Monthly Archives: July 2009

What Goes Around Comes Around

Last week the U.S. military denounced a Taliban video depicting captured American soldier U.S. Army Private Bowe Bergdahl. Using photographs of Bergdahl for “propaganda purposes is a violation of international law,” they said.

Even I had to laugh. What possible moral high ground is left to us after 8 years of Bush-Cheney, Abu-Ghraib, Guantanamo and Kandahar? And despite Mr. Obama’s promises to the contrary, torture tactics continue to be practiced at Guantanamo, as evidenced by the treatment of recently released Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian man held for 7 years.

One of the reasons for holding to international laws such as the Geneva Conventions is exactly for such situations as these: so you can preserve a moral high ground and not be laughed off the international stage.

According to a fascinating 2007 Atlantic article, the term enhanced interrogation (scharfte Vernehmung) is the precise term coined by the German Gestapo to describe third degree interrogation: including hypothermia, stress positions, and sleep deprivation. (The Gestapo had initially forbade the use of waterboarding.) In Norway in 1948 the U.S. prosecuted these tactics as war crimes, punishable by death. The German defense argued that the Norwegian resistance fighters who were tortured in this way fell outside the Geneva Conventions since they were not soldiers. (Congratulations. So the Bush Administration’s argument has precedent after all.) But the court did not buy it. Following WWII Japanese generals were also put to death for practicing waterboarding. What does Mr. Cheney get? $132,451 a year for life.

As for Private Bergdahl, at least there was no evidence of torture. Only barbarian nations do that. Who has the moral high ground now?

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With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

In recent weeks Israel’s Likud Government has not only angrily rejected U.S. calls to end new settlement building in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank but has also boosted its efforts to make Jerusalem an exclusively Jewish city and Israel an exclusively Jewish state.

Last month Jerusalem’s first city plan in 40 years was due to be unveiled but was delayed at the last moment because officials felt it allocated too much housing for the city’s Palestinian community. Underlying the plan is the assumption that Israel will keep control of East Jerusalem, annexed in 1967, and continue to absorb more and more of the West Bank. This assumption flies in the face of the original 1948 U.N. mandate for an international city and a 1967 resolution condemning Israeli occupation of Arab East Jerusalem.

Approximately 270,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem and a third of these live in housing built without permits after 1967. Such structures, including historic buildings housing nuns and priests, have been slated for condemnation in order to clear the way for exclusively Jewish neighborhoods. Of course, since 1967 it has been almost impossible for Palestinian residents to obtain building permits. According to a report by the World Bank, between 1996 and 2000, building violations were actually 4.5 times higher in the Jewish neighborhoods, but citations and demolitions 4 times higher in Palestinian East Jerusalem.

In addition, this week Israeli transport officials revealed their plan to “standardize” all road signs using the Hebrew pronunciation. Currently, all road signs use the traditional Hebrew, Arabic and English names. The new policy means that Nazareth and Caesarea will be transliterated into English and Arabic as Natsrat and Kesriya. Jerusalem will become Yerushalaim. The plan will avoid “confusing” drivers, said the Transport Ministry. Yes, that will make things much less confusing.

This week the education ministry announced the elimination of references to the Nakba (“Disaster”), the traditional Arabic name for the 1948 partition of Palestine, from Arabic children’s textbooks. Since 2007, a more balanced view has been taught, referring to the event as both the Nakba from the Arab perspective and “war of independence” from the Israeli. “There is no reason to present the creation of the Israeli state as a catastrophe in an official teaching program,” said education minister, Gideon Saar. “The objective of the education system is not to deny the legitimacy of our state, nor promote extremism among Arab-Israelis.”

Perhaps. But the revisionist view of history, coupled with all the other developments, are seen by Palestinians, and others, as part of a larger, sophisticated plan of “ethnic cleansing,” to establish an exclusively Jewish state and remove all vestiges of Palestinian rights, culture and history in the region.

As a succession of right-wing Israeli governments continues its aggressive, expansionist policies, including the ongoing occupation of Palestinian Territories and growing Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands, a strategy which only inflames more hatred in the Arab world, one has to wonder if Israel isn’t bent on its own destruction.

Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad. Let us pray that cooler and wiser heads would prevail on both sides of the conflict.

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The Global Crisis and Why Campaign Finance Reform Just Might Save America

“We may define a republic to be … a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.” –James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 10, (1787)

Listening to the news or reading the paper, everyone is talking about the crisis. “How are you weathering the crisis?” or “Here’s how you can survive the crisis.” One might do well to inquire which crisis they are referring to. With that typical American myopia which is sometimes endearing, though not in this case, they refer, of course, to the economic crisis that nearly shipwrecked our economy. It’s deemed a crisis, you see, since it has affected not just the poor and disenfranchised, as most crises do, but also the rich and well-heeled.

Yet as social critic Noam Chomsky has long and passionately maintained, there is a greater, more global crisis of which economics are only a symptom: The control of the many by the few– and a few that is increasingly fewer.

One of the danger signs which could spell an even deeper economic disaster for us in the future is the increasing consolidation of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Robert Reich, former Sec’y of Labor, put it this way:

“…As late as 1980, the top one percent by income in this United States had about nine percent of total national income. But since then, you’ve had increasing concentration of income and wealth to the point that by 2007, … the top one percent was taking home 21 percent of total national income. Now, when they’re taking home that much, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going. You know, that was hidden by the fact that they were borrowing so much on their homes….But once that housing bubble exploded, it exposed the fact that the middle class in this country has really not participated in the growth of the economy. And over the long term, we’re not going to have a recovery until the middle class has purchasing power it needs to buy again.”

Lose your middle class and you lose your democracy. As Reich concludes, “Essentially, capitalism has swamped democracy.”

Students of history may recognize in this trend an even more ominous threat. 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire speaks of the greed that helped precipitate the end of the Roman republic: “The lands of Italy, which had been originally divided among the families of free and indigent proprietors, were purchased or usurped by the avarice of the nobles; and in the age which proceeded the fall of the republic, it was computed only two thousand citizens were possessed of any independent substance.”

Unfortunately, the problem is not confined to the U.S. The trend is global. We are only beginning to feel it here. Capitalism run amok through free trade agreements, coupled with lack of government oversight and local corruption, is raping the economies of smaller nations, draining wealth and natural resources and leaving ruin in its wake. This sickness is enabled both here and abroad by a system of corruption and greed that is bigger than any one government, corporation or individual. It is, to speak plainly, satanic.

But if Americans do not wake up and act to reverse the trend in our own back yard, we will see not only greater global unrest (the multiplying leftist governments in Latin America, for example, are a reaction to unbridled American hegemony and greed) but also greater poverty, deeper economic crises, and perhaps even revolution at home.

As the late Walter Cronkite put it, “Seats in Congress, seats in the state legislature, that big seat in the White House itself, can be purchased by those who have the greatest campaign resources …That, I submit to you, is no democracy. It is an oligarchy of the already powerful.” And as another reporter stated even more succinctly, “We are back to an oligarchy pretending to be a republic pretending to be a democracy.”

There is something we can do. There is a bill now before Congress. It’s called the Fair Elections Now Act (S.752, H.R.1826) and it currently sits in committee in both houses. The bill would allow congressional candidates to campaign using small donations from individuals and limited public funding. Not only would this act free our elected officials from having to spend most of their time and focus on fundraising; it would also help to re-empower the electorate and clip the wings of wealthy donors and special interests. One of the bill’s sponsors is Sen. Dick Durbin, who earlier this year remarked how the banking industry basically “owns” Congress. There are many other public servants in Congress who truly desire to serve the interests of those who elected them, but the current system will not allow them to. Instead, they must be at the beck and call of those who fill the war chest. For more info: http://www.fairelectionsnow.org/

On a related note, what bothers me about the debate about healthcare reform in this country is that no matter how one feels about a single-payer system or a government option, here’s an opportunity for Americans to band together and strike a blow for democracy, wresting some of the power away from the insurance and Big Pharm lobbies that have dominated Congress and the White House for decades. What’s wrong with that? The same with global warming. Even if someone doesn’t believe it exists, here at last is an opportunity to begin to break our dependency on foreign oil and Big Oil’s stranglehold over our government. Going green is not only the best way to fight the power of the oil companies; it is also a powerful weapon against terrorism. Who do you think funds the terrorists? Saudi Arabia, Iran, big oil producing nations.

Now I would call such a stand patriotic. I can understand Big Oil’s and Big Pharm’s fear. They would lose power. I have less patience for ordinary Americans who suffer from their oppression and yet drink their Kool-Aid.

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Perhaps We Spoke Too Soon

These days I wince whenever I hear someone of any ethnicity claim that we are now living in a “post-racial America.” The election of Mr. Obama, an African-American, to the highest office in the land is without question a great achievement, and a milestone that demonstrates how far we’ve come as a nation. But to conclude that the 400-year struggle for racial equality in America is therefore a closed chapter that we can put behind us is wishful thinking. Such a statement ignores the ongoing battle for human dignity and equality that continues to rage in our nations airwaves, movies, and of course in the streets and work places.

Exhibit A. Witness this recent piece of colossal ignorance and insensitivity by Mr. Pat Buchanan, MSNBC political commentator and frequent presidential candidate:

“White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks.”

Huh? You can look out of your window in D.C., Pat, and see the White House and Capitol Building. They weren’t built by Teamsters, but by African slave labor. You can sit at a railroad crossing, and while tapping the steering wheel with impatience, reflect that much of the railroad that crisscrosses this vast nation was built by Chinese immigrants. Where would America be today if slave labor had not made her cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco competitive on the world market for 250 years? Where would our agriculture be today without immigrant labor? Just consult the children’s section of your local public library, and it will tell you that free blacks and even slaves fought in the Revolution and War of 1812. Over 200,000 fought in the Civil War, on both sides. The Pentagon will show you records of those 700,000 who fought in WWII when civil rights for African-Americans were still a dream– not to mention the Latinos, Native Americans, Japanese and other non-Whites.

Essentially, what Mr. Buchanan is saying is exactly what many of the Founding Fathers believed: blacks and other ethnic groups can do the hard work but the fruits of liberty and democracy should be enjoyed by whites only. Our Constitution, after all, considered slaves or “other such persons” to be only 3/5 of a white person. The hard work of “other such persons,” enslaved, overworked, underpaid, and exploited, are not mentioned much in the history books because our history has been written largely by white Europeans.

Exhibit B: On July 16 Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., renown author, lecturer, and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Studies at Harvard, was arrested for trying to break into his own home in an affluent Cambridge neighborhood. Gates, who ironically had just returned from filming a documentary on racial profiling, was having difficulty opening his front door, when a passerby called police claiming that “two black males” were breaking and entering. Apparently, Gates was so irate at being profiled that police arrested him for disorderly conduct. While it is never wise to antagonize police by angry outbursts, one can sympathize with the scholar’s outrage at being arrested in his own home. Would he have been hassled if he had been white? According to another black Harvard colleague, Cambridge police have a history of racial profiling. Obviously, the arresting officers do not watch much PBS, or they would have recognized the celebrated documentarian. I’ll be looking forward to Dr. Gates’ next documentary. “It’s one thing to write about racial profiling,” he said after the incident, “but another to experience it.”

That we now have an African-American president is a wonderful achievement for this nation. Let us celebrate. But such a victory should not cause us to take our vigilant foot off the pedal for equality until each American is “judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”

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Goodnight, Uncle Walter

Among the many encomiums upon the passing of Walter Cronkite at 92 is the typical painting of the “end of an era” and the lament that “we shall never see his like again.” Actually, the era of reliable broadcast journalism did not recently expire with Cronkite; it has been in its death throes for years, especially since the corporate consolidation of the media (GE [NBC], Westinghouse [CBS], Disney [ABC], Time-Warner [CNN], and Murdoch [Fox]), and the proliferation of the celebrity journalist, whose goal is not to report the news but to be seen with and to be a mouthpiece for the powerful.

If we mourn Cronkite, let it be not only because he was a humane man, or at heart an old-fashioned newshound with fedora and press card, but because he was also, and increasingly so in his later years, one of a now almost extinct breed of journalist who still believed in speaking truth to power. Almost single-handedly in 1968, “the most trusted man in America” turned the tide of public opinion in middle America against the war in VietNam by his reports from the field: in effect, we should not trust what our government was saying, the war was a “bloody…stalemate,” and, by inference, official Pentagon or White House reports were lies. As LBJ mournfully told staffers, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

Cronkite was not always the conscience of America, nor was he, as a newscaster, ever a completely independent journalist. He was after all an employee of the Columbia Broadcasting Network. Earlier in his career, and indeed up to 1968, he was typical of many a newsman trained in the trenches as a WWII correspondent, bullish on the military, trusting of power. His earlier newscasts during the VietNam conflict reflect little of the later critic. But something happened to change his mind: in his 1968 trip to VietNam, seeing the war up close, he began to ask questions, and the answers troubled him. So deeply in fact, that he decided to spend that capital he possessed as America’s most trusted man, to go out on a limb and cry the “Emperor is naked.” He went on in later years to be an outspoken critic of Watergate and other government cover-ups, capitalistic greed, the Iraq war, and the corporate consolidation of the media, which he regarded as a “threat to democracy.”

Having retired back in 1981, Cronkite had plenty of time to watch his beloved industry descend into the corporate lickspittle it is today. What is his legacy? In a 1996 interview he was asked if he had any regrets. “What do I regret?” he said painfully. “Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn’t make them stick. We couldn’t find a way to pass them on to another generation.” It’s sad to consider that as great a legacy as this man had, none of today’s major newscasters has inherited it, since none has had the guts to pick up the mantle.

For a more savvy evaluation of Cronkite’s work, see Glenn Greenwald’s 7/18 blog and Democracy Now’s tribute.

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Finally, He’s Getting It. Oh Wait. Maybe Not.

Here are some excerpts from Mr. Obama’s speech today:

“Development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long….

“As I said in Cairo, each nation gives life to democracy in its own way, and in line with its own traditions. But history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not….

“This is about more than holding elections – it’s also about what happens between them. Repression takes many forms, and too many nations are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or if police can be bought off by drug traffickers….

“No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery.

“That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there, and now is the time for that style of governance to end.

“In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success – strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in peoples’ lives.

“Just as governance is vital to opportunity, it is also critical to the third area that I will talk about – strengthening public health.

“In recent years, enormous progress has been made…. Far more people are living productively with HIV/AIDS, and getting the drugs they need. But too many still die from diseases that shouldn’t kill them.

“That is why we must stand up to inhumanity in our midst. It is never justifiable to target innocents in the name of ideology…. We must bear witness to the value of every child...and the dignity of every woman….”

At long last, I think he’s getting it. He certainly described America to a tee. Wait…what? What did you say? He was talking about Africa? Oh… Sorry. My mistake.

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Mr. Orwell Would Have Shivered

Those willing to sacrifice a little freedom for a little security will soon find they have neither.– Ben Franklin (attributed)

Those who still held out hope that Mr. Obama might yet fulfill his promises of change must have had their expectations dashed by now as the new administration continues, one after another, to confirm and even expand the worst policies of the Bush era. Yes, he’s promised to stop the torture, close Guantanamo and give detainees trials, where possible. That is something, at least. But in May Mr. Obama unfolded his plan for “preventive detention,” in which foreign suspects could be detained indefinitely even on suspicion that they might do something. He has also upheld the previous administration’s contempt for law, checks and balances and the judicial process by withholding evidence deemed a “national security risk” (read “anything we don’t feel like handing over or that might embarrass us”). If that wasn’t bad enough, at a Senate hearing this week, the Defense Dept. General Counsel stated that the President also reserves the right to continue detention even of those acquitted at trial, completely ignoring the judicial system. It reminds one of the famous quote by Andrew Jackson when the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional his heavy-handed treatment of Native Americans: “[Chief Justice] Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!”

So let’s recap. You’ve done nothing wrong, but someone thinks you might. Then you just might spend the rest of your life in a cage. Or let’s say you’re one of the fortunate detainees actually granted a trial. You’re acquitted, since the court felt there was insufficient evidence to convict you. But the Administration doesn’t like that verdict and continues to detain you, without charges, without appeal.

Under the new Obama regime, only detainees who are sure to be convicted will receive some kind of trial. And of course, in the event that one or two slip through the net through acquittal, the verdict can always be ignored. Does the term “show trials” come to mind?

What makes these policies even more monstrous is the many stories emerging from detainees who were innocent but imprisoned and even tortured because of some false intelligence or even just one unfounded accusation, never investigated, never proven. We were told that Guantanamo was reserved for the “worst of the worst.” But that was not true, as the wide dragnet of American intelligence continues to entangle the innocent as well as the guilty. And with such a diabolical deck stacked against them, how can any obtain real justice this side of heaven?

Yet, it is not just the administration’s policies themselves that are evil; they are after all designed to protect us, or so we are told. Rather, it’s that they give the presidency such unbelievable power as to leave the door wide open for abuse and error, tragic error. Tyranny.

Despite Mr. Obama’s claims to the contrary, these are the policies of a dictatorship, not a republic that values justice, fairness, and the rule of law. I am ashamed of my government and its leaders. While we the public are being entertained with news of the Obama’s new dog and Michelle’s fashion choices, American justice, which has long rested on the Western principle that justice is blind, has been perverted in the interests of “national security” (read “power of an increasingly imperial presidency”).

Folks, we must speak out. Dissent, after all, can be the highest form of patriotism. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.” And “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

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