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Federal Public Servants: Don’t Bow to Trump’s Shock and Awe

Donald Trump’s flurry of executive orders attempting to make good on the worst of his campaign promises left many feeling overwhelmed. But the chief executive has neither the powers of a dictator nor those of the head of a family-owned corporation. Trump is attempting a “Shock 2017-02-03-1486138715-7406059-384pxDonald_Trump_official_portrait.jpgand Awe” campaign. (I didn’t pick a photo of him happening to look intimidating. It’s his official White House portrait) It will work only if the 2.7 million civil servants employed by the United States actually allow themselves to be cowed. This is directed at you: please don’t! And to the rest of us: we need to support them!

There are two paths here. One is marked by Sally Yates; employees of the Park Service, EPA, NOAA, NASA, and other agencies who are using Twitter to defy gag orders; and those at the Department of Human Services who repeatedly used its official Twitter account to urge people to sign up under the Affordable Care Act after the Administration ordered ads for the program pulled.

There is another path, trailblazed by those at the Centers for Disease Control who cancelled a conference on climate change and health in an act of self-censorship just before Trump’s inauguration. Even more ominously, Customs and Border Patrol agents continued to turn away refugees and visa holders after being ordered not to by the federal courts. In Los Angeles, at least, the U.S. Marshal’s office, a Department of Justice agency which is the enforcement arm of those courts, has for days avoided its routine duty to serve those orders on the CBP, even though one of them explicitly directs the Marshal’s Service to “take those actions deemed necessary to enforce” the order. (Los Angeles Marshals’ refusal to even receive copies of that order has been reported elsewhere. I found it so surprising and alarming that I verified it, in detail, with one of the attorneys who is trying to obtain CBP compliance at Los Angeles International.)

If you follow the path of doing your jobs and adhering to the law regardless of what higher-ups order, we are in for a rocky time but will be spared what would in effect be a dictatorship. If you follow the path of caving in to illegality and gag orders, you are giving a dangerous clique power to which no presidency is entitled.

A Government of Laws?

As a lawyer, I find misleading the catechism that “we have a government of laws, not of men (and women).” The claim leaves out the enormous power officials have in interpreting what laws mean and deciding which to enforce, and against whom to enforce them. And yet it expresses an important truth: Trump’s authority is far from unlimited .

The president certainly has the power to issue executive orders. Some are simply statements of policy, such as the priorities of the administration. The Supreme Court has consistently held, however, that more substantive orders must be pursuant to a specific power given to the president in the Constitution or delegated by Congress.

Congress appropriates funds, under authorization laws which state where and how they are to be spent. Every agency’s mission is set out in these and other statutes. Their implementation is spelled out in regulations, adopted according to the Administrative Procedure Act, after formal publication and receipt of public comments. Changes in the regulations require a similar process. Much government action must also accord with contracts the U.S. has made with civil servants and outside entities.

Parties aggrieved by actions which violate these strictures can and do appeal, within the agencies and in the courts. Moreover, every department has its own legal staff, which generally vets significant changes in advance.

Don’t Follow Orders to Break the Law

In this light, if you work in an agency affected by the papers Trump has been signing, we need you to ask, “Can he really have us do that?” The answer is often “no.” Federal district judges in New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, and California all issued emergency orders blocking removal of people affected by Trump’s immigration ban. Each judge had to make a quick 2017-02-03-1486137743-869945-640pxDeputy_Attorney_General_Sally_Yates_was_on_hand_to_address_the_audience.jpgfinding of a high probability that full litigation would prove that people were being denied liberty without due process or equal protection of the laws. Translation: the illegality of excluding people with an already-established legal right to enter (or return to their homes here) was practically a no-brainer.

Trump was less brazen with the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines, though many thought he gave them the go-ahead. The DAPL order directs the Army to reconsider its prior orders, in an expedited manner, “to the extent permitted by law and as warranted.” Similar language is in the Keystone XL order.

Both obvious unconstitutionality (the travel ban) and orders to “try to do what I want but follow the law” (the pipelines) leave room for appropriate choices by those of you whom the man relies on to carry out his will. Remember, even those serving in the military are obliged to disobey unlawful orders, although following that duty entails obvious and serious risks.

Perhaps you have a clear notion of what legal authority governs your work, or maybe you simply follow established routines. In either case, integrity, patriotism, and a human regard for the consequences of one’s actions on other beings require everyone who is directed to make a significant change — from undersecretaries to outsourced janitorial staff — to do three things. First, recognize that DJT has always been a man who will sometimes do what he can get away with, which means that the legality of his orders cannot be taken for granted. Second, learn what makes what you have been doing in your job lawful, and find out if the change the president (or those implementing his edicts) seeks is equally lawful. Finally, reach deep inside yourself and decide whether you need to take a stand. If you have a religious or spiritual practice, now is a good time to seek guidance from whatever you understand the Divine to be.

If it is time to stand up, it is unlikely you will need to do so alone; talk to your colleagues and/or your union or professional organization. If you need to tip off the press, get a guarantee of anonymity and do it. This is already happening in the agencies mentioned above and others. Few will have to pay the price Sally Yates did, and she and any like her will no doubt be welcomed elsewhere.

We Will Back You Up

In a way, though, it is unfair to ask this of you without a movement in civil society to back you up. If I had my way, we would, by now, have a non-corporate-funded, membership-based political party, focused not on elections, but on building a massive movement for policies which effectuate the values and needs of a majority of Americans, and of the planet. Its members and allies would certainly shield you in whatever way you needed. But even today, a virtually-unknown Obama-prosecuted whistleblower’s family can reach out and receive $99,000 in support online. In a single weekend after the travel ban was announced, donors gave the ACLU six times its usual annual online contribution total, and you can bet they will use some of it to support federal workers who are retaliated against for following the law.

We will be there for you, too.

The degree to which law constrains the presidency does not mean that there is no danger here. If you let fear of the consequences of “just saying no” to the president’s unlawful demands empower him to dictate policy, we are truly moving towards dictatorship. Whether his Shock and Awe tactic works or not depends, therefore, on whether you who are supposed to be intimidated by him submit. Ultimately, this will be true of the rest of us as well.

It's Not About Russia

There are plenty of reasons for Electors to reject Donald Trump for the presidency. He is characterologically unfit and professionally unqualified; he dangerously scapegoats what Michael Lerner and others refer to as “the demeaned other”; he came in second in the popular vote; he cannot truthfully take an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution; and his proposed appointments replace Herbert Hoover’s promise of “a chicken in every pot” with the principle of “a fox in every henhouse.”

The added claim of Russian interference in the election is a lightning rod for those of us terrified of or angry about the prospect of a Trump presidency. But it is a distraction, one with a likely weak foundation, and it is not a reason to take the dangerous step of confronting the man’s base with a change in the rules after the game is over.

The Weakness of the Claim

Both The Intercept (co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, who helped bring Edward Snowden’s revelations to light) and Counterpunch have published powerful critiques of the published evidence for the alleged Russian origin of the hacking. Much of it came from the security firm Crowdstrike, which began blaming Russia after the DNC hired it in June. The analysis consists in part of claims that the professional quality of the work points circumstantially to a powerful government’s involvement, in part of assertions that contradict that supposed professionalism, i.e., that the hackers left behind several clues that amount to clear Russian fingerprints. It is unsurprising that the FBI, accustomed to making cases that can stand up in court, was far more equivocal than the CIA and Democrat leadership have been in assessing the evidence.

Hacks Didn’t Change the Outcome

The news storm about the hacking story needs to be put in context if we are to know if the leaked material could have contributed to the electoral vote. Trump’s likely win came because of many factors:
  • His tapping into fear and frustration caused by the economic insecurity of tens of millions under the status quo
  • His playing to longstanding undercurrents of ethnic and religious prejudice
  • The quantity and nature of the media attention given to him
  • Misogyny, including hatred of Clinton for her aggressiveness
  • Continuation of a history of smears against the Clintons
  • HRC’s own character weaknesses, including opportunism in shifting some of her policy stances, which tended to validate the smears
  • The FBI’s late-October revelation that more of Clinton’s private-server emails had been found and were therefore being examined
  • Social-media-promoted “fake news”
  • The Clinton/Obama ties to Wall Street
  • Disenchantment with Clinton/Obama policies of war in seven countries; unending and massive drone war crimes; unprecedented numbers of deportations and attacks on whistleblowers, heavy domestic spying, militarization of police forces, and authorization for military roundups of civilians; and words instead of action in opposition to income inequality, mass incarceration, the scandal of campaign finance, and even climate change.
  • Polling that convinced reluctant potential Clinton voters that they could stay home and lukewarm Trump supporters who had misgivings about his character (there were some) that they could safely cast a protest vote
  • Republican voter suppression and Democratic failures to challenge it (per Greg Palast on an episode of Pacific Radio’s Flashpoints: Southern Democrats won’t defend black voting rights even if the suppression hurts them)
  • A state-by-state, winner-take-all use of the Electoral College, long supported by both parties because they can focus their efforts on 10 or 12 states and, I submit, because it weakens the power of urban voters who could support a more radical politics.
So let’s say that one more factor was the revelations of the DNC’s tilt towards Clinton over Sanders, of the Clinton Foundation’s large gift from the King of Morocco in exchange for access, of the campaign’s concerns that Foundation activities were a vulnerable area, and of other embarrassing details about inner workings of the campaign. Given all the other factors and an already highly-polarized electorate, I have trouble imagining the voter for whom the hacked DNC and Podesta emails tipped the scales. If there was one, certainly there was another who rejected Trump because of Clinton’s contemporaneous claims that voters should be more concerned about alleged Russian interference in our election than about the material itself.

What’s Going On?

I’ve signed appeals to the Electors to ratify the popular vote, but I am having second thoughts. What is happening now around the Russia thing is at best a highly partisan Democratic-Party attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of a largely self-inflicted defeat. At worst, it is, as some have argued, also a CIA attempt to install a president who will continue confronting Russia over Syria — where the real issue, as in Afghanistan,1 is said to be an oil pipeline — and provoking Russia in Europe by conducting maneuvers on its borders in countries that the U.S. falsely promised it would never seek to bring into NATO. (I have not researched the Syria issue, and even the part about a pipeline being at issue there, though put forward by Robert Kennedy, Jr., among others, is controversial.)

It may or may not be a coincidence that the secret CIA analysis was leaked via The Washington Post, now owned by Jeff Bezos. He also owns Amazon, which has a $600 million CIA contract. (Do you get the irony, by the way? No one is calling the leaking of this secret material an attempt to interfere with the election!) The FBI’s failure to sign on to the CIA’s conclusions may be because of integrity, not bias. Recent Administration claims that the FBI has actually always agreed do not, strangely, come from the FBI. (Some see the FBI as biased because Director Comey released the information about the reopened private-server investigation just before the election. When he did, however, radio host Dennis Bernstein, who is left leaning and a careful journalist, interviewed a veteran FBI-watcher who stated that Comey did so because his hand was forced by a right-wing FBI clique in New York City. They would have leaked the news and thus made it look like the Administration was trying to protect Clinton by hiding it.)

We live in a country that for years has interfered in other countries’ electoral and non-electoral political processes. The U.S., and Russia when it does it, use more dastardly means than revealing true facts, which is all Russia is being accused of doing. And the techniques tend to be far more powerful than what the information released this time could have accomplished.

At a time when progressives need to reach out to the Trump base and show a goodly portion of them where their true interests lie, do we really want to join the Democratic establishment in enraging that base by a sudden change in Electoral College practice? They will, quite reasonably, see the Russian angle as a pretext. I am unconvinced that it is worth that price, to install a president who is not a loose cannon like Trump. She is, after all, a well-aimed one. In many ways she is better able to serve the corporate interests she represents than Trump. She is the one who can follow Obama — and Bill Clinton — in doing so more cunningly and subtly, and without stirring up mass mobilization (beyond riling Trump’s supporters). Like them, and unlike Trump, she would get a free pass from most mainstream media, the federal bureaucracy, and way too many of the liberal advocacy groups.

We would have more space to mobilize against her administration but a harder time explaining why we need to, while the Trumpist constituency would grow stronger. It is hard even for me to accept emotionally the argument I made months ago for being unable to know under which presidency the 99% would have a harder time, because Trump’s gross unfitness for the office is horrifying, while Clinton is totally fit, by the planet- and humanity-destroying standards to which we have become accustomed. But it is clear that any long-term hope depends on unifying a significant sector of the 99%.

Signing on to the Democrats’ opportunistic Russia-baiting for immediate relief from a Trump presidency is more likely to hinder that project than help it.

1U.S. attempts to take down the Taliban government in Afghanistan were begun to permit construction of a pipeline to take Central Asian oil to a Pakistani port. See Kolhatkar, Sonali and James Ingalls, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006); Rashid Ahmed, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2000); John Pilger, “Hidden Agenda Behind War on Terror,” The Mirror (UK), 10/29/01, originally reprinted in and now archived here.
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Hillary's Acceptance Speech: The Good, the Bad. And an Ugly Truth

There was a lot to appreciate in Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech last night, though her history and financial ties show that it was mostly what the marketing folks call “branding.” But the good stuff was a good thing, as was the nomination of a woman to head the ticket of one of the dominant parties.

The Good

Liberal activists have always sought to push more centrist Democrats to the left. Absent a strong and ongoing movement from below, this changes the rhetoric of the centrists for a time, but not their policies. Even changing their rhetoric, however, can matter. Bernie Sanders sensed something about the consciousness of the post-Occupy electorate; millions of us responded; and thus Hillary Clinton decided to follow Robert Reich’s year-old advice to start sounding more like a populist. So now we have a major-party candidate for president whose messaging, if it continues the themes of Thursday night’s speech, will include
  • the need for well-paid jobs for all
  • “a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who are already contributing to our economy”
  • “a country where the economy works for everyone, not just those at the top”
  • getting money out of politics
  • expanding voting rights
  • keeping “Wall Street . . . [from] wreck[ing] Main Street again”
  • dealing with climate change and creating green jobs
  • affordable health care for all
  • a minimum wage that is a living wage
  • staying out of unfair trade deals
  • wage equity for women
  • massive infrastructure investment
  • tuition-free college education, debt relief for graduates, and helping people learn skilled trades
  • affordable child care
  • making “Wall Street, corporations, and the super-rich . . . [pay] their fair share of taxes”
  • healing the divides caused by systemic racism
  • reforming the criminal-justice system, and
  • defending LGBT rights and the rights of people with disabilities.
This is a big deal. Our contorted democracy effectively allows only representatives of the two major parties to reach higher-level public office, and the corporate media mostly quote only those parties’ politicians. So what they say matters. Democratic politicians’ moves away from liberalism and its rhetoric, beginning with the first Clinton presidency in 1993, paved the way for the Republican Party to move farther and farther to the right.

Contrariwise, if Hillary finds a need to keep expressing liberal and progressive values, including on issues that have lacked mainstream legitimacy, she will continue a more recent shift in political discourse in a way that will put the right on the defensive, embolden the left, give honest journalists a little more freedom, and help educate the populace at large. Moreover, such developments create more space for the real left to point out, for example, that if policing in poor and minority communities is to be reformed, it will take much more proactive measures than expressions of sympathy for victims.

More Good

It matters that Hillary Clinton is a woman. A strong, smart, and capable woman. It’s easy for those of us whose views were far better represented by Bernie, who feared too many feminists would overlook her substantial defects, and who were unfairly called sexist, to grow weary of the all the references to her nomination being historic.

But it is historic. Girls need models whose roles in the world show that they are not the weaker sex, and boys need to see that as well. Men stuck in the more primitive sexist stereotypes and ways of treating women need increased exposure to those who shatter the archetype of women as beings who are to be pushed around, manipulated, and used. Even the ascendancy of a woman like Hillary, who carries the ethos and energy of patriarchy, can help break down the remaining barriers to full political and social participation of women who don’t.

The Bad

I once heard someone speak of avoiding wishful thinking in a dating relationship. She said, “When a person shows you who they really are, believe them.” Hillary Clinton has been showing us who she really is for over 30 years.

As I’ve written previously, she has not disavowed her and her husband’s critical roles in the Democratic Leadership Council, which which strategized moving the Party to the right in the 1980s so that it could get more corporate money. She has not distanced herself from the first Clinton Administration’s strong support for a racist mass incarceration policy; push for devastating welfare “reform”; continuing the Reagan-launched deregulation movement;2016-07-29-1469785362-4584601-20121125DoDDronephoto2.jpg or paving the way for the Gulf and Iraq Wars by demonizing the Iraqi government, singing the false WMD refrain, conducting overflights and bombings, and imposing murderous sanctions.

Nor does she repudiate the Obama Administration’s Wall Street bailouts, fining the big financial firms for crimes while leaving the executives who perpetrated them alone, conducting unending wars, making a growth industry of drone manufacturing while killing nine “collaterals” for every person targeted for assassination, treating the Paris Accords’ too-little-too-late voluntary climate-change goals as a victory, going after whistleblowers but not torturers, defending the newly-legislated authority of the military to imprison indefinitely any of us it claims supports terrorists, overseeing an unprecedented number of deportations, and initiating a dangerous new trillion-dollar nuclear-weapons program.

She still speaks of standing up to terrorism as if she didn’t help create it in its current form, as a strong Administration backer of interventions that tore Libya apart, supported the worst elements in Israeli politics, and flooded the Middle East with arms that ended up in terrorist hands. She was proud of her diplomatic role in ensuring the success of the 2009 Honduran coup, which installed a government that allows death squads to assist elements of global capital. (Her only retreat was to delete references to the episode from the new edition of her memoir after renowned activist Berta Caceras was killed.) And even now she affirmatively touts aerial bombardments and support for uncontrollable militias as the answer to an ISIS that was largely created by such actions. A military budget a thousand times greater than that needed for actual national defense remains unquestioned.

2016-07-29-1469789453-6671789-NYTdonors1.jpgMeanwhile, The New York Times is reporting that those who have always expected their largesse to earn them access to policy-makers were coming back out of the closet in Philadelphia, where the Party establishment was already giving them such access at the convention.

The Ugly (but Also Good) Truth

It’s not fun to be disillusioned, but giving up illusions is a good thing. Having women in high office, just as having people of color there, serves an important disillusioning function.

Huge swaths of society now react to Barack Obama as president, rather than Barack Obama as an African-American man. He came nowhere near fulfilling hopes (or fears) that he would do more for people of color than other presidents. It took actually having a Black president to show that a corporate-funded politician of any race is still a corporate-funded politician. There are a few important things he has said about race that a white person could not put forward in the same way, but tens of millions of us — including a lot of Black people whose lives have not improved — now disbelieve the change we were supposed to believe in.

Let’s say that Hillary Clinton is elected, but we fail to create a steadily-growing movement from below, one that goes beyond the decades-old liberal project of trying to promote better politicians within the two-party system. Then she will reveal an ugly truth similar to that revealed by the Obama presidency. We will learn that regardless of her sex, her work on behalf of children’s rights when young, and her willingness to listen to mothers of people of color killed without cause, our political and economic system will basically remain as cruel, destructive, and unsustainable as it is today. We will at least see that neither sex nor ethnicity matters much, as long as officeholders are sold to us in marketing campaigns — including televised conventions with wonderful speeches — underwritten by the plutocrats.

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After Detroit: A Suggestion for The After Party

Last month, in a Huffington Post piece, U.S. Uncut cofounder Carl Gibson made a welcome call for the formation of a new political party, populist and explicitly anti-capitalist. Thirty-one days later, Occupy Wall Street and U.S. Uncut announced that founding members of those groups would be launching The After Party on May 2. As of the announcement, The After Party’s website was already up, with a powerful Manifesto and appealing Platform.

Continue reading

The Elephant in the Activist Livingroom

Yesterday I attended the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California, a forum about “inspiring a shift to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations.” I heard lots of great things — truths about where we are, examples of positive developments of all kinds. But I ended the day with frustration surging through my body because the biggest truth was unsaid.

Capitalism and Its Discontents

Naomi Klein and Clayton Thomas-Muller keynoted the day and later sat on a panel about the question on everyone’s mind: “can the global convergence of disparate movements gain the traction necessary to overcome the concentration of wealth and power driving the destruction of civilization and nature.”

Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, was just published, and, as her interviews show, she is a passionate, articulate spokesperson, one with an amazing command of the facts. She explains the climate-change disaster, the nice-words-but-terrible-action policies of our government and others, and a how a climate-justice campaign has the potential to unite the concerns of disparate environmental, peace, and social-justice movements. One of our modern-day prophets, she denounces in stirring terms the fatal flaw in any kind of environmentalism that thinks it can compromise with unfettered capitalism, that backs off identifying the problem as corporations’ pursuit of endless growth and their being supported, rather than regulated, by the governments they buy.

Thomas-Muller, a Canadian like Klein, is a First Peoples climate-justice activist. He touched on similar themes, with an emphasis on an indigenous, earth-centered, and pre- and post-patriarchy perspective. I also liked his “big-tent” philosophy, that all the widely varied ways of working for change, big and small, that people are drawn to, are in some way part of the solution.

Since both speakers see clearly the scope of the problem, I was primed for a conversation about the way out. I wasn’t alone; audience member after audience member asked a version of, “But what do we do?,” each amplifying Klein’s theme that we have democracy in name only.

The answer wasn’t there, though many good subsidiary ideas were, like learning to analyze the assets of a particular campaign and the weak points of its opposition, and focusing on those, especially the poor, whose material needs make them committed to putting their bodies on the line.

Circling the Solution

I didn’t get a chance to speak, but here is what I was dying to say:

I love hearing you speak, and I am truly grateful for your work. But there’s an elephant in this room, and in every room where activists and progressives meet in this country, and it is so big here that I can barely breathe.

“You name how corporate wealth runs an economy and government that drive us to ruin in so many ways. You note that masses of our fellow citizens are deluded, and I’m sure you know the cause: the same interests largely control public education and the mass media.

“There is a conclusion that leaps out of all this. Campaigns to influence our corrupt governments must and will continue. But those who understand what we understand must work within those movements to turn the conversation towards how to make revolution. A nonviolent revolution, for compelling strategic reasons and, in my view, for spiritual ones, but nonetheless a complete dislodging of government that oppresses and deludes and manipulates, in favor of real democracy that serves the needs and expresses the values of the vast majority.”

How do we build for that? By creating an organization of people who want it, who see how the dots are connected. An organization that supports us, and in which we support each other, in the day-to-day work of teaching our fellow citizens that we, like the Americans of 1776, have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object,” and that we are, therefore, among those for whom “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

That organization can develop the literature and independent media with which we can inform those who are ready to listen. Someday a crisis here will finally drive millions into action. When it does, they must know our massive movement and its allies as the ones who can help coordinate that and provide information, answers, and direction. Otherwise they will turn to a right wing that has known for decades that it must be organized to influence public opinion.

How we do this all is a bigger topic. (Some thoughts are in this post on the way forward in general; others in this one, written two years ago, on how, for example, we would carry on such work in a local campaign reacting to police violence against people of color.) But for God’s sake let’s start thinking about it and talking about it!

The Truth: (a) Inconvenient (b) Will Set Us Free (c) Both

I don’t know why so few of us are thinking about revolution. Is it too scary? Too Third World or Eastern European? Are we taken in more than we know by the myth of American democracy? Do we think the state will come down on
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us like it did on Occupy, and on the movements of the ’60’s and early ’70’s, if we use the R-word, yet will treat us kindly if we try to create enough civil disobedience to halt the extractive, military, and other harmful industries without addressing the political structure?

Or are we so afraid of the errors of the Old Left (1930’s through early ’50’s) or the New Left (’60’s–’70’s), and revolutions elsewhere that have failed to live up to their ideals, that we forget their strengths and throw the
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baby out with the bathwater? There are answers to the questions about past failures, but we will not learn them if we go on hoping that (1) today’s struggles will finally converge spontaneously, or (2) enough uncoordinated action, on enough different fronts, aimed at putting out the fires set by advanced capitalism’s economy and government, will somehow, will somehow . . . well, I can’t finish that sentence any better than the panelists did.

Please, friends, open your eyes. It actually feels good to embrace at least the possibility of a way out.

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Gun Control: Getting Taken In by a Wedge Issue

No matter what side we are on, we can get pretty excited about gun control. The debate rages again in the wake of Elliott Rodger’s killings in Santa Barbara last month, followed by shootings in Las Vegas and Oregon. A New York Times op-ed arguing 2014-06-16-sAMERICANFLAGGUNsmall.jpgthat it takes a constitutional revisionist to interpret the Second Amendment to involve a private right to be armed quickly generated 833 comments.

  I am a heretic on this one. As appalling as firearms violence is, I say gun control is a pseudo-issue. Its effect, as with other “wedge issues,” is to rile those of us on each side in self-righteous anger over the supposed idiocy of the ideologues in the opposition camp, attract our loyalty to politicians who favor our view, and distract us from the overall unity of politicians on both sides of this and other “social issues” in
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pursuing economic, tax, military, energy, environmental, foreign, and law-enforcement policies that favor corporate wealth, policies which they may bicker about, but on a narrow stretch of the continuum of possibilities.

To make real progress on gun violence and a host of other issues, we need to give up our self-righteousness and anger, stop being pawns in the culture wars, and turn our attention — with those who should be our allies — towards undermining the two-party system, which is the only way that the root causes of our murder rates and so much else can be seriously addressed.

Inconvenient Truth #1: Far Worse Causes of Preventable Deaths

It is galling to see the seemingly unnecessary deaths from mass and individual murders using guns, but the annual rates of other preventable deaths add perspective.
Cause Annual Deaths Source
Prescribed Medications, Unnecessary Surgeries, Other Effects of Medical Treatment 225,000 Journal of the AMA
Suicide 38,364 Centers for Disease Control
Disease Caused by Coal-Fired Power Plants 13,000 (2): Regional Econ. Models, Inc.; Clean Air Task Force
Homicide by Firearms (incl. police shootings) 11,078 Centers for Disease Control
Homicide by Other Means 5,181 Centers for Disease Control
Are we as outraged about the mental- and spiritual-health crisis that leads to our suicide rates and the homicides, as we are about lack of gun control? Do we rail as consistently about the state of the health-care system? Are we aghast that the carbon tax estimated to save 2000 more lives per year than the magical disappearance of all firearms would save is only an obscure proposal by policy wonks? Or is it easier to be self-righteously angry after every horrible release of bullets, blame social conservatives, and be pawns in a divide-and-conquer game?

Inconvenient Truth #2: No Easy Solution

Perhaps the other issues in the table require complicated reforms, while an effective gun-control policy would be straightforward. True, some things seem like no-brainers: outlawing high-capacity assault weapons and magazines, wider use of criminal and mental-health background checks. But only 300-some of those 11,000 gun deaths are caused by rifles of any kind. Nor is it clear that many perpetrators
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are people whose prior criminality or severe mental disease would show up in a background check. And criminals usually buy their guns in an illegal black market. Here’s what a true quick fix for saving lives look like: The 55 mph speed limit we lived with while trying to conserve oil, which would prevent an estimated 1250 deaths a
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What would really diminish gun deaths, of course, is a disarmed population, with sportsmen’s weapons kept in armories except when they are going to the range or hunting. When we compare our killing rates with those of countries that don’t have ready availability of firearms, isn’t that what we have in mind? But, as the narrator of Return of the Light describes the game of misdirection played by politicians back in our time,

“The clashes were over small, symbolic issues at the margins of public policy — sophisticated professionals on both sides knew that effective confiscation of over two hundred million firearms in private hands was impossible without a political consensus on the issue, but politicians and private advocacy groups kept large constituencies stirred up over trying to create or resist change in that direction.”

Yes, eliminating widespread gun ownership could save thousands of lives a year. All that is missing is the magic wand that would enable us to do that.

Why do right-to-bear-arms advocates resist even small steps like the banning of assault rifles? The professional agitators do so for obvious reasons. Much of their base responds because they see us — largely accurately — as disrespecting them, having no regard for the Constitution as they understand it, and trying to get a foot in the door for the complete end of private ownership.

Inconvenient Truth #3: We Flexibly Interpret the Constitution, Too

The Times Op-Ed cited above summarizes a new book’s powerful argument that only a dishonest Supreme Court flip-flop in 2008 interpreted the Second Amendment to protect a private right to bear arms. (See also Thom Hartmann’s case for it being about protecting slave patrols from Congressional interference.) But are we strict constructionists? The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law” abridging freedoms of expression, assembly, and petition. Are we outraged about the 20th-Century decisions holding that the states may not do so, either? How about the one adding freedom of association? The holding banning states from criminalizing homosexual conduct? The one interpreting congressional power to “regulate . . . commerce among the several states” as including authority to pass the Civil Rights Act?

Inconvenient Truth #4: The Majority of the Gun-Rights Base is not Stupid or Crazy

There are many thoughtful comments from gun-rights advocates in the Times piece and elsewhere. A rural dweller speaks of the rabid animals he has had to kill, and how long he would have to wait for the sheriff to arrive if an intruder tried to take advantage of his isolation. An arms-safety instructor describes his embarrassment at the over-indulgent beer-drinkers on the practice range who do fit our stereotypes of “gun nuts.” Another writer points out that Elliott Rodgers’ first three killings were stabbings; let’s face it, some portion of those 11,000 homicides would occur by other means if guns were magically unavailable.

Some gun-rights advocates think it’s dangerous to leave government with a monopoly on the means of force. Most of us have grave concerns about the risk of that same government misusing the data it collects on our habits and communications. Can we really call the others “paranoid.”
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Some of the logic on the other side is deeply flawed, but in our passion, we can be gullible, too. We know about “the 74 school shooting incidents since Sandy Hook,” a figure which originated with a gun-control advocacy group. Do we also know that only 10 on the list, according to one careful analysis, or 15, per CNN, involved a shooter coming onto a campus to kill students or staff? The rest were tied to crimes such as robbery or drug dealing, sometimes outside school hours and in parking lots, were unconnected to members of the school community, or were accidents or suicides. Do we know that the rate of deaths in schools has been fairly flat for 20 years, with the highest total in 2006-2007, the lowest in 2010-2011?

What Does All This Mean?

I’m not saying that we don’t have a problem. I’m saying that decrying those who don’t agree with our solution doesn’t lead to change. It contributes to polarization, putting gun owners on the defensive in a way that makes it harder for moderates
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among them to join us in the little that could actually be done via a gun-control policy. Worst of all, our passionate engagement with this political sideshow diverts our energies from working for the fundamental structural change that we really need. And it divides us from those who should be our allies in doing so.

Michael Goldstein will be in Chicago reading from, and signing copies of, Return of the Light: A Political Fable in Which the American People Retake Their Country, at Women and Children First bookstore Sunday, August 10, at 4:30 p.m., and at Powells’ University Village Store Monday, August 11, at 7:00 p.m.
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Ah, Yes. Another Sanitized Air War

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“They’ve been running a lot of programming on D-Day, and it reminded me of a conversation I had with my father when I was a little girl.” An older woman in the group began sharing, in a soft Southern accent, something she had been thinking about. There were 30 of us in the room, in a
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The woman continued, in a soft southern accent. “I
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asked him what he did during the War, as we called World War II then. He had been a Marine, and he said he debriefed bomber pilots after their raids. I asked what that meant. ‘They talked about what they had seen and done, and I listened.’ I asked why, and he explained, ‘They did terrible things, and
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what they saw was horrible. And they didn’t feel like they could talk about it with anyone else.’

“‘How,’ I asked, ‘did talking to you help?’ He told me that if they could talk about it to someone who just listened, they could get their feelings outside of themselves and feel a little better. He said they were really just boys — 20, 21, even 19.”

The woman told us this in explaining to our group that she, too, valued a place — ours — where she could go and share what was going on with her, and just be heard. That was the point of the story for her.

I took that in, but another point had a bigger impact on me, a person who has never been near combat. These were guys in a war which virtually everyone here considered just. They were several thousand feet over their targets, not tossing grenades into peasant huts in Vietnam or “lighting up” suspected Iraqi or Afghan militants from a helicopter, for God’s sake. But even they had seen and done things so awful that the Marine Corps of seven decades ago understood that they needed a chance to “debrief.” And, as so many of their children have told us, they were closed-mouthed when they got home.

When will we ever know the full costs of this thing we call war?

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Truly Opening to the Reality of Climate Change

I am on a flight to a conference of sorts and have been reading an advance copy
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of Taylor Hawke’s Waking Up. I am in a chapter on the devastating realities of the climate-change crisis— where we already are and our disastrous, high-velocity trajectory. I am aware of more recent data on fracking and methane, which had not made it into the writing he cites on CO2 emissions.

I am reading fast—my job is only to take this material in enough to write an endorsement for the cover. I feel my denial—no, technically the psychological defense is “compartmentalization”—as I try to simply take in the factual overview as evidence for my own thesis that we need a revolution in this country, peaceful but real, if we are to survive.

Continue reading

The Climate March: Beyond Asking Those Beholden to the Wrong People to Do the Right Thing (II)


Part II of II

In Part I I asserted “two truths”: that the People’s Climate March was an amazing and valuable achievement, and that it was a powerful exercise in a nearly powerless strategy.

Part I recapped the history — already decades old when described in books of the early 1960’s — of the fossil fuel industry’s lock on energy policy, and its continuity through Vice President Al Gore’s silence while the Clinton Administration undermined the Kyoto Protocol, and Barack Obama’s carrying his usual balance of decent rhetoric and terrible action into the the energy-policy realm. The conclusion:
We are dealing with a systemic problem, one that displays historical continuity and is but one manifestation of a government bought and paid for with corporate money. Major concessions to the majority have come only when elite control was threatened with serious social unrest and loss of legitimacy. As labor, peace, and anti-poverty activists know well, the gains erode terribly when the pressure lessens. Even the victories of the Civil Right/Black Power movements have been partially offset by The New Jim Crow and other developments.
I also quoted a recent Princeton study of nearly 2000 policy decisions made over two decades, which showed that, consistently, the 0.01 percent get what they want; we don’t — even before Citizens United, by the way.

The Futility of Just Letting the System Know What We Want

In the face of these realities,’s emailed “Official reportback from the UN meeting and People’s Climate March” called for continuing to “use people-power to ratchet up the pressure” on UN climate talks, “to increase the accountability and ambition of world leaders,” noting what they must do “[i]f they are serious at all about doing their democratic and moral duty,” and adding that “we’ll have to convince politicians that their careers are on the line if they don’t act.”

This sounds good, but only because we are accustomed to a democratic myth instead of historical reality. People cannot have careers at policy-influencing levels unless they go along to get along. “Their careers are on the line” if they don’t act according to their backers’ perceived needs. Replacements who can get the support needed to rise through the corporate-funded two-party system are no better. Americans thought we were getting a peace President to replace a war President, one who understood the climate-change crisis instead of one who was born into the Texas oil industry. And yet here we are.

Moreover, a public educated by the mass media is subject to being riled up by issues like gun control, abortion rights, immigration, “terrorism,” and crime. The system has a stockpile of would-be careerists ready to ride these waves, with the financial backing they need to do so. These people will distract too many voters from whatever they are beginning to suspect about the causes and dangers of climate change for yet another attempt at voting the right people into office to succeed.

More Militancy? Money Out of Politics?

Recognizing these facts, some, like Chris Hedges, criticized the Climate March for eschewing more militant, disruptive actions. But such actions — necessarily involving far fewer people — are easily ignored. Worse, in most situations those who execute occasional disruptions fail to spread the message, for they are easily portrayed as crazies unworthy of being listened to.

Others, including people whom I know and respect deeply, like Michael Lerner and the folks behind California’s nascent no-corporate-money campaign, crusade for getting money out of politics via a constitutional amendment or educating voters about unfunded candidates. Think about it. Were these to be successful, they would have revolutionary implications. Literally, our government as we know it would tumble, replaced by government by and for the majority. Given the underhanded and bloody tactics which that government has pursued for decades, consistently, wherever in the world the interests it protects are threatened, such reforms will not succeed without a movement of revolutionary proportions behind them.

So what is to be done?

Time to Think Nonviolent Revolution

The answer is simple but nearly unspeakable: we need to move beyond mobilizing in piecemeal campaigns and set our sights on taking over a government which currently disserves us in every way possible.

There is nothing unique about energy policy. The telecommunications industry gets most of what it wants in telecom policy; the banking industry is regulated no more than it wants to be and its criminals escape prosecution; the military-industrial complex runs “defense” policy and the prison-industrial complex, “justice” policy; Big Pharma and the health insurance industry set the agenda for health-care reform and where public-health and research dollars go; large employers have gutted the protections won by labor; and on and on.

Fortunately, the other side of the coin is true as well. How many of those 400,000 people who showed up in New York are against climate change but for militarized police forces? Who among them want more of the policies that created Al Qaeda and ISIS and that lead to our wantonly killing civilians who have done nothing but live in the wrong parts of the world? Which of them want media further consolidated, politicians’ statements uninvestigated, whistleblowers prosecuted, and an end to net neutrality?

What they need, what we all need, is a nationwide organization for those who already see the connections among the dots. It should be one that empowers us, through training, literature, our and own media, to do the hard, slow, but ultimately far more fruitful work of one-on-one education with our neighbors, co-workers, fellow-congregants, and — yes — the people we encounter in local and national mobilizations around individual issues.

And we need a body that supports the tens of thousands of us with the capacity to be leaders, supports us in bringing that organization’s leadership and expertise to those struggles, where more and more people can learn where the problems lie and what the solution has to be, while experiencing the power of united action. (For more on how we can create that, look here, or here, or here.)

It will take a militant movement of tens of millions to wipe out the influence of energy giants in Washington, our state houses, and other parts of the world. It can happen, but not by focusing on that issue alone, nor by pursuing the safe but futile path of seeking to influence what must be jettisoned and replaced. As the instigators of our last revolution declared, “all
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experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Like them, however, let us look reality in the face and set our sights on the real task.

photo: Robert van Waarden, under Creative Commons Zero License

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The Climate March: Beyond Asking Those Beholden to the Wrong People to Do the Right Thing

Part I of II

Two truths:

The People’s Climate March was an amazing and valuable achievement.

The People’s Climate March was a powerful exercise in a nearly powerless strategy.

Who, among those with an inkling of the climate disaster already upon millions of beings on the planet, could not be heartened by the numbers, commitment, creativity, energy, joy, and diversity involved in Sunday’s protests? The movement showed itself to be . . . a movement.

And yet which of these quotations rings more true?’s emailed “Official reportback from the UN meeting and People’s Climate March” outlines a strategy of continuing to let those who have run ours and the world’s affairs for decades know how we feel, as if that matters:
The next important UN gatherings will be in Lima in December 2014 and in Paris in December 2015. Our hope is to use people-power to ratchet up the pressure on these talks, to channel the voices of millions around the world to increase the accountability and ambition of world leaders in these negotiations.
If they are serious at all about doing their democratic and moral duty, they will need to be ambitious indeed — committing to transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy which benefits everyone, and quickly.
And here is Chris Hedge’s assessment, in a Truthdig piece preceding the march:
Our democracy is an elaborate public relations charade. And the longer we accept this charade the longer we will be irrelevant.
One statement accepts the myth that our wishes have real weight against the power of the fossil fuel industry, and one faces the truth. Here are a few signposts, from different historical periods.

Coal, Oil, and Politics: Old News Five Decades Ago

The fossil-fuel industry’s dominance over politics is not new. In 1961 Columbia Professor Robert Engler’s The Politics of Oil came out. As The Washington Post wrote of that and his followup work in a 2007 obituary, “Combing through government and company records, his work illuminated the special tax, pricing and political requests of oil companies and their effect on national and foreign policy. . . . Dr. Engler assailed what he called the lack of public accountability among the petroleum giants, which he likened to a ‘private government.'” “Government policy on oil,” Engler wrote, “has become indistinguishable from the private policies of oil.” (Politics of Oil, p. 419.) A contemporary reviewer complained that many of Engler’s facts were nothing new.

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1962 Little, Brown published Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands. It was a devastating portrait of what the coal industry had done and was doing to the land, people, and politics of Appalachia.

Together, these books made clear that, at the state and federal levels, fossil fuel companies had for decades used government for their own purposes.

Al Gore’s Silence as the U.S. Sought to Torpedo Kyoto

Fast forward to 1996-1997. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Al Gore had been known as an environmentalist before becoming V.P. Talks were being held to establish the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, because in 1985 “scientists at [the] Villach conference in Austria reach[ed] consensus that global warming is happening” and action on emissions was needed. (Andy Kroll, “The Long and Warming Road,” Mother Jones, Nov./Dec., 2009.) Those of us who were following media such as Mother Jones and Democracy Now! knew that the U.S. role was obstructionist, trying to water down every proposal and using tactics that seemed aimed at derailing the talks altogether.

Rather than rally domestic support for the treaty eventually created, Clinton never submitted it to the Senate, saying it would not be ratified. (An allusion to this history is in a 2012 CommonDreams article on the Doha climate talks, “Kyoto all Over Again? US Obstructive Force at Climate Talks.”) In a stark demonstration of the limits of what holders of high office in corporate-owned government can do, Al Gore was silent during the entire episode. When he ran for President in 2000, his party’s platform finally mentioned climate change, but it has never called for the U.S. to join the treaty group.

“Democracy” in Action: “Change We Can Believe In”

Fast-forward again. As I and others wrote in 2012, after four years in office, our “Change-We-Can-Believe-In” President had broken nearly every promise that had mobilized his supporters. This was predictable. While he had been elected in 2008 after receiving the record amounts of small donations he publicized, the campaign also broke the records for corporate contributions. It publicly rejected donations from lobbyists while quietly taking them from their spouses and attorneys.

Amy Goodman recently played a clip of Obama speaking in 2012 “in Cushing, Oklahoma, to announce his support for TransCanada to build the southern leg of its Keystone oil pipeline.”
Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some. So, we are drilling all over the place, right now. . . . [W]e’re actually producing so much oil and gas . . . that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it to where it needs to go.
Thus, as Naomi Klein cogently explained on the same broadcast, “Governments started negotiating towards emission reduction in 1990. . . . And since that time, emissions have gone up by 61 percent globally. So, it’s not just that we’re not solving the problem, it’s that we’re making it a lot worse.” Her interviewer played a clip of a high-profile climate denier, lauding the President at a 2011 U.N. conference: “[A]s skeptics, we tip our hat to President Obama in helping crush and continue to defeat the United Nations process. Obama has been a great friend of global warming skeptics at these conferences.” And today the Administration is promoting fracking, the polluting, geological, and carbon-emissions-producing effects we hear more about every day, as a clean-energy solution.
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He still will not pull the plug on Keystone XL.

Playing on a Field Where We Lose

In virtually every policy area, Obama has abandoned the 99%. This is because corporate control of government is by no means limited to energy policy. As a recent, peer-reviewed Princeton study of 1,779 policy decisions made between 1981 and 2002 concludes, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Translation: the 0.01 percent get what they want; we don’t.

The corporate media are in the same game. Network television nearly ignored Sunday’s and Monday’s events. Outside New York, newspapers were not much better: The Boston Globe covered the march on page two, and The Washington Post gave it a buried paragraph in another climate-related story.

We are dealing with a systemic problem, one that displays historical continuity and is but one manifestation of a government bought and paid for with corporate money. Historically, major concessions to the majority have come only when elite control was threatened with serious social unrest and loss of legitimacy. As labor, peace, and anti-poverty activists know well, the gains erode terribly when the pressure lessens. Even the victories of the Civil Right/Black Power movements have been partially offset by The New Jim Crow and other developments.

In Part II we will look at what all this means for an effective strategy to reverse the emissions-promoting momentum of our economy and politics, and, in particular, whether the answer is to “keep the pressure on” to get these folks to do the right thing, despite their being beholden to those who want them to do what they’ve always done.

Photo: Shadia Fayne Wood, under Creative Commons license
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