Monday, February 15, 2010

Democracy and the Threat of Authoritarianism: Politics Beyond Barack Obama

Democracy and the Threat of Authoritarianism: Politics Beyond Barack Obama

Go To Original

"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world."
- Hannah Arendt[1]

A Turn to the Dark Side of Politics

The American media, large segments of the public and many educators widely believe that authoritarianism is alien to the political landscape of American society. Authoritarianism is generally associated with tyranny and governments that exercise power in violation of the rule of law. A commonly held perception of the American public is that authoritarianism is always elsewhere. It can be found in other allegedly "less developed/civilized countries," such as contemporary China or Iran, or it belongs to a fixed moment in modern history, often associated with the rise of twentieth century totalitarianism in its different forms in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Even as the United States became more disposed to modes of tyrannical power under the second Bush administration - demonstrated, for example, by the existence of secret CIA prisons, warrantless spying on Americans and state-sanctioned kidnapping - mainstream liberals, intellectuals, journalists and media pundits argued that any suggestion that the United States was becoming an authoritarian society was simply preposterous. For instance, the journalist James Traub repeated the dominant view that whatever problems the United States faced under the Bush administration had nothing to do with a growing authoritarianism or its more extreme form, totalitarianism.[2] On the contrary, according to this position, America was simply beholden to a temporary seizure of power by some extremists, who represented a form of political exceptionalism and an annoying growth on the body politic. In other words, as repugnant as many of Bush's domestic and foreign policies might have been, they neither threatened nor compromised in any substantial way America's claim to being a democratic society.

Against the notion that the Bush administration had pushed the United States close to the brink of authoritarianism, some pundits argued that this dark moment in America's history, while uncharacteristic of an aspiring democracy, had to be understood as temporary perversion of American law and democratic ideals that would end when George W. Bush concluded his second term in the White House. In this view, the regime of George W. Bush and its demonstrated contempt for democracy was explained away as the outgrowth of a serendipitous act of politics - a corrupt election and the bad-faith act of a conservative court in 2000, or a poorly run election campaign in 2004 by an uncinematic and boring Democratic candidate.

According to this narrative, the Bush-Cheney regime exhibited such extreme modes of governance in its embrace of an imperial presidency, its violation of domestic and international law, and its disdain for human rights and democratic values that it was hard to view such anti-democratic policies as part of a pervasive shift towards a hidden order of authoritarian politics, which historically has existed at the margins of American society. How else to label such a government other than shockingly and uniquely extremist, given its political legacy that included the rise of the security and torture state; the creation of legal illegalities in which civil liberties were trampled; the launching of an unjust war in Iraq legitimated through official lies; the passing of legislative policies that drained the federal surplus by giving away more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts to the rich; the enactment of a shameful policy of preemptive war; the endorsement of an inflated military budget at the expense of much-needed social programs; the selling off of as many government functions as possible to corporate interests; the resurrection of an imperial presidency; an incessant attack against unions; support for a muzzled and increasingly corporate-controlled media; government production of fake news reports to gain consent for regressive policies; use of an Orwellian vocabulary for disguising monstrous acts such as torture ("enhanced interrogation techniques"); furtherance of a racist campaign of legal harassment and incarceration of Arabs, Muslims and immigrants; advancement of a prison binge through a repressive policy of criminalization; establishment of an unregulated and ultimately devastating form of casino capitalism; the arrogant celebration and support for the interests and values of big business at the expense of citizens and the common good, and the dismantling of social services and social safety nets as part of a larger campaign of ushering in the corporate state and the reign of finance capital.

Authoritarianism With a Friendly Face

In the minds of the American public, the dominant media and its accommodating pundits and intellectuals, there is no sense of how authoritarianism in its soft and hard forms can manifest itself as anything other than horrible images of concentration camps, goose-stepping storm troopers, rigid modes of censorship, and through chilling spectacles of extremist government repression and violence. That is, there is no sense of how new modes of authoritarian ideology, policy, values and social relations might manifest themselves in degrees and gradations so as to create the conditions for a distinctly undemocratic and increasingly cruel and oppressive social order. There is no sense, as the late Susan Sontag suggested in another context, how emerging registers of power and governance "dissolves politics into pathology."[3]

It is generally believed that in a constitutional democracy, power is in the hands of the people, and that the long legacy of democratic ideals in America, however imperfect, is enough to prevent democracy from being subverted or lost. And, yet, the lessons of history provide clear examples of how the emergence of reactionary politics, the increasing power of the military, and the power of big business subverted democracy in Argentina, Chile, Germany and Italy. In spite of these histories, there is no room in the public imagination to entertain what has become the unthinkable - that such an order in its contemporary form might be more nuance, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent - what one might call a mode of authoritarianism with a distinctly American character.[4]

Historical conjunctures produce different forms of authoritarianism, though they all share a hatred for democracy, dissent and civil liberties. It is too easy to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic, which leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a mixture of both systems.

American politics today suggests a more updated if not different form of authoritarianism. In this context, it is worth remembering what Huey Long said in response to the question of whether America could ever become fascist: "Yes, but we will call it anti-fascist."[5] Long's reply indicates that fascism is not an ideological apparatus frozen in a particular historical period, but a complex and often shifting theoretical and political register for understanding how democracy can be subverted, if not destroyed, from within.

This notion of soft or friendly fascism was articulated in 1985 in Bertram Gross' book "Friendly Fascism," in which he argued that if fascism came to the United States it would not embody the same characteristics associated with fascist forms in the historical past. There would be no Nuremberg rallies, doctrines of racial superiority, government-sanctioned book burnings, death camps, genocidal purges or the abrogation of the Constitution. In short, fascism would not take the form of an ideological grid from the past simply downloaded onto another country under different historical conditions. Gross believed that fascism was an ongoing danger and had the ability to become relevant under new conditions, taking on familiar forms of thought that resonate with nativist traditions, experiences and political relations.[6]

Similarly, in his "Anatomy of Fascism," Robert O. Paxton argued that the texture of American fascism would not mimic traditional European forms, but would be rooted in the language, symbols and culture of everyday life. He wrote, "No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy."[7]

It is worth noting that Umberto Eco, in his discussion of "eternal fascism," also argued that any updated version of fascism would not openly assume the mantle of historical fascism; rather, new forms of authoritarianism would appropriate some of its elements, making it virtually unrecognizable from its traditional forms. Like Gross and Paxton, Eco contended that fascism, if it comes to America, will have a different guise, although it will be no less destructive of democracy. He wrote:

Ur-Fascism [Eternal Fascism] is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, "I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares" Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances - everyday, in every part of the world.[8]

The renowned political theorist Sheldon Wolin, in "Democracy Incorporated," updates these views and argued persuasively that the United States has produced its own unique form of authoritarianism, which he called "inverted totalitarianism."[9] Wolin claimed that under traditional forms of totalitarianism, there are usually founding texts such as "Mein Kampf," rule by a personal demagogue such as Adolph Hitler, political change enacted by a revolutionary movement such as the Bolsheviks, the Constitution rewritten or discarded, the political state's firm control over corporate interests and an idealized and all-encompassing ideology used to create a unified and totalizing understanding of society. At the same time, the government uses all of the power of its cultural and repressive state apparatuses to fashion followers in its own ideological image and collective identity.

Wolin argued that, in the United States, an emerging authoritarianism appears to take on a very different form.[10] Instead of a charismatic leader, the government is now governed through the anonymous and largely remote hand of corporate power and finance capital. That is, political sovereignty is largely replaced by economic sovereignty as corporate power takes over the reigns of governance. The dire consequence, as David Harvey pointed out, is that "raw money power wielded by the few undermines all semblances of democratic governance. The pharmaceutical, health insurance and hospital lobbies, for example, spent more than $133 million in the first three months of 2009 to make sure they got their way on health care reform in the United States."[11] The more money influences politics, the more corrupt the political culture becomes. Under such circumstances, holding office is largely dependent on having huge amounts of capital at one's disposal, while laws and policies at all levels of government are mostly fashioned by lobbyists representing big business corporations and commanding financial institutions. Moreover, as the politics of the health care reform indicate, such lobbying, as corrupt and unethical as it may be, is not carried out in the open and displayed by insurance and drug companies as a badge of honor - a kind of open testimonial to the disrespect for democratic governance and a celebration of their power. The subversion of democratic governance in the United States by corporate interests is captured succinctly by Chris Hedges in his observation that

Corporations have 35,000 lobbyists in Washington and thousands more in state capitals that dole out corporate money to shape and write legislation. They use their political action committees to solicit employees and shareholders for donations to fund pliable candidates. The financial sector, for example, spent more than $5 billion on political campaigns, influenc[ing] peddling and lobbying during the past decade, which resulted in sweeping deregulation, the gouging of consumers, our global financial meltdown and the subsequent looting of the US Treasury. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America spent $26 million last year and drug companies such as Pfizer, Amgen and Eli Lilly kicked in tens of millions more to buy off the two parties. These corporations have made sure our so-called health reform bill will force us to buy their predatory and defective products. The oil and gas industry, the coal industry, defense contractors and telecommunications companies have thwarted the drive for sustainable energy and orchestrated the steady erosion of civil liberties. Politicians do corporate bidding and stage hollow acts of political theater to keep the fiction of the democratic state alive.[12]

Rather than forcing a populace to adhere to a particular state ideology, the general public in the United States is largely depoliticized through the influence of corporations over schools, higher education and other cultural apparatuses. The deadening of public values, civic consciousness and critical citizenship is also the result of the work of anti-public intellectuals representing right-wing ideological and financial interests,[13] a dominant media that is largely center-right and a market-driven public pedagogy that reduces the obligations of citizenship to the endless consumption and discarding of commodities. In addition, a pedagogy of amnesia works through celebrity culture and its counterpart in corporate-driven news, television, radio and entertainment to produce a culture of stupidity, censorship and diversionary spectacles.

Depoliticizing Freedom and Agency

Agency is now defined by a market-driven concept of freedom, a notion that is largely organized according to narrow notions of individual self-interest and limited to the freedom from constraints. Central to this concept is the freedom to pursue one's self-interest independently of larger social concerns. For individuals in a consumer society, this often means the freedom to shop, own guns and define rights without regards to the consequences for others or the larger social order.

When applied to economic institutions, this notion of freedom often translates into a call for removing government regulations over the market and economic institutions. This notion of a deregulated and privatized freedom is decoupled from the common good and any understanding of individual and social responsibility. It is an unlimited notion freedom that both refuses to recognize its social consequences and has no language for an ethic that calls us beyond ourselves, that engages our responsibility to others. Within this discourse of hyper-individualized freedom, individuals are not only "liberated from the constraints imposed by the dense network of social bonds," but they are also "stripped of the protection which had been matter-of-factly offered in the past by that dense network of social bonds."[14]

Freedom exclusively tied to personal and political rights without also enabling access to economic resources becomes morally empty and politically dysfunctional. The much heralded notion of choice associated with personal and political freedom is hardly assured when individuals lack the economic resources, knowledge and social supports to make such choices and freedoms operative and meaningful. As Zygmunt Bauman pointed outs, "The right to vote (and so, obliquely and at least in theory, the right to influence the composition of the ruler and the shape of the rules that bind the ruled) could be meaningfully exercised only by those 'who possess sufficient economic and cultural resources' to be safe from the voluntary or involuntary servitude that cuts off any possible autonomy of choice (and/or its delegation) at the root.... [Choice] stripped of economic resources and political power hardly assure[s] personal freedoms to the dispossessed, who have no claim on the resources without which personal freedom can neither be won nor in practice enjoyed."[15] Paul Bigioni has argued that this flawed notion of freedom played a central role in the emerging fascist dictatorships of the early 20th century. He wrote:

It was the liberals of that era who clamored for unfettered personal and economic freedom, no matter what the cost to society. Such untrammeled freedom is not suitable to civilized humans. It is the freedom of the jungle. In other words, the strong have more of it than the weak. It is a notion of freedom that is inherently violent, because it is enjoyed at the expense of others. Such a notion of freedom legitimizes each and every increase in the wealth and power of those who are already powerful, regardless of the misery that will be suffered by others as a result. The use of the state to limit such "freedom" was denounced by the laissez-faire liberals of the early 20th century. The use of the state to protect such "freedom" was fascism. Just as monopoly is the ruin of the free market, fascism is the ultimate degradation of liberal capitalism.[16]

This stripped-down notion of market-based freedom that now dominates American society cancels out any viable notion of individual and social agency. In embracing a passive attitude toward freedom in which power is viewed as a necessary evil, a conservative notion of freedom reduces politics to the empty ritual of voting, and is incapable of understanding freedom as a form of collective, productive power, which enables "a notion of political agency and freedom that affirms the equal opportunity of all to exercise political power in order to participate in shaping the most important decisions affecting their lives.[17]

This merging of the market-based understanding of freedom as the freedom to consume and the conservative-based view of freedom as a restriction from all constraints refuses to recognize that the conditions for substantive freedom do not lie in personal and political rights alone; on the contrary, real choices and freedom include the individual and collective ability to actively intervene in and shape both the nature of politics and the myriad forces bearing down on everyday life - a notion of freedom that can only be viable when social rights and economic resources are available to individuals.

Of course, this notion of freedom and choice is often dismissed either as a vestige of socialism or simply drowned out in a culture that collapses all social considerations and notions of solidarity into the often cruel and swindle-based discourse of instant gratification and individual gain. Under such conditions, democracy is managed through the empty ritual of elections; citizens are largely rendered as passive observers as a result of giving undue influence to corporate power in shaping all of the essential elements of political governance and decision making; and manufactured appeals to fear and personal safety legitimate both the suspension of civil liberties and the expanding powers of an imperial presidency and the policing functions of a militaristic state.

I believe that the formative culture necessary to create modes of education, thought, dialogue, critique and critical agency - the necessary conditions of any aspiring democracy - is largely destroyed through the pacification of intellectuals and the elimination of public spheres capable of creating such a culture. Elements of a depoliticizing and commodifying culture become clear in the shameless propaganda produced by the so-called "embedded" journalists, while a corporate-dominated popular culture largely operates through multiple technologies, screen cultures and video games that trade endlessly in images of violence, spectacles of consumption and stultifying modes of (il)literacy.

Funded by right-wing ideological, corporate and militaristic interests, an army of anti-public intellectuals groomed in right-wing think tanks and foundations dominate the traditional media, police the universities for any vestige of critical thought and dissent and endlessly spread their message of privatization, deregulation and commercialization, exercising a powerful influence in the dismantling all public spheres not dominated by private and commodifying interests. These "experts in legitimation," to use Antonio Gramsci's prescient phrase, peddle civic ignorance just as they renounce any vestige of public accountability for big business, giant media conglomerates and financial mega-corporations.

Under the new authoritarianism, the corporate state and the punishing state merge as economics drives politics and repression is increasingly used to contain all those individuals and groups caught in the expanding web of extreme inequality and powerlessness that touches everything from the need for basic health care, food and shelter to the promise of a decent education. As the social state is hollowed out under pressure from free-market advocates, right-wing politicians and conservative ideologues, the United States has increasingly turned its back on any semblance of social justice, civic responsibility and democracy itself. How else to explain the influential journalist Thomas Friedman's shameless endorsement of military adventurism in a New York Times article? Friedman argued, "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."[18] Freedom in this discourse is inextricably wedded to state and military violence, and is a far cry from any semblance of a claim to democracy.

Zombie Politics and the Culture of Cruelty

Another characteristic of an emerging authoritarianism in the United States is the correlation between the growing atomization of the individual and the rise of a culture of cruelty, a type of zombie politics in which the living dead engage in forms of rapacious behavior that destroy almost every facet of a substantive democratic polity. There is a mode of terror rooted in a neoliberal market-driven society that numbs many people just as it wipes out the creative faculties of imagination, memory and critical thought. Under a regime of privatized utopias, hyper individualism and ego-centered values, human beings slip into a kind of ethical somnolence, indifferent to the plight and suffering of others. Though writing in a different context, the late Frankfurt School theorist Leo Lowenthal captures this mode of terror in his comments on the deeply sedimented elements of authoritarianism rooted in modern civilization. He wrote:

In a system that reduces life to a chain of disconnected reactions to shock, personal communication tends to lose all meaning.... The individual under terrorist conditions is never alone and always alone. He becomes numb and rigid not only in relation to his neighbor but also in relation to himself; fear robs him of the power of spontaneous emotional or mental reaction. Thinking becomes a stupid crime; it endangers his life. The inevitable consequence is that stupidity spreads as a contagious disease among the terrorized population. Human beings live in a state of stupor, in a moral coma.[19]

Implicit in Lowenthal's commentary is the assumption that as democracy becomes a fiction, the moral mechanisms of language, meaning and morality collapse and a cruel indifference takes over diverse modes of communication and exchange, often as a register of the current paucity of democratic values, identities and social relations. Surely, this is obvious today as all vestiges of the social contract, social responsibility and modes of solidarity give way to a form of social Darwinism with its emphasis on ruthlessness, cruelty, war, violence, hyper modes of masculinity and a disdain for those considered weak, dependent, alien or economically unproductive.

This culture of cruelty is especially evident in the hardships and deprivations now visited upon many young people in the United States. We have 13.3 million homeless children; one child in five lives in poverty; 17,000 have died in the last decade because they lacked health insurance; too many are now under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and many more are unemployed and lack any hope for the future.[20]

Moreover, we are subjecting more and more children to psychiatric drugs as a way of controlling their alleged unruly behavior while providing huge profits for drug companies. As Evelyn Pringle pointed out, "in 2006 more money was spent on treating mental disorders in children aged 0 to 17 than for any other medical condition, with a total of $8.9 billion"[21] Needless to say, the drugging of American children is less about treating genuine mental disorders than it is about punishing so called unruly children, largely children of the poor, and creating "lifelong patients and repeat customers for Pharma!"[22] Stories abound about poor young people being raped, beaten and dying in juvenile detention centers, needlessly trafficked into the criminal justice system as part of a profit-making scheme cooked up by corrupt judges and private correction facilities administrators, and being given powerful antipsychotic medicines in schools and other state facilities.[23]

Unfortunately, this regression to sheer Darwinism is not only evident in increasing violence against young people, cutthroat reality TV shows, hate radio and the Internet, it is also on full display in the discourse of government officials and politicians and serves as register of the prominence of both a kind of political infantilism and a culture of cruelty. For instance, the Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, recently stated in an interview in February 2010, "The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina."[24] Duncan's point, beyond the incredible inhumanity reflected in such a comment, was that it took a disaster that uprooted thousands of individuals and families and caused enormous amounts of suffering to enable the Obama administration to implement a massive educational system, pushing charter schools based on market-driven principles that disdain public values, if not public schooling itself.

This is the language of cruelty and zombie politicians, a language indifferent to the ways in which people who suffer great tragedies are expelled from their histories, narratives and right to be human. Horrible tragedies caused in part by government indifference are now covered up in the discourse and ideals inspired by the logic of the market. This mean and merciless streak was also on display recently when Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina, stated that giving people government assistance was comparable to "feeding stray animals." The utterly derogatory and implicitly racist nature of his remark became obvious in the statement that followed: "You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."[25]

Lowenthal's argument that in an authoritarian society "stupidity spreads as a contagious disease" is evident in a statement made by Michele Bachmann, a Republican Congresswoman, who recently argued, "Americans should purchase [health] insurance with their own tax-free money."[26] That 43 million Americans are without health insurance because they cannot afford it seems lost on Bachmann, whose comments suggest that these uninsured individuals, families, unemployed workers and children are not simply a disposable surplus, but actually invisible and therefore unworthy of any acknowledgment.

The regressive politics and moral stupidity are also evident in the emergence of right-wing extremists now taking over the Republican Party. This new and aggressive political formation calls for decoupling market-driven financial institutions from any vestige of political and governmental constraint, celebrates emotion over reason, treats critical intelligence as a toxin possessed largely by elites, wraps its sophomoric misrepresentations in an air of beyond-interrogation, "we're just folks" insularity, and calls for the restoration of a traditional, white, Christian, male-dominated America.[27] Such calls embody elements of a racial panic that are evident in all authoritarian movements and have increasingly become a defining feature of a Republican Party that has sided with far right-wing thugs and goon squads intent on disrupting any vestige of the democratic process. This emerging authoritarian element in American political culture is embodied in the presence of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck - right-wing extremists who share a contempt for reason and believe in organizing politics on the model of war, unconditional surrender, personal insults, hyper-masculine spectacles and the complete destruction of one's opponent.

Authoritarianism feeds on such excesses and the moral coma that accompanies the inability of a society to both question itself and imagine an alternative democratic order. Unfortunately, the problems now facing the United States are legion and further the erosion of a civic and democratic culture. Some of the most glaring issues are massive unemployment; a rotting infrastructure; the erosion of vital public services; the dismantling of the social safety net; expanding levels of poverty, especially for children; and an imprisonment binge largely affecting poor minorities of color. But such a list barely scratches the surface. In addition, we have witnessed in the last 30 years the restructuring of public education as either a source of profit for corporations or an updated version of control modeled after prison culture, coupled with an increasing culture of lying, cruelty and corruption, all of which belie a democratic vision of America that now seems imaginable only as a nostalgic rendering of the founding ideals of democracy.

Dangerous Authoritarianism or Shrinking Democracy

Needless to say, many would disagree with Wolin's view that the United States is in the grip of a new and dangerous authoritarianism that makes a mockery of the country's moral claim to being a model of democracy at home and for the rest of the world. For instance, liberal critics such as Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, refers to America's changing political landscape as a "shrinking democracy."[28] For Reich, democracy necessitates three things: "(1) Important decisions are made in the open. (2) The public and its representatives have an opportunity to debate them, so the decisions can be revised in light of what the public discovers and wants. And (3) those who make the big decisions are accountable to voters,"[29] If we apply Reich's notion of democracy, then it becomes evident that the use of the term democracy is neither theoretically apt nor politically feasible at the current historical moment as a description of the United States. All of the conditions he claims are crucial for a democracy are now undermined by financial and economic interests that control elections, buy off political representatives and eliminate those public spheres where real dialogue and debate can take place. It is difficult to imagine that anyone looking at a society in which an ultra-rich financial elite and mega-corporations have the power to control almost every aspect of politics - from who gets elected to how laws are enacted - could possibly mistake this social order and system of government for a democracy.

A more appropriate understanding of democracy comes from Wolin in his claim that:

democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. What is at stake in democratic politics is whether ordinary men and women can recognize that their concerns are best protected and cultivated under a regime whose actions are governed by principles of commonality, equality, and fairness, a regime in which taking part in politics becomes a way of staking out and sharing in a common life and its forms of self-fulfillment. Democracy is not about bowling together but about managing together those powers that immediately and significantly affect the lives and circumstances of others and one's self. Exercising power can be humbling when the consequences are palpable rather than statistical - and rather different from wielding power at a distance, at, say, an "undisclosed bunker somewhere in northern Virginia."[30]

Wolin ties democracy not merely to participation and accountability, but to the importance of the formative culture necessary for critical citizens and the need for a redistribution of power and wealth, that is, a democracy in which power is exercised not just for the people by elites, but by the people in their own collective interests. But more importantly, Wolin and others recognize that the rituals of voting and accountability have become empty in a country that has been reduced to a lockdown universe in which torture, abuse and the suspension of civil liberties have become so normalized that more than half of all Americans now support the use of torture under some circumstances.[31] Torture, kidnapping, indefinite detention, murder and disappeared "enemy combatants" are typical practices carried out in dictatorships, not in democracies, especially in a democracy that allegedly has a liberal president who ran on the promise of change and hope. Maybe it's time to use a different language to name and resist the registers of power and ideology that now dominate American society.

While precise accounts of the meaning of authoritarianism, especially fascism, abound, I have no desire, given its shifting nature, to impose a rigid or universal definition. What is to be noted is that most scholars agree that authoritarianism is a mass movement that emerges out of a failed democracy, and its ideology is extremely anti-liberal, anti-democratic and anti-socialistic.[32] As a social order, it is generally characterized by a system of terror directed against perceived enemies of the state, a monopolistic control of the mass media, an expanding prison system, a state monopoly of weapons, political rule by privileged groups and classes, control of the economy by a limited number of people, unbridled corporatism, "the appeal to emotion and myth rather than reason; the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause; the mobilization and militarization of civil society; [and] an expansionist foreign policy intended to promote national greatness."[33] All of these tendencies were highly visible during the former Bush administration.

With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, there was a widespread feeling among large sections of the American public and its intellectuals that the moment and threat of authoritarianism had passed. And, yet, there are many troubling signs that, in spite of the election of Obama, authoritarian policies not only continue to unfold unabated within his administration, but continue outside of his power to control them. In this case, anti-democratic forces seem to align with many of the conditions that make up what Wolin calls the politics of inverted totalitarianism.

I think it is fair to say that authoritarianism can permeate the lived relations of a political culture and social order, and can be seen in the ways in which such relations exacerbate the material conditions of inequality, undercut a sense of individual and social agency, hijack democratic values and promote a deep sense of hopelessness, cynicism and, eventually, unbridled anger. This deep sense of cynicism and despair on the part of the polity in the face of unaccountable corporate and political power lends credence to Hannah Arendt's notion that at the heart of totalitarianism is the disappearance of the thinking, dialogue and speaking citizens who make politics possible. Authoritarianism as both an ideology and a set of social practices emerges within the lives of those marked by such relations, as its proponents scorn the present while calling for a revolution that rescues a deeply anti-modernist past in order to revolutionize the future.

Determining for certain whether we are in the midst of a new authoritarianism under the leadership of Barack Obama is difficult, but one thing is clear: any new form of authoritarianism that emerges in the current time will be much more powerful and complex in its beliefs, mechanisms of power and modes of control than the alleged idealism of one man or one administration. The popular belief, especially after Bush's defeat, was that the country had made a break with its morally transgressive and reactionary past and that Obama signified not just hope, but political redemption. Such views ignored both the systemic and powerfully organized financial and economic forces at work in American society, while vastly overestimating the power of any one individual or isolated group to challenge and transform them. Even as the current economic meltdown revealed the destructive and distinctive class character of the financial crisis, the idea that the crisis was rooted in systemic causes that far exceeded a few bailouts was lost even on liberal economists such as Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz.

Within such economic analyses and narratives of political redemption, the primacy of hope and "critical exuberance" took precedence over the reality of established corporate power, ideological interests and the influence of the military-industrial complex. As Judith Butler warned soon after Obama's victory, "Obama is, after all, hardly a leftist, regardless of the attributions of 'socialism' proffered by his conservative opponents. In what ways will his actions be constrained by party politics, economic interests, and state power; in what ways have they been compromised already? If we seek through this presidency to overcome a sense of dissonance, then we will have jettisoned critical politics in favor of an exuberance whose phantasmatic dimensions will prove consequential."[34] In retrospect, Butler's comments have proven prescient, and the hope that accompanied Obama's election has now been tempered by not simply despair, but, in many quarters, outright and legitimate anger.

If Bush's presidency represented an exceptional anti-democratic moment, it would seem logical that the Obama administration would have examined, condemned and dismantled policies and practices at odds with the ideals of an aspiring democracy. Unfortunately, such has not been the case under Obama, at least up to this point in his administration. Within the past year, Obama has moved decidedly to the right, and, in doing so, he has extended some of the worst elements of the counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration. He has endorsed the use of military commissions, argued for the use of indefinite detention with no charges or legal recourse for Afghan prisoners, extended the USA Patriot Act,[35] continued two wars while expanding the war in Afghanistan and largely reproduced Bush's market-driven approach to school reform.[36]

As Noam Chomsky pointed out, Obama has done nothing to alter the power and triumph of financial liberalization in the past 30 years.[37] He bailed out banks and financial investment institutions at the expense of the 26.3 million Americans who are either unemployed or do not have full time jobs along with the millions who have lost their homes. His chief economic and foreign policy advisers - Tim Geithner, Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates - represent a continuation of a military and big business orientation that is central to the ideologies and power relations of a undemocratic and increasingly bankrupt economic and political system. While claiming to enact policies designed to reduce the federal deficit, Obama plans to cut many crucial domestic programs while increasing military spending, the intelligence budget and foreign military aid. Obama has requested a defense budget for 2011 of $708 billion, in addition to calling for $33 billion to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This budget is almost as large as the rest of the entire world's defense spending combined. Roger Hodge provides a useful summary of Obama's failings, extending from the perversion of the rule of law to the authoritarian claim of "sovereign immunity" He wrote:

Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantanamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass. As president, with few exceptions, Obama either has embraced the unconstitutional war powers claimed by his predecessor or has left the door open for their quiet adoption at some later date. Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has declared that the right to kidnap (known as "extraordinary rendition") foreigners will continue, just as the Bush administration's expansive doctrine of state secrets continues to be used in court against those wrongfully detained and tortured by our security forces and allies. Obama has adopted military commissions, once an unpardonable offense against our best traditions, to prosecute terrorism cases in which legitimate convictions cannot be obtained. ... The principle of habeas corpus, sacred to candidate Obama as "the essence of who we are," no longer seems so essential, and reports continue to surface of secret prisons hidden from due process and the Red Cross. Waterboarding has been banned, but other "soft" forms of torture, such as sleep deprivation and force-feeding, continue - as do the practices, which once seemed so terribly important to opponents of the Bush regime, of presidential signing statements and warrantless surveillance. In at least one respect, the Obama Justice Department has produced an innovation: a claim of "sovereign immunity" in response to a lawsuit seeking damages for illegal spying. Not even the minions of George W. Bush, with their fanciful notions of the unitary executive, made use of this constitutionally suspect doctrine, derived from the ancient common-law assumption that "the King can do no wrong," to defend their clear violations of the federal surveillance statute.[38]

Moreover, by giving corporations and unions unlimited freedom to contribute to elections, the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission provided a final step in placing the control of politics more firmly in the hands of big money and large corporations. In this ruling, democracy, like everything else in American culture, was treated as a commodity and offered up to the highest bidder. As a result, whatever government regulations are imposed on big business and the financial sectors will be largely ineffective and will do little to disrupt casino capitalism's freedom from political, economic and ethical constraints. Chris Hedges is right in insisting that the Supreme Court's decision "carried out a coup d'├ętat in slow motion. The coup is over. We lost. The ruling is one more judicial effort to streamline mechanisms for corporate control. It exposes the myth of a functioning democracy and the triumph of corporate power.... The corporate state is firmly cemented in place."[39]

In light of his conservative, if not authoritarian, policies, Obama's once inspiring call for hope has been reduced to what appears to be simply an empty performance, one that "favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time."[40] What once appeared as inspired rhetoric has largely been reduced to fodder for late-night television comics, while for a growing army of angry voters it has become nothing more than a cheap marketing campaign and disingenuous diversion in support of moneyed interests and power. Obama's rhetoric of hope is largely contradicted by policies that continue to reproduce a world of egotistic self-referentiality, an insensitivity to human suffering, massive investments in military power and an embrace of those market-driven values that produce enormous inequalities in wealth, income and security. There is more at stake here than a politics of misrepresentation and bad faith.

There is an invisible register of politics that goes far beyond the contradiction between Obama's discourse and his right-wing policies. What we must take seriously in Obama's policies is the absence of anything that might suggest a fundamental power shift away from casino capitalism to policies that would develop the conditions "that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs."[41]

In Obama's world, cutthroat competition is still the name of the game, and individual choice is still simply about a hunt for bargains. Lost here is any notion of political and social responsibility for the welfare, autonomy and dignity of all human beings, but especially those who are marginalized because they lack food, shelter, jobs, and other crucial basic needs. But, then again, this is not Obama's world; it is a political order and mode of economic sovereignty that has been in the making for quite some time and now shapes practically every aspect of culture, politics and civic life. In doing so, it has largely destroyed any vestige of real democracy in the United States.

I am not suggesting that in light of Obama's continuation of some of the deeply structured authoritarian tendencies in American society that people should turn away from the language of hope, but I am saying that they should avoid a notion of hope that is as empty as it is disingenuous. What is needed is a language of critique and hope that mutually inform each other, and engagement in a discourse of hope that is concretely rooted in real struggles and capable of inspiring a new political language and collective vision among a highly conservative and fractured polity.

Maybe it is time to shift the critique of Obama away from an exclusive focus on the policies and practices of his administration and develop a new language, one with a longer historical purview and deeper understanding of the ominous forces that now threaten any credible notion of the United States as an aspiring democracy. As Stuart Hall insisted, we "need to change the scale of magnification" in order to make visible the anti-democratic relations often buried beneath the hidden order of politics that have taken hold in the United States in the last few decades.[42] It may be time to shift the discourse away from focusing on either Obama's failures or urging progressives and others to develop "the organizational power to make muscular demands"[43] on the Obama administration. Maybe the time has come to focus on the ongoing repressive and systemic conditions, institutions, ideologies and values that have been developing in American society for the last 30 years, forces that are giving rise to a unique form of American authoritarianism. I agree with Sheldon Wolin that the "fixation upon" Obama now "obscures the problems" we are facing.[44] Maybe it is time to imagine what democracy would look like outside of what we have come to call capitalism, not simply neoliberalism as its most extreme manifestation. Maybe it is time to fight for the formative culture and modes of thought and agency that are the very foundations of democracy. And maybe it time to mobilize a militant, far-reaching social movement to challenge the false claims that equate democracy and capitalism.

If it is true that a new form of authoritarianism is developing in the United States, undercutting any vestige of a democratic society, then it is equally true that there is nothing inevitable about this growing threat. The long and tightening grip of authoritarianism in American political culture can be resisted and transformed. This dystopic future will not happen if intellectuals, workers, young people and diverse social movements unite to create the public spaces and unsettling formative educational cultures necessary for reimagining the meaning of radical democracy.

In part, this is a pedagogical project, one that recognizes consciousness, agency and education as central to any viable notion of politics. It is also a project designed to address, critique and make visible the common-sense ideologies that enable neoliberal capitalism and other elements of an emergent authoritarianism to function alongside a kind of moral coma and political amnesia at the level of everyday life.

But such a project will not take place if the American public cannot recognize how the mechanisms of authoritarianism have impacted on their lives, restructured negatively the notion of freedom and corrupted power by placing it largely in the hands of ruling elites, corporations and different segments of the military and national security state. Such a project must work to develop vigorous social spheres and communities that promote a culture of deliberation, public debate and critical exchange across a wide variety of cultural and institutional sites in an effort to generate democratic movements for social change.

Central to such a project is the attempt to foster a new radical imagination as part of a wider political project to create the conditions for a broad-based social movement that can move beyond the legacy of a fractured left/progressive culture and politics in order to address the totality of the society's problems. This suggests finding a common ground in which challenging diverse forms of oppression, exploitation and exclusion can become part of a broader challenge to create a radical democracy. We live at a time that demands a discourse of both critique and possibility, one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle and viable social movements, democracy will slip out of our reach and we will arrive at a new stage of history marked by the birth of an authoritarianism that not only disdains all vestiges of democracy, but is more than willing to relegate it to a distant memory.


[1]. Hannah Arendt, "Between Past and Future" (New York: Penguin Books, [1968] 1993), p. 196.

[2]. James Traub, "The Way We Live Now: Weimar Whiners," New York Times Magazine (June 1, 2003). For a commentary on such intellectuals, see Tony Judt, "Bush's Useful Idiots," The London Review of Books 28:18 (September 21, 2006).

[3]. Cited in Carol Becker, "The Art of Testimony," Sculpture (March 1997), p. 28.

[4]. This case for an American version of authoritarianism was updated and made more visible in a number of interesting books and articles. See, for instance, Chris Hedges, "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" (New York: Free Press, 2006); Henry A. Giroux, "Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed" (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); and Sheldon S. Wolin, "Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[5]. Cited in Paul Bigioni, "Fascism Then, Fascism Now," Toronto Star (November 27, 2005).

[6]. See Bertram Gross, "Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America" (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1985).

[7]. Robert O. Paxton, "The Anatomy of Fascism" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 202.

[8]. Umberto Eco, "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt," New York Review of Books (November-December 1995), p. 15.

[9]. Wolin, "Democracy Incorporated."

[10]. Along similar theoretical lines, see Stephen Lendman, "A Look Back and Ahead: Police State in America," CounterPunch (December 17, 2007). For an excellent analysis that points to the creeping power of the national security state on American universities, see David Price, "Silent Coup: How the CIA is Welcoming Itself Back onto American University Campuses," CounterPunch 17:3 (January 13-31, 2010), pp. 1-5.

[11]. David Harvey, "Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition," Monthly Review (December 15, 2009).

[12]. Chris Hedges, "Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction," TruthDig (January 24, 2010).

[13]. See Janine R. Wedel, "Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market" (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[14]. Zygmunt Bauman, "Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty" (London: Polity Press, 2007), pp. 57-58.

[15]. Bauman, "Liquid Times," p. 64.

[16]. Bigioni, "Fascism Then, Fascism Now."

[17]. Cornelius Castoriadis, "The Nature and Value of Equity, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 124-142.

[18]. Thomas L. Friedman, "A Manifesto for the Fast World," New York Times Magazine (March 28, 1999).

[19]. Leo Lowenthal, "Atomization of Man, False Prophets: Studies in Authoritarianism" (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987), pp. 182-183.

[20]. I have taken up this issue in Henry A. Giroux, "Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?" (New York: Palgrave, 2009). For a series of brilliant commentaries on youth in America, see the work of Tolu Olorunda in The Black Commentator, Truthout, and other online journals.

[21]. Evelyn Pringle, "Why Are We Drugging Our Kids," Truthout (December 14, 2009).

[22]. Pringle, "Why Are We Drugging Our Kids"

[23]. See Nicholas Confessore, "New York Finds Extreme Crisis in Youth Prisons," New York Times (December 14, 2009), p. A1; Duff Wilson, "Poor Children Likelier to Get Antipsychotics," New York Times (December 12, 2009), p. A1; and Amy Goodman, "Jailing Kids for Cash," Truthout (February 17, 2009).

[24]. Jake Tapper, "Political Punch: Power, Pop, and Probings" from ABC News Senior White House Correspondent; Duncan: "Katrina Was The 'Best Thing' for New Orleans School System," ABC (January 29, 2010).

[25]. Nathaniel Cary, "GOP Hopeful: People on Public Assistance - 'Like Stray Animals,'" Truthout (January 23, 2010).

[26]. Cited in Frank Rich, "The State of Union is Comatose," New York Times (January 31, 2010), p. WK10.

[27]. See, for example, Patrick J. Buchanan, "Traditional Americans are Losing Their Nation," WorldNetDaily (January 24, 2010).

[28]. Robert Reich, "Our Incredible Shrinking Democracy," AlterNet (February 2, 2010).

[29]. Reich, "Our Incredible Shrinking Democracy."

[30]. Wolin, "Democracy Incorporated," pp. 259 - 260.

[31]. Heather Maher, "Majority of Americans Think Torture - 'Sometimes' Justified," Common Dreams (December 4, 2009).

[32]. See, for example, Kevin Passmore, "Fascism" (London: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Robert O. Paxton, "The Anatomy of Fascism" (New York: Knopf, 2004).

[33]. Alexander Stille, "The Latest Obscenity Has Seven Letters," New York Times (September 13, 2003), p. 19.

[34]. Judith Butler, "Uncritical Exuberance?" (November 5, 2008).

[35]. For an excellent analysis of the current status of the Patriot Act, see William Fisher, "Patriot Act - Eight Years Later," Truthout (February 3, 2010).

[36]. Glenn Greenwald has taken up many of these issues in a critical and thoughtful fashion. See his blog at Salon.

[37]. Noam Chomsky, "Anti-Democratic Nature of US Capitalism Is Being Exposed," The Irish Times (October 10, 2008).

[38]. Roger D. Hodge, "The Mendacity of Hope," Harper's Magazine (February, 2010), pp. 7-8.

[39]. Chris Hedges, "Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction," TruthDig (January 24, 2010).

[40]. Naomi Klein, "How Corporate Branding Has Taken Over America," The Guardian/UK, (January 16, 2010) .

[41]. Wolin, "Democracy Incorporated," p. 259.

[42]. Stuart Hall and Les Back, "In Conversation: At Home and Not at Home," Cultural Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, (July 2009), pp. 664-665.

[43]. Naomi Klein, "How Corporate Branding Has Taken Over America," The Guardian/UK, (January 16, 2010).

[44]. Wolin, "Democracy Incorporated," p. 287.

Which Way to the Bastille?

Which Way to the Bastille?

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Who do we throw our shoes at now? Does Wal-Mart have everyday low low prices on torches and pitchforks? Made in China of course, but the question is a serious one, what are we going to do, in this country, about a government that refuses to acknowledge our distress?

Yesterday I read that there are almost 20,000 homeless teenagers in New York City alone, so how many is that nationwide? Colorado Springs is turning off streetlights and sold their police helicopter and fired the pilot and mechanic. The default rate on jumbo mortgages is near 10%. Jumbo mortgages are at least $250,000 and ranged up to $729,750 but the stimulus bill reduced it to a paltry $625,500. Big fish with big loans and they’re going belly up just like the rest of us.

These economic hard times are not isolated; they are widespread and growing daily. Financial experts have said, "Thank God for the census hiring thousands." Except census takers count households and we have millions that have no house to hold. Asking them if they have a high speed Internet connection or how many toilets they have misses the mark at this point. At this point the questions should be: are you getting enough to eat? Are your children attending school; do you have money to wash your clothes?

They don’t ask us and won’t ask us because they won’t like the answers, so it’s best to just ignore us. The President, in his State of the Union Address, announced a new jobs bill. Oh goody! More god-damned tax cuts that made the last stimulus so successful. Let me ask you, if I offered a 50% tax cut on the purchase of a new Ferrari or Rolls Royce, would you buy one? You won’t buy what you can’t afford no matter how big the tax break. Employers won’t hire workers to drive a truck if they don’t have orders to deliver, even with a tax cut.

Politicians love playing games with numbers. Obama can say, "My jobs program has 10 gazillion dollars in job incentives," but they are all tax credits that might help 1% who were probably going to hire anyway. So what have we gained? We gain nothing except that the politician can smile and wave from the lectern. He’s free and indemnified when his critics ask, "What are you doing about unemployment?" He can answer with pointed finger, "Why, my administration is spending gazillions to fight unemployment. Haven’t you seen my jobs program?" But, but, but, if employers can’t take advantage of the tax cuts then you’ve spent nothing, and even worse you’ve done nothing.

The new jobs bill is the vehicle the administration plans to use to reauthorize the Patriot Act. With a heart of stone and eyes of lead, they are throwing lifejackets lined with fishhooks to the desperate. It is beyond cynical; it’s shameful and disgraceful. I have a finger between my index and ring finger that says all that needs to be said about that. Except perhaps that this bill is just more politics when our people are suffering, and politics should be put aside.

Don’t you dare say, "I would but... the Republicans." Maybe if you’d punch a few of those Republicans in their political nose and start playing hardball instead of trying to hold encounter group sessions to try and get in touch with their feelings you might begin to gain traction. But you don’t fool me, pal. You’re the guy that’s leaning and grunting, but you ain’t pushing the car. You’re only pretending to push the car.

Untangling the unemployment numbers is like untangling canned spaghetti. It's a mish-mash in tomato sauce with attempt to defraud. First-time claims down by 43,000. There is a saturation point, isn’t there? A sponge will only hold so much water; you can’t expect it will suddenly hold 10% or 20% more. So you have an economy that is enfeebled like a geriatric pie crust. There are no new great mass layoffs because there is no one left with huge numbers of employees to lay off.

"Labor Department figures showed today in Washington... The total number of people getting unemployment insurance and those receiving extended benefits decreased." Because they are no longer unemployed? Or because they have exhausted their available benefits? They don’t say because they don’t care; that information doesn’t fit their agenda.

"The Obama administration today projected payrolls will grow by 95,000 a month on average this year, indicating it will take a long time to recover the 8.4 million jobs lost since the recession began."

Well, considering there are 150,000 more employees each month entering the workforce, I’d speculate that date to be somewhere around the twelfth of never. Yet these high-paid, over-educated economists always seem to forget us or to bury us in the footnotes. It makes for great headlines and the President can claim that his little-or-nothing jobs program is working.

You reach a point where you’ve just heard enough and you just don’t want to hear one more word from one more politician. I’m angry enough, thank you, I no longer need your services.

"Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) – President Barack Obama said he and his administration have pursued a 'fundamentally business-friendly' agenda and are 'fierce advocates' for the free market, rejecting corporate criticism of his policies."

"Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) -- A majority of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index increased cash to a combined $1.18 trillion while simultaneously reducing spending, keeping a jobs recovery on hold."

"Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. foreclosure filings rose 15 percent in January from a year earlier and exceeded 300,000 for the 11th consecutive month as modification programs failed to keep delinquent borrowers in their homes."

"Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said he is 'agnostic' about raising taxes on households making less than $250,000 as part of a broad effort to rein in the budget deficit.

Obama, in a Feb. 9 Oval Office interview, said that a presidential commission on the Budget needs to consider all options for reducing the deficit, including tax increases and cuts in spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare."

You S.O.B! Two phony wars, a trillion dollar defense budget, and your answer is to cut Social Security and Medicare? But you’re "agnostic" on raising taxes on individuals earning just a smidge less than a quarter million a year.

We are living in a toxic economy with millions who have spent their retirement incomes that will have no chance to recover. Tens of millions who have lost their jobs and ruined their credit, who will never be able to buy another home or new car because of it. Millions of children growing up in cold rooms on bad diets with no health care. A lost generation of children moving from apartment to apartment until they get old enough to just run off and begin their own cycle of poverty and rage.

Why shouldn’t they smoke dope and sell crack? Is the magic college fairy going to come down from heaven and wave her magic wand to save them?

"Oh, what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall. (Bob Dylan)

Which way to the Bastille?

Report: 1 in 5 U.S. homeowners underwater:

Report: 1 in 5 U.S. homeowners underwater

Foreclosures across the country rose to a new high in December

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One of every five U.S. homeowners owed more on their mortgage than their home was worth in the fourth quarter, a trend that poses a serious threat to the U.S. housing market's recovery, real estate Web site said on Wednesday.

Homeowners with "underwater'' mortgages are more prone to defaults and foreclosures. They typically do not qualify for refinancings and are unable to sell their homes because they would need to cough up cash at closing time to pay off their mortgage.

The percentage of American single-family homes with mortgages in negative equity rose to 21.4 percent in the fourth quarter from 21 percent in the third quarter, according to the Zillow Real Estate Market Reports.

U.S. home values declined again in the fourth quarter, as the Zillow Home Value Index fell 5 percent year-over-year and down 0.5 percent quarter-over-quarter, to $186,200. It was the 12th consecutive quarter of year-over-year declines, the reports showed.

"The prevalence of markets in or near a double-dip situation shows that we are not yet at the bottom, in terms of home values,'' Stan Humphries, Zillow chief economist, said in an interview.

One in five, or 29 of the 143 markets tracked by Zillow, had at least five consecutive month-over-month increases in home values during 2009 before values began to flatten or fall again in the second part of the year. These markets included the Boston, Atlanta and San Diego metropolitan areas.

Zillow said it defines a "double dip'' as two periods of sustained declines in home values separated by a brief period of stabilization or recovery.

Zillow forecasts a definitive bottom in home values in the second quarter of 2010, Humphries said.

"It is important to note, however, that the arrival of the bottom does not mean that recovery is around the corner,'' he said.

Home values in 29 markets, including the Los Angeles and New York metro areas, increased on a month-over-month basis throughout the fourth quarter. The rate of increase, however, slowed from November to December in 21 of those markets.

Meanwhile, the number of homeowners losing their homes to foreclosure across the country rose to a new high in December, with more than one in every thousand homes being foreclosed, the highest since Zillow began recording national foreclosure data in 2000, the reports showed.

Foreclosure resales remained high, making up 20.3 percent of all U.S. home sales in December. Foreclosure resales also made up the majority of sales in several metropolitan areas, including Merced, Calif., at 68.3 percent; Las Vegas, at 64 percent, and Modesto, Calif., at 62 percent. Additionally, 28.5 percent of home sales nationwide sold for less than what the seller originally paid.

Home values increased year-over-year in 27 of 143 markets and remained flat in 15.

Foreclosure numbers may foretell delinquency surge

Foreclosure numbers may foretell delinquency surge

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The number of U.S. households facing foreclosure in January increased 15 percent from the same month last year, and a surge in cash-strapped homeowners who've fallen behind on mortgages could be on the way.

More than 315,000 households received a foreclosure-related notice in January, RealtyTrac Inc. reported. That is down nearly 10 percent from 349,000 in December, which saw the third highest total since the company began tracking foreclosure data in 2005.

In January, one in 409 homes was sent a filing, which includes default notices, scheduled foreclosure auctions and bank repossessions. Banks repossessed more than 87,000 homes last month, down 5 percent from December but up 31 percent from January 2009.

January marked the 11th straight month with more than 300,000 properties receiving a foreclosure filing. The numbers could stay above that level as unemployed homeowners who have tried to keep up with their mortgages start missing monthly payments.

Mortgage financier Fannie Mae reported in late January that the rate of borrowers who have a conventional loan on a house and are seriously delinquent was 5.29 percent in November, more than double the rate of 2.13 percent in November 2008. Borrowers are considered seriously delinquent if they are past due by three months or more or are in foreclosure.

Last month's foreclosure activity followed a pattern similar to that of a year ago, when a double-digit percentage increase in December was followed by a 10 percent drop in January.

The dip in January's numbers may be due to processing delays by lenders during the end-of-year holidays, said Rick Sharga, senior vice president of RealtyTrac, based in Irvine, Calif.

"I don't think it's an early sign of the coming of the end of the foreclosure crisis," Sharga said.

Obama Signs Bill Lifting Federal Debt Limit to $14.3 Trillion:

Obama Signs Bill Lifting Federal Debt Limit to $14.3 Trillion

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President Obama has signed legislation lifting the cap on government borrowing to $14.3 trillion.

The new law also puts in place new budget rules to curb growing annual deficits. Known as "paygo" -- for "pay as you go" -- the rules require future spending increases or tax cuts to be paid for with tax increases or other spending cuts.

If the rules are broken, the White House budget office would force automatic cuts in programs like Medicare and farm subsidies. Most other benefit programs, including Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps, would be exempt.

The debt limit was increased from $12.4 trillion to keep the U.S. from going into default.

Obama signed the bill privately Friday at the White House.

The Monopolization of America

The Monopolization of America

You walk into your local convenience store and head to the cold walk-in beer room in the back.

The choice is overwhelming.

Budweiser, Michelob, Bud Light, Busch Light, Stella Artois, Grolsch, Kirin,Tsingtao, Corona, Negra Modelo, Rolling Rock, Widmer, Miller and Coors.

In fact, all of these beers are controlled by two companies.

MillerCoors under the direction of South African Breweries (SAB) and AnheuserBusch In Bev.

Two multinational corporations controlling the beer choices of 300 million Americans.

And it's not just beer.

One single multinational corporation dominates the world supply of eyeglass stores.

One dominates the milk supply.

Barry Lynn goes down the list of industries.

And he finds a similar story across the board.

A handful of multinational corporations controlling each industry - or the supply chains of each industry.

Such dominant monopolies were illegal just thirty years ago.

But that all changed with Ronald Reagan and Robert Bork.

A corporatist oligarchy took hold.

President Obama has promised aggressive antitrust enforcement.

But Lynn says it's pie in the sky.

"It will take more than a lawsuit or two to overthrow America's corporatist oligarchy and restore a model of capitalism that protects our rights as property holders and citizens," Lynn argues in his new book - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction (Wiley, 2010).

Antitrust law was developed to protect the political economy from extreme concentrations of corporate power.

Then came Reagan and Bork.

In 1978, Bork said we should have a consumer welfare test.

If economic concentration is good for the consumer - think Wal-Mart - then let it be.

Never mind the citizen.

In 1981, William Baxter, head of Reagan's Antitrust Division, announced that he would be guided by "an efficiency test."

"When Baxter first talked to the press in 1981, he said - we are going to impose an efficiency test," Lynn told Corporate Crime Reporter last week. "Those were the words he used. It was only a little bit later that they framed it as a consumer welfare test. And Robert Bork came up with that. Bork's book - The Antitrust Paradox - came out in 1978 and he floated this idea of a consumer welfare test."

"It took Baxter a couple of years to get the messaging together. They locked into the consumer welfare test. And it helped to bring along so many folks in the consumer movement. And for some reason, after focusing on safety, which is a fantastic thing that Ralph Nader did, they began fixating on prices. And there is a whole political analysis as to why they began fixating on prices. What groups were they targeting with that fixation?"

"In 1981, that marked a revolutionary change in how we applied our anti-monopoly laws. No longer was the primary consideration political. The primary consideration was prices and consumer welfare."

Lynn says that Bork didn't understand why the consumer movement didn't come after him on the consumer welfare test.

"In 1993, Bork put out a second edition of the Antitrust Paradox," Lynn said. "And in the introduction, he says - I don't understand what happened here. I thought the socialists were doing to come out and fight us tooth and nail on this. And they never did. We didn't think we were going to get this through. And we did." Mention the word "socialist" in this context, and Lynn sees red.

"In this country, the group that tends to point its finger and calls the other people socialists most effectively tends to win," Lynn said.

"And when they win - they get to socialize their own risks."

"So, you have this elite in this country that for a generation has been raving about socialism."

"And what were they doing in the meantime? They were socializing all of their risks."

"As was laid bare to us in September 2008. Larry Summers put it best - what the bankers did, he said, was they privatized all of their profits and socialized all of their risks."

"You really have to target the other people and call them socialists."

"We have just seen the most massive era of socialization in this country that we've ever seen."

What Do Empires Do?

What Do Empires Do?

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When I wrote my book Against Empire [1] in 1995, as might be expected, some of my U.S. compatriots thought it was wrong of me to call the United States an empire. It was widely believed that U.S. rulers did not pursue empire; they intervened abroad only out of self-defense or for humanitarian rescue operations or to overthrow tyranny, fight terrorism, and propagate democracy.

But by the year 2000, everyone started talking about the United States as an empire and writing books with titles like Sorrows of Empire [2], Follies of Empire [3], Twilight of Empire [4], or Empire of Illusions [5]--- all referring to the United States when they spoke of empire.

Even conservatives started using the word. Amazing. One could hear right-wing pundits announcing on U.S. television, "We're an empire, with all the responsibilities and opportunities of empire and we better get used to it"; and "We are the strongest nation in the world and have every right to act as such"---as if having the power gives U.S. leaders an inherent entitlement to exercise it upon others as they might wish.

"What is going on here?" I asked myself at the time. How is it that so many people feel free to talk about empire when they mean a United States empire? The ideological orthodoxy had always been that, unlike other countries, the USA did not indulge in colonization and conquest.

The answer, I realized, is that the word has been divested of its full meaning. "Empire" seems nowadays to mean simply dominion and control. Empire---for most of these late-coming critics--- is concerned almost exclusively with power and prestige. What is usually missing from the public discourse is the process of empire and its politico-economic content. In other words, while we hear a lot about empire, we hear very little about imperialism.

Now that is strange, for imperialism is what empires are all about. Imperialism is what empires do. And by imperialism I do not mean the process of extending power and dominion without regard to material and financial interests. Indeed "imperialism" has been used by some authors in the same empty way that they use the word "empire," to simply denote dominion and control with little attention given to political economic realities.

But I define imperialism as follows: the process whereby the dominant investor interests in one country bring to bear their economic and military power upon another nation or region in order to expropriate its land, labor, natural resources, capital, and markets-in such a manner as to enrich the investor interests. In a word, empires do not just pursue "power for power's sake." There are real and enormous material interests at stake, fortunes to be made many times over.

So for centuries the ruling interests of Western Europe and later on North America and Japan went forth with their financiers---and when necessary their armies---to lay claim to most of planet Earth, including the labor of indigenous peoples, their markets, their incomes (through colonial taxation or debt control or other means), and the abundant treasures of their lands: their gold, silver, diamonds, copper, rum, molasses, hemp, flax, ebony, timber, sugar, tobacco, ivory, iron, tin, nickel, coal, cotton, corn, and more recently: uranium, manganese, titanium, bauxite, oil, and--say it again--oil. (Hardly a complete listing.)

Empires are enormously profitable for the dominant economic interests of the imperial nation but enormously costly to the people of the colonized country. In addition to suffering the pillage of their lands and natural resources, the people of these targeted countries are frequently killed in large numbers by the intruders.

This is another thing that empires do which too often goes unmentioned in the historical and political literature of countries like the United States, Britain, and France. Empires impoverish whole populations and kill lots and lots of innocent people. As I write this, President Obama and the national security state for which he works are waging two and a half wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and northern Pakistan), and leveling military threats against Yemen, Iran, and, on a slow day, North Korea. Instead of sending medical and rescue aid to Haiti, Our Bomber sent in the Marines, the same Marines who engaged in years of mass murder in Haiti decades ago and supported more recent massacres by proxy forces.

The purpose of all this killing is to prevent alternative, independent, self-defining nations from emerging. So the empire uses its state power to gather private wealth for its investor class. And it uses its public wealth to shore up its state power and prevent other nations from self-developing.

Sooner or later this arrangement begins to wilt under the weight of its own contradictions. As the empire grows more menacing and more murderous toward others, it grows sick and impoverished within itself.

From ancient times to today, empires have always been involved in the bloody accumulation of wealth. If you don't think this is true of the United States then stop calling it "Empire." And when you write a book about how it wraps its arms around the planet, entitle it "Global Bully" or "Bossy Busybody," but be aware that you're not telling us much about imperialism.

New reports of multi-million dollar payouts to US bankers

New reports of multi-million dollar payouts to US bankers

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After a record year for Wall Street profits, details of the multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses paid to hundreds of individuals at financial firms have begun to trickle out.

The New York Times compiled a list of 19 of the most highly-paid Wall Street figures, whose combined compensation in 2009 amounted to an estimated $226.8 million.

Topping the list was John G. Stumpf, chairman and chief executive of Wells Fargo, the San Francisco-based bank. Stumpf’s pay shot up 64 percent from 2007, the year before the financial crisis hit.

The two most prominent names on the list, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co, took lower payouts last year than in 2007. Dimon, who received $28 million in 2007, took “only” $16 million. Lloyd Blankfein, who took in over $60 million in 2006, had his compensation reduced to $9.7 million in 2009.

The Obama administration fully approved these pay packages. In an interview, Kenneth Feinberg, the administration’s ‘pay tsar,’ said that he worked closely with Dimon and Blankfein to work out their compensation packages, and in general indicated his approval of the means by which their pay was set.

But Obama himself went even further, saying Tuesday in an interview with Business Week that he, “like the American people,” does not “begrudge” the pay of Blankfein and Dimon. He added that “I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen.”

Following the example of Blankfein and Dimon, top executives seem to have chosen not to award themselves more money than in 2007, in order to allow their lower-level associates to enjoy their record incomes with less public criticism.

The New York Times analysis found that “Chief executives, who are usually at the top of the pay heap, are taking home roughly the same amounts as executives who work for them—and sometimes less.”

Blankfein’s four immediate deputies earned about the same amount of money as he did. The story is similar at JPMorgan Chase, whose vice-chairman, Steven D. Black, got $14.2 million, while its chief investment officer, Ina R. Drew, got $12.9 million, only slightly less than Dimon.

In fact, five of the most highly-paid executives came from JPMorgan Chase, which doubled its profits in 2009, reaching $11.7 billion. The average payout per employee at the company increased by nearly a quarter last year over 2008, and the average payout for employees in the investment banking division hit $380,000.

Executives at major credit card companies were particularly prominent on the Times’ list. Joseph W. Saunders of Visa earned $15.5 million, Ajay Banga of MasterCard received $13.5 million in pay, and Hans Morris of Visa $10.7 million.

These payouts were financed by aggressive fee and interest rate increases, which compensated for the fact that millions of people defaulted on their credit cards as they lost their jobs or took pay cuts.

The rest of the list was filled out by executives from Wall Street trading firms, such as the Jefferies Group and BlackRock, which the US government paid to help administer the bank bailout.

The final compensation figures for all of Wall Street are not available, and many of the figures reported in the Times article are tentative. But pay for the whole of the financial sector is set to match, or even exceed, the record set in 2007.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal study, major US banks and financial firms were on track to hand out a record $140 billion in compensation in 2009. This would be a 20 percent increase from 2008 and $10 billion more than the previous record, set in 2007.

The Times article pointed out that traders and other employees in non-executive positions often take home sums comparable to chief executives, but get by without reporting their incomes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of brokers, asset managers, and traders take home tens of millions of dollars without any public scrutiny.

“There are probably thousands of people that are in the Millionaire Club—or even the Ten Millionaire Club—that have gotten no heat,” one Wall Street compensation consultant told the newspaper.

The Times report provides a snapshot of American class society. The majority of the American population have seen their livelihoods and living conditions under attack for decades. The economic crisis that broke out in 2007 has thrown large numbers of people into the social abyss, destroying over 9 million jobs and forcing record numbers of families into foreclosure.

Yet through all this, Wall Street speculators continue to gorge themselves at record rates.

Dick Cheney Admits to Torture Conspiracy

Cheney Exposes Torture Conspiracy

On Sunday, Cheney pronounced himself “a big supporter of waterboarding,” a near-drowning technique that has been regarded as torture back to the Spanish Inquisition and that has long been treated by U.S. authorities as a serious war crime, such as when Japanese commanders were prosecuted for using it on American prisoners during World War II.

Cheney was unrepentant about his support for the technique. He answered with an emphatic "yes" when asked if he had opposed the Bush administration’s decision to suspend the use of waterboarding – after it was employed against three “high-value detainees” sometimes in repetitive sequences. He added that waterboarding should still be “on the table” today.

Cheney then went further. Speaking with a sense of impunity, he casually negated a key line of defense that senior Bush officials had hidden behind for years – that the brutal interrogations were approved by independent Justice Department legal experts who thus gave the administration a legitimate reason to believe the actions were within the law.

However, on Sunday, Cheney acknowledged that the White House had told the Justice Department lawyers what legal opinions to render. In other words, the opinions amounted to ordered-up lawyering to permit the administration to do whatever it wanted.

In responding to a question about why he had so aggressively attacked President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism policies, Cheney explained that he had been concerned about the new administration prosecuting some CIA operatives who had handled the interrogations and “disbarring lawyers with the Justice Department who had helped us put those policies together. …

“I thought it was important for some senior person in the administration to stand up and defend those people who’d done what we asked them to do.”

Cheney’s comment about the Justice lawyers who had “done what we asked them to do” was an apparent reference to John Yoo and his boss, Jay Bybee, at the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), a powerful agency that advises the President on the limits of his power.

In 2002, Yoo – while working closely with White House officials – drafted legal memos that permitted waterboarding and other brutal techniques by narrowly defining torture. He also authored legal opinions that asserted virtual dictatorial powers for a President during war, even one as vaguely defined as the “war on terror.” Yoo’s key memos were then signed by Bybee.

In 2003, after Yoo left to be a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and Bybee was elevated to a federal appeals court judgeship in San Francisco, their successors withdrew the memos because of the sloppy scholarship. However, in 2005, President George W. Bush appointed a new acting chief of the OLC, Steven Bradbury, who restored many of the Yoo-Bybee opinions.

Legal Fig Leaf

In the years that followed, Bush administration officials repeatedly cited the Yoo-Bybee-Bradbury legal guidance when insisting that the “enhanced interrogation” of “war on terror” detainees – as well as prisoners from the Iraq and Afghan wars – did not cross the line into torture.

In essence, the Bush-Cheney defense was that the OLC lawyers offered honest opinions and that everyone from the President and Vice President, who approved use of the interrogation techniques, down to the CIA interrogators, who conducted the torture, operated in good faith.

If, however, that narrative proved to be false – if the lawyers had colluded with the policymakers to create legal excuses for criminal acts – then the Bush-Cheney defense would collapse. Rather than diligent lawyers providing professional advice, the picture would be of Mob consiglieres counseling crime bosses how to evade the law.

Though Bush administration defenders have long denied that the legal opinions were cooked, the evidence has long supported the conspiratorial interpretation. For instance, in his 2006 book War by Other Means, Yoo himself described his involvement in frequent White House meetings regarding what “other means” should receive a legal stamp of approval. Yoo wrote:

“As the White House held its procession of Christmas parties and receptions in December 2001, senior lawyers from the Attorney General’s office, the White House counsel’s office, the Departments of State and Defense and the NSC [National Security Council] met a few floors away to discuss the work on our opinion. …

“This group of lawyers would meet repeatedly over the next months to develop policy on the war on terrorism. "

Yoo said meetings were usually chaired by Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House counsel and later became Bush’s second Attorney General. Yoo identified other key players as Timothy Flanigan, Gonzales’s deputy; William Howard Taft IV from State; John Bellinger from the NSC; William “Jim” Haynes from the Pentagon; and David Addington, counsel to Cheney.

Yoo’s Account

In his book, Yoo described a give-and-take among participants at the meeting with the State Department’s Taft challenging Yoo’s OLC view that Bush could waive the Geneva Conventions regarding the invasion of Afghanistan (by labeling it a “failed state”). Taft noted that the Taliban was the recognized government of the country.

“We thought Taft’s memo represented the typically conservative thinking of foreign ministries, which places a priority on stabilizing relations with other states – even if it means creating or maintaining fictions – rather than adapting to new circumstances,” Yoo wrote.

Regarding objections from the Pentagon’s judge advocate generals – who feared that waiving the Geneva Conventions would endanger American soldiers – Yoo again stressed policy concerns, not legal logic.

“It was far from obvious that following the Geneva Conventions in the war against al-Qaeda would be wise,” Yoo wrote. “Our policy makers had to ask whether [compliance] would yield any benefit or act as a hindrance.”

What Yoo’s book and other evidence make clear is that the lawyers from the Justice Department’s OLC weren’t just legal scholars handing down opinions from an ivory tower; they were participants in how to make Bush’s desired actions “legal.”

They were the lawyerly equivalents of those U.S. intelligence analysts, who – in the words of the British “Downing Street Memo” – “fixed” the facts around Bush’s desire to justify invading Iraq.

The importance of this question – whether the OLC lawyers were honest brokers or criminal conspirators – was not missed by some of the congressional leaders who pressed for a serious investigation of Bush’s use of torture and other war crimes.

Two years ago, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, wrote a letter to the Justice Department’s watchdog agencies requesting an investigation into the role that “Justice Department officials [played] in authorizing and/or overseeing the use of waterboarding by the Central Intelligence Agency... and whether those who authorized it violated the law.”

In the Feb. 12, 2008, letter, the senators questioned whether the OLC lawyers were “insulated from outside pressure to reach a particular conclusion” and whether Bush’s White House and the CIA played any role in influencing “deliberations about the lawfulness of waterboarding,” a technique that creates the sensation of drowning.

Whitehouse, a former federal prosecutor, said those questions were designed to get to the point that having in-house lawyers dream up a legal argument doesn’t make an action legal, especially if the lawyers were somehow induced to produce the opinion.

Defining Torture

In the case of waterboarding and other abusive interrogation tactics, Yoo and Bybee generated a memo, dated Aug. 1, 2002, that came up with a novel and narrow definition of torture, essentially lifting the language from an unrelated law regarding health benefits.

The Yoo-Bybee legal opinion stated that unless the amount of pain administered to a detainee led to injuries that might result in "death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions" then the interrogation technique could not be defined as torture.

Since waterboarding is not intended to cause death or organ failure – only the panicked gag reflex associated with drowning – it was deemed not to be torture.

The “torture memo” and related legal opinions were considered so unprofessional that Bybee’s replacement to head the OLC, Jack Goldsmith, himself a conservative Republican, took the extraordinary step of withdrawing them after he was appointed in October 2003.

However, Goldsmith was pushed out of his job after a confrontation with Cheney’s counsel Addington, and the later appointment of Bradbury enabled the Bush White House to reinstate many of the Yoo-Bybee opinions.

Last month, Newsweek reported that Yoo and Bybee had avoided any disciplinary recommendations because a draft report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility had been rewritten to remove harsh criticism that the two lawyers had violated professional standards, softening the language to simple criticism of their judgment.

The weaker language meant that the Justice Department would not refer the cases to state bar associations for possible disbarment proceedings.

Cheney’s frank comments on “This Week” – corroborating that Yoo and Bybee “had done what we asked them to do” – suggest that former Bush administration officials are confident that they will face no accountability from the Obama administration for war crimes.

Though the ABC News interviewer Jonathan Karl deserves some credit for posing the waterboarding question to Cheney, it was notable that Karl didn’t react with any shock or even a follow-up when Cheney pronounced himself a fan of the torture practice. Cheney’s waterboarding endorsement was only a footnote in ABC’s online account of the interview.

Surely, if a leader of another country had called himself “a big supporter of waterboarding,” there would have been a clamor for his immediate arrest and trial at The Hague.

That Cheney feels he can operate with such impunity is a damning commentary on the rule of law in the United States, at least when it comes to the nation’s elites.