Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Eric Holder: A Dubious Legacy

Attorney General Eric H. Holder's announcement last week that he intends to leave the White House after six years in the Obama administration has lead to a series of debates among the cable-news talking-heads and political elites about his legacy. 

Given how absolutely abysmal Holder's stint as attorney general has been, such "debates" need not be very long. Good riddance, I say.

As the nation's first African American attorney general--and the last remaining of President Obama's original cabinet members--Holder has presided over the largest expansion of executive power in U.S. history. Rather than rolling back the Bush administration's worst excesses and abuses of power, Holder has allowed Obama to codify them into law, ushering in a frightening "new normal."

He has overseen the continuation and militant expansion of the "War on Terror,"--a Cold War-style conflict which, by design, can never end. Holder has codified torture as a legitimate (and legal) method of prisoner interrogation, as well as the outright killing of U.S. civilians (and their children).

Holder has been a key ally in Obama's unprecedented war on journalists and whistleblowers. Indeed, embattled New York Times investigative reporter James Risen calls President Obama, "The greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation." Risen is currently facing jail time under the Espionage Act for refusing to reveal a source and testify against a former CIA agent accused of leaking state secrets.

Likewise, Holder has overseen the most rampant militarization of municipal police forces, which have proven quite effective at breaking up peaceful demonstrations like Occupy Wall Street and those in Ferguson, MO.

And, as the nation's top law enforcer, Holder has refused to hold any of the CEOs or other managers of the "Too Big to Fail" Wall Street banks that torpedoed the global economy accountable for their crimes. He has, furthermore, resisted following the logic of "Too Big to Fail" (hence, "Too Big to Jail") to its logical conclusion, and broken-up the largest conglomerate banks like JPMorgan, Bank of America, and Citigroup.

In the words of former bank regulator, William Black, speaking to The Real News Network (09/29/2014), Holder is going to leave the Justice Department, "without even a token conviction."

Not exactly a record to brag about, if you ask me.

True, there have been a handful of progressive gains under Holder surrounding civil rights, gay marriage, and the war on drugs. But most of these victories are the result of the attorney general's refusal to enforce various laws, rather than--with the exception of the Defense of Marriage Act--any substantial change in the laws.

As a result, it is difficult to view Holder's record on civil rights, voting rights, etc. as actual "victories," since the next AG could well reverse course, and simply go back to enforcing the laws Holder chose to ignore.

Yet, it is this handful of half-measures many within the liberal intelligentsia would prefer to focus on as Holder plots his departure.

A recent editorial in The Washington Post ("Eric Holder's legacy: Protecting civil rights," 09/26/2014) is a case in point, offering high praise for Holder's record on voting rights. "Democracy depends on everyone having unencumbered access to the voting booth," the editors write.

And while this is no doubt true, does democracy not also depend on every citizen's right to due process...? The Op-Ed makes no mention of Anwar al-Alwaki or the use of drones.

Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, likewise, is another Obama-apologist who would prefer to accentuate the positive. In a recent debate on Holder's legacy on Democracy Now! (09/26/14), Dyson, along with NAACP legal defense fund director, Leslie Proll, praised the outgoing attorney general as "one of the nation's finest and most extraordinary." Proll goes on to compare Holder to Robert Kennedy.

Dyson, meanwhile, dismisses criticisms of Holder's failure to prosecute Wall Street bankers as an "abstract" issue, a phrase he uses multiple times. "[W]hen we look at his [Holder's] record," he says, "we've got to put it in the context of the abstract versus the real, the abstract versus what is achievable..."

Dyson would do well to get out of his ivory tower and talk with some of the people--the majority of whom are people of color--who lost their homes, filed for bankruptcy, lost their jobs or endured some other form of very real financial, emotional or psychological hardship as a result of the Great Recession. Try telling them their concerns are "abstract."

Furthermore, Dyson's insistence that Obama had no choice but to bail out the financial institutions that ravaged the economy--"...you can't overcome that [hypothetical newspaper] headline...'Nation's First Black President Allows the Financial Institutions to Fail'"--ignores the fact that a majority of Americans--conservatives, liberals and independents--opposed the Wall Street bailout.

In other words, had Obama simply invoked the (supposed) "free-market" orthodoxy and told the banks to sleep in the beds they had made for themselves, he would have been on the same side as majority popular opinion. But Dyson is more afraid of what the corporate, Wall Street-owned newspapers might think. This why I maintain identity politics destroyed the left.

Saint Augustine was right: "In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?"

Fellow progressives derided my calls for Bush and Cheney's impeachment in the flagging years of their second term as a "distraction." Obama, likewise, urged Americans to "look forward rather than backward" with regard to the war crimes and gross violations of power of his predecessor.

But here is the problem with that lofty approach: Law enforcement is inherently about "looking backward," because, outside of the dystopian movie, Minority Report, crimes take place in the past. Hence, the entire purpose of criminal investigation is to recreate or retrace events that have already occurred in order to identify and arrest those responsible.

As for impeachment being a "distraction," if that is the case, it seems odd that the framers of the U.S. Constitution mention the legislative process six times. Indeed, this was when I realized that, according to the narrow parameters of contemporary U.S. politics, those who support enforcing and upholding the rule of law are considered "radicals." Conversely, those who have no trouble ignoring war crimes and torture committed by their own government, are deemed "moderates."

The most regrettable aspect of, not just Holder's tenure, but Obama's overall presidency, is the tragic missed opportunity. Obama could have pulled the reins on Bush's worst excesses. Indeed, many on the left who elected Obama--not once, but twice--believed that was what they were voting for.

In closing, Holder has been an obedient and faithful servant to the corporate state. Celebrate him if you want. But history will likely be a far harsher judge.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Battlefield Earth

Why Obama's war with ISIS is bound to fail, and why the "War on Terror" will never end.

In May of 2013, President Barack Obama announced his plan for "wrapping up" the "War on Terror." While his supposed end-game for the now 13-year-long, Cold War-style conflict seemed more rhetorical than substantive, Obama has now dropped even his efforts at the former and recommitted the U.S. to the nebulous, open-ended battle.

Last week, the president outlined his "strategy" for defeating the al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. I put the word "strategy" in quotes because, despite what Obama and the corporate media would have you believe, there is nothing at all unique about Obama's plan for destroying this latest incarnation of al-Qaeda. His solution is the same as that of George W. Bush: More war.

In his address, the president went to great lengths to stress his intention not to have "boots on the ground," in Syria or Iraq. Instead, his strategy relies primarily on air-strikes and drones. Perhaps he believes this will make his plan for defeating ISIS more palatable to an American public largely fed-up with endless wars.

But whatever empty military jargon we use to describe this latest American combat mission--"Targeted strikes," "Coordinated attacks," "Surge," etc.--the end result will be the same: Innocents slaughtered, families torn apart, neighborhoods obliterated, and a further stoking of anti-American sentiments.

As the editors of the Socialist Worker note in a recent Op-Ed ("The U.S. won't fix the disaster it caused in Iraq," 09/10/2014), "Revving up the war machine will only add to the suffering and violence."

They write:

...That war [the latest campaign in the "War on Terror"] will be waged in the name of stopping more horrors in the Middle East and protecting the security of the U.S. But the American empire will do nothing of the sort. As they have for more than 10 years already--not to mention a century of imperialist aggression before that--the warmakers of Washington will only make the world more unstable, more oppressive and more violent.

It is worth noting, as the SW editors point out, that ISIS--or, for that matter, any incarnation of al-Qaeda--was not present in Iraq before the United States' 2003 invasion. Just as we originally armed and trained Osama bin Laden during the Soviet-Afghanistan war, the so-called Islamic State is a product of our own imperialist overreach.

Like Othello's Iago, we are blinded by hubris, power, and greed. We sow the seeds of our own destruction. "This is the night," the manipulative Iago acknowledges, "that either makes me or fordoes me quite."

And so it goes. Thirteen years after the brutal--yet perversely romanticized--Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States has not relinquished its war posture one iota.

Obama "ended" Bush's illegal and unfounded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (if we take "ended" to mean he scaled them down slightly), only to provoke further "dirty wars" in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. Where Bush utilized quasi-legal doctrines of "pre-emptive strike," and private military forces, Obama prefers unmanned predator drones. Where Bush and his sadistic sidekicks attempted to legally justify the most heinous acts of torture, Obama simply kills the bad-guys--even if they are U.S. citizens.

Then, for good measure, he kills their kids, too.

The "War on Terror" is, perhaps by design, a war against an ambiguous, ever-changing enemy. This enemy--be it al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, or al-Shabaab--has no central country or base of operations. It is everywhere. "The world is a battlefield." And this is to say nothing of the utter inanity of waging a war on an abstract--and subjectively defined--tactic.

As such, the "War on Terror" is potentially endless--which is, as George Orwell noted in 1984, the entire point. "The war is not meant to be won," Orwell wrote of Oceania's state of permanent war, wherein the enemy-nation constantly changes, "it is meant to be continuous."

Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance... In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and the object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact. 

By keeping its citizens in a state of perpetual fear, the power elite are better able to control them. This constant, often irrational fear (of terrorism, communism, another economic crash, etc.) makes citizens more willing to trade-in their freedoms and civil liberties for the facade of security. As a result, we have become the most photographed, video taped, and otherwise surveilled nation in human history.

Thirteen years after 9/11 (which, curiously, has yet to earn itself any other, more proper-sounding historical name like "Pearl Harbor," or "D-Day") we continue to promote this infantile notion that we were attacked because the Islamic world, "hates our freedoms."

Putting aside whether the prolonged wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, etc. have actually made us any appreciably "freer" as a nation, the truth is the 9/11 hijackers were likely motivated more by anger over nearly a century's worth of U.S. invasions, occupations, coup d'etats and imperialism in the Middle East.

But this sort of critical self-reflection falls outside the sphere of what Noam Chomsky calls "acceptable discourse," and is, therefore, immediately dismissed by the corporate media, which prefers to keep things simple.

Erstwhile presidential candidate, Ron Paul, discovered this the hard way during a 2008 Republican presidential "debate." Say what you will about Paul's libertarian economic philosophies--many of which are admittedly frightening. While a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he was a consistent voice against war, military-spending, and the relentless rollback of our civil liberties.

Through our unending military invasions, drone attacks, and imperialist slaughter of innocents, we inflict the same barbaric violence upon others that we so vehemently decry when unleashed upon ourselves. And with this latest campaign of military aggression, Obama has all but solidified his codification of the "War on Terror."

Unless "We the People" nonviolently revolt--in whatever ways we can, no matter how seemingly insignificant--we, like the citizens of Orwell's Oceania, will remain forever locked in a state of permanent war.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Marching Towards Oblivion

Bill McKibben leads the "Forward on Climate" march in Washington D.C., in Feb. 2013.

Environmental activists will descend on the United Nations' headquarters in New York on Sept. 21, for a global warming rally billed as the "largest climate march in history."

The so-called "People's Climate March," will feature all of the major environmental advocacy groups--350.org, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club--as well as less strictly environmentally-focused progressive groups like Amnesty International, the League of Women Voters, and local chapters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The march comes in advance of the U.N.'s "Climate Summit 2014" conference, a gathering of world leaders in preparation for next year's U.N. Climate Conference in Paris. Activists and participants are hoping to call attention to the imperative urgency of a renewed climate change negotiation to dramatically reduce global CO2 emissions.

"With our future on the line and the whole world watching," the People's Climate March website reads, "we'll take a stand to bend the course of history."

I have attended dozens of marches, rallies, vigils and similar street events like this. I have marched in Washington D.C., New York, and in my hometown of Kennebunkport, near George Bush I's vacation home at Walker's Point. (In fact, Kennebunk had a fairly strong anti-war contingent during George W. Bush's presidency. But like so many anti-war factions, it has all but evaporated since Barack Obama's election.)

And I am becoming increasingly convinced these events are largely a waste of time.

Some of them are, admittedly, rather fun--even if the issue allegedly being denounced is quite somber (war, illegal wiretapping, torture, the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, etc.).

But these pseudo-protests rarely entail any genuine sense of risk for protesters. They are often so meticulously prearranged--with those few protesters who wind up getting arrested typically having planned to do so ahead of time--they amount to little more than glorified street theater.


As a rule of thumb, these events occur exclusively on the weekend--when Congress is not in session. In keeping with this rule, the People's Climate March is scheduled for a Sunday. While march facilitators' desire to maximize turnout is understandable, what good is any sort of rally if there is no government present to shut-down, disrupt or otherwise protest?

Participants march along a predetermined route via police escort often with rally facilitators running ahead to coordinate traffic. This portion of the event usually follows an interminable lineup of speakers--some of them famous, celebrity-like figures of the left, like Michael Moore or Rev. Al Sharpton--whose job is to "work the crowd" like a football coach.

During the march, protesters recite cheerleader-style chants ("The people/United/Will never be/Defeated!") and wave semi-witty homemade signs like "Go Frack Yourself!" or "Bush + Dick= Screwed." In what seems to be a fairly recent trend, some protesters will even dress up (the Guy Fawkes mask inspired by V for Vendetta is a popular choice of attire). Earlier this year, I attended an anti-GMO, "March Against Monsanto" where many people dressed up as bees.

Far be it from me to impinge on anyone's creativity. But seriously, people--is this a political demonstration or a Halloween party?

Actually, I should back up.

Before the rally can even take place, event facilitators must first obtain a permit from the city or town. I have no idea how this permit process works, but I assume city officials could conceivably deny permit-seekers for any reason. I am trying to envision Thomas Paine waiting calmly to receive written permission from the British monarchy before circulating copies of Common Sense--an incendiary document that, mind you, was calling for colonial revolution.

As a result, these events have become completely symbolic. They are, in the words of Macbeth, so much "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Much of the problem lies with the liberal environmental groups that typically coordinate these rallies--groups like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and the aforementioned 350.org.

As I wrote last year, while these "non-profit" groups are generally staffed by well-intentioned progressive activists, they are, at the end of the day, completely beholden to the Democratic Party. The liberals that run these groups generally have disdain for the Green Party, Ralph Nader or any other environmentally-conscious third-party.

Therefore, the entire premise that outfits like MoveOn or 350 can effectively make any sort of genuine demands of President Obama and congressional Democrats is laughable. The fact is, Bill McKibben and his 350 followers will remain loyal to Obama no matter what he does or does not do.

Indeed, all of the "Big Green" groups endorsed Obama for re-election as early as April of 2012, hailing him as the "greenest" president in history despite his penchant for nuclear power and something called "clean coal."

The fact that many recent global warming marches have appeared more like campaign rallies--complete with protest signs that unapologetically ape Obama's campaign logo--does not help matters.

If we are to create a truly effective and formidable movement to save the planet, we must move beyond these empty street theater rallies. Perhaps they were genuinely effective at one point in time. But that time is long gone. The corporate state, along with the progressive NGOs who have been all too eager to play by the rules, has successfully neutered these marches, rendering them impotent. We must create our own grassroots movement, independent of the Big Green Groups that are essentially lobbyists for the Democrats.

We must engage in massive acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to literally disrupt business as usual. We must, in the words of Mario Savio, put our "bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you have got to make it stop."

This is where, I believe, Occupy Wall Street got it right. Occupy can still offer us a blueprint for how to seriously take on corporate power and mitigate the climate crisis.

While liberals continue to invest their energy toward appealing to traditional systems of power--the White House, Congress, the U.N., state legislatures, etc--Occupy correctly understood where real power rests in this country: ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Citigroup, and J.P. Morgan. These are the corporations that are, quite literally, killing the planet. We should be marching on their headquarters.

As Frederick Douglass famously observed:
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

A few groups are planning more "serious" actions in conjunction with The People's Climate March. Click here, and here for additional details on the NYC Climate Convergence. And as always, if you want to keep this blog going, please consider making a donation. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

The shooting of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo has thrust the topic of race back to the forefront. Many media pundits urge us to "discuss" the incident and racial tensions. "We can talk about Ferguson," a recent headline of the Portland Phoenix declares.

But for many black residents of Ferguson, and other predominantly African American communities, the time for "talk" is long over. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

We do not need another university-style discussion on race and police brutality. These sorts of indiscriminate shootings of unarmed young black men--with the memory of Trayvon Martin still fresh in our minds--have gone on far too long.

What we need now is action.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate for African Americans is nearly double that of whites--at 11.5 percent as of June. Yet, as Demos senior fellow and former New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert notes, in a recent article for AlterNet ("Ferguson Just the Latest in Long Line of Racist Fueled Tragedies," 08/27/2014), soaring unemployment rates have plagued the black community long before Wall Street crashed the economy.

"I remember the stunned reaction of so many Americans back in the summer of 2005," Herbert writes, "when legions of poor black people in desperate circumstances seemed to have suddenly and inexplicably materialized in New Orleans during the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina."

He continues, "...People found themselves staring at the kind of poverty they thought had been largely wiped out decades earlier."

We like to believe that racism is a thing of the past. We think of slavery as an ugly, unforgivable stain on our country's history, but one that we have, in modern times, more or less atoned for. Republican politicians grossly misconstrue Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call to judge others not by the color of their skin, but "by the content of their character" as a free-market argument against affirmative action programs.

In the years since President Barack Obama's election, some pundits have even gone so far as to claim we now occupy a "post-racial" era.

Last year, the Supreme Court took this suggestion even further by obliterating key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts echoed the "post-racial" concept, writing, "Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."

Yet this sort of childish thinking merely allows for the perpetuation of white supremacy--which is likely the point.

Even here in lily-white Maine (94.4 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white according to the 2010 U.S. census), we are not immune to racist bigotry.

When I (briefly) worked at Staples in Falmouth last year, a young co-worker complained that he "didn't see what the big deal" was concerning the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. (These were his exact words. I kid you not.) He suggested that the death of "one black kid," did not, in his mind, compare to the "dozens" of his white friends who were "killed by black people." Can you see now why I quit...?

Yet, in an unqualified display of hypocrisy, this same individual, who is Jewish, threw a fit one night after a customer made what he perceived to be an anti-Semitic remark. Noam Chomsky is correct: "For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit."

Every significant political philosopher has understood the inherent--and inextricable--link between racism and capitalism. Socialism of any sort can never fully take form without eliminating racial as well as income inequality.

Karl Marx observed this link in Capital (Vol. 1), writing of the factors that lead to the rise of capitalism:

The discovery of gold in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.

He continues later, "In the United States of America, every independent workers' movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured part of the republic."

While the antiquated, overt forms of slavery and racial segregation of the 19th century have been (mostly) done away with, the corporate state now uses more subtle, sophisticated methods to keep African Americans in chains.

The most common apparatus of racial segregation is the U.S. prison-industrial-complex--the largest in the world. Today, the vast majority of young black men are in prison--most of them for petty crimes or minor drug possession charges. Blacks constitute 1 million of the nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison, according to the NAACP. Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites. In fact, a recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based reform group, the Sentencing Project, estimates one in three black males will go to prison at "some point in their lives."

This system of racial incarceration constitutes the "new Jim Crow," according to author and law professor, Michelle Alexander, in her provocative 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander argues the mass incarceration of black Americans has effectively made them a permanent "under-caste."

"We have not ended racial caste in America," Alexander writes, "we have merely redesigned it."

So, by all means, let's discuss the situation in Ferguson.

But let's also understand that any discussion without meaningful, preferably nonviolent, action to back it up, is meaningless and will change nothing. Let privileged corporatists like Portland musician Samuel James split hairs over whether Brown's death was motivated by "race" or "class," seemingly oblivious to the intricate connection between the two.

Let us return, as Herbert does in his piece, to the words of James Baldwin. In his 1962 classic, The Fire Next Time, he writes:

"I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand..."

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