Monday, September 4, 2017

The Big Board Game, Capitalism

In terms of articulating what's going on, who runs things for whose benefit in the country, hell, the world, we are gifted with two stand-out analysts; Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti. I've been reading Chomsky's first book on the subject, American Power and the New Mandarins and an early book of Parenti's, The Sword and the Dollar, 1989.

American Power engages the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time of publication, 1967. This “new release” has a foreword by the late great Howard Zinn, a treat in itself. Chomsky approaches the subject by examining the rationalizations on the liberal end of the spectrum, to devastating effect, for those authors. The conclusion is inescapable - these folks are in service to power, by a pragmatic recognition of the path to privilege and/or self delusion. I can relate. At the time I was a recent Vietnam vet and hawkish on the subject, until my professors and fellow students got to me with those questions no one else had thought to raise. That along with Senator Fulbright's enlightening hearings which I read transcripts of in book form. I marveled at how administration officials offered justifications for the war and when the good senator shot them full of holes, instead of admitting they were wrong and changing course they came up with a series of equally flimsy new ones.

It strikes me how this pattern repeats. I was trying to tell the Georgia Public Service Commission this same lesson. Opponents of Plant Vogtle argued against the plant originally, and its latest expansion. In contrast the supporters painted a rosy picture. Whose arguments eventually turned out to be spot on? The opponents of course. So when it comes to future projects does the PSC listen to those who've lost all credibiity or to the opponents who were proven right? You know the answer and it is the same with the Vietnam War, Iraq and many other issues. Perhaps there is a hidden money component? Ya think? There's certainly an ideological one.

Chomsky also looks at World War II. in the Pacific, from the provocative, economically stifling policies of the Imperial powers, the U.S., Britain etc; which served to strengthen the hardline fascists in the Japanese power structure, to the decisions made to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The revelation that a frivolous 1,000 plane bombing mission was cynically sent against Japan between the agreement to surrender and the actual, technical signing, blemishes the benevolent propaganda image the machine likes to spit out. Truman's claim that the atomic bombs were dropped on military targets was also disingenuous and suggests that the real reasons for the barbaric decision were, ah... classified, as usual.

Parenti joins in “U.S. Bashing” by sampling an assortment of facts. Like, the U.S. Gave more money to the infamous Contras, terrorists by any sober definition, to undermine the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, than aid to the forty poorest nations on the planet. Most such aid, Parenti points out, is military, aimed at securing local elite rule against their own people, whom they, in service to U.S. corporate interests and anti-socialist hysteria, use to suppress any questioning of this arrangement. Our leaders ever seek stability and what they mean by that is maintaining current class relations, both abroad and at home.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are intricate aspects of this effort. Loans are typically contingent on the dismantling of social programs and/or to be used for the purchase of failing U.S. Enterprises at above market rates. It is largely U.S. taxpayers who fund these institutions who, on the whole, have no idea of their actual purpose. The closest many might get to insight is the propaganda line from the right that the U.S. indulges in way too much foreign aid. This does not include the information that 2/3 of aid stays in the U.S. due to requirements that shipping, materials etc; be U.S. Third world nations, like U.S. farmers, become indebted beyond their ability to pay, enriching elites but leaving the onerous debt to be paid by citizens who had no say in the borrowing. So the lower classes are saddled with the debt on both ends. In 1973 third world debt was about $73 billion. By 1988 it had grown to a trillion dollars. A large portion of the debtor nation's earnings go to service the debt. Loaning in this manner is more profitable than direct investment in the countries. Another requirement in the usurious terms is that in addition to slashing social programs the recipients must adopt an export-oriented economy. Thus an agriculturally rich area can have high rates of malnutrition, more collateral damage.

This explains part of the U.S. hostility toward Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya and other nations who attempt to escape this kind of entrapment - always justified by the bugaboo of the Soviet Union, a handy “enemy”, the dissolution of which in the 90s created a scrambling for new “threats” much like the Johnson Administration minions with their justifications for Vietnam. This same boogie man was earlier used to justify Reagan's two trillion dollar military extravaganza. Parenti likes to point out that a billion dollars is a thousand million and a trillion is a thousand billion. Getting into some real money. And it's the same people paying for it... and the same people profiting from it. They do have themselves a nice little game going. Another way ordinary people pay is in the fact that as military spending increases, social spending is cut. This is not merely collateral damage, this is part of the intent. Just as social spending abroad is discouraged, social spending at home is under continuous attack for such spending empowers the wrong people. Our current administration has removed all subtlety, approaching these values in caricature, spiced by a jingoist, racist, near-fascist rhetoric.

What is the alternative? It's my mantra - instead of chasing money our energy could be directed into answering this question: how can we provide food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare for the world's population without despoiling the life system and creating widespread extinction of other species?

Friday, August 11, 2017

New Wave Mobsters

Mobsters tend to evolve out of inner city poverty. The young look around and notice the people in the neighborhood with flashy lifestyles, who don't go hungry, who lord it over ordinary citizens. They resemble the intimidating bullies in their own circles who ham-fistedly appropriate their lunch money and humiliate them in other ways. The limited options visible on their horizon tempt the young and some inevitably are drawn into criminal apprenticeship.

Adult gangsters of whatever ethnic persuasion traditionally provide “protection” to small businesses, run numbers, hijack trucks, mug citizens, commit armed robbery, murder for hire, burgle, organize prostitution, trafficking, gambling, kidnapping, home invasions, drug dealing and other illegal contraband and counterfeiting at all kinds of levels. Eventually the most successful expand into legal businesses, often as fronts for laundering illegal gains. They also tend to spend time in prison, an extreme form of networking, where they advance their education and are further desensitized, distanced from any natural ability to empathize they might possess. Like their counterparts chasing money and power along legal corridors, they seem to become addicted, seeking ever more profits, even after accumulating more wealth than they can possibly spend, even considering their often extravagant life styles.

The United States has suffered various waves of criminal immigrants, always a minority of any group but a significant one. Irish, Jewish, Italian, Latino, Black, Chinese, Vietnamese... mobsters of all stripes have variously dominated neighborhoods, cities, regions in an ebb and flow paralleling periods of immigration. They sort themselves out by the merging, warring or jittery co-existence. Of course there are home-grown criminals also and rural bandits all over the world. The white collar and political thieves, tycoons and corporate malfeasors we will set aside for now except where they interact, as underworld victims or collaborators. Robert Friedman, in his book Red Mafiya, comments, “The Russian Mafiya is made up of multipurpose, entrepreneurial master criminals, flush with billions in cash doing every shape, manner and form of global crime.”

When in the 80s it became evident that the Soviet Union was falling apart the leadership there met and concluded there were two possible courses: a first strike nuclear attack on the U.S. (!) or, loot the country. Gorbachev wanted to create a Scandinavian-type socialist nation but he was soon got rid of, with U.S. support of course, and the looting began. The enormity of the job soon became evident and high-ranking government officials, KGB etc; turned for help to the criminal element... which of course soon more or less took over, conducting the largest exodus of national treasure in history. Russia was in effect lawless so, to safely stache the spoils, accounts were set up in the west. Though our civilization was fortunate the nuclear option was foregone, this monumental theft has perilous repercussions that will not be easily reversed. It is said that Putin consolidated his power by selecting one of the oligarchs of this exodus, putting them in a cage, on very public trial. The other oligarchs approached Putin asking what it is he wanted. 50% was the answer. This deal made him the wealthiest man on the planet, estimated at $ 200 billion. Friedman is quite persuasive in his claim that dealing with Russia is dealing with Mafiya.

A U.S. center for the Russian mob is in the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Brighton Beach, densely populated with Russian immigrants. There criminals prey on small business and the local citizenry. They enter into collaborative projects with already existing gangs though their comfort with violence intimidates even hardened veterans of the streets. This partially is accounted for by the move Russian mobsters made to rid themselves of a particularly psychopathic criminal named Ivankov, who they talked into “invading” the U.S. Taking along a cadre of his most hardened lieutenants, he soon took over the Brighton Beach neighborhood, ratcheting up violence to a level the competition couldn't match. To him other criminals were no different than small businesses – pay up or die. Defy us? We'll murder your whole family. That's what works in Russia, why wouldn't it work here? Brighton Beach police are out-gunned and out-funded, if not corrupted themselves. One couple declining his proposal to buy their antique shop, at a bargain basement price, simply disappeared. Another couple, in Miami, accepted the ridiculously meager buyout of their Deli and fled terrified to Canada. The new owner had little interest in antiques or deli food but an acute need for money laundering. Brighton Beach, Denver and Miami, cities with dense Russian immigrants, were beach heads for Ivankov's “invasion”. Like billionaires in general, these criminals are not going to rest until they have it all. Israel's policy of accepting Jews from Russia (or those who claim to be Jewish) has affected the country severely. Officials estimate that as much as 12% of their 500,000 Russian immigrants are criminals. From Israel they have easy access to Western Europe, Canada and the U.S.

Drug running is a highly lucrative endeavor, usually thought of as the domain of mobsters. But terrorists have realized drugs can be a means to fund their operations. And states such as North Korea engage in international criminality to supplement their annual budget, not to mention gold bathroom fixtures. Another state not usually associated with criminality, in fact usually seen as one of the more enlightened states in terms of rule of law, not flawless of course but all is relative: as one Russian gangster said, “I love the United States. It is so easy to steal here.” And this is one of their safe havens as far as safely banking ill-gotten proceeds. Friedman's description of a Russian invasion of the U.S. by absolutely vicious criminals, is disturbing enough at just the street crime level. Add to that their branching out into sophisticated Wall Street, Banking and internet cons, and the investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. elections, the firing of FBI Director Comer, the apparent manuvoring to fire investigative head Robert Meuller, and the knowledge that the modus operandi of these criminals stops at nothing, freely and imaginatively employing violence and extortion – luring victims into situations where they are either hopelessly indebted or they and their families are terrorized into corruption, or both. Israel's government, Friedman claims, is the most compromised nation by Mafiya outside of Russia, that whether it can be considered a democracy (aside from its suppression of Palestinians and theft of their land) is seriously in question. When many of these mobsters own condos in Trump Tower and rumors persist of ominous relations between the Trump Administration and Russian figures, there is the danger that the time is not far off where the same can be said of the United States.

I draw on three books for these ruminations: Red Mafiya by Robert Friedman; Organized Crime by Michael Lyman et al. (an actual text book); Angels, Mobsters and Narco-Terrorists by Antonio Nicaso et al.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Aftershock, Robert Reich, a review

In his book, Aftershock, Robert Reich reviews features in our society that undermine democracy – particularly concentrated wealth. And the off-shoot, lobbyists in effect bribing representatives and senators, vulnerable because they must raise money for their ever more expensive campaigns. The successful ones, when they leave office, with very nice self-voted retirement benefits, often go to work for the lobbying firms or corporations that previously had been lobbying them and for whom they, likely, had sponsored legislation or other favors... or attached profitable hidden amendments to bills. The average starting pay for retired politicians who take the lobbying route is about $500,000. So alluring is the game that even senators such as Richard Gephart, who railed against oil baron and lobbyist corruption while running for president in 1988, succumbed, heading up a lobbying firm with Goldman Sachs as a client and chairing an organization that worked against one of his previous pet issues, national health care.
Tax policy too favors the wealthy, thanks to this same corruption. George Bush I. expanded the amount one can inherit tax-free from one million to $3.5 million which obviously only serves the wealthy. Clinton extended the policy and Obama then generously allowed the wealthy to transfer $10 million to their children, tax free. All this means either equivalent cuts in services or increases on middle class taxes. The servicing of the wealthy by our politicians can hardly be completely hidden, though right wing radio and Faux News work mightily to obscure it, to blame the resulting malaise on immigrants, minorities the poor or some other soft target. Reich warns that this creates fertile ground for demagoguery (written before the rise of Trump, Reich's analysis goes some way toward explaining it).
But the writer's main theme revolves around how the transfer of wealth toward the 1% has reduced middle class consumption. After World War II. until about 1975, a more equalitarian situation had evolved where substantial numbers of ordinary citizens were able to earn a decent living. This consumption drove the economy and that drive wavered as greed-driven policies (see above) shipped jobs over seas, well-paid with good benefits, good prospects for retirement, replacing them with fewer and lower paying “service” jobs with little or no benefits or security. Reich claims that the middle class responded with three strategies to maintain their “lifestyle”: working multiple jobs; spouses joining the work force; and credit card debt. When there were no more extra hours to work in a week, for both spouses, when the credit cards were maxed out, the piper fell due.
An interesting story Reich relates to illustrate his theory brings up an important figure in the Roosevelt Administration who I had never heard of. Marriner Eccles chaired the Federal Reserve Board from 1934 to 1948. Eccles was a multi-millionaire tycoon whose fortune survived the 1929 crash but not his faith in the established order. While other members of the 1% took the position that nothing needed to be done, viewing the market as self-correcting, Eccles arrived at a different conclusion. He recognized that the rich have disproportionate influence on government policies, pushing programs that benefited them, not the more general population. He basically came to the conclusion that middle class consumption was essential to a healthy economy. He despaired of doing anything about it though he did share his ideas by writing about them and testifying before congress. This led to his hiring as adviser to the new president and a year later, appointment to the Federal Reserve where the idea of doing nothing to benefit the general population was set aside in favor of what became Roosevelt's New Deal. Roosevelt was reluctant to try Eccles' ideas but was persuaded. This laid the foundation for the 1945 – 1975 period of prosperity, according to Reich. These policies were bitterly opposed by conservatives at the time and they awaited their moment to return to the pre-Roosevelt philosophy which finally arrived when they hired the actor Ronald Reagan to play the part of president.

Explaining the voting behavior of the U.S. citizenry, as Reich does, by shifts in the economy and erosion of consumptive power probably has some validity but overlooks what Jane Mayer (in her book Dark Money), Chomsky and others have pointed out: there is sophisticated and deliberate manipulation by a powerful propaganda system, financed by political activists among the 1%, figures like the Koch brothers, Bradley foundation and others. They make full use of the campaign-finance vulnerability of those seeking political office but they go far beyond that. As Mayer has pointed out, for example, the Kochs have created a political organization pushing their agenda (basically a return to feudalism) that is larger, and better funded, than the Republican Party.

Reich argues that when wealth is concentrated there is far less consumption driving the economy. So his complaint is not about fairness or justice, the more traditional left argument, but about the efficient workings of the economy. There is quite a bit to gloss over in this point of view. Reich does mention the inequities of class and racial bigotry, how an intentional transfer of wealth occurred starting, with a vengeance, as said above, at Reagan's ascendancy, and continuing steadily up to the 2008 crash. He points out that a television set made in Taiwan doesn't sell here for less than one made in the U.S. The greater profits made from cheaper labor go to the top and the loss, of course, goes to the bottom,... or middle. But he doesn't dwell there. So far as I can tell, he's right, hell, I remember!, that things were fairer, we (some of us) were better off during that post WW II. period. It could have been vastly improved and we should work to remake our society. But I see no recognition in his position of the fact that endless consumption is not environmentally sustainable, nor does it produce well-being. In the hierarchy of needs put forth by Abraham Maslow, who Reich acknowledges, once basic needs are met, more of the same does not satisfy. Reich's position is radical, in the context of our current 1% dominated political environment, but it is inadequate to address the crisis, not just of the malaise and anome of the victims of greed, but of the threat posed to our species, our civilization, perhaps life on earth, by the sinister trio of pollution, nuclear war and over-population.

What would a society look like that did adequately address the crisis facing humanity? I would venture that answering that question would involve this one: how can we create a society that provides food, clothing, shelter, education and health care for all world citizens in a way that does not trash the life system or crowd out other species? The complete answer is not on the tip of my tongue but it is something we best be about, and soon. The four years (minimum) that we are losing with the disastrous and discouraging Trump administration may bring us to or over the tipping point but as Bernie Sanders points out, our survival is too important, we do not have the RIGHT to give up now.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Culture of Terrorism, Noam Chomsky - a review

If you believe, and wish to continue to believe, that the U.S. is a force for democracy in the world, a nation with a free press and vigorous debate on critical issues, this book is not for you. That fantasy will stand if you accept the definition of democracy of those who run the country, that is, an elite continuing to run things for their benefit with the rest of us scrambling to survive, occasionally ratifying their decisions by choosing from among the candidates they supply for public office. The belief becomes fairy tale if you question this story and insist that democracy means what the dictionary says it means - “A government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation.” Who is the extremist? Those who promote the first definition or those who embrace the second?

There is no doubt where Chomsky stands on this question and his book argues on every page, with devastating effect, that the U.S. is an oligarchy and one of the greatest purveyors of violence on the planet. He argues that the 1%-owned media attempts to shape opinion, keeping discussion within the bounds of “polite discourse”, carefully avoiding the transgression of wandering outside the range embraced among the elite, the only “people” that really count, unless you include, of course, corporate persons... but that goes without saying since it is the 1% who own the corporations.

The author uses the 80s Iran-Contra scandal and U.S. policy in Central America to elucidate this point of view, with by-the-way excursions onto other terrain such as South Africa and Israel. There is hardly a page without an incisive, finely crafted quote. In a paragraph describing the real and repugnant intent and strategy of U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, taken from official documents, differing perhaps only in degree from what one might expect from a Mafia Don, Chomsky goes on to explain why officials and media turn a blind eye: “But to understand such matters, it is necessary to escape the confines of the ideological system and to question the sanctity and nobility of U.S. intentions. That is excluded, as an intolerable departure from civilized norms.” And in describing U.S. violation of the Vietnam peace agreement it had just signed in Paris: “The factual record evidently lacks ideological serviceability so it has been replaced by a mythical reconstruction crafted to satisfy doctrinal requirements. Whatever the facts, the record must show that it is the Communist enemy that cannot be trusted.”


Oliver North is emblematic of that period under Reagan when, as Chomsky says, a crack appeared in the establishment facade. The opening though was quickly covered up, mildly embarrassing at worst, and soon faded into history, along with the pardons. Chief investigator for the committee? Thomas Polgar an active member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. Chairing the committee? Senator Inouye, who received extensive funding by PACs linked to the Israeli lobby. Those not hypnotized by the charade could glimpse some interesting items; careful avoidence of the Contra drug connection and Israel's role in funneling arms to Iran and training and arming fascist forces in Central America, a favor to Washington to get around congressional restrictions. Chomsky points out that Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the much idolized symbol of compassion and peace, remained silent, keeping I suppose to his mantra, “Speak no ill of Israel.”

Central America and the Contras

Contra drug smuggling, essentially creating the crack epidemic, as unmasked by Gary Webb in his series for the San Jose Mercury News (but more or less retracted when the editor/publishers couldn't stand the heat) was another item partially exposed, but only for those willing to look beyond the blinders of received wisdom. Reagan's terrorists, who he called the moral equivalent of our founding fathers, were drug smuggling killers searching out “soft” targets in Nicaragua and banking CIA largess. Of course it was the footsoldiers doing the rampaging while the leadership did the lecture circuit and hung out in San Francisco night spots.

During the former dictator and U.S. ally (or puppet) Somoza's long reign, whom the Sandinistas finally overthrew, one heard nary a peep in the U.S. media, congress or administration on the brutality directed toward and oppressive poverty of the average citizen of Nicaragua. Everything was fine so long as U.S. corporate interests were being served. But when a government came into power interested in addressing the plight of the ordinary citizen, suddenly there was great concern, and cries of Communism! Marxist totalitarianism threatening our very existence. Actually there is some truth in this latter claim. Many of our “forefathers” practiced the abomination called slavery. And if you translate “our” in that sentence into the 1% then yes, there was reason to fear the threat of a good example... a nation that served the needs of its people rather than U.S. corporations and the wealthy might prove popular. Other countries might get ideas were this “subversion” allowed to flourish. Even people in the U.S. might get ideas. Too dangerous to tolerate. Thus the U.S. sometimes installed and certainly supported unscrupulous guardians, a tiny elite benefitting from their association with and service to the Boss in the north. In exchange for serious repression of any and all questioning of that arrangement, military training and materials were lavishly bestowed. Torture 101. Start a union? A Death squad visit should discourage that. Discuss these questions in the press? Death squad at the door. Knock knock.

Media Complicity

An insidious double-standard was applied consistently by U.S. mainstream media in Central American reporting. Nicaragua had elections judged fair by international observers, thus a democratically elected government, the Sandinistas. Yet, Nicaragua was routinely referred to as a Marxist dictatorship. Its “sins” were extremely minor in comparison to the brutal oppression and death squad activism of El Salvador and near genocide in Guatemala, these latter conditions barely mentioned and their compliant governments generously, and disingenuously, described as “fledging democracies.” Nicaragua temporarily closed a newspaper which was openly supportive of the terrorist attacks against teachers, postal workers and other “soft” targets conducted by the Contras, invariably described as the “democratic resistence”. U.S. media were outraged while ignoring the chief means of censorship in U.S. partners-in-crime, El Salvador and Guatemala, journalist homicide. In regard to the Iran/Contra investigation, mainstream media took their cues from the committee, venturing no where near the forbidden zones. Gary Webb was an exception to prove the rule as he was drummed out of the profession, an effective example to those tempted to wander, and to eventual suicide (if it was suicide).

The content of Culture of Terrorism is now history, replaced by current versions of a coopted democracy, shaped, as always, to entrench the unfettered privilege of an elite. Among that 1% is a range of opinion that traverses the political terrain from moderate right to an ideology difficult to distinguish from feudalism, this latter group now enthusiastically congregating around the Trump administration, flirting with fascism. In some psychological circles it is estimated that 4% of the male population are sociopaths. They're not all particularly smart but those who are can be assumed, given their advantage of ruthlessness, to rise to positions where they can inflict upon the rest of us their conscienceless narcissism.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Corporations As Persons

The United States' revolutionary war grew out of the monopolistic policies, supported by corrupt British crown and government, of the Earth's first major corporation, the East India Company. So claims Thom Hartman in his book Unequal Protection. Once overthrown, their quest to return to power was resisted by Jefferson, Madison and other pro-democracy anti-federalists (Hamilton and Adams leading the Federalists). These forces see-sawed over the years of changing administrations, congress and courts, but with Reagan, Bush, Bush II. and now Trump, they have overwhelmed the barricades (not that Carter, Clinton and Obama were untainted but like democrats in general, a bit less enthusiastic servants of the 1%). So the original Tea Party was a protest of corporate unfair, monopolistic practices. Ironic that today's "Tea Party" are actually created by and acting on behalf of the ideological descendants of that corporate point of view.

Hartmann's book examines just how corporations came to be regarded as persons and how prior to that subversive act, corporations were considered mere legal entities subject to regulation by real persons through their representatives in government. As corporations and business interests rose in power and wealth they used their influence to populate the Congress, White House and Judiciary with as many anti-democratic officials as possible, posing of course as patriots, lovers of “freedom”. By freedom they meant, without saying so, freedom for business to avoid regulation. Not everyone went along so there were occasional openings to advance democracy. Women once arrested for attempting to vote gained suffrage. Black citizens, brutalized and oppressed, overcame the most blatant aspects of Jim Crow and children came to be protected from exploitation in the workplace – all of this only with great sacrifice and vigorous activism, marked by frequent set-backs and Trump-style, in-your-face, pushback.

The author sets out to highlight what's at stake, what he calls the commons. In a broad sense the commons is the life system, without which life simply cannot continue. Capitalism, on the gigantic level of corporations committed to nothing but profit-making, is a threat to this biological balance. It shows up for us in trade agreements that empower panels of businessmen(!) to overrule the constitutional laws of nations whenever those countries, in the judgement of a handful of unnamed corporate officers - in secret, unappealable deliberations - decide that said laws interfere with trade. Hartmann provides examples, one where U.S. laws aimed at limiting fishing nets that, though used for other species, inadvertently kill dolphins in devastating numbers, were thrown out. Another perversion in this equation is the corporate patenting of life forms and of medicines that have been used by indigenous peoples for generations which now can be legally forced to pay the patent holders for infringing on their “intellectual property”.

An interesting statistic Hartmann provides early in the book quotes a 1998 FBI report on crime which claims street crime costs our society about $4 billion dollars that year. The Corporate Crime Reporter for that same year estimated corporate crime at somewhere between $100 and 450 billion. Quite a range but even if the low one is accurate it's still way higher than street crime. The corrupt privatization of our prison system, where profits are enhanced by increased criminalization, leads to incarceration of our most vulnerable populations but this targetting, predictably, focuses on street criminals, and even of promoting passage of selective laws that criminalize behavior of target groups. One should keep in mind that the mainstream media is itself corporate and so these disparities are likely to be downplayed in favor of promoting fear of street crime and terrorism.

The evolution of the assault on democracy began early on, when the Jefferson/Madison faction more or less defeated the Hamilton/Marshall faction. The victory however was short-lived and probably the source of Jefferson's thought that “The price of liberty is eternal vigilence.” So Hartmann outlines the struggle to remain vigilent and resist the anti-democratic beast, pin-pointing the Supreme Court case that established corporations as persons, the Santa Clara decision. The author cites various theories as to how this happened and puts forth his own. This book was published prior to the Citizens United decision that strengthened the ridiculous personhood claim. A Supreme Court decision is written out by a clerk, starting with a summary. The summary is NOT law, it's only a summary. So a clerk with blatant corporate ties inserted a phrase in the summary at odds with the actual content of the decision. That insertion then was cited in future cases, by Justices and state supreme courts, sympathetic to the corporate view, as precedent to hand down pro-corporate decisions. At one point Hartmann provides the disturbing data that up to that decision, corporations (primarily railroads at the time) had used the 14th Amendment 288 times seeking personhood for corporations while only 19 cases were brought in defense of the obvious purpose of the Amendment, to provide equal protection for black people. The supreme irony is that Railroads could afford to bring litigation repeatedly, hoping to eventually find a sympathetic court, whereas women and blacks were left begging, “Can I be a person too?”

The Supreme Court appointed Bush II. to the presidency and Bush II. appointed Chief Justice Robertson, the Democrats allowing it, themselves being beholden to corporate campaign contributions, and all these little interrelated corruptions entangle us in the present very-hard-to-be-optimistic-about situation.

Until the Santa Clara case, most of the corporations-as-persons cases did not succeed. Hartmann offers a summary of what happened with that case: “An amendment to the Constitution which had been written by and passed in Congress, voted on and ratified by the states, and signed into law by the President, was radically altered in 1886 from the intent of its post-civil war authors.” The sympathetic court (or clerk) sought by the railroads was found and made it that much easier to further subvert the Constitution, the latest incident being Citizens United and the unfortunate, and illegitimate, appointment of Gorsuch to the court. The railroads would have been pleased. The corporations certainly are.

(Illustration by the author)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Injustices, The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable... Ian Millhiser

If you've ever wondered how the Supreme Court, in its great wisdom, came to the proposition that corporations are persons, with all the rights thereof, you might try Millhiser's book. There is plenty of precedent for that body making law out of whole cloth. Basically two forces are at work in the court, as in our great land, sometimes in the same justice, one dissenting, one dominating. A pro-democracy strand of fairness based in the written constitution and the people's right to govern themselves via the congress struggles against a commitment to business owners (or one could say the 1%) and a distrust of democracy. This latter faction parces the constitution where it can but doesn't hesitate to invent, where needed, to advance those interests. Today's court obviously has stood mostly in this camp, and given the current congress and executive, stands poised to wade still deeper into that unsavory swamp.

During the Civil War, when the Union army took New Orleans, that city was the least healthy in the country. Every summer thousands perished from the heat-stirred effluence polluting the water system from slaughter houses upstream. When the Union Army force-moved them inland the death-rate plummeted. After the war things went back to business-as-usual, including the toxicity. The reconstruction government decided to require reform of the nasty enterprise. Challenged by business, the supreme court eventually ruled in favor of the restrictions but a dissent by Justice Field gave hope to unbridled capitalism and in fact was cited, over the years, by many state supreme courts, as if the dissent were law, in knocking down other attempts to regulate business and protect workers and environment.

The Court played a part in a related story, the evisceration of that same post-war, reconstruction body, where freed slaves were voting and fully participating in the government itself. As you can imagine, this was not acceptable to the former slave owners whose rationalizations justifying slavery needed little tweaking to condone the violent subjugation and demonization of their brothers from across the sea. Black citizens were slaughtered in an incident defending the reconstruction government from vigilantes. The great court ruled that the plaintiffs had no federal remedy, they must rely on the state government (the vigilantes), the very body oppressing them. Needless to say, this ruling gave the south clear sailing. It may not have re-instituted slavery but it came close. To put the final nail in the coffin, in a disputed election Hayes was given the presidency in exchange for ending reconstruction. Thus the march of injustice staggered on.

These cases demonstrate court polarity but they hardly begin to exhaust the record, both prior to these judgements and since. A few examples:

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that free states return escaped slaves to their “masters”. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled this act unconstitutional but the Supreme Court over-ruled the decision in 1859. In Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) the court unanimously ruled that segregated railroad cars did not abridge the privileges nor immunities of the colored race, nor deprive him(!) of property without due process of law, nor deny him the equal protection of the law. In another case Field stated that if blacks could not be excluded from juries then the next outrage would be to grant women the same right. Justice John Archibald Campbell looked to ambiguous language in the 14th amendment to creatively protect white supremacy. The court has shamefully ruled that slaves are not persons but corporations are.

A Pullman Porter strike against wage cuts was suppressed by the company in collusion with the president, the attorney general and the courts. Troops were sent to attack peaceful strikers. There is an interesting section of the book describing the famous Pullman Town created by that patrician. Eugene Debs, the great labor organizer and socialist presidential candidate, defied the anti-union injunction and was jailed. Later, during World War I. he was jailed again for speaking against the war, wrecking his health and shortening his life. So much for the first amendment.

The court struck down child labor laws as interference with trade, and vigorously struck down state laws attempting to work around their judgements. Working conditions for children were horrendous, life stumping and threatening, from black lung to lost limbs, long hours, low pay and early death. These judgements gave industry, particularly southern mills, a generation of cheap labor and decades of freedom from federal regulation. The “freedom” to enter into contracts was cited to deny workers the right to organize, as if to protect workers when actually those contracts were lop-sided in the extreme, unfair, burdensome and coercive. The right of owners however, to collude and organize against unions was not to be questioned. Working conditions were terrible for adults as well, dangerous, poorly paid and brutal. In one month in 1907 all but five of the entire work force at one mine were killed in explosions. There of course were the company towns and stores that reduced workers to near feudal conditions. The court upheld a Colorado mining company's right to pay in script, redeemable only at the company store. Companies had no incentive to spend on safety or training since the courts did not hold them liable for injury or death.

Respected (by the “right” people) theorist and scholar Professor Tiedman, in his prolific and widely read articles, urged jurists to rule whenever possible against the notion of majority rule – Democracy – even when the constitution or precedent did not support the ruling. Many state supreme courts enthusiastically complied.

Justice Field, in his notorious dissents, thought business should be immune to regulation, using the 14th Amendment in his twisted arguments. The “freedom” of business to be unregulated was put above the freedom of citizens to have clean drinking water, decent wages, safe working conditions. Field wrote in dissent but represented the “libertarian” strand, often dominating the court, that reduces the bill of rights to protection of property. The current court is not far from this position. The administration is obviously appointing cabinet members, and soon the court no doubt, who embrace this sinister point of view with a vengeance. In a case closer to our time, a coal mine owner/CEO pumped $3 million into a Virginia supreme court race, defeating the incumbent. His replacement then voted to acquit the mine owner of negligence in the death of minors. The Supreme Court ruled that the justice should have recused himself but our own Chief Justice Roberts dissented.

For the Injustice camp, books and information of the type offered in Millhiser's book hardly matter. The numbers of people (voters) who encounter it are relatively few and so impact elections not at all. But offer up horror stories the book does, in a highly readable if dense style. Tales necessary for an informed citizenry but also confirmation of the ol' biblical saw, increase knowledge, increase sorrow. It's not always all doom and gloom, after all, the court ruled favorably on Brown vs Board of Education (just barely, with much rangling despite the final unanimity) ending segregation, and Nixon had to hand over the incriminating tapes... but this history ought to alert us that the anti-democratic faction in our culture is a powerful force that requires a serious, sustained and focused response, the proverbial cost of liberty, eternal vigilance.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Puzzling Over Syria: a conference & talk on Israel/Palestine and Syria

A conference on February 4th in Decatur, GA featured “rock star” panelists, knowledgeable, articulate, even entertaining on a subject that doesn't readily lend itself to such.  Awakening Our Hearts and Minds: A Critical Perspective on Israel/Palestine and Syria. This is not a thorough review of the conference but more a collection of impressions. A talk on Syria by journalist Reese Erlich, a week later added further to my notes. My attendance at these events was motivated by a lack of knowledge about the situation in Syria. I'm more confident in my sense of what's happening in Israel/Palestine. This conference and talk confirmed much of that and added more detail.

Injustice, death and destruction are hardly cheerful subjects. As the biblical phrase has it, “We who increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow” (edited slightly for patriarchal language). Plenty of that to go around at this gathering. The idea that Israeli strategy is to make life so miserable for Palestinians that they will give up and leave, all while stealing the best of their land, pretty much sums up the Israel/Palestine part of the meetup, what one participant termed, systemic “structural violence”. The Syrian is more difficult to summarize but the conclusion that outside forces cannot, should not, focus on regime change, that this task is for the Syrian people and that the evolution of democracy in this troubled area needs to be nurtured not force fed, particularly by those whose democratic credentials are far from bonafide, ie, Russia and the United States.

More than one of the panelists used the term “narrative”, how stories that support various factions are put forth to undermine resistance, the most powerful of course dominating discourse. Critical thinking is the tool that can sort through all this, the dominators obviously preferring simple adoption of their story. One example was the “savior” narrative of MLK which undermines resistance by promoting waiting for the savior as opposed to doing something, acting. MLK was a figurehead but he certainly didn't act alone. There were thousands of ordinary but heroic citizens laying the ground for and supporting his leadership. Who benefits from the story? That is the question that dissecting the narrative should answer. Racism, oppression and militarism are strengthened when they are not dissected nor resisted. Ella Baker is cited as a woman of color who broke with the NAACP over its exclusion of women and young people from the microphone. The Black Panthers evolved out of SNNC and Black Lives Matter learned from the Palestinian struggle. This latter group's manifesto is well worth reading, one of the panelists insisted.

The racist narrative is one of presumed white superiority and inferiority of the dark-skinned, violent, threatening, less intelligent etc; Blacks in the U.S. and Palestinians in Israel are the frequent victims of this narrative. Instances of the many injustices in both places were given by people with personal experience, from the routine racism in Ferguson, Missouri to the separate laws and enforcement for Israelis and Palestinians and the complete lack of rights for Palestinians in the occupied territories. The so-called security wall that Israel has constructed, as President Carter pointed out in his book Peace or Apartheid, has far more to do with land confiscation than with security. 85% of the wall is on Palestinian land. The international court has concluded that Israel is perfectly entitled to build a wall on its borders but to extend that wall over Palestinian land and resources is a violation of international law. Jews who have immigrated from dark skinned countries find that white privilege is operant in Israel as in the U.S. The wall is a separation wall aimed, in part, to reduce the “threat” of Palestinian unity. The West Bank and Gaza are kept separate for this same reason. What Israel is accomplishing by law in the West Bank, it is accomplishing by war in Gaza. A historical outline was laid out in support of this assertion, obviously at odds with the official Israeli narrative. This included the Israeli take-over in the late 40s, the various wars, how Gaza came under Israel's occupation, the several Intifadas, their genesis and brutal Israeli reaction.

Israel was founded on inequality by religion, segregation, supremacy. Palestinians who live in Israel proper(!) are second class citizens with a separate set of discriminatory laws written for them. Four hundred Palestinian children are imprisoned by Israel. Israel routinely violates treaties to which it is a signatory. Their military courts have a 99% conviction rate. Specious arguments are carefully concocted to claim that international law does not apply to the occupied territories. U.N. Reports document routine torture and disproportionate punishment, like breaking the arms of children who throw stones. Indefinite detention without charge is also routine. The non-violent resistance as embodied in the BDS (Boycott, disinvestment and sanctions) movement is under attack in the U.S. with attempts to make it illegal in some states.

For white people, revolution begins internally. What are the lies and myths and what do I get out it? Look at your community and ask, what can I do here? White nationalism is a reaction to an arising awareness that threatens empire. Position your self with the oppressed, recognize the oppressor in your self,... “we” (U.S.) took native land, enslaved blacks, suppressed minorities, women, unions etc;

The Trump Administration takes a hodge-podge of contradictory positions. Trump claimed he'd purge the establishment, then appoints establishment and extremist anti-democratic figures, from Wall Street to Breitbart, mostly to oversee departments they think shouldn't even exist. He opposed the war on Iraq yet is going to “kick butt” all over the middle east. His threat to label the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists, like many macho U.S. foreign policy decisions, will encourage the most militant factions in that organization. The Brotherhood has been observing parliamentary procedure for many years, accepting electoral outcomes instead of resorting to violent opposition.

As the so-called Arab Spring spread to Syria the government predictably cracked down. The most successful locale was the uprising in Alleppo. Unfortunately, within a year a movement for dignity degenerated into violent factions dependent on outside support. Isis, Al Qaeda and other extremist groups took over. When the U.S. sends arms to “moderate” rebels they are either hi-jacked by extremists or delivered, as prearranged. Two cease fires have failed, a third, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran, excluding the U.S., is currently fragile but holding. A bewildering array of groups fight each other inside Syria while an equally bewildering array of outside groups throw their support to factions that have a hard time keeping track of just who they're fighting. Russia has definite investment in the Assad regime while the U.S. backs opposition groups that are its deadly enemies in other contexts. It should not be forgotten that the Eurpoean colonial powers divided much of this land, as was done in Africa, creating borders that served their interests, not the people who lived here.
In the broader “war on terror” the U.S. heavily relies on violence, going after leadership with drones and other assassination techniques. Persuasive studies have shown this approach to be ineffective, overall, for groups remain active despite these killings. The tit for tat, Hatfield and McCoy scenario repeats throughout history by those who don't study it. Non-violent conflict resolution, a skill we need if we are to survive the nuclear and WMD age, goes begging, the players all too wedded to macho display to recognize this fundamental error.

One of the obstacles to positive work is that Muslim NGOs could be worked with more productively but an irresponsible media will often sloppily report attempts and scare off funders. These NGOs are trusted to go into war zones and do dangerous aid work but are not invited to the policy table. About half of Syria's population has been displaced, most locally but many also abroad. That's eleven million ordinary citizens. Much of this misery evolves out of the disastrous Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq. The right likes to pretend that if only Obama were tougher, had done this or that, we would have been successful but this is sheer fantasy. It is more than an old saw that violence begets violence. The U.S. has shorted its refugee pledge in dollars by 40% yet spends $12 million a day funding violence in Syria. As stated above, much of the get-tough military aid ends up in the hands of those it was meant to be used against, if anyone can keep track of that. Erlich claims that a $ trillion has been spent by the U.S. between Afghanistan and Iraq. What do we have to show for that monstrous expenditure? Iran is now more influencial in the area than before the invasion, the U.S. less. By that measure, the whole thing is one big failure. Keep in mind that those expenditures are taxpayer monies while the oil profits that emerge as the real justification for all that spending, to the degree that there are any, given the chaos, are completely privatized, not funneled to the taxpayer but to the corporations who, let's face it, rule. This is standard throughout the history of colonialism and empire.
Alleppo is back in government hands, thanks to Russian intervention and mercenary troops, except for Kurds holding one small area. There are widespread human rights abuses on all sides. The Shia/Sunni divisions do not really account for the divisions in Syria for they have a long history of peaceful coexistence. It is more related to different factions vying for position though some warlords attempt to use perversion of religion to manipulate their followers. It is also used by outsiders to oversimplify the conflict.

According to journalist Reese Erlich ( the players who wanted to invade Iran instead of Iraq during the Bush Administration are now at the helm under Trump. The lessons of history are being ignored once again, apparently, even those most recent lessons that have nearly bankrupted the country. It feels like one of those tragic moments in history where the exact wrong actors favor the exact wrong action, perpetuating the long sad march of folly.