Thursday, September 22, 2011

Time of death: 11:08

Troy Anthony Davis has been legally murdered by the state of Georgia.

I was going to write something about the death penalty, this badge of brutality, this symbol of savagery, which has stayed with us even as most of the world has long since left it behind - but I find I'm too depressed.

Depressed not only by the whole enterprise of officially-sanctioned murder, not only by the particulars of this case, where there is at least a fair chance that the man who was killed tonight was innocent, but right now perhaps most of all by the sheer banality of how it was done, the emotionless announcements that "the execution is in progress" and later of "time of death," that being followed - literally immediately - by an explanation of where media interviews would be conducted. All of it presented as equally routine, equally everyday, equally unremarkable.

It was all so neat, so tidy, so clean, so antiseptic, so proper, all according to procedure as we satisfy our blood lust vengeance while doing our best to eliminate any actual blood so we can pat ourselves on the back about how "civilized" and "humane" we are.

That is where the Fellowship of Reconciliation's old line of "Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong," as pointed and poignant as it is, fails: The death penalty is not about showing that killing people is wrong. It's about "getting back at them," about violent revenge, about the emotional satisfaction of causing pain to those you think did you wrong.

"Justice was served," some said tonight. No, it wasn't. Certainly not in Georgia and not even in Texas, where convicted murderer and white supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer was killed by the state. There is never justice where the death penalty is concerned.

It seems I have written something; more than I thought I would at the top, less that I would have under different conditions. Whatever; it will have to do for now.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Getting jobbed

So Barack Obama has announced his jobs program. There are, let it be said right at the top, some good things about it. Unfortunately, there are also some really sucky things about it.

The good parts involved extension of unemployment insurance ($49 billion) and federal investments in school modernization ($30 billion) and infrastructure ($50 billion), the latter of which would involve at least some direct hiring of workers to do the jobs. Another good feature is extending $35 billion in aid to states, which, while it will not create any new jobs, is intended to prevent the loss of some which would otherwise vanish in the midst of state attempts to balance budgets.

The sucky part is most everything else: The bulk of the proposal, some $240 billion, more than half, is made up of tax cuts - or, as they are nowadays rebranded by PR outfits and focus groups, tax "relief." And I expect they will work the same as they have in the past - which is, generally, "not."

Economists estimate the plan, which would cost about $447 billion if fully adopted, could create anywhere from 500,000 to nearly 2 million jobs next year. At least one progressive economist said the plan was bolder than he expected.

Maybe so, maybe it is "bolder" than we've come to expect from President Back-Down-Before-the-Battle-Even-Begins, but how good is it really? How much will it do for average schmucks like us?

Before the speech, lots of folks were wondering what direction PHC* would take: Would he get tough on the GOPpers, slam them for their obstructionism, demand that they shut up and get in line? Or would he, as his political advisors were reportedly pressing him to, go "pragmatic" by proposing stuff that was more likely to pass even if it didn't do much because getting something, anything, passed would look better for him in 2012?

Well, it appears he managed to do both. He talked tough, said some version of "pass this bill right now" more than a dozen times, setting the hearts of his adoring fans all a-flutter - but the things he proposed are small and will do little, even if they all get passed, which they won't.

In fact, related it this, the plan contains one really odd thing: He proposed to pay for it by some tax increases on the rich. Now, that is a definitely good thing and good for him for proposing it, but he knows, just like everyone else knows, such a plan has no chance in the House and maybe not in the Senate. Since I for one do not think this represents a brand new and genuine populism on O.'s part and really doubt he plans to fight for this (I notice he didn't say "Tax the rich!" a dozen times in his speech, or even once for that matter), why did he propose it? Was it for the PR effect? Just red meat to his base? Or so he can later use it to run against GOPpers on it? (Maybe - the GOPpers are certainly concerned about that prospect.)

Leaving that aside to get to the program proposals themselves, I seems to me that they are diddly-squat. Remember, for example, that the claim is that their effect could be to create nearly two million jobs next year. But it will take 2.7 million new jobs just to drop the unemployment rate by a single percentage point. By a very crude calculation, that means that the most optimistic forecast is that next year will see an unemployment rate of about 8.4%.

What's more, I don't have a lot of faith is those optimistic predictions. One reason is that the biggest part of the plan is, again, tax cuts - which always seem to be the first resort in such plans. The problem is, they don't work as serious stimulus except under special circumstances, ones which do not exist now. Tax cuts can provide a big stimulus if you have an economy that is ready to go, operating a new full capacity, ready to take off with just a nudge. What we have now is not like a horse straining at the bit, where you can let up on the reins a bit and let it run; we have an economy more like a horse that is sound asleep and we're trying to wake up. Easing up on the reins is not going to get that horse moving.

In fact, over the past couple of years, there have been several hiring tax credits as well as some 16 small business tax cuts measures, all aimed at getting businesses to hire. And they have failed.

You want a longer-term example? Here's one: The Bush tax cuts, the ones that were supposed to be temporary but were extended last December, went into effect on June 7, 2001. At that time, the national unemployment rate was 4.5%. (The good old days.) Since then, through August 2011, we have had 122 months of unemployment data. In all that time, unemployment never went below 4.4%. In fact, it was at 4.4% or 4.5% in a total of eight of those months, all of those is one nine-month stretch from September 2006 to May 2007. That is, for 114 of those 122 months, over 93% of time, unemployment was above where it was when these "job-producing" tax cuts went into effect.

Just recently, the New York Times had a big article on the possible real-world effect of the Obama plan, and in it, stated the obvious:
The dismal state of the economy is the main reason many companies are reluctant to hire workers, and few executives are saying that President Obama’s jobs plan — while welcome — will change their minds any time soon. ...

[M]any employers dismissed the notion that any particular tax break or incentive would be persuasive. Instead, they said they tended to hire more workers or expand when the economy improved.
All the blather about "job creators" and "improving the business climate" is utter crap. These people, these corporations, have as their prime concern maximizing their profit. They are not going to take the lead. They are going to follow.

As that same article points out, there is in the White House plan a $4,000 tax credit for employers that hire people who have been out of work for six months or longer.
To the extent these measures could be used, many employers said they would most likely support people whom companies were planning to hire anyway.
That is, all the proposal does is increase profits of companies by handing them $4000 for what they would have done anyway without creating one extra job or doing one thing to reduce unemployment.

But why in all that's rational would anyone think it would be otherwise? Corporations - I've said this before - are already sitting on over $2 trillion in ready cash reserves thanks to record profits. They already have more than enough money to invest, to expand, to hire if they were going to do that. But they're not and they won't and putting more money into the hands of people who already have more than enough is not going to change things.

That because of something else I've said before and will say it as many times as necessary: Corporations do not create jobs. The rich do not create jobs. There is only one thing that creates jobs, and that is demand. Demand, demand for goods and services to be supplied in the economy is only thing that creates jobs. Corporations are all about profit. Rich investors are all about return on investment. Businesses are not going to hire people they don’t need to make more profits.

In an economy like this one, there is only one agency that can effectively spur creation of demand, and that is government. It can do it by, essentially, taking money from people who have it, don't need it, and aren't spending it and giving it to people who don't have it, do need it, and will spend it - spend it on goods and services the private economy can supply, creating greater demand for those goods and services, sparking the hiring of people to meet that demand, people who will then have money to spend, creating more demand.

But still, still, what we keep hearing about is how we should - must - cut costs for corporations even though we have already done that repeatedly to no avail, even though it will accomplish nothing except make the filthy rich filthier and richer, and even though cutting corporate taxes is one of the worst ways to stimulate demand. And the latter is not just a philosophical statement, it's a mathematical one.

For example, just last month, Mark Zandi, who is the chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, released an analysis of how well various government measures work as economic stimulus. Zandi, it should be noted, is by no means some sort of lefty; in fact, he advised John McCain's campaign in 2008. Even so, his study showed that government spending is a much better economic stimulus than tax cuts.

Indeed, the single most effective form of stimulus, he found, is increased outlays for Food Stamps: Those expenditures produce $1.71 in economic activity for each dollar in federal spending. It provides that greatest bang for the buck. Rounding out the top three measures were spending on unemployment benefits and on infrastructure. And this is no outlier; earlier studies, including on by the CBO, have found much the same thing. As economic stimulus, spending beats tax cuts hands down.

But the fact remains that the biggest part of O.'s program is, again, tax cuts. According to the Moody’s study, each dollar lost by the Treasury due to the kinds of tax cuts for workers the White House proposes will create just $1.27 in new economic activity. The cuts for employers fare even worse, creating just $1.05 in economic activity for each dollar lost - essentially a wash.

Another important point here is the kinds of tax cuts envisioned: They are cuts in payroll taxes, the taxes that go to support Social Security and Medicare. The proposal is to cut payroll taxes for employees in half next year and trimming employer payroll taxes as well. That is, Barack Obama is looking to stimulate the economy by draining away money that should have gone to the trust funds backing those programs. In the midst of increasingly-shrill claims that the programs are going bust, Obama is proposing to make their long-term financing worse by over $200 billion.

That actually answers a question some people were asking in the wake of his speech: Why did he bring Medicare into it?

The thing is, why wonder? Barack Obama wants to cut Social Security and Medicare. He's made it clear, he's even said it out loud: At a town hall meeting in Illinois on August 11, Obama said he would personally push for such cuts as part of any deal for deficit reduction or job creation.

He wants to cut them. So he's only doing what he said. So why the surprise? (Unless it's surprise that in this case he actually is doing what he said he would.)

Another part of all this is calls to lower the corporate income tax, which, again, seems always to be part of the first resort. But, getting back to the Moody’s study for one more mathematical moment, it found that such a tax cut would create a mere 32 cents of economic activity for each dollar spent. It's a net loser economically. Which only goes to show one more time that cutting taxes to corporations is one of worst ways to stimulate demand, one of the worst ways to stimulate the economy. Federal spending is, simply, factually, mathematically, a much better option.

And what's even better than federal spending on the top two stimulative programs (Food Stamps and unemployment)? Why, direct public jobs programs: the government directly hiring people and paying them to do needed work.

In a recent study, economist Philip Harvey modeled the effects of spending $100 billion on direct job creation versus the same investment in Food Stamps and unemployment. He found that that amount of federal spending on those two programs would create nearly 570,000 jobs. (Note that is within the range of predictions for the White House's program at less than a quarter the cost.) On the other hand, spending that amount on direct hiring would produce over a million jobs plus another more than 440,000 private sector jobs due to the in-direct stimulus effect: over 1.5 million overall.

This would not even be the first time we've done something like this. As just one example, my father was in the Civilian Conservation Corps - the CCC - during the Depression. Part of the WPA, this was a direct federal hiring program for unemployed, single young men who were set to work on a large variety of conservation projects. During its lifetime, it provided 2.5 million men with work for anywhere from six month to two years. So a direct public jobs program is not even a new thing.

But all the exact numbers of employment totals and relative stimulative effects and all the rest are not important. What’s important is the relations among them. And what they come down to is that the single most effective thing the federal government can do to get people back to work, the single most effective thing it can do to get unemployment down, to spur economic activity, is to hire people and pay them to do needed productive work. Period. And if getting the economy moving is what you are actually concerned about rather than ideological rigidity or election-year posturing, that is what you will advocate.

The second best way is to support Food Stamps and insure getting them to everyone legally entitled to them. However, that's going to be a minority of people, sort of a limited universe, so you can go on to include the next best ways: extending unemployment assistance and supporting infrastructure programs.

What you will not do, because it is one of worst, if not the worst, way to advantage the economy, is to push for tax cuts to the rich and the corporations.

So why are those sorts of tax cuts always high on the agenda? How can it be that they don’t understand, that they don't understand the plain, repeatedly found, facts, facts based on both studies and actual experience, facts staring them right in the face?

Don't let your head explode, rather realize that the question has already been answered: They do understand. They do know. It's just that when the choice comes down to the vast majority of us or the handful of the powerful who pay the campaign bills and hire the armies of lobbyists to make sure it's known among those writing and signing the laws what side that handful is on, it's no contest. So instead of thinking about how can they do this, think instead about what this reveals about who is in charge, who makes decisions, who is really in control, who is really responsible for the mess we are in.

Yet something else I've said before: Make sure that you are angry at the right targets.

But there is a lot of anger around, a great deal of angry frustration, and, as is usual, it reveals itself in amoral callousness. I know you've heard about the moments at the GOPper presidential debate when Ron Paul was asked a hypothetical question about a healthy 30-year-old man without health insurance who goes into a coma and requires intensive care for six months. Paul was cheered for his answer that it's not the government's responsibility - and when he was then asked if "society should just let him die," there were shouts of "Yeah!" followed by laughter from the audience.

I expect you also heard about the crowd that cheered Rick Perry’s record of having executed more people than any other governor, any time, anywhere.

It's easy to condemn people like that, and such moral condemnation would certainly not be undeserved. But as I said something over a year ago, I have a certain sympathy for these people, many of who are - like too many Americans - not very well informed and thus easily manipulated into blaming the wrong people - into being angry at the wrong targets.

What's more, they are under stress, constant stress, and it shows, as stress usually does, in anger and coldness and indifference to others.

What stress? To begin with, I know you heard about the poverty numbers: According to the Census Bureau's annual report, a record 46 million Americans suffered in poverty in 2010, more than in any other year since the Bureau started making the estimate. The poverty rate rose to 15.1%, the third consecutive increase; it is now as high as it was in 1993 - and you would have to go back another 10 years, to 1983, to find one higher.

The poverty rate for children under 18 was 22% in 2010, making them more likely than any other age group to be poor. For children under the age of six, the poverty rate is a shocking 25.3%.

(The fact is, the US has long had one of highest poverty rates in developed world. Among 34 industrialized nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Chile, Israel, and Mexico have higher rates of poverty. But that this is not a new problem only adds to the economic stresses involved.)

Now go beyond that to remember that the broader economy sucks: For one thing, there was a net gain of zero jobs in August and the official unemployment rate persisted at 9.1%.

Signs of sluggish (at best) growth abound. In August, the average workweek for all employees edged down, as did the average hourly earnings for private employees. At the same time, the number of involuntary part-time workers, those who are working part-time only because they can't find full-time work, swelled by 400,000 to 8.8 million - meaning the total un- and under-employment rate went up.

More than six million of the officially unemployed have been out of work for at least six months - some 42.9% of the total number, tied for the record high. And an additional roughly 30,000 people reached 99 weeks without work, up to 2.04 million.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans with no health insurance is at 49.9 million, up nearly 2% from the year before.

And the real point here, the important point, is that this is not just now, this is not just the economic crunch of the past couple of years. This has been going on for decades. Lost decades - literally - of no gains, only the struggle to keep up.

In 2010, working Americans saw the annual median income decline 2.3% percent to $49,445. That was the third year in a row that the median income dropped. Adjusted for inflation, it is now roughly where it was in 1996: Fifteen years of getting nowhere.

Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted household income is now down 7.1% from its peak in 1999. Twelve years down the road and if you're an average family you are worse off than when you started.

Here's a stunner: Adjusted for inflation, the average male worker, that is, one at the median level, now makes less than he did - is worse off than he was - in 1968! Back then, the median income of male workers was $32,844. In 2010, it was $32,137, or $607 less. That's 43 years of work to wind up with no gain.

For all too many among us, our hopes are shriveling; worse, our hopes for the future of our children are seeming to evaporate. Under that kind of stress, it is natural to look for someone to blame, to look for someone who "did this to you." And the unfortunate, the sad, but the true fact is that it is easier, it is always easier, to blame those weaker than yourself. Prejudices and fears emerge easily.

So a lot of these folks are angry, frightened, frustrated, economically stressed people who have been manipulated by powerful voices around them into being angry at the wrong targets. At the poor, at the unemployed, at undocumented immigrants, at unions, at public employees, even at teachers.

So who should they be angry at? Here are a few ideas:

How about the 25 of the 100 highest paid U.S. CEOs who earned more last year than their companies paid in fed. income tax?

How about the companies that spent more on lobbying than on taxes?

How about the companies that have decided that “labor is just too expensive," and want to move to “a labor-less society," because as their profits increasingly come from overseas they have decided they damn well can do without you altogether?

How about the politicians in DC who, analysts say, just don’t care about poverty-related issues?

How about the business leaders and former government officials who wrote to that super committee, that select committee to find ways to slash budget - aptly dubbed the Joint Select Committee on Human Sacrifice by Lambert Strether - calling on it to "go big" and cut far more than the $1.5 trillion in cuts it’s tasked with finding?

How about Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a member of that committee, who threatened to in effect blow up the whole process if the committee considered a single dime in additional cuts in military spending?

How about those - mostly but not exclusively GOPpers - who are willing to let the economy go to hell and your life into the trash in order to protect their fat head, fat ass, fat cat cronies from having to pay a single extra penny in taxes?

Or how about the economic system itself, one that celebrates selfishness and applauds amorality? Now, there is a target worthy of our concentrated anger - and while it surely is for the vast majority of our fellow citizens not a visible target, it just as surely is the right one.

*PHC = President Hopey-Changey

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 - 3

This third panel of the triptych is based on what I said about 9/11 on my weekly cable TV show.

It starts by saying I grew up in New Jersey and worked in New York City for several years. I remember when the World Trade Center went up. And, as I remarked to a couple of people in the wake of the attacks, now I can remember when and how it came down.

When the towers were being built, they were actually somewhat controversial. Most of the space to be available was not pre-rented so the buildings, when completed, would be pretty much empty shells. Because of that there was a fair amount of feeling that the height of the buildings was pure ego - that it was being done not because of demand for that much office space but just to to be taller than the Empire State Building. A bitterly ironic note, considering how events turned out, is that there was concern about the possibility of a misguided plane crashing into one of the towers: The site was, after all, pretty close to the flight paths of three major airports - Newark, Kennedy, and LaGuardia.

I was driving down to New Jersey a few weeks after the attack and going down the Turnpike, there is an area where you can seen the skyline of southern Manhattan. I have to confess I felt a real wrench when I looked in that direction and saw sky where the towers should have been.

But I said then and I say now that as deeply as I mourned the victims of the attacks, as much as I admired and still admire the dedication and courage of the first responders, of the police and firefighters, the rescue workers, the EMTs and RNs, who rushed to get to the place everyone else was rushing to get away from, I still have to insist that the question for us as Americans is not, cannot be, what Osama bin Laden could have previously thought or should have then thought or done differently, but what we could have previously or should have then thought or done (or should now think or do) differently.

As hard as our misleaders try to tell us otherwise, the fact is that the clock of history did not start on September 11, 2001, and refusing to face our own complicity in creating and maintaining the conditions of desperation-driven fanaticism (because that, again, is what terrorism is), refusing to face our own criminal complicity in creating and maintaining the conditions in which such as al-Qaeda can take root and grow and recruit, refusing to face our own share of responsibility, is the surest way we as a nation can guarantee a continuation of a legitimate threat of terrorism directed against us.

“Nine-eleven changed everything,” we were told (over and over, particularly by those who wanted to exploit if for their own political ends). We still hear that cry sometimes.

No, it didn’t.

The world did not change. Maybe our awareness of it did - or more exactly our conscious awareness of parts of it did - but the world didn’t. Although there doubtless are those to who it would come as a surprise, the fact is that there are nations, peoples, cultures, all over the world who can deal with their lives, their highs and lows, their hopes and fears, their pains and joys, who can deal with the problems involving their neighbors down the block or their neighbors across the border without always thinking "How will this affect the US?"

On the other hand, there was one change: In the wake of the attacks, I remarked to more than one person that Osama bin Laden had done something that would have seemed impossible just days earlier: He had turned the US into the victim in the eyes of the world. In that moment, we had become the wronged innocents in the eyes of the world, including much of the Muslim world. Did we take advantage of that opening? Did we take advantage of the opportunity that the outburst of sympathy provided to chart new courses, set new patterns, mend our ways, whatever cliché you might prefer to describe repairing our relations with much of the world by saying "We're grateful for your sympathy and we pledge to do more to deserve it?" Of course not. Instead, we doubled down on the same damn fool and damned immoral courses we had already pursued.

Albert Einstein once said of atomic bomb that it had changed everything except our way of thinking. It might be said that 9/11 changed nothing except our way of thinking. That's because 9/11 affected how we thought about the world and our place in it as a country and as a people and in so doing revealed something about us as a people, something about our nature as a society. And what it revealed was, to put it mildly, not very complimentary.

I mentioned two posts down a couple of emails I sent two days after the attacks. In them I made a prediction about questions about the motivations behind the attack that went beyond notions of unreasoning (and of course entirely unjustified) hatred: I said that raising them would get you branded a terrorist-lover - a prediction that proved prophetic in short order, as just a week later, on September 20, 2001, George Bush told a joint session of Congress that you “are either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

As I expect you remember, there were massive arrests of Muslims in the US in the wake of the bombings, arrests of people charged with no crime, questioned, arrested, detained, often held incommunicado, solely on the grounds of being Muslim.

And less than a month after the attack, the so-called "Patriot Act," which I dubbed the "Traitor Act" for its effects on civil liberties, was passed, passed with a complete lack of any Congressional debate worthy of the word. It expanded government power to invade our privacy, to restrict our freedoms, to track our movements; expanded the ability to substitute suspicion for proof - and did it while reducing any form of judicial oversight.

Well, if you raised questions about the civil liberties impacts of any of that, you were, in the words of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2002, “aiding terrorists,” "eroding our national unity," and “giving ammunition to America’s enemies.”

We were cowed into silence, cowed into carefully measuring every word, every expression, for fear of what it would suggest about us.

And the sad part, the revealing part, is how easily we were cowed. How little opposition, how little resistance, was raised to the stripping away of freedoms and rights -even as it became obvious in the months after the attack that the failure to stop 9/11 was not because of lack of police powers but due to a lack of using those that were already there.

You want a recent example of that last point? I'll give you one. A few weeks ago, it was revealed that in 2009 former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who worked in that capacity in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, said in a radio interview to be aired as part of a 10th anniversary documentary on 9/11 that the CIA intentionally withheld information from the White House and FBI in 2000 and 2001 that two Saudi-born terrorists were in the US, two men who went on to be among the hijackers. The CIA knew the two were here, knew they had attended a so-called "terrorist summit meeting" in Malaysia (a meeting the CIA monitored) just days before coming to the US.

Clarke speculates that CIA withheld the information because the agency had been trying to recruit the terrorists, who were living in San Diego, California under their own names, to work as CIA agents inside Al Qaeda. Clarke admits he can’t prove this, but says a cover-up is “the only conceivable reason that I’ve been able to come up with” as to “why, when I had every other detail about everything related to terrorism,” he was never told about the two. He said it is fair to conclude “there was a high-level decision in the CIA ordering people not to share information.”

The former FBI director of the San Diego field office doubts the "trying to recruit them" idea but confirms that he was never informed of the presence of the two. Even so, no matter the cause, the fact remains that the CIA knew these guys were in the US and never told anyone, which if they had, might - we can't of course be certain, but might - have prevented 9/11.

But it didn't happen that way, so instead we were told that police and government had to have more power and we had to surrender civil liberties and we had to accept all of it unquestioningly or risk being thought "objectively pro-terrorist." We fell silent.

The left, to its shame, was not immune.

Within weeks of 9/11, leading voices on the left were on the offensive (in both senses), talking about how an ill-defined (actually, undefined) “Hate America left,” composed of those who dared to speak out with any energy, should be “rejected.” How questioners were "reflexive anti-Americans" who were to be dismissed as "a vocal minority." How, when the attack on Afghanistan began, those who opposed it had “lost their moral compass” and constituted a “blame America first” crowd.

While certainly not true of all the left, it is still a fact that a significant part of it went running around, waving its arms about, and shouting of war opponents and civil liberties advocates “Oh no no no, they're not with us!” They were, that is, cowed.

Over the last 10 years, even as some of the passion has died down and even as some of those supposed lefties who condemned opponents of our wars now sort of mumble and shuffle and try to change the subject, what has been revealed about us as a people remains, a revelation made plain by the overt changes:

We have seen the Traitor Act repeatedly renewed, we have seen the “temporary” parts of it, the parts to be sunsetted, made permanent. We have seen increased police powers to poke, prod, and pry into our privacy, we have seen increased powers to suppress and limit dissent such as the notorious "free speech zones," better called "silenced speech zones" - and no, that is not an "old" issue. We have seen warrantless wiretapping made legal, no longer even requiring the rubber stamp of the FISA court.

This has become accepted, routine, a "new normal." We have gone from a nation of people who pat themselves on the back for their traditional independence and individuality to one where it is not just accepted, it is advised to submit to authority no matter how arbitrary it may be and if you don’t passively submit and something happens to you - like the 72-year old woman who got tasered because she mouthed off to a cop - you can be damn sure that there will be a chorus saying it’s your own damn fault. Submission to arbitrary, even illegal, authority becomes not even advisable, it becomes laudable.

We have gone from a nation that at least respected its whistleblowers to one that sets new records for prosecuting them.

We have gone from a nation that rejected entrapment - that is, of officials encouraging someone to commit a crime in order to arrest them - as illegal and immoral to one where it is just another tool in the law enforcement kit, a tool where government informants actively encourage acts of terrorism and then report back when they convince someone to go along so that person can be busted.

From a nation that put "trial by a jury of one's peers" in a well-deserved place of honor, a nation that declared "justice delayed is justice denied," to a nation that tolerates, even urges, detention, imprisonment, without time limit, without trial, without even charge, sometimes even in the admitted absence of any evidence, as soon as some official invokes the magic phrase "suspected terrorist."

From a nation that prided itself on its morality, a nation that condemned torture and prosecuted war criminals to a nation that embraces torture to the point where Dick Cheney’s open admission that he personally approved of waterboarding - that is, torturing - prisoners gets a collective yawn. A nation where a clear majority of teenagers say that torture can be okay. And prosecute war criminals? Hell, we re-elect them.

From a nation that proudly proclaimed "the rule of law" and "no one is above the law" to a nation that added the phrase "except the president."

We tell ourselves tales of our daring, our resourcefulness, our courage, on how we braved oceans in search of freedom and a “new world” - tales of how we crossed mountains and plains and stared down deserts as we expanded westward, a people too vibrant to be contained.

(Yes, I know, I'm omitting native culture - I'm talking about the dominant US culture.)

But now we will stand in line, shuffling along like sheep into the fold, stripping off our shoes and our belts, dumping our gels in small plastic bags, powering up our laptops to prove they aren't bombs, and surrendering our privacy and our dignity as we get scanned and groped in ways once reserved for suspected criminals, all just to get on a damn airplane.

That is who we have become - or, perhaps more accurately, who we were beneath the surface until directed, unreasoning fear brought it out.

And the fear merchants, those who profit by power by keeping us in fear, continue their work, continue broadcasting their message of “be afraid, be very afraid,” a message designed to keep us in a state of sufficient fear that we will continue to be cowed into silence as our rights are gradually eroded away.

On September 3, the FBI and Homeland Security issued a nationwide warning about a supposed al-Qaeda threat to undertake attacks using small airplanes loaded with explosives. They admit there is no specific or credible threat and later called the warning just a normal bureaucratic bulletin - but you should just go ahead and be scared anyway, scared now of any small plane you might see flying over any populated area.

Then, the middle of this past week - Omigosh omigosh omigosh! - there was a "specific and credible" threat of a terrorist attack to coincide with 9/11, a threat involving "a vehicle" and aimed at New York. Or maybe Washington, DC. Maybe involving a bridge. Or a tunnel. Or something.

And just like before, the threat, having done its work, seemed to dissipate like a mist on a sunny morning.
A possible Al Qaeda plot to launch an attack during the 10th anniversary weekend of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is "looking more and more like a goose chase," a senior U.S. official told Fox News on Saturday.

Federal authorities have been questioning all day the credibility of a tip from a previously reliable source that Al Qaeda had planned to attack Washington or New York, putting though both cities on high alert. ...

"The threat is looking less and less credible," the official said, adding that the entire plot as outlined by the source "doesn't seem feasible."
None of this, of course, should be taken to say that there is no such thing as terrorism or that the threat of an attack somewhere, sometime, in the US is nonexistent. It is, however, to say that the fear of terrorism has been actively manipulated in the service of expanded government power over our private lives and that our shameful, cowering submission to that fear has done more damage to our political and personal freedoms than actual attacks ever could - and that the revelation of how easily and how far we could be manipulated and cowed by that fear is the real, lasting, legacy of 9/11.

One last thing: It wouldn't surprise me if you didn't know - I didn't until just recently - that the Traitor Act created a new government body as a means to ensure that the government didn't go overboard with its new terrorism-fighting powers and stomp too hard on civil liberties. It's called the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. It has no members, no staff, and no office.

Footnote, Unintentional Humor Div.: Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland, said that by publicizing the "credible" threat,
DHS has added millions of potential tipsters who can help confirm the information....

"There is a sense of empowerment that the public is being used," said Kayyem....
Yup, I feel so empowered!

On the other hand, she is right: We are being used.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 - 2

The second part of my own observance of the anniversary of 9/11 is quoting an unpublished op-ed I wrote, dated October 2, 2001.
In the wake of September 11, a blunt truth: Barring divine intervention, and I for one do not count on that, we will never “rid the world of terrorism.” As long as there are people there will be those, both individuals and governments, prepared to commit the most venal cruelties against innocents to gain political ends. What we can hope to do is control terrorism, limit it, minimize it.

But if the history of the Middle East over the last 30 years proves nothing else, it proves beyond question that neither terrorism nor “counter”-terrorism, neither retaliation nor counter-retaliation nor counter-counter-retaliation will stop the circle of death - particularly not so long as those on each side insist on seeing themselves at the wronged innocents only defending themselves against unreasoning violence or oppression or exploitation (or all three) while viewing their adversaries as evil brutes fully aware of their own brutality. Another cycle of mayhem is simply not an answer.

If we want to limit, to minimize, terrorism, we have to understand the roots of it, understand what produces it, understand what moves people to embrace such desperation-driven fanaticism, because that it was terrorism is.

And that in turn requires seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, which is where most of the commentaries attempting to answer the now-popular question “Why do they hate us?” have failed. The authors have projected themselves into the Muslim world and tried to think of what they might resent about the West in general or the US in particular. That is, they have changed their imagined location but not their eyes, still seeing the world through the filter of their own perceptions and desires. So they wind up producing answers like “They hate us because we’re rich” or “They hate us because we’re modern” or “They hate us because we support Israel.” Such answers are so removed from context that even to the extent they’re right, they’re useless, the more so because they add up to the unintentionally-revealing “They’re backward, jealous, anti-Semites who hate us because we’re better than they are.”

So for a moment, just for a moment, try to see the world through the eyes of an average person on the ground in the Middle East. This is how the world might look to you:

For centuries the West has looked down on you, regarding you, your culture, and, if non-Christian, your religion as inferior. (There is a reason bin Laden keeps referring to American “crusaders.”) They think of you as “ragheads” or “towelheads."

Every time a strong Arab leader rises and tries to become independent of the West, they get slapped down. The only regimes that survive are those too weak or too corrupt to threaten Western interests. (One such “threatening” government was that of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, who was overthrown in a CIA-engineered coup in 1953 after he attempted to nationalize oil reserves. The result was the 26-year reign of the Shah, whose army was practically stamped “Made in the USA.”) Yes, you resent the West’s wealth but it’s not so much that they’re rich and you’re poor, it’s that they’re rich because you’re poor, that their wealth is built on exploitation and economic domination.

In just the past 20-plus years, you’ve seen the US pick a fight with Libya in the Gulf of Sidra, bomb Tripoli, openly try to kill Moammar Qadaffi, bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan on the spurious claim it was a chemical weapons factory (leading to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of deaths due to inadequate supplies of medicines), stand by along with the rest of the West while Muslims were slaughtered in Bosnia (stepping in only when European interests were threatened), shell Beirut, shoot down a civilian Iranian airliner, and fire cruise missiles into Afghanistan.

Then there’s Iraq, it’s infrastructure systematically destroyed in a war which it seems to you had nothing to do with the West except to humiliate another strong Arab leader. In the run-up to that war you saw foreign troops stationed near the holy sites of Islam at the insistence of the US despite Saudi Arabia’s reluctance and warnings that doing so would be deeply offensive to conservative Muslims - which it was. (One thus offended being Osama bin Laden.)

For 10 years you have seen the bombing of Iraq continue, so much so that a few months ago a Pentagon press representative referred to one such raid as “routine.” Sanctions imposed by the West have cost the lives (by UN estimate) of 500,000 Iraqi children over the last 10 years, a death toll which then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright described in 1996 as “worth it.” Worth it, yes, you say - as long as it’s Arab children who are doing the dying.

And you see the US justify both the bombing and the sanctions on the grounds that Iraq “defies UN resolutions” while at the same time it pours billions of dollars in economic and military aid into Israel despite the fact that for 30 years Israel has openly defied UN resolutions about Palestinians and the occupied territories. It’s not even so much that the US supports Israel, it’s that the US does it to the detriment, the denigration, the denial, of the Palestinians.

If that was your world, what would the West, what would the US, look like to you? Like a noble friend? Or like a selfish, conceited, arrogant bully which figures it can do as it damn well pleases without cost to itself? And amid all this, what is the only force that has offered you hope, offered you help, offered you a model that has defied the West, offered you self-respect? Islamic fundamentalism. Seen through such eyes, the question “Why do they hate us?” answers itself.

This doesn’t mean excusing the terrorists who brought such ruin and pain to the streets of New York on September 11. We are all responsible for what we do and their acts deserve nothing but condemnation: Understanding does not mean approving.

What it does mean is that our best targets for “attack” in this “extended campaign” are not the actual terrorists (who likely number no more than a few thousand) but the tens of thousands, the millions, among who they recruit and from who they draw their strength. Our best weapons are bread and butter, not bombs; our best tactic reconstruction, not retaliation; our best strategy justice, not jingoism. The best way to minimize terrorism is to ensure that the dispossessed have a genuine stake in the world and don’t see us as grasping bullies - and the best way not to be seen as a grasping bully is not to be one.
I freely admit that one reason for posting this piece and the previous one is ego: I think the analysis I made at the time has stood up pretty well from the vantage point of 10 years down the road.

9/11 -1

So the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is upon us. And we will be awash in touching stories of loss and daring and a plethora of reminders from officialdom that "we live in a dangerous world" and how "we all must remain vigilant" and how civil liberties and privacy rights must be "balanced" against "security" but not to worry because, they'll say although not in so many words, "we're protecting you - but be afraid - but we're protecting you - but...." and so on.

So herewith my own observance of the date. This first is actually a mashup of two emails dated September 13, 2001 sent in response to two friends, one in the UK and one in Australia, who had asked if anyone I knew had been hurt. The answer to that was no, no one I knew personally. They also asked how I was doing.
I’m hanging in there. Stressed and sad like most, I expect - and fearful of what happens next, afraid of what this could mean to the future, wondering what’s going to be the next loop in the cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation, a cycle in which everyone (including us) views themselves as the wronged innocents. And, as the reports of attacks on, harassment of, and threats against Arabs and Muslims in the US begin to come in, as people equate Arab with Muslim and Muslim with fanatic (much as if they equated American with Christian and Christian with the KKK) and as cries of, in one form or another, “kill them all” start to rise, reminded of the dictum that those who deal in vengeance tend to become that which they say they oppose.

“We will never be the same” is an instant cliche. And like all clichés, there is some degree of truth to it - but the question for us as a people now is what the change will be. I’ve been thinking of the last verse of “There But For Fortune” by Phil Ochs:

Show me the country
Where the bombs had to fall.
Show me the ruins
Of the buildings once so tall,
And I’ll show you a young land
With so many reasons why
There but for fortune may go you or I.

We have indeed been fortunate, as a people and as a nation, and still are. A good question now is when faced with misfortune (not in the sense of bad luck but of bad events) will we as a people act as mature adults who will think about what we do and what it will accomplish or will we act as spoiled brats flailing wildly at any convenient target within reach?

I am not confident that it will be the former. The White House is promising an “extended military campaign” without being clear against just who or where. We may be in for hard times, times which will not include asking any questions about why 9/11 happened that don’t involve “security lapses.” Even wondering about motivations of the attackers beyond “unreasoning hatred” and being “uncivilized” simply won’t be allowed and risking such a thought is liable to get you branded an apologist for terrorists.

We’re headed, I fear, for more of those cycles of retaliation and counter-retaliation, everyone insisting their enemies are subhuman devils and they themselves are the offended innocents. It could get worse.
Which, if course, it did.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Still here

I mentioned a while back that I was starting to do a show for the local cable TV outlet. It's a weekly show consisting of a half-hour of commentary from yours truly. To give a sense of it, each week I introduce myself as "your host, ranter, and raconteur" and I have - rather flippantly - described the show as "a lefty Glenn Beck minus the chalkboard and the paranoia." (Which, Daisy reminds me here, may guarantee a small audience because the chalkboard and paranoia may be "the whole reason those looney tunes watched him in the first place.")

Anyway, I have two reasons for bringing this up again.

One is that I'm finding doing the show (I've done 20 now) is interfering with blogging because now I read the news with an eye to what would be good for the show rather than what would be interesting for the blog - the difference lying to a fair degree in the fact that I fully expect the cable TV audience to be less politically sophisticated than those who would seek out an overtly lefty blog like this one and so I feel a need to keep hammering on a few basic themes.

If anyone out there has experience with this sort of thing and has some good advice on how to not have one screw up the other, please give it!

The other is that I wanted to put up a video of one of the shows to give a sense of what it's like and how it goes - but I can't figure out how to take what's on the DVDs the station gives me (which will play in Windows Media Player) and turn it into a form I can upload.

If anyone knows how to do this or can point me to a source that can help, please tell me!

I guess there's a third thing: I haven't abandoned this thing here, although it may look like I've got one foot out the door. I just gotta make the necessary mental adjustments.

Oh, and Happy Labor Day! Even though a lot of us still have to work. And even though a lot of us who don't have to work, don't because we don't have work to do. And even thought it ain't gonna get better any time soon. Try to enjoy it anyway.
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