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08 May 2009

Intelligent Design?

From a storyboard for a corporate online training module left on my doorstep yesterday:

Page 1

How You People Should Do Certain Things More Betterer

The Money-Goes-In-Here Data Entry System is, like, really important for all of you human resources out there to learn up on good. Here's a step-by-step method, laid out in steps:

1. Money is a means of exchanging goods and services. Press Ctrl + K to enter your sale. Only certain people can do this. Check with Legal.

b. Make sail with customer.

III. Enter amount of monies in the spot right there. The Federal Reserve System was set up in 1913.

[[[Voiceover Script: "Data processing is a very, very, very important part of the totality of things we do here at Felinity. On this page, we will all touch the stone on how best to effect the triggers for good behavior in the most empowering way for you that corresponds exactly to our diktat. Banks are named after the Italian word for benches. Felinity has many locations all over the world."]]]

"Where Is the World Headed?" Immanuel Wallerstein

As the world heads into the next decade, there are two arenas where we can anticipate great turbulence the geopolitical arena and the world economy, with the relative decline of US geopolitical power, now acknowledged by almost everyone and which even President Obama will be unable to reverse.

We've moved into a truly multipolar world where the power of relatively weaker states is suddenly much greater. The Middle East in 2008 was but one example: Turkey brokered long dormant negotiations between Syria and Israel. Qatar brokered a negotiated truce between fiercely opposed factions in Lebanon. Egypt sought to broker negotiations between Hamas and Israel. The Palestinian Authority resumed negotiations with Hamas. And the Pakistani government entered into a de facto truce with the Taliban inside the zones bordering Afghanistan. What's significant about each of these actions is that the United States opposed all of these negotiations and was simply ignored without serious consequences for any of the actors.

Alongside the US, European Union, and Japan there is now Russia, China, India, Iran, Brazil as the putative leader of a South American bloc, and South Africa as the putative leader of a southern Africa bloc.

There's an immense amount of jockeying for alliances, with internal debate about optimal partners and plenty of uncertainty about what they will decide. In addition, other countries like Poland, Ukraine, Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Mexico, and Canada are unsure about how to maneuver. Clearly the new geopolitical situation is quite unlike anything the world has known in a long time. It isn't quite total anarchy, but it is certainly massive geopolitical disorder.

This geopolitical disorder accompanies acute uncertainties about the world economy. There is first of all the issue of currencies. We have lived, since 1945 at least, in a dollar stabilized world. The decline of the US, in particular its decline as a dominant locus of world production, combined with the overstretch of its debt, has caused a serious decline of its exchange rate, one whose end point is unclear but probably still lower.

This decline of the dollar poses a serious economic dilemma for other countries, particularly those which have placed their increasing wealth into dollar denominated bonds and stocks. These countries are torn between wanting to sustain the US as a significant purchaser of their exports and the real losses they incur in the value of their dollar denominated assets as the dollar declines and pondering when to abandon it. But as with all financial exits, the issue for the holders of assets is timing neither too early nor too late.

Will some other currency replace the dollar as the reserve currency of the world? The obvious candidate is the euro. Whether it can play this role or whether European governments wish to play this role is uncertain, although it's possible that this role may be thrust upon it.

If not the euro, might we have a multi currency situation one in which the dollar, the euro, the yen, possibly the Chinese RMB and the pound are all used for world transactions? The answer here is akin to the question of geopolitical alliances. It would not be total anarchy, but it would certainly be disorder, and the world's governments and producers would feel most uncomfortable not to speak of the world's pensioners.

Many large countries have seen large increases in both their productive output and their level of consumption. Take the so called BRIC countries Brazil, Russia, India, and China which harbor something like 60 percent of the world's population. The increase in their output and consumption levels has led to an incredibly increased demand for energy, raw materials, food, and water. Something must give. We could have a major worldwide inflation, as the prices of all these commodities zoom upward, fueled by surging demand and speculation. We could then have massive protectionism, as governments seek to safeguard their own supplies by limiting any and all exports.

But, as the world has now acknowledged a so-called credit crunch, the more likely scenario is acute deflation. Excessive inflation and nominal deflation are simply two variants of serious constraints on world production and serious misery for the large majority of the world population.

As we know from past experiences, this could create an erratic vicious circle. We could have massive food and water shortages felt here and there, resulting in high mortality rates and serious additional environmental catastrophes.

Governments assaulted by reduced real revenues, under pressure not to increase taxes to compensate, might cut back in the three key domains of education, health, and old age pensions. But these are the domains that, as part of the democratization of the world over the past two centuries, have been the key demands in which publics make demands of governments. Governments unable to address the maintenance of these three forms of social redistribution would face a major loss of legitimacy, with uncertain consequences in terms of civil uprisings.

Now this entire short run negative picture is exactly what one means when one says that the system has moved far from equilibrium entering into a state of chaos. Chaos, to be sure, never goes on forever. Chaotic situations eventually breed their own resolution in what Prigogine and Stengers called "order out of chaos" in the English title of their classic work. As the authors emphasized, in the midst of a bifurcation, there is creativity, there is choice, but we cannot be sure what choices will be made.

In the world battle between the Left and the Right, the former had a vertiginous rise in the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century. The Left mobilized support on a vast scale and very effectively. There came a moment in the post 1945 period when it seemed to be succeeding everywhere in every way.

Then came the grand disillusionments. The states where the antisystemic movements came to power in one way or another were in practice far from what the popular forces had expected and hoped to institute. And the presumption of irreversibility of these regimes turned out to be another illusion. By the early 1990s, triumphalism had disappeared amongst the world Left, to be replaced by a widespread lethargy, often a sense of defeat.

And yet, as we know, the subsequent triumphalism of the world Right fell apart as well, most spectacularly in the utter fiasco of the neo con assertion of a permanent US imperial domination of the world. From the 1994 Zapatista uprising to the successful shutdown of the 1999 Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization to the 2001 founding of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, a reignited world Left reemerged on the world scene.

We live in a chaotic world environment and it's difficult to see clearly. It's a bit like trying to make one's way forward in a major snowstorm. Those who survive both use a compass to know which direction to walk and also examine the ground inches ahead to make sure they do not tumble into some hole. The compass guides our middle run objectives the kind of new world system we wish to build. The ground inches in front of us is the politics of the lesser evil. If we don't do both, we're lost. Let us debate about the direction of the compass, ignoring the states and ignoring nationalism. Let us nonetheless engage with the states and nationalism in the short run, so that we avoid the crevices. Then we have a chance of survival, a chance we will achieve that other world that is possible.

From: Z Net - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives
URL: http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3857

Obama's Violin: Populist rage and the uncertain containment of change, Paul Street, Z Magazine

Street's ZSpace page

As of this writing in late March, the Barack Obama administration and its allies in the Democratic-run Congress have been attempting to perform system-maintaining acts of co-optation and popular pacification that no Republican presidency or Congress could ever carry out. Lance Selfa reminds us in his recent book The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket, 2008) that corporate America would have no reason to embrace a two-party system if there were no significant differences between the two competing "subdivisions" of what Ferdinand Lundberg once aptly called "the Property Party." The business elite profits from a narrow-spectrum system in which one business party is always waiting in the wings to capture and control popular anger and energy when the other business party falls out of favor.

But the two parties are not simply interchangeable. It is the Democrats' job to define and embody the constricted left-most parameters of acceptable political debate. For the last century, it has been the Democratic Party's distinctive assignment to play "the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially radical] segments of the electorate" by posing as "the party of the people" (Selfa). The Democrats performed this critical system-preserving, change-containing function in relation to the agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s and the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s. They played much the same role in relation to the antiwar, civil rights, anti-poverty, ecology, and feminist movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s. In every case, the movements that arose to challenge concentrated power and oppression and to reduce inequality were pacified, silenced, and ultimately shut down, their political energies sucked into the corporate and militaristic Democratic Party.

The standard historic pattern of Democratic Party co-optation and progressive surrender is currently trying to repeat itself amidst epic economic crisis and imperial disruption. Two and a half weeks after Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, commented on the president-elect's corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told the New York Times, was following "the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right."

The Obama administration's record so far is richly consistent with the violin analogy. Dominant, so-called "mainstream" media routinely portray Obama as a "bold" and even "radical" "departure from the past"—a person of what the leading communications authorities call "the left." This is offensive to people on the actual left. The supposed "peace candidate" intends to increase the United States' massive "defense" budget this and next year. Reading the fine print on Obama's Iraq plan, moreover, it is clear that he plans to sustain the illegal occupation of that country well past 2011 and very likely into the indefinite future.

To make matters dangerously worse, Obama is actively increasing the level of U.S. violence in Afghanistan and—most ominously—in nuclear Pakistan. The New York Times reports, with no hint of disapproval, that he is considering "expanding the American covert war in Pakistan," where every U.S. missile attack destabilizes the political situation a bit more. Obama and his so-called "national security" team are planning, the Times reports, to "widen the target area" of their already "extensive [CIA] missile strikes" on that country to include Baluchistan, "a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government" (March 20, 2009).

Obama is continuing core Bush policies on Israel and Iran. He refuses to pay honest attention to the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people about whose fate he stayed revealingly mute during the savage U.S.-Israel assault on the people of Gaza last December and January. He made no effort to resist the U.S. Israel lobby's torpedoing of Charles Freeman's nomination as chair of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, a veteran national security operative, was brusquely dismissed because he dared to suggest that the Israeli apartheid and occupation state might bear some responsibility for violence and hatred in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Obama dangerously and revealingly resists pressure to investigate and prosecute the monumental war and human rights crimes of the Bush administration. He quietly commits to the officially concealed trillion dollar annual Pentagon budget, a giant subsidy to high-tech industry that pays for more than 760 bases across more than 130 nations and accounts for nearly half the military spending on earth—all in the name of "defense." The leading Wall Street investment firm and bailout recipient Morgan Stanley reported the day after Obama's election victory that Obama "has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend."

To Restore the Old Order That Failed

Turning to the home front, Obama refuses to advance the obvious cost-cutting and social democratic health-care solution: single-payer national health insurance (improved Medicare for all). Consistent with his recent description of himself as a New Democrat, Obama's Treasury Department and the secretive, unaccountable Federal Reserve Bank (to whom the new Administration increasingly wishes to pass the buck of the current financial crisis) will dispense untold trillions of dollars in further taxpayer handouts to the giant Wall Street firms who spent millions on his campaign and who drove the U.S. and world economy over a cliff. According to leading liberal economist James K. Galbraith in the Washington Monthly, Obama's plan to guarantee the financial, insurance, and real estate industries' toxic, hyper-inflated assets while keeping existing Wall Street management in place amounts to a massive effort to "keep perpetrators afloat." By left-liberal writer William Greider's account, "Obama's approach so far is devoted to restoring Wall Street's famous names and his [supposedly non-ideological] advisors tell him this is the 'responsible' imperative, no matter that it might offend the unwashed public. Obama evidently agrees" (Washington Post, March 22, 2009). The liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is "filled with a sense of despair" by Obama's "bank rescue plan," which "recycles Bush administration policy—specifically the 'cash for trash' plan proposed, then abandoned, six months ago by then-Treasury secretary Henry Paulson" (March 23, 2009).

The Obama plan rewards reckless and selfish investor class behavior by funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to bankrupt banks. Under the scheme unveiled on March 23, 2009, the public is put on the hook to the tune of $1 trillion. The program amounts to what Krugman calls a coin flip in which investors win if it's heads and taxpayers lose if it's tails. As the Times quickly noted, "the Treasury and the Federal Reserve will be offering at least a tablespoon of financial sugar for every teaspoon of risk that investors agree to swallow," buying up the toxic mortgage assets that the investor class created in the first place. The government (identical to the people in a functioning democracy) will take more than 90 percent of the risk, but private investors reap at least half the reward.

Meanwhile, the underlying insolvency of the banks continues, a problem the Obama administration hopes we will forget about as we get dazzled by their fancy and obscure plan. Beneath claims of allegiance to "free market" ideals and "private enterprise," the Administration's "bank rescue" design—described by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich as a continuation of "the most expensive tax-supported fiasco in history" (Salon, March 20, 2009)—boils down to a traditional exercise in Wall Street welfare: socialism for the rich, market discipline and capitalism for the rest of us. It is at heart what Greider calls an effort "to restore the old order that failed," the dark reality beneath newspaper headlines proclaiming a new age of progressive-style government regulation ("Bill Moyers' Journal," PBS, March 27, 2009).

Obama's tepid and undersized stimulus plan (deceptively described as "massive" in much of the business press) is dysfunctionally overloaded with business-friendly tax cuts and too short on labor-intensive projects to put people to work right away. He says nothing about the overdue labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). He speaks in support of the anti-union, teacher-bashing, and test-based corporate education agenda, advocating teacher "merit pay" and charter schools. And he makes a public visit (in support of his stimulus bill) to the headquarters of Caterpillar, a provider of bulldozers for illegal Israeli settlements. Caterpillar was also the first large U.S. manufacturer in decades to break a major strike with scabs.

Praised by political and media elites for the skill with which he and his handlers are "managing expectations," Obama fails to advance elementary and urgently needed progressive measures like a moratorium on foreclosures, a capping of credit card interest rates and finance charges, and the rollback of capital income tax rates to 1981 (not just 1993) levels. Even before the inauguration, Obama committed himself to so-called "entitlement reform," a term that is code language for claiming to cut the federal deficit by chipping away at Medicare and Social Security.

Team and "Vision"

Obama's cabinet is loaded with elite agents of corporate and imperial power. Leading players include Defense Secretary and Iraq warrior Robert Gates, carried over from the Bush administration. National Security Advisor James Jones is a former NATO commander known for advocating increased U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil resources. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a leading Iraq War hawk who approved a Bush plan to attack Iran in late 2007. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was a leading pro-war and "pro-Israel," anti-Palestinian Democrat during his recent congressional career. Obama's top economic advisor Lawrence Summers is a leading corporate neoliberal economist and was an architect during the 1990s of the financial deregulation that contributed so significantly to the current economic crisis. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is a Wall Street-approved expert in bailing out large and parasitic financial institutions.

Obama's claim that he will provide the "vision" to move such corporate and imperial operatives in a "progressive" direction is like a baseball manager claiming that he's going to build a team based on speed and defense with a roster full of clumsy, slow-footed, 280-pound power hitters.

Tellingly enough, even mildly progressive U.S. economists like Galbraith, Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz have been blacklisted from the Obama administration. These unradical but left-of-center economists are too much for the corporate types who hold sway in the current Administration. For economic direction, the new White House prefers regressive corporate-neoliberal hacks associated with the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs and with the conservative pro-business economic think tank the Hamilton Project. John R. MacArthur, the president of Harper's magazine, noted in late March that Summers and Geithner "are in place precisely to prevent real reform of a banking system that helped put Obama in the White House" (the Providence Journal, March 19, 2009).

Obama's Challenge: Tamp Down Populist Anger

Despite the occasional populist-sounding outburst required to contain widespread popular anger over grotesque economic disparities and corporate corruption, Obama no longer stands up before giant crowds to proclaim that (in a frequent Obama refrain on the campaign trail) "Change doesn't happen from the top down. Change happens from the bottom up." After having mobilized citizens to vote out the old Republican regime in the name of progressive and democratic transformation, the in-power Obama team has a different message for the people: calm down and let the political class do its work. This is no time for "anger" and "ideology," which stand in the way of "getting things done." The populace is supposed to return quietly and hopefully to remote, divided, and private realms, dutifully executing their paid work assignments (if they still have jobs), buying stuff (largely on credit thanks to the continuing lag of wages behind productivity in the U.S.), and investing their modest savings (if they have any) in the stock market again (as Obama has recently admonished Americans to do). They are to watch their telescreens while the new system-maintaining coordinators (including supposedly "pragmatic" and "non-ideological" technicians like Summers and Geithner) do the serious and sober work of putting the profit system—described by Obama in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope as "our greatest asset...a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources"—back on its feet. Summers lectures Americans to heed Obama's call for an "age of responsibility" by agreeing to dutifully "manage [their] own finances" and "do [their] own jobs.... People," Summers told NBC's David Gregory, "need to work hard, they need to play by the rules, and those of us with responsibility for economic policy need to do everything we can to make the economy work." Appearing on the PBS "News Hour" on the day that the latest phase of the bankers' bailout was announced, Summers said that Obama "recognize[s] and he share[s] the outrage that people feel at what has happened, at some of the bonuses that have been paid, about some of the irresponsibility that brought us to this point. But he also," Summers added, "urge[s] that we can't govern out of anger, that we can't let our rage, our legitimate anger, stop us from the necessary steps."

A front-page New York Times "news analysis" in March noted that the Obama political and public relations team was "increasingly concerned" about "a populist backlash" that could target the new bailout-friendly White House as well as the investor class. According to Times correspondent Adam Nagourney, "a shifting political mood challenges Mr. Obama's political skills, as he seeks to acknowledge the anger without becoming a target of it. A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional." Nagourney cited unnamed Obama advisors on how the new White House "risks... backlash as Mr. Obama tries to signal that he shares American anger but pushes for more bail-out money for banks and Wall Street" (March 16, 2009).Consistent with that contradictory and manipulative goal, Obama expressed calculated indignation against "excessive" executive bonuses at AIG (originally approved by Geithner) and made carefully orchestrated visits expressing concern about poverty and job loss to hard-hit places like Pomona, California and Elkhart, Indiana. These were well understood by political and media elites to be public relations ("expectation-managing") efforts to "get ahead" of "populist rage" over the corporate agenda that continues to hold sway in Washington in the age of Obama.

What Exists of a Popular Left

John Judis (no "far leftist," as Obama's radical critics are commonly described by his "progressive" supporters) recently argued in the centrist journal the New Republic (in an essay titled "End the Honeymoon"), that a major reason Obama has gone forward with a conservative and inadequate economic plan "is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go" further. "Sure," Judis writes, "there are left-wing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a trillion dollar-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket." By Judis's analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like moveon.org are repeating the same "mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the [Democratic] party and its leading politician." MacArthur observes that many leading U.S. progressives "persist" in "fantas[izing]" that "the president is a Mr. Smith-goes-to-Washington character prepared to 'take on' the powers that be." This is "an absurd reading of Obama," who MacArthur (rightly) describes as "a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class" and as "surely the unleft, unradical president."

Consistent with Judis's critique, moveon.org's Executive Director Justin Ruben responded in February to Obama's highly qualified and deceptive Iraq "withdrawal" plans by telling the New York Times that "activists are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt." Sounding like a docile house pet instead of a serious progressive activist, Ruben said that "people have confidence that the president is committed to ending the war" because "this is what he promised" (New York Times, February 26, 2009). Ruben's group and the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice and numerous prominent left-liberals bought into the false notion that Obama was "a peace candidate" and have worked to dampen progressive anger over—and mobilization against—Obama's determination to execute the imperial project. Known for organizing online opposition to the Bush administration's war policies, moveon.org recently sent its members an e-mail proclaiming the U.S. invasion of Iraq to be effectively over and congratulating members for having helped achieve that wonderful result. Ruben also recently told Nation correspondent Ari Melber that MoveOn has no intention of opposing Obama's plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. As left writer and activist Anthony Arnove notes, "The message being sent [by MoveOn and other liberal groups and dominant U.S. media] to the antiwar movement is, 'It's over. We can move on'" (SocialistWorker.org, March 13, 2009).

Towards a New Populist Moment?

The left Democratic weekly the Nation focuses most of its ire on an easy target—the out-of-power Republicans. It says that "Obama Needs a Protest Movement" (November 13, 2008), not that the people and democracy need one—an excellent expression of so-called liberalism's deeply ingrained habit of subordinating movement concerns to the needs of the Democrats' leading politicians. The Nation alsoabsurdly calls Obama's tepid budget proposal "an audacious plan to transform America" in progressive ways.

Many of the Nation's so-called left liberals might want to take another look at Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States along with Frances Fox Piven's and Richard Cloward's classic Poor Peoples' Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail to review some elementary lessons on how serious progressive change occurs. These authors demonstrate in rich historical detail how direct action, social disruption, and the threat of radical change from the bottom up forced social and political reform benefiting working- and lower-class people and black people during the 1930s and the 1960s. They show the critical role played by grass-roots social movements and popular resistance in educating presidents and the broader power elite on the need for change. Today, we can be sure that the in-power Democratic Party and president will not move off the corporate and military "center" unless "the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find dangerous to ignore" (Zinn, "Election Madness," the Progressive, March 2008).

For what it's worth, the Democrats are best exposed as agents of empire, inequality, and "corporate-managed democracy" (Alex Carey's useful term) when they hold top offices. That's when their populist and peaceful sounding campaign rhetoric hits the cold pavement of corporate imperial governance.

It's not too late for genuinely progressive activists and citizens to pursue radical-democratic change in defiance of both the profit system and that system's Democratic Party guardians. Thankfully, we may be heading for something of a new populist moment in the U.S., despite efforts of leading political, economic, ideological, and communications institutions. As giant financial bailouts expose the crippling chasm between the investor and political classes and the broad citizenry, "people everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn't. They watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. 'Where's my bailout,' became the rueful punchline at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for 'entitlement reform'—a euphemism for whacking Social Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid" (Greider).

This is essential raw material for a radical rebellion, one where citizens and workers move from "watching" to demanding and acting in ways too "dangerous to ignore." Happily enough, there is left-progressive potential in the confrontation between Obama's progressive-sounding rhetoric and his corporate and imperial commitments. The popular resentment and hopes he rode to power need more genuinely democratic and effective solutions than an Obama (or a Hillary Clinton) presidency could have been realistically expected to provide. Obama and other Democrats have been riding a wave of citizen anger and excitement that goes beyond their conservative worldview and agenda. They have done their best to contain and co-opt that popular and progressive energy, but their lofty political rhetoric seeks to safely channel popular expectations that may well transcend the political class's capacity for top-down management and control.


Paul Street is a political commentator living in Iowa City, Iowa. He is the author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).

From: Z Magazine - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives
URL: http://www.zcommunications.org/zmag/viewArticle/21334

07 May 2009

"Existential Threat"

This is yet another term of contemporary political-media discourse that rankles me to no end. It's a tarted up way of referring to a threat to the existence of x, usually Israel, but that's beside the point here.

In fact, Muslims are apparently the only ones who can bring on an existential threat -- Hillary noted the existence of such a threat to Pakistan yesterday, from other, non-domesticated, free-range Muslims.

So, I put on my thinking cap and came up with some examples of real existential threats:

  1. Inauthenticity.
  2. Being turned into a beetle.
  3. Boulders that cannot be pushed up hills.
  4. Boulders that do not roll back down hills.
  5. Essence.
  6. "Clean up your room or I will again describe in detail the mindless, all-consuming maw of eventual and unavoidable non-existence."
  7. Parsifal
  8. A three-hour black-and-white film shot in close-ups of two upper-middle-class Euro-Americans bemoaning the meaninglessness of a Godless universe in the comfort of their well-apportioned flat. After two hours and forty-five minutes of incessant whining, the couple finally has sex, followed immediately by a joint nervous breakdown.
  9. Spending an evening with this person. (Scroll to 3:45; watch till 6:50.)
  10. Full revelation of the free choices made by moral agents, who are to be judged only by their actions, in France during WWII.

06 May 2009

Noam Chomsky Assesses The Summit of the Americas

05 May 2009

William Greider: “Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country”

The Image of Faith in America with Chris Hedges, April 2008

Author of the bestselling book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges joins the Council to discuss his new book I Don't Believe in Atheists and offers his views of the extreme sides of the religious spectrum in the United States.

Hedges has spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans, and has reported from more than fifty countries. He was part of the New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the coverage of global terrorism.

He is also the recipient of the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism - World Affairs Council of Northern California

Laura Flanders Interviews Evo Morales on Socialism

Iran and the Israel Lobby's Frustration: Dropping the AIPAC Spying Case, Gary Leupp, Counterpunch

Buying Brand Obama, Chris Hedges

Posted on May 3, 2009

By Chris Hedges

Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest.

What, for all our faith and hope, has the Obama brand given us? His administration has spent, lent or guaranteed $12.8 trillion in taxpayer dollars to Wall Street and insolvent banks in a doomed effort to reinflate the bubble economy, a tactic that at best forestalls catastrophe and will leave us broke in a time of profound crisis. Brand Obama has allocated nearly $1 trillion in defense-related spending and the continuation of our doomed imperial projects in Iraq, where military planners now estimate that 70,000 troops will remain for the next 15 to 20 years. Brand Obama has expanded the war in Afghanistan, including the use of drones sent on cross-border bombing runs into Pakistan that have doubled the number of civilians killed over the past three months. Brand Obama has refused to ease restrictions so workers can organize and will not consider single-payer, not-for-profit health care for all Americans. And Brand Obama will not prosecute the Bush administration for war crimes, including the use of torture, and has refused to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus.

Brand Obama offers us an image that appears radically individualistic and new. It inoculates us from seeing that the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country. Corporations, which control our politics, no longer produce products that are essentially different, but brands that are different. Brand Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than did Brand George W. Bush. The Bush brand collapsed. We became immune to its studied folksiness. We saw through its artifice. This is a common deflation in the world of advertising. So we have been given a new Obama brand with an exciting and faintly erotic appeal. Benetton and Calvin Klein were the precursors to the Obama brand, using ads to associate themselves with risqué art and progressive politics. It gave their products an edge. But the goal, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand with an experience.

“The abandonment of the radical economic foundations of the women’s and civil-rights movements by the conflation of causes that came to be called political correctness successfully trained a generation of activists in the politics of image, not action,” Naomi Klein wrote in No Logo.

Obama, who has become a global celebrity, was molded easily into a brand. He had almost no experience, other than two years in the Senate, lacked any moral core and could be painted as all things to all people. His brief Senate voting record was a miserable surrender to corporate interests. He was happy to promote nuclear power as “green” energy. He voted to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He reauthorized the Patriot Act. He would not back a bill designed to cap predatory credit card interest rates. He opposed a bill that would have reformed the notorious Mining Law of 1872. He refused to support the single-payer health care bill HR676, sponsored by Reps. Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers. He supported the death penalty. And he backed a class-action “reform” bill that was part of a large lobbying effort by financial firms. The law, known as the Class Action Fairness Act, would effectively shut down state courts as a venue to hear most class-action lawsuits and deny redress in many of the courts where these cases have a chance of defying powerful corporate challenges.

While Gaza was being bombarded and hit with airstrikes in the weeks before Obama took office, “the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of ‘smart bombs’ and other hi-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel,” according to Seymour Hersh. Even his one vaunted anti-war speech as a state senator, perhaps his single real act of defiance, was swiftly reversed. He told the Chicago Tribune on July 27, 2004, that “there’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.” And unlike anti-war stalwarts like Kucinich, who gave hundreds of speeches against the war, Obama then dutifully stood silent until the Iraq war became unpopular.

Obama’s campaign won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors gathered at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference in October. The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and Zappos.com. Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertiser wants because of how they can make you feel.

Celebrity culture has leeched into every aspect of our culture, including politics, to bequeath to us what Benjamin DeMott called “junk politics.” Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation of rights. Junk politics personalizes and moralizes issues rather than clarifying them. “It’s impatient with articulated conflict, enthusiastic about America’s optimism and moral character, and heavily dependent on feel-your-pain language and gesture,” DeMott noted. The result of junk politics is that nothing changes – “meaning zero interruption in the processes and practices that strengthen existing, interlocking systems of socioeconomic advantage.” It redefines traditional values, tilting “courage toward braggadocio, sympathy toward mawkishness, humility toward self-disrespect, identification with ordinary citizens toward distrust of brains.” Junk politics “miniaturizes large, complex problems at home while maximizing threats from abroad. It’s also given to abrupt unexplained reversals of its own public stances, often spectacularly bloating problems previously miniaturized.” And finally, it “seeks at every turn to obliterate voters’ consciousness of socioeconomic and other differences in their midst.”

An image-based culture, one dominated by junk politics, communicates through narratives, pictures and carefully orchestrated spectacle and manufactured pseudo-drama. Scandalous affairs, hurricanes, earthquakes, untimely deaths, lethal new viruses, train wrecks—these events play well on computer screens and television. International diplomacy, labor union negotiations and convoluted bailout packages do not yield exciting personal narratives or stimulating images. A governor who patronizes call girls becomes a huge news story. A politician who proposes serious regulatory reform, universal health care or advocates curbing wasteful spending is boring. Kings, queens and emperors once used their court conspiracies to divert their subjects. Today cinematic, political and journalistic celebrities distract us with their personal foibles and scandals. They create our public mythology. Acting, politics and sports have become, as they were during the reign of Nero, interchangeable.

In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not seek reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by clichés, stereotypes and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on Earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our own attributes, or our national character, or because we are blessed by God. Reality is not accepted as an impediment to our desires. Reality does not make us feel good.

In his book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann distinguished between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” He defined a “stereotype” as an oversimplified pattern that helps us find meaning in the world. Lippmann cited examples of the crude “stereotypes we carry about in our heads” of whole groups of people such as “Germans,” “South Europeans,” “Negroes,” “Harvard men,” “agitators” and others. These stereotypes, Lippmann noted, give a reassuring and false consistency to the chaos of existence. They offer easily grasped explanations of reality and are closer to propaganda because they simplify rather than complicate.

Pseudo-events—dramatic productions orchestrated by publicists, political machines, television, Hollywood or advertisers—however, are very different. They have, as Daniel Boorstin wrote in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, the capacity to appear real even though we know they are staged. They are capable, because they can evoke a powerful emotional response, of overwhelming reality and replacing reality with a fictional narrative that often becomes accepted truth. The unmasking of a stereotype damages and often destroys its credibility. But pseudo-events, whether they show the president in an auto plant or a soup kitchen or addressing troops in Iraq, are immune to this deflation. The exposure of the elaborate mechanisms behind the pseudo-event only adds to its fascination and its power. This is the basis of the convoluted television reporting on how effectively political campaigns and politicians have been stage-managed. Reporters, especially those on television, no longer ask if the message is true but if the pseudo-event worked or did not work as political theater. Pseudo-events are judged on how effectively we have been manipulated by illusion. Those events that appear real are relished and lauded. Those that fail to create a believable illusion are deemed failures. Truth is irrelevant. Those who succeed in politics, as in most of the culture, are those who create the brands and pseudo-events that offer the most convincing fantasies. And this is the art Obama has mastered.

A public that can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction is left to interpret reality through illusion. Random facts or obscure bits of data and trivia are used to bolster illusion and give it credibility or are discarded if they interfere with the message. The worse reality becomes—the more, for example, foreclosures and unemployment skyrocket—the more people seek refuge and comfort in illusions. When opinions cannot be distinguished from facts, when there is no universal standard to determine truth in law, in science, in scholarship, or in reporting the events of the day, when the most valued skill is the ability to entertain, the world becomes a place where lies become true, where people can believe what they want to believe. This is the real danger of pseudo-events and why pseudo-events are far more pernicious than stereotypes. They do not explain reality, as stereotypes attempt to, but replace reality. Pseudo-events redefine reality by the parameters set by their creators. These creators, who make massive profits peddling these illusions, have a vested interest in maintaining the power structures they control.

The old production-oriented culture demanded what the historian Warren Susman termed character. The new consumption-oriented culture demands what he called personality. The shift in values is a shift from a fixed morality to the artifice of presentation. The old cultural values of thrift and moderation honored hard work, integrity and courage. The consumption-oriented culture honors charm, fascination and likability. “The social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer,” Susman wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.”

The junk politics practiced by Obama is a consumer fraud. It is about performance. It is about lies. It is about keeping us in a perpetual state of childishness. But the longer we live in illusion, the worse reality will be when it finally shatters our fantasies. Those who do not understand what is happening around them and who are overwhelmed by a brutal reality they did not expect or foresee search desperately for saviors. They beg demagogues to come to their rescue. This is the ultimate danger of the Obama Brand. It effectively masks the wanton internal destruction and theft being carried out by our corporate state. These corporations, once they have stolen trillions in taxpayer wealth, will leave tens of millions of Americans bereft, bewildered and yearning for even more potent and deadly illusions, ones that could swiftly snuff out what is left of our diminished open society.

Chris Hedges’ new book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, will be out in July and can be preordered on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

04 May 2009

Bruce Fein and Mark Danner on Bill Moyers: Torture


May 1, 2009

A new debate followed the release of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel memos approving extreme measures of interrogation under the Bush administration. Bill Moyers sits down with Bruce Fein, former deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and chairman of the American Freedom Agenda, and Mark Danner, who has been reporting on the US treatment and interrogation of detainees for the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS.

More about Fein and Danner and debate over torture tactics.