Monday, March 3, 2014
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
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
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 Truthdig.com ("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.
Monday, January 27, 2014
|A server at DiMillo's Floating Restaurant in Portland's Old Port. Wait staff there make a base salary of $3.75 an hour--half the state's $7.50 minimum wage.|
It's official: Portland Mayor Michael Brennan reads this blog.
How else to explain the mayor's call in his recent "State of the City" address to establish a higher minimum wage in Portland, just weeks after Guerrilla Press took on that very topic? Hey, Mike--while you are listening, I have some ideas on other issues I'd like you to consider.
OK, so I have no idea if Brennan reads this blog. In all likelihood he is following the lead of his Democratic leadership, which has made raising the federal minimum wage a top priority this (election) year, according to a recent story in the New York Times. While President Obama's proposed $10.10 an hour would still not constitute a living wage, and falls short of the $15 per hour many fast-food and retail strikers have called for in recent months, the fact that the topic has been thrust back into mainstream debate is nonetheless encouraging.
If city officials were to approve an increased minimum wage, it would make Portland the only community in Maine to have a higher wage than the statewide $7.50. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25.) Such a move is not unprecedented, however. Nationally, eight cities or municipalities in the U.S. currently have a minimum wage that is higher than their state level.
As governor, Angus King twice vetoed modest increases to the state's minimum wage, claiming it would scare off potential businesses.
Of course, with this renewed focus on the minimum wage comes the inevitable Big Business backlash. Though Brennan did not state a specific dollar amount in his generic address, local business owners are already getting nervous that this prospective wage increase might--gasp!--cost them more money.
Steve DiMillo, owner of the upscale DiMillo's Restaurant and prominent local businessman griped to the Portland Press Herald's Randy Billings (1/24/2014) that any increase in the minimum wage would force him to "give raises to some of [his] highest-paid employees."
DiMillo's wait staff, because they are tipped workers, only receive a base salary of $3.75--half the state minimum wage. But, DiMillo points out, "they earn upwards of $20 an hour when tips are included..."
That is assuming, of course, the waiter is tipped at all. Last time I checked, tipping is completely optional. Sure, most of us tip regularly and tip well, but DiMillo makes it out to be a guaranteed part of a waiter's income. Besides which, servers whose tip is included in a credit or debit card payment do not always receive the money right away--if they receive it at all. Wage theft in the restaurant industry is far more pervasive than many people realize.
Later, in the same article, Coffee By Design co-owner Mary Allen Lindemann, also bemoans the possibility of having to pay her workers more. She shifts the blame to the city's lack of affordable housing, which, while certainly an equally important concern for minimum-wage workers, strikes me as something of an apples-vs.-oranges comparison. In other words, it is not Lindemann's fault that her employees can barely afford to stay in their apartments. It is the city's.
And how do CBD workers feel about their meager salary...? We do not know. Billings does not quote any of them--though he does offer a picture of CBD barista, Elliot Conrad, hard at work for little pay, to accompany his story.
This is actually a recurring trend in media stories concerning the minimum wage. Employers and business owners (aka, the "job-creators") are quoted at length, but rarely do reporters bother to interview the workers themselves--the very people who stand to benefit from a higher wage. And here I thought the whole point of journalistic "objectivity" was to present, "both sides."
Incidentally, can I just note how disappointing it is to hear this corporate, anti-worker attitude from two of Portland's popular small businesses? I always thought part of the appeal of small businesses over the Big Box stores was that they are run by halfway decent human beings who actually appreciate and acknowledge their workers' contributions. Guess it just goes to show that, while capitalism may come in many sizes, the end result is always the same: Enrich the owners while exploiting the labor potential of the workers.
The argument that a higher minimum wage would cost jobs is simply not true.
This conservative talking-point has been thoroughly discredited by a wide range of economists and academic studies, all of which find that a hike in the minimum wage has little to no discernible effect on employment. In fact, a Chicago Federal Reserve study in 2011 found that every one dollar increase in the hourly pay of minimum wage workers results, on average, in $2,800 in new spending from those workers' households. This means more in the economy overall which, in turn, leads to more jobs. Or, as NYT economist, Paul Krugman, puts it, "Your spending is my income and my spending is your income."
Now, I know what you are thinking:
"DiMillo's and Coffee By Design are small businesses. They do not earn the mega-millions that Fortune 500 corporations like Walmart and McDonald's do. They simply cannot afford to pay their workers more."
But even if we accept this as true (and I for one don't; DiMillo's and CBD are both highly successful businesses, the latter with multiple locations throughout Portland), the fact is these companies employ a very small portion of the city's overall workforce. In 21st century, post-globalization, post-NAFTA America, the majority of us work--whether we like it or not--for Corporate America. Here in Maine, that means we work at Hannaford, Walmart, and L.L. Bean--the state's three largest employers.
Frankly, it makes no sense to involve small business owners in the minimum wage debate given that the percentage of the workforce they employ is so statistically small. That being said, DiMillo and Lindemann are actually in the minority of the small business community on this issue. According to a recent report by Small Business Majority, 67 percent of small business owners wholeheartedly support not only raising the minimum wage, but also annually adjusting it for inflation. Yet, the Press Herald story makes no mention of this survey.
The fact is, these two penny-pinchers are not representative of the overall small business community.
Finally, can we please retire this elitist notion that low-skilled, minimum wage jobs are basically "starter jobs," that were designed merely to give teenagers work experience?
This may have been true 30 years ago, when we had a robust, thriving economy with plenty of work opportunity. But today the majority of jobs with any expected growth are almost exclusively in retail or the service sector. These crappy, demeaning jobs are the only ones available even to college educated workers. To claim that individuals today "choose" to work at McDonald's or Wendy's demonstrates an astounding lack of understanding about the current state of the U.S. economy.
Additionally, the stereotype of the average McDonald's worker as a teenager or college student is equally outdated. The average age of a fast-food worker, according to a recent report by the National Employment Law Project, is 29. More than 26 percent of them, according to the report, have children and subsist on poverty wages. To claim that minimum-wage jobs are not "real jobs," or are only meant to be "transitional," smacks of classist arrogance.
No matter how you look at it, there is simply no compelling argument against raising the minimum wage--in Portland and nationwide.
Now, whether Brennan can actually get any sort of minimum wage ordinance through the current business-worshipping City Council (which is primarily made up of Democrats; just sayin'...), is another question entirely.
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Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Perhaps the most significant news story from 2013 was never reported on in the corporate press. It went virtually unnoticed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Brian Williams, Bill O' Reilly, Scott Pelley, Charlie Rose, and Rachel Maddow made no mention of it.
It is the story of how the American people did something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago: We stopped a war. Literally.
Last September the Obama administration had Syria firmly locked in its crosshairs and was seconds away from pulling the trigger. But the American people raised their collective voices in protest and said, "No!" Diplomacy and sanctions prevailed instead of bombs and violence. And yes, we can certainly debate the merits of that diplomacy in regard to halting Syria's now three-year civil war. But for one brief moment in American history, We the People allowed peace, reason and sanity to trump war.
Rapper-poet Gil Scott-Heron was right: The revolution was not televised.
For those whose cultural amnesia prevents them from remembering anything beyond the last news-cycle, here is a bit of a refresher on Washington's latest warmonger-song-and-dance-routine.
The Middle-Eastern country in question this time around was Syria. The rationale hinged on allegations of a chemical weapons attack on rebel forces, likely ordered by President Bashar al-Assad. Since President Obama is a Democrat, the justifications for this war had less to do with striking preemptively than with intervening humanitarily--not unlike Bill Clinton's rationale for bombing Kosovo in 1999.
As was the case in the Iraq War, the chemical weapons claims were dubious from the beginning.
According to a Sept. 2013 story in McClatchy by Hannah Allam and Mark Siebel (09/02/2013), the administration's case for war was "riddled with inconsistencies," and hinged "mainly on circumstantial evidence." More recently veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh published an article in the London Review of Books, claiming the Obama administration "cherry-picked intelligence" to "justify a strike against Assad." In his report, Hersh maintains it was Syrian rebels operating in the al-Nusra Front that conducted the chemical weapons attack--not Assad. (Al-Nusra is a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria.)
Regardless of who specifically attacked whom with what and when, it was clear our elected elites were again using a batch of dubious talking-points to justify another war. The American public had seen this movie before, and had no desire for a sequel.
As such, an August CBS/New York Times poll found 61 percent of Americans (or six out of every ten) opposed military action in Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from later that month cast the lack of public support for an invasion even more derisively with a Washington Post headline that read, "New Poll: Syria intervention even less popular than Congress" (08/26/13). That survey found a whopping nine percent of respondents favored war. And it was not just progressives who were speaking out. Anti-war libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) opposed the Syria strike more on practical (costs too much; not our fight, etc.) than moral grounds.
Indeed, congressional representatives on the left and the right were doing something heretofore unfathomable: They were listening to their constituents and acting on their demands. I know--crazy, right?
As Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman wrote of Secretary of State John Kerry's Colin Powell-esq U.N. testimony, in her weekly column ("Americans Say No to Another Middle East War," 09/19/13):
"After 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands dead, tens of thousands maimed and trillions of dollars spent, the U.S. public won't take the rehearsed oratory of an appointed official as sufficient grounds for war."
Likewise, the Green Party of the United States voiced opposition to the planned Syrian war early on. In an Aug. 29, 2013 press release, the Greens called any attack on Syria a "serious abuse of presidential powers." The Greens also called on Congress to repeal the Authorization to Use Military Force Act (AUMF), passed shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. The AUMF essentially gives the president carte blanche to unilaterally strike any country it perceives as even a remote threat under the guise of the "War on Terror."
Anyone who thought the mainstream press might have learned a thing or two about sending the nation to war based on lies, sadly would have thought wrong. Quite the reverse, the warmongering, "liberal" press ate-up the White House's chemical weapons story as if Iraq never happened. In fact, when Obama's war plans were suddenly derailed many political pundits seemed downright disappointed.
Washington Post uber-conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, decried the Russian peace deal as an instance of "epic incompetence," claiming it serves only so President Obama can "save face" ("The Fruits of Epic Incompetence," 09/12/13).
Assad, far from receiving punishment of any kind, goes from monster to peace partner. Putin bestrides the world stage, playing dealmaker. He's welcomed by America as a constructive partner. Now a world statesman, he takes to the New York Times to blame American interventionist arrogance--a.k.a "American exceptionalism"--for inducing small states to buy WMDs in the first place.
Hold up! Vladimir Putin not only brokers a peace deal, but he gets to write an editorial in the communist, America-hating New York Times, as well...??? Say it ain't so, Charlie!
Other media hawks used the lack of a military strike as further evidence of Obama's "weakness" on matters of foreign policy and "defense." These claims are, of course, laughably absurd when one considers that both the military-spending budget and global U.S. troop presence have increased under Obama. Funny how conservatives drop their "support the troops" mantra once a Democrat--who turns out to be more militant than his Republican predecessor--takes office.
So, does this mean we have finally ended the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy? Hardly.
But it does mean, more than a decade after the greatest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history, the American people are slowly waking up to the moral, legal, and economic fallacies of war. Indeed, ten years ago when the country was gearing up to invade Iraq, the atmosphere surrounding antiwar protests was markedly different.
Simplistic as the sentiment may sound to some, Marvin Gaye was right: War is never the answer. It is barbaric, destructive and represents the most baser, savage of human behaviors. In the nearly 100,000 years of human history, it is inconceivable we have not yet rid ourselves of the lust for war.
"Oh war! Thy son of hell," Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, Part II, "Whom angry heavens do make their minister."
"Throw in the frozen bosoms of our part
Hot coals of vengeance! Let no soldier fly.
He that is truly dedicate to war
Hath no self-love, nor he that loves himself,
Hath not essentially but by circumstance
The name of valour."
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Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Will 2014 be the year minimum wage workers finally get a much-needed raise?
While it is generally unwise to put much stock in blanket campaign promises at the start of an election year, the Democratic Party insists raising the minimum wage will be its top focus going into the 2014 midterm election.
The New York Times reported last week Democrats hope to enact legislation first proposed by President Obama in last year's State of the Union address which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015. (The national minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour. Here in Maine, it is a quarter higher at $7.50)
Meanwhile, activists and fast-food workers in a number of cities are pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage, spurred on by a series of nationwide strikes by workers at Wendy's, McDonald's, and Walmart.
It is worth noting, we are once again seeing the Democrats not leading but following on this issue. This confirms my long-standing belief that true systemic change always comes from the bottom-up--not the top-down. Indeed, as longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader points out in a piece for the Wall Street Journal ("America's miserly minimum wage needs an upgrade," 04/15/2013), had the federal minimum wage kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be around $10.67 today.
And despite Democrats' hope of staking out the minimum wage as a new "wedge issue" as the Times article puts it, the issue already shares widespread support across party lines. A recent CBS News poll finds 33 percent of Americans support increasing the minimum wage to $9, while 36 percent prefer the $10.10 rate. (Curiously, the $15 proposal is not included in the poll.) Only 25 percent of Americans wish to see the minimum wage remain at its current rate.
So, if there is so much widespread support for a higher minimum wage, what's the hold up? Well, the right-wing's argument against any raise in the minimum wage is the same one it cites for most everything else: It would be a "job killer."
"Why would we want to make it harder for employers to hire people?" House Speaker John Boehner asks in the Times article. Boehner and his fellow Republicans contend a higher minimum wage "increases the cost of labor," ultimately leading to lay-offs or a diminished work force. Forbes contributor, Tim Worstall, essentially makes the same argument in a piece from last September ("The Absurdity of a $15 Minimum Wage," 09/01/13).
Yet, as Nader points out in his Op-Ed, economists have thoroughly debunked this empty talking-point. In fact, a 2011 study by the Chicago Federal Reserve concluded that every one dollar increase in the hourly pay of minimum wage workers results, on average, in $2,800 in new spending from those workers' households. More consumer spending means more money in the economy overall.
Ergo, a higher minimum wage is not a "job killer" as the deficit-obsessed right claims. It is a job creator.
Furthermore, these are multinational Fortune 500 corporations we are talking about--not mom & pop small businesses. If a fast-food franchise like McDonald's--which raked in upwards of $1.5 billion last year--cannot afford to pay its workers a livable wage then capitalism is an even bigger failure than we previously thought. For all of Washington's whining about the beleaguered "small business" owners, the fact is they employ a small fraction of the nation's workers. In the wake of globalization, deregulation, and Wall Street's ravaging of the economy, most of us--two thirds of the American workforce to be precise--work for Corporate America.
Let's just say it: These corporations are too cheap to pay their workers what their labor is worth. Rather than paying its staff a decent wage, retail giants like Walmart disingenuously encourage them to sign up for food stamps. In November, a Walmart store in Ohio held a spurious Thanksgiving food-drive for its own employees. Talk about adding insult to injury.
This brings me to another point--one that highlights conservatives' hypocrisy on this matter. Austerity-pushing Republicans and market-worshipping libertarians would like nothing better than to eliminate any and all forms of government "entitlements," including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid entirely. Yet, if minimum wage workers were paid a living wage they would not have as great a need for these supplemental programs. Collectively, taxpayers shell out close to $7 billion every year to make up for the fast-food industry's low wages, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkley.
In other words, we are basically paying McDonald's workers for them. This is not free-market capitalism by any standard. It is corporate welfare.
Just like the miserly employers who complain about associate health care costs yet also oppose single-payer health care, there is a contradictory disconnect between budget-slashing conservatives who should, theoretically, support a higher minimum wage in their pursuit of reducing the "size of government." Either that, or this is simply their insidious plan to literally starve the working poor to death--a theory which, frankly, I would not entirely rule out.
Clearly, the case for a higher minimum wage is a no-brainer. Let's make 2014 the year we stop talking about it, and actually do it.
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Wednesday, December 25, 2013
If Santa Claus were real, it is tempting to think he would be an agent for the N.S.A. He does, after all, "see you when you're sleeping/He knows when you're awake..." In fact, this is the premise of a satirical web-video produced by the ACLU.
If there was a "story of the year" in 2013, it was Edward Snowden's frightening revelations of the National Security Agency's vast surveillance of nearly every phone call, email and text message of American citizens. But instead of praising Snowden and his courageous leaks, the 30-year-old former N.S.A. contractor has been maliciously attacked by the corporate press and the power elite. They know he poses a threat to them.
Snowden, like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and other valiant whistleblowers before him, continues this country's rich tradition of Americans taking great professional and personal risks--including jail time--for the greater good.
These whistleblowers personify Henry David Thoreau's call-to-conscience dictum, as expressed in his 1849 essay, Civil Disobedience, that "Under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is... a prison."
Claiming that "law never made men a whit more just," Thoreau appealed to all citizens' moral sense of justice. "Unjust laws exist," he wrote. "Shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?"
Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse... If it [an unjust law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. (Italics his.)
Thoreau famously went to jail for refusing to pay his income taxes in protest of the Mexican-American War. According to legend, when his friend and transcendentalist mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson came to bail him out he asked Thoreau, reproachfully, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" Thoreau answered, "The question, Waldo, is what are you doing out there?"
Indeed, Snowden, far more than Barack Obama, deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Snowden has given us confirmation of what many have long suspected: Americans, in the 21st century, are the most spied upon people in the history of civilization.
The president's self-appointed advisory panel issued 46 recommendations for de-escalating the N.S.A.'s spying program last week. In particular, the panel urged the establishment of a FISA-style court which the president would need to obtain authority from before wiretapping any American phone calls.
While the panel offered some much-needed oversight to the N.S.A.'s so-called "PRISM" program, it remains to be seen how many, if any, of its recommendations Obama will implement. The New York Times, in an editorial Saturday ("Mr. Obama's Disappointing Response," 12/21/2013), took the president to task for his inaction on the matter, claiming embracing the recommendations was "really [the] only...course to take on surveillance policy..." Calling the N.S.A.'s widespread data collection on Americans' phone and email conversations a "clear violation of the Constitution," the Times' editors write:
He [President Obama] kept returning to the idea that he might be willing to do more, but only to reassure the public "in light of the disclosures that have taken place." In other words, he never intended to make the changes that his panel... have advocated to correct the flaws in the government's surveillance policy had they not been revealed by Edward Snowden's leaks. And that is why any actions that Mr. Obama may announce next month would certainly not be adequate.
The fact is, Snowden's actions have had a far greater impact on all of our lives than any innocuous comments Pope Francis has made. Web pundit, Dennis Trainor, Jr. (aka Davis Fleetwood) emphasizes this fact in a recent piece for his video-blog series AcronymTV ("Because you stand for something. Don't you...?"). "Adults are now confronted with a reality that cannot be dismissed as conspiracy theory paranoia," says Trainor. "The N.S.A., for all intents and purposes, sees us when we sleep and knows when we're awake."
Yet, even among progressives, there remains division over the value of Snowden's leaks. One popular liberal talking-point is to criticize the manner in which Snowden leaked his information. Maine Senator Angus King and New Yorker writer, Jeffrey Toobin are proponents of this argument. Both believe Snowden should have utilized the "traditional channels" for his leaks--which I assume means, Congress and the federal government. But this suggestion is absurd. Congress is well aware of the PRISM program. Even if Snowden had initially taken his revelations to members of the House or Senate do King and Toobin honestly believe they would have acted on it?
As Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke Snowden's story, pointed out this summer on Democracy Now! (06/24/13), 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."
King, when asked by The Takeaway back in June whether he considers Snowden a "hero" or "traitor"--in accordance with the mainstream press' typically binary view of the world--the Independent senator replied, "...I'm moving more and more toward the 'treason' end of the scale." This from a man the Portland Phoenix praised during the 2012 election as a "serious thinker with a strong bent for... well considered understanding" ("The King Impression," 10/31/2012).
Incidentally, this tactic of quibbling over tactics or procedure is a typical liberal cop-out. It allows liberal politicians to vote against issues or policies they should, theoretically, support, claiming they take issue with the "procedure." (The Democratic majority on the Portland City Council invokes this stance all the time.)
The importance of Snowden's leaks cannot be understated. It is important to keep in mind that we as citizens have a legitimate right to be informed of these crimes--crimes which are being perpetrated against us. This is not a "left," vs. "right" issue. It affects us all, regardless of our political persuasion. And while it is popular among individuals on both the right and left to cynically shrug their shoulders and claim they personally have nothing to be worried about--that they are not "doing anything wrong"--such an apathetic attitude misses the point. When the government is essentially watching everything you do, monitoring everyone you contact, it is the government that determines what behavior is acceptable.
Think you have "nothing to hide"? The security state will be the judge of that.
Given the blurry, selectively applied label of "terrorist" in post-9/11 America, it is nothing of a stretch for the government to determine the actions of a peace activist, or a member of Occupy Wall Street as "terrorism." (Why, for instance, were the Sandy Hook Elementary and Aurora, Colorado movie-theater shootings not considered acts of terrorism, but this year's Boston Marathon bombing was?)
To that end, we need more Americans like Edward Snowden. His is the truest form of patriotism.
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