Mass Incarceration Here and Now

February 21, 2014; 18-year old Senior High School student Tyreek Stotts is seen padded down by a Correction Officer at the entering the closed off areas of the Philadelphia Prison System (PPS) in the NorthEast section of Philadelphia. (photo by Bas Slabbers)


My friend Shane Greene, whom I’ve known since we were locked up in Multnomah County Jail last year for months together, came to visit me the other day; he’s been out of state prison for three months now, and he had previously brought me Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to read.

This is part of the project of which Shane is a leading participant: Liberation Literacy, which honored him in December of last year as being its first graduate.  As its website states,

The program began as a Black History Study Group with inside students at Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) in Portland, Oregon. .   .   .   Our group is comprised of nearly twenty inside/outside students who read a common set of books and meet weekly.

Shane has continued his (and our) study of black history while pursuing employment, education, and career outside of the justice system, as have I.  So we talked, at his visit this 12th of March, about Ms Alexander’s thesis.  This post is, basically, an account of Shane and I sitting at the dinner table talking.

Ms Alexander’s book, which does such a great job of pulling together the arguments that the War on Drugs intentionally initiated a movement to lock up millions of black and brown people for non-violent crimes, rests not upon her own research but a whole library of sources which document each of the steps in her argument.

First we have the clearly irrational growth in the number of incarcerated convicts, beginning, as is evident, in the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the White House.  That’s the War on Drugs, which began, Ms Alexander reminds us, a few years before the so-called Crack Epidemic, itself a hyped-up danger in no real way comparable to the image with which it was presented in our mass media. Then we have the myriad means which have been put in place to deny the usual protections to those arrested in the last 30 years: stopping people at random, stopping people who happen to be black, searching their property without cause, searching a car stopped for a missing taillight for drugs, all have become legal in those years, where they were illegal before.

As a lawyer, Ms Alexander has no trouble showing how unprecedented the rulings of the Supreme Court have been in denying legal redress to unreasonable search and seizure, or racial bias; for one example among many, when the prosecutor makes the decision to select black and brown people for the heaviest of penalties, the Supreme Court has ruled that the defense cannot request records to show prosecutorial bias unless it already has substantial evidence of bias.  The defense has to have evidence, let us say, of the prosecutor saying “I sure hate them blacks” before the prosecutor’s office is required to provide a record of how many blacks have been given heavier penalties than whites in the same circumstances.

Sentences, Ms Alexander shows — this is not difficult — are totally beyond any previous degree of punitive vindictiveness.  A first-time drug offender sentenced to life in prison, was one of her examples; from the post today on The Intercept, we see “Shannon Hurd Got a Life Sentence for Stealing $14, Then He Died in Prison from Untreated Cancer.”  You don’t have to hunt for further examples of insanely brutal treatment of convicts (s0 I won’t).

And, even when the victims of this War on Black Folk get out of prison, we hound and repress them at every turn.  They lose their eligibility for student loans, and for the rest of their lives; they lose the chance to live in government-subsidised housing; they lose in some cases access to food stamps.  Many of these extremely hostile measures were put in place in Bill Clinton’s administration, to the hosannas of liberal commentators, praising the wisdom of the Democrats seizing the “law and order” issue from the Reagan Republicans.  One of the most persuasive points in Ms Alexander’s presentation is, that all these punishing, cruel, vicious actions have been done without any objections from the public intellectuals, indeed, rather the opposite.  She compares this to the way in which, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, a whole host of restrictions, amounting to involuntary servitude, was imposed on black folk in the American South — the first Jim Crow system.

Mass incarceration, a brutal mechanism for repressing minority members within the United States, is a whole system of unfair discrimination put in place within the decade or so following the Civil Rights Era in the United States: it is the New Jim Crow.  Just like the first Jim Crow system, it took some experimentation and tentative steps before settling into place, but it reflects a consensus within the electorate on how to deal with the “problem” of people who are nonwhite.  Find a way to charge them with breaking the law, lock them up, and throw away the key.

Crime is a problem.  But look at the chart shown above From 1925 to 1975 there was crime, perhaps increasingly serious; yet, there is no exponential growth in the number of prisoners.  Since 1990 the rate of crime has dropped, substantially; yet, the number of prisoners in still the highest per capita in the world.

And even where there have been massive numbers of disparate treatment of minor offenders, instead of our country releasing them, we are subjecting them to lifelong discrimination and repression.

Shane Greene had the experience this last February of being told, by his parole officer, that all of his file has disappeared. Not the police records, mind you; his parole file: the answers he made to the charges, the hoops he’s jumped through to show his good faith, the record he’s built of co-operation. Suddenly disappeared.

When I taught school in Oakland, California, I once sent, around 1975, a response to the administration of the school system, regarding their charges of non-cooperation against me (I don’t remember the detail; it was 40 years ago), and when I asked what their answer was, I was informed that there was no record of my statement. I responded that I had proof of having sent it, and the answer was, that it was not the case that they were saying that it was not received, only that there was no record of it existing.

That’s what Shane Greene is having to cope with, and he doesn’t have the option, as I had, of moving to Oregon and getting a good-paying job in a different environment.

How can this country cope with this new, disguised mechanism of brutal repression of a large part of its population? It is much the weakest part of Michelle Alexander’s treatment of the question that she makes no real effort to answer this. But I can suggest a method we could follow.

Think about the various means of protest against Trump that we have seen, here in Portland. There have been marches, attacks on property, demonstrations with thousands of attendees. Of all of these protests I have reservations about each except for one: the protests against the Trump attacks on immigrants. Those protests, and this is true of their nature before Trump was elected as well, do not rely on large numbers; they do not involve smashing things to get attention, nor on having protesters arrested; on the contrary, they abide by the law scrupulously.

Demonstrations in defense of immigrants speak to the humanity, to the individual cases of people who are trying to make their way in the world, and who are our valuable friends and neighbors. They personalize the cases, they rely upon your sympathy for those against whom an injustice is being conducted; they avoid the issue of technical legality.

Just such a protest, I submit, is appropriate for the millions of people locked up and locked out of the present society of the United States. We can publicize the many cases of totally insane sentences, and demand that they be pardoned; we can announce that we will not tolerate the enforcement of vindictive sentences, and have them condemned by city councils and university senates and other social bodies. We can ask that those few people who are released due to their long-overdue finding of innocence get much more publicity that up to now, that they become fawned-over heroes and heroines of our day. The point is, we can redirect the attitude toward the convicts who are victims of the War Against Drugs into a welcome to our neighbors who belong in our community, who deserve a new start, and who can count on our support to get one.

This is exactly the viewpoint, said Shane, of Elizabeth Hinton, the Harvard University professor and author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: the Making of Mass Incarceration in America.

Posted in Bradley Manning, Cameron Whitten, Dan Handelman, Elections, Fascism, Free Speech, Friendship, Inequality, John Schweibert, Local government, Oakland, Police, Ronald Reagan, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why We Were Attacked

Battleships of the United States Pacific Fleet being bombed on 7 December 1941

Battleships of the United States Pacific Fleet being bombed on 7 December 1941


Despite Donald Trump’s questioning of our condition of endless, eternal warfare during the course of the recent campaign season, we are still fighting a worldwide (the word used to be “global”) War on Terror.  Our plans to co-operate with the Russian bombing in Syria, to add thousands more men to our Afghanistan mission, and even our recent raid by special forces in Yemen, are based, legally, on the Congressional authorization of force, aimed at those who brought us Nine-Eleven.

Moreover, we are fighting, in many ways, the same war of revenge we felt we were fighting in the Second World War, a war forced upon us by a surprise attack.  Both President George W. Bush and President Obama explicitly stated such views; indeed, there had been a call, back in the Bill Clinton Administration, for a “new Pearl Harbor” by neoconservative critics of the peaceful trend of American foreign policy.  Given the fact, then, that the mental framework for our present circumstances emerges from our experience in the December 7, 1941 attack, it might be well-advised to consider the present historical perspective on the genesis of that earlier attack as a means of gaining perspective on the later, more recent one.

There is a literature of conspiracy on Pearl Harbor.  The usually reliable Internet encyclopedia has it:

Several writers, including journalist Robert Stinnett,[5] retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Robert Alfred Theobald,[6] and Harry Elmer Barnes[7] have argued various parties high in the U.S. and British governments knew of the attack in advance and may even have let it happen or encouraged it in order to force America into the European theatre of World War II via a Japanese–American war started at “the back door”.[8][9] Evidence supporting this view is taken from quotations and source documents from the time[10] and the release of newer materials. However, the Pearl Harbor advance-knowledge conspiracy is considered to be a fringe theory and is rejected by most historians.[11][12][13]

Substantial circumstantial evidence, drawn from primary sources, to summarize, suggests willingness on the part of U.S. leaders to accept a Japanese attack.  That way the U.S. entry into the European war against Germany, which most U.S. citizens opposed but which President Franklin Roosevelt favored, would take place by the momentum of events.

Logically, however, if you wish some foreign power to attack you, you ought to take measures to make the attack as unsuccessful as possible, especially if your largest collection of war-fighting machinery is at risk.  You will need it (not to mention the sailors and pilots involved) to win the subsequent war.  This objection to a conspiratorial view is supported by many contemporary accounts of U.S. underestimation of Japanese Military strength and by U.S. incompetent and disjointed military and civilian command structures.

Thus 76 years after the event the Conspiracy Theory is “rejected by most historians.”  However, the question still remains how the attack happened to take place at all.  Just as, even at the time, thoughtful observers found the “They hate us for our freedoms” explanation for the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon unpersuasive in the terms offered,  so the leaders of Japan could not ever have expected to conquer the United States.  “The prewar Japanese economy was about 8 percent the size of the American,” says Edward Miller in Bankrupting the Enemy.  The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan before Pearl Harbor [Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2007], on p. xiii.

No, the Japanese decided to attack in defense of a longstanding imperial enterprise, one which the historian David Bergamini traces to Emperor Hirohito in person.  The four decades since publication of that attempt at explanation, however, have tended rather to confirm the position of weakness of the occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne.  Writing in the American Historical Review in 1974, the anti-militarist Asian history specialist Chalmers Johnson wrote:

For readers more interested in the historical than the systematic role of the Emperor, [the book under review, by David ] Titus is convincing on one of the major controversies of  the postwar world. . . .  The foreigners most knowledgeable about the militarist and wartime periods supported the decision of [Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers] MacArthur to spare the Emperor, but there has always been a grain of suspicion . . .  Titus’s documented conclusion is therefore of considerable interest: the “palace acted as a break [sic –MM] on extremism throughout its prewar existence” (p. 333).

Indeed the 2012 effort by John Koster to explain the Pearl Harbor attack — Operation Snow. How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor — (is it just me, or are book titles lengthening to the baroque extent popular back in Queen Victoria’s day?) pictures Hirohito in alignment with the historical consensus, as a monarch threatened both politically and physically by extremists to his right — militarists — and left — communists.  The means the White House used to “trigger” the Japanese attack, an attack that had not been foreseen, and here again the author is in tune with the consensus of historians, by the President, was the freeze on Japanese funds imposed on 26 July 1941 in response to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina.

Miller’s account is full of documented detail of the violation of Roosevelt’s stated intention “to bring Japan to its senses, not its knees”: second-level bureaucrats, he shows, interpreted the freeze of Japanese funds in such an uncompromising manner that it amounted to “strangulation”.

Koster’s “mole” was one of the few U.S. government economists well aware of the sensitivity of the Japanese economy to access to funds held in the U.S. and to credit for purchases of U.S. products and supplies.  He warned in February 1941 that “Japan is particularly vulnerable to the freezing of her assets in the United States,” that is, to just the policy later adopted and enforced without pity.  His name was Harry Dexter White, and his office was found, at the end of wartime activities, to have been infiltrated by a ring of spies.  His voluntary appearance before the House Un-American Affairs Committee did not go well, since he could provide no answer why all the spies uncovered by intelligence investigation were either his subordinates or longtime friends; within three days of the hearing he died of a heart attack.

Koster provides, as decisive proof of White’s nefarious activities, which the Wikipedia entry regards as confirmed by U.S. intelligence intercepts, the relevant passages of the 1996 memoirs of ex-KGB general Vitalii Popv (entitled “Operation Snow” in Russian).  However, the ability of a second-rank U.S. Treasury secretary to initiate conflict with a foreign power is by no means evident.  In fact, Miller’s much more comprehensive account establishes the key figure in the “strangulation” effort to be Dean Acheson, the future Secretary of State to President Truman, and no Soviet mole at all.  In his own account of the affair [Present at the Creation. My Years in the State Department, W.W. Norton, 1969, pp. 48-53] Acheson takes pride in the damage his enforcement of the freeze accomplished.  The Encyclopedia says

Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets merely to disconcert them. He did not intend the flow of oil to Japan to cease. The president then departed Washington for Newfoundland to meet with Churchill. While he was gone Acheson used those frozen assets to deny Japan oil. Upon the president’s return, he decided it would appear weak and appeasing to reverse the de facto oil embargo.

while citing a 2007 biography of Roosevelt to support the statements.  Miller’s work attempts to assess Acheson’s motives, including the possibility that Roosevelt wanted Acheson to act harshly so as to provide FDR with the appearance of leniency as well as the result of rigor, but concludes there is an absence of decisive evidence on the matter.

What we do have, with overstatement on Koster’s side, is a fairly well-accepted consensus, that the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor was a response to a crippling freeze of Japanese assets, one which was seen by the Japanese, for good reason, as an existential threat to their entire empire, in mainland China, Korea, and elsewhere.  This picture is in striking contrast to that of the back-stabbing deceitful Asians of wartime propaganda.

We do know now, how Pearl Harbor happened.  We have yet to find out how September 11th did.  It is likely, I argue, that even in the event of the disproof of any conspiratorial activity, we will be confronted with profound lack of understanding of those who committed the second attack, just as we have found with those who contrived the first.


Posted in Afghanistan, Bradley Manning, Brian Willson, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Global, Inequality, Ronald Reagan, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Constitution, War | Leave a comment

A Progressive Step Forward

Mussolini made the trains run on time.  From the 15 November 2016 The Atlantic — “Stop Saying Mussolini Made the Trains Run on Time“:

Like other Italian Fascist-era coinages (turns out “drain the swamp” was a Mussolini thing, too), Il Duce’s timely trains are getting a workout these days. . . . .  Now that sci-fi speculation about President Trump has broken into the real world, perhaps it’s time to finally confront the minor-but-enduring falsehood about Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his punctual trains.

Benito Mussolini seen in train window in Italy in 1943

Benito Mussolini seen in train window in Italy in 1943

We have to do with the War Against Trump By Any Means Necessary: the author of the short article has to admit that, to a large extent, he did get the main routes, used by most foreigners, modernized.

Starting with the indubitable thesis, then, that the modern founder of Fascism was able to accomplish some good things — can we not all agree that modern trains, running on time, on improved roadbeds, is a good thing? — it s no betrayal of progressive politics to acknowledge the valid positive accomplishments of the Blond Beast.

Yesterday, Donald Trump stated in a major news-media interview (with the prominent veteran anchor and author Bill O’Reilly), that the United States government has no business condemning the President of Russia Vladimir Putin because, as O’Reilly put it, “he’s a killer.”

“O’Reilly: But he’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.

“Trump: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think – our country’s so innocent?”

Despite the resulting uproar, to which I’ll get in a moment, as the editor of writes, “What Trump said is something that every ordinary person recognizes [.]”  The most striking example is that of the assassination six years ago by the Obama Administration of the U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, and, subsequently, his teenaged son, by drone-dropped weaponry.  The President clearly violated in that case the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing citizens the right to life  unless brought to trial.  From the 24 July 2014 Mother Jones:

You can’t get more serious about protecting the people from their government than the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, specifically in its most critical clause: “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In 2011, the White House ordered the drone-killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without trial. It claimed this was a legal act it is prepared to repeat as necessary. Given the Fifth Amendment, how exactly was this justified? Thanks to a much contested, recently released but significantly redacted—about one-third of the text is missing—Justice Department white paper providing the basis for that extrajudicial killing, we finally know: the president in Post-Constitutional America is now officially judge, jury, and executioner.

One thing that could be said, I think with assurance is, that were the prospective First Woman President to have taken office, we never would have seen this bit of common sense brought forward by the President of the United States.  The Democratic member of the House of Representatives Adam Shiff gave voice to the Party Line in that regard.

“This is the second time Trump has defended Putin against the charge that he’s a killer by saying in effect that the US is no better or different,” Schiff told CNN. “This is as inexplicably bizarre as it is untrue. Does he not see the damage he does with comments like that, and the gift he gives to Russian propaganda?”

For the Democratic Party in general, and for former Senator and Secretary of State H. Clinton in particular, the U.S. is an “exceptional nation”: we simply cannot do evil.  The Democratic Party nominee for President spoke of that before the American Legion, during the electoral campaign:

If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country. [emphasis added]

For the Democratic Party — one could include almost all of the Republican Party as well, and call it, as Mr Raimondo does, “the War Party” — the idea that we have assassins in the employ of the United States government, deliberately and intentionally murdering political opponents of the régime, is “as inexplicably bizarre as it is untrue.”

Anwar al-Awlaki is not to be mentioned.  Implicit reference to that war crime is beyond the bounds of rational discourse.  Acknowledgement of well-established fact is “damag[ing]” and a “gift to Russian propaganda”.

At this point I think we can see how Mr Noam Chomsky’s unfortunate suggestion that simple morality dictated that Clinton was to be preferred to Trump, was indeed mistaken.  Here is a clearly stated breach in the Conspiracy of Silence over U.S. war crimes.  Here is the beginning of a discussion about the truth of the matter — that you cannot, and this country has not, run an empire without widespread brutality, oppression, and violence.

Having hailed this statement by Trump as a great step forward for humane foreign policy, I admit on the other hand that he will very likely (his orders have already produced the death by U.S. armed service members of Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter) conduct other war crimes, himself.

One of at least 14 civilians killed 29 January 2017, in Yemen, as a result of a raid ordered by of President D. Trump

One of at least 14 civilians killed 29 January 2017, in Yemen, as a result of a raid ordered by President D. Trump

I would compare this turn in the conversation about the conduct of the foreign policy of the United States to the momentous trial, decided on the 9 December 1789 speech by Thomas Erskine to the jury sitting in judgement of the Viceroy of India, in which in more memorable prose than Mr Trump’s the inevitable consequence of imperial rule was delineated ineradicably:

It may and must be true that Mr Hastings has repeatedly offended against the rights and privileges of Asiatic government, if he was the faithful deputy of a power which could not maintain itself for an hour without trampling upon both.  He may and must have offended against the laws of God and nature if he was the faithful viceroy of an empire wrested in blood from the people to whom God and nature had given it; he may and must have preserved that unjust dominion over timorous and abject nations by a terrifying, overbearing, insulting superiority, if he was the faithful administrator of your government, which, having no root in consent or affection — no foundation in similarity of interests — nor support from any principle which cements men together in society, could only be upheld by alternate strategem and force.

Hastings, the admitted criminal viceroy of India, was acquitted.  The jurors, ordinary men, agreed that criminal administration of an empire was not only possible but required.  That is the conception which led, eventually, to the abandonment of the British Empire in the face of Indian civil disobedience.

There is no consistency to Donald Trump’s attitude toward force as an instrument of U.S. foreign relations; but there has now been a long-overdue acknowledgement that our imperial conduct involves killing innocents.  That is a step forward for progressive efforts toward ending our empire.

Posted in Afghanistan, Bradley Manning, Brian Willson, Dan Handelman, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Global, Inequality, Iran, John Schweibert, Pacific Green Party, Ronald Reagan, Saudi Arabia, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized, US Senate, War | Leave a comment

What If A Coup Takes Place


Your Intrepid Reporter, dear reader, will preface this commentary, as he has done in the past, with the notice that it constitutes the opinion of one who has pled guilty to violating a Restraining Order, taken out by his wife.  Each week I attend a Domestic Violence class, as a condition of my probation from Multnomah County Jail, where I spent July and half of August of last year.

Although this writer once considered himself eligible for political office, that collision with the Forces of Order has forever closed such an option.  Take whatever is contained therein with that disqualifying preface in mind.

That said, let us look at what happens in a coup d’état, the possibility of which has become subject to discussion on the website Medium a couple of days ago.  DHS means Department of Human Services; CBP means Customs and Border Protection.

Note also the most frightening escalation last night was that the DHS made it fairly clear that they did not feel bound to obey any court orders. CBP continued to deny all access to counsel, detain people, and deport them in direct contravention to the court’s order, citing “upper management,” and the DHS made a formal (but confusing) statement that they would continue to follow the President’s orders. (See my updates from yesterday, and the various links there, for details) Significant in today’s updates is any lack of suggestion that the courts’ authority played a role in the decision.

The behavior of the subaltern officials involved imitated that of their superiors in the Administration, who, as other observers noted, made no effort to work with the departments in question, but rather the opposite, to operate from the top without intervening layers of authority and responsibility.  The immediate following words

That is to say, the administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored. [emphasis in original — MM]
Yesterday was the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States. It gave them useful information.

state that the preparations for a coup are being implemented.

The editor-in-chief of Reuters, a news agency headquartered in London and in business since 1851, has ordered his reporters to cover the Trump Administration in a manner similar to violent dictatorships: We don’t know yet how sharp the Trump administration’s attacks will be over time or to what extent those attacks will be accompanied by legal restrictions on our news-gathering. 

Since the situation is fluid, I cannot say with any degree of assurance what is going to happen within the next few weeks, and indeed the fears, as shown, of a coup may be mistaken.  They are not groundless, of course; but they might be erroneous.  Put that to one side, for the purpose of this comment, however; what if there be a real prospect of the Congress and the federal court system being replaced by an dictatorship.

It is the case, that the Establishment organ Foreign Policy, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, offers

“The fourth possibility [to ‘get rid of’ Trump’] is one that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders” [Rosa Brooks, Foreign Policy].

Unsuccessful efforts at an overthrow of republican, or constitutional, but in any case legally circumscribed, government in favor of authoritarian rule fail, historically,  because the police or military fail to shoot and kill the protest demonstrators.  Two examples of recent events will be sufficient to establish this, I think: the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrators spent days getting tear-gassed and shot before the troops just stopped killing; within a couple of days the President of Egypt had stepped down.  By contrast, in the opposite direction, the Syrian military that same year was quite willing to keep killing demonstrators, non-violent or not, when given the order to do so.  Al Jazeera notes:

In 2011, what became known as the “Arab Spring” revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb , was killed after having been brutally tortured.

The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war.

We are now living in a country where it is conceivable — it hasn’t happened, yet, but it is conceivable — that the Administration would prorogue Congress.  At that point the main thing that would avert a dictatorship would be the unwillingness of the police and military to shoot and kill the demonstrators who protested.

That is why the Greens, as well as anyone else seriously interested in progressive change, would be inclined to foster good relations with military or police officials and personnel.  Even if the troops shot and killed in DC, they might not do so in Portland, and then there would be a breakaway government which could reverse the course of events.

Posted in Bradley Manning, Cameron Whitten, Dan Handelman, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Free Speech, Friendship, Inequality, Jamie Partridge, Local government, Oregon state government, Pacific Green Party, Police, Ronald Reagan, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Constitution, US Senate, War | 1 Comment

A Fire in Teheran Threatens Conspiracy Theory

NBC News reported today  on a fire in the first high-rise building in Teheran, the capital of Iran.  The building collapsed in the course of a fire, killing “dozens” (I put it in quotes because it is very likely that the toll will be higher than is first reported, as is usually the case in these tragedies) of firefighters as well as, one must assume, occupants.

This brings up the collapse, on 11 September 2001, of Building 7 of the New York City World Trade center, a building that was not hit by an airliner.

The conspiracy theory which has arisen as a result of the shameless white-wash of an investigation following that spectacular terrorist attack put a great deal of emphasis on the collapse of Building 7.  No steel-reinforced high-rise, the dissenters and skeptics from the official narrative said, has ever collapsed merely as a result of fire.  That is point number one in the link provided, for instance.

I do not have independent confirmation of the steel reinforcing of the 17-storey Plasco building in Teheran, but it would appear at the moment that that statement is no longer true.  Indeed, the collapse of high-rise buildings due to fire would be expected to be more frequent as the engineers responsible for erecting them get more confident in their skills.  The historian of technology Henry Petroski has emphasized in his published analyses of engineering failures of bridges how, when the technology is new, engineers typically allow for greater margins of safety; then, when those are found to work, they trim them back in order to save the resources and money needed to erect the structures.

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Let’s Unpack “the Personal Is Political”

Official Portrait of Staff of Grant High School, 2016, from the school website

Official Portrait of Staff of Grant High School, 2016, from the school website


This morning brought, on the usual disreputable websites, the appearance of another disapproving look, this time by a military historian, of the past two Presidential administrations.  Andrew Bracevich the author of America’s War for the Middle East: A Military History, in which the well-known critic of bellicose U.S. interventions abroad (whose own son was killed in Iraq, serving in the U.S. armed forces) took a longer-range perspective on the recent history of them.

In one sense, then, a father who will forever mourn his child’s death is saying that there is a lot of mistakes to correct in the constant state of war in which this country has found itself since, oh, let us say, as a reasonable statement, since the Korean undeclared war of 1950.

His first sentence is as follows.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 abruptly ended one historical era and inaugurated another. So, too, did the outcome of last year’s U.S. presidential election.

Now, whether you agree with the former Colonel Bracevich’s analysis or not, you’ve got to admit that this mental step, that of examining the course of an era that has just closed, is likely to shed more light than any number of analyses of what we’re facing at the present.  That is, if you believe there’s any value to historical analysis at all.

The mental step involved reminds me of the requirement,in dynastic China, that the history of each dynasty had to be written, not by any officer or member of the dynasty itself, but by someone living in the dynasty that followed it.  Today, with the rapid turnover of events, perhaps we can be forgiven the initiative of deciding when historical eras have come and gone without reference to the name of the emperor’s family.

In the course of that analysis, former Colonel Bracevich takes the not-unsual tack that the United States continued a hostile attitude, following the collapse of Communism, that eliminated the possibility of close international co-operation with our former enemy Russia.  In that sense his contribution to the Republic of Letters was by no means unusual and not worthy of my wasting your time reading my commentary on it.

Has everybody left now?

No, what distinguished Bracevich’s commentary was his characterization, in discussing the historical epoch 1989-2016 (“The Age of Great Expectations” — presumably with an implicit nod to the ironic Charles Dickens novel), of three themes: one, globalization or “free trade”; two, unquestioned U.S. world hegemony; and the third, a sort of unleashed individualism.  Emphasis added.

The third theme was all about rethinking the concept of personal freedom as commonly understood and pursued by most Americans. During the protracted emergency of the Cold War, reaching an accommodation between freedom and the putative imperatives of national security had not come easily. Cold War-style patriotism seemingly prioritized the interests of the state at the expense of the individual. Yet even as thrillingly expressed by John F. Kennedy – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – this was never an easy sell, especially if it meant wading through rice paddies and getting shot at.

Once the Cold War ended, however, the tension between individual freedom and national security momentarily dissipated. Reigning conceptions of what freedom could or should entail underwent a radical transformation. Emphasizing the removal of restraints and inhibitions, the shift made itself felt everywhere, from patterns of consumption and modes of cultural expression to sexuality and the definition of the family. Norms that had prevailed for decades if not generations – marriage as a union between a man and a woman, gender identity as fixed at birth – became passé.

As an author myself of very modest publications in the history of science I am quite interested in “modes of cultural expression,” but am intrigued, to say the least, when a discussion of the major characteristics of the historical era just passed, by a specialist in military history, finds a need to emphasize them.

For example, it is my own firm opinion that the citizens of the United States are tolerating the progressive elimination of all sorts of civil liberties under the rubric of national security because we are being allowed to forget about the nuclear weapons which are the real, genuine, true threat to our existence, as a people and even as a civilization.  [That is my own idea, buttressed somewhat by an interview with a conscientious former Secretary of Defense of the U.S.  It has little to do with Colonel Bracevich’s views.]

What does have a lot to do with the former colonel’s unusual invocation of cultural trends is what my two adolescent sons tell me, daily, about life in the local public high school they attend, here in Portland, Oregon.  They speak of a continual, comprehensive, universal obligation to support advantaged treatment for minorities, especially lesbian, gay, and transgender individuals.  They speak of a teacher from whom an apology is demanded for having addressed his students as “ladies and gentlemen” — he left out the transgenders in the audience  (if any).  They show me an officially sponsored student anti-racism video, which, during the election, was submitted to the national group which judges such things as highschool student videos, and which won a prize, and which explicitly stated that “racism is Trump”.

I forbear extending the list beyond a couple of examples.  There are incident like this virtually every day.  Basically, my boys stress the atmosphere of rigid political correctness which does not tolerate any questioning of its righteousness.

A second example, which struck the Portland progressive community not long ago, is the public “shaming” of a prominent gay black man, Cameron Whitten, for being “misogynist”– for attempting to address a rally, warning them that the police were standing nearby.  During the facebook storm which followed his “shaming”, he was told by a white man that he had been insufficiently deferential to the black lesbians who organized the rally.

The point is, not to examine the possible justifications or critiques of these cultural tempests in teapots, but to indicate their extraordinary weight in present-day discourse.  This centrality arose, Bracevich claims, in the short historical epoch that has now ended, and their awkward form, their disproportionate emphasis, their very unsustainability, reveals that they are no longer promoting minority rights, but rather represent a means of distraction.  He writes

for all the talk of empowering the marginalized – people of color, women, gays – elites reaped the lion’s share of the benefits while ordinary people were left to make do. The atmosphere was rife with hypocrisy and even a whiff of nihilism.

There’s a problem here, though — the changing definition of the family did not have a lot to do with the economic inequality that left “ordinary people” (since the very sense of “ordinary” is exactly what is in play, its use raises an eyebrow, at the least) “to make do.”  In this piece the very item that is unusual in a progressive’s viewing with alarm of the last thirty-odd years of constant class warfare (also known as “globalization”) and foreign intervention (that American Empire, termed “hegemony” for euphemistic value), that very item, social justice war, is then left too vague for any real articulation in his narrative.

Bracevich returns to it, when discussing how Trump won the 2016 election.  As we all can accept, he criticized Clinton’s mantra of globalization, and he rejected the meme of American exceptionalism.  Bracevich continues

No less important than Trump’s semi-coherent critique of globalization and American globalism, however, was his success in channeling the discontent of all those who nursed an inchoate sense that post-Cold War freedoms might be working for some, but not for them.

Not that Trump had anything to say about whether freedom confers obligations, or whether conspicuous consumption might not actually hold the key to human happiness, or any of the various controversies related to gender, sexuality, and family. He was indifferent to all such matters. He was, however, distinctly able to offer his followers a grimly persuasive explanation for how America had gone off course and how the blessings of liberties to which they were entitled had been stolen. He did that by fingering as scapegoats Muslims, Mexicans, and others “not-like-me.”

Trump’s political strategy reduced to this: as president, he would overturn the conventions that had governed right thinking since the end of the Cold War. To the amazement of an establishment grown smug and lazy, his approach worked.

The gap in the argument continues, though; we are to believe that one of the three central themes for Trump’s unexpected success was something about which he had little to say, indeed was completely indifferent.

That does not mean that Bracevich drops the third theme, the unusual one.  He returns to it.

Note, for example, that his mandate is almost entirely negative. It centers on rejection: of globalization, of counterproductive military meddling, and of the post-Cold War cultural project. Yet neither Trump nor any of his surrogates has offered a coherent alternative to the triad of themes providing the through line for the last quarter-century of American history.

One cannot say that we do not have a good idea of what rejection of globalization means.  It means tariffs which protect selected United States manufacturing concerns.  And we, again, can with reasonable specificity cite what non-intervention consists of.  But rejection of “the cultural project”?  That is indeed a null set.  It signifies nothing, an emptiness.  From this, Bracevich urges specific remedy.

Starting with Trump himself, and Clinton herself, we can suggest that we are looking for someone who neither acts like a mendacious, spoiled brat, nor mouths platitudes for personal political advancement, and who rather actually expresses a vision.

“Where there is no vision,” the Book of Proverbs tells us, “the people perish.” In the present day, there is no vision to which Americans collectively adhere. For proof, we need look no further than the election of Donald Trump.

The vision that Bracevich offers, however, and this is equally interesting, is not his own.  The vision he proffers for the possibility of filling the void at the center of U.S. social, economic, and political life, is that of Christopher Lasch.

Lasch called for a politics based on “the nurture of the soil against the exploitation of resources, the family against the factory, the romantic vision of the individual against the technological vision, [and] localism over democratic centralism.”

There is ample meat here for moral mastication, but it’s still in the realm of broad and general terms.  Not surprisingly, Your Intrepid Reporter turned to the link provided (it’s about ten pages long, and one of the pages is missing), and found an article from 1980 that did something similar, in conceptual terms, to what Bracevich did this morning: he looked at the era just ending, as a basis for what we can say about where we are at present.  Lasch invites to consider the era 1898 to  1980:

One does not have to accept the thesis of a “managerial revolution” or a “new class” to acknowledge the force of Riesman’s observation that the “bullet that killed McKinley marked the end of the days of explicit class leadership.” Nineteenth-century politics, according to Riesman, turned on “easily moralized judgments of good and bad” and on “agreement between the leaders and led that the work sphere of life was dominant.” Although the power of the ruling classes rested at bottom on force, they sought for the most part to govern through moral persuasion. They defended their leadership by appealing to a common fund of moral principles and to common standards of political justice. These ideals, of course, were open to conflicting interpretations, and the standards of right and wrong upheld by the governing classes –for example, the proposition that every man had a right to the fruits of his own labor — could be turned against the established order and made to serve as the basis of demands for its reformation or even overthrow.

But the bitterness of ideological conflicts in nineteenth-century politics itself testified to an underlying agreement about the nature of political discourse. All parties to these debates assumed that political actions had to be justified by an appeal to a body of moral principles accessible to human reason and subject to rational discussion. The idea that moral judgments are by definition subjective and therefore lie outside the realm of rational debate played little part in nineteenth-century politics.

It would appear that, to Lasch, the basic problem with twentieth-century American social and economic development is, that it turned away from the populism of the 1890s.  If we were to characterize the moral debates of the 2010s, it would have to be that there is one right moral standard, and the conflict rages because the traditionalists refuse to accept the moral standards urged by the family-hostile proponents of unlimited individualism.  Rational discussion, by the way, has little to do with the matter.  Twentieth-century attacks on the ability of rational argument to determine the single best moral standard put an end to that years prior to 1980.

To gain a broader perspective than that one article cited by Bracevich, let us turn to Wikipedia.

By the 1980s, Lasch had poured scorn on the whole spectrum of contemporary mainstream American political thought, angering liberals with attacks on progressivism and feminism. He wrote that “A feminist movement that respected the achievements of women in the past would not disparage housework, motherhood or unpaid civic and neighborly services. It would not make a paycheck the only symbol of accomplishment. … It would insist that people need self-respecting honorable callings, not glamorous careers that carry high salaries but take them away from their families.”[19] Liberal journalist Susan Faludi dubbed him explicitly anti-feminist for his criticism of the abortion rights movement and opposition to divorce.[20] But Lasch viewed Ronald Reagan’s conservatism as the antithesis of tradition and moral responsibility. Lasch was not generally sympathetic to the cause of what was then known as the New Right, particularly those elements of libertarianism most evident in its platform; he detested the encroachment of the capitalist marketplace into all aspects of American life. Lasch rejected the dominant political constellation that emerged in the wake of the New Deal in which economic centralization and social tolerance formed the foundations of American liberal ideals, while also rebuking the diametrically opposed synthetic conservative ideology fashioned by William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk.

Back in 1980, it might be supposed that opposition to feminism would possibly work, as a way of emphasizing the centrality of the family; there is today, however, virtually no one who opposes the idea that women ought to receive equal pay for equal work.  Arguably, that aim has been achieved.

Nor is there hope, in 2016 of ever making divorce difficult to obtain, and from a conceptual point of view, surely all (secular) sides agree abortion ought to be safe, legal, and rare (it is declining in frequency).

While the vague gestures in the direction of environmental wisdom, of communitarian responsibility, and of restoring agency and autonomy to local groups are provided lip service, the invocation of Christopher Lasch unleashes a musty odor of traditionalist thinking of the last generation.  There’s a lot missing in Lasch’s discussion.  What about the war on masculinity, so evident in the mass media for the last 50 years?  Or the derogatory view, from groups as popular as Black Lives Matter, of fatherhood?  How is matriarchy in any way superior to patriarchy, as a social program?  In short, we are presently at one extreme end of a swing of the social pendulum, an unsustainable extreme which will swing back sooner or later.

So, as a teacher of several decades of experience in public schools, as a father of two boys, and as a political activist of long standing (and recent time behind bars), I agree with the slogan, that the personal is political, that the political is personal.  The very fact that the good colonel put that unusual cultural item into the formula for the characteristic mix of the last historical era, reflects a major shift in the mental universe of even a military historian, when examining recent history.

If we are to rejuvenate a vision for the future, then, I would hark a lot further back than the Populists.  Rather, I would bring under consideration the ideals, as opposed to the practices, of the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, that set of ideals which we encode in the so-called Declaration of Independence, a hypocritical document written by a slave-owner (and probable serial rapist of one of them) and edited by a war profiteer.  Those ideals were cited, again and again, when Lincoln debated Douglas prior to the Civil War.  They are in what my anti-war comrade Brian Willson calls our “cultural DNA” (about most of which he has not much good to say).

All human beings have equal worth and standing in society.  All have rights that preserve their property, privacy, and persons against arbitrary action by government.  As for governmental power, it corrupts, in measure the greater, the greater the power given.  In that sense, I see a hope for a nurture of the soil against the commercial exploitation of resources, for the family as the center of social development as opposed to the marketplace, and for the mind of the individual as opposed to the dictation of community authority.

Update 10 February 2017: Immediately after posting this essay, I opened my email, to find a message to the Grant Community from the Members of the Student Leadership.  The reader is advised that there is now a campaign for a Culture of Consent.

We are working to change the climate of Grant concerning lack of boundaries. The culture of consent does not only apply to sex. The umbrella of consent encompasses everything from dancing to interactions in the hallway to statements and comments in class and on social media to physical contact. These all contribute to the presence of rape culture in our community.

Those who doubt that there is, presently, a “rape culture” in Grant High School are officially marginalized as not worthy of entering into the conversation.  There is a rape culture, it goes without saying, and we are obliged to combat it.  Sigh.



Posted in Bradley Manning, Cameron Whitten, Diffeomorphisms on a manifold, Don Gavitte, Education, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Free Speech, Inequality, Local government, Marxism, Mathematics, Pacific Green Party, Ronald Reagan, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized, US Senate, War | Leave a comment

What to Say to Putin

Alexander Hug, identified below, gestures toward a diplomatic means of promoting the "soft power" of the United States

Alexander Hug, identified below, gestures toward a diplomatic means of promoting the “soft power” of the United States


As Your Intrepid Reporter has said previously, the release by hacking of documentary evidence (itself true) to the effect that the Democratic Party nominee for President is indeed a card-carrying proponent of Wall Street dominance does not constitute “hacking the election”.

Supposedly progressive voices in this maelstrom of fake news don’t get that.  So, for example, from the purportedly progressive journal Mother Jones on 31 December:

So what did we learn this year? That America is more susceptible to authoritarian populism than we thought? Not really. Trump’s victory was a fluke, driven by Russian hacking, James Comey, and some bad polls in a few states.

“Trump’s victory was . . . driven by Russian hacking. . .” is what we are supposed to conclude about the election.  Sigh.  To say that is to deny agency to voters: they are supposed to vote the way the newspapers and television commentators tell them to, and if they fail to do so, then the release of true facts has “hacked the election”.

This is not to say, mind you, that the accumulating evidence is still, as some would have it, unpersuasive.

What this means is ANYONE could have downloaded this software and used it from anywhere in the world. Merely identifying the tool used does not identify the person who used it. What this also suggests is whoever was responsible for this cyber activity was using very old, and unsophisticated methods not common of state sponsored intelligence agencies.

We are not going to get, Perry Mason-style, someone standing up in the courtroom and shouting, “I did it!  I did it, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”  Rather, we have to look at overall context and draw reasonable inferences.  In this case the software package could have been used by other than the Russians, but perhaps the manner and choice of targets of its use tells us who initiated the hacking.  The choice of targets aligns with Russian foreign-policy antagonists, and the manner of use is awfully sophisticated.  I quote yesterday’s post on a well-respected anti-war website.

According to both private cybersecurity firms and US intelligence agencies, there is no doubt that Russian group “Fancy Bear” (also known as Sofacy, APT 28, Sednit, Tsar Team or other names) hacked the Democratic party. Is Fancy Bear an agent of the Russian military intelligence service? I believe it is. Fancy Bear is well known by the cybersecurity experts and has been studied in the past at length. Since 2007, targets of Fancy Bear’s hacking have been Georgia and the Caucasus, Eastern European governments and militaries, Ukraine, US, Germany, UK, NATO, OSCE, Soros, etc. Lately it hacked the World Anti-Doping Agency in response to the WADA’s recommendation to ban all Russian athletes from the Olympic games in Brazil. While China hacking conducts intellectual property theft, cybersecurity firm FireEye found that Fancy Bear ‘has been targeting privileged information related to governments, militaries and security organizations that would likely benefit the Russian government.’ Another cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike states that Fancy Bear’s profile “closely mirrors the strategic interests of the Russian government.”

During the years Fancy Bear’ hacking activity has grown in size, sophistication and scope. FireEye reports that Fancy Bear has continuously evolved its malware “using flexible and lasting platforms indicative of plans for long-term use and sophisticated coding practices;” it also uses obfuscation techniques to hide or disguise the code’s true purpose and to prevent it from being detected. CrowdStrike has shown that Fancy Bear has the ability to run multiple and extensive intrusion operations concurrently; while it was hacking US political organizations was at the same time involved targeting European military organizations. CrowdStrike on Fancy Bear and another Russian hacking group “Cozy Bear”: “Their tradecraft is superb, operational security second to none and the extensive usage of ‘living-off-the-land’ techniques enables them to easily bypass many security solutions they encounter. In particular, we identified advanced methods consistent with nation-state level capabilities including deliberate targeting and ‘access management’ tradecraft — both groups were constantly going back into the environment to change out their implants, modify persistent methods, move to new Command & Control channels and perform other tasks to try to stay ahead of being detected.” This is not lone wolf or kiddie stuff. This level of activity requires a complex structure that only the Russian government can provide. The New York Times reports that Russian officials recruit programmers “placing prominent ads on social media sites, offering jobs to college students and professional coders.” Fancy Bear developers use the Russian language and operate during business hours consistent with the time zone of Russia’s major cities.

Here is what Trump can do, not that he will, with the issue.  Once you realize that the person across the table distrusts you, there is a value to your denying what others suspect of him.  Trump ought to continue to doubt, in public, that the Russian intelligence services had anything to do with the release of information from the Democratic Party computers, and tell Putin to enforce the existing cease-fire in the Ukraine.

Impartial sources report that the Russian separatists in the Ukraine are the ones predominantly violating several cease-fire agreements, including the commitment to allow inspections from representatives of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe [oh, and by the way, when there was a question of who was to inspect the cease-fire, OSCE was Putin’s suggestion].  The speaker is Alexander Hug, the deputy chief monitor of the Special Monitoring Mission [SMM] of the OSCE.

It should be noted that access for the SMM is granted by its mandate of 57 participating states, and is further reconfirmed in the Minsk Agreements. And that means that Russia, Ukraine as well as Alexander Zakharchenko [the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic — Editor’s note] and Igor Plotnitsky [the head of the Luhansk People’s Republic — Editor’s note] have also signed up to this very important attribute of the mission. The freedom of movement for the SMM is unconditional. Any restriction of any kind is a violation of the SMM mandate and of the Minsk Agreements.
Having said that, it is true that we still encounter numerous restrictions in our movement. Overall and looking back in the year — while both sides restrict SMM’s freedom of movement — the majority of those do occur in the areas not controlled by the government.

The last sentence is diplomat-speak for “most of the time the separatists are not allowing inspection.”  Deputy Chief Monitor Hug (I am tempted, but shall refrain from the temptation, to call him “Huggie Bear”) is not talking about very far in the past of the last year:

During the week of Dec. 12-18, the number of ceasefire violations recorded by the SMM increased by 75 percent compared to the previous week. We have seen there in the past the use of heavy weapons on both sides and again now. The use of heavy weapons proscribed by the Minsk agreements has tripled. The monitors recorded at least 985 mortar, tank, artillery and multiple rocket launch systems fire explosions compared to 244 the week before. The vast majority of them (843 explosions) occurred south and southeast of the government-controlled Svitlodarsk.

Again, the diplomat indicated but did not specifically say, “in area controlled by the separatists.”  The reader has to fill in the politely discreet language himself.

This is what Trump should publicize.  The separatists in Ukraine, who — let’s admit it — are under the control of the Russian government, are breaking their sworn word.  Putin is possibly involved in the release of true information which enabled a more democratic election int he United States, which has upset the Deep State in the United States.  All Trump has to do is to continue to refuse to accept the announced conclusions of American intelligence, and instead demand publicly that the real “Putin’s puppets” of Donetsk and Luhansk live up to their treaty obligations of open inspection.

It is low-hanging diplomatic fruit for the United States.  It’s the right thing to do, and it will promote peace and security for all involved.

Not that anyone cares what I think.

Posted in Elections, Empire, Friendship, Global, Marxism, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized, War | Leave a comment