Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dissidents in Action: UC Santa Barbara Professor Challenges Students' Thinking on Gaza

Duke Helfand of The Los Angeles Times reported today that University of California Santa Barbara sociology professor, William I Robinson sent an email to his students containing "more than two dozen photographs of Jewish victims of the Nazis, including those of dead children, juxtaposed with nearly identical images from the Gaza Strip."

"Gaza is Israel's Warsaw--a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians," wrote Robinson in the email. "We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide."

Two Jewish students dropped the class and filed a complaint with the UC Santa Barbara, on advice from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Both the center and the Anti-Defamation League have characterized Robinson as an anti-Semite. Big surprise: that's how they characterize anyone that expresses disapproval over Israeli policy. The first problem with such an accusation is that it's no more anti-Semitic to critique Israeli treatment of Palestinians in Gaza than it is anti-American to criticize the torture of detainees in Guantanimo. The second problem the accusation is that Robinson is a Jew. A self-loathing Jew, perhaps? Hardly. I don't consider myself to be a self-loathing American, and I speak out on Gitmo constantly. Germans are, of course, expected to speak out against the Holocaust; is that anti-German? Are white South Africans who speak out against Apartheid anti-white?

The charge of anti-semitism is damned silly and those who make it against Robinson would do well to remember the words of Hermann Goering, who used the same tool on an unsuspecting Germany:

"[T]he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

Although I am not a Jew, I reject the notion that my criticisms of the Israeli policy on the Palestinians is in any way anti-Semitic. It's not even anti-Israel. Like Robinson, I have compared the ethnic cleansing taking place in Gaza right now with the Nazis marginalizing and terrorizing the Jewish people, first in Germany, and then later througout Europe. And while the truth is that the current Israeli Gaza policy is nearer to South African Apartheid than the Holocaust, it seems to be escalating rapidly. Having corralled 1.5 million people in an area that's about 139 square miles (less than 15% the size of California's bustling Orange County, home to just over 3 million people), the Israel has gone beyond its historic treatment of the Palestinians, which more closely paralleled South African Apartheid (Olmert referred to treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank as a "pogrom"), thus justifying Robinson's characterization of Gaza as "Israel's Warsaw." And while Israel has yet to begin a program of rapid extermination, its slow, relentless ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the population of Israel has been going on for far too long to be dismissed as unintentional or accidental.

This post is written in defense of a Jew; a man of conscience who has the courage to ask his students, Jew and non-Jew alike, to distinguish between what governments claim they do in the name of their people and what a free people must do when polities lead an otherwise well-intentioned people astray. There is a reason Professor Robinson mentions Nazis in the context of the Gaza offensive, written in the blood of his own people: NEVER AGAIN. Not just for Jews. Not just for Russians or Poles or Gypsies or homosexuals who were imprisoned and enslaved and even exterminated by the same hate-fueled Nazi war machine that killed Jews, but for any ethnic group whose culture, religion or very existence presents a challenge to those who hold power.

Professor Robinson is in no wise anti-Semitic, and is, in fact completely innocent of such a baseless and foolish charge. On the contrary, William I. Robinson represents what is best and most admirable about Jewish people: he is a critical thinker and a conscientious individual, one that clearly thinks highly of Israel, else why would he expect better of it? Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, wasn't a bully, but he hunted them, caught them and brought them back to Israel for something they'd never given their victims: a trial. It is, therefore, a sad accident of history that his name is used to bully a man whose criticisms seek to pull a nation back from the precipice, poised on the edge of the abyss1.

1. "Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you" (Friedrich Nietzche).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

When you Find yourself in a Hole, Keep Digging until you Pop your Head through the Floor of the People's Bank of Beijing

Full disclosure: Dwight, this was too good to leave on your comments page.

In discussing the Iraq war with Dwight from Logic and Politics, I agreed with his assertion that if we're not wanted in Iraq, we should leave them to their mess. Frankly, I said, it never made any sense, other than the cronyistic nature of the no-bid contracts that were going to Blackwater, Halliburton and the like; it was Bush and Cheney's own little Keynesian economics project, which kept the economy from collapsing until . . . well, until it collapsed in spite all the government investment in the private sector.

I don't suppose it had anything to do with the fact that many of the corporations that have profited from the war in Iraq have been outsourcing a sizable portion of their production overseas--a strategy which takes government dollars from our economy and filters it through corporate coffers into reduced payrolls in developing nations, so payroll turnover is spent there, instead of here. Frankly, the the only way they could keep it going here was to convince the Wal-Mart employee that s/he could afford (and deserved) a split-level, five bedroom/three bath house with a Hummer, an Escalade and a pair of snowmobiles/motorcycles in their three car garage.

This is a market correction: in what universe is a cramped, two bedroom, one bath in East LA worth $600,000? A simple rule of macroeconomics is that where supply curves meet demand curves is called "equilibrium." When a market is out of eqilibrium, as it was during every boom we've experienced from George Washington forward, an "invisible hand" (AKA "market forces") has a way of pushing things back into equilibrium. It's not magic, it's just common sense: who's going to spend $600,000, plus interest, for the privelege of fixing their own pipes and paying dues to a home owner's organization, when it costs less to rent, with none of the headaches? So yes, those who appear to be downplaying the economic crises, are correct, this is unequivocally a market correction. The problem with the kind of market correction that we're going through is, how do you stimulate lending when the prime rate is already hovering around zero and most of the potential borrowers are leveraged to the point that they couldn't borrow their best friend's lawnmower? The Keynesian solution, employed during the Great Depression, if used to escape the current economic crisis, will require a level of spending that will make budget deficits under Presidents Reagan, Bush and Bush look like what they never even tried to deliver on: fiscal conservatism.

And capital? What capital? It's all borrowed money--every dime. Remember the good old days when savings accounts would yield 4.1% per annum? It was 3-7 per cent less than inflation, but at least capital was something other than a promissory note. People had savings accounts because they could earn money on them and banks had capital because they didn't expect savings account holders to give their money away.

The solution isn't hard to grasp, but it'll be painful for years to come, because inflation--as bad as it's been--will skyrocket. In order to attract savers, the fed will have to raise the prime rate so that interest rates will pay a reasonable return on savings. All of this will take time and it will cost more just to live than ever before. But when you're in a hole, you have to, at some point, stop digging, even when you're halfway to China and you forgot to bring your trusty ladder. The one thing we have going for us is how many of us wound up in the hole together. It is that "hole unity" shared by all Chrysler employees that made it possible for the company to survive: according to the Los Angles Times, the Union is buying controlling interest of the automaker--not something GM employees could ever dream of doing, even if 21,000 of them weren't losing their jobs.

There appear to be some advantages in being small enough to fail, after all.

Update: so much for an employee-owned Chrysler. According to the Guardian (UK), some hedge fund speculators, such as Oppenheimer Funds, Perella Weinberger Partners and Stairway Capital, whose greed helped to sink the global economy, were holding out for a taxpayer bailout, claiming that taxpayers and unions "were getting preferential treatment." Among banks willing to write off up to 2/3 of the automaker's debts were JP Morgan, Citigroup and, my favorite punching bag of the financial bailout, Goldman Sachs. While Chrysler may survive bankruptcy, their can be no doubt that the hold-outs once again gambled with other people's money and lost--again: by forcing Chrysler into bankruptcy, the holdouts may well be forced to take a smaller settlement than the one they turned down.

Monday, April 27, 2009

WHO is in Denial?

Below is today's World Health Organization (WHO) update on the Mexican Swine Flu outbreak:

The current situation regarding the outbreak of swine influenza A(H1N1) is evolving rapidly. As of 27 April 2009, the United States Government has reported 40 laboratory confirmed human cases of swine influenza A(H1N1), with no deaths. Mexico has reported 26 confirmed human cases of infection with the same virus, including seven deaths. Canada has reported six cases, with no deaths, while Spain has reported one case, with no deaths.
Further information on the situation will be available on the WHO website on a regular basis.
WHO advises no restriction of regular travel or closure of borders. It is considered prudent for people who are ill to delay international travel and for people developing symptoms following international travel to seek medical attention, in line with guidance from national authorities.
There is also no risk of infection from this virus from consumption of well-cooked pork and pork products. Individuals are advised to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water on a regular basis and should seek medical attention if they develop any symptoms of influenza-like illness (emphasis added, WHO, April 27, 2009).

WHO's report of seven confirmed deaths due to H1N1 in Mexico belies the total of 103 suspected deaths, reported today by the Associated Press, most of which were apparently not laboratory confirmed. It is understandable that WHO might wish to avoid the kind of international panic that might come as a result of reporting the 1,600 suspected cases of Mexican swine flu, but as can be seen from the above update, WHO has failed to report that a greater danger may exist at all. Suspending travel, while economically devastating during the current downturn, would at least prevent the potential for the disease to spread further than it already has.
Rumors exist that the Mexican Government knew of the swine flu, and didn't report on it because of the threat to tourist revenues from spring break. Whether true or not, the hard line taken by WHO, insisting on only reporting confirmed cases and confirmed deaths is one thing; it is quite another to advise "no restriction of regular travel," and it smacks of putting business interests ahead of general health. With the global economy reeling, it is, perhaps, a drastic step to urge people to stay put as the tourist season begins. But if we're caught between a potentially lethal global pandemic and a temporary worsening of the economy, isn't the choice academic?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

RE: Supreme Court puts brakes on car searches

Hell has frozen over, pigs can now fly and the laws of political gravity no longer apply: liberal SCOTUS Justices Stevens, Ginsberg and Souter were joined by (wait for it) conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Regardless of political affiliation, Arizona v. Gant was a great decision by SCOTUS and a huge victory for the embattled Fourth Amendment.

With all other immutable laws now in question, does this mean that the Geithner bailout plan will actually work?

More on this after I've had a chance to read the opinion of the court (see Los Angeles Times for the editorial). I admit I'm a little curious as to why Justice Kennedy dissented.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Handshake the Shook Fox News

It was an E.D. Hill moment ("A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab? The gesture everyone seems to interpret differently. We'll show you some interesting body communication and find out what it really says."): yet another knee-jerk reaction by conservative media.

On the cover of Sunday's Los Angeles Times, President Obama was photographed shaking the hand of (gulp) Hugo CHAVEZ!! While this didn't exactly give me the warm and fuzzies for the embattled Democratic President, I didn't see the harm in it either. Yes, there's been a lot of criticism of the United States from Chavez in recent years, much of which I dismissed, considering the source. Of course, Fox News weighed in, making sure to tell their loyal followers what to think:

When President Obama met Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Trinidad on Friday, he shook hands with a man who only four years ago called the United States the most "murderous empire that has existed in the history of the world." . . . "What he's going to say is that what he has been doing in Venezuela now has the seal of approval of the United States," said Otto Reich, who was ambassador to Venezuela under President Reagan. "He sees it as a green light to continue dismantling democracy in Venezuela."

Those few readers following this blog will note that I have written a piece or two myself that weren't exactly singing the praises of Obama. In fact, I believe I have implied that he (like all Democrats and Republicans) was a bought-off-sonofabitch. Not a socialist or a commy, but a pro-business President, willing to socialize the costs of propping up large American corporations (too big to fail) while privatizing the gains. It's just as wrong now that Barack Obama is doing it as it was when Ronald Reagan did it during his first term. No, dittoheads, I didn't stutter: your bloated, drug-addled leader's fantasy lover, whom he verbally felates daily with such abandon, raised ZERO eyebrows throughout the eighties when subsidized multinational corporations, enabling the corporate raids that would dismantle the industries that had been key to decades of American prosperity. The kleptocracy has been continued through Bush, Clinton and Bush, on up to the present day, in which Timmy Geithner continues funneling Goldman Sachs' now much anticipated profit margin through AIG, as well as direct bailout subsidies to Goldman Sachs itself.

In other words, President Obama is no worse--even from a tax and spend perspective--than any other President we've had since 1981. But the conservative media, needing to prove its omnipotence, having failed to turn out the vast numbers of protesters on tax day, seized on the President's handshake with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. As hastily planned as the teabagging venture was, I saw it as a brilliant move by Fox News and other conservative media. While I wouldn't have personally had anything to do with it, being as the "astroturf" (fake grass-roots) movement was sponsored and driven by the media, I thought that the mockery from leftists like Paul Krugman and Rachel Maddow failed to recognize the value of such protests, in terms, not only of galvanizing Americans who see themselves as conservatives, but that it might be attractive to independents, like myself, looking for a place to channel their rage over the bailouts.

But Fox News, having seized on a great opportunity to exploit populist rage, once again showed its tone-deafness. This was apparent when Fox & Friends brought Newt Gingrich on for a little of his sophistry:

"Frankly, this does look a lot like Jimmy Carter. Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher, because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators – when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead. . . . I think it sends a terrible signal to all of Latin America, and a terrible signal about how the new administration regards dictators."

Ah, the favorite Republican straw man, Jimmy Carter. I credit the former Speaker of the House with a good deal more intelligence than he exhibits on behalf of the Fox News viewer. To put it another way, Gingrich's analysis is deliberately obtuse and he knows it. Perhaps historians have different standards for showing cause and effect than other social scientists, particularly when your version of history relies so heavily on the stereotype of Democrats being "weak." To claim the Iran hostage crisis was the result of a weak Presidency, fails every litmus test of cause and effect. It ignores the fact, for example, that the Iranian Revolution was the result of many usurpations by the Shaw against his people, on behalf of the United States; the Iranian Revolution can no more be blamed on Carter than the Chinese Revolution can be blamed on Truman, or the Cuban Revolution can be blamed on Eisenhower, or that the Hatian ousting of the Duvalierists was Reagan's fault. Furthermore, while it scores some KISS (keep it simple, stupid) points, it opens the GOP up to the question of why George W. Bush made such a point of going to war to catch Osama bin Laden, who remains at large to this day. And as for our relationship with dictators: does the former Speaker of the House mean military dictators, like Augusto Pinochet and Pervez Musharraf, or just dictators who act in only our interests, while lining their pockets at the same time, like Ferdinand Marcos1, the Shaw of Iran, "Poppa Doc" Duvalier & Son and Fulgencio Batista (don't even get me started on Nicaragua)?

They freaked out over a First Lady with biceps, for crying out loud. The problem with Fox's histrionics is relevance: they're so busy nit-picking about the little things and parroting the echoes of the late Ronald Reagan as per Rush Limbaugh, that they miss the bigger picture. Fox News became relevant by riding a wave of popular dissent, not for dissent's sake, but because the people watching already knew it was necessary. It's hard to imagine how a handshake between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev could have "legitimized" communism, or shown weakness in a time when many of us went to bed each night wondering if we might awaken to a nuclear winter--or worse, not awaken at all.

I won't bother defending President Obama, as he seems quite capable of doing it for himself:

"It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States. . . . Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela. . . .We had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness – the American People didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American People didn't buy it — because it doesn't make sense."

So it boils down to this: as long as Barack Obama can so plainly state his point, the conservative media will need a lot more than Newt Gingrich and Jimmy Carter to justify their latest temper tantrum.

1. Having elections only make you a democracy if the ballot boxes aren't stuffed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Meet the New Boss (Same as the Old Boss): Part II of Ongoing Series

A comic is worth a thousand rants. Suggestion to cartoonist: an ad with Timothy Geithner's picture on the side of the mailbox might have lacked the subtlety that cartoonists aspire to, but it would have also illuminated the continuity inherent in the transition from the corporatist policies from the Bush regime to the same policies, brought to you by the marketing firm of Obama, Goldman and Sachs, makers of Change you Can't Believe in (Since the Democrats are Bought-off Sonsabitches, Just Like Republicans).

We have only four years, independents, to pull someone from our own ranks, promote them and make them competetive against the Two-Parties that have sold us out, time and again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

We've Been Had

When Keith Olbermann breaks ranks with the left to take aim at the same guy Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Beck are taking pot shots at, something has gone terribly wrong. As the Department of Justice moves to quash a suit that would repeal the Bushist policy of unwarranted wiretapping (Jewell v. NSA)the Obama Administration opens itself up to attacks, not only from the right, but from every political axis.

With the GOP virtually leaderless and clinging to a failed ideology and a Democratic Party promising only more of the same, it is time for Americans to abandon the false dichotomy of the Two-Party System. While the President hasn't failed on all of his promises, he's shown where his allegiances lie, and it's not with the American People. But amid all of the flowery rhetoric, Obama touched on something we have badly needed as Americans: that we are not a Nation where identity politics can trump our national and cultural identity. We are all Americans.

I don't care if you're a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club or a dyed-in-the-wool member of the NRA: when our sharpshooters took out the Somali pirates and rescued our American sea captain of Maersk Alabama, it made you proud of what we are. The olive branch having failed (the ship was carrying aid to Kenya) the arrows were swift and retribution was fierce.

I close with a literary reference. An adolescent boy I know just finished reading Orwell's Animal Farm. He told me he was quite disturbed by the ending (SPOILER ALERT:IF YOU HAVEN'T READ ANIMAL FARM, EITHER READ IT NOW, OR STOP READING THIS POST). As the older animals who remembered the revolution peered through the windows and saw the pigs and the humans quarreling over a card game, they realized they couldn't tell the difference between them. While Orwell was referring to oppression under communism being virtually indistinguishable to what many believed they had suffered under capitalism, I refer to this Orwellian twist for another reason. Having decided the Elephants had violated the Constitution, we placed our faith in the Donkeys. For all of the demagoguery regarding "Socialism," there is no difference between the two: Goldman Sachs has bought and paid for both of them.

How can they look any different in the end?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Meet the New Boss (Same as the Old Boss)

Yes, the title of this thread is aimed at President Obama.

Everyone believed he could do it. Even Pete Townshend, after performing "Won't Get Fooled Again" (Who's Next)said that, given Obama's victory over the conservative political machine, he needed to rethink the meaning of the song. One of the most dynamic and revolutionary songs (literally) in all of rock music, "Won't Get Fooled Again" is the quintessential anthem of the skeptic, pointing out that once the revolution ends and the oppressors are overthrown, the new regime changes little or nothing for the better. I agree with Townshend to some degree: Obama has brought about some much needed changes.

The boos from our troops in Iraq as they were told they will be ceding control of Iraq back to the Iraqis isn't something that would have happened under a McCain Administration (I can understand why they booed him: from a soldier's perspective the place is a mess, and none of the machinery is currently in place to keep Iraq from tearing itself to pieces with civil war; but, I digress). It was a good and necessary step, at least for ability of the United States to move forward. Contrary to what the anti-war "progressives" claim, I agree with the President's decision to stay in Afghanistan--not to take it over or to "stabilize" the region--but to finish what Bush II started in 2001: GET BIN LADEN. Just him, and anyone who protects him. It isn't rocket science: if Bush I can bitch slap Manuel Noriega in his own house and drag him back to the States to try him as a drug runner, I think that these high-tech morons in the CIA ought to be able to sort through the latest stack of Quickbird images from the Af-Pak border and find bin Laden. How will they know it's him? Here's a hint: HE'S THE GUY STANDING OUTSIDE A CAVE TALKING TO A VIDEO CAMERA!

There is, of course that patient side to Obama: the one that doesn't bother swatting at Dick Cheney when he flies by on the news. By all signs, the President wants to move forward. And this is where I have to start calling bullshit. Cheney admitted on television that he knew about and approved the use of torture, defined as a war crime under Geneva. I'm no lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that a spontaneous admission of guilt--one that was in nowise coaxed (say, by waterboarding, for example)--is generally accepted as being admissable in court. And given that President Obama once held the prestigious position of president of the Harvard Law Review, it would seem a no brainer that this is a fact not lost on him.

It's been clear for some time that Washington, while willing to pay lip service to the general outrage with the auld populist sound bite, has had Wall Street's back from the beginning, and has no intention of throwing them under the bus. When the sheriff robs you, it’s bad enough: you have to convince a judge and a prosecutor to get off their lazy asses and do their jobs; then you have to find someone willing to take on a paramilitary force, known as "The Sheriff's Department," to have him arrested. That normally requires a larger paramilitary force, such as the State Police or the FBI. But at least they exist.

So this time, our cattle are being rustled by Wall Street bankers. You know, those "genteel" folk that everyone used to be so deferential to? And now, from all appearances, the gate is being held open by one of the Commander-in-Chief’s top deputies, Tim Geithner. It’s hard to imagine that someone sharp as President Obama is blind to how Geithner appears to be operating as primary gate-holder for that infamous gang of financial rustlers, chasing borrowed revenues through AIG’s hidden range of complicated credit-default swaps, out to the financial pastures where the dandies and the gamblers (still disguised as bankers) cash out the missing pot of a poker game, which from all accounts, they lost.

As much as I want the efforts by the Obama Administration to work, I can’t see how paying an insurance company to pay off the architects of this recession will lead to improving our economy. Perhaps I can’t see the forest for the trees. But perhaps I was right to begin with, when I suggested, some time ago, that right and left, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, were a false dichotomy with a purpose. I know a lot of “blue dog” Democrats; most of the self-proclaimed “leftists” that I know don’t favor any kind of gun control. A surprising number of the women I know that identify themselves as “feminists” are ambivalent toward Roe v. Wade and wouldn’t consider abortion for themselves or for their daughters; on the other side of the abortion issue, there seems no shortage of self-proclaimed conservatives that wish everyone would just shut up about it. These are but a few minor examples pointing to the paradox in American political identity: how we align ourselves politically doesn’t so much reflect beliefs, but how appealing we tend to find someone else’s. Hence, left/right and liberal/conservative, but most importantly, Democrat/Republican, are not so much dichotomies as two sides of the same coin. And they have us well trained: when one side can’t fix the problem, we flip the coin over and hope that the other side can. But no matter how many times we turn over that nickel, it’s still just a nickel. Don’t get me wrong: a nickel still has its uses, but you only get so much mileage out of it—particularly when it’s minted the same on either side.

And so we come to it: the two-party system is out of gas. Both sides have given the bankers a free hand to shape financial and economic policy. I’ve given my support, not only in money but in hope to the idea that this time, it could be different. But it can’t, because this time, like last time and the time before that, the moneyed and the well-connected did what they do best: they used our hopes and desperation to steal what little we had left.I didn’t come to this conclusion via the endless right-wing or left-wing demagoguery that fouls the airwaves. I just looked outside after hearing there was a new sheriff in town, and saw for myself that America was still a kleptocracy. It was founded by rich men who couldn’t stomach the thought of paying taxes to cover the cost of a war that their greed and speculation started, and the same people who have sunk us, time and again, remain firmly entrenched.

So Townshend got it right the first time: revolution, election, regime change. The same banners flew in the last war and the new boss is the same as the old.

I love my country, but our so-called leaders all suck. And until we get another Jefferson in the office, who's willing to stand up for the rights of the common man, we're still flipping that two-headed coin from right-to-left and back again.