Monday, December 10, 2012

Bourgeois Economist Meet Marx, Marx Meet Bourgeois Economist

A specter is haunting the bourgeois economists, the specter of Marx. Paul Krugman opining today in The New York Times joins the growing ranks of mainstream economist who are wondering in light of the recent economic collapse that maybe a certain bearded German theorist was not totally wrong. Mostly wrong, but not completely. Will they come all the way around? Will we be seeing members of the Wall Street Journal editorial board against the barricades screaming, "Bourgeois economist of the world unite you have noting to lose but your chains!" Most likely not (though stranger things have and will happen). Nonetheless the quotes listed below are inexplicably satisfying.
‎"The only guy who really called this right was Karl Marx. Marx understood what would happen if you let the market run amok"--Jim Cramer in an interview with Time Magazine

"Karl Marx had it right.  At some point, Capitalism can destroy itself.  You cannot keep on shifting income from labor to Capital without having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.  That's what has happened.  We thought that markets worked.  They're not working.  The individual can be rational.  The firm, to survive and thrive, can push labor costs more and more down, but labor costs are someone else's income and consumption.  That's why it's a self-destructive process."--Nouriel Roubini in an interview with the Wall Street Journal 

"Does Capitalism Need to Be More Marxist to Survive?"--Paul Gambles Managing Partner, MBMG International writing for CNBC

"Wait — are we really back to talking about capital versus labor? Isn’t that an old-fashioned, almost Marxist sort of discussion, out of date in our modern information economy? Well, that’s what many people thought; for the past generation discussions of inequality have focused overwhelmingly not on capital versus labor but on distributional issues between workers, either on the gap between more- and less-educated workers or on the soaring incomes of a handful of superstars in finance and other fields. But that may be yesterday’s story.

More specifically, while it’s true that the finance guys are still making out like bandits — in part because, as we now know, some of them actually are bandits — the wage gap between workers with a college education and those without, which grew a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s, hasn’t changed much since then. Indeed, recent college graduates had stagnant incomes even before the financial crisis struck. Increasingly, profits have been rising at the expense of workers in general, including workers with the skills that were supposed to lead to success in today’s economy."--Paul Kraugman writing in the New York Times

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Piece on Israel's Bombing of Gaza

I have a new op-ed published on Speakout at Truthout. It’s about Israel’s bombing of Gaza and how it rests on the dehumanization of the Palestniain people. It can be viewed here, but here is a brief teaser--

In light of Israel’s bombing of Gaza, we can arrive at one conclusion: in order to support it one must show a complete and total disregard for the lives of Palestinians, or at the very least believe them to be worth less than that of their Israeli counterparts. Proponents of the bombing, including the Israeli government, maintain that they are merely defending human life from the unacceptable assault of the rockets. Yet, their own actions in just a few weeks have already taken far more human lives than the rockets have in over a decade. Even more jarring is the topsy-turvy world the Israeli government and their supporters seem to inhabit. In this world aggression is labeled defense and the narrative used to justify said inversions bares little relation to realty. No mention is made of what precipitated the latest round of violence nor is any mention made of the larger context--decades long policies of oppression directed towards the Palestinian people. None of this matters since after all the Palestinians don’t seem to matter.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The New York Times--Still Anti-Palestinian Even when "Critiquing" Israeli Policy

The New York Times criticized Israel’s latest violence, but only because it doesn’t seem to be an “effective way of advancing its long-term interests” and may “divert attention from what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly described as Israel’s biggest security threat: Iran’s nuclear program.” Israel’s actions are wrong not because they kill Palestinian civilians or violate international law, but because they might not advance Israel’s interest or get in the way of saber-rattling with Iran. Such an inability to assess Israel’s action from any other framework than Israel’s “interests” shows a callous indifference to the suffering of the Palestinian.   
This apathy should not be surprising. The only justification for Israel’s policies towards the Palestinian people, which include not only the latest round of aggression, but the expulsion of refugees, the refusal of their universally recognized legal right to return for the sole reason that they are Palestinian, the constant colonizing of land in the West Bank, can only rest on the dehumanization of the Palestinian people. The latest round of aggression is no exception

Saturday, November 10, 2012


.Truth-Out recently published an original op-ed by me on the subject of Occupy Wall Street and the Prison-Industrial Complex. The complete piece can be found here, but here is preview of what I wrote:

Since Occupy first exploded onto the scene, many within the political establishment and mainstream media have criticized occupiers alternatively for a lack of demands and for embracing too many seemingly unrelated demands. In spite of this confusion among those who are the self-appointed gatekeepers of political discourse, most people have understood Occupy as being a movement concerned with corporate influence over government, economic inequality and the economic crisis at large. It is precisely for those reasons that Occupy should be concerned about America's penal population (which is not to say that many Occupy groups and occupiers are not).
The current regime of mass incarceration is very much tied to the emergence of the neoliberal state in America. The neoliberal state demands stability for the market, but ultimately generates instability with its generation of surplus populations and lack of social resources. This means that while neoliberalism seeks to limit state intervention in the market and slash social welfare nets in the name of "freedom," it inevitably results in increased coercion, militarization and incarceration. And with its desire to subject every aspect of society to the market, prisons become not just a necessity under neoliberalism, but a profitable venture. These factors, not an epidemic of criminality, are the chief causes of mass incarceration in America. Prisons are therefore very much tied to the larger economic polices that Occupy opposes.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Affirmative Action Isn’t Discrimination

Earlier this month the Supreme Court once again took up the issue of affirmative-action. Many who have not closely followed the bizarre, soap opera saga that is the Supreme Court and affirmative action may be surprised to know that the Supreme Court is only willing to accept as constitutional affirmative action regimes that cite “diversity” as their raison d'être. This is because in the original Supreme Court decision on the subject four members of the court ruled that affirmative action was unconstitutional and four ruled that affirmative action as it is popularly understood (as a program to address racial injustice) was not. To overcome this stalemate Justice Powell concurred and dissented in part with both factions. He decided that affirmative action meant to address racial injustice was in fact unconstitutional, but it could be constitutional if the program was meant to ensure “diversity.” Of course this meant as liberal thinker Elizabeth Anderson pointed out that affirmative action as it is currently practiced is “divorced from the aims of social justice.” See Elizabeth Anderson. The Imperative of Integration. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pg. 142.

The Supreme Court is constitutionally incapable (pun intended? maybe...) of dealing with structural racism. However, much of the public discourse surrounding affirmative action (including that which is in response to the recent Supreme Court hearing) deals mostly with the traditional issues of racial injustice that affirmative action was designed to address. Because I am merely writing a humble blog and not arguing before the Supreme Court or structuring an affirmative action program for a major university, I am going to ignore the bizarro world of the Court and an actual argument against affirmative action that I frequently hear parroted. 

One of the most common criticisms I hear against affirmative action, including from liberals, is that affirmative action is racial discrimination and racial discrimination is wrong. As Justice Roberts opined  “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Clearly the sort of insightful legal analysis becoming only of the presiding member of America’s highest court. 

However, people who had advance this claim neglect an important point. Affirmative action isn’t racial discrimination. Racial discrimination happens when affirmative action is not in place. Racial discrimination happens when disproportionately fewer numbers of minority students are admitted into higher educational institutions. When a program is put in place and the demographic make-up of those admitted reflect society at large that is not discrimination, but a counter to actual racial discrimination. 

I would even be willing to concede for the sake of argument that reverse discrimination is in itself a form of discrimination and is thus deplorable. These arguments are fallacious when applied to affirmative action because they fail to understand the nature of affirmative action. While it would be nice to live in a “colorblind” society the simple fact is that Americans do not. If such, widespread, institutional discrimination (check out our prison system for proof of that) exists shouldn’t society at large take it into account? 
If so called “race neutral” or color blind college admissions were really race neutral admissions would reflect the racial make-up of our society. They do not because we do not live in the colorblind society opponents of affirmative action imagine.  Ignoring this fact will not help us to achieve such a society, but instead it will just help to perpetuate widespread, systemic institutional racism. Eliminating affirmative action does not create a “colorblind” admissions process. The argument of reverse discrimination made by opponents taken at face value may appear logical, but they are merely sophisms.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mitt Romney--Mouthpiece for Assad?

      I am not one of those “leftist” who in the name of anti-imperialism embraces whatever dictator the US or its cronies currently has in its sights and turns a blind eye to his crimes against his own people. I am also not one of those who has illusions about American foreign policy having any humanitarian impulses (Long time readers of this blog will recall my first post was a detailed assault on the very notion of “humanitarian intervention”). Unlike some of my comrades I see nothing contradictory between supporting workers, students, and other popular forces against a repressive regime while at the same time opposing any attempts by imperialist forces to intervene. In fact, to me it seems like the only logical position for a socialist to take.
      This is why I am particularly disturbed by remarks both presidential candidates made about Syria. The humanitarian situation in Syria is really very dire. There are certainly popular forces that oppose Assad that have been met with sickening levels of state repression and violence. At the same time, I recognize that the Assad regime has traditionally presented a predicament for American and Israeli foreign policy. I also realize that it is these geopolitical concerns, not the plight of the Syrian people, that motivate US desires for regime change. After all, it is hard for the US to complain of human rights problems in the Middle East after it’s own violent invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s continued use of drones strikes, it’s support for Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid, as well as, its backing of various repressive Arab states. If America wanted to promote human rights in the Middle East it would certainly be a lot easier to start with its own foreign policy before getting itself involved in Syria. 

While both candidates tended to agree on just about everything, Syria no exception, Romney’s crass description of the murder of 30,000 Syrians as an “opportunity” for the US to install a “friendly” and “responsible” government was the most illustrative of the US’s actual designs in Syria.

What particularly troubled me about this comment was how much it plays into the hands of Assad and his apologist. Max Weber when he defined a state as the monopoly on the legitimate force of violence essentially captured what Louis Althusser would partially argue--that state apparatuses could be reduced to two main functions--repression and ideology. As Barara Fields wrote, that while political hegemony ultimately rests on force, “ There is never ultimately enough force to go around, particularly since submission is hardly ever an end in itself...Slaveholders, colonial rulers, prison guards and the Shah’s police have all had occasion to discover that when nothing remains except force, nothing remains—period.”

Assad has attempted to portray the revolt against his autocratic rule as a western plot, a thinly veiled attempt to punish him for being an “independent” leader and install a puppet regime in his place. Given the legacy of colonialism and intervention in the region, one should not dismiss the power of anti-imperialism as a legitimating ideology (one should also never forgot that true opposition to imperialism is a tenant of any socialist word-view and should not be conflated with the cynical attempts of a despot to remain in power). 

By Romney reducing the situation in Syria to a question of “opportunities” for the US he is essentially playing into and legitimating Assad’s ideological narrative. I would question whether Romney understand’s the potential ramifications of his statements, but for that to concern him he would have to actually care about either human rights or the Syrian people--yet another quality Romney shares with Obama.   

Monday, September 17, 2012

Occupy Wall Street--Year One

(Yes, Margaret, There is An Alternative)
I’d like to start with a confession. When I first descended upon the Bowling Green statue in Lower Manhattan on the morning of Saturday September 17, 2011 to discover a handful of people doing yoga, I was not impressed. While my spirits were raised when a larger, but still small group of people marched from Bowling Green to Zuccotti Park I did not believe that we were on the cusp of a historic moment. I had been involved in activism since I was a high school sophomore and as a result have participated in more protests than I care to admit publicly. At the time the events of that day didn’t seem particularly special or memorable.
 Looking back a year later, never in my life have I been so glad to have been so wrong. Far from being just another protest, Occupy Wall Street is unquestionably among the most important social movements of the past decade (which truly is an accomplishment, because in spite of the media narrative of passivity the last decade saw sizable protests against the IMF and World Bank, the war in Iraq, racism, and for women’s and immigrants' rights). Occupy has captured the public imagination like no other protests since the 1960s.

As the one year anniversary approaches, the media narrative will most likely focus on what Occupy has accomplished. Perhaps the media will fixate on the fact that many of the encampments are gone (whether or not they will mention that these encampments were violently broken up by the police is another story). Of course, while no single individual speaks for Occupy, it doesn’t take much to realize that Occupy’s victories lie not only in the encampments. They lie in the newly mobilized activist networks that have waged (and even won) battles in their own communities--whether it be the many homes defended against foreclosure or Occupy Baltimore’s campaign against a proposed new youth jail.

Just as important as these victories is the impact Occupy Wall Street has had in shifting the dialogue concerning economic issues. For decades, the spectrum of acceptable discourse has been rapidly closing. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a vigorous debate about how humans might organize their society. Socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, and radicals of every stripe attracted sizable audiences. Even relatively mainstream intellectuals like John Dewey expressed dissatisfaction with the wage economy and proposed that true democracy meant not just popular participation at the ballot box, but in the workplace as well. In short, capitalism and democracy were not one in the same, but were instead deeply antithetical to each other. 

Yet only eighty-some years later Margret Thatcher, one of the architects of the current neoliberal economic order, would chastise the people that there was “no alternative” to her particular brand of capitalist economics. What happened?  First, we were told that there was no alternative to capitalism. Then, not only did we have to accept capitalism as the only viable economic system, but we could only choose a particular brand of capitalism: A deregulated, cutthroat brand of capitalism that mixes unchecked corporate power with a disempowered working class, free markets with accelerated rates of incarceration and police repression, tyrannical technocrats with diminished formal representative institutions, corporate welfare with gutted social services, and in times of crisis, bank bailouts with austerity.

There was no alternative. And every politician accepted it. If you lived in the United States it didn’t matter if you elected Democrats or Republicans, the policies were essentially the same (as were the corporate donors). Western Europe, where social democratic and socialist parties still existed in name, faced a similar closing of discourse. 

Anthropologist David Graeber got it right when he said that Occupy was about the rediscovery of “the radical imagination.” While Occupy's coalition of supporters include everyone from left-leaning Keynesians to anarchists, Occupy’s power and appeal rests in its fundamental core assertion than there is indeed an alternative. It is the rejection that private profit is the only valid raison d'etre for anything, whether it be education and healthcare or prisons and the military. Instead, Occupy proposes the radical alternative that the lives, well-being, and futures of flesh and blood humans are too precious to be traded along with slips of paper on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Hypocrisy of Mitt Romney

Even though Clint Eastwood’s bizarre and rambling monologue (which managed to upstage Romney) contained a vague anti-war statement and the implication that Romney would bring all US troops home from Afghanistan “tomorrow” (in actuality his platform calls for a withdrawal by 2014) Romney minced no words in his nomination speech about his foreign policy. While most of the foreign policy parts of his speech were nonsensical misstatements of Obama’s foreign policy (misstatements because Obama has been just as diligent in maintaing the American Empire as any of his predecessors) one point seemed particularly hypocritical for Romney.

Romney who repeated the absurd claim that Obama had been on an “apology tour” for the United States boldly claimed that America does not “dictate” to the world, but instead has “freed the world of dictators.” On face value this claim is almost too laughable to debunk. Between the long list of democratic governments deposed by the United States, the even longer list of dictators it has backed, and the realities faced by civilians in countries subject to US intervention it’s hard to even know where to start with the falsity of Romney’s claim.

However what makes Romney’s remark worth noting is the blatant level of hypocrisy inherent to this remark being made by Romney. The Huffington Post recently reported that Romney’s venture capital firm, Bain Capital, started by receiving money from individuals connected to Salvadorian death squads. 

During the Salvadorian Civil War over 75,000 civilians were killed, 85% percent of them killed by the US-backed government. Particular low points of the war were the murder and rape of four American nuns, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while giving mass, and the massacring of 900 citizens in the village of El Mozote. All crimes committed by death squads with close links to the government.

As if Romney’s business ties with Salvadorian death squads were not enough Truthout recently revealed that he was not the only person on the Republican ticket with ties to atrocities in the region. Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan has been receiving advise on foreign policy from Elliot Abrams. Abrams, who was convicted of two misdemeanor counts for his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair, has a long history of supporting atrocities committed in Central America, including denying the El Mozote massacre--a tragedy confirmed by not only the New York Times and the Washington Post, but the United Nations Truth Commission and eventually recognized by the government of El Salvador itself. Abrams was also a noted supporter of the Contras, a rightwing group supported by the CIA that sought to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) would find that CIA operations with the Contras, which included mining the harbors of Nicaragua, constituted an act of aggression. This ruling made the United States the only country ever found guilty of aggression by the ICJ. In addition to the ICJ’s finding Human Rights Watch’s predecessor organization concluded that Contras deliberately targeted civilian health care workers, and routinely engaged in rape, torture, and kidnapping. 

While the United States has never been a “Good Neighbor” to Central America the period in the late-1970s to early 1990s is one of the darkest in US-Central American relationships. During this time the US sought to suppress popular movements against oligarchical dictatorships and overthrow them when they succeeded (like the Sandinistas did in Nicaragua). To do so they supported brutal death squads and terrorist groups like the Contras.  For Romney, given Bain Capital’s ties to this dark chapter in American history, to speak of America “freeing the world of dictators,” shows a particular level of hypocrisy.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


In the last month two of my articles initially posted here have found there way into Counterpunch. Some of you may even be visiting this blog for the first time after having read my writings on Counterpunch.

I am writing about this not congradulate myself, but to take a moment to thank everyone who has read, supported, and encouraged me in writing this blog.

In particular I would like to thank Alyssa Goldstein, Steven Trans-Creque, and Kevin Zeese for encouraging me to not only continue this blog, but to submit my first article to Counterpunch.

I would also like to thank the longtime readers of this blog, as well as welcome any new ones to this site. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Happy Birthday Howard Zinn!

Today would have been Howard Zinn’s 90th birthday. Zinn was one of many thinkers and activists who played a significant role in developing my political consciousness. In addition to helping to shape my views of how social change occurs he is probably among the chief reasons that I decided to pursue history as an undergraduate major and why the study of social movements were such a heavy part of my academic focus. In honor of his birthday I am reposting here a brief note that I wrote when Zinn passed over two years ago:

There’s a general portrayal of Zinn’s seminal work, A People’s History of the United States, as being “negative” or “critical.” I know rightwing commentators, such as Bill O’Reilly, hold it up as an example of the left’s desire to “blame America first” or their Anti-American views. This depiction is not just prevalent on the right, but throughout the mainstream. Even people who are generally liberal or “left-of-center” often times seem to think that a A People’s History is just a litany of atrocities committed by the United States, and that it’s a “depressing” book. It’s true Zinn did not shy away from exposing the many crimes committed by the United States government, and was not afraid to show critically even the holiest of America holy cows. That being said that wasn’t all A People’s History was or even its main focus. In fact, despite my prior expectations to the contrary, I found A People’s History to be anything, but depressing, I found it to be hopeful and inspiring.

It’s inspiring because it’s not the story of the American government, or American elites (such a story would truly be depressing), but a story of the American people. The slaves who struggled for freedom, the workers who struggled for a decent wage and humane working conditions, women who struggled for the right to vote, Americans who struggled not only for a better life for themselves, but for a better world. These are the people, who as Zinn said, “gave us whatever freedom we have.” That’s what’s important to remember--No benevolent power granted your freedom, people fought for it. And people are still fighting for it. We’re still fighting.

I remember back in November 2007 I had the privilege of seeing a theatrical version of A People’s History (similar to what premiered on the History Channel). I was expecting and excited to hear the words of Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King, and other great social justice heroes. I was not disappointed, but what I remember the most moved by was the words of three women who during the Great Depression organized workers and the unemployed. Now they certainly weren’t Presidents or any of the usual American heroes, but they also weren’t part of the standard repertoire of Leftwing heroes either. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that Eugene Debs isn’t great, he’s amazing, but one man doesn’t make a movement. I think we, even on the left, forget that sometimes. We think that only extraordinary men and women can change the course of history, but the truth is that it’s the ordinary people when they band together and agitate from below that ultimately are the greatest agents of change. We hear Hilary Clinton say that it “took a president” to grant civil rights or we learn that Lincoln freed all the slaves, and we are indoctrinated with the belief that we the people are irrelevant. But the truth is Lincoln was forced to free the slaves only after decades of organizing by the abolitionist movement and the same can be said of civil rights. Howard Zinn changed my view of history, making me realize that change does not come from above, it comes from below.

Whenever I look at the world, I can’t help but feel depressed or overwhelmed. My country is occupying two nations, and escalating violence not only in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The profits of corporations triumph over individuals health, and the best “reform” we’re told we can hope for is to use state power to enforce the corporate monopoly over health care. The greedy, selfish, and reckless behavior of a few have caused untold misery and hardship for the many, and my government’s response is to bail out Wall Street while leaving Main Street to fend for itself. I could go on, but there’s no point. When I look at this facts my reaction is to despair. It’s the human thing to do. But then I think of what Howard Zinn taught me. I think of the great people who were faced with similar or greater problems and fought back. Not only people like Eugene Debs and Martin Luther King, who I admire greatly, but lesser known people like the three women organizers. Many of them are people I wouldn’t even know about if not for Howard Zinn. And their stories, their struggles, their successes, this is what I think about. And yes, I still feel despair, but I also have a glimmer of hope. And that glimmer, the promise of a possibility, that’s what keeps me going, that’s what prevents me from being totally overwrought with despair. Thank you Howard Zinn.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Monstrous Act

Less than a day after I published on this blog a piece dedicated to exposing and examining the systematic cruelty in America’s prison system the state of Texas went through with an act that confirmed what I had written in the worst possible way. I can think of very few words, other than monstrous, barbaric, disgusting, and sick, to describe the state of Texas’s decision to kill a mentally retarded man, Marvin Wilson, and even they seem to fall short of describing the full weight of the situation. While the Supreme Court has barred the practice of killing a mentally retarded person it has left the definition of “mental retardation” up to each individual state. Texas, where 3 out every 4 American executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence in 1976 have taken place, has essentially gone about rewriting the definition for the sole perhaps of executions. Proof of this can be found in the Texas Court of Appeals own phrasing of the question

Does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?

Thus Texas is ignoring any clinical or social services definition for mental retardation, definitions that may be used for government purposes in the state, in order to kill as many people as possible. This is why in eschewing the clinical they resort to crude stereotypes, such as the fictional character Lennie from John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, which the Texas Court of Appeals cited to justify killing a man with an IQ of just 61. 

What is perhaps more disturbing than Texas’s decision to fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s prohibition on killing the mentally retarded is that a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court allowed this to happen. Given the horror story after horror story that has come out of the Texas judiciary I expect as little of them as I would the worst of kangaroo courts in the most authoritarian nations. However, the Supreme Court, which I have generally little esteem for, clearly barred the killing of the mentally retarded. And while they left the responsibility for defining mental retardation to the state, Texas’s own definition is no definition at all and merely a not so subtle attempt to contravene the ban on killing mentally retarded individuals.  

While state-sponsored killing is always a deplorable act, it is made more sickening by the fact that the state of Texas murdered someone who essentially had the intellectual capabilities of a child. To make matters worse the only evidence that Wilson was responsible for the murder of a drug informant came from the wife of his accomplice who claimed that Wilson, not her husband, had actually done the killing. Since that time Wilson’s lawyers had uncovered evidence that cast doubts onto whether or not Wilson was even present at the scene of the crime.

The final disturbing aspect of Wilson’s execution centers around how it was done. Wilson is one of few Americans to be killed by a single-drug protocol. In the past lethal injections in the United States were carried out with a three-drug protocol using barbituric acids. However last year, the European Union, which considers capital punishment to be a human rights violation, moved to ban the export of such drugs to the United States. Instead of seeing the ban as a moment to reconsider it’s capital punishment policies, many states have resorted to using a single-drug protocol. Under this method, the condemned is given the same drug that is used by veterinarians to euthanize animals. Though some have argued the single-drug protocol is in fact more humane than the three drug cocktail, it has still generated controversy since it is at best a largely experimental procedure.

Capital punishment is always and under all circumstance unacceptable. While violence may possibly be justified in cases of self-defense, national liberation movements against an external aggressor, or revolutionary actions against a repressive regime (I’ll leave these questions for future debates) in capital punishment the state captures, detains, and then kills someone who poses no threat to anyone. In short, it is nothing more than premeditated murder carried out by the state. Just as we do not tolerate premeditated murder from ordinary citizens we should not excuse such actions when carried out by the state.

As disgraceful as capital punishment is, the murder of Marvin Wilson takes the practice to a new level of barbarism. That no higher court sought fit to intervene in a practice previously deemed unconstitutional demonstrates that to apply the label “justice” to the system that presided over the muder of Wilson is nothing more than a cruel farce, an insult to the very meaning of the word.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Gore Vidal and the Upside of American Military Prisons

So, here we are bringing democracy to the poor Afghans, but only the real democracy, of course, in the prisons, which we specialize in everywhere and which—one interesting thing that came out of all that mess was now the world knows how we treat Americans in American prisons.

Only the late Gore Vidal, who the American media was almost universal in describing as iconoclastic in his obituaries, could find an upside to the torture of prisoners by American soldiers. And only Vidal could find an upside that would be at the same time deeply witty, cynical, sensationalistic, and completely factual.
I say completely factual because the torture and brutality that shocked the world in American military prisons from Guantanamo bay to Bagram to Abu Ghraib closely parallels and mirrors the United States’s own domestic treatment of prisoners. Given that the US, with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, is the leading incarcerator in the world this fact is even more troubling. 

One doesn’t need to dig very deep to discover the degrees of brutality, torture, and sadism that are the main stead of American prisons. Just a quick review of mainstream news sources from the last several months should produce more than enough damning evidence. In June the Senate held its first ever hearing on the widespread use of solitary confinement in the United States and whether it constituted a form of cruel and unusual punishment barred by the 8th Amendment. 

In addition to the horrors of solitary confinement, another prison abuse related issue received an unusualy large for the topic (but still insignificant) amount of media attention--that is in Texas prisoners are kept in such hot conditions that they routinely die from heat strokes. In some prisons heat indexes can get as high as 150 degrees. As KHOU Houston Texas reports

The Texas Civil Rights Project has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family of Larry Gene McCollum, who died last summer at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas.  During a week when outdoor heat indexes exceeded 130 degrees, McCollum suffered a seizure.  He was hospitalized with a body temperature of 109 degrees, the lawsuit said, then slipped into a coma and died.

McCollum was not the only heat related prison death in Texas last year, four people died and as one prison rights activist explained:

The old, the weak, the infirm, people with other complications like liver cancer, hepatitis-C related stuff, have been dying from heat prostration for some time

Texas in spite of not one, but two lawsuits doesn’t seem to be budging. Justifications from prison officials and lawmakers include if you don’t want to face lethal prison conditions you shouldn’t commit a crime, there is no money for air conditioning, and that with such a large prison population a few people are bound to die no matter what. The Texas Civil Rights Project has retorted that the issue isn’t over “comfortable” prisons but “safe and humane” ones.  
However, abuse in prions is not confined to recent news stories--it is deeply engrained in our popular culture and imagination. Think how frequently sexual violence in prisons, often passed off as a source for humor, is depicted in our popular culture or the degree to which the acceptance of prison rape as normal is engrained in our popular understanding of American penology. In American prisons sexual violence in prisons is not merely the product of lack of intervention by guards, but in some instances has been actively promoted by guards. For example, in California one such inmate known as the “booty bandit” had a reputation for extreme sexual violence amongst prisoners and guards. Guards as disciplinary measures would move unruly prisoners into his cell knowing what would happen. In addition to looking the other way, the “booty bandit” was given rewards such as new tennis shoes for his enforcing of prison order (See Christian Parenti’s excellent work Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis). 

And there is of course America’s fixation with the practice of capital punishment. The human rights community is completely unanimous in its opinion that capital punishment is a barbaric practice that constitutes a severe violation of human rights. While a handful of nations may have continued on this bizarre and antiquated practice, no other nation other than the United States has had such a fixation not only on killing its own citizens, but in inventing new, often cruel, ways of doing so. It was in the laboratory of America’s death row where the electric chair, the gas chamber, and the lethal injection were invented.

The similarity between America’s military prisons and America’s domestic prisons was not only noted by a leftist iconoclast like Gore Vidal. In 2004 the usually tepid New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “America’s Abu Grahib” stating 

Most Americans were shocked by the sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. But we shouldn't have been...We routinely treat prisoners in the United States like animals. We brutalize and degrade them, both men and women.

It should further not surprise Americans that one of the soldiers convicted of a crime stemming from the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Grahib, Charles Graner, had been a prison guard in the US. It should be no further surprise that the prison Graner worked at, State Correctional Institution - Greene, was marred by allegation of not only racism, but physical and sexual violence carried out by the guards against the prisoners. Garner himself was sued twice by prisoners, one alleging that Garner put razor blades inside his food and another prisoner who alleged that Garner and other guards would make him stand on one foot while handcuffed and be repeatedly tripped. In both cases the lawsuits were dismissed as being over the statue of limitations.

This is not the first time America’s overseas policies of empire have had a relationship between domestic policing and prisons. Between 1972 and 1991 the Chicago police tortured at least 135 African-American suspects. The routine and systematic torture, which included electro-shock, began when Jon Burge began to apply “interrogation techniques” he had learned as a solider in the Vietnam War.

The difference, of course, between then and now is a very profound one. In the past, it was the legacy of America’s brutal overseas wars slipping into our domestic polices. Now it is our domestic polices of incarceration and policing that are slipping into overseas wars and occupations. It is because of this shift that Vidal is correct to assert that at least now “the world knows how we treat Americans in American prisons.” 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The American Media and Misunderstanding Socialism

The Oxford New American English dictionary defines socialism as  
a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
I start with the dictionary definition of socialism not because I believe it to the best and most authoritative source for political and economic theory, but because it is a source that presumably more people have access to than a three volume set of Das Kapital or some other weighty academic tome.
Yet, when we hear the word socialist thrown around in the media it seems doubtful that many of those using the word are using this definition or are using the word as anything more than all purpose pejorative to incite hysteria. This is why Glenn Beck, members of the Tea Party, and Republican elected officials have decried Obama, who raised more money than McCain from Wall Street in 2008 and has currently raised more money than Romney from Wall Street, a socialist. This why the mandate to buy health-insurance from a private for-profit corporation, an idea first conceived of by the Heritage Foundation and championed by then-President George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and seemingly the entire Republican establishment until Barack Obama adopted it as his own, is socialist. This is why when George Bush, with the support of both Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, bailed out for-profit banks that helped to crash the economy while doing nothing to stop home foreclosures or help working people suffering from the economic downturn the reaction from some would lead you to believe the closing words of The Communist Manifesto were “Bankers of the World Unite, You Have Nothing To Lose But the Public Treasury.” 
Of course members of the far-right have historically never allowed reality to get in the way of red baiting, with the John Birch Society in the 1950s proclaiming that Republican President Eisenhower was a communist. One would hope given the “mainstream” (read corporate, for-profit, private) media's self-appointed gatekeepers of truth members of the press would at least consult with a dictionary before discussing socialism. One would in this case be overly optimistic. 
American’s paper of record, the New York Times, considered red baiting to be amongst all the news that’s fit to print as early as 1856 when they warned Americans that “socialist” disciples of Thomas Paine (Glenn Beck’s favorite founding father) “boded evil for the future of our Republic.” Only twenty years later and still a good half-century before the Cold War the New York Times would blame the walkout of B&O Railroad Workers in 1877 on “communists.” (See John Nichols The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism and Sidney Lens The Labor Wars respectively)  
With a 156 year-old tradition to uphold the New York Times took it upon itself to explain in what is apparently dubbed “news analysis” “What’s a Socialist?” However, instead of the usual prophecies of doom the Times give us a confusing, contradictory, banal, and muddled account of what exactly it was the French Socialist Party of François Hollande stood for and in the process explain what socialism is for all people, in all contexts. 

The “objective” analytical voice of its author Steven Erlanger informed us that socialism was in fact not a very radical idea and that it had succeeded in most places, including in the United States. To prove his point Erlanger discusses typical features of liberal or social democratic welfare states, such an unemployment insurance and the mere existence of trade unions. To further support his assertions Erlanger goes onto to various European ex-radicals turned Greens who talk about the moribund state of socialism and its contemporary irrelevancy, while at the same time and seemingly unaware of their own contradictions parroting Erlanger’s line that a liberal welfare state or higher taxes on the wealthy constitute successes for socialism. Thus we are presented with a world in which all socialism is dead and no longer meaningful and a new definition of socialism has emerged and its chief tenants are accepted by all members of the political class.  
Next Erlanger gives extensive space to French intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévy. Henri-Lévy is a self-described leftist who believes all other leftist besides himself advocate some form of barbarism leaving him the only true leftist ever. Luckily for Henri-Lévy, who deems socialism to be “barbarism with a human face,” socialism died in 1968 and the current French Socialist Party are neither barbarians nor socialist. Even the “objective” voice of Erlanger cannot stand the insipid cant of Henri-Lévy and quickly intervenes to inform us that “non-barbaric” “democratic socialism” (whatever that may be) has a long tradition in Europe and is alive and well. We then conclude by learning that socialism, in the French context at least, is “very statist” and its supporters are largely educated elites who are career government bureaucrats. 
While this article is a far cry from the looney ravings of Glenn Beck or even the New York Times circa 1856 it is still muddled and not only demonstrates no coherent intellectual understanding of socialism as a political or economic theory, but makes no attempt to do so. The fact that the paper of record cannot even be bothered to consult a dictionary is damning for what passes for both “news” and "analysis."
Slightly better than The New York Times  was a recent episode of the Charlie Rose Show on PBS which featured “Marxian” anthropologist David Harvey and Marxist economist Richard Wolff. Both men addressed the question of whether or not the “capitalist system that has brought so much prosperity to the world is in some sort of crisis”(short answer:yes), what alternatives there were to capitalism, and why taboos existed in the United States about discussing said alternatives. While I applaud Rose for even having two Marxists on to discuss capitalism even he seemed genuinely confused by much of what Wolff meant by a a society that “organizes the production of goods and services in a fundamentally different way” asking him if he meant something like Norway to which Wolff answered no. Still hung up on the issue of an actually existing socialist state Rose asks Harvey if he advocates something along the lines of the Cuban model. Like Wolff and Norway Harvey states that he is not an advocate of the Cuban model. In spite of the fact that Wolff and Harvey could name several successful examples of worker’s cooperatives that could provide the blueprint of a socialist society Rose continued to badger them about the current existence of a socialist nation-state. Questions about the right to public space garnered a similarly pedantic and condescending tone from Rose towards Harvey. 
Even though Rose presents a much better alternative then the ideologically narrow New York Times which does not consider the views of those they wish to profile “fit to print” it still demonstrates a lack of clarity about socialism within the American media. While part of this is a willful attempt by the American political class and the media to limit and police the realms of acceptable conversation (something Harvey and Wolff touch on quite nicely) it is also indicative of an ignorance towards what socialism is or isn’t.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What if There Was No Occupation?

One of the most bizarre and perhaps perplexing phenomena is occupation denial. That is the fervent denial by some of Israel’s most ardent (and delusional? disingenuous?) apologists that the Palestinian territory illegally seized during the Six-Day War (Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem) is not “occupied.” The first time I ever encountered this view was in my nascent stages of consciousness about the Palestinian issue. I had stumbled upon a Facebook group set up for both “pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestine” solidarity activists to discuss their divergent views in a single group. Being a two-stater at the time (a view I will address later in this article), I posted some typical nice sounding bullshit, the sort of thing that comes from someone with a generally liberal outlook, but still under the mistaken impression that Israel-Palestine was a military conflict between two equal sides and not a situation of oppressor and oppressed.
I don’t remember exactly what I said (the group was deleted by one of its Pro-Israel administrators who was angered by the existence of posters with divergent views--so much for dialogue), but it was something to the extent that I supported neither side, as they both had made mistakes--the Palestinians with terrorism and the Israelis with their occupation and the brutality of it, and that I hoped for a peaceful two-state solution based on 1967 borders. Almost immediately, someone responded to my post that I was clearly misinformed as there was no occupation. While I was certainly not as informed on the issue as I am now, even then I knew that someone was telling me that water wasn’t wet, the sky wasn’t blue, and that the Earth’s gravitation pull went away from the ground as opposed to towards it.
While I would love to believe that this was the online ravings of an internet crank, it is not. In fact, it is the official position of the Israeli government as confirmed by the recent Levy report. The stated reason for a lack of occupation is that Palestine was never a country, therefore it can’t occupied. However, in a video I once saw featuring an Israeli government official explaining why the Palestinian territories can’t be occupied because Palestine wasn’t a country, the only word he could find to describe the antebellum status quo of the West Bank and Gaza’s was “occupied by Egypt and Jordan.” Thus the land captured during the Six Day War can’t be occupied territory, because prior to 1967 it wasn’t a country but- occupied territory. The lesson we should draw is just as in Richard Nixon’s mind something “isn’t illegal when the President does it” in the mind of the occupation deniers something “isn’t an occupation when Israel does it.” This level of hypocrisy leaves the extreme fringe (and quite frankly unimportant minority) amongst Israel supporters who believe in a personal deity that engages in real estate transactions and assert that a several thousand year old book with questionable historical accuracy is the best determiner of political geography in the 21st century with the stronger and more rational argument. A impressive feat, no doubt.
Ignoring the utter stupidity of the stated reasoning behind occupation denial that no one, most likely not even the people who utter such drivel, takes seriously, it is easy to see why in the short run Israel and its uncritical apologists would take this position. After all, the near unanimous opinion (the only dissenter being, of course, Israel and a handful of its most diehard supporters) is that the settlements are illegal under international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states
Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive

If there is no occupation, then settlements are just dandy (well no, not really, since seizure of land and the disposal of one population to benefit another is not only morally repulsive during a military occupation, but given that this is the most coherent line of reasoning attributable to occupation deniers I’ll be generous and let it slide). This means that something clearly motivates occupation deniers other than damaged reasoning skills and an inadequate understanding of international law.

However, what if we were to truly follow the logic of the “there is no occupation” line of reasoning? While settlements may be quasi-ok, what then of the other inhabitants of the non-occupied Palestinian territory, you know, the Palestinians? Aren’t they entitled to the same rights as their neighbors, the Israeli settlers? Like the right to vote, the right to freedom of mobility, the right to trial by jury in a civilian Israeli court? After all, if there is no occupation and the settlements are legal, then aren’t all residents of the West Bank (and Gaza for that matter--which is still occupied in spite of the withdrawal of settlements) living under the jurisdiction of the same state? What do we call a state that grants rights to some citizens, but not others based on the socially constructed category of radicalized identity? Apartheid.
While it may be humorous to point out the unintended consequences of the policies of the most ardent deniers of Palestinian human rights, the issue goes far beyond the crass opportunism of the occupation deniers. We can talk about occupation or no occupation, one state versus two states, but the simple reality is that there already is only one state. There is a mass of land that is historically unified, with two groups of people interspersed throughout. One entity also controls the entire land through its use of force (the very definition of a state). As part of its Occupation denial, Israel does not define its borders, and it doesn’t consider settlers living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to be foreigners or expatriates. That’s why Israel gives settlers the right to vote. That is why if they commit a crime they will be tried in an Israeli court, not a Palestinian one. That is why the settlements are subject to Israeli laws, not Palestinian laws. It’s also why Israelis living in settlements can travel freely beyond the green line or why settlement products come stamped with “Made in Israel” on them.
The land of Israel-Palestine is an unified entity under the rule of one state where people are granted or denied rights based on their ethnicity and where they are born. Yes, Palestinians born within Israel’s 1967 borders are granted citizenship (though they don’t have as many rights as their Jewish counterparts), but Palestinians living within the occupied territory are not even though their neighbors living in settlements are. Such rights are not granted because in Israel, like the Jim Crow American South or Apartheid South Africa, rights are second to maintaining racial superiority.