Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Selling ice to Eskimos....

After the Supreme Court decision last week, there's been no shortage of outrage about the Five Stooges on the bench handing over the country's elections to corporate control, and no small amount of it over the fact that recent appointees, during their nomination hearings, promised to be moderate and to respect precedent, when, in fact, they turned out to be the raging Federalist Society aristocratic bulls-in-the-judicial-china-shop everyone knew from their histories, pre-nomination, that they would be. C'mon, boys and girls, that's why they were nominated by Bush.

By now, maybe it's essential to understand that nomination hearings are mostly cynical exercises--dog-and-pony shows--that only hint at, rather than explicate, the underlying issues of ideology and competency that all the participants understand much more completely than does the citizen observer.

Nomination hearings, though, are just symptoms of a larger problem: we're the most propagandized people on the planet. Oh, yeah, I hear the wails of protest, that we're a democracy, we're free, we have more information available to us than any society in history.

Too bad that most of that information is pure, unadulterated horseshit. George Carlin probably said it best:

"The table has tilted, folks. The game is rigged and nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. Good, honest, hard-working people: white collar, blue collar, it doesn’t matter what color shirt you have on. Good, honest, hard-working people continue--these are people of modest means--continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don’t give a fuck about them. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t care about you at all! At all! At all! And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. That’s what the owners count on. The fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big red, white and blue dick that’s being jammed up their assholes every day, because the owners of this country know the truth. It’s called the American Dream, 'cause you have to be asleep to believe it."

What's putting people to sleep is the most sophisticated propaganda effort ever mounted in world history. That propaganda is a combination of what the government says through the media, what corporate advertising says to the public through the media and how corporate astroturfed public relations spin spreads virally through society unimpeded.

Much of it depends upon the lessons learned from the father of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, who developed many of his ideas while advising the government on how to move public opinion to support for Woodrow Wilson's entry of the U.S. into WWI, a policy decision that was generally unpopular among the public. What was critically different about Bernays' approach to public relations was that he actively employed the ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and the psychology of mass movements to, as he put it, the "engineering of consent."

Think about it. The government, beginning in WWI, began to employ techniques to mold public opinion that depended less and less on appeal to rational thought processes, and more and more on manipulation of the subconscious, and, at the same time, began to create law to enforce the government's policy positions, the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act.

By the end of WWI, Bernays was teaching courses in modern public relations at what is now New York University, and published the first comprehensive book on the subject of public relations, Crystallizing Public Opinion.

It's probably no accident that, not long afterward, American big business began its first major campaign to suck money out of the pockets of ordinary people by convincing them that debt equaled wealth. The result was a decade of bubbles culminating in the Great Depression.

At the end of WWII, the GI Bill helped train a new generation of technocrats, and among them, advertising and public relations professionals, many of whom found employment on both Madison Avenue and in government, a relationship explored in detail by Adam Curtis in his four-part BBC series, "The Century of the Self." From that time onward, both advertising and government propaganda became radically more sophisticated, orders of magnitude more subtle in terms of disguising the motives behind the messaging, and in recent years, has depended more and more upon the neurological research of the cognitive sciences.

The question today, given that history, is whether or not any of us have much free will left to exercise democratically. What portion of our opinions, if any, is independent of subconscious influence directed at us by the powerful in society? We know from bitter recent experience that psychologically damaging torture techniques such as sensory deprivation and sleep starvation can "rewire" the brain (Jose Padilla's lawyers, for example, said that he was resistant to cooperating in his own defense because he thought that might somehow injure George W. Bush). The core intent of such methods is to reduce the person to the state of an infant, without memory, without history, upon which new ideas can be "imprinted." Those shock (and morally shocking) methods, in the minds of the torturers, are the most efficient in terms of the time required to achieve that breakdown of brain function. What if, however, similar effects can be achieved less radically over longer periods of time?

One of the most puzzling aspects of modern American society is the persistence of a significant percentage of voters who, unaccountably, seem to vote consistently against their own economic interests. Many of those people are either single-issue voters, or are attracted to so-called "family values" candidates. They are against abortion law, for example, even though nothing in that law mandates that they themselves participate in abortion. The position is often described as a morally inflexible affirmation of life, but, paradoxically, many of its adherents also believe in the state's right to put criminals to death, as well as in the state's right to engage in wars of choice which inevitably have as a consequence the deaths of large numbers of innocents. Moreover, the candidates for whom they vote, while expressing sympathies against abortion, overwhelmingly seem disinclined to actually change the law, even when they are in control of government, and who are also ideologically inclined, once in government, to favor the interests of the rich and powerful.

Putting aside for a moment the question of the moral implications of abortion, since it is not germane to the current topic, what remains is a remarkably irrational hodgepodge of contradictions. I myself have tried at times to describe those contradictions as consistent with the personality profile of followers of right-wing authoritarianism, but, I sometimes wonder if those contradictions--precisely because the internal logic of them is so inconsistent--are the result of modern propaganda techniques, especially since they seem to result in political and economic advantage for the wealthy elite in this country.

It's difficult to pinpoint the germination of trends, so, it's probably not good scholarship to ascribe to a trend just one single source, but, for purposes of discussion, let's explore a trend and its possible place of birth. In many ways, 1970 was a watershed year in modern history. We saw a polarization of society only rivalled by that in effect today. Huge demonstrations against a futile war encouraged that polarization, as did a new trend of scientifically-based environmentalism. Underlying these many schisms was a generational clash of philosophies about the way society should be structured. In the main, one can label them as an older dominant culture and a younger counter-culture, but, to my mind, what mattered was the way the moneyed classes felt threatened by the ideas of that counter-culture, and there's no better place to see their fears than in what is now referred to as the Powell Manifesto.

In many ways, Powell's memo is an historical and literary document, worthy of serious study on its own, but, it's also worthwhile to think of it as the beginning of a major societal trend that persists today. First, Powell's language is that of war--he talks from the start about the counter-culture's "attack" on what he believes is the very heart of the country--big business. The nature of that attack? A rejection of materialism for its own sake, the repudiation of mindless consumerism, of keeping up with the Joneses, and an abhorrence of the principles of planned obsolescence and disposability. Powell gussies up his argument with what he thinks are persuasive examples of anarchic disrespect for law and order, but, like disingenuous autobiography, Powell knows that everything he cites are threats to the continuing accumulation of profit by his class (Powell himself was moderately well-to-do, but, as a lawyer, he was almost exclusively in the service of powerful corporations).

It's worth noting here that at the turn of that decade, hippies weren't the only threat to profit. Japan was economically ascendant, as was Western Europe--particularly West Germany. Domestic oil production had peaked. The insiders knew that, but the public didn't. Even non-environmentalists could see that the air in America's major cities wasn't fit to breathe, and that rivers catching on fire was not exactly a good thing--especially if one eventually had to drink that petrochemical-laden water, and that post-WWII production and consumption were part of the problem. The only way for the rich to keep on making lots of money was to gradually convert to an economy that depended less on manufacturing and more on financial services, and the only way for financial services to make the profits to which the rich were accustomed was to create a lot of new debt to leverage, and that's where the hippies enter the picture. Any cultural class that discouraged wanton consumption was also discouraging debt accumulation.

Powell's memo, in keeping with his theme of war (and here I hope to finally make my point), also was a plan of battle. It laid out--in rather specific ways--a sophisticated long-term program to change public opinion, and, critically, the means to fund that change. Powell said that the wealthy, in order to protect and increase that wealth, would have to tithe a portion of their income to PR efforts, in the same way that they protected their spiritual wealth by tithing to their churches. The wealthy responded. They funded think tanks, public relations firms and speakers' bureaus. They funded the campaigns of politicians who would, first and foremost, shift public policy in directions helpful to the wealthy and who relished the thought of cultural warfare. The wealthy, quite literally, blitzed Washington, DC, and the nation with the gospel of "free" enterprise and the religion of wealth, and, at the same time, their corporations sought out advertising whiz-kids who would restore to American society the vague subliminal discomforts upon which excess consumption--and, therefore, debt--depends.

All the better that the production fueling that consumption depended less and less upon the American worker. Factories closed because labor was cheaper elsewhere and low-paying service jobs increased debt accumulation and discouraged unionization. The think tanks and PR firms could also use increasing impoverishment to inflame racial and religious differences, in part by enlisting the aid of radio- and television-based evangelists who increasingly preached the prosperity gospel as wages stagnated, and who encouraged--unlike previous times--their flocks to, as Texas-based evangelist James Robison put it, fight godless liberalism and secular humanism by leaving their churches for the streets and the ballot booths, inevitably inciting passions that had nothing to do with the well-being of common people and electing politicians--eventually of both parties--who saw their primary task as furthering wealth accumulation among the wealthy in exchange for incumbency. While the ordinary citizen was exhorted to accept personal responsibility and stand on his own two feet as an almost religious duty to society, the wealthy and the corporations that drive their wealth were increasingly being subsidized by the taxpayers.

Thus, what seems at first glance to be an organic religious movement to bring morality back to society might, in fact, be the result of a well-oiled and sophisticated political PR campaign to return American society to precisely the sort of consumption that benefitted the wealthy forty years ago and was endangered by some very old notions--newly wrapped up in tie-dye--about thrift and economy and the inadvisability of crapping in one's bed. Anecdotal evidence abounds for this view. First, there are the internal logical contradictions of popular Christian evangelicalism today, about life, war, poverty and the peculiar cross-branding of the evangelical right and the GOP and corporations (for example, Jeff Sharlet notes in The Family that members of the New Life Church he met in Colorado Springs almost uniformly disdained the old downtown family-owned restaurants in favor of the corporate chain restaurants of suburbia, which, coincidentally, are the ones that get advertised on television).

Second, there are the undeniable economic and political changes that occurred in society as the PR effort of the wealthy gained traction. Jimmy Carter's appeals to thrift and economy and to wear a sweater were roundly ridiculed, even though what he advised could be found in thousands of Biblical passages and manuals on personal economy. Reagan entered office on a wave of optimism generated in large part out of thin air and vague promises to return the country to the halcyon days of plenty, which was largely fueled by cheap-money debt and a wholesale attack on regulation (which, incidentally, caused the two big burst bubbles of the `80s, the stock market meltdown and the savings and loan disaster). Wages and manufacturing continued to decline, while debt and debt leverage grew, as did protection of the rich from loss by taxpayer bailout.

Wealth inequality grew rapidly as the public grew to embrace economic theory that it largely neither understood nor related to its own declining prosperity, and which had proven--in the real world--to be a failure for ordinary people. Governmental, corporate and private debt exploded. Even today, in the midst of one of worst economic collapses in nearly a century, trickle-down theory and its ugly siblings, "free trade," and "deregulation" are, in the popular mind, the antidotes for the local mom-and-pop store supposedly being suffocated by government taxation and oppression, when, in reality, mom and pop have been driven out of business by their own representatives in government and are now working for a big box store subsidized by property tax abatements and sales tax rebates, subsidies shouldered by the ordinary taxpayers for the benefit of the wealthy.

The mind reels at the contradictions in logic, and the only way to explain such irrationality is that some unseen force must be at work causing it to happen. M'self, I think that stealthy force began with Powell's suggestions on how to change public opinion, using the best propagandists money could buy. An essential of modern propaganda is the principle of the Big Lie. A huge lie, repeated over and over and over again, is more likely to be believed than a small, inconsequential lie, and the Big Lie that Powell sought to have branded in the mind of the public is--reduced to its essence--that the welfare of the rich and powerful is the same as the welfare of the country. That such can be believed with conviction by so many--even as we go careening through the wreckage--is in itself proof that the PR campaign worked.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

After recent Supreme Court decisions...

... and the hundreds of millions spent lobbying to water down health care reform, and the coterie of banksters in the White House, maybe it shouldn't come as any surprise that this song of Robert Burns has been rattling around in my head lately:

It took the Scots nearly three hundred years to get their parliament back. Truthfully, I wish we had that much time, but, I don't think we do.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Now that the wailing and gnashing of teeth...

... has died down a bit, it's probably time to assess why Scott Brown ended up winning, and why Democrats are in a tizzy about it.

Scott Brown, who came off as a ruggedly handsome truck-drivin' troglodyte, didn't win so much as Coakley lost--anyone who hates the nuts and bolts of politics, pressing the flesh and smiling until one's face cracks, probably shouldn't be running for an office that requires that sort of campaigning, and a Senate seat for Massachusetts most assuredly does. It was held by world-class smilers for more than fifty years.

Coakley also lost because of her association with Democrats. On a host of issues that matter--health care, budget, housing, bank bailouts, jobs, wars--Democrats, and particularly that fellow in the White House, have had one PR strategy: give people shit, and tell them that it's pie.

Brown won not for his stance on those issues, because he avoided issue analysis. He won because he was able to tell people, in the clearest possible way, "hey, that ain't pie, that's shit," thereby confirming the people's suspicions, and thus giving him the superficial appearance of being honest. Not that Brown will be a raging success in the job--people will also figure out, in time, that he's got even more shit in store for them than any Democrat could manage. Massachusetts voters, for some unaccountable reason, have a history of voting for Strong Republican Daddies for governor, usually accompanied by buyer's remorse later, and that dynamic is at work here.

What's comical about all this have been the reactions of Democrats in Washington, which have ranged from "WTF?," to "we're doooooomed." Only in the hothouse that is DC could an election that shifted the arbitrary balance of power in the Senate from 60-40 to 59-41 be seen as a bigger calamity than the earthquake in Haiti. The reaction of the Washington insider press is even sillier, that "Democrats moved too far to the left," but is one that is already being picked up by Dems themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth, but, that won't stop them from behaving as if it's true.

If Republicans and big business have openly and brazenly had their hands in the pockets of each other for a long, long time, have been major-league, world-class hypocrites about their treasured "conservative values," the Dems have been trying, however inexpertly, to emulate them, at least from the time of emergence of the DLC two decades ago. The lesson here is that, after eight years of bumbling, lying, thuggishness and thievery by Bush Republicans, the public was champing at the bit for competency and actual solutions to problems. Instead, the Dems came to 2009 eager to cooperate with and, frankly, kiss the asses of the people who had caused the very problems that had angered the public--the banksters, the for-profit health-care industry, the Republicans. In many instances, Dems not only perpetuated Bush policies, they amplified them.

It's no wonder that the public reacted as they did. They blamed the Democrats for not solving those problems and for not, at the very least, making a game effort at undoing the damage of the Bush/Cheney years, and in a two-party system, and when the Dems behaved like their more corrupt political brethren, there was only one alternative. Voters were repelled by all the cash being thrown willy-nilly at the monster banks when they and their neighbors were watching their own prospects for the future circling the drain, and naturally expected the Dems--and particularly Obama--to show some real leadership, for once, by coming to the aid of the people and by prosecuting financial criminals by the bushel basket-full, but, the Dems fell on their ass on that one, making one excuse after another about the economic necessity of bringing the Wall Street pirate ships safely into port and giving their crews bonuses.

Those same voters then watched in horror as Dems handed the Republicans the Sledgehammer of Bipartisanship and let them bludgeon the bunny rabbit of health care reform to death, then recoiled as it was boiled down into an unrecognizable mass of shit and cartilage and fur and then hacked up by industry lobbyists and the Blue Dogs.

All the while, the Dems kept right on talking about how the economy was getting better (as people were swimming away from houses that had turned into leaky submarines, trying to evade the job-loss Great Whites) and that, boy howdy, we'd all love that bunny rabbit once Congress got through with it. The Dems kept right on talking shit right through Tuesday evening at 8 pm EST.

FDR is remembered for putting fear in its place and for his Four Freedoms. Obama and the current crop of Dems will be remembered for their rhetoric, too: "Have some pie."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Musings on wealth, entitlement and privilege....

One common theme runs through most of the problems facing the country today, but is notable for its absence in the discussion of those problems, and that is the inclination in the U.S. to defend wealth and to refuse to tax wealth at rates necessary to address those problems.

This shows up in myriad ways, some of egregious proportions, some a lot more subtle. Republicans scream about government "stimulus" programs as wasteful (as if there were no truth in the Keynesian necessity of additional spending to get the country through bad economic times), and then take credit for stimulus spending in their districts, while at the same time noting (along with Democrats) the absolute necessity of providing equally large bailouts to selected large investment banks that gambled wildly with other people's money, and now want to expand their power to do so.

There's hypocrisy in this, surely, but, it's one that's uniformly tilted toward the one-percenters, the people who view wealth as an entitlement to be protected. At the same time, so-called government entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, which are largely not entitlements, but, rather, are insurance accounts into which the not-wealthy pay into throughout their working lives, are seen as an existential threat to the well-being of the country by the minions of the likes of billionaire Pete Peterson.

Why? Because there may be shortfalls in the decades ahead? No, quite frankly, the implicit threat is that an increase in taxes may be necessary to meet those shortfalls, and that those increases may slow the accumulation of wealth by Peterson and his peers in the privileged class.

The curious thing in recent decades is that ordinary working people seem to think that taxing the wealthy is a singularly bad thing, even though there's a mountain of evidence that many of the country's problems are intimately associated with the failure to do so. The wealthy have always been able to use the power of the government and the press to convince the working class that they share the same fears and concerns as the wealthy, a very large fiction on its face. It's not a new phenomenon--the Horatio Alger stories of the 19th century sent a powerful but largely untrue message to the economically downtrodden that hard work, pluck and determination were the means to wealth, and promoted the fiction of the "self-made man," the rugged individualist who by sweat and hard labor "pulls himself up by his bootstraps," and succeeds on his own terms. Today, that message has been amplified by the economic fictions of Milton Friedman to suggest that anyone can succeed if the so-called "free markets" could only prevail over the forces of government regulation and interference, and that the accumulation of wealth by the few ultimately benefits everyone (this latter view is even older, and is a conscious distortion of a few of Adam Smith's basic tenets of market capitalism).

The current economic meltdown--and the response to it by both government and Wall Street--should have prompted widespread reevaluation of the country's reverence of the rich, along with some serious contemplation of the means required to blunt the damaging effects of wealth concentration. And yet, even vague suggestions of increasing taxation on the rich--even very marginal and minor increases--are routinely ignored or are never considered as viable alternatives to the status quo.

Quite the opposite seems to be occurring. If one goes by the signs and slogans and speeches of the Tea Party protests, a central theme is that the Obama administration is raising taxes, where, in fact, the administration has marginally cut taxes on those making much less than ~ $250K a year, and has pretty much abandoned any determination to get legislation to raise taxes on those making more than that. The theme persists, though, because the Tea Party movement, to a considerable degree, is being guided and funded by wealthy corporate interests operating in the background in classic astroturf mode. This is one of the more sophisticated ways in which the wealthy induce the working class to adopt the fears and desires of the wealthy.

As mentioned, I think this general tendency on the part of the lower and middle classes to exalt the rich has been with us for a very long time, but, it really went into hyperdrive beginning with the Reagan adminstration, and the populace has been bombarded with messages to that end ever since, mostly through the press picking up the talking points of the major right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, AEI and the Cato Institute, all directed toward less and less regulation and much less oversight, thus setting the stage for the egregious risk-taking, speculation and outright fraud which characterized the major investment bank failures. The "invisible hand" of the unfettered financial services market, unrestrained by government regulation and oversight, started picking everyone's pockets.

The beneficiaries of that pickpocketing were the wealthy, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, they weren't putting the proceeds into useful investment. They were, in cooperation with hedge funds and similar entities, using that money to further corrupt normal market processes, and were very likely moving the excess gains into offshore secret accounts and reinvesting in speculative schemes, instead of into traditional investment opportunities. The results are obvious, if one only cares to look--there's a reason why manufacturing accounts for only 11% of GDP (and much of that defense-related), why the Fortune 500 now account for only 7% of U.S. jobs as compared to 22% in the 1950s, why the aftermath of recent recessions is uniformly described as "jobless recovery," why unionization--the demonstrated key to a solid middle-class--continues to be under attack by both the wealthy and government, why Democratic and Republican administrations alike paid no heed to the lessons of the savings & loan mess and proceeded to further enable massive economic bubbles and the rampant speculation that fueled them.

Beyond all that, there's been little discussion of the political effects of encouraging and accommodating a class of the super-wealthy, especially in the last few decades. It's pocket change (millions over a few years) for the Walton family's corporation to buy the services of their own dedicated lobbyist in Washington, DC, to push for their interests (such as favoring private over public education and the repeal of the estate tax), and yet, this is seen as normal--even though such opportunity is not available to all but perhaps the top 1/5th of one percent of the population. That is the virtual definition of the sort of "artificial aristocracy" of which Jefferson and others warned against. The corporate interests which predominately serve the wealthy, directly or indirectly, also have financial and legal resources to obtain favors from government that are wholly out of the reach of ordinary citizens, and those resources are used, relentlessly, toward one end--further increasing wealth concentration, even when that very wealth concentration undermines the health of the economy and the nation. Moreover, the massive increases in wealth of the top 1/10th of the population--effected by both hobbling government oversight and tax cuts for the rich--has enabled them to direct more money to the right-wing think tanks that influence the press and popular opinion, to undermine campaigns and politicians (through contributions from the very wealthy to operations such the Arkansas Project, the laughably-named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and more recently, the Tea Party movement), without any personal sacrifice whatsoever--in fact, the taxpayers at large, in effect, subsidize their efforts.

This means that the direction of government is being skewed even further in favor of the interests of the wealthy elite--an extraordinarily small and fundamentally antidemocratic slice of the total population. And while heavy taxation of the wealthy is the most direct means of curbing the influence of the rich and wealthy corporations on government and society, it's not even on the national radar today--which is, in itself, an indication that the situation is beyond critical.

Further, that influence shows in ways one wouldn't expect in an open society, the first of which is that the average person isn't aware that high taxation on top-heavy income was the norm in this country for the five decades between the onset of the Great Depression and the first Reagan term, nor are they aware that the age of enormous deficits, rapidly accumulating national, corporate and private debt, grossly excessive national security spending and the transformation of the country from net exporter/creditor to net importer/debtor coincides precisely with preferential tax treatment for wealthy corporations and individuals. The deficit hawks--after maintaining radio silence during the horrible excesses of the Reagan/Bush/Bush Jr. years--are predictably emerging during the Obama administration, just as they did during the early months of the Clinton administration, and are taking dead aim not on the root causes for the deficits--tax breaks for the rich and drunken-sailor national security spending--but, rather, on the warp and woof of the social safety net.

The reasons for this are simple, of course. The obvious and necessary fixes to the deficit problem--reining in war and defense spending (which, combined with related interest on the debt, account for ~ 80% of discretionary spending), and heavy taxation of excessive wealth accumulation--are direct threats to further concentration of wealth (and, therefore, political power), while social programs do not directly generate wealth. As well, the continued existence of social programs is seen as a drain on income through existing taxation (even though the wealthy pay phenomenally low percentages of their income for Social Security and Medicare due to income caps on payroll deductions and the diversion of income to capital gains which aren't subject to SSI/Medicare taxation), and as an ever-present threat of increased taxation in the future--even though maintenance of the social safety net has direct benefits, by stabilizing the real (rather than the speculative) economy, by expanding educational opportunities and by reducing the societal costs of poverty and the poor health engendered by poverty.

Now, all this is readily known and understandable to most progressives, but, if one goes by the general tone of popular protest today, and by the regular exclusion of such notions in the popular press, it's not difficult to understand just how effective the right-wing noise machine has been in the last three decades. The mere fact that any respect at all for Reaganomics persists in the popular mind--even though there's plenty of evidence that the theories it offered were thinly-disguised programs to raid the Treasury and impoverish the bottom 90%--is further evidence of the power of sophisticated, modern propaganda and the ability of the Big Lie, repeated endlessly, to crowd out both common sense and actual experience.

Which, I suppose, brings me to the question of entitlement and privilege. Much of the real wealth (and, therefore, the power to increase that wealth) in this country is inherited and/or enabled by inherited wealth. There are exceptions, of course, but, in general, it is that inherited wealth that has subtly or overtly shaped the domestic and foreign policy of the country. Much of that wealth was generated with the assistance of government, rather than in spite of it, and it depended, more often than not, on extracting wealth from the common weal, often through legislation beneficial to extractive industries (think here, for example, oil depletion allowances and the Mining Act of 1872), preferential takings by government (for example, extensive state, county and local takings benefitting the railroads during their early expansion phases), corporate subsidies, and, certainly, by exploiting the value of public education, and, when advantageous, the use of federal military forces to ensure the profits of U.S. investors overseas. Examples of the latter abound throughout the country's history.

Over time, with successive generations of a wealthy elite generally insulated by their wealth from the everyday concerns of the bulk of citizens, it's no wonder that all the trappings of aristocracy would accrete around the wealthy, including a sense of entitlement to their wealth, along with the errant beliefs that wealth bestowed on them exceptional status in society and, consequently, that government, first and foremost, was obliged to accommodate and further their exceptional status and to ignore their excesses. Aristocratic inclinations are at the heart of privilege, the root meaning of which is "private law." (If anyone is under the mistaken impression that our contemporary system of governance is antipathetic toward private law, David Cay Johnston's books, Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch, will quickly disabuse a person of that notion.)

Again, everything old is new again (it was the first Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Jay, who reportedly said that the people who owned the country should govern it--a profoundly antidemocratic principle if ever there was one). The wealthy on Wall Street and the wealthy enabled by Wall Street are adamant that not only should their wretched excesses be ignored, but that government should indemnify them from their excesses, as well, and the right-wing noise machine is busily reinforcing those views among the people who can never hope to rise beyond the status of wage slave, on the foolish expectation that, like Horatio Alger, their hard work and industriousness will one day place them in the company of the Masters of the Universe, even though history shows that the Masters of the Universe club has always been a small, select body, and that even the prosperity gospel cannot ensure admission (with the possible and occasional exception of its preachers).

It's a kind of insanity, in that it does not respond to either fact or actual experience, an insanity egged on by the truly rich to protect them from the backlash, real and imagined, that might ensue were the hoi polloi, suddenly resistant to the sophisticated psychological coercion of modern advertising and to the seductive lies of right-wing think-tankery, to see the fog around them lift, revealing the whole sordid process for what it actually is.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A little riff on the previous post....

In thinking about the reasons why Bush and Cheney would be so inclined to subvert law, there's the always appropriate "accruing power to the Unitary Executive," but, I wonder if there's more to it than that. After all, Cheney's complaints about the supposed fettering of executive power always come back to his days in the Nixon administration, and it is from that time that Cheney marks his objections.

However, the power of the Executive has grown far beyond original Constitutional limits ever since the end of WWII, with the advent of the national security state and the ascendancy of imperial ambitions on the part of hawks in both parties.

The Founders understood that any government had the capacity to become tyrannical, and both the Constitution and the Federalist Papers reflect that understanding. But, the Founders had no way of seeing far enough into the future to predict the development of nuclear physics and the weapons derived from that development, nor could they have anticipated the changes precipitated by the turmoil in the hearts of the American wealthy at the prospect of the 1917 Russian revolution and the rise of communism there. There have been countless instances when the government viewed some citizens as the enemy for ostensibly ideological reasons (the Whiskey Rebellion, in microcosm, or the Southern secessionists, in macrocosm, for example), but, with respect to the accretion of lopsided Executive power, nuclear weapons and communism were genuine game-changers, I think--with the generous help of partisan politics.

At some point in the last sixty years, more likely earlier than later, the Executive Branch came to see the public, Congress and the press as adversaries, as enemies from which that branch had to protect itself, even if that meant inflicting on the public brainpan the blunt force trauma of secrecy and a shadow government composed of the intelligence agencies and the military as coordinated by the National Security Council, the excesses of which only became obvious and seemed blatant as a result of Nixon's political paranoia.

There's always good reason to be skeptical of one's government, and Izzy Stone's dictum that "all government's lie" should always apply. That said, the most recent seizures of power by the Executive Branch have greatly reinforced the impression that the government stands in opposition to its citizens, and that calls into question the efficacy of representative democracy in this country.

Unfortunately, Obama has done little of substance to dispel the nagging suspicion that government no longer works for the people. The corporate money behind the teabaggers is hoping to exploit that fear (that much is evident from the teabagger protests) for its own purposes, and yet, that imprecisely focused fear of government is precisely what the Executive Branch has fostered and furthered over the past several decades, and that puts the interests of the corporate elite in solid alignment with the Executive, thus compounding the problem.

The irony, of course, is that the people who best understand that the government ought to fear the people, rather than the other way around, are those who are most likely to seek out peaceful means of effecting change, and are the people most likely to be ignored by a government which views them as adversaries. The people most inclined to think they can resist the government by wandering around with handguns or by hitching up with a right-wing militia or by being useful idiots in the teabagger movement are those most likely to adopt an even more oppressive form of government, just as long as they get to be on the side of the oppressor.

Ultimately, a government that solipsistically sees its interests as separate and unique from those of the people (even if it claims to be protecting the public by doing so), combined with a public that fears the government, cannot come to any good end.

Well, probably, these differing standards...

... can't be reconciled.

Greenwald is, of course, quite right in saying that partisanship has infected assessments of what the Obama administration is doing with regard to rule of law and in its conformation to Bush policies in that regard.

I do wish that he'd amplified on root causes, though. The myriad legal distinctions being made today derive from what can only be termed as imperial hubris, beginning with the desire to create a category of detainee separate and apart from those delineated in domestic and international law: the "unlawful combatant," thus placing all detainees outside the scope of law as defined, allowing both administrations to do an end-run around existing law.

In any conflict, those taking up arms in defense against a foreign invader can rightly be considered under existing law as POWs after being captured, whether they be regular soldiers or citizen-soldiers, formal or informal militia. Individuals detained because they were suspected of having plotted or assisted in the attacks of 9/11/2001 would under existing law be considered criminal suspects and, properly, would be placed in the criminal justice system.

That would be the normal state of affairs under law. But, the Bush/Cheney administration's desire was to create a military conflict in Afghanistan, and to therefore militarize the entire process. Having done so, even then, existing law should still have applied. POWs should have been afforded all rights under the Geneva Conventions, and criminals should have been transferred to the criminal justice system for trial. Those were the options, neither of which suited the increasingly out-of-control Bush administration. Instead, the administration chose to create special military commissions in which to try those who had been classified, arbitrarily, as outside of the protections of either domestic law or international treaty.

The military commissions created could have been used for actual war crimes as defined by law, but, instead, were designed to accommodate the administration's synthetic rules, the very first of which was that the President, by fiat and without due process, could assign anyone--including U.S. citizens--to a legally fictitious status which denied them all rights under existing law.

That is roughly the system Mr. Obama has inherited, and which Greenwald rightly assesses has been perpetuated in the current administration. If there were some respect for the Constitution in the Obama administration, there would be absolutely no talk of "indefinite detention." There would be absolutely no use of military commissions to prosecute ordinary combatants captured during military operations for resisting occupation as if that were a war crime. There would be no use of "secret evidence" and there would be, even in those military commission proceedings, consideration for the Geneva Conventions, and for due process. As of now, the reigning standard for the military commissions is that resisting foreign invasion and occupation is informally, and improperly, defined as a war crime, and that's imperial hubris at its extreme. Nevertheless, the root of that determination is in the arbitrary classification, unlawful combatant, created to evade rule of law.

The Bush administration did not simply make a mistake in creating this awful system. It was an intentional, planned and coordinated effort to subvert law by a group within that administration which has no respect for law. That much is evident from the DOJ torture memos alone. The Obama administration, in perpetuating that system, however, will be the ones making a mistake.

Despite Obama's repeated assertions that his administration is dedicated to transparency, the on-the-ground reality is very, very different. Obama has continued the multi-tiered system of justice--and detention--created by the Bush/Cheney cabal. Obama has continued the Bush/Cheney practice of using the state secrets privilege to prevent a host of civil cases from proceeding--cases which would both embarrass the government and expose government wrongdoing (notably, classification law does not allow security classification for those purposes, and yet, the Obama administration has been using "national security" precisely toward those ends).

Most importantly, the Obama administration has given perishingly little thought to the ways in which the Bush/Cheney administration set into motion a series of events which would actually ensure continued terrorism well into the future and which have encouraged a steady diminution of and disregard for the Bill of Rights, and, apparently, even less thought as to how to undo those adverse trends.

In ads during the campaign, Obama said, "As your commander-in-chief, my job will be to keep you safe." In saying that, he bought into two of the most odious memes fostered by George W. Bush--first, that the President is the commander-in-chief of us all, which is patently untrue, and second, that his job is to keep us safe, which is disingenuous and derivative. Nowhere in Obama's oath of office does it say that his solemn task is to keep us safe. That oath, however, does require that its taker affirm "to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Our protection will not be found in the increasing militarization of law and society, but, rather, is anchored in the spirited defense of our common rights as the Constitution provides.