Saturday, August 8, 2009
UN Address: Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect
By Noam Chomsky
The discussions about Responsibility to Protect (R2P), or its cousin "humanitarian intervention," are regularly disturbed by the rattling of a skeleton in the closet: history, to the present moment.
Throughout history, there have been a few principles of international affairs that apply quite generally. One is the maxim of Thucydides that the strong do as they wish, while the weak suffer as they must. A corollary is what Ian Brownlie calls "the hegemonial approach to law-making": the voice of the powerful sets precedents.
Another principle derives from Adam Smith's account of policy-making in England: the "principal architects" of policy -- in his day the "merchants and manufacturers" -- make sure that their own interests are "most peculiarly attended to" however "grievous" the effect on others, including the people of England -- but far more so, those who were subjected to "the savage injustice of the Europeans," particularly in conquered India, Smith's own prime concern.
A third principle is that virtually every use of force in international affairs has been justified in terms of R2P, including the worst monsters. Just to illustrate, in his scholarly study of "humanitarian intervention," Sean Murphy cites only three examples between the Kellogg-Briand pact and the UN Charter: Japan's attack on Manchuria, Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, and Hitler's occupation of parts of Czechoslovakia, all accompanied by lofty rhetoric about the solemn responsibility to protect the suffering populations, and factual justifications. The basic pattern continues to the present. The historical record is worth recalling when we hear R2P or its cousin described as an "emerging norm" in international affairs. They have been considered a norm as far back as we want to go.
The founding of this country is an example. In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was granted its Charter by the King, stating that rescuing the natives from their bitter pagan fate is "the principal end of this plantation." The Great Seal of the Colony depicts an Indian saying "Come Over and Help Us." The English colonists were thus fulfilling their responsibility to protect as they proceeded to "extirpate" and "exterminate" the natives, in their words -- and for their own good, their honored successors explained. In 1630, John Winthrop delivered his famous sermon depicting the new nation "ordained by God" as "a city on a hill," inspirational rhetoric that is regularly invoked to this day to justify any crime as at worst a "deviation" from the noble mission of responsibility to protect.
There is no difficulty adding similar examples from other great powers in their day in the sun. It is understandable that the powerful should prefer to declare that we should forget history and look forward. For the weak, it is not a wise choice.
The skeleton in the closet made an appearance in the first case considered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) 60 years ago, the Corfu Channel case. The Court determined that it "can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to most serious abuses and such as cannot, whatever be the defects in international organization, find a place in international law. . .; from the nature of things, [intervention] would be reserved for the most powerful states, and might easily lead to perverting the administration of justice itself."
The same perspective informed the first-ever meeting of the South Summit of 133 states, convened in April 2000. Its declaration, surely with the bombing of Serbia in mind, rejected "the so-called 'right' of humanitarian intervention, which has no legal basis in the United Nations Charter or in the general principles of international law." The wording reaffirms the important UN Declaration on Friendly Relations (UNGA Res. 2625, 1970). It has been repeated since, among others by the Ministerial Meeting of the Non-aligned Movement in Malaysia in 2006, again representing the traditional victims in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Arab world.
The same conclusion was drawn in 2004 by the high-level UN Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The Panel adopted the view of the ICJ and the Non-aligned Movement, concluding that "Article 51 needs neither extension nor restriction of its long-understood scope." The Panel added that "For those impatient with such a response, the answer must be that, in a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order and the norm of nonintervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all" -- which is, of course, unthinkable.
The same basic position was adopted by the UN World Summit in 2005. While reaffirming stands that had already been accepted, the Summit also asserted the willingness "to take collective action . . . through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter . . . should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations" from serious crimes. At most, the phrase sharpens the wording of Article 42 on authorization for the Security Council to resort to force. And it keeps the skeleton in the closet -- if, and it is a large if, we can regard the Security Council as a neutral arbiter, not subject to the maxims of Thucydides and Adam Smith, a matter to which I will return.
There have been efforts to draw a sharp distinction between R2P and its cousin. They may have some merit, but they go far beyond the evidence. There is a good reason why "the right of humanitarian intervention" has been hotly contested, in substantial part along North-South lines, while R2P was affirmed -- more accurately reaffirmed -- by consensus at the Summit. The reason is that the Summit acceptance of R2P rhetoric adds nothing substantially new.
The rights articulated in the crucial paragraphs 138 and 139 of the Summit declaration had not been seriously contested, and in fact had been affirmed and implemented, for example, with regard to apartheid South Africa. Furthermore, the Security Council had already determined that it can even use force under Chapter VII to end massive human rights abuses, civil war, and violation of civil liberties: Resolutions 925, 929, 940, June-July 1994. And as J. L. Holzgrefe observes, "most states are signatories to conventions that legally oblige them to respect the human rights of their citizens." The few successes of R2P that have been widely hailed, as in Kenya, had no need for the Summit resolution, though the terminology of R2P was invoked.
In substance, R2P as formulated at the South Summit is a subcase of the "right of humanitarian intervention," omitting the part that has been contested: the right to use force without Security Council authorization. That does not imply that there is no significance to the more explicit focus on rights that had already been widely accepted. The significance of the rhetorical shift will be determined by how it is implemented. On that matter, there are few grounds for celebration.
There have been departures from the Corfu Channel restriction and its descendants. The Constitutive Act of the African Union asserts "The right of the Union to intervene in a Member State . . . in respect of grave circumstances." That differs crucially from the Charter of the Organization of American States, which bars intervention "for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state." The reasons for the difference are clear. The OAS Charter seeks to deter intervention by the "colossus of the North" -- and has of course failed to do so. But after the collapse of the apartheid states, the African Union faced no comparable problem.
If the African Union doctrine were to extend to the OAS or NATO, then they would be entitled to intervene within their own alliances. That idea yields interesting and revealing conclusions about the OAS and NATO, which should not need elaboration. But the conclusions would be inoperative, as in the recent past, thanks to the maxim of Thucydides.
I know of only one high-level proposal to extend R2P beyond the Summit consensus and the African Union extension, namely, in the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on Responsibility to Protect (2001). The Commission considers the situation in which "the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time." In that case, the Report authorizes "action within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations under Chapter VIII of the Charter, subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council" ((3) E, II).
At this point, the skeleton in the closet rattles quite loudly. One reason is that the powerful unilaterally determine their own "area of jurisdiction." The OAS and AU cannot do so, but NATO can, and does. NATO unilaterally determined that its "area of jurisdiction" includes the Balkans -- but not NATO itself, where shocking crimes were committed against Kurds in southeastern Turkey through the 1990s, off the agenda because of the decisive military and diplomatic support for them by the Clinton administration, with the aid of other NATO powers.
NATO has also determined that its "area of jurisdiction" extends to Afghanistan, and beyond. Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer informed a NATO meeting in June 2007 that "NATO troops have to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the West," and more generally have to protect sea routes used by tankers and other "crucial infrastructure" of the energy system. The expansive rights accorded by the International Commission are in practice restricted to NATO alone, radically violating the principles of Corfu Channel and its descendants, and opening the door for resort to R2P as a weapon of imperial intervention at will.
The Corfu Channel principle provides considerable insight into both the timing of the rhetorical invocation of R2P and its cousin, and the selectivity of their application in this new incarnation. The "normative revolution" declared by Western commentators took place in the 1990s, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had, in earlier years, provided an automatic pretext for intervention.
The Bush senior administration reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall with an official exposition of Washington's new course: in brief, everything will stay much the same, but with new pretexts. We still need a huge military system, but for a new reason: the "technological sophistication" of third world powers. We have to maintain the "defense industrial base" -- a euphemism for state-supported high-tech industry. We must maintain intervention forces directed at the Middle East energy-rich regions -- where the threats to our interests that required military intervention "could not be laid at the Kremlin's door," contrary to decades of pretense. New pretexts for intervention were needed, and the "normative revolution" entered the stage -- once again.
The natural interpretation of the timing gains support from the selectivity of application of R2P. There was of course no thought of applying the principle to the Iraq sanctions administered by the Security Council, condemned as "genocidal" by the two directors of the oil-for-food program, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, both of whom resigned in protest. Von Sponeck's detailed study of the horrendous impact of the sanctions has been under a virtual ban in the US and UK, the primary agents of the programs.
Similarly, there is no thought today of protection of the people of Gaza, also a UN responsibility, along with the rest of the "protected population" (under the Geneva Conventions), denied fundamental human rights. Nothing serious is contemplated about the worst catastrophe in Africa, if not the world: Eastern Congo, where only a few days ago, BBC reported, multinationals are once again being accused of violating a UN resolution against illicit trade of valuable minerals and thus funding the murderous conflict.
In another domain, there is no thought of invoking even the most innocuous prescriptions of R2P to respond to massive starvation in the poor countries. The UN recently estimated that the number of those facing hunger has passed a billion, while the World Food Program of the UN has just announced major cutbacks of aid because the rich countries are reducing their meager contributions, giving priority to bailing out banks. Several years ago UNICEF reported that 16,000 children die every day from lack of food, many more from easily preventable disease. The figures are higher now. In southern Africa alone, it is Rwanda-level killing, not for 100 days, but every day. There is surely ample warning, but no thought of action under R2P, though it would be easy enough if the will were there.
In these and numerous other cases the selectivity conforms with painful precision to the maxim of Thucydides, and the expectations of the ICJ 60 years ago.
Perhaps the most striking illustration of the consistent radical selectivity was in 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia, an attack featured in Western discourse as the jewel in the crown of the "emerging norm" of humanitarian intervention, when the US was at the "height of its glory" in leading the "enlightened states," and the "idealistic New World bent on ending inhumanity" opened a new era in history by acting on "principles and values," to cite just a few of the accolades by Western intellectuals.
There are a few difficulties confronting this flattering self-image. One problem is that the traditional victims of Western intervention vigorously objected. I have already quoted the stand of the Non-aligned movement; Nelson Mandela was particularly harsh in his condemnation. That was unproblematic: the views of the unworthy are easily ignored.
Furthermore, the bombing plainly violated the UN Charter. That problem too was easily put to rest. Some resorted to legalistic maneuvering, but as the Goldstone Commission more forthrightly determined, the bombing was "illegal but legitimate," a conclusion reached by reversing the chronology of bombing and atrocities.
That leads to a third problem: the facts, which happen to be richly documented from impeccable Western sources. What they reveal is unequivocal. The NATO bombing did not end the atrocities but rather precipitated by far the worst of them, as had been anticipated by the NATO command and the White House. The conclusions that are so richly documented by the Western records are reinforced by the indictment of Miloševic, issued by the International Tribunal at the height of the bombing.
With a single exception, the crimes charged follow the bombing. And we can be confident that the one pre-bombing charge -- the Racak massacre -- was of little principled concern to the US and Britain, if only because at the very same time they were not merely condoning but actively supporting much more serious crimes in East Timor, where the background of atrocities was incomparably more grotesque than anything that had happened in the Balkans. And that is only one of many examples right at that time. This problem too was overcome quite simply: by virtual suppression of the ample record.
The case of East Timor is particularly instructive. On a personal note, I testified about it at the Fourth Committee in 1978, when atrocities reached the level of "extermination as a crime against humanity committed against the East Timorese population," in the words of the later UN-sponsored Truth Commission, and Britain and France joined the US in supporting them, along with Australia and others, continuing to do so right through 1999 as atrocities sharply mounted again. After the final paroxysm of state terror in September 1999, which destroyed most of what remained of the country, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said that the US would continue its support for the aggressors, explaining that "I don't think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said that we ought to intervene wherever there's a humanitarian problem." R2P vanished in the familiar way.
To end the atrocities in this case would not have required bombing, or sanctions, or indeed any act beyond withdrawal of participation. That was demonstrated shortly after Berger's reaffirmation of Western policy, when, under strong domestic and international pressure, Clinton formally ended US participation. The invaders immediately withdrew, and a UN peacekeeping force was able to enter facing no army. That could have been done any time in the preceding quarter-century. Astonishingly, this horrendous story was soon reinterpreted as vindication of R2P, a reaction so shameful that words fail.
I mentioned that the consensus of the World Summit adheres to the Corfu principle and its descendants only if we assume that the Security Council is a neutral arbiter. It plainly is not. The Council is controlled by its five permanent members, and they are not equal in operative authority. One indication is the record of vetoes -- the most extreme form of violation of a Security Council Resolution. The relevant period is from the mid-1960s, when decolonization and recovery from wartime destruction gave the UN at least some standing as representative of world opinion. Since then, the US is far in the lead in vetoes, Britain second, no one else even close. In the past quarter-century, China and France vetoed 3 resolutions, Russia four, the UK ten, and the US 43, including even resolutions calling on states to observe international law. The skeleton in the closet nods in recognition as the maxim of Thucydides strikes again.
One way to mitigate this defect in the World Summit consensus would be to eliminate the veto -- incidentally, in accord with the will of most Americans, who believe that the US should follow the will of the majority and that the UN, not the US, should take the lead in international crises. But here we run up against Adam Smith's maxim, which ensures that such heresies are unthinkable, as much so as applying R2P right now to those who desperately need protection but are not on the favored list of the powerful. American public opinion brings up a further consideration. The maxims that largely guide international affairs are not graven in stone, and, in fact, have become considerably less harsh over the years as a result of the civilizing effect of popular movements. For that continuing and essential project, R2P can be a valuable tool, much as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been.
Even though states do not adhere to the UDHR, and some formally reject much of it (crucially including the world's most powerful state), nonetheless it serves as an ideal that activists can appeal to in educational and organizing efforts, often effectively. My suspicion is that a major contribution of the discussion of R2P may turn out to be rather similar, and with sufficient commitment, unfortunately not yet detectable among the powerful, it could be significant indeed.
Nancy Pelosi’s summer vacation
By Tom Eley
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will spend the early days of the August legislative recess wining and dining powerful corporate and political figures.
Pelosi will host a two-day “issues conference” for 170 elite guests, starting Friday at her multi-million dollar mansion in San Francisco’s exclusive Pacifica Heights neighborhood, Politico's John Bresnahan reports. “The following day, Pelosi will shepherd her guests to a Napa Valley winery with buildings designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry; the speaker and her husband, investor Paul Pelosi, own a nearby vineyard worth between $5 million and $25 million, according to her annual financial disclosure report,” he writes.
Bresnahan notes that the event is not a fundraiser, but a “donor maintenance” event, in which top contributors to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) will be given the chance to rub elbows with leading Democratic Party insiders. These include top Obama adviser David Axelrod; Obama economic adviser Mark Zandi (who served as economic adviser to John McCain in the 2008 elections); media pundit and former Clinton adviser James Carville; Rep. George Miller of California, who chairs the Education and Labor Committee; Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey, of the Energy and Commerce Committee; and Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
To receive an invitation to the event, it is enough to have donated $30,400 to the DCCC during the last election cycle, a figure that also happens to be the maximum allowable contribution to a national party committee.
“A donation to the DCCC of that size qualifies a donor to be part of the ‘Speaker’s Cabinet,’ a fundraising program that gives supporters expanded access to Pelosi,” Bresnahan says.
Among those with such access are “Ann Getty Earhart, an heiress to the Getty oil fortune; Elizabeth Fisher, whose in-laws founded The Gap, the retail clothing giant; and Eugene Eidenberg, a former Carter White House staffer who is now a San Francisco venture capitalist,” according to Bresnahan. Paul Pelosi, the speaker’s husband, has as much as $50,000 in stock invested in one of Eidenberg’s firms, Granite Ventures.
Nancy Pelosi, who belongs to the “liberal” wing of the Democratic Party, recently launched a bit of moralistic criticism in the direction of the health insurance industry in relationship to President Obama’s stalled health care “overhaul.”
“It's almost immoral what (insurance companies) are doing,” Pelosi said. “Of course they've been immoral all along in how they have treated the people they insure. They are the villains. They have been part of the problem in a major way.”
This serves as nothing more than a rhetorical smokescreen for the Obama health care counterrevolution, which seeks to ration coverage and gut Medicare assistance for the elderly. Every component of the plan championed by Obama and Pelosi aims to buffet the profit margins of the major players in the health care industry: the HMOs, the pharmaceuticals, and, of course, the insurers. (See: “The drug lobby demands, and gets, Obama pledge to protect health care profits”).
Pelosi’s professed outrage at the insurance industry does not hold up to even cursory examination. In the current election cycle, the insurance industry has been Pelosi’s third-largest donor, giving her $31,000. HMOs and pharmaceuticals contributed generously as well, handing over $17,500 and $15,000 respectively. The finance/insurance/real estate sector has been by far the largest donor to Pelosi’s DCCC, giving it so far $3.4 million in the current cycle.
Pelosi is in fact playing a protagonist’s role in the most far-reaching attack on the social position of the working class in US history. Collaborating closely with the Bush administration, Pelosi helped pushed through congress the bailout of Wall Street last fall. The trillions extended to the financial aristocracy must now be paid through cuts to the jobs, wages, health care, and retirement of workers.
Pelosi’s cultivation of the Democratic Party’s elite donors—over two days at two of her multi-million dollar residences—takes place amidst the greatest level of social misery the US has seen since the Great Depression. It also takes place in a state, California, whose near-bankruptcy has been used as a sledgehammer against social spending and the pay of state workers.
Fascist America: Are We There Yet?
By Sara Robinson
All through the dark years of the Bush Administration, progressives watched in horror as Constitutional protections vanished, nativist rhetoric ratcheted up, hate speech turned into intimidation and violence, and the president of the United States seized for himself powers only demanded by history's worst dictators. With each new outrage, the small handful of us who'd made ourselves experts on right-wing culture and politics would hear once again from worried readers: Is this it? Have we finally become a fascist state? Are we there yet?
And every time this question got asked, people like Chip Berlet and Dave Neiwert and Fred Clarkson and yours truly would look up from our maps like a parent on a long drive, and smile a wan smile of reassurance. "Wellll...we're on a bad road, and if we don't change course, we could end up there soon enough. But there's also still plenty of time and opportunity to turn back. Watch, but don't worry. As bad as this looks: no -- we are not there yet."
In tracking the mileage on this trip to perdition, many of us relied on the work of historian Robert Paxton, who is probably the world's pre-eminent scholar on the subject of how countries turn fascist. In a 1998 paper published in The Journal of Modern History , Paxton argued that the best way to recognize emerging fascist movements isn't by their rhetoric, their politics, or their aesthetics. Rather, he said, mature democracies turn fascist by a recognizable process, a set of five stages that may be the most important family resemblance that links all the whole motley collection of 20th Century fascisms together. According to our reading of Paxton's stages, we weren't there yet. There were certain signs -- one in particular -- we were keeping an eye out for, and we just weren't seeing it.
And now we are. In fact, if you know what you're looking for, it's suddenly everywhere. It's odd that I haven't been asked for quite a while; but if you asked me today, I'd tell you that if we're not there right now, we've certainly taken that last turn into the parking lot and are now looking for a space. Either way, our fascist American future now looms very large in the front windshield -- and those of us who value American democracy need to understand how we got here, what's changing now, and what's at stake in the very near future if these people are allowed to win -- or even hold their ground.
What is fascism?
The word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for so long that, as Paxton points out, "Everybody is somebody else's fascist." Given that, I always like to start these conversations by revisiting Paxton's essential definition of the term:
"Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline."
Elsewhere, he refines this further as
"a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."
Jonah Goldberg aside, that's a basic definition most legitimate scholars in the field can agree on, and the one I'll be referring to here.
From proto-fascism to the tipping point
According to Paxton, fascism unfolds in five stages. The first two are pretty solidly behind us -- and the third should be of particular interest to progressives right now.
In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal (what Roger Griffin calls "palingenesis" -- a phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes). They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion. The way the organizing story is told varies from country to country; but it's always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture's traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery.
Fascism only grows in the disturbed soil of a mature democracy in crisis. Paxton suggests that the Ku Klux Klan, which formed in reaction to post-Civil War Reconstruction, may in fact be the first authentically fascist movement in modern times. Almost every major country in Europe sprouted a proto-fascist movement in the wretched years following WWI (when the Klan enjoyed a major resurgence here as well) -- but most of them stalled either at this first stage, or the next one.
As Rick Perlstein documented in his two books on Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, modern American conservatism was built on these same themes. From "Morning in America" to the Rapture-ready religious right to the white nationalism promoted by the GOP through various gradients of racist groups, it's easy to trace how American proto-fascism offered redemption from the upheavals of the 1960s by promising to restore the innocence of a traditional, white, Christian, male-dominated America. This vision has been so thoroughly embraced that the entire Republican party now openly defines itself along these lines. At this late stage, it's blatantly racist, sexist, repressed, exclusionary, and permanently addicted to the politics of fear and rage. Worse: it doesn't have a moment's shame about any of it. No apologies, to anyone. These same narrative threads have woven their way through every fascist movement in history.
In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country; and almost all of them came to power very specifically by offering themselves as informal goon squads organized to intimidate farmworkers on behalf of the large landowners. The KKK disenfranchised black sharecroppers and set itself up as the enforcement wing of Jim Crow. The Italian Squadristi and the German Brownshirts made their bones breaking up farmers' strikes. And these days, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to intimidate the rest of us.
Paxton wrote that succeeding at the second stage "depends on certain relatively precise conditions: the weakness of a liberal state, whose inadequacies condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation; and political deadlock because the Right, the heir to power but unable to continue to wield it alone, refuses to accept a growing Left as a legitimate governing partner." He further noted that Hitler and Mussolini both took power under these same circumstances: "deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by the polarization that the fascists abetted); conservative leaders who felt threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further reinforcement."
And more ominously: "The most important variables...are the conservative elites' willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate."
That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can't even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow American democracy by force. If they can't win elections or policy fights, they're more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity.
When that unholy alliance is made, the third stage -- the transition to full-fledged government fascism -- begins.
The third stage: being there
All through the Bush years, progressive right-wing watchers refused to call it "fascism" because, though we kept looking, we never saw clear signs of a deliberate, committed institutional partnership forming between America's conservative elites and its emerging homegrown brownshirt horde. We caught tantalizing signs of brief flirtations -- passing political alliances, money passing hands, far-right moonbat talking points flying out of the mouths of "mainstream" conservative leaders. But it was all circumstantial, and fairly transitory. The two sides kept a discreet distance from each other, at least in public. What went on behind closed doors, we could only guess. They certainly didn't act like a married couple.
Now, the guessing game is over. We know beyond doubt that the Teabag movement  was created out of whole cloth by astroturf groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and Tim Phillips' Americans for Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther fracas -- the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it out of the pages of the National Enquirer -- being openly ratified by Congressional Republicans . We've seen Armey's own professionally-produced field manual  that carefully instructs conservative goon squads in the fine art of disrupting the democratic governing process -- and the film of public officials being terrorized and threatened to the point where some of them required armed escorts to leave the building. We've seen Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner applauding and promoting a video of the disruptions and looking forward to "a long, hot August for Democrats in Congress."
This is the sign we were waiting for -- the one that tells us that yes, kids: we are there now. America's conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country's legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America's streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won't do their political or economic bidding.
This is the catalyzing moment at which honest-to-Hitler fascism begins. It's also our very last chance to stop it.
The fail-safe point
According to Paxton, the forging of this third-stage alliance is the make-or-break moment -- and the worst part of it is that by the time you've arrived at that point, it's probably too late to stop it. From here, it escalates, as minor thuggery turns into beatings, killings, and systematic tagging of certain groups for elimination, all directed by people at the very top of the power structure. After Labor Day, when Democratic senators and representatives go back to Washington, the mobs now being created to harass them will remain to run the same tactics -- escalated and perfected with each new use -- against anyone in town whose color, religion, or politics they don't like. In some places, they're already making notes and taking names. 
Where's the danger line? Paxton offers three quick questions that point us straight at it:
1. Are [neo- or protofascisms] becoming rooted as parties that represent major interests and feelings and wield major influence on the political scene?
2. Is the economic or constitutional system in a state of blockage apparently insoluble by existing authorities?
3. Is a rapid political mobilization threatening to escape the control of traditional elites, to the point where they would be tempted to look for tough helpers in order to stay in charge?
By my reckoning, we're three for three. That's too close. Way too close.
The Road Ahead
History tells us that once this alliance catalyzes and makes a successful bid for power, there's no way off this ride. As Dave Neiwert wrote in his recent book, The Eliminationists , "if we can only identify fascism in its mature form—the goose-stepping brownshirts, the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass rallies—then it will be far too late to stop it." Paxton (who presciently warned that "An authentic popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black") agrees that if a corporate/brownshirt alliance gets a toehold -- as ours is now scrambling to do -- it can very quickly rise to power and destroy the last vestiges of democratic government. Once they start racking up wins, the country will be doomed to take the whole ugly trip through the last two stages, with no turnoffs or pit stops between now and the end.
What awaits us? In stage four, as the duo assumes full control of the country, power struggles emerge between the brownshirt-bred party faithful and the institutions of the conservative elites -- church, military, professions, and business. The character of the regime is determined by who gets the upper hand. If the party members (who gained power through street thuggery) win, an authoritarian police state may well follow. If the conservatives can get them back under control, a more traditional theocracy, corporatocracy, or military regime can re-emerge over time. But in neither case will the results resemble the democracy that this alliance overthrew.
Paxton characterizes stage five as "radicalization or entropy." Radicalization is likely if the new regime scores a big military victory, which consolidates its power and whets its appetite for expansion and large-scale social engineering. (See: Germany) In the absence of a radicalizing event, entropy may set in, as the state gets lost in its own purposes and degenerates into incoherence. (See: Italy)
It's so easy right now to look at the melee on the right and discount it as pure political theater of the most absurdly ridiculous kind. It's a freaking puppet show. These people can't be serious. Sure, they're angry -- but they're also a minority, out of power and reduced to throwing tantrums. Grown-ups need to worry about them about as much as you'd worry about a furious five-year-old threatening to hold her breath until she turned blue.
Unfortunately, all the noise and bluster actually obscures the danger. These people are as serious as a lynch mob, and have already taken the first steps toward becoming one. And they're going to walk taller and louder and prouder now that their bumbling efforts at civil disobedience are being committed with the full sanction and support of the country's most powerful people, who are cynically using them in a last-ditch effort to save their own places of profit and prestige.
We've arrived. We are now parked on the exact spot where our best experts tell us full-blown fascism is born. Every day that the conservatives in Congress, the right-wing talking heads, and their noisy minions are allowed to hold up our ability to govern the country is another day we're slowly creeping across the final line beyond which, history tells us, no country has ever been able to return.
How do we pull back? That's my next post.
Geithner asks Congress for higher U.S. debt limit
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner formally requested that Congress raise the $12.1 trillion statutory debt limit on Friday, saying that it could be breached as early as mid-October.
"It is critically important that Congress act before the limit is reached so that citizens and investors here and around the world can remain confident that the United States will always meet its obligations," Geithner said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that was obtained by Reuters.
A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter.
Treasury officials earlier this week said that the debt limit, last raised in February when the $787 billion economic stimulus legislation was passed, would be hit sometime in the October-December quarter. Geithner's letter said the breach could be two weeks into that period, just as the 2010 fiscal year is getting underway.
The latest request comes as the Treasury is ramping up borrowing to unprecedented levels to fund stimulus and financial bailout programs and cope with a deep recession that has devastated tax revenues.
It is expected to issue net new debt of as much as $2 trillion in the 2009 fiscal year ended September 30 and up to $1.6 trillion in the 2010 fiscal year, according to bond dealer forecasts.
The request to increase the debt limit will likely raise the ire of Republicans who have accused President Barack Obama of runaway spending. They may try to hold up the legislation in effort to win concessions on Obama's health care reform plan.
Geithner urged Reid to not let politics hamper U.S. credit-worthiness and said he looked forward to working with the Nevada Democrat to secure enactment of legislation on the debt limit as early as possible.
"Congress has never failed to raise the debt limit when necessary. Because members of both parties have long recognized the need to keep politics away from this issue, these actions have traditionally received bipartisan support," he wrote. "This is clearly a moment in our history that calls for continuation of that tradition."
US soldier who opposes Afghan war sentenced
By Jack Cody
A US Army Specialist and veteran of the war in Iraq will face jail time for refusing to deploy to Afghanistan. The non-commissioned officer objects to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on principle, claiming the US military occupies both countries in violation of international law.
Spc. Victor Agosto, 24, from Miami, served a 13-month tour in Iraq with the Army’s 57th Battalion. Although his four-year enlistment should have ended August 4, Agosto received orders in May to report to an Army office to begin the paperwork for overseas deployment to Afghanistan. He was informed that his military service was to be involuntarily extended under the “stop-loss” program.
When he received his reporting orders, Agosto wrote a letter refusing deployment. “There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan,” wrote Agosto. “The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect.”
Agosto has now been court-martialed. After a one-hour hearing August 5, a military court in Ft. Hood, Texas, demoted Agosto to the rank of private and sentenced him to 30 days in jail. When he heard the sentence, Agosto ripped from his uniform the patch displaying his specialist rank, symbolically embracing his demotion. After completing his jail sentence, Agosto will likely receive a less-than-honorable discharge.
The stop-loss program originated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, coinciding with the elimination of the draft in the US. Conscription fueled mass opposition to US militarism among civilians and soldiers alike, which in turn contributed to the American government’s inability to continue prosecuting the Vietnam War. Ultimately, the US was forced to withdraw from Vietnam in 1975.
Conscious of the effect popular discontent could have on its ability to carry out future imperialist adventures, the US ruling class eliminated the draft in 1972. Congress passed the stop-loss legislation in an effort to maintain a semblance of voluntarism without incurring chronic, debilitating troop shortages in the process. Since the beginning of the current war in Iraq, over 140,000 soldiers have had their terms involuntarily extended under the stop-loss policy.
The extent to which soldiers oppose the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is difficult to gauge, in part because most resisters either simply go AWOL (absent without leave), or purposely defy army regulations in order to be discharged. According to the Courage to Resist web site, “Since 2002, the Army has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other unauthorized absences per year than for each year between 1997 and 2001. AWOL rates in the Army are at their highest since 1980, with the desertion rate having jumped 80 percent since the start of the Iraq War, according to the Associated Press.”
Agosto, conscious of the consequences he faced, made his objections public in an effort to mobilize resistance to the wars among the military rank-and-file.
“I learned of the effect of the GI resistance movement during the Vietnam War,” Agosto explained in an interview given to the “Democracy Now!” radio program on the day of his trial. “I felt that if I were to go AWOL my commanders could tell other soldiers that I left because I was scared, because I had other reasons. Whereas by staying on base I can set an example for other soldiers to see that I think this war is wrong, and I am just not going to do it, and I think they should do the same.”
Agosto is unapologetic about his refusal to deploy. In a statement issued to the press after he was sentenced, Agosto said, “I have learned that there is nothing more frightening to power than a direct and principled challenge to its authority. The truth is on our side, and those who have incarcerated me know it.... My only apologies are to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that someday they can forgive me for my contributions to their distress.”
Asked by Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!” if he would apply for conscientious objector status, Agosto replied that he would not. “As far as the army is concerned,” said Agosto, “a conscientious objector is someone who is opposed to all wars, and that is not me. I believe that sometimes war is necessary in cases of legitimate self-defense and legitimate resistance.... We’re just killing people and spreading suffering with no real justification.”
Agosto argues that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan violate international law. In the case of Afghanistan, to which Agosto refused to be deployed, the US ruling elite justified the occupation on the grounds that the country was harboring Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders, who were allegedly responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Nearing the end of the eighth year of the war and occupation, any pretense of hunting for Bin Laden has been dropped. The Afghan war has been escalated by Obama, who was elected in large part because of popular hopes that he would bring the disastrous conflicts in the region to an end.
Asked by Goodman whether it surprised him that Obama had escalated the war in Afghanistan, Agosto replied, “No. No, it doesn’t, because he said he would do so during his campaign. Part of why I’m doing what I’m doing is because I don’t believe that any politician can end this war. I think that it has to be ended at the grassroots level. Soldiers, by refusing to fight, can bring about the end of the war.”
Agosto is quite correct to argue that both the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan violate international law. His advice to other soldiers? “I would say that you would never—you’ll never regret following your conscience and that adherence to an oath is not a valid excuse for betraying your conscience.”
Agosto told Courage to Resist that he has received support from fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood. “Some of the people in my unit will flash me peace signs when they walk by me,” he explains. “The other day when I was coming back from the shop, this soldier stopped me and said he wanted to shake my hand. He told me he looked up to me for not going to fight a war I don’t believe in.”
Report details immigrant abuse by government authorities
By Peter Kloze
US immigration agents have used brutal methods and systematically violated constitutional rights in raids against homes in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, according to a newly released report.
The activities of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) organization, the government agency charged with the enforcement of immigration laws within the United States, have been subjected to close examination by the Immigration Justice Clinic (IJC) at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. The IJC, founded in 2008, represents poor immigrants facing deportation by the US government.
The data in its newly-released report, concerning home raid arrest records in Long Island, New York and New Jersey from 2006-2008, presents a damning exposure of the brutal and anti-democratic practices of the ICE in the region. Along with this data, the IJC also records examples of the agency’s repressive activities in California, Texas, Arizona, Massachusetts, Georgia, and other states, suggesting a national epidemic of government-approved repression against impoverished immigrant workers.
The report, released on July 22 and entitled “Constitution on ICE: A Report on Immigration Home Raid Operations” is, according to the clinic, “the first such effort to compile and analyze the available evidence regarding the prevalence of [US Constitution] violations occurring during ICE home raids.”
The IJC’s assessment, which charges the ICE with unconstitutional violations for entering homes without proper consent and often using racial profiling, found that 86 percent of arrest records in Long Island from 100 raids between January 2006 and April 2008 showed no record of homeowners consenting to having immigration agents enter and search their homes. In northern and central New Jersey, it found that in 24 percent of the approximately 600 arrests made in 2006 and 2007, no record of homeowners’ consent was present, and for the arrests where consent was present, the report suggests that for many, consent was doctored into arrest records after the fact.
Hispanic people were shown to represent the lion’s share of those arrested. In both Long Island and New Jersey, two-thirds of the targeted detainees were Latino. Oftentimes fleeing poverty and political instability in their home countries- conditions largely created by the long history of intervention and exploitation by US imperialism- these layers of poorer immigrant workers suffer disproportionately at the hands of the US government’s repressive “border security” agents.
Raids are often carried out with great force, with heavily-armed ICE agents physically pushing or breaking their way into private residences in pre-dawn or late-night hours. During these intrusions, ICE agents regularly seize individuals who are not even targeted by the organization, whether they are “documented” or not. The report shows that in Long Island, these “collateral” arrests make up 67 percent of all arrests, while in New Jersey, they make up 63 percent. Many of these non-targeted individuals’ arrest reports gave no basis for why they were seized.
In another revealing statistic pointing to the endemic racism of the organization, 94 percent of these non-targeted arrests in Long Island were Latino, with 87 percent likewise in New Jersey. These victims are usually poorer layers of the American working class. One is hard pressed to find records of home raids in wealthier neighborhoods.
Several examples of actual home raids make for harrowing reading. Many more are included in the report.
For instance, in December 2007, in Massachusetts, “eight to ten ICE agents, with guns drawn, broke through the door of a three-family apartment building at 21 Jefferson St. at about 5 AM. ‘They came through and shined flashlights in people’s faces. They went into each room, they told everyone to lie down on the floor, they say not to move. They checked everyone’s papers. They took everybody,’ one of the residents said. Evidence of ICE’s illegal search included ‘shards of the broken door frame they say ICE agents kicked through. A safe in one room lay open, its papers strewn all about. The men also showed the reporter another bedroom door they said ICE agents had kicked open.’”
Another story concerns, disturbingly, an older American citizen. In September 2008, in Texas, a “68-year-old woman told Action 4 News that she heard a knock at her door... But before she had a chance to get up she said ICE agents were inside her home... When she asked them why they came into her home they allegedly responded, ‘Show us your papers.’ She complied by showing them documentation papers proving that she’s been a US citizen for 40 years.”
Another pattern that emerges from the ICE home raids, according to the report, is a “lack of law enforcement professionalism,” as well as “a kind of cowboy mentality.” For instance, during the Nassau County, Long Island, 2007 Community Shield Operation, ICE agents were criticized for wearing cowboy hats and flaunting shotguns and automatic weapons. As befits their work, many ICE agents, openly contemptuous of the rights of both documented and undocumented immigrants, have been overheard spouting right-wing nationalist and even fascistic statements.
ICE agents routinely search homes without legal authority, a clear violation of the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, the report indicates. It states that agents are usually issued administrative warrants to search these homes, which require that the resident of the living space give his or her consent for government agents to enter. Judicial warrants, on the other hand, which give law enforcement agencies unfettered access to private residences, are hardly ever issued.
The reports’ authors point out that the ICE has in fact admitted that the vast majority of the warrants it is issued require a homeowner’s consent. Yet, as the report shows, the agency regularly violated this vital stipulation from 2006-2008, and received only a slap on the wrist for doing so. For instance, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled in June 2009 that federal agents violated the constitutional rights of four undocumented immigrants in a 2007 raid. The judge showed that immigration agents went into the immigrants’ homes without warrants, probable cause, or consent, and ordered a stop to deportation proceedings against the four defendants. The ICE was left untouched. For all intents and purposes, the agency was allowed to continue to operate above the law.
“Violations of constitutional expectation of privacy”
“These are violations that go to the very heart of the Constitutional expectation of privacy in this country,” said Peter Markovitz, IJC director and one of the report’s authors. “The widespread illegality by a law enforcement agency should be ... shocking to anybody.”
The “widespread illegality” of the ICE shouldn’t be shocking to anybody who has even a cursory understanding of the agency’s background. (See: “More details of immigration raid in Mississippi, US” and “Aftermath of US slaughterhouse raid: Fear and repression grip Iowa town”) Bound up with the anti-democratic nature of the ICE and its activities is the decaying nature of democratic rights in general in the US, a phenomenon that has escalated ever since the start of the George W. Bush’s bogus “war on terror” in 2001, and has not been halted by the present administration of President Barack Obama.
The ICE was created in 2003 as part of the Department of Homeland Security, and is held responsible for enforcing immigration laws within the US. As the report outlines, up to 2006 the ICE used a number of strategies in its stated goal, including “coordinating with local criminal justice systems to identify deportable immigrants who have been arrested on criminal charges, coordinating with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency to identify deportable immigrants who have applied for some form of immigration benefit, and conducting traditional criminal investigations of persons suspected of violating the criminal provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).”
During the last two years of the Bush administration, however, the ICE moved towards a more confrontational approach to enforcing reactionary US immigration laws. According to the report, it increased its use of “high-profile swat-style raids on homes and workplaces targeting civil immigration violators.” In early 2006, ICE increased each Fugitive Operations Team’s (FOT) annual arrest quota from 125 arrests per year to 1000 without any attendant increase in the size of the teams. Overnight, the report says, “FOTs were expected to become eight times more efficient.” In fiscal year 2008 alone, the report shows these teams as having made more than 34,000 arrests.
As of this moment, the ICE has approximately 100 FOTs throughout the US, which are held responsible for targeting individuals with orders of deportation, and are the units that usually conduct home raids.
The report appraises the situation today under the Obama administration. While present Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made merely cosmetic changes to Bush’s policies, such as issuing a directive calling for an “internal review and assessment” of ICE’s FOT program, if this should ever materialize, and a decrease of FOT annual arrest quotas to 500 per year-still a four-fold increase over the 2006 quota.
Since his inauguration, President Obama has called for an intensified militarization of US borders, along with further economic persecution of immigrants in the form of delayed amnesties with heavy fines, long waits, and policies that foster assimilation into English-speaking culture. As is the case with his economic policies, Obama’s policies on undocumented immigrants are in essence a continuation of his predecessor’s.
As the New York Times noted this week, despite Obama’s campaign promises to adopt a more human approach to immigrant workers, “his administration is pursuing an aggressive strategy for an illegal-immigration crackdown that relies significantly on programs started by his predecessor.” Meanwhile, there is no indication that the administration is taking any steps to implement Obama’s pledge of an “immigration reform.”
While well-researched and well-intentioned, the report’s authors make recommendations which are hardly commensurate with their findings. They call for limiting the use of home raids to a last resort aimed against those who pose a serious risk to “national security” or have violent criminal records. Such supposed threats, however are routinely invoked to justify dragnets that ensnare large numbers of innocent workers. As to what constitutes a danger to “national security,” that will be determined by the very same layers who were responsible for fomenting the lawless environment in which the ICE operated in the first place.
The report’s authors also recommend, oddly, the use of judicial rather than administrative warrants. If actualized, this would essentially give the anti-democratic nature of the ICE’s raids a legal cover.
The report also calls on the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General to conduct an investigation. Any “investigation” by such a reactionary institution as the Department of Homeland Security, created by the George W. Bush administration for the express purpose of fighting the bogus “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, will either evaporate into the air, or, should it be pursued, lead into a dead end.
The struggle against these attacks on immigrant workers is a fundamental task of the American working class and requires the struggle for the right of workers of every country to live and work where they choose, without being persecuted under reactionary immigration laws.
The report can be accessed here as a PDF file.
US payrolls fell another quarter-million in July
By Patrick Martin
The US economy shed another 247,000 jobs in July, the Labor Department reported Friday, marking the 19th consecutive month that nonfarm payrolls declined.
Manufacturing employment fell by 52,000, service employment fell 119,000, construction employment fell 76,000, and retail trade fell 44,000. There were small payroll increases in government, tourism and healthcare.
Of the 271 industries tracked by the Labor Department, 70 percent are cutting jobs, while only 30 percent are adding jobs or maintaining existing employment. That figure is an improvement from the 80 percent cutting jobs during the first quarter of 2009, but still indicates an economy mired in a deep recession.
The official unemployment rate actually dropped slightly, from 9.5 percent in June to 9.4 percent, but this actually reflects an aspect of the worsening job market, not an improvement. Some 422,000 unemployed people gave up looking for work in July and were no longer counted officially as jobless. The proportion of the adult population with jobs actually fell from 59.5 percent in June to 59.4 percent in July.
The unemployment rate was much higher for the traditionally more vulnerable groups: 12.3 percent for Hispanics, 12.6 percent for single mothers, 14.5 percent for African-Americans, 23.8 percent for teenagers.
The manufacturing decline was somewhat steeper than shown by the Labor Department figure, due to another statistical aberration. The agency reported that jobs in auto production increased by 28,000, on a seasonally adjusted basis, despite the virtual collapse of the industry. Keith Hall, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, explained, “Because layoffs in auto manufacturing already had been so large, fewer workers than usual were laid off for seasonal shutdowns in July.”
The White House, Wall Street and the corporate-controlled media lauded the jobs numbers as a signal that the economic slump in the United States has bottomed out. President Obama went before television cameras barely an hour after the numbers were released, pointing to the overall unemployment rate and the slower pace of job losses, from 700,000 in January to 467,000 in June and 247,000 in July.
It is only by comparison to the past eight months that July’s number could be portrayed as “hopeful.” In any year before the present, there would have been no White House photo-op to celebrate such a dismal employment report.
The stock market surged Friday to a new 2009 high. But the nearly 50 percent rise in the Dow Jones average since March is due not to a recovery in the labor market or the broader economy, but rather to the multitrillion-dollar bailout of the banks and financial institutions by the US Treasury.
Despite the statistical oddity of a drop in the unemployment rate, both the actual number of jobless workers and the duration of unemployment are increasing. The US economy has lost some 6.7 million jobs since the official start of the recession in December 2007.
According to Labor Department figures, 14.5 million Americans were out of work in July, another 8.8 million were working only part-time when they wanted full-time work, and 2.3 million had become “discouraged” and were no longer looking for work. This brings the combined total of unemployed and underemployed to 25.6 million, or 16.3 percent of the work force.
Long-term unemployment continues to rise month by month. According to the Economic Policy Institute web site, the number of workers unemployed for more than six months increased by 584,000 in July to nearly 5 million, so that now one third of those officially unemployed have been out of work more than half a year, a record since such data was first collected in 1948. The number of long-term unemployed has jumped from 2.6 million in February to 4.9 million in July, an increase of nearly 90 percent in only five months.
As of July 25, 6.31 million people were collecting long-term unemployment benefits, according to Labor Department data. All told, about 9.9 million people were collecting some form of unemployment benefits in the week of July 18. It was reported earlier this week that tens of thousands of workers are already running out of extended benefits, and by the end of the year that number will rise to 1.5 million.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that 550,000 workers filed new claims for unemployment compensation in the week ended August 1, a drop of 38,000 from the previous week, but still far above the 250,000 to 300,000 figure that typically characterizes a stable US labor market. Among states in the industrial Midwest, the jobs crisis was reflected in Wisconsin, which reported that initial jobless insurance claims through last week were 80 percent higher than at the same point last year.
The Obama administration’s response to the unemployment figures demonstrates again that its real constituency is Wall Street and the financial aristocracy, not working people. Obama declared in his brief appearance—without taking questions—that the jobless figures showed “the worst may be behind us” and “today, we’re pointed in the right direction.”
“We’ve rescued our economy from catastrophe,” he said, referring to the bailout of the banks. He hailed the run-up on the stock exchange, while trying to put a populist spin on it, saying that “a rising market is restoring value to those 401(k)s that are the foundation of a secure retirement.”
In fact, retired workers are being systematically robbed—like tens of thousands of General Motors retirees cut off from medical benefits and facing drastically reduced pensions—but Wall Street is celebrating higher stock prices with huge bonuses.
The actual direction of the US economy is reflected in reports that GM is expected to announce another 7,500 layoffs because too few workers accepted early retirement or buyout packages. An even bigger job cut is looming at the US Postal Service, which has already eliminated 27,000 jobs over the past year. USPS officials went before a Senate committee Thursday to propose the elimination of Saturday delivery and the closure of at least 700 post offices.
There was also a plunge in July retail sales figures, down 5.1 percent from June. There were sharp drops at Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, JC Penney and Macy’s, and even sharper declines at some of the upscale retailers. This reflects the growing economic distress among broad sections of the population.
Meanwhile, the bankrupt insurance giant AIG revealed that it has set aside $249 million for “retention bonuses” for executives for the second half of 2009. This includes $93 million for AIG’s Financial Products division, whose speculation in derivatives led to the company’s near-collapse last year and a federal bailout of more than $182 billion.
The Town Hall Mob
There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom of Speech,” depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting, part of a series illustrating F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms,” shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but they’re letting him speak his mind.
That’s a far cry from what has been happening at recent town halls, where angry protesters — some of them, with no apparent sense of irony, shouting “This is America!” — have been drowning out, and in some cases threatening, members of Congress trying to talk about health reform.
Some commentators have tried to play down the mob aspect of these scenes, likening the campaign against health reform to the campaign against Social Security privatization back in 2005. But there’s no comparison. I’ve gone through many news reports from 2005, and while anti-privatization activists were sometimes raucous and rude, I can’t find any examples of congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy, congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds.
And I can’t find any counterpart to the death threats at least one congressman has received.
So this is something new and ugly. What’s behind it?
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, has compared the scenes at health care town halls to the “Brooks Brothers riot” in 2000 — the demonstration that disrupted the vote count in Miami and arguably helped send George W. Bush to the White House. Portrayed at the time as local protesters, many of the rioters were actually G.O.P. staffers flown in from Washington.
But Mr. Gibbs is probably only half right. Yes, well-heeled interest groups are helping to organize the town hall mobs. Key organizers include two Astroturf (fake grass-roots) organizations: FreedomWorks, run by the former House majority leader Dick Armey, and a new organization called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights.
The latter group, by the way, is run by Rick Scott, the former head of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital chain. Mr. Scott was forced out of that job amid a fraud investigation; the company eventually pleaded guilty to charges of overbilling state and federal health plans, paying $1.7 billion — yes, that’s “billion” — in fines. You can’t make this stuff up.
But while the organizers are as crass as they come, I haven’t seen any evidence that the people disrupting those town halls are Florida-style rent-a-mobs. For the most part, the protesters appear to be genuinely angry. The question is, what are they angry about?
There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.
Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program probably aren’t reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.
That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don’t know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s a substantial fraction.
And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers.
Does this sound familiar? It should: it’s a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites.
Many people hoped that last year’s election would mark the end of the “angry white voter” era in America. Indeed, voters who can be swayed by appeals to cultural and racial fear are a declining share of the electorate.
But right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity.And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of 2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.
Obama-Allied Unions Threatened With Gun Violence For Town Hall Participation
One of the country's largest unions has been hit by a wave of hostile calls and even death threats from people upset with its involvement in town-hall health care debates.
The Service Employers International Union was, as one aide put it, "deluged" with calls on Friday after several conservative media outlets accused the organization of trying to assault demonstrators who had showed up to protest Obama's health care agenda. Making it even scarier for union employees, the address of the union's St. Louis headquarters was mentioned on air by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
Callers who reached both the front desk and the communications department compared the union officials to Nazis, union aides say. On Twitter, organizers of the town hall protest urged people to take pictures and write down the license plate numbers of attending SEIU officials. More alarming than anything else, angry callers and protesters pledged to take up arms against the union.
"If ACORN/SEIU attends these meetings for disruptive purposes, and you have a license to carry....carry," read one tweet.
"I suggest you tell your people to calm down, act like American citizens, and stop trying to repress people's First Amendment rights," one caller warned. "That, or you all are gonna come up against the Second Amendment."
The union had actually put up a petition on Thursday for its organizers and members to attend these town hall events and "honor the long-standing American tradition of town hall meetings and public forums to allow citizens to participate in our democracy." Things got a bit hairy during the evening, however, when the SEIU helped turn away people at a forum in Tampa Bay, Florida, and a near riot ensued. Similarly, in St. Louis, an SEIU staffer was arrested after a scuffle ensued with protesters at a town hall event with Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.).
The SEIU wasn't the only Obama ally receiving threats on Friday. An official of the AFL-CIO, which has pledged to counter conservative protests at these town hall events across the country, said that union received angry emails throughout the day as well -- mostly accusations that it was promoting communism and socialism.