Archive for the ‘U.S. Domestic Affairs’ Category
Getting Past The Issue Of Being Jewish – An Analysis (12 March 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Is Being Jewish the Real Issue?
On 5 March 2015 the New York Times (NYT) carried a front page story about a second-year student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) named Rachel Beyda. Ms. Beyda, who is Jewish, was seeking appointment as a member on the university’s Judicial Board – a student committee that considers judicial questions in reference to the activities of student government.
As the story goes, Ms. Beyda’s application was originally rejected because a majority of the board felt that her association with organizations such as Hillel, a group that uncritically supports Israel’s apartheid-style culture and maintains anti-democratic rules and procedures of its own, would represent a conflict of interest and result in possible bias on her part. Given the tension on many campuses, including UCLA, between those who support and oppose Israeli policies and behavior – tensions which occasionally result in student organizations being disciplined – it was not an unreasonable assumption. Unfortunately, the student board members who questioned Ms. Beyda’s affiliations made it appear that their concerns flowed from her religion and ethnicity.
Then “at the prodding of a faculty adviser … who pointed out that belonging to Jewish organizations was not a conflict of interest, the students [on the board] revisited the issue and unanimously put her [Beyda] on the board.”
Of course, the story does not end there. According to the NYT, the episode has “set off an anguished discussion of how Jews are treated” and served to “spotlight what appears to be a surge of hostile sentiment directed against Jews on many campuses in the country, often a byproduct of animosity toward the policies of Israel.”
The Los Angeles-area Zionists have had a field day blowing the incident out of all proportions. For instance, Rabbi Aaron Lerner, “the incoming executive director of the Hillel chapter at U.C.L.A.” told the NYT, “we don’t like to wave the flag of anti-Semitism, but this is different. This is bigotry. This is discriminating against someone because of their identity.” At least on one point Lerner is wrong. Hillel does “wave the flag of anti-Semitism.” After all, Hillel maintains that “Israel is a core element of Jewish life and the gateway to Jewish identity.” The organization follows the Zionist line that those who strongly oppose Israel, oppose the Jews and Judaism per se.
Lerner’s charge of “bigotry” is harder to evaluate without seeing the recorded video of the board meeting (which has been removed from YouTube.) However, in a letter to the campus newspaper, the students who originally voted against Ms. Beyda apologized for the tack they had taken in their questioning of her.
The NYT goes on to air the opinions of Rabbi John L. Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who called the board incident “insidious”; Avinoam Baral, the president of student council, who said the board was unfairly suggesting Beyda might have “divided loyalties”; and Natalie Charney, student president of the UCLA chapter of Hillel who complained that this was all the result of an “overall climate of targeting Israel” that has led to the “targeting of Jewish students.” Well, no one can accuse the New York Times of putting forth a balanced interpretation of events.
Part II – What is the Real Issue?
There is certainly something upsetting about this incident. It might very well be that the recent acrimonious struggle that resulted in the UCLA student government endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel set the scene for a less than sensitive approach to Ms. Beyda’s application to the Judicial Board. Nonetheless, the incident and its repercussions tell us that those who oppose Israeli behavior have to be careful not to fall into the Zionist trap of assuming, or even inferring, that Israel is identical with the Jewish people and that individual Jews cannot do other than support the Zionist state. This is simply not true.
It seems to me that the mistake the board members made was to focus on Ms. Beyda’s membership in “Jewish” organizations. We can infer that from the faculty adviser’s intervention as described above. If those objecting to her application had thought the issue through, they would have realized that the real problem is not membership in organizations that are Jewish, but rather membership in organizations that support institutional racism and oppression. Focusing on the latter points allows one to get past the issue of being Jewish. After all, there should be a problem if an applicant belonged to any such organization, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, communist, or even pseudo-democratic.
In the United States we may be approaching a tipping point in the struggle against Zionist racism and Israeli oppression. As such it is extremely important that those involved in this struggle express their feelings in a way that clearly maintains a separation between what is objected to and Jews generally. The struggle is against racism, discrimination, oppression, occupation and illegal colonization because they are evils no matter who perpetrates them. The Israeli case has to be prioritized because Israel and its Zionist allies have bought and bullied our own government and political parties in a corrupting manner.
Expressed in this way, anyone who applied for the UCLA Judicial Board, regardless of religion or ethnicity, might properly be asked about their attitude toward such issues.
The Boehner-Netanyahu Cabal – An Analysis (4 February 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Historical Precedent
In the spring of 1793, France, then at war with Great Britain, sent a new ambassador to the United States. His name was Edmond Charles Genet (aka Citizen Genet). His instructions were to undermine the neutral position President George Washington had taken in the conflict. To this end Genet, who had the backing of anti-British elements within the American population, went about subverting peace by commissioning American ships to act as privateers against British commercial vessels. He also tried to provoke hostilities between Americans living along the western borders and the Spaniards (then allies of Great Britain) in Florida and Louisiana. This meddling in the internal affairs of the United States was quickly recognized as dangerous, and Washington demanded that France recall Genet.
Part II – A Shared Contempt
That was 222 years ago. Today we are faced with a similar situation, though the offending country is no longer France, but now Israel. Israel’s present ambassador to the U.S. is Ron Dermer, a former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Like Genet, Dermer has instructions to promote discord, hopefully leading to war, between the United States and the country of Iran, which Israel sees as an “existential” threat. Also like Genet, Dermer has support from some Americans.
Thus, Israeli ambassador Dermer has meddled in the internal affairs of the United States by seeking to undermine ongoing diplomatic talks with Iran. However, he cannot successfully do so without allies – American citizens who are willing to conspire with a foreign official against the diplomatic policies of the Obama government. It turns out that Dermer’s co-conspirators are highly placed Republican members of the U.S. Congress: first and foremost the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner of Ohio.
Just prior to President Obama’s 28 January 2015 State of the Union address, in which he reasserted the importance of taking a diplomatic approach with Iran, Dermer approached Boehner, as well as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He asked them if they would invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on the subject of Iran. There could not be another purpose for such a request than to sabotage a foreign policy deemed by the president to be in the best interests of the United States. Boehner, taking the lead, agreed to extend the invitation. As Robert Parry observes, the whole scheme shows a shared “contempt for this President’s authority to conduct American foreign policy as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.”
This contempt is not new, nor is this the first time Republican leaders have expressed it by conspiring with Israel to foil President Obama’s Middle East foreign policy. Back in the fall of 2010, then-House Minority Whip, Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia, met privately with Netanyahu just a day before the Israeli leader was to meet then-Secretary of State Clinton. Cantor told Netanyahu that he could count on the GOP to “serve as a check” on President Obama’s foreign policy when it went against Israeli positions in the Middle East. That act came close to making Representative Cantor a criminal. It can be argued that his exchange with Netanyahu was a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids unauthorized U.S. citizens from negotiating with foreign countries. Cantor was probably (and inexcusably) ignorant of the Logan Act, and the Obama administration (again inexcusably) let him off the hook.
Part III – Ideology and Money
Both Boehner and Netanyahu are dangerous co-conspirators, and they both share the same Machiavellian low ethical standards. However, in my opinion it is former who is the more dangerous to the United States. Boehner, holding an important position of power in Congress, seems obsessively focused on destroying President Obama and is glibly willing to ally with a foreign power to help do so. This means he has little or no regard for the facts on the ground in the Middle East. Again, as Robert Parry has pointed out, Boehner ignores the machinations of the Netanyahu government that have aligned Israel with fundamentalist extremists in Syria, a brutal military government in Egypt, and the extremist policies of Saudi Arabia, all of which are arguably inimical to U.S. interests.
Why are Boehner and other conservative Republican leaders acting in ways so harmful to their own country’s national interests? There are two probable reasons.
First is their radical ideological stance. At some deep, non-rational level they seem to despise liberals, and that feeling prevents them from admitting any possibility of cooperation toward shared goals. They play a zero-sum game with President Obama and thus see anything that hurts him as a victory for them. Boehner seems to have no sense of limits when it comes to this contest. It has led him and his fellows to favor, de facto, turning over U.S. policy in the Middle East to the Israeli government.
The second reason also reflects this zero-sum game. Boehner and his fellow Republicans aim to deprive the Democrats of something allegedly important while capturing it for the Republicans. Boehner knows that pro-Israeli lobbies are key political donors, so his aim is to increase their contributions to Republicans and decrease them to Democrats. If this requires selling out an American president, Boehner is ready to do so. If it means embroiling the American people in yet another Middle East war, he appears ready to do that as well.
In all of this, the wishes of the American people count least of all. Despite years of negative media propaganda about Iran, polls indicate that most Americans support President Obama’s diplomatic efforts. Boehner appears not to care.
Nonetheless, as with Eric Cantor, no one in the Democratic ranks is willing to respect that popular judgment by openly challenging Boehner on his unconstitutional behavior. That is because the Democratic Party is as enamored of Zionist money as are the Republicans. Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi, now the House minority leader, should be jumping up and down and screaming her head off about John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. Yet all she has said is that it breaks protocol and might harm talks with Iran. But, she has refused to say that the invitation should be withdrawn.
Part IV – Conclusion
There was once a Speaker of the House of Representatives named Tip O’Neill. He served as the House majority leader from 1977 to 1987. O’Neill used to carry a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution along with him whenever he was on the job. He knew it thoroughly and respected its assigned powers and limits, particularly the division of powers. While Congress has a constitutional role in foreign policy through its right to approve ambassadorial nominations and all treaties, it is the president’s role to negotiate with foreign powers and make policy. O’Neill didn’t always approve of the resulting policies, but he knew that his position required him to act within the law.
Boehner must also know that this is the case. However, he is much more of a Machiavellian character. Apparently, the Constitution matters to him only to the extent that it suits his purpose. He and his fellow Republicans have refused to cooperate with President Obama since his election back in 2008. And, when the president has sought to work around their obstructionism through the use of constitutionally allowed executive orders, Boehner has complained bitterly, sued Obama, and threatened him with impeachment.
The fact that a man like John Boehner is in a position of power reflects the fact that the United States is a deeply divided land where, at least on the Republican right, ideology matters more than finding a basis for cooperative government. That is why a leader who distorts both facts and law to work within a worldview devoid of flexibility fits the times so well. There are probably millions of Republicans who mistake Boehner’s behavior for strength of character and an unwillingness to compromise conservative principles. Such naiveté always signals a country in trouble.
Global Warming Revisited: Reality vs Republican Theology – An Analysis (27 January 2015) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Reality
On 17 January 2015 the New York Times reported on a scientific study that showed 2014 to be “the hottest on earth since record-keeping began in 1880.” The report went on to explain that “records were set across large areas of every inhabited continent.” Particularly hard hit in 2014 was the western portion of the United States: Alaska, Arizona, California and Nevada all experienced “extreme warmth.” Temperatures in parts of California “sometimes [ran] 10 to 15 degrees above normal for the season.”
The vast majority of climatologists believe that this warming will go on for a very long time and that it presents “profound long-term risks to civilization and nature.” Also, most scientists agree, global warming is caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels. According to Michael E. Mann, a climatologist at Penn State University, “it is exceptionally unlikely that we would be witnessing a record year of warmth, during a record-warm decade, during a several decades-long period of warmth that appears to be unrivaled for more than a thousand years, were it not for the rising levels of planet-warming gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels.” This consensus has led the scientific community to the conclusion that “climate change is perhaps the major challenge of our generation.”
Part II – Republican Theology
Well, that is the judgement of scientists who investigate matters of fact in the most objective way they know. Unfortunately, only a small number of them become convincing public spokespeople for their positions, and fewer still leave their day jobs to become politicians. Meanwhile, when it comes to global warming, the investigative talents of the latest crop of Republican congressional leaders is anything but objective. Of course, that does not stop many of them from loudly voicing their opinions – opinions now coupled to the wielding of power. Consider the following short list:
Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, a member of the House Science Committee, has recently declared “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” As for human contributions to global warming, Broun considers it a hoax” perpetrated by the scientific community.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma is now chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Inhofe has written a book entitled The Greatest Hoax which presents climate change and global warming as a conspiracy of atheists and scientists who would deny the supremacy of Inhofe’s version of God. He is upset at the “arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate.” Inhofe’s starting point for the congressional debate on climate change is “God is still up there” and in charge.
Roger Wicker of Mississippi is the ranking member of the New Economy subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Wicker insists that climate change is just a disputed hypothesis and not the threat the vast majority of scientists present it as. He suspects the scientific position is part of a “war on coal” – that is, an effort to repudiate the use of fossil fuel.
Arkansas Senator John Boozman is about to take over the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. He really doesn’t believe that climate change is due to human activity. Rather, he speculates that it is just another natural “cycle that happens throughout the years, throughout the ages.” This is a very popular point of view in the “coal-fired” state of Arkansas.
Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions will now head the Senate Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee. He doesn’t believe that global warming is a problem and has asserted that he can interpret the data on climate change better than most climatologists. He does so by carefully selecting from the interpretations of the very small number of scientists who happen to agree with his point of view.
Part III -The Observational Context
Citizen views on climate change and global warming divide along the lines of conservative and liberal self-identification. Thus according to a Pew Research poll conducted in June 2014, over 70 percent of those who identify themselves as conservatives either do not believe in global warming or don’t consider it a danger, nor do they believe that human activity is a serious contributing factor. Finally, many of these self-described conservatives believe that the U.S. has “gone too far in efforts to protect the environment.”
Why do conservative Americans feel this way? There are several factors:
Many of them are very religious. An outlook of Christian fundamentalism pervades large sections of the country and, at least since the time of the Reagan presidency, has become a factor in U.S. politics. That is why men like Broun and Inhofe are where they are. They, and others like them, are often from what used to be known as the Bible Belt, a range of southern U.S. states from Oklahoma to Virginia. This is a stronghold of Southern Baptist and other basically fundamentalist sects. Similar Christian sects are scattered throughout the north, central and western parts of the country. It is hard for those who adhere to these sects to see the sciences that touch on both human evolutionary processes and those of nature (such as global warming) objectively because they clash with biblical tenets.
This leads most religious conservatives to reject scientifically accepted criteria for truth. Science is a process that seeks to approximate what is true through the positing of testable hypotheses. Scientific beliefs must be supported by observable and replicated data. In turn, new data can alter one’s perspective on established hypotheses and even overthrow them. It is an ongoing process and it has proven so powerful a tool that modern civilization’s physical attributes rest on its achievements. On the other hand, religion is a form of ideology that is based on absolute positions that are not testable. Questioning these sorts of “truths” equates to a crisis of faith, and that is often looked upon as a personal failure or giving in to the temptations of some evil spirit. Questioning also alienates you from your community.
To this we may add the following: particularly in the United States, there is a surprisingly strong anti-intellectual sentiment that prejudices many people against those who are educated, whom they label bookworms, eggheads, nerds, brainiacs, geeks, know-it-alls, etc. The fact that American English has so many derogatory terms for those who are actively involved in intellectual pursuits is an indicator of this anti-intellectualism. Therefore, if you have people that you already disparage because of their intellect, telling you things that question your faith, you are likely to go out of your way to oppose them, and “their” truth be damned. Yet another kind of dismissive response is likely to come from those who have an economic stake in the pursuits contributing to global warming. In their case profits stand in for faith. The two groups come together when the business people fund the campaigns of the politicians who, for religious reasons, do not believe in climate change.
Finally there is the almost natural tendency for all of us, conservative, religious or otherwise, to favor the local. By this I mean to favor what serves one’s local interests here and now. If you are from the “coal-fired” state of Oklahoma, you are most likely to see anything that would hurt the coal industry as something that will economically hurt you, and do so with certainty. Meanwhile, the future will be thought of as full of maybes. This will lead most people to hesitate to make major sacrifices today just because someone they may not particularly respect claims that, if they don’t, greater sacrifices will have to be made in the next hundred years.
Part IV – Conclusion
So here is the problem: on the one hand, it is a 95 percent certainty that human activity is causing global warming and it is certain that the effects, even in the near future, will be measurably negative (more damaging hurricanes, droughts, rising ocean levels, killer heat waves, etc.), getting increasingly severe as time goes on. On the other, too many Americans either don’t believe this or are too wrapped up in the present to care. However, the worst of it is that as voters they are putting into positions of power politicians who are willing to block any public policy that may slow, much less reverse the process. It makes little difference if the voters have more than one reason for voting for these politicians. The result for the environment is going to be the same.
We should keep in mind that the dispute over global warming is different from those over evolution or the age of the earth. If some American voters want to elect people who believe that the world is only 9,000 years old and that man is the product of a God looking for a supervisor for the Garden of Eden, they can do so without necessarily accelerating the melting of the polar ice caps. However, putting into office those who deny global warming and the human contribution to it is a catastrophe in the making.
The United States is a country whose prosperity and lifestyle depends strongly on scientific processes. The industrialists whose businesses drive climate change know this yet they and their stock holders are hopelessly fixated on today’s profits. It is less certain whether the large and growing number of religious fundamentalists make the connection. For them faith is stronger than reason and, in the end, “God is up there” and in control. And for the rest of us? We are left with two choices: organize to get the fundamentalists and other climate change deniers out of positions of power, or sit back and relax for apres moi le deluge.
Predictions Based on the 2015 Federal Budget – An Analysis (28 December 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Predictions
I can make high-probability predictions for 2015 and the near-beyond without the benefit of a crystal ball, tarot cards or tea leaves. The only thing that I need is a list of items from the new 2015 federal budget. Here are some of my forecasts and the budget items that make them so highly probable:
1. There will be more deadly truck-related accidents than necessary on the nation’s highways in 2015. That means more deaths, injuries, highway delays, stress and frustration. How do I know? Because the 2015 budget rolls back the safety requirement that truckers need to get more rest between driving assignments. The regulation that was rolled back was itself barely adequate. It restricted drivers to a 70-hour week with mandated rest times between long periods behind the wheel. Nonetheless, despite obviously being in the public interest, this regulation could not survive the pressure of the lobbies representing the trucking industry and its corporate customers. Now we are back to truckers working 85-hour weeks with hardly any mandated rest at all.
2. Either in 2015 or soon thereafter there will be another major banking crisis requiring the outlay of enormous sums of public money to avert economic meltdown. How do I know? Because the 2015 federal budget rolls back the requirement, put in place after the last financial crisis, that forced the trading of derivatives to be done by corporate entities separated from the banks and not covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Company. In other words, if the banks wanted to devise unreasonably risky investment strategies for their more gullible customers, they had to insulate these strategies from their main banking operations that are crucial to the national economy. In addition the government was not required to insure such undue risks through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Although obviously in the public interest, these regulations could not survive the pressure coming from the banking lobbies and so, once more, we all must be prepared to pay the price of this version of insufficiently regulated capitalism.
3. The political influence of the nation’s wealthiest individuals will increase by a factor of ten in 2015, making the United States more of a plutocracy and less of a democracy than at any time since the 1920s. How do I know? Because the new federal budget emasculates what little was left of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act by increasing tenfold the amount of money individuals can give to political parties. This is the result of conservatives’ demanding that political campaigns be underwritten wholly by private funds. Common sense tells us that such an arrangement can only confirm political power in the hands of those who are already economically dominant. By the way, most countries claiming to be democracies regulate against just this dominance of private money because it is recognized as politically corrupting.
4. Environmental protection will deteriorate in 2015. If you live in a rural area where there are large farms, your water supply will become more suspect. How do I know all this? Because the 2015 federal budget slashes funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by $60 million and forbids the same agency from applying the Clean Water Act to farm ponds and irrigation ditches. In the public interest? Of course not. However this move pleases agribusiness concerns and other industries.
5. Israel, the economically developed nation that has violated just about every human rights regulation listed under international law, and also has repeatedly broken U.S. law forbidding the use of U.S.-supplied weapons for offensive actions against civilian populations, will continue to be both economically and militarily subsidized by the American taxpayer in 2015. How do I know this? Because the 2015 federal budget follows in the footsteps of so many past budgets by setting aside huge sums of money – in the present case $3.1 billion in total aid – for the Zionist state. Of that aid package, $619.8 million is military related.
I could not get exact gross figures for how much money the federal government gives back per year to U.S. states for various programs, but certainly Israel gets more of your federal tax dollar than any single state does, and maybe more than all fifty states put together.
On the same topic of foreign aid to undeserving governments, the 2015 budget will help insure the survival of the brutal military dictatorship in Egypt. That bunch of gangsters will be getting $1.3 billion in military aid.
These dubious expenditures are also not in the U.S. public interest for they will undermine democracy in Egypt and uphold dictatorship. In the case of Israel the money will help uphold racist authoritarianism, ethnic cleansing and religious bigotry. All of which (including the aid to Egypt) has been successfully encouraged by the financial power of the Zionist lobby.
Part II – John Boehner’s Bipartisanism
According to House Speaker John Boehner, the 2015 federal budget is a product of bipartisan compromise: “Understand all these provisions … were worked out in a bi-partisan, bi-cameral fashion.” However, this can hardly be the whole story. Boehner’s statement implies that there were only Republicans and Democrats in the proverbial back room where the budget was worked out and that everyone was practicing sweet reason so as to come to a compromise that benefits the nation. In truth, looking over the shoulders of those representing both parties were numerous lobbyists who had given a lot of money to all these politicians and now wanted something back for their investment. As a result, we as a nation, as a community, were thoroughly outbid by the trucking industry, the bankers, agribusiness, and a good number of conservative ideologues who want the right to gut the federal government (particularly the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service) while monopolizing funding of our two major political parties. They want to do this so that, among other things, they don’t have worry about regulations or pay even a reasonable amount of taxes.
Part III – Conclusion
The ultimate conclusion we can draw from this “bipartisan” process is that there is no sense of national interest, and damn little sense of community, in the American political system. Both concepts have been superseded by the particular parochial goals and sense of solidarity of groups and subgroups with the deep pockets necessary to buy legislators and legislation. This is what happens when democracy allows itself to be captured by an increasingly unregulated capitalist ethic – an erosion of any politically based sense of a need to work for the com.mon good.
The really depressing part is that for most of our national history it has not been very different. In the mid nineteenth century President James Polk, himself a man of questionable integrity, observed, “There is more selfishness and less principle among members of Congress than I had any conception of, before I became President of the United States.” Well, the problem persists, and given our political way of doing things, it may never be fully overcome
The Forgotten Futility of Torture – An Analysis (18 December 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Futility
It has long been known that torture does not work. One can go back to the Enlightenment. In 1764 Cesare Beccaria published his groundbreaking work, On Crimes and Punishments. Beccaria had examined all the evidence available at that time and concluded that individuals under torture will tell their interrogators anything they want to hear, true or not, just to get the pain to stop. Beccaria’s book led to a temporary waning of the state-ordered torture.
Nonetheless, the United States has used torture repeatedly. Indeed, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of its report (five years in the making) on the Bush administration’s use of torture testifies to only the most recent in a long line of such incidents. For instance, torture was used against prisoners during and immediately following the Spanish-American War, particularly in the Philippines. More recently the U.S. (and its adversary) used torture during the Vietnam War. Confirming Beccaria’s judgment, the consensus among U.S. military personnel who examined the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the latest euphemism for torture) against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners was that it did not work. This conclusion has been supported by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for over five years. He has repeatedly said that he knows, from personal experience, that “victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it.”
Who in the executive branch of the U.S. government remembers, or even cares , about this history? President Obama gave his blessings to the 11 December 2014 television appearance of John O. Brennan, the present head of the CIA, so that he could tell the nation that, following the 9-11 tragedy, tortured prisoners provided “useful and valuable” information. The Senate Intelligence Committee report calls such claims “exaggerated if not utterly false.” Based on the evidence from Beccaria’s time to the present, the committee report’s position in this regard is the one to go with.
Part II – Illegality
Torture was made illegal in 1950 under the Third Geneva Convention, and this was reaffirmed in 1985 by the United Nations Convention against Torture. Both of these conventions were signed and ratified by the United States, making them the law of the land. Torture is also illegal under U.S. domestic laws such as the War Crimes Act of 1996.
Unfortunately, these laws and treaty obligations were called into question in 2002 by the Bush administration. To create a counterposition to them, the administration’s Justice Department produced what are now known as the “torture memos.” These postulated that the war against terrorism that followed 9-11 was a unique situation that nullified all the standing laws preventing torture. These memos were self-serving interpretations of the president’s powers during war and time of emergency. Contrived as they were, they served as Bush’s legal justification for his administration’s policy of waterboarding, “rectal hydration,” sleep deprivation, and other forms of physical abuse. As Dick Cheney, Bush’s pugnacious vice president, recently said, this was no rogue operation. “This program was authorized” by the memos. The question of how one legitimately “authorizes” what has already been determined to be illegal, immoral and degrading seems never to have occurred to Cheney.
When we weigh the authority of the “torture memos” against international law, treaty obligations, and indeed U.S. domestic law, we must conclude that Bush’s policy of torture broke was illegal. Let me put the consequences of that reasonable conclusion in plain English: President George W. Bush and everyone else in his administration involved in formulating, justifying and carrying out the policy of torture are criminals. So why hasn’t Mr. Bush (to say nothing of the rest of this gang) been brought to trial for his crimes?
One possible reason harks back to 1972-1973, when the infamous Watergate scandal was revealing President Richard Nixon’s criminality. At that time the main line of argument was that you don’t want an American president going to jail. This would constitute just too much of a national embarrassment. Therefore the pardon Nixon received was the best solution to a messy problem. Being of a contrary nature even back then, this writer went about saying that it was precisely because Nixon was the president that you wanted him on trial and, when convicted, put in jail. You wanted that precedent set because it would shape, for the better, the behavior of future presidents.
Of course, this course of action was never followed, and so when it came to George W. Bush, there was no such precedent to provoke any second thoughts. Perhaps he would not have hesitated in any case. We will never know.
Part III – The Present Debate
At present, the debate within the Beltway is not over the Bush administration’s culpability for illegal acts, but rather over the wisdom of releasing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report detailing the CIA use of torture on the president’s orders. In other words, the wisdom of making public the evidence of Bush’s criminality. Many feel that the report will make some foreigners so angry that they will attack Americans abroad. But then those folks already knew about U.S. torture and don’t need the details to make them angry.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the present chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is the one who decided to release the report on torture. She did so because she is determined to “foreclose any prospect that the United States might contemplate such tactics again.” She did not
believe arguing about the morality of torture would achieve that goal and so she “set out to prove [through the released report] that they [techniques of torture] did not work.” There are two things wrong with Feinstein’s reasoning in this regard:
First, Feinstein too appears ignorant of the fact that the futility of torture has been established for hundreds of years. And, just because torture has long been demonstrated not to work, what is the probability that a restatement of this fact will prevent the U.S. from using it again in the future? As was the case in the Philippines, Vietnam, and in the war on terror, future American leaders will remain ignorant of or just forget about torture’s futility. The groundwork for this is already being laid. The incoming Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), says he will not hold hearings on what the report reveals or follow up on it in any way. “Put this report down to a footnote in history,” he says. Burr also dismisses the torture revelations as an attempt to “smear the Bush administration” – as if the facts of the matter were just contrived by political enemies to provoke a scandal.
Second, as former CIA analyst Ray McGovern suggests, it is quite possible that most in the Bush administration did not care whether torture really worked or not. McGovern tells us that what the White House wanted was a justification for an invasion of Iraq. “Evidence” suggesting a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda would do just fine here. The pressure was on the CIA to produce that link and so they tortured al-Qaeda prisoners until they told them what President Bush wanted to hear. This seems a tempting gambit for use by future presidents who might share George W. Bush’s character.
Thus, if Dianne Feinstein wants to make sure that the U.S. government will not use torture in the future, just demonstrating (once more) that it does not work won’t do. The only thing that has a chance of achieving her goal is the strict enforcement the law against torture – take Bush and his accomplices and put them on trial for the crimes we all know they committed. Then, put the whole gang in jail for long enough to make a deep impression. With that precedent set, you have a shot at preventing U.S.-sanctioned torture in the future.
President Obama actually had an opportunity to set this precedent but, as we all know, he has declined to do so. One can imagine his advisers telling him that all presidents break the law in one way or another and to charge Bush with a crime would open Pandora’s Box – from that point on it would be open season on every future president. Yet, is it necessarily true that all presidents must go around breaking the law? And, if so, why should any of us find this acceptable?
Part IV – Conclusion
Despite the revelations of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, the chances are pretty good that Bush and his operatives will get away with their crimes. And that means that chances are just as good that it will all happen again. The public’s awareness of the facts is at best unreliable. According to a Pew poll just reported on 15 December 2014, half of the American public even now believes that the use of torture was both justified and provided worthwhile intelligence. It is probable that the opinion of most elected officials is no different.
No one has yet been able to secure a meaningful place for relevant and accurate historical knowledge either in the mind of the general public or in the deliberations of policy makers. However, in both cases, ignorance and false assumptions seem secure in their positions of influence.
Free Choice vs. Media Determinism – An Analysis (11 December 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – A Range of Choices Freely Made?
Most Americans believe they have a range of choices in their daily lives and that they may choose among them freely. That is, they intuitively believe that their choices are made autonomously and without outside interference. They would probably be surprised to learn that what they take for granted in this regard, the exercise of what is called free will, is a hotly debated topic among learned men and women in fields of study as widely separated as physics, philosophy and theology.
For instance, many physicists are convinced that if one could know the position and momentum of all the atoms in the universe, one could accurately predict the future behavior of those atoms (including the ones that make up you and me). Of course, one cannot acquire that sort of total knowledge, but the proposition does call into question free will in principle. Philosophers, in their turn, have debated whether free will is compatible with a natural world where cause and effect is the prevailing physical mechanism. And theologians have spent an equal amount of time trying to figure out how free will can coexist with their assumed omniscient and omnipotent God.
Part II – Media Determinism: Commercial
One doesn’t have to have a graduate degree in physics, philosophy or theology to question the notions that people have a wide range of choices and the unfettered will to choose among them. A close consideration of our social and cultural milieu reveals strong deterministic influences – particularly the mass media and its engines of advertising and selective news dissemination. How many individual daily decisions are determined by some degree of media manipulation? Well, for many they can include what we eat, what we wear, how we entertain ourselves, how we groom ourselves, even whether we feel safe or unsafe (and buy or don’t buy that burglar alarm).
Those that use the media to try to sway our behavior declare that they are simply providing information that allows informed choices: “advertising ensures that we don’t have to settle for second best. It helps us exercise our right to choose.” However, this is problematic. Advertisers seek to restrict choice, not broaden it and ultimately they want to determine the choice for you. So, generally, what you see as a range of choices is really limited options within a predetermined context – the context of the marketplace. And your freedom of choice? Your choice may well be made on the basis of which product sponsor is most effective in manipulating your perceptions.
This is media determinism in action and it has proven very successful. U.S. businesses spend some $70 billion a year on TV advertising alone. And, as one ad executive comments, “companies would not invest [that much money] in something they thought didn’t work.” This is discouraging news for those who believe in the everyday consumer’s freedom of choice, though indeed this sort of media persuasion leads to death and destruction only occasionally (think anorexia). There are, however, other categories of our lives where media determinism is much more likely lead us right off the proverbial cliff.
Part III – Media Determinism: Political
Given the ubiquitous presence of the media and its influence, the use of persuasive advertising has long since found its way into the realms of politics and policy promotion. Once again, the object is to limit choices, in this case by shutting down debate, and thereby sweep you along with enthusiasm or resignation.
You would think that when it comes to choosing political leaders and deciding between war and peace, the public would deserve information approaching objectivity. This is exactly what they never get. For instance, political campaign promises and party platforms are almost never scrutinized by the media, nor does the media point out that they are only rarely translated into post-election blueprints for action. Instead the media present manipulated information, mostly in the form of expensive campaign ads, as data upon which to base voter choices. Millions are swayed by these ads and millions more, recognizing the vacuousness of the undertaking, opt out of the political process altogether. The former play a manipulated game which has severely limited choices. Yet such is the power of the myth of democracy that the charade is ongoing.
In times of emergency the practice of media determinism gets worse. What little critical inclination might exist among journalists is suppressed in the name of national unity. The press rallies around a government position or storyline. This can be seen in the follow-up to the 9-11 attacks in 2001. An investigation as to why these attacks were carried out was suppressed. Therefore, any possibility for the public to examine the ongoing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East – a policy that indeed provoked the 9-11 tragedy – was also shut down. The official line was that such critiques were attempts to blame the victim. In the same way, any option for the prevention of future attacks was limited to a military one rather than seriously considering diplomatic or policy change alternatives. The president’s approval rating at this time had reached 90%.
The alliance between government and media can be seen in what soon followed. President Bush’s determination to attack Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9-11, led to an orchestrated campaign of misinformation. In March of 2003, as the invasion took place, polls showed that between 72% and 76% of Americans supported the president’s war. In doing so, did they exercise free choice? Most of them would probably have told you that they did. Yet a strong argument can be made that because of the misinformation given them in the run-up to the war – for instance, misinformation about the Iraqi people’s desire to be rescued from Saddam Hussein and the notorious issue of weapons of mass destruction – they were in fact victims of media determinism.
It turns out that it is difficult for the media to sustain a campaign of misinformation in the face of gross contradiction. Thus, when U.S. troops were not welcomed with flowers as they invaded Iraq, and the weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found, the administration’s approval ratings took a dive. But by the time the events revealed the misleading nature of government-media information, the damage had been done.
Part IV – Conclusion
Despite having been shown to be misleading, the role and style of media news presentation has not changed much. Today, external issues vital to the nation’s future, such as the dangerous alliance with Israel, deadly drone campaigns, the catastrophic potential of global warming and the deteriorating relations with Russia, as well as internal ones, such as the need for more aggressive economic regulatory enforcement, the expansion of health care reform and increased taxation of the wealthy, are little discussed in the media or, when mentioned, come to us in suspiciously biased form. Objective information is hard to come by and the encouragement of debate is absent.
So what is real, free choice or media determinism? The picture sketched above suggests that the former is significantly limited by the latter. This appears to be the case when it comes to mundane things as well as matters of life and death. How many of us understand this to be the case? It has to be very few, for if very many realized the situation, they would surely demand that the media break its alliance with the powerful. Without objective information, there can be no meaningful free choices.
Attack on Academic Freedom Redux – An Analysis (1 December 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Present Moment
Of late there has been news about attacks on academic freedom. Much of this is the result of aggressive efforts of Zionist organizations and individuals to silence those academics they see as enemies of Israel. The latest example of this is the successful pressure brought to bear, apparently by a Zionist donor, on the chancellor of the University of Illinois, to rescind a job offer for Professor Steven Salaita. This was done because this influential donor, noting Salaita’s anti-Israel tweets, decided he was anti-Semitic. The Chancellor was apparently convinced that hiring Salaita would cost the university a lot of support – a pretty clear example of donor blackmail.
The Salaita case is not the only recent attempt to intimidate academics critical of Israel. An organization calling itself AMCHA (“your people” in Hebrew) and purporting to work for the “protection of Jewish students” has posted a list of over 200 professors who support the boycott of Israel. They too have been judged anti-Semitic and Jewish students are urged by the organization to avoid their classes.
These attacks are tied to a long-standing and growing movement in American higher education to confront Israeli persecution of Palestinians particularly as regards the Occupied Territories – to point out the barbaric nature of the Israeli/Zionist state, not because it is Jewish, but because it is deeply racist. However, because the leaders and many of the supporters of Israel are Jewish, they confuse the issue and claim a stance against Israel must be one against Jews per se and that is anti-Semitism. It is a claim that makes little sense if only due to the fact that many of those opposing Israeli actions, both within and without of academia, are Jewish.
Part II – The Recent Past
This attack on academics who see things differently than the Zionists is not new. Back in 2007 David Horowitz organized teach-ins on campuses across the nation during which professors critical of Israel were accused of purposely withholding information about the threat of “Islamo-fascism.” Horowitz also asserted that many of these same “left-wing” professors had taken over the country’s universities and were systematically harassing conservative students. Through his influence, seventeen state legislatures ordered investigations of these charges. Later he would publish a book entitled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. All were critics of Israel. This set the precedent for the recent listing put forth by AMCHA.
Horowitz was acting in coordination with Daniel Pipes. In 2002 Pipes founded Campus Watch, a website on which he posted the names of academics, mostly in the field of Middle East studies, whom he accused of being “apologists for suicide bombing and militant Islam.” Pipes encouraged students who supported Israel to “hover over the shoulders” of such professors and let them know they were being monitored.
There are many other examples of attacks on academic freedom, and as a consequence Professor Salaita’s career is by no means the only one to be harmed by this sort activity. Dozens of faculty at all levels of higher education have suffered threats, harassment, discipline and/or termination.These range from well-known figures such as Edward Said at Columbia University and Juan Cole in his dealings with Yale University, to perhaps less-known, but still important teachers and scholars such as Terri Ginsberg at North Carolina State University and the horribly persecuted Sami al-Arian at the University of South Florida.
Part III – Larger Historical Context
And then there is the larger historical context for all this. In terms of U.S. history the suppression of free speech, academic or otherwise, can be traced back to 1778 and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Among other episodes, suppression reappeared in the 1830s under Andrew Jackson and during the Civil War under Lincoln. Woodrow Wilson used the Espionage Act to jail vocal opponents of the First World War beginning in 1917, and this was followed by the first Red Scare in the early 1920s. McCarthyism appeared in 1950s. The intimidating finger-pointing of Islamophobia appeared even before the tragedies of 2001.
What does all this history, stretching from the very beginning of the nation until the present day, tell us? It demonstrates that the effort to control dissenting speech has always been present and probably always will be. There are a number of factors that support this sober conclusion:
First, there is the fact that most people have short historical memories. On the average the United States experiences significant attacks on dissenters and their right to free speech once every 30 to 40 years. This suggests that most citizens have forgotten the essentially barbaric nature and consequences of the previous episode and how, in the end, the claims and charges that ruined so many lives turned out to be false or greatly exaggerated.
Second, there is the difficulty of thinking critically about events of which we have little knowledge. When confronted with such a situation, most citizens rely on the government and its allied media to provide them supposedly accurate information. These sources may well slant stories in a certain way so as to produce public support for specific policies.
The consequences of such distortions are particularly noticeable when it comes to foreign events. Thus, the effectiveness of the ongoing attack on academic freedom, and specifically the freedom of those who are critical of Israel and U.S. policies in the Middle East, is directly related to the ignorance of most Americans about the persecution of Palestinians and the Muslim world’s perception of U.S. behavior.
Third, there is the majority’s ignorance of or indifference to the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the result of a strong demand that the original U.S. constitution be amended so that it enumerates the basic rights – including freedom of speech – of citizens, residents and visitors on American soil. However, who is it that usually exercises their rights in ways that might need such protection? It is not the mainstream majority, but rather a vocal minority usually disapproved of by the mainstream.This disregard of the importance of the Bill of Rights is all the more dangerous because those who seek to suppress free expression almost always claim to be acting in defense of the majority. Such is the power of this claim that often the courts, the job of which entails the enforcement of the Bill of Rights, end up sanctioning their violation.
Part IV – Conclusion
It is clear that there is a recurring pattern to the assaults on free speech. Perhaps the pattern has its roots in a community’s natural preference for group solidarity. Whatever the origins, the pattern of periodic negative reactions is so well established that we can justifiably conclude it is not going to go away. We are historically stuck with it.
The only way to minimize the consequences of these repeated assaults is to continuously defy them. In other words, only by maintaining a counter-pattern of vigorously defending and using the right of free speech and academic freedom can space be sustained for critical voices. If at any time we fail to sustain this space we risk the possibility of being overwhelmed by a combination of closed-minded ideologues and the mass indifference of the majority.
A Sober Look at U.S. Democracy – An Analysis (15 November 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Best of the Worst
Given the dangerous results of the recent election in the United States – one that saw the Republicans, a right-wing party increasingly populated with neocon warmongers, reactionaries, and plutocrats, take control of both houses of Congress – it might be time to take a look at a sober look at U.S. democracy.
We can begin be taking note of the generic observation made by Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worse form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The implication here is that democracy is really not the God-blessed system so many of Americans take it to be. For instance, the public in a democracy is as just as vulnerable to manipulation by various elites and interest groups as are those in non-democratic environments. The difference is that a democracy has a built-in procedure which allows citizens to have second thoughts about past manipulation. Thus they can kick out the bastards they were originally persuaded to kick in – even if it is often only to replace them with a new set of bastards. This repeated procedure results in a time limit on the damage elected leaders can do. It is, of course, possible that democratically elected politicians can come close to ruining a nation (their own as well as others) even given their limited tenure.
Part II – The Recent Election
The recent nasty election results tells us a lot about the weak points of democracy as practiced in the U.S. For instance, there is the fact that, at any particular time, one-half to two-thirds of Americans are paying little or no attention to what is going on in the public realm. They do not know, and maybe they don’t care, who is making policy for their community, be it in the mayor’s office, the state house or the White House. Yet, despite this disregard, they can be readily manipulated by their politicians using the media. This is often done through scare tactics involving innuendo and outright lies about things of which the populace is ignorant: weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, barbarian Russians in the Ukraine, terrorists in Israel/Palestine, and a more recent one, the danger of an allegedly pending Ebola plague in the U.S. The extent to which this sort of misinformation can be used to sway the opinion of an otherwise uncaring public is limited only by how much money candidates and their parties have to spend on media advertising.
Even with millions upon millions of dollars spent on campaigning, moving Americans to the polls, particularly in a mid-term election like the recent one, is like herding cats. In the last election only 36.4% of eligible voters turned out, the lowest turnout in 72 years. Such turnouts give an edge to those who have best mobilized their constituency. Both parties certainly do try to do this, but Republicans appear to have an edge. That edge comes from an ideological orientation that drives many Republicans to actively oppose causes ranging from gun control, to abortion, to the regulatory power of the federal government, all of which is pursued in the name of maximum individual “freedom.” To exert such negative influence, hardcore Republican voters will turn out in great numbers, particularly in the U.S. South and Midwest.
There are other unseemly weaknesses as well, such as the gerrymandering of voting districts by whatever party controls a state legislature so as to minimize the number congressional districts controlled by the opposing party. Through gerrymandering you can win most of the congressional seats while losing the overall popular vote. This is actually a form of cheating, but to date it is legal. And there is a certain level of stupidity that seems particular to the Democratic Party. The Democratic leadership has a real knack for designing platforms and campaigns that ignore the working class, rural poor and much of that part of the U.S. population that is left of center. We know the left-of-center folks are out there and active because during most national election times a number of progressive local ballot initiatives are passed into law.
In more general terms what does this all tell us of U.S. democracy? Well, it tells us that, just like more authoritarian forms of government, it is a system that is open to officially sponsored deceit. It tells us that this lying and other forms of corruption have been so persistent over time that millions of Americans are alienated from the political process. And, finally, it tells us that democracies are not immune to the harmful consequences of ideologies that quite often override national needs. One can see this in the influence of those who, for ideological reasons, stand in the way of rational gun control or seek to prevent the federal government from asserting necessary financial, business and environmental regulation.
Part III – Democracy and Foreign Policy
We should also remember Churchill’s observation that democracy is not a flawless political system when we consider the dubious claims made for popular government in the realm of foreign policy. For instance, the claim that democracies don’t war against each other. This claim is not well thought through and therefore, at best, an over-simplification. For if democracies do not often wage open war against each other, the stronger ones seem to have no compunction about subverting weaker ones for strategic and/or economic reasons.This behavior includes frequent efforts to transform independent democracies into compliant dictatorships. The United States has quite a record in this regard – an ironic fact because it proclaims that a central goal of its foreign policy is to spread democracy. If that were true, how would Washington account for the following?
In 1953 the U.S. government destroyed through subversion the democracy in Iran. In 1954 it did the same thing to the democracy in Guatemala. In 1956 the U.S. refused to go along with United Nations-sponsored free elections in Viet Nam and instead backed an unpopular authoritarian regime in the south of that country. In 1958 Washington sent marines onto the beaches of Lebanon to support a minority Christian party’s attempt to subvert that country’s constitution. In 1973 the U.S. was complicit in the overthrow of the elected government in Chile. Since the late 1990s the U.S. has been engaged in an effort to subvert the democratic government of Venezuela because it disapproved of Hugo Chevez, the elected president, and his successors. And, of course, the U.S. actively subverted the free and fair election held in Palestine in 2006.
There are other examples of this sort of behavior that can be given but these are sufficient to establish the fact that democracies do act with hostility toward one another. Thus, the proposition that if all the world’s nations were democracies there would be no armed conflict is very naive.
Part IV – Conclusion
There is a recent study by researchers at Princeton University that concludes that the U.S. is no longer a democracy of voting citizens. Rather, it is an oligarchy of “rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene [who] now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.” My take on this is only slightly different. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the United States was in fact a “democracy” of competing interest groups whose parochial goals override the national interest and/or those of ordinary citizens.
The average voter is an important constituent of his congressperson, senator, governor, or even mayor only for that short period of time when he or she must be convinced to cast a ballot. When that time is over, the voter recedes into the background and the real constituents are now powerful interest groups with the money to buy political access and influence. Those who control and represent these interest groups are part of this country’s ruling oligarchy.
Such is the pseudo-democracy most Americans hold so dear. It still has its virtues relative to more authoritarian forms of rule. However, these too may be shrinking. After 9/11 the rule of law and freedom of speech in the U.S. have been compromised. You can still write an essay like this one, but if you work for the government or the mainstream press and divulge the government’s criminal excesses, you are likely to end up in jail or exile. These are precarious times and they don’t show American democracy in a very good light – a sobering picture indeed.
On The Purpose of U.S. Education – An Analysis (16 October 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Complaints, Complaints
Every so often books and articles appear bemoaning the state of U.S. education. The complaints address all levels, from the elementary grades to high school to college and university. You can get a sense of this by going to Google and doing a search under the heading “American Education.” Most of what comes up is negative. In 2001 President Bush, who is not exactly a poster boy for U.S. schooling, told us that, at the lower levels, a whole lot of American children were being “left behind.” And, at the upper levels, who can forget the angst of Alan Bloom who, in 1987, told us higher education was destroying students’ minds and ruining the country by endorsing relativism and multiculturalism.
The most recent example of this negativity is William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” Deresiewicz’ s concern is with America’s elite colleges and universities which, in his view, “manufacture students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but … with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” As a result “what we’re getting is thirty-two flavors of vanilla.”
I think that all those who complain in this fashion, be they parents, teachers, administrators or politicians, are missing the point. It may seem odd, but those most critical of today’s schools seem not to recognize what mass education is really designed to accomplish. Such education has always had two main objectives: one vocational and the other civic. Let me elaborate.
Part II – The Vocational Objectives
Historically, the notion of educational proficiency has always been tied to making a living. In other words, either through apprenticeship or formal schooling, what most students have learned over the ages is what their economic environments required of them. Thus, today, whether one wants to be a lawyer or an auto mechanic, the primary curriculum is vocational and everything else is, shall we say, elective. This elective category may or may not include critical thinking skills which, in any case, is a subject that is often disapproved of by local school boards. By the time American kids are in junior high school a good number of them know the difference between what is vocationally valuable and what is not, and most focus their attention on what they believe will be economically beneficial. This means that it is not the school per se, or the teachers, that are actually setting the criteria for learning. It is the community job market.
Therefore, if the economy demands for most students reading and writing abilities at the level of business memos and math skills sufficient to balance a check book, that is the proficiency, on average, that schools will produce. At some point higher administrative, math, science, or other skills might be taught to a minority. That is what we call specialization.
Ask yourself how many American students want to, or will be required to, know anything beyond the most rudimentary math and science in their future workplaces? Does between 20 and 30 percent sound right? Because that is the number of 12th grade (white) students who presently have those skills. Thirty years ago computer knowledge was not a job-related or, for that matter, a social communication required skill. Schools largely ignored it and relatively few people had real proficiency in this area. Today, the situation is completely reversed and almost all schools teach such skills.
Actually, almost all American schools, even the “failing” ones, deliver employment knowledge relevant to their locale. You might think that this claim is off base, but it really is not. High-end public schools cater to students who, by virtue of their class background, mostly have professional career expectations. And that is the educational preparation they get. Just so, low-end schools (admittedly underfunded) cater to those who for the most part have been conditioned by their circumstances to have different expectations, and they are educated accordingly. I am certainly not claiming this is a good thing, only that this is the way it works. If you want to change it, just relying on standardized tests and teacher performance won’t do it. Rather, you have to alter education’s class-driven expectations. To achieve this sort of change means a lot of economic rearrangement and revenue shifting. The U.S. has never been willing to do these things.
Part III – Civic Objectives
Historically, the other major goal of U.S. education has been the production of loyal, relatively passive citizens. This is not the same thing as U.S. citizens knowing the three branches of government, recognizing the Bill of Rights, or naming their senator and congressperson. Actually, most American students do not know such things and so, in this regard, are civics deficient.
However, this is not the level we are speaking of. Students in the lower grades repeat the Pledge of Allegiance in their homerooms every morning and become aware that they are citizens of the United States. They learn a sanitized and idealized history of their country and internalize the myth that it is the “best and freest” nation on the planet – all of which is reinforced by their general cultural milieu and the media. Floating around at the edges of many high schools are military recruiters who play on these feelings. This is particularly true of the schools in poor neighborhoods, where the military is often seen as the only viable vocational alternative to crime on the streets and the illusion of making it in the sports and entertainment industries.
Producing loyal and uncritical citizens is something our schools, at all levels, do pretty well. The uncritical thinking aspect of this goal is quite important and puts in doubt the place of critical thinking in the national curriculum. For a nation of critical thinkers would, from the perspective of citizen loyalty, be a dangerous thing. It brings up the question of whether you can have a stable community when everyone is thinking independently about politics and policy.
Part IV – Conclusion
If you are not satisfied with the status quo in education, but are not willing to acknowledge where the real issues and challenges lie, you might be tempted to find a scapegoat. That is what happens when the media and politicians begin pointing fingers at “bad teachers.” Are there “bad teachers” – that is, teachers who lack the skills or interest to make a good faith effort to address the given curriculum? Of course there are, just as there are incompetent people in every other profession. However, poor student scores on standardized tests is not good evidence of teacher incompetence. More likely it is evidence that the exams are testing for information which the student’s local economic culture deems unimportant.
If there is a “problem” with America’s teachers it is not that they are incompetent, but rather that they are idealists. Most of them want to produce well-rounded, well-read, intelligent young men and women who are at least as knowledgable as those who concoct standardized tests. Most students, however, quickly become confirmed materialists. They want to learn what they need to be well-employed and well-integrated into their communities. Everything else is just an elective.
The Question of State Legitimacy – An Analysis (6 October 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – State Legitimacy and Human Rights
The traditional criterion for state legitimacy was very simple. If a state and its government could hold and govern territory, it was legitimate, at least in the eyes of other governments. The form of government and its behavior did not matter in this definition – Stalin’s USSR, Mussolini‘s Italy, Hitler’s Germany – these regimes held territory and ruled as surely as did the ones in Britain, France and the United States. And, in each other’s official eyes, one state was as legitimate as the other.
This outlook began to change in 1945. Just before and then during World War II, fascist behavior in general and Nazi behavior in particular was so shocking that many post-war governments became convinced that state legitimacy required well-defined codes of national behavior enshrined in international law.
Therefore, right after the war, human rights became a recognized standard by which to judge states and their governments. This new standard, which was implied in the Nuremberg trials, was soon articulated in such documents as the International Declaration of Human Rights and endorsed by the United Nations. It was simultaneously reinforced by a worldwide process of decolonization that focused the international community on issues of human rights, particularly as they touched on the practice of racism and apartheid.
Most importantly, this process led growing segments of civil society to support human rights law as a standard by which to judge state legitimacy. In one case, pressure from civil society worldwide was applied on apartheid South Africa throughout the 1970s and 1980s with sufficient force to help change not only the nature of that country’s government, but its national culture and therefore the character of the state itself. By 1994 South Africa was no longer an apartheid state.
Part II – The New Attack on Human Rights
Recently things have not gone so well. There has been a tendency for the lessons learned about the importance of human rights to fade with time, particularly from the institutional memories of state bureaucracies. The proclivity of all state apparatuses to behave in a Machiavellian way has reasserted itself, particularly in the foreign policies of Western democratic states and their subsequent alliances with all manner of horrid right-wing dictatorships the world over. This complicity with oppressive regimes produced inevitable anti-Western sentiment culminating in the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Subsequently the United States declared a “war on terror,” and this effort seems to excuse everything from indefinite detention and torture to assassination.
To accommodate this revival of amoral statecraft, there is now an effort to rewrite international law in a way that restricts or eliminates the human rights standard of behavior for state legitimacy. The end game here is to get the international community to recognize as “legal” actions by certain great powers and their allies that include the intrusion into the territory of other states and peoples in order to change governments, control populations, capture or kill wanted individuals, and destroy installations and other property. This is carried out by various means ranging from invasion, enforced apartheid regulations and assassination. At the forefront of this effort are the policies and actions of the United States and its prime ally, Israel.
Part III – Rationalizations
How is this effort to override international human rights law rationalized? Essentially, what the governments of the United States and Israel – as well as their neoconservative and Zionist supporters – say is that all of their enemies can be classified as terrorists, and because terrorists do not adhere to the standards set by international law, they (the U.S. and Israel) are forced to adopt wartime measures in combating these enemies. The cornerstone of this approach is the practice of “extraterritorial targeted killing.” Just listen to the well-known Zionist lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, who has proclaimed that “at the moment our legal system is playing catch-up with military technology.” What he finds “imperative” is that drone attacks and the like be made legal by, for instance, allowing someone in the government to obtain a warrant that allows an assassination (and its “collateral damage”) to take place. Dershowitz is referring to the U.S. government but, the precedent having been set, his scenario for “legal” murder could be adopted by any government – certainly the Israelis have elevated “targeted killing” to a high art.
There is nothing in international law that substantiates this position, and it certainly violates core tenets of international human rights law as well as aspects of the Geneva Conventions. Nor can this behavior be passed off as part of a “just war,” for it fails to meet several accepted qualifications for such a venture as comparative justice and last resort. Nonetheless, an array of criminal practices have been put into practice under the assumption that “if you do something long enough, it becomes accepted standard practice.” In other words, in Washington and Tel Aviv, the hope is that what starts out as a corruption of the law eventually becomes the law.
Part IV – Standing Up for the International Law
There is now a struggle going on that will determine both the viability of international human rights law and the role of civil society in defining state legitimacy. Should states that adopt practices such as “extraterritorial targeted killing” or adhere to the racist practices of apartheid continue to be regarded as legitimate, or should they be seen as criminal “rogue states” by virtue of their violation of international human rights law? In this struggle those who stand in support of human rights should not be underestimated. They are serious, numerous, worldwide in scope, and well organized. But, they are not governments, they are elements of the general population: they are civil society.
This contest may have still greater implications. It may really come down to the fate of the rule of law itself. If we allow international law, and particularly international human rights law, to be marginalized or even done away with, we will return to same international conditions that destroyed the League of Nations, facilitated the rise of the fascists, Nazis and Stalinists, and allowed for the prolonged existence of apartheid South Africa. In each case the lack of effective international human rights law helped lead to a drastic deterioration in the domestic rule of law in countries like Italy, Germany, Russia and South Africa. And, today we can see signs of deterioration of the rule of law in countries such as Israel and, to a lesser but still real extent, the United States.
There is a lot at stake here and we can be thankful that even as the majority of people blithely go about their daily affairs, a growing minority has become aware of what their governments are doing and its implications for everyone’s future. We should be thankful and supportive – actively supportive.