Saturday, December 24, 2011

...And to All a Good Night

Merry Christmas.
Jesus died so you could go shopping...or something.

While I honestly do not really know what Christmas is about anymore, it is still a nice excuse to relax, enjoy family and time off from work and reflect on the theme of "peace on earth." Guerrilla Press remains dedicated to making that sentiment more than an abstract, once-a-year theme, but a reality.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Imprisoned in Kafka's America

The Bill of Rights died last week. More specifically, our Fourth Amendment rights which protect citizens from illegal and unreasonable search and seizure. Or, rather “protected.”

Last Thursday, Congress passed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which allocates yet another $662 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (wait—I thought those were both ending…) and elsewhere. While the misplaced priorities of continuous and unnecessary spending on war and “defense” while states are facing deep budget cuts to healthcare, unemployment, and social security are themselves worthy of debate, this is not even the worst aspect of this spending-bill.

What makes the NDAA such a frightening piece of legislation is the provision granting expanded executive authority to the president in carrying out the “war on terror.” The bill essentially allows the president to detain anyone, anywhere at any time for, well…anything.

Specifically, the NDAA according to a New York Times editorial will, “strip the FBI, federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it over to the military… The legislation could also give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial” (“Politics Over Principle,” Dec. 15, 2011).

Furthermore, the bill dramatically expands the “battlefield” of the terror war, and all but makes the new age Cold War permanent.

Indeed, this bill seems to be the last nail in the coffin for what has been a steady erosion of our civil liberties since Sept. 11.

The Patriot Act, with its grand, sweeping new powers of surveillance, was the first domino to fall. Next, President George W. Bush enacted the horrific Military Commissions Act of 2006, which allows the president to detain anyone suspected of engaging in or aiding terrorists indefinitely without trial or due process. And now, we have this latest affront to our Constitution.

Yet what is truly frightening about this bill is how much broad, bipartisan support it received. While President Obama was expected to veto the NDAA, he once again went back on his word, and instead signed the bill into law. (Maine senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe both voted for the bill. House reps Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree did not.) editor, Robert Scheer writes of the bill (“There Goes the Republic,” Dec. 15, 2011):

“What’s alarming is not just that one pernicious aspect [the expanded executive authority] of the defense spending bill, but the ease with which an otherwise deadlocked Congress that can’t manage minimal funding for job creation and unemployment relief can find the money to fund at Cold War levels a massive sophisticated arsenal to defeat an enemy that no longer exists.”

Constitutional lawyer and blogger, Glenn Greenwald takes this criticism further. Countering the misperceptions of liberals who believe President Obama is opposed to indefinite military detention Greenwald argues the president's stance is, in fact, quite the reverse.

“Obama’s objections to this bill had nothing to do with civil liberties, due process or the Constitution,” he writes in a recent blog post ("Obama to Sign Indefinite Detention Bill into Law," Dec. 15, 2011).

“It had everything to do with Executive Power. The White House’s complaint was that the Congress had no business tying the hands of the President when deciding who should go into military detention, who should be denied a trial, which agencies should interrogate suspects… In other words, his veto threat was not grounded in the premise that indefinite military detention is wrong; it was grounded in the premise that it should be the President who decides who goes into military detention and why, not Congress.” (Italics his.)

So much, it seems, for change we can believe in. In fact, Obama’s dogged continuation of Bush’s most egregious, police-state policies smacks of something right out of a Kafka novel—The Trial, to be exact.

In Franz Kafka’s final unfinished novella, a nondescript, law-abiding citizen named Josef K. is mysteriously arrested and charged with a crime—the precise nature of which he is never informed of. K does not know what he is guilty of. He is never once allowed to know the evidence against him and, as a result, is unable to legally defend himself. All he knows is the state has determined he is guilty.

“Who could these men be?” K. wonders of the secretive agents that arrest him. “What were they talking about? What authority could they represent? K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who dared seize him in his own dwelling?”

Whether Kafka’s ominous tale was meant as a prescient warning of coming totalitarianism or a postmodern account on the meaninglessness of twentieth century, post-industrial life is debatable. But the parallels remain clear.

If we as a nation do not do something to break free of this war-mongering two-party duopoly we may all soon find ourselves arbitrarily imprisoned in Kafka’s America.       

Monday, December 19, 2011

Noam Chomsky Weighs in on "American Winter"

Noam Chomsky spoke to a packed audience at Westbrook’s Performing Center for the Arts on Monday. His talk, titled “Arab Spring, American Winter,” compared the democratic uprising in Egypt with the Occupy Wall Street protests here in the U.S. Chomsky noted, while Egyptian protesters fought to gain basic freedoms and democratic liberties from a repressive, dictatorial regime, Americans are finding their own freedoms and worker rights stripped away.

Chomsky is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Philosophy at M.I.T. He is author of dozens of books, a celebrated progressive activist, and widely considered the world’s leading intellectual. Yet, despite all the man’s accolades not one member of the press was present in the auditorium, which was filled to capacity.

“He really has been a voice in the wilderness,” noted the person sitting next to me before the talk began.

Indeed, at 83 and still as mentally sharp as ever, Chomsky remains something of an anomaly in modern American discourse. While Europe has a long tradition of celebrated public intellectuals, it is difficult to identify a modern day peer (save perhaps, for Ralph Nader, or the late Howard Zinn) of Chomsky's.

Chomsky’s views on foreign policy and media propaganda (most acutely spelled out in Manufacturing Consent, which he wrote with Wharton School professor, Edward Herman), have been indispensable to my work as both an academic and activist.

Professor Chomsky’s latest book, Hopes and Prospects, is a compilation of recent speeches, essays and articles covering the economy, U.S. global hegemony and accounts from the frontlines of progressive activism.

Ever the iconoclast, Chomsky remains committed to rebuking official doctrines (of the right, but more often than not the left), concepts of American exceptionalism and other sacred cows.

Chomsky’s commitment to speaking truth to power, notes author Chris Hedges in his book, Death of the Liberal Class is what makes him so feared by the liberal intelligentsia.

Chomsky, Hedges writes, “...reminds us that genuine intellectual inquiry is always subversive. It challenges cultural and political assumptions. It critiques structures. It is relentlessly self-critical. It implodes the self-indulgent myths and stereotypes we use to aggrandize ourselves and ignore our complicity in acts of violence and oppression. And genuine inquiry always makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.”

By that account, Hopes and Prospects finds Chomsky at his best. Much of the book is devoted to in-depth examinations of the destructive neoliberal polices the U.S., the World Bank and the IMF (or the “Unholy Trinity” as Chomsky labeled the groups in his speech) impose on developing nations, particularly in Latin America.

In writing on the hypocrisy of the so-called “war on drugs,” Chomsky observes:

“Even if we adopt the imperial premises, it is hard to take seriously the announced goals of the ‘drug war,’ which persists without notable change despite extensive evidence that other measures—prevention and treatment—are far more cost-effective…”

He goes on to describe the establishment of the war on drugs in the 1970s as the “perfect remedy” to rising opposition to the Vietnam War, and the growing populist unrest amongst the counter-culture movement.

Chomsky writes:

“With the enthusiastic participation of the media, a tale was concocted of an ‘addicted army’ that would bring down domestic society as the shattered troops returned home, all part of an insidious communist plot…”
“The ideological construction fulfilled these functions admirably. The United States became the victim of the Vietnamese, not the perpetrator of crimes against them, and the sacred image of the ‘city on the hill’ was preserved. Furthermore, the basis was laid for a ‘law and order’ campaign at home to discipline those who were straying beyond the bounds of subordination to power and doctrine.”
For me, the highlight of the evening came during the question-and-answer portion of the talk. Responding to a student who asked if there is anything he does like about U.S. foreign policy (the four pre-selected questions were all asinine), Chomsky promptly invoked his view of the responsibility of intellectuals in a democratic society.

“I’m here,” he said. “I have a share of responsibility for what the U.S. government does. And to an extent I can do something about it, especially in a free country like this one.”

Click here to hear Noam Chomsky’s “Arab Spring, American Winter” lecture in its entirety.

And click here for Lance Tapley’s article on the talk in the Portland Phoenix.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Responding to Occupy Maine Critics

Reading the editorial section of today’s Portland Press Herald brings to mind Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous maxim, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Readers sounding off in Wednesday’s issue (Dec. 14, 2011) on Occupy Maine rely on the same misguided arguments and uninformed accusations of the movement. Being the polemicist I fancy myself, I figured I should set the record straight.

In his letter to the editor, Richard Prince of South Portland calls the Occupy protesters “entitled,” and accuses them of leeching off their “fellow Americans’ tax payments.”

“What we have now can be called ‘the entitlement generation’,” Prince writes. “It is Americans who believe that by merely existing they are entitled to a host of unearned benefits…”

Prince clearly does not understand anything about either the Occupy movement, or the social ills our nation currently faces.

Occupy Wall Street protesters are not selfishly demanding money for nothing. They are calling attention to the vastly unequal distribution of wealth in this country—most of which is currently held by the wealthiest one percent of the nation. When all of the nation’s wealth is held by a small minority of super-rich, that is money that is denied to public schools and universities; to repairing decaying roads and bridges; to local businesses; to the elderly, disabled, or poor; and to Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

If anyone exhibits this sense of entitlement Prince decries, it is the super-rich. They are the ones who, due to their immense wealth and power, believe the world is literally theirs for the taking. Indeed, Mr. Prince would do well to read Chrystia Freeland’s excellent Atlantic story, “The Rise of the New Global Elite,” from earlier this year.

A similar letter, by Robert W. Brandenstein of Buxton, echoes Prince’s “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” mentality.

“From what I can gather,” Brandenstein states, “[the protesters] are upset that some in our country are better off financially than others, and they don’t think this is fair.”

This is a gross over-simplification of what they are protesting, but let’s explore his letter a bit more, first.

“My wife and I have been married for more than 50 years. When we were first married, I worked three jobs to provide a good living for my family… We’re not rich, but comfortable. Not because we took from those who were better off than us. And not because things were more fair [sic] for us than others.”

He finishes with this: “We worked hard for what we have, and if those who stand with their hands out and cry that things are not fair would follow the example we, and others like us, have set, they just might find things get more fair the harder you work.”

Wow, I don’t think Horatio Alger could have said it better, himself, Robert.

What Mr. Brandenstein does not seem to understand is many of the Occupy protesters are also working three jobs—not out of some holier-than-thou, protestant work ethic, but because it is the only way we can make ends meet. Not to mention the fact that he is speaking from the luxury of retirement. If Brandenstein were attempting to provide for his family in today’s economy, he would find an anemic job-market wherein employers simply refuse to hire people, having decided a solid, reliable work-force is simply not a financially feasible investment.

I find it, frankly, offensive when gainfully-employed, Baby Boomer-aged individuals decry Occupy Wall Street’s demands. These people speak from the comfort of a steady, full-time job, often with benefits, health insurance and a decent lifetime savings. What further infuriates me is many of them do not realize they will likely be the last generation to enjoy those luxuries for some time.

Finally, we have Howard Spear from Westbrook, who contributes the sort of rambling, inarticulate opinion-piece the Portland Daily Sun’s Bob Higgins routinely produces.

I cannot really follow Spear’s argument, but perhaps others can do better. First, he applauds the Portland City Council for its ruling last week denying a permit to the encampment. “It is baloney that they [the protesters] claim they are an ‘amazing community of self-government’,” he writes.

Why, exactly, Spear believes this claim is “baloney” is unclear, as he offers zero evidence to support his assessment. Has he personally observed the site at Lincoln Park, or does he just criticize from afar?

He then goes on to criticize the protesters’ creation of a “police raid support team,” page on Facebook, which he claims (again, with no supporting evidence whatsoever) is a call to violence against the Portland Police Department.

He writes, “So now they are going to turn their peaceful protest into a violent one? They really are the 1 percent. Perhaps someday they will smarten up and when/if they do, they will then become part of the 98 percent.” (That is funny: I cannot find anything threatening any use of violence on the Occupy Maine Facebook page.)

Huh…? Sorry, I don’t follow. Is Spear implying the majority of Americans are smart and informed, while the Occupy protesters are not…? Or, are we just all going to become suddenly rich in our sleep?

In fairness, the Opinion page does feature two pro-Occupy letters (although, at a ratio of four-to-two, the paper’s editors cannot really claim to be making serious strides toward a “balance” of views). And the PPH has featured two surprisingly favorable staff editorials on the encampment recently.

Still, my general impression from these three letters to the editor is many residents are simply uninformed about both the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the destructive economic realities that have afforded them comfort and financial stability while leaving the rest of us to fight over the table scraps.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pushed Out of the Public Sphere

Two seemingly disparate local news stories from the past week offer a striking bit of irony.

On Wednesday, the Portland City Council voted to deny Occupy Maine a permit to remain in Lincoln Park, essentially shutting down the three-month long encampment. Then, a few days later, the Urban Outfitters retail chain opened its first store in Portland.

What, you ask, do these events have in common? Space, dear reader. Public space to be precise.

Consider: Progressive activists are forbidden from gathering in a public park and engaging in their First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly and free-speech, yet a multinational, high-end clothing store can swoop into an abandoned part of Portland’s Old Port and essentially “occupy” the space indefinitely.

The distinction is, of course, obvious here. Businesses (especially those that “create jobs”) are sacrosanct and necessary to help the local economy. Citizen activists, however, are a noisy, visual “blight” and too much of a headache for the police department.

In other words, Urban Outfitters (or Starbucks, Reny’s or any of the stores at the Maine Mall) may occupy each and every corner of the city, state, country and globe. But heaven forbid if a motley crew of anti-capitalist activists attempts to do the same.

Indeed, public space has become something of an antiquated luxury in the twenty-first century. Big box stores, fast-food franchises and other corporate, brand-name consortiums are rapidly gobbling up more and more public avenues. Even public institutions like libraries, schools, and universities, once thought to be the last haven from non-commercial space, have become increasingly hijacked by corporate slogans, banners, advertisements and sponsorship.

As a result of this rampant corporatization of nearly every nook and cranny of public life, there are fewer and fewer avenues where we can interact as citizens, rather than consumers. And this poses a dire threat to our democracy.

Naomi Klein traces this erosion of democratic, public space in her book No Logo. Much of the encroachment of corporate advertising into more and more aspects of our lives, according to Klein, is related to the advertising industry’s strategic epiphany that companies do not sell products, but brands. Starbucks, for instance, does not sell mere coffee: It sells community, a place of peaceful, quiet relaxation.

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s corporations aggressively embraced this marketing mentality. In doing so, they have become less focused on the physical products they sell and more on their brand, or the “idea” the product entails.

“With this wave of brand mania,” Klein writes, “has come a new breed of businessman, one who will proudly inform you that Brand X is not a product but a way of life, an attitude, a set of values, a look, an idea. And it sounds really great—way better than that Brand X is a screwdriver, or a hamburger chain, or a pair of jeans, or even a very successful line of running shoes.”

As companies became ever more disentangled from their actual physical products (most of which are manufactured by children toiling in sweatshops overseas for less than a $1 a day), they were able to focus more money on advertising. This, in turn, lead to larger, more intrusive billboard advertisements, brand-name products on buses, or even entire concert festivals sponsored by your favorite beer.

Once the maxim of “brands, not products” became the norm for companies, they had more space—literally—to work with and, thus, takeover.

Klein’s book goes on to document what she saw as a growing anti-corporate movement to reclaim public space. Ten years later (No Logo was published in 2000), it is tempting to view the book as a clarion call that all but predicted the Occupy Wall Street movement.

And now the Occupy Portland encampment faces eviction. Yet the encampment itself is not the only casualty of this fight. The public sphere—that is, the area where citizens can come together and discuss the pertinent issues of the day, free of corporate or authoritative demands—is eroding and in danger of disappearing completely from civic life.

The people want democracy. Instead we got Urban Outfitters.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Gatekeepers of Democracy

The gatekeepers of democracy were successful in silencing free-speech Wednesday night.

In a lengthy session that went well past 11:00 p.m., the Portland City Council voted 8 -1 to deny Occupy Maine protesters a permit to continue their encampment of Lincoln Park. Despite three hours of public testimony, almost unanimously in support of Occupy Maine, city councilors voted against a permit that would allow the protesters to create a 24-hour free-speech zone in Lincoln Park.

While the council’s decision was indeed disappointing, it is hardly surprising given its conservative, pro-business bent. Councilors used the recent isolated incidents of violence in the park, as well as the Portland business community’s accusation the encampment is an “eyesore” to justify shutting the protest down.

While the majority of public comments expressed impassioned support for Occupy Maine (there were about three speakers who opposed the permit), the councilors—save for David Marshall, the lone dissenting vote—remained unmoved.

A colleague of mine speculated that most of the councilors had likely already decided how they would vote before the meeting began. The fact that, throughout the three hour public comment session, many of the councilors sat staring at their laptops, or making snide jokes amongst each other, suggests this to be the case. A few speakers even called the council members out on this. They did the same thing my students do when I intentionally direct a question to those who are clearly not paying attention to my lecture: They temporarily stopped what they were doing and acknowledged the speaker, then eventually shifted their focus back to their laptops.

In other words, the allowing of public comments is merely a formality, perhaps to further the illusion of democracy and public representation. Indeed, Wednesday’s vote provided further evidence that representative democracy as it is currently practiced here in Maine and nationwide, is a sham.

At one point during the debate, Councilor and former mayor, Nick Mavodones justified his vote against the permit by claiming he had heard from many Portland residents who opposed the measure, and that the majority support for Occupy Maine amongst the attendees was “lopsided”. Yet, where was this opposition at the meeting? If Portland were run like a genuine democracy, where majority opinion rules, then the protesters would clearly have won the day. Instead, it took only one Chamber of Commerce spokesman to squelch free-speech.

As the Clash observe on the song, “Know Your Rights,” “You have the right to free-speech/As long as you are not dumb enough to actually try it.”

Perhaps the one moment of honest clarity during the debate came when Councilor John Anton told the crowd, “We’re the bourgeoisie. We’re the burghers. To expect us to do anything other than reflect the views of the bourgeoisie is…optimistic.” Well, at least one of them was upfront about it.

The council’s denial of a permit for the Portland branch of Occupy Maine does not necessarily spell the end of the beleaguered movement. Frankly, the fact they were made to seek a permit to express their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly is absurd. Furthermore, the protesters should have realized seeking any sort of approval from the city council was foolish. But Wednesday’s decision is nonetheless a blow to the movement—one echoed by similar, albeit more violent crackdowns elsewhere.

The irony of all this is one of the goals of the wider Occupy Wall Street movement is to create a grassroots, democratic alternative to representative government, which most participants agree has failed the country. Yet, it is the apparatus of "representative" government which is now forcing the group to disband. Once again, the official gatekeepers of democracy have shut the door on average citizens.