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.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

The Bible teaches that there is no freedom without truth. But more than anything, recent events have exposed America's inherent hypocrisy and fear of what actual freedom entails; The freedom of information and an informed citizenry.

While Fox News has argued in a United States court - and won! - its First Amendment right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on the public airwaves, the United States Government is fighting against Wikileaks' right to tell the truth. Welcome to the upside down world of America today.

The Wikileaks situation serves as an example of how our nation is slowly dissolving into tyranny. The extremists that a majority of americans voted into congress this November, want to do away with several constitutional amendments and social government programs, while at the same time proclaiming to be patriots and "true americans". Our politically activist Supreme Court has openly attacked the foundations of our very democracy, by forcing through corporate-friendly rulings and unprecedented secret campaign funding legislation. Our corporate media cares more about the business of ratings than it cares about journalistic integrity and the public good.

So far the american people have accepted all this. But apparently the buck stops with the truth. Infact, truth itself has become the new enemy of the Nation, in the form and shape of Julian Assange and Wikileaks.

Right now there is an all out frontal assault on America going on. Not by the terrorists and foreign cultures that we have been indoctrinated to hate and fear, but from within by the most powerful and influential people in our country. By all accounts, our leaders - political and corporate, do not want democracy. They do not want an informed citizenry. They do not want the promises made to us by our Founding Fathers. And they are doing everything in their power to stop Wikileaks from bringing into the open, things that can't stand the light of day.

While cable TV news, papers and the blogosphere have overwhelmingly welcomed and reported the stories that Wikileaks has exposed, now that the US Government is shutting down Wikileaks websites via hacker attacks and political pressure, and putting diplomatic heat on Sweden and the UK to arrest Julian Assange, the same media organizations and bloggers have voiced little in support or defence for WL. The Fourth Estate watchdogs of our democracy once again showed themselves to be little more than lapdogs for the powers that be.

Jefferson said that an enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. The Wikileaks affair is evidence of a republic that no longer functions and a leadership that is unable to lead.

The third sentence of the Declaration of Independence reads:
That to secure these rights [to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Maybe it's time to use this right before we have none left.

~Liberal Political

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The New American Oligarchy

There is a war underway. I'm not talking about Washington’s bloody misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, but a war within our own borders. It’s a war fought on the airwaves, on television and radio and over the Internet, a war of words and images, of half-truth, innuendo, and raging lies. I'm talking about a political war, pitting liberals against conservatives, Democrats against Republicans. I'm talking about a spending war, fueled by stealthy front groups and deep-pocketed anonymous donors. It’s a war that's poised to topple what's left of American democracy.

The right wing won the opening battle. In the 2010 midterm elections, shadowy outside organizations (who didn’t have to disclose their donors until well after Election Day, if at all) backing Republican candidates doled out $190 million, outspending their adversaries by a more than two-to-one margin, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. American Action Network, operated by Republican consultant Fred Malek and former Republican Senator Norm Coleman, spent $26 million; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plunked down $33 million; and Karl Rove's American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS shelled out a combined $38.6 million. Their investments in conservative candidates across the country paid off: the 62 House seats and six Senate seats claimed by Republicans were the most in the postwar era -- literally, a historic victory.

Knocked out of their complacency, no longer basking in the glow of Barack Obama's 2008 victory, wealthy Democrats are now plotting their response. Left-wing media mogul David Brock plans to create an outside group dubbed American Bridge in response to Rove's Crossroads outfits that will fight in the trenches of 2012 campaign spending. Many more outfits like Brock's will surely follow, as liberal and centrist Democrats brace for a promised $500 million onslaught by the Chamber of Commerce and others of its ilk.

Even the Obama administration, which shunned outside groups in 2008, has opened the door to a covert spending war. The Democrats will now fight fire with fire. "Is small money better? You bet. But we're in a fucking fight," Democratic strategist and fundraiser Harold Ickes told me recently. "And if you're in a fistfight, then you're in a fistfight, and you use all legal means available."

The endgame here, of course, is non-stop war. No longer will outside groups come and go every two years. Now, such groups will be running attack ads, sending out mailers, and deploying robo-calls year-round in what is going to become a perpetual campaign to sway voters and elect friendly lawmakers. "We're definitely building a foundation," was how American Crossroads president Steven Law put it.

This is what nowadays passes for the heart and soul of American democracy. It used to be that citizens in large numbers, mobilized by labor unions or political parties or a single uniting cause, determined the course of American politics. After World War II, a swelling middle class was the most powerful voting bloc, while, in those same decades, the working and middle classes enjoyed comparatively greater economic prosperity than their wealthy counterparts. Kiss all that goodbye. We're now a country run by rich people.

Not surprisingly, political power has a way of following wealth. What that means is: you can't understand how the rich seized control of American politics, and arguably American society, without understanding how a small group of Americans got so much money in the first place.

That story begins in the late 1970s and continues through the Obama years, a period in which American policy has been so skewed toward the rich that we're now living through the worst period of income inequality in modern history. Consider the statistics: 50 years ago, the wealthiest 1% of Americans accounted for one of every 10 dollars of the nation's income; today, it's nearly one in every four. Between 1979 and 2006, the average post-tax household income (including benefits) of the wealthiest 1% increased by 256%; the poorest households saw an increase of 11%; middle class homes, 21%, much of which was due to the arrival of two-job families.

Tax guru David Cay Johnston recently crunched new Social Security Administration data and discovered an even starker divide. On the one hand, the number of Americans earning a steady income declined by 4.5 million between 2008 and 2009, and the average wage in the U.S. dipped by 1.2%, to $39,055. On the other hand, the average wage among Americans earning more than $50 million per year was $91 million in 2008 and $84 million in 2009.

Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz put the situation Americans now find themselves in this way:
"Think of the American economy as a large apartment block. A century ago -- even 30 years ago -- it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most."
Let's call those select few in the penthouse the New Oligarchy, an awesomely rich sliver of Americans raking in an outsized share of the nation's wealth. They're oil magnates and media tycoons, corporate executives and hedge-fund traders, philanthropists and entertainers. Depending on where you want to draw the line, they're the top 1%, or the top 0.1%, or even the top 0.01% of the population. And when the Supreme Court handed down its controversial Citizens United decision in January, it broke the floodgates so that a torrent of anonymous donations from this oligarchic class could flood back down from the heights and inundate the political lands below.

"The Thirty-Year War"

How did we get here? How did a middle-class-heavy nation transform itself into an oligarchy? You'll find answers to these questions in Winner-Take-All Politics, a revelatory new book by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The authors treat the present figures we have on American wealth and poverty as a crime scene littered with clues and suspects, dead-ends and alibis.

Unlike so many pundits, politicians, and academics, Hacker and Pierson resist blaming the usual suspects: globalization, the rise of an information-based economy, and the demise of manufacturing. The culprit in their crime drama is American politics itself over the last three decades. The clues to understanding the rise of an American oligarchy, they believe, won’t be found in New York or New Delhi, but on Capitol Hill, along Pennsylvania Avenue, and around K Street, that haven in a heartless world for Washington’s lobbyists.

"Step by step and debate by debate," they write, "America's public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many."

Most accounts of American income inequality begin in the 1980s with the reign of President Ronald Reagan, the anti-government icon whose "Reaganomics" are commonly fingered as the catalyst for today's problems. Wrong, say Hacker and Pierson. The origins of oligarchy lay in the late 1970s and in the unlikely figure of Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president presiding over a Congress controlled by Democrats. It was Carter's successes and failures, they argue, that kicked off what economist Paul Krugman has labeled “the Great Divergence."

In 1978, the Carter administration and Congress took a red pen to the tax code, slashing the top rate of the capital gains tax from 48% to 28% -- an enormous boon for wealthy Americans. At the same time, the most ambitious effort in decades to reform American labor law in order to make it easer to unionize died in the Senate, despite a 61-vote Democratic supermajority. Likewise, a proposed Office of Consumer Representation, a $15 million advocacy agency that was to work on behalf of average Americans, was defeated by an increasingly powerful business lobby.

Ronald Reagan, you could say, simply took the baton passed to him by Carter. His 1981 Economic Recovery and Tax Act (ERTA) bundled a medley of goodies any oligarch would love, including tax cuts for corporations, ample reductions in the capital gains and estate taxes, and a 10% income tax exclusion for married couples in two-earner families. "ERTA was Ronald Reagan's greatest legislative triumph, a fundamental rewriting of the nation's tax laws in favor of winner-take-all outcomes," Hacker and Pierson conclude.

The groundwork had by then been laid for the rich to pull definitively and staggering ahead of everyone else. The momentum of the tax-cut fervor carried through the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and in 2000 became the campaign trail rallying cry of George W. Bush. It was Bush II, after all, who told a room full of wealthy donors at an $800-a-plate dinner, "Some people call you the elites; I call you my base," and who pledged that his 2001 tax cuts would be a boon for all Americans. They weren't: according to Hacker and Pierson, 51% of their benefits go to the top 1% of earners.

Those cuts will be around a lot longer if the GOP has its way. Take Republican Congressman Dave Camp's word for it. On November 16th, Camp, a Republican from Michigan, said the only acceptable solution when it came to the Bush-era tax cuts was not just upholding them for all earners, rich and poor, but passing more such cuts. Anything in between, any form of compromise, including President Obama's proposal to extend the Bush cuts for the working and middle classes but not the wealthy, was "a terrible idea and a total non-starter."

Why should you care what Dave Camp says? Here’s the answer: in January, he's set to inherit the chairman's gavel on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the body tasked with writing the nation's tax laws. And though most Americans wouldn't even recognize his name, Camp's message surely left America's wealthy elites breathing a long sigh of relief. You could sum it up like this: Fear not, wealthy Americans, your money is safe. The policies that made you rich aren't going anywhere.

Tear Down This Law

Where rewriting the tax code proved too politically difficult, demolishing regulations worked almost as well. This has been especially true in the world of finance. There, a legacy of deregulation transformed banking from a relatively staid industry into a casino culture, ushering in an era of eye-popping profits, lavish bonuses, and the "financialization" of the American economy.

April 6, 1998: it's a useful starting point in the story of financial deregulation. On that day, two well-known Wall Street denizens, Citicorp and Travelers Group, agreed to a historic $140 billion merger. The deal required much lobbying, but eventually the chiefs of these banks won an exemption from the Glass-Steagall Act, the New Deal-era law walling off commercial banks from riskier investment houses. The resulting institution, dubbed Citigroup, would be the largest supermarket bank in history, a marriage of teller windows and trading desks, customer banking and high-stakes investing -- all suddenly under one deregulated roof. It would prove an explosive, if not disastrous, mix.

The merger stirred visions of a future in which the U.S. would dominate the planet financially. All that stood in the way was undue regulatory red tape. At least that's the way free marketeers like then-Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas saw it. Gramm, who as an aide to presidential candidate John McCain infamously called America a "nation of whiners," was, in fact, the driving force behind two of the most influential pieces of deregulation in recent history.

In 1999, President Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, a bevy of deregulatory measures that obliterated Glass-Steagall. In December of the following year, Gramm quietly snuck the 262-page Commodity Futures Modernization Act into a massive $384-billion spending bill. Gramm's bill blocked regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from cracking down on the shadowy "over-the-counter derivatives" market, home to billions of dollars of opaque financial instruments that would, years later, nearly demolish the American economy.

As presidents, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush wrapped their arms around financial deregulation. As a result, in a binge of financial gluttony, Wall Street grew fat in ways never previously seen. Between 1929, the year the Great Depression began, and 1988, Wall Street's profits averaged 1.2% of the nation's gross domestic product; in 2005, that figure peaked at 3.3% as industry bonuses soared ever-higher. In 2009, bad times for most Americans, bonuses hit $20 billion. So much wealth in so few hands. Nothing explains the rise of the new American oligarchy more starkly.

Of course, it's not just what politicians did that helped create today's oligarchy, but what they failed to do. A classic example: in the 1990s, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), a private American accounting regulator, set its sights on a loophole big enough to drive a financial Mack truck through. Until then, stock options included in executives' skyrocketing pay packages -- potentially worth tens of millions of dollars when exercised -- were valued at zero when issued. That's right: zero, zilch, nada. When FASB and the SEC tried to close the loophole, however, big business leapt to its defense. An avalanche of money went into the pockets of an army of K Street lobbyists and leviathan business trade associations. In the end, nothing happened. Or rather, everything continued happening. The loophole remained.

Citizen United's Brave New World

Hacker and Pierson ably guide us through 30 years of "winner-take-all" policymaking, politicking, and -- from the point of view of the wealthy -- judicious inaction. They offer an eye-opening journey across the landscape that helped foster the New Oligarchs, but one crucial vista appeared too late for the authors to include.

No understanding of the rise of our New Oligarchs could be complete without exploring the effects of the Supreme Court's January Citizens United decision, which set their power in cement more effectively than any tax cut ever could. Before Citizens United, the rich used their wealth to subtly shape policy, woo politicians, and influence elections. Now, with so much money flowing into their hands and the contribution faucets wide open, they can simply buy American politics so long as the price is right.

There's no mistaking how, in less than a year, Citizens United has radically tilted the political playing field. Along with several other major court rulings, it ushered in American Crossroads, American Action Network, and many similar groups that now can reel in unlimited donations with pathetically few requirements to disclose their funders.

What the present Supreme Court, itself the fruit of successive tax-cutting and deregulating administrations, has ensured is this: that in an American “democracy,” only the public will remain in the dark. Even for dedicated reporters, tracking down these groups is like chasing shadows: official addresses lead to P.O. boxes; phone calls go unreturned; doors are shut in your face.

The limited glimpse we have of the people bankrolling these shadowy outfits is a who's-who of the New Oligarchy: the billionaire Koch Brothers ($21.5 billion); financier George Soros ($11 billion); hedge-fund CEO Paul Singer (his fund, Elliott Management, is worth $17 billion); investor Harold Simmons (net worth: $4.5 billion); New York venture capitalist Kenneth Langone ($1.1 billion); and real estate tycoon Bob Perry ($600 million).

Then there's the roster of corporations who have used their largesse to influence American politics. Health insurance companies, including UnitedHealth Group and Cigna, gave a whopping $86.2 million to the U.S. Chamber to kill the public option, funneling the money through the industry trade group America's Health Insurance Plans. And corporate titans like Goldman Sachs, Prudential Financial, and Dow Chemical have given millions more to the Chamber to lobby against new financial and chemical regulations.

As a result, the central story of the 2010 midterm elections isn’t Republican victory or Democratic defeat or Tea Party anger; it’s this blitzkrieg of outside spending, most of which came from right-leaning groups like Rove's American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's a grim illustration of what happens when so much money ends up in the hands of so few. And with campaign finance reforms soundly defeated for years to come, the spending wars will only get worse.

Indeed, pundits predict that spending in the 2012 elections will smash all records. Think of it this way: in 2008, total election spending reached $5.3 billion, while the $1.8 billion spent on the presidential race alone more than doubled 2004's total. How high could we go in 2012? $7 billion? $10 billion? It looks like the sky’s the limit.

We don't need to wait for 2012 to arrive, however, to know that the sheer amount of money being pumped into American politics makes a mockery out of our democracy (or what's left of it). Worse yet, few solutions exist to staunch the cash flow: the DISCLOSE Act, intended to counter the effects of Citizens United, twice failed in the Senate this year; and the best option, public financing of elections, can't even get a hearing in Washington.

Until lawmakers cap the amount of money in politics, while forcing donors to reveal their identities and not hide in the shadows, the New Oligarchy will only grow in stature and influence. Left unchecked, this ultimate elite will continue to root out the few members of Congress not beholden to them and their “contributions” (see: Wisconsin's Russ Feingold) and will replace them with lawmakers eager to do their bidding, a Congress full of obedient placeholders ready to give their donors what they want.

Never before has the United States looked so much like a country of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

Andy Kroll is a reporter in the D.C. Bureau of Mother Jones and an associate editor at TomDispatch.com. You can email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com.

Wikileaks Exposes America's Dirty Laundry, While Media Clowns Like Glenn Beck Are off in Fantasy Land

Running parallel over the last few months have been the endeavors of two disparate individuals, Fox News host Glenn Beck and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the former espousing a pleasant faux reality for Americans and the latter confronting them with unpleasant truths.

Not surprisingly, Beck appears to have had the better of the exchange with Americans rallying to the polls to elect a right-wing Republican majority in the House of Representatives and Assange coming under a withering assault for supposedly endangering U.S. security, as Lawrence Davidson argues in this essay:

For those who pay attention to the battle of ideas that constantly goes on in the United States, two people presently have taken center stage for diametrically opposite reasons: Glenn Beck and Julian Assange.

The first is a man whose expertise is in the creation of alternate realities by playing fast and loose with the facts. This sort of enterprise has a long and sordid history to it, and while this fellow is on the rabid right, the tradition has its historical representatives across the political spectrum.

There is never any lack of an audience for such promoters of alternate realities. Usually the size of the audience can be correlated to an economic downturn, a defeat in war, or a popular consensus about government incompetency.

The second man is a champion of the free flow of information. He believes that the only way citizens will avoid being swept into alternate realities, and victimized by the resulting ill-conceived government actions, is to have full knowledge of what policies are being pursued and their real consequences.

Whether most people actually want to know these details is debatable, but this fellow is adamant that they should be available to anyone who cares to look. Now we come to the question of how these two men are perceived by the U.S. government and the "free" people of the United States. Glenn Beck is an undereducated radio and TV personality turned political pundit. He was born in 1964 and has only a high school education. By his own admission, Beck spent at least15 of his early adult years as an alcoholic and drug addict.

Beck became suicidal in the mid-1990s and fantasized about imitating the manner of death chosen by the singer Kurt Cobain. He was pulled back from the brink with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Fifteen years is a long time to baste a young adult’s brain in mind-altering substances, and I will leave it to the reader to decide if that history qualifies such a brain for political preaching. Yet, it is as a political wise man that millions of Americans now regard Glenn Beck. Sporting a style of aggressive jargon that makes him a sure candidate for Eric Hoffer’s "man of words with a grievance," Beck throws out accusations and suppositions which, with uncanny regularity, turn out to be wrong. However, that does not matter, for his listeners seem never to doubt him and so there is little motivation for Beck to doubt himself.

Increasingly popular, his growing number of listeners accepts him as a defender of the U.S. Constitution and traditional American values. And who are the threats that require this stalwart defender? Progressives and liberals, socialists and secularists all those who would destroy that mythical ideal of America that exists as an alternate reality in the minds of Beck and his followers.

Beck characterizes all such enemies as members of "Crime Inc." There is a strong naive simplicity in what Beck preaches. He espouses balanced budgets because "debt creates unhealthy relationships." Somehow Glenn Beck can hold mortgages and still remain on good terms with his wife and kids, but it seems to him sinful that the government sells more Treasury bills than he feels is necessary. The government should be reduced to a minimum.

As to the country’s needy, that can be taken care of by private charity. If there is indeed such a thing as man-made global warming, that can be dealt with by the voluntary "greening" of personal homes.

What we have here is the projection of small town ways to a country of approximately 350 million.

There have been times when Beck has confessed that he is not a political person but rather an "entertainer." Yet his denunciation of ubiquitous conspiracies, particularly of a leftist kind, and his regularly articulated rhetorical question -- "What’s the difference between a communist or socialist and a progressive....? One requires a gun and the other eats away slowly" -- is clearly not just show biz.

And, what are we to make of the entertainment value of his repeated proclamation that Americans are in a battle to defend the "eternal principles of God" which makes "God the answer" to all our problems?

No, whether Beck was originally playing at "paleo-conservatism" or not, he is now so adapted to his role that what you see is what is there. The actor has been transformed into the character he plays. It is doubtful whether Glenn Beck has ever put forth a well thought-out, fact-checked, position in his life. Yet such a failing has not prevented him from obtaining the backing of the powerful Fox Broadcasting Company.

Beck and Fox are a very good fit. Both are part of a radical right which has now made itself appear acceptably all-American by redefining anything to the left of their positions as neo-socialist. And, they have drawn to themselves the millions of folks who are naive and simple conservatives living in a faux reality that defines the welfare state as communism and President Obama as a Muslim agent seeking to impose Sharia law on places like Oklahoma.

For such folks Beck’s nonsense somehow confirms all their hopes and fears. In their millions they are moved, weekly, to agree with whatever it is that they think he is saying. The U.S. government has made no objection to the Fox-Beck propaganda show. Both are, of course, protected by the First Amendment. And, it is probably the case that at least some of the elements of elected government, for instance the Republican Party’s right-wing majority and the Blue Dog Democrats, are in agreement with all or part of Beck’s message.

The rest of the government, the liberal Democrats, for instance, seem frustrated and confused. They do not know how to respond to someone like Beck and so they hope that he will, in the end, prove a temporary phenomenon.

Who is Julian Assange?

Julian Assange, our second personality, is an Australian-born Internet expert. Born in 1971, he attended the University of Melbourne where he studied physics, mathematics and philosophy. However, he did not stay to complete a degree.

He made an early career as a computer programmer and is the author of both free and commercial pieces of software. A strong anarchistic strain runs through Assange’s early adult period. He was a member of a number of relatively benign hacker organizations and the ideal of information transparency seems to have been a strong driving force in his life from early on.

All of which eventually led him to found WikiLeaks in 2006. It is Assange’s contention that government secrecy almost always harms people and denies them the ability to make rational decisions. The press has the responsibility to fight against censorship but has been seduced into cooperating with the system it ought to be policing.

"How is it," Assange asks, "that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information...than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful." There are those who see Assange as an "Internet freedom fighter," and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame has asserted that Assange "is serving [American] democracy and serving the rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations, which are not laws in most cases, in this country."

But that is not how American and foreign intelligence agencies see Julian Assange. Secrecy is part of their reason for being and without it they are out of a job.

To them he is a real threat. They have accused him of harming national security and putting in danger the agents that feed them their secret information. They offer no proof of any of this and fail to mention that the information they receive from these agents is often used to kill other people.

Assange has described a line-by-line review procedure used to protect "innocent parties who are under reasonable threat" but government spokesmen disparaged this claim and just repeat their charges against him in robotic fashion. …

Julian Assange has won several awards for battling censorship and upholding the public’s right to know. He has appeared on a number of media venues both in the U.S. and elsewhere. The British magazine The New Statesman included him in its list of the 50 most influential figures in 2010 and, it is reported, that he is in the running for Time Magazine’s 2010 “person of the year.”

Nonetheless, Assange’s loyal following is minuscule and if he becomes better known to the public at large it is likely to be a function of the smear campaign now being waged by the intelligence agencies. Their expertise in such covert operations is beyond question.

Beck v. Assange

Glenn Beck and Julian Assange represent two options for the American state of mind. Beck is a charlatan who preaches an alternate reality that affirms the untested, ahistorical and prejudicial assumptions and feelings of millions of Americans.

These are voting citizens who know little of what lies beyond their neighborhoods, but know absolutely how they feel. Beck tells them that their feelings really do correspond to the state of the world and so they avidly, loyally, listen to him.

We all like to be told that we are right. That makes Glenn Beck a source of ego re-enforcement for a significant segment of the population.

Julian Assange is a real truth-teller who shatters assumptions, calls into question feelings, and would force us all to look at the historically objective information that best represents how things are. What Assange is doing makes no one comfortable and reinforces nobody’s ego. He stands up and speaks truth to power but, as Noam Chomsky once pointed out, power already knows the truth.

If power bothers about the truth at all, it is to keep it largely secret. To do so it seeks the real truth-teller’s destruction while leaving the charlatan free to play the Pied Piper with impunity. This does not bode well for the future of America and perhaps the West at large. Too many Americans, and their leaders as well, haven’t got an accurate sense of the real world. In part, that is why the U.S. government regularly formulates domestic and foreign policies that answer the demands of interest groups while harming the rest of us.

Such policies fail in the long run. In doing so they open political space for both charlatans and truth-tellers. And here they are in the persons of Glenn Beck and Julian Assange. Now America can choose.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest; America's Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.