Wednesday, December 25, 2013

In Praise of Snowden

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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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Alan Caron to Kids: "Create Your Own Damn Jobs!"

Media Watch

Re: "New set of challenges on the horizon for teachers," Alan Caron, Portland Press Herald, 12.19.2013.

Alan Caron, President and founder of Envision Maine and PPH columnist.

Centrist political columnist, Alan Caron, has been with the Press Herald for about a year now. He typically represents the "moderate" (read: corporate status quo) viewpoint, frequently advocating fiscal conservatism with (moderately) liberal social stands. Caron is the founder and president of the business-oriented non-profit, Envision Maine, which lists Angus King, TD Bank, and Maine Chamber of Commerce president, Dana Connors as its partners on its website.

I would liken him to the New York Times's Joe Nocera.

Caron fancies himself a political "independent," which, in Maine, is very trendy right now. In reality, he is about as "independent" as his buddy Angus and would-be governor Eliot Cutler. For instance, in an August 8, 2013 column ("Old two-party election system fails us, so let's change it,"), Caron advocated stricter ballot access laws in the state as a sensible, "moderate" way to reform the two-party duopoly. The problem with this approach is that Maine already has some of the most ridged ballot access hurdles in the nation. For a self-described "independent," Caron demonstrates an astoundingly limited capacity to think outside of the box.

Yet Caron's most recent column struck me for reasons I doubt he intended it to. While most of the piece praising the work of teachers and the ever increasing responsibilities they face was blandly by-the-numbers, one short section caught my attention.

Among Caron's three-point "most prominent challenges" educators must address is the notion teachers must produce not only future employees, but future employers as well. He writes:
The next economy will have more small businesses created here in Maine and fewer large ones from away. Increasingly, today's children and their children will need to create their own jobs rather than find them. But schools aren't preparing them to do that. Making our own jobs is, by the way, exactly what our grandparents and great-grandparents regularly did.
While I would like to see some actual evidence for the lofty claim in the first sentence (especially given that it is undermined by everything else I have read), it is the second sentence, with its claim young graduates will essentially need to create their own jobs, that I find interesting.

Now, at face value this is actually sound advice. Maine traditionally has a long history of successful entrepreneurs, and given the current economic climate the idea of working for oneself is becoming increasingly more attractive to Americans.

But in coming right out and conceding members of the next generation may well need to create their own work opportunities, Caron perhaps inadvertently hints at a rarely acknowledged truth about capitalism. Namely, that the system does not allow for full-employment.

This is true regardless of the state of the economy. Even in a healthy, thriving economy, capitalism does not produce full-employment--i.e. a job for every individual who is willing and able to work. This is, furthermore, not a mere "glitch" or aberration of the system. Capitalism, as Marx observes in Das Kapital, is intentionally designed to prevent full-employment. It cannot survive without a constant supply of what Marx termed a "reserve army of labor." Without this supply of reserve labor employers would have less ability to suppress wages and labor strikes, and generally keep their work force under control.

If, as Caron argues, "making our own jobs" is what our grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to do, it is merely further proof of capitalism's effective negation of any kind of full-employment economy. Apparently the exalted "job creators" of their time were no busier "creating jobs" than they are today.    

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Two Americas

On the Rich and the Rest of Us.

John Edwards famously declared during the 2008 presidential campaign that there are "two Americas"--one for the rich and one for everybody else.

While the former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate's words now ring quite hollow in light of his own hedonistic, duplicitous behavior, his observations into America's ever widening economic stratification nonetheless remain true.

There are two Americas. One, occupied by an extremely wealthy minority, and the other made up of the poor, the unemployed, underemployed and members of what was once referred to as the "middle class." Or, as PBS news-host, Tavis Smiley and Professor Cornel West put it in the title of their 2012 book, there are the rich and the rest of us.

The last 30 years have seen a staggering rise in income inequality not seen since the Great Depression. Currently, the upper one percent of American society owns more wealth than the bottom 99 percent combined. This is a level of inequality unmatched among industrialized nations. As economist Joseph Stiglitz makes clear in his book The Price of Inequality (Norton, 2012), the consequences for such a wealth gap are indeed grave.

He writes:

[A]s our economic system is seen to fail for most citizens, and as our political system seems to be captured by moneyed interests, confidence in our democracy and in our market economy will erode along with our global influence. As the reality sinks in that we are no longer a country of opportunity and that even our long-vaunted rule of law and system of justice have been compromised, even our sense of national identity may be put in jeopardy (p. xii).
Yet the dystopian future Stiglitz forecasts may already be here. These two Americas come with two highly distinct sets of laws that seem to apply only to the poor. The rich are exempt.

Case in point, Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old accused of killing four people in a drunk driving accident in Texas, successfully escaped jail time by pleading a case of "affluenza." The teen, the defendants ludicrously argued, was brought up in a privileged home where he was never held accountable for his actions and therefore gained a sense of entitlement. As a result, the defense argued and the judge agreed, he should not receive the typical 20-year prison sentence for his crime.

"Affluenza," it should be noted, is not even an actual psychological condition. Indeed, this story seems more like something out of The Onion than an actual news report.

American law, as it is currently practiced, only truly applies to the poor. The rich, the elite and the powerful can break the law at will and get away with it. This is exactly what happened when Wall Street trashed the global economy through reckless, illegal gambling, and was then promptly rescued with a taxpayer-funded government bailout. To date not a single banker has gone to prison.

"The rich are different from you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly wrote in a letter to Ernest Hemingway. "Yes," Hemingway is said to have replied, "they have more money."

Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby, masterfully illustrates how the wealthy elite cruelly and callously manipulate others for their own personal aims. Gatsby, in his singular quest for fame, wealth, power and, ultimately, love, erases his very identity. Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes, "invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end."

As psychologist Dr. Suniya Luthar notes in the aforementioned Affluenza story, "We are setting a double-standard for the rich and poor. ...[F]amilies that have money, you can drink and drive."

Luthar continues:

What is the likelihood if this [Couch] was an African American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times... what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?
She raises an excellent point. Perhaps no other group in America has experienced, firsthand, the blatant hypocrisy and cruel double-standard in our laws than the African American community. Black Americans--particularly young black males--are disproportionately imprisoned at an unprecedented rate. According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, black men make up 40.2 percent of all prison inmates. One in every three black men will spend time in prison in their lifetime, along with one in every six Latino males. The vast majority of those imprisoned are serving time for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession.

Law professor Michelle Alexander attributes this discriminatory practice to the "War on Drugs." In her revealing book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), Alexander argues the War on Drugs has far more to do with imprisoning and disenfranchising African Americans from mainstream society than with apprehending any actual drug-lords. Like the racist Jim Crow laws of the 19th century that prevented blacks from voting, she contends, the criminal justice system serves to create and maintain a "permanent under-caste."

Nationally, the unemployment rate for African Americans remains double that of whites. Yet, highly successful figures like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are consistently held up as proof that, today, blacks too can "make it if they try."

The left's inability (or is it unwillingness...?) to talk frankly and directly about class and class struggle has left it divided and impotent. This is why I long ago severed myself from the liberal class. I am not interested in dabbling in identity politics or tweaking the capitalist system so more people can join the ranks of the rich. I want a real democratic revolution.

Until such a revolution occurs, may I suggest a slight amendment to the Pledge of Allegiance? Given the vast discrepancies in the enforcement of the law with regard to rich and poor, it is no longer accurate to maintain America provides "....liberty and justice for all."

We should, therefore, change one word so it reads, "....with liberty and justice for some."

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Error: In the original posting of this piece, 16-year-old Ethan Couch was incorrectly identified as "Andrew Couch." The name has been corrected. Guerrilla Press is dedicated to accuracy and regrets the error.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sixteen Tons

...And what do you get? Not much, it turns out.

One of the first jobs I had growing up in Kennebunk, Maine, was cashiering at the locally-owned grocery store, Garden Street Market. I started working in the Produce Department when I was about 15 and continued through college.

The job was hardly glamorous. It involved a lot of standing for long periods, muscle and back pain from the repetitive motions, and, at times, hostile, unruly customers.

But the store owner was a decent man who treated his workers with respect and dignity. My co-workers were genuinely warm, earnest people, many of whom became good friends. And the pay, as far as retail jobs go, wasn't all that bad. By the time I left, I was, as a full-time employee, making close to $9 an hour. I even received a modest health insurance package.

In 2010, Garden Street Market closed when a massive Hannaford moved in just down the street. The owner did not even attempt to compete with the chain store.

His only demand of Hannaford was they offer jobs to any of store's employees who wanted one. Those who now work at Hannaford, I am told, are not happy with the big store or the management. One former co-worker, who was always so chatty and social with the townspeople who came through her line, laments the cashiers are forbidden from talking to customers at length beyond the standard, "How are you today?" and "Did you find everything you were looking for?"

While Garden Street was never truly my "dream job," I still occasionally reminisce about my time working there. I was treated with dignity, respect and, generally, received an honest wage for honest work. What more, really, can any worker ask for?

Alas, many retail and service workers are not afforded the same basic treatment. Local, independently-owned mom & pop stores like Garden Street Market are rapidly going the way of the manufacturing industry. In fact, Hannaford Brothers (founded in Portland, Maine; now owned by the European, Delhaize Corporation) is currently the largest employer in the state. L.L. Bean, Walmart, TD Bank, Maine Medical Center, and tax-dodger Bath Iron Works, round out the top 10.

According to an in-depth jobs report in the Maine Sunday Telegram (June, 2013), the jobs with the most expected growth are almost exclusively in retail, fast-food, or customer service. (Health care also ranks high here in Maine due to the state's aging population, the oldest in the nation.) And, contrary to popular belief, these jobs are not primarily held by teenagers or college students. A recent report by the National Employment Law Project finds the average age of fast-food workers is 29. More than 26 percent of them, according to the report, have children and subsist on poverty wages.

The average retail worker earns around $8.25 an hour--a mere dollar above the federal minimum wage. Most must rely on public services such as foodstamps, WIC, or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) checks to make ends meet. These retail giants' stinginess toward their workers costs taxpayers nearly $7 billion annually according to researchers at the University of California, Berkley. The fast-food industry alone, made more than $7.4 billion in profits last year.

Indeed, this is another blatant form of corporate welfare, which I wrote about earlier this year. We are essentially paying these companies' employees for them.

As far as jobs go, retail ranks only slightly higher than janitorial work. Employees at big-box stores like Target, Walmart and The Gap, in addition to their cashiering or shelf-stocking duties, must also empty the trash, sweep and mop the floors, clean the associate breakroom and even the bathrooms. They are also responsible for disposing of any trash customers indifferently leave behind in the shopping carts. Such items can include everything from empty fast-food containers, unfinished Starbucks lattes, discarded tissues and even soiled diapers.

In fact, it is quite common for customers to pawn their garbage off on cashiers while checking out, commanding--never asking--them to "Throw this out!" Whether they are oblivious to the large trash receptacles that line the entrance of most of these big-box stores, or simply too lazy to make use of them on their way out, has never been clear to me. I once had an old man slowly and deliberately crumple his receipt up in front of me and drop it right on the register in a manner that suggested I was wrong to have handed it to him in the first place.

Additionally, retail workers must endure erratic scheduling, including shifts on weekends and holidays. Increasingly, more and more retail workers are expected to work on Thanksgiving Day. Associates are often forced to work until the store's close, getting home around 10:30 or 11 p.m., only to return to the store at 7 or 8 a.m. the following day. This unrelenting scheduling particularly takes its toll on single mothers, especially if they work an additional job. And you can forget about having any sort of a social life when you work retail. The few days associates do get off are usually in the beginning or middle of the week--when everybody else is working.

All of this demeaning work for jobs that offer meager pay, no health insurance, no overtime pay, no union protection and little opportunity for advancement. Since most retail workers are considered "part-time,"--even if they actually work close to 40 hours a week--employers do not have to offer them any health care. This is unlikely to change with the official start of Obamacare next year.

But increasingly low-wage workers are fighting back.

On Nov. 29, "Black Friday," Walmart workers went on strike in over 1,500 stores nationwide to demand higher wages. Walmart employees, operating under the labor-advocacy group, Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, initiated the strikes on what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. The strikes came on the heels of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawsuit against the retail giant that alleges Walmart illegally fired or disciplined employees who took part in a similar strike earlier this summer.

Walmart is the nation's largest employer and ranks number one on the Fortune 500, with profits of $443.9 billion in 2012.

Doug Born, president of the Southern Maine Labor Council, attended a protest, along with 25 other labor activists and Walmart employees, at the Walmart in Scarborough. The retail giant, according to Born, has a "terrible habit of underpaying" its workers.

So much, it seems, for the idea these corporate big-box stores "create jobs" in their cities and neighborhoods.

"How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach," John Steinbeck asked in The Grapes of Wrath, "but in the wretched bellies of his own children? You can't scare him--he has known a fear beyond every other."

Retail workers of the world, unite!

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How Identity Politics Destroyed the Left

It is difficult not to view Maine U.S. Rep. and would-be governor Mike Michaud's recent disclosure that he is gay with a degree of cynicism.

His announcement, made via an Op-Ed in Maine's two major dailies, The Portland Press Herald and The Bangor Daily News as well as the Associated Press, smacks of a shallow, calculated attempt to win over the progressive LGBT vote in next year's gubernatorial election.

This is in no way meant to diminish the very act of Michaud's coming out. Certainly it is not the place of heterosexual observers to dictate the timing, method and manner in which gay public officials choose to disclose their sexual orientation--or, for that matter, whether one chooses to disclose such personal information at all. And one must be at least somewhat sympathetic to the tightrope balancing act public officials like Michaud--who presides over Maine's northern, more conservative Second District where voters are likely to be less accepting of gay rights--must engage in.

That being said, local political columnist Al Diamon (yes, that Al Diamon) is justified in his recent criticism of Michaud's repeated votes against gay rights legislation as both a state legislator and a member of the House of Representatives ("Where were you when I needed you?", The Portland Phoenix11/11/2013). Michaud, Diamon writes, "stepped up after the war was mostly won."

He continues:

If he's successful in becoming the first gay man to be elected governor of any state, it won't be because he was brave. It'll be because he sat silently on the sidelines for 30 years while real heroes fought to change public attitudes.

It is a valid point--one that recalls then-Senator Barack Obama's stated opposition to the Iraq war, while he continued voting for additional military-spending bills to fund that very war. Yet it is a point that Michaud's liberal supporters--many of whom have already adorned their vehicles with "Michaud 2014" bumper stickers--peevishly brush aside as inconsequential or "mean-spirited."

Former U.S. Congressman and recent Maine transplant Barney Frank (D-MA) in a follow-up letter to the editor published in The Phoenix ("Diamon misreads Michaud," 11/20/13), castigates Diamon's "tone." Frank's defensive, hyper-partisan letter is emblematic of "progressive" gay rights advocates who have absolutely no trouble overlooking the fact that the two most egregious anti-LGBT bills in the last two decades--The Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell--were passed by President Bill Clinton. Or those gay rights "defenders" (like Equality Maine) who refuse to speak out against the unjust imprisonment of Pfc. Chelsea Manning.

The fact is Maine, overall, is pretty accepting of gay rights--and Rep. Michaud knows this. This move was little more than a calculated effort to win over the state's LGBT base. It is, furthermore, emblematic of the cult of "identity politics" which has all but destroyed the left.

Identity politics has become the raison d'etre of the liberal left in this country. Those on the left no longer stand up against poverty, militarism, or a broader sense of social justice. They took to the streets en mass to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but promptly halted such actions when Obama became president. They instead dabble in what Chris Hedges calls the "boutique activism" of multiculturalism, inclusivity and other forms of so-called "identity politics."

Don't get me wrong: I wholeheartedly support all of these efforts.

The problem is, in abandoning a broader sense of social justice for highly specific issue or identity-oriented activism (be it the plight of lesbians, gays, blacks, immigrants, women, etc.), the left has allowed itself to become splintered, isolated and largely ineffective. While the focus on these various "isms" has certainly called much needed attention to the oppression of minority groups, the effort fails to critique the actual system of corporate capitalism which causes such oppression in the first place.

As Hedges observes in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, "Making sure people of diverse races or sexual orientations appear on television shows or in advertisements merely widens the circle of new consumers. Multiculturalism is an appeal that pleads with the corporate power structure for inclusion" (p. 125).

Contemporary liberals have seemingly lost any sense of class struggle which Karl Marx correctly understood as the central root of all societal inequality and the great scourge of capitalism. The left has, in a sense, lost sight of the big picture. Identity politics has become an end in of itself.

Furthermore, by ignoring class entirely, identity politics erroneously lumps all members of a given minority group together, suggesting their political aims and goals are all the same. Contrary to the dictates of multiculturalism, one can be female, black or gay and still be part of the economic one percent. (Oprah Winfrey, Clarence Thomas, Barney Frank and "feminist" scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter come to mind. Come to think of it... add President Obama to that list as well.)

To wit: This past summer, Supreme Court Justice Thomas voted with the conservative majority to gut key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The notoriously taciturn Thomas has, likewise, compared modern day affirmative action practices to slavery.

Indeed, Thomas's callous indifference to the plight of the majority of black Americans recalls the traitorous, self-serving Dr. Bledsoe in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. When the college-aged, African American narrator inadvertently takes one of the university's wealthy white donors to the impoverished black ghettos on the outskirts of campus, Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, reacts furiously. Upon expelling the narrator, Bledsoe reveals his true sycophantic nature.

"I's big and black and I say 'Yes, suh' as loudly as any burrhead when it's convenient," Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator in one of the novel's most frightening passages. "but I'm still the king down here."

The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folks, and even those I control more than they control me... That's my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about... It's a nasty deal and I don't always like it myself.... But I've made my place in it and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am.
Nationally, the Democratic Party stands for little more than the vague concepts of inclusivity and identity politics. Women, Latinos, African Americans and members of the LGBT community were vital to Obama's win in last year's presidential election.

The irony, of course, is Obama has overseen the deportation of more immigrants than any other president in history. In the year since the president's re-election, a number of states have arbitrarily passed some of the most restrictive abortion access laws in the country, despite liberals' insistence that such continued reproductive freedom hinged on Obama's re-election. (Currently, eight states have outlawed abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization.)

If we are losing the fight against corporate capitalism, it is because the strict focus on identity politics has, counter to its aims, left us more divided. The left, if it is to ever be relevant again, needs to rediscover its radical roots. We also cannot afford to wait around for closeted or otherwise self-sabotaging politicians to determine when it is politically convenient for them to stand up and stop actively working to undermine their own brothers and sisters.

To that end, Congressman Michaud's sexual orientation should not be our--or, for that matter, his--primary focus. As Maine voters, we should be far more concerned with what he will, as governor, do to take the state forward and reclaim it from the corporate interests that threaten so much of it and the rest of the nation.   



Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Toxic Sludge is Good For You!

When it comes to capitalism vs. the environment, capitalism always wins.

The disheartening though unsurprising defeat of a South Portland ordinance earlier this month that would have prohibited the transportation of tar sands oil through neighboring Sebago Lake, provides another stark example of the environment's perpetual subordination to capitalism.

The citizen-led referendum, "The Waterfront Protection Ordinance," would have effectively prevented the loading and transportation of tar sands oil onto ships at South Portland's waterfront. Voters narrowly defeated the measure 51-49 percent, or by a margin of about 200 votes.

The Portland Pipe Line Corporation, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil and operator of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline which would deliver dirty, highly corrosive oil sands (or "tar sands" oil) from Alberta, Canada, poured in close to $600,000 to defeat the referendum question.

Opponents received additional campaign funding from other oil giants including Citgo, Irving, and the American Petroleum Institute, as well as the South Portland Chamber of Commerce, according to The Bangor Daily News (11/05/2013). Former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat whom the local chapter of the Sierra Club awarded an environmental record of "B+" in 2002, also publicly opposed the ordinance.

The oil industry used the traditional Business talking-points--"Job killer!", "Protect working families!", "Our way-of-life is in danger!"--to convince residents to vote against the measure. They even recruited the local firefighters union in their efforts, thus making the campaign out to be a labor issue. Editorials in the ("liberal") local press uniformly lambasted the ordinance as "overly broad," preferring to quibble over procedural details while ignoring the ordinance's overall aim. The Press Herald staff editorial against the WPO ("Our View: Waterfront vote affects more than tar sands," 10/17/13), for instance, cites all the economic concerns, yet says virtually nothing about the dangers of tar sands oil.

The fact is, if the Portland-Montreal Pipeline were to rupture and leak heavy tar sands oil into Sebago Lake, none of these purely economic concerns will matter. None of them. Jobs...? Sure, temporary clean-up jobs. Local economy...? Destroyed. Tourism...? Ha! Yes, I can see it now: "Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Used to Be." Or, how about this play on our new city motto: "Portland. Yes, water's poisoned here."

Sebago Lake, it is worth noting, provides the water supply for the Greater Portland area, and about 15 percent of the state. It is routinely ranked as some of the cleanest water in the Northeast.

Contrary to the claims of Exxon Mobil press secretaries, tar sands oil is nothing like the conventional oil you put in your car. It is exponentially worse.

Tar sands contain crude bitumen and release about three times as much CO2 as refined oil. The process of extracting the sludgy material alone is extremely energy intensive and poses a major risk to the Alberta boreal forest and wetlands from which it is derived. But a mass-scale production of the substance, as envisioned in the all-but-imminent Keystone XL Pipeline, would be an environmental nightmare--a "carbon bomb," in the words of esteemed climate scientist James Hansen. Tar sands oil's potential impact on climate change, Hansen warns, would spell "game over for the climate."

Earlier this year, global CO2 emissions surpassed 400 parts per million, an atmospheric concentration not seen since prehistoric eras. According to Hansen, any CO2 level greater than 350 ppm is not compatible with "a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and life on Earth is adapted."

As I write, Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm in recorded history, has left nearly 4,000 dead in the Philippines. (The precise death toll, according to NPR, may never be known.)

Contemporary political discourse perpetually (and myopically) pits The Economy against The Environment as if the two are separate and mutually exclusive concerns. And The Economy (i.e. Capitalism) wins every time. Environmental regulations and protections, politicians warn us, will mean job losses or potentially missed economic opportunities.

Not only is this mentality completely warped, on a practical level it is unsustainable. Unlimited, unhindered economic growth on a planet of finite resources is simply not possible. To put it another way, capitalism and environmental sustainability are incompatible. The fact that the oil industry has shifted focus in recent years to tar sands, mountain-top removal, deep-water oil drilling and "fracking" is testament to the reality that we have essentially used up all the planet's readily available resources. The easy stuff is gone. We burned it all into the atmosphere. Now the oil giants, like an obsessed Captain Ahab, are maniacally tearing the planet apart to find more.

As Ahab says in Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick, "All my means are sane, my motive and object are mad." The doomed whale-hunting captain, like the self-serving billionaire CEOs that manage Exxon Mobil, "did long disassemble" from mankind. If they must destroy the planet in order to maintain their outrageous profit margins, so be it.

The good news is the environmental activists that crafted the WPO ordinance are not ready to give up the fight. Indeed, a vote this close signals no mandate for the winners. South Portland Mayor Tom Blake and most of the members of the City Council support a ban on tar sands transportation in the city. The day after the election, Mayor Blake convened a Council meeting to discuss the issue further.

While I hope my neighbors in South Portland are successful, it is important to keep the larger perspective in mind. As long as protecting the planet remains subordinate to capitalism and "economic growth," this battle remains one we are, in the long-run, doomed to lose.

Fawzi Ibrahim, author of the eco-socialist book, Capitalism Versus Planet Earth: An Irreconcilable Conflict, sums it up best:

"Today, humanity faces a stark choice: Save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet."

Local readers can join the effort to keep Maine tar-sands free by clicking here. And you can make a donation to Guerrilla Press by clicking the "Donate" button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Portland Paves the Way on Pot

Photo appropriated from the Portland Press Herald website, 'cause dammit Jim, I'm a writer not a photographer.

Portland, Maine became the first city on the East Coast to legalize marijuana on November 5 with the passage of the city ordinance Question 1. The ordinance, which asks voters to legalize 2.5 ounces of marijuana for residents 21 and older, passed in a landslide with close to 70 percent of the vote. My colleagues and I in the Portland Green Independent Committee spearheaded the initiative back in January. We collected nearly 3,000 voter signatures to place the question on the ballot.

While the ordinance is specific only to Portland, our hope is its passage will set the precedent and model for the rest of the state. (Many politicos anticipate a statewide referendum in 2016.) We ultimately envision the state of Maine taxing and regulating marijuana as it does alcohol and other legal drugs.

Though local pundits and opinionators leveled a barrage of criticism and ridicule our way, there was no formal, organized opposition to the measure. The brief demonstrations of public protest proved inept, unprofessional and incomprehensible.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has told numerous local media outlets he intends to ignore the new law and continue treating marijuana possession in the city as a federal crime. The police chief's blatant disregard for the will of the voters is indeed contemptuous. This is the same person, keep in mind, who used lies and hyperbole this summer to convince the City Council to pass an overly broad and counterproductive ban of panhandling on median strips.

Maine is once again leading the way forward.

Decriminalizing marijuana is a sensible step toward ending the racist, economically unsustainable war on drugs. The U.S. spends more than $51 billion annually on a policy even former  President Jimmy Carter believes is a failure. That is money that could be going to re-hire all those laid off teachers, repair our schools, roads and crumbling bridges, or even provide health care for every citizen.

Additionally, the drug war disproportionately targets minorities and people of color. According to statistics from the Drug Policy Alliance, African Americans constitute 37 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession nationwide, even though they use the drug at comparable rates to whites.

The U.S., it is worth noting, has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

It is important to understand this effort did not come out of either of the two political parties. It was the Greens working with the libertarian Marijuana Policy Project that enacted it.

Maine's Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree claims she supports marijuana legalization, but has taken no action in the House of Representatives to that end. What's stopping her...? State representative Diane Russell (D-Portland), meanwhile, introduced a legalization bill in the Legislature this summer. But she failed to even get it out of the committee. That is how supportive the Democrats are on this issue. And State Rep. Mark Dion, a Democrat who helped craft Maine's medical marijuana law back in 1999, snidely dismissed the will of the voters on WGME 13 as a glorified "opinion poll."

Throughout this campaign opponents constantly argued marijuana legalization is a "state issue," that should not be decided by Portland alone. They are correct. It should be a state-wide issue. But, with the notable exception of Rep. Russell, no one else in the Legislature is acting on it. The residents of Portland are tired of waiting for our lawmakers in Augusta.

Tuesday's vote is further proof that meaningful, substantive progressive change rarely, if ever, comes from the top-down. It comes from the bottom. It comes from hard-working, ordinary Americans most people have never heard of. Their names are conveniently left out of history textbooks. It comes from activists, labor leaders, socialists, anarchists, and third-parties. From people like Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, Mary "Mother" Jones, Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair.

Most of these figures never achieved formal positions of power. Many were scornfully dismissed and savagely attacked by the power elite just as Ralph Nader, Edward Snowden and Jill Stein are today. Yet they used their books, writings, speeches, and organizing abilities to threaten those in power and demand real change.

"Democracy is not what governments do," the radical historian Howard Zinn said. "It's what people do."

As Zinn's dissident treatise, A People's History of the United States illustrates, all major progressive gains throughout this nation's history have come from outside the political sphere. Even such cornerstone victories of liberalism like Social Security and Medicare were not immediately embraced by the Democratic Party that, to this day, claims credit for them. Celebrated liberal figures like FDR and LBJ enacted their signature social reforms, Zinn observes, only when pushed and prodded by labor unions, activists and other citizen-led protests.

Roosevelt is said to have told a group of activists to "Make me do it." So they did.

The late Peter Camejo, who ran as Nader's vice presidential running-mate in 2004, concurs. In the 2006 documentary film, An Unreasonable Man, Camejo compares Nader's plight to that of  Debs and Thomas. He says:

Every major progressive law in the United States--whether it's the right of women to vote, Social Security, the rights of the Labor Party--never [did] any of these proposals come out of the two major parties. They always came from the grassroots, from the people. And there were people who lead those struggles who were independent and not functioning as agents of those parties who were always called names and suffered personal abuse...
Tuesday's victory is, no doubt, quite limited. It puts Maine--along with Colorado and Washington--in direct conflict with federal law. And its limit to one municipality in the state seems to make a statewide vote not only inevitable, but mandatory.

But it is a start. The Greens have made a small yet decisive crack in the machinery of the drug war. We have demonstrated that Mainers are ready for a more sensible, humane policy toward marijuana. Ignore the Establishment media that claim the new law is "meaningless" or "purely symbolic." They are, as is so often the case, out of step with their own readers. 

As Maine goes the nation...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Sox.

I often feel like the only person in New England who does not care one iota about The Boston Red Sox. Sports, which are inherently sexist and anti-intellectual, have never held any interest for me. Given that most of today's celebrated professional athletes seem to derive their physical prowess from performance enhancing drugs, I am uncertain what makes these games, won through cheating and deception, appealing to anybody, frankly.

Red Sox fans (which, for reasons I have never fully understood, include hundreds of Mainers, despite the fact the team is based in Boston) can recall, from memory, intricate details and minutia of past World Series games from ten, twenty, even fifty years ago, but most cannot tell you the name of their state's congressional representative. In a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released prior to last year's presidential election, only 39 percent of eligible voters could correctly identify Joe Biden as the vice president.

As for the 54 percent that agreed with the statement, "[Politics] is so corrupt," as their excuse for not paying much attention to politics, I refer you to my previous statement about steroids in professional sports.

If the Red Sox lose a game, the entire city of Boston practically erupts in riots. If Obama guns down an innocent teenage boy with a drone in Yemen, nobody blinks an eye. It is good to know we have our national priorities straight. What's that you say, Sen. Angus King...? Drones are a more "humane" way of killing people? Well, if it's good enough for our junior "independent" senator, it must be good enough for liberals.

"Sports plays a societal role in engendering jingoist attitudes," Noam Chomsky once said. "They're designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators."

Baseball fans gush evangelically about the sport's "cultural tradition," its embodiment of essential values of "competitiveness," and "teamwork," often with an almost spiritual reverence. Many sports reporters even cast the Red Sox's World Series win as a symbolic "healing" of the city in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year.

Get real, people!

Baseball, like all major league spectator sports, is commercial entertainment, pure and simple. Don't believe me? Just consider the Red Sox's major sponsors this year:

Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Poland Spring (which is owned by Nestle), Verizon Wireless and Dunkin Donuts. (The New York Times sold its share of the Red Sox last year.) The very purpose of these games is not to create any sort of community bonding experience, or even provide pleasurable entertainment. It is to sell ad-time to viewers.

These corporations do not care at all about the citizens of Boston--or anywhere for that matter. They do not even care about baseball. They just want your money. Feel stupid yet?

Sports, Hollywood movies, television and pop music make up what Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno called "The Culture Industry." Their seminal 1944 essay, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, proved eerily prescient in its portrayal of the then burgeoning popular culture as a system designed to distract and control a passive citizenry to satisfy the aims of the corporate state. As German-Jewish emigres to the  U.S. during the rise of the Third Reich, Adorno and Horkheimer observed ominous parallels between the Nazis' repressive propaganda machine and America's own commercially driven systems of mass media.

"Culture today is infecting everything with sameness," the authors wrote. "Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together. Even the aesthetic manifestations of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm."

Not only does this system of commercial culture, the authors warned, come at the expense of more emotionally and intellectually gratifying art, but it also creates within citizens a set of false needs--or "manufactured consent," to use Chomsky and Edward Herman's term--that can only be satisfied through consumer capitalism.

Or, as George W. Bush urged Americans following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, "Go shopping."

"Freedom to choose an ideology," Adorno and Horkheimer wrote, "which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom to be the same."

For further confirmation of this last point, simply turn on any given commercial radio station anywhere in the country. Nearly every new song and artist sound the same. Clear Channel Communications, the world's largest radio producer and concert promoter, owns over 850 Top-40 radio stations in 300 cities nationwide.

The music featured on their stations is hook-laden, upbeat, obnoxiously overproduced and about as slick and soulless sounding as you can get. Most of the songs sound as if they were literally assembled in a factory. And, try as one may to fight it, listen to any of these stations long enough, and about a dozen of these tracks are bound to get stuck in your head.

Pop stars of the moment like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, and Katy Perry stand in stark contrast to the messy, dissonant proto-punk of Lou Reed, who passed away last week. With the Velvet Underground, one of the great unheralded bands in rock history, Reed created music that was angry, cerebral and sonically volatile. His noisy, experimental rock challenged and provoked listeners as all great art should.

Yet, Reed and his contemporaries--Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television, The Stooges, The Sex Pistols--were never deemed safe or suitable enough for the corporate-owned airwaves. Their music always existed on the margins outside of popular culture. Thus, the culture industry ensures audiences are not exposed to true artists whose work could rouse them to dissent, rebellion, or protest.

The great media scholar Neil Postman was correct: We are amusing ourselves to death.

Postman opens his 1985 anti-TV polemic of the same name with an oft-cited comparison of the equally bleak though starkly different totalitarian futures depicted in George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contending that "Huxley, not Orwell, was right," Postman observes:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.... In 1984... people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
But rather than "rage, rage at the dying of the light," as Dylan Thomas urged, Americans prefer to relax, relax at the throwing of the opening pitch at the next game at Fenway Park.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mock the Vote

Vote goddammit!

Tuesday, November 5--less than a month from this writing--is Election Day. Will you be voting? Be honest: Did you even know there is an election this year?

The question is not meant to be rhetorical or even judgmental. The fact is a majority of eligible voters will not bother to vote in their town or city's municipal election this year. The few who do vote (the so-called "super voters" who reliably vote in every election) will do so with little prior knowledge of the candidates, the positions they are running for, or the bond or referendum questions on the ballot.

Yet, we insist on priding ourselves as citizens of the "world's greatest democracy."

Odd-year and biennial midterm elections produce notoriously low voter turnout. For example, about 41 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2010 midterm elections. While this number is on par with recent statistical voting trends, at under fifty percent it is hardly evidence of a healthy democracy. Contrast this with voter turnout in Canada which is regularly between 70-75 percent. In other industrialized countries, turnout is well over 80 percent. (In countries like Australia voting is mandatory, a policy I am not entirely opposed to.)

Indeed, 2010's piss-poor voter turnout--what political analysts term the "enthusiasm gap"--allowed the right-wing Tea Party to take control of the House of Representatives. Here in Maine, it led to the election of Gov. Paul LePage, and a temporary Republican takeover of the state legislature. As I write this, the federal government is currently shutdown thanks to these right-wing zealots. So do not tell me voting does not matter.

Turnout was slightly better in last year's presidential election, which was close to 58 percent according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Still, this means some 93 million eligible voters did not cast ballots. And many of those same voters who stood in line for hours--many voting for the first time in their lives--will not bother this year, largely because it is not a presidential race.

And, contrary to popular opinion, voter apathy is not limited to young people. Last year while working on my friend Asher Platt's campaign, I talked to several Baby Boomer-aged individuals who told me flat-out, "I don't vote." One elderly woman told me she had never cast a vote in her life.

Sorry America, but it needs to be said: This is fucking pathetic.

Given the myriad forms of civic engagement one could undertake, voting is hands-down the absolute easiest. It is the most entry-level form of citizen involvement. For most Americans, it is their only form of involvement. If we cannot be bothered to exercise our right to vote, we may as well proclaim the Founding Fathers' experiment in democracy a failure, pack it up and go back to Britain. Nothing more to see here, folks. Show's over.

Americans, it seems, have simply become so fed up with politics in general, they have collectively thrown up their hands in disgust. They have decided politics--both at the national and local level--is too corrupt, nasty and mean-spirited to deserve our time. And while one cannot really blame the average citizen for arriving at this conclusion, this cynical attitude is not a solution to the problem. It is a surrender.

Furthermore, this disgusted indifference is exactly the sort of attitude many in Washington want us to have toward elections and politics. The fewer informed, knowledgeable citizens who show up to vote on Election Day, the better, as far as they are concerned. How else to explain how deranged congressional representatives like John Boehner, Ted Cruz and LePage are elected (and re-elected) in the first place?

Apathy is not a solution. Fed up with your local government? Run for office yourself. My friends and Green Party colleagues, David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue did just that. They are now serving their third terms on the Portland City Council. On Nov. 5, Portlanders will have the opportunity to legalize marijuana in the city, largely thanks to Marshall and the Portland Green Independent Party's efforts.

If anything, this year's municipal election--in which Portland voters will fill two at-large City Council seats, and two positions on the School Board--is actually more important than last year's presidential race. Yes, you read correctly: More important. Why, you ask? Because these are the municipal offices that exert the most influence and authority over our neighborhoods, community and daily lives.

Furthermore, the members of your local school board and town council are residents you can actually meet with. They might even be your neighbor. This means you have far greater access to them than you do the president or even members of Congress. You can potentially influence them on local issues or laws that are important to you. When President Obama visited Maine last year, it cost $10,000 just to dine in the same room as him. I can visit State Rep. Ben Chipman for free.

All of that being said, should we regard voting as the "be-all-end-all"? Absolutely not. As citizens we need to get in the habit of being civically-minded all year round--not just during elections. We also need more parties so voters can actually have choices in the voting booth. And yes, campaign finance reform, both at the national and local levels, is an urgently needed remedy to our calcified, two-party duopoly.

But even if all of these reforms were enacted, none of them would make a difference if "We the People" cannot be bothered to vote.

Conservatives who proudly proclaim that, "Freedom isn't free," are half right. While I dispute the sentiment's implication that continued freedom necessitates constant military "defense" throughout the globe, I do agree that maintaining democracy requires some sustained effort on our part. I think Howard Zinn put it better: "Democracy is not what governments do," he once said, "it's what people do."

I intend, Dear Reader, to up bright and early on Tuesday, Nov. 5 to cast my ballot. I expect to see you there.

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Myth of Congressional Gridlock

On the major issues of our time, Democrats and Republicans march in lockstep.

I joked with friends recently that, with the government currently shutdown, we should kidnap all the members of Congress, tie them up and lock them in a storage unit somewhere, and replace them all with Greens. Well, I was mostly joking...

The government shutdown, which has left 800,000 "non-essential" government employees furloughed, and others forced to continue working without pay, offers another opportunity to dispel some popular myths about so-called congressional gridlock.

Conventional wisdom (i.e. "objective" corporate news-reporting) defines 21st century politics by a Congress in perpetual "gridlock" wherein "neither party" can agree on anything. Both the Republicans and Democrats, we are constantly told, have become so polarized that the U.S. government is locked in constant stalemate on pressing issues from immigration, and the economy to gun control and health care. "Both parties" the elite corporate talking-heads assure us, have been hijacked by the more "extremist" elements of the far right and far left.

This is actually true for one party: The Republicans.

Indeed, I think it is fair to say we have never witnessed a more radical incarnation of the GOP--a party that, it is worth recalling, began as a third-party. Today's Republicans are so bat-shit crazy it is easy to see how so-called "centrists" like Maine's Susan Collins and recently retired Olympia Snowe look moderate in comparison.

And make no doubt about it: Blame for the government shutdown lies solely with them. Regardless of what we may personally think about it, "Obamacare" is, for better or worse, the law of the land. It has been upheld by the Supreme Court. House Republicans need to accept this fact and quit wasting legislative time passing pointless measures to repeal it.

Yet, claims of a comparable extremist shift in the Democratic Party are ludicrously empty. While the Republicans embrace their more radical members, effectively allowing them to become the face of the party, the Democrats do just the opposite--they suppress  and undermine them. (Cases in point: Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Russ Feingold and Jesse Jackson.)

This is why, strategically speaking, I do not believe it is possible for progressives to "take back" the Democratic Party, their primary focus for the last decade. True progressive members like Feingold and Kucinich have been trying to "take back" their party for years now, and the fact that both have been booted out of office speaks to how effective their efforts have been.

At the end of the day, both parties agree on far more than they disagree. When it comes to broad, overarching issues of war and peace, the primacy of the free-market, Wall Street bailouts, the surveillance state, tax-cuts for the wealthy and overall servitude to corporate power, the Democrats and Republicans march in unyielding lockstep.

Or, as Noam Chomsky explains, "In the U.S. there is basically one party--the Business Party. It has two factions called Democrats and Republicans which are somewhat different, but carry out variations on the same policies."

As the Socialist Worker notes in a recent editorial ("Washington's Warring Brothers," 10/01/2013), the media coverage of the shutdown, "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.
The problem is not that Congress is "broken." The federal government works just fine. It is just not working for you and me. It is working for Wall Street, the one percent and the military-industrial complex.

There is, perhaps, no better example of the two parties' homogeneity than the health care "reform" law--The Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare"--at the center of the shutdown. Whether the ACA--which amounts to little more than an unnecessary bailout for the corporate health insurance industry--is "better than nothing," or a "step in the right direction" is beside the point. Claiming the ACA is "better than nothing," is a bit like arguing the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is "better than" NAFTA. Either way, rapacious multinational corporations benefit at the expense of working-class people.

The ACA, and more specifically, the concept of the individual mandate, was born in the chambers of that bastion of conservative lobbying, The Heritage Foundation in the late 1980s. The first politician to successfully implement the law at the state level was then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2006. In fact, during Bill Clinton's attempts at health care reform in the 1990s, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich touted the individual mandate plan as the Republican alternative.

Call it what you will--"Obamacare," "Romneycare," "socialism"--but the law, with its Friedmanesque emphasis on "consumer choice," was originally cooked up by free-market conservatives.

In other words, if Republicans truly hate Obamacare as much as they claim to, they only have themselves to blame for it. Indeed, there was something almost absurdly Orwellian about watching Romney campaign against Obama last year by attacking his signature health reform success.

The law forces Americans to buy the private health insurance companies' defective coverage. It does little to control premium and co-pay costs. And, due to the ever increasing cost of private insurance, it will leave out some 3,000 low-income Americans who simply cannot afford to buy in. Those Americans will face penalty of a hefty government fine--essentially criminalizing them for being poor.

Additionally, a number of states led by Republican governors (including Maine) have opted out of the ACA's Medicaid expansion provision, which, in Maine alone, would have benefited 37,000 uninsured residents. Originally a mandatory component of the law, the Supreme Court ruled last year the Medicaid expansion could only be considered constitutional if presented as an optional feature.

The New York Times, in a recent editorial ("A Population Betrayed," 10/03/2013), lambasted the 26 Republican state governors, calling their decision to forgo Medicaid expansion "outrageous." The editors further criticize, "These 26 states would rather turn down incredibly generous federal funds that would finance 100 percent of the expansion costs for three years and at least 90 percent thereafter than offer a helping hand to their most vulnerable residents."

Paul LePage should consider himself fortunate the Maine constitution offers no provision for recalling state officials. Just saying...

I know, I know--This law was the "best the Democrats could do." Single-payer health care simply is not "politically feasible." We should just shut up and be thankful for what we have.


The Democrats passed the ACA with solid majorities in both the Senate and the House. Throughout the health care debate (such as it was, with single-payer activists getting arrested and all), they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House. They were actually on the right path with their original plan for a public-option--already a compromise from single-payer, but still a closer step in that direction than the ACA is. But, in typical fashion, the Dems promptly compromised away the compromise. The bill they ended up passing was not Plan B, but Plan C. If holding an honest, up-or-down vote on single-payer when your party holds a Congressional majority and the presidency is "impossible," it is only because the Democrats have no desire to ever hold such a vote.

In the end, like the Republicans, they prefer to maintain a for-profit, corporate health system that incentives death and disease. Can't afford health insurance? Then you'd best heed Florida Rep. Alan Grayson's sardonic advice: Die quickly.

So ignore the media's "blame-game." Both parties are beholden to corporate paymasters first and foremost. Any crumbs of reform they happen to toss our way are incidental and, ultimately, too little to make a serious difference.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Great American Stickup

Five Years Later, Wall Street is Still Winning

Five years after Wall Street crashed the global economy and caused the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the "Too Big To Fail" financial behemoths are riding high on a wave of unprecedented recovery while the rest of us are worse off than ever.

For all the initial shock and outrage at Wall Street's destructive excess, five years later, Congress has enacted few meaningful, enforceable financial reforms, Wall Street CEOs are once again raking in record salaries, and not one banker has gone to prison. The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine seems to sum things up best: "How Wall Street Won."

Has nothing changed?

As Ralph Nader points out in a recent editorial for The Huffington Post ("Five Years Later: Wall Street is Still At It," 09/20/2013), "One would hope that, five years later, our country would be on the road to economic recovery."

"Yet many of the worst excesses of Wall Street remain," he writes. "...Wall Street and the big banks are even bigger, richer, and more powerful than they were in 2008 when U.S. taxpayers bailed them out of their self-inflicted crisis."

Nader was one of a handful of economic critics who warned, early on, that Wall Street's reckless behavior and arrogant risks could well lead to another recession. But he and his colleagues were promptly ignored or ridiculed by the corporate media. (Nader's latest book, a compilation of recent essays and Op-Eds is sardonically titled, Told You So.)

Five years later, nearly all of the "Too Big To Fail" banks that caused the Great Recession (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to name a few), are again thriving, while minimum-wage workers have not had a raise in three decades.

Real wages, adjusted for inflation, have remained stagnant from their 1972 peak. This, despite the fact American workers are working harder than ever. Major employers like Walmart cynically exploit what remains of our beleaguered social safety net by paying their employees dirt-cheap wages and actively encouraging them to apply for government assistance. Indeed, what does it say about U.S. business culture when the average Walmart employee cannot afford to shop at Walmart? As a result of these businesses' stinginess (Walmart being just one example), taxpayers end up footing the bill to help provide for low-wage workers.

This is not free-market capitalism. It is corporate welfare.

I have made this point numerous times on this blog, but I will state it again as it does not seem to be sinking in:

Corporations--not the bedraggled, greasy-looking panhandler begging for money on the street corner--are society's real Welfare Queens. We, as taxpayers, are essentially paying their employees for them--and they do not even work for us! Why welfare-loathing, libertarian conservatives refuse to support a living wage for all is perhaps one of the most paradoxical inconsistencies of modern politics. I ask in all seriousness then, when will these lazy corporations and their mega-millionaire CEOs start pulling their own weight and stop freeloading off the rest of us productive Americans?

Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate remains stuck at an anemic 7.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' August jobs report. And that is just the "official" rate. The actual unemployment rate (what the few economists who bother to report on it refer to as "U-6"), according to Forbes' Dan Diamond, is closer to 15 percent. This statistic includes the dozens of frustrated women and men who have given up looking for work entirely. As Diamond notes, this real unemployment rate has doubled from 2007- 2009.

To wit: Most of my friends my age are either desperately searching for work, or underemployed at low-wage jobs that do not utilize their college education. According to a story earlier this summer in The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram ("Special Report: Maine's Top Jobs," June, 2013), the jobs with the highest expected growth in the foreseeable future are exclusively in health care or retail.

In the wake of the Great Recession, working-class Americans feel the "American Dream" is increasingly out of reach. It is time to wake up to the truth, America: Unregulated, free-market capitalism has failed the majority of us. It's time to reboot the system and install a new operating system.

Indeed, this was the sentiment in the wake of the Great Depression. After the economy tanked and hundreds of Americans lost their life savings, the general consensus was that capitalism had failed. Many left-leaning citizens began to talk openly and candidly about the need for social-democratic reforms, if not outright socialism. Novels like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath painfully and vividly portrayed the human costs of capitalism's insatiable thirst for ever greater profits.

Yet, save for a tongue-in-cheek Newsweek cover story, the 2008 financial collapse has not brought about a similar rethinking of capitalism. The only time the "S-word" was uttered by elite, cable television news hosts was to ludicrously claim then-candidate Barack Obama was running on a "socialist" agenda. (If only!) As it turned out, this smear campaign failed miserably and Americans overwhelmingly elected Obama president twice. Once in office this "socialist" president proceeded to stack his cabinet with wealthy bankers, businessmen, and other corporate servants, including the union-busting Rahm Emanuel. Some socialist.

But all is not lost. There was one good thing to come out of the recession. No, not Dodd-Frank--Occupy Wall Street. Despite its obvious structural flaws and its failure to engage the political system, Occupy's contributions should not be undermined. We can credit the Occupy movement with reigniting the debate on class-struggle. Two years after its launch, we still routinely use terms like "99 percent," and "one percent" to talk about wealth inequality. The future, I believe, lies in some fusion between Occupy Wall Street and the Green Party.

Until such a political-protest hybrid emerges, we will have to do our best to scrape by however we can. After all, it's Wall Street's world. We just live in it.