Thursday, December 31, 2009

Obama's Expanding War On Terra

By Pete Stanislaw, Get Off This!

A new front is revealed in our Nobel Peace Laureate President's war for the last few resources left on Terra. That front is Yemen, with cruise missile attacks ordered by the commander-in-chief against alleged "al-Qaeda" targets for the purpose - we are repeatedly told - of fighting the threat of terrorism. The last cowardly lobbing of incredibly powerful ordnance across the Yemeni border killed a large group of high school-age boys. This brings the total of largely Muslim nations that our government's military is either occupying or bombing the shit out of from a safe distance to five - Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Yemen, the last two added since the new administration took office on a surge of pro-peace votes.

Since Yemen has been acknowledged to be a "covert" front in the alleged war on terror (until now), there may be others our government doesn't think we should know about. At this point, our docility in the face of utter lies and proclaimed absurdities is comic in the extreme. Whoever still believes that these violent interventions have anything at all to do with fighting terrorism is suffering from willful blindness.

In the last eight years, our government's military has done more to expand the cause(s) of terrorism on the planet than any nation accused (by our government) of "harboring" or "sponsoring" terrorists. The story for the mediated masses has always been that we have to "get in there and smoke 'em out", which makes for entertaining movies but lousy international relations, especially since it only takes 3 minutes of rational thought to realize that terrorism and terrorists are red herrings. How in hell does killing civilians in poor Muslim nations fight against angry extremists? Wouldn't such actions produce more angry extremists? Yes they would and indeed they do!

The object has never changed. Control over the resources which are absolutely necessary to sustain our wasteful and largely ignorant lifestyles remains the rationale for mass murder of those who happen to occupy the earth above said resources. The continued war and occupation in Afghanistan by the US forces as well as the puppet government we have entrenched there has much more to do with the completion and the securing of two oil and natural gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea across Afghanistan from existing Turkmenistan fields. They would continue through Pakistan to shipping ports in the south. Unfortunately, they will have to pass through areas controlled by the theocratic Taliban, who are actively maneuvering for position in whatever government should result in the aftermath of the violence. These fighters for their perceived birthright are known in the US mass media as "insurgents". One would do well to realize that they were here before our government's military was. This is their nation, when imperial powers aren't occupying it. But I digress.

My point is this: As Alexander Cockburn said in Counterpunch two months ago, President Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize should come as acknowledgement that absurdity is part and parcel of the human condition. That he can order cruise missiles to be launched over sovereign borders the world over and still be regarded by the Nobel Committee as deserving of a Peace Prize is patently absurd.

Remember, Henry Kissinger has one too...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Chavez's Venezuela

An Interview With Eva Golinger
By Mike Whitney, Counterpunch

Eva Golinger is a Venezuelan-American attorney from New York living in Caracas, Venezuela since 2005 and author of “The Chávez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela” (2006 Olive Branch Press), “Bush vs. Chávez: Washington’s War on Venezuela” (2007, Monthly Review Press), “The Empire’s Web: Encyclopedia of Interventionism and Subversion”, “La Mirada del Imperio sobre el 4F: Los Documentos Desclasificados de Washington sobre la rebelión militar del 4 de febrero de 1992” and "La Agresión Permanente: USAID, NED y CIA".
Mike Whitney: The US media is very critical of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He's frequently denounced as "anti-American", a "leftist strongman", and a dictator.  Can you briefly summarize some of the positive social, economic and judicial changes for which Chavez is mainly responsible?
Eva Golinger: The first and foremost important achievement during the Chávez administration is the 1999 Constitution, which, although not written nor decreed by Chávez himself, was created through his vision of change for Venezuela. The 1999 Constitution was, in fact, drafted - written - by the people of Venezuela in one of the most participatory examples of nation building, and then was ratified through popular national referendum by 75 per cent of Venezuelans. The 1999 Constitution is one of the most advanced in the world in the area of human rights. It guarantees the rights to housing, education, healthcare, food, indigenous lands, languages, women's rights, worker's rights, living wages and a whole host of other rights that few other countries recognize on a national level.
My favorite right in the Venezuelan Constitution is the right to a dignified life. That pretty much sums up all the others. Laws to implement these rights began to surface in 2001, with land reform, oil industry redistribution, tax laws and the creation of more than a dozen social programs - called missions - dedicated to addressing the basic needs of Venezuela's poor majority. In 2003, the first missions were directed at education and healthcare. Within two years, illiteracy was eradicated in the country and Venezuela was certified by UNESCO as a nation free of illiteracy. This was done with the help of a successful Cuban literacy program called "Yo si puedo" (Yes I can). Further educational missions were created to provide free universal education from primary to doctoral levels throughout the country. Today, Venezuela's population is much more educated than before, and adults who previously had no high school education now are encouraged to not only go through a secondary school program, but also university and graduate school.
The healthcare program, called "Barrio Adentro", has not only provided preventive healthcare to all Venezuelans - many who never had access to a doctor before - but also has guaranteed universal, free access to medical attention at the most advanced levels. MRIs, heart surgery, lab work, cancer treatments, are all provided free of cost to anyone (including foreigners) in need. Some of the most modern clinics, diagnostic treatment centers and hospitals have been built in the past five years under this program, placing Venezuela at the forefront of medical technology.
Other programs providing subsidized food and consumer products (Mercal, Pdval), job training (Mission Vuelvan Caras), subsidies to poor, single mothers (Madres del Barrio), attention to indigents and drug addicts (Mission Negra Hipolita) have reduced extreme poverty by 50 per cent and raised Venezuelans standard of living and quality of life. While nothing is perfect, these changes are extraordinary and have transformed Venezuela into a nation far different from what it looked like 10 years ago. In fact, the most important achievement that Hugo Chávez himself is directly responsible for is the level of participation in the political process. Today, millions of Venezuelans previously invisible and excluded are visible and included. Those who were always marginalized and ignored in Venezuela by prior governments today have a voice, are seen and heard, and are actively participating in the building of a new economic, political and social model in their country.
Whitney: On Monday, President Chavez threw a Venezuelan judge in jail on charges of abuse of power for freeing a high-profile banker. Do you think he overstepped his authority as executive or violated the principle of separation of powers? What does this say about Chavez's resolve to fight corruption?
Eva Golinger: President Chávez did not put anyone in jail. Venezuela has an Attorney General and an independent branch of government in charge of public prosecutions. Chávez did publicly accuse the judge of corruption and violating the law because that judge overstepped her authority by releasing an individual charged with corruption and other criminal acts from detention, despite the fact that a previous court had not granted conditional freedom or bail to the suspect. And, the judge released the suspect in a very irregular way, without the presence of the prosecutor, and through a back door. The suspect then fled the country. 
This is part of Venezuela's fight against corruption. Unfortunately - as in a lot of countries - corruption is deeply rooted in the culture. The struggle to eradicate corruption is probably the most difficult of all and will probably not be achieved until new generations have grown up with different values and education. In the meantime, the Chávez administration is trying hard to ensure that corrupt public officials pay the consequences. That judge, for example, engaged in an act of corruption and abuse of authority by illegally releasing a suspect and therefore was charged by the Public Prosecutor's office and will be tried. It has nothing to do with what Chávez said or didn't say, it has to do with enforcing the law.
Whitney: Why is the United States building military bases in Colombia? Do they pose a threat to Chavez or the Bolivarian Revolution?
Eva Golinger: On October 30, the US formally entered into an agreement with the Colombian government to allow US access to seven military bases in  Colombia and unlimited use of Colombian territory for military operations. The agreement itself is purported to be directed at counter-narcotics operations and counter-terrorism. But a US Air Force document released earlier this year discussing the need for a stronger US military presence in Colombia revealed the true intentions behind the military agreement. The document stated that the US military presence was necessary to combat the "constant threat from anti-US governments in the region". Clearly, that is a reference to Venezuela, and probably Bolivia, maybe Ecuador. It's no secret that Washington considers the Venezuelan government anti-US, though it's not true. Venezuela is anti-imperialist, but not anti-US. The US Air Force document also stated that the Colombian bases would be used to engage in "full spectrum military operations" throughout South America, and even talked about surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance missions, and improving the capacity of US forces to execute "expeditionary warfare" in Latin America.
Clearly, this is a threat to the peoples of Latin America and particularly those nations targeted, such as Venezuela. Most people in the US don't know about this military agreement, but it they did, they should question why their government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, is preparing for war in South America. And, in the midst of an economic crisis with millions of people in the US losing jobs and homes, why are millions of dollars being spent on military bases in Colombia? The US Congress already approved $46 million for one of the bases in Colombia. And surely more funds will be supplied in the future.
Whitney: What is ALBA? Is it a viable alternative to the "free trade" blocs promoted by the US? 
Eva Golinger: The Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas - Trade Agreement for the People, is a regional agreement created five years ago between Venezuela and Cuba, and now has 9 members: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Dominica. ALBA is a trade agreement based on integration, cooperation and solidarity, contrary to US trade agreements which are based on competition and exploitation. It promotes a way of trading between nations that assures mutual benefits. For example, Venezuela sells oil to Cuba and Cuba pays with services - doctors, educators and technological experts that help to improve Venezuela's industries. Venezuela sells oil to Nicaragua and Nicaragua pays with food products, agricultural technology and aide to build Venezuela's own agricultural industry, which long ago was abandoned by prior governments only interested in the rich oil industry. ALBA seeks to not just provide economic benefits to its member nations, but also social and cultural advances. The idea is to find ways to help members develop and progress in all aspects of society. ALBA recently created a new currency, the SUCRE, which will be used as a form of exchange between member nations, eliminating the US dollar as the standard for trade.
Whitney: Are US NGOs and intelligence agents still trying to foment political instability in Venezuela or have those operations ceased since the failed coup? 
Eva Golinger: In fact, the funding of political groups in Venezuela, and others throughout Latin America that promote US agenda, has increased since the April 2002 coup against President Chávez. Through two principal Department of State agencies, USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US government has channeled more than $50 million to opposition groups in Venezuela since 2002. The USAID/NED budget to fund groups in Venezuela in 2010 is nearly $15 million, doubled from last year's $7 million. This is a state policy of Washington, which the Obama Administration plans to amp up. They call it "democracy promotion", but it's really democracy subversion and destabilization. Funding political groups favorable to Empire, equipping them with resources, strategizing to help formulate political platforms and campaigns - all geared towards regime change - is a new form of invasion, a silent invasion. Through USAID and NED, and their "partner NGOs" and contractors, such as Freedom House, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, Pan-American Development Foundation and Development Alternatives, Inc., hundreds of political groups, parties and programs are presently being funded in Venezuela to promote regime change against the Chávez government. US taxpayer dollars are being squandered on these efforts to overthrow a democratically elected government that simply isn't convenient for Washington. Remember, Venezuela has 24 per cent  of world oil reserves. That's a lot!
Whitney: How hard has Venezuela been hit by the economic crisis? Do the people understand Wall Street's role in the meltdown? 
Eva Golinger: Actually, the Chávez government has taken important steps to shelter Venezuela from the financial crisis. People here in Venezuela absolutely understand Wall Street's role in the crisis and know that the US capitalist-consumerist system is principally responsible for causing the financial crisis, but also the climate crisis that the world is facing. The Venezuelan government took preventive steps against the financial crisis, such as withdrawing Venezuela's reserves from US banks two years ago, creating cushion funds to ensure social programs would not be cut and diversifying Venezuela's oil clientele so as not to be dependent solely on US clients. Recently, several banks have been nationalized by the Venezuelan government and others have been liquidated. But this was more due to the mismanagement and internal corruption within those banks. The Venezuelan government reacted quickly to take over the banks and guarantee customers' savings would not be lost. In fact, it's the first time in Venezuela's history that no customers have lost any of their money during a bank liquidation or takeover. This is part of the Chávez Administration's policy of prioritizing social needs over economic gain.
Whitney: Here's an excerpt from a special weekend report by Bloomberg News: "Americans have grown gloomier about both the economy and the nation’s direction over the past three months even as the U.S. shows signs of moving from recession to recovery. Almost half the people now feel less financially secure than when President Barack Obama took office in January... Fewer than 1 in 3 Americans think the economy will improve in the next six months... Only 32 per cent of poll respondents believe the country is headed in the right direction, down from 40 percent who said so in September." The frustration and disillusionment with the US political/economic system has never been greater in my lifetime. Do you think people in the United States are ready for their own Bolivarian Revolution and steps towards a more progressive, socialistic model of government?
Eva Golinger: The rise of Barack Obama neutralized a growing sentiment for profound change inside the US. Hopefully, the slowdown in US activism will only be temporary. South of the border, there is tremendous change taking place. New social, political and economic models are being built by popular grassroots movements in Venezuela, Bolivia and other Latin American nations that seek economic and social justice. I believe strongly that models in process, like the Bolivarian Revolution, provide inspiration and hope to those in the US and around the world that alternatives to US capitalism do exist and can be successful. 
The US has a rich history of revolution. There are many groups inside the US dedicated to building a better, more humanist system. Unity and a collective vision are essential aspects of building a strong movement capable of moving forward. Every nation has its moment in history. This is the time of Latin America. But there is great hope that the people of the US will soon unite with their brothers and sisters south of the border to bring down Empire and help build a true world community based on social and economic justice for all.
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached

Friday, December 11, 2009

Not Even A Peanut

Counterpunch Diary By Alexander Cockburn
A friend down the coast here in California called Wednesday to say that her mother, 95, had fallen, cracked her ribs, got a cough and told her daughters, “That’s it. I’m checking out.” She’s given up eating. I remembered all the arguments I’d had down the years with the old lady – a perennial optimist about Democrats when it came to assessing the likelihood that Carter or Clinton or Obama would ever actually serve up the progressive banquets they’d pledged on the campaign trail.

“Tell your mother that at least she won’t have to put up with me saying ‘I told you so, about Obama.’” Her daughter gave a deep, sad sigh. She too has been a loyal liberal Democrat all her life and now, she said, Obama’s breaking her heart. So many high hopes, and there’s a man accepting the Peace Prize with one hand, while signing deployment orders with the other, sending 30,000 more young soldiers to Afghanistan.

Imagine having one’s foot on the lip of the great abyss, dimly hearing the radio in the kitchen playing snatches of the appalling drivel served up by Obama in Oslo. “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.”

Obama was in peak form as self-righteous blowhard, proclaiming that “America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”

As his words hang in the air, captives of the Empire are being kidnapped and rendered to Bagram and other dungeons and tortured, all the while with no legal standing as “enemy combatants”. Stand naked in a cold cell, waiting for the next beating from your interrogators and listen to Obama being piped through the PA at max volume, right after ‘Born in the USA’ (sorry, Birthers): “We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place… So let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”

McCain loves the speech. Sarah Palin loves the speech. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s Oslo address was a Republican speech. When it comes to invoking “just wars” Republican presidents can go through the motions, but they haven’t got their hearts in it. Who needs to talk about justice as you drop high explosive and scrawl Death to Ragheads on the side of the bombs? When you want a just war, whistle up a Democrat who can talk with a straight face about installing democracy in the Balkans. After eight years of Bushian crudities the Empire needed an upgrade in its salespitch, which is why we have Obama. Back at the time of the medieval crusades, the Western kings used to take Holy Communion from their Archbishops before heading east to battle Islam and scour the land for booty. I thought the ceremony in that austere hall in Oslo was a straight lineal descent – as Obama accepted his wafer, in the form of the prize -- in this modern age a substantial check – and then pledged his holy war.

There have been yelps, but I detect a certain caution on the left, a certain reluctance to toss Obama on the dung heap where he belongs. Often it’s simple self-preservation. A great many nominally left organizations are dependent on liberal non-profit foundations whose executives are swift to cancel grants to those swerving from commitment to the Democratic cause and to the White House. Rather than confess to these coarse inhibitions, the progressives murmur about the lot of Afghan women, the monstrous Taliban, and sit on their hands. And they too see nothing wrong with Obama’s endless pledges to kill Bin Laden – a commitment that aroused ecstasy in Congress last week when General McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee last Tuesday that the world can not defeat al Qaeda until Osama bin Laden is captured or killed.

As Pierre Sprey remarked in the hearing’s wake, “It's clear to me that, although Gen. McChrystal's credentials in the assassination business are impeccable, his assassination-based grand strategy is a shameless crib from that great strategic innovator, the USAF's Col. Worden (e.g., "decapitation of the enemy's leadership"--by air power, of course). Quibbles over authorship aside, victory through assassination is a brilliant grand strategy for America: it's cheap, particularly at a time when we're a bit strapped; it's politically irresistible to a nation raised on Terminator 2 and Tupac; and, for the defense intellectuals, it offers wonderfully clear cut measures of success. And, empirically speaking, it's got a great track record. Look how well a single well-conceived execution worked out for Pontius Pilate, the High Priests of the Second Temple, and the Roman Empire.”

Here’s a president who can’t even toss the progressives the one peanut a year they need to keep them happy. Obama’s refusal on the eve of Thanksgiving here ago to sign the U.S. on to the landmine ban was the breaking point for many.

The American Medical Association, mentioned by Clancy Sigal here earlier this week had a study reckoning that an estimated 24,000 people, mainly civilians, are killed or ripped apart by landmines and “unexploded ordinance” (cluster bombs) each year across the world. Mostly the victims are the rural poor, many of them children. As a senator, Barack Obama voted for the ban; as President, he’s against it. Looking at the AMA Report’s numbers it’s a safe bet to say that somewhere in the world, even as Obama invoked Martin Luther King and the peacelovers, some kids the same age as his own two daughters were killed or crippled by a landmine.

Obama could have tossed the peanut through the bars, and ratified the ban. The liberals would have cheered and then Obama could have told Rahm Emanuel to pass the word along to Congress that he’d much prefer the legislators not ratify his decision.

But Obama’s too chicken to risk a gesture like that. What people are suddenly realizing is that with Obama there is a absolute disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. Is it cynicism? My own feeling is that Obama has spent so much of his life putting on the various acts necessary to get ahead in the world of powerful, rich white people that deception and self-deception have become innate and instinctive, several steps beyond crude manipulation. You could always tell when Bill Clinton was hamming it up. His face would redden slightly with the effort of contrived emotion.

Obama’s moralizing kitsch is a far smoother brand of cant. As Laura Flanders remarked here last week, he can say, as he did in his Afghan War speech at West Point, “Our union was founded in resistance to oppression,” then smile at his wife, descendant of oppressed slaves.

He has a picture of Muhammad Ali above his desk. On November 19 he wrote a tribute to Ali in USA Today praising "The Greatest" for "his unique ability to summon extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity, to navigate the storm and never lose his way."

Did Obama feel any disconnect between this tribute to the most famous draft resister in US history and the fact that at the very moment he was approving his speech writer’s work on the piece for USA Today he was pondering drafts of a speech announcing he was widening the war in Afghanistan?

Dave Zirin, a fine sports writer, put it well in a piece he wrote called “Message to Obama – You Can’t Have Muhammad Ali”:

“Would that Muhammad Ali still had his voice. Would that Parkinson's disease and dementia had not robbed us of his razor-sharp tongue. Maybe Muhammad Ali has been robbed of speech, but I think we can safely guess what the Champ would say in the face of Obama's war. We can safely guess, because he said it perfectly four decades ago:

‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.’”

Every day now I meet sad and angry people in this progressive part of northern California, furious at themselves at having believed in Obama, at a time in those early primaries and fundraisers last year when he needed them to believe. They kept on believing through most of this year, even as Obama threw one pledge after another out the window. After the landmine sell-out and the 30,000 deployment they’ve got nothing to hold on to, though many of them will stay with Obama till the end, particularly the blacks, holding on to the straightforward assumption, as Kevin Alexander Gray put it here last Wednesday that “He‘s doing the best he can under the circumstances– those ‘circumstances’ being white people.”

Maybe the 95-year will slip away, also feeling that Obama is doing the best he can “under the circumstances” of the American Empire, leaving younger, less blithe spirits with the thought that the sourest truth about Obama is that he’s not doing the best he can “under the circumstances”, that in fact he’s really a sleazeball.

Any president has the power to do something decent once in a while, even if it’s declaring a marine sanctuary, which was Jimmy Carter’s last act as president. Bill Clinton finally offended Hollywood liberals by refusing to pardon Leonard Peltier, something he could have done at of the stroke of the same pen he used to sign the pardon for Marc Rich, the billionaire crook fugitive from justice. Hollywood is still with Obama. If he was shot tomorrow, someone – maybe even Oliver Stone -- would rush to make a movie saying Obama was killed by the Pentagon because of his pledge to pull the troops out of Afghanistan two years from now.

Hopes die hard, but Obama has done a superlative job of assassinating them with all due dispatch.

Footnote: some would argue that Obama actually does have a peanut for the progressives and is preparing to toss it. The White House is reviewing its policy of barring presidents from sending letters of condolence to the families of members of the military who have committed suicide. The White House says that Obama cares about service members who kill themselves. If this goes through, given his deployments, he’ll be a busy man. Somehow this reminds me of Lenny Bruce’s joke about Pope John XX111, who had visited some scene of disaster and shed tears when he witnessed the destruction. “And the Pope cried,” Lenny would tell his audience in tones of wonder. “He cried!” Pause. “Why, any other Pope would have laughed himself sick.”

Stop Press. This just in: my friend down the coast writes to say her mother last night announced the Spirit had re-entered her body and that on reflection she realized it was bad timing to leave before Christmas, that it would really put a damper on the family celebration, and that she had chosen to stay around.

My father Claud died on December 15, 1981. His mind stayed keen till the end, shortly before which he opened one eye and murmured to me apropos developments in Poland I’d been telling him about: “I’m glad they’ve managed to split Solidarity.”

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Devil and Mr. Obama

(Note: Patrick Ward, associate editor of the UK's Socialist Review asked Bageant to write a piece for the party publication. This is the unabridged text of Joe's submission.)

Change, for the worse...
By Joe Bageant, Counterpunch

Well lookee here! An invite from my limey comrades to recap Barack Obama's first year in office. Well comrades, I can do this thing two ways. I can simply state that the great mocha hope turned out to be a Trojan horse for Wall Street and the Pentagon. Or I can lay in an all-night stock of tequila, limes and reefer and puke up the entire miserable tale like some 5,000 word tequila purged Congolese stomach worm. I have chosen to do the latter.

As you may know, Obama's public approval ratings are taking a beating. Millions of his former cult members have awakened with a splitting hangover to find their pockets turned inside out and eviction notices on the doors of their 4,000 square foot subprime mortgaged cardboard fuck boxes. Many who voted for Obama out of disgust for the Bush regime are now listening to the Republicans again on their car radios as they drive around looking for a suitable place to hide their vehicles from the repo man. Don't construe this as support for the GOP. It's just the standard ping ponging of disappointment and disgust that comes after the honeymoon is over with any administration. Most Americans' party affiliations are the same as they were when Bush was elected. After all, Obama did not get elected on a landslide by any means; he got 51% of the vote.

Right now his approval ratings are in the 40th percentile and would be headed for the basement of the league were it not for the residual effect of the Kool-Aid love fest a year ago. However, millions of American liberals remain faithful, and believe Obama will arise from the dead in the third year and ascend to glory. You will find them at Huffington Post.

This frustrating ping pong game in which the margin of first time, disenchanted and undecided voters are batted back and forth has become the whole of American elections. That makes both the Republican and Democratic parties very happy, since it keeps the game down to fighting the enemy they know, each other, as opposed to being forced to deal with the real issues, or worse yet, an independent or third party candidate who might have a solution or two.
Thus, the game is limited to two players between two corporate parties. One is the Republican Party, which believes we should hand over our lives and resources directly to the local Chamber of Commerce, so the chamber can deliver them to the big corporations. The other, the Democratic Party, believes we should hand our lives and resources to a Democratic administration -- so it alone can deliver our asses to the big dogs who own the country. In the big picture it's always about who gets to deliver the money to the Wall Street hyena pack.

Americans may be starting to get the big picture about politics, money and corporate power. But I doubt it. Given that most still believe the war on terrorism is real, and that terrorists always just happen to be found near gas and oil deposits, there is plenty of room left to blow more smoke up their asses. Especially considering how we are conditioned to go into blind fits of patriotism at the sight of the flag, an eagle, or the mention of "our heroes," even if the heroes happen to be killing and maiming Muslim babies at the moment. Patriotism is a cataract that blinds us to all national discrepancies.

Much of the rest of the world seems plagued with similar cataracts that keep it from noticing the chasm of discrepancy between what Obama says and what he actually does. The Nobel Committee awarded the 2009 Peace Prize to the very person who dropped the most bombs and killed the most poor people on the planet during that year. The same guy who started a new war in Pakistan, beefed up the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and continues to threaten Iran with attack unless Iran cops to phony US-Israeli charges of secret nuclear weapons facilities. It's weapons of mass destruction all over again. Somewhere in the whole fracas has been forgotten that Iran has been calling for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East since 1974. Iran has also been consistent in its position that "petroleum is a noble material, much too valuable to burn for electricity," and that nuclear energy makes much more sense, given that our food supply, whether we like it or not, is fundamentally dependent upon petrochemicals and will remain so until the earth's population is reduced to at least half of what it is now. The Iranian attitude has been to use the shrinking petroleum deposits as judiciously as possible.

To which oilman George Bush replied that "There will be consequences for Iran's attitude." Obama has reinforced Bush's sentiment, stating that not only will there be consequences, but that a military strike on Iran "is not out of the question." Although nuclear weapons are in direct opposition to the Muslim faith, 71 million Iranians must have shuddered and paused to think: "Maybe an Iranian bomb isn't such a bad idea after all."

Under cover of being the first "black" president, Obama is looking to best one of the Bush administration's records. And that is causing unshirted hell for anybody two shades darker than a paper bag, particularly if they are wearing sandals (Obama himself being only one shade darker than the bag and given to size eleven black Cole Haans). So far, two million Pakistanis have been, in official US State Department jargon, "displaced" by U.S. backed bombing and gunfire -- which will surely displace a fellow if anything will. A significant portion of them are "living with host families." Translation: packed into crowded houses ten to a room, wiping out food and water supplies, crashing already fragile sanitation infrastructure, and serving as a giant human Petrie dish for intestinal and respiratory diseases. Many more are still living in the "conflict area." Makes it sound like living next door to a neighborhood domestic squabble, doesn't it? God only knows how many more innocent people will yet be killed in the conflict area of Obama's "war of necessity." You know, the "good war." The war that is supposed to offset the interminable bad one in Iraq, where we continue to occupy and build more bases.

Afghanistan: Grab the opium and run
Then there are Obama's noble efforts to fight terrorism by beefing up troop "deployment" in Afghanistan. Deployment may be construed to mean an American style armed gangbang, in which everybody piles on some wretched flea bitten hamlets for all they are worth, with periodic breaks for pizza and video games.

Now if you look at the deployment of US forces in Afghanistan, compared to NATO country forces there, you'll find them in a nice even line along what could easily be mistaken for an oil pipeline route. One that taps into the natural gas deposits in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and, by the purest coincidence, just happens to bypass nearby Russia and Iran. But we all know that "It's about fighting terrorism over there so we won't have to fight it here!" That still plays in Peoria, so we're sticking with it.

At the moment, out-of-pocket cost of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is $900 billion. Interest on the debt incurred, plus the waste of productive resources on the war, pushes the cost to three thousand billion dollars (Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz). By comparison, the entire 2009 government budget for elementary and secondary education is slightly above $800 billion. Or to look at it another way, how far would three thousand billion dollars go toward establishing energy independence? As Harvard monetary expert Linda Bilmes points out that there is "no benefit whatsoever for any American whose income does not derive from the military/security complex." I sent an email to Obama pointing this out, suggesting that we pull out of Afghanistan, grab the opium and run. I got a nice reply saying that my president is grateful for the input. So there ya go.

Lately there has been a ruckus about our little "slap shop" in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Despite Obama's promises to close down, "Cigarland," it is still open for business. Word has it that Cigarland may be moved to an "underused" maximum security prison (one would think a scarcity of criminals for a maximum security prison would be good news, but what do I know?) in the desperately broke community of Thompson, Illinois. Locals there tell the national press, "Sure, put it in our backyard. No problem." Or, "This town is in the prison business. Prisons R Us." Or more bluntly, "We know how to handle these creeps and we need the jobs."

It's the kind of job creation Stalin would have understood.

Read Much More (Highly Recommended!):

Monday, November 16, 2009

The AMA Steps Into the 20th Century

Doctors Light Up


"Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man."

-- DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young Docket No. 86-22. 1988.

Better late than never, I suppose.

After decades of burying their head in the sand, the country's largest physician group, the American Medical Association (AMA), has reversed its long-held position that marijuana has no medical value. Now that the whole country has caught on, they have decided to jump into the ocean and see if they can’t swim and catch up to the ship that has left shore.

This is why the gay rights battle and pot advocates have so much in common. This decision is like the American Psychiatric Association saying there is nothing wrong with homosexuality years after gay rights professionals had formed coalitions in professions from law enforcement to medicine.

Nevertheless, to their belated credit, the AMA has called for a review of marijuana's status as a ‘Schedule 1’ drug with ‘no accepted medical use’ under the federal Controlled Substances Act. As a ‘Schedule 1’ controlled substance, in the same category as heroin, ecstasy and LSD, the federal laws for possession remain unduly harsh and the public access even for medical testing remains severely limited.

Reducing marijuana's federal classification even just to Schedule 2 -- the same class as cocaine, methadone, oxycodone and morphine -- would allow for more testing on the medical effects of marijuana. Since the government’s purported unwillingness to accept marijuana as an herb with medicinal value has been based on their allegation that all we have is limited anecdotal evidence, the scheduling conundrum becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. The powers that be have been shouting we do not have enough evidence to reclassify while inhibiting the very research which could prove it. Politically savvy perhaps, but morally unconscionable.

Consequently, the rescheduling of marijuana is a critical battle that marijuana advocates must win. There is a terrible comfort zone the political left can succumb to if we find satisfaction that a particular administration is easing off on law enforcement. Political power is temporary. Those in office today can be voted out tomorrow. But those in office tomorrow will still have to follow the law in effect on that day. Thus, battles must be fought in courtrooms and legislatures. Laws must be changed now to insure change is permanent. Rescheduling initiatives must go forth.

Social activists have to understand that without pressure centrists will drift to the comfort zone of the right. The reason close to a million Americans are still getting arrested every year for marijuana possession is because so many people could care less about the laws and assume it is perfectly okay to light up where you want when they want. But some of you wind up like the South Florida judge, Lawrence M. Korda, who had spent 30 distinguished years on the bench. He decided to light up a single joint during a rock concert in a Hollywood, Florida park, and after a series of humiliating front page articles documenting his arrest, was forced to resign his position.

You can’t let up if you have the ball. For marijuana reformers, like gay rights proponents, the wave is on our side. We can’t get off the board. You have to ride it out and carry it to a new tomorrow. Yes, gay marriage may have lost a 31st state vote in Maine last month, but more significantly, scores of communities nationwide are extending homosexual couples the rights and privileges afforded heterosexuals, under the umbrella of domestic partnership ordinances. If your community is not, contact a city commissioner near you today.

It's been 72 years since the AMA has officially recognized that marijuana has therapeutic benefits. It’s been 30 years since Administrative Law Judge Francis Young ruled that rescheduling should occur. He was overruled by Presidents, politics, and the DEA. See Fred Gardner’s article about Judge Young here online in CounterPunch from early this Spring.

After three decades, it is time to honor Judge Young’s decision that cannabis has the capacity to provide medically based options in pain relief treatment. We know what they are, from taming nausea for cancer stricken patients to reducing neuropathic pain in those so suffering, whether from AIDS or multiple sclerosis or comparable ailments.

As stated by Aaron Houston of the successful Marijuana Policy Project, "Marijuana's Schedule I status is not just scientifically untenable, given the wealth of recent data showing it to be both safe and effective for chronic pain and other conditions, but it's been a major obstacle to needed research." The truth is more people died from spinach last year than pot. And a thousand people a year, I understand, overdose from aspirin. You don’t die from pot, just maybe ‘jones’ out a bit if you don’t have it.

The government has maintained a legally inconsistent position for decades regarding the scheduling of marijuana as an illegal drug with no justifiable medical uses. Even today, our government continues to operate the remnants of its once popular ‘Compassionate Use Protocol’ program, which allows the DEA to distribute marijuana cigarettes under a prescription to those deemed medically worthy to receive it. New applications have been denied for two decades. Only four patients are still alive who still receive medical marijuana thusly.

Ask yourself this: how can the government go into court and say there is no medical use for marijuana when its own DEA was and has been distributing it to dozens of patients for two decades? It is a case we must undertake again.

In changing its policy, the AMA said its goal was to clear the way to conduct clinical research, develop cannabis-based medicines and devise alternative ways to deliver the drug. But it is a lot more than that. Now it is time to pressure your congressman to pressure the Obama Administration to pressure the DEA to insure that the rescheduling occurs, and marijuana is removed from that list of drugs which can still lock your ass up in prison for years. Make no mistake about it. This change is not just about medically based research. This change is about insuring your freedom. It’s about preventing future lawmakers from using the ‘drug war’ as a tool to inhibit your liberty.

Freedom is a nice thing to have, and repressive pot laws are a stupid reason to take it away.

Norm Kent is a Fort Lauderdale based criminal defense lawyer who is a member of the board of directors of NORML. He publishes the and can be reached at

Obama's Flawed Case Against Single Payer


The liberal imagination has broadened the scope of what it wants to dismiss as unrealistic, utopian and unpragmatic, i.e. as for all practical purposes impossible. These claims have typically been accompanied by the assurance that “This is not something that Americans would go for – it’s not the American way.” There are countless variations on this theme. Obama’s case against a single payer health care system is a conspicuous case in point. What distinguishes Obama’s position on this issue is not merely the weakness of his “arguments”, but the straight-ahead factual falsehood of the some of the counterclaims he has put forward in order to turn the desirable into the impossible.

The Alleged Impossibility of Universal Health Care

In May and August, 2007 Obama stated his position on single payer:

"If you're starting from scratch, then a single-payer system'-a government-managed system like Canada's, which disconnects health insurance from employment-'would probably make sense. But we've got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that's not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they've known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside." (May, 2007)

" [W]hen we had a healthcare forum before I set up my healthcare plan here in Iowa there was a lot of resistance to a single-payer system. So what I believe is we should set up a series of choices....Over time it may be that we end up transitioning to such a system. For now, I just want to make sure every American is covered...I don't want to wait for that perfect system...” (August, 2007, at an Iowa roundtable)

Obama offers 5 reasons for not supporting single payer.

First: “..we’ve got all these legacy systems in place” simply means that our system is not single payer, and we’ve had it for a long time. Obama has turned himself into a bent sort of Burkean conservative: we have been marinating in a tradition which so permeates our way of being in the world that to do away with it would upset social life as we know it. This tradition includes…. insurance-industry-based health care! More mundanely: we haven’t got it, so we can’t have it.

Second: it would be hard to “manage the transition” from a deeply flawed system to a much better one. Harder than it was to effect the transition to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, desegregation, etc.? In each of these cases, what many people had “known for most of their lives” [was] “thrown by the wayside”. It belongs to the nature of any move from one way of doing things to a very different one that the transition will take some doing. That fact alone settles nothing. What matters is how urgent is the need for change. The US’s irrationally costly system which leaves millions uninsured, a fate suffered by the citizens of no other developed capitalist country, is surely intolerable. We have been given no reason to think that the cost of a transition to universal coverage is so great as to outweigh the massive benefits of this tried and tested arrangement. Obama’s excuses amount to a cleverly disguised a-priori argument against any consequential transformation of the status quo.

Third: the “difficulty” [i.e. costs] of “adjusting the culture to a different system”, given that there is “a lot of resistance to a single-payer system” , outweigh the benefits of single-payer. But what matters is not what a few selected Iowans are alleged to have felt about universal coverage. The demonstrated preferences of the democratic majority can’t be irrelevant.

On this issue Obama clearly means to imply that “Americans” don’t support single-payer. This is factually false. It’s improbable that Obama is unaware of the results of many surveys on this issue, the most recent, to my knowledge, having been conducted between December 14-20, 2007. The results of this Associated Press-Yahoo poll are worth reproducing as they were reported:

Subjects were asked which of the following 2 views comes closest to their own view:

!. The United States should continue the current health insurance system in which most people get their health insurance from private insurers, but some people have no insurance.

2. The United States should adopt a universal health insurance program in which everyone is covered under a program like Medicare that is run by the government and financed by taxpayers.

A majority of 65% supported 2, 34% supported 1 and 2% did not respond.

Those polled were also asked “Do you consider yourself a supporter of a single-payer health care system, that is a national health plan financed by taxpayers in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan, or not?”

55% answered Yes, 44% No and 2% did not respond. Single-payer still has a majority here, but a smaller one, probably due to the pollsters’ use of (what is to some) the red-flag term ‘single payer’. [View the full poll results at]

Taxpayer funded, government-run health care insurance for all is a public, not a private, good, and it is the only political project that most Americans are on record as willing to pay higher taxes to achieve. There is in fact not “a lot of resistance” to a rational health care system. Obama knows this. But the interests of those who have heavily invested (literally) in him carry more weight than do the most pressing interests of the rest.

The Ideology of Individual Choice and the Logic of Solidarity

Fourth: Obama claims that a health care plan based on “a series of choices” is superior to one that leaves no choice but instead saddles everyone with the burden of full and affordable coverage. Pity those poor Europeans, deprived of their right to liberty by forced access to first-rate health care. In the City on the Hill, few things are more important than the right to choose: which health care system gives us the most choice? This way of thinking is saturated with the ideology of individualism and its private goods, and functions to obliterate solidarity, as opposed to self-interest, as a political and moral value. This is especially pernicious since, as we shall see, it is only concerted action motivated by solidarity that can bring about a health care system from which no one is excluded because they can’t afford it.

When Obama contradistinguishes choice from universal coverage he unwittingly underscores the irrelevance of individual, self-interested choice to political goals motivated by a commitment to solidarity. Preoccupation with the choice between one doctor and another, one plan or another, conceals a crucial assumption, namely that the fundamental issue underlying the health care debate is one about choice and liberty. An individualist ontology implies that our collective fate is a function of whether or not each individual member of society is savvy enough to make the free choices most likely to promote his or her self-interest. But are people who worry about access to health care really concerned with choice? What weighs upon them is that they can’t afford health care. No individual can make on her own the choice to turn the US into a country that makes health care affordable, available to all. Such a choice is not a choice by an individual about her own well being. It is not even a choice about the aggregate sum of each and every individual’s well being. It is a choice we make together about the kind of society we want to live in. To worry about health care because one cannot afford it is, on reflection, to lament the non-existence of a public good, universally accessible health care, one that can’t be reduced to the sum of all individual goods. The survey discussed above indicates that most Americans implicitly know this. The majority endorse a universally applicable measure, taxation, as a means to institute a universally available, i.e. public, good, access to health care. A universal tax, as for education, roadways, health care, is not an individual cost; it is a social cost. Correspondingly, universally accessible health care is not an individual good, it is a public good. The majority would prefer to live in the kind of society that features that public good. It’s a different kind of society from the one we’re currently stuck with.

That kind of society, and the public goods it prioritizes, can be achieved only if it is pursued as a goal by people acting in concert. That’s where solidarity is on display: in collective action motivated by the desire to achieve a public good.

The kinds of goals/goods in question typically involve bringing about a certain kind of society. For example: the kind of society that provides all with affordable health care, the kind of society that makes access to the means of life -e.g. a living wage- available to all, the kind of society that makes the meeting of human needs the principal motivator of economic production, the kind of society that assigns sufficient resources to the reduction of pollution and the preservation of nature,… Prattling on about individual choice creates a conceptual space within which considerations of solidarity and public goods cannot arise. Talking about solidarity in the language of individualism is like trying to score a field goal in baseball.

Obama references affordability in spite of himself when he claims (falsely) that he wants to “make sure that every American is covered”. The fundamental virtue of single payer is that it detaches insurance from employment and thereby from one’s level of income, so that everyone can afford health care. The question of choice doesn’t even arise if you can’t afford to keep yourself healthy. And come to think of it, were health care universally available, the question of affordability would not arise. Talk of being able to “afford” access to health care would be as misplaced as talk of being able to afford access to elementary education.

Solidarity As a Familiar Phenomenon

The issue is worth dwelling on. In everyday life we are all familiar with the pursuit of irreducibly social goods. Think of a family with kids. A rare and highly desirable work opportunity, but far from home, arises for spouse #1. Spouse #2 has come upon a comparable golden opportunity, also far from home. The family wants to stay together. A decision based on the good of either individual spouse would break up the family. What to do? It’s not uncommon in such a situation for the adults to look to determine what would be good for the family. And what’s good for the family is not the sum of spouse #1’s good plus spouse #2’s good, plus the goods of each individual child. We cannot commensurate and then sum up these different and sometimes incompatible goods. The good of the family is irreducibly social, just like universally accessible health care. Families and households act in solidarity all the time.

Obama’s repeated insistence on the market as the primary agent in distributing resources precludes consideration of questions of solidarity from the outset. He is the instrument of domestic advisors benighted by preposterous economic theories hailing the efficiency and liberty-promoting virtues of the market. For these wags the pursuit of individual self-interest, plus competition, makes the world go round and secures for us all the freedom we (are allowed to) want. As we have seen above, the restriction of human-welfare-enhancing political choices to the realm of competition and self-interest deprives us of the freedom collectively to choose to live in the kind of society that provides copious public goods. That’s a big freedom lost.

The Political Psychology of Solidarity

A sense of solidarity is far more prevalent in much of Europe than it is in the Land of the Free. In a New York Times article titled “For the French, Solidarity Still Counts” (by Youseff M. Ibrahim, Dec. 20, 1995), the author describes public reaction in France to a three-week strike by public workers supported by “hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who filled the streets of every major city in France.” Workers were protesting then Prime Minister Juppe’s proposal to slash medical, social welfare and benefit payments. According to the Times:

“Polls showed an astonishing amount of sympathy on the part of those who did not participate in the strike and who suffered the paralysis of mass transit and essential services. Many people explained that they supported the strike because the Government’s austerity programs are stripping layer after layer of subsidies that permitted French families of even the most modest means to sample the cultural and culinary treasures that only the rich can afford.”

One recipient of the social wage was a woman receiving the standard subsidy extended to pregnant women. The subsidy will continue, for each child, until the child reaches 18. Said the woman: “This is the foundation of our Republican system… Equality and fraternity are not mere slogans here. For me the engagement by the state is an expression of solidarity that gives us values… I think most French people want France’s values to be decided by this spirit, not by cold, remote, economic summits that speak of deficits and competition. That was the message of the strikes.”

This past March one million demonstrated across France in protest of proposed cutbacks in the wake of the financial crisis. I am currently living in France for a stretch of time and have witnessed frequent strikes and other expressions of resistance to neoliberal austerity measures. A sad and stark contrast to the sitting-duck posture of so many US workers.

The Times article provides an implicit explanation of why it is that in France and other European countries there is no general resentment of social benefits available, for example, to single mothers, while in the US more than a few working people oppose this kind of support. The Times reports that the subsidy offered to the woman quoted above “is extended to every mother in France regardless of economic or marital status.” In France benefits to single mothers are not regarded as “special treatment” denied to the responsible and hard-working. There is neither social nor psychological soil in which to plant the seeds of resentment, since the single mother is the recipient of a public good available to all mothers.

Fifth and finally: “I just want to make sure every American is covered...I don't want to wait for that perfect system...” If the president truly wanted to guarantee universal coverage he would not have taken single-payer off the table before discussions began. Whatever is finally settled upon, government will neither negotiate drug prices nor regulate premiums, so we know now that millions will remain uninsured. Obama has known that all along.

Obama rigs the game by characterizing single-payer as “that perfect system”. One of the major weapons in the party-liners’ arsenal is to portray those who believe in greater possibilities as naïve utopians blind to the truism that a “perfect world” is impossible in what William F. Buckley liked to call “this veil of tears”. The logic is fine: since there are no finite limits to the greater possibilities of goodness, and perfection is conceived, as Anselm reminds us, as that greater than which none can be conceived, it follows that perfection is impossile down here. But whoever introduced mumbo-jumbo about perfection in the first place? Isn’t the elimination of a great deal of unnecessary suffering enough? Last I recall, single-payer advocates claim merely (sic) that it is way better than what we are offered. That’s pretty good.

Obama’s case against single-payer frames health-care priorities in the language of atomic individualism. Hence, the range of possible outcomes is determined for the worse before discussion begins. I am suggesting that a good part of our resistance and organizing should consist in reminders that an alternative way of thinking and acting is already on display in some of our common practices, and in already existing benefits won for other populations by aiming at public goods to be achieved by concerted action in solidarity.

Hope that helps.

Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached at

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Public Opt-Out

By Peter Stanislaw, Get Off This!

Many progressives, liberals, and moderate conservatives (a dying breed) are celebrating the inclusion of a viable public option in the proposed Health Care Reform Bill, an accomplishment which should make Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proud. Fighting the influence of Olympia Snow on the Senate Finance Committee - who has stated that a public option would give the public sector too much of an advantage in the health care market - Reid was able to place the option into the bill with a compromise engineered by Charles Schumer, Senator from New York, for states to be able to opt out.

While this sounds fair on the surface, it should be remembered that it is not a "people's" opt-out plan, but a state plan. The roughly 154 million people who live in states where conservatives control the governor's mansion and/or the state legislature will probably never have a chance to enroll in a government-sponsored plan, and will have to choose from the plans offered by the entrenched insurance industry. The influence of the states that do opt for the government plan may not be enough to effect any true competition in the area of premiums, deductibles, co-pays and costs for services.

This compromise is being played out in the corporate media as being the best of both worlds. No mention is made of the facts that the public option was a severe compromise from the majority desire for a single-payer plan in the first place, or that the insurance industry has undue influence among the people's representatives. The opt-out plan is too far from perfect and we are not finished in our goal of effecting a true transformation of health care in these Relatively United States.

We must keep the pressure on - we can make a difference.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

White House v. Fox News: a War Obama Can Win

By Alexander Cockburn, Counterpunch

The jousting between the White House and Fox News is drawing grave warnings from pundits to Obama’s team that this is a losing issue for their man. They quote the old tag, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”

Certainly the jabbing has been refreshingly vigorous. Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, explains Obama’s refusal to appear on Fox News by saying, "Fox News often operates either as the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican party. We're going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent."

"I want to show you right where the enemy is located," Beck screams to his adoring three-million audience as he circles Rupert Murdoch's Fox News headquarters in green ink on a map of New York. "This is the enemy, America!"

Surely, it was a no-brainer for the White House. Fox’s troupe of right wingers will trash Obama, whatever Dunn says. Why not please your own political base by showing a little backbone and giving Murdoch a slap on the snout?

Besides, history suggests that if the White House keeps up the small arms fire and doesn’t lose its cool, in the end it will carry the day, and edge Fox as a network operation into the Glen Beck insane asylum, viewed with derision by even more millions of Americans.

In the case of the Obama administration there's the added bonus that after surrendering abjectly to every powerful interest group in America, they're at last showing an appetite for a scuffle.

Many presidents have seen political benefit in setting up the press as irresponsible mudslingers, overpaid, lazy and politically biased, which is most people reckon it is anyway. The champion here was Richard Nixon who unleashed Pat Buchanan and the late William Safire, and those famous lines for vice president Spiro Agnew, including the rather playful “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Actually it’s a measure of how sloppy the Nixon people were that across the entire Watergate Scandal they failed to excavate Carl Bernstein’s family ties to the Communist Party, nor the fact that every few weeks Bernstein would take time off from his investigative labors with Bob Woodward and drive up to Vermont to visit his cousin Shoshana who at that time was living under an alias in Brattleboro, one jump ahead of the FBI which had her on its Ten Most Wanted list as a radical bomber. People often overestimate the surveillance capacities of the state. One leak of that info to one of Nixon’s pet columnists and the Watergate scandal would have been over.

But in some of the famous exchanges from Nixon-time, it was the president who came out ahead in the eyes of public opinion. I can remember watching the clash between Nixon and Dan Rather in a press conference in 1974 as the Watergate scandal neared its climax. When Rather stood up, Nixon’s people in the room booed and Rather’s colleagues cheered. Nixon, on the stage, looked down at Rather and asked with heavy sarcasm, 'Are you running for something?' Dan snapped back, 'No, sir, are you?' Many people took Rather’s response as smartass, and out of place. But then, Rather was never the brightest bulb on the block.

Nixon’s chief weapon of coercion before the 1972 election was the Joint Operating Agreement, which suspended normal anti-trust rules so that competing newspapers in one town could, in the name of newspaper preservation, collude in fixing advertising rates. In the ’72 race Nixon collected a record number of newspaper endorsements.

Another weapon in the wars between White House and press was a tax audit or an indictment. In the 1930s,Moe Annenberg, with close mob ties and co-owner of the Race Wire, ATT’s fourth biggest customer, owned The Philadelphia Inquirer and used it to support Republican politicians in Pennsylvania and attack Roosevelt. FDR promptly turned for help to David Stern, publisher of the Philadelphia Record and the New York Post. Stern promoted an IRS investigation and Moe pulled three years in jail. (Moe was the father of a former US ambassador to the Court of St James, Walter Annenberg – who spent many diligent years winching his family’s reputation out of the mud.)

Some presidents, like Kennedy and Reagan, had no need to foment a public feud with the press, since the press in all essentials was in their pockets anyway. Carter furnishes the classic case of someone who simply lost the initiative and fatally allowed the press to make fun of him as a wimp, in his canoe beating off a giant rabbit with a paddle, or passing out during a jog, or whining about “malaise”.

The most intricate story is that of the jousting between the Clintons and the press, from the moment, almost fatal to his initial presidential campaign, that Murdoch’s National Star exposed Clinton’s long affair in Little Rock with Gennifer Flowers in January, 1993.

Hillary Clinton threw down the gauntlet on January 27, 1998, at the onset of the Lewinsky affair, when she told Matt Lauer of NBC that “the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

At the time plenty of people made fun of HRC for this, but it was undoubtedly smart politics, just as the attack on Fox News is now. It fired up Clinton’s base, and allowed an extensive cottage industry to thrive, unearthing the rightwing conspirators and their financial backers, such as Richard Mellon Scaife.

Seventy-five years ago, it mattered greatly to FDR what the Philadelphia Inquirer was saying about him. Obama’s White House probably cares about the New York Times and the Washington Post but not much else. The Wall Street Journal has loathed Obama from the getgo. The Fox Network is really the only enemy with mass appeal and as I suggested at the start it’s not political rocket science to go after it. Tone matters here. The barbs should not be whiny, but caustic and good humored, to the effect that this is not a news medium but the propaganda wing of the Republican Party, as Dunn says. It’s essential not to blink. Glenn Beck is connected to sanity by a pretty thin mooring rope. A few months of this and he’ll probably pop, either going back on the bottle or slithering into a psychotic break, though some would say this is a nightly event anyway.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Obama's Education Plan Depends On Test Scoring By Ill-Trained Temps

Todd Farley, NY Times - Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged standardized tests are flawed measures of student progress. But the problem is not so much the tests themselves - it's the people scoring them.

Many people remember those tests as lots of multiple-choice questions answered by marking bubbles with a No. 2 pencil, but today's exams nearly always include the sort of "open ended" items where students fill up the blank pages of a test booklet with their own thoughts and words. On many tests today, a good number of points come from such open-ended items, and that's where the real trouble begins.

Multiple-choice items are scored by machines, but open-ended items are scored by subjective humans who are prone to errors. I know because I was one of them. In 1994, I was a graduate student looking for part-time work. After a five-minute interview I got the job of scoring fourth-grade, state-wide reading comprehension tests. The for-profit testing company that hired me paid almost $8 an hour, not bad money for me at the time.

One of the tests I scored had students read a passage about bicycle safety. They were then instructed to draw a poster that illustrated a rule that was indicated in the text. We would award one point for a poster that included a correct rule and zero for a drawing that did not.

The first poster I saw was a drawing of a young cyclist, a helmet tightly attached to his head, flying his bike over a canal filled with flaming oil, his two arms waving wildly in the air. I stared at the response for minutes. Was this a picture of a helmet-wearing child who understood the basic rules of bike safety? Or was it meant to portray a youngster killing himself on two wheels?

I was not the only one who was confused. Soon several of my fellow scorers - pretty much people off the street, like me - were debating my poster, some positing that it clearly showed an understanding of bike safety while others argued that it most certainly did not. I realized then - an epiphany confirmed over a decade and a half of experience in the testing industry - that the score any student would earn mostly depended on which temporary employee viewed his response.

A few years later, still a part-time worker, I had a similar experience. For one project our huge group spent weeks scoring ninth-grade movie reviews, each of us reading approximately 30 essays an hour (yes, one every two minutes), for eight hours a day, five days a week. At one point the woman beside me asked my opinion about the essay she was reading, a review of the X-rated movie "Debbie Does Dallas." The woman thought it deserved a 3 (on a 6-point scale), but she settled on that only after weighing the student's strong writing skills against the "inappropriate" subject matter. I argued the essay should be given a 6, as the comprehensive analysis of the movie was artfully written and also made me laugh my head off.

All of the 100 or so scorers in the room soon became embroiled in the debate. Eventually we came to the "consensus" that the essay deserved a 6 ("genius"), or 4 (well-written but "naughty"), or a zero ("filth"). The essay was ultimately given a zero.

This kind of arbitrary decision is the rule, not the exception. The years I spent assessing open-ended questions convinced me that large-scale assessment was mostly a mad scramble to score tests, meet deadlines and rake in cash.

The cash, though, wasn't bad. It was largely for this reason that I eventually became a project director for a private testing company. The scoring standards were still bleak. A couple of years ago I supervised a statewide reading assessment test. My colleague and I were relaxing at a pool because we believed we'd already finished scoring all of the tens of thousands of student responses. Then a call from the home office informed us that a couple of dozen unscored tests had been discovered.

Because our company's deadline for returning the tests was that day, my colleague and I had to score them even though we were already well into happy hour. We spent the evening listening to a squeaky-voiced secretary read student answers to us over a scratchy speakerphone line, while we made decisions that could affect somebody's future.

These are the kinds of tests, after all, that can help determine government financing for schools. There is already much debate over whether the progress that Secretary Duncan hopes to measure can be determined by standardized testing at all. But in the meantime, we can give more thought to who scores these tests. We could start by requiring that scoring be done only by professionals who have made a commitment to education - rather than by people like me.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Iran War Dance

From MediaLens:

...A rare voice of sanity in the Guardian, Scott Ritter, former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, put the latest revelations in context, noting that: “when Obama announced that ‘Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow’, he is technically and legally wrong”. Ritter explained:

“The Qom plant, if current descriptions are accurate, cannot manufacture the basic feed-stock (uranium hexaflouride, or UF6) used in the centrifuge-based enrichment process. It is simply another plant in which the UF6 can be enriched.

"Why is this distinction important? Because the IAEA has underscored, again and again, that it has a full accounting of Iran's nuclear material stockpile. There has been no diversion of nuclear material to the Qom plant (since it is under construction). The existence of the alleged enrichment plant at Qom in no way changes the nuclear material balance inside Iran today.

“Simply put, Iran is no closer to producing a hypothetical nuclear weapon today than it was prior to Obama's announcement concerning the Qom facility.” (

Even if the claims of Iranian military intent are true, Ritter added, “this interpretation would still require the diversion of significant nuclear material away from the oversight of IAEA inspectors, something that would be almost immediately evident. Any meaningful diversion of nuclear material would be an immediate cause for alarm, and would trigger robust international reaction, most probably inclusive of military action against the totality of Iran's known nuclear infrastructure".

Instead, it is “more likely, an attempt on the part of Iran to provide for strategic depth and survivability of its nuclear programme in the face of repeated threats on the part of the US and Israel to bomb its nuclear infrastructure".

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Walter Brasch: The Origins of Labor Day

A very good piece on the militant origins of Labor Day. It doesn't involve a grill or a smoker, but don't let that stop you. I love me some ribs!--Pete

Walter Brasch: The Origins of Labor Day

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Trigger-Happy in Afghanistan

By RICHARD NEVILLE, Counterpunch

The brain disease sweeping the West is virulent and vicious, like the golden Staph which haunts so many hospitals. Most at risk are Presidents, Prime Ministers, Generals and journalists. The ailment is not triggered by bacteria but by an ideology as old as history, which every so often resurfaces as a new strain, and this one hasn’t been named. It’s often fatal. Less so to the carriers than those caught in their sights. Let’s call it Kabul-shit – the propensity to ignore the years of violence inflicted on Afghanistan and to paint the invaders as heroes.

It sometimes seems that the greater the slaughter of civilians, the louder the praise for the mission. This may be due to guilt. Britain’s Gordon Brown: We are in Afghanistan to purge terrorism. Australia’s Kevin Rudd: Our soldiers are building schools. America’s Barack Obama: This is a war of necessity. The Sydney Morning Herald: The mission is to bolster Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and to support regional stability in Pakistan.

Tosh, the lot of it. The war started as an act of revenge on the perpetrators of the 9/11 tragedy and was not authorized by the United Nations. It took two years and a thousand bloody air strikes before UN Resolution 1510 finally granted the invaders an after-the-fact "legitimacy". Many legal scholars still regard the invasion as illegal under international law.

Since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, how many Afghani civilians have been blown away? Take a guess. It’s not widely publicized. Wikipedia puts civilian casualties at “roughly” between 9,000 and 27,000. This does not include the thousands of maimed children.

All for what? Why are we there? The Taliban were not responsible for 9/11. “Yes they are” claims the Sydney Morning Herald, they “nurtured Al Qaeda”. Breast feeding Osama bin Laden, tucking in his little romper suit…? The Herald editorial ignores the role of the CIA in seeding the Taliban, and pouring in cash and weapons for the Mujahideen to kick out the Soviets.

In October 2001, shortly after the US started its own invasion, the Taliban offered to surrender Osama bin Laden to a third country for trial, so long as the bombing was halted and they were shown evidence of his involvement in 9/11. George Bush’s reply: "There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he's guilty."

A perfect example of Kabul-shit. If Bush possessed the evidence, why wasn’t it divulged? Three years later, in October 2004, a video was delivered to Al Jazeera in which bin Laden claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.

And so, eight years after the invasion, despite what Western Generals keep promising, US and NATO bombs continue to pulverise this unhappy land. It’s like a never ending blood sport. Why can’t we pull out? Every politician has a different answer. Former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard pithily expressed the fear that lurks in the souls of warmongers: A premature withdrawal would be a blow to the prestige of the West. Remember Prince William a few years ago, calling in air strikes on “enemy positions”, the media thrilled. Hurrah for Western prestige. Never mind that our continued occupation involves aerial assassination on a massive scale, a kind of slow motion genocide – look at the record.

And in February this year, it was plucky little Australia that kicked off the shooting season, with a special forces attack on a compound in Uruzgan, killing 5 Afghan children. In April, American forces killed four civilians - a man, a woman, and two children - as well as an unborn baby. At first the US military said these were "armed militants", but – as is often the case - it was later conceded the dead were civilians. In May, we had the Farah massacre.

The US military claimed that only militants were hit, but the Afghan Defense Ministry announced a death toll of 140 villagers, producing an official list with the names and ages of those killed: 93 were children, 22 were adult males.

This was a bit too much, even for the Pentagon. The previous commander was dumped. President Obama appointed General Stanley McChrystal, formerly head of Task Force 6-26, a death squad that ran a brutal interrogation unit at Camp Narnia, near Baghdad. "High-value" detainees were kept in the Black Room, formerly a Saddam dungeon. Its décor featured a darkened cell with butcher’s hooks hanging from the ceiling. Basically, McChrystal’s task force ran a secret prison and his unit was implicated in two prisoner deaths. A prosecution was initiated, but ran out of steam after a “computer glitch” had disappeared the unit’s records. An Esquire writer who visited Camp Narnia, John H. Richardson, reported it was so secret that its officers used false names and it was a place where “bad things happened”, a place where Stanley McChrystal had made a “personal promise that the Red Cross would never be allowed into the camp”, in violation of US treaty obligations.

Last week came the disastrous US fighter jet air strike in the northern province of Kunduz, which a prominent Afghan rights group claims to have killed up to 70 civilians, a figure based on interviews with local residents. A few days later, it was reported that Soldiers from the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division made an armed raid on a hospital in eastern Afghanistan, searching for insurgents. The soldiers bound guards and relatives before turning patients out of beds and ransacking a women’s ward, it is claimed. Nato is investigating.

“This war has nothing to do with defending the American people”, commented a New York Times feedback contributor, “Obama’s war is the war of the overgrown military industrial complex that needs a continuous flow of dollars in order to survive”.
Another writes: “The so-called “new strategy” announced by general McChrystal is nothing but a propaganda ploy to appease the American public. The Afghan war is continued exactly as it was pursued by the defunct Bush policy. Carpet bomb everything and perhaps the enemy will disappear”.

According to Russian analyst Andrei Konurov, Washington and Brussels have far broader geo-strategic objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and “ultimately the world”, to abandon current operations and occupations. He points out that "the US has deployed 19 military bases in Afghanistan and Central Asian countries” since 2001.
US Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman today told the NY Times an Afghan pullout could deny the United States bases from which it carries out Predator bombing missions. From their dual perspectives, both experts seem to believe that the US gameplan is far more complex, entrenched and far reaching than dreamed of by media analysts.

Finally, a comment from Dr Abdullah, the leading opposition candidate: "We have insecurity in this country. We have bad government. We have corruption. We have narcotics. We have a war. We have an insurgency. On top of that, if a leadership is imposed on the people based on fraudulent elections, what will happen? What will happen to Afghanistan?"

There are no easy answers. Curbing air strikes is a start, as well as holding clean elections. Many westerners seek a bright future for Afghanistan and the voices of the well informed, and of the local people, must prevail over trigger happy soldiers, secret geo-political maneuverings and the endless flood of Kabul-shit.

Richard Neville lives in Australia, the land that formed him. In the Sixties he raised hell in London and published Oz. He can be reached through his websites, and