a fascist regime and so I support Russia and the Party of Regions and oppose the Putschists as anathema to the working class' interests.

My answer to question #2 is that we must first determine which 'side' in a battle between imperialist forces better serves the long-term interests of the working class. Given m background in history, I am always looking for historical analogues and here, the example of the U.S. Civil War is instructive. In that case, as well, there were two sides, one bourgeois-capitalist and the other bourgeois-slave. Neither side ideal, each side parasitical to the output of the working class. But one side (the North) clearly better for workers than the other side (the South). Once we have determined which side better advances the interests of the working class, we can then pick a side or choose to remain neutral on the issue. But we need to analyze and determine objectively which side is better for the working class before making that decision.

This fascinating, all-important debate is far from over and ongoing. It can be found here:

Being a Socialist Facebook Page

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ukraine and America's Unkept Promise(s)

The United States of America has a piss-poor record when it comes to keeping its promises. Whether it be promises made to the indigenous peoples regarding their vested rights in the land, promises made to newly-freed African Americans about '40 acres and a mule,' promises to the Vietnamese to pay reparations (politely termed 'compensation' in the historical documents) or promises to close the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the U.S.A. can be trusted about as far as you can throw it. Which is to say, not very far at all.

During all the tumult in Ukraine over the weekend, few paused to reflect upon yet another broken promise in a long trail of American perfidy. Few paused to remember that President George H.W. Bush promised Mikhail Gorbachev that if Gorbachev allowed the USSR to dissolve peacefully, NATO would seek no expansion into Eastern Europe. 25 years later the record is clear: Gorbachev kept his promise, but the USA has welched on its word yet again.

This time, the consequences could not be more serious for those with an understanding of the region and its history. Russia quite rightly can regard Ukraine (which has its origins in the word 'border') as vital to its national security interests, far more than the U.S.A. can regard, say, Alaska as vital to its national security interests. In history and demographics, Russia can with no small justification claim that Ukraine is the western-most province of Russia.

But over the weekend, we had to listen to the American National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, bleat that the U.S. government "supports the Ukrainian people" (as though the prominence of unabashedly proud fascists among the coup instigators is not readily apparent) and listen to her lecture Putin on 'grave consequences,' should he intervene there militarily.

Well, if I were the Ukrainian people, I'd be very leery of believing anything issuing from an American official's mouth. Instead, I'd be remembering how the British promised to support the Czechs before agreeing to give Hitler the Sudetenland. Because, see, once you've broken one promise, no one is required to give credence to any further of your promises. You are instead revealed as risible realpolitkers whose machinations would have Bismarck recoiling in disgust, once he stopped laughing at the absurdity of our hypocritical pretensions.

Note: I am indebted to Eric Margolis for reminding me of Bush Sr.'s promise to Gorbachev 25-some years ago. Margolis' column is a must-read, in my opinion:

Margolis' Column

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

When Ya Gotta Go . . .

So you're an undocumented worker out and about seeking work and one day the urge to purge comes over you. Better hope you're not living and working in Arizona. If Republicans there have their way, it may soon become illegal for anyone in the state 'illegally' to relieve him- or herself in a public restroom.

You can't make this shit (npi) up:
An Arizona Republican, Carl Seel, recently introduced legislation that would make it a crime for a ‘person in the state illegally’ to use any public resource or facility. This would include sidewalks, roads, parks and yes, even public restrooms.
How Low Can Republicans Go?

Representative Carl Seel's Legislative District 20, the Arizona Capitol Times notes tersely, "is located entirely in Maricopa County and includes parts of Phoenix and Glendale. It is bounded on the north by State Rte. 101, on the south by Butler Dr., and on the east by Cave Creek Rd. The district’s western boundary is near 75th Ave. Minorities represent 32.1 percent of the district’s total ..."

Since Representative Seel's proposal deserves more than mere vocal support, I would encourage all undocumented workers living within his district to familiarize themselves with the location of  his personal residence and make their way to his front or rear lawns to show their, ahem, solid-arity in person.

If you need directions to Representative Seel's residence, you can email him at or phone him at (602) 926-3018 to get directions. The U.S Postal Service also makes a wonderful method to deliver expressions of your support the good old-fashioned way. You might wish to call ahead to confirm the best address or, if you feel an urgent need to show your support immediately, you can send your expressions of support to:
Arizona House of Representatives
1700 W. Washington
Room 341
Phoenix, AZ 85007
If, sadly, you're not one of the wealthy 'taker' undocumented workers with access to a taxpayer-funded mobile phone, internet access or postage stamps, I would suggest the front or rear lawn of any Republican in the state would suffice. After all, we're all in this together.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What Is To Be Done? (What Is To Be Done)

A couple weeks ago, various progressive media outlets published the transcript of a speech -- "The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies" -- that social critic Chris Hedges delivered in my neighborhood of Santa Monica back in October, 2013. The speech is a remarkable tour de force that centers around Melville's Moby Dick and uses the voyage and quest at the center of that novel as a metaphor for the various crises that global capitalism has both created and continues to hurtle towards. I wish to recommend Hedges' remarkable speech (essay) in the strongest terms possible to my readership here.

Midway through his address, Hedges begins to talk about what he thinks we must do:

We must develop a revolutionary theory that is not reliant on the industrial or agrarian muscle of workers. Most manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and, of those that remain, few are unionized. Our family farms have been destroyed by agro-businesses. Monsanto and its Faustian counterparts on Wall Street rule. They are steadily poisoning our lives and rendering us powerless. The corporate leviathan, which is global, is freed from the constraints of a single nation-state or government. Corporations are beyond regulation or control. Politicians are too anemic, or more often too corrupt, to stand in the way of the accelerating corporate destruction. This makes our struggle different from revolutionary struggles in industrial societies in the past. Our revolt will look more like what erupted in the less industrialized Slavic republics, Russia, Spain and China and uprisings led by a disenfranchised rural and urban working class and peasantry in the liberation movements that swept through Africa and Latin America. The dispossessed working poor, along with unemployed college graduates and students, unemployed journalists, artists, lawyers and teachers, will form our movement. This is why the fight for a higher minimum wage is crucial to uniting service workers with the alienated college-educated sons and daughters of the old middle class. Bakunin, unlike Marx, considered déclassé intellectuals essential for successful revolt.

That paragraph has been fermenting in my mind ever since I read it. (I did not hear Hedges speak in person.) What does Hedges mean when he talks about a 'revolutionary theory'? I am no great 'theorist' myself, although I acknowledge theory's vital importance. I do not have a wide knowledge of all the various theories of 'revolution' that have come before, so as to evaluate the wisdom in Hedges' remark. Perhaps we do not need to develop a revolutionary theory. Perhaps we already have one that will suffice.

Hedges elaborates that older revolutionary theories were developed for agrarian and, later, industrial populations of workers, both of which he suggests have largely disappeared from the American scene. Hedges thinks we need a new 'revolutionary theory' to serve the interests of the 'working poor' and the unemployed intelligentsia (of whom I am currently one).

Hedges moves on from this issue in fairly short order, but I was again reminded of this paragraph yesterday when I came across remarks made by billionaire Sam Zell, chairperson of the vulture capitalist group Equity Group Investments. Zell was responding to a question from Bloomberg's Betty Liu about the Tom Perkins' letter last week to the Wall Street Journal where Perkins compared the current plight of the global 1% to the plight of Jews during Kristallnacht.

That letter by Perkins (and the responses to it) are grounds that have been thoroughly plowed and I see no need to rehash them. No, what brought me back to Hedges' speech was this little zinger by Zell:
The problem is that the world and this country should not talk about envy of the 1 percent. It should talk about emulating the 1 percent . . . The 1 percent work harder. (Emphasis added.)

Think about that throw-away line for a second. Allow it to sink in. Does this not smack you across the face with its arrogance and paternalism? Does this not make you furious? This is how the 1% think of the rest of us: "The 1 percent work harder."

When I read this, I remembered back to my days growing up on a dairy farm in Southwest Missouri, of baling hay under a hot, sweltering August sun and storing that hay in barns roofed with corrugated tin where the heat radiated from the structure like some Dante-esque oven. I remembered getting up at 4 a.m. on icily cold frosty January mornings to sit in an unheated barn and milk cows by hand while my toes slowly froze within my boots. But Zell also made me remember that my 'work' was as nothing compared to the work of the adult farm workers in whose presence I lived, my Dad who had to drive 20 miles into town to work at a local manufacturing plant because the farm didn't earn enough for us to survive, our neighbor who died of a heart attack trying to hand-deliver a baby calf whose mother was having problems during a tumultuous rainstorm, of one of the local magnates who seemingly worked himself non-stop and sold insurance on the side to help make ends meet.

Does the 1% 'work harder' than those agricultural workers? Do its CEOS deserve to earn 500 times what the average employee earns because those CEOs 'work harder'?

After the fury that boiled in my blood had subsided to a low simmer, I came back to the Hedges' excerpt quoted above and its call. Surely something must be done about attitudes such as Zell's (and Perkins'). Are we going to let such comments and such attitudes stand? What is to be done?

As soon as I asked myself that question, an answer proposed itself, born out of the syntax of that question, indeed a transformation of that sentence from question to statement. One could almost say the question answers itself. A little over a century ago, Lenin grappled with similar ruling class arrogance and decadence and working class suffering and despair and published a pamphlet. Lenin's 1902 pamphlet, ironically, was also titled "What Is To Be Done?" and, in it, he argued that workers will not gain political power merely through battling with employers over economic issues. Instead, Lenin proposed, workers need a vanguard party of revolutionaries ready to propagate a 'revolutionary' consciousness among workers and, when conditions are ripe, to seize power on workers' behalf.

Here is another answer that proposes itself from a revolutionary (Emma Goldman) more militant than I can ever dream of being:
Demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.
So, to answer Lenin's century-old question and the question in my title, to rise to the challenge Hedges sets us, here is what is to be done: seize the assets of anyone with personal assets worth more than $1 million and put those assets to work for the common good. Seize the assets of any estate valued at more than $500,000 and put those assets to work for the common good. That's being merciful to Zell and other members of his entitled parasite class. They need look back no further than a century to observe what happens to other parasites whom history does not treat so kindly.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why, oh why, would anyone take food from hungry children?

One of my Facebook friends, Sara Peterson, reminded me this morning about the Stanford Prison Experiment, a psychological experiment conducted in the early 1970s at Stanford U. The wikipedia article does an excellent job of summarizing the experiment:

Twenty-four male students out of seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In discussing the Stanford Experiment with Sara, I was in turn reminded of another set of experiments conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram. Again, the wikipedia entry summarizes Milgram's experiment well:

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.
The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular question at that particular time: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" The experiments have been repeated many times in the following years with consistent results within differing societies, although not with the same percentages across the globe."
. . . .
Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
The Milgram Experiment 
My friend Sara concluded that, based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, "there may just be something innately cruel in the human animal when it is in a position of power." I did not think to mention to Sara at the time that there is a wonderful line in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure when Isabella complains about the Duke's abuse of his powers: "Oh, it is excellent to have a giant's strength. But it is tyrannous to use it as a giant." That great humanist Shakespeare understood quite a bit about human nature and how power can corrupt, but even he probably would have been shocked at the actions of the Uintah Elementary School officials in Salt Lake City who took food away from children without adequate funds on account to pay for it.

As Sara reminded me today, "
The real problem is trying to figure out why that happens."

Milgram found that most people will become Eichmanns given the right set of cultural cues. In Milgram's case, those cultural cues were in the form of a supposedly scientific authority issuing orders in the name of science. In this case, a culture that says that money is more important that feeding young children combines with a culture that says employees must never under any circumstances challenge or question the orders of their superiors to produce a vignette from which all but the least squeamish recoil in horror.

And yet I would challenge my readership to ask themselves this. When is the last time that you yourself were faced with an order you considered morally reprehensible with which you nonetheless held your nose and complied? If you are being honest with yourself, I'd wager it has been far more recent than you would care to admit. Our culture behaves with the utmost brutality and scorn to those who, like Melville's Bartleby, would simply "prefer not to." And thus, we come full circle to that very wise 17th-century epigrammatist La Rochefoucauld's observation that 'Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.' After we have paid our tributes, perhaps we can use the Uintah episode as an opportunity for self scrutiny, an opportunity to resolve that we shall never henceforth take food from hungry children.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Eichmann in Salt Lake City or the Banality of School Lunches

So I spent quite a bit of time today getting caught up on the story of the 40 children at the Uintah Elementary School in Salt Lake City who had their lunches taken from them and thrown out because the parents did not have enough funds in the kids' school lunch accounts.

It's a sordid story revealing, as it does, the seamy underbelly of early 21st-Century America.

A couple observations: here's how the rocket scientists at Uintah (or maybe the Salt Lake City School District at large) ran their cafeteria line. They let the children go through the line and get a tray full of hot lunch. Only when the children reached the cash register would the cashier or other functionary determine that the child did not have adequate funds. At that point, the food  would be taken from the child and replaced with a piece of fruit and carton of milk. But here's the kicker: the food would be thrown out in the presence of the children. Supposedly there's a law that says the food has to be discarded and can't be given to any other child. Just like there's a law that says the child has to have adequate funds. It's all legal, you see.

There's so much wrong with this vignette that I hardly know where to start. I think it is the ritualization of cruelty that grabs my attention, the fact that students -- 10 and 11 years old apparently -- are allowed to proceed through the line as if nothing is amiss, only to find out, at the end of the line, that the repo man stands ready, wiilling and able to snatch it all away. Nothing to see here, just move along.

But as I continued to think about this it struck me that a lot of adults had to give their explicit or tacit consent for this ritual of cruelty to transpire. (Apparently, similar scenes have happened recently in other schools around the country, from Minnesota to Houston, based on anecdotal reports I came across today.) And what is required for these adults to give their consent is an attitude, a mind-set if you will, that places bean counting and Mammon above the interests of nurturing children. I am no sentimentalist  but, for Christ's sake, if some inner-city crack addict denied his or her children food, in order to use the money for his or her habit, we'd call it CHILD ABUSE. Right?

And so now I'm thinking about how fucked up this country has become, how the Uintah administrators initially said it was unfortunate IF some of the children were upset. (Oh, they were upset all right, as was at least one of the cafeteria workers detailed to serve as food police who reportedly wept inconsolably in front of the children.) And about how the cafeteria workers had no way to know ahead of time who was short lunch money before the kids reached the register. Just all this shit swirling around in my head about what this county has come to.

As is often my wont in cases of emotional turmoil like this, I fall back on books I've read in the past. In this instance, the book that immediately jumped to mind was Hannah Arendt's Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil. Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for The New Yorker and her reportage was subsequently published in a modest book. The thing I most remembered from the book was that Eichmann was not some raving psychopathic lunatic and, in fact, several of the Israeli psychiatrists who examined him prior to the trial testified to his utter normalcy. Eichmann testified that he had simply been doing his job, obeying the orders of his superiors (Reinhard Heydrich, among others) and above all, obeying the law. And what was Eichmann doing? Merely organizing the trans-shipment of Jews, a lot of Jews, (467,000 from Hungary alone) from various transit centers in Nazi-occupied Europe to the killing centers in Poland. Just a mid-level bureaucrat doing his job. Ordinary. Banal, even.

Arendt's point, as I took it, is that mass murderers in the modern age will as often as not be functionaries of the state, mere bureaucrats in the service of institutional imperatives whose reach exceeds the individual's contribution.  In other words, utterly ordinary. Banal, even. And then I came back to the events of Salt Lake City and understood in a way I never had before exactly what Arendt was getting at. Before the publicity brought this sordid episode to light, each of the adult players involved probably imagined that he or she was doing nothing wrong, merely obeying orders to keep a job in a society where keeping a job requires total unquestioning compliance at all times with the demands of the system. What they were doing in their minds was completely legal. They weren't doing anything wrong.

I'm still pondering this. The school district has apparently, as of this writing, placed a couple low- and mid-level functionaries -- can you say scapegoats? -- on 'paid leave.' (One of those placed on leave is reportedly the cafeteria line worker who was weeping as she confiscated the lunches. But not the superintendant of schools. No, never the Super.) I thought about writing a post that named names and sought to lay specific blame. But is that really germane? Here a system was performing with beautiful brutality, each functionary merely playing his or her assigned role in the infernal scheme. If there is a Hitler hiding behind the layers of the Salt Lake City School District bureaucracy, he or she has yet to be revealed. Hitler wasn't really necessary for this to take place, though, just a whole chain of people just following orders, just doing their jobs. Ordinary. Banal.

Monday, January 20, 2014

When Mickey Met Christie

Yesterday ABC News (and, specifically, Candy Crowley) insinuated that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer was fabricating claims when she said yesterday on MSNBC that Christie's administration tried to strong-arm her in order for Hoboken to receive Sandy aid. OK, just so everyone understands the Christie administration's lies (and those of its enablers at ABC News):

The $70 million Christie's team and ABC now variously claim that Hoboken received or was approved for consists almost entirely of payments from the FEMA federal flood insurance program directly to residents and business owners whose properties were damaged by the flooding from Hurricane Sandy and for which those residents had previously paid insurance premiums.. These are monies over which Christie's team has NO, repeat ZERO, control.

In addition, the U.S. Congress appropriated some $100 million in one-time disaster relief funds for communities damaged by Sandy to fund flood abatement and flood control projects. These are funds whose disbursement Christie's team does control (but which ABC conveniently neglected to mention).

The city of Hoboken (which was 80% under water after Sandy) made a $127 million claim against that special Congressional program (whose disbursements Christie's team controls). To date, Hoboken has only received $327,000. Not $70 million (the Christie lie) and not its $127 million claim.

To recap: Two programs, the first a FEMA insurance program from the federal government directly to Hoboken homeowners that has paid substantial sums to Hoboken home- and business owners, BUT over which Christie has NO CONTROL. The second a special program approved and funded by Congress which Christie's team does control and used to try to extort the Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer into approving a development project favored by Christie. IOW, the Christie administration was playing politics with disaster relief funds from the U.S. taxpayers and probably committing various felonies along the way.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has offered to take a lie detector test and to testify under oath. Why won't that shitstain Christie and his goons do the same? Probably because they are all too busy lawyering up and "taking the Fifth." Why doesn't ABC mention that salient fact in its character assassination of Zimmer and propping up of the Outlaw Jersey Whale?

My suggestion: boycott Disney and ABC News until and unless ABC issues a  retraction and makes a public apology to Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. ABC News cannot be allowed to propagate right-wing lies as truth and get away with it. This is absolutely outrageous.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Christie's Targets: The Who and The Why

We still do not know for sure whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (and\or his staff) targeted solely Ft. Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, or whether he hoped for a two-fer: Sokolich and Democratic State Senator Loretta Weinberg. Although the timing of the initial email closely follows upon an outburst by Christie wherein he called New Jersey's senior Democratic leadership 'animals' and promised 'serious ramifications" (Weinberg is one of several senior Dems), the substance of the emails mocks and taunts Sokolich.

So until the underlings begin to testify under compulsion and grants of immunity, we may not be able to say precisely whom Christie's ham-handed vendetta was targeting.

In like manner, we cannot say with certainty yet exactly 'why' Christie and\or his minions chose the targets they did.

Initial speculation was that Christie had targeted Sokolich because Sokolich refused to endorse Christies' re-election bid. Both Chrstie and Sokolich himself cast serious doubt upon this motive, Christie by dsmissing Sokolich as a 'nobody' whom he'd never heard of, Sokolich by saying his endorsement had never been sought, much less refused. However, Sokolich had earlier complained that Port Authority police (over he had no jurisdiction) were telling angry motorists that the traffic delays were Sokolich's fault.

Attention turned the next day to Rachel Maddow's theory that Christie sought to retaliate against Senate Dems because they were blocking and obstructing his judicial nominations (after Christie had broken with long-established precedent and declined to re-nominate the sole African American on the Supreme Court to a lifetime appointment). According to this theory, Christie wanted Senator Weinberg, the Democratic Senator whose consituency encompassed Ft. Lee, to feel the fury of his wrath and the negative consequences from inconvenienced motorists living in the district. The timing of the first email lends credence to the theory; Weinberg seems intrigued by it, even if other NJ Dems like Senator Sweeney (an early Christie) endorser express skepticism.

Today, on MSNBC, Steve Kornacki explores yet a third possible motivation: a massive billion-dollar development project at the foot of the GW Bridge. The 'Hudson Lights' project featured two 47-story residential structures and 165,000 feet of ground-floor retail space. The company doing the redevelopment project, Tucker Development Corporation, was a major donor to NJ Senator (and former Newark Mayor) Cory Booker's campaign. Booker, as most should know, is a Democrat.

Kornackit's theory involves some very scummy skulduggery, so bear with me - remember that Bridgegate involves reducing hte number of dedicated Ft. Lee toll lanes from 3 to 1, meaning that the same amount of Ft. Lee traffic was now competing for only one toll lane onto the GW Bridge where before that traffic had 3 lanes. Well, it turns out that the reason the Hudson Lights was a 'billion-dollar project,' is precisely becuase of those 3 dedicated lanes making Ft. Lee commuters' daily commute into Manhattan reasonably easy. Reduce their access to the GW Bridge to one toll lane and suddenly the principal attraction of Hudson Lights - ease of access to the GW Bridge -- loses it luster. Suddenly a 'billion-dollar project' is no longer worth a billion dollars.

My speculation: Who knows whom Christie might have intended to get the tip so as to be able to rush in and scoop up a suddenly deflated asset for pennies on the dollar?. Then, wouldn't you know it, Christie could magically re-open those toll lanes and a billion-dollar project gone bust is suddenly golden again, but now in the hands of Christie cronies.

It's all very 'Chinatown,' isn't it? And it makes the prospect of hearing testimony from Christie's underlings all the more enticing and exhilarating. Maybe Christie hoped for a three-in-one: get Sokolich's constitents pissed at him, send a message to Weinberg, and fuck over one of his political rival's major donors (and maybe give his own cronies an insider tip to a killing to be made). Who knows what songs will be heard when the canaries finally begin to sing?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What Other Dirty Tricks Were Christie's Crew Involved In?

Few Americans now remember, but the revelation that a group of Cuban-Americans directed out of the basement of the White House had broken into Democratic Party headquarters in 1972 was merely the tip of the iceberg, as newspapers and media increasingly revealed that the "Plumbers," as the group came to be called, had engaged in many, may dirty tricks, not least among them breaking into the Los Angeles office of Dr. Henry Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

So I've been wondering. Now that the cat is out of the bag about this one dirty trick played by Christie's minions on the people of Fort Lee and its hapless Mayor Sokolich, what other dirty tricks might they have been up to? Because as sure as the sun rises in the East, you know that their hijinks did not start with this little escapade, nor did they end there.

So I think one avenue of inquiry needs to be uncovering any and all acts played by Christie's staff, not just the lane closures for the George Washington Bridge. Pulitzers are earned for lesser work than this. Get busy, print journalists. Start digging and rest assured that, where there's smoke, there's almost certainly fire

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Why did Christie's staff order the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge?

So today at his presser, the Great White Whale Christie protested vociferously that he had no motive for ordering the lanes feeding the GW Bridge closed because, as Christie put it, he had never sought Ft. Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich's endorsement and barely knew the guy. The more often he repeated this, the more I found myself saying, "Methinks the Governor doth protest too much."

Christie's bluster demonstrates a classic instance of throwing out a 'red herring' in hopes that the press won't dig in to discover the real motivation behind the bridge closure. (Mayor Sokolich himself claimed to be mystified as to why Christie would retaliate against him, since as far as he knows his endorsement had never been sought much less refused to Christie's re-election campaign.)

Forget about seeking Sokolich's endorsement and retaliating for not getting it! That was NEVER the motivation and it will consequently be easy to maintain a denial of a motivation that never existed.

So why did Christie and his minions really order the lane closures? Simple, they hoped to so piss off the voters of Ft. Lee that they would hold Sokolich responsible for the traffic snarls that kept children from school, workers from their jobs and emergency workers from accident scenes and vote Sokolich out in the next election. That's the only motive that makes sense, given the facts we now know. It wasn't retaliation against Sokolich, it was an attempt to damage his relection prospects preemptively, a move taken straight out of Rove playbook.

They stupidly imagined in their hubris that they could get away with the dirty trick. I hope the U.S. Attorney shows no mercy.Update 1 (Jan 10 @ 10:30 a.m.): I have now learned that The Rachel Maddow Show has promulgated a competing hypothesis that is as plausible, if not more so, than mine stated above. To wit, Maddow argues that the timing of the first bridge closure memo closely follows Christie's outburst against Dems whom he called 'animals' for blocking some of his judicial nominees and against whom he promised 'serious ramifications.' According to Maddow, the initial bridge closure message, sent the day after Christie's outburst, was meant to foul traffic in the district represented by Democratic State Senator Loretta Weinberg. If there was any motive to 'get' Sokolich, it was only incidental to the principal motive of sending a shot across Weinberg's bow.

Update 2 (Jan 10 @ 5:00 p.m.): Have now learned from Talking Points Memo that Port Authority police were telling frustrated motorists that the lane closures were Mayor Sokolich's fault, which tends to support my initial hypothesis. So who ordered the PA Police to lay the blame on Mayor Sokolich? Inquiring minds would really like to know.

Link to Talking Points Memo story