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.