Thursday, January 12, 2017

Political Prisoners Remain Behind Bars as Obama's Term Nears End

Protesters call for the liberation of Oscar López River in Washington D.C. in October 2016. (Photo by Matt Peppe)
In the last full week of Barack Obama’s eight year tenure as President of the United States of America, dozens of political prisoners still sit in cages across the nation’s prisons, rotting away as Obama consciously chooses not to exercise the power to simply free them with the stroke of a pen. Many activists for Puerto Rican independence, Native American and African American rights, and other causes were targeted by the political police’s illegal COINTELPRO program and convicted in sham trials. Now elderly, some in poor health, they may effectively be facing death sentences unless Obama’s decides within the next two weeks to grant their appeals for clemency.

Among the most well known political prisoners are Oscar López Rivera, Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal, who have all been locked up for at least three and a half decades. Many others including The Move 9 and The Holy Land Five have spent years or decades in jail for their political action and views. Many, like Chelsea Manning and Jeffrey Sterling, have been denied their freedom for exposing government crimes and misdeeds.

But you won’t ever hear this in the mainstream media. The corporate media hypocrisy is best demonstrated by the debate regarding political prisoners during Obama’s trip to Cuba in March 2016.

The U.S. government pretends that it always promotes human rights around the world and opposes human rights violations by other countries it considers adversaries. Hence, part of the propaganda narrative on Cuba is that it unjustly holds political prisoners as part of its campaign to repress the Cuban people - something that would never occur in the United States itself.

During a joint press conference with Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Castro why the Cuban government held political prisoners and whether he would release them. Castro responded by asking for the names of people Acosta was referring to, and said that if he was given a list, they would be free by that evening. Acosta did not name anyone. CNN declared that Castro “skirts question on political prisoners.” The press coverage treated it as self-evident that only the Cuban government should have to defend itself against allegations of human rights abuses. It was taken for granted that the U.S. President would not have to answer the same question.

By the time the meeting between Obama and Castro took place, all detainees in Cuba considered by Amnesty International prisoners of conscience had already been released. Meanwhile, Amnesty has directly called on Obama to free Leonard Peltier. They have produced multiple reports on his case.  However, no news organization questioned why an American reporter who covers the U.S. President every day had never bothered asking Obama - before or during the press conference in Cuba - about U.S. political prisoners.

When I asked Acosta via Twitter why he was silent about U.S. political prisoners and whether he would call on Obama to free Peltier, he did not respond. In the following months, he has not responded to multiple inquiries about his refusal to ask the same questions of his own President that he does of leaders of foreign countries.  

Many journalists working in the American mainstream media see themselves as being on the same team as their own government, safely staying on the side of U.S. power by acting as a mouthpiece to promote the government’s own narrative and only opposing those countries and leaders that the U.S. government declares adversaries.

As the corporate press refuses to acknowledge that the U.S. has political prisoners, it is left to grassroots groups to demand justice. Recently, separate petitions calling for clemency for López Rivera and Peltier were created through the White House’s We the People web site, where citizen petitions that receive 100,000 signatures receive a response from the White House.

Both petitions exceeded the threshold and received the same dismissive response, which passed the buck to the Department of Justice’s Pardon Attorney and refused to comment on the individual cases:
“The President takes his constitutional power to grant clemency very seriously, and recommendations from the Department of Justice are carefully considered before decisions are made. The White House does not comment, however, on individual pardon applications. In accordance with this policy and the We the People Terms of Participation - which explain that the White House may sometimes choose not to respond to petitions addressing certain matters - the White House declines to comment on the specific case addressed in this petition.”
Translation: The President doesn’t actually respect citizens’ right to participate in decision making, and feels free to ignore them whenever he chooses. The We the People web site is merely a propaganda tool to give the illusion that the president is accountable to the citizens he purportedly serves.

Indeed, Obama has closed his eyes and ears and shut out the voices of millions of people who have spent his entire presidency calling on him to show basic human decency and stop the perpetration of historic injustices against López, Peltier, Abu-Jamal and many other political prisoners.

Throughout his term, Obama has been called on by fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates, foreign leaders, Puerto Rican politicians and others to free López Rivera. The case has become perhaps the most important political issue on the island, as well as among Puerto Ricans and allies in the diaspora.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who commuted the prison sentences of four Puerto Rican nationalists, including Lolita Lebron and Rafael Cancel Miranda, who participated in attacks on the Blair House and the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1950s, recently asked Obama to free López Rivera, as he himself had done for Puerto Rican prisoners convicted of more serious charges. (Carter’s Dec. 13 letter to Obama was not reported in any American mainstream outlet, only in Puerto Rican press such as El Nuevo Dia.)

Puerto Ricans who are denied their right to self-determination and relegated to second-class citizenship have been unrelenting in continuing to demand that Obama grant López Rivera his freedom, despite years of being ignored by Washington.

Massive rallies have been held annually in San Juan and across the island on the anniversary of López Rivera’s incarceration each May. The group 35 Mujeres por Oscar (35 Women for Oscar) holds regular gatherings, the most recent on Jan. 6 for López’s birthday. A branch of the group in New York City does the same.

A demonstration in October in front of the White House was attended by nearly 1,000 people - many who took buses from Philadelphia and New York City - who rallied for López Rivera. Puerto Rican recording artist René Pérez (AKA Residente of the band Calle 13), said that the government of the United States should be seeking forgiveness from Oscar López Rivera and the people of Puerto Rico, rather than the other way around. His speech is worth quoting at length:

“We’re here in the United States of America, in front of the government that has enslaved us for more than 100 years. The government that in exchange for a passport took our families to its wars. The government that experimented with our people, since they came implanting its language by force. The government that performed medical experiments on our grandparents injecting them with cancerous cells. The government that experimented with anticonceptive pills on our island. We, who understand [López Rivera’s] fight, are here to tell this government - the only government in the history of humanity to fire atomic bombs - that they have in prison a hero much braver than Washington. That this hero has been imprisoned longer than Mandela. That this hero became a hero without hoping for anything in return. We, who understand the fight of Oscar López are in front of the White House to tell this government that every additional second Oscar López spends in prison converts him in a hero much bigger than any of the heroes the United States has had. We are here to tell this government that even though the history books don’t tell us the real history that includes heroes like Oscar López, we will take charge of telling it. We, who understand the fight of Oscar López, are here to tell this government that we will never ask forgiveness for defending our right to be free. So we don’t ask them to forgive Oscar, but that they recognize the true history of the world, that they recognize the history of Puerto Rico, and maybe some day, after they free Oscar, we will forgive them."

Obama has chosen to ignore the massive injustice committed against political prisoners in American gulags while lecturing others that people shouldn’t be imprisoned for their political beliefs. He either refuses to acknowledge or refuses to care that the government he leads can - and often does - use the legal system punitively to silence those whose political views and actions threaten its perpetuation of the status quo, and to intimidate others into abandoning resistance. As Pérez said, perhaps someday people will forgive him.

This article originally appeared at American Herald Tribune.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Lack of Evidence Doesn't Deter Washington Post's Russia Smears

The Washington Post on Friday claimed in a bombshell article that a “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House.” If true, this would be a shocking violation of U.S. sovereignty. One would think such serious accusations would require documentary evidence. Or in the absence of such evidence, at least putting officials on record to vouch for the findings. But the Post required neither.

As for the facts included in the CIA assessment, readers are left without any. The assessment is said to be “secret,” presumably meaning it is classified.  The Post cannot even confirm that such an assessment even exists, much less whether it contains evidence supporting the allegations. (I asked the three Post reporters listed in the byline via Twitter whether they viewed the assessment themselves, but none have responded.)

The source of the information is said to be “officials briefed on the matter” who are not named. There is no indication why they were provided with anonymity. The Obama administration has zealously prosecuted whistleblowers (Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake) who have provided classified information to the press while acting in the public interest - exposing government crimes or misinformation.

But officials who selectively leak or mishandle classified information that the administration does not view as damaging have little to fear. David Petraeus, Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton have all been given a pass or chastised with a slap on the wrist. Petraeus, who gave his lover/biographer access to classified documents, was given probation, slightly more lenient than the 35 years in a federal penitentiary meted out to Manning.

The New York Times soon followed the Post’s breaking story by reporting that U.S. intelligence agencies expressed “high confidence” that “Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump.”

Like the Post, the Times depends on anonymous officials for their information.

The Trump campaign responded, logically, by casting doubt on whether the intelligence agencies should be trusted prima facie: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

It is a fair point. Government intelligence agencies certainly have not earned the benefit of the doubt. Their most important mission appears to be enabling the administration they serve to achieve its political aims, rather than acting in the interest of the American public. In fact, they have demonstrated contempt towards the idea they should be held accountable to the public.

During an oversight into the CIA’s illegal torture program, officers of “the company” hacked the computers of Congressional staffers investigating the matter. NSA director James Clapper lied to Congress in testimony by claiming the agency was not collecting data on Americans, when the Snowden documents later proved this is exactly what they were doing.

For months, we have been hearing repeatedly that the Russian government is behind a series of hacks into the Democratic National Committee servers and state election systems. Even Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has pointed the finger at Russia. Each accusation has come without any hard evidence, yet that has not seemed to give the media who parrot them any pause.    

Hillary claimed in the final debate that “(w)e have 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin, and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”

Yet it seems not to have occurred to the news organizations who keep repeating these claims that perhaps the intelligence agencies making them have their own agendas. For example, hyping accusations against a foreign enemy is a good way to ensure job security and rationalize ballooning budgets without actually demonstrating any results.

It also helps justify the administration’s policy of confrontation with Russia, popular with officials who seem nostalgic for the good old days of the Cold War. Over the last 8 years, the U.S. government has continued to expand NATO, helped foment a coup in Ukraine and consolidate the fascist-dominated government that came to power, spent $1 trillion to upgrade its nuclear weapons program, and moved military equipment and troops permanently to Russia’s borders.

When Donald Trump questioned these moves as needlessly provocative and expressed his intention to work with, rather than antagonize, Russia, he was portrayed as a Russian tool or a Manchurian candidate. The Clinton campaign started spinning fantasies of Russian interference on behalf of Trump to deflect from their own candidate's historically low popularity and failure to resonate with voters.

The Russian government has categorically denied that the American “hysteria” has any truth to it, calling previous accusations of Russian meddling “mythical and fictitious.”

“Does anyone seriously think Russia can somehow influence the American people’s choice? Is American some kind of banana republic? America is a great power!” Putin said in October.  

And if the allegations were in fact true, and Russia had meddled in U.S. elections? Russia’s actions would surely pale in comparison to those of the United States government itself over the last 70 years.

William Blum dedicates an entire chapter in his book Rogue State to U.S. interference in the elections of sovereign countries. He documents 20 cases of U.S. meddling:

Philippines, 1950s
Italy, 1948-1970s
Lebanon, 1950s
Indonesia, 1955
Vietnam, 1955
British Guyana, 1953-64
Japan, 1958-1970s
Nepal, 1959
Laos, 1960
Brazil, 1962
Dominican Republic, 1962
Chile, 1964-1970
Portugal, 1974-75
Australia, 1974-75
Jamaica, 1976
Nicaragua, 1984, 1990
Haiti, 1987-88
Russia, 1996
Mongolia, 1996
Bosnia, 1998

The most grievous case was in post-war Italy, when a Socialist-Communist coalition was dominating the polls and set to win the upcoming elections. The CIA mounted an all-out campaign to subvert the popular will by donating millions to opposition parties; forging documents that included personal and sexual details to make party members look bad; organizing letter writing campaigns from Italian Americans encouraging Italians not to vote for leftist parties; broadcasting radio propaganda featuring Italian American stars like Frank Sinatra; and threatening that in the case of a Communist victory that American aid would be cut off.

The U.S. has even been involved in interfering in elections in Russia itself. In 1994, when Boris Yeltsin’s approval rating was standing at a dismal 6 percent, American political strategists began providing advice that would help Yeltsin to overcome his Communist opponent. The American advisors from a San Francisco firm had suspicious connections to Bill Clinton, and while they did not admit involvement by the U.S. administration, they admitted their work was “made available to the Clinton White House.”

If the Post story were true, it would appear that the United States received a bitter taste of its own medicine for a change. But based on the information provided to date, there is no reason to believe that the story is anything more than McCarthyite scaremongering meant to delegitimize Trump’s victory and make it more difficult for his incoming administration to reverse the Obama administration’s hard-line policy towards Russia.

Amidst the hysteria over the threat of “fake news,” it doesn’t seem to occur to mainstream news organizations that to find the worst purveyors of such fake news, they ought to first look in the mirror.


This article originally appeared at American Herald Tribune.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The New York Times's Biased Obituary of Fidel Castro

After Fidel Castro passed away Friday night at 90 years old, the obituaries written about him in the American press typified the U.S. government propaganda used for decades to demonize Castro and obscure the tremendous social and humanitarian advances that the Cuban Revolution was able to achieve in the face of unrelenting interference, subversion and destabilization. None were more over-the-top in their bias than the obituary in the New York Times.

A mere 54 words, the lede paragraph contains an astonishing amount of misinformation and innuendo:

"Fidel Castro, the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959"

It's hard to imagine any Western leader being called a "fiery apostle." The phrase suggests Castro was driven by an irrational, religious mission to undertake revolution, rather than having resorted to armed resistance as a last resort after the possibility of nonviolent opposition through political means was eliminated. In 1952, as Castro was favored to win a seat in the House of Representatives, Fulgencio Batista promptly cancelled the upcoming elections as it became clear he would not be able to hold power in a free and fair vote. Only after this did Castro and others start to organize a guerilla resistance in order to prevent rule by a military dictatorship. Calling him a "fiery apostle of revolution" is reductionist and Manichean.

The second part of the sentence is easily disprovable. The Cold War was well underway and active in the Western Hemisphere long before the Revolution came to power in 1959. Five years earlier, the CIA, at the behest of the United Fruit Company and working in conjunction with Congress and the White House, supported the overthrow of Guatemala's democratically elected progressive President Jacobo Arbenz by the Guatemalan military. The reason was summed up by Senator George Smathers of Florida, who was quoted in an article in the CIA's professional journal, Studies in Intelligence, saying: "In all candor, we must admit that the democratic nations of the Western Hemisphere could not permit the continued existence of a Communist base in Latin America, so close to home."

Aside from misrepresenting the Cold War timeline, the idea that it was Castro who was responsible for Cold War tensions with the United States is laughable. Castro immediately reached out to the U.S. government after taking power in 1959, and even visited the country four months later. Upon arriving he was stood up by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who decided to play golf instead meeting with Castro. The next year, Eisenhower would cancel the sugar quota Cuba depended on for export revenue, provoking Cuba to exercise its sovereign right to nationalize U.S. properties. In return, the U.S. government prohibited delivery of oil to the island, which led to Cuba seeking oil from the Soviet Union.

"and then defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba's maximum leader"

It is strange that Castro's commitment not to compromise on the sovereignty of Cuba and its people would be seen as remarkable enough to draw attention to it so prominently. Imagine a Russian obituary to Ronald Reagan stating that he defied the Soviet Union. Such a statement presumes that the natural state of affairs would be subservience to the dictates of a foreign power. Americans would find this notion absurd.

"bedeviling 11 American presidents"

This one way of stating that Castro survived more than 600 assassination attempts authorized by multiple U.S. executives and resisted their criminal economic war that sought "to bring about hunger, desperation" and "hardship" and to this day continues to deny food and medicine to children.

"and briefly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war"

A year and a half prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA directed a mercenary invasion of Cuba that failed spectacularly after it was quickly repelled. Understanding that another invasion was imminent, Castro sought nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union because he believed it would be the only possibly deterrent to another U.S. attack. Meanwhile, the United States had nuclear missiles positioned across Eastern Europe at the Soviet Union. When Kennedy protested to the Soviets, Khrushchev offered to withdraw the missiles before they reached Cuba if the U.S. would likewise withdraw its nuclear missiles from Turkey and promise not to invade Cuba. Kennedy said this would "look like a very fair trade" to any "rational man." Yet, he was still not satisfied and instead of accepting it decided to engage in a game of chicken that could easily have resulted in a nuclear holocaust. To pin responsibility on Fidel Castro for the escalation of this situation is a gross distortion.

"died on Friday. He was 90."

This I don't take issue with.

The rest of the obituary is riddled with other inaccuracies and rhetorical flourishes that all predictably echo decades worth of U.S. government propaganda.

The Times claims Castro "ceded much of his power to his younger brother Raúl." In reality, Fidel resigned his position as the President of State in 2006. He did not personally hand power to his brother in a dictatorial display of nepotism. Raúl was at the time Vice President, having been elected in the process stipulated by the Cuban Constitution. Likewise under the Constitution, as Vice President he assumed the role of the Presidency upon the resignation of the current President. No different than how succession would work in the United States.

The piece goes on to make unfounded claims of Castro's self-aggrandizement ("he believed himself to be the messiah of his fatherland") and launch evidence-free smears about his abuse of power ("he wielded power like a tyrant, controlling every aspect of the island's existence").

No one in recent history has been the subject of such vitriolic and politically biased propaganda emanating from the U.S. government as Fidel Castro. It is unsurprising that the self-declared paper of record in the U.S. would replicate the same disingenuous rhetoric rather than attempt to objectively assess the life of undoubtedly the most important individual of the 20th century based on documented facts placed in historical context.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Disrespecting the American Imperial Presidency

When the dust settled on the Nov. 8 election, we learned that a completely unpredictable, egomaniacal, narcissistic buffoon would inherit the White House and the vast powers that go along with it. This deeply offended many people who see Donald Trump’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric as “unpresidential.” Liberal New York Times columnist Charles Blow summed up this view: “I respect the presidency; I do not respect this president-elect.” That the president-elect should not be respected is a given. But why should we respect the presidency?  

The Imperial Presidency of the United States has evolved over the last century to the point that the executive holds certain powers that can be considered dictatorial. Arguably, the most consequential decision in politics is to wage war. The Constitution specifically reserves this right for Congress. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, directs the wars that Congress declares. However, starting with Truman’s intervention in the Korean War in 1950 and continuing with invasions of Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan and the bombings of dozens more countries, the President’s ability to unilaterally initiate war with a sovereign nation has been normalized. Congress has not declared war since 1941 despite the fact the U.S. military has intervened in nearly every corner of the world in the years since.

In recent years, George W. Bush assumed the power to kidnap, torture, and assassinate any individual, anywhere in the world, at any time, without even a pretense of due process. Upon replacing Bush, Barack Obama legitimized Bush’s kidnapping and torture (by refusing to prosecute the perpetrators or provide recourse to the victims) while enthusiastically embracing the power to assassinate at will. Noam Chomsky has said this represents Obama trashing the 800-year-old Magna Carta, which King John of England would have approved of.

Can there be anything more dictatorial than the power of a single individual to kill and make war at will? While American presidents thankfully do not have the power to unilaterally impose taxes, pass legislation, or incarcerate without charges inside U.S. borders, the illegitimate authority they do possess to carry out unrestrained violence across the world is unquestionably a dictatorial feature.

There has not been a single American president since World War II that has not exceeded his constitutional authority by committing crimes that would meet the standard by which officials were convicted and executed at the Nuremberg trials.

Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 to imprison Japanese Americans in concentration camps was a flagrant violation of the Fifth Amendment right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Truman’s firebombing of Tokyo, nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and invasion of Korea violated provisions of multiple treaties that are considered the “supreme law of the land” per Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Eisenhower’s use of the CIA to overthrow democratically elected presidents in Iran and Guatemala, as well as the initiation of a terrorist campaign against Cuba, violated the UN Charter, another international treaty that the Constitution regards as the supreme law of the land.

Kennedy was guilty of approving the creation of a mercenary army to invade Cuba, as well as covert warfare in Vietnam. Johnson massively escalated U.S. military involvement in Vietnam with the introduction of ground troops, which he fraudulently justified through misrepresentation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Succeeding Johnson, Nixon waged a nearly genocidal air campaign against not only Vietnam but Cambodia and Laos, killing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying ecosystems across Indochina, and leaving an unfathomable amount of unexploded ordnance, which continues to kill and maim hundreds of people each year.

Ford covertly supported the South African invasion of Angola and overtly supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Carter continued supporting the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, as well as providing financial and military support to military dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador. Reagan oversaw the creation and operation of a terrorist army in Nicaragua, sponsored military dictatorships throughout Central America, and directly invaded Grenada.

Bush the Elder invaded Panama and Iraq. Clinton oversaw sanctions in Iraq that killed as many as 1 million people, carried out an air war that indiscriminately pulverized civilian targets from 15,000 feet in Serbia, and bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that produced medications for half the country. Bush the Lesser invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama continued both of those wars, as well as dramatically expanding the drone assassination program in as many as seven countries.

So I beg to differ with Blow and anyone else who claims the presidency deserves respect. Any institution or position that permits such illegal and immoral actions unchecked should be eradicated and replaced with some alternative that does not.

Liberal Clinton defender Matt Yglesias argues that from a historical perspective, Trump is uniquely dangerous. “(P)ast presidents,” Yglesias writes, “have simply been restrained by restraint. By a belief that there are certain things one simply cannot try or do.”

It is hard to take such vacuous proclamations with a straight face. As we have seen, every single American president since at least WWII has engaged in serious violations of international and domestic law to cause death, destruction and misery across the world, from murdering individuals without due process to unleashing two nuclear bombs on civilian populations in a defeated country that was seeking to surrender.

When Trump assumes the presidency, he will inherit a frightening surveillance/military/incarceration apparatus that includes a targeted killing program; a vast NSA domestic and international spying network; a death squad (the Joint Special Operations Command); and an extralegal system for indefinite kidnapping and imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay.

Partisans see a problem only when the presidency is in the “wrong” hands. If Obama is at the helm, liberals are fine with unconstitutional mass surveillance or killing an American citizen without charge or trial every now and then. Conservatives trusted Bush to warrantlessly surveill Americans, but were outraged at the Snowden revelations.

Principled opponents recognize that no one should be trusted with illegitimate authority. The hand-wringing and hyperventilation by liberals about the dangers of a Trump presidency ring hollow and hypocritical.

American presidents long ago became the equivalent of elected monarchs, beyond the democratic control of the those they purportedly serve. The occupant of the office is able to substitute his own judgments and whims for a universally applicable set of laws and limits on the exercise of power. It is what Dolores Vek describes as “actually existing fascism.” Both parties have contributed to it, the media has normalized it, and the public has accepted its creation and continued existence without rebelling against it. It’s time to stop treating the presidency itself with respect and start actively delegitimizing it.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Cubs World Series Win Demonstrates Sports Teams Do Not Need Publicly Funded Stadiums

When the Chicago Cubs closed out a thrilling 8-7 victory over the Cleveland Indians in extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series on Tuesday night, they became World Champions for the first time since 1908. Their win disproved not only the Curse of the Billy Goat, but the notion that privately owned sports teams need to have publicly funded stadiums to survive and be competitive.

Since the gates of the Cubs' beloved Wrigley Field (then Weeghman Park) opened to the public in 1914, owners of professional sports teams across the United States have bilked taxpayers out of hundreds of billions of dollars by demanding that the public bear a portion of - or, in many cases, the entire financial burden of constructing baseball, football, basketball, and hockey stadiums. Once completed, the owners - rather than the taxpayers - reap the rewards of admission, stadium concessions, and even parking fees. The taxpayers are rewarded for their largesse with highly inflated ticket prices and reduced access to new venues, which generally have much smaller seating capacities.

By now, the fact that stadiums are a terrible investment is as widely accepted as climate change. Not only do they not generate enough tax revenue to offset the expenditure of taxpayer funds, but the true cost to the public almost always exceeds the sticker price, and can be understated by as much as 40 percent.

Yet despite the long, documented history of stadiums saddling the public with a crushing burden of debt while delivering spectacular increases in the value of franchises to owners, those who control teams keep finding that they are able to dupe feckless politicians and a gullible public into supporting transfers from the public coffers into their own pockets.

Their ability to continually achieve these scams relies on a convincing propaganda campaign. There are several main arguments that comprise the narrative: that current stadiums are old and falling apart and must be replaced in the near future; that fans demand state-of-the-art facilities with the most modern amenities; and that without luxury boxes and corporate suites new stadiums could provide, the team will never be able to generate enough revenue to compete and win. When those arguments fail to do the trick, the owners resort to threatening to move to another city.

The first argument is always easy to disregard, as any engineering inspection will attest. Wrigley Field has lasted more than 100 years and there appears to be no reason it couldn't last another 100 more. In almost every case ownership makes similar claims about other stadiums, they are unable to provide evidence to back them up, because none exists.

Any true baseball fan will understand the second argument is also bunk. Personally, the least important part about watching a game in person to me is the comfort and amenities. I want to sit as close to the field as possible, and that's pretty much it. I can have comfort and amenities from my own couch the 363 days a year I don't go to watch a game in person.

The Cubs championship demonstrates that success and suite revenue are not correlated. Having a rabid fan base that packs the stands every night (the Cubs ranked 5th in the league in attendance in 2016) and, more importantly in this day in age, watch on TV each night will generate more than enough revenue to put a winning team on the field. Fewer suites only means fewer profits that will be put into the owner's investment portfolio, rather than put into the operations of the team.

The Cubs owners understand that true baseball fans value the charm of a historic stadium more than the allure of a shiny new one they have no emotional connection to. Fans would rather sit in the same seats they sat in years ago with their father than have a little more leg room. So after the Ricketts family (who recently donated $1 million to Donald Trump) bought the team in 2009, they aimed to renovate rather than replace.

They did attempt to seek taxpayer funds to pay for the $500 million worth of renovations. When they were met with a chilly reception, they tried to use what leverage they had by threatening to move the team. But Chicago officials understood that this was nothing more than empty posturing and ownership never thought seriously for a single second about going anywhere else.

Lo and behold, when public officials held their ground the Cubs ownership committed to paying for the entire project with private money. Predictably, it has neither sent them to the poor house nor impaired their ability to field a competitive team.

As Chicago officials and Cubs fans watched 5 million people gather Friday for the 7th largest gathering in human history, perhaps they wondered why they needed owners at all. The Cubs, like all sports teams, could be considered a public good that should belong to the community that sustains them. Rather than be operated by, and for the benefit of, a private individual, they could be managed in the interests of the millions of fans and residents of their city based on their input.

Sports teams are generally cash cows that pay for themselves and produce millions of dollars worth of surplus. The Green Bay Packers, who are owned by nearly 400,000 shareholders that operate the franchise democratically, are self-sustainable and have never run into financial trouble, much less ruin.

It's unlikely that any cities will move to take control of their teams from their parasitic owners. But one can at least hope that the Cubs World Series will serve as a strong counterargument to the fatuous propaganda that sports owners have come to rely on as they continue to siphon billions of dollars from the public to themselves without contributing anything of value.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

An Alternate Narrative on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Elections in the United States are far and away the most expensive in the entire world. In 2012, the Federal Election Commission reported that $7 billion was spent on the presidential campaign. By the time the ink is dry on the 2016 election, the number will likely be even higher. American voters take for granted that political campaigns provide value that allows them to choose the candidate that best represents their ideology and policy positions. But, is this really the best system? Is it even a good one?

The astronomical cost of campaigns in the U.S. prohibits all but a small handful of individuals with the celebrity and access to obscene sums money the realistic opportunity to compete. It should be no surprise that the two finalists for president in 2016 are both multi-millionaire oligarchs. Even so, they are dependent on raising hundreds of millions of dollars from big business and other special interests.

Is it reasonable to expect that after such a process the winner of the election will be able to represent the interests of the average citizen rather than the super-wealthy elite individuals and corporations whose patronage allowed them achieve victory at the polls?

A recent Princeton University academic study disputes this notion. Martin Giles and Benjamin Page write that statistical measures demonstrate that elites and business interests have an impact on policy directly correlated to their wealth, while the average voter has no discernible impact on policy at all. The influence of regular citizens is so low, the authors argue, that it would be inaccurate to characterize the American political system as a democracy.

As greater economic power necessarily translates to greater political power, a reasonable remedy to the situation would be to decrease inequality in the United States. If inequality was drastically rolled back to a level closer to that found after the end of WWII - through massive taxes on wealth, income and capital gains, along with the abolition of inheritance - perhaps the conditions would exist for fair elections based on competitive campaigns.

But absent such a drastic realignment of the politico-economic system, are there better possibilities for American citizens to elect officials that represent their interests? The nation has seen that Barack Obama’s promises in 2008 to represent “hope and change,” to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, close Guantanamo, operate transparently, limit domestic surveillance and reform taxes were, in reality, little more than hot air.

What if instead of being allowed to create his own narrative, a summary of his undistinguished record as an lawyer from elite universities and corporate-friendly record state representative and politician was what voters had to guide their expectations of how he would govern?  

Perhaps the U.S. could look to Cuba, where the Revolutionary government - facing unrelenting subversion and destabilization for decades by its imperial neighbor to the north -  has managed to eliminate money from politics entirely. At the municipal level, candidates spend no money and do not campaign at all. Instead, voters are presented with short biographies to reference in determining who they believe would better represent them.  

As the U.S. prepares for its latest electoral spectacle in a few weeks, I offer sample bios for the two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, based on what they may look like if they were running for office in Cuba.  

Hillary Clinton


Age: 68
Education level: Advanced degree
Occupation: Unemployed
Organizations belonged to: Democratic Party

Biography

Born on October 26, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois of capitalist social origin.
Graduated from Maine South High School in Illinois in 1965. Attended Wellesley College from 1966-1969 and received a bachelor’s degree with a major in political science. In college, she was head of the Young Republicans Club from 1966-1967. In 1968, she was elected president of the Wellesley College Government Association. During a summer program in Washington, DC, she interned for Republican House Leader Gerald Ford.
After finishing her undergraduate studies, she enrolled at Yale Law School, where she was on the editorial board of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action. In 1972, she volunteered in Austin, Texas for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. She was awarded a Juris Doctor degree from Yale in 1973.
She helped found Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families in 1977. That same year, she joined the Rose Law Firm and specialized in patent infringement and intellectual property. She would become the first female partner at Rose Law.
While her husband William Jefferson Clinton served as governor of Arkansas, she held three corporate board seats. For six years, she was a member of the board of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest company. As the board aggressively fought unions, she “remained silent.” She was on the board of the yogurt manufacturing firm TCBY Enterprises, as well as LaFarge, a subsidiary of a French concrete company for two years from 1990-1992.  Additionally, she served on the boards of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Legal Services, and Children’s Defense Fund.
As first Lady in 1992, her husband appointed her to head his President’s Task Force on Health Care Reform, an effort that did not result in any legislative accomplishments. Later in his presidency, she would convince her husband to bomb the sovereign nation of Yugoslavia, which set a precedent for later illegal U.S. wars.  
Voters in New York elected her to serve as the state’s junior senator in November 2000, a position she held for eight years. While in office, she voted in favor of the Authorization for Use of Military Force in 2001; two illegal wars (Afghanistan, 2001 and Iraq, 2003); and the original USA Patriot Act as well as its reauthorization in 2005. She did not pass any major piece of progressive legislation as senator.
After losing the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, she was subsequently appointed as Secretary of State. During her four year tenure at State, she pressed President Obama to carry out an illegal regime change in Libya, as well as helping solidify governments in both Honduras and Ukraine that came to power through extra-legal coups.  
After resigning from government, she joined the board of the Clinton Foundation, an enterprise organized as a charitable organization that has been accused of being “a vehicle to launder money and to enrich Clinton family friends.”
During the same period, she gave 92 speeches to corporations that paid her a total of $21.6 million.

Donald Trump


Age: 70
Education level: Bachelor’s degree
Occupation: Unemployed
Organizations belonged to: Republican Party

Biography

He was born on June 14, 1946 in Queens, New York of aristocratic social origin.
He attended an elite private school, before behavior problems led him to transfer to the New York Military Academy.
After finishing primary school, he attended Fordham University for two years before transferring to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in economics in 1968.
His father was an extremely wealthy real estate developer and one of the richest men in the country, and provided him an executive position in the family business when he finished university. When he started his real estate career with the construction of the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York City in 1978, his father provided a $1 million loan and acted as a “silent partner.”
Estimates of the fortune he inherited from his father are as high as $200 million.
In 1973, he was sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination. The New York City Human Rights Division gathered evidence that his apartment buildings would not rent to African Americans and a superintendent claimed to be only acting on orders from management. The lawsuit was settled two years later.
He used debt leverage to build multiple hotels and casinos in Atlantic City and other locations. Many of the properties bore his name.
From 1991 to 2009, his companies filed four Chapter 11 bankruptcies.
Reportedly he has done business with mafia members and drug traffickers.
He was accused by hundreds of contractors, including plumbers, painters and carpet companies, of failing to pay for work done to build his casinos.
When journalists have published stories about him that he dislikes, he has threatened to sue them.  
Starting in 2004, he became the host of a reality television show called The Apprentice. Later, this was spun off into another reality show, Celebrity Apprentice. Trump spent 13 seasons with the shows.
He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in both 2004 and 2005 (Outstanding Reality-Competition Program).
In 2013, he was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame.
Unlike every candidate for the past 40 years, he has refused to release his tax returns. Some have suggested there is strong evidence he does not pay income taxes.


Presently, political campaigns are little more than billion-dollar public relations exercises that allow elite servants of the corporate class to deceive the public into mistakenly believing they will represent their best interests. As the above bios demonstrate, if the ability to control and shape their message is removed from the candidates, the voters are presented with a much different picture. Perhaps American voters will start demanding more than simply enacting a new version of campaign finance reform to fix their broken system.  Political campaigns, as they currently exist, arguably do more to obscure and distort the history and record of candidates than they do to provide transparency and allow a rational choice based on relevant information about how they will govern.

This article first appeared at the American Herald Tribune.