I have this vision that because I own a dog, soon I will be legally prohibited from joining a union.
It's not quite that bad -- yet. But a series of decisions expected this summer from the Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could destroy the existing union memberships of millions of people in the U.S., and prevent any future unionization attempts by tens of millions more.
Under 1947's notorious union-busting Taft-Hartley Act, supervisors in the U.S. workforce are considered "management" and therefore have no legal right to unionize. The anticipated NLRB rulings, of three disputes collectively known as the Kentucky River cases, would allow employers in a wide array of industries to reclassify as "supervisors" any employee who has any type of oversight, no matter how fleeting, over a lower-ranked or less senior co-worker. Workers who take on apprentices. Lead men in manufacturing crews. Nurses who direct nurse aides.
And, well, I order our dog around. A lot. She seems to like it.
It really is just about that ridiculous. A nurse, for example, has no power to hire or fire, doesn't set schedules, can't mete out discipline. Yet under these rulings, she or he would be considered "management."
Even though no decisions have been issued by the NLRB, the anticipation of a favorable (for them) ruling already has employers chomping at the bit. AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff estimates the NLRB has already deferred about 120 cases in which union election results have been disputed; employers want to wait for the Kentucky River ruling to see if they can simply declare their workers ineligible to conduct unionization votes at all. In New Jersey, nurses with a common contact at twelve New Jersey hospitals threatened to strike before reaching contract language that guaranteed they wouldn't be reclassified as supervisors.
In a mid-June NLRB hearing, the Chief Nursing Officer of Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Charlene Tachivana, offered a novel argument against a suit demanding that the hospital negotiate with the nurses' union, the Washington State Nurses' Association, before implementing a contested policy. Tachivana argued that all 600 of Virginia Mason's RNs were in fact supervisors -- that they were able to hire, fire, and write policy, and therefore not eligible to be in the union at all. "That's ludicrous," says Virginia Mason nurse Jeaux Rinehart, noting that he and other nurses cannot hire, fire, or write policies. "She's trying to take attention from [the suit] with a much larger issue" -- namely, the anticipated Kentucky River rulings.
"You could see health care and hospital strikes across America if the decision is too broad," says Acuff. He estimates 300,000 nurses could be affected by the rulings, and up to 1.5 million other workers: "Team leaders and gang leaders in ports, lead men in mines, lead men in docks at manufacturing facilities and warehouses, engineers, people who oversee apprentices in trades....almost every senior worker does this to some extent." A study to be released this week by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that in a worst case scenario, up to eight million union workers could be disenfranchised. Such a ruling, covering two-third of America's unionized labor force, would not only decimate organized labor, but undercut much of the Democratic Party's organizing and get-out-the-vote infrastructure. Thus far, the controversy has gotten remarkably little media coverage.
The Bush administration has done this sort of thing before: changing the interpretation of regulations so as to affect sweeping changes without the bother of getting a controversial policy through Congress. It's used such tactics extensively, for example, to eviscerate environmental policies. It's happened in labor law, too. "Whenever they redefine a word, working people get screwed," says David Groves of the Washington State Labor Council, which is also organizing to stop the Virginia Mason reclassification.
Given the NLRB record under Bush, labor leaders are not optimistic that Kentucky River will turn out well. They are particularly exercised that in Kentucky River, as in all its other cases since Bush took office, the NLRB refused to hear oral arguments - the practice in all previous administrations. "To be willing to consider a decision of this magnitude and not even be willing to consider the effect on working people is unconscionable," says Acuff. "This administration has been more antithetical to the rights of workers than any since Herbert Hoover."
The NLRB is expected to rule on the three cases, ironically enough, by Labor Day. Labor leaders want the public to ask members of Congress to, at minimum, force the NLRB to actually hold hearings on Kentucky River. This week, July 10-14, workers will demonstrate in cities across the country; details are at AFLCIO.org.
I'll bring my dog.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 77 on Sunday. He has been dead for 38 years.
As his living memory fades, replaced by a feel-good "I have a dream" whitewash that ignores much of what he stood for and fought against, it is more important than ever to recapture the true history of Dr. King -- because much of what he fought against is resurfacing, or still with us, today.
King was, along with Mohandas Gandhi, one of the most internationally revered symbols of nonviolence in the 20th century. He spent his too-brief adult life defying authority and convention, citing a higher moral authority, and gave hope and inspiration for the liberation of people of color on six continents.
MLK, Jr. Day, the holiday, has devolved into the Mississippi Burning of third Mondays. What started out as gratitude that they made a movie about it, gradually becomes revulsion at how new generations of Euro-Americans mislearn the story.
King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks and, as the Quakers say, spoke truth to power. King is also remembered because, among a number of brave and committed civil rights leaders and activists, he had a flair for self-promotion, a style that also appealed to white liberals, and the extraordinary social strength of the black Southern churches behind him. And because he died before he had a chance to be widely believed a relic or buffoon.
What little history TV will give us to commemorate his birthday is as much about forgetting as about remembering, as much about self-congratulatory patriotism -- that King was American -- as self-examination, that American racism made him necessary, and that government, at every level, sought to destroy him.
We hear "I have a dream"; we don't hear his powerful indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don't see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don't hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.
We don't see retrospectives on King's linkage of civil rights with Third World liberation. We forget that he died in Memphis lending support for a union (the garbage workers' strike), while organizing a multiracial Poor Peoples' Campaign that demanded affordable housing and decent-paying jobs as basic civil rights transcending skin color. We forget that many of King's fellow leaders weren't nearly so polite. Cities were burning. We remember Selma instead.
And we forget that of those many dreams King had, only one -- equal access for nonwhites -- is significantly realized today. A half-century after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, even that is only partly achieved. Blacks are being systematically disenfranchised in our presidential elections, and affirmative action and school desegregation are all but dead. Urban school districts across the country these days are as segregated and unequal as ever, and the imminent confirmation of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court likely heralds a new era where employers and landlords can discriminate with near-impunity.
But an even bigger problem, as a generation dies off and the historical memory fades, is that Dr. King has become an icon, not a historical figure (distorted or otherwise). History requires context; icons don't. The racism King challenged four and five decades ago in Georgia and Alabama was also dominant throughout the country. Here in Seattle, few whites know that history: the housing and school segregation, laws barring Asians from owning land (overturned only in the '60s), the marches downtown from predominantly black Garfield High School, police harassment of both radical and mainstream black activists, the still-unsolved assassination of a local NAACP leader.
Every city in America has such histories. We don't know the stories of the people, many still with us, who led those struggles. And we rarely acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery 1955 is no longer so overt, but still part of America 2006. It shows up in our geography, in our jails, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups that often carry the banner on these issues.
If our cities were serious about his legacy, Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. would run through downtowns, and there would be MLK, Jr. Elementary Schools in the suburbs. Instead, in just about every big city in the U.S., school districts and city councils put King back in the ghetto, along with both the legions of people who worked with him and the many more who've taken up his work since.
Opponents of affirmative action and racial equality can claim King's mantle and "if he were alive today" approval only because in 2006, pop culture's MLK, Jr. has no politics. And, for that matter, no faith. For white America, King's soft-focus image often reinforces white supremacy. See? We're not so bad. We honor him now. Why don't those black people just get over it, anyway? We did.
All that is a lie. Dr. King's vision is today as urgent as ever. While Jim Crow and the cruelties of overt segregation are now largely unimaginable, much remains to be done. And for those who carry King's banner, the challenges of apathy and official hostility remain the same: the FBI and NSA spying on peace groups, listening to phone calls, monitoring emails. An administration -- voted for by almost no African-Americans -- that reviles nonviolence and labels its critics as treasonous (rather than communist dupes). And the moral outrage of Americans that made King's work so politically effective? We don't do that anymore. We can torture thousands of mostly innocent Iraqis and Afghans in plain sight, and nobody is held accountable. It'd take a whole lot more than Bull Connor's police dogs to make the news today.
The saddest loss in the modern narrative of Dr. King's career is the story of who he was: a man without wealth, without elected office, who managed as a single individual to change the world simply through the strength of his moral convictions. His power came from his faith and his willingness to act on what he knew to be right. That story could inspire many millions to similar action -- if only it were told. We could each be Dr. King.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has become a Hallmark Card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a file photo for sneakers or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by dissembling Cabinet members and ungrateful Supreme Court justices. Be sure to check out the Three-Day-Only White Sale at Wal-Mart. Always a better price. Always.
King deserves better. We all do.
The ever-widening scandal surrounding Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens to take down at least a half-dozen Congressmen in 2006, more of their aides, Executive Branch employees, and untold numbers of other members of the Republican Beltway hierarchy. At least four dozen lawmakers from both parties are documented as having taken actions favorable to Abramoff clients around the time they received large donations from Abramoff and/or his clients.
It's a sordid tale of Washington corruption, and of crony capitalism at its worst, and it is so dizzyingly complex that few media outlets and even fewer members of the public have yet appreciated just how thoroughly it indicts not just Republican leadership, but the entire bipartisan way of crafting public policy that masquerades as 21st century American democracy.
Abramoff figures in at least four separate, interrelated scandals:
- He and partner Adam Kidan have been indicted on wire fraud and conspiracy charges involving the 2000 purchase of SunCruz Casinos, a Florida gambling boat venture;
- He funneled money into the PAC run by House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay that has led to Texas charges against DeLay for illegally laundering campaign donations;
- He and partner Michael Scanlon are suspected of defrauding and vastly overbilling Native American tribes and other clients with gaming interests; and
- He and Scanlon are also suspected of bribing and offering gifts and spousal jobs to Congressmembers and Executive Branch officials in exchange for actions favorable to their clients.
Appallingly, it's hard to tell with many of Abramoff's activities whether they are crimes, D.C. business as usual, or both. Here, then, compiled from The Washington Post and other sources, is a summary in alphabetical order of 25 of the key players involved, how they relate to each other, and what they're suspected of. It's rather long and exhaustive (of what we know so far), but then, the indictments will be far longer. Read it, keep it as a scorecard, and weep for democracy.
Jack Abramoff: Former chair in the early '80s of the College Republicans (his campaign manager was future anti-tax guru Grover Norquist), and close friend of Karl Rove. Introduced to Republican Texas Rep. Tom DeLay by conservative Jewish activist Rabbi Daniel Lapin in the early '90s, Abramoff helped win DeLay's election as majority whip in 1994, a campaign that cemented the bond between the two. The relationship between Abramoff and DeLay is now the target of investigations by the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Justice Department, and a federal grand jury. Abramoff during the Bush administration became the most influential lobbyist in the country; in 2004 he was a Bush "Pioneer," raising over $100,000 for Dubya's re-election.
Abramoff, 46, was indicted along with partner Adam Kidan in August 2005 by a Florida grand jury on wire fraud and conspiracy charges in a Florida gambling boat venture, SunCruz Casinos. Prosecutors say the purchase by the two of a fleet of casino gambling ships in 2000 for $147.5 million involved a fake wire transfer of $23 million and the falsification of loan documents. For the purchase, Abramoff listed Tony Rudy, then a DeLay aide, and Californian Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher as personal references. Abramoff faces up to five years in prison for each of six counts and the forced return of $60 million lost by a casino investor.
Abramoff worked for the D.C. lobbying office of the law firm Preston Gates Ellis from 1994 to 2001, and while there worked with Michael Scanlon and William Jarrell (both former DeLay aides), future General Services Administration head David Safavian, and former Christian Coalition boss Ralph Reed, then a Preston Gates contractor. Abramoff arranged for at least 85 Congressmen and aides to take trips in the late '90s to the Northern Mariana Islands, a Preston Gates client, while attempting to win exemption from minimum wage laws and other legislation favorable to the sweatshops there. The Marianas, a U.S. trust territory in the Pacific, are notorious as the home of numerous sweatshops importing foreign, virtually slave labor that produces products with a "Made in U.S.A. " label.
Among the visitors was DeLay; two DeLay aides' trips were also allegedly illegally paid for. Between 1994 and 2001, the Northern Mariana Islands paid $6.7 million to Preston Gates for lobbying services, of which an auditor later determined $3.1 million was paid without a lawful contract. Rabbi Daniel Lapin's brother, David, who once ran a D.C. area Jewish academy established by Abramoff, had a $1.2 million no-bid Northern Marianas government contract, arranged by Abramoff during his Preston Gates days, to conduct ethics-in-government programs. But near as anyone in the Marianas can determine today, David Lapin failed to provide any services. Abramoff was also the target of a 2002 grand jury probe in Guam, involving influence peddling in a case involving court reform. A day after a subpoena was issued, President Bush demoted the federal prosecutor in the case, and the inquiry stalled.
In 2001, Abramoff was lured (along with some of his clients) with his $175,000 a month retainer to the Miami lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig LLC. After he joined Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff and Scanlon (who left Preston Gates Ellis to start his own consulting service) agreed to join forces and concentrate on Native American casino tribes. Overall, Abramoff and Scanlon collected a staggering $66 million in fees from tribal interests, with another $16 million going directly to Greenberg Traurig.
Investigators are now looking at whether tribes were defrauded of some of that $82 million. Abramoff allegedly arranged for more than $4 million of Preston Gates Ellis Native American client funds to be funneled into antigambling campaigns run by Reed from 1999 to 2003. In one case involving funds from an Indian casino client, as much as $1.3 million may have been used to launch a campaign. At least some of the Preston Gates money was allegedly laundered through an anti-tax group of Abramoff's old friend Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform. The point was for Abramoff's Native American casino clients to pay for campaigns that would shut out potential competition from state lotteries or new casinos.
Abramoff arranged for the hiring of several Congressional wives, including Christine DeLay, wife of the Majority Whip. (Christine DeLay took four years to research the favorite charity of each member of Congress, for which she was paid $115,000. Nice work if you can get it.) Abramoff frequently used his D.C. charity, Capital Athletic Foundation, as a pass-through organization to run lobbying efforts and to pay for expenses, including retaining the services of a firm owned by Republican California Rep. John Doolittle's wife Julie, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions Inc. Abramoff is also accused of misusing his charity to fund activities like an Israeli sniper school on the West Bank.
Abramoff also allegedly misused a conservative D.C. think tank on whose board he served, the National Center for Public Policy Research. The group was allegedly used to launder $50,000 to pay for a May 2000 trip by DeLay, his wife, Rudy, and another DeLay aide to Scotland. Two months later, DeLay helped kill a anti-gambling bill, the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, opposed by Abramoff clients. In 2002 the Choctaw tribe, a client of Abramoff's, donated $1 million to the center and in 2003 Greenberg Traurig gave $1.5 million in "grants" that originated from an Abramoff client. In 2003, the National Center paid $1.275 million for consulting services to Kaygold, an LLC controlled by Abramoff.
Former Preston Gates colleague David Safavian, who had been appointed by Bush as head of the General Services Administration, was arrested in September 2005 and charged with lying and obstruction of justice in conjunction with an investigation into Abramoff's seeking of favors from Safavian while he attempted to buy land from the federal government. Abramoff is also being investigated for having illegally paid for three Scotland golf trips and trips to Moscow and London for DeLay, and a 2002 Scotland trip for then-DeLay aide Tony Rudy, Safavian, Norquist, and Republican Ohio Rep. Robert Ney.
Over the years, Abramoff showered members of Congress with donations, trips, gifts, and fundraising events, often as quid pro quo for favorable legislative action. At least four dozen lawmakers from both parties are documented as having taken actions favorable to Abramoff clients around the time they received large donations from Abramoff and/or his clients.
Here are some of the players in Abramoff's world:
Edward Ayoob: Former veteran legislative aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, hired as a lobbyist by Abramoff. Reid, who undertook several actions favorable to Abramoff's clients, ultimately received more than $66,000 in Abramoff-related donations from 2001 to 2004. Ayoob held a fundraising reception for Reid at the offices of Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig.
Edwin Buckham: Former chief of staff and an old family friend of House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, involved, along with former DeLay aide Mike Scanlon, in a 1999 effort by Abramoff to allegedly dangle U.S. tax dollars to influence a election for the speaker of the legislature in the Northern Mariana Islands. Along with former DeLay aide Tony Rudy, ran the lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group, which accepted a number of clients from Abramoff and paid Christine DeLay, wife of the Majority Whip, $115,000 for work from 1998 to 2002 to determine the favorite charity of every member of Congress. Alexander Strategy Group also counted among its clients California businessman Brent Wilkes, one of four unindicted coconspirators in the bribery case of disgraced former Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
Sen. Conrad Burns: Republican Senator from Montana. As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chair of an appropriations subcommittee that controlled spending for the Interior Department, Burns and his staff met Abramoff's lobbying team at least eight times in early 2001 and collected $12,000 in donations. Burns then voted against a bill that would have ended a "guest worker " program in the Northern Mariana Islands' garment industry; in 1999, he had voted in favor of an identical bill. Abramoff and future assistant Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella had both lobbied for the Marianas when working at the lobbying law firm Preston Gates Ellis until 2001.
In addition, two Burns aides accepted an Abramoff-arranged trip to the Super Bowl in Tampa in early 2001, and a Burns aide went to work for Abramoff as an appropriations aide. In June 2001, Burns supported a bill that urged the Interior Department to rescind a requirement that the Marianas provide matching funds for a federal program subsidizing local construction projects. Burns also wrote a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs backing a $3 million Indian school building program sought by Abramoff's tribal clients, and helped arrange for Congress to provide money for it.
Overall, Abramoff steered $147,000 to Burns' political action committee (PAC). Abramoff, partner Michael Scanlon, former DeLay aide William Jarrell, and former General Services Administration head David Safavian all once worked for Preston Gates Ellis, the law firm representing the Marianas.
Rep. Tom DeLay: Houston-area Republican Representative, longtime friend of Abramoff, and former House Majority Whip before a campaign financing indictment forced him to at least temporarily resign his post in 2005. Abramoff helped win DeLay's election as majority whip in 1994, a campaign that cemented the bond between the two. DeLay was admonished by the House of Representatives for three separate ethics violations in 2004; his solution was to appoint a new, pliant stooge to head the House Ethics Committee, Washington state Rep. Doc Hastings, a recipient of donations from DeLay's PACs and from Abramoff. DeLay's PACs are under investigation by U.S. and Texas prosecutors; more than 30 PAC-related indictments have already been issued in Texas.
A former DeLay aide, Michael Scanlon, went on to become Abramoff's business partner and has now pled guilty to helping defraud Abramoff's tribal clients and is cooperating in the investigation. Scanlon and former DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham were involved in a 1999 effort by Abramoff to allegedly dangle U.S. tax dollars to influence a election for the speaker of the legislature in the Northern Mariana Islands. A few months later, DeLay was on a House committee that approved $150,000 in Northern Marianas funding.
DeLay was one of at least 85 Congressmen and aides given late '90s trips to the Northern Marianas while Abramoff was trying to win exemption from minimum wage laws and other legislation favorable to the sweatshops there. Two DeLay aides' trips were allegedly illegally paid for. Another former aide, ex-deputy chief of staff William Jarrell, joined Abramoff at Preston Gates Ellis. DeLay aides also accepted a trip from Abramoff to the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa, along with aides to Sen. Conrad Burns. And in May 2000, DeLay, his wife, aide Tony Rudy, and another DeLay aide took a trip to Scotland sponsored by the conservative D.C. think tank the National Center for Public Policy Research, one day after two Abramoff clients each donated $25,000 to the group. At about the same time, a Virginia consulting firm registered to Rudy's wife Lisa received money apparently laundered from a $25,000 donation received by a charity of Abramoff and DeLay friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Toward Tradition. Two months later, DeLay helped kill an anti-gambling bill, the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, opposed by the two Abramoff clients, the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians and eLottery.
The National Center for Public Policy Research was used again by Abramoff; in 2002 the Choctaw tribe, a client of Abramoff's, donated $1 million to the center and in 2003 Greenberg Traurig gave $1.5 million in "grants" that originated from an Abramoff client. In 2003, the National Center paid $1.275 million for consulting services to Kaygold, an LLC controlled by Abramoff. At the time, Abramoff also was on the board of the center.
Abramoff is also under investigation for providing illegal perks to DeLay such as skyboxes for local D.C. hockey and football games and trips to Moscow, London, and, on three occasions, golfing vacations to Scotland. DeLay's wife Christine was hired for $115,000 by a lobbying firm, Alexander Strategy Group that received client referrals from Abramoff. The firm, run by former DeLay aides Edwin Burkham and Rudy, employed Christine DeLay from 1998 until 2002 to compile a list of the favorite charities of every member of Congress. Alexander Strategy Group also counted among its clients California businessman Brent Wilkes, one of four unindicted coconspirators in the bribery case of disgraced former Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Wilkes, whose private jet company also was hired three times by DeLay, contributed $15,000 to the DeLay PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority, now being investigated by Texas authorities in conjunction with the campaign donation probe.
As of 2000, Abramoff had funneled at least $50,000 in campaign donations to DeLay. Abramoff has since continued his hefty donations to DeLay, including money for Texans for a Republican Majority.
Rep. John Doolittle: Republican Representative from suburban Sacramento, member of the House Appropriations Committee. Under investigation for possible bribery charges. Doolittle's former chief of staff, Kevin Ring, went to work with Abramoff. Doolittle's wife, Julie, owned a consulting firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions Inc., that was hired by Abramoff and his firm to do fundraising for a charity he founded, Capital Athletic Foundation, at about the time Doolittle undertook legislative actions favorable to Abramoff's clients. Overall, received some $80,000 in donations from Abramoff from 1999 to 2004. Last year, Sierra Dominion received a subpoena from the grand jury investigating Abramoff.
Sen. Byron Dorgan: Democratic Senator from North Dakota, ranking Democrat on the Indian Affairs Committee. Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig, hosted a 2001 fundraising skybox for Dorgan at a hockey game. In March 2002, Abramoff instructed the Louisiana Coushatta Indians to give $5,000 to Dorgan's PAC weeks after the Dorgan solicited support for a school funding program the tribe wanted to use. The check was one of about five dozen the Coushatta sent to various lawmakers' campaigns and political causes at Abramoff's instruction. In 2003, Dorgan pushed Congress to approve legislative language urging government regulators to decide whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, an Abramoff client, deserved federal recognition. Dorgan also signed a letter to the Interior Department urging the continuation of a program that had the federal government and tribes sharing the cost of building tribal schools, a program pushed by Abramoff's clients. Dorgan has recently announced he will return $67,000 in donations from Abramoff and his clients.
Itallia Federici: Mutual friend of and conduit between Abramoff and Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles. Federici worked for a Republican environmental group, Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, founded by Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Abramoff had Federici seek inside information and help from Griles, such as the federal recognition of one of Abramoff's clients, the Mashpee Wampanoag, and the squelching of a proposed casino from the Jena band of Chocaw that would compete with another client. At least 33 lawmakers who wrote letters to Norton opposing the Jena casino received, in total, more than $830,000 in Abramoff-related donations from 2001 to 2004. Between 2000 and 2003, Abramoff poured over $500,000 into Federici's group in his efforts to lobby Griles through her.
Timothy Flanagan: In October 2005, the Bush White House withdrew the embattled nomination of Flanagan as Deputy Attorney General under Alberto Gonzales, in large part because of Flanagan's past dealings with Abramoff. As the lobbyist with Tyco Inc. (an Abramoff client) who worked with Abramoff, Flanagan testified that Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig, promised to repay three-quarters of a $2 million fee that Tyco paid at Abramoff's direction to Grassroots Interactive, a firm owned by Ed Miller, who would become Maryland Republican governor Robert Ehrlich's deputy chief of staff. Ehrlich has received campaign contributions from Abramoff.
Steven Griles: Former Deputy Interior Secretary. Abramoff sought improper help from Griles for tribal clients, including the Mashpee Wampanoag, and in return offered him a job. Abramoff had Griles friend Itallia Federici seek inside information and help from Griles, such as the federal recognition of one of Abramoff's clients, the Mashpee Wampanoag, and the squelching of a proposed casino from the Jena band of Choctaw that would compete with another client. In turn, Abramoff used Griles to seek meetings with and favorable action from Interior Secretary Gale Norton on behalf of Abramoff's clients. Federici's nonprofit, Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, was founded by Norton.
Rep. Dennis Hastert: Northern Illinois Republican, House Majority Leader. Held a fundraiser at Abramoff's Signatures restaurant in D.C. in June 2003 that collected at least $21,500 for Hastert's Keep Our Majority PAC from Abramoff's firm and tribal clients. A week later, Hastert wrote Interior Secretary Gale Norton to urge her to reject a casino of the Jena band of Choctaw that would have competed with an Abramoff client. Between 1999-2004 received $82,000 from Abramoff.
Rep. Doc Hastings: Republican Representative from Eastern Washington, Chairman of the House Ethics Committee. Hastings has refused to allow the Ethics Committee to investigate any of the charges involving Abramoff and House members -- or any of the other ethics scandals plaguing the House of Representatives, for that matter -- since the Republican leadership appointed him to replace a more assertive chairman in February 2005. Hastings, naturally, has received campaign contributions from both Abramoff and from Americans for a Republican Majority, a PAC of former House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay.
Adam Kidan: Met Jack Abramoff in his College Republican days. Attended an exclusive party in House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay's office on Inauguration Day 2001 in Washington. The former owner of a Dial-a-Mattress franchise in D.C., Kidan was Abramoff's partner in a $147.5 million purchase in 2000 of a casino gambling boat company in Florida, SunCruz Casinos. Prosecutors say the purchase involved a fake wire transfer of $23 million and the falsification of loan documents. Both Kidan and Abramoff have been indicted on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy. Kidan pled guilty to the charges on December 15.
The previous owner of SunCruz, Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, was killed in a gangland-style murder in Fort Lauderdale in February 2001. Three men -- Anthony Moscatiello, Anthony Ferrari, and James Fiorillo -- were charged in November 2005 in the Boulis killing. Kidan had hired Moscatiello and Ferrari to provide catering and surveillance services to SunCruz. Moscatiello, identified by authorities as a former bookkeeper for the Gambino crime family, asserted after his arrest that Ferrari had admitted to him that he and another man killed Boulis after getting a call from Kidan.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin: South African immigrant, conservative Seattle talk radio commentator, and co-chair of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians (whose board members include Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson). Once Abramoff's next door neighbor. Lapin introduced Abramoff to Rep. Tom DeLay in the early 90's. Also a close friend of former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed. DeLay and Abramoff have both been board members of Lapin's charity, Toward Tradition. Abramoff, a founder of the group, at one point proposed using Toward Tradition as a pass-through for tribal money he was funneling from Preston Gates Ellis to campaigns being run by Ralph Reed against antigambling measures, before discovering that Toward Tradition didn't have the appropriate IRS status.
Lapin was also on the payroll of Abramoff's D.C. charity, Capital Athletic Foundation, as one of four people earning a collective $20,000 a month. Capital Athletic is under investigation for hiring a consulting firm owned by the wife of California Rep. John Doolittle in exchange for favorable legislative action by Doolittle. In 2000, Lapin's religious charity received a $25,000 donation from an online gambling company, eLottery, a lobbying client of Abramoff and Preston Gates Ellis. That money was then allegedly used to pay a Virginia consulting firm, Liberty Consulting, registered to Lisa Rudy, the wife of DeLay's deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy. At that time Rudy had been instrumental in scuttling an antigambling bill, the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, that eLottery and Abramoff wanted killed.
Abramoff also funneled a lucrative $1.2 million no-bid Northern Marianas Islands government contract to Lapin's brother, Los Angeles businessman Rabbi David Lapin, to conduct ethics-in-government programs there. But near as anyone in the Marianas can determine today, David Lapin failed to provide any services.
Ed Miller: Deputy chief of staff for Republican Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich, a recipient of Abramoff campaign donations. Miller formerly ran the firm Grassroots Interactive; in 2003, his firm was the recipient of $2 million from Abramoff in fees improperly diverted from Tyco Inc. and their chief lobbyist, Timothy Flanagan. Flanagan would later be the Bush administration's choice to become deputy Attorney General under Alberto Gonzales; his nomination would fail because of his ties to Abramoff.
Rep. Robert Ney: Republican Representative from Southeast Ohio, Chairman of the House Administration Committee. Under investigation, along with his former chief of staff, Neil Volz, for possible bribery charges involving Abramoff in October 2000. Ney intervened in the purchase by Abramoff and Adam Kidan of a Florida casino gambling company, SunCruz Casinos; at the request of Abramoff associate Michael Scanlon, Ney twice inserted comments in the Congressional Record, first castigating the reputation of SunCruz's then-owner, Konstantinos "Gus " Boulis, during contentious purchase negotiations, and later praising Kidan's new management.
Ney also took an allegedly illegal 2002 golfing trip to Scotland paid for by Abramoff. (General Services Administration head David Safavian, anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed were on the same trip.) Ney then provided help to two Texas tribal clients of Abramoff that wanted permission to open casinos. In one case in December 2002, Ney sought help from another unidentified House member for one of the tribes. Ney also allegedly met with a member of a California tribe doing business with Abramoff and agreed to help pass tax legislation affecting the tribe. Received $62,000 from Abramoff from 1999-2004.
Grover Norquist: Guru of the anti-tax, neo-con movement, best known for his desire to reduce government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. Norquist met Abramoff through the College Republicans in the early '80s; he managed Abramoff's successful campaign to become chair of that group. Norquist co-authored Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America, " and gained influence as a close ally of Gingrich. He worked with Abramoff to lobby for the Northern Mariana Islands sweatshops.
Ralph Reed and Norquist are implicated in the questionable funneling by Abramoff of more than $4 million of Preston Gates Ellis Native American client funds to back antigambling campaigns run by Reed from 1999 to 2003. In one case involving funds from an Indian casino client, as much as $1.3 million in client funds may have been used to launch a campaign. At least some of the Preston Gates money was allegedly laundered through Norquist's anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform, which took a cut. The point was for Abramoff's Native American casino clients to pay for campaigns that would shut out potential competition from state lotteries or new casinos. Americans for Tax Reform also laundered Reed money from Abramoff client eLottery to help defeat the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act in 2000.
Norquist accompanied Abramoff, Ralph Reed, General Services Administration head David Safavian, and Ohio Rep. Robert Ney on a 2002 golf trip to Scotland in which Abramoff allegedly illegally picked up the costs for Ney and for Safavian, a former Norquist business partner in the firm Janus Merritt Strategies. Norquist raised big bucks for the 2004 Bush re-election. He also chairs the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, established to build monuments to Reagan; fellow board members include former House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Bush political advisor Karl Rove, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin.
Patrick Pizzela: 2001 Bush appointee as assistant Secretary of Labor, was a member of Abramoff's legal team lobbying for sweatshops in the Northern Marianas Islands when both were at Preston Gates Ellis. (Yes, that's right, Bush appointed a former sweatshop lobbyist to the Department of Labor.) Worked for Abramoff to help eLottery stop the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act in 2000.
Rep. Richard Pombo: Republican Congressman from a district east of the San Francisco Bay Area. Pombo has received at least $40,000 from Abramoff and tribal members of the Mashpee Wampanoag, an Abramoff client. Pombo chairs the Committee on Resources that oversees the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 2004, Pombo pushed a bill through his committee that would have helped the tribe receive federal benefits and advance its struggle for federal recognition. Federal recognition, by granting a tribe sovereignty, gives it the jurisdiction to open a casino, which many of Abramoff's tribal clients have done.
Ralph Reed: Former Christian Coalition golden boy, former chairman of the College Republicans (where he succeeded Jack Abramoff), high-ranking Bush re-election official, and current candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Reed is also a former consultant for Preston Gates Ellis, Abramoff's employer from 1994 to 2001.
In 2000, received money from Abramoff client eLottery to help kill an antigambling bill, the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act; some of the money was routed through Grover Norquist's anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform. Reed and Norquist are implicated in the questionable funneling by Abramoff of more than $4 million of Preston Gates Ellis Native American client funds to back antigambling campaigns run by Reed from 1999 to 2003. In one case involving funds from an Indian casino client, as much as $1.3 million in client funds may have been used to launch a campaign. At least some of the Preston Gates money was again allegedly laundered through Americans for Tax Reform. The point was for Abramoff's Native American casino clients to pay for campaigns that would shut out potential competition from state lotteries or new casinos. Reed was also on the 2002 Scotland golf trip with Norquist, David Safavian, and Rep. Robert Ney, allegedly illegally paid for by Abramoff.
Sen. Harry Reid: Nevada Democrat, Senate Minority Leader. Sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton in March 2002 to urge her to reject a casino of the Jena band of Choctaw that would have competed with an Abramoff client. The next day, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana issued a $5,000 check to Reid's tax-exempt political group, the Searchlight Leadership Fund. A second Abramoff tribe also sent $5,000 to Reid's group. Reid ultimately received more than $66,000 in Abramoff-related donations from 2001 to 2004. Abramoff also hired as a lobbyist a former Reid legislative aide, Edward Ayoob. Ayoob held a fundraising reception for Reid at the offices of Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig.
Tony Rudy: Deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay. Investigators are looking into whether Rudy aided Abramoff's clients while working for DeLay. Rudy was instrumental in killing a 2000 antigambling bill, the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, opposed by Abramoff client eLottery. At about the same time, a Virginia consulting firm registered to Rudy's wife Lisa, Liberty Consulting, received payments from Abramoff clients and associates, and received eLottery money apparently laundered from a $25,000 donation received by Toward Tradition, a charity of Abramoff and DeLay associate Rabbi Daniel Lapin.
That summer, Rudy traveled on two luxury trips with Abramoff, including one with DeLay, DeLay's wife Christine, and another DeLay aide to Scotland partly paid for by eLottery through an intermediary. The other trip was to Pebble Beach, California, on a corporate jet belonging to SunCruz Casinos, the Florida casino gambling boat company Abramoff and partner Adam Kidan were then negotiating to buy. Rudy was listed as a personal reference by Abramoff in that purchase, a purchase for which Abramoff and Kidan have now been indicted on wire fraud and conspiracy charges.
Rudy left DeLay's office in 2001 to work for Abramoff. Later, along with former DeLay aide Edwin Burkham, he ran the lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group, which accepted a number of clients from Abramoff and paid Christine DeLay, wife of the Majority Whip, $115,000 from 1998 to 2002 to determine the favorite charity of every member of Congress. Alexander Strategy Group also counted among its clients California businessman Brent Wilkes, one of four unindicted coconspirators in the bribery case of disgraced former Republican congressman Randy "Duke " Cunningham.
David Safavian: Bush appointee; as the chief of staff of the General Services Administration, he was in the lucrative position of being the chief procurement officer for the federal government. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held up Safavian's nomination for more than a year, in part because of lawmakers' concerns about his lobbying work for two men later accused of links to suspected terrorist organizations.
Safavian resigned when he was arrested in September 2005 and charged with three counts of making false statements and obstruction of justice in connection with an investigation into Abramoff's attempts to buy land from the federal government. Along with DeLay aide Tony Rudy, former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, and Rep. Robert Ney, Safavian took a 2002 golfing trip to Scotland allegedly illegally paid for by Abramoff; he is accused of lying to investigators by denying that, at the time, Abramoff was seeking to do business with the GSA. Safavian is yet another former employee of Preston Gates Ellis; while with that law firm, he shared with Abramoff as a client the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians. Safavian went on to found Janus Merritt Strategies with Norquist.
Michael Scanlon: Scanlon, 35, is a former press secretary to Rep. Tom DeLay and business partner of Jack Abramoff. He has reached a plea bargain with federal prosecutors and is thought likely to testify against Abramoff and other former colleagues, breaking the scandal wide open. In particular, Scanlon may be able to specify which Congressmembers specifically agreed to trade actions favorable to Abramoff and Scanlon's clients for donations, gifts, and trips.
Scanlon left DeLay's office to join Abramoff at the lobbying firm Preston Gates Ellis;; he was involved, along with former DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham, in a 1999 effort by Abramoff to allegedly dangle U.S. tax dollars to influence a election for the speaker of the legislature in the Northern Mariana Islands. In 2001, he left Preston Gates Ellis to start his own consulting service, and joined forces with Abramoff (who had also left Preston Gates Ellis, for Greenberg Traurig) to focus on tribal casino interests. Between the two firms, it is estimated the pair collected some $82 million in highly inflated fees from tribal clients. The pair allegedly defrauded their clients; Abramoff would refer clients to Scanlon without telling them that Scanlon was kicking back a percentage of the fees to Abramoff. The pair would then allegedly use some of the proceeds to bribe members of Congress.
Neil Volz: Former chief of staff for Ohio Rep. Robert Ney; both are now under investigation for possible bribery charges in connection with Ney's efforts to help Abramoff and Adam Kidan buy SunCruz Casinos, a Florida gambling boat venture, in 2000.
On this, there can be no question. Regarding Iraq, John Kerry is acknowledging reality. George Bush is not.
Bush embarrassed America when he went before a stony-faced audience at the United Nations Tuesday and claimed that all was well in Iraq, calling it a country well on its way to being a "beacon of freedom in the Middle East." More tellingly, he spent far more time defending his decision to invade in the first place, ignoring the consequences of a war that is now dangerously unraveling.
Meanwhile, Kerry seems to have finally found his voice on Iraq. Kerry is in trouble when he tries to parse his explanation of his vote in favor of war in Congress; no matter how sensible it might or might not be, it plays into the "flip-flop" stereotype Republicans have created for him. But there can be no mistaking the current situation in Iraq, and Kerry is spot on when he thunders, as he did Tuesday, that "the president really has no credibility at this point. He has no credibility with foreign leaders who hear him come before them and talk as if everything is going well... The president needs to live in the world of reality."
Alas, on the most critical issue now facing the country – Iraq and Bush's misbegotten War on Terror – reality is not President Peter Pan's strong suit. White House spinsters will be working hard this week to pretend all is well, crowned by the address to Congress on Thursday of Iraq's appointed U.S. puppet prime minister, Iyad Allawi. Allawi not only has no credibility in his own country, but his government, like U.S. troops, cannot even access nearly half of the country. He is, in the eyes of his countrymen, tainted not only by his past as a thug – first for Saddam and then for Western intelligence agencies – but by the very fact he was installed by and works with the Americans.
If there was ever a chance that Bush's ideal of a democratic Iraq on the American model could be achieved, it's long gone. No politician acceptable to Washington will be accepted at this point by the vast majority of Iraqis. Bush knows this, or at least he should; his intelligence agencies, as well as Congressional Republicans, have been telling him. But he is either stubbornly clinging to his own fantasy world, or, for political reasons, he's refusing to acknowledge the crisis.
The White House hope is that stunts like Allawi's address to Congress can help maintain the fiction of a normalized Iraq, on its intended course, at least until the US election in November. Oddly, it may not matter much to the election; polling suggests that the fiasco in Iraq is not changing the minds of those coveted swing voters. But that's not the point. Every week that goes by where Iraq military strategy is dictated by the political goals of the Bush Administration is a week where the insurgency grows stronger and more soldiers are put in harm's way for crass political purposes.
Kerry, in an unusually pointed speech in New York on Monday, finally got the situation right: "Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions, and... the prospect of a war with no end in sight." His prescription of more foreign assistance may not help much at this point; more radical remedies are probably needed. But at least Kerry understands and acknowledges the situation.
Judging from his public pronouncements, George Bush either doesn't understand what he has created in Iraq, or – even worse – he understands it, but is working his hardest to ensure that the American public is misled. Either way is inexcusable. And either way leads inexorably to John Kerry's conclusion: that Bush does not have the credibility to lead the world, or the United States.
Reading or watching the news these days can be frustrating. But there's really only one line of reasoning that brings forth in me the urge to slap somebody.
Like, for instance, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell announced to the world last week: "If global warming turns out to be a problem, which I doubt, it won't be solved by making ourselves poorer through energy rationing."
Ebell, and other East Coast pseudo-academic commentators whose fondness for America's fossil fuel consumption is related directly to their paychecks, were then promptly buried under a foot of snow over the weekend. It can't be easy, insisting that the world is flat while having to shovel evidence to the contrary.
As scientists and negotiators from around the world begin their second week in a Milan, Italy U.N. conference on global climate change, one thing is eminently clear: the world is not flat. Major global climate change, triggered by rapidly increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, is an established fact. Human activity as the major cause of it is an established fact. Nobody outside corridors of power in Washington, D.C. and Houston has debated any of this for years. As the body of scientific evidence grows, the scope and speed of climatic changes are, if anything, proving far worse than the most alarmist scientific predictions of only a decade ago, affecting not just temperature -- nine of the ten warmest years in recorded human history have come in the last 14 years -- but extremes in atmospheric pressure, a resulting increase in wind speeds, drought, sea level increases, extreme cold, and extremes in precipitation -- like last weekend's unusually heavy and early East Coast snowfall.
As science has scrambled to track all these changes, and to track the havoc that changing climates are already beginning to wreak on what turns out to be an exquisitely balanced natural world, the phrase "global warming" turns out to be a misnomer -- a euphemism, even, for a cluster of trends so catastrophic that without dramatic human counteraction will, in a matter of decades, threaten food and water supplies and much of the natural and technological infrastructure that we humans have developed to support ourselves. Warming is a symptom -- an important one, as the increased CO2 levels trap more solar radiation in our lower atmosphere -- but only one of many impacts. By using a term that defines the problem as solely one of temperature, we get two levels of denial -- oil company Flat Earthers sneering at "junk science" (didn't Copernicus hear that, too?), or comments like those of Russian President-for-Life Vladimir Putin, who joked earlier this year that for his country, warming "might even be good. We'd spend less money on fur coats and other warm things."
Putin is a central figure this week in Milan. He is expected to announce -- after an electoral victory Sunday that gives him firmer control over Russia's Parliament -- whether Russia will ratify the 1997 Kyoto accord. But Russia only has this much leverage because the obstinacy of the United States leaves Russia's ratification necessary for the treaty to take force -- and Russia's decision is a question only because, after five years of publicly backing Kyoto, Putin's government has backtracked in the past year due to fierce anti-Kyoto pressure from the Bush Administration.
Bush policy on climate change has been nothing less than a crime against humanity -- and, for that matter, a crime against many of our biosphere's other inhabitants too. But it's not just Bush that's been the problem; it's all of us humans, especially all of us in consumption-happy America. As Bill McKibben -- one of the earliest authors to spotlight climate change as an urgent issue with 1989's The End of Nature -- noted recently, global warming is being thought of by leaders and ordinary people alike "in the way they think about 'violence on television' or 'growing trade deficits,' as a marginal concern to us, if a concern at all."
Bush's calculated efforts to torpedo Kyoto, and the ongoing campaigns by oil and energy companies and by Bush Administation officials to cast doubt on the scientific legitimacy of the issue, are reprehensible, but hardly unique. Kyoto's provisions are far short of the steps actually needed to combat the problem -- but it was American negotiators, headed by then-VP Al Gore, who worked to water down the originally proposed treaty. Afterwards, as 120 countries moved to ratify Kyoto, it was Bill Clinton who refused to submit it to the Senate. Enter Bush next. All the while, the clock has been ticking, the seasons turning, the temperatures rising.
Kyoto's provisions expire in 2011 -- meaning that as we approach 2004 we're at the halfway point before Kyoto expires, and it has not even taken force yet, thanks in large part to Washington. At this point, negotiators in Milan shouldn't be worrying too much about the details of Kyoto. Even if Russia ratifies it, negotiators should be more concerned about hammering out a framework for what comes after Kyoto.
By then, China will be a major industrial power. The landscape of carbon dioxide-spewing humanity has shifted significantly since the 1990 levels that provide Kyoto's benchmarks. Russia's post-Soviet industrial economy collapsed, meaning that its emissions in 2000 were down 22.8% from 1990; Germany, with its East German component and with unilateral EU measures, similarly declined by 13.6%. They will rebound. The EU as a whole increased its emissions in the decade by only 1.5% -- a vast improvement over the past, but still nowhere near the modest targets set by Kyoto.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions here in the U.S., already the world's leading spewer, went up a whopping 18.1% in the same decade -- a decade in which a Democratic president and bipartisan Congress backpedaled on previously set fuel efficiency standards, looked the other way while American automakers foisted gas-guzzling SUVs on the public, scrupulously avoided encouraging energy conservation, and gutted budgets for research into renewable energy sources. This decade's Republican-controlled Beltway has continued all this and launched an unprovoked, unilateral invasion of the country with the world's second-largest known reserves of oil.
Both of our major political parties' approaches to global warming seem to take their cue from Dubya's War on Terror declaration -- namely, bully other governments, and urge ordinary Americans to go about our "normal" lives as though nothing was different. I can just hear some pompous legislator on the floor of Congress: "Mr. Speaker, if Americans seek out cars with better gas mileage, it sends the wrong message! It lets other molecules know that THE CARBON DIOXIDE IS WINNING."
But we will have to live differently, because the world is different. It is already the case that there is no going back to our climatic world of 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. Next year, there will be no going back to the world we are in today. The question now is how to slow the planet's human-caused changes, and how to manage or deflect the impact of the more catastrophic ones. These are issues that transcend borders, domestic economies, and the flat-earth stubbornness of one or another elected official.
This week, the headlines will be about Kyoto. Forget Kyoto; by 2011, it will be history. What is needed, with or without Kyoto, is some sort of momentum, from scientists, governments, and the global public, that demands both changes in individual lifestyles -- especially as they relate to fossil fuel consumption -- and changes in public policy at a global level.
We must look farther ahead, beyond the scope of Kyoto. And we must not look very far at all, because a major part of the problem is in our own front yard.
Rush Limbaugh is back on the air, and his listeners have, since Monday, been effusive in their welcoming of him, both on his show and on other local and national right wing talk radio programs.
Since I wrote a column last month describing my use of the same prescription drug that got Limbaugh into trouble, I've had occasion to be on a number of these shows in recent weeks. Without exception, the host, callers, and I wound up in more or less collegial agreement: that the War On Drugs was a failure, irrational, and has served as a pretext for a vast expansion of intrusive state powers; that if a drug user violates the rights of someone else (e.g., by mugging them for drug money), the full weight of the law should come down on them, but otherwise, it's an individual's own responsibility to decide what substances he or she puts in their bodies; and that substance users who become addicts -- of either currently legal drugs (like alcohol) or illegal ones, or a combination -- should be treated by society as having a health problem, not as being criminals.
For many of these hosts, and their listeners, this is a nearly complete reversal from two decades of throw-away-the-key rhetoric. The occasion has been the case of Limbaugh -- a man who, as is the case for any successful entertainer, has cultivated over the years an emotional connection with his fans that leaves them feeling that they have a personal relationship with him. They care about Limbaugh's welfare; they want him to get better. If he has run afoul of the law, they are willing to forgive the transgressions because of what they regard as decades of good deeds and good will.
The general response of liberals, progressives, and other long-time Rush-bashers has been to cry "Hypocrites!!" from the highest rooftops. Well, of course -- but no more so than on any other issue of late where conservatives seem to have astonishing memory lapses concerning their past claims. (Iraq, anyone?) But that's not the point. Those of us -- progressive, liberal, libertarian, or conservative -- who have castigated the War On Drugs for a generation need not to be alienating its newest critics, but welcoming them as allies and figuring out how to forge a consensus as to what type of public policies should replace the failed War.
As an exercise in behavior control, the War on Drugs is over. The drugs won. Efforts to ban ingestion of psychotropic chemicals will always be doomed; for too many people, it's either too much fun or too essential a balm. And technology is about to kick the whole effort into its well-deserved grave. So-called "designer drugs" herald an imminent era in which chemists can put powerful concoctions on the head of a pin. Try keeping that from coming into the country, or your teenager's bedroom. Today, it's difficult; tomorrow, it will be flatly impossible.
Among progressives, critics of the War have claimed for years that the War On Drugs has been ineffective, expensive, an invasion of privacy, racist, ageist, classist, and an excuse for lost civil liberties and an enormous expansion of state power. But we've often failed to acknowledge that abuse of drugs (legal or not) really does hurt both individuals and communities. And therein lies the potential for a consensus that transcends ideology.
Prohibition begets violent crime, but so, at times, do the drugs themselves. Car accidents kill users and their victims alike. Lives waste away. Those of us who want people to be free to put whatever they want into their own bodies -- and that day is coming soon, whether the official War on Drugs ends or not -- have an obligation to also propose realistic, effective ways to prevent the harm that might result.
The answer must start with personal responsibility, and expand into community support through notions like low-income health care and harm reduction models. But the personal responsibility must come first. This is not a comfortable, or popular, thing for progressives to say; it's terrain often occupied by conservatives in denial about social forces. We, instead, will cite root causes like poverty or socialization as reasons why some people do bad things. But there's truth in both. People also do such things because they choose to.
I live in a neighborhood called the Central District, a now-gentrifying part of town that for decades has been the heart of black Seattle. It's also been Seattle's poorest neighborhood, and block-by-block, some parts of it -- including ours -- have a serious problem with drugs and the other social ills, like prostitution and delinquency, that seem to go with it.
A case of a nearby police shooting of a young African-American after he'd attacked several others shows why some segments of the public, especially early on, supported the War On Drugs. Forget the fate of Devon Jackson, the shooting victim, and listen instead to the all-too-common description of his life.
At age 20, Jackson had a long string of arrests. A neighbor says cops took countless guns from his house over the years. Jackson had been smoking "sherms" -- cigarettes dipped into formaldehyde, a concoction which, on its own, was completely legal. So was his heavy drinking. He'd been having increasingly violent outbursts while on a drug binge for 10 days with his girlfriend and pals, including the friend he killed, Dante Coleman. Coleman, 20, also had a history with the law. He worked at a nearby Safeway, having left high school (it's unclear whether he graduated) two years previously.
In the apartment across a narrow hall, consider Samunique Wilson (age six) and Tre Vaugn Ford Spruel (age two), children attacked by Jackson after he killed Coleman. Tre Vaugn had just been picked up by his mom, age 19, from his great-great-grandmother's house, and had been dropped off at the apartment of his mom's friend (Samunique's mom) and her boyfriend, while mom went across the hall to the party. Tre Vaugn's mom is Jackson's sister-in-law; the boy visited his dad on weekends. His uncle, age 18, was later convicted of first-degree murder during a robbery committed following week. Saminique's dad and step-dad weren't mentioned in media accounts; mom is pregnant. Neighbors say the building where Jackson and little Samunique lived has been a notorious, and largely undisturbed, drug and party haven for years.
Even those critics of the War on Drugs who claim that the War has nothing to do with drug use at all, but has instead been a (wildly successful) state tool for social control of the disenfranchised, have a responsibility to explore ways in which we can respond to realities like the world of Devon Jackson. Without such alternatives, it will be impossible to build the broad political coalition needed to curb or even end the War on Drugs.
There was already broad public acknowledgement that the War On Drugs is at best an inappropriate and failed response, and at worst an anti-constitutional outrage. The case of Rush Limbaugh has created inroads of sympathy for those views among the only significant chunk of the public that still believes in the War's premises. But a consensus that a solution has failed is not the same as a consensus on an alternative solution. Without the alternatives, it's all too easy for our society to throw away its Devon Jacksons and Tre Vaugns, and for a destructive mess like the War On Drugs to continue on momentum.
In the world of Devon Jackson, progressives who want to push effectively for a more economically and socially fair society need to be able to acknowledge common sense: a lot of the people involved had life rough, but also engaged in behavior ranging from pretty messed up to grossly irresponsible and destructive. They are not simply victims of society.
Could public policy responses -- health care, day care, education, job training, or (gasp) welfare -- help? Sure. We need more, not fewer, resources for folks on society's margins, resources instead being sucked up in part by the prison-industrial complex the War On Drugs has spawned. But we also must demand that people, families, neighborhoods, and communities -- on the margins or not -- get our own acts together, and hold each other and ourselves accountable for our damaging behavior.
Every U.S. city has plenty of Devon Jacksons visibly waiting to happen. To prevent tragedy, we must insist on a social ethic of personal responsibility--of, first of all, doing no harm to others or to ourselves. We need to teach people to value themselves and to be able to imagine (and care about) the impact of their actions on others. We need to invest in each other and ourselves.
Otherwise, as drug use inevitably spreads and inhibitions recede, the body count will only increase.
Geov Parrish writes for Working Assets.
On May 1, a little over six months ago, President Bush made his now-infamous flight-suited appearance on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, delivering the message that the war was over and the mission accomplished.
Now, six months later, as London lies transformed into "fortress London" to shield Bush from the wrath of the citizens of his only major ally in Iraq, most Americans know that Bush's May Day proclamation was, at best, premature. Bush himself has scrambled to "clarify" that, no, he only meant "major combat operations," and, well, of course other missions remain. Most Americans also know that despite White House protestations to the contrary, Iraq's occupation hasn't exactly gone according to plan.
Heck, some Americans are beginning to be aware that there was little or no White House plan at all -- only a blind optimistic faith that the troops would be welcomed as liberators and today, six months later, all involved would be holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" as they build a newly democratic Middle East.
Well, not exactly. Instead, headlines each day detail yet more deaths of American soldiers, and more quotes from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and "senior White House officials" dismissing the increasingly bold and sophisticated attacks as the isolated, desperate last stand of a handful of Saddam "dead-enders" and foreign terrorists.
That, as I'll discuss, is almost entirely nonsense. But it also obscures a number of other calamities now befalling our newest colonial possession. It's impossible to list them all in this space -- but since a number of them have gotten little or no media attention in this country, it's worth reviewing some of the lowlights in one place:
Casualties. Attention has gone to the spiraling death toll among American soldiers -- and that the White House has taken the extraordinary step of barring media from witnessing the return of bodies to the U.S. and filming the flag-draped coffins. Bush himself has yet to attend a military funeral for a casualty of the occupation. But it's worse than that.
Advances in battlefield medicine and triage mean that far more soldiers can survive their wounds today than 40 or even 10 years ago. But the nature of many of the attacks (car bombs, errant KPGs, etc.), and the number of dead point to a level of injured soldiers that is likely to be far higher than the 1,000 - 2,000 the Pentagon claims. Persistent reports have far greater numbers of soldiers -- up to 10,000 -- being shuttled back to military hospitals in Germany. When returned to the U.S., injured soldiers have been scattered in ones, twos, and threes to both military and civilian hospitals across the U.S. in an effort to minimize the visibility of casualties.
That's the Americans. What about Iraqis? It's impossible to say, not least because the Pentagon and occupying CPA government refuse to tally, let alone release the figures, of Iraqi civilian or resistance fighter dead or injured. The invaluable site iraqbodycount.org has documented over 1,500 civilian deaths in Baghdad alone since mid-April. Occupying soldiers seem to have carte blanche to fire on civilians with little or no pretext; even when investigations are promised, they never seem to be actually conducted. As the U.S. resorts to dropping large bombs on densely populated urban areas, civilian casualties can only increase. And the U.S. practice of ignoring Iraqi deaths and not holding its own people accountable for killings is only one of the many things angering Iraqis.
The Iraqi economy is a shambles. The Americans are hiring Iraqis for only the most menial jobs. Contractors are hiring Kuwaitis, Saudis, and Southeast Asians. The currency of choice is now the dollar. Looting was pandemic in the first months and remains a serious problem. As on the West Bank and Gaza, one of the reasons resistance can flourish is that unemployed young men are both angry and have time on their hands.
Basic services. Americans have not only failed at providing security, but much of what we take for granted that a government does. Six months in, and utilities are still sporadic in much of the country. Hospitals have few or no supplies. In some areas, hunger and even famine are a serious threat. It's a difficult situation, especially after three major wars and a dozen years of the most punishing economic sanctions in history, but the agencies and countries with more experience in helping alleviate this sort of thing -- especially the U.N. and former European colonial powers -- have been shut out as the Americans go it alone. Contrast that with Iraqi expectations of what the world's richest country could do if it wanted.
There's no money to pay for the occupation. Because of Bush's unilateralism, only a trickle of foreign money has been pledged to help with Iraqi reconstruction -- and much of that in expensive loans. (That unilateralism, and the increasingly deadly resistance, has also left White House efforts to get other countries to send troops a dismal failure.) Nor will Iraqi oil pay for the occupation; over a dozen successful pipeline attacks have kept the oil almost continuously unavailable for export, and, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, engineers in northern oilfields are actually pumping oil back into the ground. There's nowhere else for it to go. And nobody else is available to pay for it all but you and I. That $87 billion is a tiny down payment on the final bill.
The gold rush. That bill is far higher than it should be as a relative handful of well-placed American corporations have been getting fabulously wealthy on contracts for reconstruction. Many of those contracts have been either no-bid or worded in such a way as to exclude non-American bidders or any but a handful of large companies. Protestations by Iraqi and Kuwaiti companies that they could do the same work for a tenth of what U.S. taxpayers are giving Halliburton, Bechtel, et al. have been fruitless.
Efforts at self-governance have been a farce. The Pentagon has been hand-picking who will run Iraq, starting with Ahmed Chalabi and his cronies, the same folks whose inventive "intelligence" helped convince the White House that this would be easy in the first place. Chalabi, in turn, has relied heavily, for both appointed positions and personal security, on other exiles with little connection to or legitimacy within Iraq. People and organizations that do have legitimacy, especially Shi'ires, have either refused to cooperate with the Americans, been shut out by them, or both.
So far, the Iraqi National Council is hopelessly behind the original schedule on even proposing a timeline for a proposed constitution. Many of the ministries, months after their formation, still are little more than the ministers themselves, existing mostly to ratify CPA decisions while the ministers scurry about to cash in personally, through their own or friends' or relatives' businesses, on the gold rush. It's a risky venture -- many of the ministers and other INC officials have been assassination targets. All have faced condemnation from their countrymen as carpetbaggers and Vichyites.
At the local level, the Americans have put little effort so far into encouraging the sort of civil society that democracy needs. Increasingly they have -- intentionally or not -- tabbed reviled former Ba'athists as the local officials they'll work with.
Weapons are everywhere. Scores of Saddam's former arms depots, scattered about the country, have consistently been reported as unguarded and available for looting. Increasingly, guerrilla cells are making their own weapons, too.
As the Americans train and arm an Iraqi police force full of former Saddam-era law enforcement, and as Chalabi and various ministers rely on their own squads of bodyguards and security, a situation is rapidly developing in which different factions could have their own, independent paramilitary operations. The next step is the sort of warlordism and low-grade civil war that has plagued America's foray into Afghanistan for the last two years.
Contrary to American assertions, Iraqi guerrillas and civilians alike have insisted in interviews that theirs is a homegrown resistance with few Saddam loyalists or foreign fighters. But the latter are, if not there, coming; young Muslim men from across Europe and the Middle East are heading to Iraq to help fight off the American occupiers. And the country is far more amenable to operations by Al-Qaeda and its ilk now than it ever was under Saddam.
American repression. Meanwhile, widespread reports have had the Americans themselves targeting political parties and leaders, especially religious ones, that they dislike; censoring news; and being openly critical of Arabic-language news outlets like Al-Jazeera. "Arrests" result, essentially, in Iraqis being held as military prisoners, since there is no civilian judicial authority. Such arrests, whether based on American intelligence or the testimony of other Iraqis, often seem to be dubious; reports have abounded of Iraqis of various factions settling scores with each other by feeding misinformation to the clueless Americans.
The Americans, in turn, are clueless because few of them speak the language, know the history, culture, or religion, or are interested in learning. Most American officials -- and, increasingly, soldiers as well -- have little or no contact with ordinary Iraqis, instead spending their days in heavily fortified bases or palaces.
Support for the resistance. It's now spread from Ba'athist and other minority Sunni parts of the country to the Shi'ite majority. Even the Kurds are angry, particularly after the U.S. repeatedly tried to get Turkey to send soldiers -- many now busy repressing independence-minded Kurds on the Turkish side of the border -- into northern Iraq. (It was eventually left to Turkey to withdraw its troop commitments.)
Not only have the attacks on U.S. soldiers become more widespread, sophisticated, and deadly -- scores daily, in every part of Iraq -- but many are taking place in crowds and in broad daylight. Those crowds are helping attackers escape and even, in some cases, celebrating American casualties.
Any of these items are not, by themselves, problems that condemn the American occupation to doom and infamy. But taken together -- along with many more aspects I've not included -- it adds up to a tapestry of images of a colonial occupying power, looting a country as quickly as possible, and attempting to foist off its paid servants as democratic leaders, but completely, utterly, and (oddly enough) proudly ignorant of local culture, history, sensibilities, or desires.
The problems, in other words, are far more deep-seated than a few American soldiers coming home in body bags. And they won't be solved simply by accelerating the (functionally non-existent) timetable for self-governance; any leaders installed by the U.S. are likely to be considered illegitimate by many Iraqis, and the economic problems and capacity for warlordism and even civil war would remain.
Any constitution or government would have far more legitimacy if, at minimum, European and other Middle Eastern countries were also involved in its formation. Such inclusiveness would also go a long way toward helping alleviate the lack of cash and lack of knowledge and experience in nation-building. Six months is still early in the transition from Saddam to whatever political phase awaits Iraq -- but important possibilities for improving Iraq's future are foreclosed with every day that the Bush Administration tries to rely on brute force and unilateralism to impose its will. Democracy, after all, should be all about the will of Iraqis -- not the White House. The sooner the White House starts emphasizing cooperation rather than re-conquest, the better.
Only 44 days until the California recall election is over. I can hardly wait.
I happen not to live in the state of California. And I have to say that Californians, bless them, all 39 million or however many are now crammed into the once-Golden State, have become nearly as obnoxious as New Yorkers in their assumption that the rest of our country automatically cares about their local affairs.
And so it is that the alternately gleeful or alarmed coverage of California's gubernatorial recall vote is getting kind of tedious. I don't care that 38 million of those 39 million residents will appear on the ballot. I don't care that at least two-thirds of them are celebrities, former celebrities, porn stars, or other misshapen branches of the human family tree.
But I do care, very much, that progressives who sneer at this recall and at the insta-candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger are missing the very important point. Like it or not, California -- unlike New York -- has a solid record as a cultural trendsetter for the nation. And the world, for that matter. Lessons from this campaign will be relevant very soon in every state in the country. In many places -- including the White House -- they already apply. We ignore them at our peril.
First of all, as for the legitimacy of the recall vote itself: Lawdy, I wish every state did this, especially every time the governor and state legislature, regardless of party, slash social programs and load up on new prisons and corporate welfare. This, along with a stunningly inept and typically corrupt approach to the energy-gouging scandal of a few winters ago, has been California Gov. Gray Davis' defining record, and it's why so many people across California's political spectrum despise him. Reactionary Republicans may have organized the recall petitions, but Californians of every stripe signed them, as citizens would in any number of cash-strapped states if given the chance.
As Marc Cooper has noted in L.A. Weekly, the recall is nothing more nor less than a vote of confidence, and Davis has none. Progressives should trust democracy more than this. You can't get much more democratic than throwing the bum out.
More important, however, is who the replacement for the surely doomed Davis might be. At the moment, only two names consistenly dominate polls: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and Schwarzenegger.
Everyone from career pols to pundits and reporters (especially at the L.A. Times) to progressives have treated Schwarzenegger's campaign -- not to mention his seeming popularity -- with incredulity. And dismay. And disdain. The former world champion weightlifter turned movie star turned one-man industry is, they suggest, a fluke. He's getting poll numbers because of name recognition, or the novelty of his fame intersecting with an electoral campaign. He has no political experience, no experience, really, running or legislating anything beyond his own fame. His campaign will fade when his 15 minutes cycles through, and when he is exposed for the fish out of water that he is.
Nonsense. Schwarzenegger is just as capable of running the state of California as a tired political hack like Bustamante. And voters, contrary to popular pundit wisdom, are smart enough to know it.
I fell into political writing and journalism after a variety of other jobs and careers, and when I began one of the first political myths I was disabused of was the notion that the elected officials running our cities, counties, states, and country were all smart people. Some are, but some are not; it's the normal human range, really, between brilliant policy wonks and walking brain stems. The last two White House occupants show the range clearly enough. Intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be.
In modern politics, having good ideas for solving difficult public policy questions is a nice attribute to have, but it's certainly not a necessary one. In fact, sometimes it gets in the way. Much more essential are raw ambition, the ability to schmooze and ask for money, and the ability to look and sound personable and competent in from of an audience and a camera.
That's how we elect our public officials now, and Schwarzenegger is as qualified as anyone on these scores. Sure, what candidates actually do matters, but there's no record of that unless they've already been in office. And by then, the advantages of incumbency are so powerful (due mostly to low public interest and the legalized bribery now central to our campaign funding process) that they can only be overcome if the incumbent is stunningly inept.
Like Davis. Which is why he won a tepid election last year, but can't stop the recall this year. His record has become so bad it has angered nearly all his constituents and has overwhelmed the cynical bribery that kept his political star afloat. The recall is likely to draw far more voters than last year's general election that re-elected Davis, for the simple reason that this time it's not more alienating politics as usual.
And this is why Schwarzenegger is for real. Progressives have had a dismal time getting themselves elected and their policies enacted in recent years. The country has instead drifted ever-rightward. It's no coincidence that during this time, while progs and liberals have insisted on talking about what's wrong and how to fix it, the most successful and visible political careers -- from Reagan to Dubya -- have been thick with image and style, and very, very light on the often nonsensical specifics.
For many Americans, both Reagan and now Dubya have been great presidents. This is, in large part, not because of their policies -- which have support, but not in the numbers popularity polls would suggest. It's been a matter of style, the perception that these are decent guys doing a good job.
The fact that Dubya and the fanatics around him are stunningly corrupt, routinely lie, and have hijacked the country hasn't damaged their popularity or power much until recently, when the overreaching and dissembling on Iraq have become too obvious to ignore. But for 30 months, Bush prospered while blithely lying away, and few have cared. Perception has been everything.
Whether such a political environment is healthy is beside the point. Anyone hoping to unseat Bush, or overcome Schwarzenegger in California, had better have some sizzle, some pop, some style. In the last 25 years, Clinton is the only Democrat who has managed the trick nationally. He's also the only Democrat to reach the White House in that time.
Candidates like Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore, or now Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman, or even Kucinich, miss the lesson of the trendsetters in California. The 2004 presidential hopefuls shouldn't aim to replace Bush so much as to recall him, as we would recall a defective product. (Or one we didn't order in the first place.) They'd also do well to treat their campaigns not as a test of ideas, but as a launch of a competing product.
It's not how a democracy should run. But it's what we've got.
For the first time in memory, this past week has been a bad one in Washington, D.C. for enormous broadcast conglomerates.
The massive media ownership deregulation pushed through the FCC last month by Republican chairman Michael Powell generated a remarkable amount of resistance from a burgeoning, and relatively new, media democracy movement. Deregulation opponents had vowed to override the FCC by taking the fight to the Republican-controlled Congress. It seemed like a futile notion, but Wednesday, the powerful, Republican-run House Appropriations Committee panel took the first step toward doing exactly that, voting 40-25 to block the portion of the FCC's decision that expanded from 35 percent to 45 percent the percentage of national TV households one company's stations could reach.
The vote wouldn't affect other portions of the FCC decision, and it would still need to be reconciled with a Senate bill; the White House has vowed to veto the House move. Nonetheless, even if it goes no farther -- and it will - - the House vote is an important measure of just how widespread dissatisfaction with corporate control of America's media has become, and that such dissatisfaction transcends usual ideological labels.
But beyond the headlines, another development on the media democracy front last week may have far greater long-term implications for the ability of ordinary people to be heard on the airwaves.
Before Dubya came to power and Michael Powell assumed the FCC's reins, the media democracy movement that is now bedeviling him cut its teeth on another FCC fight -- Low Power FM (LPFM). A 1999 decision by the FCC, when it was under Democratic control, created a vast new category of non-commercial, low power FM stations. The stations were to be locally run, with a radius of about 2-3 miles, and promised to give access to the airwaves to thousands of community, church, and activist groups across the country.
It never happened -- at least, not as originally envisioned by the FCC. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio mobilized Congress to effectively gut the program by passing as law a more stringent set of technical requirements. The NAB/NPR bill eliminated over 80 percent of the proposed stations, including most of the ones in larger cities and towns. Commercial broadcasters, as well as NPR, claimed (despite the FCC's claims to the contrary) that the FCC's original criteria would create unacceptable interference to existing stations.
Congress bought the idea, and as a result, while some Low Power FM stations are now broadcasting, and many others are in the pipeline, only one open frequency for a low power station is available in any of the country's top 50 markets -- as opposed to over a dozen each that would have been available in some cities under the original proposal.
That was three years ago. Last week, however, results came back in from a technical study that Congress ordered as part of its legislation, a study intended to determine definitively whether the original, more lax FCC guidelines would in fact pose a threat to existing stations.
The verdict: almost never.
The study, farmed out by the FCC to Mitre Corp., conducted field research and also asked for listener feedback, using the relatively poor-quality analog receivers common in many households rather than the much higher-quality receivers the FCC had originally used to determine interference levels. The researchers still found almost no problems, either from complaining listeners or from their own field readings.
In the mostly rural areas where it has been available, the volume of applications for LPFM facilities has far exceeded the FCC's expectations, proving that there's an enormous demand for such voices. The FCC, of course, is now in different, more business-friendly hands, and is probably disinclined to revisit the previous commission's proposal. And in the intervening three years, big media corporations as well as NPR affiliates have rushed to install new translators that would now block some possible LPFM frequencies in larger cities. But the upshot is that media activists now have the data to go back to the FCC and to Congress demanding both that the LPFM program be expanded to its original scope and that a moratorium be placed on new translator applications until the LPFM question is re-examined.
More broadly, for years the NAB, as the lobbying arm of the country's largest media conglomerates, has had free run of Capitol Hill; it has been among the most effective of the trade lobbying groups, with "triumphs" like the appalling Telecommunications Act of 1996 to its credit. Its LPFM reversal in 2000 was another such triumph -- but now, media activists and other broadcast lobby opponents can use the LPFM example to discredit the piteous cries of well-heeled lobbyists.
The damage that LPFM would supposedly cause to broadcasters simply didn't exist, and the case for re-instating the original proposal is overwhelming. Now, with any luck, a powerful new form of community and neighborhood broadcasting can be made available to the vast majority of the country's people.
For over 70 years, publicly owned airwaves have been leased out essentially at no charge to a broadcast industry increasingly dominated by a handful of homogenous (and often dreadfully idiotic) voices. For the last quarter- century, radio and television have gotten farther and farther away from the notion of local programming, local ownership, and community service. Finally, the trend may be reversing.
Geov Parrish is columnist for WorkingForChange.com
Remember, way back in December 2000, after the U.S. Supreme Court finally stole, er, ruled that George W. Bush would become the next President of the United States?
One of the primary themes to emerge -- from the ornate hotel lobbies of Washington, from the mouths of AM talk radio hosts, from the new regime's sneering acolytes in cowboy hats and fur-trimmed coats -- was that at last, finally, grown-ups would be running Washington, D.C. No more semen-stained dresses. No more fags in uniform and half-assed missile attacks. No more her. No more children running the world.
At least with Clinton you knew that the most powerful man in the world had reached adolescence, if not much beyond it. But all current evidence suggests that the world is now being run by 7-year-olds.
Oh, to be sure, petulant little children are announcing themselves all around the world these days, from surly little bullies like Ahmad Chalabi (who, after spending years on various playgrounds stealing other kids' lunch money, have come home to be handed a shiny new bicycle called Iraq), to the angry little brat in North Korea trying to get his parent's attention ("I've got uranium now!" "Now I've got a missile!" "Now I'm arming it! Watch me! I really am!" "I said I really am! I mean it this time!!"). Kim Jong II needs time out and a nap; Chalabi needs reform school.
But the most alarming spectacle is in Washington itself, where Peter Pan went and recruited his whole grade school class.
The result is calamity almost beyond words to describe: an appetite for cool comic-book foreign policy, emphasis on blowing stuff up, combined with a Never-Never Land insistence on how the world works and economics learned from watching older siblings play Monopoly.
Little kids, you'll recall, can be incredibly cruel. And so it is in D.C. these days, a dramatic step down from the last depressing administration, where the Clinton crew (including, no doubt, Janet Reno) had at least discovered girls. This collection hasn't even matured enough yet to learn right from wrong, or that actions have consequences, or even to experience the essential step in human development of understanding that the world doesn't start and stop with them, that other people think and act and feel just like they do. Empathy. Instead, this bunch stays at home, watches TV, and plays army all day. It's a nice day; they should at least go outside and play. Clinton needed to be grounded. Junior needs to have his toys taken away.
You want proof? What was Junior's sole major "accomplishment" before daddy's friends got him elected governor of Texas? He used daddy's allowance money and bought a baseball team. These are rich children. Too much attention is being paid to "rich," and not enough to "children."
But more and more, the emperor's outgrown clothes are showing, especially in recent days as the little tyke has finally been confronted in public with truths that contradict his carefully constructed play world. First, he really did go outside and play, to Africa, just to get away from it. But reality dogged him there, too, so mostly he's been pouting and insisting that the tooth fairy really does exist, there is a Santa Claus, Saddam really did buy uranium from Niger. ("And all that other stuff I made up last week is true, too!")
Frankly, the pile of toys Junior's no longer interested in is starting to clutter the living room floor, and Junior also keeps tripping over his now-discarded Disney videos, too. (He's not much for reading.) It's not like he's ever learned, or been made, to clean up his own messes. And he still believes all the stories in those old videos, too -- Iraq's mystery weapons in trailers, made out of propane tanks, and the cool spy-movie ties to Al-Qaeda and stuff. He still can't tell fact from fiction.
But confronted with it, he's reacting the way many small, spoiled kids do -- by blaming his friends, starting with the one he doesn't know very well, the guy who already lived in his new neighborhood when he got here, little Georgie Tenet. ("Hey, I only made him fall on a play sword! It didn't really hurt.") Every time Junior does this, he squeezes his eyes real tight and hopes it'll all just go away so he can go play army s'more. (He's also supposed to be doing homework -- he hates math! -- but video games are more fun.)
The other little kids in Junior's clubhouse are acting about the same way -- except for little Rummy, who likes to torture the neighbor's cats when nobody's looking. Rummy's gonna be trouble when he gets older.
For years, the adults around Junior and his little pals have been making excuses for their behavior. All kids are above average. It was a misunderstanding. He didn't mean to break it. He's really not that dumb. He just learns differently. Isn't he cute? The parents are rich, so teachers are circumspect, even when the extra lessons they give don't stick or he makes Family Circus-style mispronouncements.
But the behavior coming out of Washington these days has become too destructive, too aberrant to ignore, as it sometimes does when spoiled kids are never reigned in from their excesses. These kids are very spoiled, and their excesses are scaring all the adults in the neighborhood, if not the world. Frankly, it would be a huge improvement if this batch got old enough to discover girls.
But that's a long way away, and meantime they're really, really wed to their fantasies and their cruelty and their denials. And their moms and dads don't seem to care. Many, many people could die before Junior and his friends get old enough that they start to learn right from wrong.
At this point, the best hope is that they move to another neighborhood.
The bile is dead. Long live the bile.
Michael Savage's abrupt departure from television, like his entry into it, has drawn attention all out of proportion to its importance. Last weekend, Savage's once-weekly cable talk show was cancelled by MSNBC due to an angry exchange with a gay caller. Savage, returning an insult, suggested that the caller die of AIDS. As a result, according to a network spokesman, "The decision to cancel the program was not difficult."
Neither was MSNBC's decision to launch Savage's program last March. It did so knowing full well that Savage's history -- indeed, his media raison d'etre -- was this sort of bile. For adding a single program stuck in the ghetto of weekend daytime, MSNBC got reams of free publicity for its shift to more conservative political fare. Progressive groups from GLAAD to NOW helped out, launching advertiser boycott campaigns that caused two major advertisers, Kraft and Proctor & Gamble, to pull out -- but that probably netted the cable network far more in additional free press. Struggling networks love well-publicized boycotts of controversial programs.
Progressive activists are now claiming victory over Savage's firing, proclaiming that it stands as proof that even the most vile media hatemongers cannot cross certain lines, and that when they do -- as Savage does regularly -- they can be held accountable. But everyone else is happy, too. MSNBC got publicity and credibility among the true believers for its new righter-than-Fox format. And Savage -- whose audience in other media is enormous -- stands confirmed in his bigotries. He will continue to do just fine, thank you.
The talk host issued what must rank as one of the more absurd, and insincere, apologies of all time on Monday. "If my comments brought pain to anyone, I certainly did not intend for this to happen," he said, asking for his "many listeners in the gay community to accept my apologies for any inadvertent insults which may have occurred."
May have occurred? Run the tape, please. Inadvertent? Sorry, when I told you to go die of a horrible disease I meant it as the highest compliment; it just came out wrong.
Savage didn't intend to cause pain -- just titillate his viewers and listeners. And if that audience includes "many" gays, they must surely be of the self-loathing type.
Those fans, tuning in this week on the hundreds of radio stations in every major American city and most smaller ones, are doubtless being treated to Savage's account of his MSNBC demise as filtered through his usual blistering rants on PCness: sodomites controlling the world, and so forth. His cancellation is just more fodder for a guy who rose to media prominence on a local San Francisco AM radio station due to his willingness to stand out for the sheer poisonousness of his anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-minority, anti-immigrant bile. MSNBC knew exactly what it was getting.
Savage still has his radio base, of course; most of the stations that air him do so as part of a day-long, nationally syndicated hate echo chamber alongside Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Dr. Laura, and a handful of others. All of them are relentlessly promoted across multiple media formats. Savage, at the moment, also has a briskly selling book, "The Savage Nation," that packages more of his dubious wisdom.
The problem, ultimately, with figures like Savage isn't that they encourage listeners to hate one or another constituency. It's that they use myths, exaggerations, unrepresentative anecdotes, and tortured logic to stake out extreme political and cultural positions; encourage listeners to identify, as a "community" of their own, with this fantasy club; and then encourage the audience to hate anyone who's not a member of the club.
This is how a figure like Limbaugh or Hannity, at the very center of power of a political party that now controls the White House, both houses of Congress, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures, can still posture either as an outsider or a triumphant bully as needed. Savage, by pushing the envelope, encourages the outsider tendencies even though he himself is wealthy, powerful, and an industry unto himself.
This media phenomenon has been essential in allowing the Bush Administration to set new standards in telling bald-faced lies, confident of its ability to have them endlessly repeated and their critics insulted into silence or insignificance. It also ensures that any genuine public policy debate on any topic can be drowned out in the familiar language of screamed insults followed immediately by a commercial break.
Michael Savage has a loyal audience that is his as long as he wants it, or until he becomes eclipsed by the next hate radio phenom who pushes the envelope still farther. The format itself isn't going away until the audience gets bored or dies off -- neither of which is likely. Media conglomerates see loyal audiences and the profits they bring, and they're under no obligation to care about ancient FCC notions like public service or the Fairness Doctrine. They'll keep hiring Savage and his fellow travelers. Eventually, some outlets will instead embrace alternative figures like Michael Moore, for the same reason -- large numbers of loyal fans who respond to humor, outrage, and appeals to emotion.
In the end, progressives are best off trying to counter-program rather than censor. With figures like Savage, the problem is not one or another talking head, media programmer, or corporate advertiser, but the lack of accountability inherent in corporate media. And ultimately, the "problem" is the audience for such programs -- a segment of America that seemingly prefers to define itself by sneering at everyone else. So long as people hate, until they hear something they like better, Michael Savage will always have a job.
Geov Parrish is a WorkingForChange columnist.
Well, wasn't that a surprise?
Monday morning, in perhaps the most widely and keenly anticipated decision in its history, the Federal Communications Commission soberly considered the desires of large corporations, on the one hand, and the requirements of a functional democracy, on the other. Guess who won?
In this case, "considered" means "glanced at" -- not to be confused with a process in which the outcome was seriously in doubt. The FCC voted 3-2 for changes widely desired by the country's largest media conglomerates. The three "yes" votes came from the FCC's two Bush Administration appointees, and from Michael Powell, Colin's son, who was named FCC Chair when Bush assumed office and who has spearheaded the drive for further deregulation.
The suspense in the proceedings came not from a question of whether large networks and group owners would be newly allowed to buy each other, smaller chains, or additional stations, or whether the same company could own broadcast outlets and a daily newspaper in the same market, but to what extent. Would the complete abandonment of public concerns favored by Powell and his allies be mitigated by the unprecedented public and Congressional outcry? Would that outcry sway the vote of one of the two Bush appointees, Republican Kevin Martin?
No, and no. The newspaper/broadcast crossownership ban is over, a move that by the time you read this will already have sharply reduced media diversity in more than one major city. Companies may also now own two network TV stations in one market, and in larger cities, three. The one "compromise" was an easing of the television ownership limits so that one company can own stations now reaching 45 rather than 35 percent of the country. Powell had wanted the limit abolished entirely -- but give Time-Warner-AOL, Viacom/CBS, and Disney time to ramp up to the 45% limit (say, three days) and further measures can and probably will be considered.
Given the massive consolidation after the last big media deregulatory move -- the now-legendary Telecommunications Act of 1996, perhaps the most corporate welfare ever ladled out by Congress at one sitting -- critics of Monday's decision were uniformly grim. The two dissenting Democrats, FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, were unambiguous. Copps: "The more you dig into this order, the worse things get." Adelstein called the decision "likely to damage the media landscape for decades to come."
FCC Chair Powell -- continuing the Bush Administration's rhetorical tradition of taking a policy's greatest weakness and calling it a shining strength -- praised his own handiwork as a move that would "advance our goals of diversity and localism."
Advance it right out the door and into the dumpster. Every community in America experienced the effects after 1996. Radio stations that once had local DJs and news are now computer-programmed jukeboxes. Clear Channel Communications, the most successful benefactor of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has gone from 14 stations to over 1,200 (of 10,000 in the U.S.), with many of them strictly satellite feeds running identical songs and DJs at the same time. The only "localism" is when DJs pre-record their voice tracks, with a two-second station ID that is then mixed into the generic patter. "Twenty minutes after the hour" was never heard on radio stations until the same voice was being broadcast in five time zones. Even in larger markets -- the kind where three or four local jocks or talk radio hosts might be hired for the daylight hours -- the actual programming is controlled by company HQ or a centralized consultant, and then executed by computer. The days of a DJ picking out his or her favorite song -- or even agreeing to play yours -- are long, long gone. That's the "localism" trend Powell has just accelerated.
Clear Channel, of course, has also become the poster company for the larger downsides of media consolidation: monopolistic practices and political censorship. Every large media company now has extensive holdings in a variety of media genres -- from radio and TV to newspapers, magazines, the web, books, movies, video and audio production houses, advertising agencies, concert promotion, outdoor billboards, and so on. Clear Channel has also become one of the country's largest billboard owners and by far its largest concert promoter, and has used its influence to control who gets airplay at up to eight stations in a given market and who gets access to a given city's most attractive performance venues. It's a nasty business that strikes at cultural diversity in the way only monopolies can.
Clear Channel has also figured in a number of political censorship and ethical controversies, from its notorious list of "banned" songs in the aftermath of 9/11 (e.g., "Peace Train") to its recent sponsorship, in a number of cities, of pro-war rallies intended to counter opposition to Bush's invasion of Iraq. Monopolies can do that, especially when what they monopolize is a city's largest platforms and soapboxes.
The crux of the attention and controversy, stemming from Powell's announcement last fall that the FCC would undertake a comprehensive review of media ownership regulations, has been the balance between corporate greed and the need, recognized since the Founding Fathers, for a functional democracy to rest on a well-informed citizenry. Americans, by contrast, are not well-informed about most of the public policy matters central to our lives. The months of non-coverage network TV has given to this decision were a perfect, ironic example. Moreover, we've also been taught, by repeated example, not to care -- that public policy is boring, and that we can't influence it anyway. Hey, is the ballgame on yet?
Since the Reagan Administration's first significant moves toward media deregulation two decades ago, four presidencies have championed corporate greed over these democratic necessities. Without that long-term trend, the judiciary would not now be stacked with anti-regulatory zealots. Powell's omnibus review was in turn justified by a little noticed D.C. federal appeals court decision -- four days before 9/11 -- that signaled its intent to strike down the newspaper cross-ownership rule, and by extension many other limits on companies' ability to freely buy as many media properties as they could. Such rulings, ignoring the reality that media isn't simply another for-profit industry like widget-making, put democracy in the same bought-and- sold category as any other tradable commodity.
There is some noise in Congress about trying to rein in Monday's decision; the FCC undoubtably will face legal challenges as well. But the damage will be done regardless. The FCC is now free to approve sales under its own newly-promulgated rules. If Time-Warner-AOL and Viacom decide tomorrow to buy 90% of our country's television (with Disney and Clear Channel as minority stockholders, natch), what court or legislator would be willing to later undo the sale?
It's hard to remember the last time any major public policy shift in our country clearly served to foster democracy rather than further cripple it. The Bush Administration has been particularly vicious in auctioning our country off to the highest bidders -- i.e., their friends. It has also been particularly vicious in attempting to marginalize or punish (or, at the fringes, criminalize) democratic expressions of dissent. Imagine the gratitude, and eagerness to repay favors, of the large corporations who have been given -- essentially for free -- our public airwaves, and who thus control the most widely seen and heard venues for any such opposition. Imagine, down the road, what a Fearless and Beloved Leader with the ruthlessness of Dubya and the empathy of Clinton could do with such a capacity.
And then start patronizing, supporting, and creating media alternatives to the pablum of the big companies. Popularize the notion that television and radio are largely corporate monopolies -- not the places where a marketplace of ideas can flourish -- and that the less TV we watch, the more we'll know about our world.
The alternative is an ignorant monoculture, and the ultimate perversion of democracy. It is a media landscape with ever-fewer voices, the eerie flip side of e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
While you've been out protesting the Bush Administration's abominable, unprovoked invasion of Iraq, a number of new books have come out that deserve consideration by the literate (or simply new) activist. This weekend, here are three of the better ones -- and one really bad one.
Having done the same for nuclear weapons in 1982's "Fate of the Earth", Jonathan Schell sets out to write the definitive narrative of the past and potential of nonviolent people power in "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People". As any cursory reading of this feature's daily history notes might guess, it's an enormous task -- analogous to writing the history of warfare. But while any attempt to take a Howard Zinn "People's History of the United States" approach to the history of the world is by definition spotty, Schell's greatest contribution is in also examining where such approaches could lead us.
For Schell, the utility of drawing lessons from non-military solutions to conflict, from the Greeks to (especially) Gandhi and MLK, is in contrasting them with civilization's development of increasingly deadly military strategies -- and their inherent drawbacks in the 21st Century. Schell believes Americans have shortchanged the power demonstrated in the nearly bloodless fall of dozens of despotic regimes, from communist to military to fascist, since 1985 -- including several installed by the United States and, most spectacularly, the entire Soviet bloc. In the dangers of brute force, he very much has American Empire in mind: "The danger, now as in other times, is that democracy's basic nonviolent principles, so promising for the peace of the world, can be undermined by the very power the system generates, bringing itself as well as its neighbors to ruin."
Schell emerged, with Fate, as a global leader of the nuclear abolitionist movement, and he continues to have weapons of mass destruction very much on his mind. He credits Bush, in casting about for post-9/11 rationales, for correctly pegging WMDs as a serious problem, but thinks Bush's Pax Americana solution is ludicrous. Only cooperative approaches can solve it: "The days when humanity can hope to save itself from force with force are over." And he credits "cooperative power" and the nonviolent activism it suggests as being not only morally powerful, but being the only practical and effective way to counter overwhelming brute force.
Schell is after Big Questions and Big Answers here; the result can sometimes be astonishing overgeneralizations. But his concise, lucid prose and his exploration of both the history and potential of nonviolent, cooperative politics are welcome contributions to the far too small collection of books in this genre. People despairing for an alternative to George Bush's militarism will find it invaluable.
Two other fine new books I've read of late deserve a plug in this space. Now that Iraq has been liberated and the neocons are busy deciding who's next -- rather than whether there should be a next -- it's hard to imagine a more important book to read than Chris Hedges' new, devastating critique of war's addictiveness, "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning". This book will do the impossible: change how you think about war. Hedges, a New York Times reporter who spent nearly two decades in war zones from El Salvador to Kosovo, calls himself a recovering war addict, and he describes in riveting detail the horror and seductiveness of combat, both at an immediate personal level and for whole societies.
Hedges is not a pacifist; he avers that war is sometimes necessary, and his devastating description of the civilian impact of the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo before international forces got around to intervening makes his point compellingly. But his is a cautionary tale that war be not only a last resort, but a very, very, very last resort. The chicken hawks now running our country should step away from the photo ops, give back their borrowed uniforms, and be forced to recite whole chapters of Hedges' book, from memory, at the next ten National Security Council meetings. As for the rest of us, if you want to understand the fever and the disease that has overtaken Bush's America, read this book.
"Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor" is hard for me to review with total objectivity, because of its two editors; I've edited the writing of one, Tara Herivel, and corresponded for years with the other, the invaluable Prison Legal News co-publisher (and lifer Washington state inmate) Paul Wright. So take my somewhat slanted word for it: "Prison Nation" is chock-full of outstanding essays, by authors you'll know and authors you'll want to know, that span the range of prison issues and activism. It's as good an overview of Gulag America as has come out since, well, Wright's "The Celling of America, with the difference that in the years since "Celling" prison populations have continued to increase (despite dropping crime rates), civil liberties have continued to be trashed, and, with the budget crises and social safety net destruction afoot in all 50 states, the nature of America's prisons as a vicious form of class warfare has never been clearer.
The enemy has been winning on all fronts, usually away from the public's view. "Prison Nation" is the welcome corrective, the spotlight on the shadows, the glimpse -- if we don't get busy -- into all of our futures.
It's impossible, of course, to summarize -- in a column where I only occasionally consider books or pop culture -- all the books, good and dreadful, that come across my transom. But one deserves special note, if only because I've wondered just why, for all these years, Alexander Cockburn reserves such bitter (and frequently hilarious) venom for social critic Todd Gitlin.
Now I know. Consider this, the very first sentence of the newly published Letters to a Young Activist, Gitlin's contribution to an "Art of Mentoring" series based on Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
"Dear --,Thus begins Gitlin's Letters, and it gets worse, if that's imaginable, on each successive page. It's hard to imagine any 20-year-old activist tolerating such a pompous ass. But then, it's also hard to imagine that Todd Gitlin even knows any actual young activists.
Let's agree to overlook (maybe even enjoy) the absurdity that joins us: You agree to indulge my lecturing on matters I didn't understand until I was older than you, and I make every effort to connect to your passions and objections -- to take your arguments seriously, even though you're too young to have had the experience I draw on."
Gitlin, president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963 -- just before it became relevant -- is mainstream media's safe Rolodex substitute for interviewing actual activists. For example, Global Exchange head, direct actionist, and Green Party Senate candidate Medea Benjamin -- the closest thing to a visible "young" activist in the country -- has had 22 New York Times references since 1996, two in the last year. Gitlin's numbers are 78 and 16. He's safer than an actual activist, and he can be counted on to discount and patronize activists as readily as he does in his book's opening sentence. For the last 30 years, he's made his living explaining away activism to fellow boomer editors and reporters at networks, the Times, and the like. For three decades Gitlin's been a critic, and in Letters, too, boomers -- not students -- are his audience.
Leaving aside Gitlin's absolutism, his excessive use of imperatives (do this, don't do that), his frequently tortured metaphors, and his failure to even define activism -- presumably we know it when it blocks rush hour -- not all of Gitlin's advice is bad. Encouraging activists to focus on changing actual policy, or not dismissing all things American out of hand, for example, is advice activists of all ages could do well to heed -- if it fits their goals. Gitlin generally assumes only one valid goal -- immediate policy change -- and is dismissive of other activist roles or tactics. Personal or group witness or empowerment aren't in Gitlin's universe. He also focuses almost entirely on the theories underpinning activism, assuming those to be timeless; the imparting of skills, contemporary examples, or incorporation of developments like the Internet are notably missing from Gitlin's reading suggestions as well as his own text. The elder Gitlin would have given this same advice to the young Gitlin in 1963. More to the point, there have been a half-dozen activist handbooks published in the last two years full of better, more comprehensive advice -- hands-on as well as chin-stroking -- for young activists.
A critic, by definition, explains to the public the work of an artist, performer, or, in Gitlin's case, activist; she or he doesn't explain the public to the performer (or whomever). In presuming to do so with Letters, Gitlin mostly explains Gitlin. I can't think of a worse activist mentor. Fortunately, there are a ton of better ways to start your summer activist reading.
Once again, an astonishing report has had to surface in Britain on the behavior of the Bush Administration. And once again, U.S. media has ignored it.
Last Thursday, April 24, Britain's Guardian newspaper published a lead article by Washington reporter Oliver Burkeman. The first sentence speaks for itself:
"Children younger than 16 are being held as "enemy combatants" in the American detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military admitted yesterday, a practice human rights groups condemned as repugnant and illegal."
Amazingly, the story did not even sink without a trace in the United States itself; it never existed. No network TV reporters hounded the White House. There was also no mention of it at all in the Washington Post, nor our country's alleged "newspaper of record," the New York Times. Americans never heard a word, raising a second issue: are American news reporters and editors bored with Afghanistan-related news ("That's so 2001!"), uninterested in airing reports that cast the Bush cabal or the U.S. military in a poor light, or simply numb to basic standards of human rights, human dignity, conduct in war, and/or legal jurisprudence the rest of the world takes for granted?
The problem, however, is that the so-called "enemy combatants" -- prisoners of war in all but the Bush Administration's duplicitous name -- at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay are not an old story. Prisoners have continued to be added, and facilities upgraded, ever since the American's initial foray into Afghanistan only 18 months ago. And in a "War on Terror" whose success relies in part on convincing the Muslim world of America's pure intentions, Guantanamo remains an open wound.
From the beginning, the U.S. removal of Afghan prisoners halfway around the world to a military base in Cuba -- outside American soil, where prisoners might remain untouched by American law -- has been a subject of intense controversy. Conditions at the hastily erected "Camp X-Ray," amidst Cuba's stifling (and, to prisoners, completely unfamiliar) tropical heat, were worse than brutal. Early on, the U.S. released photos of prisoners in humiliating positions, making a mockery of U.S. outrage over prisoner photos released by Saddam Hussein's doomed regime a few weeks ago. Allegations of torture and mistreatment multiplied and swarmed like tropical insects.
While the U.S. military learned from the early publicity and has since scrambled to assure the world that prisoners, now numbering 660, are treated well -- including the construction of a more permanent facility, Camp Delta, to house them -- prisoners' legal limbo and wretched fate remains. Of the 25 confirmed suicide attempts by Guantanamo prisoners, 15 have occurred this year. No attorney contact has been permitted. The detainees have been charged with no crime; while a system has been set up for trying Camp Delta inmates through military tribunals, none of the inmates has been named yet for the honor. They are not, according to the Bush Administration, prisoners of war; they are being held for their "intelligence value," or until they "no longer pose a threat." Since the government most of them fought for collapsed in 2001, Afghanistan has slid steadily toward a free-fire zone, all but Kabul carved up by feuding warlords; in such a situation, it's impossible to imagine that these men are a major factor or carry any further intelligence value. Such justifications are a semantic game used to excuse a human rights atrocity, and, to the Muslim world, yet another ongoing, highly visible example of the arrogance, brutality, and exemption from international codes of conduct the Americans wear like a well-loved coat.
Now comes word that at least three Camp Delta inmates are between the ages of 13 and 15, a practice in flagrant violation of, among many other things, the Geneva Convention (which the Bush Administration claims does not apply) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, among the world's 197 countries, including its most notorious human rights abusers, only the U.S. and Somalia have not ratified. The children have all arrived this year, joining a Canadian national, Omar al-Khadr, brought to Cuba last year and 15 at the time of his original capture. Canadian official have been trying unsuccessfully for months to gain access to him.
Naturally, the Bush Administration is in full spin mode, assuring the world once again that their kid inmates, like the others, are living in the lap of relative luxury. From the Guardian article:
"As soon as their ages were confirmed in medical tests, the children were moved to a `dedicated juvenile facility' at the camp, where they could socialise with each other, according to Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a spokesman at the base.
"`They are in a secure environment free from the influences of older detainees,' Lt. Col. Johnson said. `They are receiving specialist mental health care, in recognition of the difficult circumstances that child combatants go through, and some basic education in terms of reading and writing.' Efforts were under way to contact their home nations, he added."
The preposterousness of the notion that children whisked halfway around the world and imprisoned indefinitely, now isolated from contact with all other inmates save their two peers, are "receiving specialist mental health care in recognition of the difficult circumstances that child combatants go through" would be hilarious if it were not so sick. Children in war are in a horrible circumstance, but it is one these children probably grew up with. They did not grow up in an American prison.
But they may grow old there. And the question remains, here in the increasingly irrelevantly self-styled Land of the Free: why doesn't American media -- or its public -- seem to care?
While news media are saturated with field reports from Iraq, and Congress wrestles over how much money, exactly, can be shoveled into the pockets of the already obscenely wealthy, and in how many ways, the battle that should concern everyone the most is quietly taking away from the headlines.
Welcome to the 2004 presidential race. It will be over -- except for the voting, of course -- before 2004 even begins.
For the long-term freedom, health, prosperity, and security of Americans -- and the world's other six billion people, and all its other species, too -- there is no more critical task in the coming months than to oust George W. Bush, and the lunatics surrounding him, in November 2004.
In a genuine democracy, of course, that would happen in November 2004, as a function of votes cast. But American democracy comes with a very large asterisk attached -- or, more accurately, a dollar sign. The stakes involved in the presidency, and the enormous amount of money required for even a serious campaign, has steadily pushed the nomination process earlier in the past 25 years. It won't be too many months now before money -- infamously defined as "free speech" through a contortion of legal logic by conservative Supreme Court justices in 1976 -- will be the only sort of speech that counts for much in the presidential race.
In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush essentially had their parties' nominations sewn up before a single primary vote was cast. That left Americans with what many of us felt was a distinctly unappetizing choice between two men who appeared far more alike than different. Into that lethargic campaign, Bush poured so much corporate money that he turned down federal matching funds; they would have cramped his style. And we know what happened then.
This time, with the advantages of incumbency and a four-year track record of manna for the extremely wealthy, Bush may well double his record 2000 total. Already, during the 2002 midterm campaign, Bush exploited the resources of White House incumbency like no other occupant before him -- including the famously sleazy Clinton. The result, focusing on now- illegal soft money contributions, was not only the now-comfortable Republican control of Congress, but an early war chest for 2004, and an indication of what's to come. The quid-pro-quo corruption of this bunch is not only unprecedented in modern American politics, but it will shatter previous spending records as corporations and fat cats line up to "vote" for Dubya.
Fortunately for the Democrats, if judged on political performance rather than image-making, Bush is by far the most incompetent president in memory. But in 2002, Democrats counted on that performance, particularly the still-lousy economy. It will take more. To win next year, a Democratic candidate will need exceptional fundraising skills, and maximum time, to even have a shot at unseating Bush.
In theory it shouldn't matter whether the most dangerous electoral incumbent in the history of the world has a staggering money advantage. In practice, it does. All that money buys a whole lot of image. As we've just seen, a relentless message from the White House can convince people of even the most preposterous things. The sky is purple. Grass is orange. Iraq launched 9-11. George W. Bush should be re-elected.
Into this buzzsaw will step, almost certainly, one of the nine already-declared Democratic primary candidates: Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, Bob Graham, Rev. Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley- Braun, and Dennis Kucinich.
Any one of these nine would be vastly better than Dubya. It's far more important that one of them win than that they be the best of the nine in terms of how much better than Dubya they would be politically.
So let's start clearing the decks. Dennis Kucinich is one of the most ethical and courageous individuals in American politics today. He's also completely unelectable as President; the activist energy now going into his campaign is energy that could be used to promote someone who can win. Likewise, Sharpton, while not the cartoon many people seem to think, is also a moot point, as are Moseley-Braun (too bad) and Bob Graham (thank goodness.)
Most of the buzz right now is around Dean, an independent-leaning former Vermont governor who is friendly to business, liberal on social issues and foreign policy, and fiercely pro-gun. He's moved from the electoral hinterlands to a viable candidacy by dint of his early (he's since backed off a bit) willingness to criticize Bush's war when, remarkably, few other Democrats would. John Kerry, the most liberal of the other front-runners now that Gephardt has recast himself as a DLC type, has also been making some vaguely critical noises, particularly when he thinks nobody but party loyalists might be listening.
Kerry has one thing Dean doesn't: money, and established networks for getting more of it. By March 31 Kerry had already collected $7 million, putting him alongside Edwards (a glib, Clinton-style DLC Southerner who is as frightening as Lieberman but without the experience) as the money frontrunner. Gephardt was third at month's end with only half that total -- $3.6 million.
Much could still change. Lieberman's campaign has been sagging among Democrats, but his name recognition and money-friendly conservatism means he can't be dismissed. Wild cards like Gen. Wesley Clark (now doing a star turn as CNN's war analyst) may still announce.
But the field won't be open long. This is now how America chooses its presidents -- through money, media, polling, and more money. Actual voters are only invited at the very end.
I am not a loyalist of any party; I also have a track record of being fiercely critical of "Lesser of Two Evils" voting. And I tend to think local community-building matters more than electoral politics. But at this point in history there is no room for neutrality, nor for ideological purity. In less than 19 months, Americans will get our only serious opportunity to prevent George Bush from running this country for eight years. We'd better unite behind someone else, soon, and get busy. Our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will thank us.
Historians won't call this The Six Days' War; that name belongs to another Middle Eastern military rout with far-reaching consequences.
But by last Wednesday, the outcome of George Bush's invasion of Iraq was decided. The only remaining unknowns are how many months or years it will take America and Britain to figure out that they have already lost, and how many people will die in the interim.
From the beginning, Bush Administration rationales for this invasion have been based on the premise that Americans (and their faithful canine companions, the Brits) would be welcomed with open arms by both Iraqi civilians and soldiers. Once the prospect of life without Saddam appeared truly at hand, the Iraqi tyrant's brutal house of cards would collapse. Whole divisions, whole cities, would surrender without a shot. The war would last not much longer than it would take to drive to Baghdad (albeit on lousy roads), and the victory parade in Baghdad would make Paris on V-Day look tame. Some Bushites took the notion even farther; as with post-war Europe, all the Middle East would come to adore America, ushering in an era of peace and prosperity for all.
As Gilda Radner might once have said:
It was evident by the middle of last week, and has become increasingly evident each day since -- even through the muddle of U.S. media coverage and frantic spinning in Washington and London -- that Iraqis do not want the Americans in their country. Period. We are not welcome. Even if it means keeping Saddam. Even if it means guerilla war against a military using overwhelming force. Iraqis will not simply give up; nor will they spontaneously rise and do America's work for it by toppling Saddam Hussein. It seems to have never occurred to Bush and his advisors that people who hate Saddam wouldn't automatically welcome America -- that not everyone casts their loyalties in black and white, "with us or against us," enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend thinking.
This represents more than a military inconvenience to the American forces. It means more than a loss of the war's purported rationale. What it means is that even with all the firepower in the world -- especially with all the firepower in the world -- the United States cannot win this war. The Pax Americana that Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle, and their ilk envisioned for Iraq -- and eventually the whole region -- simply cannot be achieved through brute force alone. That's what we're starting to see already.
Amazingly, Pentagon planners seemed to be caught flat-footed by the guerrilla tactics employed by the Iraqis -- tactics which are the only conceivable means of opposition for a resistance with no air power, with few resources, and that knows it cannot possibly compete with the Americans' firepower -- but knows the land like the back of its hand and has been thinking about, and practicing, how to defend it in wartime for over 20 years. Donald Rumsfeld's bellowing about Iraq's unfair tactics evokes the British, 225 years ago, complaining that the Yanks didn't stand in a row and fight the way the Redcoats did.
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld -- and Bush -- deserve to lose their jobs based on the military planning alone. Forget, for a moment, the complete evaporation of all of the other original rationales for this war. Forget that no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and the purported threat of further terrorist attack against the U.S. has yet to materialize.
Because Iraqis don't want to be "liberated" by the U.S., in only a week, the 30-70,000 troops on the ground inside Iraq have been shown to be a much, much smaller force than is necessary to seize Iraq's cities. Even that size force, in only a week, was in many places running out of food, water, gas, and/or bullets -- a completely avoidable logistical nightmare.
The widespread expectation that conquering Iraq would be a military cakewalk, with only minor and manageable resentments by the natives afterwards, has colored every facet of the United States' preparation in the long months leading up to this invasion. The same arrogance that led pundits like Bill O'Reilly to mock guests who didn't think the war would be over in days or even hours, and that led the Pentagon's spin doctors to invite blow-dry reporters along for a joy ride, seems to have generated an invasion plan predicated on the idea that the invasion would be over as soon as the Americans showed up.
The war thus far has been notable for one other element -- the extraordinary measures the Pentagon has, in fact, taken thus far to avoid civilian casualties. This has been more than PR spinning; the U.S. really has undertaken a fundamental shift in military strategy, relying on its surveillance assets and precision weaponry, and not simply unloading "Shock and Awe" type tonnage on Iraq's cities. Ground troops have, in fact, thus far mostly avoided Iraq's cities.
Three major factors have likely gone into this shift. One is that the U.S. intends to run Iraq after it topples Saddam, and would like to both not have to rebuild more than necessary and not offend its new vassals more than necessary. Secondly, the enormous global opposition to this war -- including the opposition here at home -- has likely had an impact. Washington would clearly not like to exacerbate anti-American feelings even more through wholesale slaughter of civilians.
But most importantly, the Americans aren't incinerating vast sections of Iraq's cities and towns because they didn't think they needed to. That could change, and soon. The Americans weren't wanting and won't tolerate lengthy sieges, or holding their fire as sitting ducks in a hostile land. Eventually they'll start unleashing the bigger guns.
Meanwhile, Iraqis living in Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries -- people who, by and large, hate Saddam Hussein with a passion -- are flooding back to defend their country against the Western invaders. Other Muslims and Arabs from throughout the region are starting to join them; already, American officials are warning Syria and Iran (and Russia) about the military weapons and supplies finding their way into Iraq. The murmurings of a broader regional war are barely audible -- or at least a tacit understanding, transcending colonial borders, that the Americans must be driven out. Regardless of whether Baghdad "falls" or the Americans install a replacement government, the resistance will continue until the Americans can find a graceful way to leave.
After only a week, British soldiers were already talking about the similarity between their encirclement of Southern Iraq towns and their experiences in Northern Ireland, where every civilian coming and going must be searched, the locals know the land and the hiding places, and the attacks keep coming anyway. The difference is that Iraq, unlike Northern Ireland, is a desperately poor country where disease and famine already lurk; the privations of wartime threaten to make that bad situation far worse.
Bush's folly wasn't supposed to turn into a Persian version of "Red, White, and Blue Dawn." Now that it is under way, there will be enormous pressure to escalate the military tactics, to discard the caution regarding civilian casualties, to push for the sort of "decisive" military victory our MBA President promised in his prospectus.
But it would be a mistake -- not only for the tremendous loss of life it would cause, and not only because of the global anti-American sentiment it would fuel, but because it would not, in the end, do any good. Somehow, George Bush was so busy invoking World War II that he forgot not only Vietnam, but the lessons of his own administration in Afghanistan. The U.S. managed to rout the Taliban and its rag-tag Army from power, but only 15 months later, it barely controls the capital city and has let the rest of the country slide back into civil war.
With oil resources at stake, the rest of the Muslim world enraged, and America's post-9/11 moral capital forgotten, it's hard to imagine that Iraq will turn out better. Even the most likely scenarios in which Saddam Hussein loses power are ugly: ever-increasing casualties, mostly among civilians, in a protracted Ba'Athist guerilla war; or, Iraq splintering into multiple nation-states or a multi-sided civil war; or, an expanded regional conflict involving Syria, Iran, other Muslim forces, and/or Israeli or Palestinian supporters attempting to draw Israel more directly into the conflict.
Meanwhile, the oil fields are vulnerable to attack; the whole operation is staggeringly expensive; and Bush himself will be under increasing pressure, as an election nears, to answer for his handling of both military and economic matters. And bear in mind that we're only 10 days into this one. With war comes surprises, and most of the imaginable ones aren't good.
The bottom line is that the long-term danger to American security, and damage to America's political and economic standing in the world, is likely to continue to rise so long as American forces are in Iraq. The danger and the damage will only subside when we leave.
And all because we thought they'd love us.
This week is when it really hits.
After the initial wave of 24/7 news coverage and demonstrations in the streets, the reality remains. The Bush Administration defied logic, international law, and the wishes of virtually all humanity, and launched an unprovoked and unnecessary military invasion of a country halfway around the world. The shock, horror, grief, rage, sputtering impotence all finally echo away into silence. And still the pundits chatter and the bombs fall.
What to do?
For me, in many ways, the U.S. street demonstrations of the last week have been nearly as depressing as the invasion itself. They have been primal screams, by definition unsustainable, when what is desperately needed is sustainable responses. They have been expressions of what protesters have felt they need to say, rather that what protesters felt other Americans needed to see or hear. They have been reactions to what has been done, rather than demands for what should be done now. They have used the shopworn tactics, iconography, and slogans of 40 years of left street protest.
And, by this conduct, they have turned their backs on the far broader segment of Americans who have in recent months also been alarmed by this government's direction, but who have over a matter of decades expressed quite clearly that they find the activist left's tactics, iconography, and slogans to be profoundly unappealing.
This past week's protests were nowhere near a scale needed to have an impact through (to use the more extreme rhetoric) "shutting down the country." Any remotely thoughtful organizer knew this, yet still, the tactic persists. My dog does the same thing; she'll leave my home office ahead of me, and then look over her shoulder to make sure I'm coming where she wants me to (i.e., to take her for a walk). She does it every time, even though, when working, I never follow her. She never learns.
This is what powerlessness does. Primal screams (or canine begging) happen when there is nothing else left, when citizens feel not only that they have not been heard, but that by definition they will never be heard. It's barely removed from simply giving up and tuning out -- which is what more people in America than in any other Western democracy choose to do, and what many current activists, in this war as in past ones, will also choose to do.
The thing is, I don't want to be heard. I want the policies to change, the killing to stop, the living to start. If going mute would do that, I'd happily go mute. Policy change isn't simply a function of decibel level or of number of heads counted at a march; it's also a function of having clear policy alternatives, and putting into power people willing to enact those alternatives. Chanting "No justice, no peace!" (until we go home in an hour) is easy; building long-term change is much harder. And "The People" know it.
Until two weeks ago, there was a clear alternative to war: the inspection process, which at minimum bought time, at best was a path out of an artificially induced, but nonetheless real, crisis. When that was lost, so too were many members of the new anti-war movement, because there was no "next step," no contingency plans in the peace movement's demands beyond lame and hypocritical calls to "support the troops." Possibilities abound, from a movement to have the U.N., rather than United States, take part or all of the post-invasion administration of Iraq, to a concerted push to unseat Bush in 2004. Yet at the moment more protesters are trying to impeach Bush (which is not, repeat not, repeat not going to happen) than to elect a Democratic president in less than 20 months.
This isn't simply a matter of pragmatism; it's also earning, in the public's eyes, the legitimacy to make moral as well as pragmatic demands. In modern American politics, the messenger is as important as the message, and one does not gain moral legitimacy simply by having one's policy preferences ignored. I guarantee, for example, that 1,000 people registering new anti-war voters would get far more attention and respect, with more lasting impact, than last week's protests -- from the public, from decision-makers, and from those numbers opposed to the war and to freeway blockades.
You're an anarchist and hate electoral politics? Fine. Don't just sit down in front of cars because we're waging a war to feed our SUVs and everyone should abandon theirs, and then wonder why people who could be on your side but need to get to work are angry at you and vote for Bush next year. Teach tax resistance (and redirection); start some alternative community institutions that meet a need other than your own. The socialist and anarchist movements of a century ago had some traction because they started with the community's needs, not their own ideas.
Take some risks that mean something to other people, not just to you and your friends. For goodness sakes, even take some time to study something about political science, military science, communication, mass psychology, something, anything more goal-oriented than what most of the protest left has over the past 30 years ossified as.
Long-term or even short-term organizing is not as much fun as marching on a freeway, but then, the people on the front lines waging this war probably aren't having much fun, either. A lot of them probably don't want to be there; some probably don't even like the orders they're getting. But they signed on to do what was necessary, up to and possibly including death, for a larger cause. That's a major reason why virtually every segment of American society gives them respect. Religious figures, until proven otherwise, command the same respect for much the same reason.
In the public's eyes, the average demonstrator, and the theoretically moral movement he or she represents, has done nothing within light-years of that level of moral legitimacy. Protesters may disagree, but if you want to change policy in this country, whose opinion is more important -- that of the advocate, or the advocate's audience?
The United States, at the moment, is careening away wildly from all but one country (Israel) in terms of how its public views the world. Israel is for many reasons a special case; born of the Holocaust, surrounded by countries that for decades were intent on its destruction, it's easy to see (though not to condone) how the Israeli public could embrace its current fortress mentality, and its attendant abuses.
America has no such claim; 9/11 was not the Holocaust, and this country, far from being threatened, has lived an existence of remarkable isolation and ease. Before the Cold War, it hadn't faced any meaningful external threat in over a century; even after a planet's worth of abuses inflicted in the name of that Cold War, it took another half-century before anyone caused harm on U.S. soil, and even then, it was a single act (so far) by an illegal private organization, not the army of a nation-state. To many around George Bush (and probably Bush himself), America's charmed history is a sign of America's unique partnership with Providence.
That sort of talk, and the power abuses now accompanying it, scare and enrage even traditional U.S. allies, who see it as evidence not of the moral authority of democracy and freedom, but the "might makes right" attitude of a bully. Among allies and around the world, people wonder why so few Americans seem willing to challenge this mindset from within, using a different type of moral claim.
For those of us who do want to challenge it, there's much we can't control. Barriers to such changes in U.S. public perception are formidable. The military complex in this country has enormous money behind it, enough to employ millions of people earning (except for the soldiers) a comfortable living building pieces of a repugnantly deployed whole. Mass media are currently dominated by a range of political opinion that makes Genghis Khan a centrist, and that usually acknowledges dissent only to ridicule it. Both major political parties are corrupted by corporate money almost beyond redemption.
But what we can control is what we say (and hear), how we act, who we appeal to and work with, and to what ends. Much of the political rhetoric in this country -- with or without a war in progress -- is so over the top and intolerant as to be anathema to a secular democracy, and many Americans know that, too. What is lacking is a coherent, appealing alternative. Times of crisis and maximum dissent are precisely when those alternatives should be on display -- not when they should be abandoned for the protest equivalent of comfort food.
Many of us who have opposed this war feel frustrated and powerless; it is an emotionally charged time. Remember this sensation. Remember how unpleasant it is. Then resolve to do what you can to ensure that neither you nor future generations of people who care about their world will be put in this place again. And start working to do something about it.
Last Friday, the Federal Communications Commission came to town. For an event that by its very definition is mundane -- a public hearing on a proposed federal regulatory rulemaking -- it was an extraordinary event, for several reasons.
The first, of course, was that there was a public hearing at all, let alone in Seattle, Washington, 3,000 miles from Washington, D.C. But then, it's no ordinary rulemaking, either. When FCC Commissioner Michael Powell (Colin's son) was appointed by Pres. Bush as FCC Chairman two years ago, and Republican appointees assumed three of the five commissioner positions, Powell took on as a top priority the radical deregulation of what few limits remain -- after 20 years of such initiatives -- on the ability of large corporations to control the nation's airwaves.
Two decades ago, a company could own only 14 radio stations (seven AM, seven FM) in the country, no more than seven TV stations, and no more than one of each in a single market. New radio/TV combinations were prohibited, and the FCC actively favored minority applicants for new licenses.
After several rounds of deregulation, most of that is now history, and the result has been a radical realignment of the broadcast industry; after the last round -- the Telecommunications Act of 1996, perhaps the single greatest act of corporate welfare in Congressional history -- the resulting buying frenzy left the country's largest broadcaster, Clear Channel Communications, with over 1,200 radio stations as well as control of most of the country's concert promotion and a big chunk of its billboards.
However, bans on companies owning both daily newspapers and radio or TV stations in one market remain; so do restrictions that limit networks' ability to buy new stations, especially in major markets, or to buy each other. Those bans were Powell's particular targets when, last fall, he ordered a comprehensive review of the FCC's ownership regulations. There were to be no public hearings, a brief public comment period, and then the Republican majority would ram the measure home. Trade publications were giddily predicting a big, fat gift in time for the holidays.
But a funny thing happened: the public. Lone dissenting commissioner Michael Copps (the fifth seat was at the time vacant) raised a ruckus, and so did public interest groups, alternative media activists, and, eventually, Democratic legislators. A public hearing was scheduled; a January Senate Commerce Committee hearing roasted all five commissioners. When a record 2,200 public comments were filed by the end of the year, the comment period was extended. And then Copps used public pressure to force Powell to allow further public testimony and hearings. The first was held in nearby Richmond VA (120 miles from Washington); when Copps protested that most of the country had still not had an opportunity to be heard, two more were scheduled. Last week, those were held, too: in Durham, North Carolina, and here in Seattle.
Of course, of the five Commissioners, only the two Democratic appointees -- Copps and the newest commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein -- showed up. But the fact that such a public hearing was even being held was extraordinary. And so was what happened.
Extraordinary is not to be confused with surprising. It was very much the dog and pony show, where morning panels of supportive broadcasters and opposing music industry figures, unions, and media advocates debated the measure, and public comments were taken in the afternoon. The arguments, over the need for media diversity and evils of consolidation vs. the needs of commercial broadcasters to compete with other media technologies, were all familiar.
But what Copps and Adelstein heard and recorded only added fuel to the very healthy fire being set under Powell and his omnibus media ownership review. This was not the usual size, composition, or decibel level of a normal FCC public hearing. The auditorium at the University of Washington was packed with critics of corporate media and its increasing stranglehold on the news we read, the music we hear, and the culture we live in.
Defenders of media diversity are largely regarding this battle as a last stand -- and they're winning. One of the other two Republican commissioners, Kevin Martin, broke with Powell and created a 3-2 majority with Copps and Adelstein on a key telecommunications industry vote last month; Martin's "mutiny" has FCC and broadcast industry insiders abuzz that he might also break with Powell on the ownership initiative. Already, Congressional and public pressure has made it increasingly likely that of the six original planks of Powell's deregulation plan, only a watered-down version of the newspaper cross-ownership piece will survive.
None of this would have happened without public activism. And that, in the end, was the most extraordinary part of Friday's dog and pony show -- the audience. When activists sounded the alarm over the proposed Telecommunications Act in 1996 -- correctly predicting the disaster it would create -- few people cared. Michael Powell's deregulatory corporate gift, once considered a slam-dunk to be enacted, has already been significantly impeded by a media democracy movement that did not exist five years ago.
That movement has done more than oppose corporate media -- it has produced a vibrant alternative. One of the projects inspired by organizing for 1999's protests at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization was an "Independent Media Center" to coordinate a web site and production of independent video, radio broadcasts, articles, photos, and zines concerning the event. The WTO left town, but the Seattle IMC stayed, and in only three years has spawned over 90 local IMC's in cities and countries on six continents. Alternative web sites -- like WorkingForChange.com -- have become significant sources of news for many Americans, and independent media activists have thousands of sites of their own. The cable access TV movement is booming, and so is a movement of independent radio producers.
As big corporations snap up stations and produce news that is ever more conservative -- or irrelevant, or they abolish local news entirely -- and as music stations put the same six formats and 50 artists on thousands of outlets, media activists, frequently using new or newly affordable technology, have rushed to fill the void. The dogs and ponies at last Friday's FCC hearing weren't just protesting a further erosion of media diversity and competition; increasingly, they are the competition. And what they're producing is frequently better.
Geov Parrish is a columnist at WorkingForChange.com.
As in all military actions (can we really call this one-sided massacre a "war"?), government and media advocacy for the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq has introduced a number of confusing new words and phrases, or new usages of existing ones, to the English language. Since many of these are directly opposite of their intuitive meanings, we present here, for your helpful reference, a guide to some of these new linguistic developments. Keep this guide handy by your TV for the next time Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Franks, or any of their minions appear on your screen!
The Dubya War Glossary
alliesn. Tony Blair.
collateral damageobs. The hapless schmucks that happen to be in the way when the U.S. bombs civilian facilities or residential neighborhoods. When they do it to us, it is called terrorism. No longer commonly used; such deaths are now ignored entirely. Other obsolete words and phrases include "Osama bin Laden," "Afghanistan," "budget surplus," "economy," "environment," "corporate scandals," "education," "civil liberties," "Constitution," "Guantanamo Bay," and "the end of the war."
democracyn. The ideal form of a political system -- now used interchangeably with the economic system called "capitalism" -- in which a handful of wealthy people with occasional minor policy differences take turns enriching their patrons and being elected by a citizenry that is allowed no other choices. E.g.: "We intend to turn Iraq into a democracy, just like the United States."
deterrentn. A category of military weapons that includes massive nuclear arsenals, space-based nuclear and laser weapons, and chemical and biological weapons research. Only applies when possessed by the United States See: Weapons of Mass Destruction
disarmv. To blow to smithereens. E.g.: "Saddam Hussein's destruction of his missiles is an impediment to U.S. plans to disarmSaddam Hussein."
due processn. When George Bush decides a terrorist gets the process that he is due. See: unlawful combatant; torture.
embedv. To engage in an act of prostitution. E.g.: "Hundreds of U.S. media outlets have elected to cover the war by having their reporters embedded in an American military unit."
empireabbr. A shortened form of the phrase "American empire." A state in which 196 countries are eternally grateful, or should be, for being plundered by the 197th. See: democracy
homelandn. That portion of empire which got ignored because the "Department of Defense" is no longer used for defending.
Old Europen. Formerly "allies." A collection of countries too stuck in the mud, or jealous, to welcome empire. See also: world
peacen. The mythical state achieved when the United States has a complete global monopoly on the use of military force. Not to be confused with "democracy," "freedom," or "justice." See: empire
the people of IraqSee: Saddam Hussein
precision bombingn. Replaces smart bombs. What a morally enlightened country like the United States does. Involves using MOABs, daisy cutters, or up to 3,000 cruise missiles to create firestorms that convert oxygen to carbon monoxide and asphyxiate anyone within range of the miles-wide inferno; and then pretending that the resulting fatalities do not exist. See: civilian casualties
preemptive attackn. Replaces blitzkrieg. Unprovoked invasion of a country that poses no threat, esp. if that country is defenseless and has extensive reserves of oil.
proofn. Sales receipts, usually from before or just after the Gulf War. E.g.: "We have extensive proof for the existence of Iraq's biological and chemical weapons."
reconstructionn. The lucrative process undertaken during the occupation of an invaded country, involving replacing destroyed buildings, bridges, and utility systems. There is nothing you can do to rebuild the people; fortunately, they never existed. See: Saddam Hussein; civilian casuallties
regime changen. Coup d'etat.
Saddam Husseinn. The nation of Iraq, pop. 24,002,000 (2002 est.); area 172,476 sq. mi. (slightly larger than California), centered on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Southwest Asia, previously known as Mesopotamia; one of the oldest continuously civilized regions in the world. "Iraq" and "Saddam Hussein" are generally used interchangeably, e.g.: "We're going to bomb the hell out of Saddam Hussein."
Shock and Awen. War crime.
terrorismadj. What they do.
terroristn Anybody who dislikes George Bush's policies. See: unlawful combatant
torturen. 1. A form of due process, inflicted either by the U.S. or its trained employees in less savory third world dictatorships. See: unlawful combatant. 2. George Bush giving a press conference.
unlawful combatantn. Any opponent of George Bush's policies who the U.S. government would prefer to have held indefinitely without trial. See: Constitution; due process; torture
War On Terrorn. A comprehensive marketing strategy to ensure the reelection of George Bush in 2004, by embroiling the United States in war for decades to come. Replaces these previous campaigns: "Compassionate conservative," "Fiscally responsible," "Education President," "He's really not as dumb as he looks." Precedes "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."
Weapons of Mass Destructionn. What they have. See: deterrent
Worldn. The collection of nations and peoples which thinks George Bush is out of his freakin' mind.
Powell's lack of rhetorical grandstanding was welcome, as was the specificity of his charges. That being said, they still fail to justify launching a war.
The first and most obvious problem is that it wouldn't be a launch. It would be a dramatic and gruesome escalation, to be sure, one that even its lead architect has compared, publicly and approvingly, to Hiroshima. But three presidents have been waging continuous war against Iraq's government and its people for a dozen years -- from the Gulf War, to economic sanctions, to the unilaterally imposed no-fly zones, to regular bombings, to covert efforts to overthrow or assassinate Iraq's leaders, to the current, steadily increasing bombing runs and psychological pressure on the Iraqis. Powell's presentation was not a case for war; it was part of the war itself, and should be understood as such.
The problem all along with a level-headed assessment of the Bush Administration's myriad justifications for an overt invasion and "regime change" -- justifications that have been frequently shifting, at times contradictory, and often demonstrably false -- is that they have been in the service of a predetermined conclusion. Regardless of whether a decision to invade had been made, and when, there has never been any question that Bush and his circle of hawks have wanted war, the bigger the better, and that the question in their minds was less whether it was justified than how to sell it to allies and to the public.
The White House's arguments for war all along have been less conclusions based on evidence than evidence based on conclusions -- less like the determination of a judge, and more like the lawyers arguing to the jury. Powell's presentation to the U.N., with its more concrete evidence and its more sober demeanor, should be considered every bit as critically, and skeptically, as those of the more hyperbolic prosecutors preceding him.
And, to quote the late, wondrous Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?
Powell's evidence rests primarily on two assertions: that Iraq's government cooperates with Al-Qaeda, and that it has also sought to hide evidence from U.N. weapons inspectors.
Every word could be true. But it is the words still not present that stand out. There is still absolutely no evidence that the Iraqi government, now or at any foreseeable point in the future, poses a security threat even to its immediate neighbors -- let alone to the United States, halfway around the world. There is no evidence that Iraq, a country whose military is a fifth of its size ten years ago, a country crippled militarily (and in many other ways) by the most rigorous sanctions in world history, a country whose every move is closely monitored, a country which knows that any aggressive twitch would be instantly suicidal, now even possesses the capacity to inflict harm on any other country -- let alone is a threat to do so, and let alone that the United States is among those threatened.
As a subset of those absent allegations, there is no evidence that Iraq possesses even any components of any weapons of mass destruction, let alone fully intact and operational weapons, let alone the means to deliver them outside its borders, let alone halfway around the world.
Powell didn't even try to make such a case; he argued solely that Iraq has repeatedly withheld from inspectors information of undetermined significance. Even if true, this does not justify an invasion; it simply permits that decision, in a legal sense. Under the resolution the U.S. pushed through the Security Council last fall, failure to fully comply gives the United Nations the legal authority to authorize the use of force. It does not prove that war is necessary, or even that it is the best choice. It certainly does not give the United States carte blanche to do whatever the Bushies want.
Then there is Powell's Al-Qaeda claim. It would be laughable, were not the stakes so unlaughable. The United States wants to perpetrate Hiroshima-scale carnage, on the basis of one man sought on terrorism-related charges -- a man whose links to Al-Qaeda are themselves tenuous -- because he showed up briefly in Baghdad last year seeking medical treatment for a wound suffered in Afghanistan.
Let's review. A man seeks medical care in the only city in Southwest Asia that has both the medical facilities needed to treat him effectively and a government that would not arrest him as soon as the Americans asked them to do so. The leaps necessary to get from that point to the it-requires-war point would exhaust Superman. They include the man's guilt on the alleged charges against him; his group's association with Al-Qaeda and/or capacity to inflict damage against the United States; any evidence that the Iraqi government made contact with him -- let alone significant contact, let alone had a working relationship while he was in the country; evidence that such a relationship could overcome, and survive, the deep-seated animosity and strong political, ideological, and especially religious differences between the two parties (Saddam Hussein's government and Islamic fundamentalist groups like Al-Qaeda); and evidence that the threat thus established is serious enough to warrant an invasion and overthrow of Iraq's government.
And the flip side is both simple and obvious: If such nefarious doings were afoot, and both the fugitive and Iraq knew they were being closely monitored, wouldn't they have used intermediaries? Why risk personal contact? It's like saying bin Laden was in Germany planning 9-11. It's nonsensical.
If Powell is stretching that far to make the case the Bush Administration has been desperate to make for 16 months -- that Saddam Hussein had links to 9/11 -- it calls into question his entire presentation. Any objective reading of the legitimacy of Powell's case must include the question as to whether his "factual" evidence is, in fact, factual. One need not go back to the Gulf of Tonkin, or even the Kuwaiti incubator hoax before the Gulf War, to recall American governments lying to justify aggressive military policies.
The Bush Administration has been routinely misrepresenting facts on the ground in its efforts over the last year to justify invasion; it has watched public support steadily erode despite those efforts. Our government has told us it would lie, to us and to the world, in service of its military goals. It risked a diplomatic uproar to seize the only, unread copy of Iraq's U.N. weapons report less than two months ago. It has had the tools, the time, and the motive to falsify evidence, and there is little or no corroboration for either Powell's satellite intelligence or his "human intelligence." It could all be true; it could also all be a cynical hoax. Nor need it be Bush's team that's doing the lying; that human intelligence is without question coming from people with much to gain by having the Americans put a government in power in Baghdad -- a government likely to be run by Iraqis the Americans already know and have found helpful.
And, as with so much of the ridiculous Afghan "intelligence" coming out of Guantanamo Bay these days, whether that information is given willingly or under duress, when the Bush Administration is told something it wants to hear, its bullshit detectors seem permanently glued in the "off" position.
Ultimately, far too much of the Bush Administration's case for war is undermined by its own eagerness -- by the undisputable fact that their already-reached conclusion is driving both what they ask and what they hear. For opponents of an invasion, there is the same risk. Because the Bush command team is treating war as a first rather than a last resort, even very real threats posed by Baghdad risk being seen not as threats, but as justifications. Powell's testimony, by providing the evidence the Bush Administration has been so reluctant to divulge (understandably so, given its thinness), deserves careful and open-minded consideration. And there is the possibility, still, that further and far more damning evidence has yet to be divulged.
The decision to invade should not be taken as a six-year-old parses her or his parents' words, looking for the escape from bedtime. ("You said I had to go to bed. You didn't say I had to stay there!") A case for invasion should not rest on hair-splitting over the sins of Iraq, the wording of U.N. resolutions, or U.S. claims of the right to unilateral invasions. It should be clear, compelling, and indisputable.
The onus is not on Iraq to prove a negative -- that it would not and could not pose any sort of threat to the world or to the United States. It is instead Washington's responsibility to prove a positive: That not only does a threat exist, but it is so grave and so immediate that it endangers the security of the United States, and that no other options exist but to invade. Moreover, each of those counts must be so overwhelming as to outweigh all the negatives of such an action: the enormous death toll likely, the monetary cost, the horrific global precedent, the risk of inflaming the world's most volatile region, the likelihood that it will provoke further terrorism against America, to name only five.
On all counts -- the graveness and the immediacy of Iraq's purported threat to the U.S., and the lack of alternatives to invasion -- Colin Powell made no such case Wednesday. It has yet to be made by anybody, inside or outside the Bush government. There is, as yet, no indication that such a case is even possible. Even as its soldiers mass at the borders, the United States is still a long, long way from showing that an invasion of Iraq would be anything other than an indefensible act of unprovoked war.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange.
Tonight, President Bush delivers his State of the Union address. It will be a tedious affair, guaranteed to have at least one "surprise" simply because we've already been told, endlessly, pretty much what he'll say.
The whole enterprise would be more interesting if, like the Super Bowl -- another overhyped event dissected by far too many play-by-play network anchors -- Bush's speech was overshadowed by the expensive and creative commercials. It would certainly be consistent with the spirit of Bush's presidency; the RNC is probably looking into it for next year.
This year, Bush will deliver, for the 547th time, his long-awaited Comprehensive Case to the American People as to Why We Should Kick Saddam's Fanny. He'll urge the privatization of Medicare (though he won't quite say it that way). He'll demand a comprehensive tax reform package so that this coming April 15 we will each be assigned a billionaire to whom we will make our check out directly.
He won't quite say that unswervingly, either.
And what Bush won't say at all could fill volumes. The reasons why millions of people around the world are in the streets protesting against America each week; the reasons why many tens of thousands (at least) of Muslims have probably newly pledged their lives to committing terrorist acts against America; the reasons for the remarkably deep anger among those Americans who dislike Bush's presidency; all will not find voice tonight, either in Dubya's speech or the "reply" by yet another Democratic version of Republican Lite -- this time Washington State Gov. Gary Locke.
In his home state, Locke has enraged most legislators and nearly all voters in his own party by responding to a severe state budget shortfall (over $2 billion in a $23 billion budget) with a "no new taxes, ever" budget plan that cuts spending mostly in social services. Republicans themselves are either delighted with Locke's priorities or alarmed that even by Republican standards they go too far.
Locke has dreams of a vice presidency some day -- he's relatively young, photogenic, Asian-American, and a shoo-in for a third term next year. He's remained popular by smiling a lot and refusing to take any actions in his first two terms to respond to his state's most urgent problems -- leaving legislators to face the heat as they debate various unpopular options.
This is the national Democratic Party's idea of a comprehensive rebuttal to George W. Bush's frontal assault on what America stands for: Smile a lot, do nothing, and try to cash whatever corporate checks the Bush juggernaut might have overlooked.
Meanwhile, in the two years of his presidency -- and particularly the 15 months since 9/11 -- Bush has turned American government, and America's role in the world, upside down. It's more than the headline items, like the childish bellicosity and the massive tax breaks for the obscenely rich. Every day, far away from the public eye, the Bush Administration has been busy remaking America's relationship to the world and Americans' relationship to our government.
Regulatory and judicial appointments; end runs around Congress through arbitrary rule changes; unprecedented expansion of police and secret agency powers at the expense of both civil liberties and the Constitution itself; a direct bid to make evangelical Christianity our governing religion; runaway spending which, combined with the tax cuts, amounts not just to class warfare but to a massive, and wildly successful, wealth transfer scheme. Examples of each of these threads of the Bush crusade, and many more, ooze out of Washington each day. And the Democrats, almost without exception, have either cowered or applauded.
A favorite tactic of all presidents in their State of the Union addresses is to tell the representative anecdote. So here are a handful of anecdotes for our Handbasket Report -- because after two years, an oversized, gas-guzzling handbasket is surely what America is being taken for a ride in.
Last week, the Bush Administration selected layperson Gay Plague Jerry to serve on the Presidential Advisory Commission on HIV and AIDS, a prestigious panel that since the Reagan years has advised federal agencies on the best ways of dealing with the AIDS pandemic. AIDS and HIV service organizations and AIDS/HIV patient groups are outraged by Thacker's appointment. But who cares about them? God already judged them, right?
Any good Handbasket anecdote should have a pithy moral, and Thacker's personal tragedy does seem to have an obvious one. Repulsive as the man sounds, and as tragic as his personal circumstance may be, it does smack just a wee bit of a Divine Sense of Humor -- sort of like a Klansman contracting sickle cell anemia.
This was the Bush Medicare program's holiday gift to its clients -- perhaps a warmup for the rapidly approaching day when those fixed income clients will be dumped, against their will, into the even less forthcoming world of HMOs and insurance industry parasites. But for now, Medicare officials explain that the move was simply a bid to save money. It was done, in classic Dubya style, by cheating people out of benefits they are entitled to in a program they, and we, have funded all our lives; it was done by targeting the people who by definition are the sickest, most disabled, least likely to have personal support, and therefore least likely to be able to easily negotiate Medicare's bureaucratic maze. It is an effort to offset the money Medicare is paying out to drug companies, HMOs, and bureaucrats by cheating it out the people most in need of help and least able to fight back. It's a perfect snapshot of America Under Dubya.
With East Timor newly independent and "terrorist" resistance to Indonesian brutality sparking nasty fighting in Aceh, Irian Jaya, and other densely populated ends of the archipelago, those same Indonesian war criminals will now get brand-new, state-of-the-Dark-Arts kill toys. Naturally, virtually nobody in this country noticed this change in U.S. policy. But particularly since many of the civilian populations being targeted by Indonesia's unsavory practices are Islamic, a lot of people in the Islamic world noticed. As you may recall, those are the people the Bush brain trust has vowed to better tell our story to, so that they, too, will love America.
These days, across the Islamic world, it's mostly the dictators, generals and practitioners of torture who love America. They, like the Indonesian generals, are perfect candidates for a White House dinner. Bet they're all Kissinger Associates clients, too.
And so it goes. The Handbasket Report is the State of the Union, because at every level, high and low, the Bushites have been remarkably audacious -- and the Democrats, in response, timid. The sum result is the goal of remaking America into a country a dimly intelligent, arrogant, rich, white, male, heterosexual, evangelical Christian bully can truly love. Unfortunately, the rest of the world will loathe such a country and actively resist its empire-building. And the Bush America will be, invariably, a country that those of us not thrown in jail will still find a dreary, exhausting, culturally deadening place.
The State of the Union address is no longer, in any real sense, a report to Congress on the union's state. It's now advertising; invariably it will sound great and the applause will flow. They've got unlimited asphalt they disguise as good intentions, and they're paving over everything in a thousand planet radius.
And if the Handbasket Report isn't to become an annual address -- or a daily one -- it's up to each of us to ensure that our country is not turned into George Bush's version: an America antithetical to everything we've ever been taught that our country stands for. George Bush is the culmination -- so far -- of two decades in which our democracy, prosperity and freedom have been stolen. It's time to get them back. And we will.
God bless, and good night.
The 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade has come and gone, and as usual, reproductive rights advocates and abortion foes turned the day into something of a religious holiday -- and an occasion, invariably, to bemoan what has happened in the years since Roe v. Wade. Abortion foes rail about 34 million cases of "infanticide"; proponents note the ever-shrinking availability of abortion and other prenatal health care services, with poor women and women in rural areas of the U.S. now more likely than ever to be unable to find or pay for what should be, under Roe v. Wade, readily available anywhere.
The reasons for the evolution of abortion availability over the years -- how it has shrunk even as support for legal abortion has solidified among the American public -- are mind-bogglingly complex. But at its core, the debate is a religious one. Abortion foes began by insisting that public funds should not be used to carry out (and, later, promote, and, most recently, countenance) what they consider to be a religiously offensive practice. Conversely, abortion rights proponents often feel that the religious belief underlying abortion restrictions -- specifically, that a fetus or embryo is a "preborn child," with "rights" equal to any adult -- is both offensive and preposterous. In essence, one side claims their religion is being imposed upon, and the other claims their rights are being imposed upon by religion.
Into this Gordian knot has charged the Bush Administration, which has been the most aggressive in memory in trying to impose religious beliefs -- its religious beliefs -- on to the American public. And, indeed, the world, as evidenced by the new, White House-inspired U.S. intransigence in global family planning forums.
The Bush crusades have meant an abrupt reversal from Clintontime policy on a number of reproductive and family planning fronts, as well as a far more ostentatious demonstration of the truism that every President must make an ongoing public show of his devoutness. But the flagship of the Bush assault on the separation of church and state has been the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (WHOFFBACI), which has worked quietly and hard to put as many of the country's disadvantaged as possible in a position of needing to rely on religion, not government, for a helping hand -- and has also worked hard to ensure that taxpayer money funds those ecumenically-run programs.
This week, just as the Roe v. Wade anniversary reminded people of what public policy based upon religious belief looks like, word broke that one of the White House's favorite social engineering tools -- the quiet administrative rule change that sidesteps Congress entirely -- was floated this month to dramatically expand the Faith-Based Initiative. The proposed HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) rule would enable federal tax dollars to be used to build houses of worship, so long as at least some of that house of worship was used for a social program funded under the Faith-Based Initiative.
The potential for abuse is obvious. Almost every church or religious congregation operates social programs of some sort, so who, exactly, wouldn't be eligible for a new church or synagogue or mosque? The rule would seem to be blatantly unconstitutional on its face -- not that that will keep John Ashcroft et al. awake nights.
Liberal groups continue to tee off on the Faith-Based Initiative, both for separation of church and state reasons and because such programs represent a wholesale abandonment of any federal commitment to directly fund social service programs. But there's another, more insidious danger: to the religious groups themselves.
If you're a mullah, pastor, rabbi, minister, priest, or someone higher up on His or Her chain of command, and the Bush Administration comes calling with bucketloads of tax money so that you can administer their social programs, do not walk away. Run. Fast. No -- faster. Churches should never, ever become an agent of Caesar. Let alone a fiscal dependent.
When America's founders built a wall between faith and government, they did so largely because faith institutions, in their day, were far more powerful; the influence of organized religion on matters of state was what they, and successive generations, feared most. But today, it is government that wields extraordinary power, government that claims the right to monitor, control, and/or tax every aspect of our existence.
In much of the country, organized religion already does, in fact, fill a tremendous void once occupied by government programs, without any direct government subsidies at all. Doing good in the community is a core principle of virtually every house of worship. They do this work because they believe it to be holy and righteous and necessary. And that is the danger -- or, at least, the biggest among many -- with the "Faith Based Initiative." Jesus, to pick one example, did not serve the poor because there was a generous grant available to service targeted client populations.
Nor did he apply for money for operating overhead while he healed the sick. But now churches do. Once, healing was a primary ecumenical calling. Then, in the 1960s, the spigot of federal funding opened for faith-based hospitals. Everything changed. The administrators came in, the accountants, the grant writers, the consultants, the government auditors. Suddenly, it became a matter not of healing, but of money. Now, groups like the Seventh Day Adventists squeeze wealth from hospitals and clinics operated across the country -- facilities that turn away the uninsured, because God's work doesn't figure into their very secular budgets.
The needy need what we all do -- housing, food, clothes, health, a job. That's why it's so easy for government agencies to lose sight of their original missions. It can be more lucrative to serve less impoverished clients, or more expedient to heed political trends. How will your church fare? Will it be pursuing the ministry it wants to? Will it feel free to speak out against politicians' policies it perceives as unholy, when those policies are proposed by a major funder? In 20 years, under new management, will we have a chain of 2,800 Union Gospel Missions across the country, with conference rooms and free continental breakfasts -- but no room for the poor at the inn built with a generous HUD subsidy?
Here it comes. The world of well-meaning, morally motivated congregations overwhelmed by grant restrictions, bean-counters, and federal WHOFFBACI social engineers cum bureaucrats. They'll call it God's Work, too. At first. And then they'll set up their own rules to interpret God, just so that all churches are being built under the same, consistent guidelines. And they'll work hard to keep churches in line with the federally approved interpretation of God -- one, for example, that gives personhood to a newly fertilized egg. Should your church object, it will risk losing its tax-exempt status. Or maybe a big fine from the WHOFFBACI Standards officers, or perhaps losing tax-exempt status for that part of their new church they've already told they government they use for their secular social program.
Churches and other religious institutions should serve the poor without state money or blessing -- because it's a spiritual imperative, not because there's funding available. And if George W. Bush offers them our tax money to do it, or offers to write their spiritual beliefs into law, they should refuse. The separation between church and state protects churches, too.
"Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life." -- Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Death penalty opponents are euphoric -- as they well should be -- over this past weekend's decision by outgoing Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute the death sentences of all 164 men on his state's death row. It was a landmark gesture in the history of capital punishment in America -- far outstripping the past standard for decency in a governor, the 22 sentences commuted by Oklahoma Gov. Lee Cruce in 1915.
But beyond the death penalty, Ryan's act raises a bigger question. He moved only two days before he leaves office, having failed to seek re-election under the cloud of a local corruption scandal. For two years, Ryan has agonized in a very public, high-profile way over the death penalty -- a process inspired by the Northwestern University student project that in the 1990s began systematically reexamining, and frequently exonerating, prisoners awaiting death sentences. Two years ago, Ryan instituted a moratorium on further executions. Saturday, saying the implementation of capital punishment in his state was "haunted by the demon of error," he wiped out each and every one of those sentences. The prisoners will -- unless they are proven innocent in the future -- never leave prison, but neither will they be carefully murdered by the state of Illinois.
The question is this:
What took George Ryan so long?
Specifically, why did a sitting governor for two years presumably have a pretty good idea of what he knew was the right thing to do, but not have the courage to actually do it until two days before leaving office, even when he has known for a year that he would not seek re-election?
And we noticed George Ryan's extraordinary gesture not because he waited so long, but because he acted in such a way at all.
Regardless of one's view of the death penalty, clearly, Ryan's mass commutation was an act born of conscience and executive judgment, not of poll testing or public popularity. The death penalty remains popular (though now slightly less so each year) in the United States, in stark contrast to the rest of the Western democracies.
But while it is an issue that excites deep passions, the number of incumbents who have lost office in the last two decades over opposition to executions is virtually nil. The same is true for almost every other controversial issue. Very, very few elections in our country, at any level but especially the higher ones, are decided by a single issue; an alarming number of electoral races aren't even seriously contested unless there is no incumbent running. At a more mundane level, the sort of horse-trading that can decide the fate of legislative bills is rarely governed by resentment over philosophical differences on other issues -- nor do they spill over into fundraising for unrelated races. For an elected official today there is, practically speaking, virtually no down side to taking a principled stand.
Politicians have always been leery of risk, of course, but never more so than today. Despite the safeness of so many seats, public officials still spend half their time fundraising -- in case they either run for reelection or for another office, or perhaps to help out a friend in the next election. They seemingly spend the rest of their time calculating how to avoid the tough decisions littering public life, for fear of alienating even a sliver of the swing voters that might in theory -- but in practice almost never do -- determine the next election.
The result is government by cowardice: state legislatures, all 50 of them, in which budget cuts are born by the people least likely to vote or complain loudly, specifically because they're the least likely to vote or complain loudly. A health care crisis where nothing is done -- despite the desperation of tens of millions of people -- for fear of alienating important electoral contributors if any portion of a rotted medical system is tweaked. At the national level, an entire party -- the Democrats -- paralyzed by the triangulating legacy of Bill Clinton, unable to resist the Bush Administration's bid to reimagine America because principled opposition is literally not an option. And on the Republican side, a case of groupthink and conservative dogmatism so deeply ingrained that its victims are unable to recognize or challenge their own bad ideas, even when they conflict with conservative ideology itself.
The death penalty should be such an issue -- as it was for Ryan. (No present Democrat would have dared do such a thing.) One of the notions of law and order is punishing people for their crime -- and not punishing the wrong people. Particularly with DNA testing, violent crimes where blood or semen are spilled can now link perpetrators to their victims, with virtually perfect accuracy, years or decades later. A law and order guy should want the perps behind bars, and should not want our legal system to be tainted by random police and judicial efforts to find and convict someone, anyone, for a heinous crime.
The same is true, of course, for the nonsensical current enthusiasm for unprovoked war. I've always been puzzled as to why many of the same people who don't trust the government to decide relatively petty issues like property rights, business regulation, or environmental law are so eager to let their state or country decide whether people should live or die. Such decisions are the ultimate in abrogating freedom of the individual. But in our current political system, they take a back seat to getting and staying in power -- just as on the liberal side, commitment to fair and equitable sentences, or to not jailing people for harmless drug crimes, or to easing the current fad for barbaric prison conditions, all take a back seat to the same lust for power.
Enthusiasm for the death penalty in America has historically been cyclical, and it's perhaps a hopeful sign for those concerned about other forms of state violence that the execution tide now appears on the way out. In the last six months, a stream of federal court rulings have raised new questions and curbed some of the more wretched excesses of the modern expansion of capital sentencing. A fundamental re-examination, spurred by the courage of people like George Ryan, is on the way.
But it shouldn't take courage to do the right thing. It should be what we expect, what we demand, of our political leaders; it should be a job requirement. In a complex society with countless intractable challenges, the best answers often won't be the simplest or most popular. The current fad of claiming to "run government like a business" is usually an excuse for corporate welfare and cuts to the needy, but in one respect, such leadership would be a nice change. Successful business executives generally don't get to the top by pandering.
Hopefully, in state capitol buildings around the country, ambitious young politicians noticed what George Ryan did this past weekend, and the admiration it engendered. And maybe, just maybe, somewhere some of his former colleagues will decide to no longer insult our intelligence when facing society's challenges.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter. He writes daily for WorkingForChange.
This is the seventh year that I've compiled lists of the most overhyped and underreported stories of the year. For the last several years, my talented colleague (and co-editor at the local newspaper Eat the State!), Maria Tomchick, has helped. When I started the list in 1996, it was with the perception that the U.S, public, instead of getting the information it needed to make informed decisions in a democracy, was being distracted with an endless barrage of feel-good trivia.
Ah, the good old days. Now, that same trivia is mixed in with active disinformation being cynically fed out by politicians from the White House down, self-interested corporations, and media that could know better if it only dared rock a boat now and then. As a result, two-thirds of Americans in a recent poll were reported to believe that Iraq was responsible for 9/11. That's a combination of a cynical and extraordinarily effective propaganda campaign, and corporate reporters not doing their job -- or at least, not the job they're supposed to be doing. Instead, network news gives us 45 second standups in front of the State Department followed by ten minutes promoting some new movie or TV series put out by the same corporate octopus. Then you'll see the same entertainment footage on local news, right after the car wreck and the sports, and before Super-Double-Doppler� 14-day weather.
The Most Overrated Stories of the Year
Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction
Nobody -- except the Bush Administration and Tony Blair -- believes they exist. Seldom have so many words been wasted on weapons that, if they did exist, would be few in number, poorly made, and impossible to deliver more than a couple hundred miles. Instead, Bush's obsession becomes our obsession. Worse, constant repetition of "Iraq = Saddam = Terrorist" has successfully shifted post-9/11 focus -- and blame -- away from the very real threat posed by Islamic terrorists, most of whom seem to come from countries we consider allies.
Axis of Evil
News Flash!! Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are three different countries. Iraq's and Iran's governments loathe each other, and neither has any connection with North Korea. They are radically different in politics, history, religion, and culture, linked only by the rhetorical flourishes of George Bush's marketers -- er, speechwriters. Apparently that's enough.
The Economic Recovery
It's coming, remember? And coming, and coming. It's just around the corner. Who'd have guessed this funhouse had so damned many corners?
John Walker Lindh
Amazing how a dirty filthy traitor can become a confused kid with a heart of gold when Dad can afford good lawyers.
Catholic Sex Scandals
Yes, they were horrific crimes. But media coverage routinely failed to distinguish between the recent priestly crimes and coverups and the ones that happened two or three decades ago. How come we can care so much about someone who committed sex crimes in the '70s, but a documented war criminal in the '70s or '80s can completely avoid criticism for engineering mass murder, even when nominated to a high-profile national position? That would be Mr. Kissinger. Come to think of it, it could also be any of a dozen other people in the Bush Administration.
Or amber, or chartreuse, or whatever other attempt to transform routine risk into public fear Bush's administration trotted out this week. As warnings, they're pointless; nobody pays attention. But as attempts to make the White House look good and prop up its other policies, they work like a charm.
Internet is media, and this is a media phenomenon -- an embarrassing one in which Someone, usually Bush or the CIA or Israel, either Knew And Did Nothing or Planned It All Themselves. It's an alternate universe in which circumstance is proof, every connection has meaning, every action is intentional and perfectly executed, and the thousands of people in on it are either too craven or scared to Tell What They Know. "Who Killed Paul Wellstone?" is a perfect example. It's an impulse for order. Life isn't random: whatever happens must have an intentional cause. This is religion, not news. And it's horsehooey.
The Smallpox Threat
The chances of a terrorist group getting its hands on smallpox and being able to effectively store, transport, and disperse it in a biological attack are vanishingly small. Even the suicidal smallpox terrorist who coughs on folks at the shopping mall would infect maybe one or two people before he died (and their chances of surviving are pretty good). We have better drugs and better sanitation nowadays. But media loves a scare tactic and they've seized on this one. Vaccine manufacturers love it, too.
As if smallpox wasn't a big enough scare, the Bush administration and US media want you to forget about arsenic in your water and nuclear waste being trucked through your town on its way to Yucca Mountain. Instead, we're supposed to worry about dirty bombs that don't exist.
So often the story started with "little Suzy disappeared yesterday..." and ended with "Suzy was found early this morning. She had wandered away from her backyard to visit the neighbors..." It was pointless, horrible, and pandered to parents' worst fears. And the "epidemic" of high-profile cases masked the fact that abduction rates were normal this year, and that most real cases involve custody disputes, not strangers.
The Most Important Underreported Stories of 2002
White House Propaganda
Particularly while justifying its Iraq obsession, the Bush Administration told one whopper after another this year -- exaggerations or outright lies not even consistent with each other, let alone reality. The individual statements are rarely challenged, and the Bush Administration's overall pro-war propaganda campaign -- one of the most effective in a half-century -- is itself rarely acknowledged by media that instead willingly participate.
America's Weapons of Mass Destruction
While Iraq's weapons got the attention, it's America's that still could wipe out life on earth. Yet abolition of the ABM treaty and the world's arms control structure got very little attention, the obscene cost and (after abolition of ABM) global first-strike potential of Star Wars remained invisible, and the potential for terrorist attacks against our own vulnerable facilities was simply verboten.
Majority of Americans Are Not Fooled
Surveys have shown, time and again, that U.S. citizens think that war with Iraq will increase our chances of being attacked by terrorists, yet the U.S. media continues to call it The War on Terrorism. Go figure. And the "broad public support" consistently reported in polls appears only when respondents are given the conditions of international support for war and few American casualties -- both highly unlikely.
Revitalized U.S. and World Peace Movement
Half a million people marched in Florence, Italy. Hundreds of thousands participated in various marches and rallies in U.S. But where was the U.S. media? Missing the key story: a peace movement organized to prevent a war. That's not just news, it's historic.
And if we're to instigate "regime change" and democracy in Iraq, how about looking at the country where we promised exactly the same thing only a year ago? Afghan democracy American-style has been a disaster, with a puppet regime in Kabul and new U.N. offices sucking up the foreign aid, while women suffer just as much and Afghanistan remains impoverished and terrorized by many of the same warlords, who are committing many of the same crimes that turned the wretched country into the killing fields during the Northern Alliance's first reign of terror. And those warlords are being funded with U.S. dollars, via the Pentagon, who's been paying them to hunt the Taliban. Oh, and it was a record harvest for poppies this year.
Meanwhile, the one country in the Middle East with confirmed nukes, a track record of defying international law and UN resolutions, and a consistent refusal to allow outside inspection remains our closest ally and biggest aid recipient. Moreover, Israel has committed systematic, horrific abuses against civilians within its militarily-occupied lands all year. Excepting a brief flurry during the Easter Offensive, it's mostly been media background noise, second fiddle to suicide bombings. And this, remember, is the one issue above all others motivating the people who did and would attack America.
Then there's our other war -- well, the biggest of them, since the U.S. military is now in 60 countries. Colombia's new far-right government and its paramilitary thug friends are getting not just Pentagon help, but a whole crew of private armies, mercenaries, arms dealers, and other American corporations making good money from dead Colombian peasants. That Saddam sure is a menace.
While rigged tribunals pardoned Indonesian officers for their role in the East Timor election massacres, the Bush administration quietly sought to reestablish ties and provide training, money, and weapons to the worst and bloodiest military in the world. The Indonesian military is responsible for massacres in Irian Jaya and Aceh provinces, plus the arming and training of Islamic fundamentalists that have been responsible for massive sectarian killings. In short, they're perfect candidates for a White House dinner.
Military Corporate Welfare
It all adds up to the post-9/11 conversion, without media attention or public debate, of the United States into a country built on permanent war. It's most evident in the budget, which gives blank checks to the Pentagon and to a dozen other agencies -- and that's just the overt ones -- with war as part of their mission. Most of the money is going into hardware, not personnel, meaning food stamps on base and juicy new contracts for triply redundant hi-tech kill toys. Combined with tax cuts, it means all war, all the time, and tremendous fortunes for the people least likely to get caught in the crossfire.
The Rest of the Corporate Scandals... and What Happened to Corporate Reform?
Enron was a star. WorldCom got some ink (although not much discussion of why its debt tripled from $3 billion to $9 billion), and Harken and Halliburton even put in (too) brief appearances. But the long, long list of other corporate scandals this year almost never made past the business section. And the systemic reasons why such "scandals" are the norm, or slight variations on the norm, were almost never discussed. Neither, after 20 years of deregulation and privatizing, was the complicity of most major figures in both political parties, or the total cost to consumers and taxpayers. Reform? With one SEC Chairman down and one head of the new Accounting Oversight Board resigning before his term even began, you can bet "reform" is a lost cause.
White House Power Grab
Occasional flurries, like Dick Cheney's noisy refusal to release information on who wrote his energy policy, made the news. But on endless fronts, this White House and its Congressional allies have reserved for themselves an unthinkable array of powers -- everything from keeping details of legislation secret until the last moment to imprisoning Americans without charges or counsel on nothing more than the President's say. A full list of the ways in which our unelected president is becoming emperor would be useful. We're still waiting.
Why aren't Democrats rocking the boat? Because they've got their own yachts. At every level from Congress to dogcatcher, 2002 saw a record low in the number of close elections. For Congress, fewer than 10% of the races were ever in doubt. Why? Money, of course -- campaigns are more expensive and candidates are richer than ever -- but factor in toothless campaign finance reform and 2000 Census redistricting, which, in state after state, saw the two parties agree on plans that maximized the number of incumbents with permanent sinecures.
Bush's Foxes, Our Henhouses
Turns out our emperor put a stop to the revolving door between corporate America and the White House -- by appointing people who never used the door, and never stopped working for the industries they came from. Particularly at the Undersecretary level, almost every conceivable segment of America's corporate economy now has a friend on the inside looking for ways to maximize its profits. Food safety, media ownership, land use, bankruptcy law, tort reform, pollution, tax law, anti-trust protection, and on, and on. Any one of these is a scandal. Three are a trend. Several dozen and you've got a looting spree of historic proportions.
Bush Flunks the Economy Test
His tax cut was supposed to bear fruit by stimulating the economy this year. It didn't, and next year's cut won't, either. He's a "supply-sider" -- and the Reagan administration should have proved long ago that supply-side economics is a joke.
High Consumer Debt Drags Down the Economy
All those years of taking out second mortgages, home improvement loans, and racking up credit card debt are starting to tell on the U.S. public and the economy. Bankruptcies are up, way up. Consumer spending, the engine that really drives the economy, is way, way down. A tax cut for a few rich guys isn't gonna help.
The Bush Administration's abolition-by-decree of numerous major protections could have been the story of the year, and served as the basis for other important stories: global warming (and the increasing isolation of America as Atmospheric Enemy No. 1), the Spanish oil tanker disaster, the impending final plunder of remaining Northwest old growth forests, the Klamath River fish kill, massive (and needless) forest fires, and the potentially enormous disaster if the Gulf War's Kuwaiti oil fires are replicated in Iraq.
The Rest of The World Goes Ahead with Kyoto
The Europeans are trading carbon credits, the Japanese are cutting emissions, and Canada has ratified the Kyoto Protocol. In January, when Russia ratifies it, it'll go into effect as international law -- for everyone except us. Oink.
The natural resource in greatest demand this century won't be oil -- it'll be potable water, already in desperately short supply in much of the world. And throughout it, access is being privatized. Anyone who thinks Bechtel will make that water affordable just because millions of people need it to survive hasn't been paying attention to the pharmaceutical industry, AIDS, and Africa. But how could they? That's underreported, too -- as is the health care crisis in this country, which makes this list for the seventh consecutive year.
The Collapse of the Neoliberal Consensus
While most governments still salute the IMF flag -- caught between the debt squeeze and loyalty to their own countries' elites -- all over the world, the public isn't buying it. In South America's two biggest countries, Brazil and Argentina, popular outrage threw such governments out. In Venezuela, a coup attempt backed by the business elite and the U.S. (another underreported story) was undone by popular demonstrations. Salvadorans just defied free trade. Mexico's much-vaunted maquiladoras are shutting their doors, as companies flee for China and other still cheaper labor markets. The rich get richer, the poor get more desperate, and around the world, the free market model now presented as inevitable in this country is anything but. And lots of people hate our genetically engineered food, too.
Meanwhile, back in D.C., far-reaching legislation giving the president virtually total authority to commit the US to neoliberal trade agreements was whisked through Congress -- in the dead of night, with no congressional, let alone public, debate.
The Smallpox Vaccine Scandal
It's a tale of contractors sucking up taxpayer money to make an unnecessary product that will do more harm than good. The vaccine program was stopped 40 years ago for a reason: more people were killed and permanently injured by the shots than would ever get the disease. Nothing has changed, except the Bush PR/Terrorism campaign. And with a large population of HIV-positive people and immuno-suppressed people with organ transplants, it's sheer murder to set a live vaccine loose. Meanwhile, flu vaccine shortages are an annual ritual, while 20,000 people per year die of influenza.
The Whole World Doesn't Hate Us
Sure, much of the world does (for good reason), but a substantial number simply think our government is run by certifiable lunatics. That perspective almost never shows up in US media.
Shredded Safety Nets
Beyond all the false cheerleading and Greenspan-worship, the one piece of the rotten economy that did, in fact, make news -- beyond tanking 401(k)s -- was budget crises. But these were inevitably painted as local stories. As their legislatures convene in January, forty-six states -- almost all of them -- face severe budget shortfalls. The feds send less money to the states, the states send less to the counties and cities, and at every level revenues suffer as politicians (or Eyman figures) rail against taxes. The first thing to get cut, at every level, is the safety net. The much-vaunted welfare-to-work programs mean there's even less help for people who work full time (sometimes two or even three jobs) but still can't make ends meet. And thanks to the aforementioned global warming, the winters will get colder on the street, too.
Every state features at least some prisons that are truly horror stories, notoriously uninhabitable -- too hot, cold, drafty, or otherwise intentionally miserable. Isolation cells, and other practices routinely condemned as torture by groups like Amnesty International, are the norm. And inmate populations, despite dropping crime rates and the enormous costs of incarceration, continue to rise. Meanwhile, in a conundrum that virtually defines "penny wise, pound foolish," education and job training get cut instead.
Highlighted by the first presidential use of the Taft- Hartley Act in 31 years (in the West Coast dockworkers dispute), a number of companies were hit with labor disputes triggered, in some or large measure, by a corporate desire to crush the union. It happened in the public sector, too, especially at the local level. But unions aren't news. Nor is the failure of John Sweeney's AFL-CIO tenure to deliver on its promise to emphasize organizing revitalize the labor movement -- but then, the highly effective door-to-door electoral outreach by labor this year didn't get covered, either.
There's more; there always is. The lesson -- beyond the fact that it's a big and complicated world -- is that in such a climate, it's more important than ever to seek out -- and create! -- alternative media; to take in more than one source; to decide for yourself; and to not believe everything you read. We've already been told this administration will lie to us; at least give them points for honesty on that score. Pity that's the only time most media outlets didn't believe them.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange.
The furor seems to be intensifying, rather than dying out, over unscripted remarks by past and perhaps future Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott at a birthday party, hosted by the American Paleontology Society, for outgoing Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Conservatives and liberals alike are calling for Lott's head; White House support for what was until 10 days ago Bush's strongest Congressional ally has been tepid at best, with headlines like "Bush Stops Short of Calling for Lott to Resign." If Lott were a football coach, Bush would be giving him a vote of confidence for the rest of the year. A leadership battle looms.
The chattering classes can't get enough of analyzing Lott's unguarded words, words which have continued to drown out Lott's five (and counting) public apologies for them.
Can we please start paying attention to the despicable things powerful people do, rather than the despicable things they say?
In a way, the pouncing on Lott's comments is understandable. Given the multiple layers of speechwriters and speech coaches and publicists and image consultants and hair stylists and makeup artists -- but then, isn't every politician a makeup artist? -- much of official Washington, and all of its corps of media stenographers, searches for authenticity the way a teenager parses new recording acts. Do they really mean it? Is it from the heart? Or is this just a cynical attempt to be popular? It's judgment based on style over substance.
And, so, as LottWatch 2002 slogs through its second week, punditry engages in the ridiculous game of opining as to which was more sincere -- Lott's words (his endorsement of segregationism), or Lott's words (his apologies for endorsing segregationism). It's an absurd waste of time, because only Trent Lott can answer that question -- and the answer is irrelevant.
What is important, in the case of Trent Lott and for every other person with influence -- elected or not -- is what they do, not what they say. Actually, that's a pretty good rule of thumb for people in their personal lives, too. But it's particularly helpful advice for assessing people in high political office, where whole careers are managed with the same sort of care and nuance, and considerably higher stakes, than Madison Avenue product rollouts.
Most people don't judge products by what their commercials claim (or, more frequently, whether the commercial implies your sex life will improve after purchase). We judge those products by what they do: how they perform, whether they offer features we like or need, friends' experiences with them, the price, and so forth. A catchy jingle or clever ad may help us remember the product or suggest how to think about it, but it's not the product.
Yet when it comes to people whose power can impact everyone�s lives, their words, scripted or not, generally get more attention than their deeds, and conflicts between the two are rarely examined. I'm inclined to take Lott's pro-segregationist comments at face value not because he's said similar things repeatedly in the past; he's also said racially inclusive things. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of his apologies because he has courted the support and received the plaudits of unapologetic bigots in the past; he has courted a whole lot of other people in 40 years of public life, too.
No, I doubt Trent Lott's diversity bona fides, and those of many Republican legislators on Capitol Hill, because of their consistent and relentless opposition to civil rights legislation and regulations; because of their appointment of judges hostile to civil rights remedies; because of their implementation of policies that consistently result in people of color having fewer educational opportunities, higher prison populations, fewer jobs, lower incomes, and less access to affordable health care or needed social services; because of repeated, unjustified purges of primarily African-American voters from voting rosters by Republican officials; because of many Republicans' willful insistence, against all evidence, that a country that ignores its unequal status quo is therefore "colorblind" and free of systemic racial inequalities.
None of that has a thing to do with Trent Lott's choice of words at a birthday party.
But then, in a world where one of the higher compliments given to an elected official is that he or she stays "on message," and where their every public appearance includes the goal of presenting themselves in the best possible light, politicians' actions are frequently at odds with their words, and those gaps are hardly confined to matters of race. Currently, George Bush is the reigning master of the art. Nary a day has gone by since 9/11 that we haven't been reminded by Dubya that we're fighting the War On Terror on behalf of something called freedom. Yet only yesterday, here was the U.N. human rights chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, reporting in Helsinki that the War On Terror has been used by dozens of countries, including the United States and many of its allies, to curtail freedom and exacerbate bigotries.
Gaps between words and actions are also hardly confined to Republicans. Bill Clinton built his entire political career around his genius for saying one thing -- he called it "feeling our pain" -- and actually doing another thing -- inflicting the pain, almost always to the great benefit of Wall Street. Those who use this year's wave of corporate accounting scandals to bash deregulating Republicans were paying too much attention to Clinton's words; the fraudulent '90s bubble was not only on his watch, but largely of his doing. Clinton told us he was saving forests, then condemned them to clearcutting; promised to reform welfare, then abolished it; championed reproductive freedoms even as most of rural America lost them. Everyone remembered the words, not what actually happened when he acted.
The examples go on. Take Bush's tax cuts last year, given primarily to America's wealthiest people. We were told that they were needed in order to stimulate the economy. They didn't. Quite the opposite; now we're in even worse economic shape, and the lost government revenues are coming out of services to the poor, not the wealthy. It wasn't an economic stimulus at all -- it was a wealth transfer, from the have-nots to the haves. What's the response? Republicans are getting ready to do it all over again, with precisely the same rationale. When they do, how many pundits -- or anyone else -- will be as outraged as they've been over Lott's remarks?
Words are words: powerful, but never final. The actions, when they come, help or hurt real people with real lives. Lott's endorsement of white supremacy was offensive -- but it was also in the context of recalling a presidential race that happened 54 years ago. Almost everyone involved in that race is now dead.
So, too, are the record number of people Texas governor George Bush executed, before and during his rise to prominence as a "compassionate conservative." That phrase was a fundamental misrepresentation of how he and his team have governed. His record as governor -- including the cavalier executions -- was not.
Today, Bush's marketers don't use the once-famous phrase a lot. They've moved on to subsequent marketing campaigns. As with consumer products, politicians regularly freshen their public image: new campaigns, new slogans, new issues. Words come and go. Pay attention to what they do.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange.
Tom Warner did Castro when Castro wasn't cool.
The 77-year-old Seattle activist and World War II vet says he was radicalized "to the ways of imperialism" while sailing to Africa and the Middle East as a merchant marine after the war. By the '50s, with the McCarthy era raging, Warner was a Communist. He was a supporter of Fidel when the young revolutionary's greatest fame was as a minor league baseball pitcher, and he's been an advocate for the Cuban revolution ever since.
But after a half-century toiling on the fringes of the American political landscape, the elderly Warner is now in trouble with the Bush Administration for a most modern reason.
He posted something on the Internet.
Specifically, Warner received a letter, dated October 16, from David Harmon, the Chief of the Enforcement Division of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Treasury Department Agency charged with enforcing the Bush Administration's aggressive new policies as part of the nation's long-running embargo against Cuba. The letter -- a "Requirement to Furnish Information" that is the precursor to a Pre-Penalty Notice -- reads, in part:
"OFAC has received information that the U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association (USCSCA) organized a trip (described by USCSCA as a "conference") to Cuba from February 17-24, 2002. Based upon the enclosed Internet article, it appears you were involved with the promotion and/or possible organization of this conference. OFAC did not issue a specific license to you to organize, arrange, promote, or otherwise facilitate the attendance of persons at the conference in Cuba...
Harmon's letter goes on to require Warner to provide the office with:
"1) Full explanation of each area of involvement that you may have had with the organization, facilitation, and promotion of this conference;
2) Contact information for all organizations that were involved in the organization of this conference, as well as a description of the type of involvement by such entities;
3) If you traveled to Cuba for any purpose related to this conference, you must indicate your dates of travel to Cuba and list your activities and financial expenditures within Cuba;
4) All records (memorandums, emails, expenditure reports, receipts, etc.) that are relevant to this conference;
5) Any additional information that may demonstrate how you were involved with this conference..."
The enclosed "Internet article," from Warner's SeattleCuba.org, is equally unambiguous. It is nothing more than a calendar listing for the annual USCSCA conference, held in Havana last February.
Warner was required to reply fully within 20 business days or face up to a $20,000 fine.
The various, continually amended laws governing the United States' 40-year embargo against Cuba -- fueled for three decades by the Cold War, and for the last 12 years by Florida's 27 Electoral College votes -- have been updated in recent years, most recently with the cynically titled Cuban Democracy Act. These laws ban travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba; the only people specifically banned by their country from traveling to to Cuba. But there are a host of exceptions: for conferences, for education purposes, humanitarian aid, sporting events, and more. Citizens can apply for licenses to travel to Cuba under the various exemptions. With and without the licenses, tens of thousands of Americans are thought to make the trip each year, mostly through Canada and Mexico. (While Americans remain frozen out by domestic politics, Canadian businesses are flourishing in Cuba, and the Caribbean island has become a favorite winter tourist destination of Canadians.)
The USCSCA conference was licensed, as was the attendance of most of its attendees. At least three are known to have gotten letters anyway, demanding information on their travels; they include Lisa Valanti, the Pittsburgh head of USCSCA, and Dwight Pelz, a Democratic King County (Seattle) County Councilman who attended. Both also faced fines for not replying.
Cuba activists say such travel letters are infrequent but routine, even for persons holding valid licenses, and that when responded to there is almost never any follow-up. But Warner's case is different.
He stands suspected -- or accused, it's not clear which -- of not simply traveling illegally, but of organizing the travel, a more serious charge with bigger possible civil and/or criminal penalties. Should he be fined and contest it, the hearing process for appealing his penalty does not even exist.
But Warner didn't go to Cuba, let alone the conference; he never left Seattle. Nor is he actively involved with USCSCA; his primary group, Seattle- Cuba Friendshipment, focuses on public education and material aid through the Church Council of Greater Seattle. (Alice Woldt, head of CCGS, also attended the conference and also received a letter.)
All Warner did was repost information on his web site from a political event he supported -- something that millions of American businesses, organizations, and individuals do regularly.
For Warner, who survived the anti-Communist purges of a half-century ago, the request to name names is particularly chilling. In the reply to Harmon, Warner's lawyer, Lynne Wilson, laid out the obvious -- that Warner had no part in the conference other than to reprint an announcement of it on his web site -- but took the Fifth rather than pass on information as to who else Warner knows that is involved in the sister city movement with Cuba.
Both Warner and Wilson suspect that OFAC's attention was drawn by an attempt by Pelz to win passage last month of a sister city relationship between King County and Cuba. That attempt, opposed by local veterans' groups but otherwise little-noticed, failed by one vote. The OFAC web site promotes a 1- 800 tip line; they suspect an opponent of the local measure "turned in" Pelz, and a web search of "Seattle" and the conference turned up Warner as the "organizer" and Woldt's CCGS as his local group's fiscal sponsor. Several other local activists who actually attended the conference received no such letters.
Warner's case is, at once, hopelessly arcane and chillingly simple. The politics of Cuba, and the laws and regulations surrounding travel to it, are byzantine and poorly known by anyone who doesn't care about Cuba itself. But groups like the ACLU, which tend to steer clear of Cuba and other "foreign policy" issues, have weighed in on Warner's behalf because of the free speech precedent it sets. The terrain is the slippery slope between doing something illegal -- or "organizing" it -- and talking about it -- "promoting" it -- compounded, in Warner's case, by the fact that the USCSCA conference was completely legal. But if attacks on Internet speech are to become the norm, they would begin with the most politically marginal and unpopular arenas, or with the most legally specialized of cases. The legal rationale against Warner is no more absurd than, say, using RICO laws to prosecute anti- globalization activists -- both persons committing civil disobedience and anyone forwarding notice of an event where CD takes place.
The alternative explanation for Warner's sudden fame is that someone in an underfunded Beltway office with more power than sense cannot tell the difference between forwarding an announcement and an organizational web site; cannot tell the difference between an annual conference attended each year by elected officials of two countries and an excuse for illegal travel; and think a 77-year-old activist organized it all from 3,500 miles away. It's certainly possible; it wouldn't be the first time a government bureaucrat turned out to be clueless. But an attack on free speech rights featuring that level of stupidity and power in tandem is just as chilling.
Either way, the post-9/11 words of White Hosue spokesman Ari Fleischer take on new resonance: Watch what you say.
I want a list.
I want a full accounting of every weapon in the country. Not Iraq; I don't give a fig about Iraq. It's halfway around the world, it has no means of threatening the United States from its territory, its economy is decimated, it has been disarmed more effectively than any other country in the history of the world, its every move is closely monitored by any number of other agencies and countries, and it knows that any move to threaten any other country would be instantly suicidal. There are plenty of threats to the safety of Americans. Iraq is not one of them. Among all the American-trained dictators plaguing the planet, he's the least of our problems.
I want a list of our weapons.
After all, we pay for them -- and pay, and pay, and pay. John W. Snow, the CSX chairman nominated yesterday to replace the loose-tongued ex-Alcoan Paul O'Neill as Treasury Secretary (great, just what we need -- another titan of corporate America, and veteran of the Ford Administration, in Dubya's cabinet) was strident in the mid-'90s in his advocacy for a balanced budget. I wonder what he'll say now about his new boss's infliction of a giant sucking wound where the federal surplus of 18 months ago once was? That money, yours and mine, went almost entirely for weapons and the capacity to use them. I want an accounting.
It's the United States, after all, which has proven that it poses a threat to not just its neighbors but countries anywhere in the world -- ask Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Serbia, Pakistan, Sudan, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Panama, Libya or Grenada, all countries the U.S. has bombed or bullied in the last 20 years. It's the United States whose foreign policy is now officially predicated on reserving the right to strike militarily anywhere in the world, any time it likes, for any reason, and without any backing by an ally or international body. It's the United States whose weapons are sold to one or more sides of virtually every one of the five dozen or so wars now raging in the world. It's America with the oldest and biggest nuclear weapons program in the world, the U.S. alone that has proudly used such weapons on civilian populations, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It's the U.S. whose weapons are now the weapons of choice for everyone from mentally disturbed serial killers to jungle guerrillas to kleptocratic dictators the world around. It's the government of the U.S., including every embassy and consulate around the world, that makes it a priority to pay for the marketing, credit underwriting, and purchase of those weapons, and closes the deal. It's the U.S. that underwrites and trains intelligence agencies and secret police the world over, including any number of countries where state torture and murder are the norm. We pay for it all. I want a list.
I want it in three weeks.
I want to know every single weapon or potential weapon in the possession of the United States government. Not just the Pentagon or the Department of Defense, but every single agency down to the U.S. Mint and the Library of Congress. If the Library of Congress's assistant medical archivist carries a can of mace in her purse when she goes to the parking garage, I want to know about it.
Not just what the government owns; I want a list of every potential weapon government employees possess, too. Every firearm John Ashcroft and his NRA-loving appointees own, and everyone else down to the grade C-3 summer interns. That includes dual-use weapons, like nail files, or certain kitchen spices which when mixed with a nasal decongestant can produce a certain redness in the eyes. I want the list. All of it. Typed. Neatly. No typos, please.
But that's not all. After all, it's not just our government that poses a threat to the world; corporate America does, too, and as we've repeatedly witnessed (ask Mr. Snow), our government is a revolving door with corporate boardrooms. They're all in on it together, and if Coca-Cola doesn't constitute an invading army (and a global menace) I don't know what does. Therefore, I also want all of the weapons or potential weapons possessed by any business in the United States.
Let me clarify that: any entity that does business in the United States, whether or not they're owned by Americans. Air Botswana, this means you. That includes all their employees, and all of the subcontracting employees and agencies (like Coke's bottling plant at Ouagadougou) they work with. Can't be too careful.
You've got three weeks. And it had better be complete. Alphabetized, please. With an index.
Of course, I don't think you'll cooperate. I don't think everything will be in the list that has been specified in my demand. The Pentagon alone routinely can't figure out what it has done with billions of dollars of taxpayers' money. Asking it to account for every single paper clip -- after all, it might poke an eye out, and besides, at $90 per paper clip they've got to be able to do something other than hold paper together even during a nuclear war -- seems like a long shot. And I expect many companies won't fully cooperate, either. They'll claim proprietary information or some other lame excuse.
We'll have to inspect them, of course. Unannounced visits, preferably accompanied by a battalion or two. When they object, we'll call it part of their sustained pattern of non-cooperation.
Have I mentioned that I retain the right to shoot down any aircraft that appear over the skies of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio or certain parts of West Virginia? They'll probably pitch a fit about that, too.
But then, that's what you'd expect from people whose love of power is so fierce that they would willingly endanger their own people, right?
After all, by making America a country loathed by billions of people around the world -- some of which are virtually guaranteed to be as omnicidally inclined as the power-crazed, money-poisoned thugs now running our country -- it's you and I who are being put at risk. We're the ones who will be walking past the exploding hotel or working in the office towner that collapses. We're the collateral damage.
And we're paying for it. We're filing the tax returns, we're getting the money extracted from our paychecks. We pay for the carnage. Now, and later.
The least we can get out of the deal is a list.
One of the favorite pre-election canards among more cynical Bush Administration critics was that Iraq was an election strategy -- that the Dubya obsession with Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, and daily threats to carry out "regime change" (didn't we used to call those "coup d'etats"?) owed its sudden urgency, if not its very existence, to the domestic desire to whip up (pro-Republican) war fever and distract Americans from a wide variety of Bush Administration failings.
To be sure, the fall season invention, out of whole cloth, of a sudden "crisis" concerning Iraq's potential for someday constructing weapons that might or might not ever get used was surely convenient. As it happened, something worked really well for the Republican Party in last month's elections. The lack of attention to issues like the rotten economy, corporate corruption and political cronyism, and Republican attacks on the environment, the poor, and (oh, yeah) the Constitution is as good an explanation as any.
But the "Look! Look! Over here! Over here!" routine has continued apace after Nov. 5. On Monday, for example, we had the "story" -- which led most network newscasts and dominated newspaper headlines -- that George Bush didn't think Iraq would comply with the U.N. resolution on weapons inspections. Well, golly gee, stop the presses -- Bush has said the same thing on a more or less daily basis for months. The fact that so far Iraq seems to have done exactly what it said it would do -- that is, comply promptly and fully -- seems to be of no consequence to the White House (except that it worries them), and hence, it has been of little nor no consequence to our media. When the most flatly impossible piece of the U.N. resolution comes due at week's end -- the requirement that Iraq produce a "complete" list of all its weapons -- the White House will doubtless use the occasion to trumpet Iraqi duplicity, and that, obediently, will be what the headlines focus on for days. Of course, on our side, the Pentagon routinely misplaces billions of dollars; does anyone think we could generate a list of every missile and hand grenade in the land on three weeks' notice?
While our newscasts and headlines follow the daily non-news saber rattling of the Bush cabal, a lot of other things are going on in the War On Terror world that Americans would do well to pay attention to instead. None of them involve Iraq -- except, perhaps, in the sense that the constant threats of invasion are contributing to rising anti-American sentiment around the world. Nearly all of them suggest that the United States, with little public debate, is rushing headlong into a policy of permanent global warfare that will make Americans much less, not more, secure.
Start with last week's bombing in Kenya, and the response of Israel. In the attack, an Israeli commercial El-Al jet was fired on in a failed missile attack, and over a dozen were killed in the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel. Since then, American and Israeli investigators have become convinced that Al-Qaeda (remember them?) launched the attack. Suddenly, diplomatic channels in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv are in full o-god-please-don't-do-it mode, because the daily Middle East diet of suicide bombings and Israeli shootings (the latest fatality, yesterday, involving a 95-year-old Palestinian taxi passenger) has been supplanted by a new Israeli security debate: turning Israel's mighty military juggernaut outward.
Specifically, as Israel's military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, remarked at a military conference yesterday: "In light of the new U.S. strategy, the need is to embark on a pre-emptive course and not only to act after things have happened." In other words, the worst fears of critics of the Bush Administration's justification for unprovoked military assaults -- now known, with the same linguistic torture that brought us "regime change," as "preemptive attack" -- are coming to pass.
Critics feared that once the United States had set the precedent of attacking another country without provocation, any number of other countries would leap at the chance to invoke Bush's bad precedent. Israel would crack down on Palestinians. India would cross the line of control in Kashmir. Russia would flatten Chechnya, Turkey would wipe out the Kurds, everyone in Central Africa would attack each other, and so on.
This, in fact, was exactly what happened with Bush's invention of the doctrine of America's right to invade countries that "harbor terrorists." Within months, Israel, India, and Russia had all cited Bush's actions against the Taliban to justify their own previously unthinkable campaigns. But now, this week, Israel is taking Bush's bad precedent one step further, by jumping the gun. (So to speak.) Bush hasn't even invaded Iraq yet, and Israel is already talking about using his doctrine of preemptive attack -- which is now officially part of U.S. foreign policy -- as justification for launching attacks against any location that might harbor people who wish ill of the Israeli government. And that covers not just Israel's Middle East neighbors, but a good portion of Africa and Asia.
The White House anti-Iraq propaganda blitz is working; many Americans now associate Iraq (an entire country, used interchangeably with one man) with terror and especially with 9-11. The White House, and its media stenographers, have persistently encouraged that belief, even though no such links realistically exist. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda is alive and well, and a much more important fallout from War On Terror strategy, the possibility of proactive Israeli military strikes, is unfolding in front of our eyes. Both are a direct consequence of George Bush's decisions. Will the Bush Administration be held accountable? Of course not.
Similarly, the massive military buildup following 9-11 has impacted American foreign policy everywhere. In particular, it has helped deepen U.S. military involvement with dictatorships across Asia and Africa, and it has also increased the U.S role in Colombia's long-running civil war in recent months. With a newly elected far-right government in power, Washington has poured additional weapons, advisors, and money into the country.
This week, human rights groups are petitioning the White House to demand that the Colombian government reinstate the efficacy of the commission charged with investigating human rights abuses by Colombia's military. The newly appointed far-right head of that commission has stacked the commission with pro-military appointees, ended investigations of several massacres allegedly involving the Colombian military, and reassigned the investigators in those cases. As it happens, U.S. military aid to Colombia is conditioned upon improvements in what has long been our hemisphere's worst human rights record -- far worse, incidentally, than that of Cuba, which the U.S. has waged a lonely economic embargo against for four decades now.
Colombia's military, and closely aligned paramilitary groups, are implicated in the overwhelming majority -- about 80 percent -- of Colombia's kidnappings, tortures, killings, and massacres. If no independent investigations of these incidents can take place, there is far less evidence to use in any challenge of the increasing Pentagon involvement in Colombia. Is there any concern in Washington, or attention by the networks? Of course not. Thanks to the War on Terror, Colombian opposition groups are now officially considered terrorist threats to the United States. That, apparently, justifies anything.
For example, if weapons shipments to Colombia became illegal, that doesn't mean they would stop. The Bush team is riddled with convicted veterans (like John Poindexter, lately in the news) of mid-1980s schemes to illegally arm and fund sadistic thugs in Central America; the biggest of those schemes involved creating a private army, the contras, to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. And, eventually, Nicaragua cried Uncle, and everyone in Washington got their pardons.
And whaddaya know -- today, next door to Colombia, in Venezuela, where massive popular protests unseated a U.S.-backed military coup earlier this year, a huge anti-government strike enters its third day. Unlike most protests one associates with the word "strike," this one is convened not by workers themselves or by labor leaders, but by business owners and managers opposed to the populist government of Hugo Chavez.
Since Washington's attempt to unseat Chavez last April, additional anti- American sentiment has swept South America. Most notably, a populist presidential candidate in Brazil won a landslide victory this fall while explicitly drawing support from his opposition to Bush's neoliberal economic agenda. With virtually every country in the continent now having experienced some form of significant popular anti-globalization resistance in the last two years, the Bush team is paying far more attention to South America than the Clinton Administration did. It's reasonable to expect, given the increase in military support to Colombia and the huge jump in covert action funding this year, that Washington's efforts to unseat Chavez have increased, not diminished, since April, and that the strikes now paralyzing Caracas have a lot to do with Washington and with Bush's vision for a South America without Hugo Chavez -- or any other leaders like him.
Should pro-Chavez forces succeed, again, in keeping the democratically elected Chavez in office, Washington could well move to a more open effort to unseat him. If Chavez is, in fact, removed from office, the anti-American backlash will be fierce. Either way, Venezuela and Colombia are shaping up as a major new front in Bush's global war. But while all eyes are kept focused on Iraq, America's role in the unrest now rocking Caracas is going almost entirely unexamined here at home.
The list continues: Chechnya, Central Asia, Turkey, sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia. The sun never sets on the American empire, or on challenges to it. The very fact that America is unquestionably now managing a global empire is in itself newsworthy; so is the remarkably consistent response of people not wishing to become 21st century colonies in all but name. But so long as U.S. reporters never venture farther than the Pentagon, the White House, or Foggy Bottom (the State Department) for their daily dose of briefings on the State of the Empire, the sheer breadth of what is in play, and the implications for ordinary Americans, are mostly obscured.
Most Americans will only devote so much time and mental energy to news from faraway places. A whole lot is being done around the world in our names, most of it bad, and most of us don't know what much of it is. That -- not electioneering -- is the most important consequence of the diversion that is George Bush's daily saber-rattling.
Here's what I did yesterday:
I went to my pharmacy, picking up refills of Aciphex and Acyclovir and a six- pack of Diet Coke and some ibuprofen. I stopped along the way at my credit union to make a deposit, and at a Chevron to fill my 97 VW Jetta with unleaded. (I also got a candy bar in the mini-mart.) I had lunch with a friend downtown after attending a staff meeting at Seattle Weekly. I made seven or eight phone calls on my cell phone, one of which was to Houston and the rest local, before coming home and listening to six more messages on my voice mail.
I had 142 messages in my email inbox when I downloaded it at noon. I replied to about 15 of them, and sent files with a note to two different editors explaining that I was sick as a dog (hence the ibuprofen) and thus running late. I also made a couple calls later in the afternoon canceling out on an evening meeting for the same reason. I went to bed early with my sweetie. We're not married. That's related to the reason why, after the downtown lunch, I had met with and retained the services of a family law attorney.
All in all, it was a pretty dull day; I'll spare you the details of what I ate (and, in the case of dinner, brought back up) or who I e-mailed or what I mailed at the post office, but you get the idea. The reason I mention all this is that every single one of these activities can now be duly noted, electronically, by the U.S. government. It can look at my phone records, my credit card purchases, my health insurance claims and medical records, check my driving record and vehicle registrations, read my email and listen to my calls, check my banking records.
And if, for whatever reason, something in that laundry list (and the even greater detail they're fully capable of) should perk their interest, they can find out a lot more. They can investigate me legally; interview my friends and subpoena my attorney; have me followed, search my home or office or car without my knowledge. If they decide they'd rather not have me come visit your community, they can ban me from all air travel. Or perhaps just throw me in jail indefinitely, without charges or access to counsel or family.
Extreme? Sure. But it's all legal. Check out what's gone on just in the last week:
- The Senate passed the Homeland Security bill, a massive, nearly 500-page bill. As with the USA PATRIOT Act, this, too, was deposited on senators' desks only late last week with no time to read hundreds of pages of newly inserted arcana. The new details buried in the text are only now being fully discovered. Significantly, Democrats obtained some last-minute concessions on things like labor rights for federal workers and some -- but not all -- of the most egregious pork and corporate favors slipped in for Friends of George, but the privacy portions of the bill sailed through largely untouched. Since the House already passed essentially the same bill, it's now good as law.
- With the Homeland Security bill came the first publicity for a new enterprise sold to the government by a convicted felon -- John Poindexter, whose last bright idea for the feds was selling the Reagan administration on a scheme to illegally sell arms to Iran (our enemy at the time, because we were arming and funding Saddam Hussein instead). Poindexter then funneled the proceeds to America's private "contra" army in Central America, also in violation of a Congressional ban. Now Poindexter is back, with his past guilty verdicts for lying to Congress and shredding Iran-Contra documents (avoiding prison only through a technicality that threw out his convictions) apparently considered by the Bushies as not just insignificant, but probably as character recommendations.
For months, it turns out that Poindexter has been the new director of the Pentagon's Information Awareness Office. Now, with passage of the Homeland Security bill, he has funding and authorization to create a matrix program called Total Information Awareness. Poindexter's brainchild -- he's been working on information software and systems since getting drubbed out of public service over a decade ago -- would create a gargantuan database of every financial, medical, employment, school, credit, and government record out there for every American -- the sort of data collection outlined above. The idea is to set up software to look for patterns that might arouse suspicion of potential terrorist activity -- hotels, travel, purchases, and the like. Even toll booths. Just don't ask whether the potential terrorist is stocking up on guns. It's probably the only record that John Ashcroft's DoJ won't keep.
- Since the provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act that greatly expanded government wiretap and surveillance abilities, reports have been trickling out that use of wiretaps has been up sharply. There's also been anecdotal evidence, with Ashcroft's post-9/11 regulations allowing investigation of individuals for religious or political reasons -- even if they're not suspected of a crime -- that airport security guards have refused to allow a number of left-leaning political activists to board flights. Any flights.
- Now this week comes word that such a list does, indeed, exist; a Salon.com reporter reports confirmation that at least 1,000 names have been compiled of persons considered a security risk for any air travel within the U.S. Still unknown is what agents use as the criteria to get on the list, or how (and whether) one can get off the list.
- Speaking of lists, an article in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal described how a list of persons "wanted for questioning" regarding terrorism in the immediate days after 9/11 -- not even necessarily suspected of any crime -- has taken on a life of its own even though the FBI stopped updating and releasing it over a year ago. Because the FBI circulated the list to an unprecedented number of companies and public agencies in an effort to sweep up the individuals it wanted to question, once the feds stopped updating the lists were left intact for their recipients -- and circulated even further through colleagues and through the Internet. Now individuals -- even people who were listed due to mistaken identity -- are being identified all over the world as "suspected terrorists," and the FBI says there's nothing they can do.
- Also this week, an appeal of last spring's surprising ruling by the top- secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has overturned that ruling. At issue was a post-9/11 bid by the federal government, under the USA PATRIOT Act, to use looser foreign intelligence standards to conduct investigations in the United States. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's now legal for the U.S. to spy on its own citizens.
- The FISC ruling overshadowed another appeal, in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where an effort to sue the government on behalf of hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainees being denied legal counsel was thrown out, because the petitioners were deemed to not have legal standing in the case. Nobody does, apparently, except the people not allowed to appear in court or retain counsel.
- If all this is sounding like the potential for a police state, relax. It already is a police state, at least for non-citizens; even permanent residents in the U.S. have been living since 9/11 with the reality that even if they're accused of no crime, they can be swept off the street by police and literally never seen again -- deported or simply held indefinitely, with none of the rights of due process you always thought were part of the U.S. constitution.
The latest to get shipped off? The mother of accused teen D.C. sniper Lee Malvo. Mom called authorities because she was alarmed that her son had fallen under the influence of a dangerous man. She was right; for her troubles, she was thrown in jail and is now on her way back to the Caribbean. That'll teach any non-citizen with a tip regarding a potential terrorist.
It's been a ferociously bad week. Not just for privacy -- that's getting duly noted in at least some press reports -- but for the potential for government abuse. And perhaps most frighteningly, while some progressives and conservatives are starting to get agitated about the potential for state abuse of power, few people are talking about who else might have access to all that information when it's gathered: Corporations? Mass marketers? Schools? Employers? Creditors? People hawking Viagra online? Heck, in a few years perhaps every detail of your life will be available online for the enterprising snoop. Much of it already is.
It's not just the Bush Administration at fault; these developments would be impossible without the active collusion of many leading Democrats, including eight years of the Clinton Administration -- prior to Dubya, the worst administration for civil liberties in U.S. history. Ditto for spineless congressional Democrats who were steamrolled by Bush with the USA PATRIOT Act, had a year to absorb the lessons, and then got steamrolled in exactly the same way this week with the Homeland Security bill.
Most of Bush's freshly legalized abuses aren't happening -- yet. Just because they've become legal does not mean they're widespread. But the Dubya cabal is calling for a "War On Terror" (with its attendant erosion of citizens' rights) that will last generations -- "The new 100 Years' War," according to Dick Cheney. If the Bush Administration continues to move as aggressively as it already has in less than two years for the evisceration of civil liberties, the erosion of privacy, the expansion of law enforcement powers, and the adoption of secrecy in more and more of our legal and government processes, totalitarianism could be around a much closer corner than most of us think.
It's already become clear that this administration's desire for power is an end in itself, far outstripping any information or investigative needs the task of preventing terrorism might require. If anything, the government has too much information, rather than not enough, as it attempts to sort out the meaningful anti-terror clues buried amongst gazillions of bytes of white noise. But if the goal is perpetuating fear, expanding power, and shutting down dissent, all that information is much more easily put to use.
Among those alarmed by the Bush totalitarian impulse, comparisons to Nazism seem to be rampant. That's particularly misleading. We're not there. We may never come close. But if the United States does lose its citizen freedoms, it won't look like Germany in the 1930s. People could, and did, leave Germany; Hitler's reach was not global. His government did not have every last detail of every German's personal life. If George W. Bush, or a successor -- from either party -- truly wants to crack down, forget Hitler. The result will be much, much worse than anything that has ever come before.
Now would be a good time to start mounting a massive, effective opposition, while we still have a few freedoms left to lose. And it would also be a good time to consider how to keep as many details of your life as possible out of the government's data banks.
As you read this, Russian soldiers are once again rampaging through Chechnya, exacting what Russian leader (and former Communist Party and KGB boss) Vladimir Putin and his government specifically call "revenge" for the recent hostage crisis in a Moscow theatre.
In that crisis, 119 hostages and at least 70 Chechen rebels died; the problem is, however, that with the exception of one lone hostage -- shot when he attacked an armed Chechen woman -- it was Putin's government, and its use of a lethal, Fentanyl-based gas, that was responsible for the theatre deaths. Putin is taking vengeance for a crime his own government committed.
In the end, it scarcely matters; regardless of who first did what, hapless Chechen civilians and refugees are now paying the price, as they have repeatedly over the past eight years. An endless litany of reports by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documents the extent of Moscow's abuses in the conflict; Chechnya is one of several places in the world at the moment where the word "genocide" is being used by reasonable people. It is the Russian government, far more than isolated rebel bands in Moscow, who have reatedly targetted innocent lives during the conflict.
Russia's casual execution of the Moscow hostages was neither surprising nor inconsistent. Opiate gases like Fentanyl have a long history of controversy; many researchers believe they should be banned under the International Chemical Weapons Convention. Beyond the 119 dead, another 145 people, at last report, are still in intensive care, many on respirators because they have no lung function left. That's not the simple error in dosage first claimed by the Russian military.
Such concerns, and a culture of reflective secrecy, led Russian authorities to refuse to even identify the components of the gas when hostages began pouring into Moscow emergency rooms after the attack. It took toxicology reports in blood samples from corpses of foreign nationals -- shipped home to Western Europe -- to begin to make public the presence of not only Fentanyl, but several other lethal elements in the concoction used on the Chechens and their hostages. The pre-dawn attack on them came as rebels were still negotiating with authorities, having already released some of the hostages. At the time, only two hostages had been harmed by the Chechens -- the death mentioned above, and another man wounded in the same incident. The gassing was, by any calculation, unnecessary; it was premeditated murder, in a manner all to familiar to Chechens.
However, that wasn't the general tenor of media coverage of the incident here in the United States. The White House was quick to defend the Russians' actions, and many American networks went so far as to adopt the official Soviet, er, Russian characterization of the incident as not just terrorism, but "Russia's 9/11."
The theatre hostage-taking was nothing of the sort, of course. Beyond being Muslim, Chechens have virtually nothing in common with the sort of radical fundamentalism represented by groups like Al-Qaeda. (Though Chechnya is right alongside Palestine and Iraq on every Muslim terror group's short list of grievances against the West.) Most obviously, the presence of numerous women fighters among the Chechen hostage-takers suggests a very different culture than that of, say, the Taliban.
More importantly, the Chechen's seizure of hostages in Moscow was not a random incident; it was part of a war for independence, by a culturally distinct region chafing for escape from the control of Imperial Russia. Chechnya is a mostly Muslim slice of real estate in the Caucasus Mountains that, like many other nearby parts of the former Soviet Union, attempted to bolt Moscow's rule when the opportunity arose. Alas, Chechnya is also a small nation, squarely situated between the Caspian and Black Seas -- near any westward route for a pipeline that could deliver Caspian oil to market.
Since the start of the Chechen rebellion, the United States, far from helping the country escape the control of its former Communist rulers, has offered benign support to Moscow, including international credit that has allowed the Russians to continue to bankroll their massively expensive military campaigns. But the dynamics of Washington and Chechnya shifted dramatically after 9/11. Putin has campaigned relentlessly to have America and the West consider his anti-Chechen campaigns as part of any War on Terror. Tacit support -- along with a blind eye to any Russian atrocities -- was widely believed to be part of the price the Bush Administration paid for gaining Moscow's support for last year's U.S. attack on Afghanistan. And Russia, like Israel and India, used the Bush invention of a doctrine of "harboring terrorists" as a rationale for new military offensives. The precedent set by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan cost Chechen civilians dearly.
That cost, however, turns out to have been much more direct that simply shrough the setting of bad precedent. A report Monday on MSNBC puts the Moscow hostage deaths, and the U.S. response to them, in a troubling new light. According to MSNBC, documents obtained from the U.S. military Central Command show a much tighter relationship between the Americans and Russians in the Afghan campaign than either country has publicly disclosed. In particular, the U.S. has been using Russian rail, from ports in both the Baltic (Murmansk) and Pacific (Vladivostok), as a primary means of supplying U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The troops and supplies have been shipped via the former Soviet rail system, which still connects Russia with the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Pentagon has established massive new U.S. military staging areas in those dictatorships (which also have abysmal human rights records) for its Afghan campaign.
The Pentagon's reliance on direct Russian support for its Afghan operations not only puts it in league with a military committing war crimes in Chechnya, but suggests a more troubling aspect to the agreement, announced earlier this year, to provide U.S. advisors and training to the military of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Specifically, the Pentagon is now assisting in Georgia's efforts to combat Chechen rebels that, according to Moscow, use neighboring Georgia as a staging area for anti- Russian attacks. The Afghan revelation also suggests the complexity and danger of behind-the-scenes negotiations as the Bush Administration offers further concessions to try to gain Russian approval for a tougher anti-Iraq resolution at the U.N. Security Council. How many Chechen lives is Washington willing to sacrifice -- or help kill -- in order to avoid a Security Council veto on invading Iraq?
In short, it's starting to smell like the United States is not simply agreeing to look the other way as Russia rampages its way through the civilian population of Chechnya. With the Pentagon working closely with the Russian military, part of the price may well be a much more active American role in supporting Russia's "anti-terror" campaigns.
Far from being an "anti-terror" war, Moscow's actions in Chechnya much more closely resemble how Saddam Hussein has treated the Kurds. And now, we can add gassing to the list of similarities. American media's glossing over of the context of the recent Moscow tragedy may not simply be a case of lazy journalism and a distant war. As with so many other global flash points these days, it is a dreadful conflict that the U.S. is apparently wading into ever more deeply -- on the wrong side.
-- from "Call It Democracy," Bruce Cockburn, 1985
"Once a drug is sold it's gone, but a girl can be sold over and over before she collapses, has gone mad, committed suicide, or died of disease." -- Wash. State Senator Jeri Costa, quoting a British Columbia man convicting of trafficking
The lyrics in many of Cockburn's political songs of the Central America-era mid-80's are eerily prescient nearly two decades later. And so it was that I found myself last weekend passing up one employer's request to fly me to San Francisco to cover a massive demonstration against our latest threat of imperial war, and also, on Saturday, driving by a 5,000-strong local demonstration here in Seattle, the third such large local protest in three weeks.
I passed them by because I spent a good portion of last weekend visiting a political prisoner -- there's no other phrase for it, really -- in Seattle's INS "detention facility," where he has been imprisoned for over a year with no charges. About that, more in a few days. I spent the rest of this extraordinarily grim weekend on the campus of the University of Washington, attending a conference entitled "Globalization, Justice, and the Trafficking of Women and Children."
The trafficking of human beings is a polite phrase for slavery; not the abstract kind, wherein we call a banal job we need to help pay the rent "wage slavery," but the real kind, where one is kept by force, has no possibility of escape, and is, in fact, bought and sold -- i.e., "trafficked."
It's a scourge of the human condition that is enjoying a modern renaissance thanks to technology -- particularly global travel and the ability to buy and sell over the Internet -- and globalization. It is, in fact, not too much of a stretch to consider this new form of slavery not only a consequence of the globalization structures Cockburn sang about in 1985, but an inevitable outcome of it.
The Seattle conference brought together a number of notable figures in the struggle against trafficking, including people from across Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, from the United Nations, and Ambassador Nancy Ely-Raphel, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in the U.S. State Department. Ely-Raphel's office is a new one, formed last year as a consequence of a 2000 law passed by Congress called the "Trafficking Victims' Protection Act." The Act created Ely-Raphel's State Department office and obligated it to produce annual reports assessing how much different countries do to combat the exporting, transiting, and importing of human beings. Each country is assigned to one of three tiers based on governments' efforts and effectiveness, similar to reports that rate human rights abuses.
That law, and some high-level Bush Administration harrumphing in Spring 2001 about Sudanese Christians seized and sold into slavery, are about as much as the United States has done on the topic recently. But modern slavery is scarcely confined to the Sudan, or even to Africa, and it is not just a consequence of brutal civil wars or the AIDS pandemic. The trafficked -- almost all women and children, and almost all of them impoverished and ethnic or religious minorities in lands that are already poor -- are one more commodity, fed into the great global marketplace due to either their ability to work for a master or to be a sexual slave. Or both. And once sold, they can and are shipped anywhere in the world. Including here.
It's impossible, for obvious reasons, to guess just how many people find themselves in this condition; it's clearly in the millions, and numbers people on all continents, including North America. Perhaps the biggest myth is that trafficking's victims are abductees, snatched, as in the Sudan, as the spoils of war or the victims of organized crime. Far more common are people who go willingly into situations whose true nature becomes apparent only when it's too late. In some cases, teens and young adults may even know the risks, or some of them, but are willing anyway to take the chance that it will be better than what they are leaving behind.
If it's not, there's no going back. Just as 17th century Africans were controlled by being shipped to a different continent, where a return home was impossible, one of the basics of 21st century slavery is moving people to other parts of the world; thus, as one conference speaker described, India has slaves from the Maldives and the Maldives has slaves from India, and in both cases, the hapless victims don't speak the language, can't risk contacting often corrupt police, and have neither resources nor anywhere to run should they escape their immediate confines.
Globalization has created a spectrum of such refugees, people either seeking a way out of the grinding poverty of their homes or a way to be able to afford the luxury goods globalization incessantly parades before them on television. Everything from sweatshops to the mail order bride industry is predicated on such yearnings, and the question of free will is often a slippery one. In the case of a "closed" brothel in Yokohama, where the women are not allowed out of the building and the new ones are kept chained, or in the case of a locked sweatshop in East Los Angeles, filled with Vietnamese immigrants in debt bondage, there is little doubt that a crime and a horrific abuse of human rights is being committed across international boundaries. How much different is the average Mexican farm worker, forced out of his village by the NAFTA-induced collapse of local farms, with no jobs in Mexico's cities and no way to approach American authorities if, once lured north to the U.S. by the promise of a job, his employer cheats him out of his sub-standard pay? Few would call that outright slavery, but the gradations between the lettuce picker and the brothel prisoner are infinite and continuous.
Perhaps the most glaring failure in U.S. policy on these issues is that trafficking victims, whether they come to American territory or stay here willingly or not, are treated as criminals, not as victims. They are detained for having no or false passports or visas, for entering the country illegally or working illegally or staying too long, with no investigation into whether any of it was their idea or their choice or not, and no support or assistance if it was not.
At the local level, states are beginning to enact reforms such as requiring mail order bride businesses to provide, on request, information on potential husbands' marital or criminal histories. These are good steps, but only tiny pieces of the problem. In that case, a clean record is of little consolation to the Hungarian bride who suddenly finds herself alone in a Midwest suburb with an abusive American husband who literally purchased her, and who acts like it.
Beyond the lack of legal reforms, however, there lies another level at which the United States bears more than a little responsibility: the poverty and the labor market imperatives, and selling of dreams of the ubiquitous American materialism, of the free market policies the United States champions. Those policies are creating ever-wider gaps between rich and poor, not just in the United States but around the world. That widening gap means an increase both in the number of people so desperate they are willing to sell themselves or their children, and the number of able and willing buyers. As with sex industries, the focus of reformers and social service agencies alike is almost always on the victims; little attention is paid to the demand side of supply and demand. In the world America wants, everything is for sale; is it that surprising that, more and more, people are now being sold? Or that other people see nothing wrong with making the purchase?
The most disappointing part of the Seattle conference was that so little of it was devoted to solutions; the bulk was spent trying to describe the enormous scope of the problem. Ultimately, as with the War On Drugs, trying to stop the supply side is virtually impossible; there is too much poverty, too many corrupt government officials and police, too much money to be made. If the logical outcome of a world where everything is for sale is a store in the mall where you can select your new Chinese, Indian, Sudanese, Ukranian, or Filipina slave -- certified disease-free, with complimentary gift wrapping -- then the only way to prevent it is to draw a line somewhere.
Ideally, the line ought to be drawn where no person, anywhere in the world, should be condemned to poverty or to a situation they cannot leave. Legally, at least, the bottom line is far less beneficial, but at least it provides that human beings ought not be bought or sold.
But the reality is that more and more humans are being trafficked, and that it is tolerated so long as it is kept out of sight. And it is; I've been working for nine months on the story involving the INS detainee I visited last weekend, and I've yet to see another visitor to the INS jail that isn't non-white. Most of us don't speak other languages, don't hang out in grueling workplaces, and do, in fact, look the other way. It's none of our business.
Modern slavery is, in fact, a business -- a big one. And the more that the United States creates or inflames wars abroad; the more that preventable disease ravages whole continents; the more that those continents' peoples yearn for consumer goods they can never afford; and the more that we encourage the notion that everything can and should be for sale, the more that modern slavers -- champions of freedom, all -- will do a booming and ever-expanding business.