Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Obama Administration is Dead

The just-announced compromise between President Obama and gloating Republicans seems to be the final nail in the coffin of the Obama Administration. This guy, to put it simply, seems to have no stomach for a fight at all. Like some modern anti-hero, when the going gets rough, he caves. So today, as he’s been hinting all along, he announced that he would extend the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, including those making over $250,000/year or even $1 million a year (as Senator Schumer proposed.) No, Obama ate the whole poisoned meal, and tried to defend it to outraged colleagues. More than that, he added a couple of new wrinkles. First, he proposed to provide a year’s drop of 2% in the FICA or Social Security taxes that all Americans pay (progressives have proposed making wealthy Americans pay more by extending the amount of income subject to SS taxes, but Obama, predictably, went the other way). While Obama claims that this will put more money in the hands of working Americans (and it will, short term), other progressives have pointed out that it makes a start in a direction favored by the most rabid reactionaries, who have been trying to get rid of Social Security for 80 years. That is, by reducing the amount going into the Social Security Trust Fund (already raided for years by mainly Republican presidents to finance their shitty wars), the President’s action will add to the pressure to bankrupt Social Security to the point where it will be abandoned as too costly. After all, Americans need their military-industrial complex. But there’s another element to the plan as well, again a major cave-in to slavering Republicans and their millionaire constituency. The hated estate tax would be lowered, on estates worth more than $5 million, to 35%. Democrats, Obama’s party, wanted to make the tax 45% on all estates over $3.5 million (still a lowering from the 55% it had been), but again, the Republican plan won.

Sort of makes you wonder if perhaps Obama isn’t a closet Republican, doesn’t it?

Whatever he is—and it certainly is not progressive—it now seems clear that he has decided that his only hope for winning in 2012 is to follow Bill Clinton’s example, and turn to the right after a mid-tern ‘shellacking’. It is a bitter pill for progressives to swallow after the euphoria that greeted his election. It is also, unless I miss my guess, the death knell for his administration. Because the one thing Americans despise more than a loser is a president so weak he can’t even muster the courage to use his bully pulpit to fight for what he believes in. Instead, at every turn, Obama has caved in to conservative forces—whether it’s on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Health Care “reform”, or taxes on the rich. Perhaps he long ago concluded that as a black man, he had to present himself as a non-threatening, non-combative intellectual. But he’s done that, and it has backfired every time. According to Republican rhetoric, he’s a socialist, a communist, a Muslim and a Nazi all rolled into one. Why he thinks he can somehow ingratiate himself with them and their constituency now is a mystery no one seems able to solve. The only thing that appears certain to me, again, is that it—plus his continuing cowardice in confronting his enemies—will condemn him to one term. Given the lack of backbone he’s displayed thus far (and sadly, he has tons of company among his Democratic comrades in Congress), perhaps that’s a good thing.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Politics Uber Alles

Sail on O Ship of State
Unless it has become too late
To save us from plutocracy
In the name of our democracy
As we edge to immolation
And pick this mighty nation
Apart to little bits
While playing politics

I don’t know about each of you, but I feel that we have reached a point in our democratic republic when we need to reassess the mechanics of governing. For the past two years, The Democratic party has “enjoyed” sizable pluralities in the House and Senate as well as holding the bully pulpit of the White House. The majority did not rule. They were attacked constantly by a noisy minority that has used every technique available to delay, defer, deny or otherwise thwart the will of the people. And here is the rub. We need to protect the minority so that the majority does not simply trample on the rights and needs of a minority that may also have the interests of the nation at heart. The majority perhaps could have been more forceful or even more creative in framing the issues that are at stake, but, save a miracle, the outcome would not have been altered a whit because we are engaged in a partisan struggle of the powerful and wealthy versus the great but shrinking middle class people of our republic.

Interestingly in the latest election, the interpretation of the votes has been made a measure of propagandistic effectiveness instead of fact or reflecting actual opinions and votes. When voters were questioned regarding continuing the tax break for the top 2%, their overwhelming opinion, regardless of party, was that the break for “millionaires and billionaires” should end. Republicans have claimed an entirely different message and have simultaneously called for extension of the tax break and also for reduction of the national debt that will be worsened by $700 Billion over the next ten years if the tax break is extended. So Democrats have used language indicating “millionaires and billionaires” when the actual line is $250,000 for joint returns. That was oversimplification. Millionaires and billionaires would get the break up to $250,000 as well as those who earn less, but Republicans ignored that subtle fact. That is careful word choice. Republicans say that this is not the time to increase taxes on the wealthy since the economy is in decline and that (here we go again) giving the tax breaks to the wealthy will trickle down to the ordinary people and create jobs.

The Bush tax breaks have been in place since 2001 and have not created jobs except in the government sector where about 1.2 million jobs were created and this by the party of smaller government. The private sector gained about 670,000 jobs before the recession. In other words, we proved again that trickle down does not work and that wealthy people do not spend their money where it gets multiplied in the marketplace. The estimate for the multiplication factor for tax breaks for the top 2% of earners is about 9% while the same action for the middle class is about 65% and still higher for folks on unemployment compensation. The claim that we need to rein in spending while splurging $700 Billion on people who don’t need help and who will not improve the job market seems hollow, especially for the additional millions of people who may lose their homes if the unemployment compensation is not immediately extended. There is a claim that small businesses that are not incorporated could be impacted if the Bush cuts are not extended to the highest 2% of income earners, but that, too, is highly suspect since only 1% of small businesses earn more than $250,000 per year. Just who or what is the “Bush break” aimed at? Let me present a theory that you are free to challenge. Republicans are acting as though wealthy people are somehow more worthy because they are wealthy or plutocrats. It is even more ironic that many of these plutocrats don’t pay taxes anyway because they have the wherewithal and tax attorneys to avoid them. The owners of the LA Dodgers, Frank and Jamie McCourt spend an average of $20 million per year and yet have paid pay no income taxes for the past ten years or so. Others may be more socially conscious, but their taxes are gracefully lower anyway. Hedge fund operators pay taxes “earned” at 15% despite huge profits. Surely you would agree that hedge fund investors are more worthy than engineers or schoolteachers or truck drivers, but would engineers, teachers and truck drivers?

Our current tax rates are the lowest since 1950, but in 1950, America's wealthiest 10% held only 30% of the wealth. Today, the top 1% holds about 40% of the wealth. In other words, the share of pie has increased about ten-fold for the truly wealthy. “Trickle down” has actually bubbled up and the only thing that the middle class feels trickle down is the sweat burning down their necks when they cannot pay their mortgages, or maybe a little pee down their legs when their kids go hungry. The middle class has shrunk as though all this were a zero sum game, but it does not have to be zero sum with more enlightened tax burdens. The top marginal tax bracket during WW II was essentially confiscatory at 94%, but citizens felt a need to support the nation at war. Even as late as 1980, the top rate was 70%. In the thirty years since then, the wealth of the richest few has skyrocketed while the income for middle class Americans who are wage earners and not major investors or inheritors, has barely kept up with inflation. Unfortunately, the bottom 10% have not even been able to keep up with inflation. The logic offered by many Republicans is that fairness means that everybody gets the same break. But the question remains, how do we measure equal breaks? Clearly, percentages have not done that job. Many taxes are absolutely regressive. The sales tax affects the poor far more than the wealthy. If your marginal income is at the poverty level and you need a tank of gas or disposable diapers, the local 8 or 9% sales tax may mean cutting down on food or other necessities. For the wealthy it means nothing, sometimes literally, if they have access to corporate sales tax exclusions for their personal use.

We have seen societies in history that were essentially plutocracies and they were often unstable or ruled with an iron fist. The health of a nation is related to the wealth of a nation, but only insofar as the wealth is distributed well enough to avoid great pain or obvious un-merited inequity. As long as we have inequity of regressive taxation on necessities then the income tax needs to be realistic as well as a balancing factor for the perception of fairness. The obvious endpoint of the current trend is a banana republic where a few families control the fates of the remaining families. We can avoid that and can look to addressing inequities by addressing the factors that create the widening gap. Fairness can be measured partly on the ability to pay. Fairness can be measured by reining in costs for things like education that drive innovation and growth for the entire nation. It is in the best interest of the nation to encourage education and to avoid additional regressive burdens such as the newly proposed elimination or reduction of the mortgage exemption or we will quickly shift into a landlord class of great control that will mimic Dicken’s England. It is ironic that this very day, we are celebrating the highest corporate profits ever and yet we have a national average unemployment of 9.8%. We have had constant and consistent productivity growth over the past 30 years and yet fairness in sharing those productivity gains has escaped the workers in both manufacturing and service industries.

Americans are essentially fair-minded. Statesmanship demands fairness and not temporary political advantage. Politics in absence of fairness is not only temporary, it is folly that risks our basic structure. We need to reward those who create jobs that stay in the US and stop using labor costs as a trump card to eliminate good jobs. Incidentally, just look at Boeing. They decided that cheaper labor would save their market for the 787 “Dreamliner.” Boeing is 3 years behind schedule and counting. Cheap overseas labor was no solution and is no solution. Instead of a “Dreamliner,” they got a nightmareliner that will not go away. Obama: use your veto. Travesty will surely follow the right wing capture of the House of Representatives. Class warfare has progressed and the Middle Class is losing.

George Giacoppe
05 December 2010

Wikileaks: An Inside Job?

The news has been alive with alarms about the catastrophe that could result from the latest Wikileaks revelations—over 250,000 cables from the U.S. State Department that could compromise U.S. diplomacy and diplomatic relations for years. Hilary Clinton expressed grave concern about the damage not only to the United States but to the world. The Justice Department announced it would be doing all in its power to prosecute those responsible—chiefly, it seems, Private Bradley Manning, now in custody as the lead, and only suspect in the investigation.

But the real hysteria has centered on those two remaining members of the ‘Axis of Evil,’ Iran and North Korea. Of course, it’s understandable that pooh bahs would be alarmed about North Korea, what with its two recent attacks on the South ratcheting up fears of a renewed all-out war (hard to believe that there has never really been an end to the 1950s Korea “conflict,” isn’t it). Still, the major alarums and trial balloons have concerned Iran. In England’s Guardian, the Nov. 28 headline read: “Saudi Arabia urges US attack on Iran to Stop Nuclear Programme.” The very first sentence adds that “other Arab allies have agitated for military action against Tehran.” These “other allies” include such democratic stalwarts as Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. All see Iran as a “threat”, as “evil,” or as a “snake.” “Cut off the head of the snake,” Saudi King Abdullah is quoted as urging.

All this was, of course, real music to the Israelis. As prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quoted by the Washington Post on Monday Nov. 29, "More and more states, governments and leaders in the Middle East and the wider region and the world believe this is the fundamental threat." Netanyahu went on to expose what he called the “gap” between what Arab leaders say privately and publicly, their public “script” alleging that the “greatest threat is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” while “in reality, leaders understand that this narrative is bankrupt. There is a new understanding,” i.e. the malignancy of a nuclear Iran.

And of course, the American media ran with this as the major story of the Wikileaks revelations. Both the PBS News Hour, with its pundits seriously discussing how bad the Iranian situation is, how unstable its leader, how worried the Arab states are about threats to their own regimes from a rising Iran; and Charlie Rose, where other pundits reviewed the “real” threat of a nuclear Iran (still, by the way, without even a hint of a nuclear weapon, though that no longer matters to the alarmists), and the “consensus” in the Arab states about this (the consensus of the Arab monarchies, at least, most of whom quietly sided with Israel against the Palestinians in the original war in 1948; though Hosni Mubarak of Egypt only jumped on the “throw Palestine to the wolves” bandwagon much later, to maintain U.S. aid and save his dictatorial ass increasingly threatened by popular revolt); in both arenas the ‘experts’ shook their heads gravely as they observed that the time is getting short for someone—Israel or the Obama administration—to do something. And the something was clear to all: someone has to bomb Iran’s still peaceful nuclear facilities.

It was amazing really. Out of 250,000 cables released or soon to be released, the big story was Iran: bomb bomb bomb Iran. No wonder Ahmedinejad, Iran’s president, scornfully dismissed the leaks as U.S. propaganda. But even that was taken as a sign that the man is as totally divorced from reality as his unstable nation.

Until, that is, on November 30, we heard from Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to George W. Bush’s first Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Speaking on KPFA’s “Letters to Washington” show, Wilkerson had some fascinating things to say about Wikileak’s latest revelations. First, he said that all the worry about the leaks threatening U.S. diplomatic relations was a “tempest in a teapot.” Diplomats, according to Wilkerson, know that harsh words often get said in private, that governments all try to spy on each other, and that everyone understands the game. What he was really concerned about, he said, was the lack of capability, not to mention supervision of the alleged leaker, Pvt. Bradley Manning. “I have serious difficulty,” the Colonel said, “accepting the fact that this private downloaded what appears to be over a million documents and then gave them to others…Where was his chain of command when he was doing this? when he was downloading thousands of documents?” And then the Colonel came to the real nub of it:

This looks increasingly like (and I’m not a conspiracy theorist) someone is either jumping on top of this, opportunistically, to take advantage of it, or perhaps they were involved in it all along. And why is the information contained in these latest leaks in particular so proof positive of so many things that the United States, or certain parts of the United States, are trying to get across to the public—not least of which is Israel’s threatened position, that an existential threat exists to Israel and Iran is that threat. ‘Look how perilous, look how dangerous this situation is.’ That comes out of these leaks. (emphasis added)

Remember: this is not some ‘expert’ who may or may not have a private agenda with regard to the leaks or the substance of the leaks; nor, as he says, a conspiracy theorist. This is an army colonel, former chief of staff to the previous Secretary of State. This is a man who knows how Washington works, how diplomacy works, how the world of statecraft works. And his chief concern is not the alleged “damage” to the nation’s diplomacy posed by the leaks; it is the twin questions: 1) how did the United States allow this to happen? and 2) was someone taking the opportunity (either by leaping on what was leaked, or actually facilitating the leaks in the first place) to plant disinformation to affirm things they want affirmed?

And what do they want to affirm? It appears that the main objective is to provide further ammunition undergirding the administration’s—driven mainly by Israel and its U.S. lobbies—position that Iran constitutes the greatest threat to world peace since the Soviets, and the increasing justification for a military mission to take that threat out. As Zeid Rifai, the president of the Jordanian senate is quoted as telling a US official: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb. Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.” Or, as Major General Amos Yadlin, Israel’s military intelligence chief, warned last year: “Israel is not in a position to underestimate Iran and be surprised like the US was on 11 September 2001.”

I have to admit, it never crossed my mind that the Wikileaks cables could be part of a disinformation campaign. Perhaps it takes someone with inside knowledge of how such things work, like Colonel Wilkerson, to get it. But there it is. And my guess is that increasingly, especially as Obama is further harried by Republican zealots howling for his head, the refrain is going to get louder: Bomb Iran now, or suffer another 9/11.

Will the American public go for it? Normally I’d say no. But given what they’ve swallowed recently, and given the fear in this nation, can anyone be sure?

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, November 29, 2010

Social Security Scapegoat

It’s time for the American public to blow a big hole in the proposals now being seriously considered to “solve the budget crisis.” As noted in my last blog, the onus, as always, is meant to fall on the poorest among us. We have been hearing ad nauseam the mantra that the Social Security system is driving the nation into insolvency. Therefore, recent proposals to “solve” the debt crisis—brought on, it should be remembered, by two unpaid-for and unnecessary wars, the Reagan-Bush-Bush reductions in tax income on the wealthy, and of course the outright thievery of Wall Street financiers that produced the housing bubble, and crash—always target Social Security. ‘We’ll all have to make sacrifices,’ is the song line. Which means, you, you poor gullible assholes, will have to sacrifice as usual.

Unless, that is, everyone remembers some simple facts, the first of which is: Social Security is NOT responsible in any way for the current deficits. Indeed, Social Security right now runs surpluses—that is, the money paid in, by workers themselves—outstrips the money paid out. And remember, it’s your money you’ve been paying in for a lifetime. You may recall, in fact, the campaign promises of our presidential candidates a few years ago, who promised that Social Security funds would be “put in a lock box.” What that referred to is the fact that right now, according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare ( ), there is a “$2.6 trillion dollar trust fund built up by American workers over decades.” That’s $2.6 trillion folks. Except for the fact that the federal government, to disguise the deficits it runs each time we have a war, borrows from the SS trust fund, and is thereby obligated to pay it back, with interest. This raiding of the Trust Fund started in 1968 when Pres. Lyndon Johnson got legislation passed—he was building up American involvement in the Vietnam War, and of course wanted to tout “both guns and butter” (their guns, our butter)—started the game. The Trust Fund was allowed to be mixed with the General Fund, and off we went.

Bottom line: not only does Social Security run a surplus, the Federal Government owes the Social Security Trust Fund a ton of money, which it has to pay back with interest. It is in this sense only that Social Security could be said—by a blatant liar—to be contributing to the deficit. A more honest assessment would admit that, in fact, Social Security has contributed to the government’s solvency by supplying it with unused SS funds (the surplus) to disguise its deficits. Is the government grateful? Are the fiscal hawks grateful? Au contraire, mon ami. These bastards resent having to pay all that money back. It will break us! they whine. So let’s kill the goose that lays the golden eggs!

Sounds unbelievable, but that is the proposal coming out of such august bodies as the President’s Commission on Reducing the Deficit, and the Domenici/Rivlin plan referred to in a previous post. Let’s raise the retirement age, cut the COLAs (cost of living adjustments), force seniors to pay more for prescription drugs, and find other ways to cut benefits to the poorest among us. The key thing is to help business! Domenici/Rivlin, in fact, propose giving businesses a one-year Social Security tax “holiday” (we all love holidays, right?) that would reduce government income by $650 billion. It’s not enough that the money-grubbing swine who drove us into this ditch have all been bailed out—with government funds, some of which no doubt came from that SS Trust Fund. Now we have to give them another “holiday” while cutting the pathetic benefits given to the old folks. I tell you, if the American people fall for this one, they deserve to be rooting around in garbage bins to survive.

Fortunately, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has organized a day of protest. The Committee is calling on all interested parties (and if there’s someone who plans on not getting older, I’d like to hear from him/her) to take part in a day (Tuesday, Nov. 30) of calling Congress and making two demands: 1) NO cuts to Social Security for deficit reduction, and 2) a $250 payment this year to SS beneficiaries in lieu of no cost-of-living increases (COLAs) the past two years. Here’s the number of a hot line that will connect you to your Congressperson’s office: 800-998-0180. CALL, because you can be sure the other side will be shouting their ears off.

While you’re at it, you might want to cast a vote of support for Representative Jan Schakowsky’s plan for deficit reduction. Shakowsky is the only people’s representative on the Deficit Commission, and her plan amounts to getting some budget reductions by such unheard-of expedients as “$144.6 billion in tax increases, $110.7 billion in defense cuts and $17.2 billion in healthcare savings through a public option.” And definitely no cuts in Social Security. As the Huffington Post quoted Shakowsky re: the Bowles-Simpson proposal to cut SS benefits: Using Social Security to address the deficit “is like attacking Iraq to retaliate for the September 11 attacks.”

Of course there are legions of benighted souls in America who would respond: what’s wrong with that? But perhaps there are other legions who get the point. Let us hope so; because as it stands now, the greatest push seems to be coming from the yahoos, who clearly see the current series of shocks (remember the Shock Doctrine?) as their best opportunity to, once and for all, get rid of the most hated of Roosevelt’s “giveaways”: Social Security.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Quantitative Easing, or, The Rich Get Richer

Here’s my favorite take on the elections.
The Federal Reserve and its head, Ben Bernanke, have recently announced their latest initiative, called “quantitative easing.” Aside from the fact that this sounds somewhat pornographic, it apparently means that a central bank creates money ex nihilo, i.e. out of nothing (sometimes called printing money, though these days it’s not so crude; the Fed just magically adds billions to its account), and then uses the funds to purchase financial assets (including government bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and corporate bonds) from regular banks and financial institutions. The Fed, this time, is apparently going to create some $600,000,000,000 (that’s billions), a sum, according to Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, “nearly as big as the TARP. It’s nearly as big as the first stimulus was.”

Now why, you might ask, would the Fed be doing this now. Well apparently, the Fed and most economists really think it’s imperative that the economy get another boost to prevent it from going into a second tailspin. And since the Fed is pretty sure, especially now that the “people” have spoken and swept out Democrats and swept in Republicans (giving the latter control of the House) that there is going to be even worse gridlock in Congress and the White House than before, they have to act. In short, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that this Congress will pass another stimulus, so the unelected Fed has to do it.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The “people,” according to pundits and pollsters, have decided that Obama and the Democrats have spent too much money keeping the country out of depression; the stimulus, in particular, has been rejected as the product of “big spending Democrats.” It’s time to cut back on spending, is the alleged popular message, to get money back to the people. And how to do that: why by putting back into power the Republicans—the very party that crashed the economy in the first place. NO MORE STIMULUS, is the message. And yet, economists agree a stimulus is needed, and so the Fed rides to the rescue. The irony of all this? Listen to Chrystia Freeland:

I think the problem is, when the Fed acts as it does, printing more money, it’s a rich-get-richer phenomenon. This is going to be great for the banks. It’s going to be great for people whose personal finances are strong enough that they can re-mortgage—refinance their mortgages. But it’s not so great for the people who are in trouble. And that’s one reason why it might not have as powerful an impact as the Fed would like.
Now isn’t that sweet? The poor working-class slobs in the Midwest and South (the Tea Partiers) who voted the Republicans into office presumably believed they were voting to help themselves. But by voting for gridlock, they are doing exactly the opposite! They are forcing the Fed to push a stimulus through the back door. And that stimulus, quantitative easing, is going to help the very people—the bankers and financial pirates—voters are supposedly pissed off at. Banks will be infused with tons of money, presumably to induce them to lend to small businesses and households to increase buying. But the banks don’t really have to do that (and all indications are that they don’t want to). Rather, they’ll invest in foreign assets where they can make more profit (have people still not caught on that financial institutions and corporations couldn’t give less of a damn about the USA?). And because there’s a whole lot more money in circulation, it’s going to increase inflation. All of which will help make people like us even poorer. We’ll be poorer, too, because the Fed’s stimulus doesn’t create jobs directly, as another stimulus from Congress presumably would.

Is our democracy not a wondrous thing? It allows damned fools, like the ones who enjoyed victory on Tuesday, the freedom to vote against themselves! While the financiers laugh all the way the bank.

There are other, perhaps more serious global downsides to this latest move of the Fed. But frankly I’m not sure I understand how it all works well enough to explain it. To get some ideas, check out Professor Michael Hudson, “U.S. Quantitative Easing is Fracturing the Global Economy,” at ). Meantime, and remembering that “quantitative easing” didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, enjoy the irony. It may provide the only laughs we get for a while.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wag the Dog

So many bizarre results from the Republican tsunami in last week’s mid-term elections—which to choose first?

How about this? Pick a target for the United States military to attack—urr, uh, how about Iran?—and see if it flies. Might even be able to convince Obama, now that he’s staggering from his ‘shellacking,’ to use it as a surefire way to get re-elected. You know, the old Wag the Dog scenario, where a weakened president starts a war to galvanize public opinion in his favor (Clinton allegedly did it in Bosnia; Bush clearly did it in Iraq after 9/11). Nevermind that we’re already engaged in two wars in the Middle East. Nevermind that another war would surely raise the deficit to newer more dizzying heights. War works.

Unlikely as such madness might seem to most of us, some recent trial balloons suggest that we should all think again.

For example, Senator Lindsey Graham (one of the so-called Republican “moderates” in the Senate who was flirting with voting for the Health Care Bill) just recently raised the issue of attacking Iran at a security conference in Canada (Saturday, Nov. 6). Asserting that “containment is off the table,” Graham said that war on Iran had several positive components to recommend it: “not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime.” (Matt Duss, ThinkProgress, 7 November 2010). This is astonishing, not only because countless international observers have opined that such an attack would prove counterproductive—actually leading more surely to a nuclear-armed Iran than anything else (Duss in the above-referenced article cites several of these informed opinions)—but also because it was not that long ago that the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate stated that “not only was Iran NOT working on a nuclear weapon, but it had ended its nuclear weapons efforts in 2003” (see my blog “Iran Again,” June 9, 2008). No matter, the “reasonable” Senator Graham had no hesitation at all in calling for another war against this “great threat.”

He’s not alone. But more subtly than Graham’s, the notion of a military strike on Iran has recently been framed as a great way for President Obama to rescue his tattered reputation in time for the 2012 elections. The ‘Wag the Dog’ scenario. The amazing thing here, though, is that the nation’s oldest and most respected journalist, is proposing the war option. David Broder, of the Washington Post, wrote a piece on October 31 on the eve of the election, titled, “How Obama Might Recover.” Beginning with his august opinion that conventional policy options would probably not work to revive the economy in time since no one can design surefire economic measures, Broder gets to his “inside” advice to the President on one measure that might:

What else might affect the economy? The answer is obvious, but its implications are frightening. War and peace influence the economy.
Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.
Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve. (Broder, Washington Post, 10/31/10)
Now this is truly bizarre. Broder is no nutball conservative; if anything, he tends toward the liberal end of the spectrum. And yet, here he is, seriously and publicly proposing that the President of the United States start a pre-emptive war with a nation that has attacked no one, in order to rescue his failing presidency and improve the economy. After what we’ve been through in the last ten years with Bush’s pre-emptive wars and the huge hole they put in the nation’s budget (estimates for the Iraq war go as high as $3 trillion! not to mention the cost in death, the drubbing of America’s reputation in the world, and so on), for a respected journalist to seriously offer a plan like this begins to make Tea Party wackos look sane. Broder, of course, is quick to stress that he’s “not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected.” Oh heavens no. But he goes on to close his piece with precisely that suggestion:

But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.
No proof, of course, for his assertion that Iran is, in fact, “the greatest threat to the world in the young century.” Nothing but the uncontested assertion of our senior pundit—and the appetizing carrot to the young president that he will have “made the world safer” and be regarded by history (or at least by Broder) as one of our most “successful presidents.”

How is one to explain such a thing? Has the 81-year-old Broder gone senile? Or is he just listening to a few other pundits who have actually said the same thing recently. Like, for example, the rabidly pro-Israel Elliott Abrams (he of Iran-Contra fame, resuscitated as a ‘National Security Adviser for Global Democracy Strategy’ for Bush) who said recently: “The Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one.” Or the equally rabid Daniel Pipes: “a strike on Iranian facilities would dispatch Obama’s feckless first year down the memory hole and transform the domestic political scene.” (both quoted by Eric Alterman, , Nov. 4, 2010). Whatever the source for his loony idea, it is enough to give one pause. And though most commentators on Broder’s lunacy have discounted the fact that it might influence President Obama, we would do well to consider where the president stands with respect to Iran. When he was running for President, he spoke to AIPAC, the America Israel Political Action Committee, a front for promoting even the most right-wing Israeli policies in Washington. As I noted in the above-mentioned blog, what candidate Obama said, at that time, was that he was holding Iran responsible for the rockets launched by Hezbollah on Israel after the latter attacked Lebanon. He added,

we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing to work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs…(to) help Israel maintain its military edge and deter and repel attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza.

The Obama administration’s rhetoric excoriating Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program has only escalated since then.

Is it beyond the realm of possibility, then, that a severely wounded Obama would consider the Broder/Abrams/Pipes suggestion (NB: Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 2010 piece in the Atlantic Magazine, “The Point of No Return,” in which he essentially predicts and rationalizes the fact that Israel will, in the next year, attack Iran itself, may be the mother of all such Israeli-promoted trial balloons; it ends with this quote from Israeli President Shimon Peres: “We don’t want to win over the president,” he said. “We want the president to win.”)?

Given the madness now at large in this nation, it would be folly to think so.

Lawrence DiStasi

Undoing the New Deal

The depression was not so Great
And almost nobody ate
Millions had no shoes
Only lawbreakers had the booze
The poverty was grinding
While the nation was finding
A way from the third level of hell
And yet the wealthy did well

In reading the recent biography of FDR A Traitor to his Class by H. W. Brands, lots of interesting facts glared out at me from the pages of the book. Some were related to the personal life of Franklin Roosevelt, but many more were related to the disturbing parallel of the roaring twenties and the depressing thirties to recent times. Foremost among these is that the record corporate profits of today were also the center of the economy of the twenties. In the US, especially, corporations saw record profits as well as reckless speculation in the stock market. Of course, there were differences as well. Only perhaps 15% of the nation was invested in stocks. We now boast of at least 70% participation. Today, we have derivatives that schemers in the 20s did not. Instead of today’s Tea Party extremists and neo-Nazi militia, we had militant Ku Klux Klan and Communist agitators as well as real Nazi sympathizers stirring up hate, discontent and isolationism. Famous people including aviator Charles Lindbergh supported Germany directly and he received a Nazi Medal of Honor presented by Hermann Goering.

Perhaps it is more difficult for folks to peacefully share poverty than it is for them to share the good times. We tend to define differences more sharply in recessions and depressions. During the thirties, blacks were still being lynched, European and Asian immigrants were attacked and humiliated, while today, Hispanic immigrants and Islamic citizens seem to be hated and under attack. Agitation was actually a bit more common then than now with government in the 1920s often supporting ruthless suppression of crowds whether they were unions seeking fair wages or WW I veterans seeking their bonuses promised for service in WW I. In Anacostia, part of the District of Columbia, President Hoover ordered General MacArthur to disperse the 20,000 veterans. He did, brutally using cavalry with swords drawn. The injuries to veterans and the death of an infant in the assault stunned even Hoover who had ordered the action. Child labor in the US was not stopped until 1938 when FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. That was successful largely because adults were competing with children for the same low wages during the depression. A regressive Supreme Court had earlier ruled that children must be given the right to contract for their labor, although they were prohibited from most other contracts. Earlier legislative attempts to force the Supreme Court to respect children in the workplace were fruitless. Our current Supreme Court is not alone in being right wing in makeup. The late 19th and early 20th centuries fostered highly conservative Supreme Courts, similar to today. There was no economic or social safety net except the generosity of neighbors. The American ideal of self-sufficiency was the basis for government policy. The Poor House was the alternative.

Wealth was concentrated in the upper echelons of society to a point not to be seen again until today. Worker productivity until the crash of 1929 was high, however there were problems of sharing productivity gains with workers. That has again occurred with executive salaries and bonuses exceeding a level of 400 times that of the average worker despite record employee productivity. Strangely, the main argument defending harsh treatment of millions of hungry citizens was nearly a verbatim prediction of today’s conservative response to hungry and frightened people of today. “The promise of America is opportunity, not a handout.” Hoover expressed the thought that if citizens were given a handout, it might create a dependence on continued handouts and that people would lose any motivation to work. Today, we have heard almost identical words being echoed by leaders of the conservative elements of the Republican Party as a reason to not extend jobless benefits. Then, as now, politicians resisted unemployment assistance. When a priest in Pittsburgh marched with 12,000 workers to help get unemployment consideration, four were killed in the process. We now know that the conservatives will fight any extension of the unemployment payments to millions of out-of-work men and women. This lack of empathy is cloaked in a “rugged individualism” rhetoric now as it was then and yet they see no connection between their support from government and support of the less fortunate. Coal miners at Matewan, West Virginia were attacked by a detective agency hired by the owners and 12 people were killed. Violence by owners to avoid unions was common and union retaliation became a fact of life. The conservative distrust and even hatred of unions had its beginnings in the New Deal when FDR attempted to level the playing field by encouraging management negotiation with unions. Management did so only under duress and not really until early war production to sell to the British.

The history books are filled with the examples of failed conservative policies that protected the wealthy business owners while government policy was essentially laissez faire with the idea that prosperity was cyclical and that it was all right if some people were hurt or starved in the process of waiting for the cycle to right itself. That was the natural way. The thirties saw the insertion of the Glass-Steagal Act (FDIC, etc.) and Social Security that conservatives even today are trying to eliminate or emasculate by replacing it with defined contributions into privatized stock plans. Can you imagine our individual and family pain and chaos in this current recession if GW Bush had succeeded in replacing Social Security with privatized investment? Maybe you should listen closely to the conservatives, read back to the Great Depression and think hard, because that is our current direction despite the fact that we have the lowest tax rate since 1950 at less than 10% on average. The cry to reduce our deficit caused mainly by two wars of choice may sound appealing, but it is only crying wolf unless the wealthy are willing to give a little to let the real spenders of the middle class help save the republic, its economy and its self respect.

Conservatives are trying to undo the New Deal. To them, regulation is un-American and real freedom is the freedom to hurt everybody except the bankers and large corporations who must be bailed out. The little guy is just that. Little. Big is just that…and too big to fail. What an American concept! Freedom fries the little guy. Freedom gets Big a free lunch.

George Giacoppe
10 November 2010

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Eve of Elections

Less than a week before the 2010 midterm elections for Congress, anyone with a soul feels the need to expel some of the indigestion that has been building in the gut. Recent news affords ample material, even if it seems a bit disjointed.

Let’s begin with the types of candidates that are threatening to actually win—even above and beyond the idiots like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Consider the lovely candidate threatening to unseat the blue dog Democratic incumbent in North Carolina, Ilario Pantano. Republican Pantano is a 38-year-old veteran of the Iraq war, but what a veteran! He had actually fought in the first gulf war as a marine, but after 9/11 decided to leave his job at Goldman Sachs (where else?) and re-enlist. Serving as a 2d Lieutenant, he was involved in an “incident” in 2004 shortly after the highly-publicized hanging of four American private contractors in Fallujah. As reported in the Oct. 26 Guardian, on 15 April 2004, Pantano and crew stopped two unarmed Iraqi men in a car—suspects, as all Iraqis were. After a car search, he
unloaded a magazine of his M16A4 automatic rifle into them, before reloading and blasting a second magazine over them—some 60 rounds in total. Over the corpses, he left a placard inscribed with the marine motto: ‘No better friend, No worse enemy.’

A few months later, a member of his own unit reported him and he was charged with murder. Other facts emerged: the bodies of the two men, Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Hanjil, were found in a kneeling position, and they were shot in the back. But Pantano’s defense alleged that weapons had been found in the house the Iraqis exited, and the men had “turned on Pantano unexpectedly” as he was guarding them, so he fired in self-defense. It didn’t take long for the charges against Pantano to be dropped for ‘lack of evidence,’ though the officer in charge of the hearing did recommend non-judicial punishment for “extremely poor judgment.” In his campaign, Pantano has refused to defend himself “for something that happened five years ago.” As to the placard he left (which also became the title of a book he wrote, part of the reason for his fame), Pantano has said: “I don’t need to explain anything…If folks are alarmed, well war is alarming.”

Yes. War is alarming. First and foremost for the brutality it rewards—rendering to psychopaths like Pantano hero worship, a book, and now a chance to be a U.S. Congressman endorsed by Sarah Palin (she called Pantano “another dedicated patriot running for Congress”) and Pamela Geller (of ‘mosque at ground zero’ fame, whom Pantano, returning the praise, calls “a patriot” whose endorsement “thrills him”) all in return for his brave murder of unarmed, kneeling civilians. Second, for the brutality it inevitably brings not only to those who take part in it, like Pantano, but to those at home who cannot help but be polluted by its ethos. And this includes not just those in Pantano’s district, which, not unexpectedly, sits only a few miles from the main marine training center at Camp Lejeune.

No. I would include, among others, the sweet man from Arkansas who made the news recently. His name is Clint McCance, and he’s vice-president of the Midland School District in a place called (get this) Pleasant Plains, Arkansas. Allegedly upset over a gay rights group’s “Spirit Day” recently, that urged wearing purple to raise awareness about harassment and bullying of gay youth, Mc Cance commented on his Facebook page:

The only way I’m wearin’ it (purple) for them is if they all commit suicide. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. (Yahoo News, 10/29)
Faced with a firestorm, including, according to McCance, death threats that prompted him to send his wife and children into hiding, the school board VP resigned. He apologized, saying he’s “sorry” for what he wrote on his Facebook page. “I would never support suicide for any kids,” McCance is quoted as saying; indicating that perhaps he’s heard about the rash of gay suicides recently. Isn’t that gratifying? I mean, given the way our politics are going, it shouldn’t be too long before the Tea Party and Sarah Palin are endorsing the very contrite McCance for political office.

As if all this weren’t enough, a recent book and article by sociologist Gar Alperovitz (Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take it Back) puts what looks to be our late, great nation in perspective. You’ve all no doubt heard about how the financial gains of the last 30 years have gone disproportionately to the very rich, while middle class income has stagnated or dropped. Alperovitz points out that the United States now ranks with such advanced nations as Turkmenistan in inequality of income. That is, when measured for income inequality (the gulf between the rich and the rest of us), the United States ranks 77th out of 142 countries—this according to a recent estimate by the United Nations Human Development Report. It is tied not only with Turkmenistan, but also with such bastions of liberty as Tunisia and Georgia. That means that the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. today is more unequal than at any time since the 1920s.

How did this happen? Taxes, for one. Remember the great tax reforms of the Reagan, Bush I and II eras? including a reduction to 15% on capital gains? Well over the last 25 years, “IRS data indicate that the top 1% of American taxpayers increased their share of the nation’s total pre-tax adjusted gross income from 10% in 1980 to 23.5% in 2007.” What’s more, the gain has little to do with individual efforts. Writes Alperovitz:

…not only do income shares of the kind that flow to the top 1% have little to do with what anyone has actually done to deserve them; rather the flows are largely traceable to technologies that ultimately were either paid for by the public, or more importantly, that derive from our collective inheritance of scientific and technical knowledge. (Alperovitz, Huffington Post, 10/28/10)
Now, of course, the Republican mantra is always that ‘lowering taxes frees up capital so that the rich can invest in job-creating businesses’; but what Alperovitz points out is that top marginal tax rates stood at 91% during several Republican and Democrat presidencies (Eisenhower, Truman, etc.) and those high rates “coincided with the postwar boom, the greatest period of economic growth in all of American history.” The shame is that the pusillanimous Democrats of recent years—Clinton, Obama, and the rest, including, this year in California, Jerry Brown running for governor—have echoed this crap about no new taxes. The result (helped by war, of course) has been the devastation of not just the federal economy, but also the economies of most of the states in the union. The prescribed remedy, always, is to “cut spending.” In other words, cut the benefits to the poor and working classes, who will sink even lower relative to the rich already enjoying the lowest tax rates in history.

What can one say? We seem to be wallowing in an era best described by William Butler Yeats in the early part of the twentieth century:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

The poem, The Second Coming, continues,

Surely some revelation is at hand;/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

But whether its dismal conclusion is apropos now is anyone’s guess:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at least,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Lawrence DiStasi

God and Country

For god and country sing
So loud that rafters ring
And people loudly pray
For victory in the fray
And to humble enemies
In politics and life
So we may so please
Ourselves with ungodly strife

As we center on the mid-term elections and live through the endless billions of dollars in political advertising, I am reminded of a time when my Uncle Steve returned from WW II and presented our family with a captured Wehrmacht issue leather belt with a silver colored buckle emblazoned “Gott Mit Uns.” “God is with us.” Most of us now see that slogan as presumptive, at best, and yet the attempts to bring God into war and politics never cease. My major objection to the sloganeering is that God does not fight wars or run for office and those who invoke God in their partisan endeavors do not speak either for God or me (or you). This alone may be the leading cause supporting atheism, but it does nothing to advance the cause for humanity. It does seem to assist in the pursuit of ignorance in that we can inject God into the trivial or the bizarre to immunize our lies from inspection or to attack the opposition. In recent weeks, we have witnessed the commingling of images of the Constitution, a deliberately non-sectarian document, with religion to immunize the Constitution itself from analysis and to tie “original language” to some undefined fundamentalist concept that was omitted by the writers.

This political season has resounded with cries of returning to the basics, but with images of violence, political and media programs of intolerance and deliberate violation of the Ten Commandments in other ways such as bearing false witness. Why pretend that God is on our side? If he/she were, then the basics are really twisted and God is more capricious than constant. That is probably not as good a bet as the possibility that some people scam the God thing and pretend that anybody who disagrees is sinful and worthy of condemnation, or stoning or maybe a bombing as a teachable moment.

In the bad old days of yore, the Soviet Union (then officially atheist) claimed freedom of religion. You could have any religion you liked. Unfortunately, you could not simultaneously do so and have a job. Jobs were controlled by the State and only professed atheists could hold jobs. Back in the mid sixties, I was on an assignment in eastern Turkey and visited with the pastor of a church in Diyarbakir that dated back to the early third century. The priest was exasperated because, through social pressure, Christians could not practice their religion and simultaneously hold jobs in a way that reminded me of Russia, but without any official sanction. His parish was down to about a dozen families and failing rapidly despite the many bones and relics in dusty shrines. The Baptist church in town was simply blowing in the wind with a few pigeons roosting on the ledge of a broken window inscribed “Gift of the American Bible Society.” More recently, Christians were murdered in their churches by fundamentalists in Iraq despite “Freedom of Religion” being enshrined in their interim constitution.

Here in these United States, we also profess freedom of religion and yet there are a couple of unique twists here that do not exist in most other modern nations. We seem to mix the religious with the profane in unique ways. It is not unusual in some parts of our country to have a common prayer before a football game or a civic meeting although it is sometimes a silent prayer to avoid embarrassing anyone. I vividly recall praying the Lord’s Prayer in junior high and being extremely conscious of the prayer being the Protestant version and not the one I learned as a young Roman Catholic. It was uncomfortable. I also recall living in the American South and traveling in the rural areas in the early sixties. Billboards and local fliers actually depicted John F. Kennedy as the devil incarnate or as a minion of the Pope who was also of the devil. This was true in Georgia and Alabama and it reminded me that the First Amendment right of free speech was never coupled with the responsibility to be either civil or truthful. In some ways, this was a fear of the unknown for them because Catholics were rare in staunchly fundamentalist rural areas. It was simultaneously frightening and comic. Anti-Catholic/anti-Kennedy billboards were interspersed with the more ubiquitous “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards.

Another twist that makes our nation curiously unique in this blending of religion and life is that politics and power may directly join into an explosive mixture resulting in groups such as the Ku Klux Klan that have shown tremendous negative power in our nation. It is a militancy that is reminiscent of the current Taliban. It is also reminiscent of the strident mixing of patriotism with religion. The result is that unless you personally subscribe to a particular brand of fundamental religion, you may be called unpatriotic, or worse, a traitor, but at least a “Socialist” or perhaps “Nazi.” Once this happens, then the degeneration is complete. We see the ends-means inversion where extremists screaming for liberty have lately physically attacked those who do not agree with either the means or the ends. Fundamentalism then also justifies vile lies in order to reach some ultimate truth. Election season only highlights the phenomenon. It is always with us. Sometimes it is under the surface as when we see hyper-patriots wave the flag a bit too much and sometimes it becomes a full blown assault where God is the club used to beat the crap out of logic and imagined enemies. It is ironic that Jesus is quoted as reminding the Pharisees to separate God and country when he asked “Whose image is on the coin?”

The ugly truth is that when we use God as the point of our spear to impale our enemies, we defile ourselves, our neighbors, and that very God that we pretend to love. It is also ironic that the very same First Amendment to the Constitution that permits all speech, including hateful speech, also prohibits the union of church and state. Reactionaries will demand the union of their fundamentalist beliefs with the state in the same breath. We must join to deny it. In this election, we have seen Tea Party violence against adversaries in isolated cases and we have seen the media glorify the activity. Don’t be fooled. As long as we merge God and Country, there will always be a fundamentalist fringe. Tea Party signs are only recycled hate from other groups and earlier times. It is an old idea with a new name. As for a “return to the basics,” women could not vote and married women could not enter into contracts. Slaves were worth 3/5 of a person for representation. Search and seizure was physical and not electronic. The new burden on our society is to actually read the Constitution and the amendments to embrace them with a discussion of how they apply instead of forging them into weapons to bludgeon our neighbors.

George Giacoppe
01 November 2010

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Let's Pretend

Let’s Pretend

Let’s pretend we’re queens and kings
And we can do outrageous things
To make the long days pass
And fill the counting house with cash
Or entertain ourselves with knaves
While scolding naughty slaves
And holding them to blame
When our subjects call us names

You have to be in my age group to remember the Saturday morning radio program “Let’s Pretend.” In those days of yore, radio was the thing and, in a way, it enjoyed rapt attention of the audience because there was no distraction like TV or Twitter. Once you turned on the radio and tuned to a program like “Let’s Pretend,” you could be transported into a world where you were free to suspend disbelief without being jarred back into reality until the ad for Cream of Wheat interrupted the story.

For good or ill, the days of “Let’s Pretend” are gone. We live in a world where news is immediate and on a 24/7 cycle. Most slaves have been replaced with cheap imported labor and the knaves are usually public figures like politicians and TV personalities pretending to be newscasters. The ostentatious wealthy now act as our royalty and, thank God and Greenbacks, they can do no wrong. I will concede that a few slaves exist in the Middle East (like the boy jockeys of Dubai) and that indentured servitude pops up here at home from time to time, but for the most part, economics has created sharp social boundaries where cheap labor is just across a border here and across the world. This cheap labor has reduced formal slavery. It has also created de facto inequity and displacement.

The world has changed in other, substantial, ways. We have few real royals. Rock stars, movie stars and sports luminaries fill our days and nights along with the super wealthy among us. Billionaires have become self-appointed royalty with purchased kingdoms. The aura of bestowed rectitude, power and dominion surrounds this new royalty with just a taste of the era of King David, who could do no wrong despite lusting and murdering and otherwise excepting himself from the ten commandments. King David acted on his lust for Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah killed by abandoning him in battle. He also had 20,000 Syrian captives murdered after their capture and yet he is often praised for his actions instead of being condemned for war crimes.

Now our current “royalty” may not be so dramatic in their transgressions, but the fundamental message they send is identical to King David for the exclusion from blame. Meg Whitman of California is seeking the governorship of the Golden State. She has rarely, if ever, exercised her civil responsibility to vote; never registered to vote until 2002 and did not register as a Republican until 2007 and yet she has spent over $119 Million of her own money to capture the governor’s crown. She has been withering in her condemnation of “illegal immigrants” and yet has failed to take responsibility for hiring one for nine years. Her “Mickie” was not a slave, but was a hired hand and was “part of the extended family.” Extended family or not, Meg has condemned the woman for lying and even accused her of theft despite the fact that her husband’s signature lies on the bottom of the Social Security notice (in 2003) to check and report on the discrepancy in Social Security numbers (thus disproving theft). Clearly, the rules do not apply to a billionaire like Meg. She can, at once, call for inspecting employers of illegal workers and refuse to be questioned on her own hiring. In fact, the hypocrisy goes further by her blaming her opponent without evidence, her former employee, unions, media, and an attorney for bringing the offense to light. So it is not the offense itself, but the discovery by others that is wrong? Bizarre? Not at all for the kings and queens of today. Think of it. It is not the crime, but your temerity in pointing out the crime. Of course. It is your fault. Shame on you.

The first casualty in war, it is said, is the truth. It seems that this is now extended into politics. Even after being corrected for false ads saying her opponent raised taxes and otherwise misgoverned Meg has continued the ads. She promises new jobs, but what will they be? When CEO at EBay, she provided herself with a $120 Million bonus just prior to firing 30,000 workers. She has promised to fire 40,000 California civil servants if elected. Yet the work will have to be done. Will these be new jobs be for undocumented domestic workers perhaps? Maybe if the pay is low enough, we can continue the myth that all we need to do is to deport workers to solve our economic crisis. We can meanwhile pretend that they do not exist. We have no need to integrate them into our society. Let them stay in the shadows of the kingdom where nobody sees them and the royalty can dismiss them with a wave of the hand if you discover an inconvenient truth.

Although Meg has shown no civic responsibility strong enough to motivate her to vote and surely not one strong enough to take responsibility for her failure to abide by the laws, she has the money to do as she pleases. It is up to the citizens who do take their civic responsibilities seriously to reject the pretender to the throne of California. By the way, your vote may save your job rather than provide an illegal job for an undocumented worker. It could also go a long way to establish a way to incorporate the millions who are already here and take them from the shadows where they are easily exploited and underpaid while they set the wage standards for the state while working for the many “Whitmans” of California. Suspend belief, not disbelief.

George Giacoppe
6 October 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Assault on a Public Good

Since at least the Reagan administration and before, conservative zealots in this nation have been hard at work trying to dismantle government and all it stands for. Attacks on the EPA, the FDA, social security, and most regulatory agencies have become standard fare. In recent years, though, the most sustained attack has targeted public education—witness the school districts in Washington, DC, New Orleans after Katrina, and New York City under Michael Bloomberg. With Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the rallying cry of “accountability” has been codified into a mantra that Democrats, including President Obama, have slavishly echoed.

Now we have a book that tells us what all this has been about, and it is not pretty. Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, goes behind the scenes to explain the programs, the facts, and the failure of charter schools, testing regimes, and much more. If you’re at all interested in education (and what is a democracy without an educated electorate?), it’s a must-read. Ravitch might seem an unlikely critic of these conservative dogmas, because she’s been on the conservative side for years. She supported the takeover of the NY Public Schools, NCLB, charter schools and all the rest. But to her credit, she stopped to examine the data and, horrified by what she found, has written a stinging criticism of the whole mess. Whether it will stop the train wreck that’s coming is something else, but this is a noble effort.

To begin with, let’s be clear: conservative Republican hatred for the public schools has its roots in racism (and classism). That’s what the public schools signify: mixed-race classes, busing, early childhood education to compensate for years of discrimination, and teachers’ unions encouraging black and brown people to enter the education workforce. Vouchers were an attempt to have government pay for private schools—“school choice” in their lingo—which was a thinly-disguised way to get separate-but-equal back. It was also a convenient way to get god back in the classroom, and godless evolution out. But vouchers were too transparently discriminatory. So the always-busy conservatives came up with charter schools and now NCLB, and that seems to be working. If, that is, you can call destroying public education “working.”

Ravitch slams NCLB from several angles (and isn’t it strange that anyone expected George W. Bush, one of the dumbest men ever to sit in the White House, to come up with a plan to improve public schools?) To begin with, NCLB never refers to what students should learn, i.e. there’s no curriculum in it at all. That’s left up to each state. All NCLB did was demand that schools produce higher test scores, proficiency, in basic skills—math and reading. Even so, proficiency might seem a reasonable goal until one realizes that the states are left to determine what “proficiency” means as well. All they are told is that their schools have to show regular increases in proficiency (average yearly progress or AYP), until—and this is the laughable part—in 2014 all schools in all states produce students who are fully proficient. If schools fail to show AYP, or, in 2014 fail to show full proficiency (fully mastering the grade standards) for ALL students, they will be closed, teachers will be fired, principals will lose their jobs, and “some—perhaps many—public schools will be privatized.” According to Ravitch, this is an impossible goal. But there’s more:

the most dangerous potential effect of the 2014 goal is that it is a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States….indeed, scores of schools in New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, and other districts were closed because they were unable to meet the unreasonable demands of NCLB. Superintendents in those districts boasted of how many schools they had closed, as if it were a badge of honor rather than an admission of defeat. 204.

Now one might think, well, those schools in those districts were ‘bad’ schools and deserved to be closed. But Ravitch has the facts:

…In the year 2006-2007, 25,000 schools did not make AYP. In 2007-2008, the number grew to nearly 30,000, or 35.6 percent of all public schools. That number included more than half the public schools in Massachusetts, whose students scored highest in the nation on the rigorous tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)….To date, there is no substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that low-performing schools can be turned around by any of the remedies prescribed in the law. Converting a “failing” school to a charter school or handing it over to private management efforts offers no certainty that the school will be transformed into a successful school. 204.
So what can we expect from public schools and states put under this kind of gun (“in 2008, a team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation predicted that by 2014, nearly 100% of California’s elementary schools would fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress”)? You guessed it, they will cheat. States, that is, define “proficiency” themselves. So a state like Mississippi recently claimed that 89% of its fourth graders were at or above proficiency in reading, but, according to a national test given by NAEP, only 18% were proficient. How does this happen? The variety of ways to cheat is impressive. First of all, under the testing regime, teachers are incentivized to teach to the test (in some cases, this means actually giving the children practice in the actual test they will take.) Second, states change both the tests (making them easier) and the scoring required for “proficiency,” to make it easier to pass the tests. This is what New York State did. So,

Between 2006, when the state introduced a new test, and 2009, the proportion of students in grades 3 through 8 who reached proficiency on the state math test leapt from 28.6% to an incredible 63.3% in Buffalo, from 30.1% to 58.2% in Syracuse, and from 57% to 81.8% in New York City….But in reality, state officials made it easier to pass the tests. In 2006, a student in 7th grade was required to get 59.6% of the points on the test to meet state standards in math; by 2009, a student in that grade needed only 44% to be considered proficient. 157.

The same thing is documented in Chicago—where Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, took credit for huge increases in scores. You get the picture: if you can’t make the grade, cheat. One wonders how teachers in such a system can urge students to be honest when cheating reigns all up and down the line. As Ravitch concludes: “This sort of fraud (fiddling with scores, teaching to the test) ignores the students’ interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements.”

Perhaps the most alarming news in Ravitch’s book comes from her chapter called “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.” This refers to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) and the Broad Foundation, among others, who are now pouring billions of dollars into the effort to change American education in the ways noted above. The basic idea of these “venture philanthropies” is to reform education to mimic the business model that made them their money: schools should be accountable (or be closed, or fired), should advance school choice (charter schools or vouchers), be competitive as in business, and move towards privatization as a final goal. In this effort, they fund charter schools (many run as private enterprises by people who know nothing about education; in that regard, the foundations have funded the hiring and mayhem of “chancellors” such as Joel Klein, a lawyer, in New York and Michelle Rhee, with two years with Teach-for-America and no education training, in Washington DC) that will compete with the public schools. The irony, pointed out by Ravitch, is massive:

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in a common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions…The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one…They are bastions of unaccountable power. 200-01.

She also quotes the Broad Foundation: “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”

There is much more in this crucial book. It deserves to be read and brought to the attention of all legislators, including the President himself—who, as Ravitch points out bitterly, has “warmly endorsed” the Gates-Broad agenda by hiring Arne Duncan, one of the biggest beneficiaries of foundation money when he headed the Chicago public schools. Not surprisingly, and despite his hype, the schools there are still failing. Thousands more will be put on the chopping block in 2014 when NCLB comes due. Which will be nothing less than a tragedy, this death of American public schools, for, as Ravitch points out, going to school is not like shopping: “Schools are not businesses; they are a public good.” Privatizing them makes about as much sense as privatizing police and fire departments. What should be attended to is not testing, but what is being taught—the curriculum. One of the few states that does this is Massachusetts, and its students have the “highest academic performance in the nation on the NAEP and rank near the top when compared to their peers in other nations.” In other words, we know how it should be done, and it is not by testing, not by privatizing, not by killing public education in America. Most decidedly, it is not by letting the worst boondoggle in education history, the NCLB, to come to its bloody fruition. Look to it.

Lawrence DiStasi

The Fallout of War

Two books I’ve read recently have led to my musings on the fallout from humanity’s favorite pastime—and I don’t mean the obvious stuff like thousands of deaths, more thousands with absent limbs or battered brains, and still more with PTSD and other anti-social maladies. I’m talking about the lovely by-products of war which shape our societies for years afterwards. Jaron Lanier in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, for example, points out that modern computers were developed to guide missiles and break secret military codes. He lumps chess and computers as having derived from violence and competition. Even more specific, however, is Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (first published 1997; recently expanded and reissued). There she points out the often-direct relationship between war innovations and the chemicals that cause cancer. In commenting about the steep rise in lymphomas, for example, she writes that they seem to be correlated with exposure to synthetic chemicals, “especially a class of pesticides known as phenoxy herbicides.” And where did these originate? They were “born in 1942 as part of a never-implemented plan by the U.S. military to destroy rice fields in Japan” (52). Never implemented, of course, because we dropped two atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead. Nonetheless, the chemicals referred to are the now-infamous 2,4,5-T (2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4-D (2,4, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). In combination, they are known as Agent Orange, which the military was finally able to use in Vietnam between 1962 and 1970, and which contributed to uncounted deaths among Vietnamese, and a still rising incidence of non-Hodgkins lymphomas and lesser ailments among American veterans of Vietnam. The combination was outlawed in 1970, but one of the pair, 2,4-D is still in use, having become one of our most popular domestic weed killers for lawns, gardens, golf courses and farm fields. Its use on lawns may be one of the reasons why so many of our dogs—rolling happily in our chemicalized lawns--have been contracting lymphomas.

More generally, war provides industry, including the chemical industry, with a wonderful testing ground for all kinds of products. And when the war is over, those products find a new home in our homes. Steingraber again points out that after 1940,

…synthetic organic chemical production [doubled] every seven to eight years. By the end of the 1980s, total production had exceeded 200 billion pounds per year. In other words, production of synthetic organic chemicals increased 100-fold between the time my mother was born and the year I finished graduate school. Two human generations (90.)

These “synthetic organics” are marvelous little concoctions, perfectly designed, because of their similarity to our natural body chemicals, to react with us, but different enough to be hard to excrete. And what they do? “Some interfere with our hormones, some cripple the immune system, and some overstimulate the activity of certain enzymes.” And they are associated with what the World Health Organization concluded are the “80% of all cancers attributable to environmental influences.” Yes, you read that correctly: 80%.

Why don’t we know this? Why isn’t someone investigating this stuff? That’s the job Steingraber assumed. And her conclusions are not encouraging. First of all, cancer is not some random misfortune; it is specific in that fully “one-half of all the world’s cancers occur among people living in industrialized countries…especially North America and Northern Europe. Breast cancer rates are 30 times higher in the U.S. than in parts of Africa.” The places, in other words, where the fallout from two world wars and countless smaller ones has been greatest. Among them are those chemicals we’ve been hearing about recently, the estrogen mimickers which, “at a low level inside the human body mimic the female hormone estrogen.” Regarding this estrogenic fallout of war, Steingraber then gives us this zinger:

Many of the hypermasculine weapons of conquest and progress are, biologically speaking, emasculating (109.)

Read that again. And then consider further facts: In 1939 (i.e., pre-WWII) there were a mere 32 pesticidal active ingredients registered with the federal government, while

At present, 860 active ingredients are so registered and are formulated into 20,000 different pesticidal products. Current U.S. annual use is estimated at 2.23 billion pounds….82% of U.S. households use pesticides of some kind….Between 45,000 and 100,000 chemicals are now in common commercial use…Of these only about 1.5 to 3% (1200 to 1500 chemicals) have been tested for carcinogenicity. (95 & 97).

You get the picture. We are being bathed in a chemical soup (much of our drinking water is also contaminated; worse, the effects of bathing and showering in such water may be as bad or worse than drinking it, so don’t count on bottled water) whose effects are unknown to us because governments pass laws that sound good, but lack implementation. For example, in Illinois, Steingraber’s home state, the legislature passed a Health and Hazardous Substances Registry Act but though the State Cancer Registry compiles cancer deaths, it does nothing to try to correlate these deaths with exposure to hazardous substances: the state funded the cancer registry, but not a hazardous substances registry. In fact, from the data that Steingraber compiles, it is clear that a concerted effort has been made to keep the environmental causes of cancer out of the public’s consciousness.

This is clear from Steingraber’s rundown of the information on cancer prevention. There’s the much-heralded “war on cancer.” There are marches on behalf of funding for breast cancer and other cancer research. But with regard to causes, the onus is placed on—your guessed it—the victims. DNA, we are told, will solve the cancer puzzle because cancer is hereditary (you got it from your parents.) Or it’s your lifestyle that’s at fault: eat less fats, eat vegetables, don’t smoke, get lots of exercise. After that, if you still get cancer, it’s your own fault. But what Steingraber points out (with some suppressed fury, for she herself got bladder cancer in her teens), is that hereditary cancers are rare: “Collectively, fewer than 10% of all malignancies are thought to involve inherited mutations.” That leaves 85 to 90% unaccounted for; and thus likely due to environmental influences. It also leaves 30% to 40% of Americans due to get cancer in their lifetimes.

What are those environmental influences? Consider the class of chemicals called “triazines.” These must be some of the most diabolic substances ever conceived. Why? Because some of these emissaries from hell actually “strike directly at the process by which plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen.” That is, they block the most fundamental process in life—photosynthesis—the process whereby earth produces plants not only to eat, but to be used as food by herbivores upon whom we depend for meat and dairy products as well. In short, the entire food chain. Imagine this! Aside from the question (which is all the pooh-bahs would like to consider) of whether such chemicals cause cancer, consider, as Steingraber puts it, “the wisdom of broadcasting over the landscape (atrazine is one of the top two most widely used pesticides in U.S. agriculture) chemicals that extinguish the miraculous fact of photosynthesis—which after all, furnishes us our sole supply of oxygen” (160). I mean, if this be not madness, what is? Soluble in water, traces of atrazine have now been found in ground water, 98% of surface waters in the Midwest, and in raindrops. Meanwhile, the EPA dithers and delays, no doubt influenced by mega-farmers and the chemical industry, to the point that 30 years from the time they were introduced, we still do not know the cancer risks of triazines coating our corn, our peaches, our plums, our apples, our cherries, peaches, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapes and pears. Not to mention the long-term effects of interfering with photosynthesis (algae are also affected).

There’s more in this courageous, disturbing book, and I haven’t even looked at the updated edition. Read it if you dare. And the truth is, we all need to dare, or have our lives controlled by the conscienceless hucksters who now drive our agriculture, our household cleaning habits, our drinking water, our immune systems, our entire way of life. DuPont used to have a commercial slogan: “Better things, for better living…through chemistry.” We don’t hear that too much anymore. I wonder why.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Toxicity on Wall Street

A couple of recent pieces on the late financial debacle have me puzzling over this stuff again—mostly because I still understand little of it (the big boys, naturally, like it that way). But here goes.

Too Big to Fail is a 2009 book by reporter Andrew Sorkin treating the agonizing days in September 2008 when the system almost collapsed. It’s a fascinating read, if for nothing else than the fact that it familiarizes us with the major mandarins of finance and government. We become chummy with then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and NY Fed chairman Tim Geithner, the latter now Obama’s Treasury Secretary. Of the two, Paulson comes off as the better man—more capable, more sensitive to the personalities he had to deal with (and therefore more respected by them), more concerned to save the system. Geithner strikes us as a bit of a tyrant, jealous of his perks, prone to order his bankers to jump through the hoops he has set for them. Paulson, by contrast, always solicits the ideas of those he tries to persuade. We also get the feeling that the entire ordeal—having to bail out the free-market system he was and is so much a part of—was one Paulson would have avoided if he could. He was perfectly happy as CEO of Goldman Sachs. As Treasury Secretary, on the other hand, he has to persuade, cajole, and take crap from Congress; at various points, we are told that he actually vomits from the political tension he is under. No wonder. If all reports are to be believed, the financial system was on the very brink of collapse. The way Sorkin tells the story also indicates that the renowned TARP bailout of major financial institutions was actually a political/psychological ploy meant to calm markets and the American people—a plan that forced nine major banks to accept an infusion of billions of dollars each, whether they needed it or not. Many did: Citibank, Morgan Stanley, and AIG. Others, especially Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, did not. But in order to create the illusion of equality and stability, Paulson’s plan required all banks to accept the money.

The story begins with the impending collapse of Lehman Brothers. We feel almost sorry for the CEO, Dick Fuld, who had spent his life building the firm, and who, until the very end, thinks he can work a deal to get another bank to rescue his. Such a buyout is what Geithner and Paulson spend most of their time trying to arrange. But Lehman’s problems, coming after the bailout of Bear Stearns, suffered from bad timing: the public was already alarmed by the first bailout and it was clear another would ignite a firestorm of protest. So Lehman’s failure was political as much as financial. Indeed, one of the failings of this book is that we never really get a clear explanation of why any of these financial giants was hemorrhaging so badly. We learn about the fall in their stock prices; we hear that the “short sellers” are driving their price down; but we don’t really quite understand what the root problems or mistakes are. What we get mostly are vignettes dramatizing little episodes in the long series of near-mergers and deal collapses. Some of these vignettes are telling: Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclay’s Bank, approached by Geithner to buy Lehman, wants the Federal Reserve to guarantee the deal (it is amazing to realize how alergic these financial “geniuses” are to the free market economics they’re always preaching).

“We need to be seen, to be invited by you and shepherded by you,” Diamond insisted. “You guys asked me if there was a price at which we’d be interested and you asked me, if so, ‘What do you need?’ That doesn’t mean I’m gonna call Fuld. That’s completely different.”
Giethner, growing frustrated with his equivocation, asked again, “Why can’t you just call Fuld? Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m not going to ask a guy if I can buy him, you know, at a distressed price,” Diamond said. “It only works if you guys are looking to arrange a deal. If you’re not, fine, no hard feelings, we’re okay.”

Then comes Sorkin’s comment:

However much Barclays may have wished to avoid giving the impression that they might be taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune, it was, of course, precisely what they were seeking to do. (p. 262)

This is really the key to the entire skein of deals and deal-making that Sorkin portrays. All these pooh bahs knew each other, played golf with each other, sat on boards together, had dinners together (at the finest restaurants on the planet, of course). They wanted to appear to be friends; but, in fact, they were sharks, circling each other, keen always to detect the smell of blood from a wounded competitor.

Unfortunately, during those terrible days of September, there was a lot of blood in the water. Once Lehman was allowed to fail, fear ruled Wall Street and Washington as well. No one knew who would be next because all the firms were interrelated financially. AIG had written enormous amounts of insurance—credit default swaps—for Goldman Sachs and others. If banks tried to collect on these insurance policies, which many did, AIG was going down. It was this domino of collapses that Paulson and Geithner, in Sorkin’s telling, were so desperate to prevent. At one point, before Paulson promoted his TARP program, we listen in on one of his conversations with Steve Schwarzman, chair of private-equity giant, the Blackstone Group. Schwarzman says:

“I have to tell you, the system’s going to collapse in the next few days. I doubt you’re going to be able to open the banks on Monday….People are shorting financial institutions, they’re withdrawing money from brokerage firms because they don’t want to be the last people in—like in Lehman—which is going to lead to the collapse of Goldman and Morgan Stanley. Everybody is just pursuing his self-interest,” Schwarzman told him. “You have to do something.” (emphasis mine).

What strikes me here is the language: Everybody is pursuing his self-interest. Well now, isn’t that a damn shame! These are the people who have raised the individual pursuit of self-interest to the level of holy dogma: this is what makes capitalism, free markets great. But when it happens within the club, when the dogs turn on each other, then they cry foul! You have to do something! And of course, Paulson did do something, for it was right after this that he put together, and rammed through Congress, the TARP bailout program.

This is fascinating stuff. We actually find ourselves rooting for the Treasury Department, for financial leaders like Dick Fuld, to succeed. I liken this feeling to the similar feeling one gets when watching mafia movies: no matter how heinous their behavior, we root for the characters who are portrayed from the inside as protagonists. Their cause becomes our cause. Sadly, what Too Big to Fail leaves out are the series of fraudulent, near-criminal activities that led these Wall Street powerhouses to run aground: the sub-prime mortgages, the collateralized debt obligations, the credit default swaps, all the exotic instruments whereby they and their executives enriched themselves to obscene levels, and brought the entire financial system and the economy it supports to near ruin. A recent article, “Banks Self-Dealing Super-Charged Financial Crisis,” indicates just how culpable these guys were. What the analysis by ProPublica reveals is that when these Wall Street banks saw how the market for the mortgage-backed securities they’d been packaging at great profit was faltering, they “created fake demand.” They simply bought their own products—the worst of the mortgages in their CDOs—and put them together in new CDOs, which they then proceeded to sell. They knew these new CDOs were junk, because that’s why they’d separated them out in the first place. And when the new ones proved hard to sell in full, they created yet more CDOs to buy those. ProPublica calls this a “daisy chain that solved one problem but created another.” And when the daisy chain could no longer be hidden, when, as we learn in Too Big to Fail, the banks could no longer get away with valuing these toxic assets at the inflated levels they claimed for them, the banks started to collapse.

That’s when we American taxpayers came to the rescue: TARP, Toxic Asset Relief, means that the U.S. government was forced to buy the worst of these bank “assets” to get them off their books—because with them, the big banks would fail.

I don’t know about you, but this just gives me a warm feeling all over.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lazio Takes the Low Road

Rick Lazio has always had boyish good looks and a charming personality. I discovered this working with him on the World War II legislation—the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act—of which he was the co-sponsor, and which was signed into Public Law #106-451 on November 7, 2000. Lazio was able to work with Democrat Eliot Engel and others in the House of Representatives, and, as a Republican, seems to have had some influence with then-Judiciary Committee Chairman, Henry Hyde, in granting the Una Storia Segreta project the critical Judiciary hearings that ensured the bill’s passage. For all this I was and am grateful, as is the entire Italian American community.

Recently, however, in his attempt to become New York State’s governor, another side of Rick Lazio has come to the fore, and it is neither handsome nor charming. Though he seems to have repudiated the Tea Party in his state (partly, at least, because his Republican primary opponent, Carl Paladino, has become their darling of the moment), Lazio has concluded that the silly flap over the building of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero can be a winning issue for him, and, despite vigorous criticism from all sides, is milking it for all it’s worth. Some have accused Lazio of being so desperate for campaign funds that he has sunk to this level to raise money. Whether or not this is true, his words and his position in this controversy make clear that Lazio’s moral compass can easily go missing when he senses an opportunity. In this, of course, he has ample company—including most of the Republican Party and a large number of Democrats as well.

To briefly review the controversy: plans to build a 13-story Islamic Cultural Center once known as Cordoba House, now known as Park51, two blocks from Ground Zero, were recently approved by the New York State landmark preservation board. Tea Party activists including Sarah Palin, have raised hell about this “insult” to the memory of 9/11 victims and the alleged sacrilege to what is called “hallowed ground.” Notwithstanding the fact that the structure is the brainchild of Imam Faisel Abdul Rauf—a man so associated with bridge-building among faiths that he was chosen as an ambassador without portfolio to help the Bush Administration reach out to Muslim nations and promote the American image abroad—and notwithstanding the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, the project is being compared to planting a Nazi sign at Auschwitz, or building “a memorial to kamikaze pilots next to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.” (this last from Carl Paladino, Lazio’s opponent in the Republican primary.)

Incredibly, Lazio has taken the accusations several steps further. Claiming that his objection is not religious (President Obama has stated publicly that religious freedom guarantees Muslims the same rights to build a center as anyone else), but involves only a plea for “transparency,” Lazio has raised the issue of “safety and security.” He has therefore attacked his expected opponent and current Attorney General of New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, for failing to investigate the “books” of the project to find out who is funding it. This call for transparency is clearly shorthand for raising the issue of terrorism—a barely veiled warning that mosques should be suspected as fronts for terrorist groups bent on harming New Yorkers. Here is how he framed it in an appearance on the PBS News Hour on August 16:

“What I’ve been calling for is transparency. There’s a certain defiance about the need to put it right there…This Cordoba initiative has $18,000. right now for a $100 million mosque…Where is this money coming from? Who’s behind this?....Let’s open the books, let’s find out where it’s coming from, whether it’s a foreign government or militant organizations that are funding this. The question here is whether or not we should feel safe, this is about safety and security…This is about what’s right, what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair, and from a standpoint of safety…”

Thus, where most criticism of the Islamic Center project focused on its alleged insult to the memory of the dead, Lazio, though he refers to “what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair,” has abandoned ethics, decency and fairness to foreground the element of fear: is this project funded by the same terrorists who funded 9/11?

As if to amplify his verbal raising of the fear factor, Lazio has recently released a two-minute video described as “a collage of various opinions from people filmed near Ground Zero,” featuring “images taken on September 11, 2001 depicting firefighters running into the debris of the former World Trade Center Towers.” So outrageous is this ad that it has incited criticisms from the very people Lazio was trying to associate himself with. According to an August 20 report, both the NY Fire Department and the Police Department have demanded the video’s removal:

“The Uniformed Fire Officers Association and the NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association has sent Lazio letters denouncing the use of the 9/11 footage. ‘We have always been opposed to the use of images from the attack on the World Trade Center in political advertising. Virtually every candidate for public office has honored that sentiment to date. So it was with a mix of surprise and disappointment to see your new video that seeks to capture the attention of the viewer with graphic images of Ground Zero that day,’ read a letter signed by UFOA President Alexander Hagan. ‘For someone whose argument against the mosque is that it is insensitive to those who lost loved ones on that day, it is unconscionable that he would display similar insensitivity by evoking these painful memories for his own political purposes,’ wrote SBA President Edward Mullins.”

Whether Rick Lazio can summon the courage to come in from the moral desert he’s placed himself in remains to be seen. Given the national attention his stance has garnered for him, though, and given the Tea Party competition from his rival Paladino, such an attack of conscience doesn’t appear likely. Rather, in this year when the twin specters of racism and McCarthyism seem to have risen from what we hoped was their grave, we can probably expect more of the same, if not worse. And though the politics are sad, sadder still is what is likely to result from all this—the conviction among Muslims worldwide that our so-called war on terror is really a war on them.

Lawrence DiStasi