Archive for June, 2013
The Crime of Indifference – An Analysis (30 June 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Indifference
Elie Wiesel is a worldwide personality. Through his powerful descriptive writing about the Nazi concentration camps, he has come to personify the suffering of the Holocaust. Among his many insights is the famous observation, The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. Wiesel has repeatedly put forth this idea. In a 2011 commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis he told his listeners, The greatest commandment — to me — in the Bible . . . is Thou shalt not stand idly by. Which means when you witness an injustice, dont stand idly by. After a Boston lecture in 2012 Wiesel told Boston University students I think that is the greatest danger, ignorance, which leads to indifference and therefore to detachment. . . .If somebody suffers and I dont do anything to diminish his or her suffering, something is wrong with me.
Unfortunately, Wiesel has identified himself with Zionism and by doing so has inevitably been caught up in contradictions and dilemmas that challenge his reputation as a moral icon. For instance, in May 2010 he made a public appeal to President Obama not to put any pressure on the Israeli government over the issue of Jerusalem even as the Israelis evicted Palestinian residents. In doing so he revealed his own indifference to the real nature of Israeli objectives and behavior. As a result a hundred Israeli intellectuals and activists wrote him a public reply expressing frustration and outrage at his attitude and actions.
Nonetheless, his comments about indifference and insensitivity are important and insightful and can be used as a standard to judge some of his fellow Zionists, many of whom have been standing idly by for decades and thus are examples of Wiesels dictum, if somebody suffers and I dont do anything to diminish his or her suffering, something is wrong with me.
Part II – Israeli Indifference
Recently there have been several articles calling attention to the fact that, as Uri Avnery puts it, We [Israelis] have become so accustomed to this situation [an occupation going on only a few minutes drive from our homes] that we see it as normal. Ethan Bronner, the New York Times former Jerusalem bureau chief, confirmed this pervasive indifference to the suffering that Israeli policies and discriminatory practices cause. Few [Israelis] even talk about the Palestinians . . . .Instead of focusing on what has long been seen as their central challenge — how to share this land with another nation — Israelis are largely ignoring it.
More specifically they are ignoring such revelations as the fact that since September 2000, when the second Intifada broke out, Israeli forces have killed over 1500 Palestinian children. According to the Middle East Monitor, that means one child killed by Israel every 3 days for almost 13 years. In the same time the number of children injured has reached 6000 and the number under the age of 18 arrested is about 9000. The suffering of Palestinians, documented by the United Nations as well as private NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, is ongoing yet apparently unnoticed by the average Israeli.
Nor is any improvement in the situation likely. While Israelis display indifference to Palestinian suffering, the Israeli government has indicated its intention to keep the regime of suffering going indefinitely. According to Israeli trade minister Naftali Bennett, a rising star in the Israeli cabinet, the idea of a Palestinian state is dead and Israel should annex large portions of the West Bank. Danny Danon, the deputy defense minister, agrees. We are a nationalist government, not a government that will establish a Palestinian government in the 1967 lines. Meanwhile, a significant number of Israelis, whether they think about it or not, are profiting from the expanding, and illegal, occupation of Palestinian land.
Part III – The Role of Ignorance
Thus we can ask, using Wiesels words, what is wrong with the Israelis that they care little or nothing for the Palestinians 65 years of suffering? Wiesel himself has part of the answer when he observes ignorance . . . leads to indifference and therefore to detachment.
Ignorance? Is the average Israeli really ignorant in this matter? At first this assertion appears ridiculous. After all, as Avnery notes, the suffering of the Palestinians is never more than minutes from most Israeli backyards, and it now and then violently boomerangs back on Israeli Jews. Nonetheless, a kind of contrived, willful ignorance does come into play. One can be raised in ignorance and educated to a view of history that eliminates others suffering as well as ones role in causing it. Entire populations can be psychologically shaped this way, with those doing the shaping being the truest of the true believers. Such conditioned ignorance lays the foundation for indifference to the fate of others. The Israelis have made an art of this process.
Yet, this scenario is not original with the Israelis and Zionists. In fact, many Zionists learned how to see the world this way from Americans. Some years back I published a book, Americas Palestine in which this legacy is explored. As it turns out, one of the Zionist themes of the 1920s was that the native Palestinians were the Arab equivalent of hostile American Indians, violently resisting the forces of civilization and modernization. What was the average Americans attitude to the fate of these Indians — to their brutal dispossession and ethic cleansing? It was indifference which has grown greater with time until most Americans do not give the Indians or their fate much thought at all.
Several years ago, at a debate held at the University of Pennsylvania, I tried to explain this connection to an Israeli vice consul from the Philadelphia consulate and his coterie of Zionist students. I suggested to them that the long-term Zionist strategy was to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians and then count on the world to, over time, get used to and then forget this crime. In a hundred or a hundred and fifty years, who would cry over the Palestinians? About the same number as bemoan the Apache or Cheyenne today? However, I also told them that in our post-imperialist world, this historical scenario was unlikely to repeat itself. The reception to all of this from the Consul and his hangers-on was negative. They walked out.
Part IV – Conclusion
The indifference, leading to detachment, that Wiesel so fears can quickly become a habitual part of our lives. After all, so much of our lives are just a stream of habitual actions that can be either rationally useful or irrationally unfit for a given situation. It is in the latter case that we get into trouble. When Israelis ignore Palestinian suffering they act in a way irrationally unfit for their given situation and that means, in Wiesels terms, there is something wrong with them. As Americans, we should recognize the symptoms, for we too have repeatedly behaved in this fashion. Having modeled this insensitivity for the Zionists, it now stands as a mark of our special relationship with the land of Israel.
A Concise Answer to Ido Aharoni’s Query ‘Why Boycott Israel?’ (27 June 2013) By Lawrence Davidson
Ido Aharoni, Israel’s Consul General for New York, and also “the founding head of Israel’s brand-management team and the originator of the Brand Israel movement” recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Post (19 June 2013). In it he took to task the famous American novelist Alice Walker for her promotion of a cultural boycott of Israel.
Aharoni explains that, just like most countries in the world, Israel tries to promote “an attractive image”of itself – a sort of Israeli version of “I love New York.” Since, “no other country has ever been criticized for engaging in this common practice of courting tourists and businesses” why does Walker try to interfere with Israel’s branding campaign?
Ahroni knows full well why Walker does so. However, for him the racism and oppression Walker sees institutionalized in Israeli society is not a good reason for a boycott. Ahroni asserts that “Israel, like many places on Earth, experiences a variety of issues and challenges. . . .Israel should not be viewed through the prism of its problems, nor should any other country.” On the other hand, Ahroni wants to know why Walker is not boycotting Syria?
The question of why Americans should boycott Israel in particular, when so many other governments and societies in the world are oppressive and brutal, is an important one. And there is indeed a good answer to it:
The fact that Zionist influence spreads far beyond Israel’s area of dominion and now influences many of the policy making institutions of western governments, and particularly that of the United States, makes it imperative that Israel’s oppressive behavior be singled out as a high priority case for boycott. In other words, unlike other oppressive and brutal governments, the Israelis and their supporters directly influence (one might say corrupt) the policy makers of many Western nations and this often makes their governments (most specifically the U.S.) accomplices in Israel’s abusive policies. This being so, prioritizing Israel for boycott is not hypocrisy but rather necessity.
PERSPECTIVES ON THE SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL – AN ANALYSIS (17 JUNE 2013) BY LAWRENCE DAVIDSON
Part I – Shifting Historical Context
Context One: It is 1971 and the United States is mired in a losing war in Vietnam. Thousands of young American soldiers are coming back to the U.S. in coffins or physically and psychologically maimed. Scenes of war can be witnessed nightly on the evening news. In the midst of this mayhem the American military analyst Daniel Ellsberg gives the New York Times a copy of a classified analysis of the war entitled, United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967 aka the Pentagon Papers. The Nixon administration then sought to prevent the publication of this report through a court injunction. Ultimately the Supreme Court overturned the injunction in a 6-3 ruling that favored the publics right to know. The government also attempted to prosecute Ellsberg under the 1917 Espionage Act for releasing classified information to the public. That was thrown out of court because in making their case, government agents had gathered information through an illegal wiretap. Subsequently, the media widely covered the Pentagon Papers and its demoralizing description of how the U.S. was fighting the war. It can be argued that this reporting helped turn the tide of public opinion against the slaughter in Vietnam.
Context Two: It is 2012-2013 and the United States is waging a War on Terror. This is the result of highly destructive terrorist attacks that occurred a dozen years earlier on September 11, 2001. Both these attacks, the lies and misplaced aggression of the Bush administration that followed, and the skewed media coverage over the intervening years, have sensitized the country to the issue of security. In this environment the government was able to put in place legislation such as the Patriot Act that allows it to, among other things, broadly increase its powers of surveillance both of American citizens and foreigners, and to develop (with the aid of Israeli companies) a secret, massive information gathering program, code named PRISM, and operated by the National Security Agency (NSA). It is also within this environment that a series of whistleblowers revealed to the public both the brutal nature of U.S. warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the widespread spying regime evolved by the American government. Many of these whistleblowers have been charged with felonies and labeled traitors.
Part II – The Whistleblowers Aim: Making the Citizens Aware
Between 1971 and 2012-2013 a lot has changed. However, the seminal difference is that in 1971 a good number of American citizens were being traumatized by the death and maiming of their relatives in a losing war that was publicized in a relatively objective way. In 2012-2013 that factor is missing because the War on Terror does not entail a military draft, has resulted in relatively few U.S. casualties, and is brought to the American people by a managed media. This allows the public to assume what is, in truth, its normal default position: an everyday indifference to national government behavior. The general citizenry is at once uninterested in what the federal government is doing as long as they feel no immediate negative impact (this is particularly true of foreign policy), and naively ready to accept the governments protestations that it is acting in their best interests.
Thus, it is no doubt true that heroes (and indeed they are heroes) such as Pvt. Bradley Manning and NSA employee Edward Snowden, decided to release massive amounts of secret government data in order to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark. However, what the historical record suggests is that, under most circumstances, only a minority of the general population will care. Thus, in the case of the United States, the effectiveness of whistleblowers may be more successfully tested in the law courts wherein meaningful judgment can be rendered on the behavior of the other branches of government, than in the court of public opinion. However, this judicial arena is also problematic because it depends on the changing mix of politics and ideology of those sitting in judgment rather than any consistent adherence to principles. In 1971 judicial judgment went for Ellsberg. In 2013, men like Manning and Snowden probably do not have a snowballs chance in hell.
Part III – The Governments Aim: Maintain the Bureaucratic Rules
The existence of men like Manning, Snowden and a handful of others demonstrates that there are employees of the government who have a superior sense of morality as well as the courage to act on their principles. However, the numbers are very small and they are invariably considered as dangerous mistakes within the system. What of the rest of the governments personnel?
It is important to understand that the vast majority of government employees do not act, except in the most abstract and idealistic way, as citizens of the United States. They are much more immediately, if you will, citizens of the bureaucracies within which they are embedded. This is not an unusual situation. People tend to identify with their local community and for some this may include a strong identification with their place of employment. Also, bureaucracies are notable for setting their own rules and enforcing them as if they were forms of law. Employees are regularly oriented to their bureaucracys institutional worldview. At one time the union movement provided a potential check to this process because class identity was a viable competitor to bureaucratic identity. But the union movement within the United States is very weak. Particularly within secretive organizations such as the CIA or the NSA, competitive points of view are carefully weeded out. Simultaneously, the value set on loyalty to the organization and its rules is very high. Such organizations come first, even before family and friends.
Even most elected politicians are fated to become organization men or women wherein their first loyalty lies not with the electorate or the Constitution, but to their political parties. If they are part of the select group of Senators and Congresspersons associated with the intelligence agencies they will absorb their secretive orientation as well. Take Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) who is head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She has insisted on the need and the worth of massive spying by the NSA whereby the megadata of almost everything that goes through the internet, and a lot that goes through the phone lines, is collected and stored, placing all content in a state of ready availability to the government if it chooses to look at it. She, and others like NSA Director James Clapper, claim that this enormous gathering up of personal data has helped foil multiple terrorist plots against Americans and others. Those who have made public this secret process are, according to Feinstein, traitors.
In a real sense, Feinstein has metamorphosed into the loyal citizen of a bureaucracy that has relegated to itself the right to define both security and the publics need to know. It does not appear to concern Feinstein that this bureaucracy is determined to function in a way that will allow no viable accountability to anyone beyond its own community.
In contrast to Feinstein, William Binney, former head of the NSAs global digital data program, claims that having such a huge data base has meant the information overwhelms the analysts, causing the secret PRISM program to become dysfunctional. Perhaps that is why a few in the Senate, like Mark Udall of Colorado, say that they are not convinced that the collection of this vast trove of data has led to disruption of plots against the U.S. Thus the protecting the American people justification is debatable.
Even if it turns out that this information orgy has assisted in foiling a limited number of plots, it is not a practicable approach to threat prevention. What is? Changing the policies and behaviors that have caused much of the terrorist threats in the first place. Do that, and you wont need to stockpile everyones communications from now to the end of time.
Part IV – The President
One of the best examples of the conversion of an American from a servant of the citizenry to a servant of the government bureaucracy is President Barak Obama. As Glenn Greenwald points out, during President Obamas 2008 campaign openness and transparency were central issues. Obama denounced President Bushs regime as “one of the most secretive administrations in our nation’s history,” and added “it is no coincidence” that such a secrecy-obsessed presidency “has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight.” He vowed: “as president, I’m going to change that.” To that end he pledged to protect whistleblowers and called them, “the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government, saying that “such acts of courage and patriotism . . . should be encouraged rather than stifled.”
Then he won the 2008 election. All of a sudden his constituents ceased to be the voters and became instead institutionalized aspects of the government system: the bureaucracy, the Democratic Party and a host of special interests. Thus, it did not take long for his tone to change. Surrounded now by bureaucrats and party men whose devotion was to something other than the Constitution, the massive invasion of privacy represented by the vacuuming up of all information available on web became necessary for national security and well within the bounds of the law. That is, the Bush era laws that Obama once deplored. Now Obama is prosecuting the whistleblowers and protecting the George W. Bush era criminals.
Part V – Conclusion
This metamorphosis into participants in an amoral system seems to be the fate of most men and women elected to national office. They join an organization assumed wiser then the citizenry because it knows more than they do and, more often than not, it does its learning in secret, clandestine ways. Notions such as transparency and the behaviors of whistleblowers, which sounded so right on the campaign trail, now take on opposite connotations in the environment of bureaucracy. Principles that once were worthy of protection now must be balanced against procedures and policies too valuable to be exposed to daylight.
This is a standard scenario for the erosion of the rights, ideals and principles that make a democracy worthy of its name. As Thomas Drake, another whistleblower, recently put it What does the NSA need with a 100 million phone records? We are losing the foundation of innocence until proven guilty. The assumption of innocence no longer exists in a surveillance state. Neither does a Constitution with a Fourth Amendment. Neither does habeas corpus or due process. All of those are things of value in the world of democratic men and women. In the world of the National Security Agency, they are all conditional to the needs of a system with very different rules.
A WINDOW ON THE RIGHTWING – AN ANALYSIS (8 June 2013) BY LAWRENCE DAVIDSON
Part I – Some Background Information
My wife and I have family in Barcelona, Spain, including a seven-month old grandson. We also have a family member who is a successful artist and has a piece in this years famous Venice biennial art show. Thus it was that my wife and I went from Barcelona to Venice at the end of May.
We decided to travel from one city to the other by sea and so ended up on the Regent Lines Seven Seas Mariner, a relatively small ship with only 700 passengers. This was to be a very odd cruise, and that is the subject of this essay. For, as it turned out, some 270 of the passengers on board were fans of the libertarian right-wing talk show host and Fox TV commentator Neal Boortz. This was Boortzs retirement celebration cruise, and his most devoted fans were on the Seven Seas Mariner, at their own expense, to help him celebrate.
Part II – Who Is Neal Boortz?
Until his recent retirement, Neal Boortz (aka The Mouth of the South, aka The Equal Opportunity Offender, aka Mighty Whitey) was the seventh most popular talk show host in the United States. His show was nationally syndicated and averaged 4.25 million listeners per week.
The positions he has taken to achieve this status are remarkably diverse and often contradictory. For instance, Boortz has a rather progressive stance on some social issues (angering most conservatives), such as abortion rights, same sex marriage, ending the war on drugs, and supporting various other civil liberties. Yet at the same time he is adamant about reducing the federal governments tax and regulatory powers (pleasing most conservatives). When it comes to taxes, Boortz advocates doing away with income tax, payroll taxes, estate taxes and the like and replacing them with a national retail sales tax. He has written a book on the subject, co-authored with Georgia Congressman John Linder, entitled The Fair Tax Book.
Leaving aside his tax-reform idea for the moment, Boortzs view of the regulatory powers of the federal government is dangerously naive. He seems unaware that in the United States the ability to create and protect the civil liberties he supports comes from the legislative action of a strong federal government that then oversees the implementation of those laws against historically prejudiced, racist state and local governments.
The same dangerous naivete is revealed in Boortzs promotion of small government and deregulation of the economy so as to promote personal responsibility. These are typical Tea Party positions and they too betray historical ignorance. It has become clear to the less ideologically driven economic historians that, ever since the end of World War II, the only thing that has prevented another Great Depression (and, in essence, smoothed out potential depressions into periodic economic recessions) is, once again, effective and consistent government regulation. As the savings and loan fiasco of the 1980s and 90s and other more recent bank crises have shown, if you start deregulating strategic parts of the economy (as happened under Ronald Reagan), the capitalists will immediately revert to acts of maximum (and self-destructive) greed.
When it comes to foreign policy, Boortz favors an aggressive, interventionist approach to fight terrorism and spread freedom. After the 9/11 attacks, Boortz repeatedly complained about the lack of Muslim outrage over the event. In this Boortz shares an almost universal American provincialism. He fails to realize the causal connection between traditional American foreign policy in the Middle East (and elsewhere) and the terrorist attacks the U.S. has suffered. He is also ignorant of the fact that after the 9/11 attacks Muslims worldwide condemned terrorism and expressed sympathy for the American victims. At the local level this sympathy was expressed by thousands of mosque-based sermons declaring that the al-Qaida attacks were un-Islamic. Of course, many of these expressions of outrage and sympathy were made in Arabic and, what is more important, went untranslated and unreported in the American media. Even those issued in the English language were often unreported. This explains Boortzs ignorance, but it does not excuse it. As such a well-know critic, he should have taken the time to fact-check the issue before repeatedly focusing the attention of 4.25 million listeners upon it.
Part III – The Fans of Neal Boortz
If the 270 fans of Neal Boortz traveling on Regents Seven Seas Mariner can be taken as a reliable sample of his listening public, we may draw the following general conclusions:
— They are mostly from the American South.
— They are generally a polite group in one-to-one situations.
— Of all the positions taken by Boortz, the one they are primarily interested in is his tax-reform scheme. I must confess that I have no idea if his tax plan would be better or fairer than the present arrangement. However, it should be noted that the U.S. income tax was allowed by the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and so to replace it with Boortzs Fair Tax might necessitate a rewording of this amendment. This could be a complicated task.
The fact that almost everyone I encountered in the Boortz group fixated on the issue of taxes tells us something important about conservative Americans: they are generally suspicious of demands that they financially contribute to the upkeep of their own communities (particularly in the area of social programs). This might sound odd, but it is an attitude rooted in history. The U.S. revolution was not made over issues of oppression and deprivation. It was made over the issue of the British Parliaments right to impose relatively moderate taxes on their American colonial subjects. Ever since that time there has been a conservative portion of the U.S. public which sees any taxes beyond those needed for very basic services as illegitimate. Indeed, they see such taxes as a form of theft. Just ask John Boehner, the Republican Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Refusing to negotiate a reasonable budget with President Obama, Mr. Boehner said that the real issue is how much more money do we want to steal from the American people to fund more government. In terms of economic history, this makes Boehner and his cohort throwbacks to the dark ages of 18th-century economic theory, when it was believed that the only legitimate things for which central government could tax was national defense, the court system and the police. All other social issues were the responsibility of the individual who was free to become rich or to starve to death without government interference.
To say that such a point of view, applied today to a society of 300 million-plus citizens, is disastrous is an understatement. Take away the safety net created by the New Deal and expanded by the welfare state, and replace it with freewheeling, deregulated capitalism and personal responsibility alone, and what you have is a formula for widespread suffering and civic unrest.
Yet none of the conservatives I met on board the Seven Seas Mariner had any knowledge of economic history or theory. All they had were their personal experiences and the feelings those had produced: that the federal government was too big, too intrusive in their businesses, and that it pampered too many people, all with their tax dollars. This is one of the consequences of what I call natural localism. We live our lives locally. This local existence conditions us to see the world in certain limited ways. And then, on the basis of that local conditioning, we interpret the rest of the world. However, our local experience is often a very poor basis for understanding the larger problems that confront our communities.
Part IV – Conclusion
Neal Boortz is fond of disclaimers. Some of them are potentially useful, as when he tells his listeners “Dont believe anything you . . . hear on The Neal Boortz Show unless it is consistent with what you already know to be true, or unless you have taken the time to research the matter to prove its accuracy to your own satisfaction. The problem is, as with so much of the information media, the audience is self-selected. The reason millions listened to Mr. Boortz in the first place was because what he said was already consistent with what they know to be true. But was/is it true?Believing something is true does not make it true. As to the suggestion that the listener do research, well, not many will bother if the opinion at issue sounds and feels right.
Boortz also occasionally suggests to his audience that they take no heed nor place any credence in anything he says because, in the last analysis, he is just an entertainer. However, he cannot escape responsibility so easily for the influence he has wielded weekly over an audience of more than 4 million. Ours is an age of infotainment, and the more entertaining media personalities, politicians, and even government officials are, the more their info is received favorably. Just think of Jon Stewarts The Daily Show on the liberal side of the spectrum.
Conservative America is out there in many forms. Some are organized around religion, some around various forms of xenophobia, and some around the fear of government, its taxes and regulations. They are mostly white, mostly middle class, and dont be at all surprised if you run into them on your next vacation.