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Reclaiming Our Imaginations from ‘There Is No Alternative’

We live in a time of heavy fog. A time when, though many of us dissent and resist, humanity seems committed to a course of collective suicide in the name of preserving an economic system that generates scarcity no matter how much is actually produced. To demand that all have enough to eat on a planet that grows enough food, that absurd numbers of people do not die from preventable disease, that utter human deprivation amongst plenty is not tolerated, or that we put the natural laws of the biosphere above socially constructed economic “laws” — is presented as unrealistic, as the fantasy of idealists or those who are naive to the “complexity” of the world’s problems. If we create and recreate the world everyday, then how has it become so supposedly absurd to believe we might actually create a world that is honestly making the possibilities of egalitarianism, justice and democracy?(Source: Flickr / jimkang)

Capitalism — the logic of subordinating every aspect of life to the accumulation of profit (i.e. the “rules of the market”) — has become today’s “common sense.” It has become almost unthinkable to imagine coherent alternatives to this logic, even when considering the most basic of human needs — food, water, healthcare, education. Though many have an understanding of capitalism’s failings, there is a resignation towards its inevitability. Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, “There Is No Alternative,” no longer need to be spoken, they are simply accepted as normal, non-ideological, neutral.

What sustains the tragic myth that There Is No Alternative? Those committed to building a more just future must begin re-thinking and revealing the taken-for-granted assumptions that make capitalism “common sense,” and bring these into the realm of mainstream public debate in order to widen horizons of possibility. We can’t leave this task to the pages of peer-reviewed journals and classrooms of social theory — these conversations must enter also into the family dining rooms and TV screens. Here are some thoughts on conversation starters:

Alternatives could never work. Does capitalism “work”? Even by its own indicators, as we’ve become more capitalist (i.e. neoliberalism), economic growth and productivity has actually declined.

Today’s globalized world is too complex to organize things any differently. Of course the world is complex — each of us is a bundle of contradictions and we need look no further than the dynamics of a single relationship to make a case for social complexity. But things are also quite simple — we live in a world where one billion people go hungry while we literally dump half of all food produced. Can we not come up with a productive socio-economic system that also meets people’s most basic needs? The gift of today is that we have the ability to reflect and draw-upon many forms, past and present, of non-capitalist social organization, and to creatively experiment with blending the best of these possibilities. The fact that we are more connected than ever before and have advanced so far technologically gives us more possibilities, not less.

Because of our “human nature,” we can only create economic systems based on competition, greed and self-interest. This is not only utterly pessimistic, but plain wrong. Again, we can start by remembering all sorts of societies that have existed through history. Then just look around and ask the question, what motivates you and the people you know? Fields as diverse as neuroscience and anthropology have mounted evidence showing humans’ incredible capacity for cooperation and sensitivity to fairness. We are actually all quite capable of anything; but it is up to us to decide how to use our capabilities, and of course that will be dictated by what our social systems encourage and teach us to value. If there is one thing that can be said about “human nature,” it is that we construct ourselves from within our societies and we are incredibly malleable.

Freedom is only realizable through a free-market. Attaching our values of freedom to the market is not only de-humanizing, but it also fails to recognize how one person’s “freedom” to economic choice is another’s imprisonment in a life of exploitation and deprivation. There is no possibility for freedom and emancipation until we are all free, and this will only come through a much richer and deeper conception of human freedom than one that is premised upon going to a grocery store and “choosing” between 5,000 variations of processed corn.

Capitalism is the only system that encourages innovation and progress. Progress towards what? And how does enclosing common knowledge through intellectual property rights, or excluding most of the world from quality education, or depriving half of humanity from the basic life-sustaining goods needed to function healthily, lead to greater innovation? Just begin to imagine the innovative possibilities of a world where all people had access to everything they needed to live, to think, and to contribute to the common good.

Things could be worse. Of course they could, but they could also be better. Does the fact that we’ve lived through bloody dictatorships mean that we should settle for a representative democracy where the main thing being represented is money? Things are getting better. Can we really say that things are getting better as we head towards the annihilation of our own species? Sure, we may have our first black president and be making small gains in LGBT rights or in women’s representation in the workforce; but let’s not neglect the fact that capital is more concentrated and centralized than it has ever been and that its logic now penetrates into the most basic building blocks of life. I think we should give ourselves more credit than to settle for this “better.”

Change is slow. Slow is not in the vocabulary of the corporations who are stealing our common genetic heritage, or their buddies who are getting rich playing virtual money games that legally rob us all. The enclosure of our commons and the concentration of capital is not happening slowly. Whether we acknowledge it or not, change is happening — what is up for grabs is the direction of that change.

The best we can hope for is “green” and “ethical” capitalism. The logic of this belief is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that within capitalism, businesses can prioritize anything above the bottom-line. In actuality, businesses that commit themselves first and foremost to being truly and fully ethical and green will find it very difficult to stay in business. Of course there are great models of ethical business — worker-owned organic farms, for instance — but these cannot thrive and become the dominant norm when they are functioning within an economic structure that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of Monsanto. And while we should support these alternatives that exist within capitalism, we need to recognize that it’s way too little, way too late — structural change must (and will) happen, one way or another. Getting rid of capitalism means abandoning markets as a tool of social organization. This is not necessarily true, although perhaps we would do best without markets anyways. Societies have existed that have used markets but restrained oligopoly capitalism, and many brilliant thinkers have envisioned a transition to a society structured by norms of equality and sharing where markets do play a role. I’m not advocating for or against any specific proposals here, but the point is that this assumption is historically inaccurate and we have barely begun to give serious thought to other possibilities.

People don’t care. People may be distracted by consumerism, may only have enough energy to struggle to pay their bills, may be fearful, may lack access to good information... but none of these things mean that they don’t care. Show anybody an image of a starving child who works in the cacao fields but can’t afford to eat (much less taste chocolate), and they will feel disgust. The charity industry is thriving precisely because so many people do feel implicated in the revolting manifestations of capitalism. But people’s sense of outrage has been channeled away from collective political action and towards ethical buying and holiday-time charitable donations. Without an honest and sophisticated society-wide conversation about the structural issues we are facing, people’s care is reduced to individual guilt and disempowerment.

People won’t stop consuming, plus all the poor people want what the rich people have. Of course they do! Doing away with capitalism doesn’t mean resorting to primitivism, or abandoning all of our washing machines, or leaving the poor destitute. While of course there are limits to the earth’s resources (fossil-fuels in particular), this doesn’t mean that we can’t organize a productive, equitable and sustainable social order that includes many of the comforts of modern life and excitements of technology. We need not abandon desire with capitalism. In fact, getting rid of capitalism gives us the best chance of having time to organize a sustainable system of consumption before it is too late — staying hooked into capitalism may actually be the quickest route to primitivism.

Capital’s enclosure of our commons — our common resources, genes and even intellect — has been accompanied by an enclosure of our imaginations. We need to re-claim and re-orient what it is to be “realistic” from the falsehoods of There Is No Alternative. This is not a call for pure imaginations of some future utopia. It is not a fantastic plea for a sudden and complete dissolving of all the social structures that currently pattern our lives. Instead, it is a call to take what is already going on all around us, all the time — cooperation, sharing, empathy — and let these aspects of our humanity that we most cherish guide our future. To begin to re-direct and re-structure our social systems towards the things we most desire and value — caring for and cooperating with one another, true participation and democracy, human freedom and free time, peace and co-existence — and in doing so, to watch these things begin to flourish.

If it is naive to believe that we can structure society to reward goodness instead of greed and prioritize people instead of profit, then I’m fighting until the bitter end to maintain my naiveté! Things become possible when we believe they are possible; so let’s start believing.

Andrea Brower

Andrea Brower is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Auckland. She has been very active in alternative food and global social justice movements, and spent several years co-directing the non-profit Malama Kauai in Hawaii, where she is originally from.

The Flobots: Reviving the Poetry of Politics

In 2006, Neil Young told the Los Angeles Times that the silence of young songwriters during the Bush era compelled him to retake the stage as a protest singer: “I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer eighteen-to-twenty-two years old, to write these songs and stand up. I waited a long time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the ’60s generation.”  

Hats off to the Godfather of Grunge for stepping into the breach during the Bush years but it’s time for him to exit stage left and let a new generation take over. Whether it’s Occupy’s resurgence as an army of first-responders distributing food, clothing, and even bike-powered electricity or the Rolling Jubilee that has pooled enough funds to buy and then cancel over $10 million in homeowners debt -- this is not your father’s protest movement.

To tune into the new poetry of protest, Neil should check out the Flobots. They’re a band out of Denver writing songs that reflect the frustration and anticipation of a new generation of activists navigating the seemingly intractable environmental and economic crises.

What sets the Flobots apart from other contemporary topical songwriters is their keen sense that something new is afoot. They are one the first bands to articulate the sneaking suspicion among activists that a new paradigm with a new storyline is emerging - one that, against all odds, we may have the power to shape.

The Flobots don’t drip with the idealism of the drum-circle crowd, but in songs like “Circle in the Square” they let their hope mingle with fear:

We are the night light bearers for night terrors
we are group dreamers vision seekers and pall bearers
in aftermath of blight errors
blood type and marrow to the bone oaths
and beat hope into plough shares.

They use their music to embrace what co-founder Johnny 5 sees as the “complications, questions, and frustrations” of activism and social change. They celebrate this complexity “as a part of a global transformation, one in which forces of violence, hopelessness and waste will be composted into fertile soil from which new possibility can grow.”

Too many protest songs are uninspired. Like banal picket line chants—"Hey hey, ho ho, Dirty coal has got to go"—songwriters dash off drab lyrics that influence neither heads nor hearts. Neil Young went from writing Ohio in 1970, one of the most pointed, timely and moving political songs of his generation, to the slapped together “Impeach the President For Lying” in 2006. As Truman Capote famously quipped about Jack Kerouac, "That's not writing, that's typing.”

The Flobots are on a quest to return poetry to politics. In songs like “The Rose and the Thistle” they weave images of street clashes and concealed edens:

the shadow cast was like a battle axe
so I grabbed it fast and I smashed the glass
and I crawled through the shards
and i found myself in a beautiful garden
with petals bulbs
nettles mulch hibiscus delphinium ferns christmas bells...

The band tag themselves as “students of illness” and prove it by scattering medical references of surgical procedures and prescription drugs like chondroitin and glucosamine throughout their songs. Once you realize they’re not defending Obamacare, the rhymes becomes less peculiar and more powerful. The Flobots—like many of their generation—are intent on holistic critiques of social ills, not the laundry lists of siloed issue politics.

These are artists diagnosing the disease and disorders of the body politic—and that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. As Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org writes, poets and other artists are the “antibodies of the cultural bloodstream” and key to social movement vitality, because they “sense trouble early, and rally to isolate and expose and defeat it, to bring to bear the human power for love and beauty and meaning against the worst results of carelessness and greed and stupidity.”

Whether it was Picasso’s “Guernica” capturing the horrors of the German bombing of civilians in 1937 or “We Shall Overcome” expressing the optimism and power of the civil rights movement, throughout history artists have joined forces with political movements to battle injustice. Our generation’s fight to build a sustainable future will be long and hard. To prevail we will need a battalion of Flobots to inspire and fortify our wills - and together we will make the world better and more beautiful place.

Brendan Smith

Brendan Smith is an oysterman and green labor activist.  He is co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability and Global Labor Strategies, and a consulting partner with the Progressive Technology Project. He has worked previously for Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — both as campaign director and staff on the U.S. House Banking Committee — as well as a broad range of trade unions, grassroots groups and progressive politicians. He is a graduate of Cornell law school.

How Can We Reconcile Freedom-Loving Libertarianism with Tough Prosecution of Fraud?

 

Liberty and Justice Are Not Irreconcilable

I voted for Gary Johnson (and am a huge fan of Ron Paul), and respect and fully-support the libertarian passions for freedom and free markets.

But I am also a tireless crusader for enforcing the rule of law.

You might assume that these are opposite philosophies.  For example, a reader asks:

Your work on the dangers of the American nuclear industry has been really comprehensive, and you have drawn attention to the deception, manipulation, neglect, and willful ignorance of the nuclear industry. For example, I just watched the Al Jazeera video you posted earlier this year (3/12), in which the NRC and the nuclear industry are (rightly) criticized for waiting for harm to happen, instead of preventing it. At the same time, you identify as libertarian, and I believe you supported Gary Johnson in the presidential election. He is opposed to public regulation of industry and has said that post-harm lawsuits -- for example, in medical contexts -- are sufficient to encourage businesses to self-regulate for public safety. Could you please explain how you reconcile the libertarian position against regulation with your clear recognition that too-loose self-regulation of the nuclear industry imperils the public?

Nuclear Power Would Not Exist In a Free Market

Initially, it is undisputed that nuclear power plants would not exist if operators had to obtain funding and insurance through the free market. Private insurers won’t touch nuclear energy. Investors run the other way, because the odds of losing all of their investment are so high.

No private company in the world would operate a nuclear plant unless the government put a very low cap on liability. In many parts of the world, governments cap liability at a mere $13 billion dollars.

This is a little insane, given that “the risk of a nuclear catastrophe … could total trillions of dollars and even bankrupt a country”.

Indeed:

If there was a free market in energy, nuclear power would be over … immediately.

AP notes:

Nuclear power is a viable source for cheap energy only if it goes uninsured.

***

Governments that use nuclear energy are torn between the benefit of low-cost electricity and the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, which could total trillions of dollars and even bankrupt a country.

***

The cost of a worst-case nuclear accident at a plant in Germany, for example, has been estimated to total as much as €7.6 trillion ($11 trillion), while the mandatory reactor insurance is only €2.5 billion.

“The €2.5 billion will be just enough to buy the stamps for the letters of condolence,” said Olav Hohmeyer, an economist at the University of Flensburg who is also a member of the German government’s environmental advisory body.

The situation in the U.S., Japan, China, France and other countries is similar.

***

“Around the globe, nuclear risks — be it damages to power plants or the liability risks resulting from radiation accidents — are covered by the state. The private insurance industry is barely liable,” said Torsten Jeworrek, a board member at Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest reinsurance companies.

***

In financial terms, nuclear incidents can be so devastating that the cost of full insurance would be so high as to make nuclear energy more expensive than fossil fuels.

***

Ultimately, the decision to keep insurance on nuclear plants to a minimum is a way of supporting the industry.

“Capping the insurance was a clear decision to provide a non-negligible subsidy to the technology,” Klaus Toepfer, a former German environment minister and longtime head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said.

U.S. News and World Report reports:

The disaster insurance for nuclear power plants in the United States is currently underwritten by the federal government, Cooper says. Without that safeguard, “nuclear power is neither affordable nor worth the risk. If the owners and operators of nuclear reactors had to face the full liability of a Fukushima-style nuclear accident or go head-to-head with alternatives in a truly competitive marketplace, unfettered by subsidies, no one would have built a nuclear reactor in the past, no one would build one today, and anyone who owns a reactor would exit the nuclear business as quickly as possible.”

See this and this.

In other words, this is not a free market.  Instead, the public has funded the nuclear industry.  As such, we - the owners - should get some control over how nuclear plants operate.

Likewise, the government created the mega-banks, big oil and the other mega-corporations.

Free Market Champions Demand Prosecution of Fraud

A strong rule of law is the main determinant of prosperity.  On the other hand, failure to prosecute fraud is destroying our prosperity.

Nuclear meltdowns, the financial crisis and the Gulf oil spill all happened for the same reason:  fraud to make a few more pennies, and a subsequent cover-up to try to protect the wrongdoers and continue "business as usual". And see this.

This is not free market economics.

Indeed, the father of free market economics - Adam Smith  - leading Austrian economists, and other free market advocates are for the prosecution of fraud:

There is a widespread myth that free market supporters are against regulation or prosecuting fraud.

In fact, Adam Smith – the father of free market capitalism – was for regulation of banks, and believed that trust is vital for a healthy economy. Because strong enforcement of laws against fraud is a basic prerequisite for trust, Smith would be disgusted by the lack of prosecution of Wall Street fraudsters today.

Smith railed against monopolies and their corrupting influence. And Smith was pro-regulation, so long as the regulation benefited the little guy, as opposed to the wealthiest:

When the regulation, therefore, is in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.

Richard Posner – one of the leading proponents over the course of many decades for removing the reach of the law from the economy – has now changed his mind.

So has another leading proponent of deregulation and turning a blind eye towards fraud: Alan Greenspan.

While some promoters of a fake version of Austrian economics are anti-regulation and against prosecuting fraud, the main Austrian economists were unambiguously for them.

William K. Black – professor of economics and law, and the senior regulator during the S&L crisis – notes that leading Austrian free market economists said that fraud must be prosecuted:

Real Austrian economists … hate elite frauds and want them prosecuted vigorously. Ludwig von Mises and Friederich Hayek are the two most famous Austrian economists.

Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom

To create conditions in which competition will be as effective as possible, to prevent fraud and deception, to break up monopolies— these tasks provide a wide and unquestioned field for state activity.

The Constitution of Liberty

There remains, however, one other kind of harmful action that is generally thought desirable to prevent and which at first might seem distinct. This is fraud and deception. Yet, though it would be straining the meaning of words to call them ‘coercion,’ on examination it appears that the reasons why we want to prevent them are the same as those applying to coercion. Deception, like coercion, is a form of manipulating the data on which a person counts, in order to make him do what deceiver wants him to do. Where it is successful, the deceived becomes in the same manner the unwilling tool, serving another man’s ends without advancing his own. Though we have no single word to cover both, all we have said of coercion applies equally to fraud and deception.

With this correction, it seems that freedom demands no more than that coercion and violence, fraud and deception, be prevented, except for the use of coercion by government for the sole purpose of enforcing known rules intended to ensure the best conditions under which the individual may give his activities a coherent, rational pattern…..

Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions…. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.

Mises, L.

Government ought to protect the individuals within the country against the violent and fraudulent attacks of gangsters, and it should defend the country against foreign enemies.

Black also notes that fraud is a leading cause of financial bubbles and malinvestment – two of the greatest sins which Austrian economists rightly fight against.

Unless financial fraud is prosecuted, bubbles will be blown … and when they burst, the economy will tank. Fraud – along with bad Federal Reserve policy – is what causes bubbles in the first place.

The Proof Is In the Pudding: Fewer Prosecutions Equals a Worse Economy

Obama has prosecuted fewer financial crimes than any president in decades – less than Ronald Reagan, less than George H.W. Bush, less than Bill Clinton, and less than George W. Bush.

The economy is worse than it has been since the Great Depression, if not before.

See the connection? See this and this.

Everyone Supports Laws Protecting Contract and Private Property Rights

Even the most radical free market advocates support laws protecting contract and private property rights. In other words, they support the judicial branch of government and the basic laws Congress passes to support such rights.

There are obviously good, pro-competitive laws and bad, anti-competitive laws.

Paul Craig Roberts – a true conservative, who was a Wall Street Journal editor and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, and is widely credited with being the “father of supply-side economics” – points out:

Regulation can increase economic efficiency and … without regulation external costs can offset the value of production.

***

 

Thirty-three years ago in an article in the Journal of Monetary Economics (August 1978), “Idealism in Public Choice Theory,” I developed a model to assess the benefits and costs of regulation. I argued that well-thought-out regulation could be a factor of production that increases GNP. For example, regulation that contributed to the quality and safety of food and medicines contributed to specialization in production and lower costs, and regulations enforcing contracts and private property rights add to economic efficiency.

 

On the other hand, bureaucracies build their empires and extend their regulations into the realm of negative returns. Moreover, as regulations increase, economic managers spend more time in red tape and less in productive activity. As rules proliferate, they become contradictory and result in paralysis.

I had hopes that my analysis would result in a more thoughtful approach to regulation, but to no avail. Liberals continued to argue that more regulation was better, and libertarians maintained than none was best.

Do Anti-Law Advocates Really Want Anarchy?

All sports need a referee. Some players will be bigger or more talented than others, which is great. They have a better chance of outcompeting the other guy and winning.

But without basic rules and referees, ruthless players might use a knife or kick the other guy in the knee. Perhaps we could suspend all rules, and maybe everyone would whip out a knife break the other guy’s kneecap. That’s fine … but that’s not the game of football.

Radicals who believe that we should not have any laws against fraud are implicitly arguing for anarchy. They might not use that word, but that is what they’re arguing for.

But the same Founding Father who argued for periodic revolutions to keep the government honest also argued against tearing down something unless you have something better in mind to replace it? Thomas Jefferson, the most vocal advocate of the citizens’ right to revolt to ensure honest government also cautioned against tearing something down unless it was for the express purpose of replacing it with something better.

Real, deep-thinking anarchists (as opposed to those using fake anarchy philosophy in order to promote lawlessness by the super-elite) are not for destroying all organization.  Instead, they argue for self-organization and self-regulation. See this, this and this.

JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs aren’t reining in one another’s fraud.  Bank of America and MF Global didn’t police each other’s fraud.   Tepco and BP didn’t make sure the companies made accurate reports about their safety measures.  Solyndra and Koch Industries didn’t guard against abuse by the other company.

So if one wants to argue that the Federal government should not regulate financial players, fine (perhaps our country is too big and complex to manage, and the federal government has become too corrupt) … but who should?

The states? Cities? Communities? Neighbors?

Human beings have the ability to form social contracts. Our D.C. government has largely breached it social contract with the people.

But we shouldn’t tear down the federal government unless we replace it with something better.

No one wants to tear down the state of organization so completely that we go back to monkeys (without the ability to talk), or one-celled critters . . . so the question is how do we want to organize?

Do you want to live as a “savage”? In reality, the natives had survival skills, cultural traditions, and knowledge developed over many hundreds or thousands of years (including knowledge gained before the migration from Asia to America), stored in the database of oral traditions. The settlers had traditions and knowledge as well. If we tear away all of that organization, life is going to be pretty challenging.

It is easy for a teenager to criticize his parents, but a lot harder to actually create a better adult life for himself. A teenager looks silly and immature when he criticizes everything his parents do without understanding the challenges he’ll face as an adult. But a young person who rebels against his parents and then creates a better adult life is doing important and heroic work.

In other words, anarchy as an economic model could work if economic players organized in such a way as to police against fraud and criminal behavior (the equivalent of pulling out a knife or taking out someone’s kneecap in the middle of a football game).

This is a long-winded way of saying that we should not stop the government from enforcing fraud laws unless we come up with a more effective way to stop fraud.

The Real Problem ...

While liberals tend to distrust big corporations and conservatives tend to distrust the federal government, it is really the malignant, symbiotic relationship between the two is the root problem.

Too much government overreach? Giant unaccountable corporations?

Maybe ... but the root problem is that corrupt government officials and corrupt corporate fatcats have merged into a crime syndicate.

Do you get it?    Before we can have a real free market, we need to burst the bubble of fraud.

Before we can have a functioning government, we need to stand up to corrupt government officials.

We all need to step out of the left-right dichotomy which is distracting us and dumbing us down.

We need liberty and justice.

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Kim Dotcom wants to encrypt half of the Internet to end government surveillance (FULL...

In an in-depth interview, Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom discusses the investigation against his now-defunct file-storage site, his possible extradition to the US, the future of Internet freedoms and his latest project Mega with RT’s Andrew Blake.

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (C) launches his new file sharing site "Mega", surrounded by dancers, in Auckland January 20, 2013. (Reuters/Nigel Marple)
Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (C) launches his new file sharing site "Mega", surrounded by dancers, in Auckland January 20, 2013. (Reuters/Nigel Marple)

The United States government says that Dotcom, a German millionaire formerly known as Kim Schmitz, masterminded a vast criminal conspiracy by operating the file-storage site Megaupload. Dotcom, on the other hand, begs to differ. One year after the high-profile raid of his home and the shut-down and seizure of one of the most popular sites on the Web, Dotcom hosted a launch party for his latest endeavor, simply called Mega. On the anniversary of the end of Megaupload, Dotcom discusses the year since his arrest and what the future holds in regards to both his court case and the Internet alike. Speaking with RT’s Andrew Blake from his Coatesville, New Zealand mansion, Dotcom weighs in on the US justice system, the death of Aaron Swartz, the growing surveillance state, his own cooperation with the feds and much more.

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (2nd R) poseswith actors dessed as police after the launch of his new website at a press conference held inside his home in Auckland on January 20, 2013. (AFP Photo/Michael Bradley)
Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (2nd R) poseswith actors dessed as police after the launch of his new website at a press conference held inside his home in Auckland on January 20, 2013. (AFP Photo/Michael Bradley)

'­Hollywood is a very important contributor to Obama'

RT: You’ve blamed President Obama and the Obama administration for colluding with movie companies in order to orchestrate this giant arrest here in New Zealand. Is this kind of give-and-take relationship between Washington and Hollywood all that you say it is? Or are you just the exception? Does this really exist?

Kim Dotcom: You have to look at the players behind this case, okay? The driving force, of course, is Chris Dodd, the chairman of the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America]. And he was senator for a long time and he is — according to [US Vice President] Joe Biden — Joe Biden’s best friend. And the state attorney that is in charge of this case has been Joe Biden’s personal counsel, Neil MacBride, and [he] also worked as an anti-piracy manager for the BSA, the Business Software Association, which is basically like the MPAA but for software companies.

And also, the timing is very interesting, you know? Election time. The fundraisers in Hollywood set for February, March [and] April. There had to have some sort of Plan B, an alternative for SOPA [the Stop Online Piracy Act], because the president certainly was aware — and his team at the White House was aware — that if they don’t have anything to give at those fundraisers, to those guys in Hollywood who are eager to have more control over the Internet, they wouldn’t have probably raised too much. And Hollywood is a very important contributor to Obama’s campaign. Not just with money, but also with media support. They control a lot of media: celebrity endorsements and all that.

So I’m sure the election plays an important role. The relationships of the people that are in charge of this case play an important role and, of course, we have facts that we want to present at our extradition hearing that will show some more detail about this and that this is not just some conspiracy theory but that this actually happened.

Local Maori arrive as Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (unseen) launches his new file sharing site "Mega" in Auckland January 20, 2013. (Reuters/Nigel Marple)
Local Maori arrive as Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (unseen) launches his new file sharing site "Mega" in Auckland January 20, 2013. (Reuters/Nigel Marple)

'Operation Takedown'

RT: The US Justice Department wants to extradite you, a German citizen living in New Zealand operating a business in Hong Kong. They want to extradite you to the US. Is that even possible?

KD: That is a very interesting question because the extradition law, the extradition treaty in New Zealand, doesn’t really allow extradition for copyright. So what they did, they threw some extra charges on top and one of them is racketeering, where they basically say we are a mafia organization and we set up our Internet business to basically be an organized crime network that was set up and structured the way it was just to do criminal copyright infringement. And anyone who has every used Megaupload and has any idea about how that website worked knows immediately that it was total nonsense. But they needed to chop that on in order to have even a chance for extradition. But in our opinion, you see, all of that was secondary. The primary goal was to take down Megaupload and destroy it completely. That was their mission and that’s why the whole thing in Hong Kong, for example, they called it Operation Takedown. And I think everything that’s happening now, they are trying on the fly to doctor it around, and found a way to find a case. They probably came here and thought, “We will find something; that these guys have done something wrong.” In the indictment, if you actually read that, it’s more like a press release. There’s nothing in there that has any merits.

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom speaks during the launch of his new website at a press conference at his mansion in Auckland on January 20, 2013. (AFP Photo/Michael Bradley)
Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom speaks during the launch of his new website at a press conference at his mansion in Auckland on January 20, 2013. (AFP Photo/Michael Bradley)

RT: When the raid happened one year ago today, it got a lot of people talking both about the Internet and about this character, Kim Dotcom. But it was a lot of talking and not so much action, because here it is one year later and this case is still happening. Back up earlier this month, and we saw Aaron Swartz — an online information activist — pass away, and only in his mid-20s. And it got a lot of people talking, so much so that members of Congress have actually asked for changes to federal computer laws so that this doesn’t happen again. What is it actually going to take to get people to stop just talking and to actually start acting?

KD: Our case is going to be the one that will have much more attention down the road because it is a crucial case for Internet freedom. And I think more and more people realize that and the government is quite exposed here because they really went in with completely prosecutorial abuse and overreach and ignoring due process, ignoring our rights, spying on us, illegal search warrants, illegal restraining orders, illegal spying. The whole picture, when you look at it, shows that this was an urgent mission, done on a rush. “Take them down, I want them to go.” And it was a political decision to do that. And the execution was extremely poor, and the case is extremely poor, because that is something they thought that they could worry about later. It was all about the takedown. “Let’s send a strong message to Hollywood that we are on their side.”

RT:And now it’s been a year and nothing has progressed. At least for them. It seems like the case is falling apart day by day.

KD: Let me give you one example of how crazy this is. We have a judge here who said, “Please show us your evidence about your racketeering allegations. Show us that these guys were setting up some sort of organized crime network,” because that’s what the extradition will focus on primarily. They are using the organized crime treaty to get us extradited. So the US appealed that and said, “We don’t want to show you what we have.” And then they appealed to the high court and the high court then said, “We want to see it.” And they just keep appealing it, all the way to the court of appeals and to the Supreme Court. And what does that tell you? If you don’t even want to show us your cards — show us what you have! If you have such a strong case and are seriously interested about getting someone extradited, why waste all this time? Just show your hand. And they don’t have anything because we haven’t done anything wrong. We were law abiding. We were a good corporate citizen. And they knew that the time they came here to do this. They just wanted to take us down.

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (C) launches his new file sharing site "Mega", with dancers, in Auckland January 20, 2013. (Reuters/Nigel Marple)
Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (C) launches his new file sharing site "Mega", with dancers, in Auckland January 20, 2013. (Reuters/Nigel Marple)

'I want to reestablish a balance between a person and the state'

RT :The new program, Mega, is fully encrypted, and you’re touting it as an encrypted program so that people will want to use it. Do you think this is even necessary, right now, that people need encryption on the Internet?

KD: I think it’s important for the Internet that there is more encryption. Because what I have learned since I got dragged into this case is a lot about privacy abuses, about the government spying on people. You know, the US government invests a lot of money in spy clouds: massive data centers with hundreds of thousands of hard drives storing data. And what they are storing is basically any communication that traverses through US networks. And what that means they are not spying on individuals based on a warrant anymore. They just spy on everybody, permanently, all the time. And what that means for you and for anybody is that if you are ever a target of any kind of investigation, or someone has a political agenda against you, or a prosecutor doesn’t like you, or the police wants to interpret something in a way to get you in trouble — they can use all that data, go through it with a comb and find things even though we think we have nothing to hide and have done nothing wrong. They will find something that they can nail you with and that’s why it’s wrong to have these kinds of privacy abuses, and I decided to create a solution that overtime will encrypt more and more of the internet. So we start with files, we will then move to emails, and then move to Voice-Over-IP communication. And our API [Application Programming Interface] is available to any third-party developer to also create their own tools. And my goal is, within the next five years, I want to encrypt half of the Internet. Just reestablish a balance between a person — an individual — and the state. Because right now, we are living very close to this vision of George Orwell and I think it’s not the right way. It’s the wrong path that the government is on, thinking that they can spy on everybody.

Actors in police costume mock-arrest Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (C), as he launches his new file sharing site "Mega" in Auckland January 20, 2013. (Reuters/Nigel Marple)
Actors in police costume mock-arrest Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom (C), as he launches his new file sharing site "Mega" in Auckland January 20, 2013. (Reuters/Nigel Marple)

RT: Long before Megaupload was ever taken down, the Justice Department was looking into Ninja Video and you actually cooperated with them. People want to know: how is Kim Dotcom, this guy who is incredibly against Washington and hates everything that they’ve done to him, how is this same guy also helping out the Justice Department?

KD: Let me explain to you how this worked, okay? I was a good corporate citizen. My company was abiding to the laws. If we get a search warrant or we get a request by the government to assist in an investigation, we will comply and we have always complied. And that is the right thing to do, because if someone uploads child pornography or someone uploads terrorist stuff or anything that is a serious crime, of course we are there to help. This is our obligation. And I am not for copyright infringement. People need to understand that. I’m against copyright infringement. But I’m also against copyright extremism. And I’m against a business model: the one from Hollywood that encourages piracy. Megaupload is not responsible for the piracy problem, you see? It’s the Hollywood studios that release a movie in the US, and then six months later in other parts of the world. And everyone knows that the movie is out there and fans of a particular actress want to have it right now, but they are not giving them any opportunity to get access to that content even though they are willing to pay. And they are looking for alternatives on the Internet, and then they find them. They are trying to make me responsible for their lack of ability to adapt to a new reality, which is the Internet, where everything happens now. It doesn’t happen three months later. Imagine you go to Wikipedia. You want to find something, research an article, and they tell you to come back in three months, ‘We’ll give it to you then.’ If you find another site where you can get it right now, that’s where you go, right? So it’s really their business model that is responsible for this issue. And if they don’t adopt, they will be left behind on this side of the road of history like many others who haven’t adopted in the past.

Photo by Andrew Blake
Photo by Andrew Blake

'I’m not Aaron Swartz. Aaron Swartz is my hero. He was selfless'

RT: What about your skeptics who point out this big playboy lifestyle and this giant, elaborate house and say ‘He’s not worried about Internet freedoms, he’s just worried about protecting his profits’?

KD: Let me be clear: I am a businessman, okay? I started Megaupload as a business to make money. I wanted to list the company. I am an entrepreneur, alright? I’m not Aaron Swartz. Aaron Swartz is my hero. He was selfless. He is completely the opposite of me, but I’m a businessman. I’m driven by the success of achieving something in the business world. That’s not a crime. There is nothing wrong with that. And if you create something that is popular and that people want to use, you automatically make money. And I’ve always been an innovator. I’ve always created products that people like. And that’s why I’m successful. I’m not successful because people have used Megaupload for copyright infringement. And what everyone needs to understand [is] there have been massive amounts of legitimate users on Megaupload. We don’t believe that 50 million users a day are all just transferring piracy. That’s wrong. A lot of people have used it to back up their data, to send a file quickly to a friend. Young artists have used it to get traction, to get downloads, to get known. There was a lot of legitimate use on Megaupload. It’s a dual-use technology, just like the Internet. You can go to any ISP right now, anyone who connects customers to the Internet. And if they are honest to you and you ask them the question ‘How much of your traffic is peer-to-peer piracy?’ anyone who will tell you less than 50 percent is lying to your face. This is a problem of the Internet and not Megaupload.

RT: If you weren’t doing Mega, or Megaupload, what would you be doing? Here’s this businessman who strives to accomplish success. What would you be doing?

KD: I would probably build spaceships and we would probably already be on Mars.

Photo by Andrew Blake
Photo by Andrew Blake

RT: What happens next, though? What are the chances of Mega being shut down. We already saw that radio stations were pulling ads.

KD: The content industry is still very emotional about us.We bought radio ads with one of the major networks here for eight radio stations. Very funny, very cool ads, promoting our service as a privacy service. And the labels called up the radio station, and one advertiser who is in the movie business called up the radio station, and demanded those adds to be taken down or else they will not buy ads from them anymore. And they were forced because they rely, of course, on that advertisement. My campaign was comparably small to the amount that they are sending. So they used their power to interfere in our right to have a media campaign, an ad campaign. And that just shows you that attitude. It’s against the law. They can’t do that. That’s interfering in our business and they have done that many times in the past. Calling payment processors, calling advertisers, telling them, ‘I don’t want you to work with these guys.’ That’s just wrong. If you have an issue with us, go hire a lawyer, sue us, take us to court and then see if you have anything that will give you a judgment against us. But instead, they use that power and their money to get new laws made for them, to lobby politicians, to get the White House to come here and destroy our lives. Destroy 220 jobs. Hardworking innocent people and they don’t give a damn about that. They had an agenda that is about more control over the Internet. And they made a strategic decision to say ‘Who are we going to take out to send a strong message?’ And I was the one.

Photo by Andrew Blake
Photo by Andrew Blake

"If they come to attack us, it’s just going to backfire"

RT: But what happens if Mega is shut down? You are only on day one right now. How long is it going to take before the government steps up again and what are you going to do if that happens? Are you prepared to just start all over again? It’s been one year and here you are, doing this over again, what happens when Uncle Sam puts his foot down and grinds you into the dirt again? Do you get back up?

KD: Here is the thing. This startup is probably the most scrutinized when it comes to legal advice. Every single aspect of it has been under the looking glass by our legal team. So we are confident that it’s fully compliant with the law, and if they come to attack us it’s just going to backfire. Exactly like the Megaupload case did. The shutdown of our site backfired already, massively. And it’s just going to get worse for them. If they think they can pursue this and get away with this, they are dead wrong. Because the society is not on their side. Everyone who uses the Internet knows what’s going on here. They don’t like what’s going on here. They saw it with SOPA and you will see it with our case. People will come together and fight this kind of aggression against innovation and Internet freedom.

Photo by Andrew Blake
Photo by Andrew Blake

"We are all the little puppets that they think they can kick around"

RT: After Megaupload was shut down by the FBI last year, hacktivist with the movement Anonymous retaliated, so to speak. In response, they went and took down the websites for the FBI, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Department of Justice, the Recording Industry Association of America. All of these organizations were shut down by Anonymous in response to what they did to you. These were people who you never met but were so moved by what happened that they had to stand up and do something. Did you ever thank them, and how did you take it? How did you respond to their reaction?

KD: It’s a kind of virtual protest, you know? I think it’s not a good idea to shut down websites. I’ve been a hacker myself. I understand why they are doing it and how they are doing it, but I think there are better ways to protest. Where you organize yourself in a group and do petitions and actually email congressmen, email your local politicians, let them know about what you don’t like. Organize your movement rather than attacking. I had a sense of understanding for them because everyone had stored so much data on Megaupload, and then all of a sudden a site like that disappears and billions of files are taken offline, the majority of them perfectly legitimate. You need to understand one thing: 50 percent of all files that were ever uploaded to Megaupload have not even been downloaded once. That clearly shows the non-infringing use. People just wanted to store their stuff on our site. And of course they were outraged when that disappeared and the government said, ‘We don’t give a care and we don’t give a damn about you people. We don’t care that you have your personal documents there because we have our agenda and we are going to take over the Internet.’ And you know the White House was supporting SOPA, and only when the masses came together — and Aaron Swartz: he stopped SOPA. With his efforts, he stopped SOPA. And he became a target. A political target, okay? And that’s why all these things happened to him. There is no reasonable cause behind going after a young genius like that in the fashion they did. It’s political. Because the White House wanted SOPA. They promised it to Hollywood and they failed and they couldn’t go ahead because the White House was afraid if they keep pushing hard and they keep pushing it forward, that the people who oppose it are not going to vote for Obama in the reelection campaign. So it’s all a game to them really and we are all the little puppets that they think they can kick around. So we need to organize. There needs to be a movement that identifies these things and fights that. Not with shutting down websites but with real protests. Going out on the streets, writing to politicians and especially, most importantly, don’t vote for the guys that are against Internet freedom. Anyone who voted for SOPA, you should have a close look at that guy. Do I want to give him my vote next time around? Because that’s the only language politicians understand is your vote. And if you can bring all these votes together, somehow pooled for Internet freedom, you will see all these efforts disappear. Because at the end of the day, they represent the public. Politicians represent the public. And when they have enough pressure they can’t move forward. And SOPA was the best example for that.

White House Petition for Constitutional Amendment on Campaign Cash Clears Threshold

WASHINGTON - January 24 - Today, a petition on the White House website urging President Obama to “use the State of the Union to call for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics” exceeded the 25,000 signatures necessary to guarantee an official White House response. The petition, launched by the groups Free Speech For People, Avaaz, People For the American Way, and Demos on January 8 took less than two weeks to cross the threshold.

The petition can be found here: http://wh.gov/P9j7

Fixing our campaign finance system has long been a cause President Obama supports, though he failed to make progress on it during his first term. During his re-election campaign, President Obama told supporters that: "Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United . . . . Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change."

The petition calls on the President to reiterate and strengthen this call in the State of the Union, and comes just two days after President Obama delivered an inaugural address that many believe reflected a renewed willingness on his part to fight for core goals he has long supported even in the face of challenges.

"Americans everywhere are asking President Obama to take the lead on the one issue that unlocks all the others: getting big money out of our political system, to restore our government of, by, and for the people," said Peter Schurman, Campaign Director at Free Speech For People. "'We the people' means all the people, not just the wealthy few, and not the corporations."

Ian Bassin, Campaign Director at Avaaz, said: "We the people have spoken and the message is clear: We're sick of oil industry money setting our energy agenda, the Wall Street dollar determining our economic policy, and gun company cash dictating how we protect our kids. We need elections not auctions and we're counting on President Obama to lead us there, starting with his State of the Union."

The petition may also be the last White House petition to garner a response after receiving 25,000 signatures. It also may be the most serious of the latest round. Last week, after responding to petitions to deport Piers Morgan and to build a Death Star, the White House upped the threshold for guaranteeing a response to 100,000. But petitions like this campaign finance one that were launched before the change were grandfathered at the 25,000 threshold.

“This petition provides more evidence for what we already know – that Americans want a solution to the corrupting influence of big money in our democracy,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “We saw massive amounts of money pour into last year’s elections, much of which was undisclosed. Using the megaphone provided to them by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, corporate special interests are drowning out the voices of ordinary voters. President Obama calling for a constitutional remedy in the upcoming State of the Union Address would draw attention to this critical situation and mobilize even more Americans into action.”

"This is the moment President Obama should take a strong and decisive step toward ending big money's stranglehold on our politics and our economy, and cement his legacy by leading the effort to finally forge a democracy in which the strength of a citizen's voice does not depend upon the size of her wallet," said Demos Counsel Adam Lioz.

After the coalition involved in launching this petition posted it to the White House website, its growth came from citizens expressing their frustration with the flood of money infecting our political system. Much of this public frustration stems from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations have a constitutional right to spend unlimited sums to influence elections. In the wake of that decision, more than $6 billion was spent in the 2012 elections, much of it by corporations and anonymous billionaires. Congress responded by proposing amendments to reverse that decision and eleven states and nearly 500 cities and towns have joined this call.

This petition tees up for President Obama the key question of what he’ll do next to deliver on a core, unfulfilled promise of his first campaign: to change the way Washington works. The groups behind the petition will continue to campaign until he does.

Avaaz.org is a new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want. "Avaaz" means "Voice" in many Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European languages. Across the world, most people want stronger protections for the environment, greater respect for human rights, and concerted efforts to end poverty, corruption and war. Yet globalization faces a huge democratic deficit as international decisions are shaped by political elites and unaccountable corporations -- not the views and values of the world's people.

White House Petition for Constitutional Amendment on Campaign Cash Clears Threshold

WASHINGTON - January 24 - Today, a petition on the White House website urging President Obama to “use the State of the Union to call for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics” exceeded the 25,000 signatures necessary to guarantee an official White House response. The petition, launched by the groups Free Speech For People, Avaaz, People For the American Way, and Demos on January 8 took less than two weeks to cross the threshold.

The petition can be found here: http://wh.gov/P9j7

Fixing our campaign finance system has long been a cause President Obama supports, though he failed to make progress on it during his first term. During his re-election campaign, President Obama told supporters that: "Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United . . . . Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change."

The petition calls on the President to reiterate and strengthen this call in the State of the Union, and comes just two days after President Obama delivered an inaugural address that many believe reflected a renewed willingness on his part to fight for core goals he has long supported even in the face of challenges.

"Americans everywhere are asking President Obama to take the lead on the one issue that unlocks all the others: getting big money out of our political system, to restore our government of, by, and for the people," said Peter Schurman, Campaign Director at Free Speech For People. "'We the people' means all the people, not just the wealthy few, and not the corporations."

Ian Bassin, Campaign Director at Avaaz, said: "We the people have spoken and the message is clear: We're sick of oil industry money setting our energy agenda, the Wall Street dollar determining our economic policy, and gun company cash dictating how we protect our kids. We need elections not auctions and we're counting on President Obama to lead us there, starting with his State of the Union."

The petition may also be the last White House petition to garner a response after receiving 25,000 signatures. It also may be the most serious of the latest round. Last week, after responding to petitions to deport Piers Morgan and to build a Death Star, the White House upped the threshold for guaranteeing a response to 100,000. But petitions like this campaign finance one that were launched before the change were grandfathered at the 25,000 threshold.

“This petition provides more evidence for what we already know – that Americans want a solution to the corrupting influence of big money in our democracy,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “We saw massive amounts of money pour into last year’s elections, much of which was undisclosed. Using the megaphone provided to them by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, corporate special interests are drowning out the voices of ordinary voters. President Obama calling for a constitutional remedy in the upcoming State of the Union Address would draw attention to this critical situation and mobilize even more Americans into action.”

"This is the moment President Obama should take a strong and decisive step toward ending big money's stranglehold on our politics and our economy, and cement his legacy by leading the effort to finally forge a democracy in which the strength of a citizen's voice does not depend upon the size of her wallet," said Demos Counsel Adam Lioz.

After the coalition involved in launching this petition posted it to the White House website, its growth came from citizens expressing their frustration with the flood of money infecting our political system. Much of this public frustration stems from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations have a constitutional right to spend unlimited sums to influence elections. In the wake of that decision, more than $6 billion was spent in the 2012 elections, much of it by corporations and anonymous billionaires. Congress responded by proposing amendments to reverse that decision and eleven states and nearly 500 cities and towns have joined this call.

This petition tees up for President Obama the key question of what he’ll do next to deliver on a core, unfulfilled promise of his first campaign: to change the way Washington works. The groups behind the petition will continue to campaign until he does.

Avaaz.org is a new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want. "Avaaz" means "Voice" in many Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European languages. Across the world, most people want stronger protections for the environment, greater respect for human rights, and concerted efforts to end poverty, corruption and war. Yet globalization faces a huge democratic deficit as international decisions are shaped by political elites and unaccountable corporations -- not the views and values of the world's people.

Canada tribal chief ends hunger strike

Attawapiskat First Nations Chief Theresa Spence ended a 44-day hunger strike after indigenous groups and opposition parties signed a deal on January 24, 2013.

A prominent tribal chief in Canada has ended her six-week-long hunger strike over aboriginal rights after indigenous groups and opposition parties signed a deal.

Attawapiskat First Nations Chief Theresa Spence had lived off fish broth and resided in a tent on Victoria Island in Ottawa since December 11 until Thursday, according to her spokesman Danny Metatawabin.

Metatawabin said the chief spent Wednesday night in hospital and that the 49-year-old was recovering from the aftereffects of starvation.

"She's fine. But her body is tired and weak," he said.

Spence made the decision to eat solid food after opposition parties and indigenous leaders signed a declaration spelling out a list of demands they will present to the government.

The declaration calls for the government to improve housing and schools as well as to acknowledge treaty rights for Canada’s 600 tribes.

Spence started the hunger strike to pressure the government into meeting the aborigines’ demands, which has led to protests across Canada.

On January 16, hundreds of demonstrators, many carrying flags and signs, called on the federal government to listen to aboriginal concerns.

The protests over the past two months had prompted the United Nations to urge Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to set up talks in accordance with the standards expressed in the organization’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Since December 14, 2012, indigenous peoples in Canada have held demonstrations against the government who, on that day, approved Bill C-45 through parliament to change the rules about aboriginal land.

GVN/HN

On The News With Thom Hartmann: Virginia Gerrymanders Presidential Votes, Robin Hood Tax Hits...

Thom Hartmann here – on the news...

You need to know this. Virginia is now poised to be the first state to move legislation forward, which will rig the Electoral College to benefit Republican presidential candidates in the future. On Wednesday, legislation to dole out Electoral College votes based on gerrymandered Congressional districts, instead of the current winner-take-all system, advanced out of a state Senate subcommittee. It now heads to full committee, where it will likely be approved, before heading to the full state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans. So, Republicans have actually taken rigging the next presidential election seriously, with efforts also underway in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio to do the same thing. Progressives must counter with an equally aggressive push for a national popular vote. Nine states have already passed National Popular Vote laws, which commit their electors to vote for whichever candidate wins the national popular vote, even if that candidate lost the state Electoral College vote. Those nine states that have passed national popular vote laws - including California, Maryland, and Illinois - account for 132 electoral votes among them, nearly half of the 270 needed in the Electoral College to win the White House. If this trend continues, and enough states sign up to bring their combined Electoral College votes to 270, then the Electoral College, which Republicans are currently trying to rig, dies just like that. Let's get active and fight fire with fire.

In screwed news...Welcome to America, where you have to go to jail to receive the healthcare you need. The Sun-Sentinel, out of Florida, is reporting on a man who threatened to kill President Obama just so he could be arrested, thrown in jail, and receive much-needed medical care. Fifty-seven year old Stephen Espalin told a judge last week that he, "would have no intent to hurt the president", but he knew federal agents would arrive and "take care of [him]." Espalin made the threat against the President after he was kicked out of a hospital for giving a false name, and lying about having health insurance. Florida's Governor Rick Scott is critical of Obamacare, and is unlikely to adopt the provision in the law that expands Medicaid coverage in his state, which would help people like Espalin. But now that Espalin is headed to jail, he will receive the care he needs. He's already receiving chemotherapy, and once he begins his four year prison sentence, he's scheduled to have heart surgery. This is a cautionary tale of what happens to a nation that doesn't provide basic medical care to its citizens. Either we make healthcare a basic human right in America, just like it is elsewhere in the developed world, or we commit ourselves to unrest, desperation, and a sick population.

In the best of the rest of the news...

Robin Hood is coming to Europe. On Tuesday, 11 European nations agreed to put in place a financial transaction tax – also known as a Robin Hood tax – on the banks. Such a tax could generate billions in much needed revenue for the cash-strapped continent. The tax, which will range between .1% and .01%, will be applied to all trading in stocks, bonds, and derivatives. According to a statement from the European Council, the purpose of this new tax is, "for the financial industry to make a fair contribution to tax revenues, whilst also creating a disincentive for transactions that do not enhance the efficiency of financial markets." The participating nations in this Robin Hood tax make up 90% of the EU – and it's estimated the tax will bring in roughly 37 billion euros annually. According to the European Commissioner in charge of tax policy, Tuesday's agreement was "a major milestone in tax history." Now let's kick start the movement here in the United States to create our own Robin Hood tax.

Well, there's at least one place now that women will soon see workplace equality: in the military. Today, the Pentagon officially announced that it's lifting its ban on women in combat, potentially opening up more than 200,000 new combat positions in the military to women. This decision will pave the way for women to serve on the front lines, for the first time in the history of our armed services. The military will have until May to come up with plans to implement these changes – and each branch of the military will have until 2016 to get official exemptions for certain combat roles, which will remain exclusive to men. From allowing gays to openly serve, to now allowing women in combat, President Obama has taken significant steps to bring equality to our military – and he should applauded for his efforts.

Beware of online surveillance. This week, Google released its Transparency Report, revealing a massive increase in government surveillance. According to the report, Google received over 21,000 requests for data from governments and courts worldwide, just in the second half of 2012. That's a 70% increase from 2009. During that same period, the United State government made the most requests – with more than 8,000 demands for online data. Protecting our online privacy from prying government, and corporate eyes, is the new frontier – and "we the people" are currently losing this struggle.

And finally...following reports that a drone stike in Yemen mistakenly killed two children, the United Nations is launching an official investigation into the legality and death toll of drone warfare. The investigation will focus on 25 different drones strikes carried out by US, UK, and Israeli forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. According to Benn Emmerson, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, this investigation is, "a response to the fact that there's international concern rising exponentially, surrounding the issue of remote targeted killings through the use of unmanned vehicles." This will be President Obama's biggest foreign policy challenge in his second term – winding down our deadly covert drone warfare programs. And it's up to us to push him to do what' right.

And that's the way it is today – Thursday, January 24, 2013. I'm Thom Hartmann – on the news.

Crazy — Republican Lawmaker Wants to Jail Rape Victims for Ending Pregnancies

A New Mexico lawmaker has proposed that the fetus is evidence and terminating it could cost women three years in jail.

January 24, 2013  |  

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Apparently it took a female Republican to come up with the most vicious way to punish women who had the audacity to get themselves raped.

Wednesday, state representative Cathrynn Brown of New Mexico introduced a bill whose sheer audacity makes Todd Akins look as harmless as an ill-informed teenager groping his way through puberty.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 206, would make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion after being raped because the fetus is evidence of the crime. A women who does choose to have an abortion would be charged with the third-degree felony of “tampering with evidence,” which carries up to a three year prison sentence in New Mexico.

As the bill states:

“Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime.

In other words, Brown just said to rape victims: give birth to this baby or you’ll go to jail.

Besides being the sheer definition of cruel and unusual punishment, the proposed legislation highlights the hypocrisy in prosecuting rape and sexual assault in the United States.

Brown said in a statement that the legislation is intended to strengthen prosecution against rapists and prevent them from pressuring women who they have violently impregnated to have an abortion.

“New Mexico needs to strengthen its laws to deter sex offenders,” said Brown. “By adding this law in New Mexico, we can help to protect women across our state.”

Yet, the reality is that men are almost never investigated, prosecuted and convicted of rape, and that this law will instead criminalize women who have been the victim of men’s crimes.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), only three percent of rapes end with the rapist serving a criminal conviction. (Because rape is one of the most undercounted crime, this analysis factors in unreported rapes.) 

The other 97 percent of all rapists never spend a night in jail.

This low accountability rate is far from a problem of scant evidence at trial. According to RAINN, only 12 percent of rapes even lead to an arrest, signifying that increasing reporting rates and requiring police investigations are the main law enforcement changes necessary to “protect women across the state.”

The idea that the overwhelming majority of rapists are never prosecuted or convicted but that their victims could instead be subjected to three years in jail is literally insane. The bill is unlikely to pass given the Democratic majority in the state's legislature. But the legislation still begs the question: Dear Republicans, what the fuck will you come up with next?

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and activist in New York City.

Jordanians Vote for the First Time Since Arab Spring

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Special thanks to Mostafa Youssef

Transcript

[Broll of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour from AJ interview]

VO: A new parliament was voted into office in Jordan by 56% of 2.3 million registered voters. The Islamic Action Front and leftist opposition groups boycotted the elections, calling them “cosmetic” and not dealing with their demands for real reform. Voters said they were forced to choose among the same tribal and pro-government figures who have dominated previous, corruption-ridden parliaments. Jordanians ended 2012 with street protests calling for the first time the downfall of King Abdullah’s regime. Last November, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour introduced austerity measures, slashing subsidies and raising fuel prices by 54%. The International Monetary Fund hailed the move as an “important step” towards fixing the country’s $3 billion deficit. [broll of protests][protest chants]Om HashemWe can’t marry-off the children, we can’t pay the rent…they raise the prices and we remain silent.The (burkan) needs to make a difference. It’s the first time I go down to protest. I can’t marry off the kids. I am taking my kids out of university. What now? How long will this last for? [ya pharoan shoo pharanak?], he said “no civilian will hinder me from raising the prices”. The gas has become so expensive that us and our children have to sleep in one room to stay warm.Abdel HiyatI am looking for another citizenship. I can’t survive! I can’t find anything ______ in this country! Why should I leave my country? It seems that other countries respect their citizens and be able to eat, drink and educate my children!University StudentThey raised the prices without consulting with the public. Without warning even. We woke up and found they had increased. How and why? That wasn’t important. What was important was that they raised the prices and they don’t care what we think. [I am here because] I won’t allow my parents to stand in line at the post office to get a social assistance cheque to get 23 Dinars ($32 USD) every four months. I plan on receiving a 4 year university degree, and I will not stop half-way so I can stand with my mother to receive her 23 JOD/four months—which I know that after the first installment comes they won’t receive a cheque again.VO: A resource poor landlocked country, Jordan imports 96% of its energy. It’s economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Last year alone, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE have EACH pledged to provide $1.2 billion in aid. The government has had to cut more than 10 percent of its spending to secure a promised $2 billion IMF loan.Yasser Melhim, StudentWith regards to foreign aid, USAID at its head, these organizations have replaced the state’s role. Today, we are lacking essential state services and has weakened the state, and a result has allowed these organization to get involved in political decisions.Ren Wahbe, ArchitectI am here today because I am concerned about the economic problems we are facing under this regime—especially the conditional IMF loans. We are taxed people to lower the deficit, but continue to take foreign loans to implement projects ridden with corruption and theft. This also comes at the price of oppression and imprisonment, even murder.Yasser Melhim, StudentWith regards to increasing the prices, the Jordanian parties came up with alternative methods to cover the deficit of the general budget by incriminating corruption, reclaiming stolen Jordanian resources, and reclaiming corrupt privatization deals of public assets. Any capable lawyer can revise these shady contracts and reclaim the companies that were sold to support the Jordanian budget.VO: Fearing spillover from Syria’s revolution in the North, and eyeing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood now in power, Jordanians have not taken chants for regime change lightly. Threatened by a violent confrontation with police, opposition groups quickly scaled back their demands and called for electoral reforms, investigations into corrupt privatization deals, and an end to a heavy-handed security state.JAMAL Hussein, Lawyer, Activist: The youth who chanted [for the downfall of the regime], from the political movement, I believe that they were trying to accelerate the course of events. They didn’t take into consideration that the average citizen is only demanding reform. Even the political groups are still not proposing it as a solution. We’ve seen in other Arab countries the calls on the street was faster than political group’s demands. But this is not the case in Jordan. The street has not called for bringing down the regime. I believe this has impacted the movement and people’s reaction in the street. We haven’t made solid gains, but we’ve broken a barrier with the regime and he is now worried. However, the ones we’ve scared the most is the average citizen.VO: Jordan’s main opposition group is the Islamic Action Front, an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. The IAF receives the majority its support from Palestinian Refugees, making up almost half of Jordan’s population. The group has called for the cancellation of the Israeli peace treaty, Jordan being one of two countries that have signed. The IAF has boycotted the elections, and has rejected offers for seats in the parliament and senate.Nimer Al-Assaf, Deputy General Secretary, IAFThe Islamic Action Front stems really from the Brotherhood organization in JordanAnd it represents something, what we call, a popular movement. We do not actually aim to be ministers or members of parliament. We were offered to be ministers and given seats in parliament. How many seats do you want in parliament? 25, 30? 40? But participate in the elections.”It is an absolute monarchy, and we demand that it goes back to a parliamentary monarchy.Constitutional reforms which means we are asking for a parliament which does not gets dissolved by the King; we are asking for a government which stems from the parliament.We believe fighting corruption is what should have been carried out first.We are also asking for the upper house to be elected. We are asking for the secret service police to stop interfering in the civilian and political life. We are asking for the reform of the electoral law.VO: Unions in Jordan have led street protests in the past months and have joined calls for government reform and an end to price hikes.Jamal Hussein, Lawyer, ActivistThe unions play a clear political role and they are trying to put pressure on the political parties. and there was formed one of the strongest organizations across the nation, and an important opposition force against the regime.The teachers’ union is considered the largest union in Jordan. It was taken by force from the regime’s control by using public pressure, staging street protest and sit-ins. There was also a two-week teachers’ strike across the country.They have also played an important role in speaking out against the price hikes by going on strike for two days, and are putting lots of pressure on the regime.The movement benefitted from the teachers’ union’s pressure since throughout the last year when the teachers were gaining their rights in the union, a group of teachers came out of this fight more politicized. The teachers started engaging more in the public sphere, and as a result encouraged the youth to challenge leaders of political parties.President of the Health Workers’ UnionJordanians and the unions are against the government’s decision to increase the prices. We are against the economic path we have been headed towards for years, and we are against that these economic woes impact our citizens. The middle class, the poor, the workers and the farmers are most impacted by the price hike. We for reforming the system, and we refuse this decision. We demand the current parliament be dissolved and to form a National Rescue Committee, and to stop this decision immediately. If our demands aren’t met, we will continue making our voices heard.VO: Jordanians have demanded an end to intimidation tactics historically used by state police for stifling dissent. Jordan’s Interior Ministry has reportedly been raiding candidate supporters’ homes to allegedly curb any attempts at vote buying during the elections.Moyad GhowadorAt this moment, the regime represents [el kame7]. This regime does not allow us freedom of expression. We are here at a peaceful protest with a various union groups, and the Darak have been sent to stop us. This regime has driven the Jordanian economy into chaos and borderline bankruptcy.VO: The Islamic Action Front, workers’ unions and leftist groups have all called for a boycott of the parliamentary elections. Protesters say they have little faith these, elections will put an end to corruption, an ailing economy and a heavy handed police state. King Abdullah will continue facing challenges as further cuts in electricity subsidies and public sector benefits are promised to soon secure a $2 billion IMF loan.This is Danya Nadar, for the Real News


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VA Legislature Moves To Rig Electoral Votes In GOP’s Favor

Here we go! After their stealth move to redistrict Virginia's Senate districts, Republicans are moving the next piece into place. News-Leader reports:

A Republican-backed bill that would end Virginia’s winner-takes-all method of apportioning its 13 electoral votes in presidential elections cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

A Senate Privileges and Elections subcommittee recommended Sen. Bill Carrico’s bill on a 3-3 party line vote Wednesday, advancing it to consideration by the GOP-dominated full committee next week. Republicans control the Senate and House in Virginia, and Gov. Bob McDonnell is a Republican.

The bill would apportion electors by congressional district to the candidate who wins each of the state’s 11 districts. The candidate who carries a majority of the districts would also win the two electors not tied to congressional districts.

Sen. Charles W. “Bill” Carrico, R-Grayson, said the change is necessary because Virginia’s populous, urbanized areas such as the Washington, D.C., suburbs and Hampton Roads can outvote rural regions such as his, rendering their will irrelevant.

So Virginia thinks that the solution is basing electoral votes on acreage rather than people? Seriously, Carrico is arguing that because the DC suburbs have more people who cast more votes, they should reapportion electoral votes by district. As Working America said, this would be the "heads I win, tails you lose" strategy.

Here's the text of the bill:

Electoral College. Provides that the Commonwealth's electoral votes shall be allocated by congressional district. Receipt by a slate of presidential electors of the highest number of votes in a congressional district constitutes the election of the congressional district elector of that slate. Receipt by a slate of electors of the highest number of votes in a majority of congressional districts constitutes the election of the two at-large electors of that slate. In the event no slate receives the highest number of votes in a majority of districts, receipt by a slate of the highest number of votes statewide shall constitute election of the two at-large electors of that slate.

The only comfort in all of this is that Virginia is subject to review under the Voting Rights Act, which means this scheme (and their stealth redistricting scheme) may not pass muster. But I wouldn't count on that, particularly with the Voting Rights Act in front of the US Supreme Court this year.

I think we'd better figure out how to get rid of the electoral college altogether --and fast.

The Longest War is the One Against Women

Artists in San Francisco protesting violence against women. (Photo: Marta Franco/ SFGate)Here in the United States, where there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes, and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, the rape and gruesome murder of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi on December 16th was treated as an exceptional incident. The story of the alleged rape of an unconscious teenager by members of the Steubenville High School football team was still unfolding, and gang rapes aren’t that unusual here either. Take your pick: some of the 20 men who gang-raped an 11-year-old in Cleveland, Texas, were sentenced in November, while the instigator of the gang rape of a 16-year-old in Richmond, California, was sentenced in October, and four men who gang-raped a 15-year-old near New Orleans were sentenced in April, though the six men who gang-raped a 14-year-old in Chicago last fall are still at large.  Not that I actually went out looking for incidents: they’re everywhere in the news, though no one adds them up and indicates that there might actually be a pattern.

There is, however, a pattern of violence against women that’s broad and deep and horrific and incessantly overlooked. Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or lurid details in a particular case get a lot of attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, on every continent including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news.

If you’d rather talk about bus rapes than gang rapes, there’s the rape of a developmentally disabled woman on a Los Angeles bus in November and the kidnapping of an autistic 16-year-old on the regional transit train system in Oakland, California -- she was raped repeatedly by her abductor over two days this winter -- and there was a gang rape of multiple women on a bus in Mexico City recently, too.  While I was writing this, I read that another female bus-rider was kidnapped in India and gang-raped all night by the bus driver and five of his friends who must have thought what happened in New Delhi was awesome.

We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.

Here I want to say one thing: though virtually all the perpetrators of such crimes are men, that doesn’t mean all men are violent. Most are not. In addition, men obviously also suffer violence, largely at the hands of other men, and every violent death, every assault is terrible.  But the subject here is the pandemic of violence by men against women, both intimate violence and stranger violence.  

What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Gender

There’s so much of it. We could talk about the assault and rape of a 73-year-old in Manhattan’s Central Park last September, or the recent rape of a four-year-old and an 83-year-old in Louisiana, or the New York City policeman who was arrested in October for what appeared to be serious plans to kidnap, rape, cook, and eat a woman, any woman, because the hate wasn’t personal (though maybe it was for the San Diego man who actually killed and cooked his wife in November and the man from New Orleans who killed, dismembered, and cooked his girlfriend in 2005).

Those are all exceptional crimes, but we could also talk about quotidian assaults, because though a rape is reported only every 6.2 minutes in this country, the estimated total is perhaps five times as high. Which means that there may be very nearly a rape a minute in the U.S.  It all adds up to tens of millions of rape victims.

We could talk about high-school- and college-athlete rapes, or campus rapes, to which university authorities have been appallingly uninterested in responding in many cases, including that high school in Steubenville, Notre Dame University, Amherst College, and many others. We could talk about the escalating pandemic of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in the U.S. military, where Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that there were 19,000 sexual assaults on fellow soldiers in 2010 alone and that the great majority of assailants got away with it, though four-star general Jeffrey Sinclair was indicted in September for “a slew of sex crimes against women.”

Never mind workplace violence, let’s go home.  So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over 1,000 homicides of that kind a year -- meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular terror. (Another way to put it: the more than 11,766 corpses from domestic-violence homicides since 9/11 exceed the number of deaths of victims on that day and all American soldiers killed in the “war on terror.”) If we talked about crimes like these and why they are so common, we’d have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs. If we talked about it, we’d be talking about masculinity, or male roles, or maybe patriarchy, and we don’t talk much about that.

If we talked about crimes like these...we’d have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs. If we talked about it, we’d be talking about masculinity, or maybe patriarchy, and we don’t talk much about that.

Instead, we hear that American men commit murder-suicides -- at the rate of about 12 a week -- because the economy is bad, though they also do it when the economy is good; or that those men in India murdered the bus-rider because the poor resent the rich, while other rapes in India are explained by how the rich exploit the poor; and then there are those ever-popular explanations: mental problems and intoxicants -- and for jocks, head injuries. The latest spin is that lead exposure was responsible for a lot of our violence, except that both genders are exposed and one commits most of the violence. The pandemic of violence always gets explained as anything but gender, anything but what would seem to be the broadest explanatory pattern of all.

Someone wrote a piece about how white men seem to be the ones who commit mass murders in the U.S. and the (mostly hostile) commenters only seemed to notice the white part. It’s rare that anyone says what this medical study does, even if in the driest way possible: “Being male has been identified as a risk factor for violent criminal behavior in several studies, as have exposure to tobacco smoke before birth, having antisocial parents, and belonging to a poor family.”

Still, the pattern is plain as day. We could talk about this as a global problem, looking at the epidemic of assault, harassment, and rape of women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that has taken away the freedom they celebrated during the Arab Spring -- and led some men there to form defense teams to help counter it -- or the persecution of women in public and private in India from “Eve-teasing” to bride-burning, or “honor killings” in South Asia and the Middle East, or the way that South Africa has become a global rape capital, with an estimated 600,000 rapes last year, or how rape has been used as a tactic and “weapon” of war in Mali, Sudan, and the Congo, as it was in the former Yugoslavia, or the pervasiveness of rape and harassment in Mexico and the femicide in Juarez, or the denial of basic rights for women in Saudi Arabia and the myriad sexual assaults on immigrant domestic workers there, or the way that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in the United States revealed what impunity he and others had in France, and it’s only for lack of space I’m leaving out Britain and Canada and Italy (with its ex-prime minister known for his orgies with the underaged), Argentina and Australia and so many other countries.

Who Has the Right to Kill You?

But maybe you’re tired of statistics, so let’s just talk about a single incident that happened in my city a couple of weeks ago, one of many local incidents in which men assaulted women that made the local papers this month:

“A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man's sexual advances while she walked in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood late Monday night, a police spokesman said today. The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her, police spokesman Officer Albie Esparza said. When she rejected him, the man became very upset and slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm, Esparza said.”

The man, in other words, framed the situation as one in which his chosen victim had no rights and liberties, while he had the right to control and punish her. This should remind us that violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you.

Murder is the extreme version of that authoritarianism, where the murderer asserts he has the right to decide whether you live or die, the ultimate means of controlling someone.  This may be true even if you are “obedient,” because the desire to control comes out of a rage that obedience can’t assuage. Whatever fears, whatever sense of vulnerability may underlie such behavior, it also comes out of entitlement, the entitlement to inflict suffering and even death on other people. It breeds misery in the perpetrator and the victims.    

As for that incident in my city, similar things happen all the time.  Many versions of it happened to me when I was younger, sometimes involving death threats and often involving torrents of obscenities: a man approaches a woman with both desire and the furious expectation that the desire will likely be rebuffed.  The fury and desire come in a package, all twisted together into something that always threatens to turn eros into thanatos, love into death, sometimes literally.

It’s a system of control. It’s why so many intimate-partner murders are of women who dared to break up with those partners.  As a result, it imprisons a lot of women, and though you could say that the attacker on January 7th, or a brutal would-be-rapist near my own neighborhood on January 5th, or another rapist here on January 12th, or the San Franciscan who on January 6th set his girlfriend on fire for refusing to do his laundry, or the guy who was just sentenced to 370 years for some particularly violent rapes in San Francisco in late 2011, were marginal characters, rich, famous, and privileged guys do it, too.

The Japanese vice-consul in San Francisco was charged with 12 felony counts of spousal abuse and assault with a deadly weapon last September, the same month that, in the same town, the ex-girlfriend of Mason Mayer (brother of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer) testified in court: "He ripped out my earrings, tore my eyelashes off, while spitting in my face and telling me how unlovable I am… I was on the ground in the fetal position, and when I tried to move, he squeezed both knees tighter into my sides to restrain me and slapped me." According to the newspaper, she also testified that “Mayer slammed her head onto the floor repeatedly and pulled out clumps of her hair, telling her that the only way she was leaving the apartment alive was if he drove her to the Golden Gate Bridge ‘where you can jump off or I will push you off.’" Mason Mayer got probation.   

This summer, an estranged husband violated his wife’s restraining order against him, shooting her -- and six other women -- at her spa job in suburban Milwaukee, but since there were only four corpses the crime was largely overlooked in the media in a year with so many more spectacular mass murders in this country (and we still haven’t really talked about the fact that, of 62 mass shootings in the U.S. in three decades, only one was by a woman, because when you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men -- and by the way, nearly two thirds of all women killed by guns are killed by their partner or ex-partner).

What’s love got to do with it, asked Tina Turner, whose ex-husband Ike once said, “Yeah I hit her, but I didn't hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.” A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. Just to be clear: not nine minutes, but nine seconds. It’s the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Center for Disease Control, and you don’t want to know about the dentistry needed afterwards. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the U.S.

'Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.' “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined,” writes Nicholas D. Kristof, one of the few prominent figures to address the issue regularly.  

The Chasm Between Our Worlds

Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice -- and we hardly address. There are exceptions: last summer someone wrote to me to describe a college class in which the students were asked what they do to stay safe from rape. The young women described the intricate ways they stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions, and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class, he added, gaped in astonishment). The chasm between their worlds had briefly and suddenly become visible.

Mostly, however, we don’t talk about it -- though a graphic has been circulating on the Internet called Ten Top Tips to End Rape, the kind of thing young women get often enough, but this one had a subversive twist.  It offered advice like this: “Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone ‘by accident’ you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can call for help.” While funny, the piece points out something terrible: the usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence as a given. You explain to me why colleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators.

Threats of sexual assault now seem to take place online regularly. In late 2011, British columnist Laurie Penny wrote, “An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the Internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they'd like to rape, kill, and urinate on you. This week, after a particularly ugly slew of threats, I decided to make just a few of those messages public on Twitter, and the response I received was overwhelming. Many could not believe the hate I received, and many more began to share their own stories of harassment, intimidation, and abuse.”

Women in the online gaming community have been harassed, threatened, and driven out. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who documented such incidents, received support for her work, but also, in the words of a journalist, “another wave of really aggressive, you know, violent personal threats, her accounts attempted to be hacked. And one man in Ontario took the step of making an online video game where you could punch Anita's image on the screen. And if you punched it multiple times, bruises and cuts would appear on her image.” The difference between these online gamers and the Taliban men who, last October, tried to murder 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for speaking out about the right of Pakistani women to education is one of degree. Both are trying to silence and punish women for claiming voice, power, and the right to participate. Welcome to Manistan.

The Party for the Protection of the Rights of Rapists

It’s not just public, or private, or online either.  It’s also embedded in our political system, and our legal system, which before feminists fought for us didn’t recognize most domestic violence, or sexual harassment and stalking, or date rape, or acquaintance rape, or marital rape, and in cases of rape still often tries the victim rather than the rapist, as though only perfect maidens could be assaulted -- or believed.

As we learned in the 2012 election campaign, it’s also embedded in the minds and mouths of our politicians.  Remember that spate of crazy pro-rape things Republican men said last summer and fall, starting with Todd Akin's notorious claim that a woman has ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of rape, a statement he made in order to deny women control over their own bodies. After that, of course, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock claimed that rape pregnancies were “a gift from God,” and just this month, another Republican politician piped up to defend Akin’s comment.

Happily the five publicly pro-rape Republicans in the 2012 campaign all lost their election bids. (Stephen Colbert tried to warn them that women had gotten the vote in 1920.)  But it’s not just a matter of the garbage they say (and the price they now pay).  Earlier this month, congressional Republicans refused to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, because they objected to the protection it gave immigrants, transgendered women, and Native American women.  (Speaking of epidemics, one of three Native American women will be raped, and on the reservations 88% of those rapes are by non-Native men who know tribal governments can’t prosecute them.)

And they’re out to gut reproductive rights -- birth control as well as abortion, as they’ve pretty effectively done in many states over the last dozen years. What’s meant by “reproductive rights,” of course, is the right of women to control their own bodies. Didn’t I mention earlier that violence against women is a control issue?

And though rapes are often investigated lackadaisically -- there is a backlog of about 400,000 untested rape kits in this country-- rapists who impregnate their victims have parental rights in 31 states. Oh, and former vice-presidential candidate and current congressman Paul Ryan (R-Manistan) is reintroducing a bill that would give states the right to ban abortions and might even conceivably allow a rapist to sue his victim for having one.  

All the Things That Aren’t to Blame

Of course, women are capable of all sorts of major unpleasantness, and there are violent crimes by women, but the so-called war of the sexes is extraordinarily lopsided when it comes to actual violence.  Unlike the last (male) head of the International Monetary Fund, the current (female) head is not going to assault an employee at a luxury hotel; top-ranking female officers in the U.S. military, unlike their male counterparts, are not accused of any sexual assaults; and young female athletes, unlike those male football players in Steubenville, aren’t likely to urinate on unconscious boys, let alone violate them and boast about it in YouTube videos and Twitter feeds.  

No female bus riders in India have ganged up to sexually assault a man so badly he dies of his injuries, nor are marauding packs of women terrorizing men in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and there’s just no maternal equivalent to the 11% of rapes that are by fathers or stepfathers. Of the people in prison in the U.S., 93.5% are not women, and though quite a lot of them should not be there in the first place, maybe some of them should because of violence, until we think of a better way to deal with it, and them.

No major female pop star has blown the head off a young man she took home with her, as did Phil Spector.  (He is now part of that 93.5% for the shotgun slaying of Lana Clarkson, apparently for refusing his advances.)  No female action-movie star has been charged with domestic violence, because Angelina Jolie just isn’t doing what Mel Gibson and Steve McQueen did, and there aren’t any celebrated female movie directors who gave a 13-year-old drugs before sexually assaulting that child, while she kept saying “no,” as did Roman Polanski.

In Memory of Jyoti Singh Pandey

What’s the matter with manhood? There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that’s encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I’ve seen who get it, who think it’s their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online and in the marches from New Delhi to San Francisco this winter.

There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed.

Increasingly men are becoming good allies -- and there always have been some.  Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy. Domestic violence statistics are down significantly from earlier decades (even though they’re still shockingly high), and a lot of men are at work crafting new ideas and ideals about masculinity and power.

Gay men have been good allies of mine for almost four decades. (Apparently same-sex marriage horrifies conservatives because it’s marriage between equals with no inevitable roles.) Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together or slaves together.

There are other things I’d rather write about, but this affects everything else. The lives of half of humanity are still dogged by, drained by, and sometimes ended by this pervasive variety of violence.  Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren’t so busy surviving. Look at it this way: one of the best journalists I know is afraid to walk home at night in our neighborhood.  Should she stop working late? How many women have had to stop doing their work, or been stopped from doing it, for similar reasons?

One of the most exciting new political movements on Earth is the Native Canadian indigenous rights movement, with feminist and environmental overtones, called Idle No More. On December 27th, shortly after the movement took off, a Native woman was kidnapped, raped, beaten, and left for dead in Thunder Bay, Ontario, by men whose remarks framed the crime as retaliation against Idle No More. Afterward, she walked four hours through the bitter cold and survived to tell her tale. Her assailants, who have threatened to do it again, are still at large.

The New Delhi rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 23-year-old who was studying physiotherapy so that she could better herself while helping others, and the assault on her male companion (who survived) seem to have triggered the reaction that we have needed for 100, or 1,000, or 5,000 years. May she be to women -- and men -- worldwide what Emmett Till, murdered by white supremacists in 1955, was to African-Americans and the then-nascent U.S. civil rights movement.

We have far more than 87,000 rapes in this country every year, but each of them is invariably portrayed as an isolated incident.  We have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain. In India they did. They said that this is a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s everyone’s problem, it’s not isolated, and it’s never going to be acceptable again. It has to change. It’s your job to change it, and mine, and ours.

© 2013 Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit is an activist and the author of many books, including: Wanderlust: A History of Walking, The Battle of The Story of the Battle in Seattle (with her brother David), and Storming The Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Her most recent book is, A Paradise Built in Hell, is now available. She is a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine

Election Reform Should Be a Top Priority for the New Congress

(Photo: Lucy Nicholson/ Reuters)On two major occasions—during his election-night speech and second inaugural address—President Obama has highlighted the need for election reform. “By the way, we have to fix that,” he said on November 6 about the long lines at the polls in states like Florida. Shortly thereafter, the cause of election reform seemed to fall by the wayside, with more pressing events, such as the Sandy Hook shooting and the fiscal cliff, dominating the news. But Obama returned to the issue on January 21, saying “our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”

Now the question is whether the Obama administration and Congress will actually do something to fix the shameful way US elections are run. There are smart proposals in Congress to address the issue. The most comprehensive among them is the Voter Empowerment Act, reintroduced today by Democratic leaders in the House, including civil rights icon John Lewis, and Kirsten Gillibrand in Senate.

The bill would add 50 million eligible Americans to the voter rolls by automatically registering consenting adults to vote at government agencies, adopting Election Day voter registration, and allowing citizens to register to vote and update their addresses online. (As Attorney General Eric Holder noted recently, 80 percent of the 75 million eligible citizens who didn’t vote in 2008 were not registered to vote.) It would also guarantee fifteen days of early voting to ease long lines, restore the voting rights of felons after they’ve served their time and ban deceptive ads aimed at suppressing voter turnout. “It’s got almost everything in there that we think is important,” says Eric Marshall of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The Voter Empowerment Act is supplemented by other worthwhile proposals in Congress. There is Senator Barbara Boxer’s LINE Act, which mandates national standards for a minimum number of voting machines and election workers in each precinct, and Senator Chris Coons’s FAST Act, which gives grants to states that conduct elections efficiently, modeled after Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative. Both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have designated election reform as a top priority for the new Congress.

“It’s too early to tell what will pass, but there’s a lot of commitment to move these bills from their supporters, including Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Obama has already announced an ambitious legislative agenda focused on gun control, immigration reform and climate change, but supporters of election reform believe the administration is ready to move on this issue as well. “They have stated this as a much bigger priority than it was before,” adds Weiser. “Based on my conversations with people in the administration, I’m convinced they are committed to figuring out how to contribute to a solution.”

The need for a fix is clear. A study conducted for the Orlando Sentinel found that 201,000 Floridians didn’t vote in 2012 because of long lines on Election Day. A separate study found that in-person early voting numbers decreased by 225,000 compared to 2008, when the state had six more days of early voting. Moreover, black and Hispanic voters bore the brunt of the state’s election problems. “African Americans and Hispanic voters were more likely than white voters to cast provisional ballots and nearly twice as likely to have their provisional ballots rejected,” according to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith and Dartmouth University professor Michael Herron. Additionally, “the African American absentee ballot rejection rate was nearly twice the absentee ballot rejection rate of white voters.”

In Ohio, another GOP-controlled state that curtailed early voting compared to 2008, large urban counties had wait times of one to four hours during the three days of voting before the election, while smaller counties had wait times of only thirty minutes to an hour, according to a by Norman Robbins of Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates.

The public wants its elected representatives to address these problems. A post-election poll found that 88 percent of 2012 voters support new national voting standards. By nearly two to one, the public is more concerned about “eligible voters being denied the opportunity to vote” rather than “ineligible voters getting to vote.”

“The moment calls for something big,” says Marshall. “There’s a desire for an overhaul. It’s just a question of the will.”

Any election reform deal will require Republican support, which so far hasn’t been forthcoming. “I don’t think it’s the federal government’s role to make sure there are no long lines,” Representative Candice Miller (R-MI), chairman of the House Administration Committee, recently told Politico.

Yet the news from the states shows that GOP resistance to making it easier to vote has cracked a bit. Florida Governor Rick Scott, who presided over a controversial cutback in early voting days, now supports expanding early voting and increasing the number of polling locations. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell recently voiced his support for automatically restoring the voting rights of ex-felons.

These hopeful signs, however, are offset by a continuation of disturbing trends. GOP-controlled states like North Carolina are planning to pass new voter ID laws, while GOP state legislators in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin are trying gerrymander the Electoral College to boost the party in future presidential contests.

Such voter suppression efforts backfired on the GOP in 2012, getting blocked in court and motivating a larger turnout among young and minority Obama supporters. “The Republican Party should be a party that says, ‘We want everybody to vote,’ and make it easier for people to vote and give them a reason to vote for the party, and not to find ways to keep them from voting at all,” Colin Powell recently advised the GOP. Supporting sensible election reform efforts would be a good place to start.

© 2013 The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute. He is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics,and has written extensively about American politics, foreign policy and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in the New York Times, Editor & Publisher and The Guardian, and he is a frequent guest and political commentator on MSNBC, C-Span and NPR.

What’s Next for Palestine?

Bio

Raja Khalidi has spent most of his professional career with UNCTAD, where he is currently Chief, Office of the Director, Division on Globalization and Development Strategies. He holds a B.A. from Oxford University and M.Sc. from University of London SOAS. From 2000-2006, Mr. Khalidi was Coordinator of UNCTAD's Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian people, which combines the analytical and operational expertise of the UNCTAD secretariat in an integrated manner. His assignments at UNCTAD have also dealt with Debt and Development Finance, the global economic crisis and institutional development and strategic management reform. His own publications include a book on the dynamics of Arab regional economic development in Israel and contributions on Palestinian economic development issues to the Palestinian Encyclopedia, the Journal of Palestine Studies, edited volumes, as well as Jadaliya online and Palestinian, Israeli and international media. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

In the Middle East, moves are afoot, to a large extent led by Qatar and its emir. He was in Gaza recently, and he seems to have made a deal, some people calling it a shotgun marriage, where Hamas and Fatah—Hamas recently moved its head offices to Doha, and now we have a sort of peace agreement between Hamas and Qatar. We're told by our journalist in Gaza, everywhere you see a Palestinian flag, there's a Qatari flag flying next to it. And Hamas is actually allowing people to protest, carrying the portraiture of Abbas, Abbas the head of Fatah and the PA. It's a very interesting development, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which seems to have managed the peace agreement with Gaza in a way that has pleased President Obama.Now joining us from Geneva is Raja Khalidi. He's spent most of his professional career with the UN Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD, where he's currently chief of the Office of the Director, Division on Globalization and Development Strategies. And I have to point out, the opinions he's about to express are primarily his own; they're not necessarily those of UNCTAD. Thanks for joining us, Raja.RAJA KHALIDI, SENIOR ECONOMIST, UNCTAD, GENEVA: Nice to be with you.JAY: So, first of all, what do you make of what's going on, in terms of the UN recognition of Palestine as a nonmember state? And just what kind of Palestine does Qatar and others who are kind of moving pieces around on the chessboard, what kind of Palestine do you think is going to be built?KHALIDI: Well, I mean, with all of the regional, you know, transformations underway—and I think we haven't seen the end of them—they've started last year in a certain vein, with a largely political, economic, social content. They've been transformed this year into bloody battles around the region, unfortunately. In some places standoffs between demonstrators and the new governments, in other places various protest movements and human rights advocacy campaigns are underway. So I think, you know, the region is certainly in transformation, and we haven't seen the end of it, Arab Spring or not, whether or not we're in an "Arab Winter", as some would say. I think that's the first—you know, and you correctly noted that as the first and most important determinant for the Palestinians in the current circumstances, where things might go. The second important issue, I think, that has changed the discussion in the last month or so is, of course, the recent battle in Gaza between the Israeli military and the Hamas, largely, and other factions who, as we all now, let's say, fought to a standstill. In any case, as was—you know, we saw on Saturday with the huge celebration in Gaza, that's certainly a factor that has now also come into the equation, both the internal Palestinian equation and, I think, the regional equation. The third important issue, of course, is that [crosstalk] mentioned [incompr.] the diplomatic—let's say legal, also, to a certain extent—battle that's been fought by the PLO to upgrade its United Nations status to that of a nonmember state. Hence it's now referred to in the United Nations as the state of Palestine. So we're talking, of course, here about the PLO, which is the representative of the Palestinian people. So that upgrade is largely—so far appears to be a procedural one, in the sense that it allows the Palestinians access to certain things, like maybe instruments and courses of diplomatic, legal recourse that they didn't have, perhaps, before, but most importantly, I think, because it was a successful effort to get the world—large majority of the world to state, you know, very clearly its support for a two-state solution, most importantly for the establishment of the Palestinian state, the Palestinian rights, national rights, and sovereignty, and for the existence of state of Palestine, you know, more or less implicitly, though not so clearly in the resolution, on the '67 border. So that moment of global solidarity, I think this should not be underestimated, and the fact that, you know, both the Hamas as well as the Arab governments supported that effort.And the outcome, I think, is also indicative [incompr.] referred to pictures of Abbas being carried in Gaza, and, you know, to which one could add the presence of a Fatah delegation in Gaza on the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Hamas. And there's clearly talk in the air of national reconciliation. So, you know, I think the United Nations, whoever, except for, you know, really, some governments, have largely supported the idea of Palestinian reconciliation. And now it's on the cards in a way that is more acceptable to the international community, it would appear, and to the region's main players than it was perhaps a year or less [incompr.] These are all factors which change the regional landscape but don't necessarily change anything on the ground as far as the Palestinians are concerned. So when you ask what sort of state we can expect to come out of this, I don't think any state—I don't think from—I mean, at least from the status of the peace process, I don't think we can expect any state to come out of this. We haven't seen a change in Israel's position. On the contrary, we've seen a hardening of the Israeli position regarding settlement of the West Bank. We haven't really seen anything in the way of a durable ceasefire that could ensure for the people. . . . Yeah. So, I mean, we haven't, I mean, seen in—as a result of the Gaza conflict, we haven't seen a relief of the siege of Gaza. So people in Gaza haven't really felt anything new as a result of a very hard-fought and widely publicized battle. So, I mean, as I said, I think the prospects for a Palestinian state haven't looked good for a long time, and they don't look any better, to me, at least, today as a result of—notwithstanding the diplomatic, military, if you wish, and regional diplomatic sort of pluses that the Palestinians have chalked up in the last few weeks.JAY: A Palestinian friend of mine, his theory of what's happening here is: Qatar, together with Saudi Arabia and in cooperation with the United States, the sort of plan is to develop the economy in Gaza and the West Bank and develop Gaza in a way that it becomes more and more integrated with Egypt, and Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood sort of manages Gaza. And in the West Bank, again, investment from Qatar and others develop the economy there in a way that strengthens the links with Jordan. He saw the whole thing as sort of the—his quote was this is the end of the Palestinian project.KHALIDI: Well, the end of the—the first person to say that was, I think, a Palestinian scholar in 2005, who said that with Arafat's death, the Palestinian national movement would start to come apart. In many ways, the last five years, six years have seen that sort of a disassembling of what was otherwise a fairly united national project now scattered into two regional, you know, political projects, as well, I mean, regional in the sense of Gaza and Ramallah, two different, separate Palestinian political entities, if you wish, political systems. And everything else we've seen in the way of disunity, if one can use that word in the Palestinian political and geographic and economic and international and regional relations sort of map. And now the fact that capital in the region might—I mean—or the idea that capital in the region might flow into Gaza or to the West Bank more readily than it has, let's say, in some better periods, i.e. periods where things were looking up, the Oslo period, for example, or even the last few years in the West Bank, you know, that it's going to somehow transform the economic prospects, I think, is unlikely. You know, there's very little what we call—in Arabic we use the word [incompr.] brave capital, courageous capital that's really willing to put its feet down in Palestinian—in investing in Palestine. So, you know, there's a Palestinian capital out there that could come back. So I don't see a major, you know, resource transfusion. We have this—yesterday we heard about this safety net, financial safety net approved by the Arab League. Basically, it's saying that, you know, if the Israelis cut off the tax revenue that's due for transfer to the PA, the Palestinian Authority, then the Arabs will step in and foot the bill, which is really, you know, almost—you know, which is a good safety net for a short period, but it's not really a sustainable one. In Gaza, you're right, there was this—there were major pledges for infrastructural development projects, and I think from Qatar prior to the last fighting. And those might actually—you know, now, in fact, you know, there's probably even more to reconstruction than there was before.But I don't think that, you know, that's—again, you know, we've had these spurts in Palestinian economic history of either donor-funded or remittance- (in some cases) funded or labor from—you know, wages-from-income-funded growth spurts, which led to, in some cases, some prosperity here and there, what we've called in UNCTAD, you know, individual prosperity and communal impoverishment. And we could see the same sort of—you know, especially in Gaza, because I don't think the West Bank has that, is really—you know, has anywhere to grow, whereas Gaza has a lot, still, to recover from. There's a lot of, you know, major infrastructural and social expenditures that could be envisaged there. And that will—you know, that could delay certain things, but we've always seen—you know, the thing comes back and bites any economic piece or any, you know, prosperity booms in the rear very badly. And it's happened—you know, it happened in 1987 with the First Intifada. It happened again after Oslo twice, both in the mid '90s, and then in 2000. The Second Intifada, we've had it again and again in Gaza. So, I mean, I think that the main issue is mainly occupation, lack of sovereignty, extremely limited, if any, economic policy space, even for the Gaza—government in Gaza, especially for the PA, in terms of its—the nature of its economic agreements and security and Oslo and Paris so-called agreements with Israel. I don't see anything yet that's—you know, with all of the links that might exist between the Hamas, Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood and their other—Egyptian and others, there are other very important forces at play. I mean, you know, the Iranian support for—the military support that has reached Gaza can't be discounted. There's a situation in North Sinai of lawlessness, which the Egyptian government hasn't gotten its handle on, hasn't gotten a handle on. And I think—you know, it worries Israel, and even worries Hamas, because it's a Salafi—sort of armed Salafi—not insurgency, but lawlessness, as I said, in the northwest Sinai. And then you have everything that's happening in Syria and Jordan in terms of regime change or potential, you know, reform, constitutional reform in Jordan. So, you know, I think the key player here in all this, even though I've, you know, made the tour of the Arab world, the key player is really Israel. I mean, the party that has it in its hands to change the prospects for a Palestinian state or a Palestinian economy, or even, you know, some achievement of Palestinian rights, is Israel. And, you know, we haven't seen any moves except, you know, further consolidation. This extraordinarily, you know, sensitive settlement plan in this area east of Jerusalem, E1, is certainly not—not to mention the tax issue, the revenue withholding. I mean, you know, that could go on as a short-term punishment, but I don't think the PA can live with it for very long. And already I think President Abbas, when he addressed the Arab League the other day, unfortunately, I think this has, you know, given us an example of the limitations of the state—status of being a state that the PLO is accorded in the UN is that he announced to them, he says that we're fast approaching becoming a collapsed state, basically, you know, probably the fastest failed state in history, between November 29 and—you know, only because we have one month of Israeli-, you know, channeled tax revenue withheld. And that's problematic. I mean, you know, it's problematic when you talk about state institutions that are supposedly there ready to function, and all that is needed is the magic wand of a political agreement. That's—you know, that's more easier said than done.JAY: So, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk further about just what kind of economy is going to be built in Palestine and Egypt, other countries of the Arab Spring. People were demanding democracy, but not just political democracy. People want something in terms of their economy. So please join us for the next segment of this interview on The Real News Network.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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What President Obama Said Matters; Just Ask Krauthammer

How many of us have heard the old adage that it's actions, not words, that matter. I concur with that assessment generally. However, when it comes to presidential politics, it doesn't hold as fast and tight. The bully pulpit is a powerful tool to convey political agenda, ideology and action in any presidential term, and while a president isn't a king (sorry teaBirchers, he's not) who can enact whatever policy he likes, he certainly can explain and promote his beliefs to millions of Americans at any given time.

Obama over his first four years has frustrated his liberal base because he was just as likely to mention Ronald Reagan in glowing terms as much as he would Teddy Roosevelt or FDR. And he never laid out a consistent progressive agenda to the American people during his first years in the White House. (No matter what FOX News said.) But on FOX News shortly after the inauguration, Charles Krauthammer was the only one to come on after the speech and praise it honestly. Most conservatives complained that the president was being mean to Republicans yet again, but not Charles:

I thought it was an amazing speech — historically very important,” Krauthammer said. ”Not memorable — there’s not a line here that will ever be repeated, but I think very important historically because this was really Obama unbound. And I think what’s most interesting is that Obama basically is declaring the end of Reaganism in this speech.

I was pretty astonished by his response when I watched this, because for the most part, Charles has been one of the leaders of the Sour Patch Kids who live off being deficit scolds. Obama's victory is forcing many conservatives to come to grips with certain realities (maybe America isn't a center right country?) and Charles is trying to understand what it means for Republicans in the future. I may disagree with his notion of what 'Big Government' is and means, but his analysis on the whole is fairly accurate.

Funny, how many pundits that criticized Obama for not extending a loving hand to Republicans never mentioned George Bush's second inauguration speech. It dealt almost entirely with his bombastic and aggressive foreign policy beliefs.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

Bush did promote his "ownership society" theories, but freedom was the central tenant of his speech after the 9/11 tragedy. He also talked a little about equality, but shrouded it in Republican orthodoxy. Unfortunately for us, his beliefs helped destroy the global financial economies. There was nary a word about Democrats and Republicans working together to cure the ills of our land. I guess he's been deleted from conscious thought by the Villagers in which we are to compare past and future presidents.

In Obama's second inauguration--he surprised many liberals by making the case for some of the strongest beliefs the left holds dear like equality; including marriage, voter rights, climate change and exalting the safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.

----

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. (Applause.) They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great. (Applause.)

In your face Roger Ailes, Mitt Romney, Rupert Murdoch, Karl Rove and the entire Conservative movment. So Obama is off to a good start at least in terms of rhetoric. And yes, rhetoric from the top is an important ingredient for baking a very progressive pie. He is the leader of the Democratic party. However, if Obama does not continue to use the bully pulpit promoting Liberal ideas and falls back into being a deficit scold then all will be lost.

At least for now he's on the right path.

Krauthammer: Remember, he once said that Ronald Reagan was historically consequential in a way that Bill Clinton was not. And what Obama meant is that Obama had changed the ideological course of the country. In 1981, in his inaugural address within two minutes, Reagan had declared that ’government is not the solution, government is the problem.’ Today’s inaugural address was a rebuke to that entire idea.”

“This speech today was an ode to big government,” he continued. ”It was a hymn to big government. In his refrain, the three ‘we the peoples,’ number one I’m going to defend what liberalism achieved in the 20th century, where he mentioned Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Said, ‘I’m not going to let any of that be chipped away.’ And then second, he said the vision for the future is climate change and green energy, the new expansion of liberalism in the new century. And then the third element was his expansion of civil rights, where he talked about immigrants and gays, and he even shoe-horned gun rights under the rubric of security. He outlined the liberal agenda, the big government agenda in the future.”

On the News With Thom Hartmann: We Could Be Just Hours Away From Filibuster...

In today's On the News segment: We could be just hours away from filibuster reform in the Senate; working people aren't going on strike nearly as much as they used to forty years ago; the US Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Drug Enforcement Agency - and declined to change the official drug classification of marijuana; and more.


TRANSCRIPT:

Thom Hartmann here – on the news...

You need to know this. We could be just hours away from filibuster reform in the Senate. Last night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he's giving Republicans 24 to 36 hours to come to the table, and agree on some sort of filibuster reform. But, he said, if Republicans don't do it – then he'll proceed on his own. Democrats will fight to change the rules of the Senate, and curb some of the obstructionism we've seen over the last four years in the upper chamber. Reid must choose between two options for filibuster reform. There's an ambitious reform plan, promoted by Senators Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall, which would put in place a "talking filibuster" - requiring the minority to stand on the floor of the Senate, and actually talk the entire time they wish to filibuster legislation. And there's a more moderate reform plan, which preserves the minority's silent filibuster, but cuts down on how many times they can filibuster a particular piece of legislation. While most progressive organizations have endorsed the Merkley-Udall "talking filibuster" reform, it's unlikely Senator Reid has the votes among Democrats to pass such plan – and he will likely settle on a more moderate approach. But, if Democrats want to sweep the midterm elections in two years, and re-take the House of Representatives, then they have to pass legislation out of the Senate, and show the American people their agenda, and how it differs from the agenda of House Republicans. Strong filibuster may be the only way to accomplish this. Call your Senator today – and tell them to support the Merkley-Udall "talking filibuster" reform.

In screwed news...labor strikes are now a thing of the past. As Matt Bruenig has discovered, working people aren't going on strike nearly as much as they used to forty years ago – despite the fact that they've suffered through 30 years of flattening wages and watching their jobs be shipped overseas. Forty years ago, there was an average of nearly 300 work stoppages, involving more than 1,000 workers, every single year. But in 2009, that number dropped all the way down to five. Just five major work stoppages a year. On the flip side, lockouts are on the rise. Lockouts occur when management locks workers out of the job – and they now represent a record percentage of works stoppages around the nation. This is a result of less democracy in the workplace, stemming from Conservatives busting up unions since the time of Reagan. And when unions decline, so too, does the middle class' share of national income. The Billionaire Class has absolutely neutered organized labor. That's why it's so important to support and nurture those few labor strikes we've seen recently – from the Wal-Mart workers, to the fast food workers in New York City, to the Chicago Teachers Union. When working people get organized and get active – progressive change follows.

In the best of the rest of the news...

As much as Republicans want to call the President's inaugural speech "far left" – the reality is, the President is just agreeing with the majority of the American people. The President's speech featured homages to gay civil rights, to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and to action on climate change. Where do the American people stand on these issues? A USA Today poll showed that 53% of Americans approve of marriage equality. An ABC/Washington Post poll showed that 57% of Americans approve of a pathway to citizenship for immigrants. And an AP poll found that 80% of Americans believe climate change is happening and it's a serious problem. America has been a left-leaning nation all along – it's just been led astray by thirty years of Reaganism. Now, the nation is finally finding itself again, under the leadership of Barack Obama. America is a liberal nation – it has been for a while – and Republicans need to come to terms with that, or their party will go extinct like the Whigs.

On Tuesday – the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Drug Enforcement Agency – and declined to change the official drug classification of marijuana. Currently, the DEA classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug – which is reserved for the most dangerous typed of drugs that have absolutely no medicinal benefit. In fact, drugs like cocaine, opium, and morphine are listed as Schedule 2 drugs – which they say are safer, and have more medicinal value, than marijuana. The plaintiffs in the case presented more than 200 peer-reviewed studies that show the benefits of medicinal marijuana. And Governor Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, and Governor Christie Gregoire in Washington, both called for marijuana to be rescheduled. But the court wasn't swayed, ultimately ruling that they are "obliged to defer to the agency's interpretation" of controlled substances. It's clear that the battle for sensible drug reform will not be won on a federal level – it will be won in the states, and has already been won in Washington and Colorado.

And finally...the NRA is so full of itself, that it decided to deliver an official response last night to President Obama's inaugural address. The organization's foaming-at-the-mouth CEO, Wayne LaPierre, defended his organization's "absolutism", and called it a virtue. He also spread more lies about the gun control plans coming out of the White House, saying, "There are only two reasons for that federal list of gun owners – to tax them or take them." Of course, neither is true – not once has President Obama called for guns to be taxed, or confiscated. And the real reason for tracking firearms is for law enforcement to be more able to keep track of stolen guns, and to trace guns used in crimes back to their owners. The more Wayne LaPierre and the NRA speak up – the more we see just how out of touch they are with the mainstream in America. The best TV ad for gun control – is to play Wayne LaPierre speeches over and over and over again.

And that's the way it is today – Wednesday, January 23, 2013. I'm Thom Hartmann – on the news.

Sanders: Strong Filibuster Reform Needed Now

WASHINGTON - January 23 - Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said today he strongly supports long-overdue filibuster reform to stop a single senator without explanation from forcing an extraordinary majority of 60 votes to advance legislation.

“This country faces enormous problems in terms of jobs, global warming, health care, campaign finance reform, deficit reduction and many other important issues. The Senate has been blocked from considering many of these and other major issues of our day by a stubborn minority’s abuse of a rule originally designed to guarantee debate, not silence it,” Sanders said.

“We were brought up to believe that in our democracy the majority rules. In the United States Senate, unfortunately, on virtually every piece of major legislation the majority does not rule. Only a supermajority rules. Republicans have used parliamentary delaying tactics and demanded 60 votes to even debate bills, let alone pass legislation,” Sanders added.

The once rare delaying tactic has become commonplace. Throughout the time when Lyndon Johnson was the Senate majority leader in the 1950s, there was one filibuster waged in an attempt to block civil rights legislation. In the past six years since Democrats regained the Senate majority, they have been forced to try to end silent filibusters on 390 separate occasions.

Sanders supports a so-called talking filibuster. With the support of 51 senators such a change in Senate procedure would force opponents of a bill to stand up on the Senate floor and explain their reasons, at length if they desired, for opposing a bill. The change would put an end to the current practice of routinely requiring a 60-vote majority to even consider a bill through the exercise of a silent objection.

“In the Senate we must protect minority rights and members should have as much time as they need to make their arguments but they must be willing to come to the Senate floor and make their case. The Senate is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body. Our rules must let us deliberate, not obstruct,” Sanders said.

Filibuster reform is being considered this week as the Senate prepares to adopt rules governing for the new 113th Session of Congress. A formal vote on new rules has been delayed for days, however, by a filibuster.

Sanders: Strong Filibuster Reform Needed Now

WASHINGTON - January 23 - Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said today he strongly supports long-overdue filibuster reform to stop a single senator without explanation from forcing an extraordinary majority of 60 votes to advance legislation.

“This country faces enormous problems in terms of jobs, global warming, health care, campaign finance reform, deficit reduction and many other important issues. The Senate has been blocked from considering many of these and other major issues of our day by a stubborn minority’s abuse of a rule originally designed to guarantee debate, not silence it,” Sanders said.

“We were brought up to believe that in our democracy the majority rules. In the United States Senate, unfortunately, on virtually every piece of major legislation the majority does not rule. Only a supermajority rules. Republicans have used parliamentary delaying tactics and demanded 60 votes to even debate bills, let alone pass legislation,” Sanders added.

The once rare delaying tactic has become commonplace. Throughout the time when Lyndon Johnson was the Senate majority leader in the 1950s, there was one filibuster waged in an attempt to block civil rights legislation. In the past six years since Democrats regained the Senate majority, they have been forced to try to end silent filibusters on 390 separate occasions.

Sanders supports a so-called talking filibuster. With the support of 51 senators such a change in Senate procedure would force opponents of a bill to stand up on the Senate floor and explain their reasons, at length if they desired, for opposing a bill. The change would put an end to the current practice of routinely requiring a 60-vote majority to even consider a bill through the exercise of a silent objection.

“In the Senate we must protect minority rights and members should have as much time as they need to make their arguments but they must be willing to come to the Senate floor and make their case. The Senate is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body. Our rules must let us deliberate, not obstruct,” Sanders said.

Filibuster reform is being considered this week as the Senate prepares to adopt rules governing for the new 113th Session of Congress. A formal vote on new rules has been delayed for days, however, by a filibuster.

Conservatives Have Their Worst Week Ever

Have Republicans, and the right wing in general, ever been more disjointed? More confused? More incapable of getting out of their own way?NRA head Wayne LaPierre. (Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/Getty Images)

Watching America's political conservatives try to counter-maneuver opposite Barack Obama's re-inauguration over the course of the last week has been an incredible comedy – like watching the Three Stooges try to perform a liver transplant on roller skates.

Let's review the basic timeline. First, Political Media, a conservative action group, decided to try to make an appeal to win the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere by declaring January 19th – previously known as Martin Luther King Day, to the rest of us – to be "Gun Appreciation Day."

On Daily Beast: No Winners in Angry Gun Control Debate

They solicited hundreds of sponsors and sought to get 50 million people to sign a goofball petition (written in the style of the Declaration of Independence, with a plethora of "Whereas…"-es... Why do gun people insist on trying to use 18th-century syntax?) against the "tyrannical governments" that were out to take their guns. "Gun Appreciation Day" would also involve gun shows and other local events all over the country, meant as a counter-balance to the candle-toting gun control protests that were springing up over last weekend in anticipation of Obama's inauguration and the rumored plans for new gun legislation.

But even before their excellent idea gets out of the gate, it stalls out, as obnoxious reporters check the list of "Gun Appreciation Day" sponsors and find that the "American Third Position," a group that purports to represent the "unique political interests of White Americans," is one of the event's sponsors.

So now, Political Media has not only decided to hold its Gun Appreciation Event on a holiday meant to celebrate the life of a black leader who was a symbol of nonviolent protest and who was killed by a white man with a gun, it's done so with the financial help of some yahoo white supremacist group. But this doesn't derail the whole thing, as it's of course just an innocent mistake. Political Media kicks "Third Position" out and appropriately issues a statement, saying, "We have removed the group and reiterate this event is not about racial politics, it is about gun politics."

So far, so good, right? Well, then they go and actually hold their "Gun Appreciation Day" rallies all over the country, on Martin Luther King Day. And what happens? Five people get accidentally shot!

You can't make this stuff up. In three separate incidents – one in North Carolina, one in Ohio and one in Indiana – gun-loving real Americans did their darndest to worsen the demographics in the favor of the gun control lobby by blowing themselves away with accidental discharges. They failed, fortunately – all five victims in the three incidents survived – but you literally can't script a worse outcome for a political sideshow meant to highlight Americans' love of the wholesome, safe exercise of gun rights.

In North Carolina, three people – a 50-year-old man, a 54-year-old woman, and a 50-year-old retired sheriff's deputy – were injured when someone pulled a shotgun out of a display case and the 12-gauge accidentally went off, spraying the three people with birdshot.

In Ohio, a gun dealer was "checking out" a semi-automatic handgun he'd brought to a show at the Medina County Fairgrounds when he "accidentally" pulled the trigger, forgetting that, while he'd removed the magazine, he'd left a round in the chamber. According to the local police chief, the bullet "struck the floor, then a longtime friend of the gun dealer. The man was wounded in the arm and leg."

The man was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Cleveland. I sure hope that dude has private health insurance that he paid for. If it turns out that taxpayers had to foot the bill for a freaking helicopter flight to rescue the friend of some gun-toting conservative who decided to protest the socialist Obama administration by accidentally shooting a pal on Martin Luther King Day, that would be some kind of embarrassing, wouldn't it?

Of course, that would fit right in with the kind of week gun advocates had. In a show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, one Emory Cozee was loading his .45 while walking back to his car when he accidentally shot himself in the wrist. Once again, the taxpayer had to step in to the man's aid, as state troopers rushed to the scene and transported Cozee to a nearby hospital. No charges were filed, stupidity not yet being against the law in Indiana, or anywhere else.

Beyond those five people getting shot, the other "Gun Appreciation" events went on without incident. Then we had Obama's inauguration, where the president took more than one opportunity to goad the gun lobby in advance of an upcoming heated fight over his proposed gun restrictions, saying among other things, "Being true to our founding documents . . . does not mean we will all define liberty in the same way," and, "We cannot substitute absolutism for principle."

Without even taking a position on Obama or his proposed gun law, let me say this: The president, when he makes his case, does not come across like a drooling maniac, like he's pissed off to the point of reaching back, grabbing a frying pan, and belting you across the forehead if you even think about disagreeing with him. He comes across like what he is – a calm, experienced attorney making a rhetorical argument to adults. That, plus a lot of video of little kids' bodies being hauled out of school rooms in suburban Connecticut, can win you a lot of votes with people on the fence on the gun issue.

Then there's Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA. He came out after Obama's speech and gave one of his own at the Weatherby International Hunting and Conservation Awards in Reno, Nevada. In it, LaPierre weaved back and forth like a maniac, his blond forelock heaving, as he blurted out semi-coherent, quasi-grammatical defenses of "absolutism," saying things like "absolutes do exist, it's [sic] the basis of all civilization," and "without those absolutes, democracy decays into nothing more than two wolves and one lamb voting on who to eat for lunch."

He then proceeded to double down on his organization's lunatic decision to inject Obama's daughters into the national gun debate, saying, "If neither criminals nor the political class, with their bodyguards and security people, are limited by magazine capacity, we shouldn't be limited in our capacity, either."

This was clearly a reference to the controversy about the NRA's recent TV buy, in which they blasted Obama for being an "elitist hypocrite" for allowing his daughters to have Secret Service protection while Joe Sixpack has to send his kids to school without paramilitary security experts. "Protection for their kids, and gun-free zones for ours," was the ad's nutty tagline.

The NRA was rightfully blasted for that crazy-ass commercial, which made no sense on any level and mainly painted the NRA as a bunch of disturbed rage-addicts who are completely out of touch with national sentiment after Sandy Hook. (Yes, the president's kids have Secret Service protection – to protect them from your members, you idiots!)

Overall, people like LaPierre have fallen into every single political trap that's been laid for them in the last month, allowing Democrats to paint them as humorless, frustrated and probably dangerous political radicals whose response to Sandy Hook has been to publicly attack the president's minor children and to propose more guns in schools. Even the surge in NRA membership numbers since Sandy Hook is a net minus for the NRA, politically, because it scares the hell out of normal people and will result in increased pressure on pro-NRA congressional members to distance themselves from people whose response to piles of mowed-down children is to buy more guns.

So to recap: The gun lobby's response to Obama's inauguration was to organize a "Gun Appreciation Day" on Martin Luther King Day that left five of their own gun-loving members accidentally shot. Then they responded to Obama's inaugural speech by doubling down on the "elitist hypocrite" ad that earned them near-universal condemnation previously. So how could things get worse?

Well, you could have a spokesman for Political Media, which organized "Gun Appreciation Day," tell the Hollywood Reporter that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is the perfect argument in support of gun rights. Political Media's Larry Ward said he's considering a "What Would Django Do?" campaign as part of this new rhetorical line they're thinking of trying to sell, particularly to the black community. The idea is, get this, that there wouldn't have been slavery if slaves had had gun rights.

"Django is perfect for what we're trying to do," said Ward, "which is to promote gun rights to minorities."

Hey, dipshit: Before anyone allowed slaves to have guns, they would have had to have other rights, like for instance being considered human beings. Are you people completely stupid? You'd have to have hoovered more coke than even Quentin Tarantino to imagine a world where white slave owners denied black people freedom of movement, denied them education and freedom of speech and dominion over their own bodies, but then for some reason also allowed them to buy guns. Jesus Christ! The whole point of slavery is that slaves didn't have any rights, much less the right to bear arms.

Now, Django Unchained is a movie that uses the N-word 109 times (breaking the all-time record set by Finding Nemo, as Kamau Bell wittily noted) and was so historically jumbled that it featured scenes of both the Ku Klux Klan and sunglasses before either existed. Can you imagine any white guy going into Bedford-Stuyvestant or Compton or any other place where so many young black people have been killed by guns, and trying to connect with them by telling them you're down with Django Unchained? That's how out-to-lunch these NRA dudes are, that they genuinely think this is their entrée into minority communities.

I'm not naïve enough to think that just being publicly stupid is going to result in political problems for American conservatives. That's never been the case before – hell, there are still people out there who think Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. There's enough popular anger out there toward Barack Obama that someone like Wayne LaPierre could probably shoot skeet on Martin Luther King's grave and public support for the NRA still won't drop below 40 percent.

But the behavior of the gun lobby in the last month will, for sure, have an impact on people who are on the fence about gun control. Moreover, there's bigger game in play here. The Republicans post-2012 have been staring down the barrel of an increasingly desperate demographic problem that will require the party to find some way to market itself to blacks, Hispanics, women, gays and other minorities or else be relegated to permanent minority status.

But after Sandy Hook, the Democrats have skillfully painted the Republicans as the party of scary-looking and scary-sounding white maniacs like Tennessee security-company CEO James Yeager, a shaven-headed, soul-patched anger-sick white loony who posted a video promising to go ape if gun laws are enacted. "If this goes one inch further, I'm going to start killing people," Yeager said.

Conservatives could have dealt with this post-Sandy Hook political curveball in a number of ways, from simply shutting up and working quietly behind the scenes to scuttle gun control efforts (that always worked before) to announcing willingness to engage in some extremely mild compromise (like maybe prohibiting schizophrenics from carrying machine guns near kindergartens).

Instead, they decided to piss all over Martin Luther King Day and then shoot themselves by the half-dozen in the process.

Well done, fellas! You're well on your way to solving your demographic problems.

© 2012 Rolling Stone

Matt Taibbi

As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of journalistic giants Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi's 2004 campaign journal Spanking the Donkey cemented his status as an incisive, irreverent, zero-bullshit reporter. His books include Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire.

Conservatives Have Their Worst Week Ever

Have Republicans, and the right wing in general, ever been more disjointed? More confused? More incapable of getting out of their own way?NRA head Wayne LaPierre. (Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/Getty Images)

Watching America's political conservatives try to counter-maneuver opposite Barack Obama's re-inauguration over the course of the last week has been an incredible comedy – like watching the Three Stooges try to perform a liver transplant on roller skates.

Let's review the basic timeline. First, Political Media, a conservative action group, decided to try to make an appeal to win the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere by declaring January 19th – previously known as Martin Luther King Day, to the rest of us – to be "Gun Appreciation Day."

On Daily Beast: No Winners in Angry Gun Control Debate

They solicited hundreds of sponsors and sought to get 50 million people to sign a goofball petition (written in the style of the Declaration of Independence, with a plethora of "Whereas…"-es... Why do gun people insist on trying to use 18th-century syntax?) against the "tyrannical governments" that were out to take their guns. "Gun Appreciation Day" would also involve gun shows and other local events all over the country, meant as a counter-balance to the candle-toting gun control protests that were springing up over last weekend in anticipation of Obama's inauguration and the rumored plans for new gun legislation.

But even before their excellent idea gets out of the gate, it stalls out, as obnoxious reporters check the list of "Gun Appreciation Day" sponsors and find that the "American Third Position," a group that purports to represent the "unique political interests of White Americans," is one of the event's sponsors.

So now, Political Media has not only decided to hold its Gun Appreciation Event on a holiday meant to celebrate the life of a black leader who was a symbol of nonviolent protest and who was killed by a white man with a gun, it's done so with the financial help of some yahoo white supremacist group. But this doesn't derail the whole thing, as it's of course just an innocent mistake. Political Media kicks "Third Position" out and appropriately issues a statement, saying, "We have removed the group and reiterate this event is not about racial politics, it is about gun politics."

So far, so good, right? Well, then they go and actually hold their "Gun Appreciation Day" rallies all over the country, on Martin Luther King Day. And what happens? Five people get accidentally shot!

You can't make this stuff up. In three separate incidents – one in North Carolina, one in Ohio and one in Indiana – gun-loving real Americans did their darndest to worsen the demographics in the favor of the gun control lobby by blowing themselves away with accidental discharges. They failed, fortunately – all five victims in the three incidents survived – but you literally can't script a worse outcome for a political sideshow meant to highlight Americans' love of the wholesome, safe exercise of gun rights.

In North Carolina, three people – a 50-year-old man, a 54-year-old woman, and a 50-year-old retired sheriff's deputy – were injured when someone pulled a shotgun out of a display case and the 12-gauge accidentally went off, spraying the three people with birdshot.

In Ohio, a gun dealer was "checking out" a semi-automatic handgun he'd brought to a show at the Medina County Fairgrounds when he "accidentally" pulled the trigger, forgetting that, while he'd removed the magazine, he'd left a round in the chamber. According to the local police chief, the bullet "struck the floor, then a longtime friend of the gun dealer. The man was wounded in the arm and leg."

The man was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Cleveland. I sure hope that dude has private health insurance that he paid for. If it turns out that taxpayers had to foot the bill for a freaking helicopter flight to rescue the friend of some gun-toting conservative who decided to protest the socialist Obama administration by accidentally shooting a pal on Martin Luther King Day, that would be some kind of embarrassing, wouldn't it?

Of course, that would fit right in with the kind of week gun advocates had. In a show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, one Emory Cozee was loading his .45 while walking back to his car when he accidentally shot himself in the wrist. Once again, the taxpayer had to step in to the man's aid, as state troopers rushed to the scene and transported Cozee to a nearby hospital. No charges were filed, stupidity not yet being against the law in Indiana, or anywhere else.

Beyond those five people getting shot, the other "Gun Appreciation" events went on without incident. Then we had Obama's inauguration, where the president took more than one opportunity to goad the gun lobby in advance of an upcoming heated fight over his proposed gun restrictions, saying among other things, "Being true to our founding documents . . . does not mean we will all define liberty in the same way," and, "We cannot substitute absolutism for principle."

Without even taking a position on Obama or his proposed gun law, let me say this: The president, when he makes his case, does not come across like a drooling maniac, like he's pissed off to the point of reaching back, grabbing a frying pan, and belting you across the forehead if you even think about disagreeing with him. He comes across like what he is – a calm, experienced attorney making a rhetorical argument to adults. That, plus a lot of video of little kids' bodies being hauled out of school rooms in suburban Connecticut, can win you a lot of votes with people on the fence on the gun issue.

Then there's Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA. He came out after Obama's speech and gave one of his own at the Weatherby International Hunting and Conservation Awards in Reno, Nevada. In it, LaPierre weaved back and forth like a maniac, his blond forelock heaving, as he blurted out semi-coherent, quasi-grammatical defenses of "absolutism," saying things like "absolutes do exist, it's [sic] the basis of all civilization," and "without those absolutes, democracy decays into nothing more than two wolves and one lamb voting on who to eat for lunch."

He then proceeded to double down on his organization's lunatic decision to inject Obama's daughters into the national gun debate, saying, "If neither criminals nor the political class, with their bodyguards and security people, are limited by magazine capacity, we shouldn't be limited in our capacity, either."

This was clearly a reference to the controversy about the NRA's recent TV buy, in which they blasted Obama for being an "elitist hypocrite" for allowing his daughters to have Secret Service protection while Joe Sixpack has to send his kids to school without paramilitary security experts. "Protection for their kids, and gun-free zones for ours," was the ad's nutty tagline.

The NRA was rightfully blasted for that crazy-ass commercial, which made no sense on any level and mainly painted the NRA as a bunch of disturbed rage-addicts who are completely out of touch with national sentiment after Sandy Hook. (Yes, the president's kids have Secret Service protection – to protect them from your members, you idiots!)

Overall, people like LaPierre have fallen into every single political trap that's been laid for them in the last month, allowing Democrats to paint them as humorless, frustrated and probably dangerous political radicals whose response to Sandy Hook has been to publicly attack the president's minor children and to propose more guns in schools. Even the surge in NRA membership numbers since Sandy Hook is a net minus for the NRA, politically, because it scares the hell out of normal people and will result in increased pressure on pro-NRA congressional members to distance themselves from people whose response to piles of mowed-down children is to buy more guns.

So to recap: The gun lobby's response to Obama's inauguration was to organize a "Gun Appreciation Day" on Martin Luther King Day that left five of their own gun-loving members accidentally shot. Then they responded to Obama's inaugural speech by doubling down on the "elitist hypocrite" ad that earned them near-universal condemnation previously. So how could things get worse?

Well, you could have a spokesman for Political Media, which organized "Gun Appreciation Day," tell the Hollywood Reporter that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is the perfect argument in support of gun rights. Political Media's Larry Ward said he's considering a "What Would Django Do?" campaign as part of this new rhetorical line they're thinking of trying to sell, particularly to the black community. The idea is, get this, that there wouldn't have been slavery if slaves had had gun rights.

"Django is perfect for what we're trying to do," said Ward, "which is to promote gun rights to minorities."

Hey, dipshit: Before anyone allowed slaves to have guns, they would have had to have other rights, like for instance being considered human beings. Are you people completely stupid? You'd have to have hoovered more coke than even Quentin Tarantino to imagine a world where white slave owners denied black people freedom of movement, denied them education and freedom of speech and dominion over their own bodies, but then for some reason also allowed them to buy guns. Jesus Christ! The whole point of slavery is that slaves didn't have any rights, much less the right to bear arms.

Now, Django Unchained is a movie that uses the N-word 109 times (breaking the all-time record set by Finding Nemo, as Kamau Bell wittily noted) and was so historically jumbled that it featured scenes of both the Ku Klux Klan and sunglasses before either existed. Can you imagine any white guy going into Bedford-Stuyvestant or Compton or any other place where so many young black people have been killed by guns, and trying to connect with them by telling them you're down with Django Unchained? That's how out-to-lunch these NRA dudes are, that they genuinely think this is their entrée into minority communities.

I'm not naïve enough to think that just being publicly stupid is going to result in political problems for American conservatives. That's never been the case before – hell, there are still people out there who think Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. There's enough popular anger out there toward Barack Obama that someone like Wayne LaPierre could probably shoot skeet on Martin Luther King's grave and public support for the NRA still won't drop below 40 percent.

But the behavior of the gun lobby in the last month will, for sure, have an impact on people who are on the fence about gun control. Moreover, there's bigger game in play here. The Republicans post-2012 have been staring down the barrel of an increasingly desperate demographic problem that will require the party to find some way to market itself to blacks, Hispanics, women, gays and other minorities or else be relegated to permanent minority status.

But after Sandy Hook, the Democrats have skillfully painted the Republicans as the party of scary-looking and scary-sounding white maniacs like Tennessee security-company CEO James Yeager, a shaven-headed, soul-patched anger-sick white loony who posted a video promising to go ape if gun laws are enacted. "If this goes one inch further, I'm going to start killing people," Yeager said.

Conservatives could have dealt with this post-Sandy Hook political curveball in a number of ways, from simply shutting up and working quietly behind the scenes to scuttle gun control efforts (that always worked before) to announcing willingness to engage in some extremely mild compromise (like maybe prohibiting schizophrenics from carrying machine guns near kindergartens).

Instead, they decided to piss all over Martin Luther King Day and then shoot themselves by the half-dozen in the process.

Well done, fellas! You're well on your way to solving your demographic problems.

© 2012 Rolling Stone

Matt Taibbi

As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of journalistic giants Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi's 2004 campaign journal Spanking the Donkey cemented his status as an incisive, irreverent, zero-bullshit reporter. His books include Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire.

What to Make of Barack Obama?

In his Second Inaugural Address, President Obama offered a powerful rejoinder to the Right by arguing that progressive reform fits firmly within the Founders’ vision of a strong country advancing the “general Welfare” and securing “Blessings of Liberty.” But does his rhetoric reflect the real Obama?

American progressives tend to have two conflicting views of President Barack Obama: one that he had good intentions but inherited a poisonous mess from George W. Bush and then faced partisan, even racist obstructionism, or two that he was always a phony with a great smile who turned out to be “worse than Bush.”

Of course, there is much middle ground in assessments of Obama among progressives as from other political perspectives, but some prominent critics on the Left have opted for the latter point of view and berate anyone who takes the more forgiving position as an Obama “apologist.”

In particular, critics of Obama’s foreign policy have viewed it as an extension of Bush’s endless “war on terror” and only a slight redesign of U.S. imperialism, rather than a struggle by Obama to change the direction of America’s militaristic state, albeit gradually, deescalating wars and elevating diplomacy.

For instance, Oliver Stone’s Showtime documentary, “The Untold History of the United States,” likened Obama’s expansion of Bush’s lethal drone program against suspected terrorists to President Harry Truman dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, both presidents inviting a reckless arms race, according to Stone. But is that a fair comparison?

Surely, the drone program raises troubling policy and moral issues, including the acceptance of targeted killings (or assassinations) as a routine practice of U.S. statecraft, an issue that Obama will have to address in his second term. (And one would have to be naive to think that assassinations have not been used by many presidents over the years, whatever euphemisms or middlemen were deployed.)

But drones simply don’t represent the qualitative change in warfare that nuclear weapons did. Indeed, the idea of standoff attacks by a military, i.e. firing from remote locations outside the range of an enemy’s reach, is as old as the catapult and has advanced through history from the longbow to artillery to aerial bombing to Cruise missiles fired from aircraft carriers far offshore.

It’s true that drones may be the most extreme application of this age-old military tactic – with strikes launched from the other side of the globe – but drones don’t compare with the introduction of nuclear warfare with its indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and the potential to exterminate all life on Earth. To put the two weapons advances in the same sentence is a bit like comparing Obama to Hitler, an extreme example of hyperbole.

Obama’s ‘Team of Rivals’  

But there are other criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy that have more merit, such as why he failed to break decisively from Bush’s foreign policy after winning election in fall 2008. Still, that choice can be read in different ways: that he was too accommodating to the Establishment out of a sense of insecurity or that he shared its outlook.

The political reality that Obama confronted as a new President was that — even though Bush had been discredited in the eyes of most Americans — the Establishment, which had shared Bush’s eagerness for war in the Middle East, remained in place.  The editorial writers who had promoted Bush’s Iraq War still dominated the opinion pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, from the Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt to the Times’ Thomas Friedman.

The major Washington/New York think tanks had padded their staffs with high-profile neocons, from Robert Kagan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution to Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mainstream Democrats, like former Sen. David Boren and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, mostly urged Obama to opt for continuity over change, and more often than not, the mainstream media, even liberal-oriented outlets like MSNBC, followed the lead of the pro-war pundits.

So, after winning election, Obama bowed to these paragons of conventional wisdom who were then abuzz about the need to apply the lessons from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. Official Washington’s takeaway from the book was that the ever-wise Lincoln had surrounded himself with political rivals so he could benefit from their strongly held alternative viewpoints. And, in late 2008, Lincoln’s supposed blueprint was hailed as the way to build Obama’s new administration.

In the real history, however, some of Lincoln’s Cabinet appointments were political payoffs promised at the Republican Party’s Chicago convention of 1860 so Lincoln could secure the presidential nomination. Yes, Lincoln did cut political deals. And the national crisis of the Civil War may have tamped down the fires of ambitions within other “rivals.”

In 2008, the danger of applying that ancient governing template to a very different era wasn’t taken into account. The idea of Obama surrounding himself with powerful people who had profoundly different policy prescriptions was a recipe for trouble, since these “rivals” could – and would – sabotage him with leaks and other bureaucratic warfare if he veered off in his own direction.

But Obama – with very limited management experience – went along. To the applause of Washington’s pundit class, he retained Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates; he kept on Bush’s military stars like Gen. David Petraeus; and he named neocon-lite Sen. Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State.

Faced with this line-up of heavy hitters, Obama predictably got shelled in 2009 when he wanted only a limited escalation and withdrawal plan for the Afghan War but was pushed into signing off on a broad counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, an approach favored by Gates and Petraeus with Clinton’s support. The Pentagon denied Obama the more limited options he requested and then – facing leaks about his “indecisiveness” – he acquiesced to the Gates-Petraeus plan. He reportedly regretted his decision almost immediately. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Focusing on Bin Laden

Also recognizing the longstanding Democratic vulnerability of being labeled “soft on defense,” Obama authorized the CIA under his close ally, Leon Panetta, to refocus U.S. counterterrorism efforts on eliminating al-Qaeda’s top leadership, most notably Osama bin Laden.

That led to an expanded use of Predator drones hovering in the skies over Pakistan and other countries where al-Qaeda operatives were seen as mounting terrorist attacks against the U.S. mainland. Drone missiles killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen as well as other al-Qaeda operatives (though bin Laden was slain by U.S. commandos airlifted deep into Pakistan).

The drones raised a variety of serious concerns, such as the risk of making war seem easy and cheap. U.S. boots could be kept on the ground at home – with “pilots” handling “joy sticks” thousands of miles from the actual war zones. But this tactic of targeting groups of suspected terrorists did create political space for Obama to finish withdrawing from the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan — despite harsh criticism from neocons and other pundits.

Belatedly, Obama also began replacing his initial Team of Rivals. Gates went into retirement in 2011; Petraeus departed amid a sex scandal in 2012; and Clinton is slated to be gone early in 2013.

So, there are two ways to view Obama’s foreign policy: one is that he let himself be hoodwinked by the hawks in his Team of Rivals but is now quietly extricating the United States from a decade of imperial wars, slowing steering the ship of state toward a more peaceful harbor, or two, he is just the latest manager of American imperialism with plans to reduce military operations in the Middle East only to expand them in Africa and Asia.

A similar duality of opinion persists about Obama’s domestic policies. In 2008-09, was he so terrified of tipping the world into a global depression that he swallowed his anger and acquiesced to bailing out Wall Street, or was he simply the latest Wall Street tool to become President with the singular goal of protecting Wall Street’s financial interests?

Did he get all that was politically doable on economic stimulus, the auto rescue and health-care reform – in the face of intractable Republican and right-wing opposition – or did he throw the fight on behalf of special interests?

If you wish to be generous toward Obama, you might add that just as the inexperienced president was entranced by the Team of Rivals illusion on foreign policy, he stuck way too long with another Inside-the-Beltway fantasy: the notion that he could somehow woo “reasonable” Republicans into putting aside partisanship and help him address a moment of grave economic crisis.

His courtship of Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was particularly painful as he kept thinking he had a chance with her on health-care reform when she obviously was just stringing him along. Yet, to this day, Obama gets hectored by the likes of the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd for not schmoozing enough with Republicans, as if playing poker with them on Wednesday nights would somehow lead them into bipartisan camaraderie the rest of the week.

The mainstream media continues to peddle this myth that bipartisanship is possible if only Obama tried harder, even when all the evidence indicates that the Republicans set out from the start to destroy his presidency and to deny him any achievements regardless of the toll that would take on the U.S. and world economies.

So, the fact that there has been almost no accountability in the Washington pundit class for a long train of failures has to be taken into account when evaluating Obama’s first term. If Obama had struck off in a radically different direction on foreign or domestic policies, he would have encountered intense resistance not only from the Republicans, the Tea Party and the neocons but also from the mainstream media and other parts of the Establishment. Whether he could have maintained his political viability in such circumstances is debatable.

Perfection vs. Pragmatism

In that regard, the long-term decline of the American Left also must be factored in. A common refrain that I hear from folks on the Left is that America has no Left, at least nothing that compares to the power on the Right to reach out to millions of sympathizers – via a sophisticated media apparatus – and rally them into action.

Instead of having the capacity to mobilize supporters to fight for politically achievable reforms, the Left now even shies away from offering specific policy ideas, as happened with the Occupy protests in 2011. Long-term marginalization from practical politics has contributed to the Left’s tendency to adopt the role of critic, acting as the avatar of perfection.

Giving his Second Inaugural Address, President Obama may have been speaking as much to the Left as to the Right when he declared: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”

Indeed, the answer to the question – who is the real Barack Obama – may not present itself until this second term plays out and possibly not even then. Even though his speech on Monday was the most ringing defense of liberal government that the American people have heard in decades, there will still be those on the Left who doubt his sincerity and will surely find evidence of inconsistencies in his compromises.

But the truth may be that Obama actually does believe in progressive governance, that he saw his Second Inaugural as his last big opportunity to make that case to the American public. In his heart, he appears to be a reformer, yet also a pragmatist, recognizing the many impediments and obstacles in the political terrain where he finds himself.

Yet, after a first term in which he seemed to cede too much ground, Obama took the rhetorical fight to right-wingers in his Second Inaugural, challenging their claim to be the true protectors of America’s Founding principles, that they alone understand American “exceptionalism” and that they might even have to resort to armed insurrection against the constitutionally elected government of the United States to stop “tyranny” and “take back” the country.

To those delusions, Obama said: “Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.

“What makes us exceptional, what makes us American, is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed. For more than two hundred years, we have.”

Obama then made his case for continued reform within the constitutional framework: “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

“Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune. Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.

“But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

“No single person can train all the math and science teachers, we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”

Reversing Reagan

Thirty-two years ago, when Ronald Reagan declared in his First Inaugural Address that “government is the problem,” the United States began a radical shift away from the lessons of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the post-World War II “GI Bill” and Dwight Eisenhower’s constructive Republicanism – the key elements that built the Great American Middle Class and achieved an unprecedented level of financial security for many Americans.

Behind Reagan, a resurgent Right sped off in a new direction, convincing many white middle- and working-class men that their interests lay more with the rich plutocrats than with struggling minorities and underpaid women, that the real victims in America were Ayn Rand’s supermen whose economic dynamism needed to be “unchained.”

Thus, for most of the ensuing three decades, through lower taxes on the rich and deregulation of industry, the nation’s wealth shifted dramatically to the top 1 percent, the financial speculators prospered, the middle-class shrank and finally the economic “bubble” burst.

While Obama’s First Inaugural – and indeed his first term – concentrated on addressing the economic crisis, his Second Inaugural warned that now the United States must begin facing other crises, from global warming to gun violence to rebuilding the middle class to protecting important social programs for those in need. He said:

“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.

“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own. … We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. … We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.

“We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other: through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great. …

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

Some pundits on the Right and Center immediately criticized Obama for taking shots at Ayn Rand acolytes like Rep. Paul Ryan, the former Republican vice presidential nominee who complained about a nation of “takers, not makers” and the global-warming deniers who see a socialist conspiracy behind scientific warnings of climate change.

Skepticism and Rejection

But Obama also has encountered skepticism and criticism when he talked about finally bringing the last decade of war to an end. He said, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

Then, in a reference to World War II and the Cold War, Obama added, “we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well. We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law.

“We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” It was a message that the neocons disdained and that many on the Left doubted.

Obama then wrapped up his Second Inaugural with possibly its most memorable promise, a commitment to advance the cause of justice and equality:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. …

“Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time. For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay.”

Obama then called on American citizens to create the political space so these necessary reforms can be achieved: “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

The final measure of Obama and his presidency may not be just how well he lives up to the commitments of his Second Inaugural but how forcefully the American people insist that those commitments become real.

Top Five Lines From Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

President Barack Obama was symbolically sworn into office for a second and final term on Monday (the formal ceremony was on Sunday). As is traditional, the President had the opportunity to lay out his vision for his upcoming term. Obama’s speech was far different from the somber, circumspect address he gave in 2009, when the country was just beginning to grapple with the Great Recession. Monday's speech was full of hope, and a pointed rejection of the worldview of his 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney. Here are the top five passages from Obama’s speech.

5. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.

We all are aware that Barack Obama is America’s first African-American leader; indeed, he’s the first person with recent sub-Saharan African heritage to lead any Western nation. It’s easy to be glib about that, far harder to remember that it was but 50 years ago that America was fighting a bitter battle between those who supported integration and those who sought to maintain segregation. Obama is president today because of the millions of men and women who stood up and demanded that the self-evident truth of equality be extended to people of all races.

Over and over, our nation has extended equality to non-white, non-male, non-straight people grudgingly and half-heartedly, and only after equality was demanded. Obama’s speech acknowledges that — if we could recognize the “self-evident” truth that all people are equal, then there would be no question whether same-sex marriage should be legal, or women should get paid the same as men, or trans people should have the right to live their lives free of harassment, or whether restrictions on voting rights are at all appropriate.

The only way we will get to full equality for all people is to continue to demand it. It is, unfortunately, a never-ending journey, but Obama’s election (and perhaps more important, his re-election) is a sign that for all the arduousness of the journey, it is taking us in the right direction.

4. For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

This line is a direct rejoinder to Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe. The extremist base of the Republican Party has in recent years begun to argue that any assistance to the poor is “socialism,” any government action an infringement on liberty. Obama flatly rejects the formulation, recognizing correctly that a society is by definition collective to some extent. If we simply turn our backs on the poor and the needy, simply refuse to spend money to educate our children, care for our sick, and ensure our seniors enjoy retirement, we fail the most basic test of society.

3. We must act. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

It is easy to complain when politicians — on either side — pass laws that are imperfect. There is suffering and sorrow aplenty in the world, and each time a bill is watered-down, each time a bill includes distasteful provisions, each time a new law fails to solve the problems of our time, it is tempting to simply declare the entire system broken beyond repair.

Politics, however, is a constant series of compromises between different factions. That is by design. Democracy was created as a way to avoid the previous method of changing government, which was armed rebellion. For good or ill, that means that sometimes, measures are imperfect.

That doesn’t mean that imperfect measures are meaningless, though. If a measure advances us forward, it makes it easier for the next group of leaders to move us further forward. The Affordable Care Act, for example, has many flaws, but it is better than nothing — and future leaders can build on it to make something better still.

The key is that we as a society keep advancing. That means, sometimes, that we have to work with those we disagree with. That’s democracy. As Winston Churchill once said, it’s the worst form of government, until you look at all the others.

2. We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

Obama here did something important, and historic. He linked the struggle for equal rights for LGBT Americans with the struggle for equal rights for people of color and the struggle for equal rights for women. He said, flatly, that these fights for equality are one and the same, and all motivated by the same goal. Furthermore, this struggle for equality is, in Obama’s estimation, the fundamental bedrock of our society.

1. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.

This, finally, is a direct challenge to the Randian philosophy of the right. There are not moochers and looters, says Obama. There are just Americans. And if we as a society choose to help those who need help, that does not diminish us. It strengthens us.

It is not a coincidence that our nation reached true greatness in the 20th century, when we embraced universal education, when we finally found our way to view women and people of color as equal, when we created safety-net programs to protect those who were struggling. Nor is it a coincidence that our nation has struggled since it began to forget that what drives the country is not the super-rich, but the people as a whole.

Obama will face fights over the next four years, to be sure. But as he begins his second term, he has said to America that he believes in a nation where we look out for each other. He is saying, flatly, that the GOP may argue for a retreat from community, but that as long as he is president, he will not go with them.

If I Were Attorney General

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Bio

Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include "Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America," and “ Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.” NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.

Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week's edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who now joins us from New York City.

Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He's chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He's a board member of The Real News. Thanks for joining us again, Michael.MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Paul.JAY: So I'm—let's kick this one off with a question. So President Obama gets inaugurated, and all of a sudden he has this brilliant flash: oh, no, I need Michael Ratner as attorney general. Now, that's as likely to happen as—well, okay, I'm not going to crack any joke, but let's say it happened. What would you do as attorney general?RATNER: Well, you know, it's an interesting question. And I was asked the question by a progressive newspaper called The Indepedent as well, along similar lines. And, of course, you could decide, you could have a different government, a socialist government. But, of course, that's not going to be decided by the attorney general. So what does the attorney general do? Attorney general heads the Department of Justice. In, like, 200 and some years there's been one woman heading the Department of Justice. So you have to assume it's probably going to be a man this time, which is going to be me. And I came up with some ideas, perhaps eight, nine, ten ideas of what I could actually do. So the first one is a nice—for all of us activists out there, 'cause you get social change through activism. And what I said was, handcuff the FBI, not activists. So the first thing that they could do is get the FBI off the backs of political activists, Muslim activists, people who are out in the streets, Occupy Wall Street people, and just get rid of government, political FBI spying, put handcuffs on the FBI, not on all of us, because that's how social change is made.And right now we're in a situation where Obama and the FBI are still operating under the FBI guidelines that were suggested by President Bush's last attorney general, Mukasey. And they're terrible, because they allow spying and surveillance and wiretapping on people who they have never been even accused or even implicated in a crime without reasonable doubt. They can spy on anybody.So number one, handcuff the FBI and not activists.Number two—and this is the power of attorney general. Even if there's laws on the books saying it's illegal for me to smoke marijuana or take cocaine, the attorney general doesn't have to enforce those federal laws. And so the second thing I would do as attorney general, I would just stop all drug prosecutions. That's not the same as passing laws that says they're legal. But as attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer, stop all drug prosecutions. Already you're going to see our jails getting empty, less people going, huge budget cuts that will make a big difference in, of course, people's personal lives.The third is: what do we do about jails, and what can I do as attorney general? Well, I could ask that every single juvenile, every single person convicted as a juvenile in prison, under 18 years old, should be immediately paroled. They had no place in prison to begin with. They should have been treated. They should have been rehabilitated. Get rid of that right away.Then I would ask that all the political prisoners be released—Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, etc., anybody—. Mumia, I wouldn't have the authority. He's in a state prison. But all the federal prisoners, such as the Indian activist Leonard Peltier. Get them out. And then, out of federal prisons, ask for parole of anybody who's served over 20 years. Europe really has a maximum of 20 years. Let's get rid of those. They're just being in there for punitive reasons.So I have FBI, drugs, prisons. Then I would end the prosecution of any undocumented workers in the United States. No longer would we use a criminal system, such as operation streamline to jail tens and tens of thousands of people. End the prosecution of undocumented.Fifth, I would stop the prosecution of my own client, Julian Assange, the investigation of him as well as WikiLeaks. I would have stopped the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the young internet activist who committed suicide really in part as a result, if not even in big part, as a result of the government's persecution of Aaron Swartz, the internet activist. I would stop the prosecution of Bradley Manning. I would stop the one of Jeremy Hammond. Those are two people who allegedly uploaded documents to WikiLeaks. So I would just stop with prosecuting whistleblowers, just get rid of that, because they're exposing secrets that we really have to know. That's the sixth thing.The seventh thing—and this is a hard one to get into for the attorney general, because you think, how do I make this country more equal from an economic point of view. So I've thought long and hard about that. I can't change the tax code. But what could I do? I could decide that anyone making under a certain amount will not be prosecuted if they don't pay taxes.So let's set the figure at, let's say, $40,000. Anyone making under $40,000, if they decide not to pay taxes, I will not prosecute them as the Department of Justice, nor will I use civil jurisdiction or civil courts to try and collect those taxes. That would automatically raise the salary levels, raise the levels of income of, you know, probably the majority of the United States. That's the sixth thing.The seventh thing. I don't want to let the bad guys off the hook here. I have two sets of bad guys. The first thing I would do is begin an investigation and hope to get an indictment of President Obama for operating the drone strikes throughout the world. I would particularly go after them for the killing of al-Aulaqi in Yemen or al-Aulaqi's son in Yemen, a 16-year-old boy, and for another U.S. citizen in Yemen. There's a U.S. law—and a federal judge actually just cited it in a recent decision on drones. It says the president is not exempt from a law that prohibits people from killing Americans overseas. So I'd begin an investigation of President Obama because he has killed American citizens with drones.JAY: Now, not only will you never get appointed, but if in the wildest chance you did, you wouldn't hold the job for very long. Go on.RATNER: Well, once I get him indicted, you know, he can't get rid of me. Anyway, anything I would do is I would go after, obviously, the Bush–Cheney torture kill teams—implemented not only indefinite detention at Guantanamo and Bagram, but who actually tortured people all over the world—Guantanamo, Bagram—who rendered people to torture, and I would investigate and prosecute those people. That seems like a no-brainer. It should have been a no-brainer to Obama. It should have been a no-brainer to Eric Holder, the current person who I'm replacing. But apparently even that has been difficult.JAY: Now, you're talking Bush–Cheney themselves?RATNER: Yes, of course. Bush and Cheney have both admitted that they ordered waterboarding, a form of torture, and they would do it again. That's—you don't need much more. They've openly admitted to ordering people to be tortured. And we know that people have been tortured as a result. Materials were released. Various people at black sites, one person 83 times waterboarded, another person well over 100. Torture's completely illegal. We have an obligation to prosecute torturers under the Convention Against Torture. It hasn't been done by Obama. I as attorney general would actually—of the ones I mentioned, I think a number of them are actually realistic. That one certainly should be carried out.Then, you know, how else do we get at the financial crisis? I gave us one way [unintel.] stop people having to pay taxes. I just won't prosecute them. The other way, and what I made up for this, is: too big to fail, too big not to be in jail. So rather than just give all of these big banks civil penalties, or these investment houses, even if they're $10 billion or $5 billion or $500 million, let's actually have investigations where we jail the crooked bankers, jail the crooked investment houses, because that's the way, at least, we can avert not crisis—'cause we're going to have crisis in capitalism for a long time, economic crisis, but maybe we can take some of the really deep edge off the next economic crisis by trying to get our banks, our mortgage fraud people, etc., to operate in a better way. That's number nine. Number ten. This was an interesting one. This was actually suggested by my daughter, modeled after a law in Bolivia called the Rights of Mother Earth, Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra. And what it does is rather than just talk about rights for human beings, talks about rights for the ecosystem and the cultural system that you're in, so that when you do something, you have to not just think about what's going to happen, you know, to me or when you build a dam, but what's going to happen to the whole ecosystem. Bolivia has such a law. And as attorney general, of course, I can't pass that law, but at least I could try and put that law forward. So these are ten real positions that the next attorney general could take. And were I the attorney general, despite the political pushback I could get, these are things that I would actually like to carry out. And while they wouldn't be revolutionary in the sense of overturning this society, what they represent to me are transitional actions, transitional demands and actions that ultimately can lead to a much more equal society.JAY: Well, that's great. I mean, I think if this was an elected position, you could probably get elected to this. Unfortunately, it's not.RATNER: I love you, Paul.JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Michael.RATNER: Thank you, Paul.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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Magnitsky was an accountant, not a truth seeker – Medvedev

Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev addresses the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 23, 2013. (Reuters / Pascal Lauener)

Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev addresses the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 23, 2013. (Reuters / Pascal Lauener)

The whole story of Sergey Magnitsky is politicized fiction as this corporate executive had never been a truth-seeker, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview in Davos.

He was a corporate lawyer or an accountant and he defended the interests of the people who hired him. He was not a truth seeker,” Medvedev told Bloomberg television. “Nevertheless, I feel pity for him as this man died in prison,” the Russian PM added.

Medvedev said it was very important to understand the reasons for this death and this was the real objective for the state and the rest was “politicized fiction of certain people” created to justify these people’s commercial activities in Russia.

He then accused these people of first making billions of dollars by trading in Russian assets and assuming a political position only after law enforcers uncovered a fraud.

Sergey Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison in November 2009 while in pre-trial custody on charges involving a major tax evasion scheme. A number of prison staff were fired and two doctors were tried and sentenced for criminal negligence over this death. However, Magnitsky’s former employers, the British investment fund Hermitage Capital and its head William Browder claim that Magnitsky was investigating fraud committed by several top Russian police and tax officials and was killed because he refused to stop.

Browder’s efforts eventually led to the United States introducing the so called Magnitsky Act – a set of sanctions applied to a group of Russian officials allegedly complicit in Magnitsky’s death and other Human Rights violations.

Medvedev said in the same interview that Russia had managed to create a legal framework for fighting corruption and this system is already yielding results. Law enforcers have started about 50,000 criminal cases involving corruption, Medvedev added that he expected a considerable part of these cases to be forwarded to courts and end up in convictions.

Global Warming is a Domestic Crisis

As President Obama made clear in his inaugural address Monday, failing to confront the threat of climate change in his second term would be a betrayal of future generations. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science,” Obama said, “but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” Actually, there are some who can avoid fires, drought and storms, but most of them voted for Mitt Romney.Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, N.J., reacts after looking at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge the morning after superstorm Sandy rolled through. (Photo: AP/Julio Cortez)

At a time of continued unemployment and Republican assaults on workers’ rights, the climate crisis may not seem like a pressing bread and butter concern. However it is vital for the president and his allies in Congress to remember that those Americans most defenseless against extreme weather and natural disasters form the backbone of the Democratic Party.

That is the only conclusion one can draw from the draft of a new federal study on global warming’s growing impact on the United States. Those who stand for workers and the middle class, and for the rights of minorities, women and the underprivileged in our increasingly unequal society, are facing yet another epochal struggle. The carbon dioxide being spewed into the atmosphere by the coal, oil and gas corporations threatens the well-being of the 99 percent on a whole range of new fronts.

Climate change is provoking more and more drastic weather events. Residents along coastal regions are at risk both from more violent storms and from a projected 3- to 4-foot sea level rise over the next eight decades. The enormous storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy is an example of these new threats. Hurricanes require warm water to remain active, and Sandy fed off of high Atlantic temperatures in waters that have historically been much colder.

The draft National Climate Assessment notes that people and neighborhoods along the coast were hardest hit, adding, “Many low-to-moderate income residents live in these areas and suffered the damage or loss of their homes, leaving tens of thousands of people displaced or homeless.” We saw with Katrina in New Orleans, as well, how the least well-off are often shunted to low-lying and more vulnerable land. Most of New Orleans will be gone within a century if we go on producing carbon dioxide at our current rate.

The elderly and medical patients faced special difficulties as a result of the storm surge, including the loss of electricity and other services, since they could not as easily flee. The assessment points out that with Sandy, “the elderly and infirm were highly vulnerable, especially those living in the coastal evacuation zone and those on upper floors of apartment buildings left without elevator service.” The rising temperatures and heat waves that global warming is bringing to the U.S. are especially risky for the elderly.

The $300 billion a year in agricultural crops and livestock produced by the United States will be adversely affected by climate change within 30 years, potentially increasing the cost of food and hurting farmworkers. People will see rising food prices if drought and other effects of climate change reduce our agricultural productivity through decreased rainfall and more insect infestations. The annual yield will also fluctuate more, causing prices to spike unpredictably some years.

At the moment, Americans spend only about 6 percent of their income on food, less than most Europeans and far less than is typical in the global south. Workers, the poor and everyone on a budget benefit from our relatively inexpensive groceries, but that boon is likely to change. Already more than one in six Americans is food insecure (i.e., they are sometimes unable to buy enough food to avoid hunger, and are just barely avoiding a nutritional crisis). Their situation will deteriorate further in coming years because of the damage climate change will do to crop yields.

Severe weather particularly endangers city dwellers, because municipal services are interconnected. Electricity is needed to pump water and to run some transportation, including elevators. Roads easily flood, making it difficult to flee rising waters. Oil refineries and pipelines are readily taken offline, producing fuel shortages that also hurt the ability of victims to leave disaster areas. City services, then, can be knocked out together in what scientists call a “cascade” (by which they mean that one disaster causes another, which causes another, on down the line).

About 245 million Americans now live in cities, and the vast majority of them are workers. The homeowners among them most often claim their residence as their major asset. Those homes are threatened by the harsh weather that climate change is generating.

The transportation networks on which people depend to get to work, moreover, could be degraded by the effects of climate change. First of all, a lot of damage could be done to the $4 trillion American transportation infrastructure by warming. Expansion joints on bridges suffer more stress when hot, and rail tracks buckle more often. In the Northern states, there will be less snow and more rain, and spring deluges will take out more bridges than slow-melting snow typically does. The asphalt in roads deteriorates faster in the heat, and drought in the Southeast and Southwest will cause slopes to be unstable and contribute to the pavement buckling. As for workers who live along the Gulf of Mexico, it will be harder to get around. According to the draft report on transportation, “In total, 24% of interstate highway miles and 28% of secondary road miles in the Gulf Coast region are at elevations below 4 feet.” (Sea levels will rise at least 4 feet over the coming 80 years).

And, well, it will be hot. Imagine being a construction worker in Houston where a heat wave is not 107 degrees, but 113. People whose jobs keep them outside in the summer may have to work more hours in the evenings and very early mornings, and will be at greater risk for dehydration, heat stroke and heart attack.

Labor activists and environmentalists need to band together to fight the effects of climate change, which will function as an extra tax on workers. The rich have the resources to get to the high ground. They can afford imported food, and will replace crumbling public infrastructure with toll roads and gated communities. It is the workers and the middle class who will bear the brunt of climate change disasters.

Workers and labor unions can take their own stand by divesting from coal, gas and oil companies in their pension funds, and can lobby for the closing of coal plants and a rapid move to wind and solar energy. The House of Representatives is useless, but municipal and state governments can accomplish a lot with their own energy projects and with tax rebates. Officials often will not offer them, however, unless pressured to do so. Not only unions, but organizations representing women and minorities have a stake in preventing these calamities. There are also expanding opportunities for crowdsourcing the funding of solar and wind projects. Solar panels are increasingly affordable and should be on every roof in the United States, and it is the people who can make that happen.

If carbon emissions are not radically reduced by 2020, we will be doomed to some of the worst effects of the intensified greenhouse gases. President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has finally enforced mercury pollution limits at coal plants, and is forcing substantial numbers of them to close. But all of them have to be shut in eight years if we are to avoid calamities, and it is not Obama’s instinct to pursue radical change. Nor has he been good about standing in the way of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), a method of extracting natural gas that emits a great deal of methane. The president’s constituencies have to hold him to his inaugural promises and let him know that dealing with CO2 emissions and climate change is among their highest priorities for his second term.

© 2012 TruthDig.com

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He is also the author of Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

Gates and Tutu back hunger campaign

Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu have thrown their weight behind a new campaign aiming to combat malnutrition and hunger in the developing world.

One hundred development and faith British charities have united behind the Enough Food For Everyone IF coalition, urging Prime Minister David Cameron to use the UK's G8 presidency in 2013 to tackle the causes of hunger in the developing world.

The campaign, being billed as the largest coalition of its kind in the UK since Make Poverty History in 2005, warns that the "scandal" of children growing up hungry will trap almost a billion young people in poverty by 2025 and cost the developed world £78 billion over the next 15 years.

Mr Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town and a long-serving human rights campaigner, said: "Hunger is not an incurable disease or an unavoidable tragedy. We can make sure no child goes to bed hungry.

"We can stop mothers from starving themselves to feed their families. We can save lives.

"We can do all of this, if we are prepared to do something about it. If we challenge our leaders to take action. If they listen to us.

"It's time the world's decision-makers came to the right decision on hunger.

"It's time to end the unnecessary suffering caused by the failure of the current food system. We can make hunger a thing of the past if we act now."

Billionaire Mr Gates is also well-known for his philanthropic work through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, most notably in combating malaria.

The IF campaign will be formally launched at Somerset House in London, at an event expected to feature celebrities including actors Bill Nighy, Keeley Hawes and Bonnie Wright, Senegalese musician Baaba Maal, former athletes Denise Lewis and Colin Jackson, and ex-England rugby captain Matt Dawson. Other events will take place across the UK.

Going Nuclear? Reid Vows Filibuster Reform, Whether GOP Likes it or Not

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Tuesday that he's ready to use the "nuclear option" allowing a simple majority to reform the "untamed menace" of the filibuster, indicating that it doesn't matter whether his Republican cohorts are with him or not.

Reid said, if need be, he would employ the "nuclear option" to muscle in the reform. (Photo via usactionnews.com) "I hope that within the next 24 to 36 hours we can get something we agree on. If not, we're going to move forward on what I think needs to be done," Reid told reporters, adding, "The caucus will support me on that."

If unable to reach bipartisan agreement, Huffington Post reports that Reid will muscle in the reforms using, what opponents call, a "nuclear option" which only requires a simple majority, rather than the usual two-thirds vote, so that they chamber can adopt new rules at the start of each term.

Senior Democrats have previously expressed reluctance to use this tactic, saying they feared it would set a dangerous precedent.

The filibuster, which allows the minority party to hold up Senate business by requiring a 60-vote threshold, has long-stifled legislative. However, in recent years we've seen an uptick in abuse "crippling not just the upper house, but the entire legislative branch of government,” said Diana Kasdan, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

During the recently departed 112th Congress, Republicans mounted or threatened to mount nearly 400 filibusters, "blocking everything from equal pay for equal work and jobs bills to immigration reform and judicial appointments," according to a recent episode of Moyers & Company.

Noting that the party in the majority always wants to reform it, until that same party winds up in the minority and wants to keep it, Bill Moyers declared the practice “a triumph of hypocrisy.”

In the wake of Reid's announcement, everyone from environmentalists to workers' rights groups urged their followers to call their local Senator, declaring, "We may be on the verge of ending obstructionism in the Senate."

_____________________

‘Roe’ at 40: The Economic Divide That Denies Low-Income Women Their Right to an...

Happy fortieth, Roe! They say 40 is the new 20. And that might be fitting, because four decades later to the day it feels like in many ways we’ve moved back in time. While access to abortion is still in theory a right every woman in this country enjoys, an economic chasm has yawned between the well-off and the poor.

The Guttmacher Institute has some enlightening, if disheartening, infographics to celebrate the anniversary. As the first demonstrates, low-income women are the majority of those who seek abortions:

Their abortion rates are five times those of wealthier women. Yet it may be hardest for them to get the services they need. The average cost of a first-term abortion is $470, and many women are paying for that out of pocket:

A third of all abortion patients don’t have any health insurance to help defray the cost. Even so, most women don’t use insurance anyway – almost 60 percent pay out of pocket. Only about 20 percent use Medicaid, since those funds are prohibited from financing an abortion unless it results from rape, incest or endangers the life of the mother. Some states go even further in restricting its use, while only seventeen use their own funds to patch that hole for low-income women on Medicaid in need of an abortion.

But payment is only one piece of the puzzle. As the Nation editors recently noted, “87 percent of US counties lack an abortion provider, and several states have only a clinic or two staffed by a doctor who flies in from another state.” Thirty-five percent of all the country’s women live in those counties that don’t have a provider:

That means that some women have to travel more than fifty miles to obtain an abortion. Doing so requires time off work, transportation, lodging and child care, all of which start to bloat the cost very quickly. Once they get to the provider, they may face even more restrictions, such as waiting periods that mean they have to stick around for an extra twenty-four hours between the initial counseling session and the actual procedure, spending more money and losing more wages. They may have to pay for a medically unnecessary ultrasound. Suddenly a safe medical procedure that is the legal right of every woman becomes a near impossibility for those who don’t have enough money to foot all the bills.

As Guttmacher reports, “Women report having to borrow money from friends & family and forgo paying rent, groceries, & utilities to pay for their procedure.” Some may just not be able to scrape it all together. That could be part of why low-income women have an unplanned birth rate six times that of more well to do women.

The anniversary of the landmark case that paved the way for legal abortion isn’t just marked by doom and gloom. As the Nation editors point out, twenty new pro-choice legislators were elected to Congress in the last election. Last year was another record year for the number of abortion restrictions enacted at the state level, but it was down a bit from the year before.

But it’s clear that this is no time to drop our guard. The election also gave Republicans supermajority control over the legislatures of fifteen states, and four states already have plans to keep whittling away reproductive rights. If they have their way, abortion access will almost certainly continue to disappear, particularly for women who have fewer resources. Forty years later, some women can access abortion—but it’s far from a need-blind right.

© 2012 The Nation

Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

‘Roe’ at 40: The Economic Divide That Denies Low-Income Women Their Right to an...

Happy fortieth, Roe! They say 40 is the new 20. And that might be fitting, because four decades later to the day it feels like in many ways we’ve moved back in time. While access to abortion is still in theory a right every woman in this country enjoys, an economic chasm has yawned between the well-off and the poor.

The Guttmacher Institute has some enlightening, if disheartening, infographics to celebrate the anniversary. As the first demonstrates, low-income women are the majority of those who seek abortions:

Their abortion rates are five times those of wealthier women. Yet it may be hardest for them to get the services they need. The average cost of a first-term abortion is $470, and many women are paying for that out of pocket:

A third of all abortion patients don’t have any health insurance to help defray the cost. Even so, most women don’t use insurance anyway – almost 60 percent pay out of pocket. Only about 20 percent use Medicaid, since those funds are prohibited from financing an abortion unless it results from rape, incest or endangers the life of the mother. Some states go even further in restricting its use, while only seventeen use their own funds to patch that hole for low-income women on Medicaid in need of an abortion.

But payment is only one piece of the puzzle. As the Nation editors recently noted, “87 percent of US counties lack an abortion provider, and several states have only a clinic or two staffed by a doctor who flies in from another state.” Thirty-five percent of all the country’s women live in those counties that don’t have a provider:

That means that some women have to travel more than fifty miles to obtain an abortion. Doing so requires time off work, transportation, lodging and child care, all of which start to bloat the cost very quickly. Once they get to the provider, they may face even more restrictions, such as waiting periods that mean they have to stick around for an extra twenty-four hours between the initial counseling session and the actual procedure, spending more money and losing more wages. They may have to pay for a medically unnecessary ultrasound. Suddenly a safe medical procedure that is the legal right of every woman becomes a near impossibility for those who don’t have enough money to foot all the bills.

As Guttmacher reports, “Women report having to borrow money from friends & family and forgo paying rent, groceries, & utilities to pay for their procedure.” Some may just not be able to scrape it all together. That could be part of why low-income women have an unplanned birth rate six times that of more well to do women.

The anniversary of the landmark case that paved the way for legal abortion isn’t just marked by doom and gloom. As the Nation editors point out, twenty new pro-choice legislators were elected to Congress in the last election. Last year was another record year for the number of abortion restrictions enacted at the state level, but it was down a bit from the year before.

But it’s clear that this is no time to drop our guard. The election also gave Republicans supermajority control over the legislatures of fifteen states, and four states already have plans to keep whittling away reproductive rights. If they have their way, abortion access will almost certainly continue to disappear, particularly for women who have fewer resources. Forty years later, some women can access abortion—but it’s far from a need-blind right.

© 2012 The Nation

Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

GOP, Thomas Hobbes Rig Elections

Thomas Hobbes17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. (Image: John Michael Wright)While the nation was hypnotized by the Second Inaugural of Barack Obama on Tuesday, Republicans in Virginia moved America closer to the place envisioned by the 17th century dystopic philosopher Thomas Hobbes. 

What they did is jam a new redistricting plan through the state senate that created more safe seats for Republicans, virtually assuring Republican domination of the state Senate come the next election in two years. It was blatant election rigging.

In an interview with TPM, Democratic state Senator Creigh Deeds blasted the surprise redistricting plan. “It goes against every tradition,” he said. “It was a dirty trick.”            

And get this, the only reason why the measure passed a split state Senate with twenty Republicans and twenty Democrats is because one of those Democrats – civil rights leader Senator Harry Marsh – was in Washington, DC attending the inauguration. So, with a single vote advantage for a single day, Republicans pounced.

Just like Republicans in Pennsylvania pounced last week when they introduced legislation to change how their state allocates Electoral College votes. Rather than a winner-take-all system, which granted President Obama all of the state’s twenty Electoral College votes last November, Republicans want votes handed out based on which Congressional districts were won by each candidate. Why? Because they gerrymandered the congressional districts in 2010. Under this scheme, Mitt Romney would have actually won 13 of 20 Electoral College votes in Pennsylvania despite losing the statewide popular vote by four points. Again, it’s blatant election rigging.

To make matters worse, Republicans state lawmakers in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin are all considering similar changes that will make it virtually impossible for a Democrat to win the White House in the future.

As Joe Biden would say, “This is a BFD.”

But these efforts around the country aren’t just to secure Republicans political victories over the next two to four years and beyond. They’re also to, in the opinion of Conservatives, save the nation from the “evil-natured masses.” They actually believe that by rigging elections to give them power, they’re saving America from the unwashed masses.

This mistrust of voters reveals the heart of the difference in worldviews between Conservatives and Liberals.

The Conservative line of thinking comes from Thomas Hobbes’ worldview that man is inherently evil. As Hobbes describes the natural state of man, our “state of nature” is a place where, “there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

As such, we cannot be trusted to govern ourselves. Instead, we must be governed by a strong central authority like a King or Pope.

There’s also a strain of Calvinist thinking to this Conservative fear of voters. While Calvinists in centuries past also concluded that the masses are, for the most part, wicked, they also claimed that there’s a small group of individuals who have been pre-chosen by God to rule the rest of us. They’re known as “The Elect.”

How did we know who these special individuals were? Well, they were the ones who were rich and powerful, because God made them so.

This is a very convenient ideology for the rich and powerful to convince us all to buy into. And it stuck for centuries, as people were reduced to mere serfs or servants, ruled by a “benevolent” King or an “enlightened” religious leader.

Today, Kings and Theocrats have been largely pushed aside. But this view that man is best governed by a small, wealthy elite remains alive. It’s the core assumption of the Conservative ideology that is each and every day eroding the power of the electorate in states across America. It’s why people like Grover Norquist would call for drowning American democracy in the bathtubs of oligarchs like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson – after all, you just can’t trust a government that offers “free stuff” like Social Security or universal healthcare to the rabble.

This is why Liberalism is so important.

It was John Locke in the 18thCentury who first pushed back against Hobbes’ “state of nature” and argued that man is not motivated by malice, but instead by reason. And through reason, “we the people” can actually govern ourselves through laws based on reason.

To Locke, any sort of government that operates without the consent of the people – and without reason – should be overthrown. Needless to say, Hobbes’ absolute Kings and Oligarchs, who derived their consent from God or their riches, and not reason, shouldn’t exist in Locke’s world.

Ultimately, as the Enlightenment moved along, Locke’s idea prevailed over Hobbes. And it was in the tradition of Locke that our Founding Fathers became revolutionaries and overthrew the King of England. And it was in the tradition of Locke that Thomas Jefferson fought with the early royalists to spread democracy to more and more people.

To this day, this issue of how much power voters should have, compared to billionaires, churches, and corporations, remains the fundamental point of cleavage between Conservatives and Liberals.        

For the last thirty years, the Conservative worldview has prevailed in America. It says we cannot trust the people to govern themselves, and so we must trust the wealthy elite and the market to organize society. And with recent democracy-suppressing efforts in Virginia and Pennsylvania, Conservatives use this worldview to rationalize their behavior.

But now, with President Obama saying “we the people” five times in his Second Inaugural, it’s clear he’s trying to put Hobbes and his Conservative ideology back into the dustbin of history. 

And it’s time that we as a nation ask ourselves a fundamental question: Are we capable of governing ourselves as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson believed? Or should we simply let the modern-day kings, the billionaires, run things, as today’s Conservatives believe?

Our Founding Fathers answered that questioned with the Declaration of Independence. We must answer it anew today.

Retail Rebellion: Reinventing Organized Labor in the Walmart Economy

In 1962, Arkansas businessman Sam Walton opened the first Walmart discount store, setting in motion the rapid ascendance of a corporate giant that would redefine markets around the world. With its focus on competitive prices and vast distribution networks that revolutionized the industry, Walmart grew over the course of the 20th century to become the world’s largest company.

Today, its retail empire covers 15 countries with over 8,900 stores employing 2.2 million people. Like all empires, its success is built on contradictions and exploitation.

It’s no secret that Walmart’s low-cost business model relies heavily on paying its employees what can reasonably be called poverty wages. The average worker makes about $8.80 an hour. Even a full-time employee makes roughly $15,500 per year, well below the official poverty line for a family of four. Walmart’s low pay and poor-to-nonexistent benefits forces many of its workers to turn to public assistance in order to survive.

These conditions extend beyond the boundaries of Walmart’s own business. As a dominating force in the global economy, Walmart is a standard bearer across multiple industries. Its model of cost-cutting and squeezing workers has been adopted by competitors, suppliers and contractors alike.

Substandard wages are just one facet of the Walmart economy – just as notably, its stores have resisted workers’ attempts to unionize for their entire history. A recent wave of strikes by workers at Walmart stores and warehouses in the U.S. has challenged the mega-retailer’s sophisticated anti-union machinery. That machinery runs on a combination of intimidation, harassment, illegal firings, court injunctions, and systematic anti-union inoculation.

Walmart has successfully beaten back every attempt at unionization among its U.S. employees since the 1970s.

But the latest surge of labor unrest may signal a turning point for Walmart and its workers – and the labor movement.

Walmart has sparred with many groups that have raised concerns about its business practices, including community organizations, environmental groups and class actions. But robust “union avoidance” has been at the center of its operations for decades. A 1997 manual titled “A Manager’s Guide to Remaining Union-Free” instructs managers to be on constant alert for any signs of organizing among store associates, and derides labor unions as “a big business.”

In 2000, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) successfully organized meat cutters at a Walmart store in Texas. The company responded by closing its 180 meat counters and replacing them with prepackaged cuts. Walmart staved off other organizing efforts by UFCW and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the 1990s and 2000s, and it quashed an earlier Teamster campaign to organize drivers the 1980s.

Then something different started happening in 2012.

In June, workers at CJ’s Seafood, a Walmart supplier in Louisiana, went on strike against wage theft and threats by management. The workers’ bold action forced Walmart to drop the supplier, while the Labor Department ordered CJ’s to pay over $200,000 in back wages. This spark ignited a much larger and unprecedented wave of strikes that spread through Walmart’s supply chain and hit hundreds of its stores nationwide.

Walmart warehouse workers in Southern California and Illinois launched a historic campaign in September. Under the banners of Warehouse Workers United and Warehouse Workers for Justice – two groups formed by the Change to Win labor federation and the United Electrical Workers (UE), respectively – workers and activists engaged in a series of walkouts and acts of civil disobedience highlighting dangerous working conditions, wage theft and intimidation.

Although it does not directly employ the striking warehouse workers, Walmart was the target of worker protests because it dictates industry standards for contractors in its network of distribution centers. This month, a California judge named Walmart as a defendant in a class action suit over wage theft at contractor warehouses, boosting warehouse workers’ claim that Walmart is responsible for conditions at supplier facilities. After 21 days on strike in September, Illinois warehouse workers won their principal demand for an end to company retaliation and received full back pay for the days they were out on strike.

Acting Like a Union

Inspired by this victory and the new vulnerability of Walmart that it exposed, store employees struck at 30 locations in 12 states in October. More job actions at other stores the following month helped to build momentum for the big day of action on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.

The Black Friday Rebellion was a massive step forward for the movement to change Walmart. Hundreds of store employees and thousands of supporters in 46 states took part in walkouts and rallies, demanding living wages, better conditions and respect on the job. The actions were buoyed by the effective use of traditional and social media that helped spread the walkouts and win public sympathy for the strikers.  

Even while company spokespersons diminished the strikes and called them mere “publicity stunts,” Walmart filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the rolling pickets were illegal because the workers had not begun working toward an NLRB election for union representation. But the new worker-powered formation that coordinated the Black Friday strikes has been clear that is it separate from UFCW. The Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, is not a union. Although it is supported by UFCW and its community coalition, Making Change at Walmart, OUR Walmart’s protests are aimed at pressuring Walmart to improve working conditions, not unionization.

This is perhaps the most important thing to understand about the recent strikes at Walmart stores and what sets them apart from previous campaigns. Workers and labor organizers know that Walmart has mastered the process of cutting down traditional union organizing drives; now they are attempting to apply a different model of workplace organizing that circumvents the typical roadblocks built in to U.S. labor laws, a regime tilted against employees and one which Walmart is an expert at manipulating.

The alternative organizing strategies being attempted by Walmart workers could have implications throughout the labor movement. In particular, their emphasis on industry-wide mobilizing, disruptive tactics, and self-organization could help inject a new militancy into labor struggle.

OUR Walmart’s approach also differs from previous coalition efforts to change Walmart, which were focused more on disrupting its glossy public image. Union-backed groups like Wake Up Walmart and Walmart Watch ran campaigns in the 2000s that were less focused on worker involvement and more dedicated to media messaging designed to expose Walmart’s bad practices.

In contrast, OUR Walmart is a membership-based organization whose strength is defined by the size and activity of its membership rather than foundation funding and non-profit expertise. It began a year and a half ago with fewer than 100 members. Today it has over 1,000 members in chapters across 43 states. While it’s still too small to have a decisive impact on Walmart’s operations, its rapid growth and appeal among Walmart workers joining its ranks is remarkable.

Using management retaliation charges as the basis for work stoppages, OUR Walmart is able to secure some legal protection for non-union workers who otherwise have little recourse in taking collective action against their employer. Ultimately, OUR Walmart members would like to unionize Walmart stores, but that isn’t the immediate goal. For now, organizers are focused on growing an organization which they describe as “open source” in that it functions as a network providing tools for workers to self-organize.

“Workers can engage in actions that both make them feel powerful and that impact the company, and they don’t need to just spend their life waiting for some [government-supervised] processes to demonstrate they want a union,” former SEIU organizer Stephen Lerner told The Nation. Lerner, the originator of the Justice for Janitors campaign, argues that what’s important about OUR Walmart is that it’s acting like a union.

Striking Back Against the War on Workers

Another important part of the new Walmart campaign is the climate in which it’s unfolding.

Over the past two years, the labor movement has been under the gun of anti-union right-wing ideologues and austerity-driven politicians in both parties. Unions have suffered massive setbacks in states like Wisconsin, where tea party conservatives won an effort to strip collective bargaining rights in the public sector.

In 2012, two new states joined the ranks of so-called “right to work” states, bringing crippling restrictions on the collection of union dues to a region that has historically been a stronghold for labor. If the passage of right-to-work-for-less legislation in Indiana earlier in the year was a painful strike against unions, its recent and sudden passage in Michigan, the birthplace of the modern labor movement, was a devastating body blow.

In the meantime, working-class living standards continue to decline, as they have for decades. While income inequality has soared to levels not seen since the 1920s, the shrinking union movement has been largely on the defensive. The war against workers has accelerated since 2011 as unions find themselves embroiled in state-level battles in which their very existence is at stake.

Against this backdrop, it is significant that Walmart workers have chosen to go on the offensive. Workers are being battered in the private and public sectors, and unions have been making huge concessions in industries that have typically been more union-friendly in the past. Walmart workers have linked arms with allies in the labor movement to mount a highly organized and aggressive campaign in an environment that is quintessentially anti-labor.

“Walmart has designed a particular business model that demands inhumane and unsustainable working situations and poverty wages,” says UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend. “At a certain point, workers rebel, they push back. Walmart and the employers who imitate Walmart rely on astronomical turnover as a safety valve. But when workers stay on the job – now because of sheer desperation – more and more will choose to fight back rather than quit.”

Walmart isn’t the only place where workforce turmoil has given way to tenacity. On November 28, some 200 fast food workers from dozens of New York City restaurants staged a flash strike. Protesting the notorious low wages of fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell, workers risked retaliation and walked off the job in a rare strike targeting a mostly non-union industry. With the support of New York Communities for Change, the workers formed the Fast Food Workers Committee and have been aided by other community-based groups and SEIU.
 
Unlike OUR Walmart, the fast food workers are explicitly demanding a fair process to unionize at their restaurants. But the workers, most of whom make little more than minimum wage, are also asking for a raise to $15 an hour. It’s a bold demand, but it’s one that Townsend argues is desperately needed if labor is going to survive as a movement.

“One of the tragedies of the current moment is that just at the time when wages have hit sub-poverty levels, the labor movement as a whole is afraid to ask for a raise, or even resist the wage-cutting offensive of the employers,” he says. “Asking for a raise has been replaced by elaborate begging for ‘shared sacrifice.’ That’s not going to inspire anyone to join a union. Militant struggles demanding a raise are long overdue, especially in low-wage industries like retail and fast food.”

A New Era for Organized Labor?

The organizing model being pursued by both OUR Walmart and the Fast Food Workers Committee – using strikes to raise workplace demands prior to unionization – could point to a new era for organized labor in the U.S. as it adapts to an increasingly adversarial corporate and political environment.
 
Under the NLRB structure, unions gain recognition to represent workers based on exclusive representation of an entire worksite after majority support is demonstrated. Companies like Walmart easily use this structure to their advantage in blocking union drives, and the penalties they suffer for breaking the law are negligible at best.
 
That’s why organized labor and Walmart workers have turned to a model that resembles what’s known as minority unionism, a strategy that involves collective action to press for change before majority support among the workforce has been reached. It also relies on the collaboration among different unions to mobilize workers on a regional basis.

As labor reporter Josh Eidelson writes, union leverage under this model doesn’t hinge on majority representation at a single worksite. Instead, Walmart workers and organizers “are hoping that aggressive strikes will make majority support possible, rather than the other way around.”

However, the minority union model at Walmart is still experimental and its paradigm-shifting possibilities are yet to be seen.

“Most of the work is shaped and led in NGO form, and not traditional union form,” says Townsend. “That’s not necessarily a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ issue, but as is the case with all organizing, the ultimate goal is to construct union organizational structures which can continue as effective forces once the initial paid staff and NGO staff move on.”

Townsend argues that not many of the organizing efforts being undertaken – including UE’s – could stand for long without outside support, owing to Walmart’s fierce anti-union attacks.
 
Certainly, the wave of walkouts and protests in 2012 mark only the beginning of what will necessarily be a years-long campaign for justice at Walmart. But the workers have already made history by putting their jobs on the line and standing up against a juggernaut.

If there is a tipping point in the struggle between corporate America and workers, then we are surely on the verge of breaching it. Workers are being backed into a corner and increasingly have little to lose in fighting back. While companies like Walmart and McDonald’s have been abusing employer-friendly labor laws for decades to keep wages low and unions out of their businesses, corporate lobbyists and conservative billionaires have teamed up with politicians to chip away at the few protections and rights afforded to workers under existing labor law.

Walmart workers – who for so long have stood outside of the labor movement – may be clearing a new path toward a revived labor movement in the U.S. If they should fail, the race to the bottom for workers will continue uninterrupted.

But if they win, it will mean nothing less than the surrender of an empire and a path-breaking comeback for the working class.

Published on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 by The Neoprogressive

Brian Tierney

Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.

Why is the Israeli Election a Fight Between the Far Right and Further Far...

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Bio

Shir Hever is an economic researcher in the Alternative Information Center, a Palestinian-Israeli organization active in Jerusalem and Beit-Sahour. Researching the economic aspect of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, some of his research topics include the international aid to the Palestinians and to Israel, the effects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories on the Israeli economy, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel. His work also includes giving lectures and presentations on the economy of the occupation. His first book: Political Economy of Israel's Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation, has been published by Pluto Press.

Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

The results of the Israeli elections will soon be known. It's expected that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be reelected. The main battle seems to be all on the right, between one right-wing party and the other.Now joining us to talk about why this is is Shir Hever, who now joins us from Germany, where he's completing his doctorate. Shir is an economist. He's studying the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He works for the Alternative Information Center, which is a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization dedicated to alternative information and analysis. Thanks for joining us, Shir.SHIR HEVER, ECONOMIST, ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER: Hi, Paul.JAY: So how do you account for this situation, that the whole battle is between the right and the further right? You could even say the further right and the even further right.HEVER: The political map in Israel is not a very usual kind of political map. It seems to have a very key part of it missing, basically. The whole left, progressive left is just extremely small. And one of the main reasons for this is the structural way in which the Israeli political system is built. The Israeli political system is actually in control over a population of 12 million people. And among these 12 million people, only about 7 million are Israeli citizens, and the rest are not citizens—most of them are Palestinians in the occupied territories and therefore have no vote.Among these 7 million Israeli citizens, there is about 1.5 million who are also Palestinians, but many of them have been completely disillusioned, and they have very low voting rates. On average, only about 50 percent of those eligible to vote actually used their right to vote. So basically that means the Zionist parties have a kind of automatic majority, which has not been challenged since the founding of the state of Israel. But, of course, even within the Zionist movement, the different parties used to have more divergent views about what is the best way to promote the Zionist agenda, what is the best way to promote the idea of a Jewish state.I would say if people think of a Jewish state in the sense of a state in which Jews have extra rights and everyone who's not Jewish is a second-rate citizen or cannot have a full and equal share of the power, then all of these parties are equivalent to quite extreme-right parties in other countries in the world. So we're already talking about a very narrow kind of argument or public debate between parties which are in complete consensus about this idea that the state should belong only to one ethnic national religious or even racial group.JAY: So how does Israel get to a situation where there's not even a left of center that's in meaningful contention in terms of the elections. And certainly what would you call a more left or even left social democratic or, you know, something more equivalent to sort of the social democrats you might find in Europe have no position at all in terms of competing.HEVER: Well, that's another thing that's quite interesting about the Israeli political sphere is that the economic questions, the social questions, are separated in a very artificial way from the national or security question. So you could be left and right on the national and security issues, and that doesn't necessarily correlate to views which are more progressive socially or not. This creates very odd situations in which members of the extreme-right, racist parties are cooperating with Palestinian members of parliament on issues of social interest, things like minimum wage or unemployment benefits. But when it comes to the issue of Palestinian statehood, equal rights for people who are not Jewish, and so on, they would be on the very extreme sides of the same map.But what Israel used to have is a kind of center—center by Israeli terms, I mean—in which [unintel.] an idea that Israel could be a sort of mild social democracy or mild welfare state by European standards, and at the same time to promote a version of Zionism which is often called the pragmatic Zionism, which is to find the smartest way and the most subtle way to control the Palestinian population, to make sure that Israel remains a Jewish state and maintains its demographic majority as a Jewish state without taking steps that—you could imagine what kind of steps they could take in order to maintain their demographic majority, but without taking those steps that would ostracize Israel in the world community. So, yes, continue the occupation, but keep up the appearances as if Israel would like the occupation to end, would like to continue negotiations with the Palestinians.This was the main platform of the Labor Party. This was the main policies of Israeli prime ministers like Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.And that came to a crisis ten years ago—twelve years ago, actually, with the beginning of the Second Intifada, because Ehud Barak took this idea of pragmatic Zionism to an extreme. And by doing that, he exposed the inherent contradictions in this idea that Israel could somehow manipulate the Palestinians into playing their role in this charade of fake negotiations, fake peace process, while Israel continues to put the facts on the ground.And behind this kind of perception that there is a pragmatic or enlightened way to be Zionist and maintain Israel's Jewish majority is a very patronizing approach. And Barak is really the embodiment of this approach. He basically said, I'm going to make the Palestinians an offer they cannot refuse, the best offer they will ever get. And he put that offer in the negotiations and basically said, take it or leave it; there is not going to be any negotiations about this offer; you have to accept it. And that offer was an offer which doesn't actually give the Palestinians sovereignty. It gives Palestinians in the occupied territories some kind of autonomy, a demilitarized state surrounded by Israeli territory on all sides. And of course the Palestinians rejected that plan, because the fact that maybe also Yassir Arafat, who headed the Palestinian Authority at the time—maybe he also believed like Barak that no Israeli prime minister will ever make a better offer.But that's beside the point. This is still an offer they cannot accept. And when they rejected that offer, Ehud Barak said, well, in that case, there's no partner for peace. And this phrase, "There is no partner for peace," has become a catchphrase for the Israeli right and has become the centerpiece of Israeli political ideology ever since that collapse of the negotiations. Basically, the whole idea of the center of the Israeli political map, the so-called Zionist left or Zionist center, was that Israel could pretend to be a democracy and pretend to be part of Europe, while at the same time maintaining 19th-century policies of colonization in the occupied Palestinian territories.JAY: Right. The other part of the sort of official Israeli narrative on no partner for peace is Gaza, that Sharon gave Gaza back to the Palestinians and look what happened.HEVER: Yeah. Well, actually, Barak has already begun to adopt a different kind of strategy. Instead of negotiations, he adopted this idea of management of the conflict, how to manage the conflict. That means how to use technological means, military superiority, and investment in things like the Wall of Separation, which Barak started building in the West Bank, to try to create a situation in which even if the conflict will last forever, Israel will just be able to live with it.And Sharon took this even a step further. Sharon replaced Barak, because Barak basically lost his vote base. He told his own voters: our entire analysis of the situation was wrong; there can be no negotiations. Well, of course, why would they vote for him again? Instead Sharon said, we don't need to negotiate at all; we don't need any kind of peace talks or any kind of settlement with the Palestinians to begin with; let's move on directly to managing the conflict while expanding the settlements, while expanding our control over the Palestinian territories.And Sharon made a very important speech at the Israeli Parliament in 2004, in which he said, if we count everyone between—everyone under Israeli control, then Jews are almost no longer a majority. When he made that speech, Jews were a little over 50 percent of the population. Now they're already 49 percent, so they're already a minority. And he said, well, in that case we have to get rid of some of those Palestinians to maintain our majority. And rather than trying to expel them, he decided to withdraw just from the Gaza Strip and create the appearance as if Israel no longer occupies the Gaza Strip.Now, we all know, of course, Israel does occupy the Gaza Strip, continues to control it in a very sophisticated manner. But this kind of appearance, as if the Gaza Strip is now a separate entity no longer under Israeli control, contributes to the idea that the occupation, the conflict can just maintain forever and nothing's going to stop it. As soon as people become sort of complacent about it and say, well, if we're not going to talk about ending the occupation any time soon, then the whole question of which politicians are relevant, who should we vote for, becomes a different question.I think what we see now in the Israeli election is that the leaders of almost all of the political parties, except for a very small number of real leftist parties, have also found out this same fact or came to the same conclusion, that in fact there is no point in trying to talk about ending the conflict or ending the occupation, because the general population just doesn't believe it's going to happen any time soon and are not so interested in that.And so the debate then becomes a question of what are the best economic policies, what are the best policies towards asylum seekers, refugees who tried to seek refuge in Israel from their home countries and so on—a lot of minor issues.JAY: Now, the Labor Party's position on—you know, in terms of how to deal with the Palestinians, it's not very different than Netanyahu. It's practically indistinguishable. But in terms of economic policy, at least they espouse something that looks like a little bit more social democrat, a little bit more reformist in some ways. This election campaign, they tried to kind of jump on the enthusiasm or momentum that had happened from those mass demonstrations against Netanyahu's economic policies. But it hasn't seemed to have done anything for them in terms of their electoral results.HEVER: I think a lot of people in Israel have become very disillusioned and very depressed when it comes to the economic issues. They know that actually, just like you said, there is no real difference between left and right or so-called left and real, very real right regarding issues of the negotiations, the peace process, the occupation. There is actually also no real differences regarding the economic policies. And the Labor Party, when it was in power, was in no way less neoliberal than the Likud Party. And many of the biggest privatizations were done by the Labor Party. Now, the current leader of the Labor Party does indeed have a record of supporting social democracy and talking about it. But on the other hand, she also knows that she can get no funding for her party and no support from any of Israel's business people who have, of course, control over the economy, unless she makes certain points or unless she avoids certain sensitive issues. So, basically, she continues to promise she's not going to raise taxes. And in her platform, Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labor Party, offers to increase the government budget by about ILS 130 billion (over USD 30 billion) and to use that money for social purposes. But because she doesn't offer to raise taxes and she doesn't want to talk about the deficit, her only way to generate that sort of income is by reforming the existing tax system in such a way that people who are avoiding paying taxes they already have to pay under the existing laws would have to pay them anyway, basically closing loopholes.JAY: Right. So let me just ask you one final question. Assuming, as most people are predicting, the government is going to be formed by Netanyahu's Likud and the far-right nationalist—I should say, the further far-right nationalists—are we likely to see a change in the way Israel's governed?HEVER: I think from the point of view of Netanyahu, I believe he opposes any kind of change. He would not like Israel to further drift in the direction of the very extreme right, because he knows that this would further isolate Israel in the international community. And, of course, he doesn't want to go in the other direction, because he's ideologically opposed to any kind of concessions to social democracy or to Palestinian rights.But we also know that Netanyahu is not a very strong leader, despite how he tries to market himself. He always kind of molds himself to the political pressures around him and eventually becomes a sort of figurehead for the political pressure groups that are able to influence him. So a strengthening of the extreme right does indicate a certain change in Israel's policies, especially in the direction of no longer caring about what kind of international response could there be for Israel's policies.And Netanyahu's already signaled to that direction by deciding to build a new colony in the E1 area, which threatens to disconnect the West Bank into two parts, the north and south. And because of this kind of policy, that this was something that was severely criticized by European countries, for example, because it kind of threatens to bury the whole two-state solution. But European countries are also quite careful not to criticize too harshly just before the elections. They didn't want to be seen as if they were interfering in the Israeli political process. After the elections, I think there could be a different story. These countries will have no longer any reason to hold back. And if Israel basically makes it completely clear that they have no intention of a two-state solution, no intention of ending the occupation, I think then there is a chance for harsher international sanctions against Israel and very severe isolation, diplomatic isolation [crosstalk]JAY: I guess it's still to be seen whether that will change U.S. policy in any way. Thanks very much for joining us, Shir.HEVER: Thank you, Paul.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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What Obama Should Do in the Next Four Years

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Bio

Rob Johnson is the Director of the Economic Policy Initiative at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and is a regular contributor to the Institute's blog NewDeal2.0. He serves on the UN Commission of Experts on Finance and International Monetary Reform. Previously, Dr. Johnson was a Managing Director at Soros Fund Management where he managed a global currency, bond and equity portfolio specializing in emerging markets. He was also a Managing Director at the Bankers Trust Company. Dr. Johnson has served as Chief Economist of the US Senate Banking Committee under the leadership of Chairman William Proxmire and was Senior Economist of the US Senate Budget Committee under the leadership of Chairman Pete Domenici. Dr. Johnson was an Executive Producer of Taxi to the Dark Side, an Oscar Winning documentary produced and directed by Alex Gibney.

Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

Now joining us to discuss President Obama's inaugural speech is Robert Johnson. Rob is the executive director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking and a senior fellow and director of the Global Finance Project on Financial Reform for the Roosevelt Institute. He joins us from New York.Thanks for joining us again, Rob.ROBERT JOHNSON, EXEC. DIRECTOR, INST. FOR NEW ECONOMIC THINKING: My pleasure.JAY: So when it comes to economic policy, do you see anything in this inaugural speech that indicates the next four years will be any different than the last four?JOHNSON: Well, it's always difficult with someone who's so skillful as Barack Obama as an orator to draw any inferences from a speech, because—how would I say?—he's shown in the past that he can say very inspiring things and not exactly implement them or even fight for them. So I don't know how to draw any inferences from this speech. There's a great deal of energy in the speech about collective action, collective responsibility, and providing security for the weakest. And this surprises me a little bit, because at the end of the last term, he was essentially conceding a lot of adjustments in Social Security, in Medicare, and in Medicaid, as Bob Woodward revealed in the documents that I guess he leaked about the Boehner–Obama interactions. But it could be said that through that problem or that challenge, and through the difficult non-cooperative period that led to the fiscal cliff and now the debt ceiling, that Obama has hardened his resolve. He doesn't have to raise money—though he will for his library—he doesn't have to raise money to get reelected. And he may strike a stronger posture on behalf of the people that he mentioned in his speech today.JAY: Now, he says in the speech that we have to contain health-care costs, we have to make the hard choices. It's kind of a suggestion that he's still buying the underlying logic that the deficit's the issue.JOHNSON: Well, I think, first of all, jobs and employment is the issue. Idle resources don't pay taxes, and that is a big cause of the deficit in the near term.In the longer term, the question of whether you will have insurance monopolies, pharmaceutical monopolies, and hospitalization monopolies is the key to whether we're going to have a long-term—how would I say?—stable trajectory. And the problem is those health-care what you might call pressures to bring costs down are much harder to implement in our money-politics era than our similar what you might call cuts that could be made to the quality of services for senior citizens. So to protect the monopolies, you can make a lot of elderly people worse off and a lot of people die sooner. But that isn't exactly progress on anything other than the numerical number called the budget.JAY: So if we're going to be realpolitik and you can say realistic and these kinds of terms about what Obama could accomplish which is in the realm of, you know, a fairly centrist Democrat and not—I don't think we really saw that in the last four years. Maybe, you know, I don't think he tried so hard to push the envelope here. But now he doesn't have to get reelected. In theory, he can come out swinging. Somebody on CNN after the speech was saying, oh, this is like FDR, this is the fighting president. I mean, I don't see that in the speech. But if it really was the fighting president, what would he do?JOHNSON: I think one of the things he would have to take on is the role of money in politics. He would have to take on lobbyists. And campaign contributions by wealthy individuals in the corporate sector have hamstrung our society. We did very little in the Dodd-Frank bill that one could be proud of. We did very, very little in the health-care bill to provide an efficient system when compared with other developed countries. Our military-industrial complex seems to have free rein and is almost unscrutinized. And I think—how do you say?—there are many other avenues, many other sectors where people can intervene and we get to a place where people think of our budget as an insurance agency for the rich and powerful. We all pay in premiums, but they're the only people who are insulated from accident.JAY: President Obama took Exxon money for his inauguration. Apparently they made a fairly substantial contribution to it. Last time, he said he wasn't going to take corporate money. This doesn't really send a signal that he's trying to get money out of politics.JOHNSON: And he talked about climate issues in the inaugural address today. So the question is: is that a head fake in the speech? Or did he take somebody's money and then just say, I can do what I want now? We'll have to see. Only time will tell.JAY: So what else would you do? I mean, if he calls you up and said, okay, I've had a change of heart, I really do want a different direction for this next four years, what do you want him to do?JOHNSON: I think bear down on the health costs and bear down on the really, really difficult situation that small businesses have right now. Small business [unintel.] policy. People work in that small business, pay the premiums, or the business pays the premiums on their behalf. And then if those people get very sick, what happens? The insurance company sends an army of lawyers out to show that somehow you didn't—even though you got to pay the premiums, you didn't deserve the coverage or you had violated the covenants that meant that you were ineligible for the coverage. So they wiggle off the hook. Large companies with countervailing power—a General Motors, an IBM, a Goldman Sachs—no insurance company's lawyers are going to take them on, because the size and scale of their health contracts is quite formidable.So we're in a bad situation. You've got to, if you're the president, create something where little individuals are not cast against monstrous, powerful, deep-pocketed corporations when it comes to delivering on health care. And some people—how do we say?—project that Obamacare will get to these things someday in 2014, 2015, and we may be on—how would I say?—the right path. But we've got to go faster and further and deeper to bring our quality of health care into line with the OECD countries. We're ranked 37th by the World Health Organization, yet we pay more than double what the other developed countries are paying. This is a dreadful situation, whether it's budget or whether it's just concern for humanity. I would have him narrow his focus, not try to do everything, and zoom right in on that particular issue.JAY: Now, what do you think about the state of the world economy? President Obama speaks, and a lot of the pundits have talked about the United States is moving out of recession. But a lot of the economists I'm talking about, when they look at the crisis in Europe and a slowdown in China, that the global economy's rather fragile. And there's actually a good likelihood of moving back into deeper recession. But that wasn't reflected in this speech at all.JOHNSON: Well, I would say the United States is a more closed economy than many others. And if our housing sector continues to rebound as the stock market has suggested, it might be somewhat more resilient, unless Congress gets in the way with all their crazy short-term deficit cuts. If the United States right now were to engage in a capital budgeted infrastructure science and education program that restored employment and spent money on things that would enhance productivity over time, it could be by far and away the most vibrant economy in the world.I expect the United States will be what you might call—it'll win the ugly contest, it'll be the lesser of evils among the Asian economies and the European economies. I think the big loser right now is Europe, 'cause they can't seem to get out from under their austerity—how do I say?—hunger. But I think the United States is diminished by the slowdowns in those other places. But because it's a largely closed economy, it's not going to pay the price as badly as some other regions.The thing that could make me wrong is if another banking crisis erupts, 'cause all these banks all around the world are so intertwined that you would have a synchronized credit freeze-up that really doesn't relate to economic conditions in the real economy in the United States. But that credit freeze-up from the intertwined banks could send our economy down as a result of something that emanates from elsewhere, just as our Lehman Brothers crisis caused a great deal of hardship all around the world.JAY: And in terms of regulations and laws that might mitigate or prevent that type of financial crisis, what do you make of what's—was accomplished in the last four years?JOHNSON: Well, what's difficult is that people are very critical of the regulators and the central banks for letting things get out of control, particularly in the United States during the Greenspan era. And then we pass laws that essentially put everything in the hands of committees of those people who didn't exercise what power-influencing rights they had on behalf of the American public in the last round.When you don't enforce the laws and regulations, then you just pass legislation to create committees for further regulatory what you might call work with—how would you say?—regulatory capacity to effect change. You've got to have those regulators step up to the plate. Now, some of them may be very embarrassed by what happened and do a bit of that, but I don't think a lot of people are very confident that large-scale regulators—central bank, finance ministry, and others—are anything but what you might call [unintel.] likely to impose the will of the banks on the population, rather than represent the population and constrain the banks.JAY: Alright. Well, we'll come back to you in a little while and we'll see whether this second term is significantly different than the first. Thanks very much for joining us, Rob.JOHNSON: My pleasure.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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Russia’s lost opportunity to monitor orphans adopted in US — Ambassador

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul (RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov)

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul (RIA Novosti / Alexey Filippov)

US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul announced via his twitter account that by banning US adoptions Russia has lost the opportunity to know the fate of the orphans who already live in America.

The announcement was made in a Q&A session the Ambassador held on the Internet. “Russia had the opportunity to monitor their fate under the previous agreement, but now, as Russia cancelled this agreement, such opportunity is lost,” McFaul wrote in Russian in response to the question if it was true that the Russian authorities can no longer receive information about Russian orphans who had been previously adopted by US families.

McFaul’s comment came as a surprise, as the Russian-US agreement on adoptions must remain valid for one year since the moment when one of the sides informs the other side via diplomatic channels that it intended to stop it. Russia did so in early January after the Dima Yakovlev Law came into force and the US State Department confirmed that it received the official letter.

Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov explained in an interview earlier this month that the adoptions agreement will remain valid for one more year, “until the first day of January 2014”.

The agreement obliges state bodies of both countries to cooperate; in particular it reads that the authorities of the recipient state must send full and truthful reports on the adopted children’s lives upon request of the authorities of the donor state.

The Dima Yakovlev Law was drafted and approved in reply to the US Magnitsky Act. The US introduced sanctions on a group of Russian officials who, in view of the US are involved in human rights violations. Russia’s reply also included sanctions on citizens of the United States and other countries involved in violations of human rights and also in unlawful prosecution of Russian citizens.

When the Dima Yakovlev Bill was discussed in the Lower House, legislators amended it with a ban on all adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens and on any participation of the US organizations in adoption procedures involving Russian children. Advocates of the ban said that in previous cases of cruel treatment and even manslaughter of Russian children by US foster parents the US authorities failed to provide Russia with information on the children’s fate. President Vladimir Putin, who also supported the ban, called the US attitude arrogant and added that it should not be tolerated.

The amendment caused a wave of criticism from the Russian public, media and officials, but the legislators remained adamant and passed the bill together with the ban and in the end of 2012 it was signed into law by the President.

Russian test for migrants ‘not discriminatory’ — Medvedev

RIA Novosti / Iliya Pitalev

RIA Novosti / Iliya Pitalev

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sees no discrimination in a law obliging all migrant workers arriving in Russia to pass a test of their knowledge of the local language and culture.

“It’s absolutely normal. Such a practice exists in the majority of foreign countries. At least in countries that care about their future,” Medvedev stated on Tuesday, during a meeting with the members of parliamentary parties.

Currently, migrants working in Russia in housing, utilities, sales and public services have to demonstrate only basic knowledge of Russian when getting work permits. This does not refer to citizens of Belarus and South Ossetia – where Russian has the status of official language.

Now the lawmakers propose toughening the rules. Under the proposed bill, exams in Russian language, history and legislation basics will become compulsory for all foreigners who come to the country to work or live.

RIA Novosti / Alexey Kudenko
RIA Novosti / Alexey Kudenko

Medvedev welcomed deputies’ initiative, saying that Russia needs the creation of a civilized labor market. First of all, the country should attract professionals to fill vacancies from in-demand occupations list, the PM stressed.

However, mainly unqualified workers have been coming to Russia so far. Often then can hardly speak any Russian and do not know the local culture or traditions, which “leads to conflicts and, unfortunately, crimes,” Medvedev conceded.

The proposed exam would cost migrants up to 5,000 rubles (about US$165).However, the requirement will refer only to low-qualified workers, not highly-skilled professionals.

The majority migrants come to Russia from former Soviet republics – primarily Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova – to seek better living conditions or simply to earn some money to support their families at home. Only about 2 million of Russia’s estimated 10 million migrant laborers work in the country legally. But as the inflow of foreigners rises in Russia, so does the anti-immigrant sentiment.

RIA Novosti / Iliya Pitalev
RIA Novosti / Iliya Pitalev

Lower House indefinitely postpones gay propaganda hearings

Gay activists' rallies (RIA Novosti / Alexey Danichev)

Gay activists' rallies (RIA Novosti / Alexey Danichev)

The Russian State Duma has returned the bill on a nationwide gay propaganda ban to the preparatory stage, prompting conspiracy suggestions from some top level MPs.

The Lower House had already postponed the hearings from mid-December to the end of January, but as the date neared the lawmakers decided to return the draft law to the State Duma suggesting the nationwide ban on promotion of paedophilia and homosexuality among minors needed further discussion.

The news was announced to reporters by the head of the leftist Fair Russia faction, Sergey Mironov, who also said that he was perplexed by this fact. “We are talking about the ban on propaganda. Do you remember how [the head of the parliamentary committee for family policy] Yelena Mizulina said that she had a feeling that someone was deliberately opposing all bills concerning this subject? Now we postponed it again, and it raises questions,” Mironov told reporters.

As the parliament readied to consider the ban LGBT activists launched a string of protests all over the country. The actions started in December when several gay couples started kissing in public near the State Duma headquarters seeking to demonstrate that they were normal and had the right to express their feeling just as anyone else. Besides, the “Alliance of heterosexuals for equal rights with LGBT” group addressed the Lower House with a request to block the bill before it is put to a vote, saying the document was absurd and meaningless, distracted the public from real problems and also was discriminative towards a certain group of citizens.

The protests continued this year, and just as last year, they were opposed by the public. In the South Russian city of Voronezh a group of people hurled snowballs at protesting gay activists. In Moscow several people attacked reporters who arrived to the State Duma HQ in order to cover the announced protest rally.

Laws that levy heavy fines for promotion of paedophilia and homosexuality among minors have been introduced in several Russian regions, including the country’s second-largest city of St. Petersburg. The move has caused an outcry among the LGBT community and Human Rights activists both in Russia and abroad. The city council of Milan has even voted to sever the sister-city ties with St Petersburg, but Milan’s mayor later played down the move as purely declarative.

However, an opinion poll conducted last Spring showed that 86 percent of Russians support the ban on gay propaganda even though only 6 percent admitted that they had actually encountered it in their lives.

Mehdi’s Morning Memo: Obama Introduces Beyonce

The ten things you need to know on Tuesday 22 January 2013...

1) OBAMA: FORWARD TOGETHER

President Obama made a pretty good go of being the warm up act for Beyonce yesterday, as he urged Americans to move “forward together” during his second inaugural address.

Obama stumbled a little as he swore the oath of office. But seeing as the real swearing in actually took place on Sunday he won’t have to do the whole thing all over again like last time.

HuffPost’s White House correspondent Sam Stein: “The president, who has spent the first four years navigating Washington as much as shaping it, used his platform on Monday to announce that his next four years will be marked by a more assertive approach. The speech wasn't devoid of the classic, Obama-esque ideal that the country itself, and the two political parties in particular, must come together for the common good. But the appeal he made wasn’t so much to the good nature of each individual lawmaker as it was to the need to confront the severity of the issues at hand.”

The president put equality at the centre of his speech, calling for equal rights for women and gay people as well as focusing on climate change, gun control and income inequality.

Today's Memo is edited by Ned Simons as Mehdi Hasan is operating a delayed service due to heavy snow.

2) THIS SOUNDS FAMILIER

David Cameron’s warning of a “generational struggle” against terror in the Commons yesterday evoked memories of Tony Blair’s response to September 11 – leaving many observers to wonder the extent of Britain’s future involvement in Mali and North Afrida.

The Times reports this morning that the prime minister has committed the UK to a “fully-fledged battle” against al-Qaeda in the continent as troops begin to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

“Units from the Army, Royal Navy and RAF are on ‘high readiness’ to deploy if requested in support of France, which is attempting to repel Islamist extremists from the north of the country,” the paper says.

Cameron will chair a meeting of the National Security Council to consider what additional surveillance and transport help can be provided to the assault on rebels in the neighbouring country on top of two RAF C17 transport aircraft despatched last week.

3) YOU AND WHOSE ARMY?

However any plans to increase Britain’s military commitment in Africa may not go down too well with defence chiefs, as the MoD announces a third round of redundancies later today.

About 5,000 jobs are expected to go as part of cuts already announced by ministers to reduce Army numbers from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2017.

4) ‘I’VE KILLED’

The papers are full of reports this morning about Prince Harry’s acknowledgement he has killed while serving in Afghanistan.

Now that the 28-year-old is bound for the UK after his second deployment to the war-torn country, it can be reported he took enemy fighters "out of the game" during his 20-week posting.

"Take a life to save a life," he says during a TV interview. "That's what we revolve around, I suppose. If there's people trying to do bad stuff to our guys, then we'll take them out of the game, I suppose."

5) ROYAL EQUALITY

Prince Harry also spokes about looking forward to being an uncle. And today MPs will debate changing the law to ensure if he has a niece she will become queen, even if his brother and sister-in-law subsequently have a son.

Given Obama's call for greater gender equality the reelected president will no doubt be pleased. Although. He probably isn't too keen on the whole monarchy thing - memories of 1776 and all that.

The Daily Telegraph reports Nick Clegg will tell MPs: “The other Commonwealth countries where Her Majesty The Queen is head of state have just given us the green light to change the law, and we are wasting no time.

“At the moment, if the first child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is a girl, any younger brothers she has will overtake her in line to the throne. We’re modernising these out of date rules so that men and women in line to the throne have equal rights.”

The proposed changes would also end the ban on royals marrying Catholics. “The reasons for this go back 300 years, to the days when Britain was worried about the threat from its Catholics neighbours, such as Louis XIV of France,” Clegg will say. “Times have changed, along with our attitudes towards each other. It is time for us to bring these arcane laws up to date.”

MPs are unlikely to adopt proposals from Labour’s Paul Flynn which would allow the adopted son or daughter of a gay king or queen to take the throne.

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR: US Senator Chuck Schumer Photobombs The Oath Of Office (PHOTO)

6) FIVE POINTS DOWN

Labour's lead over the Conservatives has been cut to five points, according to a poll released today.

The ICM poll for The Guardian put Ed Miliband's party on 38% (down two points since a similar poll last month), David Cameron's Tories on 33% (up one), with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats on 15% (up two) and the UK Independence Party on 6% (down one).

Labour's advantage is the narrowest recorded by ICM since August last year, and follows a period in which the party has consistently racked up double-digit leads over the Conservatives.

It is likely to spark speculation that Mr Cameron's standing has been boosted by his handling of the crises in Algeria and Mali and by reports he is planning to offer an in/out referendum on future British membership of the European Union.

7) THE LONDON SPEECH

David Cameron will deliver his long-awaited speech on the EU on Wednesday morning in a central London location. Suggestions include on the doorstop of Ukip HQ or inside the Dutch embassy. At least if it gets called off again the travelling political press won’t have such a difficult journey back to their offices – depending on how many snowflakes have fallen on the Victoria line of course.

8) BIBI’S BACK

Benjamin Netanyahu seems poised for re-election as Israel's prime minister in Tuesday's voting, the result of the failure of his opponents to unite behind a viable candidate against him – and the fact that most Israelis no longer seem to believe it's possible to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

The widely held assumption of a victory by Netanyahu comes despite his grim record: there is no peace process, there is growing diplomatic isolation and a slowing economy, and his main ally has been forced to step down as foreign minister because of corruption allegations.

Even so, Netanyahu has managed to convince many Israelis that he offers a respectable choice by projecting experience, toughness and great powers of communication in both native Hebrew and flawless American English.

9) BENEFIT OF HINDSIGHT

Labour has failed to block the coalitions plans to cap benefit rises at 1%, as the proposals passed through the Commons.

From the BBC: “The Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, which will cap the benefit rises until 2016, passed by 305 votes to 246. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said spending had to be brought ‘back under control’ or the ‘poorest in society will fare the worst’. Labour's Liam Byrne said ‘compassionate Conservatism’ was no longer believable.”

Labour was forced into a quick, clarification, last night, after Stephen Timms said it was Labour’s policy to increase benefits by the rate of inflation each year. “In our view uprating should be in line with inflation and it should be assessed as it always has been at the end of the proceeding year,” he said.

However the Labour leadership was quick to distance itself, insisting that in hindsight Timms was saying what Labour would do in office now, rather than setting out policy for the future.

10) THE PLANET HAS ITS BLINDS DRAWN

The global jobless total will rise to a record 202m this year, says the UN's jobs watchdog, the International Labour Organisation, The Guardian reports today.

Quoting from the report the newspaper adds: “Entering 2013, the crisis in the Euro area constitutes the single biggest risk to global employment trends for the year ahead. The financial crisis in the Euro area, brought on by a combination of banking sector distress and protracted financial and household deleveraging, coupled with high levels of sovereign debt and unsustainably high government bond yields in some countries, has emerged as a disruptive and destabilizing force not only in the Euro area itself, but also for the global economy as a whole.”

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@BarackObama "I want to look out one more time. I'll never see this again." http://OFA.BO/qWUrWy

@JBeattieMirror I'm guessing the MoD redundancies announced today will not include Capt Wales

900 WORDS OR MORE

Rachel Sylvester in The Times: "Algeria head good – Europe head bad. The EU is an old and damaging distraction for Mr Cameron. He looks stronger dealing with modern issues ."

Polly Toynbee in The Guardian: "These Tory backbenchers will bang on until they hit self-destruct. The Conservative right is pushing David Cameron ever further from the centre ground. Don't they see he's their biggest asset?"

Benedict Brogan in The Daily Telegraph: "Cameron’s message is Tory, but his enemies have drowned it out."

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan ([email protected]) or Ned Simons ([email protected]). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol

Obama Inauguration: President Takes Oath

President Barack Obama has taken his public oath of office on the steps of the US Capitol to mark the beginning of his second term.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators converged on Washington to witness the ceremonial swearing-in, and to listen live as Mr Obama delivered his inaugural address.

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath as the 44th president placed his hand on two Bibles - one used by President Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration and one used by civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

After taking the oath, Mr Obama used his speech to call for a divided nation to come together to right the nation's course, following a bitterly partisan election and lame-duck session of Congress.

"Now more than ever we should do this as one nation," he said, adding that Americans are made for this moment and can succeed "so long as we seize it together".

Former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were among dignitaries seated on the Capitol steps for the event.

Mr Clinton and Mr Carter are the only living Democrats who have occupied the White House. Mr Clinton was accompanied by his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is departing as Mr Obama's second term gets under way.

In addition to the key political figures on hand, several celebrities, including Jay-Z and Beyonce, were in attendance to give the inaugural a red-carpet atmosphere. 

Mr Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will take part in a traditional parade before heading out to formal balls where the presidential couple will dance for the cameras.

More follows...

What Are ‘Peacekeepers’ Doing in a Haitian Industrial Park?


The big industrial park near the international airport north of Port-au-Prince actually does look like a nature park. Thousands of Haitians may be inside the complex’s 47 buildings hurriedly stitching tens of thousands of T-shirts for the North American market, but the wide, tree-lined streets between the factory seem peaceful when you drive along them in mid-morning on a workday. It’s as if you were in a gated community in the United States, a thousand miles from the noisy chaos of the Haitian capital.

As in many gated communities, there’s a security force at the Metropolitan Industrial Park, which is identified in Haiti as SONAPI, the acronym for Société Nationale des Parcs Industriels, the semi-governmental agency that runs the park. Haitian guards check you out before they allow you to enter, and once inside you find the grounds patrolled by a white car with a big “UN” painted in black on the side.

The patrol car is operated by police agents from a Brazilian-led international “peacekeeping force” MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The mission has been in Haiti since June 2004, with its mandate renewed each year since in mid-October. Under the current mandate, approved by the UN Security Council on October 12, 2012, MINUSTAH deploys up to 6,270 soldiers and up to 2,601 police agents in Haiti. Its cost for this fiscal year, July 2012 through June 2013, is about $677 million.

The mission has 140 police agents occupying two buildings in SONAPI, according to MINUSTAH deputy spokesperson Vincenzo Pugliese.

A “Threat to the Peace”?

The UN Security Council established MINUSTAH in the tense months following the February 2004 forced removal of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office and the occupation of the country by U.S. troops. The council justified the move by citing Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which treats “action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.” Specifically, the council’s Resolution 1542 determined that with the “challenges to the political, social and economic stability of Haiti,” the situation there “continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security in the region.”

Many Haitians have questioned the idea that the instability and violence in parts of Haiti in early 2004 could somehow have spilled over into neighboring countries like Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, but even people who accept the Security Council’s rationale might wonder why an international police force would be guarding factories that mainly produce T-shirts and work uniforms.

“Our presence in SONAPI follows a request from the Government of Haiti (GoH) since the beginning of the Mission in 2004,” MINUSTAH spokesperson Pugliese explained in an email in early December, “considering that a number of industries in the park had been looted prior to the establishment of the mission.” Pugliese added that during elections the UN police presence helps secure the tabulation center and electoral material warehouse, which are located in SONAPI. He admitted that “[n]o incidents of violence or crime have been registered recently” in the park.

Protecting the Big Companies

Organizers for the leftist group Batay Ouvriye, which is active in the capital’s apparel assembly plants, have another explanation.

Wages and working conditions are a major issue for the 29,000 Haitians who work long hours in garment factories for about $5 a day. Anger over the situation erupted in August 2009, when thousands of SONAPI workers shut down their machines and marched into the center of Port-au-Prince to demand an increase in the minimum wage. Batay Ouvriye organizers say MINUSTAH began stepping up its presence in the park after the protests.

MINUSTAH has been criticized both in Haiti and internationally for a series of abuses—for civilian casualties, for rapes and other sexual crimes, for the cholera that has killed 8,000 Haitians to date and has sickened a half million others—but there has been less discussion of the mission’s purpose, and who stands to gain from it.

For decades Haitian leftists have argued that the U.S. government’s goal in Haiti is to provide a supply of cheap labor for the benefit of North American manufacturers and retailers. Maintaining a police force in the country’s industrial zones certainly would seem to fit into this program. And for all the insistence on MINUSTAH’s international composition, the United States clearly has a big role in the UN’s Haiti operations, with former U.S. president Bill Clinton serving as the UN’s special envoy to the country.

Haitian attorney Mario Joseph is a respected human rights advocate whose work on behalf of abuse victims has earned him international awards—and anonymous death threats. He is blunt when asked the purpose of the UN troops. “They do the job for the imperialist countries, like America, France, Canada,” he said during an interview last October at his office in the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in downtown Port-au-Prince. And the UN police in SONAPI? “They are there to protect the internationals, the big companies,” Joseph answered.
“Forty Cameras and iPads”

The U.S. presence in MINUSTAH was evident at a small protest several grassroots organizations held on October 15 outside the UN Logistics Base at the airport, just a few blocks east of SONAPI.

The protest was billed as a “sit-in” against the renewal of MINUSTAH mandate three days earlier. The 20 or so Haitian protesters didn’t actually sit in; instead they stood in the base’s entry road for about 30 minutes, sometimes blocking it completely with a huge Batay Ouvriye banner reading: “Aba Okipasyon” (“Down With the Occupation”). A massive traffic jam developed, and the blare of car horns accompanied the protesters as they chanted: “MINUSTAH, kolera, se marasa” (“MINUSTAH and cholera are twins”) and “Aba MINUSTAH, kolera, kadejakè” (“Down with MINUSTAH, cholera, rapists”).

There was a mix of Haitian and UN police, some from the United States, guarding the entrance. It wasn’t clear whether Jeffrey Aguirre of UN Site Security was the agent in charge, but he was certainly the loudest—and the angriest. With a shaved head and a distinct Southern accent, Aguirre was involved in the only two incidents of violence during the protest. In the first, Aguirre ended up with a reporter’s iPad after a brief scuffle; he denied he’d seized the device, but then eventually he returned it.

In the second incident, the officer grabbed an activist who had been spray-painting “Aba” around the “UN” on one of the white cars stalled in traffic. Other protesters managed to free the activist, but Aguirre held on to the spray-paint canister. “This is our country,” a Haitian protester yelled in English. “You can’t destroy property,” Aguirre lectured. “How about our sovereignty?” the Haitian protester asked.

During a lull in the action, Aguirre was overheard talking on his cell phone. “They’re here at street level blocking a government office, completely blocking everything,” he said. He seemed especially concerned about the presence of reporters and five U.S. solidarity activists. “They’re here with about 40 cameras and iPads,” he complained, with considerable exaggeration. “They talk about the cholera, but they don’t talk about the $8 million a year the UN brings to the economy,” he added when he noticed a reporter listening in.

Obama Must Tackle Criminal Justice Reform in His Second Term

President Obama is the first sitting president in recent history to speak out against criminal justice policies that hurt inner city and rural communities. This is a big deal.

With state budgets and vulnerable communities crippled by misguided criminal justice policies, the president is certainly right that the time for reform has come.

The myriad ways in which our criminal justice system is unwieldy, expensive, and damaging to vulnerable populations can be traced to one glaring issue: the U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate. With many of these people serving time for low-level, non-violent offenses, there is simply no justification for keeping such a large segment of our population behind bars. And of course most people affected by this national embarrassment are poor people and people of color.

How did we get into this mess?

Over the last 40 years, our American criminal justice system has been brutally damaged by politicians’ commitment to misguided “tough-on-crime” policies. It started in the 1970s, on the heels of a major uptick in crime rates, but our obsession with incarceration quickly surpassed its utility. Since the 1990s crime has steadily decreased, and most researchers believe incarceration was only responsible for a small percentage of the decline. Yet American incarceration rates continued to climb through the 1990s and 2000s—not in response to crime, but in response to absurdly harsh policies—and have just recently begun to flatten. And all this incarceration has come at exorbitant cost to U.S. taxpayers.

The president can begin to solve these problems immediately. In the first 100 days of his second term, he should accomplish three important goals: (1) adjust the unduly harsh crack cocaine sentences meted out before enactment of the Fair Sentencing act; (2) bar racial profiling in federal law enforcement; and (3) remove restrictions on communications between federal prisoners and their attorneys.

But we can go further. Over the long term, we must reduce our incarceration rates.

The only way to lower prison and jail populations is to reduce the number of people who enter the system and the amount of time they spend there. We’re going to have to stop arresting so many people for petty crimes and get rid of our punitive mandatory sentencing laws – particularly for non-violent offenses. There’s really no other choice.

Also, the president should put an end to incentives that stand in the way of reform. For example, the federal government contracts with private companies to house prisoners. These companies only get paid as long as they have prisoners to house, so they push for tough sentencing laws designed to keep people locked up. This creates a perverse incentive for lawmakers who receive support from private prison companies; they’re lobbied to enact ever-tougher laws, without any evidence to suggest that those laws protect public safety.

Another example is the billions of dollars the U.S. Department of Justice awards to local police, which reward officers for the number of low-level arrests they make. Incentivizing arrests for petty crimes only serves to keep more people locked up needlessly. Police should be rewarded for the number of violent crimes they resolve, not the number of people they unnecessarily arrest.

The president is right—we need to get smart about how the criminal justice system operates. People have suffered tremendously under the tough-on-crime policies of the last several decades. We know what we need to do to improve the system, and officials across the country have begun to make changes. Leadership from the president could bring national attention to what has become a national problem, accelerating needed reform of a broken system.

© 2012 ACLU

Kara Dansky

Kara Dansky is senior counsel for the ACLU's Center for Justice

Obama Must Tackle Criminal Justice Reform in His Second Term

President Obama is the first sitting president in recent history to speak out against criminal justice policies that hurt inner city and rural communities. This is a big deal.

With state budgets and vulnerable communities crippled by misguided criminal justice policies, the president is certainly right that the time for reform has come.

The myriad ways in which our criminal justice system is unwieldy, expensive, and damaging to vulnerable populations can be traced to one glaring issue: the U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate. With many of these people serving time for low-level, non-violent offenses, there is simply no justification for keeping such a large segment of our population behind bars. And of course most people affected by this national embarrassment are poor people and people of color.

How did we get into this mess?

Over the last 40 years, our American criminal justice system has been brutally damaged by politicians’ commitment to misguided “tough-on-crime” policies. It started in the 1970s, on the heels of a major uptick in crime rates, but our obsession with incarceration quickly surpassed its utility. Since the 1990s crime has steadily decreased, and most researchers believe incarceration was only responsible for a small percentage of the decline. Yet American incarceration rates continued to climb through the 1990s and 2000s—not in response to crime, but in response to absurdly harsh policies—and have just recently begun to flatten. And all this incarceration has come at exorbitant cost to U.S. taxpayers.

The president can begin to solve these problems immediately. In the first 100 days of his second term, he should accomplish three important goals: (1) adjust the unduly harsh crack cocaine sentences meted out before enactment of the Fair Sentencing act; (2) bar racial profiling in federal law enforcement; and (3) remove restrictions on communications between federal prisoners and their attorneys.

But we can go further. Over the long term, we must reduce our incarceration rates.

The only way to lower prison and jail populations is to reduce the number of people who enter the system and the amount of time they spend there. We’re going to have to stop arresting so many people for petty crimes and get rid of our punitive mandatory sentencing laws – particularly for non-violent offenses. There’s really no other choice.

Also, the president should put an end to incentives that stand in the way of reform. For example, the federal government contracts with private companies to house prisoners. These companies only get paid as long as they have prisoners to house, so they push for tough sentencing laws designed to keep people locked up. This creates a perverse incentive for lawmakers who receive support from private prison companies; they’re lobbied to enact ever-tougher laws, without any evidence to suggest that those laws protect public safety.

Another example is the billions of dollars the U.S. Department of Justice awards to local police, which reward officers for the number of low-level arrests they make. Incentivizing arrests for petty crimes only serves to keep more people locked up needlessly. Police should be rewarded for the number of violent crimes they resolve, not the number of people they unnecessarily arrest.

The president is right—we need to get smart about how the criminal justice system operates. People have suffered tremendously under the tough-on-crime policies of the last several decades. We know what we need to do to improve the system, and officials across the country have begun to make changes. Leadership from the president could bring national attention to what has become a national problem, accelerating needed reform of a broken system.

© 2012 ACLU

Kara Dansky

Kara Dansky is senior counsel for the ACLU's Center for Justice

Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint

Today Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is viewed as something of an American saint. His birthday is a national holiday. His name adorns schools and street signs. Americans from across the political spectrum invoke King's name to justify their beliefs and actions, as President Barack Obama will no doubt do in his second Inaugural speech and as gun fanatic Larry Ward recently did in outrageously claiming that King would have opposed proposals to restrict access to guns.

So it is easy to forget that  in his day, in his own country, King was considered a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media.

In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a "radical redistribution of economic and political power." He challenged America's class system and its racial caste system.  He was a strong ally of the nation's labor union movement.  He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers' strike.  He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country's misadventure in Vietnam.

In his critique of American society and his strategy for changing it,  King pushed the country toward more democracy and social justice. 

If he were alive today, he would certainly be standing with Walmart employees and other workers fighting for a living wage and the right to unionize. He would be in the forefront of the battle for strong gun controls and to thwart the influence of the National Rifle Association. He would be calling for dramatic cuts in the military budget in order to reinvest public dollars in jobs, education, and health care.  He would surely be marching with immigrants and their allies in support of the Dream Act and comprehensive reform. Like most Americans in his day, King was homophobic, even though one of his closest advisors, Bayard Rustin, was gay. But today King would undoubtedly stand with advocates of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.

Indeed, King's views evolved over time. He entered the public stage with some hesitation, reluctantly becoming the spokesperson for the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 at the age of 26.  King began his activism in Montgomery as a crusader against the nation's racial caste system, but the struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for broader economic and social justice and peace. Still, in reviewing King's life, we can see that the seeds of his later radicalism were planted early. 

King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, the son of a prominent black minister. Despite growing up in a solidly middle-class family, King saw the widespread human suffering caused by the Depression, particularly in the black community. In 1950, while in graduate school, he wrote an essay describing the "anti-capitalistic feelings" he experienced as a result of seeing unemployed people standing in breadlines.

During King's first year at Morehouse College, civil rights and labor activist A. Philip Randolph spoke on campus. Randolph predicted that the near future would witness a global struggle that would end white supremacy and capitalism. He urged the students to link up with "the people in the shacks and the hovels," who, although "poor in property," were "rich in spirit."

After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, King studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania (where he read both Mohandas Gandhi and Karl Marx), planning to follow in his father's footsteps and join the ministry. In 1955 he earned his doctorate from Boston University, where he studied the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential liberal theologian. While in Boston, he told his girlfriend (and future wife), Coretta Scott, that "a society based on making all the money you can and ignoring people's needs is wrong."

When King moved to Montgomery to take his first pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he was full of ideas but had no practical experience in politics or activism. But history sneaked up on him. On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and veteran activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), decided to resist the city's segregation law by refusing to move to the back of the bus on her way home from work. She was arrested. Two other long-term activists -- E. D. Nixon (leader of the NAACP and of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and Jo Ann Robinson (a professor at the all-black Alabama State College and a leader of Montgomery's Women's Political Council) -- determined that Parks' arrest was a ripe opportunity for a one-day boycott of the much-despised segregated bus system. Nixon and Robinson asked black ministers to use their Sunday sermons to spread the word. Some refused, but many others, including King, agreed.

The boycott was very effective. Most black residents stayed off the buses. Within days, the boycott leaders formed a new group, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). At Nixon's urging, they elected a hesitant King as president, in large part because he was new in town and not embroiled in the competition for congregants and visibility among black ministers. He was also well educated and already a brilliant orator, and thus would be a good public face for the protest movement. The ministers differed over whether to call off the boycott after one day but agreed to put the question up to a vote at a mass meeting.

That night, 7,000 blacks crowded into (and stood outside) the Holt Street Baptist Church. Inspired by King's words --"There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression"-- they voted unanimously to continue the boycott. It lasted for 381 days and resulted in the desegregation of the city's buses. During that time, King honed his leadership skills, aided by advice from two veteran pacifist organizers, Bayard Rustin and Rev. Glenn Smiley, who had been sent to Montgomery by the pacifist group, Fellowship of Reconciliation. During the boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, and he was subjected to personal abuse. But -- with the assistance of the new medium of television -- he emerged as a national figure.

In 1957 King launched the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help spread the civil rights crusade to other cities. He helped lead local campaigns in different cities, including Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, where thousands marched to demand an end to segregation in defiance of court injunctions forbidding any protests. While participating in these protests, King also sought to keep the fractious civil rights movement together, despite the rivalries among the NAACP, the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and SCLC. Between 1957 and 1968 King traveled over six million miles, spoke over 2,500 times, and was arrested at least 20 times, always preaching the gospel of nonviolence. King attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which connected him to a network of radicals, pacifists, and union activists from around the country whose ideas helped widen his political horizons.

It is often forgotten that the August 1963 protest rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous  "I Have a Dream" speech, was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King was proud of the civil rights movement's success in winning the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. But he realized that neither law did much to provide better jobs or housing for the masses of black poor in either the urban cities or the rural South. "What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter," he asked, "if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?"

King had hoped that the bus boycott, sit-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience would stir white southern moderates, led by his fellow clergy, to see the immorality of segregation and racism. His famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written in 1963, outlines King's strategy of using nonviolent civil disobedience to force a response from the southern white establishment and to generate sympathy and support among white liberals and moderates. "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation," he wrote, and added, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

King eventually realized that many white Americans had at least a psychological stake in perpetuating racism. He began to recognize that racial segregation was devised not only to oppress African Americans but also to keep working-class whites from challenging their own oppression by letting them feel superior to blacks. "The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow," King said from the Capitol steps in Montgomery, following the 1965 march from Selma. "And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man."

When King launched a civil rights campaign in Chicago in 1965, he was shocked by the hatred and violence expressed by working-class whites as he and his followers marched through the streets of segregated neighborhoods in Chicago and its suburbs. He saw that the problem in Chicago's ghetto was not legal segregation but "economic exploitation" -- slum housing, overpriced food, and low-wage jobs -- "because someone profits from its existence."

These experiences led King to develop a more radical outlook. King supported President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty in 1964, but, like his friend and ally Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers,  King thought that it did not go nearly far enough. As early as October 1964, he called for a "gigantic Marshall Plan" for the poor -- black and white. Two months later, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he observed that the United States could learn much from Scandinavian "democratic socialism." He began talking openly about the need to confront "class issues," which he described as "the gulf between the haves and the have nots."

In 1966 King confided to his staff:

“You can't talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You're really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism."

Given this view, King was dismayed when Malcolm X, SNCC's Stokely Carmichael, and others began advocating "black power," which he warned would alienate white allies and undermine a genuine interracial movement for economic justice.

King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. Invited to address the AFL-CIO's annual convention in 1961, King observed, "The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them." In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King proclaimed, "Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God's children." Speaking to a meeting of Teamsters union shop stewards in 1967, King said, "Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice."

King's growing critique of capitalism coincided with his views about American imperialism. By 1965 he had turned against the Vietnam War, viewing it as an economic as well as a moral tragedy. But he was initially reluctant to speak out against the war. He understood that his fragile working alliance with LBJ would be undone if he challenged the president's leadership on the war. Although some of his close advisers tried to discourage him, he nevertheless made the break in April 1967, in a bold and prophetic speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, entitled "Beyond Vietnam--A Time to Break Silence." King called America the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism. King argued that Vietnam was stealing precious resources from domestic programs and that the Vietnam War was "an enemy of the poor." In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), King wrote, "The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America."

In early 1968, King told journalist David Halberstam, "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values."

King kept trying to build a broad movement for economic justice that went beyond civil rights. In January 1968 he announced plans for a Poor People's Campaign, a series of protests to be led by an interracial coalition of poor people and their allies among the middle-class liberals, unions, religious organizations, and other progressive groups, to pressure the White House and Congress to expand the War on Poverty. At King's request, socialist activist Michael Harrington (author of The Other America, which helped inspire Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to declare a war on poverty) drafted a Poor People's Manifesto that outlined the campaign's goals. In April King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to help lend support to striking African American garbage workers and to gain recognition for their union. There he was assassinated at age 39 on April 4, a few months before the first protest action of the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, DC.

President Johnson utilized this national tragedy to urge Congress to quickly enact the Fair Housing Act, legislation to ban racial discrimination in housing that King had strongly supported for two years. He signed the bill a week after King's assassination.

The campaign for a federal holiday in King's honor, spearheaded by Detroit Congressman John Conyers, began soon after his murder, but it did not come up for a vote in Congress until 1979, when it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage. In 1981, with the help of singer Stevie Wonder and other celebrities, supporters collected six million signatures on a petition to Congress on behalf of a King holiday.  Congress finally passed legislation enacting the holiday in 1983, fifteen years after King's death. But even then, 90 members of the House (including then-Congressmen John McCain of Arizona and Richard Shelby of Alabama, both now in the Senate) voted against it. Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, led an unsuccessful effort -- supported by 21 other senators, including current Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) --  to block its passage in the Senate.

The holiday was first observed on January 20, 1986. In 1987 Arizona governor Evan Mecham rescinded King Day as his first act in office, setting off a national boycott of the state. Some states (including New Hampshire, which called it "Civil Rights Day" from 1991 to 1999) insisted on calling the holiday by other names.   In 2000 South Carolina became the last state to make King Day a paid holiday for all state employees.

In his final speech in Memphis the night before he was killed, King told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta that morning, saying he knew that his life was constantly in danger because of his political activism.

"I would like to live a long life," he said. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land."

We haven't gotten there yet. But Dr. King is still with us in spirit. The best way to honor his memory is to continue the struggle for human dignity, workers' rights, racial equality, peace, and social justice.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (2012, Nation Books). Other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City. He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and American Prospect. 

The Black Elite and the Legacy of Martin Luther King

Context: As yet there are no context links for this item.

Bio

Glen Ford is a distinguished radio-show host and commentator. In 1977, Ford co-launched, produced and hosted America's Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television. In 1987, Ford launched Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated Hip Hop music show, broadcast on 65 radio stations. Ford co-founded the Black Commentator in 2002 and in 2006 he launched the Black Agenda Report. Ford is also the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.

Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

Martin Luther King, when he was alive, was a representative and leader of African Americans, but of the working class, the black working class in particular. Now he seems to have become an icon, a symbol for the elite in general, some symbol of giving service to your community, but also of the black elite in particular.Now joining us to talk about Martin Luther King and his significance today and how his memory is dealt with is Glen Ford. He's the cofounder and current executive editor of Black Agenda Report. He also colaunched, produced, and hosted America's Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated black news interview program on commercial TV.Thanks for joining us, Glen.GLEN FORD, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLACKAGENDAREPORT.COM: Thanks for having me, Paul.JAY: So what do you make of what's been done with the memory of Martin Luther King, but particularly the role of the black elite in this?FORD: You seem to be talking about the emergence of what we call the black misleadership class. And I think we have to go back to 1968, the year that Martin was assassinated.By '68, almost all of the civil rights legal—narrow legal victories had been won. And in fact there was only one more major civil rights bill to pass, the Fair Housing Act, which would pass shortly after Martin's death. This demolition of legal Jim Crow was very useful to a class of black folks who could make use of this new mobility, that had certain educational and money resources, etc. They were equipped to use the civil rights revolution as a kind of launching board for their own careers and aspirations. And they did.And although the civil rights movement or the broad black movement was certainly damaged by federal repression, the COINTEL program, and at state and local levels, in a sense the movement was also shut down from within by these elements of the upper classes of black folks who decided that it was their time, it was their time to enter the corporate world, it was their time to run for political office, it was their time to cash in on the death of legalized Jim Crow. And they didn't want the continuation of a mass movement, the stirring up of stuff in the streets. Those who were going to run for political office, we know that the last thing that a mayor or an aspiring mayor wants is a people's movement in his city. The only kind of movement that a local public official wants is people moving towards the ballot box once every two or four years, and they want them quiet the rest of the time. So it was in the interest—or they saw it in the interests of this upwardly mobile, very acquisitive class, to shut down the movement and to preach a kind of gospel of sophisticated politics, which basically ruled out the kind of mass political activity that Dr. King had led.JAY: So talk a bit about the message of King, especially during the sort of last few years of his life, and the sort of things we're hearing from this sort of what you're calling black misleadership or black elite.FORD: Well, if we're going to describe King, I think he's aptly described as a left social democrat. Some people, like Dr. Tony Monteiro, who I know you've had on your show recently, calls Dr. King a revolutionary Democrat. He was—he did not think of himself as a nationalist. But he did refer to himself as a socialist. His staff always discouraged him from using that word.He differed from the social democrats that we know today in that he opposed U.S. imperialism, because he was a man of peace.~~~MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle upon Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor.~~~FORD: So he was an antiwar activist before 1967, when he made the formal break with his speech at Riverside Church and broke with the president, with whom the movement that Dr. King was a leader in had made a kind of alliance, the president who had introduced and then signed these civil rights bills. Martin Luther King felt that he had to break with this sometimes ally because of the Vietnam War, and not just because of the immorality of the war, but because of the way militarism affects domestic policy as well.So, yeah, he was a left social democrat, a person who believed that politics should not be confined to the ballot box. He resisted all the entreaties from folks on the left who wanted him to run for office, because he saw politics as setting people in motion, and a ballot box is only one destination.JAY: And the way they're going to celebrate Martin Luther King is to—you know, you should do service, I think, for one—particularly on the Saturday, you should do a day's service for your community, or if you want to do more, that's the way to remember Martin Luther King, sort of doing this volunteer work. But you mentioned that King considered himself a socialist. And there was quite an anticapitalist character to his speeches in the last while of his life.FORD: Well, he talked about the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.~~~KING: I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.~~~FORD: And by extreme materialism, I think he was talking about the rule of the rich. And he got pretty explicit in terms of the rule of the masses of people by one moneyed class of people. He advocated back in 1967 a guaranteed national minimum income. He certainly preached a kind ofsocial gospel. And I also believe that politically we should call him a socialist, yes. He called himself that.JAY: So we've talked many times before about President Obama, and sort of some people have tried to give him the mantel of King. And I know you've been very critical of that. You wrote something recently about that. Do you think that's still going on? And if so, what do you make of it?FORD: It's insane. And what we wrote in our current article was that if King were alive, he would be celebrating his birthday week by organizing a massive disruption of the inauguration. And we didn't say that in fun. I really believe that would be the case. He would be appalled at this president, who has at one time bombed simultaneously five countries, has a kill list, and every Tuesday decides who's going to be on it, introduced and shepherded through our legislature a bill for preventive detention. This is a warmonger who surpasses in his militarism even George Bush. So how could anyone imagine that our prince of peace, as some folks refer to him, would not be dedicating all of his organizing efforts to disrupting this administration's warlike strategies in the world?FORD: In terms of people trying to say that there is some seamless line, a straight line between Dr. King and Barack Obama, that somehow Dr. King would think that his dream had truly been fulfilled if he could see this family in the White House today, it is so dishonest, especially for people who are public intellectuals, to encourage that kind of thinking.Dr. King, of all of our great leaders—I'm talking about great black leaders—was probably the leader who explained to the people all the facets of his thinking. He wrote books. He gave speeches not just as a movement leader, but as a public intellectual and as a statesman. He was a public figure who was as well known in his day as Mandela is today. He also knew the art of speaking to the corporate media. He knew how to speak in soundbites as well. So the workings of King's mind through his writings and his speeches and his interviews is no secret. And nowhere is there any evidence in these hundreds of thousands, millions of words, that Dr. King would be anything other than an opponent of this regime, this president, in terms of his domestic policies and his foreign policies.JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Glen.FORD: Thank you.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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“The Toronto Purchase”: Greatest Swindle in Canadian History. Toronto Belong’s to the First Nation’s

Toronto exists because of one of the biggest swindles you can think of. In 1787, the British Crown first made what was known as the Toronto Purchase from the Mississaugas who were the Indigenous Peoples in the region. However, this was no tidy real estate transaction, the deed for the original purchase was left blank, the exact size of land was unclear and the names of Mississauga chiefs were attached to it by separate pieces of paper. Payment for this dubious purchase was some small arms and tobacco.

In January 1794, Governor General Dorchester wrote a letter to John Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, stating that the blank deed was of “no validity” and called it “an omission which will set aside the whole transaction, and throw us entirely on the good faith of the Indians for just so much Land as they are willing to allow.”

In December 1794 Dorchester wrote to Alexander McKee, then the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, saying “proceedings are so informal and irregular as to invalidate and set aside the whole transaction,” and that the deed itself was “of no validity or value.”

In 1805, a new effort was made to establish British legitimacy and ownership of the area a new deed was drawn up dramatically expanding the area claimed by the Crown and a scant 10 shillings was paid for 250,880 acres of land. The new boundaries stretched from the mouth of Etobicoke Creek to Ashbridges Bay and 40 kilometers north to what now is approximately Highway 9.

Not only that, but the location for the purchase was selected specifically as a strategic point of access by rivers and Lake Simcoe through to Lake Huron and the profitable fur-trade that existed in the north. The safe harbour along Lake Ontario would then facilitate easy transit of furs and other goods.

Swindle of Epic Proportions

Like I said, Toronto exists because of a swindle of epic proportions.

It took another 205 years for the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation to reach a settlement with the government of Canada on their obvious claim that proper compensation was not paid for the land.

In 2010 a landmark, negotiated settlement saw the federal government pay $144-million to settle the land claim of the Toronto Purchase. That amount was based on what was considered a fair price for the land in 1805 extrapolated to 2010 dollars. The agreement was reached only after almost 20 years of legal requests, an official commission and negotiations between the Mississaugas of the New Credit and the federal government.

As a Torontonian I’m glad that the government finally paid up, but this process of thieving colonialism is still playing out today and the righting of historical wrongs doesn’t go far enough if we don’t learn from our past mistakes and not repeat them. Unfortunately, the recent changes to the colonial relic of “The Indian Act” by the federal government shows we haven’t learned our lesson. The changes that the bill makes are significant covering issues such as full or partial surrender of reserve land without a vote by the majority of community members as was previously required.

Speaking to CBC radio Pamela Palmater, Academic Director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, said:

“Think about it this way, say you had a First Nation of 5,000 band members and there’s a small contingency who want to make a deal with Enbridge to have a pipeline go across a community and the majority didn’t want to have that. Well, you can now set up a vote to surrender a piece of the reserve land to allow a pipeline to go through by those handful of people.”

Palmater nails the essence of what’s happening today and how it’s the same as 200 years ago. Only instead of a profitable fur trade, Canadian and international corporations are salivating at the prospect of new mineral, oil and gas resources from northern Ontario’s “Ring of Fire” to the expansion of the Oil Sands in northern Alberta.

“Treaties are Constitutionally Protected”

“Keep in mind about two-thirds of reserves in this country were set up via treaties. Those treaties are constitutionally protected. Those reserve lands are set aside for the exclusive use and benefit of band members only” said Palmater when asked how Bill C-45 violates treaty rights. “So the concept of surrendering those lands, either conditionally or unconditionally, is something that takes away from the collective use and benefit of those reserve lands – especially if the integrity is not maintained.”

The longstanding intransigence of the Canadian government on negotiating agreements with First Nations around land claims and sovereignty needs to be radically changed. However, to replace the foot-dragging of previous policies with the unilateral take-it-or-leave-it approach that the conservatives are taking is no way forward.

What we need as a society is a new conception of nation building that rests on the dual pillars of respect for Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty and our responsibility to create a society as partners ensuring we all equitably share the wealth and protect this great land.

It is clear that the government and corporate elites don’t share that vision and would rather continue down the profitable path of colonialism and theft. But together ordinary people can work to prevent the modern swindling of First Nations, and working-class Canadians, from happening again. •

Mick Sweetman is the editor of The Dialog newspaper at George Brown College, where this article first appeared.

MLK Injustice Index 2013: Racism, Materialism and Militarism in the US

“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values…when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967

While the US celebrates the re-election of its first African American President and the successes of numerous African Americans in all walks of life, there remain troubling challenges.

While remembering how far this nation has come since Dr. King was alive, we cannot forget how far we have still to go to combat the oppressions of racism, materialism and militarism.

Racism

Whites have 22 times more wealth than blacks and 15 times more wealth than Latinos. Median household net worth for whites was $110,000 versus $4,900 for blacks versus $7,424 for Latinos, according to CNN Money and the Census Bureau.

African Americans are 12.3 percent of the population but 4.7 percent of attorneys.

Latinos are 15.8 percent of the population but only 2.8 percent of attorneys.

African American students face harsher discipline, have less access to rigorous high school classes and are more likely to be taught by less experienced and lower paid teachers according to a government sponsored national survey of 72,000 schools.

13% of whites, 21% of blacks and 32% of Hispanics lack health insurance, according to a Kaiser Foundation study (pdf).

The latest Census analysis (pdf) shows 9% of white families below the US poverty level and 23% of Black and Hispanic families below the same levels.

Materialism

The chairman of Goldman Sachs was awarded $21 million in total pay for 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal.6

From 1978 to 2011, compensation for workers grew by 5.7 percent. During the same time, CEO compensation grew by 725 percent. In 1965 CEO earned about 20 times the typical worker. In 2011, the typical CEO “earned” over 200 times the typical worker.

The top 1% of earners took home 93% of the growth in incomes in 2010, while middle income household have lower incomes than they did in 1996, according to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

People in the US spent $52 billion on pets in 2012, according to the American Pet Products Association. The latest figures from the Census Bureau indicate the US spends less than $50 billion per year in non-military foreign aid.

Student loan debt is now higher than total credit card debt and total auto loan debt.

Over 2.8 million children in the US live in homes of extreme poverty, less than $2 per person per day before government benefits. This is double what it was 15 years ago.

Nearly one in six people in the US live in poverty according to the Census. One in five children live in poverty. Latest information shows 17% of white children in poverty, 32% of Hispanic children and 35% of black children (pdf).

Militarism

The US spends more (pdf) on its military than any country in the world. The US spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined! More than China, Russia, UK, France, Japan, Indian, Saudi Arabia, German and Brazil together.

The 2013 military budget authorizes spending $633 billion on our military defense, not including money for the Veterans Administration. The VA budget submission for 2013 is $140 billion. To compare, total federal spending on Social Security for 2012 was about $773 billion.

The US has 737 military bases outside the US around the world and over 2 million military personnel, including Defense Department and local hires.

The US leads the world in the sale of weapons in the global arms market. In 2011 the US tripled sales to $66 billion making up three-quarters of the global market. Russia was second with less than $5 billion in sales.

45% of the 1.6 million veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking disability benefits from physical and mental injuries suffered while in the service.

Suicides in active US military, 349 in 2012, exceeded the 295 total combat deaths in Afghanistan in 2012, according to the Associated Press.

Conclusion

These are challenges we should face with the hope and courage Dr. King and so many others have taught us as we celebrate his accomplishment and his inspiration.

Bill Quigley

Bill Quigley is Associate Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.  He is a Katrina survivor and has been active in human rights in Haiti for years. He volunteers with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Bureau de Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port au Prince. Contact Bill at [email protected]

Mehdi’s ‘Sunday Lunchtime’ Memo: ‘A Vicious and Cowardly Attack’

The ten things you need to know on Sunday 20 January 2013...

1) 'A VICIOUS AND COWARDLY ATTACK'

From the Press Association:

"David Cameron has confirmed that three British nationals have been killed in Algeria, a further three are believed to be dead and a British resident has also died.

"The remaining 22 British survivors have returned to the UK and been reunited with their loved-ones, the Foreign Secretary has confirmed.

"Mr Cameron said: 'I know the whole country will want to join me in sending our sympathies and condolences to the families who have undergone an absolutely dreadful ordeal and who now face life without these very precious loved ones.'

"Speaking from Chequers, the PM echoed President Barack Obama and blamed the terrorists for the deaths, saying 'of course people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack.'"

NOTE: For reasons I won't bore you with, this Memo was delayed today, hence it's 'Sunday Lunchtime', rather than 'Morning', title. Normal service will resume tomorrow morning. Fingers crossed.

2) 'RED MEAT'

Forget the horse meat, it's all about red meat when it comes to the PM and Europe.

From the Observer:

"David Cameron will deliver a 'redmeat announcement' on Britain's future in the EU, which he believes will satisfy all but a hard core of Conservative MPs, when he makes his much-delayed keynote speech on Europe in the next few days.

"Amid uncertainty over the exact timing of the jinxed address, senior government sources told the Observer that the prime minister intends to make the speech this week - possibly tomorrow - if a resolution has been found to the Algerian hostage crisis.

"'He wants to go ahead as soon as possible. There will be something in it which will pacify all but the hard core,' said the source. 'But he could deliver the same kind of speech that Margaret Thatcher gave in Bruges in 1988 and around 25 MPs would not be happy. It is not possible to please everyone.'"

Speaking on the Andrew Marr programme, foreign secretary William Hague confirmed that the PM's 'tantric' speech on Europe would take place in the coming week.

Hague told stand-in presenter Jeremy Vine that an announcement on the location and timing of the speech would happen tomorrow, and said the British public "need their say" on the UK's relationship with Brussels - suggesting that was what his boss, the prime minister, would offer. Watch this space.

3) COUP AGAINST CAMERON?

Remember the letters to Graham Brady and the 1922 Committee? The ones from Tory backbenchers that could trigger a vote of no-confidence in Dave's leadership of the Conservative Party? There's now 17 of them, apparently.

From the Sunday Times:

"An increasing number of backbenchers are privately discussing the possibility of attempting to unseat the prime minister before the poll in 2015 if the party continues to trail in the polls.

"While there is no immediate threat to his position, a well-placed source said that up to 17 MPs had now written letters of 'no confidence', and there are rumours that at least one list of MPs willing to back a coup is being gathered.

"For the first time, discussions about ousting Cameron before 2015 appear to be spreading beyond the so-called 'usual suspects' — a hard core of about 20 backbenchers who are hostile to his leadership."

Oh dear.

On a side note, Nigel Farage still isn't happy with the Ukip-abusing Tory leader. This morning, on the Andrew Marr programme, Ukip leader Nigel Farage ruled out a post-2015 "deal" with a Cameron-led Conservative Party:

“I think with David Cameron as leader, that is virtually impossible to even contemplate."

4) PLEBGATE, PART 99

Uh-oh. It's not looking so good for Sir Jeremy Heywood. From the Mail on Sunday:

"Britain’s most powerful mandarin faces public humiliation after MPs claimed his bungled investigation cost ‘plebgate’ ex-Tory Minister Andrew Mitchell his job.

"A report by a powerful Commons committee will tomorrow accuse Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood of failing to give the former Chief Whip a chance to prove he was the victim of a police conspiracy.

"A copy of an explosive report by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, obtained by The Mail on Sunday, shows that MPs lambast Sir Jeremy’s handling of a Downing Street investigation into Mr Mitchell."

5) TAXING TIMES

Last Sunday, this Memo noted how the two Eds had were keen to position the Labour Party behind an anti-tax-avoidance campaign; this Sunday, it's the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

From the Sunday Telegraph:

"Senior Liberal Democrats are drawing up plans for a new levy on Starbucks, Amazon and other global businesses that pay low levels of tax on their British operations.

"As part of preparation for this year’s Budget negotiations, Lib Dems are looking to introduce a minimum tax charge on multinationals based on their global profits.

"Tim Farron, the party’s president, said the charge would address the 'natural outrage' many British people have felt at how little some multinationals contribute to the public finances."

I guess dealing with the 'national outrage' over tax avoidance helps the Lib Dems deal with some of the 'national outrage' over... the Lib Dems themselves.

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

In honour of yesterday's 'National Gun Appreciation Day' in the United States, watch this amusing video of US gun owners making idiots of themselves.

6) 'WAR ON BENEFIT CHEATS' ANNOUNCED. UGH.

Remember how Iain Duncan Smith, saviour of the poor, claimed in a recent Today programme interview that he and his department never demonised people on benefits? Remember that?

Well, check out some of today's headlines and news reports. The Sun on Sunday ("£5bn benefiddle") says:

"Ministers will this week step up the war on benefit cheats after false claims hit a record £5.3billion.

Hit squads will be sent into welfare hot spots to target suspect claimants."

The Sunday Express quotes IDS as saying: “The welfare state has over the years become so complex and confusing that fraudsters basically have been given the green light to pick the pockets of hard working taxpayers.

Green light? Hit squads? 'Benefiddle'? I wonder how many papers IDS/the DWP briefed about illegal tax evasion, which is estimated to cost the exchequer tens of billions of pounds compared to illegal benefit fraud which costs just over £1bn (or around 0.7% of the benefits bill).

7) HERE COMES THE TRIPLE DIP?

From the Observer:

"The Office for National Statistics will publish its first estimate of GDP growth for the final quarter of 2012 on Friday and many experts, including at the Bank, expect it to show that the economy contracted. A second negative quarter, from January to March, would mark the onset of Britain's third recession in five years."

The paper says the "Ernst and Young Item Club forecasting group joins those calling on the government to abandon the 2% inflation target, forcing the Bank of England to take more drastic action to lift the economy out of its slump".

No pressure then on Mark Carney, the new bank governor from Canada who takes over Sir Mervyn King in the summer...

8) LIVING WAGE 'ZONES'

Triple-dip or no triple-dip, wages will continue to stagnate over the next few years - and have been in decline since around 2003. Would a living wage help? Ed Miliband thinks so - from the Observer:

"The first detailed blueprint for boosting the wages of millions of low-paid private and public sector workers, while saving the Treasury billions of pounds a year, is released today by two leading thinktanks as support for the living wage grows at Westminster.

"Labour welcomed the radical ideas from the independent Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) as an "extremely valuable contribution" to the living wage debate, amid signs they could be taken up by Ed Miliband's party for inclusion in its next general election manifesto."

9) KENNETH BAKER VS MICHAEL GOVE

My former New Statesman colleague George Eaton has done a rather interesting interview with former Thatcher cabinet minister and Tory grandee Kenneth Baker - 'the most transformative education secretary in recent history' - which Michael Gove won't be too pleased with.

The top lines:

1) He describes Gove's English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which will replace GCSEs from 2015, as "a throwback", comparing it to the School Certificate he sat as a 16-year-old in 1951.
2) He says the "jury's out" on free schools and says he doesn't think "allowing them to be run for profit would necessarily change very much, quite frankly. I really don’t think it would".
3) He says "the jump [in tuition fees] to £9,000 was just too much, quite frankly".

10) OBAMA 2.0

It's time for the second term. From the BBC:

"Barack Obama is due to be officially sworn in for his second term as US president in a small ceremony at the White House.

Although the US Constitution requires the oath of office to be taken by noon on 20 January, as that falls on a Sunday the public inauguration will take place on Monday."

The president wants the Almighty on his side. From the Huffington Post:

"When President Obama rests his hand on two historic Bibles to take his second-term oath of office Monday (Jan. 21), he'll add a phrase not mentioned in the Constitution: 'So help me God.'

"... Although the phrase was used in federal courtrooms since 1789, the first proof it was used in a presidential oath of office came with Chester Arthur's inauguration in September 1881.

"Every president since, including Obama, has followed suit."

The Huffington Post has commissioned a series of special pieces on 'Obama's second-term challenges' which you can read here.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sunday Times/YouGov poll:

Labour 42
Conservatives 33
Ukip 11
Lib Dems 7

That would give Labour a majority of 96.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

‏@TimMontgomerie Never seen Cameron looking so tired, making his Algeria statement. Doesn't look like he's been to bed. Must have been v challenging few days

@OllyGrender Prob remains if PM does go for "in/out referendum" I know precisely where my party stands on that but his party will be chronically divided

@campbellclaret Success of Borgen (currently trending) and West Wing (which I have not seen) a sign of gap in market for essentially pro politics TV?

900 WORDS OR MORE

Liam Fox, writing in the Mail on Sunday, says: "Lethal force, not rational argument, must be our response to these violent fanatics."

Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observer, says: "Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg's relationship is starting to thaw."

Lord Wolfson, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, says: "I back the single market – but not at any cost."


Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan ([email protected]) or Ned Simons ([email protected]). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol

After Being Denied a Medical Marijuana Defense, Another Montana Cultivator was Convicted in Federal...

Missoula, MT - January 18 - Montana medical marijuana patient, cultivator and former University of Montana Grizzlies quarterback Jason Washington was convicted yesterday in federal court of two felonies, "conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marij...

Rebel Towns, Local Democracy, and the Common Good

Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. (Courtesy: Anthony Quintano)The 600 residents of Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, have done a laudable job of keeping the vulgarities of modern life at bay. There are no fast-food restaurants, no neon signs. Instead, the former iron-mining town has rambling country inns and a main road lined with Victorian and Arts and Crafts houses. Locals gather for breakfast, as they have since 1938, at Polly’s Pancake Parlor, which grinds its own corn and wheat and uses syrup from the sugar maples that give the town its name. With tourism driving the economy, the village’s biggest assets are its fall foliage, fields of lupines and uninterrupted views of the snow-capped White Mountains.

Each March, Sugar Hill’s voters gather at the white meetinghouse—a converted church built in 1830 with a trio of gold-leaf clocks on its steeple—for their annual town meeting. Anyone who collects enough signatures can place an item on the agenda to be voted into law. That New Englander impulse toward self-government, combined with the feistiness that led Sugar Hill to secede from a neighboring town in 1962, might explain its residents’ sweeping response when they learned in 2010 that an international electric consortium has proposed a high-voltage transmission line that would slice through the village like a giant zipper.

The Northern Pass, if built, would enter New Hampshire at the Canadian border and bisect some of the state’s most intact forestland as it connects Quebec’s hydroelectric dams with New England’s power grid. Steel towers, some exceeding thirteen stories in height, would line the 180-mile route, which snakes through ten miles of protected national forest and seven miles of Sugar Hill. Conservationists say the project is unneeded and could degrade waterways and fragment wildlife habitats. 

But what New Hampshirites fear most is that the Northern Pass will disfigure the state’s visual landscape. “It could destroy our economy,” says Dolly McPhaul, a lifelong Sugar Hill resident. “If people don’t build their second homes here, where are the builders going to get their money? The plumbers? The grocery store that feeds these people?” McPhaul and her neighbors were particularly disheartened to learn that the Northern Pass required federal and state permits—but no local permits at all.

“You’re shocked to find out you have no say,” says Nancy Martland, a retired child-development researcher who moved to Sugar Hill in 2007. “Even your whole town. Even at town meeting. Even your Select Board. You have no power. People in New Hampshire—maybe everywhere, I don’t know—we want to stand up for ourselves.”

So they did. Last year, Martland and McPhaul campaigned for a local ordinance that would ban corporations from acquiring land or building structures to support any “unsustainable energy system.” The ordinance stripped those corporations of their free-speech and due-process rights under the Constitution, as well as protections afforded by the Constitution’s commerce and contract clauses. Judicial rulings that recognized corporations as legal “persons” would not be recognized in Sugar Hill. Any state or federal law that tried to interfere with the town’s authority would be invalidated. “Natural communities and ecosystems”—wetlands, streams, rivers, aquifers—would acquire “inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish,” and any resident could enforce the law on their behalf. “All power is inherent in the people,” the measure stated.

Sugar Hill’s attorney suggested this was folly; local governments can’t override state or federal law, much less the Constitution. Such an ordinance could attract a lawsuit, which the village could ill afford. McPhaul, a Republican and a charity volunteer and self-described “goody two-shoes,” also worried about litigation. “But what is your option?” she asks. “To lie down, play dead and let them destroy your town?” After a two-month public-awareness campaign, Sugar Hill’s residents took up the ordinance at their 2012 town meeting. It passed by a unanimous voice vote.

Thus, Sugar Hill became one of dozens of communities nationwide—mostly villages but also the city of Pittsburgh—that have reacted to environmental threats by directly challenging the Constitution and established case law. The leading champion of this confrontational strategy—which has its share of critics, even among progressives who share the sense of desperation that is driving it—is a bearish 43-year-old attorney named Thomas Linzey. These skirmishes, Linzey believes, are the first steps in a long campaign to wrest power from corporations and strengthen American democracy. He refers to the strategy as “collective nonviolent civil disobedience through municipal lawmaking.”

* * *

Linzey runs the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that advocates for local self-government and the rights of nature. CELDF comes into threatened communities, educates residents about US legal history, and trains them to advocate for “rights-based ordinances” like Sugar Hill’s. About thirty municipalities in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and New Mexico have enacted such measures, according to Linzey, following an earlier round of over 100 more modest laws. CELDF’s organizers have helped citizens fight frackers, coal companies, factory farms, big-box stores, water bottlers and sewage-sludge dumpers. They’ve campaigned to overhaul the city charter in Spokane, Washington. And they aided the successful effort to confer rights on nature in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution. Linzey, whose baritone voice is filled with populist fire, has crafted a message whose appeal brings together liberals distrustful of big business and conservatives distrustful of big government.

Linzey’s approach has evolved dramatically since 1995, when the organization he co-founded started assisting Pennsylvania communities that were battling polluters and developers. Newly admitted to the bar, the young Alabaman initially put his faith in the regulatory system. “It seemed to us at the time that people needed lawyers,” he recalls. “The problem was not that we didn’t have good environmental laws. The problem was, the world has gone to shit because we didn’t have enough people enforcing those laws.” So Linzey applied what he’d learned in law school. Faced with a proposed incinerator or landfill, “we would take the 400-page application and try to find places where it was deficient—gaps, omissions, those types of things.” Based on these bureaucratic challenges, CELDF’s clients often won their first rounds.

“Then the community group would have a victory party,” he recalls. “Everybody would pat each other on the back and say the system works. Meanwhile, thirty, sixty days from then, the corporation would come back and submit a new and improved permit application, and the project would move forward. So we weren’t stopping anything.” 

The attorney wondered what he was accomplishing by working within the system. “In many ways, the regulatory process is intended to exhaust communities, because it does not recognize—and neither does the broader structure of the law recognize—that communities have any power to make those fundamental decisions about energy or transportation or agriculture.” Citizens could delay but not stop projects; the law was “merely regulating the rate at which the environment was being destroyed.”

Behind Linzey’s epiphany is almost 200 years of jurisprudence giving both constitutional rights and legal personhood to corporations. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which used the First Amendment to permit corporations unlimited independent political spending, is just the latest in a chain of such rulings. Most famous is the 1886 case Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific, in which a railroad company argued that a particular tax law violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause. “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the [clause] applies to these corporations,” Chief Justice Morrison Waite said from the bench. “We are all of opinion that it does.” Since then, courts have also used the Constitution’s Fourth and Fifth Amendments, and its commerce and contract clauses, to expand corporate rights. Linzey believes these rulings are rooted in the very structure of the Constitution, which he says “puts the rights of property and commerce over the rights of people, communities and nature.”

The Constitution also concentrates power by declaring itself, along with federal statutes, “the supreme law of the land.” And starting in 1868, a judicial doctrine known as Dillon’s Rule held local governments subservient to state legislatures, which “breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist,” Linzey adds.

With communities holding so little authority, Linzey and his colleagues decided that the only way to fight environmental threats was through open defiance. He compares this to Northern jurors who refused to convict defendants in fugitive slave cases, suffragists who risked arrest to vote and African-Americans who sat down at segregated lunch counters. “Change does not happen by silver-tongued lawyers going into courthouses,” he says. “The only way law changes is through disobedience.” There was no reason, he concluded, that disobedience couldn’t come from local governments—and he found eager allies in Pennsylvania’s Republican-leaning farm country. 

* * *

Linzey had started receiving calls from elected supervisors worried about the arrival of factory hog farms in their rural townships. The officials had tried to stave off the invasions by strictly regulating manure disposal, only to find their efforts pre-empted by Pennsylvania law. Now some were willing to butt heads with the state government. Linzey drafted an ordinance that would ban corporate farming altogether, drawing from similar laws passed by nine Midwestern states. About twenty townships enacted the measure, he estimates, followed by eighty that banned the importing of corporate-hauled sewage sludge for use as fertilizer on farm fields. (Despite industry assurances, some scientists consider the noxious sludge toxic. Two Pennsylvania teens had recently died after exposure to such sludge.) A few townships went further, refusing altogether to recognize the personhood of corporate sludge haulers.

Predictably, Pennsylvania’s state government invoked its supremacy. It passed a law in 2005 empowering the attorney general to sue local governments that restrict “normal agricultural operations,” then took legal action against two townships, East Brunswick and Packer. Both withdrew their sludge bans, though Packer’s supervisors voted not to recognize the attorney general’s authority to restrict their autonomy. A court voided that measure.

News of the Pennsylvania rebellion reached other places. In Barnstead, New Hampshire (population 4,600), a home-schooling mother named Gail Darrell, who lives in a Revolutionary War–era cabin with her piano-tuner husband, watched with alarm as a water bottler called USA Springs announced plans to extract 310,000 gallons a day from three bedrock wells in nearby Nottingham. A report by civil engineer Thomas Ballestero warned that the operations could deplete and contaminate the local water supply. Yet the project seemed to be moving forward. 

Darrell had never been involved in local politics. But her children were getting older, leaving her with free time. So she volunteered to sit on a committee studying how Barnstead could protect its own water. There she learned about CELDF and invited Linzey to speak to the town’s selectmen. Linzey’s call to outlaw corporate privilege found a receptive audience in freedom-loving New Hampshire. (The state constitution authorizes its citizens to form a new government when the existing one starts serving private interests.) “It’s always been a bit ornery up here,” says Gordon Preston, who chaired the board of selectmen at the time. Preston had reservations about CELDF’s approach: “The biggest fear of a small town is that they get their asses hauled into court and have little or no money to defend themselves.” But he also shared Linzey’s concern about corporate power and supported the principle of local self-government.

Darrell worked with the selectmen to put an anti-bottling ordinance on the 2006 town meeting agenda. Shortly before the vote, Linzey and historian Richard Grossman came to Barnstead to teach CELDF’s Democracy School, an intensive seminar that traces the history of corporate and government power. It was a clarifying moment for Darrell. “I didn’t really understand about the Constitution till I went through the school—that it wasn’t about freedom,” she says. “We grow up with that IV drip in our arm that tells us that we live in the greatest democracy that ever was.” The seminar gave Darrell the momentum she needed to defend the ordinance, which passed overwhelmingly at the town meeting and was strengthened two years later. Barnstead not only banned corporate water withdrawals and stripped bottling companies of their presumed constitutional rights; it also threatened secession from any government that tries to overturn the ban or “intimidate the people of Barnstead.” The measure was among the first to confer civil rights on natural systems like aquifers and rivers. Nottingham, which had initially rebuffed CELDF, followed suit with a similar measure.

“New Hampshire has always had an independent spirit,” Darrell says. “The soil here is crap, and you really have to work hard to farm. When people came up here to settle, they were coming into no-man’s land. You had to have enough gumption to stick it out, to stand up for yourself, and to make it through the winter. That spirit has carried out into the way we treat government. We believe that we have the inalienable right to govern ourselves. So to hear the language of the ordinance—that didn’t seem foreign to people.”

USA Springs later filed for bankruptcy, so it is hard to know whether these ordinances had any impact. But Darrell, who became CELDF’s New England organizer, claimed a more tangible victory in Shapleigh, Maine, where residents passed a rights-based ordinance in 2009. Their target, the Nestlé subsidiary Poland Spring, pulled up its test wells and left four months later. “Without the town’s permission to proceed on that project,” says Mark Dubois, the company’s natural-resource manager, “we had no project.”

Nestlé’s withdrawal felt particularly sweet because Shapleigh’s citizens had defied both the company and their own elected officials. When the board of selectmen refused to put the rights-based ordinance to a public vote, calling it unconstitutional, bottling opponents convened their own town meeting and passed it 114-66. “Nobody is covering our asses out here,” says Charles Mullins, a retired machinist who later served one term as selectman. “When the people up high don’t do their jobs, then we’ve got to get out in the streets and do it ourselves.”

Victories like Shapleigh’s have inspired other threatened communities, but they’re not really part of CELDF’s long-term game plan. For Linzey, disobedient lawmaking is an organizing tactic, not a legal one. He knows municipalities violate the law when they assert supremacy over state and federal governments. He expects “lawsuits galore” and assumes judges won’t permit these affronts to the Constitution. But he also believes that every courtroom defeat will trigger a bigger backlash against the status quo, leading to more municipal defiance. Over time, he expects to build the critical mass necessary to amend state constitutions and eventually the federal one. 

CELDF considers this the only path to environmental sustainability, and its leaders freely criticize liberals who believe otherwise. “We’re seen as not able to play well with others,” says Ben Price, who leads the nonprofit’s efforts in Pennsylvania. He admits that CELDF’s uncompromising style can be off-putting, but he doesn’t care. “Frankly, I’m not willing to suggest that the traditional progressive strategy is just as good” as the one CELDF is pursuing, and “we’re just giving another tool in the toolbox—I don’t agree with that. If trying to regulate the rate of destruction was working so well, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in environmentally.”

Price says that when he chats with mainstream environmentalists, “what I constantly hear is, ‘We need to have a seat at the table. If we’re not sitting down when they’re talking about these rules and regs, we’re left out. Is that what you want?’ My answer is yes. We need to stop legitimizing what they’re doing by being invited to the table of power, and then having no power.”

The criticism, though, runs both ways. Some progressives call CELDF’s tactics pie-in-the-sky at best, dangerous at worst. “I’m concerned about how this can suck energy out of other avenues for change,” says Jon Snyder, a Spokane City Council member who believes the resources spent on a CELDF-sponsored ballot initiative cost his council the chance for its “first progressive majority.” The 2011 measure would have amended the city charter to strip rights from corporations and give them to waterways, neighborhoods and workers. It lost by 1,000 votes out of 58,700 cast. That’s a thin margin, but wider than the eighty-nine votes that would have elected a fourth progressive to the seven-member council. The liberal bloc has lost 4–3 votes on marriage equality, saving union jobs, utility rate reform, historic preservation, alternatives to incarceration and job-placement services for the poor, Snyder says.

Constitutional scholar Kent Greenfield believes CELDF’s shortcomings go beyond misplaced energy. “I totally understand people’s revulsion against corporations’ misdeeds,” says the Boston College law professor. “I think, though, that we shouldn’t be squandering this political moment on organizational tools that, if implemented, would be a disaster. The reason we have a national government is because there are certain things we ought to decide at the national level and we can’t let people opt out of.” America’s racial history, he says, is exhibit number one; if Barnstead can threaten to secede, so can a town that wants to resegregate its schools. “This is what we fought the Civil War over, for goodness’ sake. This is what the civil rights movement was about. We cannot let the George Wallaces of the world stand in the schoolhouse door and say, ‘Our community norm of segregation is going to control here in the face of the national norm of equality.’ The assertion of power to rewrite the Constitution within one’s own community is a nonstarter—and ought to be.” 

Linzey has heard the racial analogy before and rejects it. He argues that CELDF’s ordinances expand rights, at least to flesh-and-blood humans. The Constitution and federal laws should be used, he says, to overturn local restrictions of rights. “Vehicles are only as good,” he says, “as the values that animate them.”

* * *

In the decade since it first took aim at corporate privilege, CELDF has jumped beyond its rural roots. It crossed the Rubicon in 2010, when Pittsburgh’s City Council unanimously passed a rights-based anti-fracking ordinance. “It was a very, very assertive bill,” says sponsor Doug Shields, who has since retired from the council. “It didn’t mince words. And there was talk that if you do this, you’ll be challenged the day after your vote.” Sure enough, last year Pennsylvania’s legislature passed a bill nullifying almost all local regulation of oil and gas extraction. (The state’s Public Utility Commission says this includes the Pittsburgh ordinance.) The new law is currently in litigation.

Even before the Pittsburgh foray, CELDF started working internationally. After a handful of townships had given civil rights to “natural communities and ecosystems”—an idea floated forty years ago by legal scholar Christopher Stone in an essay titled “Should Trees Have Standing?”—CELDF was invited by an NGO to help draft a similar provision in Ecuador’s Constitution. “Ecuador has been treated by multinational corporations as a cheap hotel,” says associate director Mari Margil. “They come in, they make a giant mess, and then they leave.” The new Constitution, adopted in 2008, gives nature the right to “respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles.” Courts have used that provision to crack down on illegal mining and road construction. Yet resource extraction continues, including the opening of 8 million acres of unspoiled rainforest to oil drilling. Margil and Linzey have also talked with activists in Nepal, Italy, India and New Zealand. 

The heart of CELDF’s work, though, remains in small American communities like those affected by the Northern Pass. Besides Sugar Hill, two other towns outlawed unsustainable energy projects by popular vote last year. Three others rejected or tabled the ordinance. For all of New Hampshire’s iconoclasm, not everyone wants to register dissent through a vehicle that could be overturned in court. “Unfortunately, the state trumps anything the towns do,” says Tom Mullen, developer of a resort that lies in the transmission line’s path. “I want to focus on things that will stop this project now.” For Mullen, that means working with the state government, which in 2012 led to a victory: legislators banned the use of eminent domain to obtain right-of-way for unneeded transmission projects.

Still, CELDF keeps minting activists who want nothing to do with government as usual. Alexis Eynon, a middle-school art teacher, started attending Democracy Schools—following them around New England—when she learned the Northern Pass would come within a mile of her home in Thornton. Eynon built her house from straw bale, framing it with salvaged timber from her five wooded acres and heating it with a geothermal pump and a wood stove. “The original concept was to disturb the land as little as possible,” she says, which makes the nearby utility corridor that much harder to bear. “It takes a spectacular treasure that to me seems so rare in our country—these untouched places—and makes it mundane. It becomes like every other place that’s been destroyed by some kind of industrial project.”

Hearing Linzey speak, and attending the Democracy Schools, convinced Eynon that “nobody’s going to help us here. We have to help ourselves.” In March, she plans to present the rights-based ordinance at Thornton’s town meeting in the hope that it will follow the lead of Sugar Hill, thirty miles away. Eynon knows that some of her neighbors are wary of a lawsuit and that others support the Northern Pass outright. She still considers such ordinances New Hampshire’s only hope.

“The whole regulatory business feels like being a hamster in a hamster wheel,” she says. “I want to put my track shoes to the pavement and just start running.”

© 2012 The Nation

Barry Yeoman

Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist living in Durham, North Carolina. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone and Discover, among other publications, and won numerous awards.

Russia extends blacklist of American citizens

No longer limited to US citizens suspected of human rights abuses at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the updated list of Americans prohibited from entering Russia now includes new categories of individuals.

­In December, the number of US citizens declared persona non grata in Russia stood at 11; now this number has been increased by 49 more people as new categories of individuals are added to the list, Aleksey Pushkov, the chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs, told reporters on Friday.

The new names, which contain both government officials and ordinary Americans, can be divided into three categories, Pushkov said.

The first category is comprised of “judges, investigators, secret service agents and Justice Department members” who are believed to be connected with the criminal prosecution and sentencing of Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, Russian nationals who were arrested by US officials, tried on American soil, and are now serving their prison sentences in the US.

Bout, a former Soviet officer who became the owner of an air transport company, was arrested in 2008 by US agents in Thailand. In November 2011, he was convicted by a jury in a New York federal court of intending to provide military weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), which the United States ranks as a terrorist organization, and conspiracy to kill US citizens. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Bout has pleaded his innocent to all charges.

Yaroshenko was arrested in May 2010 in an undercover operation in Liberia. He was taken to the United States and sentenced to 20 years in prison for alleged drug trafficking.

 The second category of individuals prohibited from entering the Russian Federation include US Senators who were responsible for initiating the so-called Magnitsky Act, which was signed into law by US President Barack Obama in December.

The new US legislation attempts to punish Russian nationals who Washington believes are responsible for the death of Sergey Magnitsky, who died in a detention facility in Moscow in 2009 awaiting a tax evasion investigation. 

The final category of persona non grata individuals include American adoptive parents who were found guilty of abusing their adopted Russian children or guilty of their deaths. 

On December 28, 2012, President Putin signed the Dima Yakovlev bill, named after a Russian orphan who died of heat stroke after being left in a car for an extended period by his American adoptive parents. 

Judges who delivered “inadequate” verdicts on such cases, as well as psychiatrists who claimed that those children allegedly had congenital deficiencies that supposedly caused their deaths are also prohibited from entering Russia.

Robert Bridge, RT

Citizens Rally This Week to Demand End to Dual Threat of Money in Politics...

WASHINGTON - January 17 - Citizens will gather across the country this week to demand an end to the combined threat to our democracy of unlimited corporate spending in elections and voter suppression.

These events are part of a nationwide day of action called Money Out/Voters In taking place on and around the weekend of Jan. 19. Activists in more than 75 towns and cities will rally to demand that lawmakers pass measures that limit the corrosive influence of money in politics and expand democratic participation at the polls. Money Out/Voters In is made up of a broad coalition of groups including Public Citizen, NAACP, U.S. PIRG, Common Cause, MoveOn, Organic Consumers Association, League of United Latin American Citizens, Hip Hop Caucus and many more.

“At the same time we’ve seen record amounts of unaccountable corporate money spent on elections, we’ve also seen a deliberate attack on the rights of voters to participate in our democracy,” said Aquene Freechild, senior organizer for Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign. “Having so many diverse groups involved in this week’s events shows how crucial this fight is.”

In addition to being on the eve of the presidential inauguration, the weekend of Jan. 19 precedes the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision and Martin Luther King Jr. Day – both on Jan. 21.

Events include:

- Annapolis, Md. – U.S. Reps. John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen will attend a rally and address local advocates who worked to make Maryland one of the first states to call for a constitutional amendment.

- Richmond, Calif. – Community members will hold a rally with speakers and entertainment outside the Chevron refinery, and will make a human billboard. The rally is to protest more than $3.5 million in political spending by Chevron, including $1 million injected into the local city council race.

- Chicago, Ill. – Elected officials will join members of the labor, democracy and civil rights communities at a rally to call for transparency and limits on spending in elections and voting rights for all citizens. Illinois PIRG also will release a report on spending in the last election.

- New York City – Mark Green, former New York City public advocate, will speak at a rally with the Rev. James Forbes; Jeff Clements, author of “Corporations Are Not People”; and Shirley Adelbo, executive vice president of SEIU 32BJ Hospital Workers Union at NYU’s Kimmel Center. The rally will be followed by a “holy matrimony” ceremony between a person and a corporation.

- Austin, Texas – Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, will join leaders from the NAACP, AFL-CIO, Common Cause and Occupy at a rally on the south steps of the Capitol.

These actions come as the country is witnessing a groundswell of grassroots support for improving our democracy. On Election Day, voters in Montana, Colorado, Chicago, San Francisco and dozens of towns in Massachusetts overwhelmingly backed initiatives that called on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. So far, 11 states and more than 350 communities have formally called for an amendment. In addition, nearly 100 current members of Congress have expressed support for an amendment, as has President Barack Obama.

“The 2012 election – only the second post-Citizens United election – was the most expensive ever, saw more outside money spent than ever, had more secret, Dark Money spent than ever, and subjected voters to unprecedented negative, attack advertising. We can’t keep going in this direction and maintain a functioning democracy,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “As this week’s actions demonstrate, the good news is the American people are in an uproar, and demanding fundamental reform, including a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related decisions.”

“We are facing a dual attack on our democracy – everyday voters are being disenfranchised while corporations are being hyper-enfranchised,” stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “We need to fix the fundamentals of our political system if we want to get down to solving our long-term problems.”

“Since the Citizens United decision three years ago, voters have been clear in their disdain for this decision,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “The big question is whether our elected representatives will listen to those voices. Our goal is to build a wave of grassroots support so strong that they cannot ignore it.”

Added Marge Baker, executive vice president for People For the American Way, “Voter suppression and unlimited corporate and special interest money in politics serve as barriers to full civic participation, transparency, and accountability. We are excited to come together with our allies on this important weekend to signal our intentions to confront the multi-faceted assault on the voices of everyday Americans in our political system.”

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, super PACs and other independent groups – many of which can hide the identities of their donors – have spent huge amounts, in some cases outspending individual campaigns by a ratio of 2-to-1. Citizens United-enabled outside group spending is devoted overwhelmingly to negative attack ads.

Information about the nationwide action can be found at www.moneyout-votersin.org.

Follow this issue on Twitter at #MoneyOutVotersIn.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.

Citizens Rally This Week to Demand End to Dual Threat of Money in Politics...

WASHINGTON - January 17 - Citizens will gather across the country this week to demand an end to the combined threat to our democracy of unlimited corporate spending in elections and voter suppression.

These events are part of a nationwide day of action called Money Out/Voters In taking place on and around the weekend of Jan. 19. Activists in more than 75 towns and cities will rally to demand that lawmakers pass measures that limit the corrosive influence of money in politics and expand democratic participation at the polls. Money Out/Voters In is made up of a broad coalition of groups including Public Citizen, NAACP, U.S. PIRG, Common Cause, MoveOn, Organic Consumers Association, League of United Latin American Citizens, Hip Hop Caucus and many more.

“At the same time we’ve seen record amounts of unaccountable corporate money spent on elections, we’ve also seen a deliberate attack on the rights of voters to participate in our democracy,” said Aquene Freechild, senior organizer for Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign. “Having so many diverse groups involved in this week’s events shows how crucial this fight is.”

In addition to being on the eve of the presidential inauguration, the weekend of Jan. 19 precedes the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision and Martin Luther King Jr. Day – both on Jan. 21.

Events include:

- Annapolis, Md. – U.S. Reps. John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen will attend a rally and address local advocates who worked to make Maryland one of the first states to call for a constitutional amendment.

- Richmond, Calif. – Community members will hold a rally with speakers and entertainment outside the Chevron refinery, and will make a human billboard. The rally is to protest more than $3.5 million in political spending by Chevron, including $1 million injected into the local city council race.

- Chicago, Ill. – Elected officials will join members of the labor, democracy and civil rights communities at a rally to call for transparency and limits on spending in elections and voting rights for all citizens. Illinois PIRG also will release a report on spending in the last election.

- New York City – Mark Green, former New York City public advocate, will speak at a rally with the Rev. James Forbes; Jeff Clements, author of “Corporations Are Not People”; and Shirley Adelbo, executive vice president of SEIU 32BJ Hospital Workers Union at NYU’s Kimmel Center. The rally will be followed by a “holy matrimony” ceremony between a person and a corporation.

- Austin, Texas – Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, will join leaders from the NAACP, AFL-CIO, Common Cause and Occupy at a rally on the south steps of the Capitol.

These actions come as the country is witnessing a groundswell of grassroots support for improving our democracy. On Election Day, voters in Montana, Colorado, Chicago, San Francisco and dozens of towns in Massachusetts overwhelmingly backed initiatives that called on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. So far, 11 states and more than 350 communities have formally called for an amendment. In addition, nearly 100 current members of Congress have expressed support for an amendment, as has President Barack Obama.

“The 2012 election – only the second post-Citizens United election – was the most expensive ever, saw more outside money spent than ever, had more secret, Dark Money spent than ever, and subjected voters to unprecedented negative, attack advertising. We can’t keep going in this direction and maintain a functioning democracy,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “As this week’s actions demonstrate, the good news is the American people are in an uproar, and demanding fundamental reform, including a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related decisions.”

“We are facing a dual attack on our democracy – everyday voters are being disenfranchised while corporations are being hyper-enfranchised,” stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “We need to fix the fundamentals of our political system if we want to get down to solving our long-term problems.”

“Since the Citizens United decision three years ago, voters have been clear in their disdain for this decision,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “The big question is whether our elected representatives will listen to those voices. Our goal is to build a wave of grassroots support so strong that they cannot ignore it.”

Added Marge Baker, executive vice president for People For the American Way, “Voter suppression and unlimited corporate and special interest money in politics serve as barriers to full civic participation, transparency, and accountability. We are excited to come together with our allies on this important weekend to signal our intentions to confront the multi-faceted assault on the voices of everyday Americans in our political system.”

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, super PACs and other independent groups – many of which can hide the identities of their donors – have spent huge amounts, in some cases outspending individual campaigns by a ratio of 2-to-1. Citizens United-enabled outside group spending is devoted overwhelmingly to negative attack ads.

Information about the nationwide action can be found at www.moneyout-votersin.org.

Follow this issue on Twitter at #MoneyOutVotersIn.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.

Open Letter to Mark Duke, CEO of Walmart: Take the Lead on Raising Minimum...

Mike Duke, CEO
Walmart Corporation
Bentonville, Arkansas

Dear Mr. Duke,

Walmart, your gigantic company, is increasingly being challenged by your workers, government prosecutors, civil lawsuits, communities (that do not want a Walmart), taxpayers learning about your drain on government services and corporate welfare, and small businesses and groups working with unions such as SEIU and UFCW. Thus far, Walmart is successfully playing rope-a-dope, conceding little while expecting to wear down its opposition.

Wal-Mart workers rallied outside a store in Pico Rivera, California. (Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters) But you and your Board of Directors know what most shoppers and other people do not know – namely that these pressures are only going to increase. There is one policy announcement by your company that can “roll back” many of these pressures and relieve adverse public relations.

Walmart has about one million workers, give or take, in the U.S. who are making less per hour, adjusted for inflation, than workers made in 1968. This is remarkable for another reason – today’s Walmart worker, due to automation and other efficiencies, does the work of two Walmart workers from 40 years ago. A federal minimum wage, inflation-adjusted from 1968, would be $10.50 today. The present federal minimum wage is $7.25 – the lowest in major Western countries. In Western Europe and Ontario, where you have operations, you must currently adhere to minimum wages of $10.50 or more.

If you were to announce that Walmart is raising the wages of your one million laborers to $10.50, you would have a decisive impact on the momentum that is building this year for Congress to lift 30 million American workers to the level of workers in 1968, inflation adjusted. Imagine 30 million workers trying to pay their bills with wages below those of 1968, inflation adjusted, when, back then, overall worker productivity was half what it is today.

Raising your workers’ wages to a $10.50 minimum would cost your company less than $2 billion (deductible) on U.S. sales of more than $313 billion. Fewer Walmart workers would have to go on varieties of government relief. Some of that $2 billion would go to social security, and Medicare with more going back into purchases at Walmart. Employee turnover would diminish. If Walmart joins with many civic, charitable groups and unions to press Congress for legislation to catch up with 1968 for 30 million American workers, good things will happen. You and your fellow executives will feel better. Your public relations will improve. So will our economy.

Members of Congress, economists, workers and reporters know you can do this. After all, Walmart has to meet numerous safety nets in countries of Western Europe beyond a higher minimum wage, such as weeks of paid vacation and paid sick leave. Also, your top executives in Europe are paid far less than your $11,000 an hour plus benefits and perks.

Walmart watchers know that Walmart officials are worried about damaging disclosures, about Walmart problems such as foreign bribery in Mexico, which may become more numerous. Last year, during the Black Friday demonstrations, some of your workers and their supporters, raised the civil rights issue of Walmart’s retaliation for workers publically complaining about workplace harassment – pay, fair schedules and affordable health care. Such protests are only going to intensify in the future.

At a productive meeting with your government relations people in Washington, D.C. last year, I told them that Walmart was one billionaire away from a serious unionization drive, and I referred them to my political fiction book “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” for a detailed step-by-step strategy that only awaits funding from one or two very rich, people.

You need to do something authentic that people can relate to – seventy percent of the people in polls support an inflation-adjusted minimum wage. So did Rick Santorum and even Mitt Romney, until he waffled during the primaries.

Your announcements this week about hiring 100,000 veterans in the next five years is less than what meets the eye. Twenty-thousand veterans hired each year is a tiny fraction of your workforce and if you are not doing that already, given your huge number of employees (1.4 million) and large annual turnovers, you should be ashamed.

Veterans would have to take a 50 percent or more pay cut from their military salaries – housing and food allowances, health care and other benefits – to work for Walmart. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the average active-duty service member receives Army benefits and compensation worth $99,000, which is much more than the prospect of a Walmart job paying less than $20,000 coupled with very limited health insurance.

Should you wish to discuss Walmart taking the lead in raising the minimum wage for its workers to catch up with 1968, please call me. It is better to anticipate than have to react to the looming dark clouds on Walmart’s horizon. Thank you for your considered response.

Sincerely yours,

Ralph Nader
P.O. Box 19312
Washington, DC 20036
 

Ralph Nader

Aaron Swartz: Suicide or Murder?

Advocates of online openness and freedom lost a committed champion. The Economist said to call him "gifted would be to miss the point. As far as the internet was concerned, he was the gift."

How Extreme Is the Business Roundtable? Check Out Its Attack On the Elderly

Here’s a thought experiment: What if a group of Social Security and Medicare recipients wanted to increase their benefits by, say, 1,000 percent, and proposed seizing rich people’s assets – houses, cars, boats, whatever – to pay for it?

How Extreme Is the Business Roundtable? Check Out Its Attack On the Elderly

Here’s a thought experiment:  What if a group of Social Security and Medicare recipients wanted to increase their benefits by, say, 1,000 percent, and proposed seizing rich people’s assets – houses, cars, boats, whatever – to pay for it? And whenever anybody suggested that was extreme, they rolled their eyes and said, “We’re pragmatists.”Gary Loveman, chairman, CEO and president of Caesar's Entertainment, speaks in Boston. An influential group of business CEOs chaired by Loveman is pushing a plan to gradually increase the full retirement age to 70 for both Social Security and Medicare and to partially privatize the health insurance program for older Americans. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

But isn’t it unfair to to just take other people’s stuff? “Ideologues like you are the reason Washington lacks the political will to adopt our practical solutions.”

Now imagine the reverse: Rich CEOs have used every tax loophole in the book to add to their own wealth, have been bailed out directly or indirectly by the American taxpayer, and have rigged corporate governance so that they make far more than they’re worth.

Now, to make sure the milk and honey keeps flowing their way, they want to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits for the beleaguered American majority. Sounds crazy, right?

Meet the CEOs of the Business Roundtable.

They hate our freedoms benefits.

Matt Yglesias is right: There’s a special hatred for Social Security out there – and for Medicare, too. They’re hated because, as Yglesias says, some people don’t consider them “economically valuable.”

That’s an extremist right-wing point of view by any objective measure.

It’s also well outside the mainstream of public opinion for Americans of all political leanings, including Tea Party members, according to polling. When it’s espoused by rich corporate CEOs, it’s also exceptionally greedy.

Which gets us to the business at hand …

It’s easy if you have the will.

Yesterday Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment Corporation and head of the Roundtable’s “health and retirement committee,” told Politico, “Any effort to address the country’s fiscal problems has to have as a centerpiece reform of its principal entitlement programs.”

Added Loveman: “None of us [CEOs] – very few of us – are ideologically driven. We’re pragmatists …”

“I am encouraged by how relatively easy these remedies really are,” said Loveman. “… (and) they have a tremendously sanguine effect on the government’s fiscal health.”

"The Business Roundtable was founded specifically to win political favors from the largest and most ruthless companies in America."

That’s true. It is pretty easy. Just kick in a few rich people’s doors, seize their belongings … oh, wait. That’s the other extremist scenario. Loveman’s is the one where people who have paid for Social Security and Medicare coverage throughout their working lives must give some of their benefits up – for him and his friends.

Problem identified: There are just too many old people.

Loveman repeats the often-disproven canard that these programs are fiscally unsound because they “were put in place in a very different demographic reality.”

Social Security’s finances were successfully balanced in 1983, when the last Baby Boomer had already reached maturity. And longevity hasn’t changed significantly or unexpectedly for people who reach retirement age.

Social Security’s in much better fiscal shape than most corporate benefit plans, and any long-term problems it may have are driven by a) greater wealth inequity than even the most conservative economists could have imagined in 1983; and b) massive unemployment brought on by Wall Street greed.

Medicare’s Most Wanted

As for Medicare, its cost problems are caused by for-profit health companies inflating medical costs. Think the Business Roundtable will mention that? Its members include the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, Abbott Laboratories, the Tenet hospital system, Cardinal Health, ExpressScripts, CVS/Caremark and  WellPoint.

Like hell it will.

Our long-term deficits are driven by America’s runaway health care costs, which in turn are driven by our profit-driven system. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that if some of these companies and their competitors didn’t exist the Federal government might not have a deficit problem at all.

The poor you will always have with you …

Like the other anti-Social Security and anti-Medicare “pragmatists,” Loveman insists that cuts would be designed to protect people from falling into poverty. But 8.9 percent of American seniors already live in poverty, while 5.4 percent live in near poverty.

"Our long-term deficits are driven by America’s runaway health care costs, which in turn are driven by our profit-driven system. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that if some of these companies and their competitors didn’t exist the Federal government might not have a deficit problem at all."

The average Social Security recipient collects $1,164 per month.

Anyone who claims they can cut those benefits by 3 percent – and use those meager benefits to end elder poverty – is selling snake oil.

But think of the children …

Loveman also said of the Roundtable’s proposed benefit cuts: “These don’t affect current beneficiaries much, if at all. They have a long time to take effect …”

Okay, let’s modify our hypothetical situation a little: The extremists don’t want to confiscate rich people’s property. They want to confiscate their kids’‘ property. If that sounds a little Stalinist to you, that’s because it is.

And by “not affecting current beneficiaries much,” he means it would affect current beneficiaries – starting next year.

A tune from the Peterson songbook …

Loveman expanded on the Roundtable’s anti-elderly agenda in a  Wall Street Journal op-ed. Not coincidentally, that agenda corresponds exactly with that of right-wing billionaire ideologue Pete Peterson, who has funded many such anti-”entitlement” initiatives. They include:

  • Raise the Social Security age even more than currently scheduled – presumably from 67 to 70;
  • Raise the Medicare eligibility age;
  • Partially (or totally) privatize Medicare;
  • Implement the “chained CPI,” which cuts Social Security benefits by 3 percent and raises taxes on the middle class (but not on Loveman or other members of the Business Roundtable)

Each of these measures would be financially devastating to most Americans.

… and the irresistible song stylings of Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.

We interrupt this presentation for a special announcement: Remember, Gary Loveman runs Caesars.

If you’re planning a trip to Las Vegas, may I suggest the Palazzo? Caesars may have Celine Dion, but the Palazzo’s got Tim McGraw and Faith Hill – two entertainers for the price of one.

And you won’t be subsidizing your own future financial misery.

Unindicted co-conspirators.

Loveman’s just one member of the gang, of course – Mr. Pink to Jamie Dimon’s Mr. White. (I know, I know: Why do I gotta be Mr. Pink?) There’s also:

Dimon: Under his leadership JPMorgan Chase has repeatedly violated the law, paying billions in fines; lost billions in the London Whale catastrophe from a unit under his direct supervision; been sanctioned for laundering drug money; has been fined for bribery, and … well, Dimon deserves an article of his own.

Jim McInerney: He runs Boeing, a major defense contractor. Ever wonder why these “pragmatists” don’t recommend cuts to defense spending, since it’s one-fifth of our government budget?

David Cote: His company’s Honeywll, another major defense contractor (and leading advocate of Social Security and Medicare cuts).

Jeff Immelt: He leads serial corporate criminal GE.

The Roundtable has more such “leaders,” but you get the idea.

A rap sheet as long as your arm.

The Business Roundtable was founded specifically to win political favors from the largest and most ruthless companies in America, often at the expense of smaller business, and its accomplishments read like a rap sheet: it defeated an anti-trust bill in 1975, help kill a labor rights bill and a consumer protection agency in 1977, lobbied successfully for lower corporate taxes in 1985, blocked meaningful shareholder reform in 1986 (which is why these CEOs make so much more than they’re worth), and lobbied for NAFTA.

The lost jobs and lost wages the Roundtable help create have devastated the middle class – and increased the deficit.

But they’re not finished yet. Right now the Roundtable’s fighting for more air pollution; more bank crimes, fiscal crises, and BP oil spills: and more Americans without health insurance.

Seniors are the kulaks of the CEO revolution.

If the CEOs of the Business Roundtable are corporate America’s Stalinists, to them the elderly are kulaks, those peasants who saved enough to buy a farm – and whose existence became an ideological offense. When working Americans approach retirement age, they see them as Enemies of the People.

The CEOs of the Business Roundtable claim the government can’t afford to redeem its Medicare and Social Security pledges. The government owes more than a trillion dollars to banks and mutual funds, and much of that debt is held by people like the CEOs of the Business Roundtable.

If they don’t think the U.S. can afford to keep its commitments anymore – if they want a United States of America that welshes on its debts – that would be a good place to start. But for the wealthy, pampered, and narcissistic CEOs of the Business Roundtable, sacrifice is always for someone else. They have luxurious lives to maintain – and a revolution to lead.

© 2012 Campaign for America's Future

Richard Eskow

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a well-known blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, an experienced consultant, and a former musician. He has experience in health insurance and economics, occupational health, benefits, risk management, finance, and information technology. Richard has consulting experience in the US and over 20 countries.

Post-Iraq-War US Intel Chief Praised

Thomas Fingar, former Director of the National Intelligence Council, will receive the annual award from Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence in recognition of Fingar’s work from 2005 to 2008 restoring respect for the battered discipline of U.S. intelligence analysis after the fraudulent assessments on Iraq’s non-existent WMD.Thomas Fingar, who served as U.S. Director of the National Intelligence Council in the wake of the Iraq War intelligence fiasco.

In 2007, as chief of intelligence analysis, Fingar managed a thoroughly professional – and unsparingly honest – National Intelligence Estimate on the live-wire issue of Iran’s nuclear program. That NIE was instrumental in thwarting plans by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to attack Iran before they left office.

At the time, it was widely believed in the Official Washington that Tehran was developing a nuclear weapon but, as a seasoned intelligence professional, Fingar was allergic to “group think.” He recruited the best experts and ordered an empirical, bottom-up approach to the evidence. And, as luck would have it, some critical new intelligence became available in 2007 during the drafting.

Thus, in the Iran NIE of early November 2007, all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies judged “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapon design and weaponization work in 2003. That key judgment has been revalidated in testimony to Congress every year since.

Fingar, now a professor at Stanford, is teaching in its overseas program at Oxford in the United Kingdom. The award – named for the late CIA analyst Sam Adams who challenged the U.S. military’s overly optimistic claims about Vietcong and North Vietnamese troop strength during the Vietnam War – will be presented to Fingar at the historic Oxford Union.

Discussing his upcoming award with Sam Adams Associates, Fingar showed little patience with the nonsensical charges that he and his analysts had to endure after the NIE on Iran hit the streets. He reminded us:

“The whole purpose was to provide as accurate and objective a picture of what we knew at the time. To have done otherwise would have been unprofessional and inconsistent with the reason we have an intelligence establishment.

“Every other characterization of security-related affairs provided to decision makers has, or is assumed to have, a policy agenda. The Intelligence Community exists not just to provide analyses based on ‘all’ the information available to others – plus, when it can get it, information not available to others – but also, and more importantly, to assemble and assess the information as objectively as possible.

“The job of the Intelligence Community is to help decision makers to make better-informed decisions. It most emphatically is not to lead or pressure them to decide issues in a particular way. … It is also the reason we spend billions of dollars on intelligence analysis. … In a fundamental way, we were simply ‘doing our jobs’ when we produced the Iran NIE.

“Those who did not like the conclusions knew or soon realized that they could not challenge our findings by disputing the existence or meaning of our evidence, so they pursued a different course. The ploy was completely transparent: allege that those who wrote the NIE were intelligence amateurs who had a political agenda, and claim that the alleged principal authors had been career-long opponents of President Bush.

“There are many ‘problems’ with this line of attack – problems that were overlooked by a remarkable number of journalists. … I didn’t write the NIE but, at the time, I had 37 years of intelligence experience – probably no longer an amateur.

“Neocon critics never explained why, if I had been a career-long opponent of George W. Bush, he had nominated me to be an assistant secretary of state, endorsed my selection as the first Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, and approved my selection to supervise preparation of materials for his daily briefing.”

Blocking a Dash to War

Without doubt, the NIE on Iran’s nuclear program made another rash decision to go to war in the Middle East untenable.

I myself have been involved in intelligence analysis for 50 years – 27 at the CIA; two as an Army infantry/intelligence officer, and the rest as a close observer. Yet, the November 2007 NIE is the only one I know of that deserves unambiguous credit for stopping an unnecessary war, one that could have been even more disastrous than the Bush administration’s excellent adventure in Iraq.

Don’t take my word for it. In his memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush acknowledged that the “eye-popping” findings of the 2007 NIE “tied my hands on the military side. … After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?

“I don’t know why the NIE was written the way it was … I certainly hoped intelligence analysts weren’t trying to influence policy. Whatever the explanation, the NIE had a big impact – and not a good one.”

As Bush’s comment made clear, intelligence analysts do not operate in a political vacuum. The real professionals, however, construct a protective shield against political influence, bias and an understandable-but-anathema eagerness to please superiors in the White House.

When I tell Washington cognoscenti that this shielding can actually work, and that the debacle with “intelligence” on Iraq was the “Cheney/Bush exemption to the rule,” their eyes roll in disbelief. Everyone in Washington is perceived to have a political agenda. It takes guts for senior intelligence officials to avoid playing into that perception.

Perhaps President Bush and Vice President Cheney can be forgiven for assuming that all senior intelligence officials are as eager to politicize their work as were former CIA Director George Tenet, his deputy John McLaughlin, and the senior managers who had bubbled to the top – with disastrous consequences for Iraq.

More than two decades had gone by since Director William Casey and his protégé, Robert Gates, began politicizing intelligence big-time. That is usually enough time to corrupt thoroughly any institution – and that proved to be true for the CIA. However, after the Iraq WMD catastrophe, professionals like Fingar stepped in to begin righting the intelligence ship.

The November 2007 NIE landed like a dead fish on the White House doorstep, causing the neocons and other war hawks to challenge the unanimous judgment of all 16 intelligence agencies as naïve. The drafters were pilloried with charges that they were soft on Iran and just trying to stop a war! But the deed was done; and we were spared another unnecessary bloodletting.

Oxford Site for Award

The Oxford Union will be hosting the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence award ceremony on Jan. 23. The ceremony will feature several individuals well known in the field of intelligence and related topics, including an exclusive address via videolink from Julian Assange, who won the award in 2010.

The award is one of the few accolades for high-level whistleblowers who have taken risks to honor the public’s need to know. Also at the Oxford ceremony will be several previous Sam Adams awardees, including Coleen Rowley, Katharine Gun, Craig Murray, and Thomas Drake. The acceptance speech by Dr. Fingar will be followed by briefer remarks from a few previous Sam Adams awardees.

Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence was established in 2002 by colleagues and admirers of the late CIA intelligence analyst Sam Adams to recognize those who uphold his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power. In honoring Adams’s memory, SAAII confers an award each year to someone in intelligence or related work who exemplifies Sam Adam’s courage, persistence, and devotion to truth — no matter the consequences.

It was Adams who discovered in 1967 that there were more than a half-million Vietnamese Communists under arms. This was roughly twice the number that the U.S. command in Saigon would admit to, lest Americans learn that claims of “progress” were bogus. As proven later in court, Gen. William Westmoreland had simply limited the number Army intelligence was allowed to carry on its books. His deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams revealed the deception in a cable from Saigon:

A SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Abrams on Aug. 20, 1967 stated: “We have been projecting an image of success over recent months,” and cautioned that if the higher figures became public, “all available caveats and explanations will not prevent the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion.”

The Communist countrywide offensive during Tet (January/February 1968) made it clear that the generals had been lying and that Sam Adams’ higher figures were correct. Senior officials of the Washington Establishment were aware of the deception, but lacked the courage to stand up to Westmoreland. Sam Adams himself was too much a creature of the system to go “outside channels.”

A few weeks after Tet, however, Daniel Ellsberg rose to the occasion. Ellsberg learned that Westmoreland was asking for 206,000 more troops to widen the war into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam — right up to the border with China, and perhaps beyond. Someone (we still don’t know who) promptly leaked to the New York Times Westmoreland’s troop request, emboldening Ellsberg to do likewise with Sam Adams’ figures.

It was Ellsberg’s first unauthorized disclosure. He had come to the view that leaking truth about a deceitful war would be “a patriotic and constructive act.” On March 19, 1968, the Times published a stinging story based on Adams’s figures.

On March 25, President Johnson complained to a small group, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. … We have no support for the war. This is caused by the 206,000 troop request and the leaks. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”  On March 31, 1968, Johnson ordered a bombing pause, opted for negotiations, and announced that he would not run for another term in November.

Sam Adams continued to press for honesty but stayed “inside channels” — and failed. He died at 55 of a heart attack in 1988, nagged by the thought that, had he gone to the media, thousands of lives might have been saved. His story is told in War of Numbers, published posthumously.

The annual Sam Adams Award has been given in previous years to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI; Katharine Gun of British Intelligence; Sibel Edmonds of the FBI; Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan; Sam Provance; former US Army Sgt at Abu Ghraib; Maj. Frank Grevil of Danish Army Intelligence; Larry Wilkerson, Col., U.S. Army (ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell at State; Julian Assange of WikiLeaks; and (ex aequo) to Thomas Drake, former senior official of NSA and Jesselyn Radack, Director of National Security and Human Rights, Government Accountability Project.

© 2012 Consortium News

Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and briefed the President's Daily Brief and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Post-Iraq-War US Intel Chief Praised

Thomas Fingar, former Director of the National Intelligence Council, will receive the annual award from Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence in recognition of Fingar’s work from 2005 to 2008 restoring respect for the battered discipline of U.S. intelligence analysis after the fraudulent assessments on Iraq’s non-existent WMD.Thomas Fingar, who served as U.S. Director of the National Intelligence Council in the wake of the Iraq War intelligence fiasco.

In 2007, as chief of intelligence analysis, Fingar managed a thoroughly professional – and unsparingly honest – National Intelligence Estimate on the live-wire issue of Iran’s nuclear program. That NIE was instrumental in thwarting plans by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to attack Iran before they left office.

At the time, it was widely believed in the Official Washington that Tehran was developing a nuclear weapon but, as a seasoned intelligence professional, Fingar was allergic to “group think.” He recruited the best experts and ordered an empirical, bottom-up approach to the evidence. And, as luck would have it, some critical new intelligence became available in 2007 during the drafting.

Thus, in the Iran NIE of early November 2007, all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies judged “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapon design and weaponization work in 2003. That key judgment has been revalidated in testimony to Congress every year since.

Fingar, now a professor at Stanford, is teaching in its overseas program at Oxford in the United Kingdom. The award – named for the late CIA analyst Sam Adams who challenged the U.S. military’s overly optimistic claims about Vietcong and North Vietnamese troop strength during the Vietnam War – will be presented to Fingar at the historic Oxford Union.

Discussing his upcoming award with Sam Adams Associates, Fingar showed little patience with the nonsensical charges that he and his analysts had to endure after the NIE on Iran hit the streets. He reminded us:

“The whole purpose was to provide as accurate and objective a picture of what we knew at the time. To have done otherwise would have been unprofessional and inconsistent with the reason we have an intelligence establishment.

“Every other characterization of security-related affairs provided to decision makers has, or is assumed to have, a policy agenda. The Intelligence Community exists not just to provide analyses based on ‘all’ the information available to others – plus, when it can get it, information not available to others – but also, and more importantly, to assemble and assess the information as objectively as possible.

“The job of the Intelligence Community is to help decision makers to make better-informed decisions. It most emphatically is not to lead or pressure them to decide issues in a particular way. … It is also the reason we spend billions of dollars on intelligence analysis. … In a fundamental way, we were simply ‘doing our jobs’ when we produced the Iran NIE.

“Those who did not like the conclusions knew or soon realized that they could not challenge our findings by disputing the existence or meaning of our evidence, so they pursued a different course. The ploy was completely transparent: allege that those who wrote the NIE were intelligence amateurs who had a political agenda, and claim that the alleged principal authors had been career-long opponents of President Bush.

“There are many ‘problems’ with this line of attack – problems that were overlooked by a remarkable number of journalists. … I didn’t write the NIE but, at the time, I had 37 years of intelligence experience – probably no longer an amateur.

“Neocon critics never explained why, if I had been a career-long opponent of George W. Bush, he had nominated me to be an assistant secretary of state, endorsed my selection as the first Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, and approved my selection to supervise preparation of materials for his daily briefing.”

Blocking a Dash to War

Without doubt, the NIE on Iran’s nuclear program made another rash decision to go to war in the Middle East untenable.

I myself have been involved in intelligence analysis for 50 years – 27 at the CIA; two as an Army infantry/intelligence officer, and the rest as a close observer. Yet, the November 2007 NIE is the only one I know of that deserves unambiguous credit for stopping an unnecessary war, one that could have been even more disastrous than the Bush administration’s excellent adventure in Iraq.

Don’t take my word for it. In his memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush acknowledged that the “eye-popping” findings of the 2007 NIE “tied my hands on the military side. … After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?

“I don’t know why the NIE was written the way it was … I certainly hoped intelligence analysts weren’t trying to influence policy. Whatever the explanation, the NIE had a big impact – and not a good one.”

As Bush’s comment made clear, intelligence analysts do not operate in a political vacuum. The real professionals, however, construct a protective shield against political influence, bias and an understandable-but-anathema eagerness to please superiors in the White House.

When I tell Washington cognoscenti that this shielding can actually work, and that the debacle with “intelligence” on Iraq was the “Cheney/Bush exemption to the rule,” their eyes roll in disbelief. Everyone in Washington is perceived to have a political agenda. It takes guts for senior intelligence officials to avoid playing into that perception.

Perhaps President Bush and Vice President Cheney can be forgiven for assuming that all senior intelligence officials are as eager to politicize their work as were former CIA Director George Tenet, his deputy John McLaughlin, and the senior managers who had bubbled to the top – with disastrous consequences for Iraq.

More than two decades had gone by since Director William Casey and his protégé, Robert Gates, began politicizing intelligence big-time. That is usually enough time to corrupt thoroughly any institution – and that proved to be true for the CIA. However, after the Iraq WMD catastrophe, professionals like Fingar stepped in to begin righting the intelligence ship.

The November 2007 NIE landed like a dead fish on the White House doorstep, causing the neocons and other war hawks to challenge the unanimous judgment of all 16 intelligence agencies as naïve. The drafters were pilloried with charges that they were soft on Iran and just trying to stop a war! But the deed was done; and we were spared another unnecessary bloodletting.

Oxford Site for Award

The Oxford Union will be hosting the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence award ceremony on Jan. 23. The ceremony will feature several individuals well known in the field of intelligence and related topics, including an exclusive address via videolink from Julian Assange, who won the award in 2010.

The award is one of the few accolades for high-level whistleblowers who have taken risks to honor the public’s need to know. Also at the Oxford ceremony will be several previous Sam Adams awardees, including Coleen Rowley, Katharine Gun, Craig Murray, and Thomas Drake. The acceptance speech by Dr. Fingar will be followed by briefer remarks from a few previous Sam Adams awardees.

Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence was established in 2002 by colleagues and admirers of the late CIA intelligence analyst Sam Adams to recognize those who uphold his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power. In honoring Adams’s memory, SAAII confers an award each year to someone in intelligence or related work who exemplifies Sam Adam’s courage, persistence, and devotion to truth — no matter the consequences.

It was Adams who discovered in 1967 that there were more than a half-million Vietnamese Communists under arms. This was roughly twice the number that the U.S. command in Saigon would admit to, lest Americans learn that claims of “progress” were bogus. As proven later in court, Gen. William Westmoreland had simply limited the number Army intelligence was allowed to carry on its books. His deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams revealed the deception in a cable from Saigon:

A SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Abrams on Aug. 20, 1967 stated: “We have been projecting an image of success over recent months,” and cautioned that if the higher figures became public, “all available caveats and explanations will not prevent the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion.”

The Communist countrywide offensive during Tet (January/February 1968) made it clear that the generals had been lying and that Sam Adams’ higher figures were correct. Senior officials of the Washington Establishment were aware of the deception, but lacked the courage to stand up to Westmoreland. Sam Adams himself was too much a creature of the system to go “outside channels.”

A few weeks after Tet, however, Daniel Ellsberg rose to the occasion. Ellsberg learned that Westmoreland was asking for 206,000 more troops to widen the war into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam — right up to the border with China, and perhaps beyond. Someone (we still don’t know who) promptly leaked to the New York Times Westmoreland’s troop request, emboldening Ellsberg to do likewise with Sam Adams’ figures.

It was Ellsberg’s first unauthorized disclosure. He had come to the view that leaking truth about a deceitful war would be “a patriotic and constructive act.” On March 19, 1968, the Times published a stinging story based on Adams’s figures.

On March 25, President Johnson complained to a small group, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. … We have no support for the war. This is caused by the 206,000 troop request and the leaks. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”  On March 31, 1968, Johnson ordered a bombing pause, opted for negotiations, and announced that he would not run for another term in November.

Sam Adams continued to press for honesty but stayed “inside channels” — and failed. He died at 55 of a heart attack in 1988, nagged by the thought that, had he gone to the media, thousands of lives might have been saved. His story is told in War of Numbers, published posthumously.

The annual Sam Adams Award has been given in previous years to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI; Katharine Gun of British Intelligence; Sibel Edmonds of the FBI; Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan; Sam Provance; former US Army Sgt at Abu Ghraib; Maj. Frank Grevil of Danish Army Intelligence; Larry Wilkerson, Col., U.S. Army (ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell at State; Julian Assange of WikiLeaks; and (ex aequo) to Thomas Drake, former senior official of NSA and Jesselyn Radack, Director of National Security and Human Rights, Government Accountability Project.

© 2012 Consortium News

Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and briefed the President's Daily Brief and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Post Iraq War US Intel Chief Praised

Thomas Fingar, former Director of the National Intelligence Council, will receive the annual award from Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence in recognition of Fingar’s work from 2005 to 2008 restoring respect for the battered discipline of U.S. intelligence analysis after the fraudulent assessments on Iraq’s non-existent WMD.

In 2007, as chief of intelligence analysis, Fingar managed a thoroughly professional – and unsparingly honest – National Intelligence Estimate on the live-wire issue of Iran’s nuclear program. That NIE was instrumental in thwarting plans by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to attack Iran before they left office.

At the time, it was widely believed in the Official Washington that Tehran was developing a nuclear weapon but, as a seasoned intelligence professional, Fingar was allergic to “group think.” He recruited the best experts and ordered an empirical, bottom-up approach to the evidence. And, as luck would have it, some critical new intelligence became available in 2007 during the drafting.

Thus, in the Iran NIE of early November 2007, all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies judged “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapon design and weaponization work in 2003. That key judgment has been revalidated in testimony to Congress every year since.

Fingar, now a professor at Stanford, is teaching in its overseas program at Oxford in the United Kingdom. The award – named for the late CIA analyst Sam Adams who challenged the U.S. military’s overly optimistic claims about Vietcong and North Vietnamese troop strength during the Vietnam War – will be presented to Fingar at the historic Oxford Union.

Discussing his upcoming award with Sam Adams Associates, Fingar showed little patience with the nonsensical charges that he and his analysts had to endure after the NIE on Iran hit the streets. He reminded us:

“The whole purpose was to provide as accurate and objective a picture of what we knew at the time. To have done otherwise would have been unprofessional and inconsistent with the reason we have an intelligence establishment.

“Every other characterization of security-related affairs provided to decision makers has, or is assumed to have, a policy agenda. The Intelligence Community exists not just to provide analyses based on ‘all’ the information available to others – plus, when it can get it, information not available to others – but also, and more importantly, to assemble and assess the information as objectively as possible.

“The job of the Intelligence Community is to help decision makers to make better-informed decisions. It most emphatically is not to lead or pressure them to decide issues in a particular way. … It is also the reason we spend billions of dollars on intelligence analysis. … In a fundamental way, we were simply ‘doing our jobs’ when we produced the Iran NIE.

“Those who did not like the conclusions knew or soon realized that they could not challenge our findings by disputing the existence or meaning of our evidence, so they pursued a different course. The ploy was completely transparent: allege that those who wrote the NIE were intelligence amateurs who had a political agenda, and claim that the alleged principal authors had been career-long opponents of President Bush.

“There are many ‘problems’ with this line of attack – problems that were overlooked by a remarkable number of journalists. … I didn’t write the NIE but, at the time, I had 37 years of intelligence experience – probably no longer an amateur.

“Neocon critics never explained why, if I had been a career-long opponent of George W. Bush, he had nominated me to be an assistant secretary of state, endorsed my selection as the first Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, and approved my selection to supervise preparation of materials for his daily briefing.”

Blocking a Dash to War

Without doubt, the NIE on Iran’s nuclear program made another rash decision to go to war in the Middle East untenable.

I myself have been involved in intelligence analysis for 50 years – 27 at the CIA; two as an Army infantry/intelligence officer, and the rest as a close observer. Yet, the November 2007 NIE is the only one I know of that deserves unambiguous credit for stopping an unnecessary war, one that could have been even more disastrous than the Bush administration’s excellent adventure in Iraq.

Don’t take my word for it. In his memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush acknowledged that the “eye-popping” findings of the 2007 NIE “tied my hands on the military side. … After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?

“I don’t know why the NIE was written the way it was … I certainly hoped intelligence analysts weren’t trying to influence policy. Whatever the explanation, the NIE had a big impact – and not a good one.”

As Bush’s comment made clear, intelligence analysts do not operate in a political vacuum. The real professionals, however, construct a protective shield against political influence, bias and an understandable-but-anathema eagerness to please superiors in the White House.

When I tell Washington cognoscenti that this shielding can actually work, and that the debacle with “intelligence” on Iraq was the “Cheney/Bush exemption to the rule,” their eyes roll in disbelief. Everyone in Washington is perceived to have a political agenda. It takes guts for senior intelligence officials to avoid playing into that perception.

Perhaps President Bush and Vice President Cheney can be forgiven for assuming that all senior intelligence officials are as eager to politicize their work as were former CIA Director George Tenet, his deputy John McLaughlin, and the senior managers who had bubbled to the top – with disastrous consequences for Iraq.

More than two decades had gone by since Director William Casey and his protégé, Robert Gates, began politicizing intelligence big-time. That is usually enough time to corrupt thoroughly any institution – and that proved to be true for the CIA. However, after the Iraq WMD catastrophe, professionals like Fingar stepped in to begin righting the intelligence ship.

The November 2007 NIE landed like a dead fish on the White House doorstep, causing the neocons and other war hawks to challenge the unanimous judgment of all 16 intelligence agencies as naïve. The drafters were pilloried with charges that they were soft on Iran and just trying to stop a war! But the deed was done; and we were spared another unnecessary bloodletting.

Oxford Site for Award

The Oxford Union will be hosting the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence award ceremony on Jan. 23. The ceremony will feature several individuals well known in the field of intelligence and related topics, including an exclusive address via videolink from Julian Assange, who won the award in 2010.

The award is one of the few accolades for high-level whistleblowers who have taken risks to honor the public’s need to know. Also at the Oxford ceremony will be several previous Sam Adams awardees, including Coleen Rowley, Katharine Gun, Craig Murray, and Thomas Drake. The acceptance speech by Dr. Fingar will be followed by briefer remarks from a few previous Sam Adams awardees.

Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence was established in 2002 by colleagues and admirers of the late CIA intelligence analyst Sam Adams to recognize those who uphold his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power. In honoring Adams’s memory, SAAII confers an award each year to someone in intelligence or related work who exemplifies Sam Adam’s courage, persistence, and devotion to truth — no matter the consequences.

It was Adams who discovered in 1967 that there were more than a half-million Vietnamese Communists under arms. This was roughly twice the number that the U.S. command in Saigon would admit to, lest Americans learn that claims of “progress” were bogus. As proven later in court, Gen. William Westmoreland had simply limited the number Army intelligence was allowed to carry on its books. His deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams revealed the deception in a cable from Saigon:

A SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Abrams on Aug. 20, 1967 stated: “We have been projecting an image of success over recent months,” and cautioned that if the higher figures became public, “all available caveats and explanations will not prevent the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion.”

The Communist countrywide offensive during Tet (January/February 1968) made it clear that the generals had been lying and that Sam Adams’ higher figures were correct. Senior officials of the Washington Establishment were aware of the deception, but lacked the courage to stand up to Westmoreland. Sam Adams himself was too much a creature of the system to go “outside channels.”

A few weeks after Tet, however, Daniel Ellsberg rose to the occasion. Ellsberg learned that Westmoreland was asking for 206,000 more troops to widen the war into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam — right up to the border with China, and perhaps beyond. Someone (we still don’t know who) promptly leaked to the New York TimesWestmoreland’s troop request, emboldening Ellsberg to do likewise with Sam Adams’ figures.

It was Ellsberg’s first unauthorized disclosure. He had come to the view that leaking truth about a deceitful war would be “a patriotic and constructive act.” On March 19, 1968, the Times published a stinging story based on Adams’s figures.

On March 25, President Johnson complained to a small group, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. … We have no support for the war. This is caused by the 206,000 troop request and the leaks. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.”  On March 31, 1968, Johnson ordered a bombing pause, opted for negotiations, and announced that he would not run for another term in November.

Sam Adams continued to press for honesty but stayed “inside channels” — and failed. He died at 55 of a heart attack in 1988, nagged by the thought that, had he gone to the media, thousands of lives might have been saved. His story is told in War of Numbers, published posthumously.

The annual Sam Adams Award has been given in previous years to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI;Katharine Gun of British Intelligence; Sibel Edmonds of the FBI; Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan; Sam Provance; former US Army Sgt at Abu Ghraib; Maj. Frank Grevil of Danish Army Intelligence;Larry Wilkerson, Col., U.S. Army (ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell at State; Julian Assange of WikiLeaks; and (ex aequo) to Thomas Drake, former senior official of NSA and Jesselyn Radack, Director of National Security and Human Rights, Government Accountability Project.

Senator aims to nullify Obama gun plan

A US senator has announced plans to nullify the president's gun control proposal, saying that Barack Obama’s actions resemble that of a king.

Republican Senator Rand Paul said on Wednesday that the proposal, which was presented earlier in the day, violates the constitutional separation of powers between the president and Congress and argued that Obama may be developing a “king-like complex.”

In reaction to the unrelenting gun massacres in the US, Obama presented a USD500-million proposal that calls for a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines as well as wider background checks on gun buyers.

The proposal has angered gun advocates, who say it violates the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which gives the Americans the right to carry firearms.

Paul presented a bill, which aims to invalidate Obama’s executive actions, deny any federal funding for their implementation and allow Congress members and state officials to challenge the actions in court.

"Our founding fathers were very concerned about us having separation of powers. They didn't want to let the president become a king." Paul said. "In this bill, we will nullify anything the president does that smacks of legislation."


Obama’s proposals were met with widespread objections from Republicans and gun rights groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA).

"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation," said NRA regarding the gun proposal, and added, "Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."

In the next couple of weeks, NRA is planning to put its lobbying pressure on lawmakers at Capitol Hill aimed at stopping the proposal from being approved.

The Senate hearing on the gun control proposal is set to start in two weeks.

CAH/HMV

3D Printed Guns Render Gun Control Moot

guncontrol

Forbes has recently published an article about New York Congressman Steve Israel’s promise to ban 3D printed high capacity ammunition magazines. The congressman’s comments come after Defense Distributed, an open source DIY gunsmith group working to manufacture both guns and their accessories using 3D printing technology, successfully printed and tested a 30-round AR-15 magazine.

Congressman Israel stated:

“Background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print high-capacity magazines at home. 3-D printing is a new technology that shows great promise, but also requires new guidelines. Law enforcement officials should have the power to stop high-capacity magazines from proliferating with a Google search.”

It seems that Congressman Israel doesn’t realize that background checks and gun regulations both in the United States and just over America’s border with Mexico, already don’t work – without advanced manufacturing and open source paradigms even playing a role. Criminals intent on breaking laws have existed since laws themselves. Additionally, technology like 3D printing, as Forbes correctly points out, will pose a serious challenge to gun control advocates in terms of enforcement. Forbes stated specifically:

“But for either [Congresswoman Diane] Feinstein or Israel’s bill, the same problem arises: How to enforce that prohibition in every garage and workshop in America that houses a 3D printer?”

Of course, without becoming Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, or something far worse, there is no way to enforce these gun regulations. Criminals in particular will continue trumping the law, and because of the government’s refusal to actually tackle the socioeconomic factors driving violence and its insistence on instead punishing law abiding citizens, their authority, legitimacy, and ability to enforce even sensible legislation will be compromised.

And 3D manufacturing isn’t the only way to build your own gun. As a matter of fact, around the world where criminals are unable to buy guns, they do indeed already make their own – and then, as criminals are wanton to do, commit crimes with them, including, murder.

In Thailand, vocational schools are plagued by fierce gang-style rivalries. With standard tools, these students construct homemade guns which they frequently murder each other with. And just this New Year’s Eve, a British tourist was killed when a fight broke out at a party, and a homemade gun was fired. The difference between a Thai vocational education, and say a German or Japanese vocational education is one of culture and socioeconomics – not access to tools.

Image: This homemade handgun was made by an unruly Thai party-goer who claimed the life of a British tourist this New Year’s Eve. Despite the ubiquitous nature of guns, both homemade and manufactured in Thailand, and nearly no means of enforcing whatever legislation may or may not be on the books, gun violence (and violence overall) is still less than in the United States.

….

Preventing people from manufacturing guns, or worse yet, from possessing or using tools that can be used to create guns, is both ludicrous and impossible. Like with cars or anything else, laws are there to ensure we don’t harm others by abusing any given right or implement – not preventing us from having those rights or implements responsibly in the first place. In the end, one must address the factors in any given society that drive large numbers of people to commit violent crimes in the first place – regardless of their chosen means or method.

In reality, an honest public representative would already be far too busy improving education, infrastructure, and the economic prospects of their people to waste time on banning every conceivable implement that could be used in a crime, directly or indirectly. The goal of Congress members like Feinstein or Israel, is not to prevent violence – but to simply disarm the population as the corporate-financier interests they represent seek to be further unhindered as they loot people and nations both abroad and at home.

The fact that the White House is taking such bold actions against “guns,” citing “mass shootings” which account for a fraction of 1% of all homicides, indicates a far more insidious agenda – and one based not on real priorities, but built upon a carefully exploited, emotional campaign to exact an obvious but not forthcoming final goal.

Get Involved.

Defense Distributed has a website – DefCAD.org – and the files for building their various designs available for downloading and use – for free. The files are in .IGS format and require a computer aided design program (CAD) to view them. FreeCAD is an open source, free to download program that works well. This is where, again, a local hackerspace pooling people’s resources together would help infinitely, especially when most hackerspaces come equipped with 3D printers and people capable of operating them and more importantly, capable of teaching you how to use them.

Image: Distributed Defense’s 30 round magazine opened in FreeCAD.

….

Right now, there seems to be only Distributed Defense pursuing this project in any meaningful manner – which should be a cause of concern for anyone who thinks this is a good idea. One group of people working on this alone is a giant, slow-moving target prone to failure from both within and beyond. Many people working on this in parallel, however, presents the same problem the movie and music industry face with file sharing – impossible victory/inevitable defeat.

Starting your own open source “distributed defense” group would be a good way to hedge the risk of having just one group coordinating efforts toward developing open source firearms accessible to all. DefCAD could be infiltrated, co-opted, or derailed in so many conceivable ways considering the implications the work it is doing have, it would be foolish not to hedge such risk.

The lack of direct participation in preserving our rights, and instead depending on lobbyists and protesters alone to to do it for us is one problem. Another problem is the purposeful polarization of the “gun debate” – of gun advocates and their critics along predictable political lines. The Washington Post, which is ironically run by a right-wing Neo-Con editorial board, recently celebrated President Obama’s “clever” use of the Constitution to turn the gun debate on its head. It also noted gleefully that part of the plan was getting the “people” themselves to demand stricter gun control. This will be done by getting half of America (the left) to take the guns away from the other half (the right).

Faux right-wing leaders take particular care in ensuring that to be a “gun rights activist,” you must also be a xenophobic crypto-racist, Islamophobic, and a conservative who believes the problem facing the world are closet-Communist liberals. Likewise, the faux left’s leadership ensures that their followers believe conservatives, their religion, and their guns are the root of all problems. In reality, the corporate-financiers run both sides of the debate and direct the talking points of prominent personalities on both the faux-left and faux-right.

Obviously, instead of digging in and playing along, our goal should be to reach across the aisle and close this artificial divide – by abandoning the leaders claiming to represent our particular political proclivities and working together to address the true causes of violence – social injustice, socioeconomic decay, and inadequate, impractical education.

Getting involved includes creating local institutions that find common ground and reject this artificial polarization – common ground that includes improving education, health care, and local economic prospects, which in turn reduces violence and leaves only responsible people with firearms (and the means to make them). Local efforts must be apolitical and all-inclusive – because if we are reduced to talking politics, it is because we don’t have a pragmatic solution to solve our problems.

DefCAD has a pragmatic solution – leveraging tangible, modern technology to ensure our rights are not trampled upon by insidious politicians. Taking away guns is not an option politically, and soon, not an option practically. All sides who truly seek to reduce the violence in society will be forced to look elsewhere for the solution. Since guns were never the problem to begin with, the advent of 3D printed guns and the insurmountable deterrence they present to “gun control,” may be a blessing in disguise for all who seek a more peaceful and just world.

Russian ombudsman supports creation of state agency for orphans

Pavel Astakhov (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Pesnya)

Pavel Astakhov (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Pesnya)

The Presidential representative for children’s right says Russia has too many organizations dealing with orphans and wants to see a separate dedicated agency to deal with the issue.

Pavel Astakhov told a Thursday news conference in Moscow that the idea of a special state agency for orphans originated in the Lower House, adding that he as an ombudsman fully supported it but everything depended now on the President and the government.

The ombudsman says 19 separate organisations are dealing with children-related problems and they cannot be effective. Astakhov told reporters that in part the unifying function is now performed by the staff of the presidential plenipotentiary for children’s rights, but they could only make suggestions on action and lacked any control to ensure positive changes.

Astakhov emphasized that in order to successfully solve the problems of orphans the state must deal with the social causes.

He also promised a large-scale inspection of all orphanages in Moscow, scheduled for April this year. The ombudsman said his office was ready to initiate additional checks on institutions if there are any complaints. In particular the ombudsman offered to send psychologists to orphanages so that they could verify the facts behind the complaints.

Russian authorities raised the issue of a nationwide program on orphans’ problems after the parliament suggested banning US adoptions of Russian children. The move is part of Russia’s reply to the US Magnitsky Act, and was motivated by the refusal of US authorities to cooperate with Russians in probes over cruel treatment and even manslaughter of Russian kids in US foster families.

The bill containing the adoptions ban was unanimously approved by the parliament and came into force on January 1 this year but from the very beginning the ban met strong opposition from the public, media and even officials, including several federal ministers. The advocates of the new law say they shared the concerns about the children’s future, but insisted on the need to improve the situation inside the country rather than rely on foreign aid.

President Vladimir Putin instructed the legislators to prepare and introduce a special plan to boost Russia’s domestic adoptions, including state aid to orphanages and tax benefits for adoptive parents.

Guest Post: A Message To The ‘Left’ From A ‘Right Wing Extremist’

Submitted by Brandon Smith of Alt-Market blog,

A Message To The 'Left' From A 'Right Wing Extremist'

Some discoveries are exciting, joyful, and exhilarating, while others can be quite painful.  Stumbling upon the fact that you do not necessarily have a competent grasp of reality, that you have in fact been duped for most of your life, is not a pleasant experience.  While it may be a living nightmare to realize that part of one’s life was, perhaps, wasted on the false ideas of others, enlightenment often requires that the worldview that we were indoctrinated with be completely destroyed before we can finally resurrect a tangible identity and belief system.  To have rebirth, something must first die...

In 2004, I found myself at such a crossroads.  At that time I was a dedicated Democrat, and I thought I had it all figured out.  The Republican Party was to me a perfect sort of monster.  They had everything!  Corporate puppet masters.  Warmongering zealots.  Fake Christians.  Orwellian social policies.  The Bush years were a special kind of horror.  It was cinematic.  Shakespearean.  If I was to tell a story of absolute villainy, I would merely describe the mass insanity and bloodlust days of doom and dread wrought by the Neo-Con ilk in the early years of the new millennium.

But, of course, I was partly naïve...

The campaign rhetoric of John Kerry was eye opening.  I waited, day after day, month after month for my party’s candidate to take a hard stance on the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I waited for a battle cry against the Patriot Act and the unconstitutional intrusions of the Executive Branch into the lives of innocent citizens.  I waited for a clear vision, a spark of wisdom and common sense.  I waited for the whole of the election for that man to finally embrace the feelings of his supporters and say, with absolute resolve, that the broken nation we now lived in would be returned to its original foundations.  That civil liberty, freedom, and peace, would be our standard once again.  Unfortunately, the words never came, and I realized, he had no opposition to the Bush plan.  He was not going to fight against the wars, the revolving door, or the trampling of our freedoms.  Indeed, it seemed as though he had no intention of winning at all.

I came to see a dark side to the Democratic Party that had always been there but which I had refused to acknowledge.  Their leadership was no different than the Neo-Cons that I despised.  On top of this, many supporters of the Democratic establishment had no values, and no principles.  Their only desire was to “win” at any cost.  They would get their "perfect society" at any cost, even if they had to chain us all together to do it. 

There was no doubt in my mind that if the Democrats reoccupied the White House or any other political power structure one day, they would immediately adopt the same exact policies and attitudes of the Neo-Conservatives, and become just as power-mad if not more so.  In 2008 my theory was proven unequivocally correct.

It really is amazing.  I have seen the so-called “anti-war” party become the most accommodating cheerleader of laser guided death and domination in the Middle East, with predator drones operating in the sovereign skies of multiple countries raining missiles upon far more civilians than “enemy combatants”, all at the behest of Barack Obama.  I have seen the “party of civil liberties” expand on every Constitution crushing policy of the Bush Administration, while levying some of the most draconian legislation ever witnessed in the history of this country.  I have seen Obama endorse enemy combatant status for American citizens, and the end of due process under the law through the NDAA.  I have seen him endorse the end of trial by jury.  I have seen him endorse secret assassination lists, and the federally drafted murder of U.S. civilians.  I have seen him endorse executive orders which open the path to the declaration of a “national emergency” at any time for any reason allowing for the dissolution of most constitutional rights and the unleashing of martial law.

If I was still a Democrat today I would be sickly ashamed.  Yet, many average Democrats actually defend this behavior from their party.  The same behavior they once railed against under Bush.

However, I have not come here to admonish Democrats (at least not most of them).  I used to be just like them.  I used to believe in the game.  I believed that the rules mattered, and that it was possible to change things by those rules with patience and effort.  I believed in non-violent resistance, protest, civil dissent, educational activism, etc.  I thought that the courts were an avenue for political justice.  I believed that the only element required to end corruption would be a sound argument and solid logic backed by an emotional appeal to reason.  I believed in the power of elections, and had faith in the idea that all we needed was the “right candidate” to lead us to the promise land.  Again, I believed in the game. 

The problem is, the way the world works and the way we WISH the world worked are not always congruent.  Attempting to renovate a criminal system while acting within the rigged confines of that system is futile, not to mention delusional.  Corrupt oligarchies adhere to the standards of civility only as long as they feel the need to maintain the illusion of the moral high ground.  Once they have enough control, the mask always comes off, the rotten core is revealed, and immediate violence against dissent commences. 

Sometimes the only solutions left in the face of tyranny are not peaceful.  Logic, reason, and justice are not revered in a legal system which serves the will of the power elite instead of the common man.  The most beautiful of arguments are but meaningless flitters of hot air in the ears of sociopaths.  Sometimes, the bully just needs to be punched in the teeth.

This philosophy of independent action is consistently demonized, regardless of how practical it really is when faced with the facts.  The usual responses to the concept of full defiance are accusations of extremism and malicious intent.  Believe me, when I embarked on the path towards the truth in 2004, I never thought I would one day be called a potential “homegrown terrorist”, but that is essentially where we are in America in 2013.  To step outside the mainstream and question the validity of the game is akin to terrorism in the eyes of the state and the sad cowardly people who feed the machine. 

During the rise of any despotic governmental structure, there is always a section of the population that is given special treatment, and made to feel as though they are “on the winning team”.  For now, it would appear that the “Left” side of the political spectrum has been chosen by the establishment as the favored sons and daughters of the restructured centralized U.S.  However, before those of you on the Left get too comfortable in your new position as the hand of globalization, I would like to appeal to you for a moment of unbiased consideration.  I know from personal experience that there are Democrats out there who are actually far more like we constitutionalists and “right wing extremists” than they may realize.  I ask that you take the following points into account, regardless of what the system decides to label us...

We Are Being Divided By False Party Paradigms

Many Democrats and Republicans are not stupid, and want above all else to see the tenets of freedom respected and protected.  Unfortunately, they also tend to believe that only their particular political party is the true defender of liberty.  The bottom line is, at the top of each party there is very little if any discernible difference between the two.   If you ignore all the rhetoric and only look at action, the Republican and Democratic leadership are essentially the same animal working for the same special interests.  There is no left and right; only those who wish to be free, and those who wish to control.

Last year, the “Left and the “Right” experienced an incredible moment of unity after the introduction of the NDAA.  People on both sides were able to see the terrifying implications of a law that allows the government to treat any American civilian as an enemy of war without right to trial.  In 2013, the establishment is attempting to divide us once again with the issue of gun disarmament.  I have already presented my position on gun rights in numerous other articles and I believe my stance is unshakeable.  But, what I will ask anti-gun proponents and on-the-fence Democrats is this:  How do you think legislation like the NDAA will be enforced in the future?  Is it not far easier to threaten Americans with rendition, torture, and assassination when they are completely unarmed?  If you oppose the NDAA, you should also oppose any measure which gives teeth to the NDAA, including the debasement of the 2nd Amendment.

Democrats Are Looking For Help In The Wrong Place

Strangely, Democrats very often search for redress within the very system they know is criminal.  For some reason, they think that if they bash their heads into the wall long enough, a door will suddenly appear.  I’m here to tell you, there is no door. 

The biggest difference between progressives and conservatives is that progressives consistently look to government to solve all the troubles of the world, when government is usually the CAUSE of all the troubles in the world.  The most common Democratic argument is that in America the government “is what we make it”, and we can change it anytime we like through the election process.  Maybe this was true at one time, but not anymore.  Just look at Barack Obama!  I would ask all those on the Left to take an honest look at the policies of Obama compared to the policies of most Neo-Cons, especially when it comes to constitutional liberties.  Where is the end to Middle Eastern war?  Where is the end to domestic spy programs?  Where is the end to incessant and dictatorial executive orders?  Where is the conflict between the Neo-Cons and the Neo-Liberals?  And, before you point at the gun control debate, I suggest you look at Obama’s gun policies compared to Mitt Romney’s and John McCain’s – there is almost no difference whatsoever…

If the two party system becomes a one party system, then elections are meaningless, and electing a new set of corrupt politicians will not help us.

Democrats Value Social Units When They Should Value Individuals Instead

Democrats tend to see everything in terms of groups.  Victim status groups, religious groups, racial groups, special interest groups, etc.  They want to focus on the health of the whole world as if it is a single entity.  It is not.  Without individuals, there is no such thing as “groups”, and what we might categorize as groups change and disperse without notice.  Groups do not exist beyond shared values, and even then, the individual is still more important in the grand scheme of things. 

As a former Democrat, I know that the obsession with group status makes it easy to fall into the trap of collectivism.  It is easy to think that what is best for you must be best for everybody.  This Utopian idealism is incredibly fallible.  Wanting the best for everyone is a noble sentiment, but using government as a weapon to force your particular vision of the “greater good” on others leads to nothing but disaster.  The only safe and reasonable course is to allow individuals to choose for themselves how they will function in society IF they choose to participate at all.  Government must be left out of the equation as much as possible.  Its primary job should be to safeguard the individual’s right to choose how he will live.  You have to get over the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect social order, and even if there was, no government is capable of making it happen for you.   

Democrats Can Become As Power-Mad As Any Neo-Con

I think it is important to point out how quickly most Democratic values went out the door as soon as Barack Obama was placed in the White House.  Let’s be clear; you cannot claim to be anti-war, anti-torture, anti-assassination, anti-surveillance, anti-corporate, anti-bank, anti-rendition, etc. while defending the policies of Obama at the same time.  This is hypocrisy. 

I have heard some insane arguments from left leaning proponents lately.  Some admit that Obama does indeed murder and torture, but “at least he is pushing for universal health care…”.  Even if it did work (which it won’t), is Obamacare really worth having a president who is willing to murder children on the other side of the world and black-bag citizens here at home?  Do not forget your moral compass just because you think the system is now your personal playground.  If you do, you are no better than all the angry bloodcrazed Republicans that bumbled into the Iraq War while blindly following George W. Bush. 

There Is A Difference Between Traditional Conservatives And Neo-Cons

Neo-Cons are not conservative.  They are in fact socialist in their methods, and they always expand government spending and power while reducing constitutional protections.  The “Liberty Movement”, of which I am proudly a part, is traditional conservative.  We believe that government, especially as corrupt as it is today, cannot be trusted to administrate and nursemaid over every individual in our nation.  It has proven time after time that it caters only to criminally inclined circles of elites.  Therefore, we seek to reduce the size and influence of government so that we can minimize the damage that it is doing.  For this, we are called “extremists”. 

Governments are not omnipotent.  They are not above criticism, or even punishment.  They are merely a collection of individuals who act either with honor or dishonor.  In the Liberty Movement, we treat a corrupt government just as we would treat a corrupt individual.  We do not worship the image of the state, nor should any Democrat.

Liberty Minded Conservatives Are Not “Terrorists”

There will come a time, very soon I believe, when people like me are officially labeled “terrorists”.  Perhaps because we refuse gun registration or confiscation.  Perhaps because we develop alternative trade markets outside the system.  Maybe because some of us are targeted by federal raids, and we fight back instead of submitting.  Maybe because we speak out against the establishment during a time of “declared crisis”, and speech critical of the government is labeled “harmful to the public good”.  One way or another, whether you want to believe me now or not, the day is coming. 

Before this occurs, and the mainstream media attacks us viciously as “conspiracy theorists” and traitors, I want the Left to understand that no matter what you may hear about us, our only purpose is to ensure that our natural rights are not violated, our country is not decimated, and our republic is governed with full transparency.  We are not the dumb redneck racist hillbilly gun nuts you see in every primetime TV show, and anyone who acts out of personal bias and disdain for their fellow man is not someone we seek to associate with.  We fight because we have no other choice.  Our conscience demands that we oppose centralized tyranny.  We do what we do because the only other option is subservience and slavery.   

Many of the people I have dealt with in the Liberty Movement are the most intelligent, well-informed, principled and dedicated men and women I have ever met.  They want, basically, what most of us want:

  • to be free to determine their own destinies.
  • To be free to speak their minds without threat of state retribution.
  • To be free to defend themselves from any enemy that would seek to oppress them.
  • To live within an economic environment that is not rigged in favor of elitist minorities and on the verge of engineered collapse.
  • To live in a system that respects justice and legitimate law instead of using the law as a sword against the public.
  • To wake up each day with solace in the knowledge that while life in many regards will always be a difficult thing, we still have the means to make it better for ourselves and for the next generation.
  • To wake up knowing that those inner elements of the human heart which make us most unique and most endearing are no longer considered “aberrant”, and are no longer under threat.

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The NRA and Koch-Backed ALEC Have Fought Gun Buyback Programs Across Country

(Image: Gun pile via Shutterstock)The National Rifle Association (NRA) is threatening legal action if the Tucson Police Department tries to destroy the guns it acquired through a voluntary gun buyback program -- thanks to legislation advanced by the A...

Obama’s Race To The Top Drives Nationwide Wave of School Closings, Teacher Firings

A nationwide epidemic of school closings and teacher firings has been underway for some time. It's concentrated chiefly in poor and minority communities, and the teachers let go are often experienced and committed classroom instructors, and likely to live in and near the communities they serve, and disproportionately black.

(Photo:Brian Jones via Socialistworker)It's not an accident, or a reflection of changing demographics, or more educational choices suddenly becoming available to families in those areas. It's not due to greedy unionized teachers or the invisible hand of the marketplace or well-intentioned educational policies somehow gone awry.

The current wave of school closings is latest result of bipartisan educational policies which began with No Child Left Behind in 2001, and have kicked into overdrive under the Obama administration's Race To The Top. In Chicago, the home town of the president and his Secretary of Education, the percentage of black teachers has dropped from 45% in 1995 to 19% today. After winning a couple skirmishes in federal court over discriminatory firings in a few schools, teachers have now filed a citywide class action lawsuit alleging that the city's policy of school “turnarounds” and “transformations” is racially discriminatory because it's carried out mainly in black neighborhoods and the fired teachers are disproportionately black.

How did this happen? Where did those policies come from, and exactly what are they?

Beginning in the 1980s, deep right pockets like the Bradley and Walton Family Foundations spent billions to create and fund fake “grassroots movements.” They churned out academic studies and blizzards of media hype, first for vouchers, later on for charter schools and what’s become a whole panoply of privatization-oriented “education reforms” ranging f rom teacher merit pay to common core curriculum and more.  

Those billions paid off with the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act which made the right wing corporate agenda of undermining and ultimately privatizing public education national policy.  Though standardized test scores were long known to prove little aside from student family income, they suddenly became the gold standard for judging teacher & school performance.  School districts were required to purchase & give dozens of costly meaningless tests and to publish lists ranking their own schools and teachers as “failing” when test scores were low, which again, was mostly wherever students were poor .

Amid torrents of “blame the teachers” propaganda, so-called “failing schools” were required to hire expensive contractors with cockeyed “run the school like a business” remedies and more crackpot tests. Thus it was that NCLB s pawned almost overnight an entire industry of jackleg educational consultants and test suppliers guaranteed a market with dollars diverted from already tight public school budgets. Those industries attracted capital investors, and began doing what every other industry does in the US—make big campaign contributions to politicians to get sweeter contracts and more favorable regulation.  When test scores still didn’t rise, NCLB required many schools to close, making openings for chains of charter schools, often highly profitable charter schools, bringing the blessings of “choice” and free market competition to the educational “marketplace.”

It was an unequal sort of “competition” though, because charter schools have always been allowed to pick and choose their students, to turn away those with special needs, and to hire teachers and principals with little or no relevant training.

Results in the classrooms of poor neighborhoods around the country were devastating.  Where in 1987-88 the modal year for teacher experience—that’s the number of years the largest cohort of teachers had been in the classrooms—was ten years, by 2008 the biggest block of teachers were in their very first year, by definition—the least confident, the least experienced and the least effective.  

This was the state of public education when President Obama walked into the White House door. What did he do? Did he turn it around? Or did he double down? The answer is that in the spirit of corporate bipartisanship, president Obama sided with the charter school sugar daddies instead of black teachers, black parents and their children.

President Obama appointed Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan Secretary of Education. A champion of privatization, Duncan had closed dozens of Chicago schools, many on short notice, some at the apparent behest of gentrifying real estate developers. Duncan fired so many veteran black Chicago teachers to , fil l their slots with mostly white rookies, that teachers sued him for racial discrimination in federal court and won.  Duncan even introduced military charter schools in Chicago, in one case handing a west side middle school to the US Marine Corps.

No Child Left Behind had been passed by a Democratic congress in the first days of the Bush administration. Opposition to its policies was widespread, and much of that opposition was among Democratic constituencies. So President Obama's signature education policy initiative, would bypass Congress and the opportunity for public debate on the disastrous effects of existing pro-privatization policies.

Secretary Duncan at his side, President Obama introduced Race To The Top, drawn up by the Bill & Melinda Gates, the Eli Broad, Boeing, Walton Family and other foundations.  Under Race To The Top states and school districts are forced to bid against each other for many of the same education dollars they used to receive as a matter of course. The winning districts are those who apply Race To The Top's four official solutions to their so-called “failing schools.”

Race To The Top's four federally mandated “solutions,” which are never spelled out by corporate media news outlets, are “school transformations,” “school turnarounds,” “school restarts,” and “school closures.”

Race to the Top defines a school transformation,” its first remedy, as firing the principal and up to 50% of teachers, replacing them with temps and newbies, hiring expensive consultants, often the same folks who drafted Race To The Top guidelines or their cronies, to redesign curriculum and personnel policies. “Transformed” schools tie teachers jobs to test scores (that’s what caused the national epidemic of cheating scandals) lengthening school days with no extra pay, cutting wages & benefits and of course lots more costly and useless tests.

Race To The Top calls its second remedy “school turnaround.” Turnarounds are exactly the same as school transformations, with high priced “run the school like a business” consultants, increased reliance on standardized tests, sanctions for teachers and all new hires sourced from Teach For America type agencies, except that transformations fire up to 50% of school staff, but to be called a turnaround schools must fire at least 50% of school staff.

School restarts,” are the third Race To The Top solution. In a “restart” you close the public school and reopen a new school with new staff and the same connected consultants used for transformations and turnarounds, but all under the management of a private corporation. In other words, you close the public school and open a charter school in the same building. Charters of course can use public money to hire even less qualified teachers, pick and choose the students it serves, and often to generate handsome private profits.

Race To The Top 's fourth remedy isschool closure. ” You fire the staff, padlock the school doors and let families take their chances on the free market, or find another public school if they can.

The states and school districts quickest to carry out the most transformations, turnarounds, restarts and school closings are the ones who get to keep or increase their levels of federal funding. Those who drag their feet lose federal education dollars. That's why it's a race, but not exactly to the top.

Clearly there's no broad support for these insanely destructive educational policies. But since news media never report what Race To The Top's actual requirements are, or even that a nationwide wave of school closings and teacher firings is underway, much of the public, and even many teachers and their unions are unable to make the connection between federal policies and their local school crises. Corporate media point helpfully instead to corrupt local officials, greedy organized teachers insufficient reliance on the invisible hand of the free market. News reports in many areas are full of stories about school districts whose certification is imperiled because of looming loss of federal funds, but the public is offered few clues as to exactly WHY the funds are lacking or WHAT measures the district will have to take to get them restored. The fact is, Race To The Top is consciously designed to punish school districts that try to protect their educational assets, and rewards those who eviscerate and sell them off.

President Obama's Race To The Top then, is the direct cause of our national wave of school closings and mass teacher firings from Philly to Atlanta and Los Angeles to Rhode Island. It was local implementation of Obama's Race To The Top mandates that forced Chicago teachers out on strike last fall, and it's reluctance to carry out these measures that now imperils education funding in cities as large as Las Vegas.

The Chicago teachers class action lawsuit is a good thing. But the courts have been captive to the far right wing for a long time now, and are not likely to issue quick and sweeping rulings that upset things as they are. In the end, the only thing that will begin to save public education, that will halt the wave of school closings and teacher firings is mass mobilization on a scale not seen in fifty years. Right now, that seems almost as unlikely as corporate school reform being reversed or halted by the federal court.

What passes for black leadership these days, the descendants of the old line “civil rights” organizations are firmly on the corporate education reform bandwagon. Bill Gates, for example, delivered the 2011 keynote at the National Urban League's annual meeting. The NAACP and similar outfits are no better, all preferring to do the bidding of their funders and their president, over the interests of ordinary black families and their children. Even teachers unions are handicapped. Unlike the Chicago Teachers Union most haven't spent the last few years forging deep ties with organized forces in their school communities, and lack even a tradition of standing up for their own members they way labor unions ought to.

In human history, the notion that everybody is entitled to a quality public education is still relatively new, and has powerful enemies. President Obama is one of these. It was the insistence of newly freed slaves that led to the first universal public education laws in the South. African American leaders till now have always been stalwart champions of public education. Until we raise up a new crop of leaders and movements not beholden to corporate funding, not disposed to uncritical worship of corporate power wielded by a black face, public education will continue to wither and die.

© 2013 Black Agenda Report

Bruce Dixon

Bruce Dixon is based in Atlanta GA and is managing editor at Black Agenda Report.  He can be reached at [email protected]

Obama’s Race To The Top Drives Nationwide Wave of School Closings, Teacher Firings

A nationwide epidemic of school closings and teacher firings has been underway for some time. It's concentrated chiefly in poor and minority communities, and the teachers let go are often experienced and committed classroom instructors, and likely to live in and near the communities they serve, and disproportionately black.

(Photo:Brian Jones via Socialistworker)It's not an accident, or a reflection of changing demographics, or more educational choices suddenly becoming available to families in those areas. It's not due to greedy unionized teachers or the invisible hand of the marketplace or well-intentioned educational policies somehow gone awry.

The current wave of school closings is latest result of bipartisan educational policies which began with No Child Left Behind in 2001, and have kicked into overdrive under the Obama administration's Race To The Top. In Chicago, the home town of the president and his Secretary of Education, the percentage of black teachers has dropped from 45% in 1995 to 19% today. After winning a couple skirmishes in federal court over discriminatory firings in a few schools, teachers have now filed a citywide class action lawsuit alleging that the city's policy of school “turnarounds” and “transformations” is racially discriminatory because it's carried out mainly in black neighborhoods and the fired teachers are disproportionately black.

How did this happen? Where did those policies come from, and exactly what are they?

Beginning in the 1980s, deep right pockets like the Bradley and Walton Family Foundations spent billions to create and fund fake “grassroots movements.” They churned out academic studies and blizzards of media hype, first for vouchers, later on for charter schools and what’s become a whole panoply of privatization-oriented “education reforms” ranging f rom teacher merit pay to common core curriculum and more.  

Those billions paid off with the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act which made the right wing corporate agenda of undermining and ultimately privatizing public education national policy.  Though standardized test scores were long known to prove little aside from student family income, they suddenly became the gold standard for judging teacher & school performance.  School districts were required to purchase & give dozens of costly meaningless tests and to publish lists ranking their own schools and teachers as “failing” when test scores were low, which again, was mostly wherever students were poor .

Amid torrents of “blame the teachers” propaganda, so-called “failing schools” were required to hire expensive contractors with cockeyed “run the school like a business” remedies and more crackpot tests. Thus it was that NCLB s pawned almost overnight an entire industry of jackleg educational consultants and test suppliers guaranteed a market with dollars diverted from already tight public school budgets. Those industries attracted capital investors, and began doing what every other industry does in the US—make big campaign contributions to politicians to get sweeter contracts and more favorable regulation.  When test scores still didn’t rise, NCLB required many schools to close, making openings for chains of charter schools, often highly profitable charter schools, bringing the blessings of “choice” and free market competition to the educational “marketplace.”

It was an unequal sort of “competition” though, because charter schools have always been allowed to pick and choose their students, to turn away those with special needs, and to hire teachers and principals with little or no relevant training.

Results in the classrooms of poor neighborhoods around the country were devastating.  Where in 1987-88 the modal year for teacher experience—that’s the number of years the largest cohort of teachers had been in the classrooms—was ten years, by 2008 the biggest block of teachers were in their very first year, by definition—the least confident, the least experienced and the least effective.  

This was the state of public education when President Obama walked into the White House door. What did he do? Did he turn it around? Or did he double down? The answer is that in the spirit of corporate bipartisanship, president Obama sided with the charter school sugar daddies instead of black teachers, black parents and their children.

President Obama appointed Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan Secretary of Education. A champion of privatization, Duncan had closed dozens of Chicago schools, many on short notice, some at the apparent behest of gentrifying real estate developers. Duncan fired so many veteran black Chicago teachers to , fil l their slots with mostly white rookies, that teachers sued him for racial discrimination in federal court and won.  Duncan even introduced military charter schools in Chicago, in one case handing a west side middle school to the US Marine Corps.

No Child Left Behind had been passed by a Democratic congress in the first days of the Bush administration. Opposition to its policies was widespread, and much of that opposition was among Democratic constituencies. So President Obama's signature education policy initiative, would bypass Congress and the opportunity for public debate on the disastrous effects of existing pro-privatization policies.

Secretary Duncan at his side, President Obama introduced Race To The Top, drawn up by the Bill & Melinda Gates, the Eli Broad, Boeing, Walton Family and other foundations.  Under Race To The Top states and school districts are forced to bid against each other for many of the same education dollars they used to receive as a matter of course. The winning districts are those who apply Race To The Top's four official solutions to their so-called “failing schools.”

Race To The Top's four federally mandated “solutions,” which are never spelled out by corporate media news outlets, are “school transformations,” “school turnarounds,” “school restarts,” and “school closures.”

Race to the Top defines a school transformation,” its first remedy, as firing the principal and up to 50% of teachers, replacing them with temps and newbies, hiring expensive consultants, often the same folks who drafted Race To The Top guidelines or their cronies, to redesign curriculum and personnel policies. “Transformed” schools tie teachers jobs to test scores (that’s what caused the national epidemic of cheating scandals) lengthening school days with no extra pay, cutting wages & benefits and of course lots more costly and useless tests.

Race To The Top calls its second remedy “school turnaround.” Turnarounds are exactly the same as school transformations, with high priced “run the school like a business” consultants, increased reliance on standardized tests, sanctions for teachers and all new hires sourced from Teach For America type agencies, except that transformations fire up to 50% of school staff, but to be called a turnaround schools must fire at least 50% of school staff.

School restarts,” are the third Race To The Top solution. In a “restart” you close the public school and reopen a new school with new staff and the same connected consultants used for transformations and turnarounds, but all under the management of a private corporation. In other words, you close the public school and open a charter school in the same building. Charters of course can use public money to hire even less qualified teachers, pick and choose the students it serves, and often to generate handsome private profits.

Race To The Top 's fourth remedy isschool closure. ” You fire the staff, padlock the school doors and let families take their chances on the free market, or find another public school if they can.

The states and school districts quickest to carry out the most transformations, turnarounds, restarts and school closings are the ones who get to keep or increase their levels of federal funding. Those who drag their feet lose federal education dollars. That's why it's a race, but not exactly to the top.

Clearly there's no broad support for these insanely destructive educational policies. But since news media never report what Race To The Top's actual requirements are, or even that a nationwide wave of school closings and teacher firings is underway, much of the public, and even many teachers and their unions are unable to make the connection between federal policies and their local school crises. Corporate media point helpfully instead to corrupt local officials, greedy organized teachers insufficient reliance on the invisible hand of the free market. News reports in many areas are full of stories about school districts whose certification is imperiled because of looming loss of federal funds, but the public is offered few clues as to exactly WHY the funds are lacking or WHAT measures the district will have to take to get them restored. The fact is, Race To The Top is consciously designed to punish school districts that try to protect their educational assets, and rewards those who eviscerate and sell them off.

President Obama's Race To The Top then, is the direct cause of our national wave of school closings and mass teacher firings from Philly to Atlanta and Los Angeles to Rhode Island. It was local implementation of Obama's Race To The Top mandates that forced Chicago teachers out on strike last fall, and it's reluctance to carry out these measures that now imperils education funding in cities as large as Las Vegas.

The Chicago teachers class action lawsuit is a good thing. But the courts have been captive to the far right wing for a long time now, and are not likely to issue quick and sweeping rulings that upset things as they are. In the end, the only thing that will begin to save public education, that will halt the wave of school closings and teacher firings is mass mobilization on a scale not seen in fifty years. Right now, that seems almost as unlikely as corporate school reform being reversed or halted by the federal court.

What passes for black leadership these days, the descendants of the old line “civil rights” organizations are firmly on the corporate education reform bandwagon. Bill Gates, for example, delivered the 2011 keynote at the National Urban League's annual meeting. The NAACP and similar outfits are no better, all preferring to do the bidding of their funders and their president, over the interests of ordinary black families and their children. Even teachers unions are handicapped. Unlike the Chicago Teachers Union most haven't spent the last few years forging deep ties with organized forces in their school communities, and lack even a tradition of standing up for their own members they way labor unions ought to.

In human history, the notion that everybody is entitled to a quality public education is still relatively new, and has powerful enemies. President Obama is one of these. It was the insistence of newly freed slaves that led to the first universal public education laws in the South. African American leaders till now have always been stalwart champions of public education. Until we raise up a new crop of leaders and movements not beholden to corporate funding, not disposed to uncritical worship of corporate power wielded by a black face, public education will continue to wither and die.

© 2013 Black Agenda Report

Bruce Dixon

Bruce Dixon is based in Atlanta GA and is managing editor at Black Agenda Report.  He can be reached at [email protected]

Congo’s M23 Conflict: Rebellion or Resource War?

M23 rebels in DR Congo have threatened to march to the capital and depose the government. UN reports confirm that rebels receive support from key US allies in the region, and Washington’s role in the conflict has become difficult to ignore. Instability, lawlessness and violence are nothing new to those who live in the troubled eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An 

 Congolese have perished since 1996 in a spate of ceaseless military conflicts that have long gripped this severely-overlooked and underreported region. In late November 2012, members of the M23 rebel group invaded and took control of Goma, a strategic provincial capital in North Kivu state with a population of 1 million people, with the declared purpose of marching to the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, to depose the ruling government. M23′s president, Jean Marie Runiga, later agreed to withdraw only if the ruling President Joseph Kabila listened to the group’s grievances and adhered to their demands. Rebel leaders have threatened to abandon peace talks unless Kinshasa signs an official ceasefire, a demand the government dismissed as unnecessary.

Kinshasa called on M23 to respect previous agreements to withdraw 20km outside of Goma in a move to prevent the region falling back into war after two decades of conflict, fought largely over the DRC’s vast wealth of copper, cobalt diamonds, gold and coltan. The United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in DR Congo has come under fire for allowing M23 to take Goma without firing a single shot, despite the presence of 19,000 UN troops in the country. The UN’s Congo mission is its largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation, costing over US$1 billion a year. UN forces recently announced they would introduce the use of surveillance drones over the DRC, in addition to imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on M23 leader Jean-Marie Runiga and Lt. Col. Eric Badege. A confidential 44-page report issued by a United Nations panel accused the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda of supporting M23 with weapons, ammunition and Rwandan military personnel. Despite both nations denying these accusations, the governments of the United States, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands have publicly suspended military aid and developmental assistance to Rwanda. The governments of both Rwanda and Uganda, led by President Paul Kagame and President Yoweri Museveni respectively, have long been staunch American allies and the recipients of millions in military aid.

M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga (2nd R) arrives to address the media in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)

M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga (2nd R) arrives to address the media in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)

Historical precedent

The DRC has suffered immensely during its history of foreign plunder and colonial occupation; it maintains the second-lowest GDP per capita despite possessing an estimated $24 trillion in untapped raw minerals deposits. During the Congo Wars of the 1996 to 2003, the United States provided training and arms to Rwandan and Ugandan militias who later invaded the Congo’s eastern provinces where M23 are currently active. In addition to enriching various Western multinational corporations, the regimes of Kagame in Rwanda and Museveni in Uganda both profited immensely from the plunder of Congolese conflict minerals such as cassiterite, wolframite, coltan (from which niobium and tantalum are derived) and gold; the DRC holds more than 30 per cent of the world’s diamond reserves and 80 per cent of the world’s coltan.

In 1990, civil war raged between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in neighboring Rwanda; Washington sought to overthrow the 20-year reign of then-President Juvénal Habyarimana (a Hutu) by installing a Tutsi client regime. At the time, prior to the outbreak of the Rwandan civil war, the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), led by the current president, was part of Uganda’s United People’s Defense Forces (UPDF). Kagame, who received training at the US Army Command and Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, invaded Rwanda in 1990 from Uganda under the pretext of liberating the Tutsi population from Hutu subjugation. Kagame’s forces defeated the Hutu government in Kigali and installed himself as head of a minority Tutsi regime in Rwanda, prompting the exodus of 2 million Hutu refugees (many of whom took part in the genocide) to UN-run camps in Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces.

Following Kagame’s consolidation of power in Rwanda, a large invasion force of Rwandan Tutsis arrived in North and South Kivu in 1996 under the pretext of pursuing Hutu militant groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Under the banner of safeguarding Rwandan national security, troops from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi invaded Congo and ripped through Hutu refugee camps, slaughtering thousands of Rwandan and Congolese Hutu civilians, including many women and children. US Special Forces trained Rwandan and Ugandan troops at Fort Bragg in the United States and supported Congolese rebels, who brought down Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko – they claimed he was giving refuge to the leaders of the genocide.

After deposing Mobutu and seizing control in Kinshasa, a new regime led by Laurent Kabila, father of the current president, was installed. Kabila was quickly regarded as an equally despotic leader, eradicating all opposition to his rule; he turned away from his Rwandan backers and called on Congolese civilians to violently purge the nation of Rwandans, prompting Rwandan forces to regroup in Goma. Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 at the hands of a member of his security staff, allowing his son, Joseph, to usurp the presidency. The younger Kabila derives his legitimacy from the support of foreign heads of state and the international business community, primarily for his ability to comply with foreign plunder.

During the Congo’s general elections in November 2011, the international community and the UN remained silent regarding the mass irregularities observed by the electoral committee. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has faced frequent allegations of corruption, prompting opposition leader Étienne Tshisikedi, who is currently under house arrest, to call for the UN mission to end its deliberate efforts to maintain the system of international plundering and to appoint someone “less corrupt and more credible” to head UN operations. MONUSCO has been plagued with frequent cases of peacekeeping troops caught smuggling minerals such as cassiterite and dealing weapons to militia groups. Kabila is seen by many to be self-serving in his weak oversight of the central government in Kinshasa. M23 rebels have demanded the liberation of all political prisoners, including opposition leader Étienne Tshisikedi, and the dissolution of the current electoral commission that was in charge 2011’s elections, widely perceived to be fraudulent.

Displaced civilians from Walikale arrive at Magunga III camp outside of the eastern Congolese city of Goma.(Reuters / Alissa Everett)

Displaced civilians from Walikale arrive at Magunga III camp outside of the eastern Congolese city of Goma.(Reuters / Alissa Everett)

Role of US in Rwanda’s M23 backing

M23, or The March 23 Movement, takes its name from peace accords held on March 23, 2009, which allowed members of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), an earlier incarnation of today’s M23, to integrate into the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and be recognized as an official political party. The CNDP was an entirely Rwandan creation, and was led by figures such as Bosco Ntaganda. In accordance to the deal reached in 2009, the Congolese government agreed to integrate 6,000 CNDP combatants into the FARDC, giving Ntaganda, a Rwandan Tutsi and former member of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, a senior position in the integrated force. The current M23 offensive began in April 2012, when around 300 former CNDP personnel led by Ntaganda defected from FARDC, citing poor working conditions and the government’s unwillingness to meaningfully implement the 23 March 2009 peace deal.

According to UN reports, Ntaganda controls several mining operations in the region and has derived enormous profits from mineral exploitation in eastern Congo, in addition to gaining large revenues from taxation levied by Rwandan-backed “mining police.” Bosco Ntaganda appears to be assisting Rwanda’s Tutsi government in plundering eastern Congo’s natural resources, which has gone on since Kagame came to power in 1994; M23 is basically paid for with the money from tin, tungsten and tantalum smuggled from Congolese mines. UN reports detail Rwanda’s deep involvement by even naming Rwandan personnel involved; Ntaganda takes direct military orders from Rwandan Chief of Defense Staff General Charles Kayonga, who in turn acts on instructions from Minster of Defense General James Kabarebe. Both Britain and France reportedly found the UN report to be “credible and compelling.”

Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, finds herself mired in scandal yet again; Rice has come under fire for suppressing information on Rwanda’s role in the ongoing resource looting and rebellion in eastern Congo. Rice delayed the publication of a UN Group of Experts report detailing Rwandan and Ugandan depredations in Congo, while simultaneously subverting efforts within the State Department to rein in Kagame and Museveni. Rice, in her role as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in 1997 under the Clinton administration, tacitly approved Rwanda and Uganda’s invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo and was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “…they [Kagame & Museveni] know how to deal with that, the only thing we have to do is look the other way.” Another article published in the New York Times by Helen Cooper detailed Rice’s business connections to the Rwandan government:

“Ms. Rice has been at the forefront of trying to shield the Rwandan government, and Mr. Kagame in particular, from international censure, even as several United Nations reports have laid the blame for the violence in Congo at Mr. Kagame’s door… Aides to Ms. Rice acknowledge that she is close to Mr. Kagame and that Mr. Kagame’s government was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington… After delaying for weeks the publication of a United Nations report denouncing Rwanda’s support for the M23 and opposing any direct references to Rwanda in United Nations statements and resolutions on the crisis, Ms. Rice intervened to water down a Security Council resolution that strongly condemned the M23 for widespread rape, summary executions and recruitment of child soldiers. The resolution expressed ‘deep concern’ about external actors supporting the M23. But Ms. Rice prevailed in preventing the resolution from explicitly naming Rwanda when it was passed on Nov. 20.”

M23 rebel fighters walk as they withdraw near the town of Sake, some 42 km (26 miles) west of Goma.(Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)

M23 rebel fighters walk as they withdraw near the town of Sake, some 42 km (26 miles) west of Goma.(Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)

Geopolitics of plunder

It must be recognized that Kagame controls a vastly wealthy and mineral-rich area of eastern Congo – an area that has long been integrated into Rwanda’s economy – with total complicity from the United States. As Washington prepares to escalate its military presence throughout the African continent with AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command, what long-term objectives does Uncle Sam have in the Congo, considered the world’s most resource-rich nation? Washington is crusading against China’s export restrictions on minerals that are crucial components in the production of consumer electronics such as flat-screen televisions, smart phones, laptop batteries, and a host of other products. The US sees these Chinese export policies as a means of Beijing attempting to monopolize the mineral and rare earth market.

In a 2010 white paper entitled “Critical Raw Materials for the EU,” the European Commission cites the immediate need for reserve supplies of tantalum, cobalt, niobium, and tungsten among others; the US Department of Energy 2010 white paper “Critical Mineral Strategy” also acknowledged the strategic importance of these key components. In 1980, Pentagon documents acknowledged shortages of cobalt, titanium, chromium, tantalum, beryllium, and nickel. The US Congressional Budget Office’s 1982 report “Cobalt: Policy Options for a Strategic Mineral” notes that cobalt alloys are critical to the aerospace and weapons industries and that 64 per cent of the world’s cobalt reserves lay in the Katanga Copper Belt, running from southeastern Congo into northern Zambia.

Additionally, the sole piece of legislation authored by President Obama during his time as a Senator was SB 2125, the“Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006”. In the legislation, Obama acknowledges Congo as a long-term interest to the United States and further alludes to the threat of Hutu militias as an apparent pretext for continued interference in the region; Section 201(6) of the bill specifically calls for the protection of natural resources in the eastern DRC. The United States does not like the fact that President Kabila in Kinshasa has become very comfortable with Beijing, and worries that Congo will drift into Chinese economic orbit. Under the current regime in Congo, Chinese commercial activities have significantly increased not only in the mining sector, but also considerably in the telecommunications field.

In 2000, the Chinese ZTE Corporation finalized a $12.6 million deal with the Congolese government to establish the first Sino-Congolese telecommunications company; furthermore, the DRC exported $1.4 billion worth of cobalt between 2007 and 2008. The majority of Congolese raw materials like cobalt, copper ore and a variety of hardwoodsare exported to China for further processing and 90 per cent of the processing plants in resource rich southeastern Katanga province are owned by Chinese nationals. In 2008, a consortium of Chinese companies were granted the rights to mining operations in Katanga in exchange for US$6 billion in infrastructure investments, including the construction of two hospitals, four universities and a hydroelectric power project. In 2009, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded renegotiation of the deal, arguing that the agreement between China and the DRC violated the foreign debt relief program for so-called HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) nations. The IMF successfully blocked the deal in May 2009, calling for a more feasibility study of the DRCs mineral concessions. An article published by Shamus Cooke of Workers Action explains:

“This act instantly transformed Kabila from an unreliable friend to an enemy. The US and China have been madly scrambling for Africa’s immense wealth of raw materials, and Kabila’s new alliance with China was too much for the US to bear. Kabila further inflamed his former allies by demanding that the international corporations exploiting the Congo’s precious metals have their super-profit contracts re-negotiated, so that the country might actually receive some benefit from its riches.”

During a diplomatic tour of Africa in 2011, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton herself has irresponsibly insinuatedChina’s guilt in perpetuating a creeping “new colonialism.” China annually invests an estimated $5.5 billion in Africa, with only 29 per cent of direct investment in the mining sector in 2009 – while more than half was directed toward domestic manufacturing, finance, and construction industries. China has further committed $10 billion in concessional loans to Africa between 2009 and 2012. As Africa’s largest trading partner, China imports 1.5 million barrels of oil from Africa per day, accounting for approximately 30 per cent of its total imports. Over the past decade, 750,000 Chinese nationals have settled in Africa; China’s deepening economic engagement in Africa and its crucial role in developing the mineral sector, telecommunications industry and much needed infrastructural projects is creating “deep nervousness” in the West, according to David Shinn, the former US ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.

Too big to fail, or too big to succeed?

In December 2012, Dr J Peter Pham published a bizarre Op-Ed in the New York Times titled, “To Save Congo, Let It Fall Apart.” Pham is the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center and is a frequent guest lecturer on the US Army War College, the Joint Special Operations University, and other US Government affiliated educational institutions; he is a Washington insider, and understanding his rationale is important, as his opinion may very well shape US policy in Congo. Pham argues that Congo is an “artificial entity” that is “too big to succeed,” and therefore, the policy direction taken by the US should be one of promoting balkanization:

“Rather than nation-building, what is needed to end Congo’s violence is the opposite: breaking up a chronically failed state into smaller organic units whose members share broad agreement or at least have common interests in personal and community security… If Congo were permitted to break up into smaller entities, the international community could devote its increasingly scarce resources to humanitarian relief and development, rather than trying, as the United Nations Security Council has pledged, to preserve the ‘sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity’ of a fictional state that is of value only to the political elites who have clawed their way to the top in order to plunder Congo’s resources and fund the patronage networks that ensure that they will remain in power.”

What Pham is suggesting is policy to bring out the collapse of the Congolese nation by creating tiny ethno-nationalist entities too small to stand up to multinational corporations. The success of M23 must surely have shaken President Kabila, whose father came to power with the backing of the Ugandan and Rwandan regimes in 1996, employing the same strategies that M23 is using today. If Kabila wants to stay in power, he needs the capability of exercising authority over the entire country. Sanctions should be imposed on top-level Rwandan and Ugandan officials and all military aid should be withheld; additionally, Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame should be investigated and removed from his position. Kambale Musavuli, of the Washington DC-based NGO, Friends of Congo, has it right when he says:

“People need to be clear who we are fighting in the Congo… We are fighting Western powers, the United States and the United Kingdom, who are arming, training and equipping the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries.”

M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga attend press conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)

M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga attend press conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at [email protected] 

Can Obama Slay the NRA Beast?

Obama will announce a gun violence package on Wednesday. Can his reforms overpower a shady, extremist and powerful NRA?

January 15, 2013  |  

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is no stranger to domestic violence. His father killed himself with a gunshot to his head more than four decades ago. And his state, Nevada, is no stranger as well. It’s had the nation’s highest rate of women killed by men—most by gunshots—during five of the past six years, the Violence Policy Center reported.   

But in 2010—where Nevada had that bloody distinction for the third year in a row—Reid did the gun lobby a big favor. Pro-gun libertarians were saying that the president’s health care reforms would allow government to compile a registry of gun owners. Reid feared the rumors could derail the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. So on page 776 of the giant bill, he added lines barring doctors from gathering information on a patient’s guns or ammunition, and also barred insurers from charging higher rates to gun owners.     

The National Rifle Association wanted the language, the Washington Post noted, which child health advocates and pediatricians noticed recently. Some were furious, asking how could they treat victims of violence if they could not ask about guns at home? Reid’s staff tried to spin it, saying he put it in because of insurance issues. But most of the language concerned limiting would-be gun registries, gun databases and data gathering.

“This illustrates the fact that the NRA has insinuated themselves into the small crevices of anything they can do in their power to prohibit sensible gun safety measures,” Denise Dowd, a Kansas City, Missouri, emergency care physician told the Post.

Insinuate is the right word. Since the early 1980s, a newly militant NRA has been at the forefront of finding, exploiting and nurturing cracks in state and federal gun controls—just as it has created and publicized an exaggerated view of Second Amendment rights. While its political successes are undeniable, it also has built a myth that it cannot be challenged—a myth that is starting to crumble in 2013’s emerging gun control debates.

Understanding how and what the gun lobby has accomplished is a prerequisite to unraveling its political influence and addressing gun violence—and assessing whether President Obama’s pending gun control reforms are likely to be effective.

A Long And Dark Shadow

It’s hard to believe that Reid’s staff didn’t know that the NRA and Republicans have put limits on the federal government’s abilities to collect, study and share gun-related crime data since 1996—part of a strategy to minimize informed public debate. But suppressing government and academic research on guns was only one part of the NRA playbook.

The gun lobby sponsored academics to write tilted Second Amendment analyses touting an individual’s gun rights while omitting America’s history of gun controls. They lobbied Congress and states to roll back as many gun laws as possible, or grant new privileges to gun owners, such as allowing concealed weapons in public. They donated to political campaigns—ramping up after horrific incidents such as 1999’s Columbine High School massacre—and were most successful when Republicans were in power.

As Dowd noted, they kept targeting and finessing the fine print of the law. Before the Newtown school shootings, they were the only group pushing the Justice Department to loosen rules letting non-citizens buy guns, which it did last June. And days before the Newtown shooting, the NRA was urging members to comment on a proposed DOJ regulation to allow the use of “armor-piercing” bullets for “sporting purposes.”

The modern gun lobby emerged in the late 1970s, after a libertarian faction led by Harlon Carter, a champion marksman and ex-federal Border Control Agency chief staged a coup inside the NRA and replaced a board of directors who wanted to focus on its historic hunting and marksmanship mission. (The NRA had supported gun control laws since its founding in 1871, but started having reservations in the late 1960s.) After the 1977 coup, Carter changed the NRA motto to an edited Second Amendment, “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.” That reflected its new agenda: making exaggerated constitutional claims of gun rights—to push back on gun controls; and a view that government was the enemy of gun owners’ freedom.

Aaron Swartz’s Politics

Aaron Swartz was my friend, and I will always miss him. I think it’s important that, as we remember him, we remember that Aaron had a much broader agenda than the information freedom fights for which he had become known. Most people have focused on Aaron’s work as an advocate for more open information systems, because that’s what the Feds went after him for, and because he’s well-understood as a technologist who founded Reddit and invented RSS. But I knew a different side of him. I knew Aaron as a political activist interested in health care, financial corruption, and the drug war (we were working on a project on that just before he died). He was a great technologist, for sure, but when we were working together that was not all I saw.

In 2009, I was working in Rep. Alan Grayson’s office as a policy advisor. We were engaged in fights around the health care bill that eventually became Obamacare, as well as a much narrower but significant fight on auditing the Federal Reserve that eventually became a provision in Dodd-Frank. Aaron came into our office to intern for a few weeks to learn about Congress and how bills were put together. He worked with me on organizing the campaign within the Financial Services Committee to pass the amendment sponsored by Ron Paul and Alan Grayson on transparency at the Fed. He helped with the website NamesOfTheDead.com, a site dedicated to publicizing the 44,000 Americans that die every year because they don’t have health insurance. Aaron learned about Congress by just spending time there, which seems like an obvious thing to do. Many activists prefer to keep their distance from policymakers, because they are afraid of the complexity of the system and believe that it is inherently corrupting. Aaron, as with much of his endeavors, simply let his curiosity, which he saw as synonymous with brilliance, drive him.

Aaron also spent a lot of time learning how advocacy and electoral politics works from outside of Congress. He helped found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that sought to replace existing political consulting machinery in the Democratic Party. At the PCCC, he worked on stopping Ben Bernanke’s reconfirmation (the email Aaron wrote called him “Bailout Ben”), auditing the Fed and passing health care reform. I remember he sent me this video of Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, on Reddit, offering his support to Grayson’s provision. A very small piece of the victory on Fed openness belongs to Aaron.

By the time I met and became friends with Aaron, he had already helped create RSS and co-founded and sold Reddit. He didn’t have to act with intellectual humility when confronting the political system, but he did. Rather than approach politics as so many successful entrepreneurs do, which is to say, try to meet top politicians and befriend them, Aaron sought to understand the system itself. He read political blogs, what I can only presume are gobs of history books (like Tom Ferguson’s Golden Rule, one of the most important books on politics that almost no one under 40 has read), and began talking to organizers and political advocates. He wanted, first and foremost, to know. He learned about elections, political advertising, the data behind voting, and grassroots organizing. He began understanding policy, by learning about Congressional process, its intersection with politics, and how staff and influence networks work on the Hill and through agencies. He analyzed money. He analyzed corruption.

And he understood how it worked. In November of 2008, Aaron emailed me  the following: “apologies if you’ve already seen it, but check out this mash note to Rubin from Lay. ahh, politics.” This was attached to the message.

This note, from Enron CEO Ken Lay to Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, perfectly encapsulates the closed and corroded nature of our political system – two corporate good ole boys, one running Treasury and one running Enron, passing mash notes. This was everything Aaron hated, and fought against. What I respected about Aaron is that he burned with a desire for justice, but also felt a profound desire to understand the system he was attempting to reorganize. He didn’t throw up his hands lazily and curse at corruption, he spent enormous amounts of time and energy learning about and working the political system. From founding Reddit, to fighting the Fed. That was Aaron.

Aaron approached politics like he approached technology. His method was as follows - (1) Learn (2) Try (3) Gab (4) Build. He was methodical about his work, and his approach to life - this essay on procrastination will give you a good window into his mind. Aaron liked to “lean in” to difficult problems, work at them until he could break them down and solve them. He had no illusions about politics, which is why he eventually became so good at it. He didn’t disdain the political process the way so many choose to, but he also didn’t engage in flowery lazy thoughts about the glory of checks and balances. He broke politics down and systematically attempted to understand the system. Aaron learned, tried, gabbed, and then built.

This is a note I got from him years ago, when we were trying to put together flow charts of corporate PAC money and where it went.

“Been playing around with the numbers tonight. Turns out corporate PAC money explains 45% of the variance in ProgressivePunch scores among Dems. Scatterplot attached. Right is progressive, down is no corporate PAC money. So you can see how all the people with less than 80% progressive punch scores get more than 20% of their money from PACs.”

This is a chart of power, one of many Aaron put together to educate himself (and in this case, me). Most geeks hate the political system, and are at the same time awed by it. They don’t actually approach it with any respect for the underlying architecture of power, but at the same time, they are impressed by political figures with titles. Aaron recognized that politics is a corrupt money driven system, but also that it could be cracked if you spent the time to understand the moving parts. He figured out that business alliances, grassroots organizing, and direct lobbying to build coalitions was powerful, whereas access alone was a mirage. He worked very hard to understand how policy changes work, which ultimately culminated in his successful campaign to stop SOPA in 2011. This took many years of work and a remarkable amount of humility on his part.

But he was driven by a desire for justice, and not just for open information. He wanted an end to the drug war, he wanted a financial system not dominated by Bob Rubin, and he wanted monetary policy run to help ordinary people. Some of his last tweets are on monetary policy, and the platinum coin option for raising the debt ceiling (which is a round-about way of preventing cuts to social welfare programs for the elderly). Aaron was a liberal who saw class and race as core driving forces in American politics. In a lovely essay on how he organized his career, he made this clear in a very charming but pointed way.

So how did I get a job like mine? Undoubtedly, the first step is to choose the right genes: I was born white, male, American. My family was fairly well-off and my father worked in the computer industry. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any way of choosing these things, so that probably isn’t much help to you.

But, on the other hand, when I started I was a very young kid stuck in a small town in the middle of the country. So I did have to figure out some tricks for getting out of that. In the hopes of making life a little less unfair, I thought I’d share them with you.

Making “life a little less unfair.” Those aren’t the words of a techno-utopianist, those are the words of a liberal political organizer. They remind me of how Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has described her own work. Aaron knew life would always be unfair, but that was no reason not to try to make society better. He had no illusions about power but maintained hope for our society if, I suppose, not always for himself. This is a very difficult way to approach the world, but it’s why he was so heroic in how he acted. I want people to understand that Aaron sought not open information systems, but justice. Aaron believed passionately in the scientific method as a guide for organizing our society, and in that open-minded but powerful critique, he was a technocratic liberal. His leanings sometimes moved him towards more radical postures because he recognized that our governing institutions had become malevolent, but he was not an anarchist.

I am very angry Aaron is dead. I’ve been crying off and on for a few days, as it hits me that he’s gone forever. Aaron accomplished more in 13 than nearly everyone I know will get done in their entire lives, and his breadth of knowledge and creativity in politics were stunning, all the more so since he was equally well-versed in many other fields. But what I respected was his curiosity and open-mindedness. He truly loved knowledge, and loved people who would share it. We used to argue about politics, him a hopeful and intellectually honest technocratic liberal and me as someone who had lost faith in our social institutions. We made each other really angry sometimes, because I thought he was too sympathetic to establishment norms, and he thought I couldn’t emotionally acknowledge when technocrats had useful things to say. But I respected him, and he frequently changed my mind.  I saw that what looked like stubbornness was just intellectual honesty and a deep thirst for evidence. He wanted to understand politics, because he thought that understanding, and then action, was the key to justice.

As I said, I am very angry that he is dead. I don’t want to get into the specifics of his case, because others have discussed it and the political elements of it more eloquently than I ever could. His family and partner have put out a powerful statement placing blame appropriately.

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

I want to make a few points about why it’s not just sad that he is gone, but a tragedy, a symbol for all of us, and a call to action.

Aaron suffered from depression, but that is not why he died. Aaron is dead because the institutions that govern our society have decided that it is more important to target geniuses like Aaron than nurture them, because the values he sought – openness, justice, curiosity – are values these institutions now oppose. In previous generations, people like Aaron would have been treasured and recognized as the remarkable gifts they are. We do not live in a world like that today. And Aaron would be the first to point out, if he could observe the discussion happening now, that the pressure he felt from the an oppressive government is felt by millions of people, every year. I’m glad his family have not let the justice system off the hook, and have not allowed this suicide to be medicalized, or the fault of one prosecutor. What happened to Aaron is not isolated to Aaron, but is the flip side of the corruption he hated.

As we think about what happened to Aaron, we need to recognize that it was not just prosecutorial overreach that killed him. That’s too easy, because that implies it’s one bad apple. We know that’s not true. What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or if you are truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive, as Aaron was, you are bankrupted and destroyed. There’s a reason whistleblowers get fired. There’s a reason Bradley Manning is in jail. There’s a reason the only CIA official who has gone to jail for torture is the person – John Kiriako - who told the world it was going on. There’s a reason those who destroyed the financial system “dine at the White House”, as Lawrence Lessig put it. There’s a reason former Senator Russ Feingold is a college professor whereas former Senator Chris Dodd is now a multi-millionaire. There’s a reason DOJ officials do not go after bankers who illegally foreclose, and then get jobs as partners in white collar criminal defense. There’s a reason no one has been held accountable for decisions leading to the financial crisis, or the war in Iraq. This reason is the modern ethic in American society that defines success as climbing up the ladder, consequences be damned. Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice.

More prosaically, the person who warned about the downside in a meeting gets cut out of the loop, or the former politician who tries to reform an industry sector finds his or her job opportunities sparse and unappealing next to his soon to be millionaire go along get along colleagues. I’ve seen this happen to high level former officials who have done good, and among students who challenge power as their colleagues go to become junior analysts on Wall Street. And now we’ve seen these same forces kill our friend.

It’s important for us to recognize that Aaron is just an extreme example of a force that targets all of us. He eschewed the traditional paths to wealth and power, dropping out of college after a year because it wasn’t intellectually stimulating. After co-founding and selling Reddit, and establishing his own financial security, he wandered and acted, calling himself an “applied sociologist.”  He helped in small personal ways, offering encouragement to journalists like Mike Elk after Elk had broken a significant story and gotten pushback from colleagues. In my inbox, every birthday, I got a lovely note from Aaron offering me encouragement and telling me how much he admired my voice. He was a profoundly kind man, and I will now never be able to repay him for the love and kindness he showed me. There’s no medal of honor for someone like this, no Oscar, no institutional way of saying “here’s someone who did a lot of good for a lot of people.” This is because our institutions are corrupt, and wanted to quelch the Aaron Swartz’s of the world. Ultimately, they killed him. I hope that we remember Aaron in the way he should be remembered, as a hero and an inspiration.

In six days, on January 18th, it’s the one year anniversary of the blackout of Wikipedia, and some have discussed celebrating it as Internet Freedom Day. Maybe we should call this Aaron Swartz Day, in honor of this heroic figure. While what happened that day was technically about the internet, it should be remembered, and Aaron should be remembered, in the context of social justice. That day was about a call for a different world, not just protecting our ability to access web sites. And we should remember these underlying values. It would help people understand that justice can be extremely costly, and that we risk much when we allow those who do the right thing to be punished. Somehow, we need to rebuild a culture that respects people like Aaron and turns away from the greed and rent-extraction that he hated. There’s a cycle in American history, of religious “Great Awakenings”, where new cultural systems emerge in the form of religion, often sweeping through communities of young people dissatisfied with the society they see around them. Perhaps that is what we see in the Slow Food movement, or gay rights movement, or the spread of walkable communities and decline of vehicle miles, or maker movement, or the increasing acceptance of meditation and therapy, or any number of other cultural changes in our society. I don’t know. I’m sure many of these can be subverted. What I do know is that if we are to honor Aaron’s life, we will recognize him as a broad social justice activist who cared about transforming our society, and acted to do so. And we will take up his fight as our own.

New York approves tough gun control law

New York is expected to pass gun control legislation Tuesday that bans military-style rifles and imposes tighter restrictions on ammunition. The bill also brings forth new requirements that will keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

The bipartisan measure was passed 43-18 by the New York Senate and is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled Assembly early Tuesday afternoon. The measure would be the first gun control bill to pass since the gun massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., which left 26 people dead, 20 of which were first grade children.

“This is a scourge on society,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday night about the shooting. “At what point do you say, ‘No more innocent loss of life.’”

In an attempt to reduce gun violence – especially mass shootings – New York legislators have been working together to impose greater restrictions on the sale of deadly weapons. The new bill further restricts assault weapons by defining them based on a single feature, rather than two features. Under current state law, assault weapons are defined based on having two “military rifle” features, such as a muzzle flash suppressor, a bayonet mount, a pistol grip, or a folding stock. By reducing the qualifications to only one feature, more guns would be considered “assault weapons” and would therefore subject potential buyers to tighter background checks.

New Yorkers would no longer be able to buy assault weapons over the Internet, would be subjected to a background check in order to make a purchase from a private dealer, and would be charged with a misdemeanor for failure to store their weapon safely.

“This is not about taking anyone’s rights away,” said Bronx Sen. Jeffrey Klein. “It’s about a safe society … today we are setting the mark for the rest of the country to do what’s right.”

The new provision also mandates a police registry of all assault weapons. Current owners will be required by law to register such weapons. New York would enter all information into a statewide gun registry, altering the current system in which each county or municipality sets its own standard.

New Yorkers will also be limited to purchasing magazines that carry seven bullets, which is a reduction from the current limit of 10.

To reduce the chance of the mentally ill acquiring weapons, therapists who believe their patients might have intentions to use a gun illegally will be required by law to report this to their mental health director, who will then report it to the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Additionally, penalties for gun crimes will be more severe than in the past. Taking a gun to a school, for example, would result in higher sentencing than previously.

Some opponents of tighter gun control regulations believe these measures are unnecessary and in some cases, unconstitutional.

“We have taken an entire category of firearms that are currently legal in the homes of law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. … We are now turning those law-abiding citizens into criminals,” said New York Sen. Greg Ball.

But Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos of Long Island believes the bill’s restrictions will only make the country safer without violating any rights.

“It is well-balanced, it protects the Second Amendment,” he said.

Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has created a gun control proposal that is also expected to soon pass the state legislature.

“There is a sickness in our country. That sickness is gun violence,” O’Malley said Monday at a gun violence summit at Johns Hopkins University. “Perhaps there is no way to completely prevent the next Newtown tragedy. But then again, perhaps there is. None of us can predict the future… And, yet, we know every life is valuable.”

Like Cuomo, O’Malley plans to ban military-style “assault weapons” and limit the size of permitted gun magazines. He would also require tighter background checks and take steps to prevent guns from landing in the hands of the mentally ill.

The two governors have been leading figures in the post-Newtown gun control debate. While New York will most likely become the first in the nation to adopt tighter regulations after last month’s deadly massacre, other states may soon follow in Cuomo’s footsteps.

Why Was the Secret Service Involved in Aaron Swartz Case?

aaron

Over on TechDirt, they're asking this question: Why, two days before Aaron Swartz' arrest, did the Secret Service take over handling of the case? Their question comes from Marcy Wheeler's excellent reporting on new documents disclosed in his case:

According to a suppression motion in his case, however, two days before Aaron was arrested, the Secret Service took over the investigation.

On the morning of January 4, 2011, at approximately 8:00 am, MIT personnel located the netbook being used for the downloads and decided to leave it in place and institute a packet capture of the network traffic to and from the netbook.This was accomplished using the laptop of Dave Newman, MIT Senior Network Engineer, which was connected to the netbook and intercepted the communications coming to and from it.Later that day, beginning at 11:00 am, the Secret Service assumed control of the investigation. [my emphasis]

In fact, in one of the most recent developments in discovery in Aaron’s case, the government belatedly turned over an email showing Secret Service agent Michael Pickett offering to take possession of the hardware seized from Aaron “anytime after it has been processed for prints or whenever you [Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann] feel it is appropriate.” Another newly disclosed document shows the Pickett accompanied the local cops as they moved the hardware they had seized from Aaron around.

Her point is well-taken: According to the Secret Service website, they get involved in computer crime investigations in limited situations, and downloading academic papers from JSTOR fits none of the criteria.

But if you go and look at the testimony of the Secret Service before Congress, you might find the answer there. In April 2011, Special Agent Pablo Martinez testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. The purpose of his testimony was to inform the subcommittee about measures to coordinate and investigate computer crimes which could result in economic loss. Buried in that testimony, there is this:

The Secret Service developed a multifaceted approach to combating cyber crime by: expanding our Electronic Crimes Special Agent Program; expanding our network of Electronic Crimes Task Forces; creating a Cyber Intelligence Section; expanding our presence overseas; forming partnerships with academic institutions focusing on cybersecurity; and working with DHS to establish the National Computer Forensic Institute to train our state and local law enforcement partners in the area of cyber crime. These initiatives led to the opening of 957 criminal cases and the arrest of 1,217 suspects in fiscal year 2010 for cyber crime related violations with a fraud loss of $507.7 million. The arrest of these individuals prevented an additional loss estimated at $7 billion dollars and involved the examination of 867 terabytes of data, which is roughly the equivalent of 867,000 copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica. As a result of these efforts, the Secret Service is recognized worldwide for our investigative and innovative approaches to detecting, investigating and preventing cyber crimes.

Could one of those partners have been MIT? Did the Secret Service and FBI fear that their partnership work in the area of combating computer crime and online fraud would be revealed?

On the question of partnerships, let's have a look at Janet Napolitano's speech at MIT and what she had to say about the government relationship with the university:

MIT, of course, is the source of one of the great national-security collaborations, in the form of the Lincoln Laboratory, which currently works with DHS on several projects. I have seen a good example of an impressive DHS-MIT project, which is called the Imaging System for Immersive Surveillance – or "ISIS." The prototype camera, which is at Boston's Logan Airport, greatly expands our ability to spot suspicious objects and quickly analyze any breaches in security.

Marcy asks whether MIT asked the Secret Service to get involved*. From these two pieces of information, it's unclear whether or not they actually asked, or it was simply routine in cases where there was not just one (perceived) breach on the network, but a persistent effort to breach and download information. Accept for the moment that federal law enforcement agencies make wingnuts' paranoia look mild. In my limited experience, they're paranoid and make presumptions of major guilt over minor things, leaving the accused with the unpleasant task of proving their innocence.

Since MIT is a collaborator on national security via their Lincoln laboratory, I think it's entirely possible that at the point where the feds were brought into the case, they were fearful that JSTOR was simply a dry run for their national security scholarship; hence, the Secret Service involvement.

There are other explanations as well, but they all seem to lead back to some kind of belief that Aaron Swartz was doing more than simply downloading journal articles from JSTOR. In short, I believe they feared he was going to steal and publish "national security secrets." Take this little piece Special Agent Martinez' subcommittee testimony with regard to the Secret Service CERT liason program:

The primary goals of the program are: to broaden the Secret Service's knowledge of software engineering and networked systems security; to expand and strengthen partnerships and relationships with the technical and academic communities; to provide an opportunity to work closely with CERT-SEI and Carnegie Mellon University; and to present the results of this partnership at the quarterly meetings of our ECTFs.

In August 2004, the Secret Service partnered with CERT-SEI to publish the first ever "Insider Threat Study" examining the illicit cyber activity in the banking and finance sector. Due to the overwhelming response to this initial study, the Secret Service and CERT-SEI, in partnership with DHS S&T, are working to update the study. An updated study, expected to be released in late 2011, will analyze actual incidents of insider crimes from inception to prosecution. The research team will share its findings with federal, state, and local law enforcement, private industry, academia and other government agencies.

It's always the damned banks, isn't it? But the point here is that there's clearly academic-government research partnerships, forensic partnerships, and policy partnerships. They want to guard those, and with some good reason.

The problem I see is that Aaron Swartz didn't touch any data from those partnerships, yet from investigator to prosecutor, they treated him as though he were the modern-day Rosenberg spy team rolled up in one really, really smart young guy. Instead of reading what he wrote in the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, where he clearly said that he believed information should be free, and he intended to free it, they leapt to a conclusion and then reached for every fragment they could find to support it. As Marcy points out, the government invoked that manifesto for the very first time in their response to Swartz' Motion to Suppress:

In other words, precisely at the moment the government defended all the searches it did of Swartz, it (for the first time, I believe) introduced a new descriptor (in addition to the adjectives “writer, hacker, and activist”): Swartz wrote the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.

The reference is particularly odd, being introduced (though not elaborated on) in this brief defending the investigative approach used by MIT and then the government. It effectively invokes First Amendment protected speech to justify investigative tactics.

Of course, in the end, no Monday-morning quarterbacking will restore Aaron Swartz. But if it leads us to a place where we might have a real conversation about prosecutorial and investigatory overreach, perhaps it will at least begin to facilitate a long-overdue conversation about why people mistrust government with reason, what safeguards government should implement to protect the rights of citizens, and why we must reject celebrating prosecutors who want to "make examples" of others.

Now that the government has dropped the charges against him posthumously, I am hoping his attorneys will release all of the pleadings and documents related to his case. It's time to have an honest conversation about this notion of "homeland security", who exactly is being protected (besides banks, of course), and how it can come to pass that the full force of the FBI and Secret Service came down on the head of a smart, passionate person who simply wanted to publish academic papers for everyone to access.

*Update: As I was going through the new documents released in the case more carefully, I came across a report of new discovery released by Deputy US Attorney Heymann. It indicates that MIT police were involved in the investigation from day one and remained involved. That tracks with reports that MIT, unlike JSTOR, was not willing to drop the charges against Swartz and actually assisted in the investigation.

What is most heartbreaking, however, is that the US Attorney's office, even after they had all of the facts and knew there had been no breach of national security, would not agree to any sentence that did not include prison time. They had also been warned that Swartz was a suicide risk, and showed no heart at all.

Andy Good, Swartz’s initial lawyer, is ­alternately sad and furious.

“The thing that galls me is that I told Heymann the kid was a suicide risk,” Good told me. “His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”

Good says the hard-line attitude was not unique to his case, but the facts were. People who steal things usually benefit financially from it. Swartz downloaded the material because he believed that such information — in this case, much of it research underwritten by taxpayers — should be free to the public. He did it not to make a buck, but to make a point.

Swartz and his lawyers were not looking for a free pass. They had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.

Marty Weinberg, who took the case over from Good, said he nearly negotiated a plea bargain in which Swartz would not serve any time. He said JSTOR signed off on it, but MIT would not.

“There were subsets of the MIT community who were profoundly in support of Aaron,” Weinberg said. That support did not override institutional interests.

There it is, in black and white. An "almost done deal", except it was MIT who walked away from it. They should be ashamed.

Why Has Obama Pardoned So Few Prisoners?

President Barack Obama during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, January 14, 2013. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times) President Barack Obama during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, January 14, 2013. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times) Six and a half years ago, I drove out to Lompoc federal penitentiary in the hills outside Santa Barbara to interview Weldon Angelos, a young man who had received the improbable sentence of fifty-five years without parole for selling marijuana, ostensibly while carrying a small pistol in an ankle holster. 

A rap artist from Salt Lake City and friend to Napoleon and other eminences of the hip-hop world, Angelos had been ensnared by an informant in a series of undercover marijuana purchases that reeked of entrapment. What might have been a two-bit state pot case became a high-stakes federal case. When Angelos—who denied carrying a gun when dealing—refused to enter a guilty plea, the feds played hardball, piling more indictments onto the original charge. In December 2003, more than a year after he had been arrested, Angelos was found guilty on several counts, though he was acquitted on others. Because of mandatory minimum statutes linked to the firearms charges, the presiding judge—a George W. Bush appointee named Paul Cassell—was left with no discretion at sentencing. After asking the prosecuting and defense attorneys to advise him on the constitutionality of the sentence, a distraught Cassell handed down the fifty-five-year term, a punishment he called “unjust, cruel and even irrational.” In his opinion, he urged then-President Bush to pardon the young father of three and right a clear judicial wrong. 

Angelos was 23 when he was arrested. He was in his mid-20s when I met him. It was such an obvious injustice that I thought the odds were pretty good he’d be out of prison by the time he was 30. Surely one or another president would pardon him or commute his sentence, either reducing it or allowing him to be released on time served.

But today Angelos is in his early 30s and fast approaching his ten-year anniversary behind bars. Bush didn’t pardon him. Neither has President Obama—despite earlier pleas on Angelos’s behalf from several ex-governors, dozens of ex–federal prosecutors and judges, and four US attorneys general; despite growing concerns over mandatory minimum sentences from members of Congress; despite the pledge by onetime Salt Lake City mayor and civil rights lawyer Rocky Anderson to “do anything I can to remedy this unbelievable injustice”; despite The Washington Post and other leading publications urging clemency; despite the fact that, at least rhetorically, the Obama administration has moved away from the sensational, fearmongering tactics of the drug war, and that drug czar Gil Kerlikowske doesn’t even like to talk about a “war on drugs”; despite the fact that in late 2012 Obama said the feds had “bigger fish to fry” than prosecuting marijuana users in states moving toward legalization; despite the fact that one state after another has rolled back its most draconian mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug users and dealers.

“He has a family who deserve to see their father at home with them,” wrote Napoleon (Mutah Beale) in a letter to President Obama urging him to secure Angelos’s release. “But the most important thing is he can be a benefit to the troubled kids as Weldon is a changed man.”

So why hasn’t Obama done the right thing? Could it be that Angelos has just gotten lost in the shuffle? Possibly—but if that’s the reason, there would be evidence that Obama has used his pardon and commutation powers wisely in other cases. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

While in the White House, Bill Clinton pardoned well over 100 people. So did President Bush. To date, Obama has pardoned less than two dozen and commuted even fewer sentences. His first commutation wasn’t until late November 2011, when, according to CBS News, he ordered the release of a woman who had served ten years of a twenty-two-year sentence for cocaine distribution. CBS reported that “the latest numbers from the US Pardon Attorney show that since taking office Obama has denied 872 applications for pardons and 3,104 for commutations of sentence.” A year later, ThinkProgress reported that the only presidential pardon granted in 2012 was for the lucky turkey, as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.

A president who talks the talk about more sensible, nuanced drug policy, and whose oratory frequently invokes what is best in the American political imagination, has shown himself remarkably reluctant to use one of the most important of presidential prerogatives—the power to right judicial wrongs. “This president,” says Anderson, “has been unbelievably timid and disinclined to do justice in cases that scream out for commutation. There’s not a lot of moral or political fortitude in play.”

On January 5, The New York Times ran an editorial calling on the president to exercise his pardon power—while also pointing out that the Justice Department, too, “has undermined the process with huge backlogs and delays, and sometimes views pardons as an affront to federal efforts to fight crime.” The Times also blamed Ronald Rodgers, the lawyer who runs the Office of the Pardon Attorney and has obstructed the process, and argued that his office should be replaced with “a new bipartisan commission under the White House’s aegis, giving it ample resources and real independence.”

In the long run, when it comes to preventing future unjust sentences like the one given Angelos, Congress and state legislatures should be the ones to roll back the excesses of the drug war. And there’s no doubt that Obama, a constitutional law scholar, understands how much more powerful legislation is than the willful, even capricious, pardon function of the president. (After all, Clinton was excoriated for what appeared to be pardons issued in exchange for campaign and other contributions. And Bush was heavily criticized for commuting the prison term of his disgraced adviser Lewis Libby.) But when there’s a massive miscarriage of justice—as has happened all too often during the forty years of the “war on drugs”—the president’s ability to pardon or commute sentences is vital.

How does one tell Weldon Angelos’s kids that their father will not only never walk them to school but that he will never walk their children to school? That if he survives fifty-five years in prison, he might get out just in time to walk his great-grandchildren to school. It’s unconscionable that such a sentence should stand. If Angelos and other drug war prisoners with absurd sentences remain in prison through Obama’s second term, it will be a stain on the president’s legacy.

Liliana Segura recently talked with documentary film maker Rebecca Richman Cohen, in “Why Should Medical Marijuana Providers Die in Prison?” (Nov. 30).

Fair Russia submits parliamentary request to annul ban on US adoptions

Fair Russia MPs Dmitry Gudkov (left) and Ilya Ponomaryov (right), photo by RIA Novosti / Vladimir Fedorenko

Fair Russia MPs Dmitry Gudkov (left) and Ilya Ponomaryov (right), photo by RIA Novosti / Vladimir Fedorenko

Members of the leftist opposition faction Fair Russia have officially asked parliament to cancel the legislative amendment that bans the adoption of Russian orphans by US citizens.

Three Fair Russia MPs submitted the legislative initiative to the State Duma on Tuesday even though on the same day the Lower House’s constitutional committee announced that no action must be taken on a similar petition prepared by the Novaya Gazeta daily and signed by over 100,000 Russian citizens.

Support of over 100,000 people officially obliges the parliament to treat any petition as a legislative initiative, but the head of the Constitutional Committee stated that there was no effective way to verify the signatures that had been submitted via the internet and therefore no further action would be taken.

Fair Russia’s support by-passes the loophole and forces the Lower House to again consider the fourth amendment to the Dima Yakovlev Law that bans all adoptions of Russian children by US citizens as well as the participation of any US organizations in such adoptions. At the same time, any changes to the law are highly unlikely as in late December the State Duma deputies unanimously voted in support of the bill that contained the ban.

We want the State Duma to discuss the issue once again. This bill will definitely influence public opinion. Water wears away the stone, every new petition, every rally and every discussion bring us closer to changes,” one of the authors of the proposal, MP Dmitry Gudkov, said in an interview with Novaya Gazeta.

Fair Russia MPs said that they would suggest the Constitutional Committee consider their proposal at its session on Friday, January 18.

Fair Russia MPs added that they based their legislative proposal on the same petition from Novaya Gazeta. The original document reads that the suggestion to cancel the ban on US adoptions is based on the necessity to protect the orphans’ right for adoption and life in a full-pledged family, regardless of ethnicity and citizenship of the adoptive parents.

The ban on US adoption is a part of the Dima Yakovlev Law – a larger document that imposes sanctions on foreign nationals who are complicit in violations of Human Rights and on US officials who were involved in unlawful actions against Russian citizens.

The amendment on adoptions has already caused a lot of controversy in Russian society. Protests have come from the public, media and even officials, such as the Foreign Minister and Minister of Science and Education. Despite all this, the Dima Yakovlev Law was approved by Parliament, signed by the President and came into force on January 1 this year.

At the same time, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that the Russia-US adoptions agreement will remain in force for another year and those orphans whose adoption procedure had already started still had a chance to join their new families in America. He added that recent opinion polls showed that the majority of Russians supported the ban.

Putin’s spokesman noted that the people who expressed concern over the fate of Russian orphans were absolutely right. But he called upon them to understand that the legislative measures were not limited to a simple ban, but also included a whole package of measures seeking to simplify domestic adoptions and increase the state aid and tax bonuses for the adoptive parents.

Mehdi’s Morning Memo: The Great Political Sulk

The ten things you need to know on Tuesday 15 January 2012..

1) 'THE GREAT POLITICAL SULK'

Last week, the PM and Deputy PM were renewing their vows and extolling the virtues and achievements of their coalition government. Last night, the latter's party blocked a key proposal of the former's party, prompting a Tory peer to denounce the deputy prime minister for his "great political sulk".

From the Daily Mail:

"Angry Tories rounded on Nick Clegg for staging a 'sulk' after Libs Dems last night voted down constituency boundary reform.

"The Government was defeated by 300 votes to 231 in the Lords, where Lib Dem ministers voted against their Tory Coalition partners for the first time. Reforms will now be delayed until 2018.

"Last night Tory peer Lord Dobbs said Lib Dem leader Mr Clegg had staged 'a great political sulk'.

"David Cameron has vowed to equalise constituency sizes, but the Lib Dems are furious over what they see as a betrayal after contentious plans to reform the House of Lords failed."

The Tories desperately need this policy in order to secure around 20 extra seats at the next election and the prime minister is said to be prepared to use the Parliament Act in order to overturn the Lords amendment in a Commons vote later this month. But does he have enough support in the lower house to do so? The SNP has said it now plans to join Labour and the Lib Dems in voting against the boundary changes.

Good luck, Dave!

2) CAMERON'S EUROPE SPEECH, PART 101

Whatever happened to Great British Sovereignty, eh? The prime minister, it seems, doesn't even have the power to decide which day to give a speech on.. er.. repatriating powers..

Due to German objections, it'll now be on Friday, not next Tuesday, explains the Times splash:

"David Cameron will this week light a five-year fuse under Britain’s place in Europe after being forced, under pressure from Germany, to bring forward his long-awaited EU speech.

"..[A]rrangements for his EU speech slid into disarray yesterday when he was forced to change the date because of objections from Angela Merkel.

"The German Chancellor advised Mr Cameron during a telephone call on Sunday night that his preferred date of January 22 would be viewed poorly in Berlin and Paris.

"No 10 planners and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office failed to notice that next Tuesday is the 50th anniversary of the Elysée treaty, a key date in the Franco-German calendar, which is being marked by elaborate commemorations."

Whoops!

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that the UK is in "danger of putting at risk the fight against terrorism and organised crime if the Conservatives win a battle within the coalition to end British involvement in a series of European Union justice measures".

Oh dear. Oh, and Nick Clegg has just been on the Today programme saying the Lib Dem position on a referendum has not changed: "We need to give the British people the reassurance that if there is a new [EU] treaty.. in the future.. then, of course, we should have a referendum at that point." He also said a premature referendum could have a "chilling" effect on the UK economy.

3) NEW YEAR, NEW WAR

The French government has had strong backing from the UN Security Council overnight, for its ongoing attacks on Islamist rebels in Mali, but is urging African Union troops to take over the mission as soon as possible. The Guardian reports on its front page that " an Islamist militant leader warned the French government its intervention in Mali had opened the 'gates of hell'."

Meanwhile, the Independent splashes on a "warning" to Number 10 from the UK military's "top brass":

"Defence chiefs have warned against Britain becoming enmeshed in the mission against Islamists in Mali, pointing out that any action could be drawn-out and require significantly greater resources than have so far been deployed.

"The most senior commanders are due to make their apprehension clear at a meeting of the National Security Council with the Prime Minister today. They have the backing of the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond."

Has the military learned the lessons of Iraq and especially Afghanistan? You'd hope so. Right?

4) MALI: BY NUMBERS

15.8m number of people living in Mali
90 percentage of population which is Muslim
53 average life expectancy
550 number of French troops deployed so far
1960 the year Mali gained independence from France

(via Huffington Post)

5) THE ROYALS' 'NUCLEAR DETERRENT'

Republicans like me are always accused of exaggerating the political and constitutional power of the good ol' monarchy.

Well, check out this astonishing report in today's Guardian:

"The extent of the Queen and Prince Charles's secretive power of veto over new laws has been exposed after Downing Street lost its battle to keep information about its application secret.

"Whitehall papers prepared by Cabinet Office lawyers show that overall at least 39 bills have been subject to the most senior royals' little-known power to consent to or block new laws.

".. In one instance the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member's bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.

".. Charles has been asked to consent to 20 pieces of legislation and this power of veto has been described by constitutional lawyers as a royal 'nuclear deterrent' that may help explain why ministers appear to pay close attention to the views of senior royals."

Out-rageous!

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of the funniest moments from Sunday night's Golden Globes awards ceremony.

6) GOD VS THE COALITION

Have ministers been attacking senior civil servants in recent weeks in order to distract attention from country's economic problems and their own political difficulties? That's the view of GOD - Gus O'Donnell - as reported in the Independent:

"In an unprecedented intervention, the recent Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell accuses ministers of undermining civil service morale by blaming officials for self-inflicted difficulties..

"'There is a correlation between attacking the civil service and a Government's standing in the polls,' Lord O'Donnell told The Independent. 'The fact is that the eurozone crisis has meant the economy has not recovered as fast as everyone would have liked. But that is not the fault of the civil service.' Lord O'Donnell also warned of the dangers of rushing through new policies without sufficient thought.

"'No one could argue that this Government has been prevented (by the civil service) from pursuing radical policies,' he said. 'Just look at health, education and welfare. They are not short of radical policies. The issue is whether they are the right policies.'"

Ouch.

7) LOWER PENSIONS FOR ALL!

As I pointed out in yesterday's Memo, the centre-right papers have been very excited about the government's plans for a new flat-rate stat pension, which would help stay-at-home mums. Today's Independent, citing research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), pours cold water on the policy:

"According to the IFS, 'the main effect in the long run will be to reduce pensions for the vast majority of people, while increasing rights for some particular groups, most notably the self-employed.' It said this verdict applied to people born after about 1970. 'In the long run, the reform will not increase accrual for part-time workers and women who take time out to care for children. In fact, in common with everyone else, these groups would end up with a lower pension.'"

8) CHRISTIANS, UNITE!

From the BBC:

"The European Court of Human Rights is due to deliver a landmark ruling in the cases of four British Christians who claim they suffered religious discrimination at work.

"They include an airline worker stopped from wearing a cross and a registrar who did not want to marry gay people.

"The four insist their right to express their religious beliefs was infringed."

Watch this space. The ruling is expected at around 9am.

9) DEADBEAT NATION

Barack Obama, re-elected and reinvigorated, took the fight over the debt ceiling to the Republicans yesterday, with some pretty strong rhetoric - from the Huffington Post:

"President Barack Obama issued a strong warning to Republicans on Monday that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling or allow Republicans to use it as a bargaining chip.

"'To even entertain the idea of the United States of America not paying our bills is irresponsible. It's absurd,' Obama said in a press conference.

".. If the country failed to meet these obligations, Obama argued, investors around the world would question the credibility of the United States.

"'We are not a deadbeat nation,' Obama said. 'So there's a very simple solution to this: Congress authorizes us to pay our bills.'"

Meanwhile, The Hill reports:

"'I'm a pretty friendly guy. I like a good party,' Obama said during his press conference Monday at the White House. He joked that, 'now that my girls are getting older, they don't want to spend that much time with me anyway, so I'll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with.'"

10) BORIS BEAR

Sorry, what?

From the Times:

"A 12ft sculpture of a polar bear named Boris has been unveiled in Sloane Square to raise awareness of the plight of the species. It was unveiled by the Mayor of London’s father, Stanley Johnson, who is an environmental campaigner."

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 44
Conservatives 31
Lib Dems 11
Ukip 9

That would give Labour a majority of 124.

140 CHARACTERS OR LESS

@TomHarrisMP Thinking of writing an article about how Twitter's increasing unpleasantness and intolerance is making it less relevant.

‏@DAaronovitch I enjoy the incredulity with which Government Nick Clegg reacts to evidence of Opposition Nick Clegg. #bbcr4today

@joshgreenman We are not a deadbeat nation. We are a dubstep nation.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Rachel Sylvester, writing in the Times, warns Cameron not to morph into a "pub bore": "A tough line on Europe and shirkers may be popular, but the Prime Minister has to play the measured statesman."

Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, says: "On the economy, Europe, tax and the NHS, the trajectory is all in favour of Ed Miliband. Now his party can start to dare."

Will Straw, writing in the Daily Telegraph, says: "A referendum would give pro-Europeans the chance to win the case for democratic reform."


Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan ([email protected]) or Ned Simons ([email protected]). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol

Obama Says GOP Won’t Get “Ransom” to Lift Debt Limit

President Obama on Monday warned Republicans against refusing to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, calling such talk “irresponsible” and “absurd” and saying it would set off an economic crisis and financial hardship.

“They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy,” Mr. Obama said during his final news conference of his first term in office. “The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.”

The president repeated his vow to seek what he called a “balanced” approach to reduce the nation’s deficit during the months ahead. But he said he would not negotiate on the debt ceiling, and he said Republicans in Congress would be responsible for the effects of a refusal to raise it.

“It would be a self-inflicted wound on the economy,” Mr. Obama said. “It would slow down our growth and tip us into recession. To even entertain the idea of this happening is irresponsible. It’s absurd.”

He added: “America cannot afford another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up.”

Mr. Obama disclosed that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had already presented him with proposals to combat gun violence and promised to unveil them publicly later this week. He said his package would include a ban on assault weapons and on high-capacity magazines, as well as expanded background checks. But he declined to say how hard he would push for an assault weapons ban, and acknowledged that it and other gun measures might not pass.

“We’re going to have to come up with answers that set politics aside, and that’s what I expect Congress to do,” he said, reiterating his support for gun measures. “Will all of them get through this Congress? I don’t know. But what’s uppermost in my mind is making sure I’m honest with the American people and Congress about what I think will work.”

Mr. Biden said last week that he would present his recommendations to Mr. Obama on Tuesday, so the president’s comments suggested that the timetable had been moved up. He said that the vice president’s working group had “presented me now with a list of sensible common-sense steps,” and that he would meet with Mr. Biden later on Monday. He added that he expected to make a “fuller presentation” later in the week.

Six days before he is to be inaugurated again, Mr. Obama is preparing a brisk agenda for the early days of his second term. In addition to negotiations over the debt limit, Mr. Obama is preparing for a difficult debate over spending cuts and has said he will propose a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.

The president is also seeking approval of a new team to lead his government, having made nominations to replace his secretaries of state, defense and the Treasury. The efforts to reshape his administration — some of which are already proving difficult — are likely to dominate much of the next several weeks.

Mr. Obama defended himself against criticism that his top second-term appointees so far had all been white men, saying his first-term team was “as diverse, if not more diverse, a White House and cabinet as any in history.” He pointed out that over the past four years his secretary of state, homeland security secretary, two Supreme Court justices and top health care advisers were all women.

He urged critics not to “rush to judgment,” because he had made only a few selections so far. “Until you’ve seen what my overall team looks like, it’s premature to assume that somehow we’re going backwards,” he said. “We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward.”

Holding a news conference now suggested that the president was eager to begin pushing his agenda even in advance of his inaugural speech next Monday and his State of the Union speech on Feb. 12.

Mr. Obama on Monday rejected the idea of a “Plan B” that might avoid a clash with Republicans over the debt ceiling. Some ideas that have been floated include minting a $1 trillion platinum coin that could allow the government to spend beyond the debt ceiling.

The president did not directly address the idea of such a coin, but he said: “There are no magic tricks here. There are no loopholes. There are no easy outs.”

Mr. Obama said he understood the “impulse to get around this in a simple way,” but he said that there was no way around the need for Congress to authorize enough debt as is necessary to pay for spending that had already been approved.

“What Congress can’t do is tell me to spend ‘X’ and then say we’re not going to give you the authority to pay the bills,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama seemed to grow somewhat testy at continued questions about his refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling. “We can’t manage our affairs in such a way that we pay our bills and we provide some certainty in the way we pay our bills?” he said with a tone of exasperation. “I don’t think anyone would consider my position unreasonable here.”

Responding to Mr. Obama’s remarks, the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said in a statement: “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time. The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so too are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved.”

He added: “Without meaningful action, the debt will continue to act as an anchor on our economy, costing American jobs and endangering our children’s future. The House will do its job and pass responsible legislation that controls spending, meets our nation’s obligations and keeps the government running, and we will insist that the Democratic majority in Washington do the same.”

On the debt limit, the Treasury has said it must be increased between mid-February and March so the government can continue to borrow to pay its bills, including to foreign creditors, Social Security beneficiaries and myriad others over obligations incurred by presidents and Congresses over the years.

Congressional Republicans have said they will not support an increase without dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. But Mr. Obama vows that he will not be forced into negotiations that put the nation’s credit at risk, as it was in mid-2011, when brinkmanship damaged the economy and led one rating firm to downgrade the nation’s credit rating.

Mr. Obama said he hoped that common sense would prevail in discussions over spending, but added that if Republicans chose to “shut the government down,” the party would be responsible for the consequences.

“If the Republicans in Congress have made a decision that they want to shut down the government in order to get their way, then they have the votes, at least in the House, to do that,” he said.

He said that if that happened, it would be “a mistake” and “short-sighted.”

He said Republicans were driven by a suspicious view of government that led them to want cuts in services that benefited older people and children.

“That view was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign,” he said.

On guns, Mr. Obama pledged to take executive actions, where possible, to reduce gun violence in areas that do not require legislation. He cited better data collection about gun violence by the federal government as one area he might be able to address administratively.

The president blamed gun rights groups for scaring people into thinking that the government was about to take away their guns.

“Even the slightest hint of some sensible, responsible legislation in this area fans this notion that somehow, here it comes, everybody’s guns are going to be taken away,” Mr. Obama said.

He said the increases in gun sales in recent weeks were understandable, given the comments of the gun rights groups. But he said law-abiding gun owners should not be concerned that his administration wants to limit their ability to own weapons.

“They don’t have anything to worry about,” Mr. Obama said. “The issue here is not whether or not we believe in the Second Amendment.”

He added, “It’s a fear that’s fanned by those who are worried about the possibility of any legislation getting out there.”

On immigration, the White House said over the weekend that the president planned to propose a comprehensive bill that would give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. A similar effort failed to advance six years ago despite a push by President George W. Bush.

But White House aides believe that Republicans will be more amenable to that effort now, following the presidential election, in which Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama.

As he wraps up his first term, Mr. Obama also defended himself against the perception that he is insular and has not done more to reach out to members of Congress in less formal ways to build relationships that would help defuse tension over issues like the debt ceiling.

“I’m a pretty friendly guy,” he said. “I like a good party.”

But he noted that holding Congressional picnics at the White House and going golfing with Mr. Boehner had not resulted in a grand bargain over spending and taxes. “We had a great time,” he said. “But that didn’t get a deal done in 2011.”

He added that his daughters were getting older and did not want to spend as much time with him, so perhaps he would have more time for socializing with lawmakers in his second term. “I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house,” he said. But the divisions of recent years are rooted in serious policy differences, he added. “That’ll be true whether I’m the life of the party or a stick in the mud,” he said.

© 2013 The New York Times Company Truthout has licensed this content. It may not be reproduced by any other source and is not covered by our Creative Commons license.

Congo’s M23 conflict: Rebellion or resource war? (Op-Ed)

M23 rebels in DR Congo have threatened to march to the capital and depose the government. UN reports confirm that rebels receive support from key US allies in the region, and Washington's role in the conflict has become difficult to ignore.

Instability, lawlessness and violence are nothing new to those who live in the troubled eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An estimated 6.9 million Congolese have perished since 1996 in a spate of ceaseless military conflicts that have long gripped this severely-overlooked and underreported region. In late November 2012, members of the M23 rebel group invaded and took control of Goma, a strategic provincial capital in North Kivu state with a population of 1 million people, with the declared purpose of marching to the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, to depose the ruling government.

M23's president, Jean Marie Runiga, later agreed to withdraw only if the ruling President Joseph Kabila listened to the group's grievances and adhered to their demands. Rebel leaders have threatened to abandon peace talks unless Kinshasa signs an official ceasefire, a demand the government dismissed as unnecessary.

Kinshasa called on M23 to respect previous agreements to withdraw 20km outside of Goma in a move to prevent the region falling back into war after two decades of conflict, fought largely over the DRC’s vast wealth of copper, cobalt diamonds, gold and coltan.

The United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in DR Congo has come under fire for allowing M23 to take Goma without firing a single shot, despite the presence of 19,000 UN troops in the country. The UN’s Congo mission is its largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation, costing over US$1 billion a year. UN forces recently announced they would introduce the use of surveillance drones over the DRC, in addition to imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on M23 leader Jean-Marie Runiga and Lt. Col. Eric Badege.

A confidential 44-page report issued by a United Nations panel accused the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda of supporting M23 with weapons, ammunition and Rwandan military personnel. Despite both nations denying these accusations, the governments of the United States, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands have publicly suspended military aid and developmental assistance to Rwanda. The governments of both Rwanda and Uganda, led by President Paul Kagame and President Yoweri Museveni respectively, have long been staunch American allies and the recipients of millions in military aid.

M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga (2nd R) arrives to address the media in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)
M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga (2nd R) arrives to address the media in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)

Historical precedent

 The DRC has suffered immensely during its history of foreign plunder and colonial occupation; it maintains the second-lowest GDP per capita despite possessingan estimated $24 trillion in untapped raw minerals deposits.

During the Congo Wars of the 1996 to 2003, the United States provided training and arms to Rwandan and Ugandan militias who later invaded the Congo’s eastern provinces where M23 are currently active. In addition to enriching various Western multinational corporations, the regimes of Kagame in Rwanda and Museveni in Uganda both profited immensely from the plunder of Congolese conflict minerals such as cassiterite, wolframite, coltan (from which niobium and tantalum are derived) and gold; the DRC holds more than 30 per cent of the world's diamond reserves and 80 per cent of the world's coltan.

In 1990, civil war raged between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in neighboring Rwanda; Washington sought to overthrow the 20-year reign of then-President Juvénal Habyarimana (a Hutu) by installing a Tutsi client regime. At the time, prior to the outbreak of the Rwandan civil war, the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), led by the current president, was part of Uganda’s United People's Defense Forces (UPDF).

Kagame, who received training at the US Army Command and Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, invaded Rwanda in 1990 from Uganda under the pretext of liberating the Tutsi population from Hutu subjugation. Kagame’s forces defeated the Hutu government in Kigali and installed himself as head of a minority Tutsi regime in Rwanda, prompting the exodus of 2 million Hutu refugees (many of whom took part in the genocide) to UN-run camps in Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces.

Following Kagame’s consolidation of power in Rwanda, a large invasion force of Rwandan Tutsis arrived in North and South Kivu in 1996 under the pretext of pursuing Hutu militant groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Under the banner of safeguarding Rwandan national security, troops from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi invaded Congo and ripped through Hutu refugee camps, slaughtering thousands of Rwandan and Congolese Hutu civilians, including many women and children.

US Special Forces trained Rwandan and Ugandan troops at Fort Bragg in the United States and supported Congolese rebels, who brought down Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko – they claimed he was giving refuge to the leaders of the genocide.

After deposing Mobutu and seizing control in Kinshasa, a new regime led by Laurent Kabila, father of the current president, was installed. Kabila was quickly regarded as an equally despotic leader, eradicating all opposition to his rule; he turned away from his Rwandan backers and called on Congolese civilians to violently purge the nation of Rwandans, prompting Rwandan forces to regroup in Goma.

Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 at the hands of a member of his security staff, allowing his son, Joseph, to usurp the presidency. The younger Kabila derives his legitimacy from the support of foreign heads of state and the international business community, primarily for his ability to comply with foreign plunder.

During the Congo’s general elections in November 2011, the international community and the UN remained silent regarding the mass irregularities observed by the electoral committee. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has faced frequent allegations of corruption, prompting opposition leader Étienne Tshisikedi, who is currently under house arrest, to call for the UN mission to end its deliberate efforts to maintain the system of international plundering and to appoint someone “less corrupt and more credible” to head UN operations.

MONUSCO has been plagued with frequent cases of peacekeeping troops caught smuggling minerals such as cassiterite and dealing weapons to militia groups. Kabila is seen by many to be self-serving in his weak oversight of the central government in Kinshasa. M23 rebels have demanded the liberation of all political prisoners, including opposition leader Étienne Tshisikedi, and the dissolution of the current electoral commission that was in charge 2011’s elections, widely perceived to be fraudulent.

Displaced civilians from Walikale arrive at Magunga III camp outside of the eastern Congolese city of Goma.(Reuters / Alissa Everett)
Displaced civilians from Walikale arrive at Magunga III camp outside of the eastern Congolese city of Goma.(Reuters / Alissa Everett)

Role of US in Rwanda’s M23 backing

M23, or The March 23 Movement, takes its name from peace accords held on March 23, 2009, which allowed members of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), an earlier incarnation of today’s M23, to integrate into the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and be recognized as an official political party.

The CNDP was an entirely Rwandan creation, and was led by figures such as Bosco Ntaganda. In accordance to the deal reached in 2009, the Congolese government agreed to integrate 6,000 CNDP combatants into the FARDC, giving Ntaganda, a Rwandan Tutsi and former member of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, a senior position in the integrated force.

The current M23 offensive began in April 2012, when around 300 former CNDP personnel led by Ntaganda defected from FARDC, citing poor working conditions and the government's unwillingness to meaningfully implement the 23 March 2009 peace deal.

According to UN reports, Ntaganda controls several mining operations in the region and has derived enormous profits from mineral exploitation in eastern Congo, in addition to gaining large revenues from taxation levied by Rwandan-backed “mining police.” Bosco Ntaganda appears to be assisting Rwanda’s Tutsi government in plundering eastern Congo’s natural resources, which has gone on since Kagame came to power in 1994; M23 is basically paid for with the money from tin, tungsten and tantalum smuggled from Congolese mines.

UN reports detail Rwanda's deep involvement by even naming Rwandan personnel involved; Ntaganda takes direct military orders from Rwandan Chief of Defense Staff General Charles Kayonga, who in turn acts on instructions from Minster of Defense General James Kabarebe. Both Britain and France reportedly found the UN report to be "credible and compelling."

Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, finds herself mired in scandal yet again; Rice has come under fire for suppressing information on Rwanda’s role in the ongoing resource looting and rebellion in eastern Congo. Rice delayed the publication of a UN Group of Experts report detailing Rwandan and Ugandan depredations in Congo, while simultaneously subverting efforts within the State Department to rein in Kagame and Museveni.

Rice, in her role as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in 1997 under the Clinton administration, tacitly approved Rwanda and Uganda’s invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo and was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “…they [Kagame & Museveni] know how to deal with that, the only thing we have to do is look the other way.”

Another article published in the New York Times by Helen Cooper detailed Rice’s business connections to the Rwandan government:

“Ms. Rice has been at the forefront of trying to shield the Rwandan government, and Mr. Kagame in particular, from international censure, even as several United Nations reports have laid the blame for the violence in Congo at Mr. Kagame’s door… Aides to Ms. Rice acknowledge that she is close to Mr. Kagame and that Mr. Kagame’s government was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington… After delaying for weeks the publication of a United Nations report denouncing Rwanda’s support for the M23 and opposing any direct references to Rwanda in United Nations statements and resolutions on the crisis, Ms. Rice intervened to water down a Security Council resolution that strongly condemned the M23 for widespread rape, summary executions and recruitment of child soldiers. The resolution expressed ‘deep concern’ about external actors supporting the M23. But Ms. Rice prevailed in preventing the resolution from explicitly naming Rwanda when it was passed on Nov. 20.”

M23 rebel fighters walk as they withdraw near the town of Sake, some 42 km (26 miles) west of Goma.(Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)
M23 rebel fighters walk as they withdraw near the town of Sake, some 42 km (26 miles) west of Goma.(Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)

Geopolitics of plunder

It must be recognized that Kagame controls a vastly wealthy and mineral-rich area of eastern Congo – an area that has long been integrated into Rwanda’s economy – with total complicity from the United States.

As Washington prepares to escalate its military presence throughout the African continent with AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command, what long-term objectives does Uncle Sam have in the Congo, considered the world’s most resource-rich nation?

Washington is crusading against China's export restrictions on minerals that are crucial components in the production of consumer electronics such as flat-screen televisions, smart phones, laptop batteries, and a host of other products. The US sees these Chinese export policies as a means of Beijing attempting to monopolize the mineral and rare earth market.

In a 2010 white paper entitled Critical Raw Materials for the EU,” the European Commission cites the immediate need for reserve supplies of tantalum, cobalt, niobium, and tungsten among others; the US Department of Energy 2010 white paper Critical Mineral Strategy also acknowledged the strategic importance of these key components.

In 1980, Pentagon documents acknowledged shortages of cobalt, titanium, chromium, tantalum, beryllium, and nickel. The US Congressional Budget Office’s 1982 report Cobalt: Policy Options for a Strategic Mineral notes that cobalt alloys are critical to the aerospace and weapons industries and that 64 per cent of the world’s cobalt reserves lay in the Katanga Copper Belt, running from southeastern Congo into northern Zambia.

Additionally, the sole piece of legislation authored by President Obama during his time as a Senator was SB 2125, the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006. In the legislation, Obama acknowledges Congo as a long-term interest to the United States and further alludes to the threat of Hutu militias as an apparent pretext for continued interference in the region; Section 201(6) of the bill specifically calls for the protection of natural resources in the eastern DRC.

The United States does not like the fact that President Kabila in Kinshasa has become very comfortable with Beijing, and worries that Congo will drift into Chinese economic orbit. Under the current regime in Congo, Chinese commercial activities have significantly increased not only in the mining sector, but also considerably in the telecommunications field.

In 2000, the Chinese ZTE Corporation finalized a $12.6 million deal with the Congolese government to establish the first Sino-Congolese telecommunications company; furthermore, the DRC exported $1.4 billion worth of cobalt between 2007 and 2008. The majority of Congolese raw materials like cobalt, copper ore and a variety of hardwoods are exported to China for further processing and 90 per cent of the processing plants in resource rich southeastern Katanga province are owned by Chinese nationals.

In 2008, a consortium of Chinese companies were granted the rights to mining operations in Katanga in exchange for US$6 billion in infrastructure investments, including the construction of two hospitals, four universities and a hydroelectric power project.

In 2009, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded renegotiation of the deal, arguing that the agreement between China and the DRC violated the foreign debt relief program for so-called HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) nations.

The IMF successfully blocked the deal in May 2009, calling for a more feasibility study of the DRCs mineral concessions. An article published by Shamus Cooke of Workers Action explains:

“This act instantly transformed Kabila from an unreliable friend to an enemy. The US and China have been madly scrambling for Africa’s immense wealth of raw materials, and Kabila’s new alliance with China was too much for the US to bear. Kabila further inflamed his former allies by demanding that the international corporations exploiting the Congo’s precious metals have their super-profit contracts re-negotiated, so that the country might actually receive some benefit from its riches.”

During a diplomatic tour of Africa in 2011, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton herself has irresponsibly insinuated China’s guilt in perpetuating a creeping “new colonialism.” China annually invests an estimated $5.5 billion in Africa, with only 29 per cent of direct investment in the mining sector in 2009 – while more than half was directed toward domestic manufacturing, finance, and construction industries. China has further committed $10 billion in concessional loans to Africa between 2009 and 2012.

As Africa’s largest trading partner, China imports 1.5 million barrels of oil from Africa per day, accounting for approximately 30 per cent of its total imports. Over the past decade, 750,000 Chinese nationals have settled in Africa; China’s deepening economic engagement in Africa and its crucial role in developing the mineral sector, telecommunications industry and much needed infrastructural projects iscreating "deep nervousness" in the West, according to David Shinn, the former US ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.

Too big to fail, or too big to succeed?

In December 2012, Dr J Peter Pham published a bizarre Op-Ed in the New York Times titled, To Save Congo, Let It Fall Apart.” Pham is the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center and is a frequent guest lecturer on the US Army War College, the Joint Special Operations University, and other US Government affiliated educational institutions; he is a Washington insider, and understanding his rationale is important, as his opinion may very well shape US policy in Congo. Pham argues that Congo is an “artificial entity” that is “too big to succeed,” and therefore, the policy direction taken by the US should be one of promoting balkanization:

“Rather than nation-building, what is needed to end Congo’s violence is the opposite: breaking up a chronically failed state into smaller organic units whose members share broad agreement or at least have common interests in personal and community security… If Congo were permitted to break up into smaller entities, the international community could devote its increasingly scarce resources to humanitarian relief and development, rather than trying, as the United Nations Security Council has pledged, to preserve the ‘sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity’ of a fictional state that is of value only to the political elites who have clawed their way to the top in order to plunder Congo’s resources and fund the patronage networks that ensure that they will remain in power.”

What Pham is suggesting is policy to bring out the collapse of the Congolese nation by creating tiny ethno-nationalist entities too small to stand up to multinational corporations. The success of M23 must surely have shaken President Kabila, whose father came to power with the backing of the Ugandan and Rwandan regimes in 1996, employing the same strategies that M23 is using today.

If Kabila wants to stay in power, he needs the capability of exercising authority over the entire country. Sanctions should be imposed on top-level Rwandan and Ugandan officials and all military aid should be withheld; additionally, Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame should be investigated and removed from his position. Kambale Musavuli, of the Washington DC-based NGO, Friends of Congo, has it right when he says:

“People need to be clear who we are fighting in the Congo… We are fighting Western powers, the United States and the United Kingdom, who are arming, training and equipping the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries.”

M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga attend press conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)
M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga attend press conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)

­Nile Bowie for RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The Pentagon as a Global NRA

Given these last weeks, who doesn’t know what an AR-15 is? Who hasn’t seen the mind-boggling stats on the way assault rifles have flooded this country, or tabulations of accumulating Newtown-style mass killings, or noted that there are barely more gas stations nationwide than federally licensed firearms dealers, or heard the renewed debates over the Second Amendment, or been struck by the rapid shifts in public opinion on gun control, or checked out the disputes over how effective an assault-rifle ban was the last time around? Who doesn’t know about the NRA’s suggestion to weaponize schools, or about the price poor neighborhoods may be paying in gun deaths for the present expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment? Who hasn’t seen the legions of stories about how, in the wake of the Newtown slaughter, sales of guns, especially AR-15 assault rifles, have soared, ammunition sales have surged, background checks for future gun purchases have risen sharply, and gun shows have been besieged with customers?

If you haven’t stumbled across figures on gun violence in America or on suicide-by-gun, you’ve been hiding under a rock. If you haven’t heard about Chicago’s soaring and Washington D.C.'s plunging gun-death stats (and that both towns have relatively strict gun laws), where have you been?

Has there, in fact, been any aspect of the weaponization of the United States that, since the Newtown massacre, hasn’t been discussed? Are you the only person in the country, for instance, who doesn’t know that Vice President Joe Biden has been assigned the task of coming up with an administration gun-control agenda before Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term? And can you honestly tell me that you haven’t seen global comparisons of killing rates in countries that have tight gun laws and the U.S., or read at least one discussion about life in countries like Colombia or Guatemala, where armed guards are omnipresent?

After years of mass killings that resulted in next to no national dialogue about the role of guns and how to control them, the subject is back on the American agenda in a significant way and -- by all signs -- isn’t about to leave town anytime soon. The discussion has been so expansive after years in a well-armed wilderness that it’s easy to miss what still isn’t being discussed, and in some sense just how narrow our focus remains.

Think of it this way: the Obama administration is reportedly going to call on Congress to pass a new ban on assault weapons, as well as one on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and to close the loopholes that allow certain gun purchasers to avoid background checks. But Biden has already conceded, at least implicitly, that facing a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a filibuster-prone Senate, the administration’s ability to make much of this happen -- as on so many domestic issues -- is limited.

That will shock few Americans. After all, the most essential fact about the Obama presidency is this: at home, the president is a hamstrung weakling; abroad, in terms of his ability to choose a course of action and -- from drones strikes and special ops raids to cyberwar and other matters -- simply act, he’s closer to Superman. So here’s a question: while the administration is pledging to try to curb the wholesale spread of ever more powerful weaponry at home, what is it doing about the same issue abroad where it has so much more power to pursue the agenda it prefers?

Flooding the World With the Most Advanced Weaponry Money Can Buy

As a start, it’s worth noting that no one ever mentions the domestic gun control debate in the same breath with the dominant role the U.S. plays in what’s called the global arms trade. And yet, the link between the two should be obvious enough.

In the U.S., the National Rifle Association (NRA), an ultra-powerful lobbying group closely allied with weapons-making companies, has a strong grip on Congress -- it gives 288 members of that body its top “A-rating” -- and is in a combative relationship with the White House. Abroad, it’s so much simpler and less contested. Beyond U.S. borders, the reality is: the Pentagon, with the White House in tow, is the functional equivalent of the NRA, and like that organization, it has been working tirelessly in recent years in close alliance with major weapons-makers to ensure that there are ever less controls on the ever more powerful weaponry it wants to see sold abroad.

Between them, the White House and the Pentagon -- with a helping hand from the State Department -- ensure that the U.S. remains by far the leading purveyor of the “right to bear arms” globally. Year in, year out, in countries around the world, they do their best to pave the way (as the NRA does domestically) for the almost unfettered sales of ever more lethal weapons. In fact, the U.S. now has something remarkably close to a monopoly on what’s politely called the “transfer” of weaponry on a global scale. In 1990, as the Cold War was ending, the U.S. had cornered an impressive 37% of the global weapons trade. By 2011, the last year for which we have figures, that percentage had reached a near-monopolistic 78% ($66.3 billion in weapons sales), with the Russians coming in a distant second at 5.6% ($4.8 billion).

Admittedly, that figure was improbably inflated, thanks to the Saudis who decided to spend a pile of their oil money as if there were no tomorrow. In doing so, they created a bonanza year abroad for the major weapons-makers. They sealed deals on $33.4 billion in U.S. arms in 2011, including 84 of Boeing’s F-15 fighter jets and dozens of that company’s Apache attack helicopters as well as Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopters -- and those were just the highest-end items in a striking set of purchases. But if 2011 was a year of break-the-bank arms-deals with the Saudis, 2012 doesn’t look bad either. As it ended, the Pentagon announced that they hadn’t turned off the oil spigot. They agreed to ante up another $4 billion to Boeing for upgrades on their armada of jet fighters and were planning to spend up to $6.7 billion for 20 Lockheed 25 C-130J transport and refueling planes. Some of this weaponry could, of course, be used in any Saudi conflict with Iran (or any other Middle Eastern state), but some could simply ensure future Newtown-like carnage in restive areas of that autocratic, fundamentalist regime’s land or in policing actions in neighboring small states like Bahrain.

And don’t think the Saudis were alone in the region. When it came to U.S. weapons-makers flooding the Middle East with firepower, they were in good company. Among states purchasing (or simply getting) infusions of U.S. arms in recent years were Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Tunisia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen. As Nick Turse has written, “When it comes to the Middle East, the Pentagon acts not as a buyer, but as a broker and shill, clearing the way for its Middle Eastern partners to buy some of the world's most advanced weaponry.”

Typically, for instance, on Christmas Day in 2011, the U.S. signed a deal with the UAE in which, for $3.5 billion, it would receive Lockheed Martin’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense, an advanced antimissile interception system, part of what Reuters termed “an accelerating military buildup of its friends and allies near Iran.” Of course, selling to Arab allies without offering Israel something even better would be out of the question, so in mid-2012 it was announced that Israel would purchase 20 of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, America’s most advanced jet (and weapons boondoggle), still in development, for $2.7 billion.

From tanks to littoral combat ships, it would be easy to go on, but you get the idea. Of course, U.S. weapons-makers in Pentagon-brokered or facilitated deals sell their weaponry and military supplies to countries planet-wide, ranging from Brazil to Singapore to Australia. But it generally seems that the biggest deals and the most advanced weaponry follow in the wake of Washington’s latest crises. In the Middle East at the moment, that would be the ongoing U.S.-Israeli confrontation with Iran, for which Washington has long been building up a massive military presence in the Persian Gulf and on bases in allied countries around that land.

A Second Amendment World, Pentagon-Style

It’s a given that every American foreign policy crisis turns out to be yet another opportunity for the Pentagon to plug U.S. weapons systems into the “needs” of its allies, and for the weapons-makers to deliver. So, from India to South Korea, Singapore to Japan, the Obama administration’s announced 2012 “pivot to” or “rebalancing in” Asia -- an essentially military program focused on containing China -- has proven the latest boon for U.S. weapons sales and weapons-makers.

As Jim Wolf of Reuters recently reported, the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group that includes Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other weapons companies, “said sales agreements with countries in the U.S. Pacific Command's area of activity rose to $13.7 billion in fiscal 2012, up 5.4% from a year before. Such pacts represent orders for future delivery.” As the vice president of that association put it, Washington’s Asian pivot “will result in growing opportunities for our industry to help equip our friends." We’re talking advanced jet fighters, missile systems, and similar major weapons programs, including F-35s, F-16s, Patriot anti-missile batteries, and the like for countries ranging from South Korea to Taiwan and India.

All of this ensures the sharpening of divides between China and its neighbors in the Pacific amid what may become a regional arms race. For the Pentagon, it seems, no weaponry is now off the table for key Asian allies in its incipient anti-China alliance, including advanced drones. The Obama administration is already brokering a $1.2 billon sale of Northrop Grumman's RQ-4 "Global Hawk" spy drones to South Korea. Recently, it has been reported that Japan is preparing to buy the same model as its dispute sharpens with China over a set of islands in the East China Sea. (The Obama administration has also been pushing the idea of selling advanced armed drones to allies like Italy and Turkey, but -- a rare occurrence -- has met resistance from Congressional representatives worrying about other countries pulling a “Washington”: that is, choosing its particular bad guys and sending drone assassins across foreign borders to take them out.)

Here’s the strange thing in the present gun control context: no one -- not pundits, politicians, or reporters -- seems to see the slightest contradiction in an administration that calls for legal limits on advanced weaponry in the U.S. and yet (as rare press reports indicate) is working assiduously to remove barriers to the sale of advanced weaponry overseas. There are, of course, still limits on arms sales abroad, some imposed by Congress, some for obvious reasons. The Pentagon does not broker weapons sales to Iran, North Korea, or Cuba, and it has, for example, been prohibited by Congress from selling them to the military regime in Myanmar. But generally the Obama administration has put effort into further easing the way for major arms sales abroad, while working to rewrite global export rules to make them ever more permeable.

In other words, the Pentagon is the largest federally licensed weapons dealer on the planet and its goal -- one that the NRA might envy -- is to create a world in which the rights of those deemed our allies to bear our (most advanced) armaments “shall not be infringed.” The Pentagon, it seems, is intent on pursuing its own global version of the Second Amendment, not for citizens of the world but for governments, including grim, autocratic states like Saudi Arabia which are perfectly capable of using such weaponry to create Newtowns on an unimaginable scale.

A well regulated militia indeed.

Qualified Mortgages, Loan Credit Standards and Safe Harbors for Securities Fraud

"Default, dear Brutus, is in our stars, not in ourselves……"   

Paraphrase from Julius Caesar Cassius (pronounced "Cash Us")  

The announcement last week of the new “qualified mortgage” regulations by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has generated a largely muted reaction from the industry, banks and non-banks alike.  The smaller specialized lenders and servicers in the world of distressed residential mortgage finance can easily live with the new normative standard. 

Meanwhile, the large banks are exiting the capital intensive portions of the mortgage business stage right under pressure from Basel III and other regulations.  Under B III, mortgage servicing rights above 15% of tangible common equity will require 100% capital weighting.  And yet, when it comes to lending standards and risk, one could argue, that the new QM rule is more permissive than the bad old days of the subprime boom.   And some people do. 

“The Qualified Residential Mortgage rule is meant to discourage "risky" mortgages,” opines our friend and risk manager Nom de Plumber.  “However, if risk is defined as value or cash flow volatility, please note how both real estate and personal incomes are far riskier than their associated mortgages----whose payments are typically static rather than volatile.”   

He continues:  “During this crisis, borrowers generally defaulted not because their mortgage payments skyrocketed unexpectedly, but because their home prices and employment income collapsed.   The best solution for risky home prices and incomes is less mortgage leverage.  Yet, a 43% DTI is the official, post-crash threshold for "safe, affordable" mortgage payments, oddly far above the 30% to 35% DTI underwriting range of pre-bubble days.”  

Once again, notes Nom de Plumber, the regulators are obfuscating.  “The QRM rule is barking up the wrong tree, sidestepping the core, persistent problem of excessive debt to purchase unaffordable homes.”

Ed Pinto at AEI also is critical of the new rule for being too permissive, “CFPB’s new ‘qualified mortgage’ rule: The devil is in the details,”:

“The rule is made pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act’s provision calling for minimum mortgage standards. It is being touted as making sure “prime” loans will be made responsibly. Yet true to the government’s long history of promoting excessive leverage, it sets no minimum down payment, no minimum standard for credit worthiness, and no maximum debt-to-income ratio. Under its tortured definition of “prime”, a borrower can have no down payment, a credit score of 580, and a debt ratio over 50% as long as they are approved by a government-sanctioned underwriting system.”

Pinto is critical of the fact that the CFPB has grandfathered the FHA and GSEs such as Fannie and Freddie for seven years.  He also echoes the criticism of Nom de Plumber by noting that “the CFPB has codified HUD’s view that the way to distinguish a prime loan from a subprime one is by the interest rate charged, not risk.”

Of course one area where regulators, Congress, the White House and others are entirely silent is securities fraud.  With Attorney General Eric Holder busily destroying what remains of the Department of Justice, there is no agency in the US governance apparatus  to address fraud.  The degree of securities fraud seen in the Subprime boom was so large that it did threaten the US economy in a systemic way, thus leading to the bailout.  But the bailout also hid the bad deeds of a number of prominent officials in Washington and on Wall Street.  Just read the first 100 pages of Sheila Bair’s book, “Bull by the Horns.”

"In a nutshell, the "real" point is shockingly simple,” notes one veteran bank attorney.  “We forgot a basic lesson of banking.  There is no such thing as an ‘off balance sheet liability’ of any financial intermediary on which the financial system depends.”

As the crisis hit, he argues, we faced an inevitable need to "recognize as much as $67 trillion of ‘shadow banking’ unreported ‘off balance sheet’ liabilities.  Like a manufacturer that suddenly discovers that it's only product produces cancer and that the damages exceed its net worth, the banking system was flat broke and on course to destroy all the wealth ever accumulated within a year or so.”  

“Absent the outstanding crisis management of Chm. Bernanke and others,” says the long serving securities counsel, “the ‘unreported’ $67 trillion liability represented a 67% ‘hit’ to the world's $100 trillion of ‘market value’ for equities,” thus explaining the stock market crash of 2008-9.  “If we had not taken steps to prevent deflation and drastically reduce the ‘carry’ cost of all debt, we were a mere 33% away from total worldwide bankruptcy and the inevitable WW III that would have followed,” he argues.

“Sheila Bair got the FDIC to end ‘off  balance sheet liabilities’ of US insured banks on Sept. 27, 2011 (assuming bankers are unwilling to stoop to outright thefts that insiders are obligated to report under 18 USC Sec. 4).  If her position holds up, we should be past this problem and on a path to ultimate recovery in another year or so.”

Maybe, but the battle in Washington over restraints on securities fraud rages on.  From the moment America’s leaders decided to dismantle depression era control of banking (the "level playing field commission" correctly made that a bi-partisan goal in 1969) we began experimenting with "how" and discovering problems that needed solution for the economy to function.  From then on, the power of unanticipated consequences led us to the doom we faced in 2008 and the economic gloom we now suffer.

For example, it soon became clear to the likes of Bill Isaac (GOP) and Paul Volcker (Dem) that de-regulated banks needed capital requirements or the FDIC’s insurance fund would be decimated.  They discovered, however, that one area of finance, funding trade receivables for manufacturing, was both essential and functioning very well without capital backing, because the depression era lenders created a system based on the Scottish reserve model that was self-correcting.  

That observation led Isaac, Volcker and his successor ( Alan Greenspan) to "bless" the notion that a "few very strong banks" should be allowed to do this "risk-free" form of lending in "conduits" that would not be included for capital purposes.  That, of course, soon blossomed into the entire $67 trillion "shadow banking" industry.

When those "shadow" liabilities came due in 2006-8, recognition of the hidden liability (backed by assets which had no discernible value at the time) destroyed the net worth of just about everyone.  As one of the largest hedge fund managers in the world said to me in 2008, “for a few months we were all broke.”

The illusion that conduits would only be used for low risk lending only lasted through for a few years in the 1980s.  The expansion of “off balance sheet liabilities” beyond funding of "risk free" trade receivables a few “trusted banks," along with the emergence of the private RMBS market, forced FASB to consider when receivables were "sold."  In 1982 it decided that the issue was whether the seller "purported" to sell the receivables (reliance on legal "form," ignoring such obvious issues as "recourse" that converts a "sale" into an "equitable mortgage").  

FDIC, thinking that standard was phony, "opted out" of FASB’s rule and relied on "regulatory accounting" to allow only the "big safe bank conduits" and other "safe" off balance sheet deals it "liked."  The S&L crisis proved "regulatory accounting" was a calamity.  FSLIC's blessing of special rules to hide losses led, in the Winstar case, to the US having to cover the phony capital FSLIC created using regulatory accounting.

FASB in the early 1990s studied its "purport to be a sale" test and correctly decided it was phony.  It adopted "legal isolation" (which recognizes that US law converts fraudulent transfers into secured debts--whereby money paid in exchange for assets a bank wants to hide from capital requirements must be repaid when the "seller's" receiver recovers assets fraudulently transferred).  Effective January 1, 1997, FDIC accepted FASB's legal isolation rule, dumping “regulatory accounting” on this issue.

The next "OOPS" soon emerged.  ABS/MBS lawyers for banks had lobbied FASB for a looser "isolation" standard for banks by absurdly telling FASB that "trustees" in Bankruptcy (Article 1 "administrative" officers) have more power than FDIC as a bank "receiver" (appointed with Article III "judicial" power--giving receivers truly awesome authority).  FASB fell for the lie.  As a result, FASB's first "legal isolation" test was believed to be easier on banks than on others. 

In this instance the permissive tendency of Washington in the FASB rule making combined with the bank lawyers’ mistaken reading of receivership law to create an impossible situation.  FASB falsely assumed receivers have less power, but it turned out that FDIC could overturn literally ALL pre-receivership deals.  The banks' lawyers had, in fact, negotiated a standard which allowed for NO financial asset “sales” by banks.  

An accounting profession committee posed that very problem to FASB and FDIC and asked if "no sales" was what FDIC wanted.  That's resulted in FDIC’s adoption of a "safe harbor" rule for bank asset “sales” that ignored fraudulent transfer laws (which convert transfers for the purpose of leaving a selling bank with inadequate capital into secured borrowings).

It is that rule which Sheila Bair dumped in September 2011, in favor of a rule that finally “levels the playing field,” giving banks the exact power of non-banks--an ability to "sell" assets when the transaction is not done as a fraudulent transfer.

Lawyers that built careers writing the fraudulent transfer arrangements by which banks stripped themselves of assets and generated a large part of the $67 trillion “shadow banking” empire that imploded in 2007-8 are understandably “shocked.”  Unless they can find a new loophole, they will be required to opine on fraudulent transfer law in the same manner as has applied to non-bank lawyers since 1997.  Absent conformance with those laws, future transfers designed to retain “tail” risk while reducing the capital needed to protect FDIC against “tail” loss will be accounted for as secured borrowings—eliminating a major cause of the crisis.

Like the “tax shelter” salesmen of the early 1980s (who found their business depleted when Congress decided to stop that trade), lawyers whose business it was to generate the $67 trillion “shadow banking” empire undoubtedly feel deprived of valuable “rights.”  Their problem, however, is shockingly simple.  It is a “fraudulent transfer” to transfer assets with intent to leave the transferor with inadequate capital.   This has been Anglo-American law since at least the 14th Century.  It is the foundation on which free-enterprise capitalism builds the leverage that permits accelerated growth for new value-added concepts. 

All state laws reflect this standard.  Thus every bank “sale” done for the purpose of reducing regulatory capital is, by definition, fraud – a form of bank theft. 

Only government can waive theft, as long as FDIC affirmatively "waived" the right to challenge these frauds, attorneys could not be required to opine that the transactions complied.  When FDIC stopped waiving this type of fraud in September of 2011, "misprision of felonies" (18 USC Sec. 4) mandates that attorneys disclose these matters to authorities.  Conversely, this may also mean that banks can't be prosecuted for transfers before made FDIC changed course in September 2011. 

Will bank lawyers win a debate by saying "since we clearly cannot be caught having to reveal our clients' thefts, the accountants need to change their rules so we don't need to tell them when theft is occurring"?  Stay tuned. 

www.rcwhalen.com

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We Are All Aaron Swartz! Fighting Back Against the “Intellectual Property” Racket

Aaron Swartz’ passing becomes even more tragic if we do not recognize what he spent his life fighting for, and realize that no matter where we think we stand on the issue of Internet freedom, the interests driving the debate from Wall Street and Washington, do not have any of our best interests in mind.

In your standard dictatorship, activists are brought out back and shot.

In the United States’ crypto-dictatorship, activists are bullied by the state until they go bankrupt, are buried under a mountain of legal woes, are publicly discredited or humiliated, or as in the case of activist and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, made to crack under the constant pressure, and commit suicide.

While superficially the United States may seem more progressive, a dead activist bullied to death for his political views, is a dead activist – whether it was a bullet in the back of the head by SS officers, or a mountain of litigation dumped upon someone by the US Department of Justice.

We are All Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz protesting SOPA (image right)

Swartz was an active opponent of the media industry’s various assaults on Internet freedom and sharing, including the scandalous SOPA/PIPA and ACTA bills. He was the director of Demand Progress, which pursued the following campaigns:

The big business lobbyists who are behind the Internet Blacklist Bill are already making the sequel. The “Ten Strikes” bill would make it a felony to stream copyrighted content — like music in the background of a Youtube video, movies and TV shows — more than ten times.

Click here to read the text of the bill and voice your opposition.

2. Oppose Protect-IP We knew that members of Congress and their business allies were gearing up to pass a revised Internet Blacklist Bill — which more than 325,000 Demand Progress members helped block last winter — but we never expected it to be this atrocious. Last year’s bill has been renamed the “PROTECT IP” Act and it is far worse than its predecessor.

The new PROTECT-IP Act retains the censorship components from COICA, but adds a new one: It bans people from having serious conversations about the blacklisted sites. Under the new bill, anyone “referring or linking” to a blacklisted site is prohibited from doing so and can be served with a blacklist order forcing them to stop.

3. Bin Laden Is Dead. Will The Patriot Act Live On?The Patriot Act was enacted as a supposedly temporary measure in the wake of 9-11. With Bin Laden’s passing, the era of the Patriot Act, of spying on Americans who aren’t suspected of crimes, of heavy-handed abuse of our dearly held civil liberties, must come to an end.We need to act now to make sure we win this fight. Tens of thousands of Demand Progress members have already urged Congress to fix the Patriot Act. Will you ask Congress and the President to return us to the legal norms that existed before 9-11 and start respecting our civil liberties?
4. Tell Facebook: Stop Censoring Political SpeechA range of Facebook users, from political dissidents to technology bloggers, are reporting the sudden blocking of their pages. Facebook provided no prior warning, nor was there a clear process established to restore access to the blocked pages.

Will you fight back?

5. Tell The DOJ: Investigate Goldman Sachs

Investigators discovered that Goldman traders bragged about selling “shitty” deals to clients and the mega-bank bet against the same financial products it was selling to investors. And they’ve lied about it all the way to the bank.

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and small-time homeowners are in jail for mortgage fraud, but no CEOs have been prosecuted for their roles in the financial crisis. It’s time to change that.

6. Tell Your Lawmakers: Shut Down The New Debtors’ Prisons

Americans are in more debt than ever before, and the banks are going to new extremes to squeeze us for every last penny: If you can’t pay up, they’ll try to get you locked up.

7. Could the Government Really Shut Down Facebook?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are out of control. They’ve been seizing domain names without due process: they shut down 84,000 sites by accident last month, arrested a man for linking to other websites, and government officials think ICE and DHS are claiming powers that would even threaten sites like Facebook.

8. Fight Internet ‘Kill Switch’

Are our leaders better than Egypt’s? Across the globe, governments know that the Internet is increasingly the lifeblood of democracy — that’s why Egypt’s oppressive regime just shut down the Internet there.

But even as American politicians condemn Egypt for doing so, they’re pushing legislation to give our government the power to do the exact same thing here at home! The so-called ‘Kill Switch’ would let the president turn off our Internet — without a court even having to approve the decision.

Join over 40,000 in fighting it. Add your name!

9. Let the PATRIOT Act Expire

The most noxious parts of the USA PATRIOT Act are about to expire — but Congress wants to extend them again. These provisions let the government spy on people without naming them in a warrant, and secretly access your library and bank records under a gag order prohibiting anyone from letting you know.

Join over 60,000 in opposing extension. Add your name!

10. No Mandatory Internet IDs!

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke just announced that he’s developing virtual ID cards for Internet users — and they could pose a severe threat to our privacy! The program’s called the “National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace” and the draft proposal indicates that we’d be forced to use the IDs for any online transactions with the government, and for online interactions with businesses that use them.

Over 30,000 have told Gary Locke to back off. Add your name!

11. Protect Whistleblowers at Big Banks

Crimes committed by the big banks helped crash our economy — and WikiLeaks is saying that a whistle-blower has sent them enough evidence to take down Bank of America. So now the big banks are fighting back by trying to get the government to muzzle future whistle-blowers.

Tell the SEC not to listen to them. Add your name!

12. Don’t Let them Outlaw WikiLeaks!

Politicians are leading the charge to outlaw WikiLeaks and undermine freedom of the press. First Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) successfully pressured Amazon.com to stop hosting the WikiLeaks website and now, as Julian Assange has been arrested in the UK, he’s introduced a new bill changing the law to make WikiLeaks illegal.

More than 30,000 have signed our petition to stop him. Add your name!

13. Stop the TSA’s Nude Scanners!

Across the country, TSA is replacing airport metal detectors with scanners that take nude photos of you — violating your rights, zapping you with X-rays that could cause cancer, and slowing down the lines. And if you opt-out, they feel up your “sensitive regions.”

Lawmakers in New Jersey and Idaho are trying to stop them. Let’s get a similar bill introduced in every state! Contact your lawmaker!

14. Stop the Internet Blacklist!

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are out of control. They’ve been seizing domain names without due process: they shut down 84,000 sites by accident last month, arrested a man for linking to other websites, and government officials think ICE and DHS are claiming powers that would even threaten sites like Facebook.

Over 300,000 signers! Add your name!

PLUS: Download our new flyer for our Stop The Internet Blacklist campaign and start a grassroots movement in your area!

Clearly, Demand Progress is not just another faux-NGO working in tandem with special interests under the guise of “human rights,” “freedom,” and “democracy” to peddle further exploitation and expansion of the powers that be – but rather identified these special interests by name, and exposed both their agenda and the means by which they attempt to achieve it. Swartz’ death is a tragic one, and compounded by the dismissive, almost celebratory atmosphere across the corporate-media of the passing of a man they labeled a suspected criminal.

Swartz was targeted by the US Department of Justice, MIT, and their corporate-financier sponsors because he was a prominent and particularly effective voice against real creeping oppression. He was a pragmatic, technical individual and proposed solutions that short-circuited the typical and ineffectual political infighting that drives most disingenuous or misguided causes.We all stand the potential of being targeted like Swartz if we allow these monopolies to continue dictating the destiny of human progress. We are all Aaron Swartz – and must realize his targeting and subsequent suicide is the manifestation of the real danger these insidious monopolies pose to us.

Sharing is Not a Crime.

Technologically empowered openness and generosity across the corporate-financier dominated Western World is no more a real offense than was being Jewish inside Nazi Germany. But like Nazi Germany, anything can be “outlawed” if it suits political and economic special interest. Are we truly “criminals” for not respecting laws born of special interests, detached from the will and best interests of the people? No, we most certainly aren’t.

Swartz allegedly downloaded scholarly files from an open and unsecured academic archive (and here). The original files are still very much intact and at the disposal of the organization that maintains the archives. Nothing was stolen, yet Swartz was accused of “theft,” facing 30 years in prison and a 1 million dollar fine – this in a nation where rapists and murders can spend less time in prison, and elected representatives involved in willfully selling wars based on patently false pretenses walk free without even the faintest prospect of facing justice.

Swartz’ crusade against the corporate-financier interests attempting to monopolize and control communication and technology is surely why he was targeted by the federal government, academia, and their corporate-financier sponsors. It is no different than an activist being brought out back of a kangaroo court in a third-world dictatorship, and shot. The silence from so-called “human rights” advocates over the treatment, and now death of Aaron Swartz is deafening – exposing them yet again as another cog in the machine.

It is time to fight back – and time to fight back without the help of these disingenuous NGOs and their purposefully futile tactics of solely protesting and petitioning. Pragmatic, technical solutions must also be explored and deployed at the grassroots to shatter these corporate-financier monopolies at the very source of their power – that is – our daily patronage and dependence on their goods and services.

The Plan.

An alternative to the networks, media, services, and even hardware must be devised and deployed across our local communities. Laws born of special interests and flying in the face of the people’s best interests must be exposed, condemned, and entirely ignored. Taking away a human being’s freedom because they copied and shared a file is unconscionable – as unconscionable as imprisoning a human being because of their political, religious, or racial background. We would ignore laws imposed upon our society singling out blacks or Jews, but not laws criminalizing sharing solely for the benefit of corporate special interests?

In December 2012′s “Decentralizing Telecom,” a plan for establishing a second Internet, locally built and maintained, and connected with neighboring networks to run parallel to the existing Internet – but be free of large telecom monopolies – was proposed.

Also published in December of 2012, was “Sharing is Not a Crime: A Battle Plan to Fight Back,” which illustrated the importance of shifting entirely away from proprietary business models and instead, both using and producing open source hardware, software, news, and entertainment.

Establishing local, and eventually national and even international parallel networks is possible, but will take time. Turning toward open source software can begin today, with a visit to OSalt.com and exploring alternatives that are already being used by millions today.

A bridge between where we are now and a truly free Internet made by the people, for the people, and entirely maintained in a decentralized, local manner, is what are called “Pirate Boxes.” David Darts, an artist, designer, and coder, describes a Pirate Box as:

PirateBox is a self-contained mobile communication and file sharing device. Simply turn it on to transform any space into a free and open communications and file sharing network.

Share (and chat!) Freely Inspired by pirate radio and the free culture movements, PirateBox utilizes Free, Libre and Open Source software (FLOSS) to create mobile wireless communications and file sharing networks where users can anonymously chat and share images, video, audio, documents, and other digital content.

Private and Secure PirateBox is designed to be private and secure. No logins are required and no user data is logged. Users remain completely anonymous – the system is purposely not connected to the Internet in order to subvert tracking and preserve user privacy.

Easy to Use Using the PirateBox is easy. Simply turn it on and transform any space into a free communication and file sharing network. Users within range of the device can join the PirateBox open wireless network from any wifi-enabled device and begin chatting and sharing files immediately.

Under David’s FAQ’s regarding Pirate Boxes, a particularly useful question is answered:

Can I make my own PirateBox?

Absolutely! The PirateBox is registered under the GNU GPLv3. You can run it on an existing device or can be built as a stand-alone device for as little as US$35. For detailed instructions, visit the PirateBox DIY page.

For the media-industry to stop the spread of local hardware solutions like Pirate Boxes, they would have to literally be in every single community, inside every single person’s house, to prevent people from taking legally purchased or freely available media, and sharing it – akin to publishers policing the entire population to prevent readers from lending their friends and family their copy of a particular book.

The basic principles and experience one gets from building and using a Pirate Box can allow them to tackle larger mesh networks and eventually, decentralize telecom. By encouraging local meetings where PirateBoxes are used, the foundation for new local organizations and institutions can be laid.

New Paradigms Require New Institutions – Join or Start a Hackerspace

Not everyone possesses the knowledge and skills necessary to create local networks or develop alternatives to the goods and services we currently depend on corporate-financier monopolies for. Even those that do, cannot, by themselves, effectively research, develop, and deploy such alternatives. By pooling our resources together in common spaces called “hackerspaces,” we can. Hackerspaces are not just for technically talented individuals, but a place where anyone with the inclination to learn can come and participate.

Hackerspaces can be organized under a wide range of templates – including clubs where dues are paid, spaces that earn income through providing courses or services to the community, and many others. It will be in hackerspaces, and local institutions like them, that a truly people-driven paradigm shift takes place – one of pragmatism and progress, not endlessly broken political promises from elected officials.

People can visit Hackerspaces.org to see the closest organization near them where they can join in. Conversely, for those who either don’t have a hackerspace nearby to join, or simply want to start their own, see, “How to Start a Hackerspace,” for more information on where to begin.

Finally…

Aaron Swartz’ passing becomes even more tragic if we do not recognize what he spent his life fighting for, and realize that no matter where we think we stand on the issue of Internet freedom, the interests driving the debate from Wall Street and Washington, do not have any of our best interests in mind.

We are all Aaron Swartz – to reclaim the battle cry abused so flagrantly by the West’s faux-democratic “awakening” in the Arab World and beyond. And we must all become active opponents of this agenda to usurp our ability to determine our own destiny. Aaron Swartz was an exceptional proponent of Internet freedom and openness – but by all of us joining the ranks of this cause, we exponentially complicate the system’s ability to target and destroy any one of us. If your cause is just, and your means constructive and pragmatic, there isn’t just “safety” in numbers, there is invincibility.

Hawaii: 120 Years of US Occupation: Militarism and “America’s Pacific Century”

hawaii

Many tourists from the US and around the world visit Hawaii for its beautiful islands and its beaches covered with white sand. It is known for its food and traditional luau celebrations, its native people and its culture. When you vacation in Hawaii it offers surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, hiking and many other activities. It has been the 50th State of the United States since August 21st, 1959. Since statehood, tourism has been the main industry followed by Education, Government and the Military. However, Hawaii was a country whose government of Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown more than 120 years ago on January 17th, 1893, when Hawaii was actually known as the Kingdom of Hawaii. It is a part of history that needs to be told.

Hawaii has experienced a transformation of its culture and politics into a Western-style democracy that has seen a steady decline in the indigenous Hawaiian population. In a US Census Bureau of 2011 reported that native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders accounted for only 10.1% of the total population.

Hawaii has also experienced a militarization of its country since President William McKinley; a veteran of the American Civil War expanded the US military on Hawaii with several bases. Military expansion continued under President Theodore Roosevelt. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 the US military expanded its power and declared Martial Law until October 24th, 1944. Since then Hawaii has been turned into a major strategic location for the US military. Since January 1st, 1947, the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) was established after World War II with its headquarters based in Aiea, a small Hawaiian town on the island of Oahu, near the community of Halawa Heights. The story of Hawaii is tragic and the world needs to know exactly what happened to the sovereignty of this nation. It is not just an island where you can have an adventurous vacations, because the truth is that Hawaii was systematically stolen from its native population by an imperial power, one that it was setting its horizons towards the rest of the world, but this time through the Pacific Ocean.

Before the American Occupation

The Kingdom of Hawaii had been an independent Chiefdom since 1810 with smaller independent chiefdoms of O’ahu, Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i, Kaua’i and Ni’ihau that were unified by the chiefdom of Hawaii under King Kamehameha I or “Kamehameha the Great”. Hawaii had its own culture and political systems for at least 2,000 years before the unification of Hawaii in 1810. There were two families who ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii, the House of Kamahameha who ruled from 1810-1872 and the Kalakaua Dynasty from 1873-1893.

King Kamehameha I

King Kamehameha I

Kamehameha I ruled from 1810 until 1819, the year he died. His son King Kamehameha II was his successor and ruled Hawaii from May 8, 1819 until July 1824 the day he died of measles in London.Then King Kamehameha III, the second son of Kamehameha I, was the successor to the throne. The Hawaiian Kingdom was governed independently until 1838. It was based upon a system of common law, which included the ancient kapu (taboo) and the traditions of the Chiefs. King Kamehameha III initiated and influenced the Declaration of Rights and signed it on June 7, 1839. It was the first step into a modern democracy, one that did not follow the ancient ways of life that the people of Hawaii were accustomed to. It offered protections to all classes of people, Government, Chiefs and Native tenants.

King Kamehameha II

King Kamehameha II (right)

The Declaration of Rights opening statement read as follows:“God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the earth,” in unity and blessedness. God has also bestowed certain rights alike on all men and all chiefs, and all people of all lands. These are some of the rights which He has given alike to every man and every chief of correct deportment; life, limb, liberty, freedom from oppression; the earnings of his hands and the productions of his mind, not however to those who act in violation of the laws”. On October 8, 1840, King Kamehameha III voluntarily relinquished his powers and created a constitution that recognized three divisions of a civilized monarchy that included the King as the Chief Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. The King represented the Government class, the House of Nobles represented the Chiefly class and the House of Representatives represented the Tenant class (Native Hawaiians). The Hawaiian Government’s function was to protect the rights that were already established by the 1839 Declaration of Rights. King Kamehameha III introduced Hawaii’s first constitution as a constitutional monarchal system modeled after the Declaration of Independence of the United States. The Constitution defined the duties of each branch of government through laws stated that protected the rights and maintained the duties with respect for better relations between all three classes of people.

King Kamehameha III

King Kamehameha III

The new constitution encouraged the development of the country with industry and commerce. The Constitution granted land tenure which protected the rights of landowners as to promote the cultivation of soil modeled after feudalism in Medieval Europe where tenants were allowed to occupy lands in exchange for their service or labor. However, such arrangements under the revised constitution did not require a vassal-style service by both the Chiefly and Tenant classes to the King as in medieval times.By 1843, King Kamehameha III sent delegations to the United States and Europe to settle differences and negotiate treaties for recognition of Hawaii’s Independence. That same year, the success of the delegations meetings with the US and Europe acknowledged Hawaii’s call for their recognition as an independent nation. Many nations recognized Hawaii’s claim of sovereignty by 1843 and signed on to numerous Treaties and Conventions over the years including Denmark (1846), Great Britain (1851), Sweden and Norway (1852), France (1857), Belgium (1862), Netherlands (1862), Italy and Spain (1863), Russia (1869), Japan (1871), Austria-Hungary (1875), Hamburg and Bremen (now Germany in 1879), Portugal (1882) and many others. Ironically, the United States which recognized Hawaii’s claim to sovereignty and signed numerous treaties and conventions in 1849, 1870, 1875, 1883 and 1884.On December 15, 1854 King Kamehameha III had died, his successor, King Kamehameha IV born Alexander ʻIolani Liholiho Keawenui was assumed office of the Constitutional Monarch. He died of chronic asthma on November 30, 1863. Lot Kapuaiwa, a former Premier became King Kamehameha V under constitutional law of 1852. He was the architect behind the 1864 Constitution or the ‘Kamehameha Constitution’ that did not relinquish more power to the Monarch, because the power of the Monarch it once had, was now limited.

King Kamehameha IV

King Kamehameha IV (right)

It was also law that the Monarch had to take an oath of office to serve the people. The new constitution also removed the office of the Kuhina Nui (Premier) because it interfered with the duties of the Minister of Interior. On December 11, 1872, King Kamehameha V died. He did not name a successor to the throne. On January 8, 1873, William Charles Lunalilo of the Kalakaua Dynasty was elected successor to King Kamehameha V. One year later on February 3rd, 1874, King Lunalilo died without naming a successor. The Hawaiian Legislature then elected David Kalakaua on February 12th, 1874 in a special session. His first act was to nominate and confirm his younger brother, William P. Leleiohoku, as successor, but on April 10, 1877, William P. Leleiohoku had died. King David Kalakaua publicly announced Lydia Kamaka’eha Dominis to be his successor who was later called Queen Lili’uokalani. By 1887, turmoil erupted when the Bayonet Constitution was imposed on Hawaii by a small group of American, European and Hawaiian nationals called the “Honolulu Rifles” which had more than 1,500 armed men. They had a meeting and planned to take away the political rights from the native population. They threatened King David Kalakaua with death if he did not accept their demands. One of the demands was for a new Cabinet Council, so on July 7, 1887 the new “Bayonet Constitution” was forced upon the King by the newly imposed members of his cabinet.

King Kamehameha V

King Kamehameha V

However, the Legislative Assembly had been adjourned since October 16, 1886 making the new constitution illegal because it did not obtain the consent or the necessary ratification of the Legislative Assembly. The new constitution forced voters including foreign nationals (who were considered aliens and first time voters) to swear an oath to support the constitution before they could vote in any election. The “Honolulu Rifles” used the vote to disenfranchise the majority vote of the native Hawaiian population so that “White” foreign nationals can gain control of the Legislature and it also provided a loophole that benefited the self-imposed Cabinet Council to control the Monarchy. Hui Kalai’aina or the Hawaiian Political Party was an organization that protested against the constitution of 1887. Hui Kalai’aina consistently petitioned King David Kalakaua to bring back the legitimate 1864 constitution.

The Overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani

Queen Lili'uokalani

Queen Lili’uokalani

The Annexation of Hawaii was a result of a planned Coup d’état by a group of Christian Missionaries who came from Boston, Massachusetts called the Committee of Safety, a 13-member group of the Hawaiian League or ironically known as the Annexation Club composed of American, Hawaiian, and European citizens who were also members of the Missionary Party. The Coup also involved American and European residents who supported the Reform Party of the Hawaiian Kingdom.On January 16, Charles B. Wilson a Marshal of the Kingdom was told that a planned coup was taking place by Hawaiian detectives. Wilson requested warrants to arrest members of the Committee of Safety and called for martial law. But the members were politically connected to United States Government Minister John L. Stevens so the requests were denied by Attorney General Arthur P. Peterson and members of the Queen’s cabinet to avoid any violence if they issued the arrest warrants.The planned Coup was led by Lorrin A. Thurston, a grandson of American missionaries and future President of the Provisional Government of Hawaii, Sanford B. Dole. He was supported by American and European business interests that were living in Hawaii. Thurston was also supported by the Reform Party of the Hawaiian Kingdom who registered voters and delivered voter turnouts for political candidates in their favor. After Wilson tried to negotiate with Thurston which failed, he began a mobilization of armed men for a confrontation with the Committee of Safety with Captain Samuel Nowlein of the Royal Household Guard and accumulated a force of about 496 men to protect the Queen.

Lorrin A. Thurston

Lorrin A. Thurston

The Coup began on January 17, 1893 when a local police officer was shot and wounded trying to stop a wagon carrying weapons to the Honolulu Rifles. The Committee of Safety organized the Honolulu Rifles to position themselves at Ali’olani Hale, right across the street from Iolani Palace (the Queen’s residence) and waited for her response to the Coup.The overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani took place on January 17, 1893. The Committee of Safetyremoved the queen, overthrew the entire monarchy, and led the charge for Hawaii’s annexation to the United States. What prompted the actions undertaken to overthrow the Queen? Three days prior to the Coup, which was on January 14, 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani drafted a new constitution that carried the principles and the laws of the Constitution of 1864. During the Coup, the Committee of Safety was concerned that American citizens could have possibly been in danger of retaliation from the Native population, so the United States government Minister John L. Stevens called for US Marines and sailors from the USS Boston to protect the Consulate, Arion Hall and the US Legation. The Queen was deposed and the Kingdom of Hawaii was under the control of the US military.

Sanford B. Dole

Sanford B. Dole

U. S. Marines and sailors who were ordered to land in Hawaii at the conspirators request contributed to the success of the coup. Queen Lili’uokalani was placed under house arrest at the Iolani Palace. It led to the formation of the Republic of Hawaii for a short time. In order to avoid bloodshed Queen Lili’uokalani temporarily relinquished her throne and issued the following statement to the United States Government:

I, Liliuokalani, by the grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional Government of and for this Kingdom. That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose minister plenipotentiary, His Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu and declared that he would support the said Provisional Government.Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do, under this protest and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo (?) the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.

Done at Honolulu, this 17th day of January, A. D. 1893.

A provisional government was established and assumed power until the annexation of Hawaii took place with the United States. On February 1, 1893, the US Minister (ambassador) John L. Stevens proclaimed Hawaii a protectorate of the United States. A treaty of annexation was submitted to the United States Senate, on February 15, 1893 but the newly elected U.S. President Grover Cleveland, withdrew the treaty of annexation and appointed former Democratic congressman from Georgia, James H. Blount, as Special Commissioner to investigate the illegal intervention by U.S. diplomatic and military personnel on behest of the business elites. Although Blount did not interview any of the conspirators for the report, he concluded that the United States legation and the US Marines and Navy were responsible for the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani’s government as an illegal act that violated international laws.

On November 16, 1893, President Cleveland proposed to return Queen Lili’uokalani to the throne if she granted amnesty t