Wednesday, December 27, 2017

No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein

No Is Not Enough, Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, Naomi Klein 

In her book Naomi Klein refers back to her No Logo, to talk about Trump's early recognition of the business idea to, instead of selling products, objects, sell a brand. His outrageous behavior got him attention and that helped build the Trump brand. Marketing the brand brought him millions and, the cherry on top, the presidency – where he continues his same outsized strategy. He didn't have to pursue far right values but those values seem to accompany an all-that-matters-is-money logic. Given the stories about his refusing to pay contractors, coming out on top of deals with little regard for ethics or fairness, bankruptcies, it is quite astonishing that voters would expect him to suddenly display benevolent behavior toward them. He railed against the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. but his brands were all outsourced. The recent tax bill is another instance of blatant betrayal. Another consequence of, and motivation for, this bill is that increasing the national debt makes the kind of social programs the Right disapproves of unaffordable. I suppose you have to factor in the alienation, the anti-establishment to-hell-with-it attitude of frustrated working people feeling financial vulnerability bearing down on them without a clear idea that it's coming from predatory capitalism. And there's the Fox News factor. Who was it said when a Faux News figure moved to work for the Bush Administration, “The merger of the Republican party with Fox News is now complete.” The anomie is shifted, with the help of these unscrupulous zealots, to immigrants, minorities, liberals or some other scapecoat. The “smart” con man worked this field with impressive results.

Klein references her important book Shock Doctrine, to warn that the agenda now being pursued works best under cover of some crisis. They're going full bore but the resistance is always easier to overcome when some dramatic smokescreen is available. The Patriot Act was rammed through congress with hardly a dissenting voice in the aftermath of the 911 crisis, a bill that gave the executive branch grave undemocratic powers. The author hopefully postulates that it is harder to use the shock doctrine, or crisis capitalism, when the population has already been shaken down. The right wing Spanish government, for example, attempted to use a bombing in a Madrid subway to herd the population toward its agenda but that attempt backfired because, Klein claims, the populace had already been manipulated by the right such that they could see it coming. They promptly threw that government out of office and pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq. Other examples are given to encourage U.S. citizens to be prepared for the likelihood that Trump will create or use any crisis that might arise to advance those parts of his agenda that ordinarily would be strongly resisted. Like rolling back social security, something the right resisted at its creation and has been yearning to repeal ever since.

Although nuclear war, accidental or not, and over-population are very real threats to our civilization, the most urgent in Klein's view is climate change. It is disheartening in the extreme then to consider Trump's appointments to cabinet positions, climate deniers one and all. Rex Tillerson of Exxon, Secretary of State? Jeff Sessions, known racist, Attorney General? Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator, known for his cosy relations with fossil fuels industry? Rick Perry, Energy Secretary, the guy whose position, during the presidential campaign, was that the department should be eliminated? Goldman Sacks in all things financial? The fox in the hen house, as the saying goes.

And there are those deluded souls who believe that they can turn a profit from war. War also is one of those crisies behind which much profitable mischief can be carried out. It provides a nice distraction. Clinton attempted to deflect attention away from his, ah, problems, by bombing a pharmaceutical plant in Africa, pretending it was a bomb plant. Bush/Cheney were under investigation for insider trading when “patriotism” required disappearance of such investigation when the good ol' boys invaded Iraq. Hopefully we have been conned enough to meet the next one with an effective skepticism.

Naomi suggests that the aesthetics of branding is Dynasty-meets-Louis XIV.... gold and flash. Trump's brand is the ultimate boss who can do whatever he wants, as exampled by his own boasting about grabbing whoever he wants wherever he wants. What might have been scandalous in the pre-branding era, is now just proof of being a “winner” in the power/wealth game. Someone gets stepped on? More proof. Being entirely amoral, he thinks he can get away with anything. Being president is the ultimate branding tool. Mar-a-lago has doubled its membership fees to $200,000. The president meets there with world leaders. His children meet with them and cut deals. So the presidency and U.S. government are now a for-profit family business. Where can the ego go from here?

Reagan began de-regulation with a vengeance, Clinton, Bush and Obama enabled it further. Klein notes that this is a wholesale disparaging of the public sphere. Deregulation was like fertilizer for Trump and he is pushing it, if we-the-public let him, to where it will be irreversible.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, Betty Medsger

The non-fiction on my reading list is important stuff but not exactly entertaining... and mostly depressing. It's part of my dutiful good-citizen activism. The Burglary is also but such a page-turner that two days in a row it was 3:30a.m. before I could put it down.

In 1971 eight activists decided to break into an FBI office to find proof that the agency was off the rails, blatantly violating the constitution. Their successful action confirmed this in spades. They divided the booty up into categories, setting aside criminal investigations and mailing the hot stuff to key congressional figures and media, the author of this book foremost. The politicians, noteably George McGovern, disappointedly turned the stuff over to the FBI, though one member of congress kept copies of the mailer, Representative Mitchell of Baltimore. He also publically commented that though the burglary was illegal, so were some of the FBI acts exposed.

Medsger gives a detailed account of the burglary and its planning, the media response (she was a young Washington Post reporter), the political response and the FBI's panic attempting to suppress publication and manage the fall-out. Finding the culprits became Director Hoover's obsession. Revealed is the tangled and corrupt relationship of the bureau with sympathetic individuals in congress, the press and many institutions. Universities, banks and businesses were willing to turn over confidential files and information, trusting that the bureau was what its PR department said it was, a fearless, patriotic, honest, super crime fighter. Few knew that the sunday night television show The FBI allowed the bureau to vet all scripts. It's star, Efram Zimbalist Jr. often appeared at bureau dinners and social functions. Hoover was a control freak who considered anyone who disagreed with him a subversive radical, thus a legitimate target for survelliance and even dirty tricks. A Tennessee Representative who dared to publicly criticize Hoover found himself smeared with false accusations at his next election where he lost his seat. FBI agents followed “subversive” citizens as they traveled abroad. Feliz Frankfurter, supreme court justice, was one of these. To Hoover the civil rights and anti-war movement were all communist-inspired. Read Marx? You're on the list, the hundreds of thousands to be rounded up and put in internment camps during a “national emergency”. The director fumed that he could not arrest people for embracing ideas he didn't approve of, labeling them communist after helping to stigmatize that word. Few in the congress questioned FBI methods. Hoover compiled dossiers on politicians, to blackmail and silence potential antagonists. An innocent man, Black Panther Geronimo Platt, spent 27 years in prison on a charge the FBI knew was false. Another Panther, Fred Hampton, was murdered by Chicago police in collaboration with agents. Like the Vietnam War, freedom and democracy were cited to justify their twisted opposite. Police departments and chiefs across the country seemed to emulate Hoover's methods and regard for the consitution.

Several of the activists had spent time in the deep south at Freedom Summer, being beaten and jailed for helping to register black voters. They were also involved with breaking into draft board offices to destroy records to disrupt what they considered an out of control killing machine unwilling to question its rigid ideology. In their frustrated work to stop that unjust war they happened upon the burglary idea and had a significant impact, if not on the war per se, on its bosom mate, the beast of injustice.

Speaking of justice: another group of draft burners were arrested in the act in Camden, New Jersey, betrayed by an informer. The FBI was convinced that these were the burglars they were searching for. There is a wonderfully moving description of the trial, of how the defendents convinced the jury, and even the judge, walking away with a not guilty verdict. The defendants, who fully participated in the trial as co-counsel, were so persuasive and respectful, truly peace workers, that even the prosecutors joined the group hug after the verdict was read.

The burglars, when meticulously sorting the files at a rural farmhouse, put them into categories and pointed out in the cover letter to media that 47% dealt with survelliance of legal, constitutionally-protected behavior, of students, unions, activists and especially black students. If you were black under the Hoover FBI, you were assumed to be subversive and potentially violent. Scores of informers were hired to report on lawful meetings and activity in “subversive” neighborhoods, ie, black communities. They weren't seen to have legitimate grievances but to be manipulated by the Soviet bug-a-bear. The bureau went to ridiculous lengths, all at taxpayer expense... all hidden behind the carefully crafted image of a crack FBI crime-fighting organization.

Eventual fallout for the bureau from the burglary was a stained reputation, especially as the Church Senate Committee delved into FBI and National Security Agency activities. Their reports and conclusions were watered down and certain to be resisted by, let's face it, fascist forces. The bureau factions that approved of Hoover resisted mightily the reforms that were attempted. Hoover, over his tenure, kept hidden the illegal activities from oversight, changing the name of the department when necessary while telling Congress or the Justice Department that the department had been eliminated. COINTELPRO was the current acronym in 1971. The activist burglars began a chain of events that exposed Hoover, mostly postumously. Apparently only death could stop him. He died within a year of the burglary, lacking that critical dossier on the grim reaper. A tyrant sat in the heart, well, bowels of a great nation for nearly 50 years, malevolently undermining democracy. There are many so inclined, necessitating the continual presence of the courage of those resisters.

A disturbing post-script: Robert Mueller, leading the current investigation into administration law-breaking, participated, as FBI director in the resistance to disclosing bureau malfeasance.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Great Derangement & Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi

In The Great Derangement (2006) Matt Taibbi looked at several contemporary phenomenon: The War in Iraq, Fundamentalism as exemplified by a Texas Mega-church and, in his words, the great sausage-making in Washington, D.C. The 911 conspiracy buffs come under scrutiny as well.

He makes no bones about the deception in Iraq accomplished by the usual methods: jingoism, cowardly congress, compliant press. Great sympathy and respect is extended to the soldier and civilian victims of folly but none for the stupidity, ideological blindness and corruption which he sees ravaging the corpse of democracy. Senseless destruction, death and injury, obscene waste and robbery of national treasure.

Fundamentalism and 911 Truthers get lambasted for their willingness to swallow anything with no evidence required. Given an opportunity to organize to affect policy they choose instead to wallow in half-baked conspiracies, surrendering any critical faculty they might have had and having virtually zero impact. I suppose psychologically conspiracy and religious dogma offer a sense of being right, superior, that in the face of a mysterious and precarious existence, one gains comfort from the delusion of understanding it. Mega-church preachers routinely violate the agreement by which they remain tax-free, politically denouncing those who might vote for Obama or advocate abortion, gay marriage, alternatives to capitalism and whatever other prejudice the father figure embraces. They bring to their “flock” a brand of conservative republicanism hard to reconcile with certain readings of the scripture they claim to speak for... and the flock seems predisposed to bless and accept whatever nonsense is handed to them with enthusiastic ferver.

Taibbi's congressional monitoring is quite entertaining, as writing, providing relief from the depressing subject as he describes the representatives of democracy blatantly serving the interests of their campaign contributors in the most shameful, business-as-usual servitude. Sausage indeed. Those valiant few who buck the sytem expose themselves to deep-pocketed attacks, even conservatives who slightly deviate from the party line are vulnerable. There is also the revolving door of corporate hacks running the departments supposedly regulating the corporations they will return to in short order, with pay raises.

Insane Clown President is a collection of Taibbi's reporting, mostly from Rolling Stone, during the 2016 campaign. Always witty and entertaining it is never-the-less a sad spectacle. His take is that the Republicans have for years depended on a strategy of demonizing the poor, blacks, immigrants, unions, gays etc; depending on the white voter to buy into it, vote against their own interests, as Bernie pointed out regularly, on issues that really have little relevance to their lives. Once in power virtually none of the issues advertised get addressed until the next election cycle while continuing to eagerly serve the 1%, either from financial dependence or ideological zeal, or both. And this they expected to repeat ad infinitum. Something happened though. The victims of this con began to recognize that business-as-usual somehow wasn't working for them as promised. Since the propaganda system had prepped them to instinctively recoil from the stance that Bernie brought to the conversation, even though it actually would have benefitted them - plus that candidate was marginalized by a 1%-owned media that found said point of view threatening to their elite position... well, enter Trump, the master con artist. Taibbi hilariously describes the establishment figures, Romney, Bush, Perry, Cruz etc; as out of their depth in this new reality show terrain, bumbling, out-maneuvored by the celebrity oaf at every turn. In Taibbi's words, “Trump's continued success puts the onus on the field to try to out-crazy the frontrunner.” Where Bernie and Trump's platforms overlapped, as in criticism of campaign-financing and corporate control, Trump's were, in the words he aimed at Hillary, just talk.

To give a sense of Taibbi's humor and style I quote this about the GOP: The party spent 50 years preaching rich people bromides like “trickle-down economics” and “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” as solutions to the growing alienation and financial privation of the ordinary voter. In place of jobs, exported overseas by the millions by their financial backers, Republicans glibly offered the flag, Jesus and Willie Horton.

Gaffes that normally quickly eliminate a presidential candidate, in the new climate, are cheered on by the delighted new “silent majority”, now finally found a champion. The other candidates were reduced to stretching for the ridiculous to get press attention but they were up against a natural. The networks, desperate for audience in the ratings game, shamelessly hung on every outrageous speech, giving Trump far more air time than any of the others. They opportunistically participated in a farcical dismantling of our democracy and for that they shall live in infamy,... but not poverty.

The debates provide Taibbi's sense of humor an outlet as he constructs drinking games to accompany them. We are to take a drink whenever one of the candidates: uses god platitudes, promises to carpet bomb any sandy country, complains that Obama won't use the word “terrorism”, mentions a war on Christmas, derides science in favor of “common sense”. Etc; Sometimes a double shot is required if, for example referring to “star wars” a candidate uses sound effects.; then there is the good guy with a gun rule, and thoughts and prayers for the latest victims. The competition for citing ridiculous “facts” is hilarious also until you remember that one of these guys might actually be president (of course this was written before the election – one criticism of Taibbi's writing would be his characterization at one point of Hillary as one of the most esteemed politicians in the country but elsewhere as one of the most hated... and he several times predicts Trump's demise, due to the “pussy” video and supposed plunge in the polls). But back to the “facts”: Trump repeatedly claimed to have seen thousands of New Jersy Muslims dancing and celebrating across the river from the towers on 911 and this absurd claim rolled right off the backs of his followers... and his fellow candidates. Carson, returning from a “fact finding” trip to the middle east assured us that the pyramids were used for storing grain. Since they're not hollow one could be forgiven for wondering about this candidate. One reporter followed up by asking whether the Eiffel Tower was for storing French bread. No mystery why these candidates were compared to the clown car.