Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot’s Prison Letters to Slavoj Žižek November 16, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Revolution, Russia.
Tags: anti-capitalism, capitalism, democracy, freedom, nadezhda tolokonnikova, performance art, pussy riot, putin, revolution, roger hollander, slavoj zizek
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Roger’s note: I hope you find this correspondence as fascinating as I did. The left/progressive blogosphere these days is publishing more anti-capitalism analyses than ever. I am a life-long Marxist Humanist, so the notion of capitalism is something I have been thinking about for years (decades, actually). What I find troubling is that very few writers either attempt or demonstrate a precise understanding of exactly what capitalism is. Capitalism is not simply an ideology, although there are more than enough capitalist ideologues; and capitalism is not primarily about so-called free markets, nor is state ownership anything less than pure genuine capitalism (prime example: China). To understand what a genuine transformation of society will be, it is important to have a historical understanding of how capitalist economic relations developed. More important is the need to understand exactly what capitalist economic relationships ARE, and that has to do with the basic structure under which goods and services are PRODUCED (again, not marketed). Karl Marx discovered an entire new continent of thought that takes us into the heart of notions of human freedom and exploitation via capitalist economic relations. Much too complex for me to go into here; I just want to point out that being anti-capitalist is necessary but not sufficient. The dialogue below is a good example of revolutionary activist thinking, striving to understand in order to transform.
Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is currently in a prison hospital in Siberia; here she and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek meet in an extraordinary exchange of letters
2 January 2013
I hope you have been able to organise your life in prison around small rituals that make it tolerable, and that you have time to read. Here are my thoughts on your predicament.
John Jay Chapman, an American political essayist, wrote this about radicals in 1900: “They are really always saying the same thing. They don’t change; everybody else changes. They are accused of the most incompatible crimes, of egoism and a mania for power, indifference to the fate of their cause, fanaticism, triviality, lack of humour, buffoonery and irreverence. But they sound a certain note. Hence the great practical power of persistent radicals. To all appearance, nobody follows them, yet everyone believes them. They hold a tuning-fork and sound A, and everybody knows it really is A, though the time-honoured pitch is G flat.” Isn’t this a good description of the effect of Pussy Riot performances? In spite of all accusations, you sound a certain note. It may appear that people do not follow you, but secretly, they believe you, they know you are telling the truth, or, even more, you are standing for truth.
But what is this truth? Why are the reactions to Pussy Riot performances so violent, not only in Russia? All hearts were beating for you as long as you were perceived as just another version of the liberal-democratic protest against the authoritarian state. The moment it became clear that you rejected global capitalism, reporting on Pussy Riot became much more ambiguous. What is so disturbing about Pussy Riot to the liberal gaze is that you make visible the hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.
[Žižek then explores what he sees as a global trend towards limiting democracy.] Since the 2008 crisis, this distrust of democracy, once limited to third-world or post-Communist developing economies, is gaining ground in western countries. But what if this distrust is justified? What if only experts can save us?
But the crisis provided proof that it is these experts who don’t know what they are doing, rather than the people. In western Europe, we are seeing that the ruling elite know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with Greece.
No wonder, then, that Pussy Riot make us all uneasy – you know very well what you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to have any quick or easy answers, but you are telling us that those in power don’t know either. Your message is that in Europe today the blind are leading the blind. This is why it is so important that you persist. In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.
Comradely greetings, Slavoj
23 February 2013
Once, in the autumn of 2012, when I was still in the pre-trial prison in Moscow with other Pussy Riot activists, I visited you. In a dream, of course.
I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.
Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.
We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.”
We are the rebels asking for the storm, and believing that truth is only to be found in an endless search. If the “World Spirit” touches you, do not expect that it will be painless.
Laurie Anderson sang: “Only an expert can deal with the problem.” It would have been nice if Laurie and I could cut these experts down to size and take care of our own problems. Because expert status by no means grants access to the kingdom of absolute truth.
Two years of prison for Pussy Riot is our tribute to a destiny that gave us sharp ears, allowing us to sound the note A when everyone else is used to hearing G flat.
At the right moment, there will always come a miracle in the lives of those who childishly believe in the triumph of truth over lies, of mutual assistance, of those who live according to the economics of the gift.
4 April 2013
I was so pleasantly surprised when your letter arrived – the delay made me fear that the authorities would prevent our communication. I was deeply honoured, flattered even, by my appearance in your dream.
You are right to question the idea that the “experts” close to power are competent to make decisions. Experts are, by definition, servants of those in power: they don’t really think, they just apply their knowledge to the problems defined by those in power (how to bring back stability? how to squash protests?). So are today’s capitalists, the so-called financial wizards, really experts? Are they not just stupid babies playing with our money and our fate? I remember a cruel joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not to Be. When asked about the German concentration camps in occupied Poland, the Nazi officer snaps back: “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.” Does the same not hold for the Enron bankruptcy in 2002? The thousands of employees who lost their jobs were certainly exposed to risk, but with no true choice – for them the risk was like blind fate. But those who did have insight into the risks, and the ability to intervene (the top managers), minimised their risks by cashing in their stocks before the bankruptcy. So it is true that we live in a society of risky choices, but some people (the managers) do the choosing, while others (the common people) do the risking.
For me, the true task of radical emancipatory movements is not just to shake things out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very co-ordinates of social reality so that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying, “apollonian statics”. And, even more crucially, how does today’s global capitalism enter this scheme?
The Deleuzian philosopher Brian Massumi tells how capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality and adopted the logic of erratic excess: “The more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normality starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening is part of capitalism’s dynamic.”
But I feel guilty writing this: who am I to explode in such narcissistic theoretical outbursts when you are exposed to very real deprivations? So please, if you can and want, do let me know about your situation in prison: about your daily rhythm, about the little private rituals that make it easier to survive, about how much time you have to read and write, about how other prisoners and guards treat you, about your contact with your child … true heroism resides in these seemingly small ways of organising one’s life in order to survive in crazy times without losing dignity.
With love, respect and admiration, my thoughts are with you!
16 April 2013
Has modern capitalism really overtaken the logic of totalising norms? Or is it willing to make us believe that it has overpassed the logic of hierarchical structures and normalisation?
As a child I wanted to go into advertising. I had a love affair with the advertising industry. And this is why I am in a position to judge its merits. The anti-hierarchical structures and rhizomes of late capitalism are its successful ad campaign. Modern capitalism has to manifest itself as flexible and even eccentric. Everything is geared towards gripping the emotion of the consumer. Modern capitalism seeks to assure us that it operates according to the principles of free creativity, endless development and diversity. It glosses over its other side in order to hide the reality that millions of people are enslaved by an all-powerful and fantastically stable norm of production. We want to reveal this lie.
You should not worry that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the “real hardship”. I value the strict limits, and the challenge. I am genuinely curious: how will I cope with this? And how can I turn this into a productive experience for me and my comrades? I find sources of inspiration; it contributes to my own development. Not because of, but in spite of the system. And in my struggle, your thoughts, ideas and stories are helpful to me.
I am happy to correspond with you. I await your reply and I wish you good luck in our common cause.
10 June 2013
I felt deeply ashamed after reading your reply. You wrote: “You should not worry about the fact that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the ‘real hardship’.” This simple sentence made me aware that the final sentiment in my last letter was false: my expression of sympathy with your plight basically meant, “I have the privilege of doing real theory and teaching you about it while you are good for reporting on your experience of hardship …” Your last letter demonstrates that you are much more than that, that you are an equal partner in a theoretical dialogue. So my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched is male chauvinism, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue.
It is the crazy dynamics of global capitalism that make effective resistance to it so difficult and frustrating. Recall the great wave of protests that spilled all over Europe in 2011, from Greece and Spain to London and Paris. Even if there was no consistent political platform mobilising the protesters, the protests functioned as part of a large-scale educational process: the protesters’ misery and discontent were transformed into a great collective act of mobilisation – hundreds of thousands gathered in public squares, proclaiming that they had enough, that things could not go on like that. However, what these protests add up to is a purely negative gesture of angry rejection and an equally abstract demand for justice, lacking the ability to translate this demand into a concrete political programme.
What can be done in such a situation, where demonstrations and protests are of no use, where democratic elections are of no use? Can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but also to offer the prospect of a new order?
The Pussy Riot performances cannot be reduced just to subversive provocations. Beneath the dynamics of their acts, there is the inner stability of a firm ethico-political attitude. In some deeper sense, it is today’s society that is caught in a crazy capitalist dynamic with no inner sense and measure, and it is Pussy Riot that de facto provides a stable ethico-political point. The very existence of Pussy Riot tells thousands that opportunist cynicism is not the only option, that we are not totally disoriented, that there still is a common cause worth fighting for.
So I also wish you good luck in our common cause. To be faithful to our common cause means to be brave, especially now, and, as the old saying goes, luck is on the side of the brave!
13 July 2013
In my last letter, written in haste as I worked in the sewing shop, I was not as clear as I should have been about the distinction between how “global capitalism” functions in Europe and the US on the one hand, and in Russia on the other. However, recent events in Russia – the trial of Alexei Navalny, the passing of unconstitutional, anti-freedom laws – have infuriated me. I feel compelled to speak about the specific political and economic practices of my country. The last time I felt this angry was in 2011 when Putin declared he was running for the presidency for a third time. My anger and resolve led to the birth of Pussy Riot. What will happen now? Time will tell.
Here in Russia I have a strong sense of the cynicism of so-called first-world countries towards poorer nations. In my humble opinion, “developed” countries display an exaggerated loyalty towards governments that oppress their citizens and violate their rights. The European and US governments freely collaborate with Russia as it imposes laws from the middle ages and throws opposition politicians in jail. They collaborate with China, where oppression is so bad that my hair stands on end just to think about it. What are the limits of tolerance? And when does tolerance become collaboration, conformism and complicity?
To think, cynically, “let them do what they want in their own country”, doesn’t work any longer, because Russia and China and countries like them are now part of the global capitalist system.
Russia under Putin, with its dependence on raw materials, would have been massively weakened if those nations that import Russian oil and gas had shown the courage of their convictions and stopped buying. Even if Europe were to take as modest a step as passing a “Magnitsky law” [the Magnitsky Act in the US allows it to place sanctions on Russian officials believed to have taken part in human-rights violations], morally it would speak volumes. A boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 would be another ethical gesture. But the continued trade in raw materials constitutes a tacit approval of the Russian regime – not through words, but through money. It betrays the desire to protect the political and economic status quo and the division of labour that lies at the heart of the world economic system.
You quote Marx: “A social system that seizes up and rusts … cannot survive.” But here I am, working out my prison sentence in a country where the 10 people who control the biggest sectors of the economy are Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends. He studied or played sports with some, and served in the KGB with others. Isn’t this a social system that has seized up? Isn’t this a feudal system?
I thank you sincerely, Slavoj, for our correspondence and can hardly wait for your reply.
• The correspondence was organised by Philosophie magazine in cooperation with New Times. Longer versions can be found in German at philomag.de or in French at philomag.com. Tolokonnikova’s letters were translated from Russian by Galia Ackerman
‘The Voice of Greek Radio Falls Silent’ November 7, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, Greece, Media.
Tags: austerity, democracy, ert, Greece, greek crisis, greek government, greek media, greek opposition, greek radio, maria margaronis, nikos tsimpidas, radiobubble, roger hollander
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Even words lose their meanings,” says the disembodied voice. It’s speaking to fill the space before the silence, to be present. “Are these your orders? Yes, those are my things…Somewhere here we close, dear listeners. The voice of Greek radio falls silent. Good luck to everyone. We’ll find each other, we’ll meet again. These microphones are shutting down. Deep soul.”
Early this morning riot police broke into the Athens headquarters of ERT, Greek Radio and Television, which was officially closed by ministerial decree on June 11th but whose journalists and technicians have continued to broadcast over the Internet. After dispersing protesters outside with teargas, armoured police cleared the building room by room. Union representative Nikos Tsimpidas was last at the microphone, calling for a “magnificent demonstration, not just for ERT, not for our jobs, but for democracy itself, against…this virulent repression, this rewind through decades, for all the things we should have stood up for but couldn’t …”
Even words lose their meanings. Increasingly, a mark of the Greek crisis (not so much a crisis now as a condition) is the fragmenting of perceived reality, along with a desperate struggle to control the story of what’s happening. I imagine it’s always like this with authoritarian regimes—for Greece is clearly now an authoritarian regime masquerading as a democracy—but I’ve never seen it from close up before. We’re living (as well as everything else) a war of words, a propaganda campaign designed to drown out dissenting voices—even moderate ones. Questions about whether ERT was wasteful, or padded with cronies, or captured by special interests—questions that might have been addressed in a functioning democracy—became irrelevant the day the broadcaster was shut down by fiat. This morning the other shoe dropped. The image is the message: platoons of armoured representatives of the state evicting a few dozen journalists and locking the doors with handcuffs.
As always in Greece, the message is two-faced, one visage for foreign consumption, the other for domestic. What it’s supposed to say to representatives of the Troika who are, once again, in Athens (if they’re stupid enough to buy it, or diplomats enough to pretend they have) is that everything’s under control: we’re meeting our obligations, turning around the economy, cracking down on lawlessness, breaking the unions. (The original shut-down of ERT was ostensibly designed to meet the Troika’s demand for public sector lay-offs.) The message to Greeks is this: You may see a government that’s scrambling to appease its creditors without upsetting its cronies, that’s lost control of the streets and its own half-tamed heavies, that has no idea how to get out of the maze; you may be jobless, hungry, disoriented and lost, looking ahead at a winter without heat or hope; you may think some kind of resistance is still possible. But the evidence of your senses is false, or at least irrelevant. Look! We’re installling free WiFi all across the country! Greece is a success story! And if you won’t line up behind our version of reality, we have the power to persuade you. Against the voice of a man in a room with a microphone, we play helmeted troops with teargas and batons.
Of course, people won’t be silenced, especially not now. (A few days ago, a bunch of Dogberries from the Greek police turned up at Radiobubble, a citizen radio station run out of a café in Athens, and threatened to prosecute because people were “talking too loudly” in the street outside. Perhaps they had read about it in the New York Times.) But (let them eat WiFi notwithstanding) most Greeks get their news from private television stations owned by politically well-connected oligarchs–which were given control of the digital airwaves by a vote in parliament hours before this morning’s raid on ERT. And the cacophony of unsourced hysteria and conspiracy theories that has longed filled much of the Greek media, across the political spectrum, doesn’t help the quest for a coherent, usable description of what’s happening.
The moment when stories fragment and words lose their meanings is also one of possibility, when different futures and arrangements might emerge. The nexus of oligarchs, financial interests and politicians ruling Greece (in symbiotic struggle with its creditors) now seems determined at all costs to close that down. The sense of repression is palpable; the scary thing is how quickly you get used to it. Two weeks ago I went out to dinner with friends in Athens. As we left the taverna—almost empty on a Friday night—a heavily armoured Delta police patrol roared by, eight or ten men in black, on motorbikes, two abreast. No one even turned to look.
On the other hand, as I write, the left party, Syriza—some of whose MPs were violently prevented from entering ERT’s headquarters this morning—is tabling a motion of no confidence in the government, to be debated tomorrow. The ruling coalition has a majority of only five MPs, some of whom blocked a motion to impose a new property tax a few days ago; of course, the pressure on them to conform will be immense. The private channels will broadcast this–with dire predictions of catastrophe–as another “thriller.” Meanwhile, protesters have gathered outside ERT’s headquarters in Athens and Salonika; one banner reads, “Deep Soul.” And ERT journalists and musicians are still broadcasting on the internet, from the street.
With Rise of American Fascism, Shutdown Politics ‘Predictable’ October 7, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, Economic Crisis, Imperialism.
Tags: american fascism, chris hedges, christian fascism, Christian Right, default, democracy, john boehner, jon quelly, obamacare, paul krugman, Republican Party, right win, roger hollander, tea party, ted cruz
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Can new progressive era rise from ashes of ‘era of obstructionism’ or is the descent of US democracy just beginning?
“All of this was predictable.”
In the midst of the ongoing government shutdown—with the GOP still trying their darndest to kill Obamacare and the global financial markets now truly jittery over the quite real possibility of a US default—those five words, found in Paul Krugman’s Monday New York Times column, don’t say it all, but they begin to tell a story long in the making.
If the current situation in Washington is a consternation to many observers, why so predictable to progressives and others like Krugman? He writes:
It has been obvious for years that the modern Republican Party is no longer capable of thinking seriously about policy. Whether the issue is climate change or inflation, party members believe what they want to believe, and any contrary evidence is dismissed as a hoax, the product of vast liberal conspiracies.
For a while the party was able to compartmentalize, to remain savvy and realistic about politics even as it rejected objectivity everywhere else. But this wasn’t sustainable. Sooner or later, the party’s attitude toward policy — we listen only to people who tell us what we want to hear, and attack the bearers of uncomfortable news — was bound to infect political strategy, too.
In short, when an individual—or a political party—commits to a world view fundamentally insulated from reality, it is only a matter of time before the wheels will come off the rails. Like a pathological liar, the truth finally catches up. For a gambling addict, the house will ultimately call the game.
Over the weekend, the takeaway news was that Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) was either “lying” or “incompetent” when he claimed on a Sunday talk show that he didn’t have the votes to pass a “clean CR” (continuing resolution) that would end the shutdown by funding the government without GOP riders or demands. The problem, of course—as many reporters and observers documented—was that it just wasn’t factually true.
As The Hill reports:
Democrats have repeatedly called on Boehner to allow a vote on a so-called “clean” Senate bill that would reopen the government for a short period of time, but not include Republican demands to delay or defund ObamaCare.
A whip count by The Washington Post found that 20 Republican representatives supported a so-called clean continuing resolution (CR), with another four counted as “leaning yes.” If all 200 Democrats voted for the legislation, they would need just 17 Republicans to vote with them.
Boehner made the comment during an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” after host George Stephanopoulos asked him if he was “prepared to schedule a clean bill on government funding.”
When Stephanopoulos pressed Boehner on whether it was true that the votes did not exist, the Speaker said that the American people expected leaders in Washington to “sit down and have a conversation.”
So what’s at stake? According to Bloomberg on Monday, a voluntary default by the U.S. on its debt obligations would be “catastrophic” and lead to worse consequences than when the collapse of Lehman Brothers helped facilitate the financial crisis that swept the globe in 2008. The business paper reports:
Failure by the world’s largest borrower to pay its debt — unprecedented in modern history — will devastate stock markets from Brazil to Zurich, halt a $5 trillion lending mechanism for investors who rely on Treasuries, blow up borrowing costs for billions of people and companies, ravage the dollar and throw the U.S. and world economies into a recession that probably would become a depression. Among the dozens of money managers, economists, bankers, traders and former government officials interviewed for this story, few view a U.S. default as anything but a financial apocalypse.
The $12 trillion of outstanding government debt is 23 times the $517 billion Lehman owed when it filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008. As politicians butt heads over raising the debt ceiling, executives from Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Warren Buffett to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Lloyd C. Blankfein have warned that going over the edge would be catastrophic.
If nothing else, that’s a view of how the global capitalists see the situation. But what it also reveals is confirmation of the argument presented by many that the modern day Republican Party has become hostage to its most radical and destructive elements. Once beholden to serve the leaders of global capitalism, the new Republican Party, dominated by the branding and rhetoric of the Tea Party, has seemingly lost its ability to even know what that is.
Chris Hedges, a freelance journalist and author of the American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, writes on Monday, the rise in prominence of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is the best example of how the ‘Christian right’ and its “anti-Enlightenment” word view has taken over the party and in its lust for power, sabotaged the country’s ability to govern itself. On the ideology of Cruz and his followers, which he terms ‘American fascism,’ Hedges writes:
They live in a binary world of black and white. They feel they are victims, surrounded by sinister groups bent on their destruction. They have anointed themselves as agents of God who alone know God’s will. They sanctify their rage. This rage lies at the center of the ideology. It leaves them sputtering inanities about Barack Obama, his corporate-sponsored health care reform bill, his alleged mandated suicide counseling or “death panels” for seniors under the bill, his supposed secret alliance with radical Muslims, and “creeping socialism.” They see the government bureaucracy as being controlled by “secular humanists” who want to destroy the family and make war against the purity of their belief system. They seek total cultural and political domination.
All ideological, theological and political debates with the radical Christian right are useless. It cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. Its adherents are using the space within the open society to destroy the open society itself. Our naive attempts to placate a movement bent on our destruction, to prove to it that we too have “values,” only strengthen its supposed legitimacy and increase our own weakness.
It is a mixture of this religious politics, combined with the financial self-interest of billionaires and ideologues—like “the Koch brothers, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation and others” described by Krugman—that fuels the current crisis. And though many step back and call the whole thing “political theater,” the final act has yet to begin.
What was “predictable,” according to Krugman, was that the GOP would ultimately end up in such a position where their aversion to facts would make them victims of reality. What is not yet clear—though predictions abound—is how the current impasse ends and what impact it will have on U.S politics leading into the 2014 election season and beyond.
With the Democratic Party also guilty in propping up a political system that fails to deliver the transformative change demanded by a world awash in war, economic inequality, and on the precipice of runaway climate change, the prospects for a new progressive era originating in Washington, DC are not only dim, but non-existent.
As Charles P. Pierce writes at Esquire on Monday morning, both parties—despite all warnings by social activists, progressives and Keynesian economists—have already agreed on austerity as a cure for the ongoing recession.
“For all the talk about how Republican extremism is finally catching up with the party,” writes Pierce, “one can argue just as well that Wall Street-friendly, deficit-hawk, DLC-onomics is finally catching up with the Democratic party.” He continues:
After all, if the shutdown ended tomorrow, the sequester would still be in place. Austerity still would be the tacitly agreed upon program for both parties, and Paul Krugman likely still would be drinking before noon. The administration’s brilliant eleventy-dimensional chess in 2010 looks more and more like a case of being too smart by half. It created a new reality in which both sides decided that what a country barely out of a devastating recession really needed was some belt-tightening and some fiscal discipline.
And Richard Eskow, from Campaign for America’s Future, writes, “The Democrats have already made too many concessions.” What’s needed, he says, is “for the people to take their government back from the extremists, before their empire collapses and takes us all down with it.”
And Eskow gets no quarrel from Hedges, who writes:
The rise of Christian fascism is aided by our complacency. The longer we fail to openly denounce and defy bankrupt liberalism, the longer we permit corporate power to plunder the nation and destroy the ecosystem, the longer we stand slack-jawed before the open gates of the city waiting meekly for the barbarians, the more we ensure their arrival.
For the moment, however, how this “impasse” ends—and what rises in its ugly wake—continues to be a guess.
Was Lincoln Wrong to Fight to Preserve the Union? September 12, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, History, Race, War.
Tags: abraham lincoln, andrew schmookler, civil war, civil war death toll, confederacy, csa, democracy, guy gugliotta, history, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: I have long wondered what would have happened if the Civil War had not occurred, and what is now the United States was instead the USA and the CSA. Of course, hindsight is 20\20, but that should not deter us from such an analysis. Certainly on the face of it, Lincoln’s stated primary objective to preserve the Union in order for the great experiment in democracy to survive, can be questioned on the grounds of what that quasi-fascist imperium that it has turned into. Many do not realize that Lincoln was not a dyed-in-the-wool abolitionist, that he made it clear that he could live with slavery if it meant avoiding secession. This raises the question, obviously unanswerable, of how long it would have taken to end the institution of slavery in the slave South if it had remained outside the Union. But everything has to be weighed against the consequence of the Civil War, which was one of the bloodiest in history, with an estimated three quarters of a million dead, which represents around four percent of the male population. And, of course, that is not to mention the wounded and maimed. Also, given the failure of reconstruction and that fact that in a very real sense the Civil War is still being fought, it is not unrealistic to question Lincoln’s decision to go to war.
OpEdNews Op Eds 9/11/2013 at 10:28:11
Abraham Lincoln is generally rated by historians as the nation’s greatest president ever. He was certainly an extraordinary man with a great spirit. His level of compassion, his inclination to forgive those who wronged him, his craving for peace–in all these ways, he seems to us now, and seemed to a great many of his contemporaries, an exceptionally humane man. Also, his navigating of the most complex of waters, during our nation’s greatest crisis, suggests a man of astonishingly acute and subtle judgment.
But for at least a decade I have been wondering about the wisdom and rightness of the main decision of his presidency, the judgment on which almost everything else about his presidency rested: to go to war against the secessionist South in order to preserve the Union.
Mr. Lincoln by CallMeWhatEver
Lincoln decided to use force to hold the Union together for two main reasons. One is that he believed the secession unconstitutional, and thus that his oath of office, to defend the Constitution, required that he enforce the irrevocability of the states’ membership in the Union. That position was at least arguable, so I don’t think Lincoln needed to feel absolutely honor-bound to resort to war.
His other reason was that he believed profoundly in the American experiment in democracy — a government of the people, for the people, and by the people — and he believed further that the nation’s breaking apart into two nations would grievously discredit the American experiment and therefore the very idea of democracy. He believed that keeping alive this “last, best hope on earth” required keeping the Union together, by force if necessary.
I’ve not come across serious Civil War scholars who question that judgment. But I am unconvinced of its validity.
It is not clear to me that the example of the American democracy would have been discredited if the two regions — which had become in many ways like two different cultures, aside from the deep polarization that had antagonized the two against each other — had negotiated a separation. When Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, that peaceful division seemed an accomplishment to their credit.
If I could place myself back in early 1861, and were in a position to advise the newly-elected President, this is what I would have counseled:
“Offer to sit down with the Confederates and negotiate over the question of their independence. Keep the military option open, use it subtly as an inducement to come to terms favorable to the Union of which you would still be president. Your unwillingness to allow slavery to spread further into the American territories can guide the terms you would accept. See if this can be accomplished peacefully.”
Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight: I know that the war would be more terrible than either side expected at the outset. (Nonetheless, during the 1850s, as the specter of secession loomed, many did anticipate that the outcome might be a nightmarish war.)
Still, as with all counter-factual history, my hindsight doesn’t enable me to see whether my proposed alternative would have worked out better.
In The Federalist Papers, one of the arguments presented for the former colonies to form “a more perfect Union” is that if the colonies break into more than one nation, history suggests the great danger that these sovereign entities would in time find themselves at war with each other. My proposal to Lincoln, the logic of The Federalist would suggest, might only postpone the war.
Indeed, I expect that danger is even greater than the general history of intersocietal relations would suggest. For I do believe that the spirit animating the South was one that was itching for a fight, and I am quite uncertain whether peace would have been possible. Here are three reasons I might be wrong about the chances for a peaceful resolution.
First, I wonder if the Confederate States of America would have been willing to cede to the Union, as part of the price of secession with peace, ownership of the territories of the West that were not yet admitted as states. If I’m right about the spirit animating the South, it might well have been impossible for Lincoln to have achieved acceptable terms.
Third, if I’m right about the South being, at some level, driven toward conflict — driven, I might say, to destruction (this will be the subject of the next installment) — then that, too, might have made a peace between the USA and the CSA difficult to maintain.
Despite all those, I believe that an attempt at negotiating the division of the United States into two nations would have been preferable to the course taken.
Lincoln never considered it. (Many others in the North advocated a position like mine: let the South go, they said, weary of the trouble-making and bullying they’d experienced from that region.)
Perhaps Lincoln’s reasons were good. Perhaps this compassionate man — who was also a very complex man– had a dark side that expressed itself in his rigid determination to undo the secession of the South through war.
I don’t know if Lincoln is to be faulted here. But I hold some space in my thinking for the idea that, in the course Lincoln took, the North bears some responsibility for the fact that the central issue of that era was decided not peacefully but through a monstrous war.
New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll
Published: April 2, 2012
For 110 years, the numbers stood as gospel: 618,222 men died in the Civil War, 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South — by far the greatest toll of any war in American history.
But new research shows that the numbers were far too low.
By combing through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, has recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent — to 750,000.
The new figure is already winning acceptance from scholars. Civil War History, the journal that published Dr. Hacker’s paper, called it “among the most consequential pieces ever to appear” in its pages. And a pre-eminent authority on the era, Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, said:
“It even further elevates the significance of the Civil War and makes a dramatic statement about how the war is a central moment in American history. It helps you understand, particularly in the South with a much smaller population, what a devastating experience this was.”
The old figure dates back well over a century, the work of two Union Army veterans who were passionate amateur historians: William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore.
Fox, who had fought at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, knew well the horrors of the Civil War. He did his research the hard way, reading every muster list, battlefield report and pension record he could find.
In his 1889 treatise “Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865,” Fox presented an immense mass of information. Besides the aggregate death count, researchers could learn that the Fifth New Hampshire lost more soldiers (295 killed) than any other Union regiment; that Gettysburg and Waterloo were almost equivalent battles, with each of the four combatant armies suffering about 23,000 casualties; that the Union Army had 166 regiments of black troops; and that the average Union soldier was 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall and weighed 143 1/2 pounds.
Fox’s estimate of Confederate battlefield deaths was much rougher, however: a “round number” of 94,000, a figure compiled from after-action reports. In 1900, Livermore set out to make a more complete count. In his book, “Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-65,” he reasoned that if the Confederates had lost proportionally the same number of soldiers to disease as the Union had, the actual number of Confederate dead should rise to 258,000.
And that was that. The Fox-Livermore numbers continued to be cited well into the 21st century, even though few historians were satisfied with them. Among many others, James M. McPherson used them without citing the source in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” his Pulitzer-winning 1988 history of the war.
Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.
Pretty simple — but, Dr. Hacker soon realized, too simple for counting Civil War dead. Published census data from the era did not differentiate between native-born Americans and immigrants; about 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union Army alone.
“If you have a lot of immigrants age 20 moving in during one decade, it looks like negative mortality 10 years later,” Dr. Hacker said. While the Census Bureau in 1860 asked people their birthplace, the information never made it into the printed report.
As for Livermore’s assumption that deaths from disease could be correlated with battlefield deaths, Dr. Hacker found that wanting too. The Union had better medical care, food and shelter, especially in the war’s final years, suggesting that Southern losses to disease were probably much higher. Also, research has shown that soldiers from rural areas were more susceptible to disease and died at a higher rate than city dwellers. The Confederate Army had a higher percentage of farm boys.
Dr. Hacker said he realized in 2010 that a rigorous recalculation could finally be made if he used newly available detailed census data presented on the Internet by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.
The center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series had put representative samples of in-depth, sortable information for individuals counted in 19th-century censuses. This meant that by sorting by place of birth, Dr. Hacker could count only the native-born.
Another hurdle was what Dr. Hacker called the “dreadful” 1870 census, a badly handled undercount taken when the ashes of the war were still warm. But he reasoned a way around that problem.
Because the census takers would quite likely have missed as many women as men, he decided to look at the ratio of male to female deaths in 1870. Next, he examined mortality figures from the decades on either side of the war — the 1850s and 1870s — so that he could get an idea of the “normal” ratio of male to female deaths for a given decade. When he compared those ratios to that of 1860-70, he reasoned, he would see a dramatic spike in male mortality. And he did. Subtracting normal attrition from the male side of the equation left him with a rough estimate of war dead.
It was a better estimate than Fox and Livermore had produced, but Dr. Hacker made it clear that his was not the final answer. He had made several assumptions, each of which stole accuracy from the final result. Among them: that there were no war-related deaths of white women; that the expected normal mortality rate in the 1860s would be the average of the rates in the 1850s and 1870s; that foreign soldiers died at the same rate as native-born soldiers; and that the War Department figure of 36,000 black war dead had to be accepted as accurate because black women suffered so terribly both during and after the war that they could not be used as a control for male mortality.
The study had two significant shortcomings. Dr. Hacker could make no estimate of civilian deaths, an enduring question among historians, “because the overall number is too small relative to the overall number of soldiers killed.” And he could not tell how many of the battlefield dead belonged to each side.
“You could assume that everyone born in the Deep South fought for the Confederacy and everyone born in the North fought for the Union,” he said. “But the border states were a nightmare, and my confidence in the results broke down quickly.”
With all the uncertainties, Dr. Hacker said, the data suggested that 650,000 to 850,000 men died as a result of the war; he chose the midpoint as his estimate.
He emphasized that his methodology was far from perfect. “Part of me thinks it is just a curiosity,” he said of the new estimate.
“But wars have profound economic, demographic and social costs,” he went on. “We’re seeing at least 37,000 more widows here, and 90,000 more orphans. That’s a profound social impact, and it’s our duty to get it right.”
Miranda Detention: ‘Blatant Attack on Press Freedom’ August 28, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Democracy, Media, Whistle-blowing.
Tags: david miranda, democracy, edward snowden, first amendment, freedom of press, gchq, glenn greenwald, guardian, journalism, keyscore, laura poitras, Media, nsa, press freedom, roger hollander, surveillance state, tempora, whistle blower
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A Commentary by Laura Poitras
The detention of David Miranda — partner of the Guardian journalist involved in the NSA revelations — and the destruction of hard drives in the British newspaper’s basement reveal one thing: Governments do not want their citizens to be informed when it comes to the topic of surveillance.
I woke up last Sunday in Berlin to an email from Glenn Greenwald with only one sentence: “I need to talk to you ASAP.”
For the past three months, Glenn and I have been reporting on the NSA disclosures revealed to us by Edward Snowden.I went online to the encrypted channel that Glenn and I use to communicate. He told me that he had just received a call telling him that his partner David Miranda was being detained at London’s Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act. David was traveling from Berlin where he had come to work with me. For the next six hours I was online with Glenn as he tried to find out what was happening to the person he loves most in the world.
Glenn’s reporting on the NSA story is made possible by the love and courage of David. When Glenn and I traveled to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden, Glenn and David spoke daily. Reporting on the most secret abuses of governments does not come without moments of fear. There was a turning point in Hong Kong before Glenn published the first story about the Verizon court order that exposed the NSA’s spying on Americans. It was David who told Glenn: “You need to do this. If you don’t do this, you will never be able to live with yourself.”
As Glenn and I exchanged messages between Rio and Berlin, David was being interrogated in London about our NSA reporting. Glenn said several times: “I actually cannot believe they are doing this.” I kept thinking I wish it were me. Having documented and reported on abuses of government power post 9/11, we both thought we’d reached a point where nothing would shock us. We were wrong — using pernicious terrorism laws to target the people we love and work with, this shocked us.
Attack on Press Freedom
Reporting on this story means some things can only be said in person, and still it is hard to know you can escape surveillance. David was traveling to meet me on behalf of the Guardian newspaper, which has taken the lead on publishing the NSA stories. We now know that David’s detention was ordered at the highest levels of the British government, including the Prime Minister. We also know the US government was given advance warning that David would be detained and interrogated.
The NSA has special relationships with the spy agencies from the so-called “Five-Eyes” nations, which include Britain’s GCHQ. Weeks before David was detained, agents from GCHQ entered the offices of the Guardian newspaper and oversaw the destruction of several hard drives which contained disclosures made by Snowden. This action was also authorized at the highest levels of the UK government. Included on those drives were documents detailing GCHQ’s massive domestic spying program called “Tempora.”
This program deploys NSA’s XKeyscore “DeepDive” internet buffer technology which slows down the internet to allow GCHQ to spy on global communications, including those of UK citizens. Tempora relies on the “corporate partnership” of UK telecoms, including British Telecommunications and Vodafone. Revealing the secret partnerships between spy agencies and telecoms entrusted with the private communications of citizens is journalism, not terrorism.
The UK government’s destruction of material provided by a source to a news organization will surely be remembered as of the most blatant government attacks on press freedom.
As the hours went by on Sunday, Guardian lawyers searched to find where David was being held; the Brazilian ambassador in London could get no information; and Glenn struggled with whether he should go public or work behind the scenes to make sure David would be released and not arrested. I have never been through a hostage negotiation, but this certainly felt like one. David was finally released after nine hours. He was forced to hand over all electronics.
Using border crossings to target journalism is not new to me. I experienced it for the first time in 2006 in Vienna, when I was traveling from the Sarajevo Film Festival back to New York. I was put in a van and driven to a security room, searched, and interrogated. The Austrian security agents told me I was stopped at the request of the US government. When I landed in New York I was again searched and interrogated.
Since then I have lost count of how many times I have been interrogated at the US border all because of my reporting on post 9/11 issues. I’ve had electronics seized, notebooks photocopied, and have been threatened with handcuffs for taking notes. I moved to Berlin to edit my next film because I do not feel I can keep source material safe in my own country.
At the moment I live in what used to be East Berlin. It feels strange to come to the former home of the Stasi to expose the dangers of government surveillance, but being here gives me hope. There is a deep historical memory among Germans of what happens to societies when its government targets and spies on its own citizens. The public outcry in Germany to the NSA disclosures has been enormous.
Threat To Democracy
Because of the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, we have for the first time an international debate on the scope of government surveillance. Almost daily for the past three months citizens learn of new unlawful surveillance programs being secretly run by their governments. All of our reporting has been in the public interest, and none has caused harm.David’s detention and the destruction of the hard drives in the Guardian‘s basement reveal one thing: Our governments do not want citizens to be informed when it comes to the topic of surveillance. The governments of the United States, Britain, Germany, and others would like this debate to go away. It won’t.
Glenn and I, with the full support of David and others, will continue to work on the disclosures made by Snowden, as will the Guardian, SPIEGEL, the Washington Post, their reporters and their loved ones, and many other news organizations who believe vast unchecked secret government surveillance powers are a threat to democracy.
The Moment the US Ended Iran’s Brief Experiment in Democracy August 20, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, Foreign Policy, History, Imperialism, Iran.
Tags: democracy, history, Iran, iran cia, iran coup, iran historym, iran oil, iranian oil, john foster dulles, kermit roosevelt, mohammad mossadegh, Robert Scheer, roger hollander
Sixty years ago this week, on Aug. 19, 1953, the United States, in collaboration with Britain, successfully staged a coup in Iran to overthrow democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh that a newly declassified CIA document reveals was designed to preserve the control of Western companies over Iran’s rich oil fields.
The U.S. government at the time of the coup easily had manipulated Western media into denigrating Mossadegh as intemperate, unstable and an otherwise unreliable ally in the Cold War, but the real motivation for hijacking Iran’s history was Mossadegh’s move to nationalize Western-controlled oil assets in Iran. According to the document, part of an internal CIA report:
“The target of this policy of desperation, Mohammad Mosadeq, [sic] was neither a madman nor an emotional bundle of senility as he was so often pictured in the foreign press; however, he had become so committed to the ideals of nationalism that he did things that could not have conceivably helped his people even in the best and most altruistic of worlds. In refusing to bargain—except on his own uncompromising terms—with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, he was in fact defying the professional politicians of the British government. These leaders believed, with good reason, that cheap oil for Britain and high profits for the company were vital to their national interests.”
There you have it, the smoking gun declaration of the true intent to preserve high profits and cheap oil that cuts through all of the official propaganda justifying not only this sorry attempt to prevent Iranian nationalists from gaining control over their prized resources but subsequent blood-for-oil adventures in Iraq and Kuwait. The assumption is that “the best and most altruistic of worlds” is one that accommodates the demands of rapacious capitalism as represented by Western oil companies.
Tragically, the coup that overthrew Mossadegh also crushed Iran’s brief experiment in democracy and ushered in six decades of brutal dictatorship followed by religious oppression and regional instability. If Iran is a problem, as the United States persistently and loudly insists, it is a problem of our making. Mossadegh, who earned a doctorate in law from Neuchatel University in Switzerland, was not an enemy of the American people; he was an Iranian nationalist who as the CIA’s own internal report concedes was preoccupied with the well-being of his people as opposed to the profitability of Western oil interests.
The CIA report derides the Western media’s acceptance at the time of the coup of the demonization of all actors on the world stage that fail to follow the approved script provided by the U.S. government. As the report notes, the “complete secrecy about the operation,” breached only by leaked information, made it “relatively easy for journalists to reconstruct the coup in varied but generally inaccurate accounts.”
Without conceding responsibility for misleading the media, the report says “The point that the majority of these accounts miss is a key one: the military coup that overthrew Mosadeq [sic] and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government. It was not an aggressively simplistic solution, clandestinely arrived at, but was instead an official admission that normal, rational methods of international communication and commerce had failed. TPAJAX (the operation’s codename) was entered into as a last resort.”
Parts of the formerly top secret report, an internal CIA study from the 1970s titled “The Battle for Iran,” which detailed the CIA-directed plot, have been revealed previously. But the section disclosed Monday in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the National Security Archive is, as the archive’s research director Malcolm Byrne writes in Foreign Policy magazine, the first time the CIA admits to “using propaganda to undermine Mossadegh politically, inducing the shah to cooperate, bribing members of parliament, organizing the security forces, and ginning up public demonstrations.”
All of these actions were described in great detail by veteran CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt in a lengthy interview with me for the Los Angeles Times in 1979. Roosevelt is confirmed in the newly released documents as having the leading role in planning and executing the coup. In the interview, Roosevelt revealed his part for the first time, but instead of celebrating the success of the venture, he cautioned that it had set a terrible example.
As I summarized the conversation in the story that appeared on March 29, 1979: “Roosevelt said that the success of the operation in Iran—called Project AJAX by the CIA—so inspired then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that Dulles wanted to duplicate it in the Congo, Guatemala, Indonesia and Egypt, where he wanted to overthrow President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Roosevelt said that he resisted these efforts and finally resigned from the CIA because of them.”
Roosevelt, as he recounted in his memoir published five months after our interview, came away from the coup he engineered with serious concerns about the efficacy of such ventures. But unfortunately it became the model in Vietnam, Guatemala, Cuba, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and other countries, where the full official record is apparently judged still too embarrassing for our government to declassify.
Tags: democracy, dissent, first amendment, medea benjamin, michelle obama, political protest, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: Here we see the courage and grace of Medea Benjamin versus the arrogance of the First Lady.
Michelle Obama was snippy with her heckler, while Barack was graceful to me. But democracy depends on such healthy dissent
In the past week, both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have been interrupted by what some call hecklers, but I prefer to call protesters. I was the one who interrupted President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University with my impassioned questions about drone strikes and Guantánamo.
After my interventions, the president graciously replied, “That woman’s voice is worth listening to.” But when the First Lady was confronted by a lesbian woman speaking up about President Obama’s failure to protect gay people in the workplace, as he had promised, she reacted angrily.
As some who has witnessed (and participated in) many interruptions, here are some examples of what I consider good responses.
Several years ago, I was once at a large conference when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was speaking. Suddenly, a group of black and Latina women interrupted him, shouting out about the need for more buses in their communities, instead of the city plan to spend many millions expanding the metro. The mayor first tried to talk over them, then the audience tried to drown them out, but the women kept shouting. Villaraigosa quieted the audience and then said:
“Look, it takes a lot of courage for these people to get up in a big audience and promote a cause they believe in. Let’s give them a round of applause.”
It was a brilliant way to recognize the passion of the protesters, but turn around the dynamic so he could continue his talk.
Speaking out to express our political beliefs or show disapproval of those in power is part of the venerable practice of nonviolent civil disobedience.At an event in 2007, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner gave a speech in Washington, DC on the heels of remarks that the US and France should prepare for a possible war with Iran. US peace activists, who had been trying hard to prevent war, were appalled. A group of us spoke out at the event and unfurled a banner in French reading: “Va-t-en-guerre san frontieres” (warmonger without borders) – playing off the fact that Kouchner was one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. Security guards pulled us out of room, but Kouchner asked them to let us back in so he could address our concerns directly, which he did.
When the talk was over, he came over to shake our hands, and even asked if he could have the banner as a souvenir, since he thought it was very clever. “We are used to rowdy audiences in France,” he laughed, “so you made me feel right at home.”
Most protests are coming from frustrated citizens confronting the powerful and are part of a much larger strategy for change. In 1964, civil rights activists, including Bayard Ruskin and James Farmer, shouted down President Lyndon Johnson during his speech at the World’s Fair, calling for passage of the Civil Rights Act. They were arrested, but their intervention was celebrated as part of a much larger nonviolent strategy of the civil rights movement.
Sometimes, it’s not the powerful who are interrupted, but simply someone with a different viewpoint. Speaking at a university, I was once interrupted by a group of students who disagreed with my views on Israel/Palestine. My response was to invite them on stage to use the mic so they could be heard by all. They did, and when they were finished, I thanked them, addressed their issues according to my – very different – perspective; I said I hoped they’d stick around for the Q&A, so we could keep the conversation going.
Speaking out to express our political beliefs or show disapproval of those in power is part of the venerable practice of nonviolent civil disobedience. The tactic might be considered impolite and it disrupts business as usual, but hopefully, it helps push forward a larger debate on issues of great importance to society.
At a campaign event when Obama was first running for president, someone asked him what he would do about the Middle East. Obama repeated the legendary story about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt meeting with labor leader A Philip Randolph about workers’ rights. Reportedly, FDR listened intently, then replied:
I agree with everything you have said. Now, make me do it.
Speaking out on the rare occasions we have to interact with the powerful is just that: pushing those in power to do the right thing.
Obama Inherits and Normalizes the Arrogance and Impunity of Nixon, Reagan and Both Bushes February 26, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Democracy, War.
Tags: bruce a. dixon, constitution, democracy, drones, george h.w. bush, George W. Bush, history, kill list, nixon, presidents, reagan, roger hollander, rule of law, terror tuesday, war president
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When Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush waged secret wars based on mountains of lies and deceit, they were nearly impeached, but in each case Democrats in control of Congress could not pull the trigger. As a result, the Obama White House basks in a presidential culture of murderous arrogance and lawless impunity.
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Bruce A. Dixon
Back in the early seventies, when Richard Nixon secretly bombed Laos and Cambodia, two countries the US was not at war with, and concealed it from Congress and the public, the crime was serious enough to be the fourth article of impeachment drawn up against him. A dozen years later, when Ronald Reagan defied Congress to wage a bloody contra war in Central America funded by running drugs into the US from Central America and selling arms to Iran, Reagan only avoided impeachment by pretending he just couldn’t remember much of it any more and letting his henchmen take the fall. George W. Bush too was widely reviled as a murderous fraud for his lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and more, with millions of Americans and millions more around the world protesting his invasion of Iraq before it even began.
But in the end, none of these Republican warmongers were impeached while in office or indicted afterward because Democrats, in control of Congress every time, could never bring themselves to pull the trigger. So Tricky Dick Nixon stepped down. Reagan doddered off to the ranch, and Dubya’s at home right now watching American Idol. Barack Hussein Obama may be a different color and from a different party but he inherits their arrogance, their immunity, their impunity.
This White House openly brags about its “Terror Tuesday” meetings in which US special forces and drones have been dispatched to and from dozens of undisclosed countries to kidnap, torture or murder thousands of people, in the case of drone strikes mostly innocents, to the cheers and jokes of cruise missile liberals like Ed Schulz and Bill Maher, who calls Obama the “black ninja president.” The potent symbol of a black face in that high place has normalized the conduct of lawless aggressive war and secretive state murder among parts of the population which had no trouble calling a crime a crime when committed by a white Republican. In that sense, the First Black President is a little bit unlike, but mostly very much like his nefarious predecessors.
It’s worth noting that in the debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, kill-at-will drone wars, the militarization of Africa, Wall Street’s immunity from prosecution, and the push to privatize and charterize public education were points upon which both candidates were in complete agreement. But if Mitt Romney were president today wouldn’t many more of us be in the street about these things? Black apologists, as Davey D notes, try to shut criticism of this president down in the misguided name of black unity, and some white activists stay home because they don’t want to be seen as racist whites hating on the black president.
A Facebook friend in Atlanta remarked last week that whenever George Bush was rumored coming to town, his inbox would be full of emergency mobilization notices. But with the current War President about to visit, he said, it looked like his only correspondent might be the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It’s going to be a long, long four more years.
For Black Agenda Radio, I‘m Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. Contact him via this site’s contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.
Open Letter to ACLU Director Anthony Romero February 23, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Democracy, Occupy Wall Street Movement.
Tags: #occupy movement, aaron swartzs, aclu, al-jazeera, Anthony Romero, barrett brown, bracley manning, civil liberties, democracy, drones, fbi infiltartion, first amendment, gary webb, Homeland Security, josh mitteldorf, julian assange, protest, roger hollander, torture
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OpEdNews Op Eds 2/22/2013 at 16:59:12
Dear Mr Romero-
Tags: Abdulrahman, aclu, anwar awlaki, assassination, constituion, Criminal Justice, democracy, doj, drone missiles, due process, eric holder, extrajudicial killings, glenn greenwald, global battlefield, john brennan, obama hit list, presidential assassination, roger hollander, samir khan, terrorism, war on terror
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The president’s partisan lawyers purport to vest him with the most extreme power a political leader can seize
The most extremist power any political leader can assert is the power to target his own citizens for execution without any charges or due process, far from any battlefield. The Obama administration has not only asserted exactly that power in theory, but has exercised it in practice. In September 2011, it killed US citizen Anwar Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen, along with US citizen Samir Khan, and then, in circumstances that are still unexplained, two weeks later killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman with a separate drone strike in Yemen.
Since then, senior Obama officials including Attorney General Eric Holder and John Brennan, Obama’s top terrorism adviser and his current nominee to lead the CIA, have explicitly argued that the president is and should be vested with this power. Meanwhile, a Washington Post article from October reported that the administration is formally institutionalizing this president’s power to decide who dies under the Orwellian title “disposition matrix”.
When the New York Times back in April, 2010 first confirmed the existence of Obama’s hit list, it made clear just what an extremist power this is, noting: “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.” The NYT quoted a Bush intelligence official as saying “he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president”. When the existence of Obama’s hit list was first reported several months earlier by the Washington Post’s Dana Priest, she wrote that the “list includes three Americans”.
What has made these actions all the more radical is the absolute secrecy with which Obama has draped all of this. Not only is the entire process carried out solely within the Executive branch – with no checks or oversight of any kind – but there is zero transparency and zero accountability. The president’s underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president – at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as “Terror Tuesday” – then chooses from “baseball cards” and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark.
In fact, The Most Transparent Administration Ever™ has been so fixated on secrecy that they have refused even to disclose the legal memoranda prepared by Obama lawyers setting forth their legal rationale for why the president has this power. During the Bush years, when Bush refused to disclose the memoranda from his Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that legally authorized torture, rendition, warrantless eavesdropping and the like, leading Democratic lawyers such as Dawn Johnsen (Obama’s first choice to lead the OLC) vehemently denounced this practice as a grave threat, warning that “the Bush Administration’s excessive reliance on ‘secret law’ threatens the effective functioning of American democracy” and “the withholding from Congress and the public of legal interpretations by the [OLC] upsets the system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government.”
But when it comes to Obama’s assassination power, this is exactly what his administration has done. It has repeatedly refused to disclose the principal legal memoranda prepared by Obama OLC lawyers that justified his kill list. It is, right now, vigorously resisting lawsuits from the New York Times and the ACLU to obtain that OLC memorandum. In sum, Obama not only claims he has the power to order US citizens killed with no transparency, but that even the documents explaining the legal rationale for this power are to be concealed. He’s maintaining secret law on the most extremist power he can assert.
Last night, NBC News’ Michael Isikoff released a 16-page “white paper” prepared by the Obama DOJ that purports to justify Obama’s power to target even Americans for assassination without due process (the memo is embedded in full below). This is not the primary OLC memo justifying Obama’s kill list – that is still concealed – but it appears to track the reasoning of that memo as anonymously described to the New York Times in October 2011.
This new memo is entitled: “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force”. It claims its conclusion is “reached with recognition of the extraordinary seriousness of a lethal operation by the United States against a US citizen”. Yet it is every bit as chilling as the Bush OLC torture memos in how its clinical, legalistic tone completely sanitizes the radical and dangerous power it purports to authorize.
I’ve written many times at length about why the Obama assassination program is such an extreme and radical threat – see here for one of the most comprehensive discussions, with documentation of how completely all of this violates Obama and Holder’s statements before obtaining power – and won’t repeat those arguments here. Instead, there are numerous points that should be emphasized about the fundamentally misleading nature of this new memo:
1. Equating government accusations with guilt
The core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt. One constantly hears US government defenders referring to “terrorists” when what they actually mean is: those accused by the government of terrorism. This entire memo is grounded in this deceit.
Time and again, it emphasizes that the authorized assassinations are carried out “against a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces who poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” Undoubtedly fearing that this document would one day be public, Obama lawyers made certain to incorporate this deceit into the title itself: “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida or An Associated Force.”
This ensures that huge numbers of citizens – those who spend little time thinking about such things and/or authoritarians who assume all government claims are true – will instinctively justify what is being done here on the ground that we must kill the Terrorists or joining al-Qaida means you should be killed. That’s the “reasoning” process that has driven the War on Terror since it commenced: if the US government simply asserts without evidence or trial that someone is a terrorist, then they are assumed to be, and they can then be punished as such – with indefinite imprisonment or death.
But of course, when this memo refers to “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida”, what it actually means is this: someone whom the President – in total secrecy and with no due process – has accused of being that. Indeed, the memo itself makes this clear, as it baldly states that presidential assassinations are justified when “an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US”.
This is the crucial point: the memo isn’t justifying the due-process-free execution of senior al-Qaida leaders who pose an imminent threat to the US. It is justifying the due-process-free execution of people secretly accused by the president and his underlings, with no due process, of being that. The distinction between (a) government accusations and (b) proof of guilt is central to every free society, by definition, yet this memo – and those who defend Obama’s assassination power – willfully ignore it.
Those who justify all of this by arguing that Obama can and should kill al-Qaida leaders who are trying to kill Americans are engaged in supreme question-begging. Without any due process, transparency or oversight, there is no way to know who is a “senior al-Qaida leader” and who is posing an “imminent threat” to Americans. All that can be known is who Obama, in total secrecy, accuses of this.
(Indeed, membership in al-Qaida is not even required to be assassinated, as one can be a member of a group deemed to be an “associated force” of al-Qaida, whatever that might mean: a formulation so broad and ill-defined that, as Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller argues, it means the memo “authorizes the use of lethal force against individuals whose targeting is, without more, prohibited by international law”.)
The definition of an extreme authoritarian is one who is willing blindly to assume that government accusations are true without any evidence presented or opportunity to contest those accusations. This memo – and the entire theory justifying Obama’s kill list – centrally relies on this authoritarian conflation of government accusations and valid proof of guilt.
They are not the same and never have been. Political leaders who decree guilt in secret and with no oversight inevitably succumb to error and/or abuse of power. Such unchecked accusatory decrees are inherently untrustworthy (indeed, Yemen experts have vehemently contested the claim that Awlaki himself was a senior al-Qaida leader posing an imminent threat to the US). That’s why due process is guaranteed in the Constitution and why judicial review of government accusations has been a staple of western justice since the Magna Carta: because leaders can’t be trusted to decree guilt and punish citizens without evidence and an adversarial process. That is the age-old basic right on which this memo, and the Obama presidency, is waging war.
2. Creating a ceiling, not a floor
The most vital fact to note about this memorandum is that it is not purporting to impose requirements on the president’s power to assassinate US citizens. When it concludes that the president has the authority to assassinate “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US” where capture is “infeasible”, it is not concluding that assassinations are permissible only in those circumstances. To the contrary, the memo expressly makes clear that presidential assassinations may be permitted even when none of those circumstances prevail: “This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render such an operation lawful.” Instead, as the last line of the memo states: “it concludes only that the stated conditions would be sufficient to make lawful a lethal operation” – not that such conditions are necessary to find these assassinations legal. The memo explicitly leaves open the possibility that presidential assassinations of US citizens may be permissible even when the target is not a senior al-Qaida leader posing an imminent threat and/or when capture is feasible.
Critically, the rationale of the memo – that the US is engaged in a global war against al-Qaida and “associated forces” – can be easily used to justify presidential assassinations of US citizens in circumstances far beyond the ones described in this memo. If you believe the president has the power to execute US citizens based on the accusation that the citizen has joined al-Qaida, what possible limiting principle can you cite as to why that shouldn’t apply to a low-level al-Qaida member, including ones found in places where capture may be feasible (including US soil)? The purported limitations on this power set forth in this memo, aside from being incredibly vague, can be easily discarded once the central theory of presidential power is embraced.
3. Relies on the core Bush/Cheney theory of a global battlefield
The primary theory embraced by the Bush administration to justify its War on Terror policies was that the “battlefield” is no longer confined to identifiable geographical areas, but instead, the entire globe is now one big, unlimited “battlefield”. That theory is both radical and dangerous because a president’s powers are basically omnipotent on a “battlefield”. There, state power is shielded from law, from courts, from constitutional guarantees, from all forms of accountability: anyone on a battlefield can be killed or imprisoned without charges. Thus, to posit the world as a battlefield is, by definition, to create an imperial, omnipotent presidency. That is the radical theory that unleashed all the rest of the controversial and lawless Bush/Cheney policies.
This “world-is-a-battlefield” theory was once highly controversial among Democrats. John Kerry famously denounced it when running for president, arguing instead that the effort against terrorism is “primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world”.
But this global-war theory is exactly what lies at heart of the Obama approach to Terrorism generally and this memo specifically. It is impossible to defend Obama’s assassination powers without embracing it (which is why key Obama officials have consistently done so). That’s because these assassinations are taking place in countries far from any war zone, such as Yemen and Somalia. You can’t defend the application of “war powers” in these countries without embracing the once-very-controversial Bush/Cheney view that the whole is now a “battlefield” and the president’s war powers thus exist without geographic limits.
This new memo makes clear that this Bush/Cheney worldview is at the heart of the Obama presidency. The president, it claims, “retains authority to use force against al-Qaida and associated forces outside the area of active hostilities“. In other words: there are, subject to the entirely optional “feasibility of capture” element, no geographic limits to the president’s authority to kill anyone he wants. This power applies not only to war zones, but everywhere in the world that he claims a member of al-Qaida is found. This memo embraces and institutionalizes the core Bush/Cheney theory that justified the entire panoply of policies Democrats back then pretended to find so objectionable.
4. Expanding the concept of “imminence” beyond recognition
The memo claims that the president’s assassination power applies to a senior al-Qaida member who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States”. That is designed to convince citizens to accept this power by leading them to believe it’s similar to common and familiar domestic uses of lethal force on US soil: if, for instance, an armed criminal is in the process of robbing a bank or is about to shoot hostages, then the “imminence” of the threat he poses justifies the use of lethal force against him by the police.
But this rhetorical tactic is totally misleading. The memo is authorizing assassinations against citizens in circumstances far beyond this understanding of “imminence”. Indeed, the memo expressly states that it is inventing “a broader concept of imminence” than is typically used in domestic law. Specifically, the president’s assassination power “does not require that the US have clear evidence that a specific attack . . . will take place in the immediate future“. The US routinely assassinates its targets not when they are engaged in or plotting attacks but when they are at home, with family members, riding in a car, at work, at funerals, rescuing other drone victims, etc.
Many of the early objections to this new memo have focused on this warped and incredibly broad definition of “imminence”. The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer told Isikoff that the memo “redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning”. Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller called Jaffer’s objection “an understatement”, noting that the memo’s understanding of “imminence” is “wildly overbroad” under international law.
Crucially, Heller points out what I noted above: once you accept the memo’s reasoning – that the US is engaged in a global war, that the world is a battlefield, and the president has the power to assassinate any member of al-Qaida or associated forces – then there is no way coherent way to limit this power to places where capture is infeasible or to persons posing an “imminent” threat. The legal framework adopted by the memo means the president can kill anyone he claims is a member of al-Qaida regardless of where they are found or what they are doing.
The only reason to add these limitations of “imminence” and “feasibility of capture” is, as Heller said, purely political: to make the theories more politically palatable. But the definitions for these terms are so vague and broad that they provide no real limits on the president’s assassination power. As the ACLU’s Jaffer says: “This is a chilling document” because “it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen” and the purported limits “are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”
5. Converting Obama underlings into objective courts
This memo is not a judicial opinion. It was not written by anyone independent of the president. To the contrary, it was written by life-long partisan lackeys: lawyers whose careerist interests depend upon staying in the good graces of Obama and the Democrats, almost certainly Marty Lederman and David Barron. Treating this document as though it confers any authority on Obama is like treating the statements of one’s lawyer as a judicial finding or jury verdict.
Indeed, recall the primary excuse used to shield Bush officials from prosecution for their crimes of torture and illegal eavesdropping: namely, they got Bush-appointed lawyers in the DOJ to say that their conduct was legal, and therefore, it should be treated as such. This tactic – getting partisan lawyers and underlings of the president to say that the president’s conduct is legal – was appropriately treated with scorn when invoked by Bush officials to justify their radical programs. As Digby wrote about Bush officials who pointed to the OLC memos it got its lawyers to issue about torture and eavesdropping, such a practice amounts to:
“validating the idea that obscure Justice Department officials can be granted the authority to essentially immunize officials at all levels of the government, from the president down to the lowest field officer, by issuing a secret memo. This is a very important new development in western jurisprudence and one that surely requires more study and consideration. If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had known about this, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.”
Life-long Democratic Party lawyers are not going to oppose the terrorism policies of the president who appointed them. A president can always find underlings and political appointees to endorse whatever he wants to do. That’s all this memo is: the by-product of obsequious lawyers telling their Party’s leader that he is (of course) free to do exactly that which he wants to do, in exactly the same way that Bush got John Yoo to tell him that torture was not torture, and that even it if were, it was legal.
That’s why courts, not the president’s partisan lawyers, should be making these determinations. But when the ACLU tried to obtain a judicial determination as to whether Obama is actually authorized to assassinate US citizens, the Obama DOJ went to extreme lengths to block the court from ruling on that question. They didn’t want independent judges to determine the law. They wanted their own lawyers to do so.
That’s all this memo is: Obama-loyal appointees telling their leader that he has the authority to do what he wants. But in the warped world of US politics, this – secret memos from partisan lackeys – has replaced judicial review as the means to determine the legality of the president’s conduct.
6. Making a mockery of “due process”
The core freedom most under attack by the War on Terror is the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. It provides that “no person shall be . . . deprived of life . . . without due process of law”. Like putting people in cages for life on island prisons with no trial, claiming that the president has the right to assassinate US citizens far from any battlefield without any charges or trial is the supreme evisceration of this right.
The memo pays lip service to the right it is destroying: “Under the traditional due process balancing analysis . . . . we recognize that there is no private interest more weighty than a person’s interest in his life.” But it nonetheless argues that a “balancing test” is necessary to determine the extent of the process that is due before the president can deprive someone of their life, and further argues that, as the New York Times put it when this theory was first unveiled: “while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.”
Stephen Colbert perfectly mocked this theory when Eric Holder first unveiled it to defend the president’s assassination program. At the time, Holder actually said: “due process and judicial process are not one and the same.” Colbert interpreted that claim as follows:
“Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”
It is fitting indeed that the memo expressly embraces two core Bush/Cheney theories to justify this view of what “due process” requires. First, it cites the Bush DOJ’s core view, as enunciated by John Yoo, that courts have no role to play in what the president does in the War on Terror because judicial review constitutes “judicial encroachment” on the “judgments by the President and his national security advisers as to when and how to use force”. And then it cites the Bush DOJ’s mostly successful arguments in the 2004 Hamdi case that the president has the authority even to imprison US citizens without trial provided that he accuses them of being a terrorist.
The reason this is so fitting is because, as I’ve detailed many times, it was these same early Bush/Cheney theories that made me want to begin writing about politics, all driven by my perception that the US government was becoming extremist and dangerous. During the early Bush years, the very idea that the US government asserted the power to imprison US citizens without charges and due process (or to eavesdrop on them) was so radical that, at the time, I could hardly believe they were being asserted out in the open.
Yet here we are almost a full decade later. And we have the current president asserting the power not merely to imprison or eavesdrop on US citizens without charges or trial, but to order them executed – and to do so in total secrecy, with no checks or oversight. If you believe the president has the power to order US citizens executed far from any battlefield with no charges or trial, then it’s truly hard to conceive of any asserted power you would find objectionable.
DOJ White Paper
Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional lawyer, he was until 2012 a contributing writer at Salon. His most recent book is, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. His other books include: Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.