Ron Jacobs Writes: The History Of A Thirty Year Hit Job — Trying To Kill Social Security

Re-posted from Counterpunch — Weekend Edition June 15-17, 2012

The History of a 30 Year Hit Job
Trying to Kill Social Security


It seems like every few months alarms are sounded warning US workers that Social Security is going bankrupt. Oftentimes, the follow up to these alarms includes a warning that the only way to save the system is by turning all or part of the funds involved over to Wall Street investment houses like Goldman Sachs. Usually the alarms are sounded by right wing politicians from the Republican Party. In recent years however, this cacophony of lies has been assisted by more and more Democrats.

According to Eric Laursen in his new book titled The People’s Pension: the Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan, the desire to end what is Washington’s most successful government program has been underway since Social Security’s inception. It has only intensified in recent decades. As the title suggests, that intensification sharpened in 1981, the year Ronald Reagan became president. As anyone with an understanding of neoliberal capitalism and the role played by investment houses in this stage of capitalism knows, that year coincides more or less with an increased interest in Social Security funds by those houses. Why? Because their required growth requires more funds to invest and there are billions of dollars in funds sitting in the Social Security reserves.

Laursen provides the reader with a brief history of the philosophy behind Social Security. Harkening to the writings of 19th century anarchists and leftists, he describes part of the impetus behind Social Security as coming from the ideas of mutual aid; where every citizen is cared for. More specifically, he traces the institution of the social security system to the Townsend clubs begun in the 1930s by Dr. Francis Townsend of California. It was Townsend’s idea that old people should be guaranteed an income based on their work and funded by taxes. His reasoning was simple, if senior citizens had an income, they could remain consumers, thereby helping
<; stimulate the economy. Millions joined these clubs, exerting political pressure that led to the Social Security Act of 1937. Naturally, this act was fervently opposed by many corporate executives and the wealthy as being socialist and un-American.

Most of today’s opponents are not so blunt in their assessment. However, their proposals to privatize the system suggests that they too oppose a government program that does not benefit their corporate benefactors. Instead, they would rather turn it over to the Goldman Sachs of the world. This desire is certainly related to the substantial campaign donations they receive from Goldman Sachs and their cohorts. One expects right wing politicians opposed to any government expenditures not related to benefitting private industry and the Pentagon to oppose Social Security. It is the Democratic opponents that deserve our real attention. Laursen’s history is also a history of the gradual shrinking of support among Democrats and other so-called liberals.

The People’s Pension puts the beginning of the current assault on Social Security in the lap of the Reagan administration. Laursen makes it very clear that the opponents of this program are not interested in saving money, a fairer distribution of benefits, or helping the elderly. They are serving an ideological agenda of social Darwinism. Furthermore, every attack on Social Security is nothing more or less than an attempt by the corporate world and its right wing supporters to end it once and for all. Laursen further points out that the arguments used by Social Security’s opponents never address the economic consequences of ending the program; they only draw up flimsy prognostications of disaster should the program continue. Calls for privatization are nothing more than one more method of corporate America to take public monies and privatize the profits while insuring the continued socialization of the risks and loss. As Laursen points out, this is exactly what is done by the defense industry and any scheme to privatize Social Security would do the same thing.

A fact that is not very well known outside of certain circles is that the model for privatization promoted by the so-called supply side economists was developed in the fascist Chile of Augusto Pinochet. Championed by many Republicans and their banker/corporate sponsors, this model is ultimately more expensive than keeping things as they are and its greatest benefits are to the banking industry. Furthermore, this and other privatization schemes assume an ever-growing capitalist economy—a phenomenon less certain than it was before the crash of 2008. Despite this, politicians continue to include Social Security in their gunsights. Whether it Alan Simpson calling Social Security a “Milk Cow with 310 Million Tits,” or so-called Blue Dog Democrats suggesting that benefits be changed, the assault on the program never goes away.

Eric Laursen has written a comprehensive and exhaustive history of the Social Security program in the United States. The People’s Pension is an honest, detailed and even eye-opening discussion of the program’s origins and continuing efforts to provide elderly and disabled Americans with a livable income. Equally important, it is a discussion of the attempts to alter and ultimately destroy the program by forces whose only interest seems to be profit and the elimination of any government institution that guarantees every citizen worker an income in their old age.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at:

Robert Loss Writes: Bruce Springsteen Shouts at the Hard of Hearing

Image from Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 Wrecking Ball Tour website

Bruce Springsteen Shouts at the Hard of Hearing

By Robert Loss 8 June 2012

The Boss, Flannery O’Connor and The Common Good

“You’re walkin’ tough baby, but you’re walkin’ blind….”
—Bruce Springsteen, “The Ties That Bind”

“Seems like every time I got a nickel, I had to spend a dime.”
—The Canton Spirituals

5 March 2012: The first sounds we hear on Wrecking Ball are resolute drums and the nervous siren of a lead guitar processed to sound as if it’s emanating from Mars. Cue the wall of guitar, the chiming melody soon doubled by Springsteen’s trademark glockenspiel. Quickly the sound of “We Take Care of Our Own” is as big as “Born in the U.S.A.” but more orchestral, more carefully arranged, and, because it’s been staring for too long at the unfulfilled promises of America, not as surprised by what it sees. “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” lope along, free and vicious. The tone plummets on “Jack of All Trades”, where a desperate man—it could be a woman just as easily—says, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight”. Is it a threat or a boast? “Death to My Hometown” jigs along to its bitter end: the first act’s promised gunfire.

cover art

Bruce Springsteen

Wrecking Ball

(Columbia; US: 6 Mar 2012; UK: 5 Mar 2012)

The first five songs on Wrecking Ball constitute the most sustained bout of anger Springsteen has put to record since the four-song sequence on Live 1975-1985 which began with a furious version of “Born in the U.S.A.”. That performance was recorded in 1985, well after President Reagan attempted to hijack the song for his re-election campaign, and in the song’s final minutes, Springsteen and the E Street Band strangle the song’s neck so there will be no misunderstanding of its meaning. This segues into a brutal version of “Seeds”, a performance so good the song never needed to be recorded for a studio album, a touching, bitter “The River” and a stomp through Edwin Starr’s “War”.
Together those four songs told the story of a young man who goes to war, survives, and comes home to a lack of jobs, pervasive desperation, depression and rage.
Sound familiar?
I took immediately to Wrecking Ball‘s anger. For whatever its aesthetic misfires, the album speaks to the despair, confusion, frustration and drift in our lives, including my own: work lost, unavailable, and scrounged for; medical conditions uncovered, untreated; bills unpaid, bill collectors dodged, tightropes walked between responsibility and reality. This is what it means to be working poor in America.
It’s embarrassing to talk about one’s own economic status, particularly in our materialistic, glamour-of-success culture. And there are limits to what I’m willing to share, and what you are most likely willing to listen to. I will say this, however: for many years I lived in a constant state of tension. Even when my income was relatively secure, I felt that one mistake or one day of bad luck—a car breakdown, a slip on the ice, a misplaced word—could ruin me. Next thing you’d know, I’d be walking across cars like Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
This is the kind of personal narrative Springsteen has always excelled at: songs about frustrated working-class men and women who cannot fathom the political forces shaping their lives and lash out in personal, local ways. Yet most of Wrecking Ball is unabashedly pointed, broadly drawn, public and deeply political.
Why has Springsteen set aside his storytelling in favor of social jeremiads? Who is he singing to? Why is he trying to do something different now, or is it just, as some critics claim, his brand of righteous rock as usual? The critical questions are not about the subjects—he’s been singing about them for years—but instead, style, method and strategy.
28 March 1979: Everything goes to hell at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the middle of the Susquehanna River in south central Pennsylvania. A valve sticks, man can’t talk to machine, and how-do-you-do: partial nuclear meltdown. A jeremiad almost comes true.
Living less than five miles from the nuclear plant, my father manages a local wastewater treatment plant and has to stick around while hundreds of thousands evacuate. Years later he writes me that, days after the incident and “to my utter amazement, the plant’s corporate owners GPU continued to report that there had been no leak of radiation material. By that, I took them to mean that there were no uranium rods laying out in the front yard.”
21-22 September 1979: Well-meaning musicians perform at No Nukes: The Muse Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future at, where else, Madison Square Garden in NYC. (“Muse” is, in fact, an acronym: Musicians United for Safe Energy, and they raised money recently for tsunami relief in Japan.) As captured on film and as heard on the inevitable live triple-album, the performances seem oblivious to the terror and displacement months prior in rural Pennsylvania. Everyone has a good, easy time of it, and they look fab doing it. James Taylor, Graham Nash, Carly Simon and John Hall mime their way through, what else, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. The Doobie Brothers perform something.
By performing at No Nukes, Springsteen wades into the Cool Whip of rock-star political consciousness for the first time. Until this point, he has infused his music with politics in the primal sense of the word: politics as the meeting place between the individual and society. Like most recording artists, he’s done this by way of character and story, only with more acuity and toughness. But now he’s on stage for a cause, and he responds with “The River” more than a year before it will be released on the eponymous album. Dedicating the song to his brother-in-law and sister, Springsteen nonetheless conjures up the fears and bitterness of people besieged by forces greater than themselves. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” he sings—worse as in the forced evacuation from your home in the wake of a partial core meltdown, or having to stay because that’s your job.
Maybe there comes a time when you can’t afford to be subtle. Or maybe the anger just springs up, as it must have in the days after the incident at Three Mile Island, when Springsteen wrote and recorded the manic “Roulette”, a song which sounds like the soundtrack to a realistic horror film someone has yet to make. “Roulette” was recorded in the first days of the first session for what would become The River, but it never made that album and wasn’t performed at the No Nukes concerts. In fact, it wasn’t performed live until 1988 when Max Weinberg had to beat the hell out of the drums to rein the band to a tempo Springsteen could sing over.
1978-1982: Springsteen Reads Flannery O’Connor
Until The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen revealed more about his politics on tour than he did on record—he didn’t campaign for a political candidate until he played at rallies for John Kerry in 2004—and like many of us, he stuck to causes, not parties or overarching ideals except for the highest and most abstract: equality, freedom, dignity. These aspirations worked because Springsteen has always known how to throw a punch. In the liner notes to the outtakes CD which accompanied The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen wrote that around that time:

“I knew the stakes I wanted to play for, so I picked the hardest of what I had, music that would leave no room to be misunderstood about what I felt was at risk and what might be attained over the American airwaves of radio in 1978. Power, directness, austerity were my goals. Tough music for folks in tough circumstances.”

But Darkness on the Edge of Town was not “We Shall Overcome”. The lyrics were not explicitly topical, and only occasionally optimistic. Springsteen’s directness was contained within stories that maintained a degree of ambiguity. It was up to the listeners to make the connections, even if, on startling songs like “Roulette”, the connections were glaring.
I’ve always found it interesting that beginning in the late ‘70s and especially close to the time he recorded Nebraska, Springsteen was reading the American and very Catholic fiction writer Flannery O’Connor. Known primarily for her odd, brutal short stories of grace and violence in a South divided by race and class and tradition, O’Connor cared less about her characters’ politics than she did their salvation. These are recognizably normal people whose strangeness seems to be the great American secret, and through relentlessly terrible decisions, blind ignorance, comfortable smugness and simple bad luck, their salvation is real, even if it’s horrifying to witness.

We Have Abandoned an Idea Central to the American Character

There aren’t many examples of her overt influence on Springsteen’s work. The title of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)”, recorded in 1982, echoes one of O’Connor’s most famous short stories. Maybe Springsteen pinched the title of “The River” from O’Connor’s story, but their tales are quite different, even if the subject of redemption runs through both. More influential was O’Connor’s perspective on humanity, especially on Nebraska. In an interview with Doubletake in which he explained reading her work, Springsteen observed that O’Connor “got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn’t be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories—the way that she’d left that hole there, that hole that’s inside of everybody.”
By comparison to protest folk, O’Connor was subtle, but in literary terms, she was a shouter. There’s a rage to much of her writing, rage at the hypocrisy of the religious and the apathy of everyone else, a wonderful shrillness that goes hand-in-hand with her utter weirdness and the unanswerable mysteries inside her characters. This she famously explained in a speech included in her book Mystery and Manners:

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

It’s compelling to think that Springsteen read Mystery and Manners, or at least came across this well-known quote, but I can’t say with any certainty that he did. Like O’Connor, though, he got to the meanness in his characters, and he did it by never shying away from “large and startling figures”, never moreso than on Nebraska. Released nearly 30 years ago to the day as I write this, that record journeys as far down into the well of American blankness as you can go and still get out. Its muted voice is shocking, and its speechless rage a kind of shout.
I’m convinced that on Wrecking Ball, Springsteen is shouting at the hard of hearing. Which might mean that, as in 1978 and in 1982, Springsteen doesn’t assume his audience holds “the same beliefs” he does.
Which might be the most dangerous and exciting thing an artist can think.
May 2012: And what beliefs does Springsteen assume we might not share with him? To what have we become hard of hearing and almost blind?
If there’s one thing Springsteen is shouting on Wrecking Ball, if there’s one message he knows his audience in its fullest might resist and thus screams even louder, it’s that we have abandoned an idea central to the American character: the common good.
The promise of America was that a balance would be struck between the individual and the collective, one that avoided the uniformity of an oppressive government and, on the other hand, what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called in Leviathan “a war of all against all”. This balance would be achieved by a sense of shared purpose and connectedness wherein the individual had room to breath but was not abandoned by his fellow man. It’s the tension at the heart of American culture, and the heart of its politics.
These days, however, individualism has never been a stronger ideal, and the collective good has been consumed by materialism; the only collective good we care about is the one we can buy. We have forgotten the question the late historian Tony Judt asks in Thinking the Twentieth Century: “How do you stop capitalism from creating an angry, impoverished, resentful lower class that becomes a source of division or decline?” Without a sense of public, common good, Judt writes later, “What gets lost…what is corroded in the distaste for common taxation is the very idea of a society as a terrain of shared responsibilities.”
On Wrecking Ball, the notion of a common good is pervasive: the many songs sung in the second-person, the equal opportunity of “Land of Hope and Dreams”—especially as it recalls Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”—and the shared sacrifices of striking railroad workers, Civil Rights protestors, and modern-day Mexican immigrants in “We Are Alive”. More effective, perhaps, is how Springsteen brings to life the results of a society disinterested in being a civil society: the desperation of the couple in “Easy Money”, who might die this night; the bondage of the jobless man in “Shackled and Drawn”, the drifting “Jack of All Trades” and the infuriated voice in “Death to My Hometown”. There’s nothing subtle, sublime or ironic about any of this.
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Why is it necessary for Springsteen to shout? I suspect it’s because he thinks too many in his diverse audience no longer believe in the common good. We write it off as a romantic, naïve ideal, one that simply isn’t pragmatic.
Maybe he thinks his conservative base of listeners have misinformed or narrow ideas about the common good. Springsteen unashamedly claims that a common good cannot be achieved solely through family, town and church, and yet reaffirms that each of those is worthwhile and in need of protection from greed, hypocrisy and crass materialism. Alternately, perhaps the Left needs reminding of the ideal upon which it was built: the progressive social vision of progress, which does not mean fiddling while unions burn or practicing Facebook slacktivism. (Okay, we all do that.)
On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen sings, “Hold tight to your anger… and don’t fall to your fears”. He dares to suggest that anger is equal opportunity. Those who’ve allied themselves with the Far Right and the Tea Party have legitimate reasons to be angry, he says, but warns that the fears nurtured by its opportunistic party leaders are destructive. The Left should hear a different message: Get angry. If you believe in equal rights for all individuals, and if you believe in the government’s ability to positively affect people’s lives—on and on the list goes—then damn it, you should be angry right now.
But the real strength of Springsteen’s vision is that he realizes most of his audience does not fall neatly into categories like Left or Right. He recognizes that most people hold conflicting beliefs and find themselves confused about what they believe. Even so, if we hold key beliefs which conflict greatly with others, we also believe in certain values that do not conflict—if we can just remember what they are.
And since nobody seems to remember or believe in the common good anymore, Springsteen is not only shouting for all of us, he’s shouting at all of us.
Walkin’ Tough, Walkin’ Blind
Perhaps no other song on Wrecking Ball has come under as much criticism as “Jack of All Trades”: Pitchfork claims it has “overly broad characterization”; in a New York Times review-as-conversation, Jon Parales says it “verges on self-parody” and Jon Caramanica, actually expects us to believe that “the sodden workingman empathy literally made me nauseous”; and over on Slate, Rosen compares Springsteen to the well-intentioned but naïve director-protagonist in the Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels. Apparently, like Sullivan, Springsteen has mainly been pumping out comedies up to this point (knee-slappers like Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, and The Rising), and now has abandoned the safe confines of Hollywood—or rather, New Jersey and its sixth-highest rate of unemployment as of April 2012—to mingle with the Common Man. Implicit in Rosen’s comparison is that The Boss can’t understand such folks because he is, after all, Rich and Famous.
What’s in the song is a simple, painful idea: a desperate plea for work. Give me something, anything, I’ll do whatever. When the job you were trained for disappears, when your education has not given you the tools to adapt, when what you thought was a sure thing vanishes, you’ll take all comers. “You want me to set some stone?” the song’s narrator asks. “I’ll do it. Want me to harvest crops? Done.” “Jack of All Trades” is the story of trying to cobble together an income, a livelihood, with some dignity.
Certainly a record reviewer has never been in that position, right?
What infuriates me about so many of the reviews of Wrecking Ball, positive and negative alike, is that they refuse to take the idea of a common good seriously. Maybe that’s impossible, though, if you refuse to believe that “common” and “ordinary” are anything but pejoratives, or if you simply have no idea what millions of people are experiencing.
On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen has re-imagined his audience, or rather come to terms again with its diversity, even if he knows his outrage will shake some people and give others unexpected ammunition. If he can throw a punch, he can take one, too; his career certainly can. But it’s invigorating to see him throwing punches at all. Whether or not the album works on its own terms—and those are the terms by which it should be judged—I don’t see anyone else taking the risk of being wrong.

Robert Loss teaches writing and literature at Columbus College of Art and Design. Other work about music and comic books has appeared in The Panelists, Ghettoblaster and OxMag. His short fiction has appeared in Filigree and Mayday. In his other life he fronts The Wells, a rock band in Columbus, Ohio.

Liberation as Death Sentence: Health Care at the End of the Civil War

Liberation as Death Sentence

By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER    Published: June 10, 2012   New York Times

When Civil War History published a paper this spring raising the conflict’s military death toll to 750,000 from 620,000, that journal’s editors called it one of the most important pieces of scholarship ever to appear in its pages.

Richard Perry/The New York Times historian Jim Downs at Grant’s Tomb.
Timothy H. O’Sullivan/Library of Congress  Digging graves in Fredericksburg, Va.,in 1864. A million ex-slaves are said to have become sick or died after 1862.

But to Jim Downs, an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College and the author of the new book “Sick From Freedom,” issued last month by Oxford University Press, that accounting of what he calls “the largest biological crisis of the 19th century” does not go nearly far enough.

To understand the war’s scale and impact truly, Professor Downs argues, historians have to look beyond military casualties and consider the public health crisis that faced the newly liberated slaves, who sickened and died in huge numbers in the years following Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

“We’re getting ready to celebrate 150 years of the movement from slavery to freedom,” he said in a recent interview at a cafe near his apartment in Chelsea. “But hundreds of thousands of people did not survive that movement.”

“Sick From Freedom,” at 178 pages (not counting 56 pages of tightly argued footnotes), may seem like a bantamweight in a field crowded with doorstops. But it’s already being greeted as an important challenge to our understanding of an event that scholars and laypeople alike have preferred to see as an uplifting story of newly liberated people vigorously claiming their long-denied rights.

“The freed people we want to see are the ones with all their belongings on the wagon, heading toward freedom,” said David W. Blight, a professor of history at Yale and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. “But the truth is, for every person making it there may have been one falling by the way.”

Professor Downs, 39, is part of a wave of scholars who are sketching out a new, darker history of emancipation, Professor Blight said, one that recognizes it as a moral watershed while acknowledging its often devastating immediate impact. And the statistics offered in “Sick from Freedom” are certainly sobering, if necessarily tentative.

At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Professor Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Professor Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.

Historians of the Civil War have long acknowledged that two-thirds of all military casualties came from disease rather than heroic battle. But they have been more reluctant to dwell on the high number of newly emancipated slaves that fell prey to disease, dismissing earlier accounts as propaganda generated by racist 19th-century doctors and early-20th-century scholars bent on arguing that blacks were biologically inferior and unsuited to full political rights.

Instead, historians who came of age during the civil rights movement emphasized ways in which the former slaves asserted their agency, playing as important a role in their own liberation as Lincoln or the Union army.

“For so long, people were afraid to talk about freed people’s health,” Professor Downs said. “They wanted to talk about agency. But if you have smallpox, you don’t have agency. You can’t even get out of bed.”

Professor Downs first became interested in the health of newly liberated slaves when he was a graduate student at Columbia University with a job as a research assistant in the papers of Harriet Jacobs, the author of the 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and a vivid chronicler of the often abysmal conditions in the “contraband camps” where escaped slaves congregated during the war and in settlements of freed people more generally after it. The papers were full of heart-wrenching encounters with sick and dying freed people — references that he noticed were strikingly absent in recent scholarship.

As he developed the topic into his dissertation, Professor Downs recalls sparring with his adviser, Eric Foner, the author of the classic book “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Business, 1863-1877.”

“He would joke: ‘Look in my index. You don’t even see smallpox,’ ” Professor Downs said.

But as he sorted through the little-explored records of the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other archives, he found reams of statistical and anecdotal accounts of sick and dying freed people, whose suffering was seen by even some sympathetic Northern reformers as evidence that the race was doomed to extinction.

Meanwhile tallies of the smaller number of white smallpox victims were kept only lackadaisically and eventually crossed out all together — evidence, he argues, that officials were eager to see the outbreak as a “black epidemic” not worth bothering about. (By contrast a cholera outbreak in 1866 that mainly affected whites was vigorously combated, he notes.)

Professor Downs also found a medical system that was less concerned with healing the sick than with separating out healthy workers who could be sent back to the fields, and then closing the hospitals as quickly as possible.

In an e-mail Professor Foner praised “Sick From Freedom” as offering “a highly original perspective” that “deserves wide attention.” And Professor Downs makes no bones about wanting to place health issues at the center of multiple scholarly conversations about the war and its aftermath.

“I wanted to say, ‘You’re not allowed to do the history of labor or the history of the family or the history of citizenship unless you go through my book,’ ” he said. “I wanted to be able to tell a story about these people’s lives that wouldn’t get pushed aside as melodrama.”

He is also not shy about drawing out his work’s contemporary relevance. His dissertation included an epilogue about AIDS, another epidemic, he said, that broke out shortly after a moment of liberation (in this case of gay people), was blamed on the victims and was largely ignored by the federal government. (He dropped the point from the book, which instead ends with an epilogue showing how policies developed in the post-Civil War South were exported to the Western frontier, with similarly devastating health consequences for American Indians.)

Professor Downs also sees parallels with the current health care debate. “Freed slaves,” he writes in the book, were “the first advocates of federal health care” — a statement that could be read from the left as an example of early black political activism, or from the right as an instance of newly liberated people immediately asking for a government handout.

That second reading was one he initially worried about, Professor Downs said. But he ultimately just let the historical chips fall where they may.

“I’ve been alone with these people in the archives,” he said. “I have a responsibility to tell their stories.”

Barry Unsworth, Author of Sacred Hunger, Dies at 81 — NYT Obituary

Barry Unsworth, Writer of Historical Fiction, Dies at 81

Published: June 7, 2012

Barry Unsworth, considered one of the foremost historical novelists in English, who was known for rich, densely textured fiction that conjured lost worlds — those of the Trojan War, medieval Europe and the Napoleonic age, among many others — died on June 4 in Perugia, Italy. He was 81 and had lived in the Umbria region of Italy for many years.

Jerry Bauer — The British novelist Barry Unsworth in 2003.

The cause was lung cancer, said Lois Wallace, his literary agent in the United States.

An Englishman, Mr. Unsworth won a Booker Prize in 1992 for “Sacred Hunger,” a story of avarice set amid the Atlantic slave trade of the 18th century. The award, now known as the Man Booker Prize, is considered Britain’s loftiest literary honor. (Mr. Unsworth shared it that year with Michael Ondaatje, who won for “The English Patient.”)

Writing about “Sacred Hunger” in The New York Times Book Review this year, the novelist John Vernon said:

“The novel contains a vision of hell on earth unlike any in contemporary fiction, largely because its account of the unimaginable cruelties of the slave trade is told in the well-wrought prose of an old-fashioned 19th-century novel with an omniscient narrator. The effect is uncanny: its intelligent, controlled and immensely readable sentences glow with a deathly pallor.”

Mr. Unsworth’s books, characterized by prodigious research and propulsive narrative force, have long been renowned in Britain and have gained a broad international following in the last few decades.

Among his best known — he wrote 17 novels in all — are “Stone Virgin” (1986), set in Renaissance Venice; “Losing Nelson” (1999), about a modern-day writer obsessed with the great British admiral; “The Songs of the Kings” (2003), which retells the story of the Trojan War; and, most recently, “The Quality of Mercy,” published last year, which continues the narrative of “Sacred Hunger.”

Mr. Unsworth’s work was a prolonged study of morality. To him, as he made plain in interviews, the historical novel offered a wide portal through which to observe human ethical behavior and its myriad failings as played out across any imaginable era.

His books teem with greed. Displaying visible sympathy for people oppressed by those who lust for power, Mr. Unsworth ranged — sometimes soberly, sometimes humorously — over a catalog of human depredation, which also included kidnapping (remember Helen of Troy) and murder.

Reviewers occasionally chided Mr. Unsworth for appearing to fall victim to his own exhaustive research. “Facts sometimes arrive rather awkwardly,” the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian, in an otherwise favorable review of his 2009 novel, “Land of Marvels,” about intrigue in Mesopotamia on the eve of World War I.

Most critics, however, praised Mr. Unsworth’s stylish prose, rigorous fealty to detail and ability to evoke entire complex societies. As they also remarked, his books — with their evocation of mankind’s seemingly limitless capacity for immorality — were also brightly lighted windows onto our own age.

A coal miner’s son, Barry Forster Unsworth was born in Wingate, in the north of England, on Aug. 10, 1930. The first in his family to attend college, he earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Manchester, where he studied English, in 1951.

He decided soon afterward to write short stories, but there were difficulties.

“Eudora Welty’s ‘A Curtain of Green’ had an enormous effect on me,” Mr. Unsworth told The Globe and Mail of Canada in 1995, invoking the author’s first story collection, published in 1941. “But my early attempts to graft stories from the Deep South onto North of England provincialism were not successful. All were rejected.”

He turned to novels, and his first, “The Partnership,” was published in 1966. It told the story of two men whose business relationship is destroyed by the erotic attraction of one to the other. Another novel from this period, “The Hide” (1970), involved a peeping Tom. Though both novels are set in contemporary England, their fascination with obsession and ruin was a harbinger of Mr. Unsworth’s later work.

Over time, Mr. Unsworth fell into the past.

“I don’t think it has been so much a choice as a sort of gradual process determined by accidents of circumstance,” he said in an interview with the online journal Littoral. “I spent most of the ’60s, when I was starting to try to write novels, living and working in Greece and Turkey. These are countries where the ancient past is interfused with the daily present, and I remember being struck with wonder at the constant sense of continuity and connection, the reminders that lie in wait for you at every turn.”

Mr. Unsworth’s first marriage, to Valerie Moor, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Aira; three daughters from his first marriage, Madeleine Reiss, Tania Unsworth and Thomasina Unsworth; a brother, Peter; and six grandchildren.

His other novels include two finalists for the Booker, “Morality Play” (1995), about a band of strolling actors in 14th-century Yorkshire; and “Pascali’s Island” (released in the United States in 1980 as “The Idol Hunter”), set in the early-20th-century Ottoman Empire.

Both books were made into feature films: “Pascali’s Island,” released in 1988, starred Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren; “The Reckoning” (as “Morality Play” was retitled for the screen) was released in 2003 and starred Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe.

If Mr. Unsworth’s novels about the past were veiled allegorical tales about the present, then the veil was largely ripped away, he said, during the Margaret Thatcher era.

In an interview with The Independent of London about “Sacred Hunger” in 1992 — two years after Prime Minister Thatcher left office — he made the connection explicit.

“As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies,” Mr. Unsworth said. “You couldn’t really live through the ’80s without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were. The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences.”

John L. Dorman contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 13, 2012

An obituary on Friday about the British historical novelist Barry Unsworth, using information from his United States literary agent, misstated the day that he died. It was Monday, June 4 — not Tuesday, June 5.

Pedagogy of the Poor, the Poverty Scholars Initiative, and Lessons on Ending Poverty

Pedagogy of the Poor: Building the Movement to End Poverty, by Willie Baptist and Jan Rehman

(This is a slightly expanded version of a review by Lew Rosenbaum to be published in the July issue of the People’s Tribune)

The final chapter of Pedagogy Of The Poor begins with these words: “This book has focused on poverty as the defining issue of our time and theoretical and practical educational methods to address the root causes of poverty and build a social movement to eliminate it.”  Published in June, 2011, this book sums up 40 years of activity within the housing and homelessness movement.  More than that, the book helps provide a theoretical framework for understanding a moment when suddenly the disparity between wealth and poverty in this country has been encapsulated in the phrase “99% vs. 1%.”

Poverty: a year ago, this discussion might even have been considered abstract or academic. References to Martin Luther King, Jr. that populate this book might have been considered obligatory but inapplicable bows to a fallen leader.  Not today.  Not any more.  The practical implications of the Occupy movement require that we must take this book seriously.

Teachers may want to skip to the last section, which has the elements that describe how the writers have engaged in the pedagogical activities they have.  While “Teach As We Fight, Learn As We Lead” is rich in detail and in implication, what leads into this chapter is the foundation upon which the scaffolding stands.    The central format of the book is a series of interviews with Willie Baptist, conducted by co-author Jan Rehman.  Baptist describes how he learned what he needed to become active in the anti-poverty movement, and relates that to the major political and economic developments of the last 50 years.  Growing up in South Central Los Angeles during the Civil Rights movement shaped Baptist’s outlook; studying the change from the industrial economy to an electronic/robotic economy showed him how the class and racial struggles he witnessed as a youth have entered a qualitatively new phase.

Interviews are interposed by more theoretical chapters by Rehman himself, for example on the causes of poverty and on the significance of Italian Marxist theorist Gramsci for the poor people’s movements.  Other sections are taken from conversations among the Poverty Scholars Initiative at Union Theological Seminary, the model which the book showcases.  Baptist relentlessly hammers home his theme, that study was necessary to put into perspective his activism — activism required by the disintegration of society. The dialectical relationship between action and theory is illustrated well by the remarkable section in which Baptist discusses Gramsci with John Wessel McCoy:  “Gramsci was dealing with fundamental relationships in society.  He was trying to consider, ‘How do you take power?’  This is what is often lost in discussions about Gramsci – the movement of the dispossessed was toward a common ownership of the means of production, and they needed power to accomplish that.”

This book is not another pedagogy aimed at training the elite to lead the poor. So it is important to recognize the allusion to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire’s seminal work, published first in 1968, has been widely circulated far beyond its Brazilian origins.

Baptist and Rehman translate Freire to the urban experience of 21st century North America while paying tribute to their important ancestor.  Ultimately what this book is about is how the dispossessed can get the theoretical and practical education necessary to take power;  what does a poor people’s movement led by poor people look like; what does leadership mean at a period of time qualitatively different from anything we have seen?  This is book is an indispensable tool for any collective grappling with these questions, when the only tools that revolutionaries have is influencing the ideas of the combatants.

Pedagogy of the Poor, by Willie Baptist and Jan Rehman, available from Teachers College Press ISBN 978-0-8077-5228-9 $28.95


Working Hard? Or Hardly Working? Comedy Central And The American Recession








Working Hard? Or Hardly Working?

Posted on June 11, 2012 |

Are you a workaholic? According to the latest research there is more than one kind. Typical workaholics are “pushed” to their work and may suffer from poorer relationships at home and at work, as well as heart attacks and other illnesses caused by stress. But the latest discovery is people who qualify as “engaged workaholics,” who are “pulled” to their work because they love to work. According to Danish researcher Wilmar Schaufeli, these engaged workaholics “work because work is fun.” They also suffer less burnout, and perhaps fewer health deficits, than the typical workaholics.

I raise this question because Comedy Central just broke out its third season of Workaholics, an addictive show about three continuously baked twentysomethings who work as telemarketers. The three office mates/house mates are not “aholics” when it comes to work, but they are addicted to just about everything else: weed, rap, booze, porn, shrooms, acid, and wizards. Seriously, they love wizards.

The buddies on Workaholics have the same names as the actors who play them, Blake (Anderson), Adam (DeVine) and Ders (Anders Holm). Their boss is a woman—a barracuda with a soft spot for the slackers, and the plots usually revolve around a wild party, sometimes taking place at the suburban tract house they share, and sometimes taking place at work, like the time they camped out in the office while tripping on mushrooms, or the time they brought drugs on a business trip and were able to close an important deal by plying their client with acid.

However poor the work ethic of the characters on Workaholics, their real life counterparts probably qualify as “engaged” workaholics. Blake and Adam met at Orange Coast College, a community college in Costa Mesa, and after they found Anders at The Improv they began uploading sketch comedy to the internet in their spare time. Before they made it big, Blake, the show’s front man, with a mop of orange ringlet curls and a caterpillar mustache, was simultaneously going to school, delivering pizza, and becoming an internet phenomenon.

Fortunately for the show’s 2.2 million viewers per episode, mostly men between the ages of 18-34, the comedy trio took off. A Comedy Central executive saw one of Mail Order Comedy webisodes and agreed to bankroll their pilot. Ironically, of course, Blake, Anders, and Adam hit it big making comedy from their own nerdy, druggy, loserish lives. Most Americans are not so lucky. Any real worker who came to work as drunk, hungover, and stoned as the boys on Workaholics would be terminated.

Season one of Workaholics debuted in 2011 and featured wacky workplace intrigue, peppered by drugs, a bitchy boss, indecent exposure, and potty humor galore. The hilarious pilot featured a sadistic work place drug tester who threatened to expose the merry band of bromancers for the druggies they were. In an action sequence inspired by the film Die Hard, Blake busted through the office’s ceiling tiles, crawled through the air ducts, and broke into the room containing the vials of urine waiting to be drug-tested.. Blake then contaminated the samples with his own stream. In the final scene, the bested drug tester fell for one of the boys’ favorite pranks, stooping down to pick up a rolled up dollar bill filled with dog poop.

You wouldn’t think that a comedy this juvenile would have much to say about real workers, but the employees of TelAmericorp can be devilishly wry in their commentary on the modern-day dead-end-job. Almost every episode involves a real life situation that workers face in the new recessionary economy, such as getting fired, being denied vacation time, being fired for striking, being denied a raise or  a promotion, losing health insurance, being evicted, and failing a drug test. While the resolutions to these conflicts are often wildly fantastic and hallucinatory, and would never resolve a similar situation in real life, the jokes in each episode have nearly as much bite as an episode of The Office, that short lived 1990s comedy, Working, starring Fred Savage, or the 1960s comedy I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, which I reviewed last month.

During a memorable episode in the first season, for example, Blake, Adam, and Ders stumble across a group of strikers. “What are you on strike for?” The workers reply: “More pay, better hours, health insurance.” The boys are confused, but in a good way: “Now let me get this straight. You guys are standing outside, not working, and yelling? Strikes are awesome! Strikes are freaking cool!” Later in the episode the boys stage a strike of their own when their boss refuses to let them celebrate, as is their tradition, “half Christmas” in July.

Many television reviewers and interviewers have noticed that Workaholics echoes the current economy. MTV Geek observed that, “the show is…about these guys working these crappy jobs just so they can have enough money to party, and it’s all happening in the context of this pretty crappy economy.”

But is it possible that the recession is making some workers rethink the workaholic treadmill? American productivity, which has risen aggressively over the last decade, was down significantly last quarter. As the Associated Press reported, this could mean that “companies are struggling to squeeze more output from their workers.”

Tim Jackson, an Economics professor at the University of Surrey, took up this idea in a recent New York Times Op Ed, “Let’s be Less Productive.” He makes the radical suggestion that we try to loose ourselves from the vice grip of efficiency and productivity and revel in “slow work,” taking time to expand the professions that require craft and care for others—including hospital work, the arts, and education.

On Workaholics, the characters definitely revel in non-productivity, and they do care a lot for each other at the end of the day. As with most fraternities, theirs is built on fantasies of sexual exploitation, usually thwarted, of course, because they are wannabe players. Ultimately, their fraternity is closer to the old union brotherhood than you might think. Blunt in hand, they stick by each other, go on strike with each other, contaminate drug tests for each other, close business deals for each other, fight drug dealers, mean office mates, and cold-hearted ladies for each other. On Workaholics there is just enough brotherly love and slacker-class-consciousness to keep me coming back for more.

Kathy M. Newman

Literature in a Locked Down Land






.Literature in a Locked Down Land

by William T. Hathaway / June 9th, 2012

Working class literature is alive and well and living in prison. It is “well” not in the sense of being contented and happy but rather of being vital and impassioned. And it is imprisoned not just in the sense of being locked behind bars but also of being locked into poverty. Some prisons have walls of iron and stone, others walls of economics and racism. It is their efforts to escape from this second prison that get most inmates incarcerated in the first. As Mumia Abu-Jamal said, “I’ve been in prison my whole life.”

The life-constricting pressures in both types of prisons can crush some psyches and produce diamonds of art and wisdom in others. Struggle: A Magazine of Revolutionary Proletarian Literature has been publishing the diamonds (along with some glass) since 1985. Reading it is to rediscover the power of art to give us insights and inspire us to action, an invigorating change from the vapid musings and trivial subjectivity that pass for “literary” these days. By showing us the multi-layered oppression surrounding us and the strength of the human spirit caught within that, Struggle is contributing to a culture of resistance and eventually of revolution.

For example:

Doing time in Folsom State
By Arvan Washington III

Sleep slips away like tendrils of fog
before a Lompoc Valley breeze, a morning
sun dawns upon another moonless night.
I amble aimlessly, wandering twisted corridors
inside a convoluted mind seeking the solace
of an earthly slumber, yet find myself lost
amidst the wreckage of yesteryear: a Bermuda
Triangle existence where disappearing smiles
vanished without ever leaving a trace
upon a heart hardened by aloneness.
The passage of time mocks me as I search
for my truths, though I dread their discovery.
Thus, I find comfort in lies: origami constructs
of paper figurines dancing in the funeral pyre
like marionettes dangling from a hangman’s noose.

My country does to thee
By J. Glenn Evans

Your children walk barefoot through raw sewage
Behemoths lumber through your streets
Spitting death and destruction to ancient icons
Armed men burst into your homes
Terrify your women and children
Take a father and uncle a cousin a brother
Hold them in bondage
Humiliate defile torture

Through your land sacred rivers flow
Tigress – Euphrates birth of civilization
Brown people of the desert
I grieve for your suffering
And for the soldiers
Who just want to go home
But are trapped like you
In a fatal conflict not of their making

I would rather walk or ride a horse
Than rob you of the black sea
That lies under your ancient sands
This feeble pen seeks justice for what you suffer
I spill only ink you spill your blood
If the world be brave and not tremble
At the action of this teenaged nation
It would rebuke this brutal war
Declare perpetrators war criminals
All predatory war are criminal
Against peoples of the world
Like all empires of the past
This one too will have its fall

From Captive Audience
By Michael Monroe

I write my poems for the homeless and friendless,
parched by the sun of the searing day,
freezing in the chill of the callous night
as the cold slices skin like razors
and indifference multiplies
like malignant cells.

I write my poems for the working people
slaving in the heat of the cavernous foundry,
humping crates in eternity’s shipyard,
coughing in mines deep underground,
farming our food and harvesting life,
laying bricks at the noise-drenched construction site
like Sisyphus pushing his boulder
up that lonely hill in hell.

I write my poems for the prisoners
living out their lives in concrete closets,
in rows of chicken-coop cells,
dreams locked behind steel bars;
they traded their lives
for liquor store cash,
and now they pay the price
as the years blend together
and disappear like dirty water
down a shower drain.

The March on Washington, 1963
By Tim Hall

Twenty-four years have passed
since my heart first pulsed with hope
for a better world
when I saw those black youth marching,
arm-in-arm, their faces bold and clear in purpose,
under the trees beside the pool
at the Lincoln Memorial.
I didn’t really listen
to the melodic words of Martin Luther King;
they seemed to be a little rhetorical,
not quite down-to-earth enough
compared to the vibrant, rebelling
life on the march, the young people
arm-in-arm, under the trees,
chanting, singing — militant choirs, their
voices welling up from the long years of black resistance
and bursting forth into the air that day
in a pure joy at seeing
half a million faces
dedicated to burying racism.

I didn’t listen at all
to the pompous, empty oratory of Walter Reuther;
inexperienced as I was, it revolted me nevertheless.
I saw even then that it lacked
the depth and resonance to express the lives
of the oppressed and turbulent people;
I didn’t even much like
the uniform, stale, detached slogans
on the unions’ perfect picket signs;
I sensed in them something bureaucratic,
not poetic, and I demanded poetry
to express the feelings of the people.
But I loved the faces of the workers,
warm, resolute, lively, varied,
experiences of great depth evident
in the lines on their faces, in their unevenly
developed muscles, and I noticed
that the hundreds and hundreds of buses of workers
carried the most vivid variety of people –
they, more than anyone else at the March,
already trying to live out
our belief in equality.

I was too naive to notice
a slight difference in tone
in the speech of John Lewis,
the young SNCC field worker from the rural South
who knuckled under to the big shots
and, moments before he spoke,
hastily removed all militancy from his text
and lost any chance
of presenting a radical alternative
to innocent but questioning
characters like me.

I was also too ignorant
to question the absence of Malcolm
who would have scourged the union hacks
and official black “leaders”
With a fiery exposure
and sent an insurrectionary spirit
running among the gathered masses
like a flame sweeping across
a spill of gasoline.

There were many things I missed that day,
many a lesson that went past me,
but that one fragrant blossom of hope
embodied in those singing, marching youth
and in those hundred thousand united workers’ faces
changed my life for good.

Only Chiapas?
By Tamar Diana Wilson

(with homage to Allen Ginsberg)
I have seen the best minds of five generations destroyed by poverty
struggling naked moaning sobbing howling in despair
fighting battles often lost infants dying before one year
mothers fathers anemic shrunken crippled haggard hungering

Who dragged themselves through dusty streets at dawn searched for a
way to survive laborers for others who had more lands or capital
sellers servants shiners of shoes bone pickers
great grandfathers who rented clothes from roadside stands
they hadn’t even rags or cloth spare walked barefoot
queued up beside construction sites mines railroad lines
begged for a day’s employment at any wage
hawked platanos and mangoes tomatoes and onions
while they did without or did with less
offered woven blankets embroidered lengths of cloth supplied by
middlemen work of wives and daughters straw hats and mats and
cane backed chairs serapes rebozos silver rings and broaches
carved statues of dogs cats burros children saints madonnas to people passing by mostly

tourists from nearby far off richer
lands where exploitations had occurred earlier in history but now
were exported mainly not exclusively

Who sowed hoed cut harvested tended sheep cattle
horses goats burros on haciendas from age seven or eight
beside fathers indebted by their fathers at the hacienda store
cross-generational peonage sweated in the sun
drenched in the rains shoeless bootless illiterate
their mothers sisters daughters worked free in the big house
washing ironing grinding corn cooking meals they never shared
emptying slop jars and spittoons sweeping floors and fountain adorned
patios amidst the bougainvillea for the privilege to remain
indebted without lands of their own or any hope of any
until they revolted 80 years ago

Who after 16 years of civil strife after more than a million men had died
after dislocations unrepaired after houses and scant possessions burned
after sons murdered after brothers lost after daughters sisters
mothers wives raped and disappeared
some became ejidatarios others pequeno proprietarios
some rural proletarians owning little more than life
most flocked into state capitals in Distrito Federal U.S. border towns
some to sell their labor power in fluorescing factories sweatshops
talleres cantinas on construction sites and brickyards
some to vend manzansas Marlboros contraband radios and relojes
to neighbors better off Mickey Mouse hand puppets ceramic
hamburgers slopping mayonnaise rearing stallions made of stone
mixed with traditional handicrafts woven dyed embroidered
carved painted to visitors from far off nearby richer lands
some to cross the raya to plant and harvest crops in California
Arizona Michigan Oregon Arkansas Texas or on the railroad lines
across the west or in factories foundries sweatshops in Gary Chicago
Los Angeles Detroit San Antonio until deported when no longer
needed 60 years ago 40 years ago 20 years ago today

Who then joined their urban cousins some to live on lonely brickyards
no electricity no fans no refrigerators no running water
no schools for their children mold bricks to build the malls houses
hotels industrial complexes tourist complexes banks
provide a subsidy wrung from sweat of self and family
to burgeoning urban conglomerations inhabited by the dispossessed
and those parasitic on them

Some to invade unused lands to form squatter settlements
shanty towns colonias paracaidistas colonias perdidas
colonias populares to build shacks of tarpaulin scrapwood
cardboard crushed aluminum cans trashed by Budweiser and Coca Cola
drinkers to tap the holes against the rain

Who arrived in greater numbers after the Green Revolution
Rockefeller inspired chemicals fertilizers monocropping
imported John Deere tractors International Harvesters
the lucky buy land from the luckless those whose crops failed those
with nothing left to mortgage most day laborers deprived of work on farms now mechanized

no lands to sharecrop anymore
machines replaced men machines displace men imported machines
50 years ago and today and more tomorrow now that Salinas has
revised and mangled Article 27 for which the Zapatistas fought
in 1910

Whose children labored beside them from an early age
in icy mud to mold the bricks to mix the clay
toenails rotted fungus growing on ever damp hands and feet
as ambulant vendors selling tacos fruit vegetables serapes
carved wooden statues carved stone statues white ceramic ducks
quartz pipes and bookends silver earrings hot dogs
as garbage pickers collecting metals cardboard bottles for recycling
as itinerant construction workers washers of windshields on myriad
corners singers on buses jugglers clowns ice pick swallowers
shoeshine boys dotting plazas sometimes selling glue or pingas
newspaper boys amidst the traffic which sometimes grinds them down
anything for a spare coin beggars without eyes without legs

Who malnourished never obtained full growth who poor could not pay
school fees books notebooks pencils crayons
though now there were schools unlike back on the ranchos
at least they learned to read some of them

Who built and build Acapulco Cancun Cabo San Lucas Mazatlan
Puerto Vallarta Cuernavaca tourist hotels the Hyatt the Hilton the
Westin the Lucerna the Continental Plaza the Fiesta Americana
World Trade Centers conference halls for businessmen and academics
shopping malls Plaza Mexicana Plaza del Sol Plaza Cachanilla
La Zona rosa hippodromes country clubs restaurants adorned with
Riviera murals and hanging plants in multi-colored ceramic pots
places they cannot enter and enjoy for lack of funds
lunch for one at the Rosarito Beach Hotel once a favorite haunt
of Hollywood stars costs one day’s minimum wage no drink included
two beers at the Westin and the day’s pay is gone
they build them then return
to their colonias perdidas their scrapwood dirt floored shacks
since 40 years or more ago until today

Who recycle metals cardboard newspapers collected in the local
dumps to national multinational companies
who gather dented cans of food thrown out from newly established
supermarket chains tomatoes oranges rotten on only one side
collected in the local dumps fishheads for fishhead soup thrown out by
the fish shop after filleting clothing discarded by those so better off
they have no one to hand the garments down to collected in the local
dumps a fork spoon mattress broken chair anything of human
use found in the local dumps up to now

Who rise early to make tacos burritos fruitades to sell to factory
laborers maquiladora workers who made it through primary school
at least

Who sometimes cross to U.S. cities to work in Taco Bell in Beverly Hills
gardens in L.A. N.Y. Miami garment factories Milwaukee Chicago Pittsburg Detroit

foundries in construction cleanup carwashes
gas stations as janitors busboys waiters gardeners maids
in old folks’ homes in rich folks’ homes
in the countryside to plant cultivate weed prune harvest lettuce
apples broccoli oranges peaches tomatoes grapes melons
cabbage onions still

Whose children will secure lots in newer squatter settlements
self-build housing pay one third of infrastructural costs in
installments for electricity running water sewage
buy bricks from the brickmakers still living on lonely isolated
unserviced brickyards their children still the family’s labor force
like that of the peasants from which they sprang their children their
only welfare system

Whose growth as those of parents grandparents is still stunted due
to lack of food though not as much as previously the population is
growing taller and more can read

Who will couple with daughters of fathers like their own see a movie
or two Predator Rocky III Robocop Superman Batman
Pretty Woman Deep Throat Fantasia Total Recall
dubbed in Español give them circuses if not bread
and the girls tint their hair yellow to look more like some Hollywood star
and spent their maquiladora savings on mini-skirts lipstick Clairol

Whose parents now have second hand television sets electric lights if
they have been extended to the newest squatters local politicians do
that now listen to music from cassette players bought with a
week’s wages at the local tianguis or smuggled in when returning
from California fields Wisconsin factories Arkansas show horse
stables dance in someone’s lot on Saturday nights to celebrate
quinceaneras baptisms bodas birthdays

Whose mothers gave birth without doctor’s care whose wives now go
to the Red Cross free clinic or to the General Hospital erected for
those who have no steady formal sector job the IMSS is overflowing

Who will bring up children less of whom will die before the age of five

Who are the only precious possession they will have of which they
cannot be deprived until later

Who will be unable to go to college but may complete ninth grade now
it became the law in ’95 at least those can afford books
cuadernos uniforms shoes cuotas for new desks chairs a roof
a real floor take factory jobs become cashiers nurses aides
mechanics bank tellers if they study long enough paid for the week
what is paid across the border for a day that’s why the multinationals
move there from the US from Japan from Germany
Who hope their children will continue the upward movement their past
four generations have described for many except those who dropped died gave up were

killed in strife
along the way

Although now in the cities there are more gangs defending space
some of the muchachos sniff glue smoke that old rancho weed gobble
down acids and pills designed in laboratories on the other side
take a sniff of cocaine on its way to the north
international exchange that keeps those in the barrios
on both sides of the border unorganized quiescent stupified
jobs last a few weeks a few months some cycled out so the company
need pay no benefits and the factory managers and the construction
engineers and the supermarket supervisors comply

And the peso has fallen just this year
multinationals arrive like carpetbaggers
the wage in dollars has been halved prices have doubled
in the countryside the Zapatistas unite

For more, visit Struggle Magazine.

William T. Hathaway’s other books include A World of Hurt (Rinehart Foundation Award), CD-Ring, and Summer Snow. He is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. A selection of his writing is available. Read other articles by William.

This article was posted on Saturday, June 9th, 2012 at 7:59am

Nadine Gordimer: South Africa’s New Secrecy Bill and the Threat to Freedom

South Africa: The New Threat to Freedom

May 24, 2012,  New York Review of Books

Nadine Gordimer

The regime of racism in South Africa was maintained not only by brutality—guns, violence, restrictive laws. It was upheld by elaborately extensive silencing of freedom of

Schalk van Zuydam/AP Images      A vigil against South Africa’s Secrecy Bill in front of Parliament, Cape Town, September 2011

expression. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 had definitions of communism that were vastly inclusive. What was forbidden included advocacy of industrial, political, economic, and social change.

In 1982 an updated version of the Suppression of Communism Act, the Internal Security Act, was passed, which banned the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress along with the South African Communist Party. It retained almost all of the previous definitions of what was forbidden.

The Publications and Entertainments Act of the apartheid regime banned thousands of newspapers and books in South Africa from 1950 to 1990. The works of world-famous writers, including D.H. Lawrence, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Nabokov, were prohibited along with the novels and nonfiction works of South African writers, including Todd Matshikiza, Bloke Modisane, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, André Brink, Can Themba, and three of my own novels. Among the taboo subjects of everyday life was sexual relations between white and black. In the 1970s the films Jesus Christ Superstar, A Clockwork Orange, and The Canterbury Tales were prohibited.

In the new South Africa that was reborn in the early 1990s, with its freedom hard-won from apartheid, we now have the imminent threat of updated versions of the suppression of freedom of expression that gagged us under apartheid. The right to know must continue to accompany the right to vote that black, white, and any other color of our South African population could all experience for the first time in 1994. But since 2010 there have been two parliamentary bills introduced that seek to deny that right: the Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Tribunal.

The Media Tribunal is intended to apply to members of the press, both journalists and newspaper owners. It questions the powers of the press’s existing ombudsman and the Press Code (both of which can already be used to challenge whether an article should be published). If established, the tribunal will require journalists to submit to it the subjects they intend to investigate or have investigated and will write about. They must inform the tribunal of these subjects so it can decide whether they pose a threat to state security.

The subjects they must submit to the tribunal are not confined to obvious matters such as defense; military information is already protected by the Constitution from disclosure. Under the new tribunal, any government official, of whatever rank, may charge that the gathering of information pertaining to his or her activity should be an offense.

Moreover, there is an additional gag that can be used to shut any citizen’s mouth, as well as that of the press. This gag is made possible by the wide and detailed definition of security in the Protection of State Information Bill. The bill was passed in the National Assembly last November despite eighteen months of public protest against it by journalists and organizations of civil society. The Secrecy Bill, as it is known, specifies prison sentences for whistle-blowers who expose the rampant corruption by individuals in government, industry, and finance. Recent losses to the state through corruption are more than 30 billion rand a year. The protests against the Secrecy Bill will continue during this year. Civil society organizations, the media—and significantly, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)—plan to jointly convene a summit meeting against it.

The government is now using various tactics to “accommodate” wide protest against the bill. Public hearings have been held. Separate submissions of dissent were made by eighteen different organizations including COSATU, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Legal Resources Centre, the Open Democratic Advice Centre, and the S.A. National Editors Forum. All were addressed to the National Council of Provinces multiparty committee to which the bill had been sidelined after it was passed by the National Assembly in November of last year. The day it was passed was dubbed Black Tuesday in public protests.

The Secrecy Bill has been and continues to be seen as an obvious means of concealing the corruption that has become a way of South African life for many, from high-placed members of the government down to menial officials. The tender—or bid to carry out government enterprises—has become the currency of much of this corruption. After the government calls for bids on projects from submarines to public buildings, the successful bid gets approved in return for bank deposits that end up in the back pocket of the official who has the power to award the deal. Sometimes the deposit is made to a firm where the wife of the awarding official is a partner. Some nosy person may subsequently reveal that the official himself benefited.

COSATU, which along with the South African Communist Party and the Democratic Alliance is a member of the parliamentary opposition to the ANC majority, gave what a newspaper called a pummeling to the bill in Parliament. The “Corruption Watch” launched by COSATU described in detail how the bill would undermine the fight against corruption. COSATU’s director of alternative information and development said that the government’s response to “deepening poverty and inequality, faltering social cohesion” was

rolling back human rights…. The Secrecy Bill is merely one of a much bigger and problematic effort to centralize power in the security cluster of government.

He was interrupted by MPs objecting to “political and offensive remarks”—one of them saying, “I am not prepared to listen any further to what he has to say if this is his line.” The advocate George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela during his apartheid treason trial in 1963, predicted that “if this bill is passed in its present form there will be a long queue of advocates to take the president and minister of state security to court. And it will be a never-ending queue.”

In the past the Constitutional Court has referred laws back to legislators because they had not been subject to sufficient consideration. The government arranged a series of open public hearings on the bill to meet this democratic requirement. But the showcase of hosting the hearings has been used to allow MPs to express vociferous animosity toward the representatives of national protest organizations attending them. One of these organizations, the Right2Know, has gathered statements from members of the public that they were obstructed and harassed when they spoke up at a public hearing. The Right2Know group also has asked for clarification about whether Parliament paid for public transport so that selected people could swell the ranks favoring compliance.

Two South African attorneys, Daria Milo and Avami Singh, remind us of an example familiar to Americans. Top-secret Pentagon Papers released to The New York Times and The Washington Post in 1971 revealed the deliberate expansion of attacks by the US in Vietnam and the systematic lies that four presidential administrations had fed to the public and Congress regarding the war. If the Protection of State Information Bill had been in force in the US, the attorneys said, it “would be a brave editor who would have risked publication.”

The bill calls for the following prison sentences:

Minimum 15–25 years for offense of espionage by a person who knows or ought reasonably to have known [the person’s actions] would directly benefit a foreign state.

Maximum 25 years for receiving information that one knows or ought reasonably to have known would directly or indirectly benefit a foreign state.

Maximum 10 years for harboring or concealing a person such as a confidential source.

Maximum of 5 years or a fine for disclosing classified information.

Maximum 5 years or a fine for failing to report possession of classified information (even if acquired before the bill comes into force).

The first item on the list, espionage, would be an offense in any country. As for the second, however, there are international trade agreements that surely will benefit both a foreign country and the home country, and otherwise would not have been made. Yet receiving information about such agreements is now a major crime.

The right to know would beyond question be virtually gagged for the people of South Africa by the bill’s censorship strictures on the press, both newsprint and other media. But the Secrecy Act also applies anywhere, and by any means, where human concerns and convictions are expressed; it can be used to stifle moral debates about our culture, our complex history, and our present situation. It is appalling to think of the opinions and actions that inevitably will be seen as transgressions of the deafening silence imposed by the bill. Decisions of the government could be hidden from the public under the bill’s parliamentary edict of secrecy. The bill, for example, could stifle the right to explore in public the effects of the new regime of secrecy itself, whether by characters in the theater, or in reflections on our society expressed by characters in novels and stories.

Some serious pragmatists are for accepting the bill but only if issues in which the “public interest” is recognized as legitimate can be excluded from it.

President Jacob Zuma has his own manipulative tactics to ensure that the bill gains legal acceptance. Now he intends to seek changes to the Constitution—recognized internationally as one of the world’s best—on the grounds that what he’s christened the “Second Transition” of the country requires new protection of the state. The first was transition from apartheid; now, he claims, a second is needed for realization of the “Better Life,” in freedom. As if to respond to recent publications emphasizing the supremacy of the Constitution, the need for judicial independence, and the separation of powers between the state and the courts, President Zuma has come out with: “We don’t want to review the Constitutional Court, we want to review its powers.” A few months earlier he complained that the powers of the courts cannot be superior to the powers of Parliament because political opponents should not be able to subvert the popularly elected government by using the courts to “co-govern the country.”

Concerning the powers Zuma now wants, we have the statement of Raymond Louw, the president of the South African National Editors Forum. He has quoted Pritzman Mabunda, president of the Black Lawyers’ Association, who said that Zuma’s “only way is to divorce the current constitutional democracy and remarry parliamentary sovereignty.” Louw explained that

this means parliament would be the ultimate arbiter of judicial decisions…the majority party in parliament would have the power to decide on jurisprudence on political grounds rather than the rule of law….

But I don’t see Zuma climbing down. He cannot interfere with the powers of the judiciary directly because he does not have the required two-thirds majority in parliament to bring this about by constitutional change. That means he has to turn elsewhere. The most obvious move is to look to the…Judicial Service Commission, the body that nominates judges which Zuma appoints…. It [is] estimate[d] that the [ANC] has 14 potential votes among the 23 members composed of judges, advocates, attorneys, members of Parliament and National Council of Provinces…. The Constitutional Court is the last line of defence to preserve press freedom—indeed all our freedoms.

This is the cliff-hanger in which, as I write, we South Africans are now opposing the Protection of State Information Bill and its ancillaries. The final hearing on the bill, which will decide whether or not it becomes law under which we must exist, is set for May 17. Meanwhile there’s a twist of irony in President Zuma’s latest political showmanship. He has set up an inquiry into the corruption blatant among us, while his own long and repeatedly delayed case, in which he is charged with corruption, is about to be heard despite inspired legal dodges to get it dismissed yet again.

I actively supported the African National Congress during the liberation struggle against apartheid; I continue to support the ideals on which the ANC was founded.

I am among the South Africans who believe that the bill must be rejected in its entirety.

If it is passed into law, it is the intention of the Democratic Alliance, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the South African National Editors Forum to bring a case against it in the Constitutional Court.

The airing of ideas releases pressures which otherwise might become destructive…. Full and free discussion keeps a society from becoming stagnant and unprepared for the stresses and strains that work to tear all civilizations apart.
—Justice William O. Douglas (dissent in Dennis v. United States, 1951)

—April 24, 2012

Copyright © 1963-2012 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.

The World Watches Wisconsin: Tom Morello Gathers Messages of Solidarity

The World Watches Wisconsin: Tom Morello Gathers Messages of Solidarity

Tuesday, 05 June 2012 09:33 By Tom Morello, Truthout | Op-Ed

Tom Morello on the steps of the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, February 21, 2011.

Tom Morello on the steps of the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, February 21, 2011. (Photo: Dave Hoefler)

Tom Morello played a concert in Madison, Wisconsin, on Friday in solidarity with the effort to recall Governor Walker. In advance of the concert, he solicited messages of solidarity from around the world and they came pouring in from Spain, Quebec, Chile, Greece, Tunisia and Egypt.

Here is a collection of the statements.

From Spain: 

From Madrid, we send our support and solidarity to the people of Madison on their fight, which is our fight too. We are part of a global non-violent movement that claims for a true, direct and participative democracy of people and for the people. Because we are the 99% we fight for a change in the system, since the current system does not represent us.

The ruler’s mistakes, sponsored by the dictatorships of markets and financial systems, are provoking the destruction of the deepest roots of the Rule of Law. We will not allow more reforms to undermine the basic rights.

The same claim sounds all around the world, in different languages: “we don’t gonna pay this crisis” in Spain, “Your time is up” in Wisconsin and it has the same meaning: the power belongs to the people. “Madison, we are with all of you. We are the 99%.”

(From Toma Madrid, the communication group of the 15M.)

From Quebec:

The fight we are currently leading in Quebec is the same as the ones workers and students of Wisconsin and throughout the world are in.

We are only a small part of a global struggle against social and economic injustice.

We have to restart to think about concrete ways to ensure solidarity between our struggles.

Over the borders, over our own interests, over our differences, we can find a global link that unites us all.

We are eager to be free.

Free from domination, oppression and domination from the corporate elites.

We might only be writing the first lines of the story of a global fight, but one thing is for sure, we all know the end of that story.

In the end, our solidarity will beat their oppression!

Quand l’injustice devient loi, la résistance est un devoir!

Which means: When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty!

(From the Quebec student organization ASSESolidarite, sent in by ASSESolidarite member Guillaume Lagault.)

From Chile: 

Un fuerte abrazo desde Chile a todos los estudiantes y trabajadores de Wisconsin. Hemos estado luchando durante más de un año, y contra todos los pronósticos, para mantener la bandera de la igualdad de derechos para todos y por un sistema de educación pública y gratuita. No permitan que un grupo de personas decidan por todos, sin hacerles ver las injusticias que ustedes demandan.

Mantengan la fuerza, deben seguir luchando por sus derechos!

A warm hug from Chile to all the students and workers from Wisconsin. We’ve been struggling for more than a year and against all the odds, to maintain the flag of equal rights for everyone and for a free public education system. Don’t allow one group of people to decide for all, without letting them know the injustices that you’re complaining for.

Keep up your strength, you all must fight for your rights!”

(From Giorgio Jackson, a Chilean student leader.)

From Greece:

From Greece and Europe to Wisconsin and the Midwest, bankers, politicians and the 1% club are trying to make the rest of us pay for their crisis. In the process, they are attacking salaries, pensions and basic labor and collective bargaining rights. It is time for all of us to say: Enough is enough! It is time for all of us to join the movement of resistance to social and economic injustice, a movement that has been spreading from Tahrir square to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol; from Greece to Iceland; and from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Madison, Wisconsin, and hundreds of other cities and towns around the country and the world. Stop the social barbarism they have in store for us, join the struggle!

(From Costas Panayotakis.)

From Tunisia: 

18 months ago, we defeated a 23 year long dictatorship, one of the worst in the world. The power had not heard the silence of the crowds which announced a global geopolitical earthquake that began in a small town, in a small country in North Africa.

Today, the World citizens growl and revolt and the power refuses to hear the bells tolling for him. Institutions that govern the world are inhabited by men; the decisions taken there are human choices. We can change them right away; it is our choice to live differently. The pains, injustice and misery of our world are not inevitable, but the choices we make.

It is for this reason that I reiterate the call of Tunisian revolution to the world.

It Is Time For action. We Must Stand Together Against the Same Forces That Oppress and Exploit Us Both – Us All. The World is Art Of Being One, instead of being Nothing. This is a call to action. This is a call for the freedom. For the outliers. For the forgotten. This is a call for intellectuals. A call for journalists. This is a call for free thinkers. A call for the intelligentsia. This is a call for poets. A call for the strong. And a call for the weak. This is a call to the youth. To the wise. To the clever.

Occupy the World, Occupy your mind, get back the power.

(From Kerim Bouzouita, a well known Tunisian musician, professor and cyberactivist.)

From Egypt: 

The truth of revolution is the ecstasy that never shows a way … neither sends you away. It’s a faith that its path would never let you lose hope … neither it’ll let you lose the confusion. And that’s a faith that us, revolutionaries need, others don’t. There’s no march that is just another march. Keep rocking the chair. Some people might call us ignorant, radical or they might just wave us way wishing us to grow up. I say we actually are radical – a revolutionary never takes half-answers, that’s what tells revolution and defeat apart. And we might be ignorant of what’s behind the hill, but we just know that we hate that goddamn hill! With revolution, time and space become meaningless … thus we never age. If these words of mine come across, then know … the revolution is well.

(From Amor Eletrebi, a young organizer who spent weeks in Tahrir Square leading up to the ouster of Mubarak.)

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Tom Morello

Tom Morello is a musician and activist leader, and was the co-founder and lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine. He currently performs as The Nightwatchman.

Tom Engelhardt: Praying at the Church of St. Drone — Elections 2012

Posted by Tom Engelhardt at 7:51am, June 5, 2012.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Signed, personalized copies of Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050, the new book Nick Turse and I have co-authored, will soon be in the mail to the many of you who contributed $75 or more to this site — with our deepest thanks.  (Copies of my book The United States of Fear, similarly signed, will similarly be off.)  Those of you who still have the urge to contribute, do check TD’s donation page for our offer on both books.

And as for the rest of you, remember to pick up your copy of Terminator Planet, either the ebook by clicking here or the paperback by clicking here, and ensure that our little publishing venture is a success.  News of drones now seems to be everywhere, even in the comic strips, so this couldn’t be more timely! To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses drone warfare and the Obama administration, click here or download it to your iPod here. Tom]

Praying at the Church of St. Drone
The President and His Apostles

By Tom Engelhardt

Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren’t just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief.  The last two presidents may not have been emperors or kings, but they — and the vast national-security structure that continues to be built-up and institutionalized around the presidential self — are certainly one of the nightmares the founding fathers of this country warned us against.  They are one of the reasons those founders put significant war powers in the hands of Congress, which they knew would be a slow, recalcitrant, deliberative body.

Thanks to a long New York Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” we now know that the president has spent startling amounts of time overseeing the “nomination” of terrorist suspects for assassination via the remotely piloted drone program he inherited from President George W. Bush and which he has expanded exponentially.  Moreover, that article was based largely on interviews with “three dozen of his current and former advisers.”  In other words, it was essentially an administration-inspired piece — columnist Robert Scheer calls it “planted” — on a “secret” program the president and those closest to him are quite proud of and want to brag about in an election year.

The language of the piece about our warrior president was generally sympathetic, even in places soaring.  It focused on the moral dilemmas of a man who — we now know — has personally approved and overseen the growth of a remarkably robust assassination program in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan based on a “kill list.” Moreover, he’s regularly done so target by target, name by name.  (The Times did not mention a recent U.S. drone strike in the Philippines that killed 15.)  According to Becker and Shane, President Obama has also been involved in the use of a fraudulent method of counting drone kills, one that unrealistically deemphasizes civilian deaths.

Historically speaking, this is all passing strange.  The Times calls Obama’s role in the drone killing machine “without precedent in presidential history.”  And that’s accurate.

It’s not, however, that American presidents have never had anything to do with or been in any way involved in assassination programs.  The state as assassin is hardly unknown in our history.  How could President John F. Kennedy, for example, not know about CIA-inspired or -backed assassination plots against Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, and South Vietnamese autocrat (and ostensible ally) Ngo Dinh Diem? (Lumumba and Diem were successfully murdered.)  Similarly, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the CIA carried out a massive assassination campaign in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix.  It proved to be a staggeringly profligate program for killing tens of thousands of Vietnamese, both actual enemies and those simply swept up in the process.

In previous eras, however, presidents either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of plausible deniability about the acts.  We are surely at a new stage in the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his election team) assembles his aides, advisors, and associates to foster a story that’s meant to broadcast the group’s collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief.

Religious Cult or Mafia Hit Squad?

Here’s a believe-it-or-not footnote to our American age.  Who now remembers that, in the early years of his presidency, George W. Bush kept what the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward called “his own personal scorecard for the war” on terror?  It took the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world’s most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed out by Bush once captured or killed. That scorecard was, Woodward added, always available in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.

Such private presidential recordkeeping now seems penny-ante indeed.  The distance we’ve traveled in a decade can be measured by the Times’ description of the equivalent of that “personal scorecard” today (and no desk drawer could hold it):

“It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. This secret ‘nominations’ process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases, and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia. The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by [counterterrorism ‘tsar’ John O.] Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name.”

In other words, thanks to such meetings — on what insiders have labeled “terror Tuesday” — assassination has been thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president.  Without the help of or any oversight from the American people or their elected representatives, he alone is now responsible for regular killings thousands of miles away, including those of civilians and even children.  He is, in other words, if not a king, at least the king of American assassinations.  On that score, his power is total and completely unchecked.  He can prescribe death for anyone “nominated,” choosing any of the “baseball cards” (PowerPoint bios) on that kill list and then order the drones to take them (or others in the neighborhood) out.

He and he alone can decide that assassinating known individuals isn’t enough and that the CIA’s drones can instead strike at suspicious “patterns of behavior” on the ground in Yemen or Pakistan. He can stop any attack, any killing, but there is no one, nor any mechanism that can stop him.  An American global killing machine (quite literally so, given that growing force of drones) is now at the beck and call of a single, unaccountable individual.  This is the nightmare the founding fathers tried to protect us from.

In the process, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the president has shredded the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing Americans that they will not “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel produced a secret memo claiming that, while the Fifth Amendment’s due process guarantee does apply to the drone assassination of an American citizen in a land with which we are not at war, “it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.”  (That, writes Greenwald, is “the most extremist government interpretation of the Bill of Rights I’ve heard in my lifetime.”)  In other words, the former Constitutional law professor has been freed from the law of the land in cases in which he “nominates,” as he has, U.S. citizens for robotic death.

There is, however, another aspect to the institutionalizing of those “kill lists” and assassination as presidential prerogatives that has gone unmentioned.  If the Times article — which largely reflects how the Obama administration cares to see itself and its actions — is to be believed, the drone program is also in the process of being sanctified and sacralized.

You get a sense of this from the language of the piece itself.  (“A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan…”)  The president is presented as a particularly moral man, who devotes himself to the “just war” writings of religious figures like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and takes every death as his own moral burden.  His leading counterterrorism advisor Brennan, a man who, while still in the CIA, was knee-deep in torture controversy, is presented, quite literally, as a priest of death, not once but twice in the piece.  He is described by the Times reporters as “a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama.”  They then quote the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold H. Koh, saying, “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

In the Times telling, the organization of robotic killing had become the administration’s idée fixe, a kind of cult of death within the Oval Office, with those involved in it being so many religious devotees.  We may be, that is, at the edge of a new state-directed, national-security-based religion of killing grounded in the fact that we are in a “dangerous” world and the “safety” of Americans is our preeminent value.  In other words, the president, his apostles, and his campaign acolytes are all, it seems, praying at the Church of St. Drone.

Of course, thought about another way, that “terror Tuesday” scene might not be from a monastery or a church synod, but from a Mafia council directly out of a Mario Puzo novel, with the president as the Godfather, designating “hits” in a rough-and-tumble world.

How far we’ve come in just two presidencies!  Assassination as a way of life has been institutionalized in the Oval Office, thoroughly normalized, and is now being offered to the rest of us as a reasonable solution to American global problems and an issue on which to run a presidential campaign.

Downhill All the Way on Blowback Planet

After 5,719 inside-the-Beltway (largely inside-the-Oval-Office) words, the Times piece finally gets to this single outside-the-Beltway sentence: “Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.”

Arguably, indeed!  For the few who made it that far, it was a brief reminder of just how narrow, how confining the experience of worshiping at St. Drone actually is.  All those endless meetings, all those presidential hours that might otherwise have been spent raising yet more money for campaign 2012, and the two countries that have taken the brunt of the drone raids are more hostile, more dangerous, and in worse shape than in 2009.  (And one of them, keep in mind, is a nuclear power.)  News articles since have only emphasized how powerfully those drones have radicalized local populations — however many “bad guys” (and children) they may also have wiped off the face of the Earth.

And though the Times doesn’t mention this, it’s not just bad news for Yemen or Pakistan.  American democracy, already on the ropes, is worse off, too.

What should astound Americans — but seldom seems to be noticed — is just how into the shadows, how thoroughly military-centric, and how unproductive has become Washington’s thinking at the altar of St. Drone and its equivalents (including special operations forces, increasingly the president’s secret military within the military). Yes, the world is always a dangerous place, even if far less so now than when, in the Cold War era, two superpowers were a heartbeat away from nuclear war.  But — though it’s increasingly heretical to say this — the perils facing Americans, including relatively modest dangers from terrorism, aren’t the worst things on our planet.

Electing an assassin-in-chief, no matter who you vote for, is worse.  Pretending that the Church of St. Drone offers any kind of reasonable or even practical solutions on this planet of ours, is worse yet.  And even worse, once such a process begins, it’s bound to be downhill all the way.  As we learned last week, again in the Times, we not only have an assassin-in-chief in the Oval Office, but a cyberwarrior, perfectly willing to release a new form of weaponry, the most sophisticated computer “worm” ever developed, against another country with which we are not at war.

This represents a breathtaking kind of rashness, especially from the leader of a country that, perhaps more than any other, is dependent on computer systems, opening the U.S. to potentially debilitating kinds of future blowback.  Once again, as with drones, the White House is setting the global rules of the road for every country (and group) able to get its hands on such weaponry and it’s hit the highway at 140 miles per hour without a cop in sight.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the rest of them knew war, and yet were not acolytes of the eighteenth century equivalents of St. Drone, nor of presidents who might be left free to choose to turn the world into a killing zone.  They knew at least as well as anyone in our national security state today that the world is always a dangerous place — and that that’s no excuse for investing war powers in a single individual.  They didn’t think that a state of permanent war, a state of permanent killing, or a president free to plunge Americans into such states was a reasonable way for their new republic to go.  To them, it was by far the more dangerous way to exist in our world.

The founding fathers would surely have chosen republican democracy over safety.  They would never have believed that a man surrounded by advisors and lawyers, left to his own devices, could protect them from what truly mattered.  They tried to guard against it.  Now, we have a government and a presidency dedicated to it, no matter who is elected in November.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses drone warfare and the Obama administration, click here or download it to your iPod here.

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Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt