Archive for the ‘U.S. Domestic Affairs’ Category
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.
Bad Precedent and Bad Faith – An Analysis (15 August 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I - Hedges v. Obama
Back in January of 2012 a lawsuit, organized by activist Tangerine Bolen (who also did the fundraising that made the legal effort possible) involving multiple plaintiffs including former war correspondent Christopher Hedges was filed in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Specifically, the suit called into question the Act’s Section 1021(b)(2), which allows for indefinite detention by the U.S. military of people “who are part of or substantially support Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States.” This detention denies those held of the ability to “contest the allegations against them because they have no right to be notified of the specific charges against them.” In this suit filed by Hedges et al., the issue in question was the vagueness of the terms “substantially support” and “associated forces.” For instance, could this vagueness lead to apprehension and detention of journalists who publish interviews with members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban? Could it lead to the same treatment against political activists protesting U.S. policies against these or “associated” groups?
The case, now designated Hedges v. Obama, was initially heard in New York District Court by Judge Katherine Forrest. The plaintiffs claimed that the NDAA violated the 1st (free speech), 5th (due process as well as the stipulation that people must be able to understand what actions break the law) and 14th (equal protection) Amendments to the Constitution. To address the question Judge Forrest asked the government lawyers if they could assure the court that the activities of the plaintiffs would not result in indefinite detention under the act. If they could give such assurances it would, as far as the judge was concerned, eliminate the plaintiff’s “standing” to challenge the law.
The government lawyers refused to give those assurances, and as a result, the judge concluded, “The definitions of ‘substantially supported’ and ‘associated forces’ were so vague that a reporter or activist could not be sure they would not be covered under the provision.” This, in turn, would result in what the plaintiffs considered a “chilling effect on free speech and freedom of the press.” Therefore, in September 2012, the Judge granted a permanent injunction against the practice of indefinite detention as put forth in NDAA.
There is no evidence that the U.S. government ever complied with this injunction, and its lawyers immediately appealed the ruling to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. When the case was heard in this court, the U.S. Justice Department suddenly came up with the assurances it refused to give only weeks before. In part it was because of these assurances that the appeals court decided to overturn Forrest’s ruling and grant a permanent stay of her injunction. In one of its interim rulings, the appeals court observed, “Since the U.S. government has promised that citizens, journalists, and activists were not in danger of being detained as a result of NDAA, it was unnecessary to block the enforcement of 102 (b)(2) of the NDAA.” However, as Carl Mayer, the lawyer for Christopher Hedges, had noted earlier, “The government has not put in any evidence. They just keep making these broad assurances. It’s all a ‘trust us’ proceeding.” And trust them is exactly what the appellate judges did. The appeals court’s final ruling in favor of the government was given on 17 July 2013.
Part II - Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project
One can seriously ask, is any government that trustworthy? Particularly those governments that see themselves at endless war with shadowy enemies and which claim the need for “broad executive war powers” to wage the struggle. One of the reasons that the rule of law is so important is just because there must be limits to behavior for everyone, including the rule makers. Usually the rules that hold governments in check are set forth in constitutions. Laws formulated by branches of U.S. government should explicitly comply with the U.S. Constitution, not just promise to do so.
Despite the naive faith of the Second Circuit judges in the verbal assurances of government lawyers that the NDAA will be enforced in a constitutional manner, there is evidence that such assurances cannot be trusted. Government personnel seem not to have enough objectivity and simple common sense for trust to be placed in them. For example, consider the 2010 case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.
This case was argued before the Supreme Court in January 2010 and challenged that part of the USA Patriot Act, which prohibits “material support” to groups designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. Just as “substantially support” and “associated forces” are too vague for Hedges and his fellow plaintiffs, so was “material support” too vague for the Humanitarian Law Project. The HLP was seeking to interact with alleged terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers Party of Turkey so as to “help the group enter into peace negotiations and United Nations processes.” In other words, the HLP wanted to help lead such organizations away from violence and toward nonviolent strategies. Could this be construed as giving “material support” to terrorists? The Obama Justice Department, in striking disregard of common sense, argued that it was indeed material support and thus a criminal venture. And, as it turned out, in its June 2010 decision, the Supreme Court agreed.
This was not just an intellectual exercise in front of the highest court of the land. The resulting Supreme Court decision quickly assumed real life significance. Within three months of its decision, the FBI was raiding homes in Chicago and Minneapolis, confiscating computers and files, because they suspected some undefined connection between the residents and various alleged Colombian and Palestinian terrorist groups. The FBI cited Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project as legal justification for their actions.
In addition, enforcement of this law turned out to be blatantly selective. In January 2011 civil rights lawyer David Cole, who represented the HLP before the Supreme Court, noted that well-known political figures, such as former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former head of homeland security Tom Ridge, had committed felonies when they publicly spoke in support of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian designated terrorist group that happened also to be in opposition to the current Islamic government of Iran. The FBI has not, nor will it, raid their homes.
Part III – Conclusion
Under these circumstances, anyone who accepts at face value the assurance of government lawyers that laws such as the Patriot Act and NDAA will conform to the Constitution and not walk all over one’s civil rights should, as the old saying goes, have their head examined.
What we have in the Hedges v. Obama case is yet another very bad precedent. As Judge Forrest had pointed out, “Courts must safeguard core constitutional rights.” The 2nd Circuit Appeals Court, clearly not applying the principle of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) to this situation, has sold out that obligation for a handful of dubious promises. Recent history provides no confidence that such promises are given in good faith. No, it is bad faith we are witnessing here. The government lawyers should hang their heads in shame for obviously undermining the Constitution they are sworn to uphold. It just goes to show there are always those, be they soldiers, police, or lawyers who will simply follow orders no matter what the consequences.
Toward the end of this whole unseemly process someone pointed out that President Obama has consistently asserted that he is against the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens even though his Justice Department has always supported keeping the detention clause of NDAA in place and operative. Maybe the president is simply playing a double game and lying to the voters. Lying is certainly part of the politician’s toolbox. On the other hand, maybe Obama is conflicted but dwells in an environment where it is politically “necessary” to be seen as a tough guy, lest the Republican warmongers gain an edge. How much difference does it really make? As it stands now, in terms of civil liberties there is not much “daylight” between Obama’s practice and the past behavior of neoconservative vulgarians such as George W. Bush. “If it swims like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
On the Death of Helen Thomas – An Analysis (21 July 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Helen Thomas (1920 – 2013)
Helen Thomas, the renowned journalist, died on 20 July 2013 at the age of 92. She was the first woman journalist to cover the White House and did so for an unprecedented 50 years. She lasted in that job despite always asking the tough questions. It was a glorious run besmirched only late in her career by opportunistic attacks by Zionist American ideologues. When that happened, as described below, I wrote a piece in her defense. It was originally put online in June 2010, but is here represented in an updated form.
Part I – Helen Thomas Gets Angry
Helen Thomas was the most respected journalist of the White House press corp. However, she made a mistake the other day of wearing her feelings on her sleeve, so to speak, on a topic of deadly political sensitivity. She said out loud that the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and return to Europe. Palestine is “not German, its not Polish” she added. Unfortunately, the whole thing ended up on a YouTube video. Predictably, the American Zionists jumped all over her. Several former White House operatives, who may have resented Thomas’s hard questioning of their bosses, were at the front of this charge. Lanny Davis, former Clinton White House Counsel, immediately announced that Thomas should be “stripped of her honors for having crossed the line of freedom of speech.” The attempt by supporters of Israel to exempt criticism of the Zionist State from the protections of the First Amendment of the Constitution has been ongoing. Davis added that Thomas “has shown herself to be an anti-Semtic bigot.” Another former White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said Thomas should be fired from her post and her White House press credentials revoked. He also called her an anti-Semitic bigot. B’nai B’rith’s international President Dennis Glick and Vice President Daneil Marlaschin accused Thomas of being an ally of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and being part of a cabal seeking to “delegitimize Israel.”
Part II – Issues for Consideration
The way the Israelis behave they have no need of Helen Thomas to “delegitimize”their country. They are doing a fine job of that on their own. Thomas’s remarks came in the aftermath of a piratical attack on the Gaza Aid Flotilla, during which Israeli commandos murdered nine aid activists on the Mavi Marmara. Acting as they do, the Zionists really have little legitimate cause to get angry at other people’s anger. Thomas’s remarks were obviously made in a mood of anger and frustration. We all make statements during fits of anger most of which, thankfully, do not end up on YouTube.
But we also know that most of the time these statements do not reflect our otherwise realistic and level-headed point of view. I once heard a respected Middle East historian, delivering a talk at an annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association, say that the world would be a better place if Israel broke off from its geographical position and slid to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Was this man a bigot? No he was not. He was Jewish. And he was not a “self-hater.” However, he was angry.
Thomas offered an apology stating that she regrets the “comments I made last week regarding Israelis and the Palestinians.” There is no doubt that she really does regret it, considering the hot water it put her in. She goes on and says that “they do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.” Given her fifty-plus years of honest and penetrating reporting there is no reason to doubt that this last statement represents the sober Helen Thomas – when not confronted with horrific Israeli behavior. The accusations of bigotry and the calls for the ruination of her career are way out of proportion and, when coming from Zionists such as Fleischer, Glick and Marlaschin, they are undoubtedly opportunistic.
Part III – Zionist Bigotry
Now, since we are on the topic of bigotry, let’s consider the behavior of the Zionists in this regard. After all if one labels their critics as bigots, one should take a look at the basis for their criticism. The bitter truth is that Israeli Jews have spent the last 65 years systematically discriminating against Israeli Arabs and, as far as the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories go, they have set up a system of control that smacks of apartheid. A recent survey of Israeli Jews shows that a good number of them do not want Palestinians as neighbors or allowed to live in the same apartment blocks as they do. Israel’s school textbooks have purposely eradicated the Palestinian history of the place they now call the Jewish state.
This discriminatory environment is promoted by the Israeli government. This is how the Israeli journalist Mya Guarnieri describes the situation: “The continued maltreatment of Palestinians puts every Israeli’s freedom at risk on a daily basis. If your government disregards the rule of law, disenfranchises your neighbor and tramples his most basic human rights, how can you expect that your own freedoms will remain intact?” But freedom in Israel is too often seen as a strictly ethnocentric privilege. This is not to say there are not fair-minded and humane Israeli Jews who know that there is something seriously wrong with the society they live in. There are. They are just a too small minority.
In other words, Israel as now constituted and operated is a state of active or passive bigots. That conclusion is based on evidence (evidence backed up by most of the world’s human rights organizations, including those in Israel). That being the case, I assert that Israel today is a racist place and should be transformed from a “Jewish state” to a democratic secular state, a state where all its citizens have equal rights. That does not require all of Israel’s Jews to go back to Europe, or to be drowned in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It just requires the destruction of the ideology of Zionism.
If the folks at B’nai B’rith get hold of this I will bet dollars to donuts that they would have conniptions and call me an anti-Semitic bigot. That seems to be the way it goes in our world of double standards.
A National Debate about Government Spying? An Analysis (15 July 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The New York Times Takes a Stand (Sort Of)
On 8 July 2013 the New York Times (NYT) published an editorial on the issue of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans. The editorial described the issue as one of “overwhelming importance” worthy of national debate, and noted that President Obama said that he welcomed such a debate. Then the NYT pointed to a core problem: “This is a debate in which almost none of us know what we’re talking about.”
It turns out that everything about the NSA surveillance operation is “classified” and therefore done in secret. As a result there is no public access to the information needed for a debate. That is, until the “leaker” Edward Snowden risked all to tell the American public and, indeed, the whole world, about it.
Thus, the public now finds out that all the legal justifications for NSA operations are themselves secret. For instance, there is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, originally created by Congress to judge the legitimacy of government requests for wiretaps. According to the NYT this court “has for years been developing a secret and unchallenged body of laws . . .” that now go far beyond its original mandate. Yet the process of the court’s runaway empowerment has been beyond contesting. As the NYT puts it, there is a “complete absence of any adversarial process” which is, after all, “the heart of our legal system.” To demonstrate this, the editorial tells us “the government in 2012 made 1,789 requests to conduct electronic surveillance; the court approved 1,788 (the government withdrew the other one). Were they all legitimate requests? It is impossible to know because “no one was allowed to make a counterargument.” In other words, the court is an ever more widely used rubber stamp for a part of the government which in its apparently addictive pursuit of information is now literally monitoring us all. And, it is doing so completely in secret, with no checks and balances.
The NYT concludes that this situation constitutes a “perversion of the American justice system” which Congress, playing (in my view) the role of Dr. Frankenstein, has not been able to bring under control. “The [surveillance] court has morphed into an odd hybrid that seems to exist outside the justice system, even as its power grows in ways that we can’t see.”
It is at this point that the NYT editorial falls short. Since the U.S. government’s surveillance court was operating in such secrecy, how is it the paper knows enough to denounce it? The answer to this is that someone (in this case Mr. Snowden) leaked the information on which the NYT now relies. Indeed, in the case of such secret government operations it is always a “leaker” who performs the public service of shedding light on dubious and often dangerous official behavior.
Yet the NYT, has not come to Snowden’s defense. It has not noted his actions as praiseworthy or campaigned against the persecution he now suffers at the hands of the administration’s Justice Department. By not doing so, the newspaper improperly separates this story from the story teller, and while it informs us of the high importance of the former, it leaves the latter to his fate. What does this tell us about the NYT’s editorial board? Perhaps that they lack the moral courage to defend their own sources, to defend, in this case, a man who has done more to uphold American civil liberties than anyone since Martin Luther King.
Part II – Edward Snowden: The Threat Is to Civil Liberties
The man who brought us the story of the NSA and its pseudo-court of justification says he has had no second thoughts about telling the tale. On 12 July 2013 Edward Snowden met with a number of human rights organizations at his temporary refuge in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. Here are a few of the points he made:
– Through his working connection to the National Security Agency, Snowden found that he “had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates.”
– Snowden also concluded that the daily use of this capacity by the NSA was a “serious violation of the law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance.”
– “My government [U.S.] argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. . . .The immoral cannot be made moral through the use of secret law.”
– Appalled by this situation, Snowden took to heart the 1945 Nuremberg principle that says, “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”
– Having concluded that the NSA’s real and potential secret access to the communications of almost every American, and a growing number of non-citizens, was criminal in nature (perhaps totalitarianism in the making), he leaked the classified information that would bring the NSA’s activities into public view. “That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets.”
Part III – The Government: The Threat Is to Classified Information
The U.S. government, which has pursued Snowden as a traitor and criminal, did not take well to these public statements. The White House accused Russia of providing Snowden with a “propaganda platform,” and it is reported that President Obama got on the telephone with Vladimir Putin to express his displeasure.
No attempt has been made by U.S. officials to publicly engage the issues raised by Snowden’s revelations. President Obama has followed his by now usual path of using positive words (I welcome a debate on secrecy) and then pursuing policies that blatantly contradict them (making Snowden’s life miserable and threatening reprisals against any country that helps him).
It is the U.S. government that is telling other countries to “follow the rule of law” (that is, U.S. law) and help capture Snowden. He illegally divulged classified information and that is all there is to it. End of discussion. The fact that the NSA and other U.S. “intelligence” agencies may be acting beyond the law, both domestic and international, is apparently not open for discussion. The fact that it was President Obama who refused to prosecute blatant criminal behavior during the Bush Jr. administration seems all but forgotten. His decisions to go after Snowden, to show no mercy to Bradley Manning, and to use U.S. influence to isolate Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London say that this president is perfectly willing to use double standards. There will apparently be no debate on this fact either.
In the face of actions of men like Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has sought to crack down on potential “leakers” throughout the government. As part of an effort titled the Insider Threat Program, the majority of federal agencies, not just ones dealing with classified material, have been instructed to watch out for potential “leakers.” Classes are being conducted to instruct many federal workers in the telltale signs allegedly given by people who might divulge information. This has the potential to set off a witch hunt, and so we can ask, how many careers will be ruined through the misuse of this program?
Part IV – Conclusion
As Edward Snowden had hoped, his revelations have raised public awareness of the massive gathering of information by the government. However, it is unclear whether this heightened awareness translates into significant public disapproval of this activity. There have been various polls taken and they are not consistent. For instance, a recent poll (10 July 2013) conducted by Quinnipiac University reports that by a margin of 45% to 40% Americans believe “the government’s antiterrorism efforts go too far, restricting civil liberties.” It also reports that 55% characterize Snowden as a “whistleblower” and not as a “traitor.” On the other hand, a June 2013 Washington Post - Pew Research Center poll says 56% of Americans consider the NSA accessing of telephone records of millions of Americans through secret court orders ‘acceptable’ while 41% call the practice ‘unacceptable.’”
Such divisions of opinion are unlikely to inspire Congress or the Obama administration to change the situation. The numbers suggest that Americans, including progressives and liberals, do not really feel threatened by the massive spying, even if some of them find it problematic. Many suppose it is only the “subversive types” who have something to fear. They do not understand how easy it is for the bureaucrats to expand categories of “suspect” behaviors.
It also should be noted that, as described by the New York Times, the prospective national debate is far too limited in scope. As it is evolving it concentrates solely on the intelligence-gathering activities of the government in its efforts to forestall terrorism. No one is discussing whether there are other strategies available in the “war on terror” that might make massive spying unnecessary. There are such alternatives.
As I have suggested in other recent analyses, terrorism is largely stimulated by U.S. foreign policies in regions such as the Middle East. Those policies, in turn, are largely the products of the inordinate influence of economic and ideological lobbies. Change foreign policy and you can substantially reduce the risk of terrorist attack. In doing so you eliminate the alleged need for massive government spying. So, are you concerned about the erosion of civil liberties by a government that feels compelled to spy on you so as to make you safe? If so, why not have a national debate about the nature of our foreign policies and the influences behind them?
PERSPECTIVES ON THE SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL – AN ANALYSIS (17 JUNE 2013) BY LAWRENCE DAVIDSON
Part I – Shifting Historical Context
Context One: It is 1971 and the United States is mired in a losing war in Vietnam. Thousands of young American soldiers are coming back to the U.S. in coffins or physically and psychologically maimed. Scenes of war can be witnessed nightly on the evening news. In the midst of this mayhem the American military analyst Daniel Ellsberg gives the New York Times a copy of a classified analysis of the war entitled, “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967” aka the “Pentagon Papers.” The Nixon administration then sought to prevent the publication of this report through a court injunction. Ultimately the Supreme Court overturned the injunction in a 6-3 ruling that favored the public’s right to know. The government also attempted to prosecute Ellsberg under the 1917 Espionage Act for releasing classified information to the public. That was thrown out of court because in making their case, government agents had gathered information through an illegal wiretap. Subsequently, the media widely covered the Pentagon Papers and its demoralizing description of how the U.S. was fighting the war. It can be argued that this reporting helped turn the tide of public opinion against the slaughter in Vietnam.
Context Two: It is 2012-2013 and the United States is waging a “War on Terror.” This is the result of highly destructive terrorist attacks that occurred a dozen years earlier on September 11, 2001. Both these attacks, the lies and misplaced aggression of the Bush administration that followed, and the skewed media coverage over the intervening years, have sensitized the country to the issue of security. In this environment the government was able to put in place legislation such as the Patriot Act that allows it to, among other things, broadly increase its powers of surveillance both of American citizens and foreigners, and to develop (with the aid of Israeli companies) a secret, massive information gathering program, code named PRISM, and operated by the National Security Agency (NSA). It is also within this environment that a series of whistleblowers revealed to the public both the brutal nature of U.S. warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the widespread spying regime evolved by the American government. Many of these whistleblowers have been charged with felonies and labeled traitors.
Part II – The Whistleblowers Aim: Making the Citizens Aware
Between 1971 and 2012-2013 a lot has changed. However, the seminal difference is that in 1971 a good number of American citizens were being traumatized by the death and maiming of their relatives in a losing war that was publicized in a relatively objective way. In 2012-2013 that factor is missing because the “War on Terror” does not entail a military draft, has resulted in relatively few U.S. casualties, and is brought to the American people by a managed media. This allows the public to assume what is, in truth, its “normal” default position: an everyday indifference to national government behavior. The general citizenry is at once uninterested in what the federal government is doing as long as they feel no immediate negative impact (this is particularly true of foreign policy), and naively ready to accept the government’s protestations that it is acting in their best interests.
Thus, it is no doubt true that heroes (and indeed they are heroes) such as Pvt. Bradley Manning and NSA employee Edward Snowden, decided to release massive amounts of secret government data in order “to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark.” However, what the historical record suggests is that, under most circumstances, only a minority of the general population will care. Thus, in the case of the United States, the effectiveness of whistleblowers may be more successfully tested in the law courts wherein meaningful judgment can be rendered on the behavior of the other branches of government, than in the court of public opinion. However, this judicial arena is also problematic because it depends on the changing mix of politics and ideology of those sitting in judgment rather than any consistent adherence to principles. In 1971 judicial judgment went for Ellsberg. In 2013, men like Manning and Snowden probably do not have a snowball’s chance in hell.
Part III – The Government’s Aim: Maintain the Bureaucratic Rules
The existence of men like Manning, Snowden and a handful of others demonstrates that there are employees of the government who have a superior sense of morality as well as the courage to act on their principles. However, the numbers are very small and they are invariably considered as dangerous mistakes within the system. What of the rest of the government’s personnel?
It is important to understand that the vast majority of government employees do not act, except in the most abstract and idealistic way, as citizens of the United States. They are much more immediately, if you will, citizens of the bureaucracies within which they are embedded. This is not an unusual situation. People tend to identify with their local community and for some this may include a strong identification with their place of employment. Also, bureaucracies are notable for setting their own rules and enforcing them as if they were forms of law. Employees are regularly “oriented” to their bureaucracy’s institutional worldview. At one time the union movement provided a potential check to this process because class identity was a viable competitor to bureaucratic identity. But the union movement within the United States is very weak. Particularly within secretive organizations such as the CIA or the NSA, competitive points of view are carefully weeded out. Simultaneously, the value set on loyalty to the organization and its rules is very high. Such organizations come first, even before family and friends.
Even most elected politicians are fated to become “organization men or women” wherein their first loyalty lies not with the electorate or the Constitution, but to their political parties. If they are part of the “select” group of Senators and Congresspersons associated with the intelligence agencies they will absorb their secretive orientation as well. Take Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) who is head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She has insisted on the need and the worth of massive spying by the NSA whereby the “megadata” of almost everything that goes through the internet, and a lot that goes through the phone lines, is collected and stored, placing all content in a state of ready availability to the government if it chooses to look at it. She, and others like NSA Director James Clapper, claim that this enormous gathering up of personal data has helped “foil multiple terrorist plots” against Americans and others. Those who have made public this secret process are, according to Feinstein, “traitors.”
In a real sense, Feinstein has metamorphosed into the loyal citizen of a bureaucracy that has relegated to itself the right to define both security and the public’s need to know. It does not appear to concern Feinstein that this bureaucracy is determined to function in a way that will allow no viable accountability to anyone beyond its own community.
In contrast to Feinstein, William Binney, former head of the NSA’s global digital data program, claims that having such a huge data base has meant the information overwhelms the analysts, causing the secret PRISM program to become “dysfunctional.” Perhaps that is why a few in the Senate, like Mark Udall of Colorado, say that they are not “convinced that the collection of this vast trove of data has led to disruption of plots against the U.S.” Thus the “protecting the American people” justification is debatable.
Even if it turns out that this information orgy has assisted in foiling a limited number of plots, it is not a practicable approach to threat prevention. What is? Changing the policies and behaviors that have caused much of the terrorist threats in the first place. Do that, and you won’t need to stockpile everyone’s communications from now to the end of time.
Part IV – The President
One of the best examples of the conversion of an American from a servant of the citizenry to a servant of the government bureaucracy is President Barak Obama. As Glenn Greenwald points out, during President Obama’s 2008 campaign “openness and transparency” were central issues. Obama denounced President Bush’s regime as “one of the most secretive administrations in our nation’s history,” and added “it is no coincidence” that such a secrecy-obsessed presidency “has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight.” He vowed: “as president, I’m going to change that.” To that end he pledged to protect whistleblowers and called them, “the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government,” saying that “such acts of courage and patriotism . . . should be encouraged rather than stifled.”
Then he won the 2008 election. All of a sudden his constituents ceased to be the voters and became instead institutionalized aspects of the government system: the bureaucracy, the Democratic Party and a host of special interests. Thus, it did not take long for his tone to change. Surrounded now by bureaucrats and party men whose devotion was to something other than the Constitution, the massive invasion of privacy represented by the vacuuming up of all information available on web became “necessary for national security and well within the bounds of the law.” That is, the Bush era laws that Obama once deplored. Now Obama is prosecuting the whistleblowers and protecting the George W. Bush era criminals.
Part V – Conclusion
This metamorphosis into participants in an amoral system seems to be the fate of most men and women elected to national office. They join an organization assumed wiser then the citizenry because it knows more than they do and, more often than not, it does its learning in secret, clandestine ways. Notions such as transparency and the behaviors of whistleblowers, which sounded so right on the campaign trail, now take on opposite connotations in the environment of bureaucracy. Principles that once were worthy of protection now must be “balanced” against procedures and policies too valuable to be exposed to daylight.
This is a standard scenario for the erosion of the rights, ideals and principles that make a democracy worthy of its name. As Thomas Drake, another whistleblower, recently put it “What does the NSA need with a 100 million phone records? We are losing the foundation of innocence until proven guilty. The assumption of innocence no longer exists in a surveillance state.” Neither does a Constitution with a Fourth Amendment. Neither does habeas corpus or due process. All of those are things of value in the world of democratic men and women. In the world of the National Security Agency, they are all conditional to the needs of a system with very different rules.
A WINDOW ON THE RIGHTWING – AN ANALYSIS (8 June 2013) BY LAWRENCE DAVIDSON
Part I – Some Background Information
My wife and I have family in Barcelona, Spain, including a seven-month old grandson. We also have a family member who is a successful artist and has a piece in this year’s famous Venice biennial art show. Thus it was that my wife and I went from Barcelona to Venice at the end of May.
We decided to travel from one city to the other by sea and so ended up on the Regent Line’s Seven Seas Mariner, a relatively small ship with only 700 passengers. This was to be a very odd cruise, and that is the subject of this essay. For, as it turned out, some 270 of the passengers on board were fans of the libertarian right-wing talk show host and Fox TV commentator Neal Boortz. This was Boortz’s retirement celebration cruise, and his most devoted fans were on the Seven Seas Mariner, at their own expense, to help him celebrate.
Part II – Who Is Neal Boortz?
Until his recent retirement, Neal Boortz (aka The Mouth of the South, aka The Equal Opportunity Offender, aka Mighty Whitey) was the seventh most popular talk show host in the United States. His show was nationally syndicated and averaged 4.25 million listeners per week.
The positions he has taken to achieve this status are remarkably diverse and often contradictory. For instance, Boortz has a rather progressive stance on some social issues (angering most conservatives), such as abortion rights, same sex marriage, ending the “war on drugs,” and supporting various other civil liberties. Yet at the same time he is adamant about reducing the federal government’s tax and regulatory powers (pleasing most conservatives). When it comes to taxes, Boortz advocates doing away with income tax, payroll taxes, estate taxes and the like and replacing them with a national retail sales tax. He has written a book on the subject, co-authored with Georgia Congressman John Linder, entitled The Fair Tax Book.
Leaving aside his tax-reform idea for the moment, Boortz’s view of the regulatory powers of the federal government is dangerously naive. He seems unaware that in the United States the ability to create and protect the civil liberties he supports comes from the legislative action of a strong federal government that then oversees the implementation of those laws against historically prejudiced, racist state and local governments.
The same dangerous naivete is revealed in Boortz’s promotion of “small government” and “deregulation” of the economy so as to promote “personal responsibility.” These are typical Tea Party positions and they too betray historical ignorance. It has become clear to the less ideologically driven economic historians that, ever since the end of World War II, the only thing that has prevented another Great Depression (and, in essence, smoothed out potential depressions into periodic economic recessions) is, once again, effective and consistent government regulation. As the savings and loan fiasco of the 1980s and 90s and other more recent bank crises have shown, if you start deregulating strategic parts of the economy (as happened under Ronald Reagan), the capitalists will immediately revert to acts of maximum (and self-destructive) greed.
When it comes to foreign policy, Boortz favors an aggressive, interventionist approach to “fight terrorism” and “spread freedom.” After the 9/11 attacks, Boortz repeatedly complained about the “lack of Muslim outrage” over the event. In this Boortz shares an almost universal American provincialism. He fails to realize the causal connection between traditional American foreign policy in the Middle East (and elsewhere) and the terrorist attacks the U.S. has suffered. He is also ignorant of the fact that after the 9/11 attacks Muslims worldwide condemned terrorism and expressed sympathy for the American victims. At the local level this sympathy was expressed by thousands of mosque-based sermons declaring that the al-Qaida attacks were “un-Islamic.” Of course, many of these expressions of outrage and sympathy were made in Arabic and, what is more important, went untranslated and unreported in the American media. Even those issued in the English language were often unreported. This explains Boortz’s ignorance, but it does not excuse it. As such a well-know critic, he should have taken the time to fact-check the issue before repeatedly focusing the attention of 4.25 million listeners upon it.
Part III – The Fans of Neal Boortz
If the 270 fans of Neal Boortz traveling on Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner can be taken as a reliable sample of his listening public, we may draw the following general conclusions:
– They are mostly from the American South.
– They are generally a polite group in one-to-one situations.
– Of all the positions taken by Boortz, the one they are primarily interested in is his tax-reform scheme. I must confess that I have no idea if his tax plan would be better or “fairer” than the present arrangement. However, it should be noted that the U.S. income tax was “allowed” by the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and so to replace it with Boortz’s “Fair Tax” might necessitate a rewording of this amendment. This could be a complicated task.
The fact that almost everyone I encountered in the Boortz group fixated on the issue of taxes tells us something important about conservative Americans: they are generally suspicious of demands that they financially contribute to the upkeep of their own communities (particularly in the area of social programs). This might sound odd, but it is an attitude rooted in history. The U.S. revolution was not made over issues of oppression and deprivation. It was made over the issue of the British Parliament’s right to impose relatively moderate taxes on their American colonial subjects. Ever since that time there has been a conservative portion of the U.S. public which sees any taxes beyond those needed for very basic services as illegitimate. Indeed, they see such taxes as a form of theft. Just ask John Boehner, the Republican Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Refusing to negotiate a reasonable budget with President Obama, Mr. Boehner said that the real issue is “how much more money do we want to steal from the American people to fund more government.” In terms of economic history, this makes Boehner and his cohort throwbacks to the dark ages of 18th-century economic theory, when it was believed that the only legitimate things for which central government could tax was national defense, the court system and the police. All other social issues were the responsibility of the individual who was “free” to become rich or to starve to death without government interference.
To say that such a point of view, applied today to a society of 300 million-plus citizens, is disastrous is an understatement. Take away the “safety net” created by the New Deal and expanded by the “welfare state,” and replace it with freewheeling, deregulated capitalism and “personal responsibility” alone, and what you have is a formula for widespread suffering and civic unrest.
Yet none of the conservatives I met on board the Seven Seas Mariner had any knowledge of economic history or theory. All they had were their personal experiences and the feelings those had produced: that the federal government was too big, too intrusive in their businesses, and that it pampered too many people, all with their tax dollars. This is one of the consequences of what I call “natural localism.” We live our lives locally. This local existence conditions us to see the world in certain limited ways. And then, on the basis of that local conditioning, we interpret the rest of the world. However, our local experience is often a very poor basis for understanding the larger problems that confront our communities.
Part IV – Conclusion
Neal Boortz is fond of disclaimers. Some of them are potentially useful, as when he tells his listeners “Don’t believe anything you . . . hear on The Neal Boortz Show unless it is consistent with what you already know to be true, or unless you have taken the time to research the matter to prove its accuracy to your own satisfaction.” The problem is, as with so much of the information media, the audience is self-selected. The reason millions listened to Mr. Boortz in the first place was because what he said was already “consistent” with what they “know” to be true.” But was/is it true?Believing something is true does not make it true. As to the suggestion that the listener do research, well, not many will bother if the opinion at issue sounds and feels right.
Boortz also occasionally suggests to his audience that they “take no heed nor place any credence in anything he says” because, in the last analysis, he is just an “entertainer.” However, he cannot escape responsibility so easily for the influence he has wielded weekly over an audience of more than 4 million. Ours is an age of “infotainment,” and the more entertaining media personalities, politicians, and even government officials are, the more their “info” is received favorably. Just think of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on the liberal side of the spectrum.
Conservative America is out there in many forms. Some are organized around religion, some around various forms of xenophobia, and some around the fear of government, its taxes and regulations. They are mostly white, mostly middle class, and don’t be at all surprised if you run into them on your next vacation.
Freedom and High Anxiety in the USA – An Analysis (23 April 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – High Anxiety
Americans may assume that public insecurity is a condition you find under dictatorships, where the agents of the state can burst through your door and cart you away without a warrant. That can now happen in the USA too, but only to those the government calls “terrorists.” Perhaps naively, ordinary folks see themselves as immune from that sort of treatment. However, public insecurity has many roots. Americans actually experience, but almost never acknowledge, the fact that there is a correlation between U.S. democracy’s relatively broad array of freedoms and public high anxiety. Here are some of the ways this works:
- Economic freedom can, theoretically, break down class barriers and open up opportunities for enterprising citizens. It also leaves you free to become abjectly poor and produces a socio-political environment in which ideologically driven leaders hesitate to use the power of the state to solve the consequences of poverty. Being poor is, usually, a high-anxiety state.
- Political freedoms can become lopsided in favor of well-organized special interests with the financial ability to corrupt the political system. It might be that 90% or more of Americans favor reform of the gun laws and would feel safer if there were universal background checks on those purchasing firearms. It does not matter, though, because this majority does not know how to effectively use its political freedom to achieve this end. As a consequence lobby groups that specialize in working the system (such as the National Rifle Association) can easily override the wishes of the majority and, as just happened, arrange for the most innocuous of gun reform legislation to be defeated in the Senate. Moved by the same lobby influence, the Senate is expected to reject the recently created UN Arms Trade Treaty. Thus the rest of us, and our children, are stuck in a situation that is very free for gun owners who can give their fantasies full play, but spells high anxiety for the rest of us.
- Media freedom, such as it is, is perhaps the greatest contributor to public insecurity because it has produced a consistent concentration on the negative. This occurs because either those who own the media outlets, and thus literally select the news we receive, hold an anxiety-producing worldview, or they see such an approach as good business. The spectacularly negative seems to sell newspapers and boost ratings.
At this point, one can ask who are those who are most inclined to use freedom, either as economic, political, or media policy makers, or leaders of special interest groups, to promote practices and policies that are anxiety producing to great majority? It is often rigid, single-issue protagonists who are anything but free in their own minds. In fact their single-mindedness has blinded them to broader community interests and needs.
Take for instance, the Christian and Jewish ideologues making up such groups as Christians United for Israel and the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The former is an your classic Christian Zionist organization which claims to be “the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States serving 1.3 million members.” AIPAC, of course, is one of the most influential lobby groups in the country. And just how do these groups “serve” their constituents? Well, one way is by going around trying to convince the rest of us that we are in mortal danger from a nuclear Iran (which happens to be a country at odds with Israel). They have done a good job of implanting this anxiety-producing fantasy in the minds of both the public and many members of the U.S. Congress. But, how do I know the claim that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is a fantasy? Because every time the heads of our government’s intelligence services are asked about this they say it isn’t true. Oddly, this gets very little press.
Such Zionist organizations also spread public insecurity through the promotion of Islamophobia, another fantasy, which states that just about every Muslim in the U.S. is an al Qaeda agent. As one friend of mine, Peter Loeb of Boston, has put it, “the word ‘terrorist’ has become equated with ‘Arab/Muslim’ in the American mind.” Thus, referring to the recent Boston Marathon bombing, ABC news reports that “the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 has left many people anxious. But Muslim Americans await the identity of the perpetrator with particular dread.”
Part II – The Example of the Boston Marathon
The recent anxiety that hit the nation over the Boston Marathon bombings is good example of just how exaggeratedly frightening a world our freedom (in this case media freedom) has created for us. If one bothers with the facts, one learns that terrorist attacks are not numerous in the U.S. and are in fact declining. Most of them are not carried out by Muslims but by animal rights advocates. Finally, U.S. law enforcement is getting better at dealing with these incidents. But all of this good news makes no impact in the face of something made into a major anxiety-producing national event by the media.
The Boston Marathon affair was carried out by two young immigrant brothers of Chechen ethnicity. The older brother, who was probably the leader in this escapade, appeared to be a disenchanted misfit. He was an aspiring and talented boxer who had his heart set on making the U.S. Olympic team. However, he had recently learned that as a “foreign athlete” (he was not yet a citizen) he could not compete in the U.S. national championships. He had come to feel that “there are no values anymore” and that “people can’t control themselves.” By the way, these are feelings that no devout Muslim would ever seriously entertain.
Part III – Freedom and Responsibility
Unfortunately, freedom as practiced in the U.S. has its drawbacks. It has encouraged an often heartless individuality that disregards serious levels of poverty. It has allowed the evolution of interest group politics that often works against national interests in both domestic and foreign policies. And, in the guise of a free media, it has produced an environment that breeds exaggeration, fantasy, and a general concentration on the most spectacular, and most negative, of news stories.
Does this make America’s freedoms, in principle, bad things? Not at all. But it does call attention to the fact that such freedoms, practiced unconditionally, can give free rein to the less communal and more selfish aspects of the human psyche. The result can be a form of negative blowback. An intelligent, mature community will be aware of this fact and implement non-abusive regulations to assure that along with economic, political, and media freedom comes responsible behavior.
Alas, America as a society is not particularly intelligent or mature, so such reforms encouraging responsible behavior are unlikely. The irony of it all is that it will be in the name of preserving freedom, in its peculiarly American radical individualistic form, that powerful elites and influential special interests will resist any effort to mandate the responsible use of those freedoms. As a consequence, high anxiety and freedom will continue to go along with each other.
Critical Thinking Gone Missing — An Analysis (5 April 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Ignorance As a Default Position
In 2008 Rick Shenkman, the Editor-in-Chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books). In it he demonstrated, among other things, that most Americans were: (1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble.
Shenkman spent 256 pages documenting these claims, using a great number of polls and surveys from very reputable sources. Indeed, in the end it is hard to argue with his data. So, what can we say about this? One thing that can be said is that this is not an abnormal state of affairs. As has been suggested in prior analyses, ignorance of non-local affairs (often leading to inaccurate assumptions, passive acceptance of authority, and illogical actions) is, in fact, a default position for any population.
To put it another way, the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.
The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention. If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention. For instance, in Shenkman’s book unfavorable comparisons are sometimes made between Americans and Europeans. Americans often are said to be much more ignorant about world geography than are Europeans. This might be, but it is, ironically, due to an accident of geography. Americans occupy a large subcontinent isolated by two oceans. Europeans are crowded into small contiguous countries that, until recently, repeatedly invaded each other as well as possessed overseas colonies. Under these circumstances, a knowledge of geography, as well as paying attention to what is happening on the other side of the border, has more immediate relevance to the lives of those in Toulouse or Amsterdam than is the case for someone in Pittsburgh or Topeka. If conditions were reversed, Europeans would know less geography and Americans more.
Part II – Ideology And Bureaucracy
The localism referenced above is not the only reason for widespread ignorance. The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities.
In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.
Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.
Part III - Moments of Embarrassment
That American ignorance is explainable does not make it any less distressing. At the very least it often leads to embarrassment for the minority who are not ignorant. Take for example the facts that polls show over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30% don’t know what the Holocaust was. We might explain this as the result of faulty education; however, there are other, just as embarrassing, moments involving the well educated. Take, for instance, the employees of Fox News. Lou Dobbs (who graduated from Harvard University) is host of the Fox Business Network talk show Lou Dobbs Tonight. Speaking on 23 March 2013 about gun control, he and Fox political analyst Angela McGlowan (a graduate of the University of Mississippi) had the following exchange:
McGlowan: “What scares the hell out of me is that we have a president . . . that wants to take our guns, but yet he wants to attack Iran and Syria. So if they come and attack us here, we don’t have the right to bear arms under this Obama administration.”
Dobbs: “We’re told by Homeland Security that there are already agents of Al Qaeda here working in this country. Why in the world would you not want to make certain that all American citizens were armed and prepared?”
Despite education, ignorance plus ideology leading to stupidity doesn’t come in any starker form than this. Suffice it to say that nothing the president has proposed in the way of gun control takes away the vast majority of weapons owned by Americans, that the president’s actions point to the fact that he does not want to attack Syria or Iran, and that neither country has the capacity to “come and attack us here.” Finally, while there may be a handful of Americans who sympathize with Al Qaeda, they cannot accurately be described as “agents” of some central organization that dictates their actions.
Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.
Unfortunately, one can multiply this scenario many times. There are millions of Americans, most of whom are quite literate, who believe the United Nations is an evil organization bent on destroying U.S. sovereignty. Indeed, in 2005 George W. Bush actually appointed one of them, John Bolton (a graduate of Yale University), as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Likewise, so paranoid are gun enthusiasts (whose level of education varies widely) that any really effective government supervision of the U.S. gun trade would be seen as a giant step toward dictatorship. Therefore, the National Rifle Association, working its influence on Congress, has for years successfullyrestricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from using computers to create a central database of gun transactions. And, last but certainly not least, there is the unending war against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. This Christian fundamentalist effort often enjoys temporary success in large sections of the country and is ultimately held at bay only by court decisions reflecting (to date) a solid sense of reality on this subject. By the way, evolution is a scientific theory that has as much evidence to back it up as does gravity.
Part IV - Teaching Critical Thinking?
As troubling as this apparently perennial problem of ignorance is, it is equally frustrating to listen to repeated schemes to teach critical thinking through the public schools. Of course, the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it. So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired. In any case, public school systems have always had two primary purposes and critical thinking is not one of them. The schools are designed to prepare students for the marketplace and to make them loyal citizens. The marketplace is most often a top-down, authoritarian world and loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end.
Recently, a suggestion has been made to forget about the schools as a place to learn critical thinking. According to Dennis Bartels’s article “Critical Thinking Is Best Taught Outside the Classroom” appearing in Scientific American online, schools can’t teach critical thinking because they are too busy teaching to standardized tests. Of course, there was a time when schools were not so strongly mandated to teach this way and there is no evidence that at that time they taught critical thinking. In any case, Bartels believes that people learn critical thinking in informal settings such as museums and by watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He concludes that “people must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions.” If that were only true it would make this an easier problem to solve.
Part V – Conclusion
It may very well be that (consciously or unconsciously) societies organize themselves to hold critical thinking to a minimum. That means to tolerate it to the point needed to get through day-to-day existence and to tackle those aspects of one’s profession that might require narrowly focused critical thought. But beyond that, we get into dangerous, de-stabilizing waters. Societies, be they democratic or not, are not going to encourage critical thinking about prevailing ideologies or government policies. And, if it is the case that most people don’t think of anything critically unless it falls into that local arena in which their lives are lived out, all the better. Under such conditions people can be relied upon to stay passive about events outside their local venue until the government decides it is time to rouse them up in some propagandistic manner.
The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors. They are called gadflies. You know, people like Socrates, who is probably the best-known critical thinker in Western history. And, at least the well educated among us know what happened to him.
The Wrath of the Bureaucracy – An Analysis (15 March 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Bureaucracy
The institutions of modern society, including governments, large economic structures, and military forces, are organized in bureaucratic fashion. A bureaucracy is a form of organization that operates by means of a wide range of closely supervised departments capable of performing specific tasks in efficient ways. This division of labor, or specialization, is carried on according to well-defined rules and regulations. Therefore, the workers in a bureaucracy (i.e., the bureaucrats) perform their tasks within a compartmentalized environment that narrows their focus to the task at hand. Potentially mitigating circumstances that might call into question the task set for the worker, or the rules governing its implementation, are almost always ignored.
The command structure of bureaucracies is hierarchical, or what is called a “vertical pyramid power structure.” This is how Max Weber, the great sociologist, described this topdown arrangement and its consequences:
The principles of . . . graded authority mean a firmly ordered system of superiority and subordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher offices. . . . Rational calculation . . . reduces every worker to a cog in this bureaucratic machine and, seeing himself in this light, he will merely ask how to transform himself into a somewhat bigger cog. . . . [Such an institution’s] specific nature. . . develops the more perfectly the more bureaucracy is dehumanized.
Out of this emerges a “bureaucratic mindset.” The bureaucrat is supposed to think of his or her assigned task and how best to accomplish it. That is what is meant by “staying with the program.” The bureaucrat is not supposed to think why the task has been assigned or what its implementation might broadly mean. Like the task itself, thinking too becomes detached from any context but that generated by the bureaucracy. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that responsibility is also compartmentalized. As long as one pursues the task efficiently, according to prescribed procedure, one is acting responsibly. Through this approach, it becomes difficult to hold any particular bureaucrat responsible for the overall impact of a policy. The task of implementation is too fragmented.
Part II – The Military Bureaucracy
No institution is a better fit for the bureaucratic structure than the military. It is a model for Weber’s “firmly ordered system of superiority and subordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher offices.” Work goes on within a compartmentalized environment structured by rank and myriad rules and regulations. Action is focused on fulfilling specific orders normally without reference to outside consequences.
As a result, within the military bureaucracy thinking must always be within the box, which means it is done within the institution’s set thought-collective. Indeed, given the military’s particular environment, one that strives to shape the thought as well as the action of its participants, thinking can take on near totalitarian constraints. The following scenario reflects this reality. Imagine a room in which two privates sit discussing some mission-related issue. Between them there is an equality of rank and so the discussion can be relatively candid. In walks a sergeant, who joins the discussion. The sergeant’s opinion can immediately supersede those of the privates and end the discussion. We can repeat the scenario using two sergeants joined by a lieutenant or two lieutenants joined by a captain, and so on up the line. It is rank that carries the power to decide mission-related issues and not necessarily knowledge or even experience. And, once the decision is made, the senior officer’s version of reality cannot be challenged except by someone of superior rank. His or her orders must be obeyed even if a subordinate can reasonably predict disaster as a result. Thinking outside the box, and then acting on the resulting unauthorized thoughts, opinions, and conclusions, is the bureaucracy’s equivalent of criminal behavior.
At first it seems surprising just how few people in the military challenge its thought-collective. Today there are about two and a half million individuals in the U.S. military (including the reserves), and the number incarcerated in military prisons with a sentence of one year or longer is (using 2007 numbers) 1,089. Relative to the incarceration rate in the U.S. civilian society this is remarkably small. The percentage of this number that represents the willful disobeying of orders (rather than the usual criminal acts such as assault or theft) is smaller still.
While at first this might seem surprising it is not on second thought. The military is not a democracy. It is the closest thing we have to a successful version of George Orwell’s 1984. The restrictive thought- collective is reinforced not only by a rigid hierarchical culture of obedience but also by carefully cultivated peer pressure. Someone who breaks out of this “box” and does so for reasons of conscience is a rare individual indeed.
Part III – The Case of Bradley Manning
Private Bradley Manning is just such an individual. I first wrote about Manning in August of 2010, andhere is how I described him and his situation:
Bradley Manning was an army intelligence analyst with U.S. forces in the Middle East who became deeply disturbed by what his job revealed to him. Essentially, it made him a front row witness to what he described as “incredible things, awful things.” This primarily entailed the careless killing of innocent civilians. As an act of conscience he gave to the website WikiLeaks over 200,000 classified documents as well as a graphic video showing an attack on Iraqi civilians.
Manning confirmed his status as a prisoner of conscience in a statement he read at a pre-trial hearing on 2 March 2013. In the statement he described how (1) the high number of civilian deaths in Iraq, (2) the stubborn refusal of army authorities to admit to and deal with this issue, and (3) the lack of U.S. media coverage of all this “collateral damage” disturbed and “emotionally burdened” him. His response was to release the material noted above. He continued in his statement to say,
I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members [this refers to a particularly egregious army helicopter attack on civilians recorded on video tape and leaked to WikiLeaks]. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in a pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. After the release I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public.
However, the U.S. military has shown no serious concern about what its soldiers have done, and continue to do, to civilians in the Middle East. This is because those soldiers have acted in ways compatible with the bureaucratic rules of the organization they serve. Under these conditions the killing of civilians, no matter at what frequency or number, is deemed accidental as long as the soldier follows the military’s self-prescribed “rules of engagement.” Having done so, civilian casualties become “collateral damage.” Therefore, no one is culpable. It is, of course, possible to force the military to change its behavior by making “collateral damage” so distasteful to the U.S. public that it becomes a political problem that civilian leaders must address. That is exactly what Bradley Manning was trying to do.
That is why the military has shown dramatic concern over what Bradley Manning has done. He has gone outside the box. He has broken free of and actually publicly challenged the military’s thought- collective. Since the Viet Nam War the U.S. military has eschewed the draft and embedded the journalists, so as to minimize public awareness of battlefield realities. They are not now going to let one private with a conscience bring public revulsion down on their heads. So, they have accused him of “aiding the enemy” and hope to send him to jail for the rest of his life. They hope this will be a lesson that prevents others from following in Manning’s footsteps.
It is the leaders of the military bureaucracy, and not the out-of-step private, who will probably succeed in this contest. That is because Manning’s hope that the data he released might “cause society to re-evaluate the need or even the desire to engage in counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the affected environment every day” has, to date, failed. Why so?
There are some U.S. citizens who see Manning as a hero (I am one of them), and some who see him as a traitor. Manning’s target population was and still is all of the rest. Yet the sad truth is most of this remainder doesn’t care much about Manning’s fate and will, in the end, accept the government’s verdict on him. This is how I reasoned out the situation back in 2010, and I think my conclusion is still sound. On the assumption that most people are locally focused and apolitical I conclude that this vast majority are unconcerned about the Manning case because it seems not to touch their lives. And, on the assumption that the government and its allied mass media control the information flow, I conclude that most of the minority who are aware and concerned share the official view that Manning is a traitor.
That leaves a minority of the minority who are aware of the significant implications for justice and human rights involved in this case; who are aware of the broader contextual circumstances that led to Manning’s actions and the implications for future U.S. international relations implicit in those circumstances. The prediction that this minority of a minority totals “millions,” as some suggest, is almost certainly an exaggeration. However, whatever the number of his sympathizers, it is far less than is needed to either obtain justice for Manning or save the United States from its own criminal policies.