Archive for the ‘U.S. Domestic Affairs’ Category
Justice Corrupted – An Analysis (10 July 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Dogmatists in the Justice System
Scattered throughout the ranks of U.S. federal prosecutors and judges there have always been men and women who are unwilling to make a distinction between their own biases and the rules of evidence that are designed to keep the system focused on the goal of justice. Such closed-minded individuals, embedded in the system, can find themselves set free to act out their prejudices by special circumstances. One might think back to the “hanging judges” who appeared here and there on the American frontier in the 19th century. Being among the few enforcers of law and order in an otherwise anarchic environment, they indulged their fantasies of playing the wrathful god.
The “War on Terror” has likewise created a special circumstance that has liberated Justice Department dogmatists: Islamophobes, Zionists, neoconservatives and others who fancy themselves on a special mission to protect the nation from evil and conspiratorial forces. And, as with the hanging judges before them, the result has been an enhanced possibility not of justice, but rather of the miscarriage of justice.
Part II – The Case of Sami Al-Arian
In the past twenty years one of the most notable victims of doctrinaire judges and prosecutors has been Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian is the son of Palestinian-refugee parents. He came to the United States in 1975 to attend university and earned his degree in computer systems engineering. Eventually he earned a Ph.D. and obtained a tenure-track position at the University of South Florida.
Not only did Al-Arian become a prominent professor, winning several teaching awards, but he also became a community activist, defending the civil liberties of minority groups, particularly Muslim Americans. During the Clinton administration he was an active campaigner against the Justice Department’s pre-9/11 use of “secret evidence” to hold people in jail indefinitely. He also actively and publicly supported the right of Palestinians to resist Israeli oppression.
At some point in the mid-1990s what may have been a coordinated effort to ruin Dr. Al-Arian developed among neoconservative and Zionist elements. Steven Emerson, a man who has made his living as a faux expert on terrorism and a professional Islamophobe, accused one of Al-Arian’s organizations, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, of being a “terrorist front.” This accusation proved to be baseless, but it nonetheless led other Islamophobe radicals to focus on Al-Arian. Some of these people resided within the Justice Department and the FBI, and they went on a fishing expedition looking for alleged connections between Al-Arian and a recently designated “terrorist organization” called the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
During the 2000 presidential election Al-Arian became a prominent figure in national politics as it played out in Florida. His major concern was the government’s use of secret evidence, and it was George W. Bush who promised to rein in the practice. Therefore Al-Arian backed Bush in the election. His trust in this regard proved horribly misplaced.
On September 26, 2001, Bill O’Reilly invited Al-Arian onto his TV show ostensibly to discuss Arab-American reactions to the 9/11 attacks. It was a trap. O’Reilly immediately asked Al-Arian if he had said “Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel” at a rally thirteen years before (in 1988). Though Al-Arian tried to explain that it was a reference to his support for Palestinian resistance against apartheid policies in Israel, O’Reilly proclaimed that the CIA should watch Al-Arian from now on. Almost at once Al -Arian started to receive death threats. At this point the University of South Florida placed him on administrative leave. He would eventually be fired by the University.
The O’Reilly interview may have been a public relations booster for the ongoing Justice Department investigation mentioned above.That lasted until September 2003, when Al-Arian and three others were indicted on 25 counts of “racketeering” for the PIJ. The Bush administration’s Attorney General John Ashcroft went on television to extol the indictment as a great blow against terrorism (thus confusing an indictment with a conviction) that was made possible by the extensive powers of the USA PATRIOT Act. Among these powers were those George W. Bush had promised Al-Arian he would rein in.
After a 5-month, 13-day trial Al-Arian was acquitted on 8 counts and the jury deadlocked on the remaining 17. When a juror was interviewed after the trial and asked what was lacking in the government’s case he replied, “evidence.” Nonetheless, the outcome allowed the government to hold Al-Arian pending retrial on those deadlocked counts. The case had a distinctly contrived and corrupt feel to it – the result of Islamophobes turned loose by the events of 9/11 to substitute their own biases for the rules of legal evidence.
In 2006 Dr. Al-Arian was still in prison. His health was deteriorating and the strain on his family (his wife and five children) was great. Given the situation he agreed to a plea bargain agreement whereby he would plead guilty to one count of acting in a fashion that benefited the PIJ. In exchange the other counts would be dismissed by the government. He would be incarcerated for a relatively short period on the guilty count with time already served counting toward this sentence. In order to secure the plea bargain, Al-Arian also had to agreed to be deported upon release.
Once more the government, in this case the judge and the federal prosecutor, proved untrustworthy. Despite the jury verdict, the judge had decided that Sami Al-Arian was a “master manipulator” and “a leader of Palestine Islamic Jihad.” This was exactly what the jury decided the evidence could not substantiate. However, the judge, moved by emotional convictions, had equated statements on the part of Al-Arian showing understanding of acts of Palestinian resistance with actual material support of those actions. In doing so the judge went beyond the rules of evidence and corrupted the system he was sworn to serve. The judge gave Dr. Al-Arian not the minimum recommended in the plea bargain but the maximum of 57 months for the one count to which he pled guilty.
Then began a series of additional prosecutorial steps involving the issuing of repeated subpoenas demanding that Al-Arian testify at grand jury investigations. This was also in defiance of his plea bargain and so he refused. He was held in civil and later criminal contempt which added substantially to his jail time.
So egregious was the behavior of the prosecutors seeking his testimony that another, more objective judge eventually stepped in and halted the government’s efforts to force Sami Al-Arian’s to appear before grand juries. Dr. Al-Arian was also let out of prison and allowed to live under a liberal form of house arrest at his daughter’s home in Virginia. His case was held in a kind of legal limbo until just recently, when on 27 June 2014, prosecutors decided to drop all charges against Al-Arian. One should not think of this as a total victory, for the government still intends to deport Sami Al-Arian.
Sami Al-Arian and his family had to endure eleven years of persecution on the basis of assumptions that were substituted for evidence. In the process the life of an upright man, devoted to teaching, charitable works and the cause of a persecuted people, was ruined. The people who did this to him simultaneously corrupted the justice system the integrity of which they were sworn to uphold.
Part III – Other Victims
While Sami Al-Arian was perhaps the most high-profile of these cases, his was not the only one. Four members of the Holy Land Foundation charity were charged with materially aiding Hamas when, in fact, all the foundation did was supply money to charitable Palestinian organizations which had been accredited by Israel. It took two trials, one in 2007 and another 2008, for the U.S. government to eke out a conviction on weak evidence that included the testimony of anonymous Israeli witnesses.The Supreme Court refused to interfere with this prima facie unconstitutional procedure.
At present a Palestinian civil rights activist in Chicago, Rasmea Odeh, is being prosecuted for an alleged immigration fraud for failing to report on her immigration application that forty-five years ago, when she was a child, she was arrested by the Israeli military and briefly held without charge. The same prosecutor who went after the Holy Land Foundation is involved in the prosecution of Odeh.
Part IV – Conclusion
Times of high tension often result in the lowering of important standards in the application of law. They do so by heightening the fears of the general public, which in turn gives license to bigots embedded in the justice system such as judges and prosecutors who have Islamophobic prejudices, Zionist biases, or neoconservative delusions. All of these motives may come into play in cases such as those mentioned above.
Normally the appeals process should catch and reverse such problematic behavior. However, if the period of public fear is prolonged, the appeals process might also become corrupted by public hysteria and political pressures. It took Sami Al-Arian eleven years to overcome his prosecutorial ordeal and those of the Holy Foundation members and Rasmea Odeh are ongoing.
The last word on this dilemma should go to Sami Al-Arian’s son, Abdullah, who in a recent statement observed,“It’s a sad day when you have to leave America to be free.” Indeed, when dogmatists are in control none of us are really free.
Repugnant Republicans – An Analysis (12 June 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Something Disturbing
There is something disturbing about the Republican response to just about everything President Obama does. It has a knee-jerk yet patterned nature. It displays a meanness that is acted out with a certain gloating quality as well. Take for instance Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouting “You Lie!” during Obama’s speech to Congress on health care. Wilson’s anger was displayed with the malicious satisfaction of a nasty child. Subsequently, Republican politicians have called President Obama a “tar baby,” a socialist, lazy, Hitler, and perhaps most tellingly, un-American. None these epithets are accurate, yet apparently they are believed to be true not only by the persons who said them, but many others among the Republican base.
What is the reason for this?
The New York Times editors think Republican attitudes towards Obama are politically motivated. As they put it in an editorial on 5 June 2014, referencing Republican reaction to the negotiated release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan: “The last few days have made clearer than ever that there is no action the Obama administration can take — not even the release of a possibly troubled American soldier from captivity — that cannot be used for political purposes by his opponents.” Of course the Democrats are political opportunists as well, but usually they do not operate in such a persistently mean-spirited manner.
According to liberal commentator M.J. Rosenberg the source of Republican animosity is racial. “The right knows that nothing they can do will remove … what they see as the … the indelible stain of an African American president having been elected. Twice.” However, seeing racism as a primary motivation is probably inadequate. The Republicans reacted in a similarly bloodthirsty way toward Bill Clinton when he was caught fooling around with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. At that time Republican congressmen gleefully rushed to impeach Clinton even though a number of them had pursued extramarital affairs of their own.
Part II – Fear and Loathing
No doubt there are Republicans who are both racist and politically unprincipled in their attitudes to President Obama. However, it seems to me that there is something else going on – something repugnantly familiar – a suffocatingly narrow defining of the nation, an intolerance and disdain of everything outside of that definition, and a belligerency toward those who disagree. What some Republicans are doing is declaring President Obama not only politically wrong but downright un-American, someone who is, in essence, a traitor. Against this backdrop the Republican moderates are very few and very quiet.
The last time we got a glimpse of this attitude was during the 2011 televised Republican presidential primary debates. Back in December 2011 I wrote an analysis entitled “So What Shall We Ruin in November 2012?” that noted this outlook. Here, in summary, is some of that piece:
Most of the Republican nominees are reflections of the so-called Republican base, representatives of which constitute the audience for the presidential primary debates. There is something at once humorous and horrifying about this audience. Their cheers and jeers reflect attitudes that used to be seen only at drunken fraternity parties and out-of-control soccer games.
Who are these people with whom the Republican hopefuls now identify? They appear to be highly partisan Republicans who largely define themselves by what they don’t like: minorities, abortion, big government and the lack of religion in politics, among other things. When we say these are aspects of society they don’t like we really mean that they feel personally threatened by them and see them undermining their way of life. Therefore, they approach those who appear to represent these aspects of public life with fear and loathing. People who meet this description make up about 20 percent of eligible voters in the U.S.
What is important to understand is that these are not just people addicted to a set of traditions. They are folks who possess a nebulous anger, which is the other side of the coin of their fear. This anger can potentially lead them to act in dangerous ways. And, of course in the U.S., most of these people are armed. The Republican Party leadership, from Nixon onward, has catered to this 20 percent – not just because these leaders are political opportunists, but also because they have an unhealthy affinity for this population and its outlook. That today’s Republican leadership has this affinity constitutes one of the major differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.
Part lll – On the Democratic Side
President Obama’s response to the consistent nastiness of his opponents is usually mild and ineffectual. For instance, referring to the stubborn Republican opposition to his health care reform, he complained, “This does frustrate me, [Republican controlled] states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite. You got 5 million people who could be having health insurance right now, at no cost to these states – zero cost to these states – [yet] other than ideological reasons, they have chosen not to provide health insurance for their citizens.” The president’s observation is quite true, but truth rarely breaks down the barriers put up by ideology.
Obama’s response reflects the liberal take on politics and social decorum. Reason and compromise are supposed to be the guiding lights of domestic public life. While this might have been possible in the days before Richard Nixon led the Republican Party it is not so today. As Obama realized, reason has nothing to do with Republican actions. Those actions are now directed by a nebulous ideology that partakes of anarchism, laissez faire economics, and neoconservative aggressiveness all at once. Underlying it all is a fear and anger that breeds meanness and the behavior of the bully.
Of course the Democrats are also capable of saying and doing stupid things. However, their foibles and hypocrisies tend to be based on misplaced principles (as against no principle at all). Take Secretary of State Kerry’s recent “Man Up” proclamation reported on 29 May 2014. Referring to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who revealed that the agency was pursuing wholesale spying on just about the entire U.S. population. Kerry said the following: “The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country where he has taken refuge. He should man up and come back to the United States.”
This was a stupid and misleading statement. It is actually U.S. leaders, starting with George W. Bush and continuing on with President Obama, who “betrayed their country” by allowing the NSA to run wild. Snowden just caught them at it and made their betrayal public. However, as distasteful and downright silly as is Kerry’s “man up” pronouncement, it lacks the hateful quality of the typical Republican attack stance.
Part IV – Conclusion
There is a qualitative difference between today’s Democrats and Republicans. That difference does not lie in the potential to pursue policies that negatively impact the world. Both parties do that. The difference is in their attitude toward policy and action as such. When it comes to the Democrats, particularly their supporting base, many of them seem to retain the ability to think critically about their positions and sometimes even change course. But with the Republicans, one gets the sense that they are really true believers. They see their positions and actions as absolutely right and good, and if you disagree with them you are absolutely wrong and bad. In other words, while both parties are often dangerously wrong, the Republicans are wrong in a demented ideological fashion. As such they really are more repugnant than the Democrats.
Class Segregation and the Housing Market – An Analysis (2 June 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Class Discrimination
There are many forms of discrimination, but one that Americans seem to have a high tolerance for is that based on class. Class discrimination is a natural outcome of capitalist ideology. That ideology, in turn, has been assimilated into American culture to the point that even the poor accept it on the assumption that they or their children might someday become rich.
Thus, unlike race and sex discrimination, that based on class has gone largely underregulated. Eventually the result is a number of embarrassing instances of abuse that become hard to ignore. That is what has happened in New York City’s housing market, as testified to by an expose on the front page of last Sunday’s (18 May 2014) New York Times real estate section.
Part II – The Situation:
Since 1943 New York City has sought to protect the income diversity of its population by classifying a percentage of its housing market as “rent-controlled” or “rent-stabilized.” There are technical differences between these statuses, but we will refer to them both as part of a regime of “rent-regulation.” Landlords and developers who provide a certain number of such “affordable housing units” (particularly rent-stabilized units) alongside of apartments renting or selling at market rates can qualify for city-or-state-subsidized low-interest loans and tax breaks. Even though the landlords and developers are thereby benefiting from publicly provided money, they still complain that the rent-regulation regime is a burden. While, with some exceptions, it does not prevent them from making a profit, it can prevent them from maximizing their profit. And that, of course, is what capitalism is supposed to let the businessperson do.
The piece in Sunday’s New York Times real estate section is all about how the landlords and developers are trying to make life unpleasant for their rent-regulated residents, who, as of 2011, have a median income of $51,000 and pay a median rent of $1,321 a month. Ultimately, as Mark Zborovsky, “a broker who sells bundles of rent-regulated apartments to investors,” put it, “his [the landlord’s] goal is to get him [the tenant] out of the apartment.” If these tenants do leave, their dwellings cease to be regulated and can be rented anew at market rates – which can be as high as $7,000 a month for a two-bedroom flat.
Part III – Some Examples
The tactic now being employed by the landlords and developers is to add amenities to existing buildings – things like roof gardens, gyms, playrooms for children, added storage areas and the like – and then prevent those tenants in rent-regulated apartments from using them. It is an interesting fact that in this game of class discrimination the doormen and other building staff become the ones charged with enforcing segregation for the owners.
The landlords and developers argue that these new amenities are “market tools” to attract high-end tenants who will pay market rates for apartments. Therefore, the amenities should be reserved for such residents. Actually, this only makes sense if you assume the potential high-end renter cares who else will be using the gym or playroom. In other words, the landlords and developers are assuming their clientele have the same class bias and resentments as themselves. Based on this assumption, some of them have gone so far as to put in separate lobbies and entrances (nicknamed “poor doors”) for those living in rent-regulated apartments. Here is how David Von Spreckelsen, the president of the development company Toll Brothers City Living puts it, “The two populations [rent-regulated and market rate payers] don’t mix at all. It really feels separate.” Of course, after Mr. Von Spreckelsen gets done segregating the two groups of tenants, his statement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The fact that the practices of Mr. Von Spreckelsen and those like him are making rent-regulated tenants feel like, as one of them put it, “a second-class citizen in my own home” seems not to matter. That is probably because, in the landlord and developer’s capitalist worldview, the tenants residing in such apartments are indeed, by definition, second-class citizens.
Part IV – The Need for Regulation
Alas for Von Spreckelsen, the rent-regulated tenants are also voting citizens. There are hundreds of thousands of them in New York City, and their complaints have reached the mayor’s office and city council. Newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio had made an issue of the “dwindling availability of affordable housing” in his campaign for office, and some city council members are busy drafting legislation that would “expand the city’s anti-discrimination code to include rent-regulated tenants.”
However, one should not see this as much more than a holding action against an ongoing and successful effort by landlords and developers to erode the number of rent-regulated apartments they have to maintain. One can see it in the annual decreasing percentage of rent-controlled residences: 2002 = 2.8%; 2005 = 2.1%; 2008 = 1.9 %; 2011 = 1.8%. Those in the rent-stabilized category have fallen from 63% in 1980 to 47% in 2011. Some of this decline is the result of attrition. Those in these affordable apartments are generally an older crowd. However, perhaps more important in the long run is that the landlords and developers have the nation’s economic ideology on their side as well as a lot of money to pay out to ambitious politicians. Ultimately, New York City may well become a city gentrified for the wealthy. The poor will have nowhere else to go but the next slum over, and the middle class will be pushed out altogether, largely to the towns and suburbs of New Jersey.
Part V – Conclusion
The condition of the New York City’s real estate market is symptomatic of a much broader problem of class discrimination and segregation. You can see it in the wealth-based segregated nature of everything from accommodations on trains and planes to the more serious discrepancies between suburbs and inner cities. In the fields of health care and criminal justice, the wealthy go in one door and the rest of us in another. In this country exceedingly little comes to you because you are a human being, or even because you are a citizen. Almost everything you get, or don’t get, is a function of how much you can or are willing to pay.
Against this backdrop one must sadly conclude that rent-regulation is an anomaly, a policy that is at odds with American culture. It is also a window on the inhumane economic practices we have become so addicted to. Could such an addiction lead to an overdose? And if does, will we then learn that regulation is necessary and healthy?
The Role of the Intellectual – An Analysis (22 May 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Watershed Moments
World Wars I and II created watershed moments in the lives of Western intellectuals, defined here as those who are guided by their intellect and critical thinking, and understand various aspects of the world mainly through ideas and theories which they express through writing, teaching and other forms of public address. Just how were they to respond to the call of patriotic duty that seduced the vast majority of citizens to support acts of mass slaughter? What constituted a proper response is often debated. How most of them did respond is a matter of historical record.
During the world wars most intellectuals on all sides of the conflicts uncritically lent their talents to their government’s war efforts. Some did so as propagandists and others as scientists. Some actually led their nations into the fray, as was the case with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson held a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, had taught at Cornell, Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, and became president of Princeton University. Eventually he was elected President of the United States and, having taken the nation to war, sanctioned the creation of a massive propaganda machine under the auspices of the “Committee on Public Information.” He also supported the passage of the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress all anti-war sentiments. Wilson never experienced combat, but another intellectual, the British poet Siegfried Sassoon, did so in the trenches of the Western front. After this experience he wrote, “war is hell and those who initiate it are criminals.” No doubt that was his opinion of the intellectual President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1928 the French philosopher and literary critic Julien Benda published an important book, The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. In this work Benda asserted that it is the job of the intellectual to remain independent of his or her community’s ideologies and biases, be they political, religious or ethnic. Only by so doing could he or she defend the universal practices of tolerance and critical thinking that underpin civilization. Not only were they to maintain their independence, but they were also obligated to analyze their community’s actions and, where necessary, call them into question.
However, as the memory of the intellectuals’ complicity in World War I faded, so did the memory of Benda’s standard of behavior. By World War II it held little power against the renewed demands of national governments for citizens to rally around the flag. Thus, in that war, with even greater atrocities being committed, most intellectuals either supported the slaughter or remained silent. Some became fascists, others communists, and all too many once more lent their talents to propaganda machines and war industries in all the fighting states.
As a result the debate over the proper role of the intellectual in relation to power and ideology continues to this day. It is not a question that needs a world war to be relevant. There are any number of ongoing situations where nationalism, ethnicity, or religious views spark intolerance and violence. And with each of them the intellectuals, particularly those whose home states are involved, have to make the same age-old choice. Do they follow Woodrow Wilson’s path or that of Julien Benda?
Part II – The Fate of the Jewish Intellectual
This problem has recently been raised in reference to the seemingly endless Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On 14 April 2014 Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University, published an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz entitled, “Is It Possible to Be a Jewish Intellectual?” In this piece she sets forth two opposing positions: one is the Zionist/Israeli demand for the primacy of “ahavat Israel,” or the “love of the Jewish nation and people” – the claim that all Jews have a “duty of the heart” to be loyal to the “Jewish nation.” The other position is that of the lone intellectual (here her model is the philosopher Hannah Arendt), whose obligation is to maintain the “disinterested intelligence” necessary to, if you will, speak truth to power.
Illouz explains that Zionists have a “suspicion of critique” and use “the memorialization of the Shoah” (the Holocaust) and “ahavat Israel” to mute it. “The imperative of solidarity brings with it the injunction to not oppose or express publicly disagreement with official Jewish bodies.” It is within this context that she can ask if it is still possible to be a Jewish intellectual, at least as portrayed of by Julien Benda. Illouz’s conclusion is that it has become exceedingly difficult to be so, particularly in the diaspora communities, where the demands for Jewish solidarity are particularly “brutal.”
Illouz is unhappy with this situation. While she feels the allure of ahavat Israel, she ultimately supports the position of the independent-mindedness of Benda’s thinker. She insists that the “contemporary Jewish intellectual has an urgent task … to unveil the conditions under which Jewish solidarity should or should not be accepted, debunked or embraced. In the face of the ongoing, unrelenting injustices toward Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel, his/her moral duty is to let go, achingly, of that solidarity.”
Part III – The Primacy of Group Solidarity
While the portrayal of the intellectual as a thinker insisting on and practicing the right of critical thinking about society and its behavior is an ancient one (consider Socrates here), such behavior is not common in practice. This, in turn, calls Benda’s notion of a proper intellectual into question.
Thus the description of an intellectual offered at the beginning of this essay (which is in line with common dictionary definitions) does not reference any particular direction of thought. For instance, in practice there is nothing that requires an intellectual to think about societal or government behaviors, much less take a critical public position on such matters. And, no doubt, there are many very talented minds who, deeply involved in aesthetic matters or certain branches of scientific, linguistic, literary or other pursuits, do not involve themselves with issues of the use or abuse of power.
In addition, one might well be judged an intellectual and be a supporter or even a perpetrator of criminal policies and actions. Woodrow Wilson might fall within this category, as might Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and many others.
Indeed, from a historical perspective most people of high intellect have sought to serve power and not critique or question it. This is quite in line with the fact that most non-intellectuals accept the word of those in power as authoritative and true. According to Eva Illouz this reflects the primacy of group solidarity over truth. She is correct in this judgment. That, no doubt, is why the independent-minded, outspoken intellectuals demanding moral integrity and responsibility from those in power are so rare, be they Jewish or gentile.
Censorship Is The Norm – An Analysis (9 May 2014) by Lawrence Davidson and Janet Amighi
Part I – Shutting Down the Academics
Most Americans assume the United States government speaks “the truth” to its citizens and defends their constitutional right to “free speech” (be it in the form of words or dollars). On the other hand, it is always the alleged enemies of the U.S. who indulge in propaganda and censoring of “the truth.”
In practice it is not quite that way. Washington, and more local American governments as well, can be quite censoring. Take for instance the attempt to censor the boycott of Israeli academic institutions – institutions engaged in government research that facilitates illegal settlement expansion and the use of Palestinian water resources. In this case, the fact that a call for boycott is an age-old, non-violent practice also falling within the category of free speech, is mostly disregarded. Instead we get a knee-jerk impulse on the part of just about every American politician to shut down debate, even to the point where various state legislatures threatened their own state colleges and universities with a cutoff of funds if they tolerate the boycott effort on their campuses.
It is not only American academics who suffer censorship at the hands of a government that claims to defend freedom of speech. Academics of countries deemed unfriendly to the U.S. have been subjected to the same treatment. Take, for instance, Iranian academics. U.S. trade sanctions on Iran, put in effect in 1980, included strict curbs on academic exchanges. Later, a few in Congress managed to ease these with a “free trade in ideas” amendment, but the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sabotaged the effort. That office violated the spirit of the Congressional amendment by asserting that while there could now be exchanges of information with academics in sanctioned states, say, in the form of manuscripts submitted to U.S. journals for publication, they could not be “enhanced” by such practices as editing for style purposes. Violation of this regulation could result in fines and imprisonment for journal editors. On the other hand, as far as we know, no OFAC official was ever fined, fired or imprisoned for violating the intent of Congress.
Several organizations, including the American Association of Publishers, took the U.S. government to court over the issue in 2003. In 2004 the matter was settled out of court, granting the right of publishers to use standard editing procedures for manuscript submissions from Iran. However, the OFAC has failed to officially promulgate this change in regulations, and as a result many journal editors are ignorant of the revised regulation. Many still “play it safe” and simply return submissions from Iran marked “denied due to sanctions.”
More generally, there are now reports that the internet provider Yahoo, which is used by a 63 percent of Iranians communicating through the worldwide web, has “decided that it will not allow Iranians to create new e-mail accounts. Cutting off access to Yahoo will require many in Iran to use the e-mail service provided by the Iranian government – which, of course, censors communications. Yahoo thus becomes complicit in the process of censoring millions of people.
Part II – Media Manipulation
Perhaps the grossest ongoing censorship of all is the culturally conditioned, narrow range of opinion fed to the vast majority of Americans by their own media. The differences in story lines and opinions in the “news” given by well-watched television channels such as ABC. CBS, NBC and CNN, or those of the nation’s major newspapers and news magazines, is minuscule. One venue that stands out is Fox TV, and its “news” and opinion offerings verge on the mendacious. The narrow range of views offered creates a uniform background noise hiding most of what is at variance with the standard message. In other words, media practices constitute de facto censorship.
So well does this process work that it is probably the case that many news editors and broadcasters and most of the public taking in their reporting do not understand that their reductionism has rendered the constitutional right of free press ineffectual. Really meaningful contrary opinion and reporting (particularly of the progressive persuasion) is so infrequent and marginalized that it stands little chance of competing with the orthodox point of view.
An exception is to be found on the TV channel Comedy Central. There Americans can find the popular Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This show presents the only ongoing, nationally televised critique of the foibles of U.S. government leaders and their policies. But, of course, it all must be done in the form of comical political satire.
As successful as media conditioning is, some elements of the U.S. government feel they must go the extra mile to guarantee that the public receives an acceptable view of events. Take the revelations given in a recent report by Amnesty International on the trial of the so-called Cuban Five (five Cuban residents of Florida arrested for espionage on the part of the Cuban government). Amnesty’s official report on the trial of the five defendants alleges that “the United States [government] paid journalists hostile to Cuba to cover the trial and provide prejudicial articles in the local media asserting the guilt of the accused.” Under such circumstances the “free press” was transformed into a vehicle for government propaganda and this, in turn, helped to generally devalue the right of free speech. We do not know how often the government acts in this corruptive way.
Part III – Et Tu, Obama?
In a report issued late in 2013 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, President Obama, a liberal within our political spectrum, has been accused of pressuring journalists to tow the line. He has done this by “attacking sources, conducting surveillance, creating a climate of fear, and prosecuting double the amount of cases for alleged leaks of classified information as all previous administrations combined.”
As a consequence the global index on media freedom issued annually by the conservative Freedom House alleges that in 2014 the U.S. suffered a sharp erosion of press freedom and the right of the citizen to know what his or her country is doing. The report cites “attempts by the government to inhibit reporting on national security issues” as a major reason for this situation.
At the same time, President Obama makes speeches critiquing foreign governments, such as that in Egypt, for limiting freedom of the press and speech. There is no doubt that the governments he targets are guilty of gross violation of these rights and many more besides. But what is equally true is that the vast majority of Americans can listen to the president castigate these governments with no sense of cognitive dissonance. They do not know that they too are victims of propaganda and manipulation. How could they? They are culturally conditioned to believe that their country is the foundation of freedom and truth. And, beyond their local area, they haven’t the knowledge, or often the interest, to fact-check what their leaders and media agents tell them. That is why it is accurate to describe the U.S. information environment as closed.
Part IV – Censorship Ubiquitous
Actually, there is nothing particularly unique about the self-censoring environment under which Americans live. All states and cultures, to one extent or another, practice this sort of manipulation of the information environment whereby reality is distorted. Thus we can ask, is the United States the great defender of its own constitutional freedoms? It is when it suits the purposes of policy makers. When it doesn’t, hypocrisy prevails. The system is successful because all but a few people are culturally conditioned not to notice or care. Such a manipulative process as this at once helps keep societies cohesive and at the same time creates the conditions wherein hate is easily bred and vast numbers are made willing to charge enemy machine guns.
Those who see through their conditioning and manipulation are, if you will, cultural mistakes. They are also the human race’s best, albeit slim, hope for a saner, more tolerant world.
Free Speech Or Bribery? – An Analysis (15 April 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Legalizing Bribery
On Wednesday 2 April 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court took another step toward the destruction of campaign finance reform with a five to four decision known as McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission. One gets the feeling that this is part of a general campaign, waged by class-biased, ideologically committed conservatives, against government regulation, which they see as somehow a violation of their constitutional rights. As if to suggest that this is so, the Court majority rationalized their decision in the name of “free speech.”
What does this ruling do?
First, the ruling removes limitations on overall campaign donations given in an an election cycle. The wealthy can now sit down and write checks to unlimited numbers of candidates and political organizations and thereby make themselves indispensable in an electoral process dependent on the raising of large sums, particularly for television advertising. Indeed, in this way the influence and demands of wealthy donors continue to be more powerful and persuasive than the solicitations of ordinary constituents whose interests the elected official is pledged to serve. In other words, McCutcheon vs. FEC pushed forward the process of legalizing bribery within our political system – a phenomenon which already is well along in its development.
Second, the ruling corrupts the notion of free speech by equating it with the use of money. Thus, the Court majority confuses free speech with that very act of bribery noted above. They seem to be pretending that we are dealing with the transparent efforts of constituents seeking to convince their political representatives of a certain point of view. This is an illusion. We are dealing with donor individuals and organizations funneling millions of dollars to politicians in need of small fortunes just to maintain their professional positions, and to do so in exchange for political and legislative favors. That is the exercise of free speech only if you equate it with the suborning of elected officials. It is hard to believe that the five Supreme Court Justices who voted in the majority do not know this. And if they do, they are guilty of using the Constitution to rationalize criminal behavior.
Part II - The Specific Arguments and Their Flaws
Argument One - “Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political expression and political association.”
In taking this line of argument the justices ignore an established principle that operates in the social (as well as physical) realm: that is that quantity can shape quality and in so doing “act as a causal mechanism in social behavior.” For instance, you can say that contributing of money to campaigns and parties is an inherent part of the right to political participation. However the quality of that right, that is, its consequence, is dependent on the quantity of the donation and its source.
Thus, this form of political participation has different consequences if a multitude of citizens give small amounts to various candidates and parties than if a few citizens, cleverly bundling their donations, give millions. The former is unlikely to skew an election through overwhelming, and often distorting, media advertising or to compromise the integrity of the candidate once elected. The latter is almost certain to do these things. In other words, so much money coming from a few sources into an electoral process dominated by the need for money transforms donations into bribes and payoffs. This transformation is exactly what effective campaign finance reform is designed to prevent.
Argument Two – Restricting contributions is like restricting the number of endorsements a newspaper can make. “Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”
The problem with this assertion is that newspapers do not usually trade in favors. Big donors almost always do. Newspapers usually do not expect those they endorse to change the regulatory environment in which the newspaper operates. Big donors almost always do. By making the comparison between newspaper endorsements and the actions of large donors, the Justices are making a false analogy. They are mixing apples and oranges.
Argument three - “Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties.”
This statement contains one dubious assumption and one misstatement of fact. First, assuming that “spending large sums of money in connection with elections” is not done in an “effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties” and therefore does not result in “quid pro quo corruption” is, at best, dangerously naive.
Do these Justices really believe that the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and a host of corporations and special interest organizations would spend millions of dollars in an election cycle apart from “an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties”?
The claim that “an individual who spends large sums” does not “garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties” is just wrong. What do these Justices think the American Rifle Association or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are doing if not buying influence and access?
It is odd that these Justices, who undoubtedly recognize that they live in a capitalist country where just about everything is up for sale, would so blatantly pretend that politicians and elections are not also available for purchase.
Part III – A Formula for Disaster
Senator John McCain, one of the sponsors of the bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, predicts that the recent Supreme Court decision will result in “major scandals in campaign finance contributions” and these in turn “will cause reform.”
Scandals there are sure to be. However, I am not sure about reform. Past “major scandals” have not necessarily led to reform. In the United States numerous school shootings have shocked the public but not resulted in the reform of the nation’s gun laws. Recent financial crises have led to recession and government bailouts for savings and loans, banks and mortgage houses, but have not resulted in sufficient regulatory reform to prevent a recurrence of these problems. Therefore, campaign finance scandals may not yield the reform Senator McCain foresees. All these scandals do indicate one thing, though, and that is that the Supreme Court justices don’t know what they are talking about when they assert that big money contributions are not corrupting.
Let us keep in mind that the U.S. citizenry is largely estranged from politics and ignorant of the workings of their national economy. Such
indifference and ignorance allows power to default to the minority who are unethical enough and wealthy enough to not only buy politicians, but to buy public opinion through the manipulation of the media – a particular specialty of people like Rupert Murdoch.
This concentration of power usually results in periods of wholesale deregulation of business and politics leading inevitably to political unrest and economic ruin of one degree or another. Yet it is only when these consequences become so disastrous (I am talking here on the scale of the 1929 depression or the race riots of the 1960s) that the public’s backlash brings about significant reform. And even then the nature of such events is cyclical. We have forgotten the corruption of the Gilded Age and the hardship of the Great Depression. Some of us have even forgotten the racist nature of our politics prior to the Civil Rights Movement. So you should let your children know they may see these troubles again in the near future. Maybe they will be able to handle them better than we are.
Stereotyping In Congress, Then and Now (14 February 2014) – An Analysis by Lawrence Davidson
Representative Duncan D. Hunter
Part I - Stereotyping in Congress 1922
In the year 1922 the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings on a joint resolution in support of the Balfour Declaration. The committee chairman, the pro-Zionist representative from New York, Hamilton Fish, called an array of witnesses, including a few who did not favor a “Jewish home” in Palestine. This did not mean that the committee’s support for the Balfour Declaration was ever really in doubt, but rather their apparent openness resulted from the political influence of certain academics, as well as American Christian missionary societies, who were sympathetic to Arab nationalist aspirations.
Among those who testified against the resolution was Fuad Shatara, a Palestinian-born American citizen and successful physician who led an organization called the Palestine National League. Among the points he made to the committee was that a good number of Palestine’s Zionist community were devoted socialists. This information, given to congressmen who feared leftist “red scares” in the U.S., was dynamite. If accepted, it could have scared the committee members enough to derail the resolution.
But Shatara’s quite accurate assertion was not accepted by Fish and his committee. It was not even investigated, because it appeared utterly counterintuitive. Why so? We learn the answer from committee member Representative Henry Allen Cooper of Wisconsin, a successful lawyer with a college education, and also an imperialist who had supported the retention of the Philippines as an American colony following the Spanish-American War. According to Cooper, the assertion that socialists were active among the Zionists in Palestine could not be true, because all the world knew that the Jew is “proverbially a believer in private property.” In other words, at least some members of the U.S. Congress had bought into the stereotype that a capitalist orientation is a congenital part of Jewish culture.
There was, of course, a racist undertone to this stereotype, and in Europe such a belief, conjuring up the figure of Shylock, had contributed to widespread anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, there it was coming out of the mouth of a U.S. politician with a seat on the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Part II – Stereotyping in Congress 2013
We now fast-forward 91 years. Representative Duncan D. Hunter of California, a college graduate holding the rank of major in the Marine reserves, is a member of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities. He appeared on 4 December 2013 on C-Span, a cable network that largely concentrates on government affairs. The program concerned the negotiations of the P5 + 1 powers (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) with Iran seeking a limitation on that country’s nuclear energy program in exchange for a lessening of international sanctions.
Representative Hunter, a “tea party” Republican, is suspicious of these negotiations because he feels that even if there is a positive outcome, Iran cannot be trusted. Why so? Iran is part of the Middle East and, according to Representative Hunter, “In the Middle Eastern culture it is looked upon with very high regard to get the best deal possible, no matter what it takes, and that includes lying.” In other words, at least some of members of the U.S. Congress have bought into the stereotype that lying is a congenital part of the Middle Eastern personality.
Once more we can readily identify the racist undertone of this stereotype. It presently feeds into an islamophobia that has led to hysteria and violence among some elements of the American population. And now we see it coming from the mouth of a U.S. politician with a seat on the Congressional Subcommittee for (of all things) Intelligence.
Part III – Consequences
These beliefs reflect ignorance bordering on stupidity and, despite their wide spacing in time, they both feed into behaviors with large destructive potential. In1922 Henry Allen Cooper probably gave little or no thought to the fact that his endorsement of the Balfour Declaration would contribute to the displacement of millions, the destruction of an entire culture, and all the death and misery that goes along with such a process. If he thought about this at all he would probably have agreed with his fellow committee member Representative W. Bourke Cockran of New York, who saw Jewish immigration into Palestine as akin to the white man’s arrival in the New World.
Representative Hunter, on the other hand, is much more a conscious militarist. His vision of the Middle East is not overlaid with misplaced idealism. The Iranians are liars and if their their duplicity results in a face-off on the battlefield, the United States should use “tactical nuclear devices” so as to “set them back a decade or two or three. …That is the way to do it with a massive aerial bombardment campaign.” Hunter has done several combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows what dead and maimed Middle Easterners look like and it apparently does not bother him. Indeed, with his glib reference to the use of tactical nuclear weapons laid alongside his stereotype of all the region’s people as congenital liars, who knows what horror the baby-faced Representative from California is capable of.
Part IV – Conclusion
The Greek poet Homer, who lived around the 8th century BCE, once bemoaned, “Would that strife might perish from among gods and men.” I don’t know about the gods, but today among men there seems little hope of Homer getting his wish.
The ignorant, the ideologues, and the stereotypers call out to each other decade after decade, and Henry Allen Cooper and Duncan D. Hunter thus belong to the same dangerous fellowship. As they echo their menacing ideas, the rest of us, mostly ignorant of all that is not local, bend our ears and listen intently. Indeed, presently it may only be the weariness of 70 years of off-and-on war that has led us to a momentary reluctance to buy into Representative Duncan’s warmongering nonsense.
Momentary reluctance or not, I’ll take it. Unmasking the disastrous consequences of the Balfour Declaration on the one hand and on the other, achieving that elusive comprehensive settlement with Iran, can’t help but be good for the planet. Even if the next slippery slope to conflict is around a near corner, these are rational, sensible, sane goals for the present.
Whose Academic Freedom Are We Talking About? An Analysis (14 January 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – An Inevitable Controversy
The controversy that broke out over the American Studies Association’s December 2013 vote to adopt an academic boycott of Israel was inevitable.The ASA’s academic boycott is a just a part of a much larger effort – the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – which has been growing worldwide over the last decade. In fact the movement’s progress in the United States has been relatively slow, but this is changing, and the ASA controversy is an indicator of this shift. That being the case, the reaction on the part of Zionist supporters of Israel in and out of academia came as no surprise.
On 5 January 2014 the New York Times reprinted a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education more or less summarizing the reaction to the ASA move. It noted that “the presidents of more than 80 United States colleges have condemned the vote.” In addition five of these institutions of higher learning “have withdrawn from ASA membership.” The Chronicle piece concludes that the ASA has become “a pariah of the United States higher-education establishment.”
That is a rather premature judgment. There are roughly 4,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. Being condemned by the administrations (which is not the same as the faculties and student bodies) of 80 represents condemnation by less than 2 percent. Over one hundred institutions of higher learning have ASA membership. Losing five is again a small percentage. All of this hardly makes the ASA a “pariah.”
There are also other ways of judging the impact of the ASA action. If one goal of the ASA boycott move is to stimulate debate about Israeli behavior and policies within a society (the U.S.) that has long been dominated by Israeli propaganda, then the move is certainly a success. It has brought to the surface many statements and charges that demonstrate just how decontextualized attempts to defend Israeli behavior are. If insightful counterarguments are spread about because of the ASA resolution, then the “pariah” has done quite well.
Part II – Charges and Responses
Let’s take a look at some of the public charges and possible responses:
Damaging Academic Freedom:
- Carolyn A. Martin, president of Amherst College: “Such boycotts threaten academic speech and exchange, which is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect.”
- Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council of Education: “Such actions are misguided and greatly troubling, as they strike at the heart of academic freedom.”
Response: It is hard to argue against the ideal. Everyone associated with higher education does, or should, value academic freedom and the free flow of ideas. The problem is, people such as Dr. Martin and Dr. Broad and many others are directing their criticism at the wrong party. The ASA resolution, which one suspects has not been read by many of its critics, is not directed against individual scholars, researchers or teachers. It is quite explicitly directed against Israeli institutions – institutions that have abetted in the destruction of the Palestinian right of academic freedom for decades. The Israelis have just done this largely out of sight of the American academic community, to say nothing of the American people.
The fact is that the Israeli government, assisted by many of the country’s academic institutions, runs an illegal occupation that has long impeded education in the PalestinianTerritories. One wonders just how aware of this historical fact are those who criticize the ASA. The facts in this regard are not a secret, although one does have to go out and look for them. Just do a thorough on-line search of the subject and all kinds of reports, analyses, and documents show up. For instance, here is a link to a report about the complicity of Israeli universities in maintaining the occupation. Here is another on the impact of occupation on Palestinian education, and yet another on the struggle for Palestinian academic freedom.
It should also be mentioned that the Israeli government is embarked on an effort to enforce its own version of history on Palestinian schools. This may soon appear as an Israeli priority in its ongoing negotiations with the Palestine Authority. And, right now in the U.S., the Zionist student organization Hillel has laid down rules restricting any free discussion about Israel in their chapters on American college campuses. These facts should raise questions about the sincerity of Zionist concern over academic freedom and the free flow of ideas. It is policies and actions such as these, which have multiplied themselves out many fold, that are part of the context of the BDS movement and the action taken by the ASA.
Damaging Institutional Reputations and Solvency:
- William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University and president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: “Boycotts are a bad idea. … It is dangerous business … for institutions to become embroiled in these kinds of debates. The consequences for institutions are just too serious.”
Response: What might this mean? I don’t think that Dr. Bowen is implying that what the ASA did is “dangerous” because it allegedly put the institution on the wrong side of a moral question. Here is another possible answer:
- Leon Botstein, president of Bard College: “Calls from alumni to take a stand against the boycott had played a role [in Bard College’s withdrawal of its institutional membership in the ASA]. … I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education. For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.”
Response: Dr. Botstein is suggesting that if one wants to know why “the presidents of more than 80 United States colleges have condemned the vote,” one should follow the money, and not necessarily the ideal of academic freedom.
- Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, on the Charlie Rose show of 10 December 2013: “I regard them [boycott efforts against Israel] as being anti-Semitic in their effect if not necessarily in their intent.” That is because these efforts “single out Israel.”
Response: Dr. Summers can say this only because he and other Zionists take the position that Israel and the Jews are one. This is factually wrong. There are many Jews in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who do not identify with Israel and, in fact, a good number who publicly oppose Israeli behavior and the notion of a Jewish state. As to the singling out of Israel, it is certainly warranted given the influence Zionist supporters exercise over U.S. politicians and foreign policies and the resulting inordinate amount of aid and assistance given to Israel.
Part III – Conclusion
A lot more has been written about the ASA position, and below I list a small number of articles in support of the academic boycott position by thoughtful Americans.
Henry Siegman, former director of the National Jewish Congress, “There is no bigotry in the boycott.”
- M. J. Rosenberg, former longtime aide to various congressmen and senators, Propaganda vs. History.
- Joan W. Scott, scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, N.J., “Changing My Mind about the Boycott.”
- Eric Cheyfitz, professor at Cornell University, “Why I Support the Academic Boycott of Israel,”
Sydney Levy, director of advocacy for Jewish Voices for Peace, “Academic Freedom.”
If the academic freedom of Palestinians was not being destroyed as part of an overall policy of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, there would be no need for an institutionally centered academic boycott of Israel. As it is, however, the Zionists in their relentless drive to create a Jewish-only state in historic Palestine have created the conditions for resistance, and the boycott in its many forms is part of that effort. It is not going to go away.
Israel’s future is one of increasing isolation. The Zionists recognize this possibility and that is why they are kicking and screaming. They even want to outlaw aspects of the boycott effort. It might be easier if they joined the twenty-first century by giving up their racist ambitions. However, ideologues rarely give up their ideologies willingly, so we will all have to do this the hard way.
The Mind of the Poor – An Analysis (2 November 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Poverty
Most of the poverty in the United States is artificially manufactured. It is poverty created in the pursuit of “free market ideals,” expressed in recent times by the imposition of neoliberal economic policies - the sort of policies that cut taxes on the wealthy, do away with fiscal and other business regulations, undermine the social safety net and erode middle-class stability – all while singing the praises of self-reliance and individual responsibility. As a result we have done very well in making the rich richer and the poor both poorer and more numerous.
How many poor people are there in the United States? According to Current Population Survey (CPS), which puts out the government’s official figures, as of 2012 about 15 percent of the population, or some 46.5 million people, were living in poverty. The rate for children under 18 comes in higher, at about 21.8 percent.
The U.S. government measures poverty in monetary terms. In 2012 poverty was defined as yearly total income of $23,050 or less for a family of four. The figure is adjusted for individuals or other size families. Then there is the depressing fact that “most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between the ages of 25 and 75.”
There happens to be more than one level to this economic version of hell, and so we should take note of the category of “deep poverty.” Deep poverty is defined as having an income that is 50 percent of the official poverty level. This part of the population is growing. In my area, which takes in southeast Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, the percentage in deep poverty runs from 5 to 19 percent, depending on the county. These are people who, according to social service and charity workers, “Have given up hope” and “given up on finding jobs.”
Consider what all this really means. Our economic system is condemning at least 48.5 million people to high rates of un- or underemployment, poor performance in school and at work (when it is available), poor nutrition and eating habits, high instances of drug abuse, high crime rates, homelessness, high rates of preventable diseases, shorter life-spans, and all the other vicissitudes typically associated with a life of poverty. Yet neoliberals and their allies would say none of this is society’s fault or responsibility, rather it is the fault of the individual who, living in a “free” economic environment, makes his or her own choices and then must live with the consequences.
Well, that is one particularly inhumane way of looking at the situation. However, we have proof from relatively recent U.S. history that poverty can be ameliorated through government action without seriously disrupting “market choice.” Back in the mid 1960s millions of citizens marched on Washington for “jobs and freedom,” and President Lyndon Johnson responded with his War on Poverty programs. Those programs reduced poverty significantly and did so without transforming the U.S. into a socialist republic. Unfortunately, this momentum was not to last. Two things brought it to a crashing halt: a murderous war in Vietnam and the tragically wrongheaded neoliberal economic policies mentioned above. We are still stuck in this rut. We are still at war (though now it is in the Middle East) and our economic policies continue to be self-destructive.
Part II – Cognitive Dysfunction
The neoliberal outlook is demonstrably wrong in a significant way. The notion that the poor can make “free and rational choices” and thus can be held responsible for their situation is incorrect. There is accumulating evidence that poverty literally “messes with your mind” in a way that obstructs responsible choices. In fact, the “free market” contributes to an environment that makes the poor decidedly unfree: confused, preoccupied, and feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. In other words, being poor makes you cognitively dysfunctional.
The latest research to show this was published in August 2013 in the journal Science and is titled “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function.” The gist of the argument is, “Poverty captures attention, triggers intrusive thoughts, and reduces cognitive resources.” In other words, the more preoccupied one is with troubles, the less able one is to muster the “cognitive resources” necessary to rationally “guide choice and action.” Most people find themselves overwhelmed with problems now and then, but not constantly. What living in poverty does is to hit a person with a toxic cocktail of overwhelming problems day in and day out: financial problems, health problems, parenting issues, victimization by criminals and others, and the problem of just finding and keeping a job.
The authors also point out that the IQ difference between those living in poverty and those living above the poverty line can be as high as 13 points. This difference is not a function of genetics or race. It is created by the environment of poverty itself.
This study is political dynamite. It lends support to the assertion that as long as neoliberal economics claims our allegiance, we will continue to condemn tens of millions of our citizens to a life not only of want, but also of high anxiety and poor cognitive ability. This puts the lie to the popular myth that the poor are disadvantaged because most of them are congenitally lazy. It likewise challenges the conclusions of such works as Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which attributed at least part of the statistical difference in intellectual performance between American blacks and white to genetics. In truth, whatever statistical difference there is does not reflect inherent intellectual ability so much as high levels of long-term stress, which reduces a person’s ability to develop and apply their cognitive strengths.
Part III – Conclusion
It is quite interesting how the authors of the Science article conclude their piece. As it turns out, they have chosen to sidestep the real implications of their own data. Thus, they tell us “this perspective has important policy implications. First, policy-makers should beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor.” What does that mean? It means that policy-makers should try to reduce the number of forms the poor have to fill out, the number of “lengthy interviews” they have to experience, the number of “new rules” they have to “decipher,” all of which “consume cognitive resources” that we now know the poor have less of than those who are better off. Also, policy-makers should time their demands on the poor for specific periods when they are best able to handle them, such as when they receive whatever periodic income that they do get and momentarily feel less monetary stress. These conclusion constitute a rather shocking anticlimactic letdown!
The authors have helped us see the enormous damage poverty does. In response society has a moral obligation to deal with more than forms and lengthy interviews. History tells us that we can do, and indeed have done, much better. Short of radical changes in our economic thinking, what the poor in the U.S. need is another “War on Poverty.” Indeed, the obligation is not just a moral one. There is a collective economic self-interest to minimize poverty for to do so will decrease income inequality, increase overall health, promote social stability and lessen crime. It will also promote consumption, which should make the capitalists among us happy.
Do our politicians understand any of this? Seems not. Just this week Congress cut the Food Stamp program by some $40 billion. That is neoliberal economics in action and proof positive that ideology and prejudice are stronger than scientific research when it comes to policy formulation. Is there a way to reverse this stupidity? Yes, but it will take mass action. It is time to consider replaying the 1960s and force the politicians to act responsibly despite themselves.
Ideological Disaster – An Analysis (20 October 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Going Backward
In the eighteenth century the West shifted from mercantilism to capitalism. Mercantilism was an economic system that gave governments wide-ranging regulatory powers over commerce, mostly to ensure a positive balance of trade. It also allowed for strong guild structures and protection for domestic industries. However, the Industrial Revolution ended mercantilism and brought to power a business class that wanted to be free to operate without government oversight.
As the capitalist worldview evolved, it made a fetish out of the “free market” and viewed government as, at best, a necessary evil. Any sort of regulation was seen as the equivalent of slavery, and the proper role of officialdom was reduced to maintaining internal order (police), defending the realm (military) and enforcing contracts (the courts). Any government involvement in social welfare was disapproved of because it allegedly promoted laziness among the poor, but this was just a convenient myth. The real reason for keeping government activity to an absolute minimum was the rising business class’s fear and loathing of taxes.
In Europe the rationalizations for capitalism remained primarily secular, looking to the maximization of efficiency for the sake of profit. In the United States, however, where little good happens that is not ascribed to an overseeing God, secular rationalizations were soon complemented with the notion of divine will. God wanted unregulated economic freedom and minimalist government to prevail.
This religious view continues to exist. Today’s struggle to return us all to minimalist government and maximum economic “freedom” is led by a collection of fundamentalist Christian right-wingers and Tea Party mad hatters. Chris Hedges lays out a worst-case scenario of the drive for power by the Christian right in his recent article “The Radical Christian Right and the War on the Government.” He tells us that “the public face” of this political force is “on display in the House of Representatives” and its main ideological aim is to “shut down the government.” Hedges also points to Texas SenatorTed Cruz as the archetypal fundamentalist politician leading the charge against big government. Hedges thinks this is just the first step toward the real goal of men like Cruz, which is to make the U.S. a Christian fundamentalist nation.
Part II – The Ensuing Struggle
In the struggle that has ensued, the radical conservatives’ enemy is the Democratic (or “big government”) Party in general and President Obama in particular. As an indication of just how isolating and distorting ideology can be, focus groups of conservative Republicans have revealed a deeply held conspiracy theory. According the researchers who conducted this study, “What drives the Republican base . . . [is] a genuine belief that Obama has a secret agenda to drive the country in a socialist direction.” They also believe that he is the head of a cabal. He seems to be a politician who “came from nowhere” and therefore is “propelled by some secret forces.” The focus groups revealed this belief to be held by “two out of every three self identified Republicans.”
In the 2010 election a combination of gerrymandering of voting districts to help elect Republicans and a high conservative turnout gave Republican Party control of the House of Representatives. It also brought a strong plurality of radical right-wing conservatives into the House. Both these radical politicians and many of their constituents shunned the sort of compromise that is, or should be, at the heart of democracy. For the radicals principle was more important than compromise. That attitude led to the recent political confrontation with its shutdown of the federal government and the near default on the public debt.
Within days of the shutdown, moderate Republicans began deserting the radical conservatives and expressed their willingness to end demands for such things as the defunding of federally subsidized health care, popularly known as “Obamacare,” the elimination of the government deficit, and a radical reduction in government programs and regulatory power. However, it was only when Republican majority leader John Boehner finally allowed a vote on the floor of the House that these moderate Republicans could join their Senate colleagues on a resolution which restored the flow of funds that reopened the government and saved the nation from default. In so doing the moderates split the Republican Party in two.
Part III – Victory Denied
What the moderate Republicans did was deny the radical conservatives their victory. For that was what a shutdown of the federal government and a default on the debt represented to the conservatives. Ideologically the goal of these radicals is to reduce government’s role in society to a minimum. They hoped the ability to shut down the entire federal operation would position them for negotiating its eventual minimization. Second, the campaign to reduce federal taxes to a minimum through the creation of a bare- bones balanced budget was to be aided by their ability to push the Treasury Department to the brink of default. All the conservative Republicans had to do was sustain these two tactics long enough to make the Democrats concede. That was what they could not do, thanks in good part to the desertion of the moderate Republicans.
The battle is not over. The resolution supported by the moderate Republicans opens the federal government through December 2013 and allows sufficient funding of the debt through February 2014. So we may well face a second round of disruptive confrontation.
In the long run, however, things do not look good for the Republican Party. Many radical conservatives have come to see their moderate compatriots as worse than any liberal Democrat. They see them as traitors to principle – as politicians who ran scared in the face of the Obama’s “socialist” agenda. Under these circumstances most of the party’s energies might well be taken up with self-destructive infighting. The Republican Party now runs the risk of shrinking down to its radical base while its moderates are defeated in primaries, flee to the Democratic Party, or stake out positions as independents. Democratic voters may now be motivated by the recent spectacle of disruption to turn out in higher numbers to win back the House from the Republicans. If that happens, the Republican Party will be hard put to stay alive as a single entity.
Part IV – Conclusion
Ideology is a form of debilitating shortsightedness. It replaces reality with an idealized version that usually has too little to do with the real world to be workable. The economic aspect of radical conservative ideology is fatally anachronistic. Earlier, in the nineteenth century, it led to devastating business cycles of boom and bust and left much of the population without basic services. The Great Depression should have been its death knell. As to the size of government and range of its activities, we must keep in mind that there are nearly 317 million people in the USA. Going back to a pre-Great Depression (much less an eighteenth- century) government structure would undermine social stability by withdrawing all the protections that keep destitution at bay and unleashing all the prejudices that present federal law discourages. Ignore these facts and eventually you will have real revolution on your hands. The radical conservatives are stubbornly blind to these problems because they call in doubt their “principles.”
All such shortsighted ideologies, be they of the right or the left, have proven unrealistic, and so have failed. Unfortunately, they have wreaked havoc in the meantime. We have only seen a shadow of the potential for damage of the present ideological challenge. Let’s hope we can avoid its full force.