Thursday, March 17, 2011

Koch Brothers and US Chamber: Polluting Our Earth and Our Democracies

Among other truths made completely clear by the showdown in Wisconsin: the outsized role of the Koch brothers in American politics.

Charles and David, the third and fourth richest men in America, first gained notoriety in the fall, when a remarkable expose by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker showed how they'd funded not only the Tea Party but also the hydra-headed campaign to undermine the science of global warming, all in the service of even more profit for their oil and gas business.

But it was in Wisconsin that the down-and-dirty details of their operation began to emerge -- they'd not only funded the election campaigns of the governor and the new GOP legislature, but also an advertising effort attacking the state's teachers. They'd helped pay for buses to ferry in counter-protesters. We were even treated to the sight of new Governor Scott Walker fawning over them in what turned out to be a hoax phone call. The Kochs are right up there now with the great plutocrats of American history, a 21st century version of the robber barons.

The trouble is, they don't care. And they don't really have to care. Their business is privately held and answers to no one. Last week their spokesman said they would "not step back at all ... This is a big part of our life's work. We are not going to stop." So those of us who care about things like the climate will need to go on tracking them. But we'll also need to pay attention to their ideological twin, the Pepsi to their Koch. It's the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Unlike the Koch brothers, everyone's heard of them. That's because there's a chamber of commerce in almost every town in America -- they're the local barbers and florists and insurance guys, the folks who arrange the annual chili cook-off or the downtown Christmas lights. You know why Lindbergh's plane was called the "Spirit of St. Louis"? Because it was paid for by the by St. Louis Chamber of Commerce.

But that's not the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Chamber is a hard-right ideological operation, which provides massive funding to conservative Republicans, including the new GOP majority in Wisconsin. If you want a sense of just how far right: Glenn Beck held a telethon on their behalf, and donated $10,000 of his money. "They are us," he said -- and an executive of the chamber called in to thank him. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent more money lobbying in 2009 than the next five biggest players combined; they spent more money on politics than either the Republican or Democratic National Committees. They're the biggest elephant in the jungle.

Despite their claim to represent three million American businesses, more than half their budget comes from just 16 companies. They don't have to identify them, but it's pretty easy to guess who they might be, since the chamber has devoted much of its time to thwarting any effort to control carbon emissions. For instance, they filed a brief with the EPA demanding they not fight global warming because "populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations."

And here's the thing: Unlike the Kochs, the Chamber has some real vulnerabilities. Though thanks to the Supreme Court they can keep their secret flow of money going, their credibility depends in part on the idea that they're representing all those millions of businesses. That's why we've launched a big nationwide campaign: "The U.S. Chamber Doesn't Speak for Me." Businesses big and small are already joining in -- a thousand in the first week -- making the case that in fact capitalism can adapt to new sources of energy. Capitalism's great virtue, after all, is supposed to be nimbleness and flexibility.

Those of us who work on climate change have spent years trying to figure out why Congress pays no attention to what's clearly the most dangerous issues the earth faces. For years we thought we simply needed to explain the crisis more skillfully. But in the last year the truth is becoming clearer: Hidden in the shadows are the guys with money who pull the strings. We need to illuminate those shadows, with the Kochs and even more with the U.S. Chamber.

Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, an international climate campaign.

Monday, February 14, 2011

As Egypt moves forward, America is moving backwards.

Whatever happens next in Egypt - and that question remains wide open - it's nice to see the good guys win one once in a while, ain't it?

If it seems like that's a rare occurrence these days, that's because it is.

And if it seems like what happened in Egypt was the product of a long and hard fought battle against the forces of darkness and repression, that's because it was. The people of that country had to endure thirty years of (just the current) dictatorship before they could finally emerge from underneath that heaviest of stones.

If you have any doubt about whether this is a victory for the forces of light over darkness, just look at the reaction of American neocons. Disingenuously claiming all these years to be champions of democracy and freedom, they are deafeningly silent today (at best), as democracy and freedom triumph in Egypt. I'm not sure which I like better, seeing Egyptians liberated, or seeing neocons exposed and squashed. But why decide? Today I get to enjoy both.

In a way, what has happened in Egypt makes perfect sense. In China, a near-totalitarian dictatorship has offered a grand bargain to its people over that same period of the last thirty years. The government said "We will give you prosperity, in exchange for which, you will shut up and never challenge our authority". As obnoxious as repression and totalitarianism and wholesale human rights violations are, you cannot say that this was entirely a bad deal for the Chinese public, except in comparison to what it might have been in a more perfect world.

Which largely explains why dissent in China has been scattered and muted all these years. There are tens of millions of Chinese who are members of a brand-spanking-new middle class. They have good educations, good jobs, automobiles, computers and cell phones. They eat meat and they go to movies and concerts. Most of these people's parents were - quite literally - dirt-poor peasants, living lives no different than their forebears did for millennia. This turnaround represents an astonishing, and astonishingly rapid, transformation of a society, and of the personal life fortunes of individuals. People can readily see the difference, because there was nothing incremental about it. Their parents were raised in the tenth century, they grew up in the twenty-first. What's more, the future looks bright for increasing individual prosperity, and for increasing national power, in a country where nationalist pride and agitation is rising.

I don't think that the Chinese government's repression of political and human rights can last forever, and I especially don't think it should. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that it is precisely such a process of economic empowerment in societies across the planet that ultimately leads to subsequent demands for political enfranchisement. This makes a lot of sense in the abstract, and it fits with the notions of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which argues that humans only pursue the niceties of art and culture and even freedom once they've satisfied the necessities of survival. So I won't be surprised if the Chinese rise up at some point and demand their freedoms from an autocratic government. But neither am I surprised that they largely have not done so to date. So far, at least, the government has kept up its end of the bargain, and made the Chinese people rich. One can only complain so much about that. And even if you do, good luck finding loads of others to line up behind you, and to risk their newfound prosperity by doing so.

By the same logic, the rising up of educated young people in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and elsewhere in the region is not a surprise either. They didn't get the bargain that the Chinese people got. Instead, they got all of the repression and none of the prosperity. And this is precisely what they are now agitating against. Their lives are shitty, and have heretofore shown no signs of changing for the better. Meanwhile, they are ruled over by repressive oligarchs such as Hosni Mubarak, people whose unmitigated desire for increasing wealth - even beyond what they could possibly spend in a lifetime - is as insatiable as it is disgusting. Mubarak is reported to possibly be the richest man on the planet. And yet he was presiding over a vast population of poor people, half of whom live off of less than two dollars a day. Somehow, I don't think those two facts are coincidental, nor do I believe that the folks in Tahrir Square think so either.

It's somewhat surprising that people will tolerate such a bad bargain for so long, but of course there are good reasons for that. Tradition is one. If you've never known anything different, you might not understand that you can do better. Ignorance of external alternatives is another. If you don't know what other people have because of poor education, censorship and massive propaganda, you'll be less inclined to rise up and demand something better for yourself. Then there's always good old fashioned diversionary tactics. Your problem is caused by the Jews! Or the gays! Or the infidels! Etc. Finally, when all else fails, dictators can get a heckuva lot of mileage out of basic, unadulterated repression. There's nothing like a secret police wielding various instruments of terror to pacify an angry public and deliver a compliant society.

So, to sum, we have one model out there in the world, where the public has rationally accepted a lack of political freedom in exchange for economic prosperity. And we have another where we can equally well understand a people who suffered with the lack of both in relative silence for decades, for all the reasons listed above. Likewise, we can also understand why they have finally risen up in disgust to demand serious change, especially as a new generation of wired-in young folks could finally come to see what others had and what they didn't. All these scenarios make a good deal of sense.

What doesn't make any sense is what is happening (or, especially, what is not happening) in the United States. This country had it made. In 1945, its economy was equal to the entire rest of the world's, combined, while the population of the US equals only one-twentieth of the world total. Granted, part of the explanation for that was due to some very unique special circumstances of the time. Nevertheless, the United States was by far and away the richest country on the planet, and even remains so to this day. More importantly, for decades that wealth was distributed in an increasingly egalitarian fashion. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the United States built a massive and robust middle class where hardly any had existed before, and it put a much greater, though certainly imperfect, safety net underneath the poor than had ever previously existed. The differences between rich and poor were narrowing, and government programs were largely fully paid for through a system of adequate taxation, progressively structured.

Moreover, on top of this economic prosperity, the United States maintained an enviable record of democracy and respect for human rights at home (what we do in places like Egypt is another matter altogether). A record way less than perfect, to be sure, but if realistically compared to what could be found in the rest of the world, one that was still enviable.

What's amazing in our time is to watch as this country trades in its very high level of national prosperity and a reasonably authentic democracy for economic and political systems that every day grow closer to the Mubarak model, even as Egyptians are simultaneously moving in precisely the opposite direction. It is obvious why the people of Egypt would want to trade up for something better. Rather less clear, shall we say, is why the American public has for a generation now consistently chosen to go in the opposite direction.

But that is exactly what has happened. Over the last three decades, as the Chinese middle class expanded and the Egyptian one idled, America's has been contracting. Is that because the US economy has been stuck in neutral, or worse, in recession? Nope. GDP growth has been pretty darn healthy over those thirty years. It's just that almost every penny of that growth has gone to the already rich, while the middle, working and poor classes continue to sink. Well, okay, did that maldistribution of wealth occur by accident? No, in fact, it is precisely the result of the public policies we adopted, on issues ranging from taxation to trade to labor relations to regulation to bailouts to spending priorities to corporate welfare. The net result of these has been to produce the greatest transfer of wealth in all of human history - upward, from non-elites to elites.

On the political side, the imperfect democracy of the past has turned into rather a shell of a democracy today. It's an open question what would happen if the public tried to restore a real democracy to this country, through, say, a constitutional amendment providing for thorough campaign finance reform, with the result of divorcing money from politics and producing legislation crafted in the public interest, not for special interests. It may well be that we're so far down the line now that such an attempt would be met with violent repression, thus necessitating an Egypt-like reaction from below. Or it may be that such change is still possible. What is absolutely clear, however, is that nobody is talking that talk right now, let alone walking that walk.

One of the most amazing facts about our historical moment is the near complete absence of a progressive narrative anywhere among serious players in our political constellation. Sure, there is the occasional Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders. But, generally, there's hardly any real difference from one politician to the next on these issues. All we have to choose from is right and righter, dumb and dumber, poor and poorer. Notwithstanding the ludicrous claims of the mouthfoamers on the right that Barack Obama is non-American Muslim socialist, this president is in fact to progressivism what the Monkees were to rock-and-roll. Except that, for all their flaws and artifice, I can actually stand to listen to the Monkees. Increasingly, I can no longer say that about Obama anymore. Despite the fact that when he speaks he says absolutely nothing - or is it precisely because of that fact? - when this human-platitude-production-machine of a president speaks these days, I can barely stand to listen.

Obama is both symptom and cause. It is now fully clear that he is part of the wrecking crew sent to annihilate the standard of living for 300 million people, so that a handful of plutocrats and oligarchs can add third football-field-sized yachts to their existing two. That an individual of his background and promise (not to mention promises) could sell-out so entirely is saddening and maddening, but ultimately more a statement of egregiousness than novelty. It happens a lot. Indeed, Obama didn't even pioneer that ugly and shameful path. Bill Clinton did.

It isn't so puzzling that people will sell out when the price is right, even someone emerging from progressive home values, someone who as a minority understands the significance of civil rights issues, someone who by trade has been a community organizer and a scholar of constitutional law. What is more difficult to understand is why the American public decided to spend the last three decades doing precisely the opposite of what the Egyptian public has been doing over the last three weeks. Why voluntarily lower your stand of living? Why voluntarily diminish your democracy? Why oscillate between crude kleptocrats like Reagan and Little Bush, on the one hand, and clever kleptocrats like Clinton and Obama, on the other?
I suspect probably what happened is that as the world emerged from its unnatural condition following World War II, the economic walls tightened a bit around somewhat artificially prosperous middle class Americans. In response, they have been looking for ways ever since to keep from sinking economically, and have accordingly been following snake-oil predators on the right who have been ever happy to sell them a pre-packaged formula of blame-based politics. Again, it's the gays. It's the illegal immigrants. It's the foreign bogeymen. It's the socialists.

It works. But more amazing is that it works in the long run. Imagine if you were an alcoholic, and your addiction had caused you to lose your job, lose your family, smash your car and wreck your health. Then imagine that you sat down and thought long and hard about finding a solution for your woes, only to decide that what you obviously needed to do was double the volume of booze you're sucking down each day. Welcome to America, 2011.

We've gone from Reagan rightists, to Gingrich rightists to now Palin rightists, with the Democratic Party and the electorate following along, always one small step behind on this march over a cliff. And each time the radical program of the right not only fails to solve our problems but rather further exacerbates them, we reach for another, bigger bottle of that cheap regressive whiskey. Surprise, surprise, then, when the bottom falls out altogether, just as it is doing now.

If the reverse Egyptian paradigm holds true, we should be expecting the last systemic plank to fall into place sometime soon, that being political repression. You can still say pretty much whatever you want in the United States, though the more truthful you are the smaller your audience will be (the readers of this article will, I'm sure, attest to that, and I thank both of them for doing so!). But that freedom is likely to be tolerated merely as long as it is irrelevant to the existing plutocracy's maintenance of power. Once political speech actually begins to challenge this order - if it ever does - all bets are off as to whether it will continue to be tolerated. At that point, there will be serious temptation on the part of the master class to add political repression to the existing suite of a hollow middle class and a hollow democracy. We shall see.

Meanwhile, if there's bad news on the horizon it is that Americans have still not yet understood that the Egyptian paradigm applies equally to the United States. Both are, at core, kleptocratic regimes. In particular, I often find myself dismayed at the lack of consciousness among young people with regard to how prior generations (especially mine) have royally screwed them, partying away our on tax holidays, free wars and unmatched deficit spending, and leaving them instead crumbling infrastructure, a broken national reputation, and a massive pile of our debt in its place. There should be generational (at a minimum) revolution bubbling in this country, but if I mention these notions to my college students, I typically find that the older guy in the room is the only one angry about how they've been shafted. Alas, Egyptian kids get it, Americans haven't gotten there yet.

If there's good news on the horizon it is that technological development may make it very, very difficult to repress and smash movements for freedom in our time. I don't think it's a coincidence that the uprisings we've seen in Iran and Tunisia and Egypt, led by young folks, have come at the same time as the advent of mass communication through social networking technology. You can still repress people, but it looks like it's a lot harder to do nowadays, when people don't need a mainstream media anymore to send and receive information.

That's a fact that may come in handy some day in the United States.

Part of me hopes not, because it will mean that the shit has finally hit the fan.

But more of me hopes so, because it will mean that the shit has finally hit the fan.
_______
About author
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, http://www.regressiveantidote.net/.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2011: A Brave New Dystopia


The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.

We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. Now that credit is drying up, good jobs for the working class are gone forever and mass-produced goods are unaffordable, we find ourselves transported from “Brave New World” to “1984.” The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy.

It is time for Big Brother to take over from Huxley’s feelies, the orgy-porgy and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.

Orwell warned of a world where books were banned. Huxley warned of a world where no one wanted to read books. Orwell warned of a state of permanent war and fear. Huxley warned of a culture diverted by mindless pleasure. Orwell warned of a state where every conversation and thought was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley warned of a state where a population, preoccupied by trivia and gossip, no longer cared about truth or information. Orwell saw us frightened into submission. Huxley saw us seduced into submission. But Huxley, we are discovering, was merely the prelude to Orwell. Huxley understood the process by which we would be complicit in our own enslavement. Orwell understood the enslavement.

Now that the corporate coup is over, we stand naked and defenseless. We are beginning to understand, as Karl Marx knew, that unfettered and unregulated capitalism is a brutal and revolutionary force that exploits human beings and the natural world until exhaustion or collapse.

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake,” Orwell wrote in “1984.” “We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin uses the term “inverted totalitarianism” in his book “Democracy Incorporated” to describe our political system. It is a term that would make sense to Huxley. In inverted totalitarianism, the sophisticated technologies of corporate control, intimidation and mass manipulation, which far surpass those employed by previous totalitarian states, are effectively masked by the glitter, noise and abundance of a consumer society. Political participation and civil liberties are gradually surrendered. The corporation state, hiding behind the smokescreen of the public relations industry, the entertainment industry and the tawdry materialism of a consumer society, devours us from the inside out. It owes no allegiance to us or the nation. It feasts upon our carcass.

The corporate state does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader. It is defined by the anonymity and facelessness of the corporation. Corporations, who hire attractive spokespeople like Barack Obama, control the uses of science, technology, education and mass communication. They control the messages in movies and television. And, as in “Brave New World,” they use these tools of communication to bolster tyranny. Our systems of mass communication, as Wolin writes, “block out, eliminate whatever might introduce qualification, ambiguity, or dialogue, anything that might weaken or complicate the holistic force of their creation, to its total impression.”

The result is a monochromatic system of information. Celebrity courtiers, masquerading as journalists, experts and specialists, identify our problems and patiently explain the parameters. All those who argue outside the imposed parameters are dismissed as irrelevant cranks, extremists or members of a radical left.

Prescient social critics, from Ralph Nader to Noam Chomsky, are banished. Acceptable opinions have a range of A to B. The culture, under the tutelage of these corporate courtiers, becomes, as Huxley noted, a world of cheerful conformity, as well as an endless and finally fatal optimism. We busy ourselves buying products that promise to change our lives, make us more beautiful, confident or successful as we are steadily stripped of rights, money and influence.

All messages we receive through these systems of communication, whether on the nightly news or talk shows like “Oprah,” promise a brighter, happier tomorrow. And this, as Wolin points out, is “the same ideology that invites corporate executives to exaggerate profits and conceal losses, but always with a sunny face.” We have been entranced, as Wolin writes, by “continuous technological advances” that “encourage elaborate fantasies of individual prowess, eternal youthfulness, beauty through surgery, actions measured in nanoseconds: a dream-laden culture of ever-expanding control and possibility, whose denizens are prone to fantasies because the vast majority have imagination but little scientific knowledge.”

Our manufacturing base has been dismantled. Speculators and swindlers have looted the U.S. Treasury and stolen billions from small shareholders who had set aside money for retirement or college. Civil liberties, including habeas corpus and protection from warrantless wiretapping, have been taken away. Basic services, including public education and health care, have been handed over to the corporations to exploit for profit. The few who raise voices of dissent, who refuse to engage in the corporate happy talk, are derided by the corporate establishment as freaks.

Attitudes and temperament have been cleverly engineered by the corporate state, as with Huxley’s pliant characters in “Brave New World.” The book’s protagonist, Bernard Marx, turns in frustration to his girlfriend Lenina:
'Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?' he asks.
'I don’t know that you mean. I am free, free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.'
He laughed, 'Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We have been giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way.'
'I don’t know what you mean,' she repeated.
The fa├žade is crumbling. And as more and more people realize that they have been used and robbed, we will move swiftly from Huxley’s “Brave New World” to Orwell’s “1984.” The public, at some point, will have to face some very unpleasant truths. The good-paying jobs are not coming back. The largest deficits in human history mean that we are trapped in a debt peonage system that will be used by the corporate state to eradicate the last vestiges of social protection for citizens, including Social Security.

The state has devolved from a capitalist democracy to neo-feudalism. And when these truths become apparent, anger will replace the corporate-imposed cheerful conformity. The bleakness of our post-industrial pockets, where some 40 million Americans live in a state of poverty and tens of millions in a category called “near poverty,” coupled with the lack of credit to save families from foreclosures, bank repossessions and bankruptcy from medical bills, means that inverted totalitarianism will no longer work.

We increasingly live in Orwell’s Oceania, not Huxley’s The World State. Osama bin Laden plays the role assumed by Emmanuel Goldstein in “1984.” Goldstein, in the novel, is the public face of terror. His evil machinations and clandestine acts of violence dominate the nightly news. Goldstein’s image appears each day on Oceania’s television screens as part of the nation’s “Two Minutes of Hate” daily ritual. And without the intervention of the state, Goldstein, like bin Laden, will kill you. All excesses are justified in the titanic fight against evil personified.

The psychological torture of Pvt. Bradley Manning—who has now been imprisoned for seven months without being convicted of any crime—mirrors the breaking of the dissident Winston Smith at the end of “1984.” Manning is being held as a “maximum custody detainee” in the brig at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia. He spends 23 of every 24 hours alone. He is denied exercise. He cannot have a pillow or sheets for his bed. Army doctors have been plying him with antidepressants. The cruder forms of torture of the Gestapo have been replaced with refined Orwellian techniques, largely developed by government psychologists, to turn dissidents like Manning into vegetables.

We break souls as well as bodies. It is more effective. Now we can all be taken to Orwell’s dreaded Room 101 to become compliant and harmless. These “special administrative measures” are regularly imposed on our dissidents, including Syed Fahad Hashmi, who was imprisoned under similar conditions for three years before going to trial. The techniques have psychologically maimed thousands of detainees in our black sites around the globe. They are the staple form of control in our maximum security prisons where the corporate state makes war on our most politically astute underclass—African-Americans. It all presages the shift from Huxley to Orwell.

“Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling,” Winston Smith’s torturer tells him in “1984.” “Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”

The noose is tightening. The era of amusement is being replaced by the era of repression. Tens of millions of citizens have had their e-mails and phone records turned over to the government. We are the most monitored and spied-on citizenry in human history. Many of us have our daily routine caught on dozens of security cameras. Our proclivities and habits are recorded on the Internet. Our profiles are electronically generated. Our bodies are patted down at airports and filmed by scanners. And public service announcements, car inspection stickers, and public transportation posters constantly urge us to report suspicious activity. The enemy is everywhere.

Those who do not comply with the dictates of the war on terror, a war which, as Orwell noted, is endless, are brutally silenced. The draconian security measures used to cripple protests at the G-20 gatherings in Pittsburgh and Toronto were wildly disproportionate for the level of street activity. But they sent a clear message—DO NOT TRY THIS. The FBI’s targeting of antiwar and Palestinian activists, which in late September saw agents raid homes in Minneapolis and Chicago, is a harbinger of what is to come for all who dare defy the state’s official Newspeak. The agents—our Thought Police—seized phones, computers, documents and other personal belongings. Subpoenas to appear before a grand jury have since been served on 26 people. The subpoenas cite federal law prohibiting “providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations.” Terror, even for those who have nothing to do with terror, becomes the blunt instrument used by Big Brother to protect us from ourselves.

“Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?” Orwell wrote. “It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.”

Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. His newest book is “Death of the Liberal Class.” 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Witch Hunt Against Assange Is Turning into an Extremely Dangerous Assault on Journalism Itself

By Robert Parry, Consortium News

Whatever the unusual aspects of the case, the Obama administration’s reported plan to indict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for conspiring with Army Pvt. Bradley Manning to obtain U.S. secrets  strikes at the heart of investigative journalism on national security scandals.

That’s because the process for reporters obtaining classified information about crimes of state most often involves a journalist persuading some government official to break the law either by turning over classified documents or at least by talking about the secret information. There is almost always some level of “conspiracy” between reporter and source.

Contrary to what some outsiders might believe, it’s actually quite uncommon for sensitive material to simply arrive “over the transom” unsolicited. Indeed, during three decades of reporting on these kinds of stories, I can only recall a few secret documents arriving that way to me.

In most cases, I played some role – either large or small – in locating the classified information or convincing some government official to divulge some secrets. More often than not, I was the instigator of these “conspiracies.”

My “co-conspirators” typically were well-meaning government officials who were aware of some wrongdoing committed under the cloak of national security, but they were never eager to put their careers at risk by talking about these offenses. I usually had to persuade them, whether by appealing to their consciences or by constructing some reasonable justification for them to help.

Other times, I was sneaky in liberating some newsworthy classified information from government control. Indeed, in 1995, Consortiumnews.com was started as a way to publish secret and top-secret information that I had discovered in the files of a closed congressional inquiry during the chaotic period between the Republicans winning the 1994 elections and their actual takeover of Congress in early 1995.

In December 1994, I asked for and was granted access to supposedly unclassified records left behind by a task force that had looked into allegations that Ronald Reagan’s campaign had sabotaged President Jimmy Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran in 1980.

To my surprise, I discovered that the investigators, apparently in their haste to wrap up their work, had failed to purge the files of all classified material. So, while my “minder” wasn’t paying attention to me, I ran some of the classified material through a copier and left with it in a folder. I later wrote articles about these documents and posted some on the Internet.

Such behavior – whether cajoling a nervous government official to expose a secret or exploiting some unauthorized access to classified material – is part of what an investigative journalist does in covering national security abuses. The traditional rule of thumb has been that it’s the government’s job to hide the secrets and a reporter’s job to uncover them.

In the aftermath of significant leaks, the government often tries to convince news executives to spike or water down the stories “for the good of the country.” But it is the news organization’s ultimate decision whether to comply or to publish.

Historically, most of these leaks have caused the government some short-term embarrassment (although usually accompanied by exaggerated howls of protests). In the long run, however, the public has been served by knowing about some government abuse. Reforms often follow as they did during the Iran-Contra scandal that I was involved in exposing in the 1980s.

A Nixon Precedent

Yet, in the WikiLeaks case – instead of simply complaining and moving on – the Obama administration appears to be heading in a direction not seen since the Nixon administration sought to block the publication of the Pentagon Papers secret history of the Vietnam War in 1971.

In doing so, the Obama administration, which came to power vowing a new era of openness, is contemplating a novel strategy for criminalizing traditional journalistic practices, while trying to assure major U.S. news outlets that they won’t be swept up in the Assange-Manning dragnet.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that federal prosecutors were reviewing the possibility of indicting Assange on conspiracy charges for allegedly encouraging or assisting Manning in extracting “classified military and State Department files from a government computer system.”

The Times article by Charlie Savage notes that if prosecutors determine that Assange provided some help in the process, “they believe they could charge him as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them.

“Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.

“Adrian Lamo, an ex-hacker in whom Private Manning confided and who eventually turned him in, said Private Manning detailed those interactions in instant-message conversations with him. He said the special server’s purpose was to allow Private Manning’s submissions to ‘be bumped to the top of the queue for review.’ By Mr. Lamo’s account, Private Manning bragged about this ‘as evidence of his status as the high-profile source for WikiLeaks.’”

Though some elements of this suspected Assange-Manning collaboration may be technically unique because of the Internet’s role – and that may be a relief to more traditional news organizations like the Times which has published some of the WikiLeaks documents – the underlying reality is that what WikiLeaks has done is essentially “the same wine” of investigative journalism in “a new bottle” of the Internet.

By shunning WikiLeaks as some deviant journalistic hybrid, mainstream U.S. news outlets may breathe easier now but may find themselves caught up in a new legal precedent that could be applied to them later.

As for the Obama administration, its sudden aggressiveness in divining new “crimes” in the publication of truthful information is especially stunning when contrasted with its “see no evil” approach toward openly acknowledged crimes committed by President George W. Bush and his subordinates, including major offenses such as torture, kidnapping and aggressive war.

Holder’s Move

The possibility of an indictment of Assange no longer seems to me like rampant paranoia. Initially, I didn’t believe that the Obama administration was serious in stretching the law to find ways to prosecute Assange and to shut down WikiLeaks.

But then there was the pressure on WikiLeaks’ vendors such as Amazon.com and PayPal along with threats from prominent U.S. political figures, spouting rhetoric about Assange as a “terrorist” comparable to Osama bin Laden and a worthy target of assassination.

Normally, when people engage in such talk of violence, they are the ones who attract the attention of police and prosecutors. In this case, however, the Obama administration appears to be bowing to those who talk loosely about murdering a truth-teller.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he has taken “significant” steps in the investigation, a possible reference to what an Assange lawyer said he had learned from Swedish authorities about a secret grand jury meeting in Northern Virginia.

The Times reported, “Justice Department officials have declined to discuss any grand jury activity. But in interviews, people familiar with the case said the department appeared to be attracted to the possibility of prosecuting Mr. Assange as a co-conspirator to the leaking because it is under intense pressure to make an example of him as a deterrent to further mass leaking of electronic documents over the Internet.

“By bringing a case against Mr. Assange as a conspirator to Private Manning’s leak, the government would not have to confront awkward questions about why it is not also prosecuting traditional news organizations or investigative journalists who also disclose information the government says should be kept secret — including The New York Times, which also published some documents originally obtained by WikiLeaks.”

In other words, the Obama administration appears to be singling out Assange as an outlier in the journalistic community who is already regarded as something of a pariah. In that way, mainstream media personalities can be invited to join in his persecution without thinking that they might be next.

Though American journalists may understandably want to find some protective cover by pretending that Julian Assange is not like us, the reality is – whether we like it or not – we are all Julian Assange.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happy as a Hangman

By Chris Hedges

Innocence, as defined by law, makes us complicit with the crimes of the state. To do nothing, to be judged by the state as an innocent, is to be guilty. It is to sanction, through passivity and obedience, the array of crimes carried out by the state.

To be innocent in America means we passively permit offshore penal colonies where we torture human beings, some of whom are children. To be innocent in America is to acquiesce to the relentless corporate destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species. To be innocent in America is to permit the continued theft of hundreds of billions of dollars from the state by Wall Street swindlers and speculators. To be innocent in America is to stand by as insurance and pharmaceutical companies, in the name of profit, condemn ill people, including children, to die. To be innocent in America is refusing to resist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are not only illegal under international law but responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. This is the odd age we live in. Innocence is complicity.

The steady impoverishment and misery inflicted by the corporate state on the working class and increasingly the middle class has a terrible logic. It consolidates corporate centers of power. It weakens us morally and politically. The fraud and violence committed by the corporate state become secondary as we scramble to feed our families, find a job and pay our bills and mortgages. Those who cling to insecure, poorly paid jobs and who struggle with crippling credit card debt, those who are mired in long-term unemployment and who know that huge medical bills would bankrupt them, those who owe more on their houses than they are worth and who fear the future, become frightened and timid. They seek only to survive. They accept the pathetic scraps tossed to them by the corporate elite. The internal and external corporate abuse accelerates as we become every day more pliant. 

Our corrupt legal system, perverting the concept that “all men are created equal,” has radically redefined civic society. Citizens, regardless of their status or misfortune, are now treated with the same studied indifference by the state. They have been transformed from citizens to commodities whose worth is determined solely by the market and whose value is measured by their social and economic functions. The rich, therefore, are rewarded by the state with tax cuts because they are rich. It is their function to monopolize wealth and invest. The poor are supposed to be poor. The poor should not be a drain on the resources of the state or the oligarchic elite. Equality, in this new legal paradigm, means we are all treated alike, no matter what our circumstances. This new interpretation of equality, under which the poor are abandoned and the powerful are unchecked, has demolished the system of regulations, legal restraints and services that once protected the underclass from wealthy and corporate predators.

The creation of a permanent, insecure and frightened underclass is the most effective weapon to thwart rebellion and resistance as our economy worsens. Huge pools of unemployed and underemployed blunt labor organizing, since any job, no matter how menial, is zealously coveted. As state and federal social welfare programs, especially in education, are gutted, we create a wider and wider gulf between the resources available to the tiny elite and the deprivation and suffering visited on our permanent underclass. Access to education, for example, is now largely defined by class. The middle class, taking on huge debt, desperately flees to private institutions to make sure their children have a chance to enter the managerial ranks of the corporate elite. And this is the idea. Public education, which, when it functions, gives opportunities to all citizens, hinders a system of corporate neofeudalism. Corporations are advancing, with Barack Obama’s assistance, charter schools and educational services that are stripped down and designed to train classes for their appropriate vocations, which, if you’re poor means a future in the service sector. The eradication of teachers’ unions, under way in states such as New Jersey, is a vital component in the dismantling of public education. Corporations know that good systems of public education are a hindrance to a rigid caste system. In corporate America everyone will be kept in his or her place.

The beating down of workers, exacerbated by the prospect that unemployment benefits will not be renewed for millions of Americans and that public sector unions will soon be broken, has transformed those in the working class from full members of society, able to participate in its debates, the economy and governance, into terrified people in fragmented pools preoccupied with the struggle of private existence. Those who are economically broken usually cease to be concerned with civic virtues. They will, history has demonstrated, serve any system, no matter how evil, and do anything for a salary, job security and the protection of their families.

There will be sectors of the society that, as the situation worsens, attempt to rebel. But the state can rely on a huge number of people who, for work and meager benefits, will transform themselves into willing executioners. The reconfiguration of American society into a corporate oligarchy is conditioning tens of millions not only to passively accept state and corporate crimes, but to actively participate in the mechanisms that ensure their own enslavement.

“Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1945 essay “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” “it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of hangman.”

Organs of state repression do not rely so much on fanatics and sadists as ordinary citizens who are desperate, who need a job, who are willing to obey. Arendt relates a story of a Jew who is released from Buchenwald. The freed Jew encountered, among the SS men who gave him certificates of release, a former schoolmate, whom he did not address but stared at. The SS guard spontaneously explained to his former friend: “You must understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me. They can do anything they want with me.”

Arendt also quotes an interview with a camp official at Majdanek. The camp official concedes that he has assisted in the gassing and burying of people alive. But when he is asked, “Do you know the Russians will hang you?” he bursts into tears. “Why should they? What have I done?” he says.

I can imagine, should the rule of law ever one day be applied to the insurance companies responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans denied medical care, that there will be the same confused response from insurance executives. What is frightening in collapsing societies is not only the killers, sadists, murderers and psychopaths who rise up out of the moral swamp to take power, but the huge numbers of ordinary people who become complicit in state crimes. I saw this during the war in El Salvador and the war in Bosnia. It is easy to understand a demented enemy. It is puzzling to understand a rational and normal one. True evil, as Goethe understood, is not always palpable. It is “to render invisible another human consciousness.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his book “The Gulag Archipelago” writes about a close friend who served with him in World War II. Solzhenitsyn’s defiance of the Communist regime after the war saw him sent to the Soviet gulags. His friend, loyal to the state, was sent there as an interrogator. Solzhenitsyn was forced to articulate a painful truth. The mass of those who serve systems of terrible oppression and state crime are not evil. They are weak.

“If only there were vile people ... committing evil deeds, and if it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The expansions of public and private organs of state security, from Homeland Security to the mercenary forces we are building in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the burgeoning internal intelligence organizations, exist because these “ordinary” citizens, many of whom are caring fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, have confused conformity to the state with innocence. Family values are used, especially by the Christian right, as the exclusive definition of public morality. Politicians, including President Obama, who betray the working class, wage doomed imperial wars, abandon families to home foreclosures and bank repossessions, and refuse to restore habeas corpus, are morally “good” because they are loyal husbands and fathers. Infidelity, instead of corporate murder, becomes in this absurd moral reasoning the highest and most unforgivable offense.

The bureaucrats who maintain these repressive state organs, who prosecute the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or who maintain corporate structures that perpetuate human suffering, can define themselves as good—as innocent—as long as they are seen as traditional family men and women who are compliant to the laws of the state. And this redefinition of civic engagement permits us to suspend moral judgment and finally common sense. Do your job. Do not ask questions. Do not think. If these bureaucrats were challenged for the crimes they are complicit in committing, including the steady dismantling of the democratic state, they would react with the same disbelief as the camp guard at Majdanek.

Those who serve as functionaries within corporations such as Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil and carry out crimes ask of their masters that they be exempted from personal responsibility for the acts they commit. They serve corporate structures that kill, but, as Arendt notes, the corporate employee “does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination but in his professional capacity.” At home the corporate man or woman is meek. He or she has no proclivity to violence, although the corporate systems they serve by day pollute, impoverish, maim and kill.

Those who do not carry out acts of rebellion, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, are guilty of solidifying and perpetuating these crimes. Those who do not act delude themselves into believing they are innocent. They are not.

Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and a weekly columnist for Truthdig. His newest book is “Death of the Liberal Class.” On Dec. 16 he, Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern, Dr. Margaret Flowers and several others will hold a rally across from the White House to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and attempt to chain themselves to the White House fence.  More information on the Dec. 16 protest can be found at http://www.stopthesewars.org/.

The Adventures of Middle-Man

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

A bitter, losing fight against the power of money

Out of America: Tax cuts for billionaires, and bankers with more clout than ever – nothing has changed

By Rupert Cornwell

The US is a land of extremes: climatic, economic and ideological. But amid the turbulent craziness of American politics, there is one constant: money rules. And never more so than in the closing weeks of this sour and eminently forgettable year of 2010 - when the recession never really went away, the Tea Party marched into Washington, and the presidency of Barack Obama shriveled before one's eyes.

Right now, the country has a budget deficit equal to almost 10 per cent of GDP. The official unemployment rate, announced on Friday, rose to 9.8 per cent. Add in the people who would like to work but have given up even looking for a job, and you have an "under-employment" rate of about 17 per cent. And yet politicians can't even get round to extending unemployment benefits for the two million people whose meager help from the state ran out last week, at the start of the holiday season.

Instead, forget the deficit. Forget the poor souls who had to try to make ends meet on a dole of $320 (£200) per week for a family of four, before that support expired. Congress - or rather the resurgent Republican part of it - is adamant that nothing be done until tax cuts, which also are about to expire, are extended for the very richest in America.

It is the very rich who have done best out of those cuts pushed through by George Bush in 2001. Indeed, real take-home pay has stagnated for most people over that period, while the poor have, if anything, got poorer. But to preserve a veneer of fiscal responsibility, a "sunset" date of 31 December 2010 was included, meaning that Bush would be safely out of office when the moment of decision arrived on whether to renew them. That time bomb is now exploding.

Obama and the Democrats want to extend the cuts for households earning less than $250,000 a year, covering 98 per cent of the population. Republicans, however, are adamant; the cuts (which lowered the top rate of income tax from 39 per cent to 35 per cent) must be extended for the rich and super-rich too. Do otherwise, they challenge Democrats, and you will be forever branded the party that raises taxes. In US politics, there is no deadlier accusation.

The mood on Capitol Hill has gone from bad to appalling, despite the polite words in talks at the White House between Obama and congressional leaders of both parties designed to plot a path forward after the massive Republican gains in November's mid-term elections. The row over the Bush tax cuts now colors everything. But the partisanship and the childish name-calling, where every liberal is a Communist and every conservative a robber baron, obscure the deeper truth. Money rules.

No matter that the country is still reeling from the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. Inequality continues to grow. Wealth in America is now concentrated to a degree unprecedented since the Great Depression. The top 1 per cent of taxpayers - roughly those making $500,000-plus annually - now receive almost a quarter of all national income, and own more than a third of the country's private sector assets.
The same pattern is visible in the financial sector, whose recklessness was the main cause of the crisis. Since the crash of 2008, the concentration of power in a handful of giant financial institutions has only increased. Attempts to break them up failed. Wall Street bonuses are back in dreamland.

Defenders of the status quo trot out the usual excuses. If the banks are downsized, it is said, they won't be able to compete in this age of globalization. Give the wealthy more money, it is argued, and the largesse will trickle down to the less fortunate, ultimately lifting all boats. But neither thesis stands up to scrutiny. The truth was laid out in Thursday's New York Times by about as impartial an observer as you get, a top official of the country's central bank. Yes, you've guessed. Money rules.

Last month's mid-term elections cost a staggering $4bn. Any candidate who runs for national office, wrote Thomas Hoenig, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, must now go to New York City to raise money. The big banks, despite being bailed out by the government, now have even more political influence than before the crisis.

Inevitably, the congressional legislation reforming Wall Street was heavily watered down; despite everything, Hoenig complained, "large financial institutions are still in control of our country's economic destiny". Last January, the Supreme Court made matters worse by overturning a chunk of the country's finance laws governing election campaigns - laws already riddled with loopholes - by allowing banks and corporations to pay for political ads, as long as they were "independent" of specific campaigns. Some hope.

So here we are, three weeks before Christmas, with the atmosphere in Washington more poisonous than ever, and Republicans confident they can roll Obama on everything. Recent developments, alas, suggest that confidence is not misplaced. No matter that tax cuts for the rich would add $700bn to the deficit over the next 10 years. Republicans have served notice they will block all business in the Senate until the largesse for millionaires is extended. Only then might they look more favorably on extending unemployment benefits as well. Right now it looks as if Obama will fold, in a spirit of compromise his opponents show little sign of reciprocating.

A deal will be struck. One has to be, otherwise taxes will rise for everyone, even as the economy continues to struggle. And - who knows? - maybe the recommendations last week of Obama's bipartisan deficit reduction commission, slashing $4trn from the deficit over the next decade, will one day provide a basis for an even more important deal on Capitol Hill. But it won't alter the fundamental law of American politics: money rules.