Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Just say it: Sam Harris is a racist warmonger

Posted by Kevin on August 23, 2012

…or something not easily or meaningfully distinguishable from a racist. As are several other major figures in the atheist movement. And the movement largely refuses to grapple with it.

Recently, Ian Murphy published a controversial article titled The 5 Most Awful Atheists, arguing:

Disbelief in a supernatural creator… in no way guarantees rationality in matters of foreign policy or economics, for example. Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff—likely owing their prominence to these same benighted beliefs, lending an air of scientific credibility to the myths corporate media seeks to highlight, and thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists in the long-term. In other words: The crap always rises to the top.

The people he singles out – Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and S.E. Cupp – make the list primarily as a result of their economic libertarianism, neoconservative foreign policy views, and/or Islamophobia.* The atheist movement of course encompasses people with a wide variety of views and backgrounds and no one could or should dictate which viewpoints should disqualify one from membership in the Atheist Club, but I share Murphy’s concern that racist warmongers like Harris have come to represent atheism in the public eye (which is something I’ve written about previously). It’s incredibly disconcerting that, as Jeff Sparrow noted at Counterpunch, “leading representatives of the movement express ideas that otherwise we’d associate with the hard Right – and are celebrated for doing so.”

And in my experience, atheists haven’t done a good job of confronting that fact. It’s not clear how many atheists share such views (in fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest such views are far from universal), but it is clear that many atheists are loath to criticize people like Harris or Hirsi Ali (or even the late Christopher Hitchens, whose much more blatant and disgusting war cheerleading atheists and his other supporters were happy to excuse).

Let’s be clear on what I mean when I say that Harris et al. are racists and militarists. I don’t mean that they’re racists just for criticizing Islam or human rights abuses in Muslim countries, nor for doing so in impolite terms. What I do have a problem with is the stereotyping and demonization of Muslims, arbitrary discrimination on the basis of religion, and support for wars of aggression or for an imperialistic foreign policy as part of what they see as a noble effort to force the “savages” to accept “civilized” Western values. One might quibble that those things aren’t strictly “racist” because they’re based on religion rather than ethnicity or nationality, but to me that’s a meaningless distinction when we’re talking about a religion mainly practiced by black and brown people (foreign black and brown people, even). I’m sure Harris isn’t particularly fond of white Muslim converts like 9/11 truther Kevin Barrett, but that doesn’t render his arguments race-neutral.

A number of people have already pointed out the problems with the above atheists’ foreign policy views, so I won’t rehash them here. For an extensive critique of Sam Harris, see this excellent article by Theodore Sayeed at Mondoweiss that I highly recommend reading in full. See also the Jeff Sparrow article referred to above, Glenn Greenwald’s obituary on Christopher Hitchens, or my own prior post on the subject. Of the bunch, Hirsi Ali is likely the most overtly hostile to Islam (well, except possibly for Hitchens); she explicitly sees the West as being at war with Islam, which must be violently “crushed… in all its forms.” She also calls for closing Muslim schools, as well as restrictions on Muslim expression (perversely, she claims this is needed to preserve civil liberties). Granted, given her personal history I can’t exactly blame her for hating Islam, but that shouldn’t make her immune from criticism; atheists shouldn’t whitewash her positions by presenting her as merely a critic of Islam rather than an Islamophobe who would fit in pretty well with the likes of Pamela Geller.

Other atheists, even those more dovish than Harris or Hirsi Ali, responded very differently to Murphy’s article than me (although there does seem to be a consensus that Cupp, some self-hating Fox News atheist, belongs on the list). Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist had what I’ve come to regard as a typical atheist response when these issues come up – which is to dismiss or downplay the issue, then change the subject. Although Mehta has been willing to criticize Harris’s positions in the past (see Sam Harris: We Should Profile Muslims at the Airport), he denied that the people listed by Murphy were “bad atheists” on the basis that “those four people have done more to get people to stop believing in God than almost anybody else out there,” and argued that their success in promoting atheism outweighs their positions on what he called “side issues” which few people care about or are even aware of.

I understand why this type of argument is attractive to atheists. It’s natural to be uncomfortable with criticizing people on one’s own “team”, or to be afraid of forming a circular firing squad. It’s also understandable that many would want to keep the focus on fighting religion and not have the movement ripped apart by arguments over libertarianism or foreign policy (and I even sort of agree with them in regard to Jillette and Hirsi Ali’s libertarianism). In addition, I’m well aware that there was a time not long ago when books about atheism didn’t make bestseller lists, and that Harris’s The End of Faith changed that fact and in doing so played a key role in making atheism much more mainstream than ever before. But the suggestion that support for racism and imperialistic foreign policies are mere “side issues” that should be set aside in favor of joining hands and bashing religion together strikes me as fundamentally wrongheaded and incredibly callous. And I think it’s a moral obscenity that atheists are much more willing to criticize Harris for his embrace of mysticism (e.g. ESP, reincarnation; see the Sayeed article linked above) than his support for torture or aggressive wars.

The reason I get so worked up about about Harris et al. – and the movement’s response to him – is because I reject the notion that issues of religion can be safely compartmentalized from the so-called “side issues” described above. My own atheism both motivates and is motivated by my opposition to racism and imperialism, and my support for social justice. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think other atheists can reasonably come to different conclusions on those issues, but rather that it’s wrong to view the atheist project as one that “[begins and ends] with an expose of religious fallacies”, as Sparrow describes the mainstream atheist view.

The fact that so many atheists can so easily look the other way regarding support for racism and imperialism has deeply troubling implications, which arose most clearly in response to the death of Hitchens. Greenwald put it best [emphasis in original]:

There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud.

It was not always this way; as Sparrow explains in detail, there was once a vibrant and influential atheist Left that “identified the church as merely one amongst many institutions maintaining an oppressive status quo.” So-called “New Atheists” like Harris and Hitchens rose to prominence, he says, in response to the collapse of the traditional Left and in the context of post-9/11 hysteria over Islamic terrorism (with the former leftist Hitchens having “transformed himself from midlist radical journalist to international celebrity” by supporting Bush’s wars). In past time periods, atheists were much more suspicious of state power, “if only because they were usually facing its sharp end”; it may not be a coincidence that as atheism became more mainstream in recent years, its center of gravity shifted toward right-wingers, militarists, and police state supporters, with some of its most prominent figures coming to see military force as “morally justified to free the savages from their delusions”.

There are still likely many left-leaning atheists out there who are uncomfortable with the neoconservatism of Harris et al., and they need to become more vocal within in the movement. That means rejecting the false choice between advocacy for religious issues and “side” issues.

There are a couple related claims that I’d like to discuss before moving on, concerning the ways in which some atheists downplay the ugliness of Harris’s positions even when they admit that there is a problem. First, in a subsequent post, Mehta expressed disagreement with the idea that Harris is racist (after comparing Harris’s critics to “trolls” and accusing them of mischaracterizing Harris’s positions). “Racism implies an undercurrent of intolerance,” he argued, “and I suspect Harris has no problem with Muslims peacefully practicing their faith (other than the fact that their beliefs are wrong) or people like me sitting next to him on a plane.” Mehta made a similar claim in his earlier post on Harris’s position regarding racial profiling: “He’s making (what he feels is) a logical argument in favor of profiling. So if he’s wrong, focus on why his argument doesn’t make sense.”

Now, I realize that as a straight white male I’m on pretty thin ice when it comes to accusing a non-white person of misidentifying racism, but I think that’s the case here. Mehta seems to see racism as based on personal animosity, which I think is an incredibly narrow view of the issue. I may never have personally experienced racial discrimination, but I have known plenty of racists over the years, and with the exception of my late grandfather I don’t think a single one of them would flat-out admit that they dislike people of other races. If our definition of racism requires noticeable feelings of ill will toward people of other races, then hardly anyone would qualify. As Digby argued back in 2003 [emphasis added]:

Most anti-semites and racists don’t think they are anti-semites and racists. Sometimes it comes out in anger, when they aren’t thinking clearly and they kind of clap their hands over their mouths… and whisper, “did I say that?” Others think they are making reasonable observations and that those who object are being peculiarly sensitive. They search for justifications and usually claim victim status themselves at the hands of the PC police.

In Harris’s case, I would argue that, even though he doesn’t necessarily bear Muslims any personal ill will, racism is what allows him to see Islamic terrorism as an existential threat to the United States, despite the fact that, as Murphy points out, “You’re four times as likely to die of a lightning strike than you are from a terrorist attack”. Racism is what allows him to see “religious” profiling as a viable way to defend against terrorism, even in the wake of several mass shootings committed by white men (which, unlike cases of Islamic terrorism, don’t seem to be seen as representative of an entire people) and in the face of persuasive arguments that it doesn’t work. Racism is what allows him to see the people of the Muslim world as morally inferior and in need of “benign dictatorship”, and to explicitly oppose democracy in Muslim countries as a result. Racism is what allows him to embrace what Sayeed calls “the most extravagant conspiracy theories about the impending conquest of Europe by Muslims”, or to declare in Letter to a Christian Nation that “With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European societies seem to be fascist.” Racism is what allows him to support aggressive, brutally destructive wars (potentially including a nuclear first strike against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons **) or Israel’s apartheid policies while still insisting on America’s (and Israel’s) moral superiority and downplaying any ensuing “collateral damage”.

Racism, as Peggy McIntosh put it in her famous essay on white privilege, consists of more than “individual acts of meanness”, or individual feelings of ill will as I would add; it also includes “invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.” Harris may be fine, on a personal level, with brown people sitting next to him on a plane, but he gladly embraces a number of racist policies. As Sayeed notes, “At the core of [Harris’s] political thinking is a curious dualism that maintains on the one end that Islam is the darkest villainy to afflict the race, and on the other that he doesn’t really hate Muslims after all.” In light of all this, I think it’s ridiculous to claim, as Mehta does, that Harris’s positions do not evince an “undercurrent of intolerance”. He may or may not hate Muslims, but he seems to have difficulty seeing them as fully human or entitled to full moral consideration. What more would it take before it’s deemed acceptable to call strident Islamophobes like him racist?

Second, regarding Harris’s support for torture, it’s no defense to argue, as Richard Dawkins does, that he’s not a “gung-ho pro-torture advocate” or that he’s merely raising uncomfortable questions like a moral philosopher. According to Dawkins, I’m supposed to feel sorry for Harris for the “vilification and viciousness” he has received as a result of the supposed mischaracterization of his views. Harris himself made a similar argument, in reference to Murphy’s article:

Predictably, this article refers to the fact that I have discussed the ethics of torture in the past — and it does so in order to brand me as a moral lunatic. From reading this piece, and hundreds like it, one would never imagine that my position on torture is more or less identical to the one prescribed in that handbook of evil, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Read the entry on torture there, especially the section entitled “The Beating,” and then tell me that being categorically “against torture” is a morally uncomplicated stance to adopt.)

One problem with this position is that Harris’s defense of torture relies on a highly implausible “ticking bomb” scenario. Others have already poked holes in this argument, so I won’t dwell on it here (see this pamphlet from the Association for the Prevention of Torture for an excellent response). I bring it up to show how support for torture in a “ticking bomb” scenario can easily be used to justify torture in general, as Harris himself demonstrates. Precisely because the real-life situations in which torture would be considered are rarely as simple as those presented in the average ticking bomb scenario, there would be naturally be a temptation to use it under much more ambiguous circumstances – e.g. when one doesn’t know for sure that there’s a ticking bomb somewhere, or that the person in custody has information on it. Better safe than sorry, right? Harris would seem to think so. As quoted by Sayeed:

Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a “gung-ho pro-torture advocate” at all, just someone who supports (very reluctantly, of course) using torture whenever it might lead to useful information. Harris is right that an absolute prohibition on torture is not “morally uncomplicated”, but it’s still the right position. Regardless of whether Harris is a casual or reluctant supporter of torture, atheists should stop making excuses for him on the issue.

All of this begs the question of what I propose we do about it. As I noted above, I’m not calling for ideological purges or litmus tests within the atheist movement, nor am I saying that Harris, Hirsi Ali and Hitchens are irredeemable scum with absolutely nothing positive to offer. I’m merely suggesting that atheists call them what they are – i.e. racist warmongers – and don’t attempt to minimize or dismiss it. Don’t treat support for racist policies or a foreign policy of mass murder as merely “mistakes” or “differences of opinion” that can be easily papered over. As Sparrow argued, when an atheist convention presented a posthumous panel on Hitchens titled “A Life Well Lived”, progressive atheists should’ve “point[ed] out that the author of God is Not Great devoted his well-lived life to apologetics for a military campaign that led to the deaths of perhaps a million people”. Currently, too many atheists admit to discomfort, like Mehta, but respond by asking what the objection has to do with atheism. It’s the silence of moderate, liberal, and left-wing atheists that has allowed our movement to become dominated (at least in terms of our public figures) by racist warmongers.

PZ Myers provides a good example of how I think more atheists should have responded to Murphy’s article. Although saying that “I refuse to believe that any of them are irredeemable” (with the exception of Cupp), he was willing to agree that Murphy’s arguments were valid. Further, he also made a great suggestion that Murphy “write a complementary article that lists the five best atheists in America, and what makes them good. Give us something to aspire to and set as a standard, instead of just taking potshots at a few big names (and one Fox News nobody).” *** Subsequently, he didn’t back down when criticized by Harris himself, going so far as to call Harris’s support for profiling “repugnant, irrational and unjustifiable”, and labeling him “an illiberal advocate for atrocious policies”.

My suggestion is merely that the atheist movement as a whole should be more open to discussion of issues like racism and imperialism, or other issues not directly related to religion. As Greta Christina argues, we don’t all have to agree on those things in order to take them seriously. “Skepticism,” she says, “has a tremendous amount to contribute to questions of social justice. Conversations about social justice issues are often, to put it mildly, not very evidence-based. They’re often based on preconception and prejudice, on deeply held beliefs with a strong emotional component.”

In addition, there are ways in which addressing issues like racism and imperialism more forthrightly could help the atheist movement. For instance, Sparrow notes the potential for left-wing atheists to “win people from religion by working alongside them against the forces of oppression in the world – and thus showing them in practice that religious consolations aren’t necessary – rather than by dismissing them as dupes and stooges.” Thus, he argues: “Atheists and others seeking to foster secularism in the Arab world might do so by, first and foremost, ending the military interventions that have brought so much suffering.” Also, more generally, broadening the scope of our concerns could allow the movement to attract a more diverse following, as Christina argues. People outside of the the “white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated men we’ve usually attracted” need to hear that atheism and skepticism are relevant to issues they care about, she says.

So don’t be afraid to just say it: Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Maher are racists and warmongers. You’ll feel better, and you’re doing the movement no favors by staying quiet.

Postscript: While I was in the process of putting the finishing touches up this post, a very interesting discussion arose in the atheist blogosphere – mainly instigated by Christina and Jen McCreight – about the need for a new, social justice-focused wave of atheism, which some are dubbing “atheism+”. It’s highly relevant to what I’ve written here, and I hope to have some thoughts on the matter posted in the near future.

* In Maher’s case, Murphy focuses mostly on his embrace of anti-vaccine hysteria, but he could easily be included with neocons/Islamophobes like Harris and Hirsi Ali. One example that sticks out in my mind is how he provided an uncritical platform to far-right anti-immigrant Dutch politician Geert Wilders in his film Religulous; another is his expression of “alarm” over British babies being given Muslim names, which he claimed heralds the takeover of the West by Islam. For a more extensive takedown of Bill Maher’s imperialistic mindset, see here.

** I feel the need to point out that Harris supports a potential nuclear first strike against Iran despite the fact that there’s no evidence suggesting that Iran would use such a weapon offensively if it had one; his argument is based on the unsupported assumption that Iran’s leaders are too crazed by religion to think rationally. Indeed, in the context of American and Israeli aggression against Iran (e.g. economic warfare sanctions, cyberwarfare, assassination of its nuclear scientists, support for regime change, or threats of military action, all of the above in alleged response to a nuclear weapons program that hasn’t been shown to actually exist), one could hardly blame Iran or other Muslim states targeted by the American war machine for wanting nuclear weapons. Not that I think they should have nuclear weapons, just that, as Sayeed points out, Harris and other imperialists disingenuously use concern about nuclear proliferation as a means of disarming the enemies of America and Israel (both of which are themselves nuclear powers, and one of which has intentionally used nuclear weapons against civilians).

*** Given that the same criticism could be directed at me, I have to admit that I can’t think of many people to include on such a list. The most prominent left-wing atheists, as far as I can tell, tend to be intellectuals like Noam Chomsky who don’t specifically talk about religion all that much; this is likely because, as Sparrow notes, they tend to see religion as playing a much more complicated role in society that do neocon atheists like Harris, especially in the context of Muslim resistance to Western imperialism.

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Irish Peace Activist Speaks About Gaza Flotilla

Posted by Kevin on August 22, 2012

[Note: This is the second of two articles I wrote on behalf of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group of which I was an officer during my time at Vermont Law School. I was relatively happy with how they turned out and thought sharing them here would be a good way to break my nearly two-year absence from blogging. This originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Forum, the VLS student newspaper, and can be found here (PDF, starting on p.1). For the first article, see here.]

On May 31, 2010, Israeli helicopters and assault boats attacked a multinational flotilla en route to the Gaza Strip in international waters. The ships carried humanitarian aid, and the human rights activists on board intended to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The most notorious aspect of the attack was the boarding of the Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara, in which Israeli commandos killed nine passengers, including 19-year-old U.S. citizen Furkan Dogan.

One eyewitness to Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla was Fiachra O’Luain, an Irish citizen who acted as second mate on the American-flagged ship Challenger I. O’Luain spoke at VLS on Jan. 12 at an event hosted by Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP), discussing his experiences on the flotilla and his subsequent abduction to Israel.

Israel’s land, air and sea blockade, begun in 2007 following the takeover of Gaza by the militant group Hamas, has drawn widespread international condemnation as collective punishment against the people of Gaza. Despite claims that the blockade was necessary for self-defense and aimed primarily at keeping weapons from entering Gaza, the Israeli government has blocked shipments of food, medicine, construction materials, and various other civilian goods. The people of Gaza are still reeling from Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s late 2008 – early 2009 invasion, which left up to 1400 Palestinians dead and devastated Gaza’s economy and civilian infrastructure.

Wanting to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinians, O’Luain joined the Freedom Flotilla in attempting to break the Israeli blockade. In explaining why he became interested in the conflict, he compared the fight for Palestinian freedom to the history of liberation struggles in Ireland. He also cited the use of Irish passports by agents of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, in the 2010 assassination of a senior Hamas official in Dubai as a reason why the Irish should pay particular attention to Israel’s actions.

The flotilla participants were initially optimistic about their chances of success, O’Luain said. Several previous aid convoys had managed to enter Gaza by both land and sea, and they did not think that Israel would use deadly force against a nonviolent humanitarian aid flotilla that included journalists, politicians, and prominent peace and social justice activists. As a result, the attack on the Mavi Marmara came as a shock, he said. He and the rest of the Challenger I crew could hear the gunfire as Israeli forces boarded the ship, and urgently tried to warn them that the passengers were unarmed, he said.

Many of the details of what transpired on the Mavi Marmara are disputed. An Israeli inquiry into the attack claimed that the soldiers acted in self-defense, but the passengers maintained that the soldiers showed little concern for innocent life, firing live ammunition both before and after landing on the ship. It is clear that the passengers fought the commandos, but there is little publicly-available evidence that they were armed with anything other than improvised weapons. The Israeli narrative dominated mainstream media coverage of the attack, in large part because, as O’Luain noted from his own experience, Israeli forces carefully worked to confiscate photos and video possessed by the flotilla participants. In fact, O’Luain argued that Dogan, who was later determined to have been shot in the head at close range, was targeted because he was carrying a camera.

Eventually, the other ships in the flotilla were captured and towed to the port of Ashdod in Israel. The passengers of the Challenger I formed a human chain to prevent being taken off the ship, O’Luain said, but they were eventually forcibly removed. O’Luain said that he and other flotilla participants were beaten and threatened at gunpoint while in Israeli custody, and held incommunicado for several days; he showed obvious discomfort discussing his imprisonment. He refused to sign deportation papers, fully intending to contest the proceedings against him on the ground that he had not entered Israel voluntarily. Despite this, he was eventually forcibly flown out of the country along with other international activists.

International reaction to the attack on the Freedom Flotilla was swift and fierce. Although the Obama administration fully supported Israel’s actions, many other countries criticized the attack. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay described Israel’s blockade as illegal and criticized Israel for using disproportionate force against the flotilla. The harshest denunciation came from Turkey, which unlike the United States took issue with its citizens being killed on the Mavi Marmara. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the attack as “state terrorism”, and Turkish-Israeli relations reached a historic low point.

The attack on the flotilla resulted in an investigation by the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). O’Luain testified to an HRC fact-finding mission, and the commission’s report published in September 2010 condemned Israel’s use of force as “not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrat[ing] levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence.” O’Luain’s evidence was also used in a separate inquiry into the attack commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon: the so-called “Palmer Report”, named after former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, who headed the committee that produced it.

The Palmer Report, which declared Israel’s blockade legal and questioned the motives of the Freedom Flotilla, was criticized by some observers as a whitewash. O’Luain compared the report to the Widgery inquiry into the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, which exonerated the British military for the killing of civil rights protestors in Northern Ireland. He accused the Palmer inquiry of being more concerned with repairing relations between Israel and Turkey than reporting the truth about the attack on the flotilla.

O’Luain, ready to take a break from activism following his experiences with the flotilla, plans to pursue a Master’s degree in Development Practice at Trinity College in Dublin.

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“Refusal to be Displaced” is Nonviolent Resistance

Posted by Kevin on August 22, 2012

[Note: This is the first of two articles I wrote on behalf of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group of which I was an officer during my time at Vermont Law School. I was relatively happy with how they turned out and thought sharing them here would be a good way to break my nearly two-year absence from blogging. This originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of The Forum, the VLS student newspaper, and can be found here (PDF, p.22). I have edited it slightly for stylistic reasons. For the second article, see here.]

Palestinian professor Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh has been involved with opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine his whole life. “Just by being born” near Bethlehem in the West Bank, “I was participating in nonviolent resistance,” he said, as a result of continuing to live in an area which Israeli authorities have long been allegedly trying to ethnically cleanse of its Palestinian inhabitants.

Qumsiyeh spoke at VLS on March 28 at an event hosted by Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP). He is a professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities, chairman of the board of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between People, and coordinator of the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements in Beit Sahour. His most recent book is “Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment”.

Contrary to the typical mainstream media portrayal of Palestinian resistance as exclusively violent (involving heavy reference to suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and armed groups such as Hamas), Qumsiyeh argued that such acts are exceptions. He identified roughly fifteen major Palestinian uprisings between the 1880s and the present (and thinks another is coming soon), all of which he said were overwhelmingly nonviolent even as the authorities often used violence in response.

One common method of nonviolent resistance used by Palestinians is demonstrations. Qumsiyeh frequently participates in protests against Israel’s wall, the proposed and partially-completed route of which effectively annexes West Bank territory in many areas and frequently cuts residents off from their land and livelihoods. “I’ve been in the U.S. four weeks and I’m already missing the smell of tear gas,” Qumsiyeh joked. He noted that protests are often violently suppressed by the Israeli military, with demonstrators beaten and sometimes killed. “Colonizers aren’t about to let any resistance go on,” even if it is nonviolent, he said.

Palestinians also engage in civil disobedience against the occupation. As an example of this, Qumsiyeh cited the closure of Palestinian schools by Israeli authorities during the First Intifada (a major Palestinian uprising that began in 1987). In response, Palestinians continued running and attending schools clandestinely, running the risk of jail time if caught.

Ultimately, violence on either side is just a symptom; the root cause of the violence is “apartheid and ethnic cleansing,” Qumsiyeh said. He argued that a true resolution of the conflict requires respect for what he noted were “four words that couldn’t be found” in the “road map” for peace outlined by former President George W. Bush: human rights and international law.

Posted in Politics, Published Stuff | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Why I didn’t vote for Shumlin

Posted by Kevin on October 31, 2010

The Vermont gubernatorial elections are upon us, which means that we’ve been hearing the predictable cry from liberal Vermonters of “Anyone But Dubie” for most of the year (referring, for you non-Vermonters, to Republican candidate and current Lt. Governor Brian Dubie).

And it’s not just the typical Democratic Party hacks that have embraced that slogan; Liberty Union candidate Ben Mitchell and Independent Emily Peyton have both recently dropped out of the race and are supporting Democratic candidate and current Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin. Previously, the Progressive Party decided to sit out the race entirely.

I’ve never been particularly fond of Shumlin, as one might have guessed from my disparaging reference to him in my post on Bernie Sanders. Admittedly, he’s done some good things, like passing the gay marriage bill and leading the vote against relicensing Vermont Yankee (the leak-prone nuclear plant), but he’s way too fiscally conservative for my liking, supporting efforts to balance the budget on the backs of public sector workers and the poor.

Still, I can understand why people in my position would hold their noses and vote for him. Shumlin isn’t terrible, whereas Dubie is by all indications a radical right-winger, and a lot of people on the left are terrified of him. I think they can be a little on the hysterical side about the potential consequences of a Dubie victory, but still, this isn’t a “not a dime’s worth of difference” situation. And as I noted on Twitter, Shumlin was the candidate that impressed me the most at the gubernatorial debate I attended at Vermont Law School. Of the four candidates who participated, Shumlin seemed to have the most thoughtful positions, especially on healthcare and drug policy.

So, I hope Shumlin wins. But I didn’t choose him when I did early voting last week. I was genuinely conflicted on the issue (enough so that I felt the need to explain myself here), but I ended up voting for Dennis Steele, the Independent secessionist candidate.

The main reason why I didn’t vote for Shumlin was because of my lingering misgivings about him. Frankly, I just don’t trust the guy. It’s great that Shumlin supports single-payer healthcare, or closing Vermont Yankee, but regular readers can probably guess about how much I think Democratic candidates’ campaign promises are worth; if he wins, how long will it be before he starts walking back those great promises, talking about how “we have to be practical” like Democrats often do once they’re actually in a position to implement them? There’s reason to think that might happen in Shumlin’s case. I don’t think it’s very controversial to note that that Shumlin isn’t the most principled of politicians. Dick McCormack, one of my state senators, had a comment in the Seven Days profile of Shumlin that stuck with me:

Asked whether Shumlin is good for his word, McCormack hedges.

“Just make sure you’ve parsed every word,” he says. “The promise he makes may not be the promise you thought he made. There were times when I did not read the fine print. I won’t make that mistake again.”

That quote came to mind last week when I read this story on Vermont Tiger, a conservative blog, which accused Shumlin of secretly offering to relicense Vermont Yankee if it were under different management. I won’t vouch for the accuracy of the article, which is based entirely on anonymous sources (and whose version of events was criticized by Shay Totten at Seven Days), but my point is that I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being true. I think it’s an open question as to how serious Shumlin is regarding this and other issues, like single-payer. Remember, Obama said he supported single-payer too… and then opposed even a moderate reform like the public option once he was actually in power.

In addition, although I won’t go into the nuances of my position on the Vermont secessionist movement here, I wanted to show support for Dennis Steele’s secessionist platform, and especially his opposition to the wars (Christopher Ketcham, writing at the Huffington Post, described Steele as “the most radical antiwar candidate in the US”) and felt my vote would be more meaningful when cast for him.

That probably sounds weird to a lot establishment party partisans, who think that voting third-party or independent is “throwing your vote away,” especially when faced with someone like Dubie. (For an example of this thinking, see this post at Green Mountain Daily by an anarchist encouraging support for Democrats) But while I’m no fan of Dubie, it’s not going to be the end of the world if he wins. Liberals really need to learn to look beyond the next elections, and realize that there’s never going to be a “right” time to vote third-party or independent. There’s always going to be a scary right-winger around the corner that might win if we don’t hold our noses and vote for Democrats; every election is a “critical” election. If people continue to wait until the “right time” to vote for what they really believe in, they’re going to be waiting forever. And we can’t afford to wait forever for the establishment parties to come around.

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Kucinich won’t challenge Obama in 2012 primaries

Posted by Kevin on August 13, 2010

“White House spokesman Robert Gibbs may have criticized attacks from what he called the “professional left,” but presumed member-in-good-standing Rep. Dennis Kucinich said today he won’t challenge President Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries.” -David Jackson, USA Today

This is disappointing, but I can’t say I blame him, for the same reason I was willing to forgive his vote for the healthcare “reform” bill. It’s not fair to expect him to be a martyr when there’s not going to be a significant movement to back him up, and the fact is that liberals are still in love with Obama, and Kucinich would be persona non grata with them if he did mount a primary challenge. For this reason and others, it’s unlikely that anyone would be able to mount a serious primary challenge, at least from the Left.

Oh wait, I’m sorry, I can hear progressive Dems telling me already that they’re not “in love” with Obama, that instead they’re “disappointed” with him to varying degrees, but they still “support” him, want his agenda (which in theory they oppose on many counts) to “succeed,” won’t consider seriously opposing him, and wouldn’t dream of not voting to reelect him. Whenever this “loyal opposition” actually runs a serious risk of causing a bill or candidate to be defeated (in other words, of having an actual effect), they immediately pull back out of fear of “undermining” the Party. This happened at one point in the healthcare debate, and unfortunately included people like Howard Dean (and Kucinich, for that matter) whose courage I initially praised in my post on the cowardice of Bernie Sanders. They then shrug and say, “At least we beat the Republicans.”

So I really don’t see how the “loyal opposition” people are at all better than the people who say that Obama is the greatest President since FDR. I’m not trying to put words in people’s mouths, but to me, the two positions are indistinguishable because they have the same effect: an implicit declaration that they will never attempt to hold Obama accountable for his actions, and that he therefore has no reason to listen to them. I really can’t blame people like Robert Gibbs for telling the Left to fuck off (as administration officials have done several times before). Why should anyone take their whining seriously when they’re so scared by the prospect of Republicans returning to power that they’ll support Obama and the Democrats no matter what they do?

Getting back to Kucinich, while I understand his decision not to oppose Obama, I really don’t get his stated reason for doing so. From the article linked above: “What we have to do is focus on coming together for the purposes of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” This makes no sense considering that the person Democrats, including Kucinich, will be rallying around radically expanded one war, maintained the status quo in another, bombed several other countries, and who knows, maybe we’ll be at war with Iran by the time he’s up for reelection. This is what Democrats will be “coming together” to support.

So it would seem that Kucinich’s role will be to give progressive cover to mass murder and keep opponents of the wars corralled in the Democratic Party. They wouldn’t want those psychopathic Republicans to win, after all. Sarah Palin is a crazy fascist and gets off on hurting people, unlike President Obama, who is a sensible centrist doing the best he can. He only blows up Afghan children with the best of intentions.

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Bernie Sanders: The Most Disappointing Senator

Posted by Kevin on February 15, 2010

Many people on the Left would probably look at me like I’m crazy for saying this, but I think Bernie Sanders is a major disappointment as a Senator. I don’t mean to suggest he’s a bad Senator, on the same level as, say, Joe Lieberman, from whom I doubt many progressives expected good things. I hate Lieberman as much as anyone else, but it’s not exactly shocking when he’s an asshole. Sanders, on the other hand, is someone for whom I had high hopes, and it therefore hurts to watch him fall short, as he did most recently in the healthcare debate.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sanders is a hero to much of the Left, well-known even far from Vermont. That’s why Robert Greenwald gave him a web series, for instance. I noticed this most recently on my trip to back home to Illinois over winter break, when I visited my friends in the Peoria Area Peace Network. Every time his name came up, half the room would gush over him. At one point, I would’ve done it too. I agreed with (and still agree with) his positions and thought it was awesome having a socialist in Congress. As a supporter of third-party and independent candidates I liked that Sanders was an Independent and would potentially be less beholden to the Democratic leadership that so successfully corrals other progressives.

And yet I’m increasingly frustrated with Sanders. He seems more concerned with maintaining cordial relations with the Democratic Party than with supporting progressive policies. Like most progressives in Congress, he talks a good game but doesn’t really follow through on it.

This was something I first noticed in 2008 with his vocal support for Obama. I thought it was odd that Sanders was coming out so strongly for one of the primary backers of the Wall Street bailouts, of which Sanders was one of the primary opponents. And in fact I have yet to see any criticism from Sanders directly targeting Obama on that or any other issue. Instead, he frequently goes out of his way to avoid criticizing Democrats, or pulls his punches with them.

For instance, take this article by Sanders in The Nation. I more or less agree with the recommendations in the article, but notice who Sanders blames things on: the Republicans. The problem with the Democrats, he says, is that they “have absurdly continued to stumble along the path of ‘bipartisanship’ at exactly the same time the Republicans have waged the most vigorous partisan and obstructionist strategy in recent history.” In this and other public statements, he isn’t afraid to mount a frontal assault on the GOP, but when it comes to the Dems the problems get blamed on someone else: Wall Street, lobbyists, Republican obstructionism, and so on.

I question how much of Sanders’ support for Obama and the Dems is calculation versus what he really believes. If he were more hostile to the Dems, it would probably cost him a lot of support from the progressive movement; indeed, his coziness with the Dems is probably a necessary component of his hero status with the movement, as opposed to the outcast status of someone like Ralph Nader.

Also, it’s pretty much an open secret that Sanders has an unofficial deal going with the Democratic Party: he doesn’t overtly antagonize them, and they don’t run anyone against him. Nader discussed this issue in Crashing the Party, his memoir of his 2000 campaign. Sanders had agreed to introduce Nader at a campaign stop in Montpelier (although he wouldn’t give an endorsement). However, Nader also invited Anthony Pollina, then the Progressive Party candidate for governor, to speak at the event. Sanders apparently wasn’t happy about this. From the book:

When I arrived at the bustling high school auditorium, with its tables, volunteers, and incoming audience, Bernie Sanders took me aside and in grave tones expressed his concern at my having invited Pollina to speak with us. Clearly he was worried that the Democrats, who had agreed no longer to seriously challenge Bernie (with one exception in 1996), thereby sparing him a three-way race, would see his association with Pollina as a hostile act to their party and their governor.

I expressed surprise. “Bernie,” I said, “Anthony was once your staff member, and there are no positions that I know where you are in disagreement.”

He acknowledged that but repeated his displeasure nonetheless. Going up to the stage with Bernie, I thought to myself that an Independent should not have to worry about such matters. Bernie graciously introduced me and described our work together. But he left the stage and departed in the middle of my speech before I asked Pollina to come up and give his precise, factual stem-winder. […]

[Brief aside: As I’ve written before, Pollina ran for governor again in 2008 (as an Independent, but for all intents and purposes still aligned with the Progressives). Sanders refused to endorse a candidate in that race, saying that he was too busy working to get Obama elected. Pollina came in second, ahead of the Democratic candidate.

Also, I couldn’t think of a way to work it into this post, but I stumbled on this 2008 video featuring some sharp criticism of Sanders from Nader. It also features a defense of Sanders from Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, who inadvertently did a great job of convincing me not to vote for a Democratic Party hack like him if he gets the Dem nomination for governor this year.]

I tend to prefer courageous politicians, and my frustration with Sanders stems from the fact that he isn’t one. Many progressives would disagree with me; they admire “practical” politicians like Sanders and accuse people like me of being naive dreamers. They are adamantly opposed to drawing lines in the sand and instead say things like “We have to take what we can get,” or “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” They frame the conflict as one of pragmatism versus idealism. Often, though, I think it’s better framed as a conflict of courage versus cowardice, with all too many progressives ending up on the latter side because they won’t stand up for their beliefs. I would argue that all of their “practicality” hasn’t accomplished very much, instead empowering the proponents of fake reform (who, unlike progressives, aren’t afraid to play hardball).

In the healthcare debate, such “practicality” might have sanded a few rough edges off of a terrible bill, but nothing more. A few dials will be fiddled with, but the same system will stay in place; the insurance industry gets a massive subsidy, the pharmaceutical industry gets a sweetheart deal, and we’re no closer to single-payer than we ever were. (Oh, and preserving the Hyde Amendment became the official position of the Democratic Party. That’s one of the less-noticed but most-important parts of the healthcare debate: how the Dems basically dropped all pretense of being a party that supports reproductive justice.) “Practical” progressives shrug and say that it’s the best we can do. My response would be that this is a self-fulfilling prophesy; as Cenk Uygur put it, progressives “got rolled on healthcare because they had no intention of putting their foot down – and everyone knew it.”

Regarding courage, Dennis Kucinich’s conduct in the healthcare debate contrasts starkly with that of Sanders. Kucinich was one of only a couple progressive Dems to vote against the House bill because he thought it was a giveaway to the insurance industry disguised as reform. For the grievous crime of voting his principles instead of his party, he took a lot of shit from progressives. I remember seeing comments on his Facebook page actually accusing him of being right-wing and in league with the GOP. However, he can’t be accused of not trying to improve the bill. If the Kucinich amendment had been part of it (which would have made it easier for states to enact single-payer), I might have been willing to grudgingly support it. But Nancy Pelosi decreed that the amendment be taken out, and “practical” progressives didn’t protest at all.

Another interesting comparison can be drawn with Howard Dean. I was never a huge fan of Dean; I didn’t think he was as liberal as advertised. I did respect how he opposed the war in Iraq before it was fashionable to do so, but didn’t support his campaign. And my from what I’ve heard of his time as governor of Vermont, he was virtually indistinguishable from a moderate Republican. Oddly enough, one of the best descriptions of Dean comes from Bernie Sanders, quoted in David Sirota’s book The Uprising: “If there’s a lesson of the Howard Dean campaign, it is that the younger generation’s definition of ‘progressive’ is anyone who rips apart the other side. Dean was a moderate, yet he became the progressive candidate for president because people get off on stridency.”

So imagine my surprise to find Dean to the left of Sanders on healthcare. Dean, of course, was probably the most prominant member of the “Kill the Senate Bill” movement. And, like Kucinich, he took a lot of shit from progressives and from the Democratic Party.

Sanders, on the other hand, seemed unwilling to take a serious stand on much of anything. One positive thing I’ll say about Sanders is that he was one of the only progressives in Congress that actually extracted something tangible in return for his support, in the form of increased funding for community health centers. And according to that article, he was pushing a version of the Kucinich amendment, although I don’t know what ever became of it. Still, he voted for a bill that forces people to buy private insurance with virtually no cost control mechanism. No amount of money for community health centers will change that fact. It doesn’t change the fact that he backed down from a threat to vote against a bill without a public option. And it definitely doesn’t change the fact that Sanders cowardly withdrew his single-payer amendment in the face of Republican obstructionism (because heaven forbid he inconvenience the Democratic leadership by delaying passage of the bill).

People like Sanders are progressive in their beliefs, but not in their actions. It doesn’t matter very much how progressive a politician’s beliefs are if he or she won’t stand up for them. This is what makes Bernie Sanders no different from most of the other progressive Democrats in Congress who promise great things and then predictably cave in the end. That doesn’t mean I think progressives should never compromise, but the reason no one in Washington takes progressives seriously is because everyone knows that they will accept a bad deal rather than stand and fight for something better. Sometimes it’s better in the long run to fight for what’s right and lose than to cave and pat ourselves on the back for our “pragmatism.”

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Thoughts on the “public option”: bad policy and bad politics

Posted by Kevin on August 30, 2009

“I also understand the term used often by our hero Ted Kennedy, that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. However, in this case, I’d like to turn that spin around and say that, in the instance of the public option, half-assed and inadequate is the enemy of the necessary and the acceptable.” –Steve Steffens [article link]

In comments to my last post dealing with healthcare, I was criticized (rightly, as I’ll explain) for supporting a public option. I thought it would be a good idea to expand on my thoughts on the issue.

I’m definitely a single-payer supporter, and while I’ve never been one of those progressives who says “Single-payer isn’t going to happen right now, so lets not even bother talking about it,” at the time of that post I thought the public option was an acceptable compromise, at least better than doing nothing. But the more I’ve read about it, the less sure I’ve been.

These days, I’m of the opinion that it might be better to just hold out for single-payer, and that as terrible as the status quo is, the substantial risks associated with even a well-designed public option (let alone the crappy bill that will almost certainly come out of Washington) could make doing nothing the better choice. I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to the public option, more like ambivalent; I wouldn’t see it as a bad thing if a decent public plan passed, but I’m not really willing to expend any effort on its behalf.

It’s amazing to me how virtually everyone who believes in the basic concept of universal healthcare agrees that single-payer is the best way to achieve it, and yet even among very progressive people it’s seen as almost taboo. If they mention it at all, it’s almost always along the lines of, “Well yeah, in a perfect world we’d have single-payer, but…”

But what? But, as “progressive” Congressman Henry Waxman put it when asked why he removed his co-sponsorship of H.R. 676, the House single-payer bill, “It isn’t going to happen.” We see this often from politicians like Waxman, and Obama as well: they support single-payer when they’re out of power, but once they get any actual ability to implement it they suddenly start backtracking, talking about how “we need to be realistic”. Gosh, it’s almost as if they aren’t really serious about it and they’re just telling us what we want to hear!

Still, he’s absolutely right; I think we can be pretty certain that a single-payer bill, even if by some miracle it passed the House, stands little-to-no chance of surviving the Senate. But instead of insisting on what they know is right, many like Waxman are rallying around a “compromise” plan that’s far more complicated and expensive, and far less effective, even in the best case scenario.

I think progressives made a huge mistake in giving up on single-payer so easily, in not even putting it on the table. There is no “right” time to start talking about it. It might not pass today, but if we want it to pass in the future then we need to be laying the groundwork now, and at least keep the idea alive until then. This is the position of Dick McCormack, one of my state senators and primary sponsor of a single-payer bill here in Vermont. Even though by his own admission the bill is going nowhere, he says it’s important to keep people talking about it, and keep its failure from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I’ve said before, if nobody’s at least talking about a given position, that alone guarantees it will never happen.

Even if you disagree with me on the efficacy of the public option, I think it’s clear that by compromising so early, progressives ensured that they’d have trouble getting even that much, that the final plan would be watered down even further. Progressives have a long proud history of ignoring one of the basic rules of negotiation: asking for twice as much as what you want in the hope of bargaining down to something you can live with. Instead, we start from a compromise position, and then we’re surprised at being expected to tone things down further. As a result, instead of single-payer being the Left position and a strong public option being the compromise, the public option is the Left position and Blue Dog position is the compromise.

But isn’t the public option at least a step in the right direction? I won’t get into the specifics of what I think its problems are, because others have done it a lot better than I could. Here is a great article from Physicians for a National Health Program explaining the problems with the public option and why we should insist on single-payer instead.

Generally, I think the public option is very hard to do right, and given the current Congress anything that could actually pass will almost certainly not be done right. In fact, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the final plan will even have a public option, or do much of anything other than funnel money to the insurance and drug companies. (Some, like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, argue that Obama and the Dem leadership were never really serious about having a public option in the bill and planned from the beginning to bargain it away in order to placate the lobbies.)

In addition, as the PNHP article points out, there’s no reason to believe that incrementalism would somehow lead to single-payer, as some proponents of the public option argue. That hasn’t happened anywhere it’s been tried; I would argue that minuscule reform of this type just has the effect of delaying real reform. Democratic politicians are the experts at this: doing just enough to shut people up for a little while, without seriously challenging the interests of their corporate backers.

If the public option does fail, then in addition to creating an enormous, entirely deserved backlash against the Democrats it will probably sour the public on the basic idea of universal health care. This is already happening in regard to the stimulus and government intervention in the economy, as Chris Bowers argues at Open Left:

Whether or not the Democratic trifecta actually passes progressive legislation, the legislation that is passed and the policies that are followed will still be perceived as progressive. We simply can’t avoid that.

For example, right now the stimulus package pretty much equals left-wing economic philosophy in the eyes of the American people. If it doesn’t produce results, we are all going to see our ideas become discredited in the eyes of the American public, even if we thought policies of the Democratic trifecta did not go nearly far enough. The country is never going to say “well, that idea didn’t work, so let’s try a more extreme version of it.” People just don’t think that way in America.

Given the inadequacy of the public option and the improbability of passing single-payer on the national level in the near future, where do we go from here? I think we need to shift attention to the state level, where there’s often a much greater possibility of getting real reform. The main thing to do on the national level is to keep the federal government from standing in the way of state efforts to do the right thing. A key part of this is making sure the Kucinich amendment, which would make it easier for states to pass single-payer, makes it into the final healthcare reform bill.

We also need to work on reforming the Senate, which is obviously the main obstacle to real healthcare reform (and progressive reform in general) on the national level, pretty much no matter which party is in charge. David Sirota points out that it’s unresponsive by its very design, giving enormous weight to a group of Senators representing an extremely small number of Americans. As a result, Sirota says, the healthcare debate is being controlled by a small handful of legislators from small, rural states. The first step to reforming the Senate, Tom Geoghegan argues, is to get rid of the filibuster, the primary weapon of the opponents of reform. This entails a bloody battle, but it’s absolutely necessary.

And, of course, we need to ignore the false promise of bullshit “incremental” reform that just tinkers around the edges, and support policies that go to the root of our problems. In addition, we need to be suspicious of politicians like Obama who care more about ensuring a legislative victory for themselves than they do about actually doing something substantive.

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Joe Arpaio, Skip Gates, and our authoritarian culture

Posted by Kevin on August 2, 2009

“I’m an equal-opportunity law-enforcement guy – I lock everybody up.” -Sheriff Joe Arpaio

[in reference to the Skip Gates arrest] “…to me, this situation actually has far broader implications about all citizens’ relationship to the police and the way we are expected to respond to authority, regardless of race. I’ve watched too many taser videos over the past few years featuring people of all races and both genders being put to the ground screaming in pain, not because they were dangerous or threatening and not because they were so out of control there was no other way to deal with them, but because they were arguing with police and the officer perceived a lack of respect for the badge.” Digby

I always cringe whenever Joe Arpaio’s name pops up in the news. I have trouble even saying his name without throwing the phrase “that fucking fascist” in front of it.

For those who don’t know, Arpaio is sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and somewhat of a national figure. His reputation as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” has gotten him multiple book deals and a reality TV show, and made him a hero to the right. In the present instance, he’s the subject of a profile by William Finnegan in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker, which unfortunately isn’t available online. But if you can find it, it’s an excellent read. A couple good summaries can be found at Feministing and Immigration Impact.

I don’t want to go into much detail (you can find plenty of info at the sources previously cited), but basically, the problem with Arpaio is his brutally inhumane county jail, his flagrant abuses of power (including harassment of critics by his deputies), his transformation of the sheriff’s department into an immigration enforcement agency (and his subsequent racial profiling of Hispanics), and the fact that he’s a total publicity whore. His office is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, and there have been thousands of lawsuits alleging abuse filed against the department (resulting in $43 million in costs for the county). In one outstanding example, Finnegan writes that the family of an inmate killed by deputies received an $8.25 million settlement “after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.” Even the mayor of Phoenix has denounced what he describes as Arpaio’s “reign of terror.”

In short, Arpaio is a sadistic, racist, authoritarian thug. I wasn’t kidding when I called him a fascist.

So why do I care so much about this? I don’t have any personal attachment to Arpaio or Arizona politics. But it bothers me what Arpaio’s popularity says about us as a culture. He’s not just some obscure backwater nutjob. As Finnegan notes:

Maricopa County is not a modest, out-of-the-way place. It includes Phoenix, covers more than nine thousand square miles, and has a population of nearly four million. Joe Arpaio has been sheriff there since 1993. He has four thousand employees, three thousand volunteer posse members, and an over-worked media-relations unit of five.

Finnegan further points out that Arpaio remains the most popular political figure in Arizona, despite his scandals. In fact, it might be because of them. As Ann at the Feministing article I linked to argues:

Arpaio is popular because he’s hateful. He racially profiles Latinos, his ratings go up. He divides families and goes out of his way to deport peaceful people who are just here to make a living, his ratings go up. He treats jail inmates — some of whom have not even been convicted of a crime — as subhuman, his ratings go up. He sort of functions as a conduit for the worst impulses in our society.

And Arpaio’s message clearly resonates with a lot of people outside Arizona. I don’t know if it’s a majority, but it’s undeniably widespread. Our country is still very much in love with his brand of “tough on crime” horseshit. I remember the first time I heard about Arpaio: it was through a chain email from my grandparents talking about how cool he is and how they wished we had a sheriff like him. (MyRightWingDad has an example of this) And at the time, I thought, “Wow, what a fucking fascist.” But my family loved it. The people he abuses are just criminals (and mostly brown), after all, so who cares what happens to them? [Actually, many of the people detained by Arpaio are awaiting trial and haven’t actually been convicted of anything, but I doubt this is a distinction many of his supporters care about.]

So what does this say about us as a culture? To me, it says that there are some ugly authoritarian impulses in the American psyche, and a lot of inhuman callousness toward certain classes of people – criminals, foreigners, the poor, etc. We think the authorities should have a mostly free hand, and that if they target you then you must have done something to deserve it. We don’t think we’ll ever end up someplace like Arpaio’s tent city – we’re good people, and only bad people get sent there. Think this has something to do with our relative lack of outrage about civilian casualties in our wars, or the torture and abuse of detainees in the “War on Terror”? When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Bill Maher drew attention to the parallel between that issue and our prison policies [this is from his book New Rules, which in turn is from his show Real Time with Bill Maher]:

[Abu Ghraib happened because] we’re also comfortable pretending that anyone in America who winds up in prison deserves not just loss of freedom but a brutalizing, terrifying trip to hell…

In a way, we are all Lynndie England because we know what’s happening in our prisons and we clearly don’t care. We tell ourselves the convenient lie that anyone who bears the label “criminal” or “terrorist” is irredeemable, subhuman psycho scum, and so whatever happens to them behind bars is justified, when the truth is that millions of nonviolent Americans have been traumatized for life in our prisons simply because they either did drugs or made a bad judgment, usually when they were young, stupid, and drunk – you’d think President Bush could relate.

Another example of our authoritarian culture can be found in the response to “Gatesgate.” I’m sure just about everyone reading this has heard the story by now, where Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in his own home for “disorderly conduct,” in other words for failing to show proper deference to a police officer. Not for threatening Officer Crowley, or refusing to comply with his orders, but rather just for talking back. One could argue Gates was being a jerk – but who wouldn’t be mad in that situation? And how does that justify arresting him? Is there any law requiring him to respect police officers?

This sort of thing happens all the time, and unlike Gates a lot of people don’t get off with just an arrest; they get beaten, tased, or even shot. And cops often face little to no consequences for doing it. As Ian Welch at OpenLeft points out:

My interactions with police in the US have all reinforced to me that even something as simple as a question is interpreted by many policy [sic] as a direct assault on their authority, and that they have no tolerance for any such thing. If a policeman in the US asks you to do something, or tells you, you’d best do it, right now, whether he has the right to order you around or not. And if you don’t, be ready to deal with the consequences.

The real problem, though, is the complete lack of public outcry over stuff like what happened to Gates. There’s a lot of people out there who see no problem with this. Some of Officer Crowley’s defenders, like the one quoted in Digby’s post on the matter, explicitly argue that either we give police a completely free hand, or we content ourselves with living in a Mad Max-style lawless wasteland; as if those are the only two options. And it’s not at all uncommon for people to say things like, “Well, Gates should’ve known better than to mouth off to a cop; he got what he deserved.” As Digby put it, “I have discovered that my hackles automatically going up at such authoritarian behavior is not necessarily the common reaction among my fellow Americans, not even my fellow liberals.” Even if they don’t necessarily agree with Crowley, they think it’s pointless to resist. The only reason anyone even notices is this case is because the victim was someone prominent.

We as a culture often mindlessly submit to authority, and don’t place much value on civil liberties. Hence the non-outrage over torture and warrantless wiretapping; and hence you get even many progressives arguing that it’s okay that Obama isn’t doing more to roll back Bush admin abuses of power, and is even embracing or expanding them, because health-care, the economy, etc., are so much more important. Who cares if we live in a dictatorship as long as the guy running it has a (D) next to his name?

So why should civil liberties and the rule of law matter? To quote Digby’s post yet again, “Police are emboldened when they repeatedly get away with using bullying, abusive tactics against average citizens who have not been convicted of any crimes.” Even if the officers have the best of intentions, that kind of power inevitably leads to abuse, because there’s nothing to keep it in check. And it never stops at just the “bad” people, but quickly spreads to anyone they deem a problem. If they can do it to poor blacks and Hispanics (let alone a Harvard professor), they can do it to you too. That’s something to keep in mind since, as Ted Rall points out, many white people have police horror stories of their own.

That’s why I care so much about Joe Arpaio or the Gates arrest, and why I’d deny that I’m trying to undermine the police when I complain about violations of civil liberties or abuses of power. Instead, I’m trying to keep the cops honest.

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Were progressives duped by Obama?

Posted by Kevin on July 11, 2009

Lately, some progressives have been ceasing their rationalizations of President Obama’s blatant corporatism and militarism, and are starting to speak up about how little “change” the Obama administration really represents. However, this welcome transition also frequently comes attached to the problematic notion that they were somehow duped or mislead into supporting him, or that he betrayed the progressive movement.

This is essentially the argument made by Marie Marchand, executive director of the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center in Bellingham, WA, in an article at CommonDreams titled I Want My Money Back! (Pres. Obama!) From the article:

…I thought I was supporting change I could believe in, not more of the same bloodshed and war!

Betrayal is a part of life. After awhile, you just come to expect it. Yet, the initial shock always hits you as a surprise. Alas, the nature of betrayal. Humans are vulnerable to being betrayed because underneath our husky shells, our pain and hardened hearts, we are soft and trustful creatures. We want to believe in people.

I’m not that young, so I possess some cynicism. But I’m not that old either, so I manage some idealism. Sure, I am used to being betrayed by my government. But I thought my days of calling the White House in tears were over. To think that Barack Obama preyed on this naive hope in me and millions like me is unforgivable.

I expect the Republicans to throw money at the Military Industrial Complex. Yet, from the Democrats, I was promised a different direction (like OUT of the Middle East). Regrettably, there has been miniscule change. There is still nothing to believe in.

You know, it’s great that she’s saying this, that she’s seen the light. But I can’t help but feel frustrated when I hear arguments like this. In my opinion, there was ample evidence from the beginning, if you looked past the sunny rhetoric to what Obama actually proposed doing, to suggest that he was very “conventional” in his views. As Jeremy Scahill put it recently in an interview with Socialist Worker:

What people, I think, misunderstand about Barack Obama is that this is a man who is a brilliant supporter of empire–who has figured out a way to essentially trick a lot of people into believing they’re supporting radical change, when in effect what they’re doing is supporting a radical expansion of the U.S. empire.

I think that it’s a bit disingenuous for people to act as if though they were somehow hoodwinked by Barack Obama about this.

If people were playing close attention during the election–not just to the rhetoric of his canned speech that he gave repeatedly, and the commercials, and the perception of his supporters was that he somehow was this transformative figure in U.S. politics, but also to the documents being produced by the Obama campaign and the specific policies he outlined–you realized that Barack Obama was very much a part of the bipartisan war machine that has governed this country for many, many decades.

What we see with Obama’s policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Arab and Muslim world, as well as his global economic policies, are a continuation of the most devastating and violent policies of the Bush administration–while placing a face on it that makes it easier to expand the iron fist of U.S. militarism and the hidden hand of the free market in a way that Republicans, I think, would have been unable to do at this point in history.

A similar point could be made about Obama’s economic positions; how could anyone really think he was going to stand up for the downtrodden or radically restructure the system when he was surrounding himself with neoliberal economists like Larry Summers and had advisers privately tell people he didn’t really mean all that stuff he was saying about free trade? [A very telling anecdote: I remember how when news about the latter came out, the problem for my very pro-Obama in-laws was not Obama’s bullshitting, but how it would effect his chances of winning.]

There were some exceptions to this rule, areas where Obama supporters can legitimately claim to have been betrayed, such as Obama’s embrace once in office of Bush’s radical secrecy doctrines (which he had strongly campaigned against). As David Sirota notes, Obama hasn’t exactly been shy about blowing off campaign promises, and in fact expresses borderline surprise about actually being expected to follow through on the stuff he said to get elected. “It’s true that politicians have always broken promises, but rarely so proudly and with such impunity [as Obama]”, Sirota said. And even I have to admit to being surprised about the degree of Obama’s badness, of how totally Obama embraced Bush’s policies on some issues.

But for the most part, I don’t think it’s right to speak of Obama as having “betrayed” progressives. It’s not betrayal if he didn’t agree with you in the first place. He was pretty clear about where he intended to lead the country; the idea of him being this great progressive was almost entirely wishful thinking on the part of his supporters. That’s what’s so frustrating: the preponderance of evidence pointed to Obama being a kinder, gentler face for American Empire, but supporters like Marchand chose to tune that out in favor of hopenchange.

Also, at the risk of sounding bitter, my sympathy is dampened somewhat when I think back to how, as a Green Party supporter, I was treated like a buffoon by people like Marchand when I questioned whether Obama was really the closet lefty that many seemed to think he was. When they weren’t rationalizing his positions, the best defenses I would get were along the lines of: “Come on, he can’t be that bad!” “Yeah, [insert position here] is horrible, but he doesn’t really mean that; he has to say that to get elected.” “You’re being such a Naderite purist; wouldn’t anyone make you happy?” “Don’t you understand, we can’t let McCain win! It doesn’t matter how horrible the other guy is!” It’s hard not to take the asshole route and say, “I told you so!” An acknowledgment of wrongdoing on their part would be nice, but probably too much to expect from people trying to justify why they supported Obama in the first place. It’s just easier for them to say, “No one could have seen this coming!”

I know some will say it’s too early to be talking about 2012, but is Marchand’s realization about how shitty Obama is going to translate into a vote against his reelection? Or is she going to blow off her concerns and fall for the hype again (or at best hold her nose and vote for him anyway)? How long until we start hearing that Obama can’t really start getting things done until his second term?

My point in all this is that I don’t think progressives were tricked or duped by Obama (just as I don’t think they themselves were stupid or uninformed); rather, they fell for him because they wanted to believe.

[Certainly, there are other progressives who knew exactly what they were voting for with Obama, but did it anyway for various reasons. I disagree with them too, but this post isn’t about them.]

That said, it’s important that we try to understand why people like Marchand wanted to believe if we ever want them to drop their support for the Democrats. There are possibly a lot of people out there like her who are becoming disillusioned with Obama (although as The Nation‘s Eyal Press argues, it’s not clear how much of the Left this represents; there’s still a lot of people out there, like Press, for whom nothing can seem to shake their support for Obama). Sounding smug and superior, putting them on the defensive, isn’t going to win their support for an independent progressive movement that won’t allow itself to be an arm of the Democratic Party. We need to recognize that some of the reasons they wanted to believe are legitimate, if unfortunate, and work from there.

The most important thing to realize is that none of us are perfectly rational, coolly and calmly weighing the pros and cons of candidates/positions. People choose candidates in large part based on how those candidates make them feel and then justify that gut decision after the fact. For people desperate to believe that change within the two-party oligopoly is possible, Obama made them feel pretty good. Marchand says as much in her article:

I knew I was naïve; yet like millions of Americans, I had no choice but to believe. Our hearts were desperate for hope. We saw Barack Obama as an oasis in the desert. To think that he may be just a mirage is heartbreaking.

At least Marchand has the guts to look within and admit that the object of her hope is just a mirage, even if she can’t go all the way to realizing that she should have known that in the first place. It’s good that it’s happening this soon into Obama’s term. As for the numerous progressives for whom it seems Obama can do no wrong (or who like Press blow off that wrongdoing by talking about how we need to be “pragmatic”), bear in mind that it took six years after Bush was elected for conservatives to turn against him. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Obama lovers to wake up.

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“Moderate” Democrats are the problem, not the Right

Posted by Kevin on June 12, 2009

Chris Bowers of Open Left (via AlterNet) has a great post on heath care reform, the “public option,” and how it’s more important for progressives to go after the so-called “moderate” Democrats in Congress (a totally misleading term referring to Dems whoring themselves out to the health insurance industry; i.e. the Blue Dogs, Evan Bayh, Arlen Specter, and so on) than it is to attack conservatives. From Bowers:

Here is a message that progressive organizations and media outlets need to start sending to all Democratic party committees and members of Congress:

We are done attacking Republicans until you pass a public option for health care.

Until a public option is passed, I don’t want to hear about the latest hate and idiocy spewing from Limbaugh, or Tancredo, or Palin, or Gingrich, or whoever. And to tell you the truth, I don’t want to attack them for it, either. Because, right now, Republicans are not the obstacle to progressive governance. Instead, Democrats who refuse to support a public option are the obstacle.

I recommend reading the whole post, with which I couldn’t agree more.

It’s the Democrats that control most of the levers of power these days, so failure to enact progressive legislation lies entirely with them. They can’t blame opposition from the Republicans anymore, who have almost no influence at the national level (although you wouldn’t know that from media coverage). Rather, the blame lies entirely with the group of corporate Dems frequently described as “moderates” or “centrists” (thanks to whom conservatives still essentially have a majority in Congress), and with the party that refuses to challenge them.

The Democratic leadership’s excuse du jour for watering down legislation is the need to appease these “moderates,” yet they steadfastly oppose any public pressure on them from the progressive movement, let alone primary challenges aimed at replacing them with progressives. A case in point is Arlen Specter, whose reelection Obama has said he’ll support literally no matter what Specter does. Why do they work so hard to keep people like this in office? Is it perhaps because it offers a convenient way to avoid doing the right thing, like in the current health care debate?

As Bowers puts it:

We should be naming names, flying to their home states to hold large rallies, and lining up primary challengers against public-option averse Democrats. Instead, our leaders are holding fundraisers for them, pressuring their primary opponents, and hosting dinners in their honor. Kind of makes you wonder how serious even those Democrats in favor of the public option are about change. [emphasis added]

If you doubt this, then consider that the tolerance by Obama and the rest of the Democratic leadership of opposition from the “moderates” on issues like the public option stands in stark contrast to their willingness to bully progressives on war funding. As the Huffington Post reported just today, administration officials are threatening to withhold support at reelection from freshmen in Congress who vote against the supplemental war spending bill. This dynamic – coddling of “moderates,” bullying of progressives – demonstrates loud and clear the real priorities of the Democratic establishment.

All of this perfectly illustrates why I come down so much harder on Democrats and their progressive enablers than Republicans. I hate Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly as much as the next progressive, and I can see the appeal in attacking them due to the easy target they present and how egregiously offensive they are, but focusing on them while treating corporate Dems as a lesser evil isn’t going to bring us any closer to change. As I’ve said previously, the Dems are “frequently in a position to implement progressive policies, or to stop conservative ones, but choose not to.” On many issues right now, the Dems are the ones standing in our way; they’re the ones we should be fighting.

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