Monday, April 14, 2014

Class Dismissed

Portland has, in recent weeks, become the latest case study in the ongoing corporatization of higher education.

Last month, The University of Southern Maine laid off 15 full-time faculty members--the majority of which belong to the humanities and liberal arts department--in order to make up for a $14 million budget shortfall. All of the laid off professors are tenured, but have been "retrenched," which, as the Portland Phoenix's Nicholas Schroeder explains in a recent cover story ("Crisis at USM," 03/28/2014), is a "jargony term for eliminating specific programs without appearing to violate faculty union contracts."

The departments cut include Music, Theater, English, Sociology and Women and Gender Studies, along with Geosciences, Recreation and Leisure Studies, and New England Studies. And this is only the first round of cuts to as many as 50 total positions across the University of Maine System. The USM administration, currently headed by President Theodora Kalikow and Chancellor James Page, cites declining enrollment and tuition freezes as the need for the cuts.

Kalikow says she wants to remake the sprawling, multi-campus college as a "Metropolitan university." With all due respect to both Portland and USM, the words "metropolitan," and "Maine" really do not belong in the same sentence.

But students and faculty are fighting back.

The anti-austerity activist group #USMFuture--which consists of current and former USM students, faculty, members of the Portland Green Independent Committee, the Southern Maine Workers' Center, and Occupy Maine--staged a rally and march against the layoffs in Portland's Monument Square on April 10.

Andy Moxley, one of the rally's participants from the organization Socialist Alternative, drew comparisons between the ongoing corporatization of education and the nationwide drive for a higher minimum wage (the "Fight for $15," as it is being called).

"These issues are absolutely related," said Moxley. "They are both issues that affect working-class young people. We keep belt-tightening until we have no room anymore. This sort of austerity is not working. I think people are realizing that. And the fight for $15 is definitely a part of this [larger] struggle."

Many protesters carried signs that read, "Students Are Not Customers," and "Education is Not a Business Transaction." Yet, that is increasingly how colleges are treating both.

More and more, college recruiters and administrators, parents, employers, and even a few professors, are pushing students away from the liberal arts courses, traditionally the backbone of higher education. They insist these disciplines are not "practical" and will not lead students to a career. Courses in the humanities (Music, Philosophy, Creative Writing, Literature) are considered "superfluous" because they will not make anyone (monetarily) rich. And this has perverted the entire purpose of education which is inherently self-critical, political, and even, at times, subversive.

Universities are becoming glorified vocational training mills, emphasizing job skills over actual learning.

"Education," W.B. Yeats famously wrote, "is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

John Branson, a Portland attorney who served as the pro-bono lawyer for Occupy Maine, echoes Yeats's sentiments. In a recent Op-Ed to the Portland Daily Sun ("In Defense of the Liberal Arts," 04/03/14) Branson recalls the benefits of his own liberal arts education at Yale.

"We [Branson and his classmates] were to become lifelong learners," Branson writes, "equipped with the intellectual ability and moral courage to contribute meaningfully not only to our future employers but society itself."

He continues:

Unfortunately, instilling our young people with the moral courage and intellectual ability to think for themselves is directly at odds with both the dominant paradigm of indoctrination and the corporate model for modern education reform. .... The goal of the modern corporatocracy... is to develop linear thinkers devoted to the absorption and acceptance of conventional knowledge, wisdom, and opinions; to mold pliant workers reluctant to rock the boat; and to create an army of malleable consumers easily influenced by modern advertising and marketing.

Let's be honest: The UMaine public schools have never been outstanding. They are average at best. (The truly excellent schools--Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin--are financially out of reach for most students and their families.) USM is a glorified commuter school, and the system's flagship college, The University of Maine in Orono, suffers from perpetual understaffing of faculty. Like most major colleges, UMaine overly relies on graduate students and part-time adjunct instructors to teach most of its courses.

But these budget cuts only threaten to make mediocre schools even worse.

And this dumbing down of education is not limited to our universities. The national trend toward austerity has led to a defunding of public schools, teacher layoffs, and a lack of adequate resources and learning spaces. Lawmakers complain they "do not have the money" to properly fund K-12 education, yet seem to have no problem with mega-retailers like Walmart and McDonald's basically living off of taxpayer expense.

And the emergence of charter schools in recent years--privately owned, for profit schools that are still publicly funded--threatens to usher in a future in which all education is privatized and commercialized.

The Kennebunk school district (RSU 21) where I teach as an Ed Tech recently finished implementing the new Common Core learning standards, which 46 states plus the District of Columbia have essentially been forced to adopt. (Adoption of the Common Core curriculum is tied to federal "Race to the Top" funding--some $4.35 billion. States not on board with Common Core are not eligible for the funding.)

These new standards mean more student learning will be "measured" by standardized tests and mandated educational outcomes. It also means more teacher salaries--and, in some cases, continued employment--will be based on their students' test scores. Indeed, this brave new world of corporatized education, in which the so-called "bad teachers" are those whose students do poorly on standardized tests, forgets that teaching is, as radical educator Paulo Freire observed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a reciprocal endeavor. Even the most talented and engaging educators can only lead students to the metaphorical fountain of knowledge. They cannot force students to drink from it.

Yet the corporate forces--including the "philanthropic" Gates Foundation--that are pushing curriculum like Common Core do not understand this. They only understand one thing: How to make a profit. They see money in public education and they want it. All of it. And if we do not stop them, these corporate forces will destroy not only our nation's education system, but the very concept of an informed, engaged citizenry along with it.

UPDATE, 04/11/2014:

President Kalikow announced Friday afternoon that all faculty layoffs have been rescinded. According to the Portland Press Herald, Kalikow made the decision just minutes before the USM Faculty Senate Meeting and claims the student-led protests "did not play a role" in her reversal. This, of course, seems highly unlikely. However, Kalikow made clear the university must still account for the budget shortfall and is "open to alternative plans."

So, is this a win for us? It is hard to say. As Maine Green Independent Party chairman and state senate candidate, Asher Platts points out, this is, at best, a temporary victory. There are still structural changes needed to the University of Maine System's administrative board in order to change the ever increasing Business-orientation of higher education. Platts writes on the Maine Green Party's website:

While it's great that the faculty layoffs have been rescinded, we must keep our eyes on the prize of reforming the UMaine system to allow for more democratic means of making decisions, review funding models, and [to improve] the state of Maine's relationship to the UMaine system or we will be fighting this same battle over and over.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bedtime for Democracy

In the wake of 2010's disastrous Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and now this week's equally game-changing, McCutcheon v. FEC, which lifts the cap on campaign contributions from rich donors, it might be time to start asking the obvious question we are all too afraid to pose:

Do we even still live in a representative democracy, anymore? Or has the United States become a sort of oligarchic plutocracy where only the very wealthy have any ability to influence government?

(Let's put the broader question of whether the U.S. has ever truly been a democracy, aside for the time being. For the sake of argument, let's assume America was founded as a democratic nation. I'll let readers fight this one out in the "Comments" section.)

Many progressive pundits have lamented in recent years the state of our "beleaguered," or "weakened" democracy. But just how "weak" must a country's democratic institutions become before they finally gasp their last metaphorical breath? At what point is the transition from an open, free society, to a closed, totalitarian one complete? Have we, in fact, now reached that point? Does our democracy exist in name only?

Chilling questions, to be certain. Yet the Supreme Court's campaign-spending decision last week demands we treat them as more than academic hypotheticals.

Those Americans whose civic participation starts and ends in the voting booth once every four years might want to start paying more attention. And you might want to start contemplating alternative forms of action while you are at it, given how increasingly pointless those elections are becoming--unless that is, you happen to be rich.

Last week's McCutcheon decision--which raises the so-called aggregate limit on the amount of money an individual can directly contribute to a candidate, PAC (Political Action Committee), or political party from $2,600 to $3.5 million--maintains the Roberts-led court's trend of equating the spending of money with free speech.

While many conservatives have lauded the Justices' decision as a win for "freedom," it is a freedom only a very small, wealthy percentage of Americans can exercise. As Andy Kroll makes clear in his recent coverage of the McCutcheon decision in Mother Jones ("The Supreme Court Just Gutted Another Campaign Finance Law...", 04/02/2014), this will no doubt further the vastly disproportionate influence the extremely rich already yield in our elections.

"The decision is a boon for wealthy donors," Kroll writes, "a potential lifeline for the weakened Democratic and Republican parties, and the latest in a series of setbacks dealt by the Roberts court to supporters of tougher campaign [spending] laws." 

It is time to start thinking outside of the voting booth. Occupy Wall Street had the right idea, initially. Not only did the movement leave an indelible impact on our vocabulary, with phrases like "One percent," and "99 percent," still widely in use today. But it also made clear, to anyone who still did not understand, where the real centers of power are in this country: Not the White House, but Wall Street.

Unfortunately, the widespread emergence of "sister occupations" throughout the country (including here in Portland) kind of lost the plot. It is hard to occupy Wall Street--based in Manhattan--when you live in, you know... Maine. Had the Portland Occupiers set up camp in front of a local TD Bank or Bank of America (or even the Portland offices of Preti Flaherty, law firm of Harold Pachios, a longtime Democratic donor and strategist), that would have made sense. Instead they quixotically settled for about five months in Lincoln Park, where most of their anti-corporatist message was mistaken by passerby for "camping."

When Occupy re-emerges--and I believe it or something like it will--I hope it can move beyond these fledgling failings and coalesce a truly populist mass movement. Still, the Occupiers were on the right track. And this is why the movement was ultimately crushed by the corporate state. They knew it was a threat.

In his remarks shortly after forcibly evicting the Occupy protesters from Zuccotti Park, New York's "independent" Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed the group's grievances as "totally unfounded."

It is increasingly clear any substantive effort at restoring our democracy and the rule of law is going to come from outside the two-party system. Real progressive change will come, as it always has, through activists, socialists, and third-parties like the Green Party. (Full disclosure: I am the Secretary for the Portland Green Independent Committee, of the Maine Green Independent Party.)

Contrary to popular opinion, Greens can win elections. We have had particular success on the local and state levels where voters are more willing to look past the bogus "spoiler" argument. And even if Greens fail to win office we can still influence the election by bringing up issues--like raising the minimum wage, or instant run-off voting--the Democrats and Republicans would not otherwise discuss.

Our democracy has been hijacked by an unfettered corporate state. It has been sold to the highest bidder. Extremely wealthy capitalists like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Warren Buffett now own America. And the only hope we have of taking our country--and our democracy--back is by stepping outside of the system.

Do not "Keep Calm and Carry On," as the ubiquitous motivational slogan urges. It is time to get mad and f*&@ sh#! up. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Next Extinction

Sigmund Freud, in his highly influential 1930 work, Civilization and its Discontents, posited the existence in humans of a subconscious, self-destructive impulse--a sort of "death wish." This "death drive" impulse or thanatos is the psychical counterpart to Eros or man's subconscious desire for love and sex. The death drive, according to Freud, reveals itself in characteristics of sadism, aggressiveness, narcissism, and self-destruction. Thanatos, then, becomes another psychological constraint in the tension between civilized man and his primal, baser instincts.

This "inclination to aggression," Freud wrote, "is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man...that...constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization."

Civilization marked a significant turning point in Freud's work. Published in the wake of the unprecedented devastation of the first World War--and the subsequent emergence of the consumer culture industry--the book found Freud profoundly shaken in his view of human nature. His overall outlook for the future of human civilization was, to put it mildly, not encouraging.

Freud's theory of the death drive (which he first introduced years earlier in 1920's Beyond the Pleasure Principle) gained little support in the psychological community at the time. Some 85 years later, with the earth on the brink of incalculable ecological destruction from climate change, it seems Freud may have been on to something.

Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a bleak and dire report on the potential impacts of global warming titled "What We Know." The authors state in the report's introduction,

[W]e consider it to be our responsibility to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action.

Attempting to put to rest, once and for all, the mind-numbing anti-science dismissals of right-wing climate change skeptics, and the campaign of deliberate misinformation funded by the fossil fuel industry, the report's authors state clearly and plainly:

[L]evels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying.

And yet our elected leaders in government seem incapable of taking any meaningful action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. (By imposing, for instance, a gas tax.) The best measure the Democratic-controlled Senate can produce is a tepid, market-oriented cap-and-trade bill--and it could not even get that through.

And let's be clear about who bears the most blame for the climate crisis: The corporate state.

Could you and I drive less and take greater steps to reduce our individual carbon footprints? Certainly. (Though this is difficult when you live, as I do, in a state that lacks a major public transportation system.) Yet our individual contributions to climate change, while not, in of themselves insignificant, pale in comparison to those of the fossil fuel industry. According to an article in The Guardian last fall (11/20/2013), just 90 corporations have been responsible for two-thirds of CO2 emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Of those 90 companies, 83 are coal, oil, and gas producers like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and BP.

It is as if we, as a species, are locked in an insane collective suicide pact. We march, like lemmings, toward the edge of the precipice, unable to stop ourselves. We delude ourselves with the childish fiction we can have an economy of infinite, unregulated growth on a planet of finite resources. This sort of thinking is not only illogical, it borders on the psychotic. It is a symptom of the disease that is capitalism.

Karl Marx understood that capitalism is a revolutionary force because it turns everything--including the environment, human lives, and ultimately, the ecosystem that supports all planetary life--into a commodity. Marx saw capitalism--whether we are talking about the "free-market," "laissez-faire," or "trickle-down" sort, or the more contemporary brand of "corporate capitalism"--as having an inherently self-destructive quality, which makes it ultimately unsustainable.

As Marx observed in Volume I of his three-part economic treatise, Capital, the entire concept of using money to generate more money (which he represents as the formula of "Money-Commodity-Money," an inversion of the traditional, "C-M-C") represented a fundamental shift in the structure of society.

"By virtue of being value, it [capital] has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself," Marx wrote. "It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs" (p. 255).

Using money to generate more money becomes, for the capitalist anyway, the gift that quite literally keeps on giving. That is, until it consumes itself.

Perhaps it is not so much a death-wish we suffer from, as a case of collective denial.

Clive Hamilton, in his sobering book, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Earthscan, 2010), argues anthropogenic or man-induced global warming represents such a fundamental existential crisis for humankind, we simply cannot accept the reality emotionally. Even those of us, Hamilton argues, that understand and accept the science of climate change intellectually, still have difficulty coming to terms with the worst case predictions emotionally. We simply do not want to accept that our planet could, in essence, become uninhabitable for us as a species. And this sort of emotional denial has prevented even the more rational, scientifically-literate among us from taking meaningful action to halt ecological destruction.

Like the Greek god, Icarus, mankind has flown too close to the sun on wings made of wax. In our hubristic attempts to conquer and control the natural world we underestimated the fragility of the Earth's natural homeostasis. The centuries-long crusade of human "progress"--in which the exalted Industrial Revolution and the corporate state's successful supplantation of democracy may well have been the final, terminal stages--has sowed the seeds of our own destruction.

Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith in The Matrix is correct about mankind: We are a virus.

As Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs... still give him much trouble at times. Future ages will bring with them new and possibly unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man's likeness to God still more. But... we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his God-like character. 

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Spies, Damned Spies! (And Other Congressional Hypocrites)

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In a well-known and frequently referenced scene from Casablanca, the corrupt Captain Louis Renault, grasping for a legal pretense to shutdown Rick Blaine's café, claims he is "shocked--shocked!--to find that gambling is going on here!" He no sooner makes this sanctimonious proclamation, when one of his lackeys approaches him with "Your winnings, sir," which Renault promptly pockets.

One imagines Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, striking a similarly hypocritical tone. Feinstein took to the Senate floor last week to denounce, in some of the harshest terms from a member of Congress to date, the National Security Agency's spying on the Senate chamber and her colleagues.

The CIA-Congress "spat" as many reporters are referring to it, specifically revolves around Congress's years-long effort to obtain evidence of the CIA's torture programs during (but not limited to) the Bush administration. While the CIA's use of torture--or "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the bland, euphemistic language of the "objective" corporate media--has been well established (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have publicly admitted to and defended the illegal acts), senators like Feinstein claim the practice goes "well beyond" anything they previously knew of.

According to Feinstein, the NSA wiretapped senators' computers without a warrant, a claim CIA chief John "Assassination Tsar" Brennan denies. Feinstein, a longtime proponent of CIA covert actions in general, and the NSA's surveillance program in particular, denounced the agency's actions. The CIA's search, Sen. Feinstein said,

[M]ay well have violated the Separation of Powers principle embodied in the United States Constitution, including the Speech and Debate Clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities and any other government function.

Feinstein went on to add that the CIA's actions may also have violated the Fourth Amendment. (Gee, you think?) Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) concurred with characteristic hyperbolic flair. "This is Richard Nixon stuff," Graham declared. "This is dangerous to the democracy. Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it's true. If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA."

Feinstein, readers may recall, has been one of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's most vociferous critics. In an interview with CBS's Bob Schieffer last summer (Face the Nation, 06/23/2013), she charged Snowden with "treason," and called for his extradition to the United States. During the broadcast, Sen. Feinstein also rattled off spurious claims that WikiLeaks helped Snowden flee the country, and that China was somehow involved with his actions--claims which she offered zero evidence to back up.

(Curious side-question: Is Dianne Feinstein, herself, now guilty of treason, given that she has effectively revealed the CIA's clearly necessary and well-intended congressional spying activities to the general public? Has she not now endangered Americans and given aid and comfort to our enemies with her disclosure? Take the comments section and discuss...)

Feinstein and her colleagues' rank hypocrisy on the issue of domestic spying--and the fact that Senators Feinstein and Graham can issue such scathing condemnations of the CIA with a straight face--is so absurdly contradictory it seems more like something out of The Daily Show than an actual news item.

Indeed, the Huffington Post may have put in best in a March 11 headline which read, "Senators Okay with Spying on Citizens, but Outraged it Happened to Congress."

Given how "liberal" the media is, one would think the Beltway rank-and-file reporters would be having a field day with our government's egregious double-standards when it comes to the surveillance state. One would, alas, be wrong.

Most of the coverage of this story has approached it primarily from the torture-angle, while conveniently underplaying Feinstein and her colleagues' glaring hypocrisy on the issue of spying. While the question of whether or not the CIA engaged in torture during the (still ongoing) "War on Terror," is certainly a significant one, it is a question everyone except those in the corporate media already knows the answer to: Yes. The torture question, then, becomes a diversion from the more timely issue of warrantless wiretapping.

Exhibit A is a recent front-page story from the New York Times ("Conflict Erupts in Public Rebuke on C.I.A. Inquiry," 03/12/2014).

The story, by Times veteran reporters, Mark Mazzetti and Jonathan Weisman, reads more like a glorified profile piece for Sen. Feinstein--long an exalted and esteemed member of the Senate. The article is typical of the Times' Washington Beltway reportage, relying predominantly on insider sources, White House spokespeople, and CIA personnel. The closest the reporters come to even acknowledging Sen. Feinstein's hypocrisy on the issue of warrantless wiretapping is the following passage:

Ms. Feinstein has proved to be a bulwark for intelligence agencies in recent years: publicly defending the National Security Agency's telephone and Internet surveillance activities, the C.I.A.'s authority over drone strikes and the F.B.I.'s actions under the Patriot Act against a growing bipartisan chorus of critics.
The piece goes on to quote Amy B. Zegart, a scholar of intelligence issues at Stanford University: "Feinstein has always pushed the agency [the CIA] in private and defended it in public... Now she is skewering the C.I.A. in public. This is a whole new world for the C.I.A."

The article goes out of its way to paint Feinstein as some sort of congressional hero--a whistleblower, even. Yet, Edward Snowden's earlier disclosure of the very same illegal spying, rather than registering shock and outrage from the corporate press, instead lead to a "debate" (in which all sides agree) over whether his whistleblower actions make him a "hero," or a "traitor." It is only when the elites have their unconstitutional practices turned on them that they begin to cry foul.

But then, I suppose we should not be surprised by this sort of tepid, "objective" news coverage. After all, according to longtime NYT reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, "You can't just say the president is lying," even when he is clearly and deliberately making statements that are factually untrue. "Objective" is not the right word for this sort of reporting. Obfuscation would be more appropriate.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will end the surveillance state. It has now become such an entrenched tool in the interminable "War on Terror," that no future administration will give the power up willingly. Barack Obama had a chance to terminate the program, along with the other criminal excesses of the Bush administration. Instead, he expanded those abuses of executive power. He has proven as morally bankrupt and power-hungry as his predecessor.

It is only when the tables are turned and the ruling elites are subjected to the very same crimes they perpetuate on citizens--as the conflict in the Ukraine currently illustrates--that they start crying about the "rule of law," The Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. The law exists only to be bended and twisted to serve their needs. When it does not, it can be ignored.

As the iconoclastic journalist, I.F. Stone observed, "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."

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Monday, March 3, 2014

The Courage to Resist

An essay on man in revolt

Forbes op-ed columnist, Carrie Sheffield, joins the chorus of media intelligentsia attacking former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as a "traitor."

In a piece from last December ("Edward Snowden is Not 'Person of the Year,'" 12/18/2013), the conservative Sheffield--her byline reads, "Committed to free minds & free markets,"--echoes The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, that Snowden is a "grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison."

Sheffield chastises an alleged media landscape wherein publications are practically falling over themselves to "beknight" Snowden as a "hero" or First Amendment champion. I am curious to know which specific publications Sheffield is referring to. Editorials in every newspaper I pick up have nothing but denunciatory vitriol for the 30-year-old Booz Allen Hamilton contractor.

Sheffield's claims that Snowden, "undermined trust and transparency among the ranks of public servants who protect America," and that he "did not reveal one single abuse by the U.S. intelligence community," are childish in their level of ignorance.

She, like so many of Snowden's critics, trots out the ludicrous argument that Snowden should have gone through the "traditional government channels," (in Sheffield's case a "sympathetic member of Congress,") to expose his findings.

Yet it is the traditional channels of government--i.e. Congress, the Executive Branch, etc.--that have authorized and are carrying out these illegal methods of spying. Indeed, Snowden's revelations are not at all revelatory to members of Congress. They signed off on them!

As Glen Greenwald, the former Guardian reporter who broke the Snowden story, pointed out during an interview on Democracy Now! last year (06/24/2013), had Snowden gone through the "traditional" whistleblower channels he "would have ended up having to go to the very same members of Congress who think that not only are these programs good, but that they ought to remain secret."

This is how the power elite attempts to delegitimize whistleblowers, by quibbling over tactics and "proper channels," while ignoring the actual substance of what truth-tellers like Snowden have revealed. Their approach is the same every time: Shoot the messenger--ignore the message.

But the fact remains, we would not be talking about our government's mass-scale domestic spying apparatus if it were not for Edward Snowden. The NSA was never going to publicly disclose its "PRISM" program on its own. The Obama administration--just like all previous U.S. administrations--is more than comfortable lying to the American people about its clandestine and often illegal activities.

This is precisely why we need whistleblowers, reporters, and dissidents like Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Upton Sinclair, and Seymour Hersh to act as a watchdog on government actions. These rebels make democracy possible.

As Howard Zinn once said, "Democracy is not what governments do. It's what people do."

Those who claim they have "nothing to hide," or who cynically dismiss Snowden's revelations as "unsurprising," do not understand the extent of what is happening. The NSA is currently collecting every email, text-message, Tweet, and phone conversation of every citizen. They can track our web searches, online banking activity, and Internet history. Orwell's dystopian nightmare envisioned in 1984 has become reality. Big Brother is literally watching us. Our lawmakers have obliterated the Fourth Amendment. And the NSA's surveillance is not limited to the U.S. They have spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and participants at the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009.

We have become Orwell's Oceania. "The Party's surveillance tactics and technology are so advanced," Orwell wrote in 1984, "that even the smallest twitch can betray a rebellious spirit."

A citizenry under this sort of oppressive, constant surveillance is not free. Privacy is not merely a luxury. It is essential to democracy. It is only when we can be alone with our own private thoughts--far from the madding crowd, as Thomas Hardy famously phrased it--that we can engage in creative thoughts or projects, indulge in art or literature, and reflect on the broad, philosophical questions of our time. (You know--the questions we are so often forbidden from asking in the arena we spend the vast majority of our waking lives: The workplace.)

Indeed, without privacy, any form of political, social or cultural dissent is impossible. And that, as Orwell understood, is ultimately the point.

Consider what Snowden has sacrificed to bring us the truth. He will likely never be permitted to return to the United States--not without facing criminal charges and potentially life in prison. Congress members like California Sen. Diane Feinstein (a Democrat; just sayin') claim Snowden is guilty of treason and should be extradited to the U.S. Maine's favorite junior Senator, "independent" Angus King concurs, telling the media last summer he is "moving more and more toward the 'treason' end of the scale," when it comes to his opinion of Snowden's actions. He too, argues with a straight face that Snowden should have gone to Congress with his findings.

The fact is, we are all better off as citizens thanks to Snowden's disclosures, as well as to the reporters that have brought those disclosures to light. Democracy cannot function when the public is in the dark of its own government's actions--especially when those actions are illegal. Snowden displayed the moral courage and personal convictions so rare in our fearful, conformist society, and yet so crucial for democracy. And that is why the corporate state is so desperate to silence and discredit him.

French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus viewed rebellion as the single greatest affirmation of our individual humanity. A proponent of the philosophy of "the absurd," Camus believed life is meaningless and our individual fates are largely out of our control. But we can still choose how we live. And it is only through a constant state of rebellion, Camus argued, that one can create meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. It is only through rebellion that one can be truly free.

"A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object," he wrote in his 1956 book-length essay, The Rebel. "But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object."

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hard Times and Small Victories

A recent development in Portland's ongoing war against poor residents is good news for the latter group.

A federal judge struck down the city's recently enacted ban on panhandling on median strips last week, calling the ordinance unconstitutional. In his decision, U.S. District Judge George Singal claimed the ordinance, in addition to prohibiting panhandlers' First Amendment rights to free speech, is not content neutral since it still allows political candidates to place signs in median strips. The City Council passed the sweeping ordinance last summer in a 6-0 vote.

Councilors and city officials claimed the ordinance was necessary to protect both panhandlers and motorists from harm. But none of them offered any substantive evidence that vehicular accidents have increased in the city as a result of panhandlers' presence on busy median strips.

In fact, a brief report from ABC affiliate, WMTW-8 (06/13/2013) observed, "While numbers of calls for service to police because of people in the median have gone up, it's not clear whether anybody has actually been hurt because of people standing in the median of roads."

Judge Singal was right to throw this misguided law out. From the beginning it was asinine.

As I pointed out after the ordinance's passage, even if left unchallenged it would have done nothing to eliminate or even reduce the practice of panhandling in the city--assuming that was its intent. Indeed, median strip panhandlers have remained a steady presence in Portland, even after the law's passage. And Portland Police, by their own admission, never strictly enforced the ordinance, probably because they have more pressing priorities to attend to.

This suggests to me it is the city's yuppie, upper-middle class residents, and the members of the various neighborhood association groups which actively pushed the ordinance, that truly have a problem with desperate, poor people begging in the streets--not the police.

What bothered me from the beginning about this ordinance--aside, that is, from its blatant free speech incursions--was its cloying disingenuousness. City officials' argument that in order to keep panhandlers safe we need to kick them out of visible roadways and highly trafficked areas, smacks of liberal elitism. It recalls Bill Clinton's empty, "I feel your pain," sound bite.

Let's get real: This ordinance was never about seriously addressing the poverty, homelessness, and outright desperation that lead one to literally beg on the streets for money. It was to placate the callous, easily offended sensibilities of the city's upper-middle class business elite. As Portland Daily Sun columnist, and 2013 Green Party City Council candidate, Chris Shorr notes in his recent editorial (02/13/2014), "...just because people's naïve, delicate view of the world might be altered by the realities of poverty doesn't give us the right to force marginalized people into the shadows."

The median strip debate is part of an ongoing trend here in Portland and throughout the country with regard to the poor and disenfranchised. One can draw a direct line between the city's crackdown on panhandling, and the controversial sale of Congress Square Park to an out-of-state corporation.

Congress Square Park has long been a popular hangout for Portland's homeless, mentally ill, and destitute. Many of these individuals suffer from schizophrenia, head injury, alcoholism or drug addiction. They often have no family or friends to care for them. A number of them are veterans of America's imperial adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Having served their "patriotic duty" in the military, they are now promptly thrust aside, out of sight and out of mind of the rest of us who know nothing of the horrors of war.

Others lost their homes due to mounting medical bills--the number one cause of home foreclosure. The U.S. remains the only nation in the industrialized world that relies on a for-profit, pay-or-die health care system. Even post-invasion Iraq has universal, single-payer health care. (And no, Obamacare is not universal health care. I wish it were too, but calling it such does not make it so.)

Yes, some of the park's regulars become vulgar, even violent at times. Contrary to popular belief, Portland is a city, and, unfortunately, cities tend to attract their share of "undesirable" elements. Middle class residents who do not want to deal with such public behavior would be better suited living in Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth or my hometown of Kennebunk.

But I know I am not alone in my suspicion that the now delayed sale of Congress Square Park, in addition to bringing the city more revenue (supposedly) and new jobs (again, supposedly), will also have the added benefit of "cleaning up" the area from what one prominent local reporter calls the "worst order of street people."

Indeed, Mayor Michael Brennan and city officials seem hell-bent on turning Portland into the next Kennebunkport, a yuppie, tourist destination with ample parking lots, events centers, swanky hotels and cruise lines. And we certainly can't have tourists seeing any homeless people begging on street corners, can we?

Regardless of what one thinks of the ever increasing presence of panhandlers in Portland, the fact remains this law did nothing to address the root causes of poverty. Despite what Scott Pelley or Brian Williams may tell you, this country is still in the grip of a devastating recession--the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We are, furthermore, witnessing a vast, unprecedented transference of income in which the top one percent controls 43 percent of the nation's wealth.

Is it any wonder we are seeing more Americans begging for spare change?

But what do I know, right? I mean, these people chose to live on the streets, didn't they? Poverty, like homosexuality, is simply a lifestyle choice, isn't it? These moochers have clearly never worked for anything in their lives. We Americans can have anything--anything!--we want, if only we work hard, apply ourselves, do what we are told, and, most importantly, never question the world around us. Isn't that the American Dream?

It is curious--striking, really--how little these attitudes toward the poor have changed since Charles Dickens's time. Perhaps literature's greatest champion of the poor, particularly the plight of poor children, Dickens's 1854 novel Hard Times is a scathing satire of the super rich and their snobbish, callous indifference toward the poor residents of the fictional Coketown.

In the novel, the wealthy, self-absorbed industrialist Mr. Bounderby accuses his union-agitating workers of expecting "to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon," when, of course, they have demanded nothing of the kind. Bounderby, who constantly touts his purportedly "self-made" status and "penniless childhood," (a story which, it turns out, has been greatly exaggerated) lambastes the noble, hard-working Stephen Blackpool for desiring a divorce from his loveless, alcoholic wife. Yet he has no difficulty abruptly ending his own marriage, essentially walking out on his young trophy wife, toward the novel's end. Such action reveals the rank hypocrisy and double-standards of the rich.

Stephen, though uneducated, nonetheless starkly sums up the plight of the working-poor to Mr. Bounderby with his poignant observation:

Look how we live an' where we live, an' in what numbers, an' by what chances an' with what sameness; an' look how the mills is [always] a-goin', and how they never works us no nigher to [any] distant object--'ceptin' [always] Death. Look how you considers of us, and writes of us, and talks of us, and goes up with your deputations to Secretaries of State 'bout us, and how you are alwus right and how we are alwus wrong and never had no reason in us [since] ever we were born.... Who can you look on it sir, and fairly not tell a man, 'tis not a muddle? 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mr. Mitchell Goes to Augusta

Go back to bed, America. George Mitchell and the power elite are in control.

Perhaps the greatest lie of American politics in the 21st century is the myth of congressional gridlock.

This myth, which is constantly perpetuated by corporate news outlets from MSNBC to Fox News, to NPR, claims the Democratic and Republican parties hold "irreconcilable ideologies," which prevent them from working together to achieve "common ground." These ideological differences, we are told, have never been vaster than they are today. According to this myth, the two parties' stands on issues like immigration, health care, the minimum wage and the overall role of government are simply "worlds apart."

Consider this opening lead from U.S. News & World Report's coverage of last December's congressional budget deal ("Forget the Budget Deal, Congressional Gridlock Still the Norm on Capitol Hill," 12/19/2013):

The polar(-ized) ice caps of Congress may seem like they're melting with the passage of a budget deal crafted by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., but political observers point out there's still much they disagree on--beyond even the science behind the melt.

Yet the Murray-Ryan budget is a perfect example of why this myth of congressional gridlock--of the Democrats' and Republicans' supposedly irreconcilable worldviews--is complete nonsense. While pundits lauded last December's budget deal as a rare and encouraging instance of "bipartisanship" and "compromise" (that and the fact the budget deal averted another government shutdown), the actual contents of the budget package suggest both parties got exactly what they wanted: Tax-cuts for the rich and austerity for the rest of us.

When it comes to the fundamental, pertinent issues of our time--war and peace, civil liberties, the surveillance state, the primacy of the "free-market," and the subordination of the environment to capitalism--the Republicans and Democrats march in unyielding lockstep.

True, the two parties maintain legitimately conflicting views on abortion, immigration, gay marriage, gun ownership and which party is more welcoming to women and minorities. But these "Culture Wars"-inspired controversies are little more than wedge issues, faithfully trotted out every four years to motivate voters. In the case of left-leaning voters, that means convincing them to vote for the "lesser of two evils."

As the Socialist Worker observed in an Oct. 1, 2013 editorial, media coverage of the corporate parties "obscures how far to the right both [parties] have traveled together over the years."

The editors write:

They agree on imposing sweeping cuts in most government programs, though not the Pentagon; they differ on how deep the cuts should be. They agree on a health care system where the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex calls the shots; they differ about parts of a law designed to preserve the industry's profits and power. They agree on a system where Corporate America piles up record profits by driving down the living standards of working-class people; they disagree only on the details of how that system should operate.
Contrary to popular belief, Washington is not broken. Congress and the federal government work just fine. The problem is they are not working for "We the People." They are working for Wall Street, the economic one percent, and the military-industrial-complex.

Yet, it was this "Gridlock-Still-the-Norm" script George Mitchell read from when he addressed the Maine Legislature's Hall of Flags, last week.

The celebrated former U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader (D-ME) spoke at the unveiling of his portrait. Like Maine's equally overrated, supposed champion of political "centrism," former Sen. Olympia Snowe, Mitchell claims Washington's problem is lawmakers' refusal to "listen to one another." His bland, anecdotal speech recalled his time as Senate Majority Leader, when he and his Democratic colleagues "actually listened to one another." Mitchell holds this bygone era up in contrast to today's "mean-spirited" political culture as a sort of Golden Age of bipartisanship.

For an idea of just how "moderate" and "bipartisan" Mitchell is, consider the former U.S. Middle East Special Envoy's refusal to label Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank as "apartheid," even though that term seems to accurately describe the situation.

"Our country remains the most free, most just, most open society in all of human history," the Bowdoin graduate and former Falmouth resident proclaimed to the audience.

Uh-huh. Just don't ask Pfc. Chelsea Manning how "just" she thinks her country is. I have a feeling she might disagree with Mitchell, just a little. Last summer, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking hundreds of classified U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks--the longest sentence ever issued for a whistleblower.

Or, ask Edward Snowden about America's brand of "justice." Or, Thomas Drake. Or Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, Abdulrahman. Both U.S. citizens were killed by unmanned predator drones at President Obama's personal discretion.

"I believe in the American Dream," Mitchell later said, "because I've lived it." Well...It must be nice to be George Mitchell.

Not only did Mitchell praise an America that increasingly bears little resemblance to the current country we live in, but his cut-and-paste lecture felt more like a celebratory college graduation address. In a follow-up interview with the Bangor Daily News (01/28/2014), Mitchell predicted the U.S. is "on the precipice of one of the most prosperous eras in American history."

While I certainly hope Sen. Mitchell is correct, most of what I read paints a considerably bleaker future for the country and the planet. Go back to bed, America. George Mitchell and the power elite are in control. Everything will be alright. The Golden Age is upon us. Just keep working, shopping and whatever you do, do not ask any questions.

What is most striking about Mitchell's speech is that it could just as easily have been delivered by a Republican. This is, indeed, further evidence of the corporate parties' interchangeability. The lie of congressional gridlock and the illusion of choice in our elections keeps progressive voters--including women, the poor and what remains of the middle class--tied at the hip to a Democratic Party that does not care one iota about them. Corporate Democrats like Barack Obama need the liberal class to win election (twice in his case), yet cannot turn around and throw its members--the Democrats' base of supporters--under the bus fast enough.

Yet liberals refuse to abandon the Democrats. Half of left-leaning voters claim to have no idea what the Green Party is, while the other half remains convinced that actually casting a vote in support of a Green amounts to a "wasted" vote. They are, effectively, Albert Einstein's definition of insanity, as "doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result."

Journalist Chris Hedges calls this a "form of collective domestic abuse."

"And as so often happens in the weird pathology of victim and victimizer," he wrote in a 2008 piece for ("The Hedonists of Power," 06/23/2008), "we keep coming back for more."

The Portland Green Independent Committee will hold its biennial caucus Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 at City Hall in Portland (389 Congress Street, in the "State of Maine Room."). Caucus starts at 1:00 p.m. All registered Greens are encouraged to attend. A city official will be present a half-hour beforehand for non-Greens & new voters to register with the party.