How Putin buys popular support

a13-iconThis report was made in 2012 during the Russian presidential election, but it is probably just as relevant now as it was then.

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From Greece to Ukraine: welcome to the new age of resistance

f13-iconCostas Douzinas writes: Failure, defeat, persecution and the attendant paranoia are marks of the Left. The left has learned to be under attack, to fail, to lose and wallow in the defeat. An enduring masochism lurks in the best Leftist books: many are stories of failure and variable rationalisation. It is true that the Left has lost a lot: a united analysis and movement, the working class as political subject, the inexorable forward movement of history, planned economy as an alternative to capitalism.

It is also true that the falling masonry of the Berlin wall hit western socialists more than the old Stalinists. Using Freud’s terms, the necessary and liberating mourning for the love object of revolution has turned into permanent melancholy. In mourning, the libido finally withdraws from the lost object and is displaced on to another. In melancholy, it “withdraws into the ego”. This withdrawal serves to “establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object”.

Walter Benjamin has called this “Left melancholy”: the attitude of the militant who is attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal – and to the failure of that ideal – than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. For his part, Benjamin calls upon the left to grasp the “time of the now”, while for the melancholic, history is an “empty time” of repetition. Part of the Left is narcissistically fixed to its lost object with no obvious desire to abandon it. Left melancholy leads inexorably to the fetishism of small differences: politically, it appears in the interminable conflicts, splits and vituperation among erstwhile comrades. Attacks on the closest, the threatening double, are more vicious than those on the enemy. Theoretically, according to Benjamin, Left melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. In our contemporary setting, we have a return to a particular type of grand theory, which combines an obsession with the explanation of life, the universe and everything with the anxiety of influence. The shadows and ghosts of the previous generation of greats weigh down on the latest missionaries of the encyclopaedia.

The most important reason why radical theory has been unable to fully comprehend recent resistances is perhaps the “anxiety of the grand narrative”. A previous generation of radical intellectuals – such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Edward Thompson and Louis Althusser – had close links with the movements of their time. Contemporary radical philosophers are found more often in lecture rooms than street corners.

The wider “academisation” of radical theory and its close proximity with “interdisciplinary” and cultural studies departments has changed its character. These academic fields have been developed as a result of university funding priorities. They happily welcome the appeal of radical philosophers contributing to their celebrity value. But this weakening of the link between practice and theory has an adverse effect on theory construction. The desire for a “radical theory of everything” caused by the “anxiety of influence” created by the previous generation of philosophical greats does not help overcome the limitations of disembodied abstraction.

It is no surprise that many European Leftists are happy to celebrate the late Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales or Rafael Correa and to carry out radical politics by proxy, while ready to dismiss what happens in our part of the world as irrelevant or misguided. It may feel better to lose gloriously than to win, even with a few compromises.

Repeated defeats do not help the millions whose lives have been devastated by neoliberal capitalism and post-democratic governance. What the Left needs is not a new model party or an all-encompassing brilliant theory. It needs to learn from the popular resistances that broke out without leaders, parties or common ideology and to build on the energy, imagination and novel institutions created. The Left needs a few successes after a long interval of failures.

Greece is perhaps the best chance for the European Left. The persistent and militant resistances sank two austerity governments and currently Syriza, the radical left coalition, is likely to be the first elected radical government in Europe. The historical chance has been created not by party or theory but by ordinary people who are well ahead of both and adopted this small protest party as the vehicle that would complement in parliament the fights in the streets. The political and intellectual responsibility of radical intellectuals everywhere is to stand in solidarity with the Greek Left. [Continue reading...]

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Anatomy of the Deep State

Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.

– The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)

f13-iconMike Lofgren writes: There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.

During the last five years, the news media has been flooded with pundits decrying the broken politics of Washington. The conventional wisdom has it that partisan gridlock and dysfunction have become the new normal. That is certainly the case, and I have been among the harshest critics of this development. But it is also imperative to acknowledge the limits of this critique as it applies to the American governmental system. On one level, the critique is self-evident: In the domain that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly deadlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s, the violently rancorous decade preceding the Civil War.

As I wrote in The Party is Over, the present objective of congressional Republicans is to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (a goal that voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish). President Obama cannot enact his domestic policies and budgets: Because of incessant GOP filibustering, not only could he not fill the large number of vacancies in the federal judiciary, he could not even get his most innocuous presidential appointees into office. Democrats controlling the Senate have responded by weakening the filibuster of nominations, but Republicans are sure to react with other parliamentary delaying tactics. This strategy amounts to congressional nullification of executive branch powers by a party that controls a majority in only one house of Congress.

Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement. Abroad, President Obama can start wars at will and engage in virtually any other activity whatsoever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, such as arranging the forced landing of a plane carrying a sovereign head of state over foreign territory. Despite the habitual cant of congressional Republicans about executive overreach by Obama, the would-be dictator, we have until recently heard very little from them about these actions — with the minor exception of comments from gadfly Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats, save a few mavericks such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not unduly troubled, either — even to the extent of permitting seemingly perjured congressional testimony under oath by executive branch officials on the subject of illegal surveillance. [Continue reading...]

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It’s time to rethink our nightmares about surveillance

f13-iconThis is an excerpt from Zeynep Tufekci’s article at Matter — but don’t just read this, read her whole piece: I was in Philadelphia when the protests in Istanbul exploded, at a gathering called Data-Crunched Democracy, hosted by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. It was supposed to be exciting, and a little contentious. But I’m also a scholar of social movements and new technologies. I’d visited Tahrir, the heart of the Egyptian uprising, and Zuccotti Square, the birthplace of the Occupy movement. And now new technology was helping to power protests in Istanbul, my hometown. The epicenter, Gezi Park, is just a few blocks from the hospital where I was born.

So there I was, at a conference I had been looking forward to for months, sitting in the back row, tweeting about tear gas in Istanbul.

A number of high-level staff from the data teams of the Obama and Romney campaigns were there, which meant that a lot of people who probably did not like me very much were in the room. A few months earlier, in an op-ed in the New York Times, I’d argued that richer data for the campaigns could mean poorer democracy for the rest of us. Political campaigns now know an awful lot about American voters, and they will use that to tailor the messages we see — to tell us the things we want to hear about their policies and politicians, while obscuring messages we may dislike.

Of course, these tactics are as old as politics. But the digital era has brought new ways of implementing them. Pointing this out had earned me little love from the campaigns. The former data director on the Obama campaign, writing later in the Times, caricatured and then dismissed my concerns. He claimed that people thought he was “sifting through their garbage for discarded pages from their diaries” — a notion he described as a “bunch of malarkey.” He’s right: Political campaigns don’t rummage through trashcans. They don’t have to. The information they want is online, and they most certainly sift through it.

What we do know about their use of “big data” — the common shorthand for the massive amounts of data now available on everyone — is worrisome. In 2012, again in the Times, reporter Charles Duhigg revealed that Target can often predict when a female customer is pregnant, often in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, and sometimes even before she has told anyone. This is valuable information, because childbirth is a time of big change, including changes in consumption patterns. It’s an opportunity for brands to get a hook into you — a hook that may last decades, as over-worked parents tend to return to the same brands out of habit. Duhigg recounted how one outraged father, upset at the pregnancy- and baby-related coupons Target had mailed to his teenage daughter, visited his local store and demanded to see the manager. He got an apology, but later apologized himself: His daughter, it turned out, was pregnant. By analyzing changes in her shopping — which could be as subtle as changes in her choice in moisturizers, or the purchase of certain supplements — Target had learned that she was expecting before he did.

Personalized marketing is not new. But so much more can be done with the data now available to corporations and governments. In one recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed that mere knowledge of the things that a person has “liked” on Facebook can be used to build a highly accurate profile of the subject, including their “sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender.” In a separate study, another group of researchers were able to infer reasonably reliable scores on certain traits — psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism — from Facebook status updates. A third team showed that social media data, when analyzed the right way, contains evidence of the onset of depression.

Remember, these researchers did not ask the people they profiled a single question. It was all done by modeling. All they had to do was parse the crumbs of data that we drop during our online activities. And the studies that get published are likely the tip of the iceberg: The data is almost always proprietary, and the companies that hold it do not generally tell us what they do with it.

When the time for my panel arrived, I highlighted a recent study in Nature on voting behavior. By altering a message designed to encourage people to vote so that it came with affirmation from a person’s social network, rather than being impersonal, the researchers had shown that they could persuade more people to participate in an election. Combine such nudges with psychological profiles, drawn from our online data, and a political campaign could achieve a level of manipulation that exceeds that possible via blunt television adverts.

How might they do it in practice? Consider that some people are prone to voting conservative when confronted with fearful scenarios. If your psychological profile puts you in that group, a campaign could send you a message that ignites your fears in just the right way. And for your neighbor who gets mad at scaremongering? To her, they’ll present a commitment to a minor policy that the campaign knows she’s interested in — and make it sound like it’s a major commitment. It’s all individualized. It’s all opaque. You don’t see what she sees, and she doesn’t see what you see.

Given the small margins by which elections get decided — a fact well understood by the political operatives who filled the room — I argued that it was possible that minor adjustments to Facebook or Google’s algorithms could tilt an election. [Continue reading...]

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The parallels between American slavery and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians

o13-iconEva Illouz writes: [T]he critiques of Israel in the United States are increasingly waged by Jews, not anti-Semites. The initiators and leaders of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement are such respected academics as Judith Butler, Jacqueline Rose, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Rose and Larry Gross, all Jews.

If Israel is indeed singled out among the many nations that have a bad record in human rights, it is because of the personal sense of shame and embarrassment that a large number of Jews in the Western world feel toward a state that, by its policies and ethos, does not represent them anymore. As Peter Beinart has been cogently arguing for some time now, the Jewish people seems to have split into two distinct factions: One that is dominated by such imperatives as “Israeli security,” “Jewish identity” and by the condemnation of “the world’s double standards” and “Arabs’ unreliability”; and a second group of Jews, inside and outside Israel, for whom human rights, freedom, and the rule of law are as visceral and fundamental to their identity as membership to Judaism is for the first group. Supreme irony of history: Israel has splintered the Jewish people around two radically different moral visions of Jews and humanity.

If we are to find an appropriate analogy to understand the rift inside the Jewish people, let us agree that the debate between the two groups is neither ethnic (we belong to the same ethnic group) nor religious (the Judith Butlers of the world are not trying to push a new or different religious dogma, although the rift has a certain, but imperfect, overlap with the religious-secular positions). Nor is the debate a political or ideological one, as Israel is in fact still a democracy. Rather, the poignancy, acrimony and intensity of the debate are about two competing and ultimately incompatible conceptions of morality.
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[W]hat started as a national and military conflict has morphed into a form of domination of Palestinians that now increasingly borders on conditions of slavery. If we understand slavery as a condition of existence and not as ownership and trade of human bodies, the domination that Israel has exercised over Palestinians turns out to have created the matrix of domination that I call a “condition of slavery.”

The Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Ministry has documented that between 1967 and 2012, Israeli authorities arrested some 800,000 Palestinians by power of the “military code.” (A more conservative assessment from Israeli sources documented that 700,000 Palestinians were detained between 1967 and 2008.) This number is astounding, especially in light of the fact that this represents as much as 40 percent of the entire male population. When a large part of the adult male population is arrested, it means that the lives of a large number of breadwinners, the heads of a family, are disrupted, alienated and made into the object of the arbitrary power of the army. In fact, which nation would create a Prisoner Affairs Ministry if imprisonment was not such a basic aspect of its life?

These facts also mean that a significant portion of the non-incarcerated population lives under the constant fear and threat of imprisonment. [Continue reading...]

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NSA surveillance is the least shocking among recent subversions of democracy

f13-iconIn a conversation with Kamila Shamsie, Pankaj Mishra says: [A] part of me doesn’t understand why we are so shocked and appalled by the excesses of the NSA. Have we forgotten about the Cold War and the innumerable hot wars, not to mention the numerous assaults on ordinary moral sense by the “free world”?

Our tolerance of the intolerable found a low threshold as early as the late 1950s with the grotesque excesses of McCarthyism, which destroyed so many honest lives, and then with the insane nuclear arms race and confrontations. That’s when the Dr. Strangeloves first emerged, and the shape of the sinisterly invasive and the ferociously armed national security states people in the West live under today was fixed. No wonder that Václav Havel wrote, remarkably, while living under a repressive communist regime that Western Cold Warriors wishing to get rid of the political system he belonged to were like the “ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror which reminds her of it.” “Even if they won,” Havel said, “the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.” And that the West would eventually construct its own Gulag “in the name of country, democracy, progress, and war discipline.”

Alas, Havel’s prophecy seems too close to the actuality of the free world today — Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, torture, extrajudicial killings by drones. All this going on while the plutocrats at home grab a few more yachts and mansions. And the NSA actually is the least shocking among the many recent flagrant subversions of democratic values.

We’ve seen an institutionalized conservatism in most mainstream periodicals, if not small magazines, since the 1980s, and a general depoliticization everywhere disguised by the strident partisanship of politicians and lobbyists. It’s only in recent years with younger writers and magazines like n+1, The New Inquiry, The Baffler, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and others that some of those older traditions of American dissent have been revitalized. Otherwise, an ironic but superior knowingness was the hegemonic intellectual and literary mode for a long time.

Not surprisingly, despite all the immense cultural power accumulated in New York and London, which keeps so many of us fixated with Anglo-American writing, the writers who have radically expanded our ideas of literature and of the individual self and the world at large in the post-WWII era have mostly come from the “suburbs” or the “periphery” — Borges, Paz, Camus, Neruda, Miłosz, Szymborska, García Márquez, Lessing, Naipaul, Gordimer, Achebe, Atwood, to take some very different examples, and the evidence becomes even more formidable if you include Irish writers.

Today, practically every country outside the West is undergoing an intellectual, political, and cultural churning, from China to Bolivia, Egypt to Indonesia, but we haven’t really had, after the 1960s, a major oppositional culture in Western Europe and America. The Occupy movement was so startling and welcome partly because it was the first such eruption of mass protests in decades. That’s one of the many reasons why we, especially those of us in depoliticized and pacified societies, need to cast a colder eye at our self-perceptions, now and in the past, as sentinels and embodiments of Enlightenment virtues of reason, dissent, and skepticism. And it is this capacity for relentless self-criticism that should be — everywhere — the true measure of intellectual freedom and cosmopolitanism, not the entrenched cultural power and self-congratulatory moral rhetoric of some people in countries long accustomed to telling other societies what to do and how to behave.

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Video: America as a horror show

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The Egyptian disaster

OpinionRoger Cohen writes: In Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry talked for a long time about Iran. He talked for a long time about Syria. He talked for a very long time about Israel-Palestine. And he had nothing to say about Egypt.

This was a glaring omission. Egypt, home to about a quarter of all Arabs and the fulcrum of the Arab Spring, is in a disastrous state. Tahrir Square, emblem of youthful hope and anti-dictatorial change three years ago, is home now to Egyptians baying for a military hero with the trappings of a new Pharaoh to trample on the “terrorists” of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, in a speech devoted to rebutting what he called “this disengagement myth” — the notion that a war-weary United States is retreating from the Middle East — Kerry was silent on a nation that is a United States ally, the recipient of about $1.3 billion a year in military aid (some suspended), and the symbol today of the trashing of American hopes for a more inclusive, tolerant and democratic order in the Middle East.

The silence was telling. The Obama administration has been all over the place on Egypt, sticking briefly with Hosni Mubarak, then siding with his ouster, then working hard to establish productive relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and its democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, then backing the military coup that removed Morsi six months ago (without calling it a coup) and finally arguing, in the words of Kerry last August, that the military headed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was “restoring democracy.” [Continue reading...]

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What killed Egyptian democracy?

Mohammad Fadel writes: On February 11, 2011, after eighteen days of protests, Hosni Mubarak resigned as President of Egypt. Now, three years later, the Egyptian security state appears to have re-established political control of the country.

Why did the democratic transition fail? Answers range widely. Some blame the poorly designed transition process, which made trust among different political groups unachievable. Others point to a lack of leadership within Egypt’s political organizations, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Still others focus on a devastating economic crisis that post-Mubarak governments could never address given the political divisions within the country.

These explanations are plausible and not mutually exclusive. But they all miss something important. The January 25 Revolution was also a striking failure of political theory. More precisely, it was a failure of the theories embraced by the most idealistic revolutionaries. Their demands were too pure; they refused to accord any legitimacy to a flawed transition—and what transition is not flawed?—that could only yield a flawed democracy. They made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists generally were politically liberal. But the problem does not lie in liberalism itself. The problem lies in a faulty understanding of the implications of political liberalism in the Egyptian context—an insufficient appreciation of factors that limited what could reasonably be achieved in the short term. A more sophisticated liberalism would have accounted for these realities. [Continue reading...]

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In Egypt the old state has won, to great applause

Sarah Carr writes: A referendum on the constitution is rarely about the document itself, but more than any previous plebiscite this vote is about sticking two fingers up at the Brotherhood and expressing varying levels of confidence/adoration in the army and more specifically the person of Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fatah el Sisi.

Voters repeatedly linked a “yes” to the constitution with a “yes to Sisi” yesterday. His picture was everywhere, and in some quarters he is regarded as the second coming. One man actually said this, that Sisi was “sent” to protect Egypt. I remembered 2011, and the Islamists and their rhetoric, a “yes” vote is a vote for Islam. It’s still all about interchangeable deities in the end.

One interesting aspect of all this is that Mubarak was noticeably absent from the military effigies (Nasser, Sadat, Sisi) plastered everywhere, but his spirit permeated everything. He bequeathed the current situation to Egypt, after all, the us vs. them mindset, the suspicion of political or cultural otherness, that idea that Egypt, and Egyptian identity, must be a fortress against interlopers and the ease with which the threat of such interlopers, real or imagined, can steer the country’s course.

This referendum is part of that legacy. It is another brick in the wall of the security state and its relentless homogeneity. In January 2011, there was a small crack put in that wall and we were given a glimpse of a new possibility, of new faces, and new political forces. But through a tragic and increasingly inevitable combination of their own inexperience, blind trust and the public’s unwillingness to back an unknown entity, they were eventually shut out of the public space and we were reduced to the same old tired binary of Islamists and the old state — just like Mubarak promised us.

Now the old state has won, to great applause, and there is absolutely no room for difference, all in the name of stability and progress. [Continue reading...]

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Koch-backed political coalition, designed to shield donors, raised $400 million in 2012

The Washington Post reports: The political network spearheaded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch has expanded into a far-reaching operation of unrivaled complexity, built around a maze of groups that cloaks its donors, according to an analysis of new tax returns and other documents.

The filings show that the network of politically active nonprofit groups backed by the Kochs and fellow donors in the 2012 elections financially outpaced other independent groups on the right and, on its own, matched the long-established national coalition of labor unions that serves as one of the biggest sources of support for Democrats.

The resources and the breadth of the organization make it singular in American politics: an operation conducted outside the campaign finance system, employing an array of groups aimed at stopping what its financiers view as government overreach. Members of the coalition target different constituencies but together have mounted attacks on the new health-care law, federal spending and environmental regulations.

Key players in the Koch-backed network have already begun engaging in the 2014 midterm elections, hiring new staff members to expand operations and strafing House and Senate Democrats with hard-hitting ads over their support for the Affordable Care Act.

Its funders remain largely unknown; the coalition was carefully constructed with extensive legal barriers to shield its donors. [Continue reading...]

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Why won’t the West call out Saudi Arabia for persecution of democratic activists?

Andy Fitzgerald writes: At the memorial for Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama eulogized the fallen leader:

Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement – a movement that at its start held little prospect of success. Like [Martin Luther] King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed.

Listening in the crowd sat Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s second deputy prime minister. Apparently the words were lost on the government His Royal Highness was representing (though it’s questionable he even relayed the message), because within the next week, a Saudi judge sentenced democratic activist Omar al-Saeed to 4 years in prison and 300 lashes. His crime: calling for a constitutional monarchy (a government that would likely outlaw such cruel and unusual punishment).

Saeed is a member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (Acpra), an organization documenting human rights abuses and calling for democratic reform. He is its fourth member to be sentenced to prison this year. In March, co-founders Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani (who I have met in the past, and previously wrote about) and Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to prison terms of 10 and 5 years on charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and running an unlicensed political organization – despite repeated attempts to obtain a license.

Not surprisingly, there has been no strong public statement from the Obama administration regarding Saeed’s sentencing. [Continue reading...]

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Noam Chomsky: We’re no longer a functioning democracy, we’re really a plutocracy

Raw Story: The world faces two potentially existential threats, according to the linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky.

“There are two major dark shadows that hover over everything, and they’re getting more and more serious,” Chomsky said. “The one is the continuing threat of nuclear war that has not ended. It’s very serious, and another is the crisis of ecological, environmental catastrophe, which is getting more and more serious.”

Chomsky appeared Friday on the last episode of NPR’s “Smiley and West” program to discuss his education, his views on current affairs and how he manages to spread his message without much help from the mainstream media.

He told the hosts that the world was racing toward an environmental disaster with potentially lethal consequence, which the world’s most developed nations were doing nothing to prevent – and in fact were speeding up the process.

“If there ever is future historians, they’re going to look back at this period of history with some astonishment,” Chomsky said. “The danger, the threat, is evident to anyone who has eyes open and pays attention at all to the scientific literature, and there are attempts to retard it, there are also at the other end attempts to accelerate the disaster, and if you look who’s involved it’s pretty shocking.”

Chomsky noted efforts to halt environmental damage by indigenous people in countries all over the world – from Canada’s First Nations to tribal people in Latin America and India to aboriginal people in Australia—but the nation’s richest, most advanced and most powerful countries, such as the United States, were doing nothing to forestall disaster.

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Chas Freeman on Snowden and snooping

The former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas W. Freeman, said at MIT on Thursday: We live in what the National Security Agency [NSA] has called “the golden age of SIGINT [signals intelligence].” We might have guessed this. We now know it for a fact because of a spectacular act of civil disobedience by Edward Snowden. His is perhaps the most consequential such act for both our domestic liberties and our foreign relations in the more than two century-long history of our republic.

This past spring, Mr. Snowden decided to place his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” and his allegiance to the Bill of Rights above his contractual obligations to the intelligence community and the government for which it snoops. He blew the whistle on NSA’s ruthless drive for digital omniscience. When he did this, he knew that many of his fellow citizens would impugn his patriotism. He also knew he would be prosecuted for violating the growing maze of legislation that criminalizes revelations about the national security practices of America’s post-9/11 warfare state.

Mr. Snowden does not dispute that he is guilty of legally criminal acts. But he places himself in the long line of Americans convinced, as Martin Luther King put it, that “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” As someone long in service to our country, I am upset by such defiance of authority. As an American, I am not.

Like Henry David Thoreau and many others in protest movements in our country over the past century and a half, Mr. Snowden deliberately broke the law to bring to public attention government behavior he considered at odds with the U.S. Constitution, American values, and the rule of law. One point he wanted to make was that we Americans now live under a government that precludes legal or political challenges to its own increasingly deviant behavior. Our government has criminalized the release of information exposing such behavior or revealing the policies that authorize it. The only way to challenge its policies and activities is to break the law by exposing them. [Continue reading...]

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Mandela’s unfinished revolution

T.O. Molefe writes: For all his remarkable achievements, Nelson Mandela died with his dream for South Africa incomplete. Democracy and peace were attained, yet real racial harmony, social justice and equality seem, in some ways, further away than ever.

South Africa’s economy still stifles the aspirations of most of its black citizens — a situation that threatens the sustainability of the project of national reconciliation that is a central part of the Mandela legacy.

When I am able to detach myself from the anger I feel over this injustice, I see the South Africa that Mr. Mandela described in his 1994 inaugural address — “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” — as but the opening move of a master tactician. It represented the brief suspension of reality for the sake of an endgame Mr. Mandela knew he would not be around to play.

Mr. Mandela’s rainbow ideal of a multiracial country that had avoided civil war, where blacks had forgiven whites for apartheid and everyone had learned to live together, was great and necessary for its time. But it is an ideal that should be laid to rest with him. Today, an economic revolution is what is needed most if South Africa is to continue on the path to reconciliation.

Like many of the transitional steps on the road to democracy, the rainbow-nation ideal was needed to hold together a country that was on the verge of fracturing. It did this by assuaging white guilt and putting off the black majority’s demand for immediate social justice.

In the 1990s, together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mr. Mandela popularized a new national self-image that made it possible to focus mainly on racial reconciliation, strengthening democratic institutions and creating a free press — all prerequisites for turning a tentative peace into a more lasting one.

In pursuit of this rainbow ideal, Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress had to silence, mollify or sideline certain allies within the liberation movement who not only demanded a democratic revolution but an economic one, too. But the price of deferring the dream of true equality was to leave the country lurching dangerously toward an explosion.

For the poorer black majority of South Africans, the unheralded heroes who have sacrificed so much in the transition to democracy that Mr. Mandela led, social justice has been held in abeyance, ostensibly for the sake of peace, as though the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” did not apply to them. [Continue reading...]

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Bill Moyers: Covering class war

If you’ve heard the phrase “class war” in twenty-first-century America, the odds are that it’s been a curse spat from the mouths of Republican warriors castigating Democrats for engaging in high crimes and misdemeanors like trying to tax the rich.  Back in 2011, for example, President Obama’s modest proposal of a “millionaire tax” was typically labeled “class warfare” and he was accused by Congressman Paul Ryan, among others, of heading down the “class warfare path.”  Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney and other Republican presidential hopefuls blasted the president for encouraging “class warfare” by attacking entrepreneurial success. In the face of such charges, Democrats invariably go on the defensive, denying that they are in any way inciters of class warfare.  In the meantime, unions and the poor are blasted by the same right-wing crew for having the devastatingly bad taste to act in a manner that supposedly might lead to such conflict. 

In our own time, to adapt a classic line slightly, how the mighty have risen!  And that story could be told in terms of the fate of the phrase “class war,” which deserves its Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart moment.  After all, for at least a century, it was a commonplace in an all-American lexicon in which “class struggle,” “working class,” and “plutocrat” were typical everyday words and it was used not to indict those on the bottom but the rich of whatever gilded age we were passing into or out of.  It was essentially purged from the national vocabulary in the economic good times (and rabidly anti-communist years) after World War II, only to resurface with the Republican resurgence of the 1980s as a way to dismiss anyone challenging those who controlled ever more of the wealth and power in America. 

It was a phrase, that is, impounded by Republicans in the name of, and in the defense of, those who were already impounding so much else in American life.  All you have to do is take a look at recent figures on income and wealth inequality, on where the money’s really going in this society, to recognize the truth of Warren Buffet’s famed comment: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Recently, Bill Moyers (who needs no introduction) gave a speech at the Brennan Center in New York City in which he laid out what class warfare really means in this society.  The first appearance of the host of Moyers & Company at TomDispatch is a full-throated call to save what’s left of American democracy from — another of those banned words that should come back into use — the plutocrats.  Tom Engelhardt

The great American class war
Plutocracy versus democracy
By Bill Moyers

I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document.  By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation, and — in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular — the defense of a free press.

Those decisions brought a storm of protest from across the country.  He claimed that he never took personally the resentment and anger directed at him.  He did, however, subsequently reveal that his own mother told him she had always liked his opinions when he was on the New Jersey court, but wondered now that he was on the Supreme Court, “Why can’t you do it the same way?” His answer: “We have to discharge our responsibility to enforce the rights in favor of minorities, whatever the majority reaction may be.”  

Although a liberal, he worried about the looming size of government. When he mentioned that modern science might be creating “a Frankenstein,” I asked, “How so?”  He looked around his chambers and replied, “The very conversation we’re now having can be overheard. Science has done things that, as I understand it, makes it possible through these drapes and those windows to get something in here that takes down what we’re talking about.” 

That was long before the era of cyberspace and the maximum surveillance state that grows topsy-turvy with every administration.  How I wish he were here now — and still on the Court!

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