Monday, September 26, 2016

Kaepernick Forces Americans to Choose Sides

When Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers chose to remain seated during the national anthem on August 26 prior to the start of the team’s game against the Green Bay Packers, as the rest of the stadium stood, he was not the only one engaging in a political act. But Kaepernick was likely the only one doing so consciously. And though he was outnumbered by tens of thousands in the stadium, and millions who watched on their television sets, Kaepernick’s bold statement was infinitely more powerful and outsized in its impact.

Those who - either out of pride or mere indifference - choose to stand for the national anthem were being just as political as Kaepernick. They were actively reinforcing the legitimacy of the political system that the anthem and the flag stand for.  

Those who rule and benefit from the political status quo want compliance to be subconscious. If the ruling class is able to achieve blind respect for its symbols, they are able to associate the state with benevolent abstractions like “freedom” and “democracy” and hide its inherently unjust manifestations - police brutality, military adventurism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the exacerbation of inequality, warrantless surveillance, mass incarceration, evisceration of social programs, natural resource extraction fueled by unrestrained profit seeking, etc.

With the atomization of society, the corporatization of political parties and the disappearance of unions in the neoliberal era, citizens have been largely relegated to the role of spectators in the political process, whose function is to support bipartisan American hegemony. Sports, where fans come together to watch passively, have become the most important venue to propagandize for militarism and American supremacy.

Chris Hedges calls sports stadiums “massive temples across the country where we celebrate our state religion.” Before the anthem is played, military personnel are brought on the field to celebrate their participation in illegal invasions and occupations, as if it were natural to lionize crimes against peace. The NFL has received millions of dollars over the last few years to carry out “patriotic displays” at football games. Militarism is cheered with thunderous applause and standing ovations.

This setting presents the perfect opportunity to maximize the impact of dissent. After his silent refusal to stand for the anthem in late August, Kaepernick’s protest overshadowed the game itself and became the most relevant topic in the sports world.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  

Kaepernick stated explicitly that he was refusing to symbolically validate the legitimacy of a political system that he sees around him being responsible for grave injustices. What was universally accepted a day before was now called into question. Other athletes, and even spectators, cannot just stand up, put their hand over their heart, and not recognize that they are exercising their agency for a political cause.

Sure enough, other athletes started following Kaepernick’s lead. A teammate. A player on another team. A soccer player. Entire high school teams. Elementary school children. Across the country, people are taking sides.

Rather than blindly propagating the liberal fantasy where everyone is fundamentally united, people are forced to choose: acceptance of the status quo, or rejection of it.

The side that succeeds will not do so by a majority vote. Dissidents like Kaepernick who seek political change don’t need half the stadium to sit down or kneel with them. All they need to do is demonstrate that people have the power to resist what is done in their name.

The more people realize this, the more they will start questioning on their own. They will no longer lend symbolic reinforcement to a political system that represents actions they oppose. Though they may be removed from decision making institutions like Congress, they will find they can participate in politics through one small, symbolic act that will make their voice suddenly matter.

Kaepernick is far from the first athlete to use his celebrity to confront the political system, of course. Most famously, Muhammad Ali defiantly refused to fight for the U.S. military in the Vietnam War and was convicted of draft dodging and sent to prison.

“I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die,” Ali said. “You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese.”

Ali’s principled stand played a major role in encouraging resistance and fomenting what grew into a massive anti-war movement that shocked the elite political class and eventually forced the withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam.

50 years later, with state violence still wildly out of control in the United States, Kaepernick could similarly inspire the public to resist illegal and immoral atrocities sanctioned by the state. By taking a knee, dissenters become the center of attention. The symbolic rituals they refuse to take part in are exposed as vacuous propaganda exercises which serve to stifle critical thinking and induce passive acceptance of the status quo.

Judging by the vilification Kaepernick has received so far, the apologists for - and deniers of - injustice understand how serious a challenge Kaepernick presents if his example keeps spreading at its present rate.

This article was originally published at American Herald Tribune.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Irony of 'Hamilton' Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's Advocacy For Puerto Rico

As the economic and humanitarian crisis has worsened in Puerto Rico in recent months, playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda has given voice in interviews and Op-Eds to the severity of the crisis among ordinary Puerto Ricans. Miranda called the island's debt crisis a matter of "life and death," saying, "I have a lot of family who are struggling in Puerto Rico, that's not an abstract issue to me." He humanizes what the statistics - $73 billion in debt, $19,500 median household income, 11.5 percent sales tax, 64,000 people leaving per year - can not. Puerto Rico is a debt colony whose function as a political entity is to service its creditors. Ironically, Miranda achieved the celebrity he's now using to advocate for the Puerto Rican people by glorifying and aggrandizing the most ruthless champion of creditors in American history.

Miranda has become an elite pop-culture sensation as the creator and star of the award-winning and immensely popular Broadway play Hamilton. The hip-hop musical has been as successful with critics as it has with Broadway theatergoers, dominating the Tony awards and selling out months in advance. The Harvard Business Review argues its $849 tickets are priced too low.

The show's namesake is, of course, Revolutionary War commander, George Washington adviser, and first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Miranda focuses on the rags to riches story of Hamilton - a poor immigrant who triumphed against all odds by using his intelligence and relentless hard work to fight British oppression and guide his new country to independence and greatness. In My Shot, Miranda's title character raps:

Hey yo, I'm just like my country
I'm young, scrappy and hungry 
And I'm not throwing away my shot! 

Miranda has praised Hamilton and the other "Founders" for their ability to translate a revolutionary vision into a nation that embodied the liberal principles it supposedly stood for.

"They did a remarkable thing in sticking the landing from revolution to government. That's the hardest thing to do. You can go across the ocean to France, where they totally fucked it up and then got stuck in a cycle of revolution and tyranny," Miranda told Rolling Stone.

Miranda also praised Hamilton's financial program of creating a national debt by assuming the debts of individual states: "His thinking was, if we are entrenched in each other's finances, we're stuck with each other."

The problem with Miranda's reading of history is that he assumes the liberal notion of a united nation, devoted to the common goals of freedom and equality, was any more real 225 years ago than it is today. Post-revolutionary America was never a utopia where everyone shared financially in the spoils of independence. It was a political association organized along the lines of feudal societies and their stark divisions between creditors and debtors.

A wealthy, colonial elite had managed through a massive propaganda campaign to enlist the poor to fight to overthrow British rule. The masses slogged through years battling horrid conditions in the woods and back country to survive combat, hunger, and the elements. They were paid in worthless paper they would later sell to speculators for a fraction of its face value after returning to their farms and their families upon gaining their "freedom."

The landholders and mercantile class had sat by idly as the "exceedingly dirty and nasty people" (in George Washington's words) did the real work of putting their lives on the line. The financiers then used their political connections to try to turn their investments into a profit by not only receiving interest on the paper debt but getting payment on its full value. There was no one more willing to oblige this massive transfer of wealth from common workers and peasants to the elite, ruling class than Hamilton.

The concentration of economic power into the hands of the few was the desired outcome, and the reason for Hamilton's dedication to the federalist political system. As the political battles raged between the federalists (Hamilton, James Madison and others) and the Republicans (Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who would later kill Hamilton in a duel), Hamilton sought to consolidate power into a centralized state that could enforce the feudal relationship between those who would pay and those who would collect.

As University of Massachusetts Amherst historian Leonard Richards writes in Shay's Rebellion, "(Hamilton) intended to strengthen the national government at the expense of the states by diminishing the ties of state creditors to the states and binding them to the central government. If their future wealth and well-being was linked to the success of the federal government, rather than to the states, their hearts and minds would follow." [1]

Hamilton was not trying to unite citizens together through mutual financial responsibility, as Miranda claimed. He was trying to unite the elites in dependency to the national state. To accomplish this, Hamilton "wanted to reduce - or, better yet, eliminate - the power of states. He also wanted to diminish the influence of farmers and artisans and enhance the power of landlords and merchants," Richards writes. [2]

What became known as Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts, in which a popular "regulation" revolted against the state's new political system which had taken power out of the hands of local councils and removed the influence of citizens distant from the financial and political center of Boston, provided a pretext for the Federalists to ram through their centralized national organization of government in order to crush potential future insurrections.

Installed as Treasury Secretary in the new federal government, Hamilton immediately implemented his policy of creating an astronomical federal debt. His solution for providing the money to actually pay these financial promises was the Whiskey Tax.

This excise tax had further aims that would help reorganize American social and economic life. William Hogeland writes in The Whiskey Rebellion that Hamilton designed the law to favor large producers over smaller ones. The tax would undercut the prices of independent distillers and self-employed farmers, driving them out of business and "into the factories of their creditors."  Hogeland writes:
“The goal was industry consolidation. Hamilton had learned from the English that commercial agriculture and large industry, when publicly chartered, given tax breaks, and financed by large loans, might turn the United States into an industrial empire to compete with England’s. The labor power dissipated on small family farms and in artisan shops could be gathered up, deployed at factories and diversified commercial farms, and boosted through efficient organization.” [3]
It is not clear whether Hamilton intended to provoke an insurrection, so he could then use the military power of the newly formed government to crush it and serve as an example to others who sought to challenge its dictates. But if Hamilton did indeed want the revolt that logically followed by those impacted by the tax, he was rewarded soon thereafter.

Hamilton not only argued for a military response to the uprising, the Treasury Secretary actually took command of a militia led by George Washington to the mountains of western Pennsylvania's Allegheny Valley. His goals were more far-reaching and strategic than merely to implement compliance and enforce the law. He sought to make an example of the organizations and protesters of the consequences of challenging federal authority. As Hogeland writes, "Hamilton was out to remove the heart of the people's movement he'd been struggling with for more than a decade, not to prosecute individuals." [4]

As commander of the military force that sought to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, Hogeland writes that Hamilton sanctioned large-scale plunder:
"He made theft legal. The quartermaster corps, he announced would impress civilian property along the way. Now families watched helplessly as bayonet-wielding soldiers - no longer freelancing thieves but officials, authorized by the president - commandeered hard-won winter supplies of grain, meat, firewood, and blankets on behalf of the government of the United States. A steady, freezing rain meant the arrival of winter. Families whose sustenance was carted away faced grim months ahead.” [5]
When Hamilton's forces reached the rebels, they terrorized the local population with night raids that resulted in mass arrests. Prisoners were threatened with hanging and left shackled, freezing and nearly starved. In the end, only 20 prisoners were brought back to Philadelphia for trial. All except one were found innocent. The one conviction was later overturned.

Naturally, this history is absent from Miranda's sanitized version of Hamilton. Instead, there is a feel-good, liberal version of Hamilton that fits the propaganda needs of the present-day American empire.

As Paul Street wrote recently in his CounterPunch article "Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Menage a Trois for the Neoliberal Age", Miranda's Broadway spectacle is a "brilliant ahistorical monument to Orwellian, fake-progressive bourgeois identity politics in service to the very predominantly Caucasian financial elite and ruling class hegemony."

Miranda also ignores the structural social and economic forces that, since the founding of the United States, have kept the elite rich and the landless poor. Instead, he propagates the illusion that a person's success (or lack thereof) are based on meritocracy. This is a convenient narrative for apologists of inequality.

"Adding to the 'valorization' of the American System," Street writes, "Hamilton's 'Bootstraps Immigrant Narrative' (McMaster) feeds Caucasian capitalism's timeworn victim-blaming story line on why some few folks succeed in climbing up the nation's steep racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic pyramids while most fail."

The reality in Puerto Rico is that the population is suffering due to the same financial empire Hamilton was instrumental in designing and implementing. Like the small farmers and artisans whose livelihoods were crushed by Hamilton's policies that transferred their wealth to the financial elites, Puerto Ricans are being forced to keep paying their ever-shrinking incomes to service the claims against them.

One can imagine Hamilton delighting in the privatization of Puerto Rico's highways and airports, as well as the stipulation in the PROMESA bill that would allow an un-elected junta appointed by the U.S. Congress to lower the minimum wage.

While Miranda advocates for more flexibility for Puerto Rico to restructure its debt and help stabilize social life on the island, he doesn't seem able to recognize that Puerto Rico's problems are rooted in its political status as a colony conquered by the U.S. empire.

The fiction that Puerto Rico is anything other than a colony was put to rest recently when the Supreme Court's Sanchez Valle ruling acknowledged Puerto Rico does not have sovereignty and the U.S. Congress holds all political authority over the island. As a colony ruled by outsiders for their own benefit, the population of Puerto Rico is powerless to change the socioeconomic system imposed on them through the political process. This is exactly how Hamilton would have wanted it.

For Miranda, who talks eloquently of the problems facing his family and the people of Puerto Rico, there should be no greater symbol of the dispossession and social destruction that appear to be reaching a breaking point in Puerto Rico than Alexander Hamilton and his feudal politics that stripped people of their livelihoods and turned them into little more than commodities whose station in life was to produce wealth for others.

References

[1] Richards, Leonard L. Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty. Simon and Schuster , 2015. Kindle edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The New York Times's Outrage at Trump's Refusal to Demonize Russia

After baseless allegations from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that the Russian government was behind a hack of the DNC's emails, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sarcastically quipped that he hoped Russia would find and release the deleted emails from Hillary Clinton's private server from her time as secretary of state. The New York Times failed to note the sarcasm and treated the comments as evidence of high crimes against the state. It was an example of the modern day red-baiting against Trump, who is portrayed as being in league with Russian President Vladimir Putin to conspire against the United States itself.

The Times said Trump was "essentially urging a foreign adversary to conduct cyberespionage against a former secretary of state." While Trump is such a narcissitic buffoon that it is often difficult to discern when he is being facetious, he was clearly making a joke.

But treating the comment in the spirit it was intended would mean passing up a golden opportunity to bash Trump for what has become common knowledge in mainstream political analysis: Trump is anti-American for being diplomatic instead of vilifying Russia and Putin at every opportunity. They scrutinize and make a point of every statement Trump makes that fails to antagonize Russia for actions the US government doesn't antagonize other countries for.

While they merely imply "urging" cyberespionage is treasonous rather than state it explicitly, the Times finds it so important that they place it in the lead paragraph. This is curiously prominent, much more prominent that when President Barack Obama literally joked about incinerating a family with a remotely guided missile.

At the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 2010, Obama said:
"The Jonas Brothers are here. (Applause.) They're out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don't get any ideas. (Laughter.) I have two words for you - predator drones. (Laughter.) You will never see it coming. (Laughter.) You think I'm joking. (Laughter.)"
Unlike Trump's joke, which warranted its own headline ("Donald Trump Calls on Russia to Find Hillary Clinton's Missing Emails"), Obama's joke wasn't mentioned in the Times' headline about the event ("Obama and Leno Share a Time Slot") nor the lead. Their summary of the night's newsworthiness noted "jokes about Representative John Boehner's tan, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s lack of restraint and the Fox News-MSNBC divide."

You had to go all the way down to the eighth paragraph to find the briefest possible mention of Obama's obscene drone murder joke/threat:
"Mr. Obama noted the presence of the Jonas Brothers, who can count Sasha and Malia Obama among their fans. But the First Father warned the band: 'Two words: predator drones.' "
If another world leader hypothetically ran a global assassination campaign under which he unilaterally assumed the power to kill anyone he wanted in the world, anywhere, any time, with the only criteria needed to order someone's death being internal deliberations within the executive branch, it would produce such a frenzy in corporate media they would devote themselves nearly exclusively to beating the drums for regime change, much as they did leading up to the Iraq War.

If that hypothetical leader then joked about people he was killing, it would undoubtedly be a banner headline on the front page for days or weeks. There would certainly be apoplectic outrage, and you most definitely wouldn't have to scroll down to the eighth paragraph to learn about it.

Mark Karlin wrote in Buzzflash at Truthout in 2014 that Obama's mock threat to the Jonas brothers "evoked the US indifference to those persons killed overseas by drone strikes. That is because the guffaws of the corporate media were based on the subconscious premise that Obama's boasting of his power to authorize kill strikes is limited to people of little note to DC insiders, Middle-Eastern civilians (collateral damage) and persons alleged to be terrorists or in areas where terrorists allegedly congregate."

As  Jeanne Mirer, president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, writes in Drones and Targeted Killing: "If the person against whom lethal force is directed has not been convicted of a crime for which a death sentence is permissible in the state where the killing occurs, the targeted killing is also an 'extrajudicial' killing, outside of any legal process. Targeted extrajudicial killing is, by its very nature, illegal." [1] But corporate media like the New York Times could care less that Obama is violating international human rights law and the US Constitution itself by assassinating people.

What produces the greatest moral outrage in the Times and the media elites is perceived attacks on the American state, or perceived threats to American supremacy. Thus the Times calls Trump's joke "another bizarre moment in the mystery of whether Vladimir Putin's government has been seeking to influence the United States' presidential race."

What is supposedly bizarre is unclear. What is dubbed a "mystery" is really nothing more than a conspiracy theory. The Times cites the DNC's accusations that Russian intelligence agents hacked the committee's emails. The DNC's frantic finger pointing at Russia are a transparent tactic to distract from the damning content of the emails themselves, as Nadia Prupis has written at Common Dreams.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange noted in an interview with Democracy Now that any such claims are "simply speculation" and when Hillary's campaign manager Robby Mook was asked in a TV interview to name the experts he was citing as evidence, Mook refused flatly.

The Times validates the DNC's objective evidence-free accusations by saying American intelligence agencies have confirmed with "high confidence" the Russian government was behind the attack. They have not publicly presented any evidence at all, but their word at face value is good enough for the Times to consider it damning proof.

American intelligence agencies and the military have a motive to hype the Russian "threat" to justify their own budget requests and advance the US government's policy of global hegemony, presumably unaware that the Cold War ended 25 years ago.

In case Russia's transgressions are not self-evident enough for Times readers, they call attention to Trump's refusal to condemn Russia's "seizure" of Crimea and willingness to consider whether to lift sanctions against the Russian government as a "remarkable departure from United States policy."

It would be a departure from US policy against Russia. But it is not US policy to sanction countries for incorporating territory outside their recognized borders in general. Quite the opposite in fact. Unlike Crimea, which voted with roughly 97 percent support to join Russia in a peaceful transition to re-integrate itself into the country it had been part of for several centuries, Israel seized the Palestinian territories nearly 50 years ago through violent military aggression against the unanimous wishes of both the Palestinians themselves and nearly the entire Middle East and beyond. In the subsequent half century, the US has showered Israel with more than $150 billion in aid while fighting tooth and nail any attempt in the United Nations to hold Israel to account for its indisputable violations of international law.

The US has also generously gifted millions of dollars in aid to countries like Indonesia after they had seized East Timor and carried a genocidal assault against nearly one third of the country's population and sponsored France's attempts to reconquer their former colony Vietnam after World War II (before stepping in directly and unleashing the most horrific military assault on a country's people and environment in modern times.)

But policies of supporting other country's human rights and international violations are not of interest to the Times if those countries are seen as allied with US "interests" or "values." It is only when someone questions whether it is necessary to continue treating another government as an enemy that they are called on to take a hard-line in standing up for international law.

The Times calls Russia "often hostile to the United Sates" while NATO continues to encircle the country from all sides and Obama has ordered what amounts to a permanent buildup of NATO personnel and weapons along Russia's borders and instigated a new nuclear arms race by spending $1 trillion to upgrade the US nuclear arsenal and make weapons more usable, i.e., more likely to be employed.

In another article titled "As Democrats Gather, a Russian Subplot Raises Intrigue," the Times asks what they purport to be a widespread question: "Is Vladimir V. Putin trying to meddle in the American presidential election."

While this is merely another conspiracy theory without any actual evidence supporting it, it is the case that countries often do meddle in the elections of other countries. But it is almost always the US government itself doing it to others, which explains why it is ignored by the Times and the rest of the media establishment.

In Rogue State, William Blum lists twenty cases of US interference in the elections of sovereign countries (including Russia itself) [2]:

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, 1987-1988
Russia, 1996
Mongolia, 1996
Bosnia, 1998

But the actions themselves are not the issue. Not all violations of international law or subversion of state sovereignty are created equal. If the US government is the perpetrator of such actions, they are glossed over or ignored entirely. But when the US itself is seen as the subject of such violation (even when it is purely in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists and others seeking to demonize official enemies, as appears to be the case in the current moment) any one who doesn't join forcefully in the demonization is vilified relentlessly, as Trump is experiencing in the pages of the Times and across the mainstream media.

References

[1] Cohn, Marjorie. Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Olive Branch Press, 2014. Kindle Edition.

[2] Blum, William. Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower. 2016. Kindle Edition.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Law Enforcement Misrepresentation of Orlando Killer's 911 Call Ignores U.S. Foreign Policy Motivation

In the aftermath of the horrific mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando over the weekend in which 50 people were killed, media including CNN, USA Today, NPR, NBC News, and CBS News, all reported that the gunman called 911 during his murderous rampage and pledged allegiance to ISIS. None of the journalists writing for any of these news outlets heard the call themselves; they all cite the FBI as their source.

The U.S. government has been engaged in a war against the self-professed Islamic State for the last two years. Their military intervention consists of a bombing campaign against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. Hyping the threat members connected to the terror group - or spiritually loyal to it - pose to American citizens is supportive of U.S. foreign policy. If ISIS, or people claiming to act on behalf of ISIS, are a real danger to Americans, it bolsters the notion that the group is a threat to national security and helps justifies the government's military response.

The FBI seems eager to show itself as disrupting ISIS plots in the States. As Adam Johnson has written in FAIR, the FBI has put Americans in contact with informants who claim to represent ISIS and then led the targets to believe they would help the targets join the terrorist organization. The media have then conflated this with an "ISIS Plot" and "ISIS Support," when no members of ISIS were ever involved in any way.

The FBI's motivation to portray events in a way that supports U.S. foreign policy, and its history of portraying its actions in a way that has served to hype an ISIS threat should make journalists cautious about taking officials' words at face value. Especially in the case of a 911 call, which is a public record in Florida, proper journalistic due diligence would be to consult the actual source of the claims being disseminated.

Instead, not a single journalist appears to have done this with Orlando killer Omar Mateen's 911 call.

On Tuesday, CNN aired interviews of eyewitnesses to the shooting spree who described their harrowing encounters with the gunman inside the club. Patience Carter, who was inside a bathroom stall feet from the gunman when he called 911, said he told the dispatcher that "the reason why he was doing this is because he wants America to stop bombing his country." (Mateen is a native of the United States, but he was presumably referring to Afghanistan, where both of his parents are from.) She said he then declared that "from now on he pledges his loyalty to ISIS."

This demonstrates that his primary motive for his terror attack was retaliation for the U.S. aggression in Afghanistan, where nearly 100,000 people have been killed since the illegal U.S. invasion in 2001. His mention of ISIS seems merely adjunct to what he admits was his justification for the attack. His motivation precedes his ideological alignment with ISIS, not the other way around.

Anti-war activists have long argued that overseas military operations endanger not only the populations whose countries are invaded, occupied and bombed, but Americans in the United States who are at risk of terrorist retaliation from people outraged by the death and destruction war inevitably produces to the point of being willing to resort to violence themselves.

Carter's version of the 911 call reveals a very different picture than the partial one revealed by the FBI and reprinted by each of the largest news organizations. The complete conversation depicts Mateen as indicating that he considered his actions a response to U.S. foreign policy. Of course, the murder of innocent civilians is always reprehensible and can never be justified by claiming they are a response to a state's military aggression, regardless of how deadly and devastating such military operations are. But it should be predictable that some people will use this rationalization regardless and seek out soft targets in the country whose government they claim to be retaliating against.

The FBI chose to omit Mateen's professed motive entirely when recounting the 911 call to the media, and merely state that he professed allegiance to ISIS. Perhaps they recognized how putting Mateen's call in context may lead people to question whether U.S. wars in Afghanistan (and Iraq) raise the terrorist threat at home.

After all, this is not the first time this has happened. The surviving Boston Marathon bomber cited the U.S. wars abroad as his motivation for committing the attack that killed three people and maimed dozens more.

It is not clear whether any journalist even asked to hear the 911 call themselves. But it is clear that they chose to disseminate second-hand information when the primary source should have been easily accessible. If it was not made available (as required by law), the public deserves to know that it was suppressed and be given an explanation why.

Media stenographers parroted government officials' descriptions of the call, which left out the killer's professed motivation for his politically motivated attack and failed to put the ISIS claim in any context. Unsurprisingly, their misrepresentation served the government's policy agenda and avoided having the incident serve as an example of a negative consequence of U.S. foreign policy - one that anti-war dissenters have used in arguing against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since the War on Terror was launched more than a decade and a half ago.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Obama Continues to Ignore Pleas to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoner Oscar López Rivera

Thousands of people marched in Harlem calling for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera in May 2015. Photo by Matt Peppe.
Two and a half months ago, asked by award-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda about imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera - whose only crime, according to Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is "conspiracy to free his people from the shackles of imperial justice" - President Barack Obama told the Hamilton creator that he "had [the case] on his desk." Miranda, whose parents hail from Puerto Rico, used his invitation to the White House to bring up the issue of López Rivera's continued incarceration, which is of tremendous importance to Puerto Ricans. Both on the island and in the diaspora, freedom for the 73-year-old political prisoner enjoys overwhelming popular support and has united people across the political spectrum.

Sunday marked the 35th anniversary that López was imprisoned. He was convicted in 1981 of "seditious conspiracy" for trying to overthrow the U.S. government by force, as well as minor charges including possession of firearms and transporting stolen vehicles across state lines. López was acussed of holding a leadership position in the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertoriqqueña), a Puerto Rican nationalist organization, which he did not admit to but did not dispute. The group claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Chicago and New York during the 1970s and 1980s, though as the Chicago Tribune noted the bombings were carried out "to damage property rather than persons" and the FALN "were out to call attention to their cause rather than to shed blood."

López was never personally tied to any bombing or any other act of violence that resulted in the death or injury of any person. Undoubtedly, if the government possessed any evidence of his participation in, or organization of, a violent act they would have charged him with it in court. But they merely charged him with conspiracy to commit sedition, the same political charged used by the apartheid South African government to convict Nelson Mandela two decades earlier. López has now served seven more years in prison than Mandela did before being freed and becoming South Africa's first post-apartheid President.

Thousands of people gathered Sunday in San Juan to mark the 35th anniversary of López's imprisonment and demand his release. Marchers chanted "Obama, listen to me! We want Oscar free" and "We don't want this board, we want to be free," according to Fox News Latino.

The later slogan references the stipulation in the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability (PROMESAS) Act that would create a financial control board made up overwhelmingly of members from outside the island and not appointed by representatives elected by Puerto Ricans. The board would be vested with power over all fiscal decisions, effectively overriding Puerto Rico's own elected representatives. The bill was passed by a House committee on Wednesday and is expected to draw a vote in the full chamber next month. It has the support of leadership in both the Republican and Democratic parties in Congress as well as the Obama administration.

But Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla and much of the Puerto Rican public are opposed to what they see as an overt imposition of colonialism by allowing unelected technocrats not representative of - or accountable to - the Puerto Rican people to hold veto power over spending decisions, and even decrease the minimum wage.

López himself opposes the financial control board, telling El Nuevo Día in a phone interview (prison officials denied the newspaper's request for an in person interview): "This is a problem created by Washington. The problem is in Washington and Wall Street. The people of Puerto Rico should not accept it. No Puerto Rican should doubt that we can solve our own problems... We need for them to respect our right to self-determination and not depend on the crumbs that Washington gives us."

Obama's answer to Miranda about whether he would grant López a pardon or commutation suggests a sense of urgency. If the matter is indeed "on his desk," he presumably intends to take swift action on it. However, this is clearly not the case. Both Obama's record as having issued fewer pardons than almost any President in history, and his years of refusing to attend to López's case in particular, attest to Obama's indifference to the unjust detention of prisoners by the government he leads.

Since being elected seven years ago, Obama has been directly presented with appeals to free López Rivera from three fellow Nobel Peace Laureates, Puerto Rico's non-voting member of Congress, Puerto Rico's current governor and foreign presidents. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro even publicly offered to release opposition leader Leopoldo López if Obama released López Rivera. Yet the Obama administration has maintained its silence.

Last week, three Puerto Rican American members of Congress - Luis Gutiérrez, Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano, along with Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi - revealed that they had sent a letter to Obama in February calling on him to grant clemency to the man who has now spent nearly half his life behind bars without ever being charged with an act of violence.

After months without receiving a response, the legislators decided to go public to try to put pressure on Obama to recognize the will of virtually all of Puerto Rico and issue a pardon.

"You know how much this means to us, because we have personally expressed it to you. To our understanding, there is no legimitate criminological objective in continuing the imprisonment of this 73 year old Puerto Rican, when his country and others that value human rights clamor for his liberation," they revealed that they wrote to the President.

Two and a half years ago, I argued that Obama's refusal to free López was emblematic of the propensity of the U.S. government to ignore the political demands of the Puerto Rican people and solely use the colonial relationship to pursue the perceived economic and strategic interests of the ruling class:
"Without any representation in Congress or a vote in Presidential elections, Puerto Ricans have their political rights subjugated to the U.S. government. Even on an issue as popular among Puerto Ricans as the release of Oscar López, they have no recourse to participate in the political process at the federal level.

There is no indication that Obama intends to even respond to López’s clemency plea, much less grant it. In his speech at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Obama said that 'around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs.' The overwhelming opinion among Puerto Ricans is that this description applies precisely to López.

The disregard that Obama has shown for recognizing the will of Puerto Ricans to free Oscar López demonstrates the uphill challenges Puerto Ricans face to shed their second-class status and obtain equal rights. If the President refuses even to grant a simple pardon, what chance do Puerto Ricans have of the U.S. government acting on the 2012 referendum and allowing them to achieve self-determination?"
The question of why Puerto Ricans would believe that anyone in the U.S. government respects their opinions or their political desires should be more urgent than ever. We are in the middle of another campaign season, which for many Americans is seen as an opportunity for them to participate in the political process by voting in elections. However, for Puerto Ricans it is another reminder that while they are American citizens, they are denied the right given to Americans in the states to select Congressional representatives and take part in the Presidential election.

The policies that will be decided after the election at the federal level will apply to Puerto Ricans, though they will have had no role in choosing those policies and no way to voice their dissatisfaction at policies they oppose by voting out those who supported them.

The only way Puerto Rico can recover from its economic and debt crisis, as López Rivera said in his interview with El Nuevo Día, would be to achieve sovereignty and self-determination. This would grant them the ability to prioritize local business and the needs of the population, and free them from being merely a captive market for U.S. products and a source of cheap labor for U.S. corporations.

But any promise that the 2012 referendum, in which a 54% majority rejected the current colonial status, had of achieving this has disappeared. The U.S. Congress, which must approve any change in Puerto Rico's political status, has not given any indication it will even consider doing anything to end the "Commonwealth" colonial status that Puerto Ricans voted against.

On the contrary, Puerto Ricans are being presented with the prospect of a financial control board that is a blatant affront to the idea that people should rule themselves, and a reminder of their powerlessness as colonial subjects.

The fact that Oscar López Rivera still sits unjustly in a prison cell is proof that the voices of Puerto Ricans simply do not matter to first-class American citizens on the mainland who hold power.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Speech Obama Should Have Given in Hiroshima

Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to visit Hiroshima on Friday, more than seven decades after the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped a 10,000-pound atomic bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" on the city whose military value was far less than that of Tampa to the United States. More than 70,000 people were instantly killed, and virtually the entire city was flattened. Many survivors would suffer prolonged and unimaginably painful aftereffects of radiation, which would cost at least 100,000 more people their lives. The effects of radiation would harm people for years and decades after the initial explosion.   

Obama stood at a podium with the epicenter of the blast, the Genbaku Domu, in the background and said that he had "come to mourn the dead." While Obama mourned, there was one thing he did not do: apologize. 

He said that "death came from the sky." No mention of why. Or who was responsible, as if it were a natural disaster rather than a crime perpetrated by actual people. Obama was either unwilling or unable to confront the truth and make amends. 

Here's what he could have said to try to do so:

Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, an American warplane unleashed the most horrific and inhuman weapon ever invented, immediately imperiling the survival of the entire human species. This act of terrorism was the ultimate crime: a crime of mass murder, a crime of war, and a crime against humanity.

The victims, those who died incinerated in a flash, and those who died slowly and painfully over years from chemical poisoning, were never able to see justice served. Sadly, there is no way the criminals who carried out this heinous and barbaric act will ever face justice for their crimes.

I cannot change that. But, there is one thing I can do as the leader of the nation in whose name the bombing of Hiroshima was carried out: I can tell you, residents of Hiroshima and the rest of Japan, that I am sorry. I am sorry on behalf of my government and my country. I wish an American President would have come earlier and said this. This apology is decades overdue. It is a small and symbolic act, but it is necessary as a first step for true reconciliation.

A nuclear bomb should have never been dropped on Hiroshima. The most important goal of mankind should be to ensure that no nuclear bomb is ever dropped again. Anywhere in the world. Ever.

It would be easy to stand here and tell you that there are reasons why the American military and political officials chose to use a nuclear bomb. I could say it served a greater good of saving lives that would have been lost if the war had continued. I could say it was a decision made by people who were dealing with the pressure and horrors of fighting a war. But that would not be the truth. Those would be empty rationalizations. There is no justification for the bomb. Period.

The truth is that by August 6, 1945 Japan was defeated and had been seeking a conditional surrender for months. And American war planners knew this. They knew it because they had cracked the Japanese code and were intercepting their messages. [1]

Japan was willing to surrender under the condition that their Emperor, who was seen as a God among the Japanese people, be allowed to maintain his throne and not be prosecuted for war crimes. The Emperor himself called for "a plan to end the war" six weeks before the fateful day. [2]  After so much unspeakable death and destruction, this reasonable offer should have been met with ecstatic celebration and relief.

Instead, U.S. officials disregarded it. They decided that it was necessary not just to defeat Japan, but to leave them utterly humiliated and disgraced. They wanted to demonstrate to their public that they could force another country to lay prostrate in front of them in complete submission. This is the mindset of terrorists, torturers, and sadists.

The United States joined with China and Great Britain to issue the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, in which they called on Japan "to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces." These were terms they understood Japan could not accept.

Unfortunately, the use of the atomic bomb had become inevitable after the massive investment of time and treasure represented by the Manhattan Project. Military planners worried about "the possibility that after spending huge amounts of money ... the bomb would be a dud. They could easily imagine being grilled mercilessly by hostile members of Congress."

Historian and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission employee J. Samuel Walker confirmed that aside from "shortening the war and saving American lives, Truman wanted to justify the expense and effort required to build the atomic bombs."

That financial considerations and a self-interested desire for bureaucrats to validate themselves and protect their careers could lead to the single most destructive and cruel act in history is an abomination. It is a deep offense to the idea that people are innately moral, and it makes us ask how in a democratic society we can vest people with the authority to make decisions of such profound impact secretly and without accountability?

Walker notes that another consideration for using the bomb on Hiroshima was to put fear into the leaders of the Soviet Union and make them "more amenable to American wishes." Just six weeks earlier the UN Charter had been established. It included the demand that "all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force" against other states. The drafters of the treaty could never have imagined such an unconscionable violation of their words so soon after the monumental pact had been written.

As horrific as the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima was, it did not occur in a vacuum. What no one in mainstream American political discourse has so far been able to admit is that not only was there no justification for the bomb, there was little justification for the war against Japan in the first place.

The war was the result of the notion, which first emanated from the Council on Foreign Relations in 1941, that the U.S.'s "national interest" called for a "Grand Area" that consisted of the Western hemisphere, the British Empire and the Far East, while assuming the majority of Europe would be controlled by Nazi Germany. This was translated into a policy that demanded a military confrontation with Japan for control of the Far East. [3]

A pillar in this policy was an economic embargo against Japan. Cut off from imports and raw materials from the United States and Great Britain, Japan grew desperate and subsequently sought to expand its Empire. Japan saw itself in need of a sphere of influence involving the same areas in the Far East as the United States.

The U.S. had several options to avoid war. For one, they could develop a program of agricultural and economic self-sufficiency which would allow them to insulate themselves from dependence on colonial powers, as well as allow them to steer clear of unpredictable and potentially hostile regions of the world.

But for businessmen who wanted to maintain control over the direction of the economy and keep their own fortunes growing at a limitless pace, this was a nonstarter. Instead, they were dedicated to challenging Japan. Hence, the embargo and the buildup for an inevitable military confrontation over Eastern Asia.

This is the background to Pearl Harbor. Japan was obviously not justified for attacking sovereign American territory in a blatant act of aggression. But we cannot pretend that it was not predictable or logical from their point of view.

Japan felt itself backed into a corner by the embargo. They felt they needed to expand further into Asia. They believed that if they did so, the U.S. military would have attacked them. They were right.

Both countries should have worked together to recognize each other's perceived interests, deescalate, and achieve a mutually acceptable compromise. It is the ability to understand one's perceived adversary as a rational counterpart, rather than an evil and irrational enemy, that separates humans from beasts. If we are not able to use this ability, we are no better than a predator seeking his prey.

The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima did not need to happen. But the bombing that took place on this site was just a symptom of the war it was part of. War will necessarily produce horrific crimes, some of which are unimaginable at the time they happen. As horrific as the nuclear bomb was, 70 years of technological advancements have made not just the destruction of an entire city, but of an entire country or continent within the realm of possibility.

We need to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. But that is not enough. Chemical weapons like napalm, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, and white phosphorous; biological weapons like Dengue bacteria and germ bombs; and conventional weapons like cluster bombs, pineapple bomblets, butterfly bombs and land mines are just some of the savage weapons used by the U.S. military alone in the years since the close of World War II to kill and maim millions of people. Many other countries possess similar weapons of mass destruction and have the capacity to do the same.

We need to eliminate war. All war. Forever. War is evil, plain and simple. We cannot undo the actions of the past. But we can let them guide us to a better world where we don't repeat the horrors that the people of Hiroshima suffered here 71 years ago. That will be the only way to prevent the victims from having died in vain.

References 

[1] Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. pp. 423. 

[2] U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 19, 1946. President's Secretary's File, Truman Papers. http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/documents/index.php?pagenumber=33&documentid=65&documentdate=1946-06-19&studycollectionid=abomb&groupid=

[3] Shoup, Laurence H. and William Minter. Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations & United States Foreign Policy. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2004.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. You can follow him on twitter.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of "Abusive" Lending Practices

After dueling through grueling early fractions and holding the lead turning for home, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist was overpowered in the stretch of the Preakness Stakes Saturday by his rival Exaggerator. Exaggerator would go on to win by four lengths, as Nyquist faded to third. Nyquist was unable to repeat his performance from two weeks ago when he overwhelmed 19 other three-year-olds and cruised to a 1 1/2 length victory, earning the horse's owner, J. Paul Reddam, a cool $1.2 million.

Four years ago, Reddam's horse I'll Have Another won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, earning $2.7 million before retiring due to injury before the Belmont Stakes. Soon after, the horse was sold for $10 million to Big Red Farm in Japan. It was a phenomenal return on investment for Reddam, who purchased the horse a year earlier at auction for $35,000.

Reddam, a former philosophy professor, is used to big profits. In 1995, he entered a considerably more lucrative industry than academia when he founded the subprime mortgage lending company DiTech. The company was one of the first to take advantage of the internet to offer home-equity loans online of 125% of the home's value.

The Los Angeles Times said that Reddam "immediately shook up the Southern California mortgage industry with his scrappy style and aggressive advertising. Though his techniques raised eyebrows, they were often copied by rivals, most notably his use of freeway billboards to advertise the company's daily mortgage rates."

In 1999, Reddam capitalized on his company's success when it was acquired by GMAC Residential Mortgage Corp., a financial arm of General Motors, for what was estimated at $265 million.

A year later, Reddam stepped down from Ditech.com (the new name of the company) when three high-level managers were indicted for extortion. The men were accused of demanding kickbacks from a Pittsburgh mortgage servicing company who relied on Ditech.com for 20% of their business. Reddam resigned on the same day as the charges were made public, though he was never charged.

At this point, Reddam became involved in thoroughbred racing. He told the LA Times: "I sold my company, Ditech Funding, and had some cash. I always loved racing, so I decided to get involved in a bigger way. I bought one horse for $700,000 at a dispersal sale, Swept Overboard, which won two Grade I's, including the Met Mile. I later sold him to a Japanese breeder for $3 million."

Reddam's next business venture was CashCall, another non-bank private lender. The company offers home, business and personal loans, including loans from $850 to $10,000 that carried annual interest rates as high as 343 percent.

Like DiTech, CashCall is also known for its aggressive advertising. The late former child actor Gary Coleman, of Different Strokes fame, starred in numerous commercials for CashCall.

For years, various states as well as the federal government have pursued legal action against CashCall. In 2009, CashCall settled with the state of California for $1 million for using "loan shark tactics" to pursue debtors. The company was ordered not to "harrass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a Consumer Loan."

Last year, after a lengthy legal battle with the West Virginia Attorney General, CashCall reached a $13 million settlement for practicing "abusive debt collections."

The company is currently fighting a lawsuit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), who initiated legal action in 2013 claiming that CashCall "engaged in unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices, including illegally debiting consumer checking accounts for loans that were void."

The CFPB complaint specifically names Reddam as having violated provisions of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, as well as either licensing requirements or interest-rate limits in eight different states.

The CFPB explains in its press release announcing the CashCall suit that "(u)nder statutes in at least these eight states, any obligation to pay such loans was rendered void or otherwise nullified in whole or in part by law. Therefore, the defendants are collecting money that consumers do not owe."

While the legal action is still pending, if the accusations are proven in court they would mean that the company was essentially representing that people owed debts which they did not, and taking money which did not rightfully belong to CashCall. 

The company tried to have the lawsuit thrown out on jurisdictional grounds, but a judge ruled in December that the CFPB's suit may proceed.

For his part, Reddam has defended CashCall's business, telling Bloomberg that: "There is a tremendous need for people to borrow a few thousand dollars to help them over whatever crisis they are having, and the banks are not serving that need, and they should."

Others might say that what the company is doing amounts to usury, preying on the most vulnerable segments of the population, who do not have alternative means of finance.

As Michael Hudson explains in his book Killing the Host, similar practices as the CFPB and state Attorney Generals allege CashCall engaged in were disdained historically by populists who sought a more egalitarian socioeconomic system: "Recognizing how most great fortunes had been built up in predatory ways, through usury, war lending and political insider dealings to grab the Commons and carve out burdensome monopoly privileges led to a popular view of financial magnates, landlords and hereditary ruling elite as parasitic by the 19th century, epitomized by the French anarchist Proudhon's slogan 'Property as theft.' " [1]

Predatory lending has historically been understood as detrimental to the economy it preys upon, siphoning off capital created from production and leaving industries, their laborers, and the larger economy worse off by this "parasitic" relationship between creditor and debtor.

Hudson writes that Church theorists believed bankers should enjoy a standard of living similar to other professions. "This required holding down the price of services they could charge (e.g. by the usury laws enacted by most of the world prior to the 1980s), by regulating prices for their services, and by taxing high incomes and luxuries," he writes. [2]

Reddam is right that there is indeed a market for small personal loans that banks are not meeting. But what does that say about an economic system that fails to provide people with options other than resorting to "high-cost loans" to meet their basic needs? Why are there not other alternatives - low-cost or free government lending, member-owned credit unions, etc. - widely available to people who have trouble paying bills and providing food for their families in between pay checks?

The formation of the CFPB, a public agency dedicated to protecting consumers, provides a critical counterweight to predatory financial companies. But until financial insecurity is eliminated among the working class, which will never be the case in a neoliberal global capitalist economy, there will always be financial predators lurking with illegal and unfair schemes, and people will inevitably fall victim to them.

References

[1] Hudson, Michael. Killing The Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy. CounterPunch Books, 2015. Electronic Edition.

[2] Ibid.