Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Note to self

Stop using the phrase "abuse of state power." It's inaccurate. What I mean to say is "use of state power."

Anarchism and AlterNet

Help me out here.

On the one hand, AlterNet often posts radical critiques of the state, such as this interesting interview I came across earlier today with historian Howard Zinn on anarchism and his rejection of the legitimacy of both democracy and the modern nation-state. It also regularly publishes this anarchist crackpot.

On the other hand, as the Zinn article indirectly reminded me, AlterNet has provided an outlet for Sara Robinson, "One of the few trained social futurists in North America," to charge that there are people among us -- dangerous, "seditious" people -- who are bent on "systemically delegitimizing the very idea of US government."

So, my question: Does AlterNet know that a writer for AlterNet essentially accused it of providing a platform for sedition, which said writer took pains to note is a prosecutable offense? Maybe, albeit belatedly: Robinson hasn't been heard from since the eve of the 2010 elections, when she was last seen warning that the people she previously accused of rejecting the legitimacy of government were seeking, instead, to create a fascist state.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Ron Paul hates women and minorities; Obama just kills and imprisons them

Sure, the guy I support blows up poor brown people on a daily basis with drone strikes and cluster bombs while backing a war on drugs responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands more, mostly poor minorities, but at least he's not a racist!

My favorite part of (trigger warning) Amanda Marcotte's characteristically angry and poorly written screed against American's favorite cranky uncle -- lulz, she calls his supporters Paulbots! -- is perhaps the line toward the beginning where she suggests only white men smoke pot and that anyone who supports or maybe just utters a non-derogatory remark about Ron Paul embraces all of his positions, the latter a particularly risky stance to take for someone who supports a guy, Barack Obama, whose administration has proposed record-high defense budgets and has deported so many immigrants you'd think Pat Buchanan and his pitchfork were in the White House.

Alas, Marcotte -- who, since she's calling someone else a racist, it should be noted once published a book that depicted indigenous peoples as brutish savages -- isn't one for sophisticated, nuanced arguments, nor is she seemingly aware of how her own crude attacks could be used against her. Her eager, slavish Democratic partisanship matched in its tediousness only by her unimaginative, "batshit"-sprinkled prose, Marcotte earlier reduced the problems with the American political system to the existence of Republicans, after all, so sophisticated political analysis isn't exactly her thing. And so in the midst of spitting venom at the mean old Ron Paul who in his old meanness forgot that hating on FEMA went out of style when Bush left office, the ever-edgy Marcotte declares of his imaginary strawmen supporters that "it's fucking disgusting to believe it's more important for dudes to have legal rights to joints than women to have legal rights to abortion," presumably addressing all three of the posters on Reddit who actually believe that.

Adopting Marcotte's line of argument, though, one could easily argue that it's fucking disgusting to believe it's more important to elect politicians who will, every two to four years, make a big show of defending a women's legal right to abortion than it is to elect one who at least won't burn little children to death with cluster bombs and won't support ramping up funding for a racist drug war that has made the United States home to the largest prison population in world history. It's especially disgusting to elevate abortion rights, by which Marcottee means the election of Democrats, over issues of war and peace when the politician you're slavishly supporting has actually done more to undermine that right with a single executive order than any Texas Republican ever has.

Now, by all means, say nasty things about Ron Paul. He's a politician! Indeed, while I've argued he's more progressive than Obama -- while adding the huge caveat that I won't be voting for him because electoral politics is a fraud -- he's nonetheless a guy who believes some pretty awful things, like using the power of the state to penalize those who cross arbitrary geopolitical borders. He's also associated with people I think can fairly be called racists and he let his name be used as the byline for some of the awful things they've written. Go ahead, call him an asshole! But -- and here's another huge caveat -- make sure that if you're doing so, you're not neglecting to mention the guy who is actually in the White House and who is actually deporting record numbers of immigrants and who is actually ordering bombs to be dropped in more than a half-dozen countries and who actually propped up the company responsible for perhaps the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Otherwise, well, you're going to come across as an asshole too.

Smash it up

The (International) Noise Conspiracy por ben-never-scene

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Would Mother Jones read Mother Jones?

I'm not going to pretend this is some recent, tragic downfall; we're talking about a publication that fired Michael Moore after just four months because he refused to publish -- amid a U.S.-backed right-wing insurgency that left 50,000 dead -- a liberal hawk's hit piece against Nicaragua's Sandinistas, after all.

It's nonetheless worth noting, however, the incongruity of a magazine named for a radical activist who embraced civil disobedience in defiance of unjust laws and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the state's legal actions against her hiring a careerist Democratic pundit, Adam Serwer, who explicitly rejects the notion that those who kill as part of unjust wars of aggression are moral actors who bear any responsibility for their actions, morality being the sole province of our betters in political office. He even maintains that one's support for members of the military ought to be "unconditional," just as soldiers themselves, in his view, ought to kill and be killed without question, anything less than blind allegiance to authority being a potentially grave threat to the republic. Serwer also defended on narrow legal grounds the U.S. government's extrajudicial killing of an apparently unarmed, detained man -- an argument he defended with ripped-from-The-Weekly-Standard Chomsky and pacifist-bashing -- and, rather than respond to actual arguments that were made, mocked yours truly because I work for an antiwar group that is nowhere near as "prestigious" in his view as, hold your laughter, The American Prospect.

Unfortunately, Serwer's brand of smug apologia for the Democratic Party, mixed in with a healthy dose of condescension toward those who fail to see the electoral system and the law-making process as the be-all and end-all of political agitation, will fit right in at the modern Mother Jones. This is a formerly radical magazine, remember, that employs the invasion of Iraq-supporting, bailout-defending Kevin "I'd literally trust [Obama's] judgment over my own" Drum (warning: his writing may cause drowsiness) and which attacked Ron Paul, not over his odious views on immigration, but because the latter wants to end the war on drugs, stop arresting sex workers and would have "sought Pakistan's cooperation" in the arrest of an international fugitive, things that were once known as Standard Left-Wing Positions.

So no, I'm pretty sure that, were she alive today, Mother Jones would not be reading Mother Jones.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Someone on the Internet is wrong!

If you think grown men fighting on the Internet is worth your time then, by all means, keep reading. Be forewarned, though, that whoa boy is it tedious, and you could be watching cute animals falling asleep instead.

Those still with me: to the pissing match!

In a piece that I published yesterday, I wrote that, while journalist Radley Balko is great when writing about the drug war and police brutality, he's not so great when he devotes his time to economic issues. In particular, I took issue with his rather frequent complaint that poor people ought to bear a greater economic burden for the cost of government, a complaint he bases on a fear that said poor people will otherwise keep voting themselves government services for which they need not pay. While I tried to stress how useful I usually find his writing to be, Balko nonetheless appeared in the comments and accused me of engaging in, well, "personal attacks" -- I wish all my critics started out by saying how great they thought I was -- before engaging in a few of his own, suggesting I was too lazy, or perhaps illiterate, to read past the headline of his writings on the dire threat to the republic of poor people not paying enough taxes. (Ironically, his comment maintains that I accused him of backing the Iraq war and liking Glenn Beck, which itself suggests he didn't read my post all that closely.)

While I've responded in the thread, it's only fair to let Balko state his original argument in his own words, since he's accused me of misrepresenting his position. So here goes, from his “Obligatory Tax Day Post” this past April:
[T]here’s a real danger when nearly half of income earners pay no federal income tax at all. A near-majority and growing portion of the population can now vote for politicians to enact expensive policies that are paid for by an increasingly small percentage of earners. You don’t have to be an apologist for the aristocracy to see the problem, here.
Balko's suggested reform is reducing the income tax rebate that poor households currently collect in correlation with increases in government spending. Over at the League of Ordinary Gentleman, Erik Kain argues this isn't a bad idea:
A negative income tax that fluctuates when government spending increases and decreases gives many more people skin in the game. And not just so that they’re helping pay for the game – they’re not, after all, if they’re getting money back in the form of a negative income tax – but rather so that they can be aware of the consequences of government action. If you’re getting $3,000 back from the government each year and then we embark on massive spending increases, maybe launch a couple new wars or whatever, and now suddenly you’re only getting $1500 back – well I’d notice. And noticing is half the point of representative democracy, because then you can get pissed off about it.
Of course, as I noted yesterday, the entire premise of this reform is bogus, which is why I originally didn't delve into the specifics of Balko's proposed policy change. Those government services that do nominally benefit the poor, like Social Security and Medicare, are paid for through direct, regressive taxes that even the poorest workers pay; in other words, they're aware of the cost. The majority of the federal income tax, by contrast, goes straight to the military-industrial complex, which unlike social services is the one area of government no politicians are seriously suggesting ought to be slashed in this glorious age of austerity, political gimmicks aside.

Reducing the amount that poor households receive in tax rebates so that they “at least feel the bite of” of any future growth in government spending, as Balko writes in his tax day post and which Kain supports in his comment above, is asking them to feel the bite of spending that won't actually benefit them. And while I'm all for awareness raising, those households poor enough to qualify for a tax rebate are the least able to afford a $1,500 reduction in their income, especially in a time of high unemployment and stagnant wages. So yes, let's make Social Security and Medicare taxes more progressive, as both Kain and Balko would like to do, but let's not play games with the rebates poor households receive. The vast majority of Americans already oppose America's wars and asking poor people to share the pain of such government spending that, again, doesn't benefit them -- to say nothing of the vast majority of “government services” that serve the rich, from intellectual property to corporate personhood, but don't show up as budget items come appropriations time -- strikes me as a pointless and potentially harmful attempt to address a problem that proponents of the reform haven't really demonstrated exists.

Meanwhile, on Twitter -- yeah, I know, I hate myself too -- Balko took issue with my original post and my characterization of it as friendly criticism. "You misstated my premise, then called it 'fucking bullshit', 'right-wing' and 'superficial.' Friendly criticism, indeed!" Point taken: I use naughty words (sorry Mom), though I wouldn't necessarily consider "right-wing" one of them. In his next 140-character message to me, though, Balko pretty much validated the "superficial" critique, writing that "there's substantial support in low-income tax brackets for many programs you list [in your piece], including wars [and] stadium subsidies." The dubious premise, again: poor people who don't pay taxes are responsible for the growth in state power and government spending.

First, two-thirds of the public supports bringing the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. More to the point, though, does anyone actually believe that things like wars and long-term military occupations are fought at the behest of the voting poor? Or that ballparks are built for corporate sports teams, not because the rich people who own them have a lot of money with which to buy political influence, but because poor people want their neighborhoods destroyed so people from the suburbs can enjoy a ball game and a $9 hot dog?

At the risk of making a personal attack, what if not "superficial" can you call the belief that the state invades countries and gives corporations billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded welfare because that's what voters -- poor voters, no less -- want? Balko's a good guy, and is easily one of the best chroniclers of the abuse of state power in the U.S., but the idea that, of all things, we ought to be fearful of poor people who don't pay federal income taxes bankrupting those who do -- as opposed to bankers and bomb makers -- is, well, bullshit.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who really benefits from 'government services'?

Radley Balko is one of the best when it comes to detailing the evils of the drug war and the U.S. legal system as a whole. And he's also linked to me a couple times, so it's obvious the guy has good taste. But when he writes outside of his field of specialty, Balko regrettably comes across all too often as your standard right-winger, as in a recent post wherein he complains, as he often has over the years, that poor people aren't paying their fair share of taxes -- an argument that, merits aside, seems a damn fine way to ensure his brand of libertarianism remains politically marginal and, when it is noticed, lampooned as little more than conservatism for pot heads.

As a libertarian, Balko bases his tax-the-poor stance not on a concern over the government's ability to fund programs he'd like to do away with, of course, but out of a fear that because many poor Americans do not pay federal income taxes, "we’ll soon have a majority of people who pay no tax voting for more and more government services they benefit from, but don’t have to pay for." Implicit in this is the apparent belief that the dramatic rise in government spending and the national debt over the past few decades is explained by poor people voting into office politicians who keep giving them more and more of other peoples' money – and voting out those who don't; in other words, the standard conservative narrative of the parasitic, layabout masses bleeding dry the productive, wealth-producing John Galts.

That narrative, however, is what political scientists colloquially refer to as “fucking bullshit.” Contrary to what conservatives love to allege and big government-loving liberals would love to believe, the majority of what the state collects every April 15 goes not to poor, drug-addicted welfare mothers, but to blowing up poor mothers and their children on the other side of the globe with bombs purchased from very wealthy military contractors. While the bulk of state spending is indeed on Medicare and Social Security – the bread to go along with the circus of publicly financed stadiums – those programs are funded, as Balko acknowledges, by direct, regressive taxes that, yes, even poor people pay.

The majority of income taxes, on the other hand, goes directly to the Pentagon and the legion of quasi-private corporations that make up the military-industrial complex, a fact that ought to make someone who has built a career chronicling abuses of state power -- abuses that disproportionately affect the poor -- queasy at the mere thought of expanding the government's tax base. And as you may recall, it was Wall Street bankers, not welfare mothers, who politicians rushed to hand billions in taxpayer dollars – and trillions more after taking into account the Federal Reserve's printing press – when the economy took a nosedive in 2008 following the burst of a housing bubble inflated at the behest of said bankers and at the expense of the foreclosed upon poor.

When it comes to reaping riches from evermore “government services," it's not the poor that people like Balko ought to fear, but the wealthy elite. Beyond just direct handouts in the form of tax credits and bailouts, the capitalist class benefits from state interventions that are often hard to even quantify, from “intellectual property” laws that guarantee big pharmaceutical giants and software companies monopoly profits to corporate personhood and its attendant “limited liability, which shields firms like BP and Chiquita from the full fiscal and legal liability of their actions.

Right-wing libertarians like Balko are useful critics of state power, often being some of the only voices speaking out against the outrages of the racist war on drugs and the latest and greatest “humanitarian” war, liberals typically being too busy denouncing the most recent Outrage! from Glenn Beck. But by perpetuating the notion that the state is beholden to the poor masses rather than, as history suggests, those with the most money, they demonstrate a seriously lacking -- and superficial -- theory of government and for whom its power serves.

As for me, when it comes to casting blame for the growth of state power and the threat of its expansion in the future, I'm going to look to the guy whose finances are in a shelter, not his belongings.

(See the follow-up here.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's a drug

After the revolution, only love and camaraderie will be acceptable legal tenders, not the vulgar dollars and pesos of our fallen age. In the meantime, however, the latter are useful for paying the rent and whatnot.

If you are so compelled, I have created a donation page where you, my loyal and not at all ungrateful readers, can send me the money you would have just blown on beer anyway. For just a dollar a day you can support a struggling freelance writer as he works to undermine The System through strongly worded blog postings and carefully calibrated 140 character tweets; in exchange you will receive a lifetime premium subscription to false dichotomy: a journal of discontent, sleep more soundly at night and enjoy closer, more meaningful relations with your friends and family.

Act now.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Juan Cole's war on anarchism

As a liberal supporter of invading Iraq who apparently believed the Bush administration's rhetoric about freedom and democracy, and felt that bombs and military occupations would be the best means of promoting it, Juan Cole sure has a lot of nerve attacking anarchism as philosophy that depends "on a naive reading of social interest." And while I have my own criticisms of right-wing libertarianism, I can't help but note the incongruity of attacking folks like Ron Paul on the basis that their beliefs will lead to privatized, corporate warfare when the wars Cole has supported and continues to support depend on legions of private guns-for-hire and defense contractors like Halliburton and KBR.

Nominally about the recent GOP presidential debate, Cole's attack on anarchy -- from "anarcho-syndicalists like [Noam] Chomsky" to the aforementioned Paul -- is perhaps a sign that liberals like him are fearful the anti-state position is gaining traction, especially given the conspicuous lack of change since liberal savior Barack Obama moved to the White House. Indeed, that would explain why, instead of addressing the world we live in now, where a Nobel laureate is waging war in at least half a dozen countries with the help of an army of private war-profiteering corporations and their mercenaries, Cole focuses our attention on a scary future where, without the state, "warmongering corporations [could] pursue war all on their own."

"The East India Companies of Britain and the Netherlands behaved that way," Cole writes. "[And] India was not conquered by the British government, but by the East India Company. Likewise what is now Indonesia was a project of the Dutch East India Company."

However, while intended as a critique of anarchism, Cole's examples only bolster the critique of the state. The East India Companies, after all, were chartered by the British government, granted trade monopolies by the British government, and had their claim to properties, most of which were looted from poor foreigners, protected by the British government. And while I won't claim to speak for Ron Paul, most anarchists -- and it shows Cole's muddled thinking that he lumps "limited government" advocates like Paul in with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon & Co. -- don't just oppose "the state," they oppose the use of violence and coercion. It just so happens that states with their claims to a "legitimate monopoly on the use of violence" tend to be the greatest purveyors of it.

If in some future anarchotopia a private corporation -- let's not get into the fact that corporations are created by the state -- should wage war, then they would be acting like states and would be opposed just as vigorously. Indeed, to an anarchist the distinction between corporation and state is the same as a Christian's distinction between God and Jesus: though taking different forms, they're one and the same, the difference academic.

While Cole's fixated on a future of corporate war, he seems unaware that a world of Big Bad Corporations waging war on the world exists right now and that, rather than checking this aggression, the state is aiding and abetting it. Liberals can rail against Blackwater/Xe all they want, but in the end its Hillary Clinton's State Department that's giving them millions in tax dollars.

Speaking of oblivious, Cole writes:
Right anarchists seem not to be able to perceive that without government, corporations would reduce us all to living in company towns on bad wages and would constantly be purveying to us bad banking, tainted food, dangerous drugs, etc.
It's almost as if he's unaware we already live in a world where Goldman Sachs exists and where wages have been more or less stagnant since the 1970s. Instead of scaring his readers away from an anarchist world, he likely just left them wondering what the difference would be.

(My Saturday afternoon ruined via BDR)

Friday, August 12, 2011

'Corporations are people,' says every American politician

Out stumping on the campaign trail this week, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney committed the following "gaffe" when confronted by some liberal hecklers:
"Corporations are people, my friend. . . . Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people."
Like the spectacle of a moderately liberal New England governor campaigning as a true, red-blooded social conservative, Romney's remark is ludicrous and liberal pundits have rightly had a field day with it. Corporations, of course, most certainly are not people; they can't be imprisoned, for one. So yes, let's all enjoy a good chuckle at ol' Mitt's expense and hope he provides many more belly laughs in the coming months -- I have my fingers crossed for more impromptu mingling with minorities.

But here's the thing, and the reason I have "gaffe" in scare quotes: Does any national politician -- does any leading Democrat -- actually disagree with what Romney said? Not the rhetoric, which I think most would be wise enough to avoid, but the substance of what he was defending: corporate personhood.

Some would no doubt point to President Obama's denunciation at last year's State of the Union Address of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which held that corporations enjoy the same free speech rights as any other person. However, that response is something of a non-sequitur, as Obama's criticism was not of the root problem behind the decision about which I asked, corporate personhood, but of a narrow ruling that merely extended said legal status. And on strictly legal grounds -- which, full disclosure, I don't much care about -- it's hard to disagree with the court's ruling, which is merely the bizarre consequence of the even more bizarre and longstanding practice of the state bestowing the legal status of a person on an inanimate financial venture.

This isn't nitpicking. Conflating criticism of the Citizens United ruling with criticism of corporate personhood itself is like conflating criticism of a politician with sedition and treason. I mean, what's the fear, exactly: that, thanks to the Supreme Court, corporations are now going to corrupt Our Democracy by buying and selling politicians? I'll admit such an outcome is scary, but if we're going to be in the business of constructing doomsday scenarios, we ought to be sure they differ from the status quo.

The truth is, Romney's "gaffe" is much like Sarah Palin's remark in 2008 that, why yes, the U.S. would be legally obliged to attack Russia if it went to war with a member of NATO. Back then, every pundit and politician with a blog or a microphone went to town ridiculing Palin's ill-considered and risible remark, arguing it proved her unfitness for office, all the while obscuring a key fact: that what she said was indisputably true. Then as now, the real controversy ought not to have been the clumsy way something was stated, but the truth of what was said.

Criticize Romney and the Supreme Court all you want, the more troubling issue is that, legally speaking, corporations are people -- and that no one in establishment political circles sees a problem with that. This bipartisan embrace of the corporate state consequently causes problems for the 99.9 percent of us not likely to sit on any corporate boards for, while real-live people do indeed reap the benefit of corporate profits, corporate personhood and its attendant "limited liability" ensure they face almost none of the consequences of their bad, and often criminal, decisions.

For instance, while mere mortal, flesh-and-blood people would face serious prison time for paying right-wing death squads to execute labor activists, corporate executives who personally approved those very payments were able to conceal their identities and get away with a mere fine from the Justice Department, the cost of which was no doubt passed along to costumers and shareholders as a whole, rather than the actual perpetrators. Legally, the executives weren't responsible, some prick named "Chiquita" was.

Because blame for wrongdoing can be passed off on to another person -- another person who, again, can't go to jail -- corporate executives can get away with reckless behavior as a matter of course. The profit when such recklessness pays off is huge and, of course, theirs to keep. When it doesn't, as in the case of Goldman Sachs and the housing bubble and with BP and its destruction of the Gulf, the worst that happens is someone like Tony Hayward has to delay remodeling the kitchen in their 14th house by a few weeks while, in true American socialistic fashion, the rest of us chip in to pay for their mistakes. And every politician from Mitt Romney to Nancy Pelosi is fine with that, even if they disagree on how best to rationalize it to an angry public.

If you're laughing at Mitt Romney because, well, he's Mitt Romney: Fine. By all means. But if you're laughing at his remark under the impression his stance on corporations is fundamentally at odds with, say, Barack Obama, the laugh's on you.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

It's not the powerful people, it's the institutions of power

You've heard it before, be it from defenders of corrupt churches or wicked governments: It's not the institutions that are the problem, it's not the tremendous power we grant the people that control them, it's the few bad apples we sometimes allow to be placed in them. Replace the bad reactionary elements with liberal-minded humanitarians and one not need entertain silly talk of institutional reform or, daresay, abolition.

To proponents of this admittedly popular school of thought, allow me to introduce you to a man by the name of Harold Koh.

As dean of the Yale Law School, Koh built up a reputation as one of the fiercest legal critics of the Bush administration and the executive branch's centralization of power. In a 2008 speech on “Repairing Our Human Rights Reputation,” Koh railed against the imperial presidency and the “horror of Abu Ghraib,” “[o]ur tolerance of torture and cruel treatment for detainees” and the Magna Carta-shredding practice of “indefinite detention without trial.”

A fawning profile of Koh published around that time in the Yale Daily News noted his status as a “liberal lion” that would much-missed should he ever leave campus. “Either the Democrats will lose and Yale will keep Harold,” said law professor Kenji Yoshino, “or the Democrats will win and Yale will loan him to the country.”

Once a staunch critic of the imperial presidency, Koh, as the State Department's top legal adviser, now works for an administration that has undeniably expanded the power of the executive and institutionalized the very policies he once forcefully railed against, from the extra-judicial detention and abuse of detainees at CIA black sites in Somalia – and, one can safely assume, elsewhere – to the indefinite imprisonment without trial of dozens of men at Guantanamo Bay.

Rather than take the P.J. Crowley route and resign in protest of policies he once labeled repellent, Koh has soldiered on with an almost admirable enthusiasm, fulfilling the same role John Yoo did for George W. Bush with tortured legal arguments for every presidential whim. While U.S. law forbids extra-judicial assassinations, Koh – the Obama administration's go-to guy for legal justifications for that which it is already doing – maintains the ban does not apply to the firing of hellfire missiles from Predator drones in Pakistan and the use of cluster bombs in Yemen as such strikes are in strict “self-defense” and officials also work to ensure “collateral damage” – dead mothers and father, lifeless sons and daughters – “is kept to a minimum.”

Forty-one innocent Yemeni civilians, including 14 women and 21 children, were killed in but one such targeted strike, according to Amnesty International, which has called for those responsible for the “unlawful killings” to be “brought to justice.” The man who once delivered lectures on restoring America's human rights image in the world may, like Bush officials who signed off on torture, not even be able to travel it once he leaves office.

Most famously, Koh, who used to believe that “nothing” in the War Powers Resolution “authorizes the President to commit armed forces overseas into actual or imminent hostilities” – meaning not just a skirmish, but the mere threat one could break out – now argues that the war in Libya to which the president unilaterally committed his nation does not even rise to the status of said “hostilities.” That argument, should it be afforded the term, would perhaps fly if U.S. involvement in Libya were limited to President Obama drunk-dialing Colonel Ghaddafi at 4am and leaving nasty voicemails, as former partners are wont to do, and not ordering the dropping of heavy munitions on homes containing Ghaddafi's sleeping grandchildren.

Koh's seeming transformation has confounded his former colleagues in academia, though his time in both the Reagan and Clinton administrations hinted at his willingness to be a political action. Many of his friends “are mystified and disheartened to see their hero engaging in legalistic 'word play,'” author Paul Starobin notes in a New York Times Op-Ed published over the weekend. Mary Ellen O'Connel, a law professor at Notre Dame, captured many of their feelings when she bluntly asked, “Where is the Harold Koh I worked with to ensure that international law, human rights and the Constitution were honored during the Bush years?”

For his part, Koh denies there's any metamorphosis. In a defensive speech earlier this summer before the American Constitution Society, Koh rejected claims he had “caved to political pressure” on topics like Libya and extra-judicial killings, attributing suggestions he is a hypocrite to “obsessive” bloggers incapable of coming to terms with the fact that his views on presidential power had merely evolved over time – beginning in earnest, coincidentally, right after he joined the Obama administration.

“[I]f you hear me say something,” said a defiant Koh, “you can be absolutely sure that I believe it.”

There's no reason to doubt him. It's awful hard, after all, to get up every morning thinking what your doing is mere sophistry in the service of power. It's doubtful even Dick Cheney, after dining on the flesh of newborn babies from the developing world, looks in the mirror and says: “Damn, I'm evil.” With a tip of the hat to Upton Sinclair, it's also hard for a man to understand the error of his ways when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Power and the privileges and prestige it offers have a strange way of changing even the most committed do-gooder.

Thus, we witness the spectacle of Koh, desperately holding the shards of his credibility, opining that word “hostilities” is “ambiguous,” as if there's anything nuanced about firing 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a country in a span of 24 hours. Rather than a conscious act of selling out, Koh says those who miss the “Old Harold” – the one that critiqued the expansion of executive power, as opposed to the one that provides legalistic excuses for it – need to understand his position has changed.

“I am changing roles,” he admits. “People's lives have seasons.” Indeed, they do. And this season Koh's playing for a new team where, instead of critiquing the institutions of power, he serves them. And as his friend and president of the Boston Red Sox, Larry Lucchino, notes, “he is exceptionally loyal to institutions.”

And therein lies the problem. Whether you fill the halls of power with people like John Yoo or Harold Koh, the result is the same: the powerful – also known as the people with the most money and, in the case of the military, guns – usually get what they want in the U.S. political system. Folks like Yoo and Koh, while no less culpable for their actions, are as replaceable as George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The problem isn't the people, it's the power we allow them to possess. It doesn't matter if you elect devils or saints, because when it comes to money and power, even saints are corruptible – and the same powerful institutions, from Wall Street to the Pentagon, prosper.

As one observer smartly remarked in the summer of 2008, whichever party holds the reigns of power, “its leaders will have their own reasons why they cannot change course immediately.” They will come up with the excuses as to why Gitmo will have to stay open; why the president will have to continue amassing power; why those accused of actions of terrorism can't be provided due process. That's why, he noted, “we the people cannot leave it to the politicians. For the core concern of politicians is politics, not principle.”

That observer, of course, was Harold Koh.

The problem, as history amply demonstrates, isn't the party affiliation of presidents and their legal enablers, it's the power they possess. The U.S. government is the most powerful political institution in the world, with those who run it given the awesome power to decide who gets a trial and who does not; who lives and who dies; whether we're at war or at peace. Putting anyone in that position is asking too much of someone we must not forget is still a fallible human being like you or I susceptible to the same corrupting influences of power and vanity.

Harold Koh, like many a crusading reformer before him, used to say the same thing. But now he has power.

Monday, August 08, 2011

It's always the year 2000

After two and half years of Barack Obama, you might think partisan Democrats would be a bit hesitant to pull out the whole 2000 election card and, perhaps, would dial back the condescension toward those underwhelmed by the choice offered them by the two major parties. Obama, after all, epitomizes everything those dime's-worth-of-difference curmudgeons, be they Naderites or anarchists or merely observant, have been saying. While he may differ from Bush stylistically, he is substantively the same, committed to the same imperial policy of empire abroad, albeit with more of a liberal internationalist, and corporatism at home.

Surely, you'd think, given the performance of a man who once, and in the more sycophantic sectors, still is, billed as the most progressive president of our lifetime -- a doubling of the troops in Afghanistan, a blatantly illegal war in Libya, billions of taxpayer dollars funneled to an unaccountable Wall Street -- liberals would at least quit pretending we were but an Al Gore presidency away from a worker's paradise.

You would, of course, be wrong:
I remember well the contention that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between George W Bush and Al Gore. And, indeed, there wasn’t. Both wholeheartedly embraced American military hegemony as a foreign policy and the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” approach to international economic policy. Both emphasized improved education as the key to long-term prosperity, both valorized capitalism as an engine of growth, and neither in any meaningful way challenged the various prevailing economic and social dogmas of the era. And yet looking back in concrete terms, it seems to me that the 2000 election turns out to have been one of the most consequential in American history. That’s because while both Bush and Bill Clinton pursued policies from within the paradigm of the elite American ideological consensus of the post-Cold War era they actually pursued very different policies.
I'll say this much about Matt Yglesias, author of the above defense of the U.S. political system: at least, to his credit, he steers clear of the sneering Nader-bashing that characterizes most liberal remembrances of George W. Bush's 5-4 victory over Gore back in 2000. That's something. Progress, maybe.

Instead of bolstering his case with the next logical step of citing specific examples of how Bush "pursued very different policies" from Bill Clinton, though, Yglesias curiously turns to Europe. Spain's Franco and Italy's Mussolini were quite similar, he maintains, but the former didn't involve his country in World War II, evidence that even minor differences between politicians "can be quite large in terms of practical consequences."

While I give the guy props for trying to explain the difference between Republicans and Democrats by turning to two European fascists, I can't help but think Yglesias is engaged in a red herring, shifting from the harder task of detailing the substantive differences between Bush and Clinton/Gore he asserts to the easier task of highlighting differences between leaders of two different countries with their own unique histories and political situations. The issue is whether the U.S.'s two-party system allows the possibility of major substantive differences -- like don't-get-involved-in-a-world-war substantive -- between the two viable, corporate-approved candidates for the presidency or whether in fact the system precludes such a possibility by design.

Insofar as there were substantive differences between Clinton and Bush, I'd argue it's because they served at different times, when the needs of the establishment differed. Had 9/11 happened on Clinton's watch, you can't tell me the guy who enforced an embargo against Iraq that, conservatively, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians -- a price, you'll recall, that was deemed "worth it" -- wouldn't have gotten his Rambo on and exorcised all those liberals-are-pussies demons for good. And Al Gore? You can't tell me the guy who campaigned on the need for a more interventionist U.S. role in the world while his opponent, Bush, spoke of a need for a more "humble foreign policy," wouldn't have done the same. His running mate Joe Lieberman -- allow me to repeat that, his running mate Joe Lieberman -- certainly wouldn't have been a powerful advocate for peace.

The few stylistic and the fewer substantive differences between Democrats and Republicans aside, no matter who wins the result is always the same: more war and corporatism; the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer; and a legion of pundits on both sides arguing we ought to be grateful for the dime's worth of difference we get.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

This I believe

We are all still barbarians who resort to force and violence to settle our doubts, difficulties, and troubles. Violence is the method of ignorance, the weapon of the weak. The strong of heart and brain need no violence, for they are irresistible in their consciousness of being right. The further we get away from primitive man and the hatchet age, the less recourse we shall have to force and violence. The more enlightened man will become, the less he will employ compulsion and coercion. The really civilized man will divest himself of all fear and authority. He will rise from the dust and stand erect: he will bow to no tsar either in heaven or on earth. He will become fully human when he will scorn to rule and refuse to be ruled. He will be truly free only when there shall be no more masters.
-- Alexander Berkman, What Is Communist Anarchism?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

There's no such thing as an American war criminal

Hark! U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice issued a statement today. The laughably hypocritical parts are in bold:
Today, President Obama directed a thorough review to strengthen our national capacity to prevent mass atrocities. Crucially, the President will establish a new Atrocities Prevention Board with the authority and the policy tools to respond quickly to early warning signs and make recommendations before options narrow and the costs of both action and inaction rise precipitously. The President also expanded grounds to deny visas to serious human rights violators and war criminals and to isolate those who engage in or conspire to commit atrocities.

The United States is deeply committed to ensuring that no individual, now or in the future, sees a path to power in division and death. Moreover, in the enduring fight against mass atrocities, the United States will continue to enlist the contributions of all nations who know that in war, there must be rules; that, in the pursuit of power, there must be limits; that, even in a violent world, there must be rights; and that, when the embers of conflict threaten to ignite, we must be ready.
I'd say there's a 50/50 chance Henry Kissinger gets appointed to that there "Atrocities Prevention Board." And I'm 100 percent sure that irony has died.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

At least we're getting 'defense' cuts, right?

Yeah, don't count it, Medea Benjamin and I say in our latest piece. Like Elizabeth Warren, the White House's claimed determination to cut military spending is but liberal catnip that will be dropped at the first predictable sign of resistance.