News for progressives

Center for Science in the Public Interest Greg Jaffe Cornell and GMOs

Counterpunch - Wed, 2019-01-09 15:45

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is known in public interest circles as one of the premiere food safety public interest groups in Washington, D.C.

But that reputation has suffered over the years because of the group’s stance on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – including its opposition to mandatory labeling of GMO foods.

That GMO stance aligns CSPI with pro-GMO organizations and against other consumer groups – including Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union and US Right to Know.

In 2015, CSPI refused to debate Consumers Union’s Michael Hansen on the question of mandatory labeling of GMO foods.

“Why is CSPI defending a technology that has health and environmental risks but nearly no consumer benefits?” asked Gary Ruskin of US Right to Know at the time. “CSPI has done a lot of good work over the years. But on the issue of GMOs, they have lost their way.”

Now, Greg Jaffe, the head CSPI’s Biotechnology Project, has publically aligned himself with one of the most pro-GMO groups in the country – the Cornell Alliance for Science.

Jaffe works part time as the Cornell Alliance for Science associate director of legal affairs.

“CSPI contracts with Cornell for part of his salary to have Greg provide expert technical assistance to the Alliance for Science,” said CSPI’s Jeff Cronin. “The Alliance for Science, like CSPI, takes no donations from corporations and discloses its donors on its website.”

Cronin would not say how much Cornell is paying Jaffe.

(The Cornell Alliance for Science primary donor is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But the Alliance does list as one of its funders a corporation – Blue Mountain Capital, a hedge fund with $21 billion under management.)

The public interest community sees Jaffe’s move to Cornell as a step too far.

“For decades, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has done great work on integrity in science, and exposing corporate front groups,” Ruskin told Corporate Crime Reporter. “It is regrettable that their standards have sunk so low that one of their staff, Greg Jaffe, now serves as the associate director of legal affairs for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations shop that parrots agrichemical industry propaganda, partners with industry front groups, and works closely with many of the industry’s leading messengers.”

“We hope that CSPI will come to its senses, and stop supporting front group activities it has honorably decried for so long,” Ruskin said.

US Right to Know put out a report in October 2018 titled Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry.

The Gates Foundation helped launch the Cornell Alliance for Science in 2014 as an effort to “depolarize the charged debate” around genetically modified foods (GMOs).

“The Gates Foundation Deputy Director Rob Horsch, who worked for Monsanto Company for 25 years, leads the foundation’s agricultural research and development strategies, which have drawn criticism for relentlessly promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa,” according to the report.

Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety said that Jaffe’s work with the Alliance “certainly makes Jaffe look way more partisan.”

“In taking a position with the Alliance, Jaffe went a step too far,” Hanson said. “It totally undermines whatever neutrality he had cultivated.”

Doug Gurian-Sherman was present at the creation of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2001.

He was soon joined by Greg Jaffe as a co-director.

Jaffe is now the sole director of the Biotechnology Project at CSPI and Gurian-Sherman has his own consulting firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jaffe is more pro-GMO, Gurian-Sherman – not so much.

Gurian-Sherman studied plant pathology and genetic engineering at the University of California Berkeley. He ended up working at the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I left EPA at the end of 2000 when the Bush administration came in,” Gurian-Sherman told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last year. “I was also disillusioned with the way the EPA was handling genetic engineering. And I was disillusioned with the bureaucracy.”

How long were you at the EPA?

“About five years. I started in 1995 and left in 2001 to go to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. One of my goals was to work as a scientist with a public interest group. Michael Jacobson at CSPI was just starting a new program on biotechnology and he contacted me to see if I was interested in directing the program. I jumped on it. I knew a bit about CSPI’s reputation and the work they did.”

Were you the head of the new group from the beginning?

“I was the initial director. And then Greg Jaffe joined. And he was brought on as my co-director very shortly after, within a couple of months. That was in early 2001. Jaffe came in soon thereafter.”

“For myself that I was optimistic about what we might do. It was over a period of several years that I grew unhappy and disillusioned with the direction it was taking.”

“Part of the question was a matter of degree. Can this be regulated safely? What would be required to do that? And over time, not only how can it be regulated safely but how can it best be developed in ways that might be best for society.”

“My initial thinking was – I was not convinced that it would be an important beneficial technology for society. But I was cautiously optimistic that with the right kind of regulatory regime, at least the harmful manifestations of the technology could be weeded out and prevented from reaching the market. We were not anywhere near that and still are not anywhere near that in terms of our regulatory system.”

“That was my initial perspective. And it was largely in line with CSPI.”

Was it your perspective at that time that GMOs were just a handmaiden to industrial agriculture and thus wouldn’t benefit society?

“No. I wasn’t thinking as much initially about those broader social implications. I certainly was thinking about the corporate use of the technology at the time. Some of the same players – Monsanto, DuPont, Dow –  were clearly dominating the technology. And I certainly was concerned about that. Going back to my Science for the People days, if not before, I have been concerned about corporate power and corporate consolidation. That aspect of it was certainly on my mind. And it was a major concern. At that point, my analysis had not reached conclusions that the technology had an inherent tendency to be controlled and dominated by the industry. Or as you put it, it was often a handmaiden of the industry.”

“At the initial stages, I had not done the analysis or thought deeply enough about whether the technology was capable of being developed independent of the big corporations and whether the corporate influence could be adequately tamped down and controlled to allow public aspects to be developed. That came over time and came later.”

At what point in time at CSPI did you start thinking – this is going in a direction I’m not comfortable with?

“CSPI has not been a partner with the other progressive public interest groups in the United States and around the world on genetic engineering.”

What groups are you talking about?

“It has changed over time. At the time, one of the major groups in the United States was the Union of Concerned Scientists, who I eventually ended up working for. Their position was similar to mine –  genetic engineering maybe had some promise but was causing many more problems than it was solving. It was mainly detrimental, the regulations were drastically inadequate, we needed more sustainable farming and conventional crop breeding rather than genetic engineering.”

“Their program was led at the time by Margaret Mellon and Jane Rissler. Environmental Defense Fund was a major player with Rebecca Goldberg. They had positions similar to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Consumers Union has a research arm. Michael Hansen and others there played a big role. And this goes back into the late 1980s. Friends of the Earth had some involvement at the time.”

“Another group that started around that time was the Center for Food Safety. I also worked with them for a time. They have done a lot of the legal work, filing lawsuits against particular applications of the technology, especially the herbicide resistant crops. Andrew Kimbrell was an acolyte of Jeremy Rifkin. His first lawsuit was against the lab in Berkeley where I was doing my PhD.”

“The Union of Concerned Scientists changed directions in 2014 under a new director. Margaret Mellon and I left the program at that time. They are no longer working on genetic engineering.”

Then the current groups are Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety. US Right to Know. Greenpeace, and Organic Consumers Association and others.

“Yes. They are still involved. But it’s interesting because the groups critical have changed somewhat and dispersed. There are smaller groups like Food Democracy Now. And many of the groups are working to get mandatory labeling.”

Why did CSPI move in the other direction?

“I don’t know. It’s a good question to ask. CSPI has certainly been associating themselves with positions similar to the GMO pesticide industry despite some criticisms of the technology. And that differs from the positions of the liberal and progressive public interest community, which on the whole has been opposed or skeptical of genetic engineering.”

“I’m sure I am forgetting other groups. But these groups worked together. There was communication, strategy, among these groups. And CSPI has never been a part of that coalition. And not only nationally, but internationally.”

What about Jaffe signing on with Cornell?

“That is not the only pro-GMO group he is aligned with. And I am not questioning his motives. But it does raise questions as to why they are comfortable to collaborate with organizations that are highly pro-GMO. From my understanding, CSPI’s position is they are pro-GMO with some reservations.”

“Jaffe was also very involved with the Program for Biosafety Systems, which is associated with the green revolution centers, in particular the International Food Policy Research Institute. And he has had associations with the US Agency for International Development, which is pro-GMO. It’s an interesting mix of bedfellows supporting the GMO project. He helps third world countries develop regulatory systems that allow the countries to choose GMOs. But many of civil society groups in these African and other countries say these regulations facilitate large pesticide/GMO corporations to penetrate those countries.”

“CSPI has said it wants to position itself between industry and the civil society sector, which they see as both having extreme positions on genetic engineering – again paraphrasing. They see civil society as hyping the risks and industry as minimizing those risks. But in fact, CSPI has eschewed civil society groups which oppose GMOs on safety and other grounds. But CSPI is comfortable associating itself widely with groups that are highly pro-GMO and have positions similar to the industry. CSPI’s talking points are mostly in line with industry talking points.”

“It raises the question, which I don’t have the answer to, as to why they are often found associated with these groups that are pro-GMO, and reluctant to be involved with civil society groups.”

Cornell is funded by the pro-GMO Gates Foundation.

“The Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science, industry, academics associated with the GMO technology, the US government – they all want to open up markets in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa. In all of these cases, policy supporters of genetic engineering recognize the importance those countries having social systems, regulatory systems, intellectual property systems that facilitate the private sector commodification or use of genetic engineering in those countries. And Jaffe’s expertise is as a legal expert on the regulation of genetic engineering.”

They would argue that as part of the green revolution – we are going to feed the world.

“Where I have a major philosophical difference with CSPI goes back to my early days in biology as part of a social system. I see these technologies as being embedded in a political and economic context that is not neutral. CSPI has said and Jaffe has said that they take an incrementalist approach to solving these problems.”

“They can defend that by saying the broader system based approaches are just unrealistic while an incrementalist approach does some real good in preventing or stopping some harmful applications of various technologies. It’s been a good thing to get trans fats off the market. That kind of approach can have a lot of merit in a sane society that basically does the right thing and is egalitarian and broadly democratic.”

“But in a society that has a broken democracy, dominated by corporate interests and powerful economic interests, that kind of approach can be misleading and like a bandaid. What you have in the case of genetic engineering is CSPI touting the reduction of chemical pesticides in Bt crops, which I agree is a good thing.”

“But what they don’t talk about is the nature of industrial agriculture, which this is a part of and remains highly dependent on those pesticides. What has happened with insecticides in major Bt crops like corn or cotton, sprayed insecticides have been reduced, but seed coating insecticides, neonicotinoids, are more widely used now than the sprayed insecticides. And these are the very insecticides that are associated with killing off bees and other pollinators. There is a tremendous amount of research on that.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Doug Gurian-Sherman, see 33 Corporate Crime Reporter 1(12), Monday January 7, 2019, print edition only.]

Categories: News for progressives

At Last! A Workable Reason to Impeach the MFer

Counterpunch - Wed, 2019-01-09 15:45

Liberals have been calling for the new Democratic House to file articles of impeachment against Donald Trump ever since winning the House in the Nov. 8 election in 2016, but there has been this obstacle:  Nobody believes that Republicans who control the Senate will allow a House impeachment to move to a trial in the Upper House of Congress, much less contribute the needed two-thirds of the vote to convict and remove him from office.

But now Trump may be handing both the House Democrats and Republicans frustrated with Trump’s madness the issue that could go all the way: the President’s stated intent to bypass Congress with its Constitution-enshrined power of the purse by declaring a “national emergency” so he can build his wall along the whole Mexican border on his own dubious authority as Major Domo.

Here’s the problem for Trump aka the MF. As “national emergencies” go, illegal immigration across the border from Mexico just doesn’t cut it. Trump can claim, as he has been doing since he began campaigning for President in 2016, that “rapists, murderers, gangs and drug dealers” are “pouring across” the unguarded border with Mexico, not to mention hordes of illegals stealing jobs from Americans, but it just ain’t the reality.

According to the New York Times, illegal border crossings from Mexico have been showing a long decline from the 1980s to the mid 2000s, when the government was apprehending between 1-1.6 million foreigners crossing at the southern border each year to  this past year, when the rate had fallen to under 300,000.  (Even the much maligned and exaggerated Honduran “caravan”  of asylum seekers that had Trump was issuing his dire threats about, and that was awash in our corporate media, would have made no real impact on the current average rate of “illegal” entry into the US even if they had all somehow figured out a way to cross the border illegally.)

Here’s a chart of monthly captures of immigrants crossing the Mexican border illegally based on data from the US Customs and Border Protection Service:

That trend line certainly doesn’t look like a national emergency type of crisis does it?

As for Trump’s claim that criminals and drugs are pouring across the “open” border with Mexico, the reality is that most “illegal” immigrants in the US are people who got into the country legally, for instance on student or tourist visas, and who then decided to stay on when they expired. Meanwhile most of the drugs coming into the country are sneaked in through official entry points at harbors, airports and border crossing points at the Mexican and Canadian borders or at airports and harbors, not smuggled across open areas of the border with Mexico, where such smuggling is much easier to spot using motion detectors and aerial monitoring.

There simply is no “national emergency” on the Mexican border. If Trump were allowed to declare one for this ridiculous reason in order to unconstitutionally appropriate over $5 billion of taxpayer money to build an unneeded wall that local Americans along the border don’t want, that the majority of Americans don’t want, and that would do serious environmental and economic damage, not to mention damage to the bedrock principle of Constitutional government and the power of Congress to approve all government spending, it would likely cause a rebellion in Congress, not just by Democrats, but by genuine conservatives in the Republican Party.

And while building the stupid wall might be cheered by the white yahoos who believe Trump’s inane and offensive White Nationalist rhetoric about stanching the supposed flood of brown people from Mexico, the truth is that America is growing increasingly brown and multi-racial not because of illegal immigration but thanks to higher birth rates among black and brown US citizens living here than among white Americans. And that is a demographic trend that will continue whether or not a few hundred thousand immigrants a year keep slipping into the US. It’s a demographic trend that, immigration or no immigration,  insures that white people will become a minority of the US population in another two decades (as they already are in California which is now 38% non-Hispanic white and seems to be doing just fine, thank you.

The declaring of a false “national emergency” based upon patent falsehoods is an impeachable crime against the Constitution that not only should become an impeachment article in the House, but that should win a conviction in the Senate as the evidence gets presented at first a House Impeachment Panel hearing and second at a Senate Impeachment Trial.

The thing is, this president has lied so routinely that we tend to forget that some lies have consequences, and here is one that clearly does. This is a lie, moreover, that can be easily and demonstrably shown to be a lie.  Any way you look at it, there is simply no nationable emergency at the country’s southern border, and thus no need for a Trump Wall on the Mexican border.

So if Trump does declare a national emergency at the border, as he seems to be getting ready to do, and starts paying for it without Congressional approval of the funds, let’s impeach this racist Mofu!

Categories: News for progressives

Do We Really Need Billionaires?

Counterpunch - Wed, 2019-01-09 15:17

In March 2018, Forbes reported that it had identified 2,208 billionaires from 72 countries and territories. Collectively, this group was worth $9.1 trillion, an increase in wealth of 18 percent since the preceding year. Americans led the way with a record 585 billionaires, followed by mainland China which, despite its professed commitment to Communism, had a record 373. According to a Yahoo Finance report in late November 2018, the wealth of U.S. billionaires increased by 12 percent during 2017, while that of Chinese billionaires grew by 39 percent.

These vast fortunes were created much like those amassed by the Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century. The Walton family’s $163 billion fortune grew rapidly because its giant business, Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, paid its workers poverty-level wages. Jeff Bezos (whose fortune jumped by $78.5 billion in one year to $160 billion, making him the richest man in the world), paid pathetically low wages at Amazon for years until forced by strikes and public pressure to raise them. In mid-2017, Warren Buffett ($75 billion), then the world’s second richest man, noted that “the real problem” with the U.S. economy was that it was “disproportionately rewarding to the people on top.”

The situation is much the same elsewhere. Since the 1980s, the share of national income going to workers has been dropping significantly around the globe, thereby exacerbating inequality in wealth. “The billionaire boom is . . . a symptom of a failing economic system,” remarked Winnie Byanyima, executive director of the development charity, Oxfam International. “The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited.”

As a result, the further concentration of wealth has produced rising levels of economic inequality around the globe. According to a January 2018 report by Oxfam, during the preceding year some 3.7 billion people–about half the world’s population–experienced no increase in their wealth. Instead, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the wealthiest one percent. In the United States, economic inequality continued to grow, with the share of the national income drawn by the poorest half of the population steadily declining. The situation was even starker in the country with the second largest economy, China. Here, despite two decades of spectacular economic growth, economic inequality rose at the fastest pace in the world, leaving China as one of the most unequal countries on the planet. In its global survey,Oxfam reported that 42 billionaires possessed as much wealth as half the world’s population.

Upon reflection, it’s hard to understand why billionaires think they need to possess such vast amounts of money and to acquire even more. After all, they can eat and drink only so much, just as they surely have all the mansions, yachts, diamonds, furs, and private jets they can possibly use. What more can they desire?

When it comes to desires, the answer is: plenty! That’s why they drive $4 million Lamborghini Venenos, acquire megamansions for their horses, take $80,000 “safaris” in private jets, purchase gold toothpicks, create megaclosets the size of homes, reside in $15,000 a night penthouse hotel suites, install luxury showers for their dogs, cover their staircases in gold, and build luxury survival bunkers. Donald Trump maintains a penthouse apartment in Trump Tower that is reportedly worth $57 million and is marbled in gold. Among his many other possessions are two private airplanes, three helicopters, five private residences, and 17 golf courses across the United States, Scotland, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates.

In addition, billionaires devote enormous energy and money to controlling governments. ”They don’t put their wealth underneath their mattresses,” observed U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders; “they use that wealth to perpetuate their power. So you have the Koch brothers and a handful of billionaires who pour hundreds of millions of dollars into elections.” During the 2018 midterm elections in the United States, America’s billionaires lavished vast amounts of money on electoral politics, becoming the dominant funders of numerous candidates. Sheldon Adelson alone poured over $113 million into the federal elections.

This kind of big money has a major impact on American politics. Three billionaire families–the Kochs, the Mercers, and the Adelsons–played a central role in bankrolling the Republican Party’s shift to the far Right and its takeover of federal and state offices. Thus, although polls indicate that most Americans favor raising taxes on the rich, regulating corporations, fighting climate change, and supporting labor unions, the Republican-dominated White House, Congress, Supreme Court, and regulatory agencies have moved in exactly the opposite direction, backing the priorities of the wealthy.

With so much at stake, billionaires even took direct command of the world’s three major powers. Donald Trump became the first billionaire to capture the U.S. presidency, joining Russia’s president, Vladmir Putin (reputed to have amassed wealth of at least $70 billion), and China’s president, Xi Jinping (estimated to have a net worth of $1.51 billion). The three oligarchs quickly developed a cozy relationship and shared a number of policy positions, including the encouragement of wealth acquisition and the discouragement of human rights.

Admittedly, some billionaires have signed a Giving Pledge, promising to devote most of their wealth to philanthropy. Nevertheless, plutocratic philanthropy means that the priorities of the super-rich (for example, the funding of private schools), rather than the priorities of the general public (such as the funding of public schools), get implemented. Moreover, these same billionaires are accumulating wealth much faster than they donate it. Philanthropist Bill Gates was worth $54 billion in 2010, the year their pledge was announced, and his wealth stands at $90 billion today.

Overall, then, as wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, most people around the world are clearly the losers.

Categories: News for progressives

Abolish Wage Slavery: Productivism as an Extractive Industry

Counterpunch - Wed, 2019-01-09 15:13

The alienation of labor takes many forms, including the outright ownership of slaves. When big mills and factories were introduced under systems of waged labor, elements of judgment and craft were still preserved among workers because otherwise the machinery would not run at all. Streamlining assembly lines became one of the innovations of the Ford factory system, and his best paid workers were able to buy the basic model cars. In this sense, Fordism was already emerging as an industrial model concurrently with the time and motion studies of the Taylor System.

Taylor died in 1915, and by 1913 the Ford system reduced the production time on the Model T chassis assembly line from 12.5 hours to 1.5 hours. Ford was able to reduce the price per car, raise wages for workers, and expand the market for the product. There is a tendency in ruling class ideology to attribute all innovation to the “job providers” and leading entrepreneurs. But workers on the job deserve plenty of credit as well, since they were closer to problems and discussed possible solutions. The actual market value of their solutions was not commensurate with their actual wages.

For those interested, the suggestive essay on Americanism and Fordism drawn from the Prison Notebooksof Antonio Gramsci is well worth reading. He wondered if Fordism represented a particular conjunction of productive forces or an industrial model that might translate more generally across borders. In fact, Fordism proved to be one of the foundations of global neoliberalism. In periods of financial turbulence and contraction, neoliberal regimes advance austerity programs. We are witnessing some consequences in the Yellow Jackets movement in France, which has enough common ground to gain traction againstthe corporate “centrism” of Macron (and indeed against the old party system and managerial unions), but is not a fully class conscious movement fora socialist alternative. Even so, the words of Gramsci were prophetic:

“A series of problems requires to be examined under the general and somewhat conventional heading ‘Americanism and Fordism.’ But first of all one should take account of the basic fact that solutions to these problems must necessarily be put forward within the contradictory positions of modern society, which create complications, absurd positions, and moral and economic crises often tending towards catastrophe.”

Retrospectively, it’s easy to note the “absurd positions” within Gramsci’s own argument, and his old left ambivalence on “the question of sex.” But at least he didraise that question in earnest and in the context of the wider public sphere, whereas other socialists of his time dismissed it as a distraction or reduced it to the footnotes. What should be underscored here is Gramsci’s contradictory effort to come to grips with contradictory realities. In this respect, his historical and cultural horizon went far beyond the current ideologies of the ruling class.

Steven Pinker, the darling of Davos, is one notable purveyor of a rosy “progressive” ideology, and argues that daily life in modern states is less violent than in the countries of medieval Europe—even if the world wars of the previous century are taken into account. For the time being, Europe and North America have found means to export the sharpest class exploitation to countries underdeveloped by a long history of colonial extraction and client regimes. The neoliberal status quo, in Pinker’s account, is not quite “the end of history” but remains the best way forward. He argues for “reason” and against “political correctness.” In economics, Pinker simply updates Fordism to keep pace with modern technology. Even if the strip-mining of the planet could be slowed by cleaner energy, Pinker has no problem with the extraction of labor power within a “free market” that is blessed with benign self-correction. For Pinker, the ruling class may sometimes toss up a crassly ignorant ruler, but is otherwise solidly founded on a global meritocracy. The ruling class can thus be trusted to overcome (again, in Gramsci’s words) any of the many “moral and economic crises often tending toward catastrophe.”

When robots were introduced on the assembly line, the logic of corporate profit was well on the way to turning workers into adjuncts of an increasingly automated production process. The extraction of labor power from human beings also became ever more directly productivist, under the oversight of data driven experts and profit driven corporate boards and stockholders. On this subject, consult a current article below from Quartzon General Motors and the Lordstown strike. No socialist alternatives are suggested in that article, but it is quite honest in exploring how capitalists both created and circumnavigated the contradictions of their own theory and practice.

Regarded as a closed system, productivism may seem as rational as 3 + 7 = 10. That bit of math may be broken down into units. For example: One tenth of total operating capital assigned in wages to workers; one tenth assigned to renovation of the industry; one tenth to advertising; and seven-tenths assigned to bank reserves, legislative bribery, corporate candidates, and profits to managers, executives and stockholders. (For more sophisticated models, readers may refer to The Accumulation of Capital by Rosa Luxemburg, published the year before the outbreak of World War I.)

Any such “ideal” formula will not, of course, fit each industry and situation. In that sense, such formulas are no more but no less than teaching models. Keep in mind, however, that this given formula is quite generous from the point of view of hired labor if we consider actual disparities in the present general wages (and total wealth) of workers and major corporate CEOs in the United States. The documentation of wages, capital investments and banking reserves should be empirical in each case, so far as any public accounting is possible. But the mobility of capital is international and includes an archipelago of occult off shore accounts. Creative accounting is thus one branch of corporate public relations.

If workers protest or even strike, management will try better methods to get workers with the program. Wage concessions may be part of the deal, so long as “job providers” dictate the larger economy from the top down. A corporate economy is already a command economy. Any workplace, however, is never an entirely closed system so long as human beings are hired as workers at all. They talk to each other on and off the job. Maybe a more encompassing system of surveillance could identify and eliminate malcontents from the labor force.

In 1914, Lenin took a critical view of the Taylor System, as you can read here: The Taylor System – Man’s Enslavement by the Machine  (V.I. Lenin, 1914).

By the 1920s, however, Soviet leaders were increasingly inclined toward “socialist competition” with capitalist production. Given the limits imposed by global capital, some of the Soviet methods of production resulted in the organization of labor by military regimentation. Political prisoners were gathered in state purges and many died in work camps of exposure and overwork. By 1935, during the second Soviet Five Year Plan, the Stakhanovite movement began in earnest and workers were encouraged to perform above work shift quotas. Critical workers were disgraced as “wreckers.” Only after Stalin’s death did some Soviet leaders dare to dissent, and in 1988 the Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda stated plainly that the “heroic” achievements of Stakhanovite workers had been inflated. What was proposed instead? An updated Soviet kind of Taylorism, tailored to local industries and task sequencing.

In the previous century, some sectors of the Western left remained committed to state capitalist models. To this day, there are some leftists who still take a managerial view of labor. Thus it is possible to find even “scientific socialists” who recommend vote by rote allegiance to “the left wing of the possible.” Is this merely a dispute in the realm of ideology? Not at all. Facts closer to the ground are relevant. Indeed, the more managerial leaders of some labor unions have one speech for labor conventions, and quite another understanding within the corporate bunker of the DNC.

Realism in that regard is not a prescription of fatalism. On the contrary. The good news is that nurses, teachers and service workers are in the forefront of many current labor campaigns. These are not, of course, sectors of labor without men, but women are majorities in many of the related workplaces and unions. Women are also leading thinkers and organizers in those struggles. In our current division of labor, men have often been displaced from domestic extraction and mining industries, in some cases because the owners are seeking both work sites and cheaper labor abroad. This country still has a manufacturing sector, though much diminished and often for similar reasons. Even so, women workers are changing the whole landscape of possibility for all workers. Bread and Roses, an old labor anthem, remains a clarion call now: “As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men.”

Democracy at work has to mean much more than state ownership of the means of production. A free federation of the councils of workers and neighbors, including cooperatives of production and distribution, is both the existing and potential ground of democratic socialism. Both and at the same time. Because such a federation is a work in progress.

Any socialist party, and more especially any “vanguard party,” that works from a party program and not from a base in actual councils and cooperatives is already a retrograde engine of the managerial state. That is both sectarian vainglory and a betrayal of class conscious democracy. If we do not get democracy right, we will surely get socialism wrong. Socialists can appeal to the morals and ideals of the middle class, and we can argue with good reason that the middle classes do better in other countries with basic social democracy. Likewise, in periods of open class struggles, a significant fraction even of the ruling class has turned against a system that made them sick at heart. There is no substitute, however, for workers defending both their own interests and social solidarity in a democratic republic.

As Frederick Douglass wrote in the 19thcentury, “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.” The relation between means and ends is relevant here. One practical present aim is to raise the ground floor of wages. Fifteen Bucks An Hour is a legitimate and defensible means here and now, especially in regard to the most exploited workers. Unless present reforms are oriented to socialist goals, however, even such reforms may be built on a foundation of quicksand, and then will be more quickly eroded over time. The corporate state always counterattacks, and at the same time takes the long view. The old motto of class conscious workers goes beyond present wage fights, and indeed should be a guiding goal of democratic socialists: Abolish Wage Slavery.

Categories: News for progressives

Professors Protest the CCRI J-Term: a Symptom of What is Changing in the Democratic Party

Counterpunch - Wed, 2019-01-09 15:00

For some time now, I have argued that neoliberalism as a system of governance has a talent for co-opting the vocabulary and grammar of Left-leaning projects so to further their own designs for those they govern. This was brought home to me on January 2, 2019 at a picket line held by the faculty of the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) expressing their opposition to J-Term, a project forced on the college by the administration that broke norms of shared governance, involved dubious processing of paperwork in relation to the Curriculum Review Committee, and portends an erosion of an educational institute in Rhode Island that has been a major pillar for working class, African American, and Latinx students for decades.

This all began in early 2017 when Gov. Gina Raimondo began to crib a line from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent presidential campaign and started talking about giving Rhode Islanders free college tuition, the Rhode Island Promise program.

A little precision is required here. In Rhode Island, there are three public colleges that are completely different from one another. CCRI is a multi-campus community college known for job training as well as preliminary Associates Degrees that can serve as a bridge to matriculation into Baccalaureate program. Many graduates from CCRI go on to Rhode Island College (RIC), my own alma mater, or University of Rhode Island (URI), where one of my brothers earned his degree. The degree I earned at RIC was different from the one my brother earned not just because of the obvious difference in major, the difference is manifest in the character of the institution. RIC began as a teacher training school before expanding into a wider number of subjects. Their class sizes are limited to below 35 students and the pedagogy is defined by more traditional liberal arts norms. By contrast, URI is a research institution with much larger class sizes. Over the past semester, I took two classes in the public system for professional development reasons, one at RIC and one at CCRI. The cost difference between RIC and CCRI was pronounced, with the former costing just over $1,100 and the latter costing just over $600. And because of an inter-institutional agreement that extends across the three public colleges, the cost-savvy student can arrange to take credits at two or more institutions that will all be validated on a single transcript at the end of the semester.

Raimondo’s record when it comes to public education is, putting it politely, abysmal. Her campaign backers are Wall Street donors with a major stake in privatizing public education, such as Paul Tudor Jones. Over the past eight years, first as Treasurer and now as Governor entering her second term, she has promoted various policies, both directly and indirectly, that have furthered this agenda, a matter that I have described for Counterpunch readers multiple times.

The requirements for Rhode Island Promise were advantageous and predatory in that they sought students who would be both most vulnerable to the promise of free tuition while also being unprepared to take the requisite credit load at the requisite level. “Sixty-five percent of our students need developmental courses, they’re not prepared when they get here,” says Steve Murray, president of the faculty union. He describes Rhode Island Promise as “Political grandstanding on [Raimondo’s] part to try to get votes, free college education. Sounds great, I’m not against it, but how they rolled it out is not appropriate. They are forcing these students to take 30 credits an academic year, they have to come full time, and very few of our students are able to do that for academic reasons and for other personal reasons. They’re overwhelming them.”

Having worked for several years now with students from Providence public schools, I understand quite well what Raimondo did here and it is deplorable. She toyed with the aspirations of students, many of whom are first-generation scholars and/or English language learners and/or people of color, and lured them into a program that had been designed with benchmarks and standards that were far too high for learners that have to balance significant challenges in their lives with education. Intentionally overwhelming students that may have to work to help their family put food on the table, help raise younger children, or who have serious education gaps caused by a history of interrupted learning caused by family migration or homelessness or other challenges is extraordinarily wrong.

Let’s be frank and clear, Rhode Island is a deeply segregated state and students from the suburbs have parents or guardians who can and do pay for their students to go to CCRI. This was intentionally marketed to the poor in a concerted effort. This is what the program website says:

The RI Promise is a “last-dollar scholarship” that fills in the gap between other aid, like Pell grants, and the actual costs of tuition and mandatory fees. Many students work extra hours or look to loan programs to fill this gap. The last-dollar scholarship is designed to help students stay on the path to earning a postsecondary degree without taking on mountains of student debt.

The CCRI page for the program is even more shameless, saying “That’s right: Regardless of your family income, you won’t pay tuition at CCRI.”

“J-Term is not good for our students, it has not gone through the proper channels, the classes, for the Curriculum Review Committee, which reviews all the curriculum to make sure that it’s appropriate for our students, and the timeframe, twelve days, condensing from fifteen weeks, is not enough. It’s not good precedent for the school or our students,” says Prof. Tara Swift.

“I was hired to teach English as a Second Language back in 1990,” says Prof. Margaret Connell. “It’s very difficult for those students, not impossible, but difficult to get through a 15 week semester. So the idea (I’m sorry but I’m going to call it this) of pushing this down their throats in 12 days is simply just wrong. It’s just wrong. It’s almost impossible for those students to get a solid background and foundation in order to move on to the next level and it is asking too much of them. And if they get passing grades, it’s not to say in those cases that those are true grades.”

“Everyone who’s standing here [picketing J-Term], the fifty or so people standing here could have been teaching one of those courses, if they were appropriate, making $4,000. People are turning down money to be out here today and the people in there teaching those courses are prostituting themselves at the cost of our students’s education,” says Murray. (Ironically, I ended up seeing my high school science teacher Louis Ventura teaching a J-Term class when the faculty brought their picket line through the hallways past the classrooms.)

Because of these developments, in December 82% of the faculty voted No Confidence in CCRI Pres. Meghan Hughes, Vice President for Academic Affairs Rosemary Costigan, and Dean Thomas Sabbagh, an unprecedented result.

I suggest that this matter merits notice on a nationwide scale because Raimondo’s policy experiment is being done here in Rhode Island for two possible reasons.

First, it may be a trial run to see how neoliberal policy can adapt to the free college demand put upon the Democratic Party by progressives like Bernie Sanders. Like Obama with the single-payer healthcare movement and his ability to transform the demand for universal coverage into the Affordable Care Act, which his own Solicitor General Donald Verrilli eventually admitted was a tax in his Oral Argument before the Supreme Court, Raimondo may be trying to demonstrate how neoliberal policy can turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear, so to speak.

Alternatively, in creating a project that was going to have such negative results, it may be, like the Hillary Clinton healthcare fiasco of the 1990s, an episode that likewise discredits the movement for universal tuition-free college for a generation. Murray previously told GoLocalProv.com  (“From what we have in this ‘Enrollment Update’ ) 38% of the RI Promise students failed to return for year two—and of those that did return, we haven’t yet been told how many of the returnees failed to complete the first year successfully… I can’t imagine that of the 62% that returned that they all completed 30 credits with a 2.5 GPA. When the College finally chooses to release these numbers, I believe we will see that many RI Promise students did not successfully complete their first year.”

Either way, this is a very good bellwether of what is changing in the Democratic Party. It demonstrates the impact that the Sanders campaign and similar progressives are actually having on the wider system they seek to change. Furthermore, consider this: Our longtime Senator was Claiborne Pell, whose name was lent to the Pell Grants that were created in 1972. Gina Raimondo’s husband Andrew Moffit works within the school privatization industry. With an economy primarily based in the service sector, teaching and education are major industries in a landscape that has been hollowed-out by de-industrialization. Rhode Island is therefore capable of being a major incubator for policies to be later rolled out nationwide. It therefore stands to reason that Raimondo’s office was not just shooting into the dark blindly in formulating this policy measure.

Could this be merely a publicity stunt on the part of the Governor? Or is it possible there is a longterm game plan here? Only time will tell. Either way, the public shaming of students who were set up to fail by Rhode Island Promise is pretty disgusting.

Categories: News for progressives

Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan Slams LA Teachers for Strike 

Counterpunch - Wed, 2019-01-09 15:00

The closer we get to a strike, the more pressure is put on us to call it off. In a recent article in The Hill, pro-charter/anti-union former Education secretary Arne Duncan criticizes United Teachers of Los Angeles, citing the Los Angeles Unified School District’s alleged financial problems. Yet the neutral, state-appointed factfinder on the dispute contradicts many of LAUSD’s (and Duncan’s) claims.

For example, Duncan tells us LAUSD “is headed toward insolvency in about two years if nothing changes…It simply does not have the money to fund UTLA’s demands.” But arbitrator David A. Weinberg, the Neutral Chair of the California Public Employment Relations Board fact-finding panel, while noting the challenges LAUSD faces, found that the District’s reserves skyrocketed from $500 million in 2013-2014 to $1.8 billion in 2017-2018. Three years ago LAUSD projected that their 2018-2019 reserve would be only $100 million—it’s actually $1.98 billion. We’ve heard these alarming claims for many years–for LAUSD, the sky is always falling, but somehow it never falls.

Duncan tells us LAUSD “has an average of 26 students per class. Of the 10 largest school districts in California, only one has a smaller average class size than Los Angeles.” These numbers are disputed by UTLA. Moreover, even if 26 is correct on paper, Duncan should know that student-to-teacher ratios count special education and other specialized teachers who normally have much smaller classes than regular classroom teachers. Class sizes are significantly larger than standard student-teacher ratios indicate.

At my high school, for example, we have over 30 academic classes with 41 or more students, including nine English/writing classes with as many as 49 students, and three AP classes with 46 or more students.  One English teacher has well over 206 students—41+ per class. A US Government teacher has 52 students in his AP government class. Writing is a key component of both classes—the sizes make it is impossible for these teachers to properly review and help students with their essays.

Checking my rosters over the past five years, I’ve had 25 classes—four of them with 26 or fewer students. I’ve had many more classes with 40 or more students than with the number LAUSD and Duncan want us to believe is the “average.” The problem is not my school—which is actually well run—it’s the lack of sufficient funding from LAUSD.

Duncan endorses LAUSD’s offer of a six percent raise—”the exact same size of the raise that was agreed to by every other union that the district works with.” Yet LAUSD originally proposed no raise at all, and it took almost a year and a half to get the increase Duncan praises. The inflation rate is 2.8%–a 6% increase over three years does nothing more than keep up with rising prices.

Duncan reminds us of the “ten percent raise they received in 2015” but fails to mention that we had previously gone almost a decade without a raise. Our buying power is still roughly 1/6th less than it was in 2008.

Moreover, LAUSD’s offer of a raise—really just a cost of living adjustment—comes with strings attached, such as requiring teachers to do extra professional development. The neutral factfinder agreed with UTLA that this requirement should be dropped.

Contradicting Duncan’s view, the neutral factfinder wrote, “I agree with the Union’s argument that the bargaining unit deserves to be higher ranked in comparison to other jurisdictions given the combination of a higher cost of living in the LA metro area, and the difficulty in teaching a population of students with so many needs and challenges.”

Regarding the LAUSD/UTLA conflict and potential strike, Duncan concludes, “It’s just like a family, when adults fight, it’s kids that lose.” Yes, some who haven’t been paying attention to the LAUSD/UTLA labor dispute may see it that way. What they haven’t seen is that UTLA patiently negotiated with LAUSD for 20 months. UTLA grievances include inflated class sizes, a lack of full-time nurses in 80 percent of Los Angeles schools, a lack of librarians, and a student-counselor ratio so bad that UTLA’s demand is to bring it down to 500-1. Our demands are hardly radical, and the neutral factfinder generally sided with us. By contrast, LAUSD has offered little to address these critical issues for our children.

Los Angeles teachers have been working without a contract for 18 months now, and it has been 30 years since the last UTLA strike. Reporters ask us, “Why are you willing to go on strike?” Given the conditions in our schools, I couldn’t look my students in the eye if I weren’t.

Subs Told ‘We Expect You to Honor Our Picket Lines’

Many UTLA teachers have pledged that we will never call substitutes who scab on our strike. Because UTLA also represents substitutes, it is unlikely LAUSD will find many willing to scab in our ranks. The 400 new substitutes LAUSD claims it has probably come from outside of the district.

What We Do the Day Before the Strike

After school today teachers will be making sure we either lock up or take with us all valuables and sensitive items in our classrooms. Many teachers, being the dedicated suckers we are, are tempted to leave lesson plans or assignments for our students. UTLA has been clear—scabs, if there are any, are on their own. The point of a strike is to withhold our labor until the district offers us a real contract.

What We Do the Day of the Strike

Striking teachers will be at our school site at 6:45 AM–early, because employers usually move the scabs in early, so they don’t have to face the wrath of their striking colleagues. At my school we will also have many students and former students on the picket line with us before school.

We will take down the picket lines at 8:30 AM and rally at Grand Park in downtown LA at 10:30 AM. UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl says that these rallies—the media coverage, the overhead helicopter shots, etc.—are critical, because no matter what happens, the district’s narrative will be “students are going to class and learning, many teachers are at work, and everything is fine.” We will need to demonstrate the sheer magnitude of our strike.

‘Whether we win or lose will have a huge effect on education throughout the US for years if not decades’

Our teachers understand the importance of what we’re doing. At a recent UTLA meeting at our high school one of them, Jim, said:

Whether we win or lose will have a huge effect on education throughout the United States for years if not decades to come. All labor disputes and strikes have a ripple effect—we’re the second largest school district in the US. A victory here would be a big boost for teachers, students and unions throughout the country. Conversely, a defeat here will hurt many people beyond LAUSD.

Another, Esperanza, explained:

This strike is not just about us and our students. It is for the future generations of teachers and students that will be a part of LAUSD. We are currently benefiting from the previous teachers’ strike. Twenty years from now, teachers and students will benefit from this fight right here right now. We are not only protecting public education but the teaching profession as well.

Bernie Sanders’ Statement of Support

Past and probably future presidential candidate Bernie Sanders issued a statement in support of UTLA last week. Sanders said:

The Los Angeles teachers, and teachers throughout our country, deserve decent salaries with no pay freezes. I stand with the Los Angeles teachers in their fight for justice and dignity.

Categories: News for progressives

What Awaits America in 2019

By Rostislav Ishchenko Translated by Ollie Richardson and Angelina Siard cross posted with https://www.stalkerzone.org/ishchenko-what-awaits-america-in-2019 source: https://ukraina.ru/opinion/20190108/1022042990.html The coming to power in the US of Donald Trump marked a critical change
Categories: News for progressives

A captured Ukrainian soldiers walks around the streets of Donetsk

Subtitles by Ollie Richardson and Angelina Siard “I Started to See Clearly”: A Captured Ukrainian Soldier Walks Around the Streets of Donetsk   The Russian war correspondent Aleksandr Sladkov walked
Categories: News for progressives

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Expands Further In Idlib De-Escalation Zone

Syrian War Report – Jan. 8, 2019: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Expands Further In Idlib De-Escalation Zone   Units of the Russian Military Police have started patrolling the surroundings of the
Categories: News for progressives

Turkey Rejects New U.S. Syria Plan - Humiliates John Bolton

On Sunday National Security Advisor John Bolton tried to set conditions for a U.S. retreat from Syria: Bolton, on a trip to Israel and Turkey, said he would stress in talks with Turkish officials, including President Tayyip Erdogan, that Kurdish...
Categories: News for progressives

Trump Can Relate … and So Can MSNBC’s Stephanie Rhule

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 16:13

It’s always interesting when members of the ruling-class reveal their cluelessness about the lives of ordinary working people. Sometimes it can cost them dearly in the political realm.

The late George H.W. Bush famously expressed amazement as president over the workings of an electric scanner in a grocery check-out line.  In doing so, he unwittingly exposed the interesting fact that he never shopped for food and other necessities like regular people.  That hurt him in his re-election bid amidst the onset of a recession in 1991.

Mitt Romney got caught telling a gathering of wealthy campaign donors that 47% of the nation was composed of no-account moochers who just want to collect welfare checks and avoid paying taxes.   That classist reflection on the nation’s working-class poor and near-poor cost him in the 2012 presidential election (when he received exactly 47% of the popular vote).

And then there’s Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul who posed as the “populist” champion of the heartland working-class (its white component at least) and went on to pass a giant tax cut for the rich in a nation where the top tenth of the upper 1 percent already owned more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

Trump, one of the richest men in America, claims he can empathize with federal workers who are struggling to pay their bills and meet basic expenses thanks to the idiotic government shutdown he has undertaken on the false pretext that there is a crisis on the U.S. southern border

“I can relate,” Trump said last Sunday.  “And I’m sure that the people that are toward the receiving end will make adjustments, they always do. And they’ll make adjustments. People understand exactly what’s going on.”

“Many of those people that won’t be receiving a paycheck, many of those people agree 100 percent with what I’m doing,” he added.

The ridiculous Trump shutdown is in its third week. Roughly 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed or told to work without pay. The shutdown has affected a broad range of jobs, including federal park rangers, national archivists, custodians, federal prison guards, cafeteria servers, Coast Guard sailors, air traffic controllers, and meteorologists.

Millions of poor families are facing the loss of Food Stamps and other federal supports, raising the specter of over-burdened soup kitchens and food pantries.

Like their working- and middle-class counterparts around the nation, most federal employees live from paycheck to paycheck with slight savings.  They cannot forego pay for an extended period.

The White House has furnished “non-essential” federal workers with a letter “explaining the situation” to landlords, mortgage lenders, and other creditors. But it’s not clear how far that letter will go with financial authorities and you can’t buy gas or groceries with a letter from your boss.

You can see unpaid federal workers in tears over the financial stress the shutdown is causing on cable news.

Trump “can relate”? The president’s net worth is $3.1 billion, Forbes reported last October.  He claims he didn’t inherit his wealth, but a detailed  a New York Times investigation last fall showed that he got his start and otherwise  benefited significantly from his father’s real estate fortune.  “By age 3,” the Timesreported, Trump “was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father’s empire. He was a millionaire by age 8. In his 40s and 50s, he was receiving more than $5 million a year.”

The notion of Trump being able to “relate” to people facing eviction and trips to food pantries and homeless shelters because of lost paychecks is of course completely absurd – as is about 90 percent of everything Trump says or Tweets.

Meanwhile, Trump is insanely claiming that the shutdown could go on “for years.”

Now might be a good time to recall how Trump’s then top political adviser Steve Bannon described his main policy goal when speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February of 2017: “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

My guess is that Trump is still in regular contact with Bannon.  He probably as the alt-right “Leninist” on speed dial for late-night consultations. Bannon is no doubt telling him that the shutdown is playing well in the white and rural, red-state  “heartland,” where federal workers are far more scarce than they are in those metropolitan zones occupied by the “radical Left” – you know, people like Wall Street’s Charles Schumer and Nancy “We’re Capitalist and That’s Just the Way it Is” Pelosi.

Still, Trump is ultimately a political animal more than an ideological one. He was ready to cut a Christmas season deal with would have let him escape his moronic wall promise. But the media strike by Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and other white-nationalist figureheads got Trump to turn on a dime.  His low approval numbers mean that he can’t afford to lose any of his backers on the hard nativist and racist right.

Will it cost him politically? On top of numerous other problems tipping his approval numbers back towards his post-Charlottesville low, the shut-down could prove disastrous for Trump as stories of desperate and impoverished federal workers mount – and as more and people die thanks to the absence of vital federal services.  It’s part of an overall political situation that could bring Trump’s presidency to an end before the 2020 elections.

In the meantime, it’s important to keep a critical distance from the Inauthentic Opposition corporate and “progressive neoliberal” Democrats, who are enjoying the corner into which the orange monstrosity has painted himself.  Yesterday morning, over at MSNBC, the cable news headquarters of Goldman-Clintonian “progressive neoliberalism” (the curious mixture of corporate-financial allegiance and bi-coastal bourgeois and metropolitan identity politics that lay at the heart of the Clinton-Obama-Pelosi Democratic Party’s “leadership” and world view), the political talk-show host Stephane Ruhle and two guests spoke passionately about the human costs of the shutdown. Right before a commercial break, Ms. Ruhle then said that her next segment would turn to “Wall Street, my favorite place.”

That was no joke about the nation’s finance district being her happy place.  Ruhle is a wealthy finance capital veteran who made a killing on the Street, specializing quite lucrativly in the toxic financial mechanisms that did so much to distribute wealth upward and crash the U.S. and world economy in 2008. According to Wikipedia:

“Stephanie Leigh Ruhle (born December 24, 1975) is an NBC News correspondent since April 2016 and anchor of MSNBC Live. Previously, Ruhle was managing editor and news anchor for Bloomberg Television and editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Ruhle co-hosted the Bloomberg Television show Bloomberg GO. Prior to joining Bloomberg…Ruhle spent 14 years working in the finance industry. While in college, she spent a summer interning for Merrill Lynch. In 1997,she joined Credit Suisse where she spent six years working in hedge fund sales. During her time at Credit Suisse First Boston, she served as a vice president and became thehighest producing credit derivatives salesperson in the United States. In 2003, Ruhle joined Deutsche Bank as a credit salesperson covering hedge funds. She ended her eight-year career there as a managing director in Global Markets Senior Relationship Management” (emphasis added).

Ms. Rhule is reported to have a net worth of $5 million to and receive $1 million a year for hosting her highly caffeinated MSDNC show. She feels for the working-class while inhabiting a lavish $7.5 million townhouse on Manhattan’s uber-tony Upper East Side.

Stephanie Ruhle’s “favorite place” has been screwing over working-class people of all kinds (federal workers included) in service to the nation’s unelected dictatorship of capital for as long as it has existed.  The sensitive-sounding hosts at MSNBC can cry all they want about the plight of working people and the poor but their network, most of its hosts, and those in in the saddle atop the Democratic Party are every bit as allegiant to that dictatorship as FOX News and the Republicans.

But you already knew that, fellow Counterpunchers.

Help adjunct history instructor Paul Street keep writing here.

 

Categories: News for progressives

Forgotten France Rises Up

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 16:00

December 15, place de l’Opéra, Paris. Three yellow vests read out an address ‘to the French people and the president of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron’ saying: ‘This movement belongs to no one and to everyone. It gives voice to a people who for 40 years have been dispossessed of everything that enabled them to believe in their future and their greatness.’

The anger provoked by a fuel tax produced, within a month, a wider diagnosis of what ails society and democracy. Mass movements that bring together people with minimal organisation encourage rapid politicisation, which explains why ‘the people’ have discovered that they are ‘dispossessed of their future’ a year after electing as president a man who boasts he swept aside the two parties that alternated in power for 40 years.

Macron has come unstuck. As did previous wunderkinder just as young, smiling and modern: Laurent Fabius, Tony Blair, Matteo Renzi. The liberal bourgeoisie are hugely disappointed. His French presidential election win in 2017 — whether it was a miracle or a divine surprise — had given them hope that France had become a haven of tranquillity in a troubled West. When Macron was crowned (to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy), The Economist, that standard-bearer for the views of the international ruling class, put him on its front cover, grinning as he walked on water.

But the sea has swallowed up Macron, too sure of his own instincts and too contemptuous of other people’s economic plight. Social distress is generally only a backdrop to an election campaign, used to explain the choice of those who vote the wrong way. But when old angers build and new ones are stirred up without consideration for those enduring them, then, as the new interior minister Christophe Castaner put it (1), the ‘monster’ can spring out of its box. And then, anything becomes possible.

France’s amnesia about the history of the left explains why there have been so few comparisons between the yellow vest movement and the strikes of 1936, during the Popular Front, which prompted similar elite surprise at the workers’ living conditions and their demand to be treated with dignity. Philosopher and campaigner Simone Weil wrote:

‘All those who are strangers to this life of slavery are incapable of understanding what has proved decisive in this situation. In this movement it is not about this or that particular demand, however important … After always having submitted, endured everything, accepted everything in silence for months and years, it is about daring to straighten up, to stand up. To take your turn to speak’ (2).

The tables had turned

Prime Minister Léon Blum, speaking about the subsequent Matignon agreements of 1936, which granted paid holidays, a 40-hour week and better wages, reported an exchange between the employers’ negotiators in which one said to another, when he saw the level of some salaries, ‘How is this possible? How did we let this happen? (3)’ Was Macron similarly enlightened by hearing yellow vests describe their daily life? Tense, pale, his eyes riveted to the teleprompter, he did admit in his address to the nation that ‘the effort demanded of them was too great’ and ‘not fair’. The tables had turned and he was now the one learning a lesson.

How did we let this happen? Thanks to the yellow vests, everyone is more aware of the government’s injustices: €5 a month less in 2017 for housing benefit while the progressive rates of tax on capital were abolished; the wealth tax eliminated; pensioners’ purchasing power declining. The costliest measure was the replacement of the tax credit for competitiveness and employment (CICE, a corporate tax credit scheme for businesses) with a reduction in employers’ social security contributions, which mean that this year the Treasury will effectively pay a double bonus to Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe, owner of Carrefour, LVMH, Le Parisien and Les Echos. This policy will cost almost €40bn in 2019, 1.8% of GDP and more than 100 times the saving from housing benefit cuts. In the short, angry video, viewed 6.2m times, that helped launch the yellow vest movement, Jacline Mouraud, 51, a composer and hypnotherapist from Brittany, asked Macron three times, ‘What are you doing with the cash?’ Now we know.

A hefty fuel price rise and a stricter roadworthiness test for cars were enough to bring everything to the surface. Such as banks that grow fat on every loan, yet in the name of cost-saving ‘rationalise’, meaning close, their branches, as they do the accounts of customers who write a cheque that bounces to get through to the end of the month. A government that raids pensions, already too low, as if they were a treasure chest. Single mothers who have trouble getting child support from their former partners, equally poor. Couples who want to split up but are forced to stay together because they cannot afford two rents. The Internet, computers and smartphones which are now necessities that have to be paid for, not for leisure purposes but because service rationalisations by the post office, tax authorities and railways, and the disappearance of public phones, make it impossible to live without them. And everywhere there are maternity unit closures and shuttered shops while Amazon opens new warehouses. This universe of anomie, imposed technology, form filling, productivity tracking and loneliness can be seen in other countries too. It has arisen under very different political regimes and predates Macron’s election, but he seems in love with this new world and has made its accomplishment his social project — another reason why he is hated.

But not universally so. People who are doing well — graduates, the middle class, those in big cities — share Macron’s optimistic outlook. As long as the country is calm, or in despair, which amounts to the same thing, the world and the future are theirs. A yellow vest who owns a detached house that in the 1970s would have been a symbol of upward mobility said, ‘When planes fly low overhead, we think: Look, there are the Parisians who can afford a holiday. Dropping their pollution on us too’ (4).

Last piece on the chessboard

Macron can count on supporters beyond the Parisian middle class with money to travel, including journalists. There is the EU. With the UK reverting to insularity, Hungary refractory, Italy disobedient, and US President Donald Trump encouraging all of them, the EU cannot do without France nor punish it like Greece when its books don’t balance. However weakened Macron is, he is one of the last strong pieces on neoliberal Europe’s chessboard. So the EU and Germany want him to remain in place, even if they have to permit France a few deadly sins.

On 6 December, four days before Macron acceded to some yellow vest demands (thereby allowing France’s budget deficit to exceed the sacrosanct limit of 3% of GDP), EU economic affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici did not reprimand or threaten Macron in the hope of averting laxness. Instead, he let it be known that he had no objection: ‘My role, as guardian of the growth and stability pact, is not to say to any country, “You must cut such and such a social expenditure, you must alter such and such a tax” … This 3% rule is not the most important. I heard Gérald Darmanin [France’s public accounts minister] say, “2.9% or 3.1% isn’t the difference between heaven and hell”. He is not entirely wrong about that, and it’s up to France to decide what it should do. I’m not going to say today, “France is threatened with sanctions, it’s deviated from the deficit procedures”.’ The Spanish, Italians and Greeks should translate this (LMD’s national editions will handle it) and future French governments, whose economic sovereignty might be more challenged and budgetary misdemeanours less well received, should keep a transcript.

To justify adding around €10bn to the deficit, Macron told his parliamentary majority, ‘In moments of crisis, the cost is secondary.’ Angela Merkel quickly backed his climbdown; it was intended, she said, to ‘respond to people’s complaints’. And France’s rightwing opposition soon called for the demonstrations to end. The middle class, which knows where its interests lie, sticks together when the house is on fire. To ‘save Private Macron’, bosses even encouraged businesses to pay their workers a special bonus, in reaction to his call for a higher minimum wage. The press too curbed its criticism when faced with a stumbling government. An economist and a political scientist had warned them: ‘Journalists must remember that they are not mere observers, but are part of the elite whose role is also to preserve the country from chaos.’ The conservative daily Le Figaro got the message, as an editorial suggested after Macron’s speech: ‘For now, the government must be acknowledged as having preserved the essentials … Tax policies in favour of investment (the partial abolition of wealth tax, a flat tax on savings) have been maintained, as well as the reduction of charges and taxes on business. Let’s hope that this lasts’ (5).

The ‘immigration question’

No one can rule out that this wish will be granted. The government has not collapsed; it pulled itself together, protected by the institutions of the Fifth Republic, and by its parliamentary majority, which will be even more loyal since it owes everything to Macron. The government also made it clear that its ostensible liberalism does not stop it deploying armoured vehicles on the streets of Paris and preventatively arresting hundreds of demonstrators (1,723 on 8 December), as it had done in the weeks before. And the executive does not balk at manipulating fear — the Elysée palace warned darkly against a ‘hard core’ of people who had come to Paris ‘to kill’ — or alleging foreign intervention (Russian of course). Moreover, Macron, by choosing to highlight the ‘immigration question’, confirmed his instinctive political cynicism.

The government can argue that the yellow vests have a weak grasp of how the international system works. Macron’s Olympian pretensions and his symbiotic relationship with the financial and cultural world of the rich have encouraged the illusion that his policies are personal whims, so that he is at liberty to change them radically. But France no longer controls its own currency; its public services are subject to EU competition law; German officials scrutinise its budget line by line; Brussels negotiates its trade treaties. Yet the words ‘Europe’ and ‘European’ do not appear among the yellow vests’ 42 demands.

The roundabout demonstrators and their supporters seem more concerned to protest at the number of members of parliament and ministerial privileges than to challenge their politicians’ powerlessness, clear to see when the boss of US multinational Ford did not deign to speak to a French minister on the phone after his company announced a plant closure with 850 layoffs at Blanquefort near Bordeaux (6).

‘Social miracle’ of the 1990s

Pierre Bourdieu called the unemployment movement of the winter of 1997-98 a ‘social miracle’, arguing that its first achievement was its very existence: ‘It wrests the unemployed and with them all precarious workers, whose numbers are growing by the day, out of invisibility, isolation, silence … out of non-existence.’ The sudden emergence of the yellow vests, just as miraculous and much more powerful, demonstrates the gradual impoverishment of an ever-larger section of society. It also demonstrates the feeling of absolute defiance towards — almost disgust at — the usual channels of representation: the movement has no leaders or spokespeople, rejects political parties, keeps its distance from unions, ignores intellectuals and hates the media. This probably explains its popularity, which it managed to retain even after violence any other government would have capitalised on.

There is no predicting the future of a movement so culturally alien to most people who read or write for Le Monde diplomatique. Its political prospects are uncertain and its eclectic character contributes to its appeal but threatens its cohesion and power. It is easier to make agreements between workers and the middle class over rejecting a fuel tax or abolishing the wealth tax than over changing the minimum wage, since small business owners and independent traders fear their costs will go up. Yet, there is a potential unifying bond, since many demands result from transformations of capitalism: inequality, wages, tax, the decline of public services, punitive environmental measures, offshoring, over-representation of middle-class graduates in public institutions and the media.

In 2010 journalist François Ruffin described two protest marches in Amiens on the same day, which crossed paths but did not join forces; one was workers from the Goodyear plant, the other, anti-globalisation campaigners demonstrating against anti-feminist legislation in Spain. Ruffin wrote: ‘It is as though two worlds, separated by just six kilometres, have turned their backs on each other. With no possibility of the “tough guys” from the factory joining what one worker called “the city-centre middle class out for a walk” ’ (7). Sociologist Rick Fantasia noted around the same in Detroit that there were ‘two lefts … separate and distinct’, activists without political plans, and realists with no appetite for action (8). Even if the divisions in Amiens and Detroit are not identical, they show the growing gulf between a working-class universe constantly attacked yet trying to fight back, and a world of contestation inspired by intellectuals whose radicalism on paper is no threat to the social order. The yellow vests remind us of this division, but it’s not up to them alone to bridge it.

Translated by George Miller

Notes.

(1) Christophe Castaner, ‘Un monstre de colères anciennes’ (A monster of old angers), Brut, 8 December 2018.

(2) Simone Weil, ‘La vie et la grève des ouvrières métallos’ (The life and strikes of female metal workers), La Révolution prolétarienne, Paris, 10 June 1936.

(3) Serge Halimi, Quand la gauche essayait: Les leçons du pouvoir (1924, 1936, 1944, 1981) (When the left tried: The lessons of power), Agone, Marseilles, 2018.

(4) Marie-Amélie Lombard-Latune and Christine Ducros, ‘Derrière les “gilets jaunes”, cette France des lotissements qui peine’ (Behind the yellow vests), Le Figaro, Paris, 26 November 2018.

(5) Gaëtan de Capèle, ‘L’heure des comptes’ (The time of reckoning), Le Figaro, 11 December 2018.

(6) Pierre Bourdieu, Contre-feux, Raisons d’agir, Paris, 1998 (Firing Back, Verso, London, 2003).

(7) François Ruffin, ‘Dans la fabrique du mouvement social’ (In the factory that built the social movement), Le Monde diplomatique, December 2010.

(8) Rick Fantasia, ‘What happened to the US left?’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2010.

 

Categories: News for progressives

Brexit Bluster: a Sorry Tale About a Country that Wanted to ‘Take Back Control’

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 15:58

The closure of Gatwick, the second largest airport in Britain, just before Christmas after the sighting of a mysterious drone near the runway, received wall-to-wall coverage from the British media, dominating the news agenda for the best part of a week.

Contrast this with the limited interest shown when a majority stake in the airport was sold by its owners to a French company. A consortium led by the US investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners, which included the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and Australia’s sovereign wealth fund, were paid £2.9bn by the French group, Vinci Airports.

The change in ownership of an important part of the British infrastructure from one foreign corporation to another came at an interesting moment. It was only a couple of weeks after the Whitehall spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, had issued a report explaining one reason why the British army is short of new recruits.

It says that back in 2012 the army had agreed a £495m contract with the outsourcing group Capita Business Services to be its partner in the recruitment of soldiers. But problems with the recruiting systems put in place by the company have made it increasingly complicated for even the most enthusiastic recruit to join up.

This is at a time when there is a shortfall of 5,500 in the number of fully trained British soldiers with 77,000 in the ranks compared to a target of 82,500.

The auditor’s report says that it took 321 days for an aspirant soldier to move forward from his or her initial online application to starting basic training. Unsurprisingly, many became discouraged over this long period so no less than 47 per cent dropped out in 2017/18.

More traditional methods such as local army recruitment centres had been run down as out of tune with modern times. The number of such centres was cut from 131 to 68 in an abortive attempt to reduce costs, according to the report.

What makes these two episodes significant is that they took place at the very moment when British politics is in greater turmoil than it has been for decades, if not for centuries, over the question of who runs the country. Yet this argument is focusing almost exclusively on the decision to leave the European Union on 29 March.

Proponents of Brexit argue that this is the best way to restore British national sovereignty and British control over their own country’s future. Yet, as we stagger towards Brexit in less than a dozen weeks’ time, it is extraordinary that decision-making on so many issues directly affecting the daily lives of people living in Britain should be in the hands of corporations at home and abroad.

The ability of national politicians to regulate and, above all, tax these international entities is already low and will get considerably lower if Britain leaves the EU and is scrabbling for new investment post Brexit. Vinci is reported to have got a bargain basement price for Gatwick because of Brexit fears.

Opinion polls have long shown popular opposition to the privatisation of providers of essential services and utilities, but people seem resigned to the idea that everything from airports and pharmacies, to their electricity and water supply will end up in the hands of corporations and foreign investors over which the British government has only diluted authority.

The great failing in the whole divisive debate over Brexit is that it has never really addressed the means by which – to adapt the words of the famous eurosceptic slogan – control could be regained.

The argument has focused instead on Brussels and on a narrow range of economic pluses and minuses, while it should have been over who runs Britain in an era of globalisation when the power of the nation state is everywhere being eroded.

No wonder this is provoking a nationalist and populist reaction across the world, stirring discontent from Wisconsin to Yorkshire and Paris to Damascus. Mention of the Syrian capital is not accidental; globalisation was one unrecognised ingredient in the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The anti-Brexit forces made a disastrous mistake in treating the issue of the relations with the EU as if it was all about economics and immigration. Instead of treating the nation state and its history as slightly absurd and certainly outdated, they should have promoted the EU as a way of enhancing the power of the nation state by pooling sovereignty in order to re-empower individual EU members.

The baffled anger of the pro-Brexit politicians over why they are being pushed around by Ireland during the Brexit negotiations shows that they do not understand why EU solidarity ensures that the balance of power is against Britain every step of the way – and there is no reason why this this should change for the better.

None of the British political parties have ever faced up to the question of how they would maintain Britain’s position as a nation state as it is hit by the all-embracing impact of globalisation.

Instead, Brussels and the EU became the symbols of these frustrations and discontents, but neither Labour nor Conservative parties ever plotted an alternative course other than promising to maintain a status quo that was increasingly burdensome to a growing number of people.

Labour has always supported national self-determination as the right vehicle for nations escaping colonialism or otherwise seeking to gain independence. But when it comes to Britain – and above all England – Labour has always had an uncomfortable relationship with nationalism, suspecting it of being disguised racism or, at the very best, a diversion from essential social and economic reforms.

The Conservative stance is more frightening because so much of it is rooted in wishful thinking and selling a fantasy about Britain’s place in the world.

Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, claimed in an interview in the last few days that “this is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.” Once free of Brussels, we are to shift our focus to global horizons, opening new bases in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

Williamson is not alone in pumping out such deceptive dreams. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, told audiences during a visit to Southeast Asia – as if he were Captain Cook landing in Polynesia – what good things we are going to bring to our old colonial stamping grounds between Malaysia and New Zealand where: “Britain’s post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world.”

It is possible that bombast like this is designed to soften the blow for Brexiteers if Britain’s departure from the EU is largely nominal. Inevitably, the country will be weaker and poorer. Less obviously, the obsessive Brexit venture has prevented Britain taking those long-term measures necessary to secure its future as an independent nation state.

 

Categories: News for progressives

For the First Time Since 9/11, There are a Few Hopeful Signs in the Preemptive Prosecutions of Muslims

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 15:57

I have been studying the prosecution of Muslims in the “war on terror” since 2006, and the courts have been consistently and resoundingly unfair. Constitutional protections under the First Amendment; Fourth Amendment (illegal wiretapping); Fifth Amendment (tortured confessions); Sixth Amendment (secret evidencegiven to the judge but not the defense, anonymous witnesses), and Eighth Amendment (long term solitary confinement and torture) have been eviscerated, held not to apply under “these circumstances.”

We in CCF call these cases “preemptive prosecutions” because they are not generally based on anything the defendant has actually done, but rather on a fear of what s/he might do in the future. This is the purported justification for sting operations, where even severely mentally ill young men are manipulated by a government agent into agreeing to a crime. It is also the rationale for criminalizing “material support” to particular groups, even when the aid is completely non-violent. It is rooted in extreme Islamophobia, as it is Muslims who are targeted in this way, not, for example, right-wing extremists, who are responsible for a far greater number of attacks in the US.

There have been life sentences for ridiculously unfair sting operations where the Muslim defendants were not even aware of the “conspiracy” for which they were found guilty, and for completely non-violent humanitarian aid to those desperately in need.

99% of the defendants were found guilty, even in cases where there was compelling evidence of their innocence. An even higher proportion of cases were upheld on appeal, and none of the cases were accepted by the Supreme Court. Hoped-for reforms under Obama completely failed to materialize. Our data shows an even higher rate of prosecutions between 2011-2018 than from 2001-2010. Things looked extremely bleak.

However, in the past couple months, a few judges  – and one jury – have started to look at some of these cases differently, for some reason no longer under the spell of the “preemptive” model which was based essentially on irrational fear. This has happened in three newer cases and in a few of the old ones which ended up before the courts again. In four cases, Muslim “terrorism” defendants have been recently released from prison because the judges sentenced them to time already served, something which never used to happen in these cases. A fifth defendant was granted a new trial, something else which never happened before in one of these cases.

Virginia Paintball case – Seifullah Chapman and Masoud Khan Were Sentenced to Life in Prison –They Have Now Been Released

In 2001, there was a group of Virginia Muslims who played paintball and engaged in some military-like training, with the idea that fighting might be necessary at some point in order  to defend fellow Muslims. A few of them[1]traveled to Pakistan to receive training with Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT) – a group fighting for Kashmiri independence.[2]Seifullah Chapman went just before 9/11 and Masoud Khan just after.  On October 20, 2001, after Chapman had returned to the US and while Khan was still overseas, American forces invaded Afghanistan and the Taliban’s control of that country rapidly collapsed, inducing Khan to return home.

Both Chapman and Khan were convicted of material support to LeT and some firearms charges – the most serious being the firing of weapons while training with LeT. Both Chapman and Khan had returned home without having fired a shot at anyone, and without having done anything to fight in Kashmir, Afghanistan or anywhere else.

The firearms law they were convicted under (18 USC 924[c]) said that if the firearms were used “in connection with a crime of violence” the sentence was much hasher. At the time of the sentencing the judge found that the material support to LeT constituted a “crime of violence.” This was based on a definition of “crime of violence” that included a finding that there was a “substantial risk that physical force against a person or property may be used in the course of committing the offense.” At the time the law required that this definition apply. They were both sentenced to life in prison based on having fired weapons while at the training camp.

In April 2018, the Supreme Court decided the case of Sessions v.Dimaya which involved the samedefinitionof “crime of violence.” The Supreme Court ruled that wherever a court used this definition, and applied it based on an “ordinary case” without regard to the specific facts, it was unconstitutional because it was too vague—too hard for the judge to know whether it applied or not. Both this definition and the “ordinary case” standard were used in the cases of Chapman and Khan and resulted in their life sentences, so they filed motions to be resentenced as a result of Dimaya.     

Judge Leonie Brinkema decided that based on Dimayashe would not use the “ordinary case” standard (this had formerly been required) and instead looked at the particular facts of Chapman’s and Khan’s case. Very significantly, she found that there was no “substantial risk” of their use of forcewith respect to the material support charge. She vacated the firearms counts and resentenced both of them to 10 years. Since they had already served much longer than that, the two men were released. The government is appealing and it is possible Brinkema’s decision could be reversed – but because she based the decision on the particular factsof the case, that makes it less likely to be overturned since judges are given a lot of leeway to find facts.

To the prosecution’s great surprise, the judge wasn’t blinded by the specter of “terrorism” – instead she looked carefully at the facts and found that there was not a substantial risk that they would have actually ended up using force against anyone. This shows a weakening of the preemptive model, which is entirely based on the idea that thereis a “substantial risk”that the defendant will become violent in the future.

While there are only a handful of Muslim preemptive prosecution cases where the Dimaya case applies directly, the broader concept of not allowing Islamophobic fear to supplant the law will hopefully spread.        

Bakhtiyor Jumaev – Colorado – Sentenced to Time Served in July, 2018

A similar hopeful sign is the July 2018 sentencing of Bakhtiyor Jumaev in federal court in Colorado. Jumaev was convicted after trial of material support for sending a single check for $300 to a co-defendant, knowing it was to go to a designated terrorist group (the Islamic Jihad Union or IJU.) The government was asking for fifteen years, which would have been fairly typical in such a case. However, Judge John Kane sentenced him to time served (unfortunately, this amounted to just over 6 years, since the case had been pending for a long time due to wrangling over illegal wiretapping.) A well-known legal blogger recently discussed this, titling the post, “Terrorism’ isn’t what it used to be.”

Judge Kane called the government request for fifteen years “absurd,” and stated that the defendant should not receive a harsher sentence because he went to trial, stating:

“In over forty years of judging I have never imposed a harsher sentence because a defendant asserted his right to trial by jury or to testify at that trial. I am not about to do so now or in the future. I consider any trial “tax” or penalty to be contrary to the ages-long values and standards of our legal system. It is more closely associated with the jurisprudence of Russia, as described by Dostoyevsky, than our own tradition as described by Benjamin Cardozo.

A just sentence is an act for which a judge is morally responsible. That responsibility can neither be shunned nor relinquished based on the nature of the crime. We must recognize that a human being is the focal point of the sentencing process and should not be ignored or dismissed because of the inflamed rhetoric of the war on terror. I am reminded of Judge Learned Hand‘s wise comment: ―If we are to keep our democracy, there must be but one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Ration Justice.”

While sentiments like that are not unheard of in federal courts, they have been rare for many years, and they had never before been uttered in a Muslim “terrorism” case. We can only hope this is part of a trend toward treating applying the law equally in these cases, which would result in much fewer convictions and much lower sentences.

United States v. John Doe – New York  – Sentenced to Time Served in August, 2018

In this case, 93 year-old Judge Jack Weinstein issued one of his lengthy, very thoughtful decisions in the case of a young man who, deluded by ISIS propaganda proclaiming an Islamic paradise, had traveled to Syria in 2014 and spent several months working for that group before managing to escape. Judge Weinstein even went so far as to redact the defendant’s name, in order to protect him, and while I know the name, I will not state it here.

The opinion began like this, situating current events within a historical context:

“Terrorism in support of ideology is not unknown in American history. See, e.g., David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist 11 (Alfred A. Knopf 2005) … Nor is the history of export of American volunteer fighters to foreign wars unusual: we need only recall American individuals’ aid to civil wars in Greece, Israel, Italy, Spain, Sri Lanka, the Soviets, and Nazi Germany.”

Judge Weinstein noted that the “terrorism enhancement” applied as a matter of law in the case, making the Sentencing Guidelines range 30 years to life, but also noting that the maximum sentence for the statute under which the defendant was convicted was 25 years, so that became the maximum possible sentence. The judge also noted that the defendant had been cooperating extensively with the government[3] since his return, and took that into consideration, even though the government did not recommend a particular sentence.

The judge also looked at other cases where people joined ISIS and then returned to the US, noting that the average sentence in such cases was 10 years. (Ironically, this is much shorter than sentences have tended to be in purely preemptive cases, such as sting operations.) He also looked at how European countries have treated their citizens when they return home after spending time with ISIS, and noted that those sentences have been much shorter than in the US. (See Opinion, at 31-34)

When explaining the reason for his sentence of 21 months (time served – the defendant had been incarcerated for 21 months before being released on bond prior to sentencing) Judge Weinstein said something which could be said of hundreds of Muslim terrorism defendants, especially those entrapped in sting operations:

“At a particularly vulnerable time, he immersed himself in the internet, falling prey to terrorist propaganda and eventually finding himself drifting towards radicalization….Doe’s decision to travel to Syria was primarily motivated by a desire to live in a utopian Islamic environment, rather than a desire to commit violence on the group’s behalf” (P 36-37)

Likewise, he stated, in what could be termed a rebuke of the preemptive prosecution model, “While no one can ever be sure, the court believes that defendant has recognized the severity of his crimes and is not likely to move towards violent extremist behavior.” (p 39)

Uzair Paracha – New York – New Trial Granted in July, 2018

In 2003, Uzair Paracha was charged with several counts of material support to Al Qaeda, all based on his having helped Guantanamo detainee Majid Khanfraudulently obtain legal status in the US. The question was whether he did so believing that Khan was a member of Al Qaeda. If not, he could have only faced minor immigration fraud charges, or would not have prosecuted at all. He was found guilty at trial of knowingly having supported Al Qaeda by helping Khan, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2006.

In 2008, Paracha filed a motion for a new trial, based on new evidence, which consisted of statements by Majid Khan and two other Guantanamo detainees, indicating that Paracha did not knowingly aid Al Qaeda.(Apparently, some previous unclassified summaries of alleged statements from them, likely obtained under torture, had provided the chief evidence against Paracha at trial.) This motion was never decided until 2018. It is not clear why the motion was pending for 10 years with no decision. In February, 2018, Paracha filed a handwritten “mandamus” motion from prison, requesting that the court issue a decision on the motion for a new trial.

In July, 2018, the court granted this motion, stating that the new statements go to the heart of the case against Paracha, and set the case down for a new trial. Again, we see a judge reexamining old fear-filled assumptions and granting relief to a defendant who was unfairly treated. (As with the cases of Chapman and Khan, the government is appealing this decision, so we will have to see what the appeal court says and, if the decision is upheld, what happens with the new trial.)

Adam Shafi – Granted Bail in October, 2018 After Mistrial – Jury Voted 8-4 to Acquit

On October 4, 2018, Adam Shafi, who is charged with attempted material support based on allegations he was seeking to join the Al Nusra Front in Syria, was released on bail after spending three years in pre-trial detention. After a trial in September, the jury had been deadlocked, voting 8-4 to acquit him. The defense argued he did not actually take steps to travel to Syria, and was suffering from depression. In the past, defendants in similar situations have been convicted, but this jury didn’t do that, and the judge then granted bail pending a retrial, something else which almost never happened in the past.

 Conclusion

It may be too early to tell if these cases represent a real trend toward fairness in Muslim so-called terrorism cases, but there could be a growing recognition that injustice has been done in many of these cases, and should be remedied.

Kathy Manley is the Legal Director of the Coalition for Civil Freedoms (CCF).

Notes.

[1] Several others were also charged but got shorter sentences except for one, Ali Al-Timimi, who is still serving a life sentence even though all he did was advise the group that under Islamic law, jihad in support of the Taliban was permitted.

[2] LeT at that time was training fighters to liberate Kashmir from India and was not directly involved in the Afghan civil war. However, because of its activities in Kashmir LeT had been designated a terrorist organization by the US in order to support its ally, India. In Muslim countries, LeT fighters were often regarded as freedom fighters trying to liberate a mostly Muslim Kashmiri population from rule by Hindu India.

[3] While the defendant did provide information about what he learned while in Syria, and did a lot of work trying to dissuade others from following in his footsteps, it does not appear that he did any undercover work in any domestic case (he does appear to have had undercover conversations with some ISIS members in Syria), or that he testified against any other defendants.

 

Categories: News for progressives

Art of the Monstrous: Burtynsky and the Anthropocene

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 15:53

The National Art Gallery in Ottawa currently hosts a sensational exhibition called “Anthropocene.” Edward Burtynsky and his associates Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier have created a multi-media mind-boggling representation of the transformation of the earth by humans. Their work has the shock-effect similar to the famous 1969 photograph of the earth taken from outer space, from far above. One recalls Carl Sagan’s equally famous description of the earth as that “pale blue dot.” Those words were uttered with hope glistening on its lips. Could we see how beautiful this whirling planet, ours, was from so far above? Isn’t it one world for everyone? Shouldn’t humanity encircle its collective arms around this pale blue dot and cradle it tenderly?

In the age of airplanes, most of us who inhabit this pale blue dot have been stunned by how awesome our view of the Rockies is from 30,000 feet above the earth. And we are probably aware that photography from above is not entirely new. It has been used for cartographic purposes. Now, many know Burtynsky’s earlier works such as Manufactured landscapes (2003), Oil (2009) and Water (2013)If you have never looked at any of Burtynsky’s big picture photographs, you may be in for  something akin to an electric shock. His photos of large-scale sites from high above (planes, drones, helicopters) stop us in our tracks. They grab our attention and demand that we think anew about the world humankind has manufactured.

Some would add—and ruined. Viewing Burtynsky’s photos triggers deep spiritual and philosophical thought. Nature photographs and paintings are never mere representations; they carry symbolic meanings. And, essentially, they press us to ask the big questions: Who are we as a human species? What is our purpose on this pale blue dot? What have we done to this beautiful place, whirling in an unfathomably immense universe? Where, when all is said and done, are we headed?

In Manufactured landscapes (2003) Burtynsky challenges our aesthetic and moral perspective on what humans have made (and are making) of this earth. The fiery orange tailings river snaking through the landscape near Sudbury, Ontario is sublimely and awesomely frightening. One is instantly reminded of volcanic eruptions. Dare we celebrate the beauty of Burtynsky’s photographs? Dare we marvel at the heroic efforts marshalled to extract oil from the earth? His photos are beguiling and seductive. For me, it is the sheer scale of his photographic revelations. Essayist Lori Pauli comments: “These huge panoramas outside of our normal range of experience, there is something unsettling, even alarming, about scenes that show such massive human incursion into the earth.” Can we even imagine how those cavernous quarries and mining pits were dug? Should we bow down before human ingenuity? How ghastly is it really to see men in shorts, standing dwarf-like slaving away in mud flats, in the midst of massive rusting and twisted shipwrecks in Bangladesh? Answer: very.

Manufactured landscapes divides itself into six different categories: railcuts, mines and tailings, quarries, urban mines, and shipwrecking. Burtynsky photographs a train barely visible against the sandy-coloured backdrop of a mountainside along the Thompson River in BC sliced through by an avalanche. Unlike other portrayals of trains puffing through a harmonious landscape (George Innes, The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856), serene countryside equally evident on both sides of the tracks, Burtynsky’s photograph suggests that the rail line is a mere intruder into an unimaginably dangerous landscape.

Plates featuring mines and tailings like the Anaconda Copper mine in Butte, Montana startle us with the immensity of its bevelled pit of light-brown, pale sand in the foreground, our eyes sweeping out to low, dark green hills in the far distance. The photograph of the Kennecott Copper mine in the Bighorn Valley, Utah reminds me of a gigantic Roman colosseum holding at its bottom a mysterious dark green pool. In the photographs of monumental quarries like the Italian Carrara Marble Quarries one can barely see a thin dirt path winding precariously along the quarry cliffs.  Michelangelo’s David was hewn from quarries like this 500 years ago.

In the section on Urban mines, Burtynsky photographed densified tin cans, now in large blocks, settled in amongst thousands of pieces of fragmented metal, densified oil filters, scrap auto engines, telephones, ferrous bushings (at first I thought they were rusty-coloured leaves), and discarded heaps of tires. These heaps of the detritus of industrial societies are usually hidden from our view. Now, they are in our face, reminding us that the stuff we use to take stuff out of the ground has to go somewhere. I am fascinated with the photographs of oil donkeys stretching out beyond normal eyesight and the oil refineries with their bizarre pipelines. The refineries look like the inner circulatory veins and arteries of the human body. Oil becomes the equivalent to blood keeping our bodies alive; human civilization needs oil or it dies a tortuous death.

Burtynsky’s Oil (2009) focuses all of its attention on oil as the life-giving substance that is the foundation, so to speak, of global civilization, giving shape to highway systems, the automobile culture and its cults, the location of our suburbs and industrial dumping grounds for dead cars and fuel for a capitalist economy. From plates of the spooky beauty of the Tar Sands of Fort McMurray in Alberta where oil is extracted at a hard price and the land is spoiled to photos of intricately designed networks of interwoven highways, with Houston, Texas in the horizon, we see vividly that global societies worship oil. It is our false god.

We worship cars, we pollute the air with their exhausts, we want to drive them and if that means the earth will be devastated and the air polluted, so be it. Hypnotically, we watch them zoom around tracks like the Bonneville Speedway in California. Burtynsky captures all of these intertwined, disturbing matters with considerable power. His photographs of the oxidized oil rigs and accompanying mangled mess in Baku, Azerbaijan by themselves should impel us thinking about where we are headed as an interdependent species in a world running off its tracks. But this god is a consuming fire.

Burtynsky’s Water (2013) completes my selection of three books as preparation for our discussion of the Anthropocene exhibit in Ottawa. If western civilization needs oil to fire its global economic infrastructure, it goes without saying that we, as homo sapiens, can’t live for long without water. Essayist Wade Davis, the well-known anthropologist who draws truths from ancient cultures, states that moderns have forgotten the “wisdom of our ancestors” who “recognized water as a gift of the divine.”

Stripped of the sacred and a sensibility of respect for all sources of water, our materialist culture diverts rivers like the Colorado in the US and builds unbelievably massive dams in China and elsewhere. World populations are growing and water is becoming no longer everywhere. In the US south-west, the ever-expanding building of homes in the desert require ground water. Lots of it. One of my favourite plates is a Navaho/Arizona suburb, where the lego-styled houses clustered side by side come to a sudden halt at a line demarcating Navaho territory. It is just scrubby desert.

Water has many resplendent photographs. Several of Burtynsky’s plates capture vast, circular irrigation systems. The circles have circles within them; I learned that a gigantic pivoting arm swings around the circle as it waters the surrounding land. Viewing the photos on circular irrigation systems reminds one of Paul Klee’s autumnal tones and circular images. Several plates of the Colorado River delta are uncanny. They could be photographs of the body’s capillary systems, fingering their way through the purplish mud flats. One doesn’t always know what one is looking at in this collection of Burtynsky plates. There is lots going on in Water. For instance, the section on “Waterfronts” confronts us once again with the vast scale of human manufactured landscapes. Shot from above, with the foreground as viewing entry port, his photographs of Florida suburbs like Cape Coral #1, Lee County reveal a radically homogenized, grid of clustered houses without any horizon.

If one thinks this is awfully crammed living space, then take a glance at Burtynsky’s plates on Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India. They include photos of vast tent cities, chaotic burial ceremonies cluttered with glowing fires, wood lots, scraps of wood mingled with orange flowers, and thousands huddled together on the river bank of Haridar, India. The photographs from above of Iceland are surreal abstractions. We marvel and are puzzled. What am I looking at?  I fumble to read the entry at the back of the book. One reads these selected texts and emerges with jangled nerves and disturbed spirit.

The Ottawa exhibit – Anthropocene – could be called the art of the monstrous. In one sense, it is the culmination of Burtynsky and film maker associates Baichwal and de Pencier’s work over the last decade. Entering the exhibit, one is stopped in one’s tracks. The photographs are the size of billboards!  In his interview with Paul Wells in Maclean’s Magazine, December 2018, Burtynsky informs us that the murals were “made with a special head that stitches a digital picture together using about 120 or 200 images, and you get this incredible resolution—it’s literally a billboard size, but you could walk up to it and see every leaf on the plant, which was impossible 10 years ago.” Burtynsky speaks of his work as a kind of “photographic Renaissance.” That is true. But daring to label the exhibit with the label “Anthropocene” takes his work into highly controversial territory.

Asked by Wells to define the meaning of Anthropocene, he points out that the word was coined around 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen. “He determined that the planet is now shifting into a new epoch, and that we are shifting the human systems more than all natural systems combined. That’s never happened on the planet, where one species is the agency of change.. So, anthropo-,humans; -cene, change. The last time we had an epoch change was 12,000 years ago.” These large tableaus carry some familiar images from his published works. The experience of viewing these monstrous murals, however, intensifies and overwhelms our perceptions and understanding. For me, the photographs of landfill sites in Nairobi, Kenya, filled as they are with unimaginably mountainous heaps of plastic containers, bags, and tin cans, are hideous and captivating.

The Dandara Landfill, created in the 1970s and declared full a decade ago, now serves as a mining site for thousands of workers. Three film stills of Baichwal and de Pencier capture a man carrying a huge greenish-brown sack on his back as he treads along a muddy, wretched path cutting like a river through canyon walls of garbage heaps. One of the three film stills presents a group of shabbily dressed men sifting through sacks and bags, hanging like dead fruit from the banks of garbage.  One feels that one could take a few steps and be standing in this grubby landfill. In fact, Burtynsky’s murals of Lagos, Nigeria, shot from a drone, press our imagination to grasp the expansiveness of this fastest-growing city with millions of rusty, and occasionally blue, roofs in the world. To get us really up close, Burtynsky and his associates provide viewers with an app that places us in a film of the streets and sounds of Lagos. This is an uncanny experience. And brilliant.

Burtynsky’s murals of urban sprawl in Los Angeles accentuates and startles us with the sheer extent of the sprawl. The Santa Ana Freeway cuts through the sprawling neighbours. It highlights the magnitude of the critical infrastructure needed to keep cars moving and the goods flowing. Somehow, one cannot quite escape thinking that someone is defiling this space with a huge carving knife. The mural of tens of thousands of Hurricane Harvey storm-damaged automobiles stored on the Royal Purple Raceway, Baytown, Texas forces us (for a moment or two at least) to face the dire consequences of rising CO2 production, leakage of harmful chemicals into the air and waterways and use of synthetic fertilizers. Even the highways are made from petroleum products. Hurricane Harvey caused losses (to business and property) of around $125 billion USD.

Spain seems to provide Burtynsky with many terrific photographic billboards. His photo of an aquaculture in Cadiz, Spain is wonderfully symmetrical with hundreds of narrow river-like containers in the foreground and larger square blue ponds in the horizon. By the 1990s technological advances had pushed fish farming to an industrial scale. But the Bay of Cadiz’s bio-diversity–a natural park and heritage zone–is now threatened by poor maintenance and the drying out by sedimentation. Numerous photographs illustrate the way farming in places like El Ejido, Spain risk damaging the environment by building plastic-covered greenhouses at the foot of the mountains. The workforce is almost entirely comprised of migrant workers, mostly from Africa. Their living conditions are similar to a refugee camp. That is: lousy.

One of the axioms of the Anthropocene Age is that depth of human destruction of the environment.  Burtynsky photographs clearcut forests on Vancouver Island, BC. I’ve seen only a small part of clearcut forests up-close. The look from above reveals how devastating monstrous machines have invaded once sacred forests to rip through the forest’s entrails to get a few precious logs. Only useless and mangled sticks of wood remain. A photo of a clearcut of a Palm Oil Plantation in Borneo, Malaysia grabs our attention because of the sharp contrast between brown clearcut and the dark green surround forest.  The monsters are everywhere.

 One of the most stunning tableaus in the Ottawa exhibit is surely Burtnysky’s photo of oil bunkering in the Niger Delta. The local tribal groups, cut out from benefitting from the slipshod and reckless corporate exploitation of oil resources, have siphoned off oil into opalescent bunkers. Operating illegally, the pirates create make-shift refineries to turn the crude into low-grade fuel. But this dangerous work and broken pipelines leaks volumes of toxic materials and crude oil into the surrounding forests and waterways. And the legal work of companies like Shell Oil destroys vast reaches of old growth forest to get this dark stuff. Logging and burning ensue: more damage and ugliness. What a bloody mess!

Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier’s cinematic contribution to the Anthropocene is  provocative. One of the markers of the Anthropocene age is mass extinction of species. Since 1970, we are told, one-half of all animal species have seen a significant decline in numbers. In Kenya there were 167,000 elephants; now there are around 25,000. Baichwal and de Pencier reveal why: poachers murder elephants for their ivory tusks. The Kenyan government moved to stop poaching and, in 2016, one hundred and five tons of elephant ivory  went up in flames. Their fire, one commentator observes, was a “virtual sculpture” which “gives a visceral understanding of human-caused distinction.” Standing in front of this raging fire, one can hear the crackling and almost feel the demonic heat. It is a landscape of a battlefield. Two other AR installations draw attention to threatened species: Sultan, the last of the now extinct species of white rhinos and a massive tableau of “Big lonely Doug”, a single majestic Fir tree standing alone in a clearcut forest.

Living in the Anthropocene era means that humankind can no longer tell its story apart from a deep recognition of our on-going monstrous impact on the earth. Dipesh Chakrabarty (“The climate of history: four theses,” Critical Inquiry, 35, Winter 2009) states that: “The geologic now of the Anthropocene has become entangled with the now of history.” This observation carries many consequences. As a historian, I can no longer separate geologic time from the chronology of human history. For centuries these two times have been unrelated. Many scholars date the Anthropocene from the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century. That is the time, we recall, when some human beings shifted from wood to large-scale use of fossil fuels. But, Chakrabarty points out, “The mansion of modern freedoms [inherited from the Enlightenment age] stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” They can run out. So will our freedoms.

Our understanding of “freedoms” needs radical revision. We must also face how we will act when we humans are the “main determinant of the environment of the planet.” If this be so, then we cannot restrict our analyses to matters of justice for the poor and oppressed. This kind of analysis is limited; it won’t do anymore. If the human-transformed world—as manifest in Burtynsky and associates’ artistic work—destroys the fabric of life for all creatures, then thinking only of “justice for the poor” won’t do the trick. The poor will be dead and it will be too late for any justice to be done.

To be sure, we learn much from astute analyses of the unfolding of capitalism within the West and its imperial domination of the rest of the world. The Anthropocene exhibit provides plenty of artistic evidence. But the exhibit also provides evidence that monstrous and reckless industrialization connects to the “history of life on the planet, the way different life-forms connect to one another, and the way mass extinction of one species could spell danger for another. Without such a history of life, the crisis of climate change has no human ‘meaning.’”

Categories: News for progressives

Break the Cycle: Say No to the Government’s Cruelty, Brutality and Abuse

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 15:50

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.

—Edmund Burke

Folks, it’s time to break the cycle.

Let’s make 2019 the year we say no to the laundry list of abuses—cruel, brutal, immoral, unconstitutional and unacceptable—that have been heaped upon us by the government for way too long.

Let’s make 2019 the year we stop living in a state of utter denial, desensitized to the government’s acts of violence, accustomed to reports of government corruption, and anesthetized to the sights and sounds of Corporate America marching in lockstep with the police state.

Let’s make 2019 the year we refuse to allow the government’s abusive behavior to be our new normal. There is nothing normal about egregious surveillance, roadside strip searches, police shootings of unarmed citizens, censorship, retaliatory arrests, the criminalization of lawful activities, warmongering, indefinite detentions, SWAT team raids, asset forfeiture, police brutality, profit-driven prisons, or pay-to-play politicians.

Here’s just a small sampling of what we suffered through in 2018.

The government failed to protect our lives, liberty and happiness. The predators of the police state wreaked havoc on our freedoms, our communities, and our lives. The government didn’t listen to the citizenry, refused to abide by the Constitution, and treated the citizenry as a source of funding and little else. Police officers shot unarmed citizens and their household pets. Government agents—including local police—were armed to the teeth and encouraged to act like soldiers on a battlefield. Bloated government agencies were allowed to fleece taxpayers. Government technicians spied on our emails and phone calls. And government contractors made a killing by waging endless wars abroad.

The president became more imperial. Although the Constitution invests the President with very specific, limited powers, in recent years, American presidents (Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc.) have claimed the power to completely and almost unilaterally alter the landscape of this country for good or for ill. The powers amassed by each successive president through the negligence of Congress and the courts—powers which add up to a toolbox of terror for an imperial ruler—empower whomever occupies the Oval Office to act as a dictator, above the law and beyond any real accountability. The presidency itself has become an imperial one with permanent powers.

Police became a power unto themselves. Lacking in transparency  and accountability,  protected by the courts and legislators, and rife with misconduct, America’s police forces were a growing menace to the citizenry and the rule of law.  Shootings of unarmed citizens,  police misconduct and the use of excessive force continued to claim lives and make headlines. One investigative report found that police shoot Americans more than twice as often as previously known, a number that is underreported and undercounted.  That doesn’t account for the alarming number of unarmed individuals who died from police using tasers on them.

911 calls turned deadly. Here’s another don’t to the add the growing list of things that could get you or a loved one tasered, shot or killed, especially if you are autistic, hearing impaired, mentally ill, elderly, suffer from dementia, disabled or have any other condition that might hinder your ability to understand, communicate or immediately comply with an order: don’t call the cops.

Traffic stops took a turn for the worse. Police officers have been given free range to pull anyone over for a variety of reasons and subject them to forced cavity searches, forced colonoscopies, forced blood draws, forced breath-alcohol tests, forced DNA extractions, forced eye scans, forced inclusion in biometric databases. This free-handed approach to traffic stops has resulted in drivers being stopped for windows that are too heavily tinted, for driving too fast, driving too slow, failing to maintain speed, following too closely, improper lane changes, distracted driving, screeching a car’s tires, and leaving a parked car door open for too long. Unfortunately, traffic stops aren’t just dangerous. They can be downright deadly at a time when police can do no wrong—at least in the eyes of the courts, police unions and politicians dependent on their votes—and a “fear” for officer safety is used to justify all manner of police misconduct.

The courts failed to uphold justice. A review of critical court rulings over the past decade or so, including some ominous ones by the U.S. Supreme Court, reveals a startling and steady trend towards pro-police state rulings by an institution concerned more with establishing order and protecting the ruling class and government agents than with upholding the rights enshrined in the Constitution. For example, despite the fact that a 26-year-old man was gunned down by police who banged on the wrong door at 1:30 am, failed to identify themselves as police, and then repeatedly shot and killed the innocent homeowner who answered the door while holding a gun in self-defense, the justices of the high court refused to intervene to address police misconduct. Despite the fact that police shot and killed nearly 1,000 people nationwide for the third year in a row (many of whom were unarmed, mentally ill, minors or were shot merely because militarized police who were armed to the hilt “feared” for their safety), the Supreme Court has failed to right the wrongs being meted out by the American police state.

The Surveillance State rendered Americans vulnerable to threats from government spies, police, hackers and power failures. Thanks to the government’s ongoing efforts to build massive databases using emerging surveillance, DNA and biometrics technologies, Americans have become sitting ducks for hackers and government spies alike. Billions of people were affected by data breaches and cyberattacks in 2018. On a daily basis, Americans are being made to relinquish the most intimate details of who we are—our biological makeup, our genetic blueprints, and our biometrics (facial characteristics and structure, fingerprints, iris scans, etc.)—in order to navigate an increasingly technologically-enabled world. The Department of Homeland, which has been leading the charge to create a Surveillance State, began deploying mandatory facial recognition scans at airports and improperly gathering biometric data on American travelers. Police were gifted with new surveillance gadgets that allows them to scan vehicles for valuable goods and contraband. Even churches got in on the game, installing “crime cameras” to monitor church property and churchgoers. The Corporate State tapped into our computer keyboards, cameras, cell phones and smart devices in order to better target us for advertising. Social media giants such as Facebook granted secret requests by the government and its agents for access to users’ accounts. Triggered by background noise, Google Assistant has been actively recording phone users’ conversations. And our private data—methodically collected and stored with or without our say-so—was repeatedly compromised and breached.

Mass shootings claimed more lives. Mass shootings have taken place at churches, in nightclubs, on college campuses, on military bases, in elementary schools, in government offices, and at concerts. In almost every instance, you can connect the dots back to the military-industrial complex, which continues to dominate, dictate and shape almost every aspect of our lives.

The rich got richer, and the poor went to jail. Not content to expand the police state’s power to search, strip, seize, raid, steal from, arrest and jail Americans for any infraction, no matter how insignificant, the Trump administration gave state courts the green light to resume their practice of jailing individuals who are unable to pay the hefty fines imposed by the American police state. These debtors’ prisons play right into the hands of those who make a profit by jailing Americans.  This is no longer a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It is fast becoming a government “of the rich, by the elite, for the corporations,” and its rise to power is predicated on shackling the American taxpayer to a debtors’ prison guarded by a phalanx of politicians, bureaucrats and militarized police with no hope of parole and no chance for escape.

The cost of endless wars drove the nation deeper into debt. America’s war spending has already bankrupted the nation to the tune of more than $20 trillion dollars. Policing the globe and waging endless wars abroad hasn’t made America—or the rest of the world—any safer, but it has made the military industrial complex rich at taxpayer expense. Approximately 200,000 US troops are stationed in 177 countries throughout the world, including Africa, where troops reportedly carry out an average of 10 military exercises and engagements daily. Meanwhile, America’s infrastructure is falling apart. The interest on the money America has borrowed to wage its wars will cost an estimated $8 trillion.

“Show your papers” incidents skyrocketed. We are not supposed to be living in a “show me your papers” society. Despite this, the U.S. government has introduced measures allowing police and other law enforcement officials to stop individuals (citizens and noncitizens alike), demand they identify themselves, and subject them to patdowns, warrantless searches, and interrogations. These actions fly in the face of longstanding constitutional safeguards forbidding such police state tactics.

The plight of the nation’s homeless worsened. In communities across the country, legislators adopted a variety of methods (parking meters, zoning regulations, tickets, and even robots) to discourage the homeless from squatting, loitering and panhandling. One of the most common—and least discussed—practices: homeless relocation programs that bus the homeless outside city limits.

The government waged war on military veterans. The government has done a pitiful job of respecting the freedoms of military veterans and caring for their needs once out of uniform. Despite the fact that the U.S. boasts more than 20 million veterans who have served in World War II through the present day, the plight of veterans today is America’s badge of shame, with large numbers of veterans impoverished, unemployed, traumatized mentally and physically, struggling with depression, suicide, and marital stress, homeless, subjected to sub-par treatment at clinics and hospitals, left to molder while their paperwork piles up within Veterans Administration offices, and increasingly treated like criminals— targeted for surveillance, censorship, threatened with incarceration or involuntary commitment, labeled as extremists and/or mentally ill, and stripped of their Second Amendment rights—for daring to speak out against government misconduct.

Free speech was dealt one knock-out punch after another. Protest laws, free speech zones, bubble zones, trespass zones, anti-bullying legislation, zero tolerance policies, hate crime laws and a host of other legalistic maladies dreamed up by politicians and prosecutors (and championed by those who want to suppress speech with which they might disagree) have conspired to corrode our core freedoms, purportedly for our own good. On paper—at least according to the U.S. Constitution—we are technically free to speak. In reality, however, we are only as free to speak as a government official—or corporate entities such as Facebook, Google or YouTube—may allow. The reasons for such censorship varied widely from political correctness, safety concerns and bullying to national security and hate crimes but the end result remained the same: the complete eradication of free speech.

Police became even more militarized and weaponized. Despite concerns about the government’s steady transformation of local police into a standing military army, local police agencies continued to acquire weaponry, training and equipment suited for the battlefield—with full support from the Trump Administration. Even purely civilian government agencies are arming their employees to the hilt with guns, ammunition and military-style equipment, authorizing them to make arrests, and training them in military tactics. There are now reportedly more bureaucratic (non-military) government civilians armed with high-tech, deadly weapons than U.S. Marines. For instance, the IRS has 4,487 guns and 5,062,006 rounds of ammunition in its weapons inventory.

The government waged a renewed war on private property. The battle to protect our private property has become the final constitutional frontier, the last holdout against our freedoms being usurped. We no longer have any real property rights. That house you live in, the car you drive, the small (or not so small) acreage of land that has been passed down through your family or that you scrimped and saved to acquire, whatever money you manage to keep in your bank account after the government and its cronies have taken their first and second and third cut…none of it is safe from the government’s greedy grasp. At no point do you ever have any real ownership in anything other than the clothes on your back. Everything else can be seized by the government under one pretext or another (civil asset forfeiture, unpaid taxes, eminent domain, public interest, etc.).

Police waged a war on kids. So-called school “safety” policies, which run the gamut from zero tolerance policies that punish all infractions harshly to surveillance cameras, metal detectors, random searches, drug-sniffing dogs, school-wide lockdowns, active-shooter drills and militarized police officers, turned schools into prisons and young people into prisoners. The Justice Department announced that it will provide funding for schools that want to hire more resource officers, while President Trump indicated that he wants to “harden” the schools. What exactly does hardening the schools entail? More strident zero tolerance policiesgreater numbers of school cops, and all the trappings of a prison complex (unsurmountable fences, entrapment areas, no windows or trees, etc.). According to the Washington Post, more than 4 million children endured lockdowns last school year, leaving many traumatized.

The Deep State took over. The American system of representative government was overthrown by the Deep State—a.k.a. the police state a.k.a. the military industrial complex—a profit-driven, militaristic corporate state bent on total control and global domination through the imposition of martial law here at home and by fomenting wars abroad. When in doubt, follow the money trail. It always points the way.

The takeaway: Everything the founders of this country feared has come to dominate in modern America.

Yet as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, if freedom is to survive at all, “we the people” will need to stop thinking as Democrats and Republicans and start thinking like true patriots. As Edward Abbey warned, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”

Let’s not take the mistakes, carnage, toxicity and abuse of this past year into 2019.

As long as we continue to allow callousness, cruelty, meanness, immorality, ignorance, hatred, intolerance, racism, militarism, materialism, meanness and injustice—magnified by an echo chamber of nasty tweets and government-sanctioned brutality—to trump justice, fairness and equality, there can be no hope of prevailing against the police state.

Categories: News for progressives

The Quintessential American

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 15:50

The difference between having lived in a foreign country (particularly while you’re young, relatively poor, keenly observant, and ever so slightly insecure) and NOT having lived in a foreign country is profound. If you were paying attention, the experience was life-altering. It made you realize there were no absolutes, that almost everything you previously took as “normal” or “universal” was merely one version of reality. The Western version.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the difference between having lived abroad and having NOT lived abroad is not unlike the difference between having entered puberty and NOT having entered it. Yes, it’s a dramatic and embarrassing comparison, but it’s true. Once you’ve crossed that line, nothing is ever the same.

Back when I spent two pre-Internet years working in Northern India (Punjab state), the Indians were still exceedingly curious about America. Even those nominally “anti-American” Indians (political science professors, members of the CPI—the Communist Party of India, students, etc.) couldn’t help themselves. They were clearly fascinated with the United States.

And because I was likely to be the only American these people (mainly English-speaking city folk and “townies”) were ever going to meet, and was aware that their view of the U.S. was, therefore, going to be based almost exclusively on how I comported myself, I did my best to modulate my responses. Thus, I went out of my way to consciously present myself as the “average” American.

I wasn’t always successful. There were lapses. For instance, when Indians asked me what the “best” American city was (and, oddly, way more Indians than you’d expect asked me that question), I usually answered by saying that the notion of a “best city” was simply too broad and subjective a category. But I didn’t always say that. Sometimes I told them it was New York City.

Not that I had any personal or institutional attachment to NYC. While I had visited the city, and was overwhelmed by it, I had never lived there. It just seemed like New York—the center of finance, publishing, art, fashion, theater, organized crime—was the appropriate answer. Similarly, when asked what the “worst” American city was (a question also asked) I said it was Las Vegas, Nevada. Again, it seemed appropriate.

When the conversation turned to American practices and “values,” I was usually a reliable and informative respondent—indeed, a veritable fountain of Americana. But not always. I could also be entertainingly glib and downright Gore Vidalesque when I was in the company of Indians I knew to be critical of the United States, especially when we were drinking alcohol.

On these occasions, and with this audience, I insisted that once you cut through all the rhetoric, anecdotal history, symbolism, and flag-waving patriotism, we Americans believed strongly in two things. Two things, and two things only: liberty (i.e., personal freedom) and consumerism. The Indians listened intently.

Now fast-forward to September 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center was attacked. As many will recall, President George W. Bush went on national television that very evening, understandably and visibly shaken, and spoke to the American public.

His message was both sobering and stupid. In this time of national confusion and nervousness, President Bush didn’t ask us to pray, or mediate on what had just occurred, or spend time with our loved ones. Presumably, his economic and foreign affairs advisors had already taken him aside made clear what our priorities should be.

Rather, Bush urged us to go shopping. As nutty as that seems, it’s true. Aware that our economy depends on consumers buying stuff we don’t need, he urged us to grab our wallets, jump into our SUVs, and head for the malls. If we failed to do that, it would mean the terrorists had won. To me, it felt like I had just re-entered puberty.

Categories: News for progressives

Who Would Believe It? Annals of the New Left Era

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 15:50

You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance.
Edited by John F. Levin and Earl Silbar.
San Francisco: 1741 Press,  2019. 364pp, $18.95.

Of the various factions that sundered the Students for a Democratic Society at its most promising moment, 1969, when it had perhaps a hundred thousand student members and followers, the Progressive Labor Party is the one that has seemed to have fallen out of history. Apart from pretty uniformly unfriendly descriptions in various historical accounts, “PL” (as known to all, friend or foe) has had no talented memoirist, no extended documentary film treatment, and apparently no faithful members who could stick with it and make much of a claim for its value beyond the early 1970s.

Here, at last, is such a work. Although privately published, You Say You Want a Revolution has a chance in today’s fluid book market to reach thousands of old-timers and even young radicals with something far better than a “message.” The reminiscences in here are deeply personal, often deeply local, and offer just the kind of text that tells us how politics was lived, not written about by the intellectuals, or about the leaders who are remembered, while followers are forgotten. On those grounds alone, it’s a worthy book.

It also reveals some limits of the 1960s social movements at their sectarian corners, in the starkest terms. PL was astoundingly anti-intellectual, as several memoirists here comment. Getting activists to sell the jargon-heavy and visually unappealing Challenge newspaper and meanwhile join in assorted more useful activities on campus and off seemed to rule out serious study of Marx and assorted Marxist classics. Cerebral-minded activists outside of these circles, by contrast, found scholarly texts of every kind, as campus and off campus book shops stocked up. A handful of New Left magazines (including my own Radical America) meanwhile struggled to reach graduate students and undergrad with the need to engage intellectually even while militantly active.

PL also made itself unique within the wider New Left in some pretty strange ways, on the premise that to reach out to the working class, campus activists needed to divest themselves of any and all tell-tale social markers. It mandated its members and followers to use no drugs, at a time when  smoking marijuana was practically an anti-war ritual, and it urged “straight” clothes for men and women just as bras (temporarily) disappeared and wild colors appeared on bell bottom pants. PL leaders also discouraged active homosexuality—for the same reasons—and that may possibly be the one facet remembered in this volume with a collective cringe. Not that such nutty norms could really be enforced at the local level.

These cultural politics were also pragmatically wrong-headed, of course,  because rebellion was experienced in generational terms pretty much across class, gender and even racial lines, no doubt because casual fashions spread so quickly. Also, of course, because the budding women’s liberation and gay liberation impulses were teaching lessons badly needed to be learned, for all the best political reasons.

Never mind, or rather, put all that aside. Twenty-three little memoirs, twenty-three stories that differ widely from each other, offer much food for thought. Co-editor John Levin provides the background. It all began in the early 1960s, when a small cohort of Communist Party members who had rejected the 1956 turn of the Soviet Union toward “revisionism” (including a condemnation of many actions by Joseph Stalin) formed the Progressive Labor Movement. Its student members  found a path to reach new generations: enthusiasm for the Cuban Revolution.  After meeting with the Vietnamese NLF delegation in Havana, they returned home and called for what seems to have been the first national demonstration against the US intervention in Vietnam.

Out of this activity, the participants formed the May Second Movement (M2M). It was never much more than a youth section  of the Progressive Labor Movement, which now reconstituted itself as an avowed Marxist-Leninist party allied, at least in their collective imaginations, with the Communist Party of China.  Following the emergence of SDS as a leading anti-war force, PLP dissolved M2M and sent its cadre into SDS,  where they formed a worker student alliance caucus (WSA). This was, in their eyes an especially notable attempt to create a social movement of students who embraced working class struggles and could turn the New Left into a comprehensive Marxist movement.

I am describing the process too simply, for several reasons. PL  views of possible working class connections for student movements were scarcely unique. Quite a number of SDSers, especially but not only those with family backgrounds in the Old Left, had more or less the same idea, and jumped at the chance to translate their ideas into action. The first campus teaching assistants’ unions, to take one example, owed much to this sentiment, a sort of Marxist basic, with no needed encouragement from PL.

Second, the crucial step of “entering” SDS, just then burgeoning upward on dozens of campuses, carried a heavy weight with ultimately disastrous consequences. A few years earlier, SDS had decided upon “non-exclusion,” essentially not to bar outright followers of Lenin, from entering movement ranks. It was not too hard for fair-minded SDSers to oppose “exclusionism,” perhaps most of all because the furious supporters of US foreign policy in SDS’s parent League for Industrial Democracy had always insisted that Communists (actually, they meant no anti anti communists) be kept out.

Bear in mind that by the middle 1960s, antiwar demonstrators spontaneously  refused the pre-printed signs for demonstrations and…made up their own!  Resulting in a wide variety of slogans, many of them satirically directed at hawkish Democrats, it was a move bitterly opposed by liberal anticommunists. We, the vast majority of the new demonstrators, not only demanded that the US withdraw from Vietnam. Increasingly, we wanted the Vietnamese themselves to win, the most shocking thought of all.

Predictably, however, when the PL newcomers actually joined SDS and urged the Worker-Student Alliance, they created their own hard-bitten faction. This action might rightly be seen as a parallel to another political maneuver within the Left. A  small band of Trotskyists had earlier entered the flagging Socialist Party, itself a mere remnant of its own glorious past, with the same contest-and-conquer impulses. PL and the socialistic anticommunists insisted alike—despite all their other differences—that they were only being helpful, as they mobilized for convention resolutions, local chapter fights, and so on. In fact, along with the dramatic tempo of events, the “entrists” actually set the stage for all-out, take-no-prisoner factional brawls. Some observers suspected, in both cases, that intelligence agencies had been involved, but if so, perhaps these only added to the political chaos. A sliver of the Socialist Party survived the takeover attempt, in the long run, as the Democratic Socialists of America. SDS did not survive.

The local PLer or sympathizer did not, of course, see it this way, in the book’s accounts ranging in location from  Boston, the Bay Area and New York to Austin, Texas, and many places in between. These were youngsters who urgently wanted to take their radical politics beyond the campus in every way possible. Often, as it turned out, they succeeded best in bringing the idea of working class politics but also anti-racist politics to the college communities—but not much beyond. As painfully recollected in the book, their work largely fell apart with the collapse of SDS, and they found themselves in an organization whose frustrated leaders became crazier than ever—pretty much what happened in other avowed Leninist organizations, notably the Socialist Workers Party. At the local level, the activists had nevertheless tried, tried really hard to connect and make themselves useful.

Again: never mind,  because the individual stories herein have their own logic and momentum. Take Becky Brenner, formerly runner-up for the San Antonio Miss Youth for Christ of 1963. She immersed herself in civil rights and went on to study at Austin, but mainly to organize. She moved on to Manhattan and back and from one Marxist-Leninist group to another, never quite giving up what she had accepted of Mao’s philosophy, passing through several marriages, raising several children. She also never quite left that Christian commitment of her youth.

Or Eric Gordon, an activist at Tulane, in New Orleans, who worked in a variety of SDS chapters, a highly talented and enduring organizer (he recently retired from the Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles) who “came

out” in 1971, having left the Worker Student Alliance behind. He did fine work under difficult conditions, like the presence of the KKK in New Orleans, and like others whose politics have evolved, holds no grudges.

Or Steve Hiatt, who came to the New Left early and spent fruitful years on the Iowa City campus, active in every cause but intended to find ways to interact with union activities in the region. He learned to his sorrow, as did many other local activists in this book, that the aim of PL’s national leaders was actually to build PL, if necessary at the expense of anything else. Selling the weekly tabloid Challenge became the chore that many faithful most hated, in part because they ended paying for the copies that they gave away or quietly dumped.

Or Joan Kramer, a graduate of Hollywood High, who found herself at Berkeley. The struggle for Black Studies was actually the high point for San Francisco State’s PL campus leadership, but the  good vibes crossed the Bay Bridge, and so did the bad vibes, when PL’s national leaders denounced the Black Panthers for “nationalism.” Kramer traveled on to Tanzania to be part of a global struggle, then back to Los Angeles where her new group, the tiny Communist Workers Party, also proved a disappointment. She ends, “When my active party affiliation attempts ended, so did my feeling of purpose. It was a kind of death from which  I have not recovered.” Indeed: Kramer succumbed to cancer before the collective project could be published, and the book is dedicated to her memory.

Most found a way to go on.  Ernie Brill grew up socialistic in Brooklyn, went to Antioch College, and became active at SF State. He took part in many Bay Area community and labor struggles for a decade. He stayed in PL long enough to become editor of the Challenge “culture” page, then freed himself to become a small-magazine writer and editor, one of the most hard-working of the radicals who sought to connect the old time literary reds, like Meridel Le Sueur, with the new generations.

There is no single narrative here, beyond the enthusiasms of the 1960s and the despair at the Undemocratic Centrism of PL. Other than hostility toward Trotsky—the mirror opposite of the views of their Socialist Party Workers and Young Socialist Alliance opponents—the similarities outweigh the differences. The same could be said, pretty much, of at least half dozen smaller formations that narrowed after 1970 and fed into another organizational dead end: the New Communist Movement that largely faded by 1980. Each, to be generous, had its share of youthful enthusiasts.

Most of us, the vast majority of us,  never joined these groups or anything beyond SDS, so most of our memories are not theirs. But this book needs readers and will find them, perhaps especially among the children of these erstwhile activists, children now middle aged themselves. What didn’t dad or mom tell me about? They may find it here.##

Paul Buhle’s Radical America was part of an anti-factional faction within SDS.

Categories: News for progressives

#ShutdownStories: Americans Become Intimately Familiar with U.S. Government Form of Repression

Counterpunch - Tue, 2019-01-08 15:48

As the #shutdownstories pour in, a different picture of America emerges than the one commonly seen in the TV news. This America lives paycheck to paycheck, worries about how to juggle debt and bills, and feels a deep insecurity about their well-being. Many of the #shutdownstories speak about “elitist” politicians who are out of touch with the reality of common people, of being “held hostage” to political games that they don’t even support, and of realizing that their well-being is not their government’s priority.

The tactics being used in this circumstance have been used by the American government against many common people in other countries. Whenever we hear the U.S. government “threatening to withhold aid” or threatening “to stop funding major agencies” abroad, now our antennas will be tuned into another frequency.

Just as the President and other officials make misleading statements about federal workers being “on strike,” or “supporting the shutdown,” or how they will “definitely be paid their back pay,” we can be assured that the statements they make while using these tactics on other countries’ people are likely just as misleading.

Perhaps some may feel that the government “giving money” to other countries and then withholding it is not a similar situation because they “shouldn’t give that money away” in the first place. However, a closer examination of one highly misunderstood situation will show the complexities of these related international events.

In January of 2006, the Palestinian people overwhelmingly supported Hamas candidates, who won 74 of 132 seats in parliamentary elections that were lauded by many as being fair. Former President Carter stated: “It seemed obvious to us and other observers that the election was orderly and peaceful and that there was a clear preference for Hamas candidates even in historically strong Fatah communities. Even so, we were all surprised at the enormity of the Hamas victory.” He also stated that the Palestinian people chose not to vote for Fatah “because of its political ineffectiveness and alleged corruption.”

Within Palestine at the time, many common people made clear that they were not necessarily voting for Hamas, but were voting for a major change and making Fatah unavoidably aware of their disgust. The U.S. government did not support the results of this election and were shown in the Washington Post to be interfering with the election beforehand. After the election, the U.S. and E.U. cut all funding to the Palestinian government, stating that Hamas had to make certain statements before the funding would be continued. An open letter from Hamas leader Haniyeh made their position on what peace actually means very clear, and stated:

We have been observing a unilateral truce for more than a year without reciprocity from the Israeli side. The message from Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to the world powers is this: talk to us no more about recognising Israel’s “right to exist” or ending resistance until you obtain a commitment from the Israelis to withdraw from our land and recognise our rights.

Little will change for the Palestinians under Olmert’s plan. Our land will still be occupied and our people enslaved and oppressed by the occupying power. So we will remain committed to our struggle to get back our lands and our freedom. Peaceful means will do if the world is willing to engage in a constructive and fair process in which we and the Israelis are treated as equals. We are sick and tired of the west’s racist approach to the conflict, in which the Palestinians are regarded as inferior. Though we are the victims, we offer our hands in peace, but only a peace that is based on justice.

Funding was totally cut off. I had been working in Palestine during this time. A close friend, photographer and journalist Rich Wiles, sent many stories from the ground. In one dated May 5, 2006, called “Olive Oil and Zatar” he described:

There is no money or trade coming into the country. Unemployment levels were already very high, due in no small part to the ‘Apartheid Wall’ amongst other things, and of those lucky enough to have work an estimated 60-70% are employed by the Palestinian Authority in some capacity. These include teachers in state schools, doctors and nurses in state hospitals, civil servants, police and any of the security or emergency forces to name but a few. None of these people have been paid in over two months now.

Former President Carter described the aftermath of withdrawal of aid, saying:

Innocent Palestinian people are being treated like animals, with the presumption that they are guilty of some crime. Because they voted for candidates who are members of Hamas, the United States government has become the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities of life.

Overwhelmingly, these are school teachers, nurses, social workers, police officers, farm families, shopkeepers, and their emp

loyees and families who are just hoping for a better life. Public opinion polls conducted after the January parliamentary election show that 80 percent of Palestinians still want a peace agreement with Israel.

These stories were overwhelmingly absent from the U.S. media, especially the voices of Palestinian people themselves and the reasons they actually voted for Hamas in the first place. What was present was an unending racist analysis of Palestinians as supporters of terrorism. This occurred while many Palestinians were already starting to get tired of Hamas, who had not even really taken their seats in the government. In “Olive Oil and Zatar,” Wiles describes this development with some humor:

[Hamas leader] Haniyeh made a robust and resilient speech saying that if necessary the Palestinian people would survive on just “olive oil and zatar”. I have heard several references to this speech since…

As I have mentioned before many that Palestinians have the ability to somehow make humour out of their own situation… A week or so ago a good friend of mine in Aida Camp told me a joke about a man who went to the bank to withdraw some money, but when he put his bank card into the machine and keyed in his number all that came out was olive oil and zatar. Today in Jenin I heard a similar story. This time a man went to visit his Doctor. He had Chicken Flu, blood pouring from a fresh bullet wound, a broken leg and diarrhea and what did the Doctor have to prescribe for him? You’ve guessed it, just olive oil and zatar!

On March 26, 2006, in an article called “Taking off the Wedding Rings, Giving up the Food,” Wiles wrote of witnessing a startling meeting of thousands of common Palestinians in Manger Square in Bethlehem, named for being the birthplace of Jesus:

As the proceedings drew to a close people began to form queues leading towards the stage at the front on the square. At the front of these queues were the children. One by one the children walked towards the stage and to a small table on which was placed a cardboard box. It looked almost like a small ballot box but this wasn’t for elections. In their little hands were not ballot papers but coins. Many had just a shekel, the shekel that would otherwise have bought them the much sought after chocolate. They were giving money to support their country, their own people, the money that the world refuses to give anymore. Then the mothers started to come. Again some had a shekel or two, but others were giving their gold. They were taking off their bracelets, necklaces and even wedding rings to give so that others may receive wages and so that the government may attempt to support is people, and the countries infrastructure, once more.

I’m sure that people hearing these stories of Palestine for the first time from sources outside of the mainstream media are hearing of a strikingly different Palestine. Isn’t this case in Palestine what it means to have “elitist” politicians out of touch with the reality of common people, and what it mean to be “held hostage” to political games that the people don’t even support? Isn’t it equivalent to living paycheck to paycheck, worrying about how to juggle debt and bills, and feeling a deep insecurity about one’s well-being? This is one example of the way the U.S. government has used economic sabotage against innocent people in a heedless and ignorant attempt to reach its own goals.

Of course, this example in Palestine was happening in the midst of brutal colonial occupation, funded and supported by the U.S. government, who has since propped up Fatah’s President Abbas in power 10 years past when his term expired in 2009. No other elections have ever been held. Many of the Hamas legislators were arrested and never got to serve. So, the idea the U.S. “withholding money it should never have given” in the first place has to be understood within this context of the U.S. government’s behavior in Palestine. The subsequent events in Palestine regarding Hamas, Fatah, and Israel are difficult for many who do not live there to follow. As with all such things, the voices of the common people are crucial, as we all know that the spin of those “at the top” seems to suspiciously align with their own interests.

More than any other recent President, Trump sets his sights domestically, stirring up conflict and then lying about it, making it clear to the people that something is deeply amiss. Trump does to Americans what many other American presidents did to the people of other countries – and then lied about to the American people. When the people of America now think of why “people don’t like American policies” or why they were so upset at the actions of America in the recent past, Trump makes these dynamics of American government bullying, deceit, and elitism clearer and clearer.

The people of American have long been out of touch with the true behavior of their government. Their government was lying to them about its many actions abroad because it knew they would not support its cruel and unjust actions against others. The people were busy trying to pay their bills and surviving their anxiety and depression, raising families and trying to keep them safe. But the common people now are realizing that they have a better moral sense than their political leaders. They have a deeper respect for life and truth. They have deeper kindness and consideration for people.

The question looms ever clearer on the horizon: Why are we letting incompetent people (in all their forms) lead us?

Categories: News for progressives

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