Thursday, June 30, 2011

My grandmother shot me in the face every Christmas

The American Enterprise Institute's Megan McCarthy thinks she has uncovered damning hypocrisy:
It was 25 years ago this week that the International Court of Justice handed down a 12-3 decision condemning U.S. intervention in Nicaraguan affairs. Not surprisingly, the international community is largely silent on Chavez’s ongoing intervention in Nicaragua.
I was just reading about Nicaragua v. The United States of America the other day. It's an interesting one. Basically, the U.S. was found guilty of violating the Nicaragua's sovereignty by planting mines in the latter's harbors and funding a brutal right-wing insurgency that ultimately left 50,000 Nicaraguans dead. The U.S. claimed it was acting in self-defense. On behalf of Honduras. But then, the Reagan administration lawyers didn't have to put much thought into their legal arguments given that the U.S. rejected the International Court of Justice's jurisdiction and then refused to abide its ruling. Nicaragua never got a cent of the money it was awarded in reparations.

Which is a long way of saying that the U.S. intervention mentioned by McCarthy, which entailed killing tens of thousands of people, is in not in any way analogous to Chavez's intervention, the most "egregious case" of which she can provide is the Venezuelan government providing its Nicaraguan counterpart "huge amounts of money" in often "opaque" ways.

Once more: shooting someone in the face -- or paying someone to shoot another in the face and giving them the gun to do it -- is not at all like sending someone an envelope full of cash. Given the charges McCarthy makes about him, Chávez sounds more like your grandmother sending you a card with a $20 in it for your birthday than he does Uncle Sam.

'The Narco-Terror War'

My latest piece on the establishment right's call to ramp up the war on drugs -- dutifully answered by the Obama administration -- is now up over at the Institute for Policy Studies' Right Web. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Barack Obama loses his hat

As a candidate for president, Barack Obama was a Distinguished Constitutional Scholar. As a president waging an illegal war? He's just some guy who, gosh, isn't really in a position to talk about that there document he took an oath to uphold and defend.

At a press conference this week, NBC correspondent Chuck Todd -- presumably under strict orders not to ask about Newsweek's Princess Di cover -- questioned the erstwhile legal scholar about whether he felt the War Powers Resolution, which forbids the president from deploying troops without congressional consent except in cases of imminent danger to national security, and even then for only 60 days, passed constitutional muster.

Well, the president replied, "I'm not a Supreme Court justice, so I'm not -- I'm not going to put my constitutional law professor hat on here." And so he didn't, declaring it irrelevant -- "I don't even have to get to the constitutional question" -- as he was already abiding by the law in question, rejecting the claim his actions "in any way violate the War Powers Resolution."

But the president didn't really want to get into legal specifics, other than to point out the that the resolution was passed in the wake of the Vietnam war and probably wasn't intended to apply to countries merely having the shit bombed out of them by U.S. forces (like, say, Cambodia). There's a reason Obama didn't want to put on his "constitutional law professor hat" during the press conference: he lost it during the 2008 campaign.

Back then, ages ago I know, Obama had no qualms addressing thorny legal issues concerning executive power. "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation," he told The Boston Globe.

You can see how such become inconvenient when you're the one unilaterally authorizing the wars.

Obama also probably didn't want to delve into the details because, when not reading the War Powers Resolution with the special goggles handed out to die-hard Democratic loyalists, it's quite clear -- indisputable, really -- that the Obama administration is violating the letter of the law. Contrary to administration claims, bombing a country and trying to assassinate its leader most certainly do qualify as acts of war, or "hostilities" in the resolution's terminology. And it's most certainly the case that by helping its NATO allies do the same, U.S. forces are being asked to "command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany the regular or irregular military forces of any foreign country or government," and that there's an "imminent threat" that those forces "will become engaged," all of which triggers the War Powers Resolution. That means Obama's roughly three-month old war is, if it wasn't illegal from the start, explicitly so since the 60 day limit on non-congressionally authorized troop deployments expired a month ago.

As for all those complaining about the blatant illegality of the latest and greatest humanitarian bombing campaign -- what Obama called  the "noise about process and congressional consultation and so forth" -- the president declared it was much ado about nothing. "I've had all the members of Congress over to talk about it," he patiently explained, maintaining U.S. involvement in the war he once said would last "days, not weeks," had. "So a lot of this fuss is politics."

Politicians being politicians, the president's assessment is no doubt partially true, though it's a two-edged sword as Obama's own unwillingness to seek what almost certainly would have been easy congressional approval of the Libya war back in March likewise had a lot to do with politics. Seeking congressional approval may have spurred a wider debate about the wisdom of entering yet another war at a time when social programs at home are being slashed and Americans are increasingly tired of being known only for burgers and bombs, and seeking an authorization to use force may have required Obama to layout an endgame scenario -- an actual plan -- rather than platitudes about freedom and America's uniquely heroic role in world affairs.

"We have engaged in a limited operation to help a lot of people against one of the worst tyrants in the world, somebody who nobody should want to defend," Obama added during the press conference, bravely taking on the influential Gaddafi Lobby in Washington. "[W]e should be sending out a unified message to this guy that he should step down and give his people a fair chance to live their lives without fear. And -- and this suddenly becomes the cause celebre for some folks in Congress? Come on."

Got that? Dissent aids the enemy. Unity is Strength. The rule of law is a campaign slogan, nothing more. And Barack Obama is George W. Bush.

Friday, June 24, 2011

US military occupies Nicaragua (again)

The last time U.S. forces were in San Juan del Sur it was 1984 and they were attacking the tourist town, the largest on Nicaragua's Pacific coast, and mining its harbor. This time around, their presence is a little more benign, with the USNS Comfort providing free medical care to the locals as part of its "Continuing Promise" tour of Latin America.

As far as branding efforts go, I'm glad the managers of the American empire chose to offer free surgeries instead of, say, bombarding my adopted home town with the full might of the U.S. military's liberating firepower. And assuming they aren't doing the sort of medical experiments they freely provided to hundreds of Guatemalans, I suppose I'm okay with all the uniformed U.S. military personnel at local bars and restaurants, even if that very sight was one of the reasons I left Washington, DC.

Based on the security presence in town, however, you wouldn't think U.S. forces were here on an uncontroversial humanitarian mission, that they were in a tranquil tourist town in a peaceful country as opposed to a hotbed of anti-Americanism in an active war zone. Walking by a restaurant the other day, I noticed a Nicaraguan soldier armed with an automatic weapon keeping guard outside the entrance. On the inside? Just some American soldiers enjoying steak and ribs.

I can't say who requested the security, though I imagine it's a safe bet the Americans did, but its presence raises a key point: one would have to be extremely paranoid or suffering a serious P.R. problem -- or both -- if you fear people may try to shoot or blow you up as you provide free medical care to poor people. Free surgeries are great and all, but they don't wash away the memories of (counter-)insurgencies, past and present.

(Photo Credit:  Mass Comm. Spc. Kim Williams/U.S. Navy)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

In the land of the free

One man gets 6 1/2 to 13 years in prison for growing and selling a plant, another shoots an unarmed father in the back -- murders him -- and serves less than a year.

What, one wonders, could explain the vexing disparity in sentencing? Why would the state, bound by the social contract to uphold liberty and justice for all, treat horticulture as a greater crime than homicide? Because the murderer was one of their own, the gardener one of us.

What happens when you break your end of a contract?

Sarah Bachmann

I'm so old I remember when Matt Taibbi skewered the powerful, not just the latest Face of Right-Wing Evil to pearl-clutching liberals. I also remember a time when Sarah Palin was, without dispute, the crazed Christian monster who Must Be Stopped. Now, as demonstrated by Taibbi's latest piece for Rolling Stone, that role has been taken by Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann.

Now, Bachmann isn't exactly a sympathetic character. And, like any other public figure, she's more than deserving of a good, rhetorical-guns-blazing take down. But -- to hop on my little hobby horse -- when the U.S. is engaged in a half-dozen wars, with the president openly and defiantly violating the supposed law of the land with his bombing of Libya, it seems to me that Rolling Stone's energy would be better spent going after the guy with the blood of poor foreigners on his hands rather than some batty lawmaker from Minnesota engaged in a vanity run for the White House. Not that she should just be ignored, but let's leave the Bachmann bashing to the local alternative weeklies and blogs, which have done such a good job covering the congresswoman that Taibbi based the bulk of his article on their work (his editor says Taibbi's citations were removed due to space constraints).

Taibbi's piece is lightweight liberal catnip, a reaffirmation of every good Democrat's belief that the dangerous crazies are on the other side. It's big on Taibbi's trademark rhetorical beatings and . . . that's about it. And the hits it takes at Bachmann, who is one hell of a big target, are at times curious. For example, Taibbi notes that, after an unsatisfying stint as a public school teacher, Bachmann "was soon mobilizing against an educational-standards program called Profile of Learning, an early precursor to No Child Left Behind":
Under the program, state educators and local businesses teamed up to craft a curriculum that would help young people prepare for the work force — but Bachmann saw through their devious scheme. "She thought it was a socialist plot to turn our children into little worker-automatons," says Bill Prendergast, a Stillwater resident who wrote for the town's newspaper and has documented every step of Bachmann's career.
Of all the things to criticize Bachmann for, we're singling out her opposition to "an early precursor to No Child Left Behind"? Are you, to channel Taibbi, fucking kidding me?

While Taibbi's source, Daily Kos blogger Bill Predergast, mocks Bachmann for believing the program to "help young people prepare for the work force" -- language presumably taken verbatim from the local chamber of commerce -- is aimed at turning children into "little worker-automatons," the mockery seems to me utterly mistaken. The reason businessmen support preparing young people "for the work force" is not because their altruists, but because they're self-interested capitalists: every dollar the state spends on worker training is a dollar they don't have to spend themselves. While perhaps a tad rhetorically over the top (not entirely, in my view), it's not all that far-fetched to believe programs sponsored by businessmen are aimed creating a ready supply of worker-automatons in order to benefit -- shockingly! -- businessmen.

But hey, who am I to get in the way of a feel-good bashing of liberals' latest loony, right-wing enemy of the month? One can knock the practice, but it's certainly a hell of a lot more fun taking down the other team's crazies than soberly addressing the respectable and sane mass murderers from your own.

Liar, liar

When he first sought to justify his undeclared, unauthorized war in Libya, President Barack Obama reassured members of Congress that the conflict, or the "heavy kinetic activity" as I guess we're calling the incineration of poor foreigners these days, would last "days, not weeks," as multiple media outlets reported at the time. The line was repeated by one of Obama's national security advisers and by the president himself at a news conference.

That was in March, more than a dozen weeks ago. That is to say -- and say it with me liberals -- Barack Obama misled his country into an illegal war.

"Obama Lied, People Died," is a chant I expect to hear at the next Democratic National Convention -- unless, of course, those Democrats who claimed to oppose lying their country into war when a Republican was in power were, and are, liars too.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Republicans may love war, but Democrats wage it

Liberals are a frustrating, silly lot. Confronted with the fact that the man they helped elect is fighting a half-dozen wars, including a patently illegal one with Libya, their response is to . . . hey! Aren't Republicans stupid evil hypocrites! Look at Michelle Bachmann!

And so we have Obama-booster and popular liberal blogger Digby, commenting on a recent piece by Matt Taibbi about the hypocrisy of conservatives who have learned to stopped worrying and love anti-interventionism now that a Democrat's in office, writing this bit of reassuring nonsense:
Plenty of Democrats switch positions on these wars depending on who's making the case as well. But the Republican Party and conservatism in general is organized around militarism and national chauvinism to a far greater extent than modern liberalism so I'd be less inclined to trust a "conservative pacifist" to follow through than I would a Democrat.
Whoa boy, where to begin? Granted, the worship of militarism may be a bit cruder at a Tea Party rally than at a Center for American Progress policy luncheon, but the idea that jingoism is largely, if not exclusively, a conservative phenomenon is something that, well, only a liberal incapable (or unwilling) to come to terms with the reality of their movement could say.

That conservatives organize around militarism to a "far greater" extent than Democrats may be a soothing notion to party activists, especially at a time when modern liberalism's crowning achievement, Barack Obama, is daily slaughtering Pakistani civilians with Predator drones, but, even were it true, it hasn't appeared to make a damn of a difference to the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia. Argue about the rhetoric all you want, the policies sure aren't more peaceful.

And let's just look at history, shall we? World War I, Korea, Vietnam -- all bloodbaths carried out by Democrats, by progressive heroes Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and LBJ (with an assist from JFK). By contrast, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Rethuglican, campaigned on ending a war -- and actually did it. So did the bastard Richard Nixon, albeit belatedly.

"I figured out the other day," former Republican Senator Bob Dole remarked during a 1976 debate, "if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit." Dole was widely criticized for his remarks, but he was on to something: Democrats -- liberals -- love themselves a good freedom bombing, especially when cloaked in Kiplingesque humanitarianism.

"I remember when I was a teenager reading something from the Republican National Committee that said that Democrats start wars, Republicans end them," Congressman John Duncan, a Republican from Tennessee, told me in a 2007 interview. The point isn't that Republicans are reliable carriers of the antiwar flag, but rather that conservative and liberal politicians alike are fond of embracing antiwar rhetoric -- when out of power; we know what they do when their fingers are the ones on the trigger.

As for that bit about "national chauvinism" being more or less a conservative-only thing? One need only look to Obama's recent assertion, while justifying an illegal war, that "[s]ome nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different." If that ain't chauvinism, what is?

Yes, yes, of course the Republicans are awful. And no, you shouldn't place much faith in conservative pacificism. But here's the thing: if you care about peace, you shouldn't be inclined to trust any politician, even if they talk pretty and namedrop FDR. Peace isn't a part of what politicians do once in power, regardless of which party or movement to which they claim allegiance. Instead of self-serving myth-making, liberal bloggers would do well to turn their attention to their own movement's embrace of American exceptionalism, which is marginally more sophisticated than the competition's but no less deadly.

Monday, June 20, 2011

'The rules are written by those who profit from the status quo'

It wasn't the federal government's land to begin with. It was, to quote some guy, "made for you and me." So when environmental activist Tim DeChristopher interfered with a Bureau of Land Management attempt to sell off pristine Colorado federal park land to oil and gas interests -- taking land stolen from one group of people and handing it over to another, wealthier group of people -- he had the confidence that comes with knowing what one's doing is morally right, if not necessarily legal.

DeChristopher's attempt to defend the commons from being expropriated by state-enabled corporate interests has won the 29-year-old a federal court case and the prospect of a decade behind bars; the powerful don't look kindly, it seems, upon uppity citizens thinking they have a right to shape the world they live in, much less prevent powerful corporations from polluting it.

That doesn't surprise DeCristophe. “The rules are written by those who profit from the status quo,” he observes in an interview with Chris Hedges. “If we want to change that status quo we have to step outside of those rules."

As DeChristopher says, the status quo is stacked in favor of corporate privilege. It serves you, the common person, the same way those aliens from The Twilight Zone served man: on a platter. To change the way we live, to overturn a system that accepts permanent war, pervasive pollution and double-digit unemployment as unalterable facts of life, requires attacking the system, not obligingly working within it and electing "more and better" rulers.

Changing the way things are means more than just shuffling the figureheads in power who, whether they identify as Republicans or Democrats every few years, reliably enable and enrich not those who elected them, but the corporate interests that bankrolled their campaigns. It means challenging the whole notion of the U.S. system of government; of a system that calls the choice between a couple of empty suits from two indistinguishable political parties "democracy"; of a power structure that grants corporations the legal status of persons but treats undocumented immigrants as pests.

Changing the status quo means acknowledging one's role in perpetuating it and, importantly, choosing to do something about it. Changes comes not from dutifully accepting laws and orders as writs from a benevolent god and perhaps signing a politely worded e-petition requesting a tinkering here and there, but from questioning the legitimacy of arbitrary authority. The oft-offered excuse that someone is "just following orders" -- "the law's the law" -- does not absolve them of responsibility for the consequences, it makes them complicit.

State capitalism and aggressive war aren't possible if the people refuse to obey their rulers' edicts.

Civil disobedience is required not just of soldiers asked to fight in unjust wars, but of everyday citizens asked, as jurors, to sanction the imprisonment of their peers. Unfortunately, if understandably, most people are unwilling to buck what their fancy-dressed superiors from the state tell them: have someone in a silly robe give the order and, like Abraham, your average American will readily offer their first-born son for sacrifice (while showing up five minutes early to avoid a fine). As DeChristopher tells Hedges, when the judge in his case found out prospective jurors had been handed pamphlets on jury nullification -- the act of juries passing judgment not on the accused, but on the laws they stand accused of violating -- he sternly lectured them on the evils of nullification.

The jurors ate it right up:
[The judge] said that regardless of what the pamphlet said it was not their job to decide if this is right or wrong, but to listen to what he said was the law and follow that even if they thought it was morally unjust. They were not allowed to use [their] conscience. They were told they would be violating their oath if they decided this on conscience rather than the evidence that he told them to listen to. I was sitting in that chamber and could see one person after another accept this notion. I could see it in their faces, that they had to do what they were told even if they thought it was morally unjust. That is a scary thing to witness in another human being. I saw it in one person after another brought in the courtroom, sitting at the end of a long table in front of the paternalistic figure of [the] judge with all the majesty around him. They accepted it. They did not question it. It gave me a really good understanding of how some of the great human atrocities happened with the consent of the population, that people can accept what is happening, that it is not their job to question whether any of this is right or wrong.
If you have a conscience, it is your duty to exercise it, not suspend it upon request. Those willing to forgo judgment of the rightness of their own actions or, worse yet, willing to do something they know is wrong because, by god, somebody important asked them to do it "command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt," in the words of Henry David Thoreau.

The first step in changing the system is acknowledging one's complicity -- because we're all, to varying degrees, complicit -- and, instead of rationalizing it, doing what you can to end it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Don't drop bombs -- drop Obama

In our latest piece, Medea Benjamin and I argue that those who genuinely love peace (as opposed to those who only abhor Republican wars) ought to give up on Democrats and embrace direct action. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Profiting from pot (prohibition)

In a small victory for a slightly more humane and sensible drug policy, Connecticut lawmakers recently approved a measure decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican, isn't happy, though. And she says that, rather than simply having honest disagreements on the best approach to dealing with pot, that Gov. Dannel Malloy has a "personal interest" in decriminalization: his son has been arrested for marijuana.

Boucher may have a point. When people in a position of power do something that's not entirely awful, such as reduce penalties for possessing certain taboo plants, it's often because they have been personally affected by the awful status quo. Disgraced San Diego Congressman Duke Cunningham, for instance, once a staunch advocate of "law and order," is now a vocal advocate of prison reform -- from his prison cell.

But what of the "personal interest" some have in maintaining the status quo? According to Sen. Boucher, she came to oppose reforming Connecticut's marijuana laws after talking with (wait for it):
"a variety of people who work in drug treatment facilities, medical centers and police departments—'people that have to deal with the after-effects' of the drug."
In other words, Boucher allegedly reached her anti-reform position after speaking with those who directly profit from a system that incarcerates and/or mandates treatment for those who consume marijuana. But it's those whose "personal interest" in the reform debate derives from their firsthand experience with the injustice of the criminal justice system that's supposed to shock and scandalize.