Archive for the ‘U.S. Domestic Affairs’ Category
The Special Interest Problem – An Analysis (27 October 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – A Problem with a History
The problem of special interests or lobbies was one of the foremost concerns of the Founding Fathers of the United States. In their day they were called factions. James Madison, who is considered the architect of the U.S. Constitution, devoted the entire tenth Federalist Paper (1787) to the problem. He defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority … actuated by some common … interest, adverse to … the aggregate interests of the community,” and believed that within the context of liberal republicanism, they could never be eliminated. However, he did feel they could be controlled. To this end he sought to create representative bodies with high numbers of delegates and a wide diversity of interests in the hope that they would counterbalance each other.
When George Washington delivered his famous Farewell Address in 1796, he too noted the problem. Washington warned of “combinations and associations” which attempt to “direct, control, counteract and awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities” and thereby substitute their own desires for the “delegated will of the nation.” As Washington’s continued concern implied, James Madison’s approach to controlling special interests or factions never proved adequate.
Part II – Lobbification
Today, the problem is still with us and is worse than ever. That is why in April 2011 I coined the word “lobbification” to describe the corruptive process that bends politicians to the will of special interests – that is, to the will of lobbies. The vehicle that makes this process possible is, of course, money, usually in the form of campaign contributions to a politician. If the politician defies the lobby making the offer (a rare event but not unheard of), that special interest will throw its support to the defiant politician’s electoral opponent. The result is that most politicians are in lockstep with the demands of multiple powerful special interests.
James Madison believed that this corruptive process is a consequence of human nature – self-interest in action. Perhaps that is so, but the results are no less debilitating. So Pavlovian are the responses created by lobbification that, today, politicians in this state of mind cannot tell the difference between the parochial interests of those powerful factions to which they are indebted and the actual national or local interests of their country or community.
Part III – Two Examples
Here are two recent examples of the power of lobbification. On 18 July 2014, acting in response to the urgings of the Zionist lobby, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to support Israel’s ongoing attack on the Gaza Strip. This from a Congress known for its inability to agree on just about any legislation important to their own country! The senators voted their support even though the Israeli action was of the same character as the German attacks on London during the Blitz and the Allied destruction of the German city of Dresden toward the end of World War II. In other words, the Israelis were engaged in a large-scale operation targeting a civilian population. That is a war crime and cannot be justified as an act of self-defense. Yet the U.S. Senate, to a person, publicly supported this criminal behavior.
It might be noted here that there were serious divisions of opinion about Israeli behavior among the American public – that is, the Senate’s constituency. But the senators seemed immune from the popular debate and responded as if represented the Zionist lobby and not the American public.
On the domestic front, meaningful regulatory gun legislation, be it national or local, appears to be politically impossible because of the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA). This is so despite a proliferation of gun-related deaths and injuries in our homes, on our streets, and in our schools. The arguments of NRA supporters usually imply that regulation of firearms would be the death knell of hunting, of target shooting, and of gun collecting, and even the ability to act in self-defense. Yet rational and reasonable gun regulation is not the same as prohibition, and to act as if they are the same is, in my opinion, a paranoid point of view. Then there is the Second Amendment argument that allows many supporters of the NRA to fantasize that they are enrolled in a “well regulated militia” without which the U.S. can not remain a free society. Free from what? From the authoritarian potential of the state with its immensely better armed police and military branches? This is just naive. If the government wants to act in a dictatorial fashion, armed members of the NRA will not be able to stop it.
In truth, rational control of firearms does not threaten our freedom. It makes us freer by enhancing our safety from the growing plague of gun violence that NRA lobbying presently forces most of our politicians to ignore or deny.
Here it is important to note that the National Rifle Association leadership often fails to accurately represent its own membership, much less that of the general public. A 2013 Pew survey found that 74% of NRA members supported universal background checks for private gun sales (as did 94% of the general American public). Nonetheless, at the urging of the NRA the Senate voted against this requirement in the same year. As with the Zionist lobby and public concern over its particularistic foreign policy, many senators are immune from the popular debate on gun control and respond as if they represent the NRA lobby and not the American public.
Part IV – The Need for Regulation
Madison was right in one regard: regulation of the power of factions/special interests/lobbies to influence politicians and policies is an absolute necessity. However, here we run up against a real Catch 22 dilemma. That regulatory legislation, and other related efforts such as campaign finance reform, must come from the same politicians who are financially bound to special interests. Like those with a strong addiction, they seem unable to free themselves from the monkey on their back.
If there is a way out of this dilemma it must come from the general public. The long-standing dissatisfaction with politicians, especially on the national level, must be channeled into .a popular campaign to free the legislators and policy makers from the influence of narrow interests. Think of this as an effort to clear away an historical obstacle to good governance. If this does not happen, the foreign policies that have promoted so much anti-American hostility worldwide, and the domestic policy that has allowed the indiscriminate murder of so many innocent citizens, will continue and indeed grow worse
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.
Zionism and the Educational Elites – An Analysis (23 September 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Zionists Have a Problem
Due to Israel’s brutal racism and repeated attacks on Palestinian civilians, it is losing popular support internationally. As this happens, the Zionists appear to be intensifying pressure on societal and political elites, particularly in the U.S. and other Western states, to maintain policies that support and protect Israel’s criminal behavior. Their vehicle for achieving this goal has always been financial gifts and donations to elite individuals and institutions. These gifts and donations help grease the wheels, so to speak, of the systems of power through which the elites operate, and create a monetary dependency on, among others, Zionist donors. It also creates an obligation to respond to these donor’s needs. The result is a growing disconnect between evolving popular attitudes toward Israel and the static positions held and actions taken by the elites.
American Zionist leaders are aware of this gap and they take it seriously. However, they have a problem in that open debate and the offering of evidence can no longer win the argument for their side. In short, the Zionists don’t have a monopoly anymore on the story of how Israel came to be and Palestine came not to be. And without that monopoly the imperialist origins and ongoing racist nature of Israel are can no longer be concealed.
Part II – Donor Blackmail
If you cannot win by debate, how do you combat the growing popular suspicion of Israeli and Zionist actions? You do it by pressuring the donor-dependent elite leadership of institutions, such as universities and colleges, to suppress and punish those who criticize Israel. That such action, if carried forth in public institutions in the U.S., would be a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, does not bother the Zionists at all. Their standard of rights is that practiced in the discriminatory environment of Israel and not the ideal established by the United States constitution.
A good example of American Zionists subtly urging what is in fact unconstitutional behavior can be seen in a letter sent by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an aggressive Zionist organization, to top administrators at several U.S. universities and colleges.
The letter purports to offer “information and recommendations about how to respond to conflicts that may arise on your campus due to the recent conflict in Gaza.” It goes on to accuse those critical of Israel of “stifling dialogue … refusing to work with pro-Israel and Jewish student groups” and pressuring educational institutions to “engage in ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ activities.” The letter goes on to warn that 23 September 2014 will be a day of “action on college campuses” by such groups critical of Israel as American Muslims for Palestine.
It is interesting that the letter seeks to turn the tables on pro-Palestine groups by labeling them as the ones that seek to limit freedom of speech by advocating the boycott of Israel. On the one hand, this is a misinterpretation of the tactical rules of the boycott (which principally targets Israeli institutions rather than individuals) and, on the other, it fails to mention that Israel is a country that systematically undermines the civil rights of the Palestinians. The ADL letter also ignores the fact that Zionist organizations on U.S. campuses (Hillel, for example) actively try to suppress dialogue and debate when it comes to Israel. The letter goes on to accuse those who stand against Israel of “attempting to harass and intimidate Jewish and other students.” Actually, there have indeed been minor instances of such behavior on both sides of what is, after all, a very heated issue. However, when it comes to modeling the suppression of rights, it should be noted that Israel has turned harassment and punishment of Palestinians and their few Jewish Israeli supporters into a high art.
The ADL letter concludes with an invitation that seeks to strengthen the dependency of academic administrative elites on this highly biased Zionist organization. It states, “As one of the country’s premier civil rights organizations, ADL has decades of experience in helping administrators and students on campus respond to bigotry and intergroup strife. We would be happy to discuss the challenges many campuses face today and to assist your efforts to ensure your campus remains a place where all viewpoints can be discussed.” So said the spider to the fly.
The ADL might have been a “premier civil rights organization” in 1913, when it was founded, but soon after 1967 it went the way of most major American Jewish organizations by becoming a mouthpiece for the uncritical defense of Israel. To this end it has confused opposition to Israel and its behavior with anti-Semitism and, in doing so, has lost any ability to objectively know what civil rights means within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
Part III – Tragic Consequences
So why would a highly placed academic administrator such as Chancellor Linda Katehi, of the University of California, Davis, accept this missive from the ADL and distribute it to all her vice chancellors, deans and, significantly, the head of the UC Davis police department? Because, unlike her student constituency, which is evolving an accurate view and critique of Israel, she is stuck in the world of elites dominated by donors and ideologues who have always been pro-Israel. In other words, her world remains static while the world outside her clique is changing.
It is because of the continuing vulnerability of higher education’s administrative elites to donor blackmail that we continue to witness the tragic and unjust treatment of scholars and teachers who have taken a public stand against Israel. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times describes the negative institutional consequences:
“For any university, but especially a public institution … the encroachment of donor pressure on the administration is a harbinger of the destruction of academic freedom. Wealthy donors are able to step in and exert strong influence because public funding sources, such as the state legislature, have systematically withdrawn support for public universities. They seldom have an interest in independent, objective academic study; they’re interested in advancing their own notions of how the world works or should work – in ideology, not ideas.”
Donor blackmail is the last front line for the Zionists as they continue to suffer defeats in the battle for public opinion. Unfortunately, their activities on this front have resulted in dozens of ruined careers, and no doubt there will be more in the future. As Stephen Lendman has observed, American Zionists have collectively taken on the role of a modern-day Joe McCarthy now attempting to purge higher education of those critical of Israel. In so doing they join the ranks of other dubious pressure groups such as those who would purge the teaching of evolution from the classrooms and censor books in our libraries. And, in the case of the operatives at the ADL, they go about this corrupting process while proclaiming themselves a “premier civil rights organization.” Well, you know the old saying: actions speak louder than words.
International Law vs U.S. Democratic Practice – An Analysis (13 September 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Importance of International Law
International law is vital to the welfare of every man, woman and child on this planet, although the vast majority of them do not know this is so. The vital aspect lies in the fact that the universally applicable nature of human rights – which prohibit such actions as the use of torture, arbitrary arrest and detention while supporting freedom of movement, conscience, cultural rights and the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, among other things – has its primary foundation in international law. Examples of this can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various Geneva Conventions.
To understand just how important international law is to the universal application of human rights, one has to consider just how inadequate to this end are national and local laws. This inadequacy should come as no surprise. For hundreds of years now, the dominant form of political organization has been the nation-state. The most common sort of law is that specific to the state, and in the vast majority of cases, protection of rights under such law is reserved for the citizen. In other words, if you are not a citizen of a particular state, you cannot assume you have any rights or protections within that state’s borders. Worse yet, if you happen to be stateless (and the number of such people is rapidly increasing), you are without local legal rights just about everywhere.
Ideally, this is not how things should go. Indeed, Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” And, if you find yourself in a country that has ratified this Declaration, you should come under its protection. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case in practice. The mystique of the nation-state and the nativism that goes along with it often leads to the denigration of this vital legal obligation just because it originates from outside of the state.
Part II – U.S. Behavior
Many people in the West assume that the denigration of international law upholding human rights occurs mostly within authoritarian states – states that do not protect such rights for their own citizens, much less recognize them as universally applicable. But that is not the case. Such flouting of international law is common among democracies as well. It is even noticeable in the behavior of the United States. Take for instance the current treatment of illegal immigrants. Their human rights are certainly not respected in this country which, historically, is a nation of immigrants.
The problem goes beyond the maltreatment of immigrants. In fact, the current dismissive attitude toward human rights and the international laws that uphold them has its roots in the fear of terrorism. Such actions as arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, the use of torture, and so forth are all justified by the so-called war on terror. These actions by the U.S. government are illegal under international law, but because the enforcement of law is almost always the business of the state, and the United States is a “superpower,” who is to call U.S. officials to account for their crimes? No one. International law has no designated policemen.
Part III – The Culpability of Special Interest Politics
Although the “war on terror” appears to be an open-ended one, its influence on policy and national behavior may wax and wane. There are other obstacles that are actually structurally embedded within U.S. democratic practice that also undermine adherence to international law. One of these is the pervasive influence of apparently all powerful special interests or lobbies in the formation of state policy.
Within the United States, there are a myriad number of special interests that ply the halls of power at every level of government. Some of them are dedicated to good causes. Indeed, advocates for human rights and supporters of international law have their own, albeit not very influential, lobbies.
There are other interests of great power, however, that devote themselves to, among other things, the dehumanization of entire groups of people. A good example are the Zionists whose multiple lobbies influence U.S. Middle East policy so as to assure unquestioned support of Israel, and thereby secure American involvement not only in the destruction of Palestinian human rights, but of the Palestinians as a nation and a people. In short, the power of some special interests is sufficient to involve the U.S. in what amounts to international criminal behavior.
The average U.S. citizen, engrossed as he or she is in their local environment, does not understand this aspect of their politics. The media, from which U.S. citizens take most of their information on government behavior, are themselves subject to the influence of the same special interests that stalk the halls of power in Washington, D.C. Therefore, the media cannot be relied upon to educate the citizenry on the role of lobbies. We are thus faced with a messy set of problems: widespread lack of popular awareness of how special interests can control government, what this can result in, and the fact that this lack of awareness is likely compounded by the public’s equally widespread apathy regarding their own ignorance.
It is this insularity and the know-nothing attitude that goes along with it that has allowed special interests to become the main center of political power in America. Short of catastrophic political breakdown, this arrangement is not going to change. The only thing that those who value international law and human rights can do is to continue to build their own special interest lobbies and compete for influence in government against the dehumanizers and other assorted international law breakers.
Justice Corrupted – An Analysis (10 July 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Dogmatists in the Justice System
Scattered throughout the ranks of U.S. federal prosecutors and judges there have always been men and women who are unwilling to make a distinction between their own biases and the rules of evidence that are designed to keep the system focused on the goal of justice. Such closed-minded individuals, embedded in the system, can find themselves set free to act out their prejudices by special circumstances. One might think back to the “hanging judges” who appeared here and there on the American frontier in the 19th century. Being among the few enforcers of law and order in an otherwise anarchic environment, they indulged their fantasies of playing the wrathful god.
The “War on Terror” has likewise created a special circumstance that has liberated Justice Department dogmatists: Islamophobes, Zionists, neoconservatives and others who fancy themselves on a special mission to protect the nation from evil and conspiratorial forces. And, as with the hanging judges before them, the result has been an enhanced possibility not of justice, but rather of the miscarriage of justice.
Part II – The Case of Sami Al-Arian
In the past twenty years one of the most notable victims of doctrinaire judges and prosecutors has been Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian is the son of Palestinian-refugee parents. He came to the United States in 1975 to attend university and earned his degree in computer systems engineering. Eventually he earned a Ph.D. and obtained a tenure-track position at the University of South Florida.
Not only did Al-Arian become a prominent professor, winning several teaching awards, but he also became a community activist, defending the civil liberties of minority groups, particularly Muslim Americans. During the Clinton administration he was an active campaigner against the Justice Department’s pre-9/11 use of “secret evidence” to hold people in jail indefinitely. He also actively and publicly supported the right of Palestinians to resist Israeli oppression.
At some point in the mid-1990s what may have been a coordinated effort to ruin Dr. Al-Arian developed among neoconservative and Zionist elements. Steven Emerson, a man who has made his living as a faux expert on terrorism and a professional Islamophobe, accused one of Al-Arian’s organizations, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, of being a “terrorist front.” This accusation proved to be baseless, but it nonetheless led other Islamophobe radicals to focus on Al-Arian. Some of these people resided within the Justice Department and the FBI, and they went on a fishing expedition looking for alleged connections between Al-Arian and a recently designated “terrorist organization” called the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
During the 2000 presidential election Al-Arian became a prominent figure in national politics as it played out in Florida. His major concern was the government’s use of secret evidence, and it was George W. Bush who promised to rein in the practice. Therefore Al-Arian backed Bush in the election. His trust in this regard proved horribly misplaced.
On September 26, 2001, Bill O’Reilly invited Al-Arian onto his TV show ostensibly to discuss Arab-American reactions to the 9/11 attacks. It was a trap. O’Reilly immediately asked Al-Arian if he had said “Jihad is our path. Victory to Islam. Death to Israel” at a rally thirteen years before (in 1988). Though Al-Arian tried to explain that it was a reference to his support for Palestinian resistance against apartheid policies in Israel, O’Reilly proclaimed that the CIA should watch Al-Arian from now on. Almost at once Al -Arian started to receive death threats. At this point the University of South Florida placed him on administrative leave. He would eventually be fired by the University.
The O’Reilly interview may have been a public relations booster for the ongoing Justice Department investigation mentioned above.That lasted until September 2003, when Al-Arian and three others were indicted on 25 counts of “racketeering” for the PIJ. The Bush administration’s Attorney General John Ashcroft went on television to extol the indictment as a great blow against terrorism (thus confusing an indictment with a conviction) that was made possible by the extensive powers of the USA PATRIOT Act. Among these powers were those George W. Bush had promised Al-Arian he would rein in.
After a 5-month, 13-day trial Al-Arian was acquitted on 8 counts and the jury deadlocked on the remaining 17. When a juror was interviewed after the trial and asked what was lacking in the government’s case he replied, “evidence.” Nonetheless, the outcome allowed the government to hold Al-Arian pending retrial on those deadlocked counts. The case had a distinctly contrived and corrupt feel to it – the result of Islamophobes turned loose by the events of 9/11 to substitute their own biases for the rules of legal evidence.
In 2006 Dr. Al-Arian was still in prison. His health was deteriorating and the strain on his family (his wife and five children) was great. Given the situation he agreed to a plea bargain agreement whereby he would plead guilty to one count of acting in a fashion that benefited the PIJ. In exchange the other counts would be dismissed by the government. He would be incarcerated for a relatively short period on the guilty count with time already served counting toward this sentence. In order to secure the plea bargain, Al-Arian also had to agreed to be deported upon release.
Once more the government, in this case the judge and the federal prosecutor, proved untrustworthy. Despite the jury verdict, the judge had decided that Sami Al-Arian was a “master manipulator” and “a leader of Palestine Islamic Jihad.” This was exactly what the jury decided the evidence could not substantiate. However, the judge, moved by emotional convictions, had equated statements on the part of Al-Arian showing understanding of acts of Palestinian resistance with actual material support of those actions. In doing so the judge went beyond the rules of evidence and corrupted the system he was sworn to serve. The judge gave Dr. Al-Arian not the minimum recommended in the plea bargain but the maximum of 57 months for the one count to which he pled guilty.
Then began a series of additional prosecutorial steps involving the issuing of repeated subpoenas demanding that Al-Arian testify at grand jury investigations. This was also in defiance of his plea bargain and so he refused. He was held in civil and later criminal contempt which added substantially to his jail time.
So egregious was the behavior of the prosecutors seeking his testimony that another, more objective judge eventually stepped in and halted the government’s efforts to force Sami Al-Arian’s to appear before grand juries. Dr. Al-Arian was also let out of prison and allowed to live under a liberal form of house arrest at his daughter’s home in Virginia. His case was held in a kind of legal limbo until just recently, when on 27 June 2014, prosecutors decided to drop all charges against Al-Arian. One should not think of this as a total victory, for the government still intends to deport Sami Al-Arian.
Sami Al-Arian and his family had to endure eleven years of persecution on the basis of assumptions that were substituted for evidence. In the process the life of an upright man, devoted to teaching, charitable works and the cause of a persecuted people, was ruined. The people who did this to him simultaneously corrupted the justice system the integrity of which they were sworn to uphold.
Part III – Other Victims
While Sami Al-Arian was perhaps the most high-profile of these cases, his was not the only one. Four members of the Holy Land Foundation charity were charged with materially aiding Hamas when, in fact, all the foundation did was supply money to charitable Palestinian organizations which had been accredited by Israel. It took two trials, one in 2007 and another 2008, for the U.S. government to eke out a conviction on weak evidence that included the testimony of anonymous Israeli witnesses.The Supreme Court refused to interfere with this prima facie unconstitutional procedure.
At present a Palestinian civil rights activist in Chicago, Rasmea Odeh, is being prosecuted for an alleged immigration fraud for failing to report on her immigration application that forty-five years ago, when she was a child, she was arrested by the Israeli military and briefly held without charge. The same prosecutor who went after the Holy Land Foundation is involved in the prosecution of Odeh.
Part IV – Conclusion
Times of high tension often result in the lowering of important standards in the application of law. They do so by heightening the fears of the general public, which in turn gives license to bigots embedded in the justice system such as judges and prosecutors who have Islamophobic prejudices, Zionist biases, or neoconservative delusions. All of these motives may come into play in cases such as those mentioned above.
Normally the appeals process should catch and reverse such problematic behavior. However, if the period of public fear is prolonged, the appeals process might also become corrupted by public hysteria and political pressures. It took Sami Al-Arian eleven years to overcome his prosecutorial ordeal and those of the Holy Foundation members and Rasmea Odeh are ongoing.
The last word on this dilemma should go to Sami Al-Arian’s son, Abdullah, who in a recent statement observed,“It’s a sad day when you have to leave America to be free.” Indeed, when dogmatists are in control none of us are really free.
Repugnant Republicans – An Analysis (12 June 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Something Disturbing
There is something disturbing about the Republican response to just about everything President Obama does. It has a knee-jerk yet patterned nature. It displays a meanness that is acted out with a certain gloating quality as well. Take for instance Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouting “You Lie!” during Obama’s speech to Congress on health care. Wilson’s anger was displayed with the malicious satisfaction of a nasty child. Subsequently, Republican politicians have called President Obama a “tar baby,” a socialist, lazy, Hitler, and perhaps most tellingly, un-American. None these epithets are accurate, yet apparently they are believed to be true not only by the persons who said them, but many others among the Republican base.
What is the reason for this?
The New York Times editors think Republican attitudes towards Obama are politically motivated. As they put it in an editorial on 5 June 2014, referencing Republican reaction to the negotiated release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan: “The last few days have made clearer than ever that there is no action the Obama administration can take — not even the release of a possibly troubled American soldier from captivity — that cannot be used for political purposes by his opponents.” Of course the Democrats are political opportunists as well, but usually they do not operate in such a persistently mean-spirited manner.
According to liberal commentator M.J. Rosenberg the source of Republican animosity is racial. “The right knows that nothing they can do will remove … what they see as the … the indelible stain of an African American president having been elected. Twice.” However, seeing racism as a primary motivation is probably inadequate. The Republicans reacted in a similarly bloodthirsty way toward Bill Clinton when he was caught fooling around with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. At that time Republican congressmen gleefully rushed to impeach Clinton even though a number of them had pursued extramarital affairs of their own.
Part II – Fear and Loathing
No doubt there are Republicans who are both racist and politically unprincipled in their attitudes to President Obama. However, it seems to me that there is something else going on – something repugnantly familiar – a suffocatingly narrow defining of the nation, an intolerance and disdain of everything outside of that definition, and a belligerency toward those who disagree. What some Republicans are doing is declaring President Obama not only politically wrong but downright un-American, someone who is, in essence, a traitor. Against this backdrop the Republican moderates are very few and very quiet.
The last time we got a glimpse of this attitude was during the 2011 televised Republican presidential primary debates. Back in December 2011 I wrote an analysis entitled “So What Shall We Ruin in November 2012?” that noted this outlook. Here, in summary, is some of that piece:
Most of the Republican nominees are reflections of the so-called Republican base, representatives of which constitute the audience for the presidential primary debates. There is something at once humorous and horrifying about this audience. Their cheers and jeers reflect attitudes that used to be seen only at drunken fraternity parties and out-of-control soccer games.
Who are these people with whom the Republican hopefuls now identify? They appear to be highly partisan Republicans who largely define themselves by what they don’t like: minorities, abortion, big government and the lack of religion in politics, among other things. When we say these are aspects of society they don’t like we really mean that they feel personally threatened by them and see them undermining their way of life. Therefore, they approach those who appear to represent these aspects of public life with fear and loathing. People who meet this description make up about 20 percent of eligible voters in the U.S.
What is important to understand is that these are not just people addicted to a set of traditions. They are folks who possess a nebulous anger, which is the other side of the coin of their fear. This anger can potentially lead them to act in dangerous ways. And, of course in the U.S., most of these people are armed. The Republican Party leadership, from Nixon onward, has catered to this 20 percent – not just because these leaders are political opportunists, but also because they have an unhealthy affinity for this population and its outlook. That today’s Republican leadership has this affinity constitutes one of the major differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.
Part lll – On the Democratic Side
President Obama’s response to the consistent nastiness of his opponents is usually mild and ineffectual. For instance, referring to the stubborn Republican opposition to his health care reform, he complained, “This does frustrate me, [Republican controlled] states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite. You got 5 million people who could be having health insurance right now, at no cost to these states – zero cost to these states – [yet] other than ideological reasons, they have chosen not to provide health insurance for their citizens.” The president’s observation is quite true, but truth rarely breaks down the barriers put up by ideology.
Obama’s response reflects the liberal take on politics and social decorum. Reason and compromise are supposed to be the guiding lights of domestic public life. While this might have been possible in the days before Richard Nixon led the Republican Party it is not so today. As Obama realized, reason has nothing to do with Republican actions. Those actions are now directed by a nebulous ideology that partakes of anarchism, laissez faire economics, and neoconservative aggressiveness all at once. Underlying it all is a fear and anger that breeds meanness and the behavior of the bully.
Of course the Democrats are also capable of saying and doing stupid things. However, their foibles and hypocrisies tend to be based on misplaced principles (as against no principle at all). Take Secretary of State Kerry’s recent “Man Up” proclamation reported on 29 May 2014. Referring to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who revealed that the agency was pursuing wholesale spying on just about the entire U.S. population. Kerry said the following: “The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country where he has taken refuge. He should man up and come back to the United States.”
This was a stupid and misleading statement. It is actually U.S. leaders, starting with George W. Bush and continuing on with President Obama, who “betrayed their country” by allowing the NSA to run wild. Snowden just caught them at it and made their betrayal public. However, as distasteful and downright silly as is Kerry’s “man up” pronouncement, it lacks the hateful quality of the typical Republican attack stance.
Part IV – Conclusion
There is a qualitative difference between today’s Democrats and Republicans. That difference does not lie in the potential to pursue policies that negatively impact the world. Both parties do that. The difference is in their attitude toward policy and action as such. When it comes to the Democrats, particularly their supporting base, many of them seem to retain the ability to think critically about their positions and sometimes even change course. But with the Republicans, one gets the sense that they are really true believers. They see their positions and actions as absolutely right and good, and if you disagree with them you are absolutely wrong and bad. In other words, while both parties are often dangerously wrong, the Republicans are wrong in a demented ideological fashion. As such they really are more repugnant than the Democrats.
Class Segregation and the Housing Market – An Analysis (2 June 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Class Discrimination
There are many forms of discrimination, but one that Americans seem to have a high tolerance for is that based on class. Class discrimination is a natural outcome of capitalist ideology. That ideology, in turn, has been assimilated into American culture to the point that even the poor accept it on the assumption that they or their children might someday become rich.
Thus, unlike race and sex discrimination, that based on class has gone largely underregulated. Eventually the result is a number of embarrassing instances of abuse that become hard to ignore. That is what has happened in New York City’s housing market, as testified to by an expose on the front page of last Sunday’s (18 May 2014) New York Times real estate section.
Part II – The Situation:
Since 1943 New York City has sought to protect the income diversity of its population by classifying a percentage of its housing market as “rent-controlled” or “rent-stabilized.” There are technical differences between these statuses, but we will refer to them both as part of a regime of “rent-regulation.” Landlords and developers who provide a certain number of such “affordable housing units” (particularly rent-stabilized units) alongside of apartments renting or selling at market rates can qualify for city-or-state-subsidized low-interest loans and tax breaks. Even though the landlords and developers are thereby benefiting from publicly provided money, they still complain that the rent-regulation regime is a burden. While, with some exceptions, it does not prevent them from making a profit, it can prevent them from maximizing their profit. And that, of course, is what capitalism is supposed to let the businessperson do.
The piece in Sunday’s New York Times real estate section is all about how the landlords and developers are trying to make life unpleasant for their rent-regulated residents, who, as of 2011, have a median income of $51,000 and pay a median rent of $1,321 a month. Ultimately, as Mark Zborovsky, “a broker who sells bundles of rent-regulated apartments to investors,” put it, “his [the landlord’s] goal is to get him [the tenant] out of the apartment.” If these tenants do leave, their dwellings cease to be regulated and can be rented anew at market rates – which can be as high as $7,000 a month for a two-bedroom flat.
Part III – Some Examples
The tactic now being employed by the landlords and developers is to add amenities to existing buildings – things like roof gardens, gyms, playrooms for children, added storage areas and the like – and then prevent those tenants in rent-regulated apartments from using them. It is an interesting fact that in this game of class discrimination the doormen and other building staff become the ones charged with enforcing segregation for the owners.
The landlords and developers argue that these new amenities are “market tools” to attract high-end tenants who will pay market rates for apartments. Therefore, the amenities should be reserved for such residents. Actually, this only makes sense if you assume the potential high-end renter cares who else will be using the gym or playroom. In other words, the landlords and developers are assuming their clientele have the same class bias and resentments as themselves. Based on this assumption, some of them have gone so far as to put in separate lobbies and entrances (nicknamed “poor doors”) for those living in rent-regulated apartments. Here is how David Von Spreckelsen, the president of the development company Toll Brothers City Living puts it, “The two populations [rent-regulated and market rate payers] don’t mix at all. It really feels separate.” Of course, after Mr. Von Spreckelsen gets done segregating the two groups of tenants, his statement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The fact that the practices of Mr. Von Spreckelsen and those like him are making rent-regulated tenants feel like, as one of them put it, “a second-class citizen in my own home” seems not to matter. That is probably because, in the landlord and developer’s capitalist worldview, the tenants residing in such apartments are indeed, by definition, second-class citizens.
Part IV – The Need for Regulation
Alas for Von Spreckelsen, the rent-regulated tenants are also voting citizens. There are hundreds of thousands of them in New York City, and their complaints have reached the mayor’s office and city council. Newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio had made an issue of the “dwindling availability of affordable housing” in his campaign for office, and some city council members are busy drafting legislation that would “expand the city’s anti-discrimination code to include rent-regulated tenants.”
However, one should not see this as much more than a holding action against an ongoing and successful effort by landlords and developers to erode the number of rent-regulated apartments they have to maintain. One can see it in the annual decreasing percentage of rent-controlled residences: 2002 = 2.8%; 2005 = 2.1%; 2008 = 1.9 %; 2011 = 1.8%. Those in the rent-stabilized category have fallen from 63% in 1980 to 47% in 2011. Some of this decline is the result of attrition. Those in these affordable apartments are generally an older crowd. However, perhaps more important in the long run is that the landlords and developers have the nation’s economic ideology on their side as well as a lot of money to pay out to ambitious politicians. Ultimately, New York City may well become a city gentrified for the wealthy. The poor will have nowhere else to go but the next slum over, and the middle class will be pushed out altogether, largely to the towns and suburbs of New Jersey.
Part V – Conclusion
The condition of the New York City’s real estate market is symptomatic of a much broader problem of class discrimination and segregation. You can see it in the wealth-based segregated nature of everything from accommodations on trains and planes to the more serious discrepancies between suburbs and inner cities. In the fields of health care and criminal justice, the wealthy go in one door and the rest of us in another. In this country exceedingly little comes to you because you are a human being, or even because you are a citizen. Almost everything you get, or don’t get, is a function of how much you can or are willing to pay.
Against this backdrop one must sadly conclude that rent-regulation is an anomaly, a policy that is at odds with American culture. It is also a window on the inhumane economic practices we have become so addicted to. Could such an addiction lead to an overdose? And if does, will we then learn that regulation is necessary and healthy?
The Role of the Intellectual – An Analysis (22 May 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Watershed Moments
World Wars I and II created watershed moments in the lives of Western intellectuals, defined here as those who are guided by their intellect and critical thinking, and understand various aspects of the world mainly through ideas and theories which they express through writing, teaching and other forms of public address. Just how were they to respond to the call of patriotic duty that seduced the vast majority of citizens to support acts of mass slaughter? What constituted a proper response is often debated. How most of them did respond is a matter of historical record.
During the world wars most intellectuals on all sides of the conflicts uncritically lent their talents to their government’s war efforts. Some did so as propagandists and others as scientists. Some actually led their nations into the fray, as was the case with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson held a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, had taught at Cornell, Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, and became president of Princeton University. Eventually he was elected President of the United States and, having taken the nation to war, sanctioned the creation of a massive propaganda machine under the auspices of the “Committee on Public Information.” He also supported the passage of the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress all anti-war sentiments. Wilson never experienced combat, but another intellectual, the British poet Siegfried Sassoon, did so in the trenches of the Western front. After this experience he wrote, “war is hell and those who initiate it are criminals.” No doubt that was his opinion of the intellectual President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1928 the French philosopher and literary critic Julien Benda published an important book, The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. In this work Benda asserted that it is the job of the intellectual to remain independent of his or her community’s ideologies and biases, be they political, religious or ethnic. Only by so doing could he or she defend the universal practices of tolerance and critical thinking that underpin civilization. Not only were they to maintain their independence, but they were also obligated to analyze their community’s actions and, where necessary, call them into question.
However, as the memory of the intellectuals’ complicity in World War I faded, so did the memory of Benda’s standard of behavior. By World War II it held little power against the renewed demands of national governments for citizens to rally around the flag. Thus, in that war, with even greater atrocities being committed, most intellectuals either supported the slaughter or remained silent. Some became fascists, others communists, and all too many once more lent their talents to propaganda machines and war industries in all the fighting states.
As a result the debate over the proper role of the intellectual in relation to power and ideology continues to this day. It is not a question that needs a world war to be relevant. There are any number of ongoing situations where nationalism, ethnicity, or religious views spark intolerance and violence. And with each of them the intellectuals, particularly those whose home states are involved, have to make the same age-old choice. Do they follow Woodrow Wilson’s path or that of Julien Benda?
Part II – The Fate of the Jewish Intellectual
This problem has recently been raised in reference to the seemingly endless Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On 14 April 2014 Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University, published an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz entitled, “Is It Possible to Be a Jewish Intellectual?” In this piece she sets forth two opposing positions: one is the Zionist/Israeli demand for the primacy of “ahavat Israel,” or the “love of the Jewish nation and people” – the claim that all Jews have a “duty of the heart” to be loyal to the “Jewish nation.” The other position is that of the lone intellectual (here her model is the philosopher Hannah Arendt), whose obligation is to maintain the “disinterested intelligence” necessary to, if you will, speak truth to power.
Illouz explains that Zionists have a “suspicion of critique” and use “the memorialization of the Shoah” (the Holocaust) and “ahavat Israel” to mute it. “The imperative of solidarity brings with it the injunction to not oppose or express publicly disagreement with official Jewish bodies.” It is within this context that she can ask if it is still possible to be a Jewish intellectual, at least as portrayed of by Julien Benda. Illouz’s conclusion is that it has become exceedingly difficult to be so, particularly in the diaspora communities, where the demands for Jewish solidarity are particularly “brutal.”
Illouz is unhappy with this situation. While she feels the allure of ahavat Israel, she ultimately supports the position of the independent-mindedness of Benda’s thinker. She insists that the “contemporary Jewish intellectual has an urgent task … to unveil the conditions under which Jewish solidarity should or should not be accepted, debunked or embraced. In the face of the ongoing, unrelenting injustices toward Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel, his/her moral duty is to let go, achingly, of that solidarity.”
Part III – The Primacy of Group Solidarity
While the portrayal of the intellectual as a thinker insisting on and practicing the right of critical thinking about society and its behavior is an ancient one (consider Socrates here), such behavior is not common in practice. This, in turn, calls Benda’s notion of a proper intellectual into question.
Thus the description of an intellectual offered at the beginning of this essay (which is in line with common dictionary definitions) does not reference any particular direction of thought. For instance, in practice there is nothing that requires an intellectual to think about societal or government behaviors, much less take a critical public position on such matters. And, no doubt, there are many very talented minds who, deeply involved in aesthetic matters or certain branches of scientific, linguistic, literary or other pursuits, do not involve themselves with issues of the use or abuse of power.
In addition, one might well be judged an intellectual and be a supporter or even a perpetrator of criminal policies and actions. Woodrow Wilson might fall within this category, as might Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and many others.
Indeed, from a historical perspective most people of high intellect have sought to serve power and not critique or question it. This is quite in line with the fact that most non-intellectuals accept the word of those in power as authoritative and true. According to Eva Illouz this reflects the primacy of group solidarity over truth. She is correct in this judgment. That, no doubt, is why the independent-minded, outspoken intellectuals demanding moral integrity and responsibility from those in power are so rare, be they Jewish or gentile.
Censorship Is The Norm – An Analysis (9 May 2014) by Lawrence Davidson and Janet Amighi
Part I – Shutting Down the Academics
Most Americans assume the United States government speaks “the truth” to its citizens and defends their constitutional right to “free speech” (be it in the form of words or dollars). On the other hand, it is always the alleged enemies of the U.S. who indulge in propaganda and censoring of “the truth.”
In practice it is not quite that way. Washington, and more local American governments as well, can be quite censoring. Take for instance the attempt to censor the boycott of Israeli academic institutions – institutions engaged in government research that facilitates illegal settlement expansion and the use of Palestinian water resources. In this case, the fact that a call for boycott is an age-old, non-violent practice also falling within the category of free speech, is mostly disregarded. Instead we get a knee-jerk impulse on the part of just about every American politician to shut down debate, even to the point where various state legislatures threatened their own state colleges and universities with a cutoff of funds if they tolerate the boycott effort on their campuses.
It is not only American academics who suffer censorship at the hands of a government that claims to defend freedom of speech. Academics of countries deemed unfriendly to the U.S. have been subjected to the same treatment. Take, for instance, Iranian academics. U.S. trade sanctions on Iran, put in effect in 1980, included strict curbs on academic exchanges. Later, a few in Congress managed to ease these with a “free trade in ideas” amendment, but the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sabotaged the effort. That office violated the spirit of the Congressional amendment by asserting that while there could now be exchanges of information with academics in sanctioned states, say, in the form of manuscripts submitted to U.S. journals for publication, they could not be “enhanced” by such practices as editing for style purposes. Violation of this regulation could result in fines and imprisonment for journal editors. On the other hand, as far as we know, no OFAC official was ever fined, fired or imprisoned for violating the intent of Congress.
Several organizations, including the American Association of Publishers, took the U.S. government to court over the issue in 2003. In 2004 the matter was settled out of court, granting the right of publishers to use standard editing procedures for manuscript submissions from Iran. However, the OFAC has failed to officially promulgate this change in regulations, and as a result many journal editors are ignorant of the revised regulation. Many still “play it safe” and simply return submissions from Iran marked “denied due to sanctions.”
More generally, there are now reports that the internet provider Yahoo, which is used by a 63 percent of Iranians communicating through the worldwide web, has “decided that it will not allow Iranians to create new e-mail accounts. Cutting off access to Yahoo will require many in Iran to use the e-mail service provided by the Iranian government – which, of course, censors communications. Yahoo thus becomes complicit in the process of censoring millions of people.
Part II – Media Manipulation
Perhaps the grossest ongoing censorship of all is the culturally conditioned, narrow range of opinion fed to the vast majority of Americans by their own media. The differences in story lines and opinions in the “news” given by well-watched television channels such as ABC. CBS, NBC and CNN, or those of the nation’s major newspapers and news magazines, is minuscule. One venue that stands out is Fox TV, and its “news” and opinion offerings verge on the mendacious. The narrow range of views offered creates a uniform background noise hiding most of what is at variance with the standard message. In other words, media practices constitute de facto censorship.
So well does this process work that it is probably the case that many news editors and broadcasters and most of the public taking in their reporting do not understand that their reductionism has rendered the constitutional right of free press ineffectual. Really meaningful contrary opinion and reporting (particularly of the progressive persuasion) is so infrequent and marginalized that it stands little chance of competing with the orthodox point of view.
An exception is to be found on the TV channel Comedy Central. There Americans can find the popular Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This show presents the only ongoing, nationally televised critique of the foibles of U.S. government leaders and their policies. But, of course, it all must be done in the form of comical political satire.
As successful as media conditioning is, some elements of the U.S. government feel they must go the extra mile to guarantee that the public receives an acceptable view of events. Take the revelations given in a recent report by Amnesty International on the trial of the so-called Cuban Five (five Cuban residents of Florida arrested for espionage on the part of the Cuban government). Amnesty’s official report on the trial of the five defendants alleges that “the United States [government] paid journalists hostile to Cuba to cover the trial and provide prejudicial articles in the local media asserting the guilt of the accused.” Under such circumstances the “free press” was transformed into a vehicle for government propaganda and this, in turn, helped to generally devalue the right of free speech. We do not know how often the government acts in this corruptive way.
Part III – Et Tu, Obama?
In a report issued late in 2013 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, President Obama, a liberal within our political spectrum, has been accused of pressuring journalists to tow the line. He has done this by “attacking sources, conducting surveillance, creating a climate of fear, and prosecuting double the amount of cases for alleged leaks of classified information as all previous administrations combined.”
As a consequence the global index on media freedom issued annually by the conservative Freedom House alleges that in 2014 the U.S. suffered a sharp erosion of press freedom and the right of the citizen to know what his or her country is doing. The report cites “attempts by the government to inhibit reporting on national security issues” as a major reason for this situation.
At the same time, President Obama makes speeches critiquing foreign governments, such as that in Egypt, for limiting freedom of the press and speech. There is no doubt that the governments he targets are guilty of gross violation of these rights and many more besides. But what is equally true is that the vast majority of Americans can listen to the president castigate these governments with no sense of cognitive dissonance. They do not know that they too are victims of propaganda and manipulation. How could they? They are culturally conditioned to believe that their country is the foundation of freedom and truth. And, beyond their local area, they haven’t the knowledge, or often the interest, to fact-check what their leaders and media agents tell them. That is why it is accurate to describe the U.S. information environment as closed.
Part IV – Censorship Ubiquitous
Actually, there is nothing particularly unique about the self-censoring environment under which Americans live. All states and cultures, to one extent or another, practice this sort of manipulation of the information environment whereby reality is distorted. Thus we can ask, is the United States the great defender of its own constitutional freedoms? It is when it suits the purposes of policy makers. When it doesn’t, hypocrisy prevails. The system is successful because all but a few people are culturally conditioned not to notice or care. Such a manipulative process as this at once helps keep societies cohesive and at the same time creates the conditions wherein hate is easily bred and vast numbers are made willing to charge enemy machine guns.
Those who see through their conditioning and manipulation are, if you will, cultural mistakes. They are also the human race’s best, albeit slim, hope for a saner, more tolerant world.