Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lobbyists, Guns and Money by Paul Krugman Mar. 25, 2012, NY Times

Florida’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law, which lets you shoot someone you consider threatening without facing arrest, let alone prosecution, sounds crazy — and it is. And it’s tempting to dismiss this law as the work of ignorant yahoos. But similar laws have been pushed across the nation, not by ignorant yahoos but by big corporations.

Specifically, language virtually identical to Florida’s law is featured in a template supplied to legislators in other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that has managed to keep a low profile even as it exerts vast influence (only recently, thanks to yeoman work by the Center for Media and Democracy, has a clear picture of ALEC’s activities emerged). And if there is any silver lining to Trayvon Martin’s killing, it is that it might finally place a spotlight on what ALEC is doing to our society — and our democracy.

What is ALEC? Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.

Many ALEC-drafted bills pursue standard conservative goals: union-busting, undermining environmental protection, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. ALEC seems, however, to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations. And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.

What this tells us, in turn, is that ALEC’s claim to stand for limited government and free markets is deeply misleading. To a large extent the organization seeks not limited government but privatized government, in which corporations get their profits from taxpayer dollars, dollars steered their way by friendly politicians. In short, ALEC isn’t so much about promoting free markets as it is about expanding crony capitalism.
And in case you were wondering, no, the kind of privatization ALEC promotes isn’t in the public interest; instead of success stories, what we’re getting is a series of scandals. Private charter schools, for example, appear to deliver a lot of profits but little in the way of educational achievement.

But where does the encouragement of vigilante (in)justice fit into this picture? In part it’s the same old story — the long-standing exploitation of public fears, especially those associated with racial tension, to promote a pro-corporate, pro-wealthy agenda. It’s neither an accident nor a surprise that the National Rifle Association and ALEC have been close allies all along.

And ALEC, even more than other movement-conservative organizations, is clearly playing a long game. Its legislative templates aren’t just about generating immediate benefits to the organization’s corporate sponsors; they’re about creating a political climate that will favor even more corporation-friendly legislation in the future.

Did I mention that ALEC has played a key role in promoting bills that make it hard for the poor and ethnic minorities to vote?

Yet that’s not all; you have to think about the interests of the penal-industrial complex — prison operators, bail-bond companies and more. (The American Bail Coalition has publicly described ALEC as its “life preserver.”) This complex has a financial stake in anything that sends more people into the courts and the prisons, whether it’s exaggerated fear of racial minorities or Arizona’s draconian immigration law, a law that followed an ALEC template almost verbatim.

Think about that: we seem to be turning into a country where crony capitalism doesn’t just waste taxpayer money but warps criminal justice, in which growing incarceration reflects not the need to protect law-abiding citizens but the profits corporations can reap from a larger prison population.

Now, ALEC isn’t single-handedly responsible for the corporatization of our political life; its influence is as much a symptom as a cause. But shining a light on ALEC and its supporters — a roster that includes many companies, from AT&T and Coca-Cola to UPS, that have so far managed to avoid being publicly associated with the hard-right agenda — is one good way to highlight what’s going on. And that kind of knowledge is what we need to start taking our country back.


I have written before about the propensity of Americans to shoot first and ask questions later; specifically, what D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature, wrote a century ago, while analyzing Fenimore Cooper’s frontier heroes:

…you have there the myth of the essential white American. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.
However hyperbolic you might think this, the events of the past weeks offer little comfort and less repudiation. To begin with, we have the grisly murders in Afghanistan: on March 11, according to military authorities, staff sergeant Robert Bales stalked through two villages in Kandahar province and massacred 16 residents, including 9 children. So far, no one knows why he did it; he reportedly came back to his base and admitted that he had “taken out some military-aged males,” grunt-speak for ‘insurgents.’ Only later was it discovered that the “take-out” included mostly unarmed, defenseless women and children. Only later, too, was the “lone veteran” who snapped after his 4th deployment and financial troubles at home (Bales apparently owes over a million dollars due to a fraud he committed in his pre-military investment business), turned into the reigning theory. ‘These guys are overstressed,’ is the idea; ‘this guy has suffered traumatic head injuries and probably PTSD and god knows what else.’ And so Robert Bales gets whisked out of Afghanistan and then to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to be interrogated and psychoanalyzed and eventually tried for his crime. And while American pundits far and wide prognosticate about whether the psychological screening techniques for returning veterans are adequate, Americans in general accept the standard story of yet another really nice neighborhood boy just going berserk for unaccountable reasons, except perhaps the stress placed on poor servicemen sent back repeatedly to our neverending theater of war.

The people of Afghanistan, of course, are not so quick to absolve or explain Bales. In fact, most think he did not, could not have acted alone. Recent reports from journalists on site have found that the massacre actually took place a mere three days after an American tank on patrol in the village of Mokhoyan was destroyed (presumably by an IED). Moreover, several villagers and headmen have concurred in their report to the AP that shortly after the bombing, US and Afghan troops returned to the village, turned the residents out and lined them up against a wall, and warned them that they (the villagers) would pay dearly for this. According to villager Ahmad Shah Khan,

"It looked like they were going to shoot us, and I was very afraid. Then a NATO soldier said through his translator that even our children will pay for this. Now they have done it and taken their revenge."
Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, concurred:

"The Americans told the villagers, 'A bomb exploded on our vehicle. ... We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people.’ These are the reasons why we say they took their revenge by killing women and children in the villages."
U.S. media accounts, however, continue to portray the incident as just another case of a “lone nut” going berserk, probably after drinking too much. Hope lies in this portrayal: perhaps a more precise psychological test can identify such “nuts” a bit sooner (it is worth nothing that the current “tests” for psychological fitness are multiple-choice written tests, with no face-to-face interview with a therapist). Then, to invade another country that has not attacked us, we will send only stable young men, well-adjusted soldiers who can kill in a more reasonable, humane, and justifiable manner.

“Justifiable” is the rationale for the Trayvon Martin murder as well. Martin, a 17-year-old black youth, was returning to his father’s house in a Sanford, Florida suburb on the night of February 26, after going to a convenience store for a drink and a bag of Skittles. George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood protector, spotted Martin from his SUV and found him ‘suspicious’. Leaving his car to follow Martin on foot, Zimmerman called 911 and offered the reasons for his suspicion: the alleged intruder was wearing a hoodie, he had his hand tucked into his waist, he was wandering about on a rainy night—and he was a black male. Though the 911 dispatcher told him not to follow Martin, Zimmerman stalked him anyway, lamenting that “these assholes, they always get away.” This time, however, the “asshole” didn’t get away. In the confrontation that followed—police say a voice heard on the 911 tape is Zimmerman calling for help; Martin’s parents say it is their son’s voice calling for help—Zimmerman shot and killed the boy, who (and how often must we hear this?) turned out to be unarmed. Trayvon Martin’s family has also produced evidence from another phone call that night, from a 16-year-old girl to her friend Trayvon, in which she advises him to run, but in which he insists he ‘won’t run but just walk away fast.’ The phone conversation also indicates that the girl heard Trayvon say 'Why are you following me?' and the other voice say, 'What are you doing around here?'

More than three weeks later, the killer, Zimmerman, has still not been charged with any crime. Apparently, the Sanford FL police, with hardly any investigation (they did test the dead person, Trayvon Martin, for drugs or alcohol, but not the killer, Zimmerman!), concluded it was a case of “self-defense.” This is due to Florida’s (and 17 other states’) ‘Stand your ground’ statute, passed into law in 2005 after fierce lobbying by the National Rifle Association. Such statutes add fuel to the so-called “Castle Laws” whereby a person has an unlimited right to defend his home, allegedly his castle, against intruders, up to and including the use of deadly force—which just wasn’t enough for Florida, the NRA and America’s gun-lovers. So the ‘stand your ground’ statute was enacted by the enlightened Florida legislature and signed by then-governor Jeb Bush. The statute allows the use of deadly force anywhere, at any time, whenever someone feels a threat. In short, in ‘stand your ground’ states, the (gun-toting) citizen who feels threatened is under no obligation to ascertain whether the threat is real or imaginary, no obligation to retreat (as previous law required) into his/her castle, but can “stand his ground” no matter where the threat occurs, and shoot to kill. According to a 2007 AP report reprinted on MSNBC’s website,

the new laws create an automatic presumption that a person is justified in using deadly force to ward off an attacker in just about any public place.
The same report quotes Ashley Varner, a spokeswoman for the NRA, regarding the laws:
“We believe that self-defense is an innate human right and the law should never put the innocent victim of a crime in a position of having to second-guess themselves.”
Well, shit, who could ever argue with that? Apparently not even the U.S. Department of Justice, which, according to the most recent reports, is having second thoughts about interfering with local law authorities in the Trayvon Martin case. That’s because proving that George Zimmerman actually targeted Martin because of his race; or that Zimmerman's goal was to prevent Martin from using public streets, would be hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Though Zimmerman identified Martin as ‘suspicious’ and ‘black’ in the same breath, that alone would not automatically prove racial profiling. Moreover, though the place where Martin was walking was a public street, it was also within a gated community.

Still, there may be hope that, if the phone call from Martin’s girlfriend holds up as evidence, it might suggest clearly that Zimmerman, contrary to his account and the police report that he was being attacked, was actually the aggressor.

As to the larger issue, the hope seems dimmer. What can possibly be the remedy for legally allowing a self-appointed vigilante (and this nation is teeming with them) to shoot someone for “walking while black?” What can ameliorate a situation in which difference—in dress, in skin color, in the timing of an evening walk—is automatically perceived as threatening, and in which feeling threatened automatically justifies killing someone? And beyond that, what is ever going to change an entire country’s conviction that the way to settle disputes, be they neighborly or international, is to shoot first and ask questions later? Especially when the unarmed victim (including nine children) is a different color or a different race or a different religion or a different culture? Because that’s really what this is about. The lives of some people matter; the lives of those who are black or ‘ragheads’ or ‘slants’ or ‘A-rabs’ do not. They can be exterminated upon the slightest provocation, and sometimes with no provocation at all. That is really what the NRA stands for: the right to hunt and shoot that which is different, be it a game animal, a foreigner, or a dark infringer of white, American space. It is a sickness with deep roots in our culture and history, one which, even a hundred years after D.H. Lawrence pointed it out, shows little signs of melting.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Barefoot and Pregnant

What do we hope for our progeny
In a time of growing misogyny
When women are seen as the enemy
Who must not be allowed to be free
And the state must control their reactions
Through clergy and conservative factions
So the greater half is reduced
And occasionally seduced
For cheap labor and motherly chores
To be labeled as sluts and whores

Turn off the time machine. Here we are back in the 1950s and going hell bent for leather for 1919. Let us remove all the restrictions on the corporations that got us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and start controlling women instead. It is a trade-off. The purveyors of “small government” suddenly want to bring back the nostalgia of a never-to-return agrarian society where women did chores and had babies and did not vote. In 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. Now, the Commonwealth of Virginia is actively preventing women from exercising the right to privacy of her own bodies by imposing an invasive and medically unnecessary procedure of enduring a uterine ultrasound examination. Worse, the procedure is mandated by the state and the woman cannot opt out for any reason, religious or otherwise. While the forced procedure is conducted, the woman may or may not view the images produced by the state and for the state. That is her choice. Would you prefer to call it a Nanny state or Fascist state? That is your choice.

Meanwhile the GOP applauds itself for fighting for freedom. They champion freedom: freedom from health care, freedom from the safety net, freedom from fair taxation, freedom from the 4th Amendment. You know, freedom. We can hide those freedoms under the rock of religious freedom if anybody objects. There is still more delicious irony in this attack on women. The same bishops of the Catholic Church that used to talk fervently about each of us forming a good conscience before making big decisions has joined the parade of nannies to “guide” our women based on their collective clerical conscience. These bishops are so perceptive that they know what evil lurks in the hearts of women although they were absolutely blind to the actual sexual abuse that occurred in its ranks pledged to celibacy. You should be amazed. Pope Pius XII, hardly a wild-eyed liberal, approved the use of hormonal treatment for women (Enovid, then) to avoid or eliminate dangerous conditions such as excessive bleeding or ovarian cyst formation in 1958, the year he died from complications related to hiccups. Now the American bishops have eschewed the Pope’s advice and decided that women are too irresponsible to use medical advice to form a good conscience and prevent harm to their own bodies. Incidentally, about 60% of prescriptions for the “pill” are for reasons other than birth control, but the bishops and the GOP are not about to listen to some evil physician or, worse, a woman and, God forbid, a female physician.

Virginia is not alone in condemning/assigning women to be members of the permanent underclass. Other states are rushing to enact anti-contraception laws and some are defining personhood as beginning at the moment of conception or even before a zygote is implanted in the womb. Paragons of high virtue such as Rush Limbaugh with 4 marriages and no children are calling women sluts and prostitutes for using contraceptives regardless of their personal conditions or medical reasons. No, this could not be political, could it? Nobody would viciously insult women and castigate them for exercising what used to be rights. It also appears that Rush and others attacking women have no clue how reproduction works on the biological level. Rush speaks of using ”more and more pills” to have all the sex these women want. Of course, I will give Rush some slack since he has had no children and yet is stuck on Viagra and Oxycontin. Some may say addicted. He may not understand the process at all. One pill per day is not enough for Rush, so he must think that it is not enough for women, either.

Politically, it seems that this urgent and violent obsession with women exercising their rights is a losing proposition that cannot endear women to either the ultraconservative clergy or the ultraconservative party. Think again. If legislatures such as Virginia and other GOP controlled bodies can put rules in place that place the state in charge of each woman’s body, what difference will a woman make in her own decisions. What women think will not matter. They are irrelevant.

As I ponder the potential reasons for this abusive and regressive policy, I arrive at only a couple of reasons. The reasons reverberate in both the GOP and the bishop’s council. The first and most trivial reason is that the Tea Party has assumed control of the Republican Party and that Tea Party tail is wagging the GOP dog. Boehner has shown fear of the Tea Party and has only talked about the economy while everything done in the House of Representatives from HR 1 on has been aimed at promoting a conservative cultural agenda. Conservative bishops who have done nothing to promote the Church or build its membership are pleased that attention is being directed at the “sinfulness” of others rather than their own. What need have we for forming our own consciences when we know that women are using contraception…98% of Catholic women are using it? And Pius XII be damned, we know better than to allow women to make decisions on their health. We even know that more abortions will result from this demand for purity, but what of it, if we achieve our lofty goal of appearing to prevent

Women, including non-Catholics such as Ms. Sandra Fluke, would abuse access to health care for their personal pleasure. And there should be no restrictions to Viagra or vasectomies because that is different and does not affect the true cause of the problem; the women themselves. The second and more substantive reason is that women have begun to strive for equality in everything including equal pay for equal work. Wisconsin has prohibited equal pay for women with Governor Scott Walker proudly leading that charge. This may seem insidious, but think of the effect. By pushing women to a permanent lower economic status, they will become more dependent on men and less likely to gain economic power. They can safely go back to the kitchen and nursery where they belong and two income families will have a lower profile thus returning us all to the glories of the farm. It is politically ingenious and bishops will love it. Everything will finally be back in its proper place. Yes, women may have less money for frivolous things like shoes, but they won’t need them as long as they are pregnant and in the kitchen where they belong. Oh, by the way, America will be more competitive for it with lower wages and no uppity women using their consciences. The American dream can be created by Rush Limbaugh, at least 4 presidential candidates, myriad bishops, the entire business world and nearly everybody except women. It is ironic that Protestants were included in the Church prohibition thus illustrating that by claiming religious freedom, a Catholic University imposed its views on women of a different persuasion. Is that not the basis of the claim by bishops that their religious rights were being curtailed? “It is against our principles as Catholics?” Really? Is not establishment of religion a specific prohibition of the First Amendment? Adult Protestant women students must accept the tenets of Catholicism to receive health care? Obama quickly placed the responsibility on health insurance companies. That not only gave a fig leaf to the Catholic Church, but it complied with the First Amendment. It also permitted women to exercise their consciences. Still the bishops complained. “Separation of Church and State” is denounced by Santorum, but that is what has kept us from fighting a “Christian Taliban” at home.

Conservatives still have to work on repealing the 19th Amendment. Zealots might find ways to nullify it. Fortunately, women represent more than half of all voters. They provided 53% of voters in 2008. It may be that women vote their consciences. That seems to be a refreshing possibility.

George Giacoppe
06 March 2012