Because We Let Them

04/01/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, January 4, 2015. Years ago I worked as a Research Director (I even had to wear a suit) for a fading corporate- and City Hall-captive urban non-profit social services and civil rights agency.  The organization’s wealthy and long-term CEO was notorious for drunkenness and other forms of dissipation (including frequent agency-funded trips to elite social gatherings like the Kentucky Derby and the Masters Golf Tournament) related to its decline.

One day in my office I asked a colleague at the organization why our chief executive behaved in the selfish and irresponsible ways he did.  My colleague responded with a question: “Dr. Street, why does a dog lick its balls?”

I confessed I didn’t know. The answer: “Because it can.”

My colleague’s point was that nobody with any power was telling our CEO he couldn’t get away with it.  He was being rewarded again and again, from year to year, with an outrageously high salary, an agency limousine, and positions on various corporate boards.

Thinking of that exchange the other day, I was reminded of something that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his fellow Virginian, the American solider and statesman Edward Carrington from Paris in the late 1780s.  “If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs,” Jefferson wrote, “you and I and Congress and Assemblies, Judges, Governor, shall all become wolves.”

Flash back to the 21st century and ask yourself: why does the United States’ astonishingly wealthy economic elite – so flush that the 400 richest Americans possess among themselves as much wealth as the bottom 150 million US residents – suck yet more and more money, net worth, and plutocratic power into its hands?  Ten years ago, the late brilliant iconoclastic US comedian and ranter George Carlin told audiences that “The real owners” of America “are the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget about the politicians….You have owners,” Carlin continued:

“They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They’ve got the judges in their back pockets. And they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you hear. They’ve got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else.”

“But I’ll tell you what they don’t want.  They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking….They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.”

“You know what they want? Obedient workers  people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And, now, they’re coming for your Social Security. They want your fucking retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place.”

Why does “the 1%” – Carlin’s “owners” of America (and of Americans) – function as the socioeconomic and sociopolitical equivalent of a pack of endlessly hungry and avaricious wolves, consigning millions of its “fellow Americans” to poverty, joblessness, and insecurity and destroying livable ecology (and hence the prospects for a decent future) all because they “want more for themselves?”

If you want my attempt at a full answer to that question, you’ll have to buy or borrow my latest book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2014).  I go into significant depth on the historical specifics and interrelated processes of US wealth concentration, corporate globalization, financialization, deindustrialization, state capitalism, and the various modes and mechanisms of ruling class domination (of politics, media, education and more) in the neoliberal era.

My short answer to the question: because they can.  They can for a lot of sometimes complex reasons (see my book’s fifth and longest chapter, titled “How They Rule: The Many Modes of Moneyed Class Power”) but above all perhaps because we let them and we let them because many of us – including many who occupy relatively safe and comfortable positions with considerable resources to help spark resistance – have for all intents and purposes given up on radical-democratic change. Again and again, I am struck by the pervasiveness, particularly among “educated” people (with college degrees and more), of the idea that there is no serious or viable popular resistance or alternative to the avaricious class rule of the wealthy few and their sociopathic capitalist system. The judgment comes down again and again in one form or another from academics and other professionals: the power of the wealthy wolves is just too deeply entrenched and the populace is too stupid and/or powerless to meaningfully rise up against the rich and powerful. The futility I have long heard expressed by professors, teachers, researchers, lawyers, journalists and other relatively privileged intellectual workers – many of them self-described “progressives” with no love for the rich and the profits system – is widespread.

Look again at the Carlin rant I quoted above.  Thousands of relatively well-off audience members roared their approval when he said “They own you….they’ve got you by the balls….… They want your fucking retirement money…And they’ll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place.” Uproarious laughter filled concert halls as Carlin told people they were chattel whose “owners” won’t even leave them a pittance un which to retire.

Talk about surrender. The comedy tour in which Carlin made this statement was titled “Life is Worth Losing.”  And so it, perhaps, when you are a slave, which is what you are when you are “owned.”
I realize that Carlin’s tour took place a decade ago, in the wake of the openly plutocratic messianic militarist George W. Bush’s nauseating re-election. But the dark pessimistic surrender seems no less routine among liberal and other professionals in the Age of Obama – a period that has given us yet another great lesson on how nothing really changes all that much because a Democrat (even a purportedly charismatic and “progressive” first black president marketed as the near messianic agent of “change”) sits in the White House.

Carlin might have added something to his tirade about how the masters want workers smart enough to run the machines and do the paper work but not smart enough to engage in critical thinking. The comedian could have noted that the rich also want critical thinkers who are pessimistic and defeated enough to give up on fighting concentrated wealth and power – people who are smart enough to understand the evil of the system but are also too depressed, distracted, divided, and/or demobilized to do anything about it, including engaging with the supposedly “obedient workers” and helping them struggle against the “owner” class.

“We live,” the British health researchers and equality advocates Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett noted five years ago, “in a pessimistic period.”  It is no small problem.  The mantra that “there is no alternative” to the arrogant and avaricious rule of the wealthy few is the seductive  mental slavery of our time, a reflexive cognitive and emotional habit of capitulation to the supposedly God-like power of what might be called Capital Privilege.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that guarantees “because they can” with “because we can’t.”

An urgent task is to expose this “futile fatalism” (Mike Albert’s phrase) as a weapon of the rich and as profoundly stupid. It is deeply foolish because we are not in fact slaves (we have far more freedom to organize and resist than we seem to appreciate); because history past and present is rife with examples of popular resistance, rebellion, and revolution; and (above all) because futile fatalism is itself a force that pushes the balance of power yet further in the favor of the masters. Perhaps we have only a 20 percent, or worse, a 1 percent chance of success, of creating a better and democratic and sustainable nation and world no longer occupied by the “unelected [and eco-cidal] dictatorship of money.” Failure to believe in the worthiness of collective struggle for a decent and democratic future beyond that plutocratic occupation takes our odds down to zero.

“We are moving right now,” Mario Savio said in 1994, “in a direction which one could call creeping barbarism.  We have to be prepared, on the basis of our moral insight, to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.”  It’s not about certainty of outcomes or prediction.  Democracy and the struggle for a decent society is not a financial derivative – a bet on the future.  It is an existential imperative.  We lose nothing by believing.  We lose everything by not believing – quite literally everything give current environmental projections, which suggest that “we are really facing for the first time in human history the prospects of something like species destruction” (Noam Chomsky, reflecting four years ago on homo sapiens’ potential liquidation of its own species along with countless others through the global warming that results from excessive carbon emissions). As the radical philosopher Istvan Meszaros noted in early 2001, “Many of the problems we have to confront – from chronic structural unemployment to major political/military conflicts…as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere – required concerted action in the very near future…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”  Mass concerted action against the owners is a duty, not a probability (slim or high).  The stakes could hardly be higher.  It’s not about the crystal ball.

Paul Street is a writer and activist in Iowa City, Iowa

Worthy and Unworthy Victims From Vietnam and Iraq to Ferguson and New York

31/12/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, December 30, 2014 One of the more chilling accomplishments of “mainstream” United States (US) media and politics culture is the way it paints the US “homeland” and its agents of imperial “force projection” as the real and worthy victims of global violence – not the vast swath of anonymous and unworthy victims that Uncle Sam has murdered and maimed across the planet.

Before sporting events across the US, millions are regularly expected to leap to honor US military veterans for “heroic sacrifice” on behalf of “freedom.”  Nothing is ever said about the many millions of people the US military and its proxies have slaughtered and mutilated around the world.

Vietnam All About US

Look at the so-called Vietnam War – a curious term for a one-sided imperial assault on a poor peasant nation and region by the greatest military power in history. It led to the premature deaths of 5 million people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and the massive destruction of Southeast Asian ecosystems and infrastructure.  The US dead were a small portion of the Indochinese death toll.  The “Vietnam tragedy” included no military engagements on US soil.

These vast disparities of pain and damage do not remotely register in the dominant US political and media culture.  The official memory of “the Vietnam War” is about what a traumatic and tragic event it was for the United States.   The officially worthy victims are all United States-of Americans. According to a favorite right-wing myth, the victims included soldiers who were “spat upon” by ungrateful antiwar protestors upon return from Vietnam. The reigning narrative says nothing about what happened to the Indochinese, attacked in the most savage ways imaginable by the most fearsome global killing machine in history.

“In the Streets of Fallujah”

Similar moral blindness plagues the official US take on the US invasion of Iraq (“Operation Iraqi Freedom”). Listen to the following statement from the “antiwar” presidential candidate Barack Obama in a late 2006 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, offered in support of his false claim that most US citizens backed the invasion:  “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved.  They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah.”

Obama made a remarkable, spine-chilling selection of locales to illustrate US sacrifice. In April and November of 2004, Fallujah, Iraq was the site of colossal U.S. war atrocities, crimes including the indiscriminate murder of civilians, the targeting of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city by the US Marines. By one account:

“The U.S. launched two bursts of ferocious assault on the city, in April and November of 2004… [using] devastating firepower from a distance which minimizes U.S. casualties. In April….military commanders claimed to have precisely targeted…insurgent forces, yet the local hospitals reported that many or most of the casualties were civilians, often women, children, and the elderly…[reflecting an] intention to kill civilians generally…. In November…aerial assault destroyed the only hospital in insurgent territory to ensure that this time no one would be able to document civilian casualties. US forces then went through the city, virtually destroying it. Afterwards, Fallujah looked like the city of Grozny in Chechnya after Putin’s Russian troops had razed it to the ground” (Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire New York, 2005, emphasis added).

The use by US forces of radioactive ordnance (depleted uranium) helped create an epidemic of infant mortality, birth defects, leukemia, and cancer in Fallujah.

The Iraq death count from the “Battles of Fallujah” ran well into the thousands.  By contrast, roughly 60 US military personnel perished. During the first “battle,” alone, a handful of US Marines “Scout Snipers” averaged 31 “kills” apiece.

“Trying to Put Iraq Back Together”

Less than two years after he hailed the US “heroes” who died “in the streets of Fallujah,” Obama told voters that “It’s time [for the US] to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together.”  Yes, that’s what the US was doing during Washington’s monumentally criminal and brazenly imperial occupation pf Mesopotamia: “trying to put Iraq back together.”  Oh sacrifice!

Fallujah was just one episode in a broader incursion that killed at least 1 million Iraqi civilians and left Iraq “a disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory” (Tom Engelhardt). “The American occupation,” distinguished journalist Nir Rosen noted in late 2007, “has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century.”

“A Price Worth Paying”

The US habit of seeing itself as victim can become surreal. In 1996, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright told CBS News’ Leslie Stahl on national television that the death of half a million Iraqi children due to U.S.-imposed economic sanctions was a “price…worth paying.”  But what “price” did Albright and other US policymakers pay, exactly? Wearing the thorny crown of knowing they had liquidated 500,000 innocent children in pursuit of some perverted notion of the greater good? As Albright explained three years later, “the United States is good…We try to do our best everywhere,” policing a chaotic world that needs our superior vision and firm hand. Yes, it takes moral strength to snuff out the lives of a medium-sized city’s worth of juveniles in the advance of a better world!

Individual sociopaths are notorious for trying to make others, often including their own victims, feel sorry for them. Sociopathic institutional complexes like the US military Empire exhibit the same behavior on a grander and more deadly scale.

A Five Year Old v. Hulk Hogan

Oppressors’ weakness for seeing themselves as the real victims is evident in domestic “homeland” policing as well. Five weeks after he killed the 18-year old unarmed Black man Mike Brown with a flurry of bullets last August, the white Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson spoke to a St. Louis County Grand Jury on what happened after he rolled up on Brown behind the wheel of a well-equipped police cruiser. When he first tried to interdict Brown, Wilson said, he “felt like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan” – this despite the fact that Wilson was armed and six foot four inches tall, compared to Brown’s unarmed six foot-three. Brown struck Wilson as “like a demon,” a “bigger and stronger” attacker who might have killed him with a punch. Wilson was the real victim, traumatized by fear and later struck by “remorse” over the shooting.

“Open Season on Us”

Recently many in the New York Police Department union have claimed victimhood amidst mass protests over police killings of unarmed Black men (including the NYPD chokehold murder of Eric Garner) and after the hideous double murder of two NYPD officers – Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu – by a lone psychotic.  An e-mail widely circulated around the NYPD after the killings called for officers to avoid normal law enforcement actions “unless absolutely necessary …These are precautions,” the e-mail explained, “that were taken in the 1970s when police officers were ambushed and executed on a regular basis. We have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ Police Department…We will act accordingly.”

“It’s f–king open season on us right now,” one of New York City’s finest told The New York Post.

But, as Ed Krayewski notes on Reason.com, “If the words ‘wartime’ and ‘open season’ are used after two cops are killed in more than 3 years, what word[s] should black people in New York City use? Eric Garner and Akai Gurley are not the only two killed by the NYPD this year, just the most prominent cases.”

By one estimate, a Black American is killed by a (usually) white police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante (almost always by a police officer) once every 28 hours.  By contrast, 40 cops lost their lives by gunfire and just 27 police officers were killed with criminal intent in all 2013 – a year that saw the smallest amount of police deaths in the US since World War II. (There was, if anyone cares, no campaign of regular ambushes and executions waged against the NYPD during the 1970s.)

As with the right-wing narrative about Vietnam veterans, the police and their supporters have included ungrateful “homeland” protestors among those who have victimized the virtuous gendarmes. The NYPD union, many police, and right-wing politicos like former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New York Governor George Pataki have tied the killings of Ramos and Liu to the supposedly anti-police and pro-crime protests and the alleged anti-police and pro-crime liberalism of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Obama administration.

Seeking to pacify this anger on the “law and order” right, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Democratic governor, used his speaking time at last Saturday’s Ramos and Liu funeral to say that he’d seen “people hurling insults” directly in the face of police officers during recent protests over the epidemic of police killing civilians and the repeated exoneration of killer cops “With the beating law enforcement has taken all over the country,” a retired NYPD officer, the funeral was “a way for everyone to show respect.”

The massive Ramos and Liu funeral was the greatest outpouring of support for the nation’s ever more militarized urban police forces since after the Boston metropolitan lockdown and manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhart and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in April of 2013.

A Rare Occurrence v. an Almost Daily Event

In his effort to mollify the police, de Blasio called for civil rights activists to “put aside protests, put aside all of the things we will talk about in due time.” It was a remarkable statement, richly emblematic of mainstream US media-politics culture’s double-standard distinction between worthy and unworthy victims in domestic police-state violence. “After all,” the Montreal writer Andrew Gavin Marshall notes, “hundreds of unarmed black Americans are murdered by police every year, and now, people have had enough, taking to the streets to protest. Yet, when two cops are killed, the mayor calls for the protests to end out of… ‘respect’ for the police. Clearly, murdered black Americans are not given the same type of respect…That should speak volumes.”

The Ramos and Liu killings have created a strong sense of vindication for those who tell us to respect the police because of the “dangerous jobs” they heroically took “to protect us.” In reality, as Marshall notes, policing doesn’t even crack the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of the ten most dangerous jobs in the country. Garbage collectors, farmers, and fisherman experience greater occupational hazards.  According to the Washington Post last October, “policing has been getting safer for 20 years…You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.”

Last Saturday, a charity foundation executive went on CNN to announce that his charitable organization was raising $800,000 for the Liu and Ramos families.  Large contributions have gone to the murdered officers’ families from wealthy elites like Giuliani and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.  Nothing remotely close has been set up for the families of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner or for other survivors of the many hundreds of fatal police shootings that occur in the US each year.

As one Internet correspondent from Brooklyn told me: “Murder of cops by a psychopath is a rare occurrence; murder of a black man (usually a man) by a cop happens almost every day. There shouldn’t just be a fund for ‘Garner and Gurley,’ there should be a foundation for all the victims with an endowment!”

But, as police officers and agents of state power, Liu and Ramos are – like dead and injured US soldiers – officially worthy victims. Like the anonymous civilians killed by our “heroes” in Vietnam and Iraq, Black and poor civilians like Gardner and Gurley are not.  It’s as simple as that.

Paul Street is the author of numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, October 2014).

A Tale of Two Protests

31/12/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, 12/21/2014. What a difference nine days can make in the life and death of a social movement.  On the evening of Tuesday, November 25th, 2014, a racially diverse crowd of more than 200 mostly young adults met in the University of Iowa’s scenic Pentacrest to protest the terrible but unsurprising decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for shooting an unarmed 18 year old Black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, last August.  After some group chanting and brief speeches by two local Black activists, the crowd took to the streets of downtown Iowa City, chanting “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” and “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” There followed a rally outside City Hall and a return to the streets, where something like a public assembly was held. Participants included numerous poor and working class Black people from the impoverished and segregated Black neighborhood on “liberal” Iowa City’s southeast side. It was an exhilarating outburst of popular self-activity with a strong multi-racial and egalitarian feel about it.

Nine days later, in the wake of the grand jury verdict that exonerated a white New York City cop who killed a Black man with an illegal chokehold, a similarly sized crowd gathered in the Pentacrest for what turned out to be a very different event.  The chants were much the same (with “I can’t breathe” added in) but the two organizers of the earlier protest were no longer running the show. The Black speakers at the December 4th rally were university-based and middle class, brandishing academic discourse and related zero-sum bourgeois-identity politics. Whites were admonished to keep their voices down since white privilege prevented them from meaningfully grasping the issues involved. So much for an older white working class lady who yelled “Down with the prison-industrial complex!”

The leaders asked people in the crowd to assemble in the middle of the protest circle if they were young Black males, then if they were Black females, and then again if they were members of the gay and lesbian community.

“This is about race, NOT class,” a Black female student instructed the crowd, obliterating the key distinction between herself and the mostly poor and working class Blacks who most typically face police brutality. I was reminded of a speaker at the earlier rally – a Black female professor who seemed to think she faced the same level of vulnerability to racially discriminate arrest, incarceration, and police violence as that experienced by young Black and lower and working class Blake males like Mike Brown. She was wrong about that: “the New Jim Crow” (law professor Michelle Alexander’s term for the US racially disparate mass incarceration and felony marking) takes special aim at poor and working class Black Americans.

If this is all about “race and not class,” I thought to myself, then why are we meeting on the distinctly white and upper middle class terrain of the university rather than on the impoverished Black Southeast Side where Iowa City police and cops most commonly tangle?

One young and nicely dressed white lady did speak briefly – to tell whites not “to lead the rally.”  It struck me as an odd admonition since (beyond the Caucasian woman who dared to loudly connect the protest to mass incarceration) the many dozens of whites I could see were engaged in respectful following and accompaniment.  None showed a failure to understand that this particular issue and rally required Black leadership.  When I asked the young lady privately if her comment was really necessary, she told me that “I don’t have time to educate you about the white male power structure.”

I wanted to ask her to look at one of the whites she had told to keep it down – a disabled 50-something white guy sitting with his cane and trying to catch his breath.  He works 40-50 hours a week for minimal wages in a university parking booth.  Was he really too privileged by his race (and/or his gender) to speak out meaningfully and sincerely against race-class injustice?

The gathering ended after a tall, charismatic Black male student told whites what they could do: go talk to other whites about their need to shed their white privilege. There was no march in the streets.  No popular assembly.  No mock die in.  No further discussion.  Nothing about next stages and solutions.  Nothing about how black and white might unite and fight to overcome injustice. The message was clear: “thank you for your support, go home now and talk amongst yourselves.”

A white left working class and genuinely anti-racist activist tried to attend a follow-up meeting against racist policing in Iowa City.  He was informed that the gathering was only for those connected to “the African Diaspora” – academic code for Black. It’s the “race NOT class” thing, consistent with academic “whiteness” and “critical race” theory.

Lest anyone be fooled into thinking there’s anything radical about such theorizing and language, the local “movement” is pursuing $100,000 in taxpayer money for police “diversity training.” Think Urban League, not Malcolm X. It’s about putting some politically correct icing on the cake of how local authorities police contemporary US race-class apartheid and inequality. There’s nothing about what they police: deeply embedded racial and intimately related class injustice in New Gilded Age America.

Don’t get me wrong: white and male privilege exist. But, as great Black thinkers and activists like WEB DuBois, Oliver Cox, CLR James and Martin Luther King, Jr. knew, white privilege and racism more broadly in the United States cannot be meaningfully understood outside the context and history of capitalism, Empire, class oppression, and the rich record of ruling class racial-ethnic divide-and-rule that runs back to the origins of the nation. The good struggle is not about race over or above class, it’s about fighting racism and classism together alongside other unjust power and oppression structures like sexism, imperialism, and ecocidal anthropocentrism.

Iowa City author Paul Street’s many books include Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (Routledge, 2005), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

The Narrow Media Spectrum on US-Cuban Relations

28/12/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, December 24, 2014. The narrow ideological parameters of so-called mainstream media [1] in the United States might make a Soviet state censor blush. Look, for example, at what passes for independent “fourth estate” coverage and commentary on US President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.  Across the painfully limited “left” to right spectrum of dominant US media, one finds three false and doctrinally embedded assumptions, each mandating deletion of basic realities that don’t fit the reigning narrative of Uncle Sam as a great democratic, benevolent, and humanitarian force in the world (a fairy tale widely rejected beyond the US).

Because It Didn’t Work
The first such assumption is that the only thing wrong with US policy towards Cuba over the last five-plus decades is that it “didn’t work” – that is, that it didn’t succeed in pushing Fidel Castro and other leaders and heirs of the socialist Cuban Revolution out of power. The deletions required to support this argument are voluminous.  They include US direction, sponsorship and protection of “countless terrorist activities against Cuba and anyone who advocated normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba” (Marjorie Cohn), leading to the deaths of thousands and once bringing the world to the edge of nuclear obliteration; countless assassination attempts against Castro; a scandalous and deadly economic embargo that has long evoked richly deserved global ridicule; and the US “military occupation of Southeastern Cuba for over a century, including its major port, despite requests by the government since independence to return what was stolen at gunpoint – a policy justified only by the fanatic commitment to block Cuba’s economic development” (Noam Chomsky).

Punishing “the Castro Idea”
The second doctrinal assumption holds that these US policies sprung from Washington’s noble and democratic intentions. Nothing could be further from the truth.  A rich documentary record shows that Uncle’s Sam’s half-century campaign to isolate Cuba and block its development was driven by the same basic imperial goal that drove US policymakers to murderously assault Indochina in the 1960s: to contain the “virus” of popular and national self-determination in the Third World periphery, which US planners expected to function as neocolonial complements to the rich industrialized state-capitalist nations led by Washington.  The US terror campaign and the embargo were meant to severely punish an island nation that had dared to turn against the commands of its self-appointed Yankee imperial and capitalist masters, even enlisting Uncle Sam’s Cold War rival in its self-protection.  If the Cubans could so humiliate Washington just 90 miles off US shores, US planners reasoned, then other Latin American and other Third World nations and people would be inspired to reject US supervision and pursue development outside the imperial framework. The danger was neatly described by an elite report on Latin America that President Elect John F. Kennedy commissioned before taking office in early 1961: “the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands.”  The autonomous and relatedly socialist experiment in the Caribbean (supposed to be a “big American lake” in the minds of US planners) had to be isolated and crushed.

Means, Not Ends
The third doctrinal assumption is that the goals behind Obama’s move to normalize diplomatic relations and ease the embargo are noble, democratic, and humanitarian.  This, too, is childish. As Dr. Binoy Kampmark recently noted on Counterpunch, “For all the rage directed at the recent Cuban-US thaw” by US right wing Republicans, “the advocates on either side of the aisle follow a constant in US policy: the transformation of Cuba and a return to the sylvan idyll of a US presence.”  As Kampmark observes, “The old story about transforming states in the image of Washington’s preferred policy remains. The disagreement has been over means, not ends.”  The methods may be changing but the core underlying goal of undermining Cuba’s autonomy and the Cuba example – the dangerously contagious desire of “developing world” people and nations to “take matters in their own hands” (as US Founders did in their own way in 1776) – lives on. “The latest efforts involved the activities of the USAID agency in April to create a social media program designed to foment unrest in Cuba and efforts to implement ‘ZunZuneo,’ a text messaging network directed at Cuban youths.”  As Kampmark notes, “Freedom of press, speech, and association, a full opening of the internet, are the usual mantras of US-driven policy that constitute these violations of sovereignty.”

Also writing in Counterpunch, Paul Craig Roberts, a former Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury, rightly mocks US liberal and Cuban celebration of the new thaw in US-Cuban relations:

“Normalization of relations with Cuba is not the result of a diplomatic breakthrough or a change of heart on the part of Washington.  Normalization is a result of US corporations seeking profit opportunities in Cuba, such as developing broadband Internet markets in Cuba….Before the American left and the Cuban government find happiness in the normalization, they should consider that with normalization comes American money and a US Embassy.  The American money will take over the Cuban economy.  The embassy will be a home for CIA operatives to subvert the Cuban government.  The embassy will provide a base from which the US can establish NGOs whose gullible members can be called to street protest at the right time, as in Kiev, and the embassy will make it possible for Washington to groom a new set of political leaders…In short, normalization of relations means regime change in Cuba. Soon Cuba will be another of Washington’s vassal states… American money is now going to defeat Castro’s life work. And if the money doesn’t do it, the CIA will.  The agency has long been waiting to avenge the Bay of Pigs, and normalization of relations brings the opportunity.”

One might question the hyperbolic tone of Roberts’ commentary and his lockstep assumption that Cuban socialism will collapse before Washington’s designs, but Roberts has no doubt accurately captured the persistent imperial intention behind “normalization” in the neoliberal era. (Meanwhile, Washington sees old means as useful when it comes to punishing Venezuela for the sin of successful defiance and autonomous populist development outside and against the Empire. The Obama administration has recently signed legislation that freezes assets and revokes travel visas belonging to Venezuelan officials –  this on the trumped up charge that they violated the human rights of right-wing protestors who engaged in US-funded protestors seeking to create de-stabilization leading to the overthrow of Venezuela’s  socialist government last spring.)

Deleting Cuba’s Accomplishments
It is telling that the US “mainstream” coverage and commentary follows US politicians and policymakers in making sure not to mention any of Cuba’s remarkable social policy accomplishments. Cuba joins Argentina and Chile as the only to Latin American states placed in the top tier of the United Nations’ Human Development Index – a reflection of Cuba’s progressive commitment to literacy, welfare, and universal health care.  “While US citizens continue to perish before the medical bill,” Dr. Kampmark notes, “Cubans, for all their local problems, do not have the same issues of access. Literacy levels remain stable and high.”  Cuba has also made great strides in the development of ecological sustainability.  Cuba exports doctors to West Africa and the rest of the desperately impoverished developing world (where mass poverty is sustained and expanded by US economic and military policies).  All this and more despite the half-century US terror and isolation campaign.  None of merits acknowledgement in US “mainstream” media.

“An Almost Paradise”
A final doctrinal deletion in that media’s coverage and commentary on US-Cuban relations merits mention. Nothing serious, substantive, and honest can be said beyond the margins in dominant US media or politics about why Cuba broke off from US management in 1959.  The FOX News Rubio Right goes unchallenged, historically speaking, when it preposterously claims that that Fidel Castro’s revolution “turned an almost-paradise into a floating prison.”

Mid-20th Century Cuba was a desperately impoverished island scarred by savage economic inequality, military dictatorship, and related scourges of racism, disease, and illiteracy all reinforced by US control in service to great US business interests. The Batista era (1952-1959) witnessed the nearly total domination of the Cuban economy by US corporations and the related political domination of the island by Washington.  Pre-revolutionary Cuba was also a great haven for US organized crime.  It was “an almost-paradise” chiefly for US business elites and mobsters, who exploited its abundant natural resources and cheap labor while enjoying Havana’s world-class gambling casinos, nightclubs, and brothels. For Cuba, moving forward on the “Castro idea of taking matters into one own hands” meant expelling elite and corrupting US business interests and appropriating (nationalizing) much of the vast property holdings and other assets the Yankee dispossessors had swallowed up over more than half a century of US domination.

None of that can receive meaningful attention or acknowledgement from dominant US media, consistent with Orwell’s dictum in Nineteen Eight Four: “Those who control the past control the future.  Those who control the present control the past.”

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Freedom and Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Endnote

1. It’s not for nothing that I say “so-called mainstream media” when talking about dominant corporate media outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, “P”BS, and CNN, etc. During the Cold War era, US officials and media never called the Soviet Union’s state television and radio or its main newspapers Pravda and Izvestia Russia’s “mainstream media.” I see no reason why we should consider US corporate media outlets any more “mainstream” than Pravda or Izvestia when they are just as dedicated as the onetime Soviet outlets to advancing the doctrinal perspectives of their host nation’s reigning elite—and far more effective.

Sorry, Mr. President: 2+2=4

27/12/14 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, December 27,  2014

Among the privileges of power are the rights to violate elementary sense, distort the facts of history, and engage in rank hypocrisy without the slightest hint of shame.  Call it a free pass to tell the world that 2 + 2 = 5.

Take the comments of United States President Barack Obama on why there will be no further federal inquiries or federal prosecutions in the wake of the release of the 500-page summary of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,700 page report on the global torture program conducted by the CIA during the presidency of George W. Bush.  In his first official remarks after the release, Obama explained that “no nation is perfect.”  Still, Obama claimed, “one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes, and do better.”

Thanks to this glorious “American Exceptionalism,” the president continued, the only thing needed for the nation to move forward was the release of the summary. “Rather than [being] another reason to refight old arguments,” Obama added, “today’s report” (summary, actually) – a document whose release the White House resisted – “can help us leave these techniques where they belong – in the past.”

Maybe Obama should have used Orwell’s phrase:  “down the memory hole.”

It was hard not to almost admire the president’s Orwellian chutzpah.

Imperfect Techniques

To be clear, Obama’s phrase “these techniques” refers to a systematic campaign of unimaginable horror conducted by the US and some of its allies around the world and financed by a giant US budget for nearly a decade.  The sometimes fatal “techniques” ranged from sleep deprivation, mock executions, multiple water-boardings (near-drownings), punching, kicking, forced nakedness, sexual humiliation, rape, blinding, electrocution, forcing prisoners to stand for days on broken feet, denial of food and water, expose to extreme heat and cold, and the almost unfathomably perverse practice of “rectal feeding” (as in putting hummus in detainee’s rectums).  The savagery of it all is nearly beyond belief. The scale of the horror was gigantic.

Does Obama seriously think that one asks a nation to be “perfect” by expecting it not to run a massive planetary network of ghastly torture (“enhanced interrogation”) that used these appalling “techniques”? And what other nation on Earth has engaged in such unmitigated and perverse cruelty on a global scale, not just in this century but also during the Cold War, when the CIA and US military intelligence developed, deployed, and disseminated (to its many Third World Fascist proxies) many of the torture techniques used by the US and its “partners” in its post-9/11 US Global War on/of Terror?

Sorry, Mr. President, but 2 + 2 = 4, not 5.

Imperial Amnesia

What basis is there for Obama’s claim of “America’s” (the United States’) supposedly “exceptional” readiness “to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes, and do better?” None. The plutocratic United States’ reigning corporate-managed political, intellectual, and media culture is terrifyingly amnesiac when it comes to dreadful historical facts and realities that don’t the official story of the nation as a glorious beacon and agent of freedom and democracy. That cultures tolerates no serious reckoning with the monumental US crimes – past and present – of slavery, Native American genocide, Empire, class injustice, institutional racism, mass imprisonment, capitalist oppression, and eco-cide. Honest discussion of such critical topics is relegated to the “wild-eyed radical” margins, safely ignored by “responsible” persons of power and influence in the US.

Thus it is (to mention one among countless possible examples) that millions of US citizens have been induced to comprehend the criminal tragedy of “the Vietnam War” (a curious phrase for a one-sided assault on the poor peasant nation of Vietnam by the greatest military power ion history) in terms of what it did to us “Americans,” not the Indochinese – this despite the fact that the US lost only 57,000 soldiers while more than 4 million Southeast Asians lost their lives to the US assault.

Thus it was that a supposedly antiwar presidential candidate. Barack Obama, could tell US voters in 2008 that “it’s time [for the US] to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together” – a  fascinating take on Washington’s arch-criminal occupation of Iraq. The U.S. inflicted a bloody Holocaust on Mesopotamia, killing more than a million Iraqis and displacing millions more. According to the distinguished journalist Nir Rosen in December of 2007, “The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century.” (As president, Obama has more than once praised the US invasion for giving Iraqis a chance at freedom and democracy).

Recalling Tacitus

The reigning national and imperial amnesia is so great that Obama elicited no laughs or protests from the press corps when he said the following while announcing that the US would pursue normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba last week: “Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades” (since the Cuban socialist revolution of 1959, that is).

Orwell would have enjoyed that remark. As Marjorie Cohn recently reminded those who care about actual history, “Since the Cuban revolution….anti-Cuba terrorist organizations based in Miami have engaged in countless terrorist activities against Cuba and anyone who advocated normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. Terrorist groups including Alpha 66, Commandos F4, Cuban American National Foundation, Independent and Democratic Cuba, and Brothers to the Rescue, have operated with impunity in the United States – with the knowledge and support of the FBI and CIA.” The US has long protected Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carilles, anti-Castro terrorists who bombed a Cubana airliner in 1976, killing all 73 persons aboard.

Noam Chomsky goes into greater depth, reminding us that Washington’s mass-murderous determination to punish Cuba for breaking off from US control and capitalism brought the planet to the edge of thermonuclear annihilation in the fall of 1962:

“John F. Kennedy…launched a murderous terrorist campaign designed to bring ‘the terrors of the earth’ to Cuba — historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger’s phrase, referring to the project assigned by the president to his brother Robert Kennedy as his highest priority.  Apart from killing thousands of people along with large-scale destruction, the terrors of the earth were a major factor in bringing the world to the brink of a terminal nuclear war, as recent scholarship reveals.  The administration resumed the terrorist attacks as soon as the missile crisis subsided….A standard way to evade the unpleasant topic is to keep to the CIA assassination plots against Castro, ridiculing their absurdity. They did exist, but were a minor footnote to the terrorist war launched by the Kennedy brothers after the failure of their Bay of Pigs invasion, a war that is hard to match in the annals of international terrorism…”

“There is now much debate about whether Cuba should be removed from the list of states supporting terrorism. It can only bring to mind the words of Tacitus that ‘crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity.’”

“….One has to admire the stunning audacity of [Obama’s] pronouncement, which again recalls the words of Tacitus.  Obama is surely not unaware of the actual history, which includes not only the murderous terrorist war and scandalous economic embargo, but also military occupation of Southeastern Cuba for over a century, including its major port, despite requests by the government since independence to return what was stolen at gunpoint – a policy justified only by the fanatic commitment to block Cuba’s economic development.  By comparison, Putin’s illegal takeover of Crimea looks almost benign.”

Common Sense and Impunity

As for the notion that the best thing for the federal government to do about the incredible global campaign of torture conducted by US intelligence and military personnel on orders from the White House after 9/11 is to forget about it, what, really, can one say? I could cite and quote numerous leading civil libertarians and legal experts on how such facile reasoning (all the more revolting from the mouth of a president who is a former Constitutional Law professor) reinforces the impunity of imperial torturers, telling them they’ve got an advance “get of jail free” pass the next time Uncle Sam decides to open a big new global can of “enhanced interrogation” in the name of freedom. But fancy legal arguments from the ACLU and Amnesty International aren’t really required here, just common sense [1].  When monumental crimes go unpunished with little more than a regretful acknowledgement that the “techniques” in question didn’t really accomplish the noble goals that supposedly motivated those egregious transgressions, you can be damn sure they will be repeated in one form or other in the future.

Two plus two equals four.  No torture apologist’s or torture exonerator’s twisted logic can make it equal five.

Notes:

  1. Even the imperial editors of The New York Times feel compelled to call out the inanity of the president’s tortured logic for refusing to prosecute or even investigate anyone responsible for US torture: “Mr. Obama has said multiple times that ‘we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,’ as though the two were incompatible. They are not. The nation cannot move forward in any meaningful way without coming to terms, legally and morally, with the abhorrent acts that were authorized, given a false patina of legality, and committed by American men and women from the highest levels of government on down… These are, simply, crimes.” New York Times editors, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” New York Times, December 21, 2014.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Latin America Leads in Opposing US Torture and Surveillance

17/12/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, December 16,  2014

“Words Will Not be Sufficient”

In October of 2013, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced outrage over the giant global surveillance program conducted by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). How could Merkel not have cried foul? Among US whistleblower Edward Snowden’s many revelations about US spying, it was learned in October that the NSA had listened on her personal cell phone – a mind-boggling breach of faith between leading Western allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) and US-led “global war on [of] terror” (GWO/OT).  Other European and other leaders had also been placed under NSA surveillance, Snowden revealed.

Merkel said that Germany’s relations with the US had been “severely shaken” and called US spying on her and other European leaders “completely unacceptable…Spying among friends is never acceptable.” The German Chancellor said that “Trust needs to be rebuilt,” adding that “words will not be sufficient.  True change is necessary.” Other European officials “think the same,” Merkel added.  France’s Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault called the reports of US spying “shocking” and “worrying.”

The extent to which European elites really cared about snooping by their US “friends” at the NSA can certainly be exaggerated. The issue has faded in European politics and has elicited little real change in European electronic security policy. A German prosecutor has recently claimed that there is no basis for the charge that Merkel’s phone was tapped. In the summer of 2013, just two days after the German magazine Der Spiegel reported (on the basis of documents made available by Snowden) that the NSA “not only conducted online surveillance of European citizens, but also appears to have specifically targeted buildings housing European Union institutions,” five Western European nations (Austria, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) assisted the US in its openly expressed desire to capture Snowden. On July 1, 2013, Washington suspected that Snowden might be on board a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales home from energy talks in Russia.  Under US pressure, Morales’ plane was forced to land in Vienna, Austria. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain had (at Washington’s command) withdrawn permission for the plane to pass through their airspace. Morales’ flight was “kidnapped by imperialism” (in the words of his Vice President) because he had said in a Moscow television interview that Bolivia would look favorably upon an asylum request from Snowden. Morales left Vienna only after spending 12 hours at the airport and after Austrian national police verified that Snowden was not on board. The forced landing, detention, and searching of President Morales’ plane was a remarkable and arrogant violation of international law committed at the instigation of the US Empire. In was act reflecting what Argentina’s president Cristina de Fernandez Kirchner called “the vestiges of colonialism,”

Still, Merkel and other leading European politicians had no choice but to respond with some measure of public indignation over the US/NSA spying disclosures of October 2013.

“Sigh of Relief…Few Ripples Across the Pond”

Those European leaders have expressed considerably less indignation in response to the recently released US Senate Intelligence Committee’s (USSIC’s) summary of its still classified 6,700- page report on the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) by the US government – most specifically by the CIA – on behalf of the US GWO/OT waged in the wake of the 9/11/2001 al Qaeda jetliner attacks. A recent Time magazine report is titled “CIA Torture Report Creates Few Ripples Across the Pond.” According to Time correspondent Simon Shuster:

“Europe wasn’t exactly silent. But considering the scale of the abuses that the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee revealed on Tuesday in its report on CIA torture, one might have expected a bit more outrage from the leaders of the Old World. Instead, the most common reaction was to praise the report as a sign of American transparency and accountability—two of the values meant to bind the West together—while many European statesmen have so far avoided saying anything at all…That includes the leaders of France and Germany, who made no public reaction in the 24 hours that followed the report’s release…if the White House was expecting the Senate report to freeze relations across the Atlantic, it can probably breathe a sigh of relief.”

The Imperial Logic of European Silence on Torture

This too is unsurprising.  As the Open Society demonstrated in an exhaustive February 2013 study titled Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret and Extraordinary Rendition, “Germany participated in the interrogation of at least one extraordinarily rendered individual. It also had knowledge of the abduction of a German national who was held in secret CIA detention. Further, Germany permitted use of its airspace and airports for flights associated with the CIA extraordinary rendition program.”

Eighteen other European nations (including Belgium, England, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and even social-democratic Sweden and Denmark) also participated in the global CIA torture network. The roles they played ranged from letting CIA rendition flights use their airspace and airports to letting the CIA snatch captives up on their national territory and to actually (as in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania) hosting secret CIA prisons (torture sites).

“The muted reaction from European leaders,” Shuster learned, “is perhaps best explained by the dilemma this issue presents. If one of them praises the report’s transparency, they could be perceived as downplaying the gravity of the crimes committed in the execution of the war on terror. If one of them condemns those crimes, they will almost certainly face questions about their own country’s complicity, if not also its direct involvement, in torture and illegal detention.”

Another factor behind Europe’s mild response to the USSIC report is the US-led “new Cold War” confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.  This Western-driven conflict has “urged the West to band together against what they perceive as a common threat to their security.” An imperial “expert on Central and Eastern Europe” (an academic flak at the German Marshall Fund) told Shuster that “the key ingredient to any successful Russia policy is Western unity.” As Merkel “pursues an ever-tougher line against Moscow,” the “expert” adds, “she needs to rally the Europeans, and she needs to make sure the coordination with the Americans remains intact.”

The Latin American Exception

It wasn’t just Europe that collaborated with CIA extraordinary rendition and torture.  Fifty four nations spread across five of the world’s six inhabited continents participated in the US global torture network.

The one such continent where not a single nation played along with the CIA campaign of secret and extraordinary rendition? South America.  No country there or anywhere else in Latin America (including Mexico and the Central American states of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) allowed the US post-9/11 terror network to use even its airspace or airports. The only facility fully enlisted in the US GWO/OT in Latin America is a US colonial hangover: the Guantanamo Bay detention camp (“Gitmo”) – a US prison and torture complex in the US Navy base on the Southeastern tip of Cuba.

Not that Uncle Sam didn’t try to recruit its southern neighbors to his 21st century torture and kidnapping campaign. In November of 2002, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew more than 5000 miles to Santiago, Chile.  There he told a meeting of chiefly Latin American Western Hemispheric defense ministers that they needed to participate in the “integration” of “various specialized capabilities into larger regional capabilities.” Rumsfeld told them that “events around the world before and after September 11th suggest …advantages” for Latin American nations who collaborated with Washington and each other in the “war on terror.” Rumsfeld offered US money, technology, training, and other assistance to Latin American militaries and governments who agreed to work with Washington in constructing a planetary system of kidnapping, torture, and murder,

Rumsfeld was likely unaware that September 11th was already a black day in Latin American history because it was on 9/11/1973 that the US-backed Chilean military undertook a CIA-backed coup that killed Chile’s democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende and led to the political state murder, torture, and disappearance of thousands of Chilean workers, activists, and intellectuals. Beginning in 1975, the fascist Chilean coup regime, headed by General Augusto Pinochet, joined with its fellow right wing dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil in the implementation of Operation Condor, an “anti-communist” campaign of state terror, torture, disappearance, and political repression. Operation Condor that killed at least 60,000 people in the 1970s and 1980s, receiving leading military aid and technical assistance from the US, principally through the CIA. It was all perpetrated in the name of “democratic capitalism” and the so-called free market.

Rumsfeld and the Bush administration did not succeed in their efforts to resurrect a kind of Operation Condor for the post-9/11 era – one in which radical Islam replaced Soviet and Cuban “communism” (cover terms for the actual threats of Latin America populism, social democracy, and national independence) as the official enemy. As the Latin American historian Greg Grandin explained last year, “History was not on Rumsfeld’s side. His trip to Santiago coincided with Argentina’s epic financial meltdown, among the worst in recorded history.  It signaled a broader collapse of the economic model – think of it as Reaganism on steroids – that Washington had been promoting in Latin America since the late Cold War years.  Soon, a new generation of leftists would be in power across much of the continent, committed to the idea of national sovereignty and limiting Washington’s influence in the region in a way that their predecessors hadn’t been.”

“Empire’s Workshop”

Latin America’s refusal to sign up with the US GWO/OT was more than just collateral fallout from economic meltdown.  As was certainly understood by left Latin American leaders Hugo Chavez (elected president of Venezuela in 1998), Lula da Silva (elected to Brazil’s presidency in October of 2002), Néstor Kirchner (elected to Argentina’s presidency in early 2003), Evo Morales (elected to Bolivia’s presidency in late 2005), and Rafael Correa (elected to Ecuador’s presidency in late 2006), the regressive neoliberal (arch-capitalist) “free market” economic model had been imposed on Latin America by Washington largely through the iron fist of state violence funded, equipped, trained, and overseen by US military and intelligence. “Enhanced “interrogation” was a critical weapon in that US-sponsored repression. The terrible torture methods recounted in last week’s Senate report were all too well known to Latin Americans during the last century.  Deep in the USSIC’s 500-page summary of that report there is reference to KUBARK, code name for a July1963 CIA interrogation manual. As the committee notes, the manual contained the “principal coercive techniques of interrogation: arrest, detention, deprivation of sensory stimuli through solitary confinement or similar methods, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis and induced regression.” Under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and through the 1980s, Washington and Latin America’s many US-sponsored right wing dictatorships turned the region into “a counterinsurgent laboratory” (Grandin) – one where US-trained and US-equipped gendarmes regularly conducted many of the “coercive interrogation” techniques used by the US and its GWO/OT allies during the present century. United States military and intelligence personnel applied the same basic horrific techniques in Southeast Asia during the US Indochinese wars of the 1960s and 1970s.

The CIA updated KUBARK when US-sponsored Latin American military regimes faced popular resistance and armed insurgency during the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1983, the USSIC reports,  “a CIA officer incorporated significant portions of the KUBARK manual into the Human Resource Exploitation (HRE) Training Manual, which the same officer used to provide interrogation training in Latin America in the early 1980s.”  Beyond application in training death squads and armed forces who killed hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, and activists in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the new manual was “used to provide interrogation training to” a party whose name is redacted in the committee’s report.  The deleted entity is clearly the Contras, a terrorist force created by the CIA to overthrow the popular Left Sandinista government in Managua.

Not surprisingly, there are some direct personnel connections between the US terror campaign in 20th century Latin America and this century’s US-led GWO/OT.  The USSIC reports that “a CIA officer [who] was involved in the HRE training and conducted interrogations” that may have gone overboard (even by US standards) became “in the fall of 2002…the CIA’s chief of interrogations in the CIA’s Renditions Group, the officer in charge of CIA interrogations.” According to a recent Newsweek report:

“Other veterans of the Latin American counterinsurgency wars were key players in the questionable post-9/11 interrogation practices exposed by the Senate committee, although they went unmentioned in its report because they were not CIA officers…Retired Army Colonel James Steele, along with another retired army colonel, James H. Coffman, helped the Iraqi government set up police commando units and ‘worked…in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of U.S. funding,’ the London-based Guardian newspaper and the BBC reported in a joint project in 2013…Steele had been commander of the U.S. military advisory group in El Salvador during its 1980s civil war, a struggle remembered chiefly for the ‘death squads’ the regime used against nuns and priests allied with the poor. Steele had previously been decorated for his service in South Vietnam as a U.S. Army reconnaissance patrol leader” (emphasis added).

Given Latin American governments’ deep collaboration with US military and intelligence force’s torture practices during the last century, it might seem ironic that South and Latin America alone among the world’s great continents and regions can boast that none of its national governments agreed to participate in the global torture network created by the US after 9/11.  The irony disappears, however, when one realizes that the region living under the hemispheric thumb of the United States since the 19th century has in this century rejected both the imperial economic model and the intimately related state terrorism – both the “soft” rule of the (in fact brutal) “free market” and the iron fist of hard state power – imposed by its bad neighbor and bully to the North.  As the longstanding early “workshop” (Grandin) of the US state-capitalist Empire, Latin America quite logically stands in the vanguard when it comes to rejecting US torture and murder techniques and programs.

Leading on Surveillance and Whistleblower Protection

It isn’t only on the torture/interrogation/rendition (kidnapping) issue that Latin America far surpasses Europe in standing up to the US GWO/OT.  Uncle Sam’s southern neighbors also lead on fighting NSA surveillance (which has also of course targeted Latin American citizens and heads of state) and on protecting whistleblowers who expose US crimes.  Morales expressed Bolivia’s willingness to host and protect Snowden – likely a sincere statement. Another South American state, Brazil, currently hosts and protects Glenn Greenwald, the US civil-libertarian journalist to whom Snowden turned with his documents and revelations.  Another left-led Latin American state, Ecuador, provides a sanctuary for the Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its embassy in London.  Assange is under siege by the United States, England, and even social-democratic Sweden because of his role in the publication of US military and diplomatic documents leaked by US Army private Chelsea Manning. As John Pilger has recently observed, “For two years, an exaggerated, costly police presence around the Ecuadorean embassy in London has served no purpose other than to flaunt the power of the state. Their quarry is an Australian charged with no crime, a refugee from gross injustice whose only security is the room given him by a brave South American country. His true crime is to have initiated a wave of truth-telling in an era of lies, cynicism and war.”

Winning the World Cup of Opposing Torture and Surveillance

Germany and Europe can feel proud of their recent World Cup supremacy over their South American football rivals (Europe has taken four of the last five World Cups), but when it comes to the more serious matter of resisting the mass-murderous Big Brother US Empire and its terrible practices, the Old World nations east of the Atlantic lag far behind Latin America.

“Overwhelming Warmth and Compassion”

After writing the paragraphs above, I happened by chance upon a remarkable and heartwarming news segment on the reception received by six former Guantanamo prisoners – four Syrians, a Palestinian, and a Tunisian – in Montevideo, Uruguay. Although they were cleared for release in 2009, the US refused to release them until Uruguay’s Left president Jose Mujica offered to take them in as a humanitarian gesture.  As one of the released detainees’ lawyers told the PBS “Newshour” last week:

“I have never, in my many years of doing this work, seen a reception like this. It has been overwhelming in its warmth and its compassion. When my client, who has been on a hunger strike for most the past two years, was going around the hospital ward to have tests, other patients in the hospital came out of their wards and leaned in and smiled and waved. I have been hugged by grandmothers in the supermarket simply because I am a lawyer who represents a Guantanamo prisoner. The warmth of the people of Uruguay has been overwhelming. We’re so grateful and so pleased.”

The ex-detainee Abedlhadi Omar Faraj sent out a letter through his New York lawyer on thanking Uruguay for its gracious welcome. “Were it not for Uruguay,” the letter read, “I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today. It’s difficult for me to express how grateful I am for the immense trust that you, the Uruguayan people, placed in me and the other prisoners when you opened the doors of your country to us…”

Michal Bone, a lawyer for another former “Gitmo” detainee told the Guardian that “They got hugs from Uruguayan officials, friendly waves and thumbs up from the other patients at the hospital, the Uruguayan reception team even brought bathing suits for them. Bone noted that while on the flight Cuba on a US military plane, the former prisoners wore handcuffs, shackles, blindfolds and ear-defenders,“the Uruguayans refused to let them walk off the plane in shackles; they insisted that they be allowed to take their first step on Uruguayan soil as free men.”

As free men – imagine that.  The six former detainees’ trip from the bottom reaches of the fascistic, racist, and totalitarian Hell that is the US GWO/OT to peaceful and social-democratic Uruguay was a flight from savagery to civilization – from the clutches of a sadistic Empire of torture to a region that is finding democracy and justice as it emerges from the vicious control of its northern overlords.

“Interrogation Cum Torture”

Jose Mujica is a former left-wing militant who spent nearly fifteen years in prison during the period when Uruguay was under US-sponsored and CIA-assisted military rule. A veteran of the Tupamaro revolutionary organization, he knows a thing or two about US-directed “enhanced interrogation” – torture, that is.  “As a prisoner of the brutal military dictatorship that seized power in a [US-backed] coup in June 1973, “Encyclopedia Britannica reports, “Mujica was tortured and spent long periods of time in solitary confinement, including two years at the bottom of a well.” The venerable Left dissident and chronicler of US global criminality and arrogance William Blum provides some deeper historical context:

“The 1960s [in Uruguay] was the era of the Tupamaros, perhaps the cleverest, most resourceful, most sophisticated, least violent, Robin Hood-like urban guerillas the word has ever seen.  They were too good to be allowed to survive.  A team of American experts arrived, to supply the police with all the arms, vehicles, communications gear etc. they needed; to train them in assassination and explosives techniques, to teach methods of interrogation cum torture, to set up an intelligence service cum death squad. It was all out war against the Tupamaros and any suspected sympathizers….”

“In 1998, Eladio Moll, a retired Uruguayan Navy rear admiral and former intelligence chief, testifying before a commission of the Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies, stated that during Uruguay’s ‘dirty war’ 91972-1983), orders came from the United States concerning captive Tupamaros.  ‘The guidance that was sent from the U.S.,’ said Moll, ‘was that what had to be done the captured guerillas was to get information, and that afterwards they didn’t deserve to live.’” (Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower [Common Courage, 2005], 182).

Over the many decades of its unmatched global power, Washington has decided that millions of citizens across the planet don’t really deserve freedom, comfort, and even life itself.  As the first global region to feel the imperial presence and fury of the United States and to see US power embedded in its own social and political life – as the (US of) American Empire’s “workshop” – Latin America logically leads the world in rejecting US power both “soft” and hard – both the “Washington consensus” neoliberal economic model and the Washington war of terror and surveillance – in the deadly “neoliberal” era.  And that, silly as it may sound, is no small part of why I rooted for Brazil and Argentina against Germany in the 2014 World Cup last summer.

Paul Street is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (October 2014).

Promise and Danger in a New Civil Rights Movement

17/12/14 0 COMMENTS
First published on TeleSur English, December 12, 2014.
There has been promise but also danger in every sociopolitical movement I’ve seen in the United States over the last thirty plus years.

The new movement that has grown up in response to relentless police killings of mostly young Black Americans — and the exoneration of killer cops — is no exception.

The hopeful and promising aspects of this movement are significant. In a society where reflexive obedience to unjust power often seems chillingly close to the norm, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens have shown that there are lines authorities cannot cross without facing disruption from below. As protestors from coast to coast have proclaimed, U.S. police departments’ racially targeted “shoot to kill” habit must come to an end. Now.  So must the over-the-top militarization of the domestic U.S. police, a problem demonstrated for the world with St. Louis County’s exaggerated military-style response to protests in Ferguson last August. And so must the endemic racial profiling and discriminatory surveillance, stop, frisk, and arrest patterns that create daily procedural context for violent police contact with Black Americans and for the wildly disproportionate hyper-incarceration and felony marking of Black men.

Along the way, something must be done about the extreme reluctance of local prosecutors and grand juries to indict police officers for using excessive and deadly violence against Black and other citizens. (Like so much else in the U.S. legal system, such verdicts mock the notion that the U.S. is a nation of equal justice in which citizens must always respect “the rule of law.”)

All of this and more is on the national political and media table thanks to the mass protests that have emerged in Ferguson and across the nation in response to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent exoneration of their killers.

It has been gratifying to see young Black people and others in Ferguson and elsewhere defy U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for calm and purely peaceful protest. Obama’s imperial corporatist, and “race-neutral” presidency has brought few tangible gains for majority lower-and working-class Black America even as it has helped feed white illusions that racism no longer poses any serious barrier to Black equality and advancement in the U.S. The president has been incredibly reluctant to address the problem of persistent abysmal racial oppression in the U.S. He has in the White House continued his longstanding nasty and neoliberal habit of blaming poor and working class Black Americans for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of the steep U.S. socioeconomic pyramid.

What they Police

What might there be to worry about in this new movement? There are two things to watch out for, I think. The first concern is that the movement not end up being one for a kinder and gentler policing of American racial apartheid and inequality. The corrupt Civil Rights misleader, Obama shill, and corporate media personality Al Sharpton early on defined the essential matter at stake in Ferguson as “how we gonna police in the United States.” The issue is not minor. How cops do their jobs is a serious matter in an age of ever more militarized, high-tech policing. How those jobs are performed in and around Black communities is a particularly grave question during a time when a Black American (usually a young man) is killed by a (usually white) police officer, security guard or self-appointed vigilante on average once every 28 hours.

Still, just as important (though largely missing from the national coverage and commentary) is the fundamental question of what government authorities police in the US. What they police is, among other things, persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white U.S. households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black U.S. households. The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites — as usual. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty” — at less than half the poverty measure — compared to just more than 1 in 18 White, non-Hispanic children.

This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four decades long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking. More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record. Criminal marking is a deadly barrier to employment, housing, education, voting rights and more for the nation’s giant and very disproportionately Black army of “ex-offenders.” It makes “re-integration” next to impossible for many former prisoners, feeding a vicious circle of poverty, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.

Race and Place

Contemporary U.S. policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The New York City metropolitan area (home to the late Eric Garner) has a residential “dissimilarity index” (DI) of 84.3, meaning that more than four-fifths of the region’s more than 2 million Black Americans would have to move into another and more racially diverse census tract in order to be spread evenly with whites across geographic space. The St. Louis area (home to the late Michael Brown) has a DI of 78.

Such extreme segregation is a product of class and racial bias in the functioning of real estate markets and home lending and the unwillingness of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s savage racial disparities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.”

By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places, U.S. de facto race apartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That racialized concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.”

At the same time, persistent racial apartheid helps fuel white America’s savage ignorance about real Black experience — an ignorance fed also by racially biased media, political, and intellectual culture. As the radical black philosopher Charles W. Mills noted eleven years ago, “the framework of debate [over Blacks’ subordinate position in the US] is not neutral: it is biased by dominant white cognitive patterns of structured ignorance, an overt or hidden white normativity so that at the basic factual level, many claims of people of color will just seem absurd, radically incongruent with the sanitized picture white people have of U.S. history.” It doesn’t help, Mills observed, that “the physical segregation of white and nonwhite populations” creates “a segregation of experience” that reinforces “radically divergent pictures of the world. Typically white and typically black realities — in terms of everyday experience with government bureaucracies, the police, and the job market, housing, and so forth — are simply not the same.”

What the U.S. police police is persistent steep racial apartheid and related harsh racial inequality, invisibility, and ignorance reflected and reinforced by racist mass incarceration.  The cause of justice requires much more than merely softening or otherwise improving how separate and unequal are enforced by local gendarmes.

“The Real Issue to be Faced”

A second thing to be on guard for is the capture of the movement-in-formation by bourgeois and identity-based activists and politicos for whom the struggle is entirely and solely about race (narrowly understood) and has nothing to do with broader and related issues of class power, military empire, and capitalist eco-cide. To let that happen would be a great misfortune. What the police and broader criminal justice system serve and protect, of course, is not just or only racism. The police state also functions to defend and advance broader and related structures of class inequality, capitalist (corporate, financial and “1%”) rule, and global empire. These interrelated oppression systems lay very much at the historical taproot of contemporary societal racism and depend to no small extent on racial disparity and division for their terrible and ever more environmentally catastrophic persistence.

Before the Obama administration sent in 51 FBI agents to help suppress protests in Ferguson and St. Louis County two weeks ago, its Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provided federal coordination for the police force dismantlement of the Occupy encampments that sprung up across the U.S. in the fall of 2011. When tens of thousands gathered to protest the global militarism of the U.S. and its NATO allies in Chicago in May of 2012, they were met by a giant, dystopian concentration of local, county, state, federal, and corporate gendarmes equipped with an astonishing array of repressive techniques and technologies. The DHS helped coordinate the remarkable display of hard suppressive power.

“The black revolution,” the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote near the end of his life, “is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws — racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society … and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” King left little doubt that the transformation required meant going beyond capitalism. Like the leading Black American Marxists W.E.B. DuBois, CLR James, and Oliver Cox, King saw white U.S. racism as a function of the profits system and class rule to no small degree. The popular struggle required today cannot stop at white or male or national privilege; it must proceed on to a confrontation with capital and class privilege.

In any event. Dr. King’s words deserve revisiting as activists work to make sure that the new Civil Rights movement sparked by the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner killings — and by the exonerations of their killers — doesn’t get co-opted into a struggle for little more than a kinder and gentler policing of contemporary race and class injustice.

Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History(Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Campus Town Amnesia

17/12/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, December 4, 2014, Last October I attended a small rally held outside Iowa City’s City Hall in solidarity with Michael Brown and those protesting his killing last August by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Two of the rally’s organizers told the gathering that an unjust police killing of a Black person “could happen here in Iowa City.”

Could happen here? Hello? How soon terrible tragedies and crimes can be obliterated from local memory! Nearly five and a half years ago, an off-duty white Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputy named Terry Stotler happened upon a scuffle that started when an angry white 63-year-old University of Iowa electrician named John Bohnenkamp stomped out of a tavern to assault a badly inebriated and homeless 26-year-old Black man named John Deng in a parking lot just south of downtown Iowa City.  Bohnenkamp was furious because Deng had dropped some bottles he had been picking out of a dumpster. “Pick those goddamned bottles up,” Bohnenkamp commanded (while his wife beseeched him to leave Deng alone). The electrician was further infuriated when Deng defended himself with a very small pocket knife.

The altercation ended when Stotler killed Deng, who could barely stand, with a single shot from the deputy’s .40 caliber Glock pistol to the upper torso (the standard police “shoot-to-kill” target area).  The fatal blast was entirely unnecessary and unjustified.  It occurred at the urging of Bohnenkamp, who repeatedly defied the deputy’s order to step away. The electrician was never arrested or charged, but state law required an investigation of the shooting.

Deng’s blood collected in a pool on the sidewalk in front of a business called City Electric, just a few blocks south of the downtown “Ped Mall,” where a large crowd soaked up beer and a cool summer breeze while the young homeless man drew his final breaths. And here is a cold and basic fact that any honest local resident would know to be true: if Deng had been a drunken white college student caught up in a violent altercation (a common occurrence on weekends in Iowa City), deadly force would never been have been considered, much less deployed, by city or county police.

The rally organizers last October can be forgiven, perhaps, for knowing nothing about John Deng.  After a brief flurry of protest, the Deng shooting largely disappeared from liberal Iowa City’s collective consciousness.  Any chance that it might reemerge as an issue was nixed in late September of 2009.  That’s when Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness made publicly available the Iowa Attorney General office’s investigation. As is generally the case with police shooting inquiries (e.g. the St. Louis Grand Jury report on the Brown killing this November), the report was a whitewash.  Focused largely on the task of discrediting the purportedly outlandish claims of two eyewitnesses, it skillfully evaded the incident’s richly racialized nature.

The speed and completeness of the Deng killing’s descent down the local Orwellian memory hole might seem ironic, surprising, and/or disappointing. Hadn’t liberal Iowa City’s Democrats recently and strongly supported Barack Obama twice (in the presidential Caucus of January 2008 and the presidential general election eleven months later) in his campaign to become the nation’s first technically Black president? Hadn’t the bright blue campus town’s many liberals felt that they’d struck a blow against racism by leading the nation in the effort to put a Black family in the White House?

I was neither surprised nor disappointed.  As I had determined from hundreds of voter contacts with liberal Iowa City Obama fans during the long Iowa presidential Caucus campaign of 2007 and early 2008, few of the future president’s many enthusiastic local backers seemed particularly interested in confronting racism deeply understood – as a pervasive societal and institutional force beneath and beyond the skin color of candidates and policymakers. Most of the many white Iowa City liberals I spoke to combined personal pride in their support for a (certain kind of) Black presidential candidate with remarkable indifference to the fact that Iowa possessed the nation’s worst racial disparity for incarceration and to the plight of the growing lower-class Black population living under conditions of segregated poverty and police harassment on the city’s Southeast Side.  If anything, the carefully white-pleasing, “post-racial,” and “Black but not like Jesse” Obama seemed to offer local white Democrats a convenient way to congratulate themselves for supposedly transcending racism in the realm of presidential politics while turning a blind eye to persistent lived institutional and societal racism within and beyond their own community. [1]

I was reminded again of the Deng killing when the hopelessly pro-police St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch[2] gave his long and smug justification for not indicting Officer Darren Wilson, the killer of Michael Brown, last week.  Very much like the Iowa Attorney General’s report exonerating deputy Stotler five years ago, McCulloch’s presentation was unduly preoccupied with discrediting the most condemnatory and (perhaps) questionable eyewitness accounts, ignoring numerous other and important facts suggesting the unwarranted and racially biased use of deadly force.

Did the local Ferguson-solidarity organizers last October really not know about the Deng killing?  According to one venerable local anti-racist activist and commentator I spoke with, those organizers have agreed not to mention it because they do not wish to offend Johnson County Attorney Lyness and the local Democratic Party establishment, which wants the shooting to remain locked in the closet of forgotten history.  I have no idea if the commentator is right about the organizers but I have no doubt that he’s correct about the local establishment. The criminally unnecessary police killing of John Deng just doesn’t jibe with the deceptive racially progressive self-imagery of liberal Iowa City, the “post-racial” President’s favorite little campus town.  Neither does Iowa’s nationally worst racial incarceration disparity nor does the segregated and concentrated poverty, marginalization and racial profiling experienced by Black folks living on the edges of the bright blue campus town.  The less said about these uncomfortable sorts of things the better as far as local elites are concerned.  The university and surrounding community are expanding, with lots of money to be made by big developers, bankers, lawyers, and building trades, after all, so who needs to rock the boat and kill the vibe by bringing up unseemly stuff like that?

There’s some good local race news to report from Iowa City, however.  Most of the many young folks who demonstrated in Iowa City against the killing of Michael Brown and against the exoneration of his killer (and also against the killing of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his murderer in 2012) may not know about John Deng. But many of them seem to have learned a good lesson from the Age of Obama: it’s not about who’s sitting in the White House and the suites, it’s about who’s occupying and marching in the streets – including the streets of Iowa City, where I marched last November 25th with more than 200 mostly young adults to protest the non-indictment of Michael Brown’s killer.  The current wave of anti-racist protestors have received some refreshing inoculation against the virus of identity- and candidate-centered politics. They are newly positioned to battle racism and related evils beneath and beyond major party electoral extravaganzas, with a much deeper understanding of the forces at play and the stakes involved.  That is a development much to be encouraged in Iowa, where – thanks to the blessing/curse of the “first in the nation” major party presidential Caucuses[3] – the quadrennial citizen-marginalizing presidential election spectacle takes on a special frenzied force one year before it hits the rest of the nation.

Iowa City writer and activist Paul Street is the author of many books, including Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). 

1. For a more in-depth account of my frankly disturbing interactions with “liberal” Iowa City Obama fans in 2007 and 2008, see my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), 134-135. 172-173.

2. In a forthcoming essay titled “No True Justice,” I go into some depth on how and why the Grand Jury exoneration orchestrated by McCulloch was sheer travesty.

3.  The only other state the comes close when it comes to big money-major media presidential candidate carpet-bombing for many months in advance of the actual presidential election year is of course New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the nation presidential primary.

No True Justice in St. Louis County

07/12/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on TeleSur English, December 5, 2014. Note from author (December 6, 10 AM, CST): This essay was written before news came out of the decision of a Staten Island Grand Jury not to indict the white New York City Police officer who killed the Black man Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold last July 17th.  The Staten Island verdict was more surprising to many than the St. Louis County verdict because there exists in the Garner-NYPD case a graphic video of the killing - a video that has gone viral on television and the Internet. Still, Grand Juries and prosecutors in the US almost always side with the police in these kinds of cases, which are terribly common: a Black person is killed by a(an almost always white) white police officer, security guard (as in the Trayvon Martin case), or self-appointed  vigilante (though almost always a police officer) in the US on average once every 28 hours. 

“A Nation Built on the Rule of Law”

In press conference remarks given after St. Louis County prosecutor Frank McCulloch announced last week that white police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing the 18-year-old Black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August, U.S. President Barack Obama called for calm. “First and foremost,” Obama said, “we are a nation built on the rule of law.  And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.”

It was an interesting, deeply conservative comment. The United States (US) was built among other things on Black chattel slavery, which was thoroughly legal in the United States until the Civil War – and then significantly restored in all but name for many years. Formal racial segregation carried the full force of the law in the U.S. South through the middle 1960s, as did racial apartheid in South Africa through the early 1990s. The Holocaust was technically “legal” in Nazi Germany.

Money Talks….

How about “the rule of law” today?  The former Constitutional Law professor Obama might want to have a look at Matt Taibbi’s latest book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.  Taibbi exposes the great class-race rift in U.S. “criminal justice,” bringing to light “the fun-house-mirror worlds of the untouchably wealthy and the criminalized poor.” On one hand, there’s the elite financial looters on Wall Street. All they did was destroy jobs, households, and lives on a massive scale by crashing the national and global economy through selfish, technically criminal (fraudulent) arrogance and deception.  They’ve gone almost completely scot-free in the nation’s money-drenched legal and political rackets.

On the other hand, there’s the millions of poor folks who lack even a hint of “the 1 Percent’s” legal and political resources. Taibbi journeys into “the front lines of the immigrant dragnet; into the newly punitive welfare system which treats its beneficiaries as thieves; and deep inside the stop-and-frisk world, where standing in front of your own home has become an arrestable offense.”  Here people without means are punished with abandon, spending years and often lives behind bars for victimless crimes.

It’s all very consistent with an old working class slogan: “money talks, bullshit walks.” Respect for “the rule of law” is a very thin moral basis on which to preach obedience.

Early Provocations

How did “the rule of law” distinguish itself in Mike Brown’s killing and “the decision [that] was the grand jury’s to make”?  Police, prosecutors, and other authorities made a travesty of the case from the start and through the grand jury’s “no true bill” (no indictment) ruling last week.  Brown’s body was left lying in the road for four hours – a highly provocative action. The medical examination was botched.  The Ferguson police insolently released a video of Brown engaged in petty theft prior to his killing, a clear attempt to influence public opinion in their favor – this even as the cops still refused to release Wilson’s name and race. Protesters in Ferguson then faced over-the-top military-style and multi-jurisdictional police-state repression that captured headlines around the world, evoking criticism even from mainstream U.S. politicians and media.

Robert McCulloch: “An Unabashed Defender of the Police” 

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch should have removed himself from the Darren Wilson case.  His prior misconduct in a Grand Jury whitewash of the killing of two unarmed Black men (Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley) by two white police officers in 2000 should have disqualified him from presiding over the Wilson case. As the New York Daily News reported the day after McCulloch coldly and smugly announced the “no true bill” judgment, the prosecutor had long, close, and familial ties to the police and a problematic history on race and police shootings.  By reporter Rich Shapiro’s account:

“Bob McCulloch grew up the son of a cop, in a family full of cops, dreaming that someday he would become a cop himself. ‘I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,’ McCulloch once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.”

“He’s been the St. Louis County prosecutor since 1991 and his deep ties with police have rankled area residents for years. Long before he drew scrutiny in the Michael Brown investigation, McCulloch had come under fire for his handling of other police shootings.”

“‘Whether truly justified or not, there’s a perception that he just never will prosecute a police officer,’ said Steven Ryals, a veteran civil rights attorney who lived in Ferguson for 45 years.”

“Twenty-five days shy of his 13th birthday, McCulloch’s father was shot and killed in a gun battle with a kidnapper in 1964. If it weren’t for a cruel twist of fate, McCulloch would have likely followed in the family tradition. Besides his father, his brother, nephew and cousin all served on the St. Louis police force. But in his senior year of high school, McCulloch lost his right leg to cancer. No longer able to become a cop, he made it his mission to land a job as a prosecutor.”

“McCulloch’s reputation as an unabashed defender of the police took root in 2001, 10 years after the Democrat took office. That year, a pair of undercover cops shot and killed two men inside a car in a Jack in the Box parking lot in a hail of 21 bullets. A federal probe, while ruling the shootings were justified, found that the men were unarmed and their car had not moved forward when the officers opened fire. McCulloch declined to prosecute the cops. He further inflamed tensions by referring to the suspects Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley as ‘bums.’”

“‘Mr. McCulloch has run the office of the prosecuting attorney with an iron glove and has made it quite clear that men in blue will be protected at all costs,’ Randall Cahill, who represented the victims, told the Daily News.” (emphasis added)

No wonder 70,000 Missouri residents signed a petition calling for McCulloch’s recusal from the investigation of the Mike Brown shooting.

“I [Don’t] Want You to Get Confused”

Fears that McCulloch and his office would prove biased on behalf of Officer Wilson were born out.  Legal experts were taken aback by his handling of the Wilson case. Instead of presenting the jury with only evidence supporting the state’s case, the typical prosecutorial practice, McCulloch permitted Wilson to defend himself and offered witness testimony that conflicted with the case for indictment.  Prosecutors who are serious about securing an indictment do not give Grand Juries “all the evidence,” legally required only for a trial, not an indictment.  In the  Wilson case, however, McCulloch broke with standard practice, strongly suggesting a lack of interest on his part in going to trial.

To make matters worse, one of McCulloch’s Assistant Prosecutors gave the grand jurors a copy of an outdated and invalidated Missouri lawstating that police officers had the right to shoot any suspect fleeing arrest. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Courtthree decades ago. Still, the Grand Jury listened to evidence with the obsolete and unconstitutional statute in their minds for more than two months. Just one week before the jury was to rule, a local news outlet discovered the error or (more likely) deception. The Assistant Prosecutor, Kathi Alizadeh, made a badly muddled attempt to correct her “mistake.” On November 21, 2014, a mere three days before the “no true bill” verdict, she inarticulately instructed the Grand Jury as follows:

“Previously in the very beginning of this process I printed out a statute for you that was, the statute in Missouri for the use of force to affect an arrest. So if you all want to get those out. What we have discovered and we have been going along with this, doing our research, is that the statute in the state of Missouri does not comply with the case law. This doesn’t sound probably unfamiliar with you that the law is codified in the written form in the books and they’re called statutes, but courts interpret those statutes. And so the statute for the use of force to affect an arrest in the state of Missouri does not comply with Missouri supreme, I’m sorry, United States Supreme Court cases. So the statue I gave you, if you want to fold that in half just so that you know don’t necessarily rely on that because there is a portion of that that doesn’t comply with the law.”

Alizadeh handed the jurors a new document explaining the current and constitutional law regarding police officers’ use of deadly force.  She said this document “does correctly state what the law is on when an officer can use force and when he can use deadly force in affecting an arrest, okay. I don’t want you to get confused and don’t rely on that copy or that print-out of the statute that I’ve given you a long time ago. It is not entirely incorrect or inaccurate, but there is something in it that’s not correct, ignore it totally.” Say what?

“We Don’t Want to Get Into a Law Class”

Seeking clarity, a Grand Jury member asked Alizadeh a simple and basic question: “The Supreme Court, federal court, overrides Missouri statutes?” The Assistant Prosecutor could (and should) have answered accurately with one word: “yes.”  Instead, she opted for further confusion by saying this: “As far as you need to know, just don’t worry about that“(!) Another Assistant Prosecutor present, Ms. Whirley, chimed in supportively, saying “We don’t want to get into a law class.”  The disingenuous and arrogant assumption behind these strange replies to the juror’s simple and essential question was that it would have unduly taxed the jurors’ minds to tell them that the unconstitutional Missouri law Alizadeh had passed out to them more than two months ago had been ruled unconstitutional by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court and that these federal court ruling overrode state laws.

Such prosecutorial misconduct – remarkably rife in the U.S. – makes a travesty out of “the rule of law.”

Exception to the Grand Jury Rule

But it’s hardly clear that the outcome would have been any different without Alizadeh’s “mistake.”  As Ben Casselman notes on the blog FiveThirtyEight, “Grand juries nearly always decide to indict. Or at least, they nearly always do so in cases that don’t involve police officers.” Cases involving police shootings are a great exception to the rule that prosecutors generally get indictments from the Grand Juries they convene.  Casselman suggests that prosecutorial bias may be a reason: “Perhaps prosecutors, who depend on police as they work on criminal cases, tend to present a less compelling case against officers, whether consciously or unconsciously.” That is the most likely explanation in this case, with the pro-police bias fueled more intensely than usual by McCulloch’s background.

Good (US of) Americans are supposed to be horrified at images of rioting and looting by the Ferguson protestors who rejected Obama’s call for calm.  But is it really surprising that the president’s plea for respect for “the rule of law” would fall would fall on deaf ears when the U.S. criminal justice process in is so badly tilted in favor of money and the power- and privilege-serving authority of the nation’s ever more militarized police? Riots reflect the lack of recourse and opportunity under the prevailing order and a sense – all too accurate – that the game is rigged on behalf of the rich and powerful. Ferguson is hardly the first or last example.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

When Words Don’t Mean Anything Anymore: Reflections on the Life and Rhetoric of Barack Obama

06/12/14 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, December 2014. Nothing mocks disingenuous, power-serving politicians more than their own past words. President Barack Obama is a remarkable case in point.

street-econmyOn the presidential campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, for example, Barack Obama ran on a promise to oversee “the most transparent administration in history,” specifically vowing to shield whistleblowers, whom he praised as “noble” and “courageous.” The Obama administration has waged what many civil libertarians and journalists across the political spectrum have called an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, prosecuting more government leakers under the draconian 1917 Espionage Act than all previous U.S. presidents combined.

As a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008, Obama promised “real immigration reform” with a clear “path to citizenship” for millions of undocumented Latinas and Latinos living in the U.S. He denounced the George W. Bush administration’s policy of mass deportations. As president, Obama has deported undocumented immigrants at a record rate—more than 2 million people to date. Further cementing his legacy as what some immigrant rights activists call “The Deporter in Chief,” Obama has recently and not for the first time delayed his promise to provide deportation relief for millions of undocumented immigrants.

The only real difference with Bush has been a matter of style. In the final years of his administration, Bush undertook a harsh immigration crackdown replete with provocative military-style raids on U.S. factories and farms. As Obama prefers a stealthier, more behind-the-scenes approach, one that avoids high-profile armed-force assaults but yields a higher rate of family-shattering arrest and expulsion—this while he claims to favor “humane” reform and to be advancing a safe way for “dreamers” (“illegal” immigrants who came to the U.S. as children) to avoid expulsion.

The Green Deception

street-ecologyIn 2007 and 2008, presidential candidate Obama repeatedly posed as an environmentalist who was deeply concerned about anthropogenic climate change and determined to reduce carbon emissions. As president, Obama approved the significantly increased extraction and burning of U.S. fossil fuels through hydraulic fracturing, offshore drilling, and other ecocidal practices, praising the hydrocarbon frenzy in the name of so-called national energy independence. He also acted to undermine efforts at binding global carbon emission limits at international climate summits beginning in Copenhagen in the winter of 2009.

At an AFL-CIO Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in 2003, Illinois state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Obama declared his allegiance to single-payer, Canadian style, government-funded health insurance (basically Medicare for All). “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program,” Obama said. “I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its gross national product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody…. A single-payer health care plan…that’s what I’d like to see.”

Once elected president, Obama made it his highest domestic policy priority to pass a corporate version of not-so “universal” health insurance “reform.” He excluded single-payer advocates from the national health care reform discussion orchestrated by the White House. His so-called Affordable Health Care Act left the nation’s leading insurance and drug companies in parasitic and massively profitable control of the nation’s absurdly expensive health care system.

What Occupy Made Obama Do

Both as a candidate and as president, Obama has posed as a friend of ordinary working people and an opponent of the harsh socio-economic disparity. He has inveighed against corruption in the nation’s leading financial institutions. He has called the growth of inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” calling it a “fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.” President Obama, however, has been a good friend of the top 1 percent, which has enjoyed 95 percent of the nation’s income gains during his presidency. His Administration has expanded the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords and refused to nationalize or break up the nation’s “too-big-to fail” financial behemoths. It pushed through a corporatist health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, it has cut an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds, slashed wages, and rewarded capital flight.

It supported a Detroit bankruptcy process that raids municipal workers’ wages and pensions. Consistent with its staffing of key positions by top corporate and financial operatives, it has advanced neoliberal “free trade” agreements (including the current secret negotiations for the richly corporatist and authoritarian Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP, deal). It has pressed forward with the corporate schools privatization agenda, advocated deficit reduction and austerity over and against job creation and social programs, making repeated offers and attempts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits (in the name of a “grand deficit-slashing bargain” and “entitlement reform”); and refused to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise) or to act even minimally on behalf of Obama’s campaign promise to champion the re-legalization of union organization (to advance the rapidly abandoned Employee Free Choice Act). In these, and many other ways, Obama has been a shining monument to the reach and power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the [nation’s] unelected dictatorship of money.”

Leftists and others who have dared to criticize Obama’s business-friendly actions have been mocked by the Administration as “purists” who “do not live in the real world,” who make “the perfect the enemy of the good” and who fail to grasp the necessity of “compromise” to “get things done.” When the Occupy Movement arose across the country to denounce the extreme over-concentration of U.S. wealth and power in New Gilded Age America, Obama responded by stealing some of Occupy’s language while his Administration engaged in a coordinated federal campaign to dismantle the movement’s many urban encampments. A curious twist on the hope of many naïve liberals and progressives that a “progressive” Obama was just waiting for popular pressure to “make me do it” (New Deal President Franklin Roosevelt’s advice to labor activists in the early 1930s)—the “it” signifying the passage of social-democratic policy. Occupy “made” the president sign off on stealth police state measures to repress a populist rebellion whose rhetoric he found useful in his fake-populist re-election campaign (against Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney), consistent with the once leftist Christopher Hitchens’s description of the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”

Heart of Darkness

street-conrad covLast September, Obama tried to justify his launching of a new U.S. war in Iraq and Syria by telling the United Nations that the cruelty of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “forces us to look into the heart of darkness.” It was an interesting choice of words. Heart of Darkness is the title of Joseph Conrad’s turn-of-the-20th century novel about a “civilized” white ivory trader’s trek down the Congo River into “barbarian” Central Africa. It’s a novel that many critics and readers have found to be fundamentally racist. That’s how young Barack Obama found Conrad’s novel when he was an undergraduate at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Look at the following passage in Obama’s autobiographical 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, from a section in which the future US president remembered hanging out with some of fellow Black students:

“the whole first year [at Occidental College] seemed like one long lie, me spending all my energy running around in circles, trying to cover my tracks…Except with Regina, the way she made me feel like I didn’t have to lie. Even that first time we me, the day she walked into the coffee shop and found Marcus giving me grief about my choice of reading material. Marcus had waved her over to our table, rising slightly to pull out a chair.”

“ ‘ Sister Regina,’ Marcus said, ‘You know Barack, don’t you? I’m trying to tell Brother Barack about this racist tract he’s reading.’ He held up a copy of Heart of Darkness, evidence for the court. I reached over to snatch it out of his hands.”

“ ‘Man, stop waving that thing around.’”

“ ‘See there,’ Marcus said, ‘Makes you embarrassed, don’t it – just being seen with a book like this. I’m telling you, man, this stuff will poison your mind.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Damn, I’m late for class.’ He leaned over and pecked Regina on the cheek. ‘Talk to this brother. I think he can still be saved.’”

‘Regina smiled and shook her head as we watched Marcus stride out the door. ‘Marcus is in one of his preaching moods, I see.’”

“I tossed the book into my backpack. ‘Actually, he’s right,’ I said. ‘It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa is the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”

“Regina blew on her coffee. ‘So why are you reading it?’”

“ ‘Because it’s assigned.’ I paused, not sure if I should go on. ‘And because – ’”

“ ‘Because…’”

“ ‘And because the book teaches me things,’ I said. ‘About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate” (emphasis added).

“ ‘And that’s important to you.’”

“My life depends on it, I thought to myself. But I didn’t tell Regina that. I just smiled and said, ‘That’s the only way to cure an illness, right? Diagnose it.’ ”

“No Just God”: Speaking of Demons, Fear, Hate and Things Unsaid….

Obama’s rhetoric on behalf of renewed U.S. War in the Middle East this last summer and fall suggests that he remains interested in the exploitation of demons and fear and the selective presentation of facts—things unsaid in connection with a nationally narcissistic and Euro-American view of the world to encourage the majority white U.S. populace to hate officially Evil non-white Others. Besides tarring ISIS with Conrad’s Eurocentric brush, the president proclaimed last August that “No just God would stand for what [ISIS militants]…do every single day.” ISIS, he said, represented “the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.”

  • What about S. client Israel’s recurrent slaughter (with U.S. weapons and ordnance) of hundreds of Palestinian children in Gaza, one of its regular exercises in “mowing the lawn?”
  • What about when (as has regularly occurred under Obama) the U.S. bombs a houseful and/or wedding party full of civilians in pursuit of one presidentially targeted “terrorist,” killing dozens in pursuit of a single official enemy?
  • How about the public beheadings that are routinely carried out for even petty crimes by Saudi Arabia, Washington’s “partner” in its re-escalated war on/of terror? How about the death of more than 500,000 children thanks to U.S.-led “economic sanctions” during the 1990s?
  • How about the open S. aerial murder (described by former participants as like “shooting fish in a barrel”) of many thousands of surrendered Iraq troops on the “Highway of Death” in February 1991?
  • How about the killing and maiming of more than a million Iraqis in the course of the monumentally criminal U.S. invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia beginning in March 2003?
  • What of U.S. assaults on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004—attacks that (among other horrific things) targeted hospitals and used radioactive ordnance that left “a toxic legacy…worse than Hiroshima” (UK journalist Patrick Cockburn), plaguing the city with an epidemic of child leukemia and birth defects?
  • Or Obama’s bombing of the Afghan village of Bola Boluk in May 2009? Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by S. explosives were children.
  • The Obama administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge S. responsibility. And the Pentagon’s revealing computer designation of ordinary Iraqis certain to be killed in the 2003 invasion as “bug- splat?”

Does any of that and more in the way of murderous and racist U.S. imperial arrogance and criminality make one look into “the heart of darkness?” What “just God” supports that sort of “civilized behavior?” Who will cure the “illness” of racial and imperial demonization and fear-mongering that fuels such dreadful wrongdoing, ghastly transgressions that provide essential context for the rise of the merciless Islamic State (in much the same way that a massive U.S. bombing campaign created the rise of the vicious Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the early 1970s)?

“What do you think of Western civilization?” a journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi. “I think it would be a good idea,” the great Indian independence leader replied.

It is unthinkable, of course, that Obama or anyone else in the U.S. political and media establishment would subject U.S. foreign policy to anything like the same moral scrutiny he aims at ISIS. “We lead the world,” candidate Obama explained seven years ago, “in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good…. America is the last, best hope of Earth….. America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom.”

Obama elaborated in his first Inaugural Address. “Our security,” the president said, “emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint”—a fascinating commentary on Fallujah, Hiroshima, the U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia, the “Highway of Death” and more.

In the televised address in which he informed the subject U.S. citizenry of his decision (made without any consultation of the populace) to attack Iraq and Syria last September, Obama gave voice to standard “American exceptionalist” doctrine. “America,” the president intoned, “our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden.  But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.  From Europe to Asia, from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East, we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity.  These are values that have guided our nation since its founding.”

Millions across the Middle East and the world can be forgiven for taking such words with more than a grain of salt. A world littered by U.S. crimes like the My Lai massacre (a relatively small transgression compared to the broader U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” [Noam Chomsky’s term at the time] between 1962 and 1975). The “Battles of Fallujah” and the bombing of Bola Boluk is understandably unimpressed with the extent to which U.S. global policies reflect “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” It’s for nothing that the U.S. consistently ranks in global opinion surveys as the leading threat to peace and security on the planet. “The Battles We Need to Fight”

Listening to Obama’s announcement of renewed U.S. war in the Middle East last September, I was moved to find then state senator Obama’s half-eloquent speech against then U.S. President George W. Bush’s clear plans to illegally invade Iraq in fall 2002. Here’s a key passage from that oration: “I am opposed to the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income—to distract us from corporate scandals…I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man…. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him…. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States…. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida…”

“You want a fight, President Bush?… Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, suppressing dissent and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.”

“Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair. The consequences of war are dire, the sacrifices immeasurable.”

Here we are 12 years later in the ever more openly plutocratic U.S., where the top hundredth owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.  Six Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42 percent of U.S. residents while 16 million U.S. children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.  One in seven U.S. citizens rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally).  These terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought us to a New Gilded Age of militantly bipartisan abject oligarchy and (along the way) to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

These savage disparities are heavily racialized. U.S. racial inequality is so steep in the Age of Obama that the median wealth of white U.S. households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black U.S. households.  The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty”—at less than half the poverty measure—compared to just more than 1 in 18 White, non-Hispanic children.

This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four- decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking.  More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

And who does President want to “pick a fight” with? Against whom and what does he wish to “battle?” The vicious and amoral “1%”—the scandal-ridden corporate and financial elite that profits from massive inequality, corruption, and endless war at home and abroad while advancing ecological destruction around the world? The big energy corporations that exploit Middle Eastern oil resources and the poison the climate? Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other despotic Middle Eastern states that supply those corporations, host U.S. military bases, and receive giant U.S. military backing? Poverty, despair, and savage, highly racialized economic inequality at home and abroad? Greed? Wall Street corruption? The distraction of the “homeland” populace away from domestic inequalities by diversionary dog-wagging wars abroad? With persistent underlying societal and institutional “homeland” racism?

street-forpoljpgNo. Obama, instead, has launched a fight with a (yes) brutal Middle Eastern enemy that (as Obama said of Saddam Hussein in 2002) “poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States”—a fight that that (to continue with Obama’s words 12 years ago) will “only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm[s]” of the Islamic State and al Qaeda’s many other offshoots. It’s a fight that will only reinforce inequality and repression at home, a regular outcome and bidden purpose behind imperial adventures. Washington’s “partners” in Obama’s war on ISIS include “the Saudis and the Egyptians,” who (more verbiage from Obama’s “antiwar” past) “oppress…their own people, and suppress… dissent, and tolerat[e]…corruption and inequality…so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”  Under Obama as under Bush and previous presidents,  Washington’s Sunni “partners” remain important to U.S. planners primarily because of the access they have given to U.S. and multinational oil corporations seeking to exploit and control the Persian Gulf region’s remarkable stock of fossil fuels—the very material whose capitalist over-extraction and burning are pushing the planet past the tipping points of livability.

Obama’s UN Address last September took place in the immediate aftermath of a giant, indeed historic, New York City march for action to stem catastrophic climate change. During his war speech, the president absurdly claimed that the U.S. leads the world in pressing for such action—a curious boast for the planet’s all-time top carbon emitter and the headquarters of corporate Big Carbon’s climate change denial industry.

Last December, Obama advanced some interesting reflections before some friends atop the U.S. business elite at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. “When you go to other countries.” Obama told a gathering of top business executives, “the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans…we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines.… People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter)…. I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked.”

As Danny Klatch commented at Socialist Worker, “It was a touching ruling class moment…a bunch of CEOs were able to sit down with their president…. Together, they shared a good laugh at the idea held by many ordinary people in both parties—that Obama and Corporate America are somehow on different sides.”

Fight racism? Obama has said less about race and racism than any Democratic U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt. He has continued his longstanding practice of lecturing Black Americans on their own personal and moral responsibility to take advantage of the “endless blessings” bestowed on what he has called “this magical place” (the U.S.).

Taking in the grand Orwellian absurdity of it all, I am reminded of a passage from young Obama’s Dreams From My Father, where Obama recalls the warning he got from an “old black poet” named Frank (in fact, the former U.S. Communist Party member Frank Marshall Davis) as he prepared to leave Honolulu and begin college in California: “What had Frank called college? An advanced degree in compromise. I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet, a few days before I left Hawaii…he had asked me what it was I expected to get out of college. I told him I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of these young cats out here. All you know is college is that college is the next things you’re supposed to do. And all the people who are old enough to know better, who fought all those years for your right to go to college—they’re just so happy to see you there that they won’t tell you the truth. The real price of admission.’”

“And what’s that?”

“ ‘Leaving your race at the door. Leaving your people behind…. Understand something, boy. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore…. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you’re a credit to your race….’.”

A Prophetic Warning

street-davis

Frank Davis’s warning seems more than a little prophetic three decades later. Obama’s ascendancy to the White House depended fundamentally on his “post-racial” campaign and presidency’s calculated determination to leave “race at the door”—a phenomenon that has been amply documented. Equally evident in the empirical record is candidate and president Obama’s formal allegiance—either sincere or disingenuous (my strong guess is the latter)—to “equal opportunity and the American way and all that…” Given the ultimate “corner office” (the Oval Office) by the white ruling class, he has been hailed as a credit if not to his race then certainly to purported remarkable racial progress—as “proof” that racism no longer poses serious obstacles to Black advancement and equality in the supposedly color-blind U.S.

For the purposes of this essay, however, the key phrase in Frank’s warning is “to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore.” Such manipulation has always been at the heart of the Obama phenomenon and presidency. It’s nothing new, of course. It’s long been at the heart of the reigning U.S. major party political culture where very little ever seems to change.

Z

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Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa. His latest book is They Rule: The 1 percent v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

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