Jules Siegel

Crashing the Gate

"Now it's our party: We bought it, we own it and we're going to take it back." -- Eli Pariser, MoveOn PAC, Dec. 9, 2004

"Crashing the Gate" is a manifesto aimed at fixing the structural defects that have caused the steady decline of Democratic power since Lyndon B. Johnson abdicated in 1968. Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga brilliantly exploited bleeding-edge technology to create a new kind of interactive political media that brought open source journalism to the ordinary internet user. They helped convert the netroots (the digital equivalent of grassroots) into a $40 million ATM for the Howard Dean campaign.

Their book is at once awesomely inspiring and profoundly depressing. Devoting themselves almost entirely to analysis of political technique rather than ideology, Armstrong and Moulitsas describe the massive superiority of the Republicans in creating and deploying political infrastructure, the greedy incompetence of the Democratic consultants who enrich themselves while losing again and again, the fanatic single-issue pressure groups that have made it impossible for the Democratic party to present a unified, disciplined public image.

"In April 2005, about a hundred progressive leaders descended on Monterey, California, to extract lessons from the 2004 election debacle while finding ways for progressives to move forward," they write. At the beginning of one session about collaboration, a participant complained, "This isn't speaking to my issue. When are we going to talk about my issue?" Armstrong and Moulitsas write, "That set off an avalanche of copy cat complaints -- 'What about my issue?' -- from all corners of the room."

The session then split into five subgroups, each discussing its own individual issue. When Rhode Island Democrats were choosing a Senate candidate, polls showed that Rep. Jim Langevin had a 41 percent to 27 percent lead over incumbent Republican Lincoln Chafee. Eminently progressive on most other issues, Langevin "opposed legislation that would have allowed women to obtain abortions at overseas military facilities using their own money, and voted for the criminalization of transportation of minors across state lines for abortions without parental consent," they write. Lincoln Chafee had a 100 percent pro-choice rating. Langevin withdrew under heavy fire from NARAL and the National Organization of Women. NARAL endorsed Chafee for senator.

A Brief History of Netroots
In "Crashing the Gate" Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga claim that Armstrong coined the term "netroots" in 2002.
Actually, a Paper Tiger Productions film, "Net Roots: Cultivating the Digital Park," was -- ironically -- already skeptical of the Internet collectivist hype in 1995. In 1997, lobbyist Jack Bonner formed a division called NETroots to dispel the myth of global warming.
Armstrong did mention netroots in a 2002 blog item about the Dean campaign. "It just came to my head as I was writing the post to describe the online activism of participating in online polls, blogs, and other online activity," he told me.
[Read more]

A few weeks later, Chafee voted to confirm pro-life (and more important, pro-business) Janice Rogers Brown to the federal appeals court in D.C. Chafee voted against the Alito filibuster (when there might have been a chance of stopping the nomination). Then he polished his pro-choice rating by casting the purely symbolic lone Republican vote against confirmation. So he was able to have it both ways. But if Democrats had controlled the Judiciary Committee, neither Brown nor Alito might ever have made it to the Senate floor.

Armstrong and Moulitsas argue that other self-serving political strategy errors deprive the Democrats of some of their strongest candidates. Armstrong and Moulitsas claim that the grotesque caricature of Howard Dean as some kind of unelectable loony leftist didn't originate with Republicans but with Democratic insiders who feared his threat to their control of party policy and funding. With the exception of his very strong and early opposition to the Iraq war, as governor of Vermont, Dean was a classic centrist, a very effective fiscal conservative. Yet the word started going out that he was a wild man.

Armstrong and Moulitsas write:
On November 7, 2003, a mysterious new group called Americans for Jobs and Healthcare ran a series of ads against Dean in Iowa, distorting his record, criticizing him for his positions on trade, Medicare growth, and gun rights, implying that Dean was not a progressive. The worst of the lot zoomed into the eyes of Osama Bin Laden on the cover of Time magazine while the announcer intoned, "We live in a very dangerous world. … Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy."
The ads were financed by forces backing Kerry and Gephardt. CNN helped bury Dean by showing the dubious footage of his grotesquely distorted "scream" over and over again, but it was his own party that depicted him as a political vampire and drove the wooden stake into his heart.

The main theme of "Crashing the Gate" is not ideology, but winning. Democrats mainly lose on the ground, not the issues, the authors observe. For the past 40 years, conservative Republicans have been training and supporting an astoundingly effective cadre of killer bee operatives. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership has been doing its best to imitate Republicans on the issues, while ignoring their ferociously effective political marketing techniques on the ground.

Many will disagree with one or another of the prescriptions in "Crashing the Gate" for curing the Democratic rot, but this book could be the most important political work of 2006. Although the language is blunt, the aggressive self-confidence a bit obnoxious at times, the overall enthusiasm and just plain political good sense offer Democrats a tantalizing glimpse of hope in a very gloomy time.

The Inquisition Strikes Back

"And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." – John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII, 1623

We have by now all seen much of this material before, but reading it all in one piece, told by human voices in this book-length interview, is not easy to take. "Guantánamo: What the World Should Know" (Chelsea Green) – by Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray – becomes a heart-stopper once you cross the line and realize that you could be any of these victims.

Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is co-counsel in Rasul v. Bush, the historic case of Guantánamo detainees now before the U.S. Supreme Court. His interviewer, Ellen Ray, is President of the Institute for Media Analysis, and a widely published author and editor on U.S. intelligence and international politics.

It's hard to say which is more disgusting, the descriptions of the torture or the bone-chilling analyses of how the president of the United States gave himself the powers of an absolute military dictator. Under Military Order No. 1, which the president issued without congressional authority on November 13, 2001, George W. Bush has ordered people captured or detained from all over the world, flown to Guantánamo and tortured in a lawless zone where, the White House asserts, prisoners have no rights of any kind at all and can be kept forever at his pleasure. Despite the at-best marginal intervention of the American courts so far, there is no civilian judicial review, no due process of any kind.

While any military force will routinely violate the civil rights of anyone who gets in its way, Ratner's descriptions of how victims wound up in Guantánamo reveal wanton cruelty and callousness that will nauseate any sane human being.

Ratner writes: "A lot of the people picked up by warlords of the Northern Alliance were kept in metal shipping containers, so tightly packed that they had to ball themselves up, and the heat was unbearable. According to some detainees who were held in the containers and eventually released from Guantánamo, only a small number, thirty to fifty people in a container filled with three to four hundred people survived. And some of those released said that the Americans were in on this, that the Americans were shining lights on the containers. The people inside were suffocating, so the Northern Alliance soldiers shot holes into the containers, killing some of the prisoners inside."

Some prisoners were captured in battle; many others were picked up in random sweeps for no reason at all except being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As usual in these kinds of operations, some were turned in as a result of petty revenge or as an excuse to steal their property. When asked in court to explain the criteria for detention, the government had no answer. There were no criteria, it appears. "The government even made the ridiculous argument before the Supreme Court that the prisoners get to tell their side of the story, by being interrogated," Ratner reports.

Ratner notes that 134 of the 147 prisoners later released from Guantánamo were guilty of absolutely nothing. Only thirteen were sent on to jail. He believes it is possible that a substantial majority of the Guantánamo prisoners had nothing to do with any kind of terrorism. One prisoner released after a year claimed he was somewhere between ninety and one hundred years old, according to Ratner. Old, frail and incontinent, he wept constantly, shackled to a walker.

So what did the authorities get from those who survived? We will never know, but we can guess from at least one incident in this book. Ratner reports that the Guantánamo interrogators showed some of his clients' videotapes supposedly depicting them with Osama bin Laden. At first they denied being in the videos, but they confessed after prolonged interrogation under harsh conditions. Yet British intelligence proved to the American government that the men were actually in the United Kingdom when the tapes were made.

If many of these people who died in custody or were tortured had committed no crime, there is no doubt that they were all victims of crime, whether guilty or not. Despite White House arguments to the contrary, torture is a crime under international and United States law.

Under United Nations Convention Against Torture, an international treaty that almost every country in the world, including the United States, has ratified, torture is an international crime. The United States has made it a crime even if it occurs abroad.

"The Convention Against Torture also establishes what is called universal jurisdiction for cases of torture," Ratner explains. "So, for example, if an American citizen engaged in torture anywhere in the world and was later found in France, let's say, that person could be arrested in France and either tried for torture there or extradited to the place of the torture for trial. To the extent U.S. officials were or are involved in torture in Guantánamo or elsewhere, they should be careful about the countries in which they travel."

He continues, "In addition, torture committed by U.S. soldiers or private contractors acting under U.S. authority is a violation of federal law, punishable by the death penalty if the death of a prisoner results from the torture. Even if one argues that al Qaeda suspects are not governed by the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture and other human rights treaties ratified by the United States prohibit torture as well as other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

"The convention is crystal clear: under no circumstances can you torture people, whatever you call them, whether illegal combatants, enemy combatants, murderers, killers. You cannot torture anybody ever; it's an absolute prohibition."

While many well-meaning people on both left and right profess to be shocked by the stories that continue to pour out of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, they usually fail to understand that these atrocities are
well-rooted in American culture.

"None of what is known to have happened in Guantánamo is alien to American prisoners." says Paul Wright, Editor, Prison Legal News. Sexual assault, long term sensory deprivation, abuse, beatings, shootings, pepper spraying and the like are all too familiar to American prisoners. Coupled with overcrowding, this is the daily reality of the American prison experience."

Perhaps the only real difference is that the White House argues more forcefully than usual that no court can forbid it to arbitrarily detain and torture anyone it designates an unlawful enemy combatant, a definition that it has applied not only to foreigners but also to American citizens. We have seen how the drug exception to the Constitution has nullified basic American rights such a freedom from illegal search and seizure. But the war on drugs was merely a test run. Some rights remained intact. Now comes the permananent war against terrorism in which all human rights are

Rasul v. Bush could be a legal turning point, but it remains to be seen whether or not the White House will respect any inconvenient court decision, no matter how high the bench. Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray could be merely eloquent early witnesses to the inevitable future. Thus ends democracy in the United States. The most hope that one can express is a question mark. Thus ends democracy in the United States?

The Doper Vote

Doper support will be the kiss of death for Kerry, subscribers sneered on massively liberal dailykos.com when I posted the news that voters were being registered at the Washington state Hempfest. Do these people think that drug users don't vote? That they have no influence? That they still dress in bell bottoms and wear flowers in their hair?

The right wing is way ahead on this. Libertarians are almost uniformly in favor of immediate legalization. Even hard-core conservatives are anti-drugwar. On far right FreeRepublic.com, a drugwar abuse item typically pulls about 75 percent outright antidrugwar comments. The culturally tolerant fiscal conservative could be Kerry's key swing voter.

William F. Buckley, the orthodox conservative's Pope, complained that marijuana laws are based on "moral fanaticism." "What is required," he said, "is a genuine Republican groundswell. It is happening, but ever so gradually."

Buckley pointed to a 2003 Zogby survey showing that 40 percent of Americans believe "the government should treat marijuana more or less the same way it treats alcohol: It should regulate it, control it, tax it and make it illegal only for children." In the National Review, Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan A. Nadelmann writes that 72 percent now favor fines rather than jail for simple marijuana possession. At least 50 million have tried grass.

Orthodox leftists, however, seem to be incapable of understanding the size and – very important – intensity of the anti-drug war movement. They tend to support the enforced treatment model without fully understanding how nasty it is. Even when they are drug users themselves, many still privately think of smoking marijuana as a vice that they regret. Anti-drug war activists see it as self-medication, not just for physical pain, but for the otherwise usually intractable irritations of life in groups.

Many anti-drug war activists in forums such as DrugWar.com plan either to vote for Nader or abstain because Kerry is just another cop, even though he's softened his positions on drug enforcement since the campaign began. These are outspoken opinion leaders with very effective media information programs. Any convincing statement of sympathy would instantly move them.

Kerry could come out for a complete review of all drug policy issues by a blue ribbon panel of renowned experts. He needn't demand legalization, decriminalization or any other specific action. If asked, he would answer that he wants to know the facts before offering any positions.

No independent panel has ever found marijuana worth criminalizing. Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and the amphetamines will always be controlled substances, I'm sure. But mandatory sentences are already under heavy attack from the local governments that can't afford to pay for them. Only DEA shills deny that the drug war is an utter disaster.

Political campaigners don't care if illegal drug use is a vice or not, just how many net votes the issue will produce, and whether or not the number is worth the fire-alarms that taking a position will set off. Given the size of the prison and treatment industry, deafening sirens will suffocate any legislative drug reform enthusiasm.

Congressional Democrats are mostly either joined at the liver with the Republicans on drug policy, or too cowardly to speak out. Although it would be a devastating October surprise, Health and Human Services does not seem eager to use its power to reschedule marijuana as a therapeutically useful drug. The judiciary, however, is ripping mad about being throttled by Ashcroft's theological police.

Thus there's only one practical consideration left for the anti-drug war side. Who will appoint the judiciary, including as many as three Supreme Court justices?

The Supreme Court can legalize marijuana by fiat. Think of it – no negotiations and tortured lobbying, but genuine experts expounding on the facts, constrained by rules of evidence.

Pick one: Bush or Kerry. Which candidate is most likely to name judges who will interpret the Constitution of the United States according to facts in evidence rather than DEA propaganda?

A Million Little Pieces

"I woke to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin," begins "A Million Little Pieces," James Frey's story of his ascent from crackhouse ground zero. "I lift my hand and feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut." His clothes are covered with spit, snot, vomit and blood. He doesn't know how he got on the plane or where he is going, but as he soon finds out, he's on his way to rehab.

This is today's "Bright Lights, Big City." Instead of cocaine and The New Yorker we've got crack and a rehabilitation treatment center in Minnesota. The grungy editorial style diligently avoids glorifying the brilliant descriptions of medical torture, explicit (and often hideously demeaning) sex and even more explicit drugs. A stream-of-consciousness lite effect is provided by the absence of quotation marks and paragraph indents. Certain words are idiosyncratically capitalized -- the Bathroom, the Nurses -- perhaps to suggest that old cosmic paranoia feeling that comes with over-indulgence in hallucinatory substances; perhaps to be literary and cute.

Despite the Burroughs-inflected literary tics, this is an emotionally penetrating narrative that faithfully portrays the institutional rehabilitation process. It's very commercial, too. Unlike "Naked Lunch," it would make a nice gift for a friend considering detox (one of the Bush girls, maybe?), whether as a warning or a comfort. Faithful to hallowed marketing considerations going back to St. Augustine, all users are portrayed as hopeless addicts. Drug rapture is described in physical and sexual terms and always leads to horrible crashes. There are no hints that self-medication can be a very effective form of self-treatment for emotional and physical maladies.

James Frey operates in a literary zone where the worst case rules to the exclusion of all others. You can't write about the masterpieces that are created while enraptured, the psychological knots untied, the revival of the sheer joy of living. No one can handle drugs. Period. Got that clear? Begin writing. These days, when so many successful folks routinely rely on weird brain torques without requiring professional detoxification, it's not easy to get a gifted writer to fit a book into this Procrustean headlock, much less sign it. It appears that "Go Ask Alice," by Anonymous, the eternally best-selling classic teenage descent-into-drug-hell tale, supposedly based on a fifteen-year-old girl's diary, was faked. As far as anyone can tell, there never was any teenaged girl's diary. Beatrice Matthews Sparks, a Mormon lady from Utah, most likely made it all up.

In "A Million Little Pieces", they've got something better -- a real (and very talented) writer with a real story who believes very firmly in individual responsibility. The author portrays himself as quite heroic in both his rebellion and his determination to quit, reminding me of John Galt in "Atlas Shrugged." Although it has some synthetic moments, the book is obviously sincere, but the resolution finally boils down to "Just say no."

Frey's case demonstrates that the treatment model can work if the victim is a highly motivated upper-class college drop-out with a concrete physical infancy trauma that can be rooted out in therapy. It also helps to have a loving family show up to help out, even if Dad does have to leave in the middle on one of his emergency business trips. Then there are the political connections made in rehab that enable him to avoid having to do time for an outstanding conviction. Frey mentions these factors in passing, but mainly attributes his recovery to willpower.

"A Million Little Pieces" could be part of the softening-up campaign for the switch toward treatment rather than punishment. Venereal disease prevention in Paris in the 17th Century eventually led to the criminalization of prostitution. Now the high cost of drug criminalization results in the need to declare recreational drug use or self-medication to be symptoms of a treatable disease. Unfortunately, the involuntary treatment model as currently formatted is merely another take on criminalization. It's a lot better than jail for abusers of dangerous addictive drugs such as crack, cocaine, speed and heroin, but how many people would need treatment for marijuana dependency except to avoid prison?

The cost of scorched earth drug enforcement is distorting the entire criminal justice system so ferociously that government financial administrators at all levels are hard put to pay for it. Just as the mentally ill were turned out on the streets because it was so much cheaper, outpatient therapy enforced by the threat of imprisonment will now replace the war on drugs, at least for middle class whites. It probably won't work, but it doesn't use weapons resources that would better go to conventional wars of conquest.

Jules Siegel's reports on drugs, crime and alternate culture have appeared in Playboy, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and many other publications.

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