Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pentagon Papers Redux

The other day, I voted in a Time magazine online poll for Julian Assange as my choice for the magazine’s annual “Person of the Year.” (He’s currently in the lead. The other nominees are predictably boring: Lady Gaga, Glen Beck, Stewart and Colbert and that damn Facebook creator.)

Time’s brief blurb calls Assange, “a new kind of whistle-blower: One made for the digital age.”

The co-founder is currently being held in British custody, having turned himself in for questioning regarding allegations of rape and sexual misconduct by two Swedish women. There is now speculation the U.S. government will attempt to extradite him, and try him under the Espionage Act for his website’s recent disclosure of over 250,000 classified U.S. military documents.

Of course, White House officials and elite opinion makers wasted no time in denouncing WikiLeaks’ actions. Upon hearing of Assange’s arrest, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates quipped, “Sounds like good news to me.”

The more extreme members of the Right ratcheted the rhetoric even further. Incoming Republican Congressman Peter King wants WikiLeaks to be designated a “terrorist organization,” while Fox News host, Bob Beckel has called for Assange’s assassination.

For his own part, Assange describes himself as a journalist. He told Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman earlier this summer, “We have clearly stated motives, but they are not anti-war motives… We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government.” (Democracy Now!, July 28, 2010.)

The attacks on Assange are hardly surprising. This tactic of shooting the messenger, while ignoring the message is the same one conservatives employ on the issue of global-warming. (The Right lodges personal attacks against Al Gore, for instance, yet ignore all the science, facts and empirical evidence of his warnings on climate-change.)

As Congressman Ron Paul points out in a recent radio message to supporters, “At its core, the WikiLeaks controversy serves as a diversion from what our foreign policy should be. But the mainstream media, along with neoconservatives in both parties insists on asking the wrong questions. When presented with embarrassing disclosures about U.S. spying and meddling, the policy that requires so much spying and meddling is not questioned.”

Indeed, it seems Americans should be more upset about the recent disclosures of covert U.S. activity WikiLeaks has disclosed—including the U.S. military’s pressure on Iraqi soldiers to cover-up instances of torture during the Iraq war. Instead, the media focuses exclusively on Assange himself, painting him as a sort of cyber-terrorist, and recklessly endangering U.S. military endeavors. Consider the irony of the Obama administration’s Justice Department drafting a criminal case against Assange and WikiLeaks, while it has to date refused to bring similar charges against members of the previous administration for authorizing torture and other heinous, un-constitutional crimes.

According to Daniel Ellsberg, the media launched the same sort of attack on him when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press some forty years ago. (If Ellsberg was never publicly called a “terrorist” at the time, it was only because the post-9/11 derogatory term was not as thoroughly embedded in the political vernacular as it is today.)

Ellsberg was a military analyst for the RAND Corporation during the height of the Vietnam War. When an epiphany of anti-war sentiment caused him to re-think his involvement in the war, Ellsberg stole the massive collection of classified CIA documents chronicling the United States’ Vietnam War plans known as the “Pentagon Papers” and sent them to the New York Times.

(Ellsberg’s story was recently chronicled in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s superb documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America.)

The Pentagon Papers detailed, amongst other revelatory insights that the United States’ Vietnam policy had been in place as early as 1945. The documents’ authors were also surprisingly candid in their bleak assessment of the prospects for military success in Vietnam. One chart, drafted long after the war was underway, conceded U.S. persistence in Vietnam was driven:

“70 percent to avoid a humiliating defeat.
- 20 percent to prevent South Vietnam from [falling into] Chinese hands.
- 10 percent to help the [people of South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.”

The writers went out of their way to note the war was not being fought to “help a friend.”

The New York Times began publishing the documents on June 13, 1971. In retaliation, the Nixon administration sued the Times, insisting the paper cease publication of the documents immediately. The case was taken up by the Supreme Court shortly thereafter.

In the ensuing legal battle, “New York Times Co. v. U.S. Government (403 U.S. 713),” the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the Times and Ellsberg. The Court deemed the Nixon White House had failed to meet the heavy “burden of proof” to demonstrate the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers had caused a significant threat to security. (The case is considered one of the hallmark First Amendment decisions, intricately linked with freedom of the press.)

In his passionate majority opinion statement, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

“I believe that every moment’s continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment… Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints.”

Justice Potter Stewart concurred, adding, “In absence of governmental checks and balances, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power may lie in an enlightened citizenry—in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.”

It should come as little surprise then, that Ellsberg has emerged as one of the strongest supporters of both Assange and the imprisoned PFC Bradley Manning—widely believed to be the original source of WikiLeaks’ extensive military files.

Regardless of what one personally thinks of Julian Assange’s actions, there is little doubt he has done more to promote freedom of information, freedom of the press and democracy than anybody else on Time’s “People of the Year” list. And for that reason alone he deserves both our praise and support.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Slouching Towards Oblivion

Why the Internet will not save newspapers.

On my way to the local convenience store the other day to grab my daily copy of the New York Times, I was disappointed to find the owner has discontinued his newspaper sales. He became fed up, he explained to me, with the unreliable delivery service, which was often late, or left the newspapers outside in the pouring rain.

Mostly though, he was tired of being left with too many papers at the end of the day. Nobody—other than me, he pointed out sardonically—was buying them.

Such seems to be the unfortunate case for newspapers nationwide. The displacement of physical newspapers by the Internet, a major loss of advertising dollars at national and local papers, and a general lack of interest among young, digitally-oriented readers all seem to have combined to sound the death knell for the newspaper industry.

Authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism are blunt in their assessment of the situation. “Newspapers, as we have known them, are disintegrating and are possibly on the verge of extinction,” they state in the first chapter. “Media corporations,” the authors continue, “after running journalism into the ground, have determined that news gathering and reporting are not profit-making propositions. So they’re jumping ship.”

The depressing numbers bear this out. Last year, the Los Angeles Times cut 300 editorial and staff writer jobs. The Miami Herald cut 205; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 156; Kansas City Star, 150; Sacramento Bee, 128 and 100 jobs were cut at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, larger newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer have filed for bankruptcy. And the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle are losing $1 million a week. They have threatened to shut the paper down.

Times’ columnist, Maureen Dowd sums up newspapers’ predicament in an Op-Ed titled, “Slouching Towards Oblivion.” (New York Times, April 25, 2009)

“Now that everybody can check their iPhones and laptops for news that personally interests them,” Dowd writes, “now that they can Google, blog and tweet… old-school newspapers seem like aging silent film stars, stricken to find themselves outmoded by technology.”

While conventional wisdom suggests news will simply migrate online, and that we should not mourn the loss of “antiques” like newspapers, the prospects for original, quality journalism surviving (never mind thriving) online remain dubious. As usual, there are a number of factors most who favor the conversion of news to the Internet have neglected to consider.

When it comes to the print vs. digital debate, it is worth keeping in mind Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism that, “The medium is the message.”

The celebrated media scholar and theorist first made this observation in 1964’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. There he argues it is the medium itself—not its content—that deserves attention. In other words, it is the new environments and societal changes a new medium or technology (print, radio, television, etc.) brings about that is significant. The medium’s particular content or “message,” McLuhan argues, is irrelevant.

He writes:

“…the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and it is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium.”

(With regard to a medium’s content, McLuhan famously proclaimed it made little difference if television networks aired educational programs or violent broadcasts. TV’s overall societal effect, he believed, would largely remain the same. “In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves,” McLuhan states in Understanding Media, “it mattered not in the least whether it turned our cornflakes or Cadillacs.”)

The Internet, then, is no different. Indeed, it has already been established we do not read online content the same way we would a book or newspaper article. In general, online users do not read text for comprehension so much as they rapidly scan it for information. According to a study by usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, the eye actually moves across a computer screen differently than it does a printed page—what Nielsen refers to as the “F-Shaped Pattern.”

(Nielsen also claims online readers are turned off by lengthy articles and long paragraphs of text, which may explain why this blog receives so few comments...)

An article in Slate on Nielsen’s findings (June 13, 2008) notes, “…given all the factors that can affect online reading, such as scrolling, font size, user expertise… Nielsen holds that on-screen reading is 25 percent slower than reading on paper.” In other words, if you truly want to understand that lengthy AP story on the latest WikiLeaks cable, you would be better off printing the article out and reading it.

This is, perhaps, the greatest loss in transferring news-print to the Internet: The loss of the time and patience necessary to truly understand the events and issues of the day. Short bursts of news online may give readers a basic idea of what happened. But it will not give them the whole story.

And that, I fear, is what will become of newspaper journalism if the industry is forced to migrate online.

As McLuhan presciently observed, “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”

Artist Jenny Holzer brings poems of Szymborska to Portland

Last night, New York conceptual artist Jenny Holzer projected the poems of Wislawa Szymborska onto the surface of the Portland Museum of Art, on Congress Street. Holzer has traveled around the world doing just this, using various brick building landscapes as her canvas for showcasing works of social justice. She titled last night's free poetry-projection event, "For Portland."

Szymborska is a Nobel-Prize winning poet from Poland, whose socially conscious work has frequently been adopted by peace and justice activists. Her poem "Torture" was one of the featured works projected onto the museum.

The poem reads as follows:

Torture by Wislawa Szymborska

Nothing has changed.
The body is painful,
it must eat, breathe air and sleep,
it has thin skin, with blood right beneath,
it has a goodly supply of teeth and nails
its bones are brittle, its joints extensible.
In torture, all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body trembles, as it trembled
before and after the founding of Rome,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ. Torture is, as it's always been, only the earth has shrunk, and whatever happens, feels like it happens next door.

Nothing has changed. Only there are more people,
next to old transgressions, new ones have appeared
real, alleged, momentary, none,
but the scream, the body's response to them-- was, is, and always will be the scream of innocence, in accord with the age-old scale and register.

Nothing has changed.
Except maybe manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the gesture of arms shielding the head
has remained the same.
The body writhes, struggles, and tries to break away.
Bowled over, it falls, pulls in its knees,
bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the courses of rivers,
the contours of forests, seashores, deserts and icebergs.
Among these landscapes the poor soul winds,
vanishes, returns, approaches, recedes.
A stranger to itself, evasive,
at one moment sure, the next unsure of its existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has no place to go.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Big Government, Bigger Hypocrites

I don’t know about you, but I am sick to death of hearing about “Big Government.”

If we are to believe the Tea Party Republicans that were swept into power last week, President Obama and the outgoing Democratic Congress have significantly increased the size and scope of the federal government. Republicans are claiming their win Tuesday was a response from American voters against this “Big Government” takeover.

60 Minutes correspondent, Steve Kroft addressed this increased government argument in his interview with President Obama last night.

“The Republicans say the voters sent you a very clear message,” Kroft opened his interview, “that they want a smaller, less costly, more accountable government.”

Obama answered that Americans are understandably upset about “debts and deficits.” “I think that is absolutely a priority,” the president responded.

Yet, is the concept of “Big Government” really limited to only the federal debt and taxes?

Indeed, it seems conservatives hold a very narrow definition of so-called “Big Government.” When those on the Right invoke the specter of “Big Government,” they are generally referring to higher (or, at least the perception of higher) taxes and government spending. While these two issues make for effective Republican talking points, this narrow concept of Big Government ignores other far more chilling hallmarks of the phrase.

“We have always had Big Government in this country,” late historian Howard Zinn explained in a 2008 interview with the online, Real News Network (Oct. 23, 2008). “With a few exceptions… the government has always been in the service of the wealthy classes.”

So if we are to talk about Big Government, let us be all inclusive in our definition of the term.

Torture, extraordinary rendition and detention without due process are all classic hallmarks of Big Government. However, these horrific practices are not included in the Republicans’ definition of oversized government. And maintaining a “more accountable government” would require the U.S. to prosecute members of the previous administration for authorizing the use of torture in the first place. Again, one hears no calls from members of the Tea Party for such criminal accountability.

Government spying and warrantless wiretapping programs are also an aspect of Big Government. Under the guise of the “war on terror,” the Bush administration secretly (and illegally) monitored the emails and phone conversations of hundreds of citizens—often based on only the slightest evidence or suspicion. Indeed, it is difficult to find a more glaring example of the federal government literally intruding on the lives and private affairs of its citizens. Yet, Republicans were suspiciously silent when news of this clandestine program first broke in 2005.

Finally, a pre-emptive war based on lies and deliberate falsification of evidence (like the Iraq war) is perhaps the most frightening form of Big Government. But it was Republican President George W. Bush who used lies and propaganda to invade Iraq. For that matter, the United States’ long history of pre-emptive war and military dominance is never included in Republican accusations of Big Government.

“It’s interesting,” Zinn goes on, “when they say, ‘we must not have big government’ they don’t talk about the military, which is the biggest government of all.”

As Zinn observes, Big Government is not always necessarily a bad thing, either. He cites Social Security, the New Deal benefits and the GI Bill of Rights (which allowed him to pursue his PhD in history) as positive government-administered programs of social uplift.

“So forget about your argument against Big Government,” Zinn says. “It’s obvious we need Big Government.”

Well, we need more of the good kind, anyway. But let's not be so selective when talking about this idea of "Big Government."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mock the Vote

On a state and national level, college-aged voters decided to sit this election out.

Like many Maine voters, I am deeply disappointed by the election of Paul LePage as governor. Though most of Southern Maine went for Independent Eliot Cutler, the northern half of the state (including the small, rural towns of Houlton, Lubec, Presque Isle, Milford and my old stomping-grounds, Old Town) swayed the election in favor of the Tea Party Republican.

The election was, in many ways, reminiscent of last year’s state ballot vote on Maine’s gay-marriage bill, which also highlighted the striking differences between the northern and southern part of the state. As with that vote, the victory could have easily gone to progressives, if only more young people had bothered to go to the polls.

Though low youth voter turnout is nothing new or especially surprising during a midterm election, it is, nonetheless, difficult to reconcile in the wake of the record number of young, first-time voters who proved so crucial in Barack Obama’s election just two years ago. Indeed, at the time, much ink was spilled about the Millennial generation’s long overdue political “awakening.” Many reporters likened Obama to this generation’s JFK in terms of his charismatic appeal to young Americans.

Yet, according to a CBS News report, 18-29 year-olds comprised a measly 9% of overall voters in Tuesday’s midterm election. This number is down from 18% in the 2008 presidential election, the report notes.

Of those 18-29 year-olds who did vote, 58% supported Democratic candidates. Here in Maine however, many likely would have gone for Cutler, who drew a strong following of young supporters. Conversely, this age-group could have potentially strengthened Democrat Libby Mitchell’s overall performance, making her a more viable candidate. As it is, Mitchell gained an anemic 20% of the vote and bowed out of the race early in the evening.

According to a pre-election survey conducted by youth-voter-registration group, Rock the Vote, 77% of eligible young voters claimed they “definitely would cast ballots this year.” As DailyKos blogger, Meteor Blades laments, “Too bad that wasn’t the case. If it were, [Wisconsin Democrat and progressive champion] Russ Feingold would have another six-year term ahead of him.”

So what happened? Where were these young voters who were so energized and committed only two years ago? Unfortunately, when confronted about their intermittent and unreliable voting habits, many college-aged Americans fall back on the clichéd cop-out, “My one vote doesn’t count.”

“I just don’t feel like I have too much pull with my one vote,” Mallory Pie, a sophomore at Xavier University College told NYU’s student newspaper, Washington Square News. (Huffington Post, Nov. 3, 2010.)

While such a sentiment may have some merit in a national election (largely due to the constraints of the Electoral College), in Maine Cutler and LePage were only separated by one percentage point, or about 10,000 votes. Had Ms. Pie and, say twenty of her friends gone to the polls, collectively their votes could have made a difference. (OK, so I realize my math does not really add up here. In reality, she would need far more than twenty friends, and they all would have had to vote for Cutler. But you get my point.)

There are, of course, many additional factors that likely contributed to the low turnout.

For college students shielded from the current economic recession, the ominous reality of seemingly endless job-searches and rising unemployment rates may seem like distant and far-off obstacles. Additionally, the lack of a military draft all but ensured the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were absent from most election debates. Of course, the fact that so few young people read newspapers or watch news on television regularly does not help matters. Instead, teenagers and college students spend an inordinate amount of time online—nearly eight hours a day according to a recent Kaiser Foundation report.

Finally, and perhaps most disheartening, many of Obama’s young supporters may already feel betrayed by his administration’s failure to bring about any of the progressive changes it promised. Certainly Mitchell had limited appeal amongst young voters, particularly Democrats who felt burned by outgoing Governor John Baldacci’s moderate policies. One liberal co-worker my age recently told me his disgust for Mitchell was so great he would rather see LePage elected governor than cast a vote for her. Looks like he got his wish. (He said he did not like Cutler, either.)

Yet one has to wonder: If today’s young people are still not politically engaged, when will they be? Do twenty-somethings really want the future of their state (or country) decided by a bunch of backward-thinking, semi-retired Baby Boomers, with little more than a high-school diploma to inform their choices? Are ironic, Comedy Central-sponsored pseudo rallies the only form of activism that moves this generation?

For such a privileged, tech-savvy generation that feels the need to announce to the world its every Twitter feed or Facebook update, when it comes to issues of true significance, too many young Americans choose to remain eerily silent.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Years Later...

While the excessive media coverage of right-wing reverend Terry Jones’ week-long threat to burn a collection of Korans with fellow hate-mongering Christian evangelicals at his Florida church has finally died down, what is missing, as usual, is some perspective on the matter.

Jones announced Thursday evening he had cancelled his proposed Koran-burning-day, scheduled to coincide with today’s nine-year observation of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Everyone from President Obama to Sarah Palin condemned Jones’ planned display of hatred and religious intolerance. (Palin continues to baffle by the day. She opposes the building of an Islamic mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City, yet came out against Jones as well. How is one form of religious intolerance different from the other?)

General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan, warned Jones earlier in the week his actions could further inflame anti-American sentiment throughout Arab nations—particularly towards U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. (As it turns out, Jones’ threatening to burn Korans alone has proven enough to enrage the Islamic world, as riots broke out throughout Afghanistan on Saturday.)

Yet it is not merely the burning of the Koran that has enraged Arab civilians. It is the burning of their homes, the bombing of their neighborhoods, and the indiscriminate killing of their children. Nine years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has escalated the military occupation of Afghanistan, yet made no significant progress toward dismantling al-Qaeda, or even finding Osama bin Laden.

(Incidentally, it’s interesting how seldom the media or the White House mentions bin Laden at this point. Even the Taliban leader’s ominous video messages—a consistently haunting staple of the Bush administration, particularly in the weeks before an election—seem to be a thing of the past. It begs the question: Does bin Laden even matter anymore?)

U.S. troops continue to occupy Iraq, despite the recent, misleading claims of military withdrawal. And now much of the war in Afghanistan is spilling over into Pakistan, where unmanned drones fire upon civilians in a manner more akin to a video game, than traditional military combat.

Yet these military acts of aggression are rarely factored into the on-going media analysis of “why they hate us.” As filmmaker Michael Moore notes in a recent blog post on his website (“Burn, Baby, Burn!” Sept. 9, 2010), “They hate us because we’ve killed hundreds of thousands of their people! We’ve claimed their oil as ours. Never ever forget that Saddam Hussein was armed and supported for years by THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. And WE overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran. We continue to prop up the dictators of the Arabian peninsula and we have turned our backs on the Palestinian people.”

Unfortunately, many Americans remain ignorant of this history. Even in graduate school, I was often struck by how many of my colleagues (some of whom were pursuing doctoral degrees, mind you) knew almost nothing about the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Iranian government, for example.

In Eugene Jarecki’s 2005 documentary film, Why We Fight, author Chalmers Johnson explains the concept of “blowback,” a CIA-term for unintended consequences of U.S. covert military operations abroad. According to Johnson, because such retaliatory “blowback” is often in response to secret elements of American foreign policy (aspects typically ignored in high-school or even some college history classes), the public is “unable to put it in perspective.” This lack of historical knowledge makes it easier for presidents and pundits to claim events such as 9/11 occur because the perpetrators “hate us because of our freedoms.”

At one point in the film, another noted progressive author, Gore Vidal remarks, “We live in the United States of Amnesia. Every day is a blank… We have no history.”

Thus, it is not the burning of Korans that creates such anti-American hatred throughout the Middle East. The hostility is more likely due to our long, on-going history of war, occupation and imperialism in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

One particularly unnerving scene in Jarecki’s film features a graphic display highlighting countries that have been the target of U.S. military invasion throughout the twentieth century, while calendar years tick by on the right-hand bottom of the screen. As one year sequentially gives way to another, viewers are left with the startling realization that, since the end of World War II, America has spent most of the last 50 years at war (whether declared military combat, or covert intervention) somewhere throughout the globe.

This is, certainly, not to justify the horrific Sept. 11 attacks. Regardless of the terrorists’ motives, their actions killed 3,000 innocent people—Americans who played no role in the foreign policy decisions that lead the hijackers to launch such a grievous attack on our nation.

However, it is important to understand the 9/11 attacks did not come out of nowhere, devoid of historical context. The terrorists did not strike the United States out of some angry jealousy over our democratic liberties, or because Islam is an inherently “evil” religion that espouses anti-American terrorism.

They, unfortunately, had very real and legitimate grievances against U.S. hegemonic imperialism. Many Americans do not like to hear this. Indeed, some may feel such military actions were warranted, or perhaps they simply prefer to place an unquestioning, patriotic trust in whatever actions our government engages in, right or wrong. Yet, by refusing to understand the real, concrete reasons why 19 people felt threatened enough by America to hijack airplanes and fly them into heavily populated buildings, we simply invite further horrific attacks in the future.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, many Americans--spurred on by a militaristic government and subservient news media--felt a seething desire to respond to the attacks with military strength. However, forgiveness, reconciliation, and deep self-reflection often require even greater strength than declaring war. Nine years after the 9/11 attacks, let us hope it is not too late for Americans to summon the inner strength necessary to engage in these latter, largely un-attempted healing processes.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Veterans for Peace Help Lift the Fog of War

Members of the Maine chapter of Veterans for Peace joined with other national chapters in Portland this weekend for the group’s annual convention. This year’s gathering marks VFP’s 25th anniversary, which was founded in Maine in 1985. The Holiday Inn by the Bay housed the four-day convention which included prominent speakers, local activists and legislatures, poets, authors and artists.

This year’s convention centered on the theme, “Lifting the Fog of War,” in which speakers and VFP members attempted to shine a light on the true, often grotesque, nature of war as only soldiers who have witnessed battle can describe it.

To that end, members of the national, “We Are Not Your Soldiers” campaign (a branch of the online activist organization, The World Can’t Wait) presented the infamous WikiLeaks “Collateral Damage” video, along with a discussion by Ethan McCord, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is seen in the video rushing to save an Iraqi girl’s life.

Another workshop featured a war-tax-resister’s guide to refusing to pay for military spending with one’s federal taxes. Members of the “9/11 Truth Commission” presented their case that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were, in fact, orchestrated by the U.S. government (a controversial theory, even amongst many on the Left). Local activists, meanwhile, discussed their recent success with the “Bring Our War $$ Home,” campaign, particularly with regard to Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree’s (D) shift to opposing war-funding votes in the House of Representatives. And U.S. diplomat-turned-anti-war-crusader, Ann Wright spoke during the Saturday evening banquet of her activist awakening.

Author and journalist Chris Hedges delivered the convention’s keynote address, Saturday night. Hedges spent nearly twenty years as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, covering conflicts in Bosnia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. He resigned from the Times in protest of the paper’s uncritical coverage in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Hedges’ remarks were by far the most polarizing for convention attendees. Drawing primarily from his most recent book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Hedges grimly but succinctly summed up the hostile corporate takeover of democracy in the United States. Like many of the prophetic authors Hedges referenced in his speech (Camus, Adorno, Polanyi and George Orwell were amongst his theorists cited), his assessment offered little hope for salvation.

“Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite,” Hedges writes in Empire of Illusion, “a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system.”

Hedges goes on to describe the rise of corporate power and the decline of democracy as a “coup d’état in slow motion.” Citing philosophy professor Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Hedges notes how similar economic and political situations in Germany during the 1930s lead to the rise of fascism. Polanyi wrote, “Fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function.”

While attendees later dismissed Hedges as overly bleak and pessimistic (two speakers denounced his remarks during a rally the following morning), I feel much of the criticism toward him was unwarranted. I certainly agree Hedges tends toward the dire (and, at times, the melodramatic) in his writing. And I agree he comes off as too deterministic—Claiming mankind’s fate is sealed and there is little (outside of small acts of rebellion that reaffirm our humanity) we can do to prevent it.

However, it is difficult to refute Hedges’ summation of our current state of affairs—as depressing as it may be. And, like it or not, many of the scholars he routinely cites such as Adorno and John Ralston Saul, have proven highly prescient in forecasting societal downfalls decades in advance. (Read Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, which meticulously maps out the rise of corporate power and consumer culture as early as 1944, if you need further evidence.)

Still, if Hedges was invited to “lift the fog of war,” perhaps he would have better addressed the convention’s theme by drawing from his previous book, the critically acclaimed War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

(On a side note, I am not sure what those who strongly disliked Hedges were expecting. His talk was consistent with the tone and writing style of his weekly columns for Hedges’ lecture was pretty much what I expected it to be.)

Though not a veteran myself (and no offense to any VFP members, but I have no intention of becoming one anytime soon), I found the Veterans for Peace convention highly rewarding. Some workshops were productive and educational. Others mostly rehashed themes or ideas I have heard before. I wish I had encountered more young people at the event, but then I can’t honestly say I am surprised by the lack of youth presence. I left the VFP convention feeling simultaneously drained and invigorated.

Perhaps the most chilling observation came from McCord. During a discussion on the WikiLeaks online video, McCord noted, despite the uproar the video and those who released it have caused, there really is not anything exceptional about the violence it depicts.

“That video is not special in any way,” he stated, “because that video shows a daily occurrence in Iraq. We’re killing innocent people daily in Iraq. While I was there we were given orders for three hundred-sixty rotational fire. That means you kill every person on the street whether they have a weapon or not.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pentagon Papers Redux

The release on Monday of about 92,000 classified military records on the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is the equivalent of the current war’s “Pentagon Papers.” The documents were released by the online watchdog site, WikiLeaks, and were reported Monday by The New York Times, England’s The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel.

The files represent a six-year archive of the conflict in Afghanistan and—-like the aforementioned Pentagon Papers—-paint a grim and disturbing picture of the U.S. military’s prospects for victory in what President Obama has insisted is the “central front” of the war on terror. The New York Times (July 26, 2010) summarized the leaked documents as illustrating, “in mosaic detail why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001.”

The records reveal, among other things, that the U.S. military may have greatly underestimated the Taliban’s weapons capabilities, attributing the use of “portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft” to the group. They also acknowledge the military’s use of a secret “capture/kill list” of about 70 top insurgents, though the existence of this list has been well documented outside the corporate media before now. In all, the reports cast doubts on the likelihood U.S. forces will withdraw from Afghanistan in July of next year, as President Obama has promised, or that the woefully inadequate Afghan military will prove at all effective in taking control of the fighting.

Famed whistleblower and Pentagon Papers leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, acknowledged the striking similarities between these recent documents and his own efforts to reveal the truth about an immoral and unpopular war some thirty years ago. Speaking with Nation editor John Nichols, Ellsberg praised WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. “He [Assange] is serving our democracy and serving our rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations,” Ellsberg said, “which are not laws, in most cases, in this country.”

He went on to note, of whistleblowers in general, “Those who provide the truth to the American people, [show] better judgment in putting it out than the people who keep it secret from the American people.”

All of this comes at a time when a majority of Americans now say they no longer support further escalation in Afghanistan. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll finds a mere 43% of respondents support further fighting in the nearly decade-long war. (Afghanistan now has the distinction of being the longest war in U.S. history.)

Yet, despite the shift in public support for the Afghanistan war, the House of Representatives just yesterday approved an additional $37 billion to continue both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The vote was 308 to 114 meaning that 148 supposedly anti-war Democrats voted for the war-funding. (It also means 160 “fiscally responsible” Republicans voted for the money as well. And not a Tea Partier in sight to protest the enormous spending-spree.)

Anti-war activists in Maine can at least take slight comfort in the fact that the state’s two Democratic representatives—-Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree—-voted against the war-funding. Of course, it is largely the work of Maine progressives that has influenced Congresswoman Pingree’s consistent opposition to further war funding. “Frankly, I just don’t understand why more members of Congress aren’t voting to stop the funding for this war,” Pingree said during an appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews yesterday. “When I’m back home I hear from my constituents. They don’t think we’re winning. They don’t understand why we’re continuing the effort. And they want to see some end to this conflict.”

Nor can I understand such continued support for war, myself… The leaked Afghanistan documents will not likely end the war(s) anytime soon. But they can serve as catalyst for greater anti-war participation—just as the Pentagon Papers did during Vietnam. As Assange told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman in an interview today, it is the heroic efforts of whistleblowers like Ellsberg that can create such a movement. “These are the people…who are inside these organizations, who want change,” Assange said. “They are both heroic figures taking much greater risks than I ever do, and they are pushing and showing that they want change in… an extremely effective way.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tea Party Obsession Proves Media's Conservative Bias

The mainstream media’s obsessive fixation on the right-wing Tea Party group is perhaps the most telling indication of its pervasive conservative bias. While popular opinion has long maintained the media approaches the news with a liberal slant, media scholars and researchers dispelled this myth long ago. The media’s near non-stop coverage of the Tea Party for the past year however seems to confirm the corporate bias of the major news institutions.

All of the major news institutions—including supposedly liberal outlets like The New York Times, MSNBC, and NPR radio—have devoted countless stories concerning the angry, right-wing protesters. The group’s would-be-leaders—Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rand Paul—generate the same amount of news coverage as Hollywood celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, or Mel Gibson. According to Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith (“Tea Party’s Exaggerated Importance”), “Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks media reports, found that the tea parties consumed a steady measure of news for most of this year before exploding during tax week to compete with the Icelandic volcano for attention and outstripping health care with 6% of all media reports that week.”

And while many Tea Party supporters complain the media’s coverage of the group has been largely negative, portraying members as ignorant and uninformed about the issues they protest, whether or not this is true seems beside the point. News coverage, positive or negative, is still coverage. The agenda-setting goal of corporate news institutions is not necessarily to tell audiences what to think (though many of the broadcast pundits do just that as well), but what to think about. As for the accusations of racism amongst Tea Partiers, consider a poll in the New York Times back in April found that a majority of the group’s members believe that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people,” and that the Obama administration “favors blacks over whites.”

Yet, whether a news network’s goal is to praise or pummel the Tea Party is largely irrelevant. Especially when considering the media’s focus on the Tea Party over other far more established progressive movements—the anti-war movement, for one. Activist Cindy Sheehan, speaking in the Politico story notes, “They’re [the Tea Party] being treated with a lot more respect than the anti-war movement was.”

Sheehan goes on, “The anti-war movement has always been treated as a fringe movement—even though at the height of our movement we had hundreds of thousands of people at protests and the majority of public opinion was on our side.” As it turns out, the Tea Party itself may be the real fringe movement, given that 31% of 2,505 respondents surveyed in a Pew Research poll had never heard of the Tea Party.

Filmmaker Michael Moore made a similar point on a March 17, 2010 appearance on CNN’s “Situation Room.” Citing the Tea Party as a clear example of the media’s right-wing bias, Moore stated, “This is a movement that starts in August of last year and immediately has massive attention paid to it. I know movements that started on the liberal-left end that have been going for twenty years… How much attention do they get on CNN and MSNBC?”

Yet, the notion the corporate media gives preference to conservative concepts and viewpoints over liberal ones is hardly new. The findings of a 1998 study published by the media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) titled “Examining the ‘Liberal Media’ Claim,” remain largely unchanged in today’s media landscape. Not only does the study contradict the “liberal media” myth, but also finds a surprising number of journalists tend to be more conservative than the general public.

The journalists polled in the FAIR study gave an overwhelming (80%) vote of confidence for the quality of journalism from “Business-oriented” news outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal. The reporters could not muster the same enthusiasm for the quality of “Public broadcast” institutions, however, with only 45% rating them “Excellent,” or “Good,” quality. So much, it would seem, for the image of the intrepid, watchdog reporter, fighting for the liberal values of speaking truth to power and afflicting the comfortable.

The most definitive study on media bias remains Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). Analyzing elements such as corporate consolidation of newspapers and broadcast networks, advertiser influence on news content and constant media “flak” from right-wing think tanks, Herman and Chomsky conclude the mass media function, not as a vehicle to inform and educate audiences, but as a system of propaganda.

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace,” the authors write. “It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.”

Yet, according to the authors, this “propaganda model” remains invisible to most citizens, who continue to regard the media as “liberal.” Even the reporters themselves often believe they are upholding such traditional “watchdog” functions of journalism. Chomsky and Herman write, “The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose to interpret the news ‘objectively’ and on the basis of professional news values.”

The media’s current fixation on the Tea Party should not be surprising then. What is perhaps most ironic about the Tea Party coverage is the media’s framing of the group as populist, and driven by the anger of average, blue-collar Americans. Tea Party supporters decry President Obama and the Democratic Congress as “elites” and proponents of the Right’s dreaded “Big Government.” Yet, it is the Tea Party and its ringleaders like Sarah Palin that are the real elites. The group is largely an apologist for corporate power, advocating a Reagan-style vision of free-market absolutism in which the country is run exclusive by privatized businesses. A true watchdog media—one that asks tough, critical questions, and challenges, rather than coddles, corporate power—would have exposed the true nature of the Tea Partiers long ago.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Commodity Fetishism

If the financial crisis of 2008 and current recession that it lead to proved anything it is that Reagan-style, free-market capitalism does not work. The right-wing laissez faire philosophy that the market must be left free of government regulation so the “Invisible Hand” can do its magic work has been revealed to all as the complete shame it is.

The guiding principle of Western free-market economics--lavish the rich with profits and tax-cuts and this money will somehow “trickle down” the economic ladder to the rest of us--is an absurd fantasy designed to maintain the interests of the wealthy few at the expense of the poor and dwindling middle-class. Indeed, perhaps the greatest failure of the Obama administration is its refusal to use the economic crisis as an opportunity to vastly rethink our capitalist society.

For that, one must turn to Raj Patel, author of The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (2009). An activist and African Studies scholar at UC Berkely, Patel’s book examines how the myopic mentality of viewing the entire world through the lens of the free-market got us into this mess. In a “market society” that places a monetary price on everything (including natural resources like land, water and the air we breathe), Patel argues, it is inevitable that the planet itself will become another commodity.

He uses Oscar Wilde’s prescient quote that “people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” to frame his thesis. Given Wilde’s observation, Patel correctly notes that, if all things were priced based on their actual cost (including the labor required to produce the item as well as its environmental toll) a hamburger would cost around $200.

Patel writes, “According to one estimate, the energy cost of the 550 million Big Macs sold in the United States every year is $297 million, producing a greenhouse gas footprint of 2.66 billion pounds of CO2 equivalent…. While none of these costs are reflected in the drive-thru price of a Big Mac, they still have to be paid by someone. It’s just that they are paid not by the McDonald’s Corporation but by society as a whole, when we pay the costs of environmental disasters, climate-change-related migration and higher health care costs.”

Patel calls these hidden, often overlooked costs “externalities.” “These are the costs that somehow slip through the net of prices,” he writes. And, of course, it is in the interest of profit-driven corporations like McDonald’s to not only avoid paying for these externalities themselves, but to keep its customers from considering them as well. (This process is also referred to as Commodity Fetishism.)

Through this process of placing a cheap monetary price on everything, Patel argues, we have lost a great deal of our “common” areas--natural land, or public spaces that were once believed to be collectively owned by all citizens. We have also, Patel suggests, lost a sense of civic responsibility—particularly here in the U.S. where democracy consists of little more than showing up to vote in elections every four years.

The first half of Patel’s book looks at the problem of the free-market mindset that attaches a dollar value to everything. (Patel notes how even longtime free-market disciple, Alan Greenspan, was forced to admit to a Congressional panel he found a “flaw” in his economic philosophy.) He uses this section to analyze different theorists’ (Keynes, Adam Smith, John Locke, Rousseau and Karl Marx) views on economics and how an ideal market society would be run.

The book’s second half examines some partial solutions on how to “redefine democracy.” This is typically where progressive authors like Patel struggle—-a common complaint reiterated by Guardian reviewer, John Gray. Still, while this section of Patel’s book becomes rather jumbled and unfocused, he offers more solutions than Gray gives him credit for. Like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Patel provides various examples of local citizens who have fought against corporate rights, privatized resources and declining civil liberties and won.

“We’ll never be able to see the world clearly through the glass of the market,” Patel writes. “…We've been socialized into thinking only in terms of the money value of something, but thinking this way shrinks us.”

He adds, “In order to reclaim politics, we…will need more imagination, creativity and courage. We will need to remember that democracy’s triumphs come not from the ballot box but from the circumstances that make democracy possible: equality, accountability and the possibility of politics.”

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Talkin' Taxes

The barrage of candidate lawn signs on nearly every street corner of Maine makes it official: The 2010 governor’s race has begun. One recurring (albeit hardly new) campaign theme has already emerged amongst the dozen or so candidates vying to replace outgoing Governor, John Baldacci: Taxes. As in, Maine pays too much of ‘em. Now candidates from both parties seem locked in an all-out bidding war for who will reduce the state’s tax rate the most. The rhetoric is the same as always: Candidates, particularly the Republicans, claim Maine’s outrageous income taxes force business leaders and recent college graduates out of the region.

But are Mainers’ taxes really as high as some politicians would have us believe? For that matter, how do Americans’ overall tax levels compare with the rest of the industrialized world? Are we really “Taxed Enough Already” as the ubiquitous “Tea Partiers” claim?

The results are not particularly surprising for those who have dared consider these questions before. Compared with most of Europe and Canada, income tax rates in the United States are actually quite low. Studies since 2000 have placed countries like Canada (where the top rate of income tax is roughly 40%) and Denmark (60%) as the most heavily taxed nations, while the U.S. falls near the bottom of the list under Japan and the U.K. Updated statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Organization of Economic Development show only slight shifts in this low-tax trend, with the U.S. eclipsing Japan in tax rates yet still remaining at the lower end of the scale.

Such nationwide statistics make the Tea Party’s anti-tax screeds ring rather hollow. Of course, as the 2000 study indicates, the reason for America’s relatively low tax rates can mostly be attributed to the number of socialized (Gasp! Not the “S-word”!) services countries like Canada, Denmark and Sweden offer their citizens. Such services (like universal healthcare, and extended employee vacation and sick-time for example) are absent here where private sector business and free-market ideology dominate.

Right-wing accusations of President Barack Obama’s “socialist” tendencies aside, the truth is the current administration has taken no steps to promote such nationalized services here. (Question: What self-respecting Marxist would vote for the trillion dollar taxpayers’ bailout of Wall Street, as Obama did? A true socialist would have let the capitalist institutions go under.) Yes, citizens in these countries have more money taken out of their paychecks, but consider the array of services and benefits they receive in exchange.

Additionally, overall happiness and quality of life measurements are typically higher in nations that pay more taxes. The first U.S. city listed on a 2010 Quality of Living worldwide ranking by Mercer is Honolulu at number 31. Seattle, New York, Chicago and Washington are all at the bottom. Conversely, Vienna, Zurich, Geneva and Vancouver are listed as the top four—all from countries with some form of nationalized services.

And I have not neglected a state-wide perspective in this analysis. As a state, Maine is not amongst those with the highest sales tax (that honor goes to California), or with the greatest tax burden (that would be New Jersey). Maine is ranked amongst the states with the highest cigarette tax ($2.00), however is absent from most of the other categories. In general, little indication was found that presents Maine as particularly outstanding for its level of taxes in the country.

Statistics aside, it seems evident Mainers’ aversion to high taxes is little different than that of the rest of the nation. The Tea Party personnel (I hesitate to call them activists), according to a recent story in the New York Times, primarily consists of middle-aged, white conservatives, a majority of whom claim the plight of African-Americans in this country has been “overstated.” These people care only about maintaining their level of income, and are contemptuous of the plight of the poor, minorities, or offering basic social services to those who cannot afford them. It is thus, natural Maine politicians will attempt to capitalize on this sentiment.

If there is an area where taxes should be reduced, it is the one members of the Tea Party never mention—the bloated military-spending budget. Currently about 54% of taxpayer money goes to military expenditures, including money for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, if there is an area where U.S. taxes need to be redirected, it is here.

Maine residents, and Americans overall, must get over their aversion to taxes if we are to ever move away from being a society of self-oriented consumers, to a prosperous country of civic-minded citizens. Despite all the patriotic chanting and militaristic jingoism present during yesterday’s Memorial Day celebrations, America is not “Number One” on the world stage. Not anymore. The countries that are outranking us in quality of life, societal benefits and overall happiness are all socialist, to one degree or another. And their citizens all pay much higher taxes than we do.

Unfortunately, I doubt Mainers will hear any of the gubernatorial candidates promise to raise taxes anytime soon. Hey, here is a Bill Maher-inspired, “New Rule”: Those conservative Americans opposed to higher taxes should not be allowed to enjoy the services they pay for. Next time your house catches on fire, you will just have to sit back and watch it burn, as the fire department runs on taxpayer money.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Guerrilla Press Returns! Stay Tuned!

This blog has been dormant for far too long. Expect new posts and new rantings soon.