Friday, November 28, 2008

Pardon Me

This is the time of forgiveness
When trespassers get well
By making requests
To get out of hell
And return to the living
In the land of the giving
Where crime has no punishment
And lies find new nourishment
But what is the precedent
To pardon the President
For crimes by himself and his friends
Is this where it ends?

Article II, section 2 of the US Constitution provides the specific power for the President of the US to grant pardons and commutation of sentences with virtually no limit. Normally, this is of little consequence to the average citizen, but can be critical for the petitioner seeking clemency or relief. There have been some famous pardons issued over the years. Yes, even George Washington issued pardons and the power has been used in myriad ways in history. President Washington pardoned some of the guilty participants in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Citizens were energized by the steep increase in the whiskey tax of 1791 and they essentially took the law into their own hands to fight the Feds. There was a serious governmental income shortage and the tax was levied in such a way that many felt it was ex post facto and a terrible personal burden. The ex post facto feeling came to those who had already used whiskey in barter and were required to pony up cash by the federal tax collectors (federal marshals), especially those of Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania. That rebellion may have influenced events to this day when barter is rarely used and cumbersome when it happens. Some of the pardon recipients were never convicted. We will see that replicated under Gerald Ford and William Clinton where Nixon and Rich avoided convictions but enjoyed pardons.

Following the Civil War, there were several pardons issued to assist in the reconciliation of the Union with the Confederacy. Thousands of pardons were executed by Andrew Johnson to help heal the wounds of the Civil War. A few were very long in coming. General Robert E. Lee was not specifically pardoned until one hundred years following his death in 1870. Lee had petitioned Andrew Johnson in 1865, but due to colossal red tape and the technicality that his citizenship had been revoked; the request languished until a researcher found Lee’s handwritten oath of allegiance in a dusty old box in Washington. General Lee had been accused of treason and the loyalty oath was wanted to execute the pardon. Lee got his pardon, but had long lost his famous property that became what we now know as Arlington National Cemetery. President Gerald Ford signed the pardon in 1975. Actually, Andrew Johnson had issued a blanket pardon of all involved in the “insurrection,” but scholars differ as to whether or not the blanket pardon covered General Lee due to his specific loss of citizenship.

Pardons can be controversial such as when President H. W. Bush pardoned Cap “The Knife” Weinberger for his role in sending arms to Iran and the following cover up in what became known as ”Iran Contra.” In that case, there was an independent prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh (lifetime Republican) who sought personal information held by the elder Bush in contemporaneous notes when he was Vice President under Reagan. There were six senior Reagan officials pardoned by Bush. Bush himself was described as a “person of interest” due to his specific knowledge of events and personal notes that he withheld from Walsh. Bush was never charged, and he moved quickly to pardon those who were convicted and those who were about to be convicted. Walsh also cited notes held by Weinberger as being key to impeach President Reagan for his role in Iran Contra. Bush outwitted Walsh and moved more rapidly than he to remove Weinberger from the line of fire before the courts could actually capture the evidence but after it was demanded by the independent prosecutor. This probably saved Reagan the embarrassment of impeachment and may have cost Bush a second term, but it allowed virtually every airport, road, bridge and building to be named after Reagan. Ironically, on his election, it caused Clinton to remark that the concept of pardons had to be examined after this episode of crime and cover up. "I am concerned by any action that sends a signal that if you work for the Government, you're beyond the law, or that not telling the truth to Congress under oath is somehow less serious than not telling the truth to some other body under oath." He would later be accused of harboring a personal interest in a couple of his pardons as well as stretching the truth himself. In that sense, pardons can be a powerful tool to change outcomes or to reward loyalty.

Clinton became an object of scorn for his last minute pardons of dozens of petitioners and non-petitioners alike. Two of those brought special heat and an investigation led by Senator Arlan Spector to determine whether the pardons were actually signed before noon on 20 January 2001. Clinton’s half brother was in the list of 140 pardoned that day and peopled clacked that there was a conflict of interest in Clinton’s action although Roger Clinton had already served his time. One of Clinton’s pardons was granted to J. Fife Symington III, the disgraced Republican governor of Arizona. Symington had once saved William J. Clinton from drowning and, when president, he returned the favor in kind. Far more controversial was the pardon of Marc Rich who was never convicted and, in fact, was a fugitive of justice, parked in Switzerland where he still resides. Marc Rich’s wife was a major contributor to the Clinton campaigns. Clinton claimed that his pardon did not preclude civil court action to recover from any harm alleged to have occurred. Interestingly, it was none other than Scooter Libby, who presented the argument for the Rich pardon. He has since become famous, after being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame case and receiving a commutation of his sentence through GW Bush. There seems to be a circular motion that connects pardons as with the elder Bush and Reagan. Again, there was no conviction of Rich prior to the pardon and Congress was powerless to overturn the pardon. Scooter Libby merely played a helping role for President Clinton by claiming that there was no criminal case and that the offense was a civil matter.

So what are we to make of all this history as we count the days until G.W. Bush leaves office and has his final opportunities to issue pardons? First, the presidential power to pardon is essentially without limit. You don’t have to be found guilty in a court of law to be pardoned. On the other hand, if there is a civil wrong, a separate civil court may hear arguments despite the pardon. There is some fuzziness about broad pardons such as those issued by President Andrew Johnson so that identification of the specific recipients may some day be required. Robert E. Lee was not seen as qualified for the general pardon. Can G.W. Bush pardon himself? The answer is yes…but that would set up a qualifying assumption that he was guilty of promoting torture or some other crime and Bush has adamantly denied that. Can he pardon the hundreds that were acting on his orders to conduct “harsh interrogations?” Perhaps if he is able to name them, but recall that did not work well for Andrew Johnson. It may be bad form to pardon oneself but it is legal if the president names himself and others. If he does not pardon himself, Rumsfeld and Cheney, for example, then the crimes of torture and extraordinary rendition are without a statute of limitations and they are internationally recognized offenses. This means that world travel for the leaders in power during Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo may be limited. It also means that at any time in the future, criminal trials may be held here in the United States.
Will the incoming administration or the Congress have the courage to face up to rule by law or will we merely pass to some future generation with a sense of duty and justice? We have a lot to do, but are not the rule of law and the Constitution worth defending? We cannot presume guilt, but without investigations and trials, the rule of law may appear to be no more than a passing suggestion. Be heard. Give Congress some courage and a little hell along the way. Remember…no Peace without Justice. It cannot end here with rule of law traded away for temporary peace and a future draft pick.

George Giacoppe
30 November 2008

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Erasing Culture

I have been thinking about the relationship between war and the elimination of “difference” for a number of years now, especially in light of what happened to Italian American culture when home-front restrictions and internments were imposed on 600,000 Italian immigrants during World War II. I have written elsewhere about how this “shaming” of an entire culture affects cultural retention. A recent reading of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007) has given new breadth and power to these thoughts. In particular, Klein’s description of the plans and machinations of Paul Bremer on behalf of the Bush Administration and its corporate cronies in Iraq makes plain that, far from being random, the attempt to debase the culture of an invaded country, and replace it with an entirely new culture is part of an overall scheme with clear methods in mind, and well-articulated and profitable end states envisioned.  
            First, it is necessary to understand what Klein posits as the conceptual notions underlying such plans. Briefly, they are the notions advanced by one of the most strangelovian psychologists ever to don a doctorate, Dr. Ewen Cameron of Canada. Cameron, supported for years by a CIA which found great promise in his ideas for their growing programs of torture, was the one who initiated the program he called “de-patterning” as a method of “curing” his mental patients. His idea was that by using electroshock therapy and isolation boxes, he could interrupt a patient’s “time and space image” by upsetting both sensory input (isolation) and memory (electroshock). This was meant to break down an individual so that he could be regressed to an infantile state, and then remade on a better mental model. To accomplish this “rejuvenation,” Cameron would often administer shock treatments as often as twice a day for thirty days—sometimes administering as many as 360 electric shocks to a single patient’s brain.  As to the success of such “therapy,” a study by his own institute, the Allen Institute in Canada, found that 75% of his former patients were worse off after treatment than before.
            Despite this dismal record, neither the CIA—in designing its own torture program—nor the Bush Administration—in applying it to whole countries—seems to have been discouraged. Rather, they found the idea of de-patterning and re-patterning on a newer and brighter template quite captivating. This is revealed by what Klein describes of the American plan for Iraq. The plan was first to shock the Iraqi people with, naturally, “schock and awe” aerial bombing, follow it with subsequent culture shocks, and then remake the whole country’s economy on a fresh “free-market” model. (This plan, not incidentally, was also used in countries such as Chile, the former Soviet Union, and many others, but nowhere as purely and savagely as in Iraq.) As Klein puts it, “the initial bombardment was designed to erase the canvas on which the model (corporatist) nation could be built.” Indeed, the comparisons to shock therapy and sensory deprivation are explicit: “the bombing was designed to take out the eyes (electricity) and ears (phone system) of Baghdad...the entire city was (thus) shackled and hooded. Next it was stripped” (pp 333-35). The stripping, of course, took the form of allowing 80% of Iraq’s National Museum to be ransacked. This theft of Iraq’s soul (and since Baghdad is considered the mother of Arab culture, of soul of the entire Arab world) was as much a part of the plan as the subsequent pillaging of state property. In this way, not only was Baghdad’s cultural heritage (the oldest in the civilized world) raped, but its public sector, once the finest in the entire Middle East, was also dismantled. Incredibly, Bremer and the Bush administration actually believed that they were bringing something superior to these deprived desert rats. For as Klein points out, in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, interrogators used “Pringles” as a way to soothe prisoners, thinking that this American high-tech junk food would amply compensate them for the torture they endured. This was the plan for Iraq as well: “terrorize the entire country, deliberately ruin its infrastructure, do nothing while its culture and history are ransacked, and then make it all ok with an unlimited supply of cheap household appliances and imported junk food” (p. 339). And so, almost immediately after he arrived, Bremer declared that Iraq was “open for business,” and proceeded to institute a series of proclamations to totally privatize Iraq’s 200 state companies, invite American corporate cronies in to share in the bonanza, lower taxes for them to 15%, and of course, put millions of Iraqis out of work. And best of all, foreign investors could take 100% of their Iraqi profits out of the country. In return, Iraqis would get a Pringle-rich economy and culture: Burger Kings, cheap consumer products, American entertainment and values.
            We all know by now how well this worked. It led directly to what American officials called the “insurgency.” In truth, the insurgents were the Iraqi people saying “no” to the theft of their country. But here, the lesson is not in the results, but rather in the paradigm. The paradigm, I believe, is the wiping out or erasure of cultures—be it the culture of a nation conquered in war, the culture of a nation with whom the United States wishes to “trade,” or the culture of groups of people the United States wishes to assimilate—in order to soften them for the remodeling that is desired. Examples from U.S. history abound.
            The first one that springs to mind is Native American culture. Just last night, a KQED program about the Navajo, “The Long Walk: Tears of the Navajo,” featured unforgettable photos of Indians at the boarding schools they were forced to attend, their hair cut short, their faces grim and chiseled, their bodies clothed not in traditional attire but in tight-fitting military uniforms. Administrators were quoted as saying they had to erase all sign of the Indians’ previous culture, including the languages they were forbidden to utter, in order to remake them as good Americans.
            The same was done to African slaves brought to the pre-Civil War South. Families were separated, all signs of their previous culture were extirpated, and all forms of cultural grouping or cultural retention were suppressed in order to avoid any possibility of organized resistance to the gruesome existence the southern economy required of its slaves.
            What is not so well accepted is the extent to which this same process applies to ordinary immigrants. This is probably due to the fact that most immigrants, in order to improve their economic or political lot, voluntarily make the wrenching decision to leave their homelands and settle in the United States. But the truth lurks beneath the surface. Those who expect to thrive in the United States quickly learn that retention of the old culture carries with it certain disadvantages—disabilities associated with foreign ways of speaking, foreign ways of viewing the world, foreign customs concerning the debts owed to families or friends or co-villagers. In other words, they learn about culture shock.
            It is war, however, and the culture shock it brings, which paints the dynamics of culture abandonment into high relief. In this, the Italian immigrants during WWII are a good type case. On Dec. 8, 1941, those who had not yet obtained full American citizenship were classified by Executive Order 2527 as “enemy aliens.” This meant that their rights were forfeited: they could be rounded up, searched, arrested, and deported with no further authority. They could be restricted as to travel and possessions, as well as excluded from certain areas. In California, this exclusion took place when the Department of Justice set up “prohibited zones” from which all enemy aliens had to evacuate: along the coast, inside San Francisco Bay, and near sensitive installations. And of course, the enclaves called “Little Italies” (the Italian immigrants, up to that point, called them “colonies”), where Italian was spoken, and where Italian culture and mores more or less thrived, were investigated and raided and searched and kept under suspicion. “Don’t Speak the Enemy’s Language” warned a poster, and thousands of families and commercial establishments suppressed their native tongue in response, many of them forever.
            The most vivid expression of this cultural suppression came in May of 1942 during the Assembly hearings on UnAmerican Activities in California held in San Francisco by what came to be known as the Tenney Committee. There, an exchange made quite clear what many in government had in mind for these Italian colonies: the erasure of their traditional culture. It came in an exchange between committee-member Kellems and a witness from the Italian community itself, Gilbert Tuoni:
TUONI: As I was saying to you before, gentlemen of this committee, the best thing is to close the papers, close the Italian broadcasting, reorganize or close the Italian organizations, they are poison—this is the time that the Italians should come into the American family…
KELLEMS: It is your opinion—or rather, I should say conviction—that there are a special group of people whose culture and background is so different from ours, and I think we do admit it is radically different—
TUONI: (Interrupting) Yes.
KELLEMS: (Continuing)—and it will only be possible for them to forget that only if they will enter the American way of life—
TUONI: (Interrupting) They will.
KELLEMS: (Continuing)—and I believe they will. Is it not your feeling that instead of persisting generation after generation teaching these things, creating a Little Italy here, that they will only find their own happiness and strength by forgetting…?
            Thus did the Tenney Committee put into words what the federal government had already put into action: Italian Americans had to prove their loyalty. The way to do that was to FORGET—forget what they knew, forget who they were. In short, the wartime provided a shock to the Italian community powerful enough to induce them to regress—to forget the culture they had grown up with once and for all—and then replace it with American culture and values. And though for Italian and German and Japanese immigrants, the war with their mother countries provided an exceptionally dramatic occasion for cultural erasure, the same is true, to a lesser and slower degree perhaps, for all immigrants to the United States. Forget what you were; become all you can be, i.e., American. 
            The question that has always haunted this paradigm is: why? Other than bigots, who benefits, and how, from a cultural makeover? Naomi Klein’s description of the shock doctrine provides the answer: Pringles. Pringles, as used by the U.S. military, symbolizes and essentializes the program. First, when someone retains and remembers and clings to the values of his own culture, he maintains a structure for resistance. Knowing who he is and what he stands for, can strenghten the courage to resist. If he can remain in a group of like-minded people, that resistance will be even more powerful. If, on the other hand, he can be de-patterned, and re-patterned on a new model, and then isolated from comrades, he will be merely an individual, on his own in opposing overpowering force. He will become malleable. He can then be re-educated in the ways and mores and values of the new culture. Pringles. He can be induced, in short, to believe that being a consumer is the key to the highest human values. To be able to buy an endless array of consumer goods and services—TV sets bigger and better than all others, cars that symbolize status, homes and clothes and foods that mimic the highest social strata—is to approach the summit of human happiness, the reason for which humans are born. And those who produce these “goods,” those who reckon the health of a culture by the always accelerating Gross Domestic Product that measures how many more useless needs are created, smile in the background, their profits intact, their share of the GDP growing ever larger.
            In sum, as long as the populace has been stripped of all resistance to such a hijacking of the human drive for ultimate good, as long as it can be diverted from any notion of sensory or cultural or mental recovery, as long as it can be convinced that its well-being depends on its continually hyped-up desire for newer and glitzier toys, the profitable game can go on. For those in on the game, the erasure of culture is a negligible price to pay.
Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The B Attitudes

If the meek shall inherit the earth
Just how much is it worth
With scars everywhere
And wars here and there
And for the poor in spirit
It’s heaven they inherit
But what does that mean
For us in between
A loss of all face
Or some Amazing Grace?

We live in amazing times and in an amazing society where the meek get pushed around and those who are poor in spirit are being led to their inheritance of heaven a little faster than necessary. If you are brash and bold and lay claim to the earth and exploit its wealth and resources, then you are authorized to dig mining holes anywhere or poison the water we all need for life. The current administration came into power with a promise of “compassionate conservatism” but has shown neither compassion nor conservatism. Instead, we have seen a cascade of bad news created by bad policies that have made life more difficult for the vast majority of Americans. Given our global economy, the bad news has become international. Pain without borders…what a concept!

In the past eight years, the nominal pay for the average American has declined by $1,000 while the real pay, considering inflation has declined by $5,000. Meanwhile, we have had an eight-year lecture series on the benefits that derive from a “free market.” The final examination on this Bush “free market” is a life-performance exam where the proctor is an unlicensed proctologist and we have all had the probing finger jabbed where it hurts. Multi-trillion dollar deficits have been followed by a trillion dollar bailout followed by worldwide fear and retrenchment. And it is not over. Even the use of the “free market” phrase is an amazing affront. We have witnessed record quantity and value for no-bid contracts and watched a Bush payback to drug firms through the most profligate Medicare Drug Plan that could possibly have been authored by the drug firms themselves. This was a “free market” where the government, representing all us people, chose to prevent competition in the marketplace to the detriment of the consumer and the possible destruction of Medicare. This gave a new meaning to the old saw that “Freedom isn’t free.” We are paying dearly for this “free market” through worse jobs and fewer of them.

One reason to remind ourselves of the dismal failure of the policies of the past eight years is that there are still people out there who firmly believe that we simply did not go far enough in the destruction of the state and the building of corporate power. The neocon theory seems parallel to an earlier theory and time when the state was to wither away and the proletariat would rise to power. At this juncture, these theories appear to be equal and opposite forces that need to be uncovered for the frauds that they both are. If we look briefly at our history since Richard Nixon, the contempt for government has become a growth industry. Ronald Reagan, the uncanonized patron saint of the modern GOP, spoke eloquently of government being the problem rather than being able to solve a problem. On of his early acts (August 1981) as president was in direct contradiction to this pre-election letter (Oct 20, 1980):

“Dear Mr. Poli:

I have been briefed by members of my staff as to the deplorable state of our nation's air traffic control system. They have told me that too few people working unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment has placed the nation's air travellers (sic) in unwarranted danger. In an area so clearly related to public
safety, the Carter administration has failed to act responsibly.

You can rest assured that if I am elected President, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety....

I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the President and the air traffic controllers.

Ronald Reagan”

Obviously, Reagan saw the hazards of overworked and overstressed air controllers as evidenced by his letter written prior to his election as president. After his election, he made no changes in equipment or work schedules for the controllers but put the hammer down on the union. He fired the controllers. Ideology triumphed over practicality and safety, as well as the concept of keeping his word. And remember, that Reagan was a likeable man, unlike GW Bush who has artfully managed to alienate most of the world. Ideologues can act consistent with their ideologies in spite of overwhelming evidence that their theories are suspect or unworkable. What is interesting and sometimes terrifying is that an ideology can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that government is the problem and then act on that belief, then you act to destroy government rather than improve it. You place administrators like John Bolton who hates the UN as ambassador to it. You place a failed horse show administrator, Michael Brown, in charge of FEMA and continue to curry favor with Texan Joe Allbaugh, major Bush contributor, to hire his friends without regard to competence. These hirelings demonstrated personal loyalty rather than competence. More dramatically, you hire occupation administrators for Iraq, including Paul Brenner, that have correctly answered loyalty questions on such irrelevant criteria as Roe v Wade or their favorite president but have no language or functional skills to conduct the real business of an occupation in a potentially hostile space. Then you can say, “See, I told you that government couldn’t do the job!” Arrgh! Prophecy fulfilled. Now we can outsource fully half of the war. Mission Accomplished! And you never have to say you are sorry for the failed construction or logistics or intelligence or security of an outsourced function. And that is truly priceless.

Unfortunately, the process of damaging government from within has a long-term effect of bleeding confidence from the citizenry, especially when denied examples of good government for eight years. Given the example of the Bush Administration demanding loyalty as an end item, people soon learned that a contrary opinion was viewed as disloyalty and a direct challenge to authority rather than a search for good answers. The downward spiral begins. The incompetent government shifts priorities from supporting the common good to defending the decisions made to enforce loyalty. Recently and in stark contrast, President-Elect Obama chose to avoid rewarding such pandering loyalty on an early dilemma. Senator Lieberman could not have been more disloyal to Obama during the campaign, and yet Obama has asked Senator Reid to avoid punishing Lieberman. This was impossible under Bush.

Serious damage to the rule of law and to the concept of commonwealth has been done by this extension of the Reagan concept of “small government.” Small, in this context, begins to describe the smallness of the heart and smallness of the intellect instead of a true smallness in size of an effective government. The two largest expansions of government in our lifetime have been built by the two loudest proponents of small government. Each has, in his turn, presided over the largest increase in government debt in history to his point in time. Reagan had a reputation for B movies and he had a B attitude about government. Bush never reached a B level in 8 years. His attitude about government was a miserable F and his government failed miserably. We have inherited the country as it is and it is up to us to make it into something worth inheriting for our children and grandchildren. Pray for the strength to do it. The work will indeed be hard and the critics many for our attitudes have hardened against government. It will truly take Amazing Grace.
George Giacoppe
13 November 2008

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Governator Goes Regressive

 California’s “grade-B” Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has just announced his solution to the state’s fiscal crisis: a steep increase in the Sales Tax. The Governator, who swept into office in a recall election on the basis of his allegedly superior skill at balancing the state budget, has never been able to balance it at all. In the past, he has resorted to borrowing via huge bond issues whose billions will need to be paid off for decades. Now he has proposed a 1.5% increase in the state sales tax, as well as upwards of $2 billion in cuts to the education budget. This hews to his conservative bias: when the state needs a bailout, go regressive, making the poor and middle classes pay.
            Here is how that works. In 1913, the United States finally agreed that the Gilded Age had to come to an end.  The conspicuous wealth of titans like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie, living in their munificent palaces, contrasted too visibly with the lives of the poor barely able to eke out a living in city slums. It also made a mockery of the nation’s creed about “equality.” The 16th Amendment, therefore, legalized a tax on individual income. The tax rate was modest, with the top bracket paying a rate of only 7% of their income. Then, in 1917 during WWI, the rate for the top earners rose to 67%. Income tax had thus become notably “progressive,” the idea being that those who earned the most, and therefore derived the most from government services, should also contribute the most. This was seen as the only fair way to tax. Of course, the wealthy never fully accepted this, and by 1929 they had lobbied successfully enough with Republican administrations to get the top tax rate down to 24%. Then the economic roof caved in. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to mitigate the vast inequality that had set in before the Depression, then raised the top tax rate to 63% in 1933. With the coming of the Second World War, the need for government expenditures for arms and men led to an even higher top rate of 94% by 1944. The top rate remained high throughout the next decades, lowering some to 70% in the 60s.
            Then came the Reagan revolution, with its free-market ideology and its theory of “trickle-down” economics, which said that when the rich do well, the benefits trickle down to the rest of us.  Accordingly, Reagan lowered the top rate to 50% and then to 38.5%, and George H.W. Bush lowered that to 31% in 1992. His son, George W. kept it at about the same level, 35% today. The result has been the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich in our history.
            The point of all this, here, is that even with the radically unequal policies of the most die-hard neoconservatives in the Reagan-Bush administrations, the policy, if not the willingness, has remained firm that the wealthiest Americans should pay a progressively higher portion of their incomes in taxes than the poor and middle classes. The point is also that while income taxes, since their inception, have been graduated, or progressive—i.e. those with the highest income pay higher rates—sales taxes are REGRESSIVE. That is, every single person who buys a pencil or a book or a car or a TV set or shoes must pay the same percentage as a tax. The same tax rate. This, of course, means that when a wealthy person like the CEO of Google, with a personal fortune in the billions, pays a sales tax, its effect on his income is negligible. Like an elephant bitten by a mosquito, he hardly feels it. A middle class or poor person, however, feels the sting of the sales tax bite far more keenly. If he must pay an extra $8 for each hundred dollars he spends, and now an extra $1.50 on top of that, that $1.50 is a much higher percentage of his disposable income than it is for the wealthy person, who may barely notice an outlay under $100 or $1000 or even $100,000. In other words, for the rich, sales tax is barely an issue, while for the poor, it can make the difference between purchasing a needed item and going without.
            It is for this reason that the sales tax is always the refuge of scoundrels like Governor Schwarzenegger. He knows he can get the rich to agree to it. He also knows that they would balk at any suggestion of an increase in their income tax, or, god forbid, in their property taxes. For in those areas, they would pay noticeably more than the poor. So where at one time, a popular mantra said “soak the rich,” in our time it has become “soak the poor.” And that is exactly what the Governator is proposing. For not only is he proposing an increase of 1.5% in the regressive sales tax (many areas will now have to pay over 10% in sales tax!), he is simultaneously proposing a reduction in expenditures for the public schools. And this is also regressive, and a key indicator of what conservative and Republican party policies have come to rely on. For the wealthy, who are the core constituency of Republicans, the public schools are already a matter of indifference, indeed, a bothersome drain on their finances. Most send their children to private schools in any case. Therefore, to let the public schools and those who rely on them wither and die suits them just fine. But there’s more. As Naomi Klein points out in her Shock Doctrine, the wealthy have now decided that they can privatize just about everything, including security services for their gated communities and, indeed, whole townships where they can live walled off from the nasty realities of the riff-raff who inhabit cities. With everything privatized, including companies to help them get away in case of natural disasters like hurricanes (which do not respect the gates that keep out the poor), they can live truly virtual, sanitized lives.
            This withering away or privatizing of government services has been a key element in the conservative program of the last forty years. The latest proposal by California’s Governor fits right in with this program. It only remains to be seen if the Democrats, who control the majority in the California legislature, cave in once again to this latest heist, this blatant attempt to make the poor bear the burden once again, or if they wake up and say No. No way. No how. There is either going to be fairness, or there is going to be resistance, non-cooperation, and whatever else it takes to right the balance of power.
Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Coming of Obama

What a night. The pundits have all said it ad nauseam, but it’s worth repeating: this was an historic election victory, one putting, against all odds, a Black man for the first time into our Whitest of Houses. What follows are simply some observations and feelings garnered from watching the returns starting at 4 PM Pacific Time and on to the late news after Obama’s victory speech to a crowd of more than 500,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park.
            Images: Jesse Jackson  at Grant Park, tears rolling down his face, his hand to his mouth trying to control his emotions—no doubt a mix of absolute joy and disbelief and perhaps regret that this Black man had done it, done what he himself could not do in his try for the presidency in the 80s. Not far from him, Oprah Winfrey, also in tears at the sight of a man she had championed in his moment of triumph. And throughout the crowd there, and at dozens of other places throughout the country—Times Square and Harlem in New York, Oakland in California, and outside the White House itself—people of all colors shouting and jumping and pumping and weeping at the breadth and depth and sheer exhilaration of the victory of this man and this movement which had inspired so many to do so much to bring home the prize. And the relief: of being at last, free at last, from second-class citizenship to be sure, but also free from the frustration and criminality of a President who had, for this election season, become a pariah, a Bush animal skulking in back rooms and back alleys and literally afraid to show his face to an electorate and members of his own party that now found him so toxic it must have told him, bellowed at him, “Stay away. The shoe is now on the other foot. Where you have slandered and ostracized millions who disagreed with your wars, now you are the leper no one can even bear to be seen with.”
            Maya Angelou. Interviewed on one of the major channels, the poet and Nobelist, after expressing her real emotion at the pride for her people in this, said something like: ‘At last, the American people have shown their willingness to elect someone with intelligence.’
            Donna Brazile, not long ago Al Gore’s chief strategist and acting as a commentator for one of the networks. And she, more than once, mentioned this wonderful irony:  It had been African Americans who built the steps to the White House; and now, an African American was going to actually reside in the White House.
            John Lewis, the representative from Georgia, describing the scene inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King had begun his civil rights movement—a movement that Lewis himself had played a major part in—now filled with laughing, cheering, joyous, weeping people unable to believe that after all that had happened to them and their leaders, one was now the President-elect of the United States. And at about the same time, Andrew Young, another of King’s lieutenants in the civil rights struggle, near tears describing all that he and King and millions of others had been through to get the Voting Rights Act passed under Lyndon Johnson, and now, less than 50 years later, seeing all that work and struggle coming to fruition in this amazing election.
            And all these references came rushing to the fore at the moment the President-elect took the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park, and one realized that here he was, out in the open, with bullet-proof panels of glass to each side, but with the stage open to the front where he spoke; and a knifeblade of fear raced through with the thought that this was still America, and that it was still possible that some crazy racist might try to take a shot at yet another Black man. Because after all, it had only been less than 50 years since the first of those horror scenarios erupted in Dallas, ending the presidency of another reviled young president, John F. Kennedy. And it had been even fewer years since Martin Luther King, on the cusp of becoming the real leader of the anti-war movement against the war in Vietnam, had been shot on a balcony in Memphis. And fewer than that when yet another Kennedy, Robert, had been poised to take the Democratic nomination for president to succeed Lyndon Johnson, and he, too, was shot and killed in the kitchen of a hotel in Los Angeles. And at about the same time, Malcolm X, yet another brillliant black leader beginning to stir masses of people with an even stronger message than King’s, also assassinated on the stage of a ballroom in New York’s Harlem. All these killings. All these wasted lives, radical progressive lives, cut short before they could come to fruition. And here, in Chicago’s Grant Park, was another life, a mythic Black life on an almost miraculous rise to power from near-obscurity, a political life coming to fruition on this near-miraculous election evening in the 21st Century, and the blood pumped fear that the mad, reactionary forces that seem endemic to America could do it again.
            Perhaps that was why Obama’s speech seemed subdued. There were no pumping of fists in victory, no shouts of joy that “we did it” or “I did it when no one thought I could,” no hint even of gloating that many who thought it improbable that he could not only beat the Clinton machine, but also the residual resistance in this land to a black man getting too uppity, were wrong. Nothing of the sort. It was somber, that speech. As if mindful not only of the terrible road ahead, of the dangerous rocks and shoals in the way of any president being able to rescue the broken economy, the broken image of America in the world, of a military broken and bogged down by two wars, of a system that has grown rich and fat on cruelty and chicanery and outright theft and massive indifference to the suffering of “others,” not only that: but mindful as well of the risks that he, a Black man, took exposing himself here and continuously on like stages for the next four or eight years to the still festering resentment of those who would like nothing so much as to see him get his “comeuppance.” And he must have been mindful of it, for the networks told us all that though the Obama victory was sweeping, it had hardly dented the solid South. It was there that McCain racked up his only string of victories of the night. In Alabama and Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee and Louisiana and South Carolina and Texas and Kentucky and Oklahoma and once-bleeding Kansas, the polls showed conclusively that the white vote went for the Republican candidate by margins of 8 and 9 and 10 to 1. This was the core of the “southern strategy” evolved by Richard Nixon in 1972. Take advantage of that white resentment, the resentment of still unreconstructed southerners outraged at the rights being “given” to blacks, outraged at the northerners who came south to help get them those rights in the 60s, outraged at the “liberals” from New York who had presumed to enter their land and instruct them about rights and equality and about who had the right to sit where and eat and drink what. And vote. And that resentment, harnessed by Nixon and his followers in the Republican Party ever since, gave the minority party just the edge they needed to win four of the last six elections. And Obama knew it. And must have been mindful of it as he gave that subdued speech, emphasizing not victory but unity, not a new deal or any deal at all, but mostly coming together. It was, on some level perhaps, a plea, the same he has been making all along. We intend no major upheaval, no revolution, no attack on values. We mean only to implement a fair way to get the change America needs to get back on track. Whether it worked or not, whether it impressed that still-solid South, remains to be seen. But in Chicago, on this night of transcendent victory over the forces of unreason, that was the tone the winner struck.
            And it capped what can only be called a remarkable night; a night and a campaign in which race came to the fore, but in such a way, and in such circumstances, that a huge majority of the country decided that perhaps it was time. Perhaps the time had come to put this most contentious of American conflicts behind us, at least for the moment, and let the more qualified candidate, the clearly more intelligent and compassionate and informed and humane candidate take the helm of a ship of state which eight years of greed and ignorance and criminal hubris have put on the rocks. And though it is clear that the coming of Obama is not the second coming that many hope it is, not by a long shot, it surely is a cause for relief and even joy that at long last, one long national nightmare is over, and a time of renewal, of renewed faith in community and service and the fine art of governance in its best sense may be at hand.
Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Chaos by Design

How long shall we endure
The deliberately obscure
When ‘clear sky’ pollutes
And nothing refutes
The lies and the errors
Describing the terrors?
We need abatement
Of the signing statement
And a word that just seems
To say what it means

As we ponder these 2008 elections, we need to make sense of the claims and counter-claims as well as the specific results. Most of us try to do that with whatever knowledge and experience we bring to the voting booth. Good for us. Unfortunately, political campaigns excel in hyperbole, so we need to calibrate our expectations with our internal “smoke detectors” and make some decisions based on an integration and weighting of lots of factors. Normally, we do this without much conscious thought, but when election season is upon us, we have polls that slice the data in ways that only pollsters could love, and in ways that not even they understand.

The question I need to pose to each of you is this:
When you make your everyday decisions about what you eat and wear; your health care; your investments; expenditures for transportation shelter; entertainment and safety, do you know what you are doing? Seriously, do you know what you are doing? Cessation programs such as those for smoking or drinking ask that you keep logs so you know the circumstances of when you partake. That presents one side of the equation and perhaps it might help, but life has become so complex that knowing yourself is simply not enough. Is there melamine in that milk or formula? Are you swallowing a fast-track drug or is it simply a placebo? Do your children’s toys contain lead? Does the mortgage interest rate change? Does your credit card rate change? Does your spinach or ground beef patty contain E coli 0157: H7 or does your chicken dinner have salmonella? Hmm…think about it.
Now what if I asked you what protected you from the unknown in all the areas of your life? If the FDA is to protect you from untested drugs or reports authored by “scientists” with a conflict of interest, do you know if that has that been subverted? Similarly, if the bright imported toys are laced with lead, do you have a test kit to detect the lead? Do you really have an airbag that will deploy in an accident? What protects you from predatory lending or financial products that cost more than they earn?
Stay with me. Of course, we have federal agencies that are chartered to test and investigate, but will they? What if I told you that the system depends on the existence of adequate regulations, funding and staffing of agencies and the desire of the inspectors and investigators to enforce the rules? We know that the “Clear Skies Initiative” actually adds pollution…but how much? The name gives us no clue. In fact, it sounds like a good deal. Everybody wants clear skies.
Political rhetoric has become confusing. Take this quote from Alaska Governor Sarah Palin:
“And Alaska—we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs. … It’s to maximize benefits for Alaskans, not an individual company, not some multinational somewhere, but for Alaskans.”
Ms. Palin became shrill in her denunciation of Barack Obama for his plan to share the wealth by planning tax cuts for the middle class and rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the more wealthy. She used “socialist” as a pejorative and then words such as “liberal” were thrown into the mix, but it was Teddy Roosevelt, a conservative Republican, that established a graduated income tax nearly a hundred years ago and it has been policy ever since. So if she spreads the wealth in Alaska, it is “American,” but if we continue the graduated tax in the entire country, it is “socialist.” Division is a useful tool when wielded by experts in the process who use political code words for building fear and even panic in a population that has not done due diligence in researching issues but is ready to blame our ills on some “outside” group or person. Likewise, when Palin denounced Obama for voting against an Iraqi funding bill, she left unsaid that McCain also voted against an Iraqi funding bill. One had time lines and one did not.
My point is simply this: Similar to the impossibility to self-analyze our health, safety, and investment decisions because of their complexity and lack of individual tools and skills; we cannot determine the truth or falsity of claims and counter claims in the political arena because there is so much that is hidden from view. Bush has signed bills into law and then added a record number of “signing statements” that gut the legislation. Right at this very moment, Bush has a task force working to deregulate as much as possible before he leaves office. This is not only a low profile event, but is actively hidden from view. In a way, there is a biblical quality to all this activity. Recall the parable in the New Testament where Jesus describes the prudent steward who, one by one, writes down the debts owed his master so as to set up a good life after his pending dismissal. Bush is leaving office and will deregulate those industries that will offer him the continuing good life; the nation be damned. Given his record on deregulation that brought on the chaos of the mortgage meltdown and the lending laments expect the worst, and you will not be disappointed. An ideologue to the end, Bush will leave office continuing the support of lobbyists that were the hallmark of his reign. Will we keep a log of all the regulations that need to be reinstated? Perhaps if we do, we can avoid another catastrophe rooted in the ideology of deregulation. Again, the enemy is not government, but BAD government where chaos is introduced and nurtured by design.

George Giacoppe
31 October 2008