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27 October 2007

The Conscience of a Liberal: New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman on Healthcare, Tax Cuts, Social Security, the Mortgage Crisis and Alan Greenspan

Another segment, from 2006, here: Paul Krugman on the New Class War in America.

The presidency is taking over the courts and Congress, Jim Hightower

[The Alternet reposting title is: Is a Presidential Coup Under Way? My problem is forming this as a question; it's a statement of fact, as anyone not sufficiently indoctrinated can see in a millisecond.]
By Jim Hightower, Hightower Lowdown
Posted on October 23, 2007, Printed on October 27, 2007

Where is Congress? It's way past time for members to stand up. Historic matters are at stake. The Constitution is being trampled, the very form of our government is being perverted, and nothing less than American democracy itself is endangered -- a presidential coup is taking place. I think of Barbara Jordan, the late congresswoman from Houston. On July 25, 1974, this powerful thinker and member of the House Judiciary Committee took her turn to speak during the Nixon impeachment inquiry.

"My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total," she declared in her thundering voice. "And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution."Where are the likes of Barbara Jordan in today's Congress? While the BushCheney regime continues to establish a supreme, arrogant, autocratic presidency in flagrant violation of the Constitution, members of Congress largely sit there as idle spectators -- or worse, as abettors of Bush's usurpation of their own congressional authority.

Why it matters

Separation of powers. Rule of law. Checks and balances. These may seem to us moderns to be little more than a set of dry, legal precepts that we had to memorize in high-school history class but need not concern us now. After all, the founders (bless their wigged heads!) established these principles for us back in 17-something-or-other, so we don't really have to worry about them in 2007. Think again. These are not merely arcane phrases of constitutional law, but the very keystones of our democracy, essential to sustaining our ideal of being a self-governing people, free of tyrants who would govern us on their own whim. The founders knew about tyranny. The monarch of the time, King George III, routinely denied colonists basic liberties, spied on them and entered their homes at will, seized their property, jailed anyone he wanted without charges, rounded up and killed dissidents, and generally ruled with an iron fist. He was both the law and above the law, operating on the twin doctrines of "the divine rule of kings" and "the king can do no wrong."

(Alert: Ready or not, the following is a high-school refresher course on American government. There will be a test.) At the front of the founders' minds was the necessity of breaking up the authority of their new government in order to avoid re-creating the autocracy they had just defeated. The genius of their structure was that legislating, administering, and judging were to be done by three separate but coequal branches, each with powers to check the other two, and none able to aggregate all three functions into its own hands (a result that James Madison called the very definition of tyranny). Just as important, to deter government by whim, all members of the three branches were to be subject to the laws of the land (starting with the Constitution and Bill of Rights), with no one above the law. As Thomas Paine said, "The law is king."

These were not legal niceties but core restraints designed to protect citizens from power grabs by ambitious autocrats. Such restrictions also make our country stronger by vetting policies through three entities rather than one. This balanced authority helps avoid many serious policy mistakes (or at least offers a chance to correct them later), and it is intended to prevent the one mistake that's fatal to democracy -- allowing one branch to seize the power to rule unilaterally.

Of course, sound schemes are oft screwed up by unsound leaders, and we've had some horrible hiccups over the years. John Adams went astray early in our democratic experiment by claiming the unilateral authority to imprison his political enemies; Abe Lincoln took it upon himself to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War; Woodrow Wilson launched his notorious Palmer Raids; FDR rounded up and imprisoned Japanese-Americans; J. Edgar Hoover and the infamous COINTEL program spied on and arrested thousands in the Vietnam War years; and Ronnie Reagan ran his own illegal, secret war out of the White House basement.

In all these cases of executive excess and abuse, however, outrage flowed from the public, courts stood up to the White House, congressional investigations ensued, and the American system regained its balance relatively quickly. As Jefferson put it when he succeeded Adams and repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts, "Should we wander [from the essential principles of our government] in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety."

This time is different

Now, however, come two arrogant autocrats like we've never seen in the White House. George W and his snarling enabler, Dick Cheney, are making a power grab so unprecedented, so audacious, so broad and deep, so secretive, so stupefying, and so un-American that it has not yet been comprehended by the media, Congress, or the public. The dictionary defines "coup" not just as an armed takeover in some Third World country, but as "a sudden and decisive action in politics, especially one affecting a change of government illegally or by force."

Constantly waving the bloody flag of 9/11 and swaggering around in commander-in-chief garb, the BushCheney duo are usurping authority from Congress, the courts, and the people, while also asserting arbitrary power that does not belong to the presidency. Their coup is changing our form of government, rewriting the genius of the founders by imposing a supreme executive that functions in secret and insists that it is above the law, unaccountable either to congressional oversight or to judicial review.

As Al Gore pointed out in a powerful speech he gave last year (read it here), the BushCheney push for imperial power is much more dangerous and far-reaching than other presidential excesses for a couple of big reasons. First, the Bushites make no pretension that they want these powers only temporarily, instead contending that a super-powerful presidency is necessary to cope with a terrorist threat that they say will last "for the rest of our lives." Second, they are not merely pushing executive supremacy as a response to an outside threat, but as an ideological, right-wing theory of what they allege the Constitution actually meant to say.

Called the "unitary executive theory," this perverse, antidemocratic construct begs us to believe that the president has inherent executive powers that cannot be reviewed, questioned, or altered by the other branches. Bush himself has asserted that his executive power "must be unilateral and unchecked." Must? Extremist theorists aside, this effectively establishes an executive with arbitrary power over us. It creates the anti-America.

The list of Bushite excesses is long...and growing:

  • Their sweeping, secret program of warrantless spying on Americans -- in direct violation of a long-standing federal law intended to forestall such flagrant intrusions into people's privacy.
  • The usurpation of legislative authority by attaching "signing statements" to laws passed by Congress, openly asserting Bush's intention to disobey or simply ignore the laws. He has used this artifice to challenge over 1,150 laws, even though the Constitution and the founders never conceived of such a dodge (signing statements were concocted by Ed Meese, Reagan's attorney general, and were pushed at that time by a young Reaganite lawyer who is now ensconced for life on the Supreme Court, Sam Alito).
  • Suspension of habeas corpus for anyone whom Bush deems to be an "enemy combatant" -- allowing innocent people to be detained indefinitely in prison without charges or civil trial, subjected to abuse and even torture, and denied access to judicial review of their incarceration (thus usurping the power of the courts). The routine and illegal assertion of "executive privilege" to stonewall Congress's legitimate efforts to perform its constitutional obligation of executive oversight and to prevent the questioning of top officials engaged in outright violations of American law.
  • The assertion of a "state secrets" doctrine to prevent citizens and judges from pursuing legitimate lawsuits on the spurious grounds that even to have the executive's actions brought before the court would endanger national security and infringe on executive authority.
  • An ever-expanding grab bag of autocratic actions, including using "national security letters" to sidestep the courts and spy on American political groups and individuals with no connection at all to terrorism; censoring executive-branch employees and government information for political purposes and using federal officials and tax dollars to push the regime's political agenda; and, of course, outright lying to Congress and the public, including lying for the most despicable purpose of all -- putting our troops, our public treasury, and our nation's good name into a war based on nothing but hubris, oil, and ideological fantasies (including Bush's latest blatant lie that "progress" in Iraq warrants the killing and maiming of additional thousands of American troops -- none of whom comes from his family).

Democratic capitulation

What we have is a lawless presidency. But our problem is not Bush. He is who he is -- a bonehead. He won't change, and why should he? He's getting away with his power grab! So he has no reason to step back, and every reason to keep pushing and to keep trying to institutionalize his coup.

Rather, our problem is those weaselly, wimpy, feckless members of Congress who have failed to confront the runaway executive, who have sat silent or (astonishingly) cheered and assisted as their own constitutional powers have been taken and their once-proud, coequal branch has been made subservient to the executive.

In the first six years of BushCheney, the Republican Congress operated as no more than a rubber stamp for the accretion of presidential power, shamelessly surrendering its own autonomy in a burst of mindless partisan zeal. Too many Democrats just went along, either buying the lies or being cowed by the unrelenting politics of fear and intimidation whipped up by Bush and Cheney. (The Bushites are still using these bullying tactics, as when they demanded this past summer that Congress legalize their illegal domestic spy program and CIA chief Mike McConnell warned publicly that "Americans are going to die" if Democrats failed to pass it.)

Which brings us to the new Congress run by Democrats. Where are they? Yes, I know they have only slim majorities and that the GOP uses veto threats, filibusters, and demagogic lies to fight them -- but, come on, suck it up! At least stop voting for "the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution." For example, the party now in charge did indeed cave in to Bush's summer demand that it legalize his warrantless spying on Americans (a Lowdowner sent an email to me saying he hopes Bush gets caught smoking pot, because then the Democrats will immediately legalize it).

The founders would be stunned that Congress has failed to assert itself. They saw checks and balances not as an option but as an obligation, a fundamental responsibility that goes to the very heart of each lawmaker's oath faithfully to support and defend the Constitution.

It's important to note that Congress is not a weak institution. It has powerful muscles to flex, including control of the purse, which Congress used in 1973 to tell Nixon, "No, we will not provide money for you to extend the Vietnam War into Laos and Cambodia." Nixon had to back off. Legislators also have clear constitutional mandates to oversee, probe, and expose presidential actions (remember the extensive Fulbright hearings in the '60s and the Church investigations of the '70s, for example). Members of Congress have wide-ranging subpoena power, as well as something called "inherent contempt" power to make their own charges against outlaw executive officials and to hold their own trials. And, of course, they have impeachment power -- which the founders saw not only as a way to remove an outlaw president (or veep or cabinet officer), but also as a means to compel a recidivist constitutional violator to come before the bar of Congress and to be held accountable. The process itself, even if it does not lead to conviction in the Senate, is educational and chastening, putting the executive branch back in its place.

None of this is about making a partisan attack on BushCheney. It's really not about them at all. Rather, Congress must find its backbone because our democracy cannot function without a vigilant legislative branch. Outlaw presidents must finally leave office, but their precedents live beyond them if left unchecked. As historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote of the power-grabbing Nixon administration, "If the Nixon White House escaped the legal consequences of its illegal behavior, why would future presidents not suppose themselves entitled to do [the same]?"

Bang pots and pans

Sam Adams, the organizer of the Boston Tea Party, knew that it is the citizenry itself that ultimately has to do the heavy lifting of democracy building. "If ever a time should come when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats of government," he declared, "our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin."

That's us. And now is that time.

What can we do? We can do what millions have been doing-only more of it, more insistently, more loudly, more creatively. Our friend Molly Ivins, just before she died this year, urged us to start "banging pots and pans" to make the bastards hear us. Raise a ruckus through street demonstrations, peace actions, visits (and/or confrontations) with lawmakers, political campaigns, alliances with military families, religious ceremonies, coalitions with constitutional conservatives, outreach to young people, and grassroots media action, including blogs, email blasts, call-in radio, letters to editors, op-eds, bumper stickers, and whatever you've got. Make a mighty noise.

Don't forget our friends in office. Such Democrats as John Conyers, Henry Waxman, Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, Russ Feingold, Pat Leahy, and Dennis Kucinich are all over Bush and Cheney with investigations, subpoenas, censure motions, impeachment bills, and exposes -- not only on the war, but most emphatically on constitutional abuses. Thank them, find out what you can do to help them, demand that your own Congress critter join them.

And here's a creative idea from Garret Keizer. I have no idea who he is, but he wrote a punchy piece in the October issue of Harper's Magazine (read it here) that I like and that Lowdowners might want to embrace. He's calling for a general strike. Not by unions, but by us -- you and me. As a symbolically appropriate day, he suggests the first Tuesday of November, the traditional date for our elections -- this year, Nov. 6. He dubs it "The Feast of the Hanging Chads."

A general strike means that We The People, as many of us as possible, would disobey the inept, corrupt, undemocratic (add your own adjective here) system by withholding our presence at for least one day. Don't go to work. Stay home. Better yet, take some political action. Also, don't go to the mall, the supermarket, or the bank; don't use your credit card or make any commercial transaction. This would be the ultimate affront to the corporate president who so pathetically told us after 9/11 that our highest patriotic response to the attack was to "go shopping." So don't fly, use your cell phone (hard, I know), watch TV, or otherwise participate. Sometimes, silence is the loudest sound of all. As Keizer says, "As long as we're willing to go on with our business, Bush and Cheney will feel free to go on with their coup."

On one level, the strike is against the war, against Bush thumbing his nose at the American majority that has already emphatically said -- OUT! -- and against the Democratic leadership that can't seem to muster the will to rein in the Bush administration. On another level, however, this is a strike for the Constitution, a strike against the betrayal of the rule of law and our democratic ideals. It's a strike for the America we thought this was. It's an affirmation that the people are the only "larger force" that can stop the BushCheney coup and make America whole again.

From "The Hightower Lowdown," edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, October 2007. Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Thieves In High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back.

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

Excellent segment from Democracy Now. FWIW, the first time I saw Aladdin, I was horrified by the anti-Arab racism.

By the way, whenever I use the word "race," I mean it to be a cultural construction not a biological fact.

26 October 2007

Livni behind closed doors: Iranian nuclear arms pose little threat to Israel, Haaretz

No shit? So, will the US media pick up this huge story? I doubt it. We'll have to rely on David Horowitz and Ann Coulter to spread the word. I'm sure that the yahoos who periodically attack me for anti-Semitism will surely have the intellectual honesty to admit they have been bamboozled.

Or is Haaretz now anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and Holocaust-denying -- etc.?

I predict the latter reaction, which is what you have to expect from fanatics.

Burn, Baby, Burn: The California Celebrity Fires, Greg Palast

As in, compare this to NOLA. A must-read.

Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928

Free online edition of the seminal book by the father of the PR industry. Very important reading; hideous human being, Bernays.

The "postmodernism" tag on this post is both ironic and literal. Ironic because even though I'm not a fan of postmodernism -- except in fiction -- I have to say that the constant assault of complete lies (i.e., marketing-driven ads, PR -- what used to be called "propaganda" in a more honest age) has done far, far more to efface the distinction between true and false than a few French-inspired academics writing in impenetrable prose. Literal because despite the disproportionate effect, postmodernism shares epistemological claims with propaganda/PR/et al, no matter what its fans will tell you.

Anyway, PR, et al, is a very serious problem, as information is the key to democracy.

Interestingly, accurate information is exactly what is to be avoided in ad-driven capitalism (but not capitalism per se -- a truly free market would ban all ads beyond a stipulation of product details, which must be accurate). And the PR industry -- huge, btw, as you all know -- has been running our electoral process since before any of us were born...so, are we really a representative democracy? I don't think so.

For more on this, check out Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman. Here's the film, if you prefer. Here's a related book by Chomsky -- free and online -- Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989). While you're at it, to get more of a sense of what state-capitalist-supporting intelligentsia think of you, peruse Walter Lippman's Public Opinion from the '20s when the success of the WWI Creel Commission propaganda machine was being retooled for permanent use.

As Chomsky and others have pointed out, it's no coincidence that this "vanguard of the masses" ideology and set of techniques arose at the same time as fascism and Leninism elsewhere. Goebbels and Hitler looked to the US not only for eugenics programs but also for propaganda techniques. Interesting, no? How very exceptional of this shining city on a hill!

PS: Just saw this: Neuroscience and Moral Politics: Chomsky’s Intellectual Progeny

Here's my take on the article:

I’m not an expert in these areas, but I have some background in evolution and the history of biology. I tend to cringe a bit at any kind of biologically determinist argument, even if I like the conclusion. When all is said and done, this is what we know:

(1) Humans can act horribly.
(2) Humans can act wonderfully.
(3) And everything in between.

Now, teasing out or separating the biological from the psychological, sociological, economic, political, etc., reasons for (1), (2), and (3) above is basically impossible.

Moreover, it’s unnecessary. We all know that well-fed, secure people who interact in ways that encourage empathy, as Roy and Solomon point out, tend to act more in the (1) mode. Thus, who really cares about the provenance? I’m willing to believe that all aspects of human nature have a biological substrate at some point in the evolutionary past — in fact, there is no other rational alternative. I don’t see what that does for us, and sounds like “God made us good/bad” in new garb.

Specifically, if ideological beliefs can swamp supposedly biological impulses, then shouldn’t we concentrate on ideology, not on biology? If you accept the premise of the article, then the obvious conclusion is that ideological commitments at the reflective, deliberative level have swamped and do swamp our biological inheritance (even if you assume that inheritance to be lily-white). Then why talk about biology at all? Given we really don’t know much about these things — as Chomsky and Lewontin have convincingly argued in the case of the evolution of cognition and language; why does ethics get a free pass? — the natural and rational thing to do is to encourage good behavior by structuring society in such a way — all of us, together. I don’t see why we need a scientific “reason” to do so: simple survival requires it.

So, we don’t need biological sanction for more just societies. As far back as Confucius, the principle of universality has sufficed, potentially, to organize a just society (or “juster”). A little reciprocal altruism, a little enlightened self-interest, and — above all — a media and educational system that celebrates such values, is the locus of action. I realize that the author ultimately agrees; I disagree with the usefulness of reaching to the genome, especially for the above reasons.

In conclusion, I guess I have two main points: (1) I don’t really think we can possibly know in any rigorous sense what our “real” evolutionary inheritance is on questions of ethics. (2) I don’t think it much matters, as all we need is the phenomenological or “phenotypic” data to make the necessary changes, many of which are noted in this excellent article. It’s a matter of encouraging the better angels of our nature; no need to deny the obvious devils in that nature, too. Totting up which side — good or bad — predominates is not only impossible but pointless. Let’s assume human nature turns out to tilt toward the devils. So? The result is still the same: organize society to encourage good behavior. Assume, for example, that people are selfish rational profit-maximizers. OK, fine: the challenge is still to convince people of the obvious truths that they are in great danger from global warming and nuclear weapons — they don’t need to care about anyone else; convince them of that (overcome propaganda, that is), and they will act. Convince them that grabbing all you can for yourself and your family will ultimately doom your progeny, and possibly you yourself, to privation or death — and then there will be change. No need for empathy, which is a damn good thing, given that we really have no idea which side predominates, and in what percentage of the population of the species — another key issue. If ethics is a trait, then it varies in the population, even if you assume the author’s premise.

We should all remember that one undeniable evolutionary inheritance is a brain (or mind, if you like) that is amazingly flexible, especially when it comes to ethics, situational or otherwise. Sure, evolution throws down the frame, but we don’t know the dimensions of that frame, and likely never will — certainly not in time to save ourselves! — nor do we know what’s contained inside the frame in any detail, aside from behavior we can observe.

HUGE Mark Twain sale!

Jump on this; info below. If I didn't already own most of this, I'd buy this right now. Also, the Library of America is a worthy institution: check out the site!

Over 270 stories, sketches, burlesques, hoaxes, tall tales, speeches, and satires in a deluxe boxed set

Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays
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Arranged chronologically and containing many pieces never before collected, these two volumes are the most comprehensive collection ever published of Mark Twain's short writings. Here are Twain's hilarious takes on political bosses, jumping frogs, robber barons, cats, women's suffrage, temperance, petrified men, the bicycle, the Franco-Prussian War, the income tax, the insanity defense, injudicious swearing, and the advisability of political candidates preemptively telling the worst about themselves before others get around to it.

Among the stories included in this set are ''Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,'' which won him instant fame when published in 1865, ''Cannibalism in the Cars,'' ''The Invalid's Story,'' and the charming ''A Cat Tale,'' written for his daughter's private amusement. This volume also presents several of his famous and successful speeches and toasts, such as ''Woman—God Bless Her,'' ''The Babies,'' and ''Advice to Youth.''

Some stories display Twain's fascination with money and greed, such as ''The Esquimau Maiden's Romance'' and ''The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.'' Other stories, written after the death of his daughter Susy in 1896, explore the outer limits of fantasy and psychic phenomena, including ''Which Was the Dream?,'' ''The Great Dark,'' and ''My Platonic Sweetheart.''

The United States military involvement in Cuba, China, and the Philippines turned Twain's attention to political satire and invective. ''To the Person Sitting in Darkness,'' ''King Leopold's Soliloquy,'' and ''The War Prayer'' are biting denunciations of European and American imperialism. Twain's increasing unorthodox religious opinions are powerfully, often comically expressed in ''Eve Speaks,'' ''A Humane Word from Satan,'' and ''A Letter from Earth.'' Twain's brilliant inventiveness continues to shine in such later comic masterpieces as ''Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences,'' ''Hunting the Deceitful Turkey,'' and ''My First Lie and How I Got Out of It.'' A posthumous collection of proverbs and aphorisms is included as an appendix.

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UN Report on Global Environmental Crisis ("Geo4")

The page linked above leads to a ton of info, including the full report. Bottom line? If we all go on with business-as-usual capitalism, we are in for extreme deprivation. "We" means minus those who can buy their way out, as long as that is possible.

Not to see the gigantic train coming at us is an act of irrationality that may be terminal. Of course, we've all been ignoring nuclear weapons (aside from certain states at certain times -- pure hypocrisy) since 1945, so...yeah, this species is proving itself non-viable.

More good news here, and an hour-long interview with Tim Flannery on these issues from Democracy Now here.

Juan Cole on the Iran Sanctions

Inside Ketziot Prison via the Real News

25 October 2007

The Spanish Civil War, 1983, Channel 4 (UK)

Looks like a great documentary; unfortunately unembeddable. So, I'm listing the parts below; click on the link and all videos for each part will play in a new window/tab on YouTube.

Bill Maher: The Decider

Some politically informed stand-up by a very funny guy:

World Can't Wait on Horowitz's "Islamo-fascism Week," Currently Underway

Billionaires up, America down

Some very sobering statistics in here, even for those in the know. Nah, no such thing as class warfare. Every American deserves his or her place in the natural hierarchy. Of course.

Meanwhile, Iraq is set to surpass Vietnam in dollar-adjusted cost by the end of the year. And we're headed to Iran...

Hmmm...extreme Keynesians, militarists, destroyers of civil liberties on "terror" pretexts, vicious and mendacious propagandizers, expert exploiters of little-known, little-used parliamentary tactics in order to destroy parliamentary procedure, devotees of a corporate-governmental nexus (way beyond outsourcing)...hmmm... Sounds more like fascists to me.

Yet the GOP portrays itself as "conservative." And I know bright people who really seem to believe it. Somewhere, Machiavelli is laughing.

Chomsky, "The Political Economy of the Mass Media," 3/15/89, Madison, WI

An oldie but a goodie:

23 October 2007

Exchange on Buruma's Demolition of Shoddy

Following up on this article...

'The Moment Has Come to Get Rid of Saddam' By Mark Danner

From the NYRB, on the Aznar-Blair-Bush summit transcript. Includes translation from the Spanish.

George Orwell Documentary

Click the title to see all the parts of the film...not embeddable.

Mark Steel on Che Guevara

22 October 2007

Charles Darwin: Legacy

Good history of evolutionary biology:

Mark Steel, The Evolution of Man

Mark Steel, Vive La Revoluton: The French Revolution

First a video, then an audio version...

Mark Steel on Albert Einstein

Also very witty... Some info on Mark Steel.

Mark Steel on Karl Marx

Very witty! Some info on Mark Steel.

Chomsky Interviewed by U Wash Seattle Student Radio, 4/07

This kid is by far the best interviewer of Chomsky I've ever heard, especially when he gets into the linguistics and history and philosophy of science stuff...