Category Archives: Mainstream media
As a student of history, particularly Russian history, I was curious about the new film “The Death of Stalin,” then appalled when I did some online research and found out that it’s a slapstick comedy about officials grasping for power after Stalin died in 1953. What’s funny about something like this? Nothing. Also shocking is the way the film gives absolutely no context about Stalin, one of the key historical figures, for good or ill, of the 20th century. As Peter Hitchens, a London reader of The Guardian wrote in that paper’s letters section on 10-27-17, “As far as I know, this is the first time a mass-market film has dealt with this event. We may be saturated with serious drama and documentary material on the Nazis and the end of Hitler, but the equivalent evils of the Stalin nightmare haven’t received anything like the same treatment. For most who see the film, it will be the first time they’ve ever heard of these strange events. And what do they see? An intensely serious moment in human history played for laughs, with lavatory humor and plentiful use of the failed comedian’s standby, the F-word. We’re so free and safe that we can hardly begin to imagine a despot so terrifying that his subordinates are even afraid of his corpse. This trivial and inaccurate squib doesn’t help us to do so. Perhaps it’s the comedians who need to be satirized, by some fitting seriousness about a serious subject.”
The only critical review I found of the film online was one posted on the World Socialist website (www.wsws.org) on 3-9-18. David Walsh describes it as “a fatally ill-conceived ‘black comedy’ about the demise of the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, Joseph Stalin, in March 1953. The film is not so much maliciously anticommunist as it is, above all, historically clueless. Iannucci presents the various surviving Stalinist officials, Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Nikolai Bulganin, and the rest, all of whom had gallons of blood on their hands, as a largely ineffectual bunch of bunglers and toadies, jockeying ‘comically’ for position. The betrayal of the Russian Revolution was one of the greatest tragedies in world history [not to mention the planned famine in Ukraine and Stalin’s purges, which together killed more people than Hitler]. Iannucci’s film doesn’t begin to confront the vast significance of events in the Soviet Union.
Taken in and of themselves, there are amusing lines and moments, until one remembers the general context and the historical stakes, and the laughter freezes in one’s throat. All the actors are fine at doing what they’re asked to do, but what they’re asked to do is terribly off the mark. It’s impossible to make sense of a film like ‘The Death of Stalin’ except in the context of the disastrously low level of historical knowledge or interest that exists in the arts at present.
Iannucci is a Scottish-born television, film and radio writer and director, responsible for ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ (along with Steve Coogan), ‘The Thick of It,’ ‘In the Loop,’ and ‘Veep,’ among other efforts, and under the right circumstances, he’s capable of creating funny, pointed satire. When it comes to bringing out the dishonesty, careerist opportunism, and stupidity of garden-variety politicians, media personalities, and other establishment figures, he probably has few equals today. However, when the writer-director steps outside the fairly narrow confines of parliamentary and entertainment industry backroom shenanigans, he falters badly. The second half of ‘In the Loop,’ which satirized the British government’s complicity in the Bush administration’s drive to war in Iraq, is politically blunted and largely unfunny. HBO’s ‘Veep,’ too, about a fictional female US vice president, finds Iannucci over his head. For all its coarseness, it’s quite timid in its portrayal of the ugliness of American politics, with little mention of war policy, drone strikes, and other things that surely consume a great deal of a real president’s focus and attention.
Art and comedy have to rise to – or at least approach – the level of the events or personalities they’re treating. That is, there needs to be some artistic and intellectual correspondence between subject and object. Iannucci’s film is based on a [non-comic] French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Iannucci has undoubtedly added his own touch. And it’s simply inappropriate and, at times, grotesque.”
I believe history, as the backstory to current and future events, is the key to understanding where we are and where we could go, and I’m more than saddened by the preponderant lack of knowledge of or interest in it today – probably because of the boring, textbook-centered way it’s taught in high school. Good historical novels and films can make up for some of this, but bad ones, like “The Death of Stalin” just deepen the ignorance. Take the time to be curious about your world, and how it came to be the way it currently is. Find important history books by reading reviews on Amazon, then buy or borrow and read them!
Recently, “Alternative Radio” rebroadcast “The JFK Assassination & the Gangster State,” a talk given by Michael Parenti, in Berkeley, CA on 11-22-93. You have to listen to Parenti (alternativeradio.org) to get the full effect of his sarcastic (and funny) delivery, but here are some key elements of what he said (edited, as always for brevity and clarity – also, for those of you who groan at my long, dry, mostly quoted blogposts, this is pretty important, and I make some comments of my own at the end)…
“I’ve been looking at history, and I’ve been impressed and depressed by the fact that it’s a chronicle of immense atrocities. Whenever there’s more than a subsistence economy, some portion of the population does everything it can to enslave and expropriate the labor of the rest of the people – whether it’s a slave society, as in ancient Greece and Rome, or a feudal society, with people reduced to serfs, or a capitalist society, where people are driven to the edge of insecurity and made to work faster and harder. One of the things that’s used in that arrangement is a very conscious instrument of control: the state, ‘an organization,’ as Max Weber, who wasn’t a Marxist, called it, that has a ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of force.’
Even in democratic France, democratic England, or democratic U.S.A., all countries have instruments and agencies that act like a bunch of gangsters, repressively, using surveillance and every dirty trick in the book – unequal enforcement of tax laws, bringing drugs into neighborhoods and communities, trumped-up murder charges, and assassination. In the middle of even a so-called democracy you have the state-within-the-state known as the national security state that’s capable of the most unspeakable crimes that you can think of, perpetrated against its own people and people all around the world.
Not long ago I got a letter from a woman who was a community organizer in Chicago. She said, with grief in her heart, ‘I remember the tremendous democratic organization and leadership that was developing in Latino and African American communities during the 1960s. And every one of those leaders is either dead, shot by the police, or in Marion Prison on trumped-up charges. I also remember the demoralization that took place with the shattering of those organizations, including the coming in of drug traffickers, aided and abetted by federal agents.’ This is a state engaged in domestic counterinsurgency, preferring an unorganized and demoralized population than one effectively fighting for its democratic rights. Because if it’s organized and it’s effective, it will start cutting in on the interests that those police and undercover people are dedicated to protecting – protecting the status quo, protecting those with property against those who don’t have it.
By the way, for the last thousand years we’ve had theorists who have proudly made that point. Adam Smith said, ‘As the divisions of property become increasingly unequal, it is more and more necessary to have a state to defend those who have property from those who do not.’ John Locke: ‘The purpose of the state is to defend those who have property from those who do not.’ James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others said similar things.
Throughout the world, dominant economic interests have enlisted the efforts of assassins and torturers. The CIA and other such agencies in this country and others have sponsored violence, torture, death squads, and drugs in scores of countries, from Zaire to Angola to Mozambique to El Salvador to Guatemala to Indonesia, and to western Europe, the U.S.A., Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. They’ve systematically targeted the clergy; peasant, student, and labor-union leaders; intellectuals; journalists; workers; and community activists. Tens of thousands have been murdered and assassinated to prevent social change, to destroy any kind of redistributive politics, any kind of government, or any kind of social movement not willing to reduce its people to economic fodder.”
Having made these points, Parenti goes on to the JFK assassination in which “the gangster nature of the state is revealed. To know the truth about the JFK assassination is to call into question the entire state system and the entire social order it represents. This is why for 30 years the mainstream press has suppressed or dismissed out of the hand the findings about JFK’s death by independent investigators like Peter Dale Scott, Harold Weisberg, Carl Oglesby, Mark Lane, Anthony Summers, Philip Melanson, Jim Garrison, Cyril Wecht, and dozens of others. They’re called “assassination buffs,” a limiting and marginalizing and diminishing term. Would you talk about “Holocaust buffs”? No – they are serious investigators of a serious crime, which leads to serious understandings about the state. This is why the mainstream media and the opinion leaders and the political leaders of this country relentlessly attack or ignore this literature. This is why they give fulsome, gushing, ready publicity to the likes of Gerald Posner, with his book Case Closed, which got put into every major magazine. I couldn’t put the TV on all week without seeing this guy’s face and hearing him blather these kinds of cliché statements whose credibility is dependent on your being totally ignorant of what the investigators for 30 years have been uncovering and the questions they’ve been raising.
This is why they savaged Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK,” a movie that was very accurate about the specifics of the murder, a movie that reached millions of people, and that was attacked six months before it was released in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek, and for a year after it was released. This is also why in this past week, for the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, they kept up the relentless propaganda campaign to show that Oswald was the lone assassin. All the serious investigators have a different question, and Oswald wasn’t one of the people who shot Kennedy – he was just a fall guy.
If you want to know why they do this, just listen to what they say. The propagandists of the right and the center know why they’ve got to trash and contain this issue. Tom Wicker of the New York Times has never written a movie review in his life. But when “JFK” came out, this Washington columnist for the Times suddenly became a movie reviewer, and instead of getting the usual movie-review length of 800 words, he got 2,000 words, a whole page. He tells us that ‘if the wild assertions in Oliver Stone’s movie are taken at face value, Americans will have to accept the idea that most of the nation’s major institutions conspired together to carry out Kennedy’s murder. In an era when mistrust of government and loss of confidence in institutions, the press not the least, are widespread and virulent, such a suggestion seems a dubious public service.’ So truth has nothing to do with it – the question is institutional legitimacy.
In 1978 the House Select Committee reported after an investigation that there was more than one assassin shooting at Kennedy and therefore there was a conspiracy. In response, the Washington Post immediately editorialized, ‘Could it
have been some other malcontent whom Mr. Oswald met casually?’ [Laughter] ‘Couldn’t as many as three or four societal outcasts, with no ties to any one organization, have developed in some spontaneous way a common determination to express their alienation in the killing of President Kennedy? It’s possible that two people acting independently attempted to shoot the president at the same time.’ Possible, but not at all likely. Sometimes those who deny conspiracies create the most convoluted fantasies of all. David Garrow, for example, who wrote a biography of Martin Luther King, benignly, patronizingly looks at you, the public, and says that ‘a large majority of the American people believe in assassination conspiracies, allowing events to have large, mysterious causes instead of small, idiosyncratic ones.’
But the question of conspiracy has to be decided by an investigation of evidence, not by unscientific and patronizing presumptions about the public mind. In any case, the evidence in King’s assassination doesn’t involve large, mysterious causes but very immediate actualities. And investigators like Peter Dale Scott, Harold Weisberg, and Mark Lane weren’t impelled by some yearnings; they were impelled by questions of evidence, by things that didn’t seem to make sense, by immediate, empirical things. These independent investigators demolished the Warren Commission.
If you watched television this week you heard, for the 78th time, that Oswald was a ‘loner,’ an incompetent, not very bright. You heard he was emotionally disturbed. Gerald Posner got on TV, turning instant psychiatrist, and said Lee Harvey Oswald ‘had a disturbed childhood,’ and was ‘passive- aggressive.’ Passive-aggressive? A passive-aggressive assassin? That explains why he used a rifle that couldn’t shoot straight. He was also ‘a leftist,’ according to Alexander Cockburn. The truth is something else. All of Lee Harvey Oswald’s IQ tests show that he was of above-average intelligence, a bright guy, a quick learner. Lee Harvey Oswald also spent most of his adult life not as a lonely drifter but directly linked to the U.S. intelligence community. In the U.S. Marines at the age of 18, he had secret security clearance and was working at Marine Air Control in Atsugi, Japan, a top-secret base from which the CIA launched some of its U2 flights and did other kinds of covert operations in China. The next year, at the age of 19, he was assigned to El Toro Air Station in California with a security clearance to work radar. Here Oswald started playing Russian-language records at blast level in his barracks, addressing his ‘comrades’ in Russian, and touting Soviet communism as ‘the best system in the world.’
The U.S. Marine Corps in 1958 wasn’t exactly known as a bastion of liberal tolerance and freethinking. It constantly surveils anyone who acts the way Oswald did. But in this instance his commanders didn’t mind. He kept his security clearance, and had a wealth of sensitive information from black operations, as they were called. If Oswald was a Soviet spy or a Cuban spy, as some people now claim, he certainly had a novel way of building a cover. In February 1959, Lee Harvey Oswald failed the Marine Corps proficiency test in Russian. Six months later he was practically fluent in Russian. In 1974, a document was released that showed that Oswald had attended the U.S. Army Monterey School of Languages. Now, Monterey is not open to anyone who just happens to have a language hobby. You go only for serious training and you are sent by the government. And it must be related to government work in a language picked by the government which is related to specific assignments. Oswald was also given an early discharge from the Marines because his mother injured her foot. A jar had fallen on her toe. He put in the request and got it within a week. His fellow Marines were astonished at the velocity of the release. The jar fell on her foot a year before the discharge, but she was unhappy: it wasn’t healing right. This was only one of a number of very strangely favorable treatments that the U.S. government gave Lee Harvey Oswald. He then defected to the USSR. To get to Russia in those days it would have cost $1,500. Lee Harvey Oswald’s bank account showed a deposit of only $203. He arrived in Helsinki from London on a day when there were no available commercial flights that would have allowed him to make it in one day. He had some kind of private transportation. In Russia, he announced – in the U.S. embassy – that he was renouncing his U.S. citizenship and that he had secrets he was going to give to the Soviets. The Soviets didn’t bite. They let him stay but at no time thought he could be an agent of any use to them. He worked in a factory, and belonged to the factory’s gun club, though he showed no particular interest in guns. He used to join in rabbit shoots, and could never hit the rabbit. He was a miserable marksman, as he had been in the U.S. Marines. Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t hit the side of a barn.
What’s done in all defections, definitely those connected with government and military, is that there’s a damage assessment. No damage assessment was ever made on Oswald’s defection. Why? After two and a half years, he applied to return to the U.S. Instead of being grabbed when he came out and tried as a traitor, the U.S. accepted him back. He says he was never debriefed, but in fact, he was debriefed in Amsterdam, though the CIA has no record of this. Their explanation before the Warren Commission was that there were so many tourists coming in and out that there was nothing about him that would catch our attention. After the assassination, the CIA claimed that they suspected he was a Soviet spy. The State Department at this point gave Oswald money to travel back to the U.S. and get set up. They paid all his and his wife’s travel and moving expenses, and he was given back his passport with full rights to travel anywhere. His wife was exempted from the usual immigration quotas – no waiting, no exclusion for having belonged to the Soviet Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, a violation of U.S. immigration laws.
Once back in Dallas, Oswald settled in under the wing of George de Mohrenschildt, a right- wing Russian with CIA ties. Based in Dallas and New Orleans, he then made short-lived forays into the public eye as a leftist. He started a one-person Fair Play for Cuba organization in New Orleans, but in all this time never once contacted anyone in the Communist Party or any other left organization, though he wrote lots of letters to the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Workers Party, two groups which at that time weren’t even talking together. Dear Comrades, How are you? We fight. Forward. What should I do? Send me instructions. He blazed a trail: local TV, fistfights, inflammatory incidents, leaflets. One of the leaflets shows that his organization was on Camp Street in the same building that Guy Banister, an FBI agent, had his office. A number of right-wing Cuban émigré groups were also there. Oswald’s personal relations were with right-wing anti-Communist Cubans, right-wing crypto-fascists, and CIA types like Robert Morrow, a right-wing businessman who worked for the CIA, and David Ferrie, the same. So while he supposedly was this leftist – and if you ever heard any of the tapes of him speaking and explaining what communism was or socialism was, it’s laughable – all his personal associations were with right-wing people linked to the intelligence community, including Jack Ruby.
Now, they would have us believe that this man who couldn’t hit the side of a barn took a Mannlicher Carcano rifle, whose sights weren’t even set – an Italian weapon, which the Italians said had never killed anyone on purpose – fired it, and killed the president of the United States. That he got a job just at that time at the Texas Book Depository, three weeks before, when nobody knew that Kennedy’s limousine was going to pass right in front of the depository, and fortuitously happened to be up there that day. That he would forego shooting President Kennedy when the latter was coming right at him down Houston Street, but waited till the car turned down Elm Street. And as Kennedy went by and had only his head and a little portion of his shoulders visible, firing through the trees, he rapidly got off three shots in a few seconds, something which the best marksmen in the country weren’t able to emulate until after much practice and after the sights on the Mannlicher- Carcano were reset, brought into a laboratory and fixed. Right through a tree that was later cut down. We’re asked to believe that a bullet would go through John Kennedy, pause in midair for 2 seconds, change direction, wound Governor Connally in two places, and then reappear intact on a stretcher, having fallen out of Connally’s body. By the way, this magic bullet didn’t reappear on the stretcher as if it had fallen out of someone’s body – it was apparently intentionally wedged into the side of the stretcher. We’re asked to believe that a treasure trove of physical evidence, the interior of the presidential limousine itself, which should have all sorts of evidence, bits of shrapnel, blood, and lines of fire, was just accidentally taken, instantly torn out, destroyed, and totally rebuilt, and that this wasn’t a deliberate cover-up. We’re asked to believe that Kennedy’s brain just disappeared, that the X-ray, which now shows a reconstructed head with no exit wound is, oddly, taken with no jaw, so it could be anybody’s – you can’t do any kind of dental identification. That the autopsy was just botched innocently.
We’re also asked to believe that Jack Ruby, a gambler and gangster with links to right-wing Cuban exiles, who once worked for Congressman Richard Nixon for the House Un-American Activities Committee in Chicago when his name was still Jack Rubenstein, took it upon himself to kill Oswald because he was so moved by the suffering that Oswald had caused the Kennedy family. Ruby a year later in jail repeatedly kept alluding to the fact that, ‘You don’t know the whole story,’ and, indeed, there is much more behind all of this. We’re asked to believe that the 21 witnesses, persons or persons otherwise related to the case in some close way, with some information, privy to some conversations, all of whom met violent deaths, were part of a colossal coincidence, like the one the Washington Post was talking about. That later on, in 1978, a second round of killings started after the House Select Committee investigation, sixteen more dying violently. One of those sixteen was George de Mohrenschildt, killed by a gun blast to the head 3 hours after a House Assassinations Committee investigator tried to contact him to set up an interview. George de Mohrenschildt was not only close to Oswald, but in his telephone book there was found an insert to George ‘Pappy’ Bush; he was a close friend of George Bush and there was a correspondence between them. The sheriff’s office in Palm County, Florida, found that his shooting was ‘very strange,’ and it was ruled a suicide. William Sullivan, a third guy in the FBI, who was supposed to appear before the House committee, was shot outside his home by a man who claimed to have mistaken him for a deer and was charged with a misdemeanor. Sam Giancana died from natural causes when his heart stopped beating after a bullet went through it, one day before he was to testify about mob and CIA connections, while under government protection. There are linkages between the CIA and mob families. After all, the mob can do the kind of dirty things that the CIA may sometimes want them to do…I have a whole bunch of other things. And I find I’ve run out of time.”
“Keep going! keep going!” the audience shouts.
“The people have spoken. There are even some on the left, like Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn, who argue that interest in the assassination comes from a ‘Kennedy revival,’ a ‘Camelot yearning for a lost messiah.’ Cockburn, Chomsky, and others challenge the notion that Kennedy was assassinated for intending to withdraw from Vietnam or undo the CIA or end the Cold War. These things couldn’t have led to his downfall because they weren’t true. Kennedy was a cold warrior, a counterinsurgent who wanted a military withdrawal from Vietnam only with victory. Chomsky, Cockburn, and others have also claimed that the change of administration that came with JFK’s assassination had no large-scale effect on policy, or even tactics. In other words, if Kennedy had lived, he likely would have fabricated a Tonkin Gulf casus belli; he would have introduced ground troops and a massive land war, as Lyndon Johnson did; he would have engaged in merciless B-52 carpet bombings of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, as Richard Nixon did; and he would have risked destroying his own electoral base, proving himself a mass murderer as bad as Nixon. Chomsky and Cockburn don’t tell us how they know all this, but we do know is that Robert Kennedy became an antiwar critic, broke with the Johnson administration, and he said that his brother’s administration had made terrible mistakes. John Kennedy, in fact, observed Cambodian neutrality and negotiated a ceasefire and coalition government in Laos, which the CIA refused to honor. They preferred to back a right-wing faction that continued the war.
Chomsky says much about troop withdrawal. He just wrote a whole book on this, Rethinking Camelot. But he says very little about troop escalation other than to offer Roger Hilsman’s speculation that Kennedy might well have introduced U.S. ground troops in the South Vietnam. In fact, Hilsman noted in the New York Times not long ago that in 1963 Kennedy was the only person in his administration who opposed the introduction of U.S. ground troops. He was the only obstacle to an escalation of the war.
Whether or not there are certain left analysts who think Kennedy was or wasn’t a progressive or liberal and thinks that the CIA had no reason to kill him or other people had no reason to be dissatisfied with him, the fact is that entrenched interests are notorious for not seeing the world the same way that left analysts do. In 1963, people in right-wing circles, including elements in various intelligence organizations, didn’t believe Kennedy could be trusted with the nation’s future. Some months ago on a San Francisco talk show, I heard a guy come on who said, ‘I never said this before, it’s the first time I’m saying it. But I worked for Army intelligence, and in 1963 I was in Japan. The accepted word then was that Kennedy would be killed because he was messing too much with the intelligence community. And when word came of his death, all I could hear were delighted comments like “We got the bastard.”’ JFK’s enemies fixed on his refusal to provide air coverage to the Bay of Pigs, his refusal to go in with U.S. forces, his unwillingness to launch another invasion of Cuba, his no-invasion-of-Cuba guarantee to Khrushchev, his atmospheric test ban treaty with Moscow, his American University speech calling for re-examination of our Cold War attitudes towards the Soviet Union, his unwillingness to send ground forces in a massive form into Vietnam, his antitrust suit against General Electric, his fight with U.S. Steel over price increases, his challenge to the Federal Reserve Board, his warm reception at labor conventions, his call for racial equality and responsiveness to civil rights leaders, and his talk of moving forward to a ‘New Frontier.’
I disagree with people who say that the Warren Commission did a hasty, slipshod job. The Commission sat for 51 long sessions over a period of several months, and compiled 26 volumes of testimony and evidence, with the investigative resources of the FBI and CIA at its command. Far from being hasty and slipshod, it painstakingly crafted theories that moved toward its foreordained conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin. It framed an argument and moved unfailingly to fulfill that argument. It failed to call witnesses who saw something different from what it wanted to hear, who saw – who not only heard but who saw – people on the grassy knoll shooting. It ignored or reinterpreted what little conflicting testimony crept into its proceedings. All this took deliberate and painstaking effort. But the American public hasn’t bought the official explanation: 78% say they believe there was a conspiracy. Chomsky and Cockburn tell us we mustn’t reduce great developments in history to conspiracy, for then we lose sight of institutions, class, and other systemic factors of American capitalism. I don’t need them to tell me about systemic factors in American capitalism – I use a structural analysis in all my writings. Besides, in investigating the JFK conspiracy we’re hitting upon the nature of state power in what’s supposed to be a democracy. Conspiracy isn’t something that’s in contradistinction to structural analysis; it’s part of it. The ruling elites will use conspiracy or legitimacy, they’ll finance elections, use publicity campaigns, set up liberal-ish organizations and alternative trade-union movements, and use assassins or death squads. They’ll use every conceivable thing there is. And this was one of the things they used. When they had someone who was giving them trouble, when they had someone who was standing in their path because he was too bright and too shiny, and when they had an agenda to save southeast Asia from communism, they killed one of their own.
That’s a tremendous and startling revelation, opening the eyes of the American public to the kind of a gangster government and national security state we really have in this country and what it does around the world. ‘The great continuities of corporate and class interest’ – Cockburn’s phrase – don’t happen of their own accord. There’s a conscious interest being pursued here, and these events are created by policymakers intentionally pursuing specific interests. It’s the essence of the state and the function of state institutions to act consciously to create and recreate the conditions of politico-economic hegemony. That’s what it’s there for. To achieve their goals, state leaders, especially those within the national security state, will resort to every necessary form of mass manipulation, deception, and violence, even against one of their own whom they’ve come to see as a liability.
Our interest in this is born of democratic struggle – a desire to know what’s going on, a desire to have rulers who are worthy of our name and the name of democracy. Thank you.”
I would add as an anarchist that we also have the alternative of self-rule – no “rulers.” ‘Cause that’s where the trouble starts.
I also want to add that all of this reminds me very strongly of the TV series “Homeland,” which I’ve been watching with a friend. The show also reveals, dramatically, the amorality of the CIA, which will do anything, including attacking one of its own, to maintain the bare power of the United States, domestically and around the world, and to maintain its own power, or the power of its current director, as well. Not an institution compatible with democracy. I assume the FBI is the same, along with all entities charged with “national security,” which of course involves lots of secrets.
When I tell my friends I wouldn’t vote for Hillary in a million years, they warn me that Donald Trump’s worse, and suggest I vote for the “lesser evil.” First, I stopped doing that years ago on the grounds that I’m not responsible for our atrocious good cop/bad cop electoral system. Second, I live in a state that hasn’t gone Republican in many years, and votes for president are counted by state. Third, as John Pilger wrote yesterday on newmatilda.com, Hillary could be way worse than Trump. And she’s a known quantity – she will do the things listed below. The reason Trump’s scary is that he’s an unknown quantity.
Read the following, and see what you think.
John Pilger: Why Hillary Clinton Is More Dangerous Than Donald Trump
I’ve been filming in the Marshall Islands, and whenever I tell people where I’ve been, they ask where it is. If I offer a clue by referring to “Bikini,” they ask if I mean the swimsuit. Few are aware that the bikini swimsuit was named to celebrate the nuclear explosions that destroyed Bikini Island. Sixty-six nuclear devices were exploded by the United States in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 – the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for twelve years.
Bikini is silent today – mutated and contaminated. Palm trees grow in a strange grid formation, nothing moves, and there are no birds. The headstones in the old cemetery are alive with radiation. My shoes registered “unsafe” on a Geiger counter.
Standing on the beach, I watched the emerald green of the Pacific fall away into a vast black hole. This was the crater left by the hydrogen bomb they called “Bravo.” The explosion poisoned people and their environment for hundreds of miles, perhaps forever.
On my return journey, I stopped at Honolulu airport and noticed an American magazine called Women’s Health. On the cover was a smiling woman in a bikini, and the headline: “You, too, can have a bikini body.” A few days earlier, in the Marshall Islands, I’d interviewed women who had very different “bikini bodies;” each had suffered life-threatening cancers. And unlike the smiling woman in the magazine, all of them were impoverished: the victims and guinea pigs of a rapacious superpower more dangerous today than ever.
I relate this experience as a warning and to interrupt a distraction that has consumed so many of us. The founder of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, described this phenomenon as “the manipulation of the habits and opinions” of democratic societies. He called it an “invisible government.”
How many people are aware that a world war has begun? At present, it is a war of propaganda, of lies and distraction, but this can change instantaneously with the first mistaken order, the first missile.
In 2009, President Obama stood before an adoring crowd in Prague, pledging to make “the world free from nuclear weapons.” People cheered and cried, and a torrent of platitudes flowed from the media. He was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was all fake. He was lying. The Obama administration has built more nuclear weapons, more nuclear warheads, more nuclear delivery systems, and more nuclear factories. Nuclear warhead spending alone has risen higher under Obama than under any American president. The cost over thirty years is more than $1 trillion.
A mini nuclear bomb, the B61 Model 12, is planned. General James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of it, “Going smaller [makes using this nuclear] weapon more thinkable.”
In the last 18 months, the greatest build-up of military forces since World War II – led by the United States – is taking place along Russia’s western frontier. Not since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union have foreign troops presented such a demonstrable threat to Russia.
Ukraine – once part of the Soviet Union – has become a CIA theme park. Having orchestrated a coup in Kiev, Washington effectively controls a regime that’s next door and hostile to Russia: a regime literally rotten with Nazis. Prominent parliamentary figures in Ukraine are the political descendants of the notorious OUN and UPA fascists. They openly praise Hitler and call for the persecution and expulsion of the Russian-speaking minority. This is seldom news in the West, or it’s inverted to suppress the truth. In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – next door to Russia – the US is deploying combat troops, tanks, and heavy weapons, an extreme provocation of the world’s second nuclear power.
What makes the prospect of nuclear war even more dangerous is a parallel campaign against China. Seldom a day passes when China isn’t elevated to the status of a “threat.” According to Admiral Harry Harris, the US Pacific commander, China is “building a great wall of sand in the South China Sea.” What he’s referring to is China building airstrips in the Spratly Islands, also claimed by the Philippines ever since Washington pressured and bribed the government in Manila and the Pentagon launched a propaganda campaign called “freedom of navigation.” This means freedom for American warships to patrol and dominate the coastal waters of China. Try to imagine the American reaction if Chinese warships did the same off the coast of California.
In my film “The War You Don’t See,” I interviewed journalists in America and Britain like Dan Rather. All of them said that had journalists and broadcasters done their job and questioned the propaganda that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction; and had the lies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair not been amplified and echoed by journalists, the 2003 invasion of Iraq might not have happened, and hundreds of thousands of men, women and children would be alive today.
The propaganda laying the ground for a war against Russia and/or China is no different in principle. To my knowledge, no journalist in the Western “mainstream” asks why China is building airstrips in the South China Sea. The answer ought to be glaringly obvious. The United States is encircling China with a network of bases, with ballistic missiles, battle groups, and nuclear bombers. This lethal arc extends from Australia to the Marianas, Marshalls, and Guam, to the Philippines, Thailand, Okinawa, Korea, and across Eurasia to Afghanistan and India. America is tightening a noose around the neck of China. This isn’t news. Silence by media, war by media.
In 2015, in high secrecy, the US and Australia staged the biggest single air-sea military exercise in recent history, Talisman Sabre. Its aim was to rehearse an Air-Sea Battle Plan, blocking sea lanes to cut off China’s access to oil, gas and other vital raw materials from the Middle East and Africa.
In the circus known as the American presidential campaign, Donald Trump is being presented as a lunatic, a fascist. He’s certainly odious; but he’s also a media hate figure, which should arouse our skepticism. Trump’s views on migration are grotesque, but no more grotesque than those of David Cameron. It isn’t Trump who’s the Great Deporter from the United States, but the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama.
According to one liberal commentator, Trump’s “unleashing the dark forces of violence” in the United States. Unleashing them? This is the country where toddlers shoot their mothers and the police wage a murderous war against black Americans. This is the country that’s attacked and sought to overthrow more than 50 governments, many of them democracies, and bombed from Asia to the Middle East, causing the deaths and dispossession of millions of people. No other country has such a record of violence. And most of America’s wars – almost all of them against defenseless countries – have been launched by liberal Democratic presidents: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama.
In 1947, a series of National Security Council directives described the paramount aim of American foreign policy as “a world substantially made over in [America’s] own image.” The ideology was messianic Americanism. We were all Americans, or else. Heretics would be converted, subverted, bribed, smeared, or crushed.
Donald Trump’s a symptom of this, but he’s also a maverick. He calls the invasion of Iraq a crime, and doesn’t want to go to war with Russia or China. The danger to the rest of us isn’t Trump, but Hillary Clinton. She’s no maverick – she embodies the resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted “exceptionalism” is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face. As presidential election day draws near, she’ll be hailed as the first female president, regardless of her crimes and lies, just as Barack Obama was lauded as the first black president and liberals swallowed his nonsense about “hope.”
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran with nuclear weapons. As Secretary of State under Obama, she participated in the overthrow of the democratic government of Honduras. Her contribution to the destruction of Libya in 2011 was almost gleeful. When the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was publicly sodomized with a knife – a murder made possible by American logistics – Clinton gloated over his death: “We came, we saw, he died.” One of Clinton’s closest allies is Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, who’s attacked young women for not supporting “Hillary.” This is the same Madeleine Albright who infamously celebrated on TV the death of half a million Iraqi children as “worth it.”
Among Clinton’s biggest backers are the Israel lobby and the arms companies that fuel the violence in the Middle East. She and her husband have received a fortune from Wall Street. And yet, she’s about to be ordained the women’s candidate, opponent of Trump, the official demon. Her supporters include distinguished feminists like Gloria Steinem.
A generation ago, a post-modern cult now known as “identity politics” stopped many intelligent, liberal-minded people from examining the causes and individuals they supported. Self-absorption, a kind of “me-ism”, became the new zeitgeist in privileged western societies, signaling the demise of great collective movements against war, social injustice, inequality, racism, and sexism.
Today, the long sleep may be over. The young are stirring again. The thousands in Britain who supported Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader are part of this awakening, as are those rallying to support Bernie Sanders.
What’s happened to the great tradition of popular direct action, unfettered to parties? Where’s the courage, imagination and commitment required to begin the long journey to a better, just and peaceful world? Where are the dissidents in art, film, the theater, literature? Where are those who will shatter the silence? Or do we wait until the first nuclear missile is fired?
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything has already convinced many of us that the capitalist system, which undermines democracy by concentrating power in the hands of the 1%, is incapable of dealing effectively with climate change – or any other serious problem. The latest book by Robert McChesney and John Nichols, People Get Ready: The Fight Against A Jobless Economy and A Citizenless Democracy, adds another threat to that list. Apparently, automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics are about to come into their own in such a big way that, unless we can change the way political and economic decisions are made in this country, only half of us will be employed by mid-century.
As the authors say, “Many Americans have experienced an economic nightmare, in which millions of hardworking men and women have been cast into a financial abyss, struggling with joblessness, home foreclosures, and personal bankruptcy.” And this economic and political inequality pre-dated the 2008 ‘Great Recession,’ creating different life expectancies for the poorest and least-educated and eroding our much vaunted equality before the law. As the authors say, “The principle that all are equal before the law – with no one above it or below it – has become a sick joke in a society where unarmed African-American men and women are shot down by police officers while the billionaire bankers who crashed the global economy, and fund both political parties, have gone scot-free and even been financially rewarded despite their illegal behavior. This is the circumstance in which the United States finds itself as a digital revolution every bit as sweeping as the industrial revolution takes hold.
Some technology experts expect a loss of 70% of existing jobs in the next three decades, with little hope that many new jobs will emerge to replace what’s lost. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Randall Collins expects an unemployment rate in the neighborhood of 50%. At the very least what’s about to transpire is going to put severe downward pressure on wages and working conditions, which already are deplorable. Most of the world’s population is becoming disposable and irrelevant from the standpoint of capital.
The great issue of the coming generation must be expanding democratic values and principles – building out the democratic infrastructure, if you will – into economic institutions and practices. At the same time, we can expect movements born of immense anger and frustration on the political right (the connection between mass unemployment and fascism is almost universally accepted – it was only with the skyrocketing unemployment of the early 1930s that the Nazi Party in Germany moved from the margins to power).” The authors go on to explain that, under fascism, big business partnered with government to create full employment based on gearing up for war (sound familiar?). Discipline in the factories and political stability were maintained by a political dictatorship, which used tactics ranging from the suppression of trade unions to the concentration camp.
American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood how this worked, saying in 1938 that “The liberty of a democracy isn’t safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, group, or any other private power.”
Getting back to artificial intelligence, the authors quote a New York Times article indicating that it “has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time, with machines now able to learn, not just follow programmed instructions, and to respond to human language and movement.” They add that “computers can now access an unimaginably large body of stored information and process it almost instantaneously. Even highly trained analysts and other so-called knowledge workers are seeing their work circumscribed by decision-support systems that turn the making of judgments into a data-processing routine. Much of this ‘big data’ is accumulated in the ‘cloud,’ a group of enormous server farms controlled by a handful of massive corporations like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Cloud computing is also ideal for harnessing freelance workers to replace higher-paid labor, and for the ‘Internet of Things,’ a term for the billions of human-made devices connected to each other on a universal computing infrastructure. Each of these devices has its own Internet address, and will communicate with other devices more than with people. ‘Engineers expect so many of these connected devices,’ Philip Howard writes in his book Pax Technica, ‘that they’ve reconfigured the addressing system to allow for 2 to the 128th power addresses – enough for each atom on the face of the earth to have 100 addresses.’
Much of the economy will run through the Internet of Things. Cisco Systems forecasts that by 2022 it will generate $14.4 trillion in cost savings and revenue. A large share of these savings will come by eliminating jobs. In conjunction with all this, an open source Robot Operating System (ROS) ‘is rapidly becoming the standard software platform for robotics development,’ according to Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots. ‘The history of computing shows pretty clearly that once a standard operating system, together with inexpensive and easy-to-use programming tools, becomes available, an explosion of application software is likely to follow.’ What does this mean? ‘It’s a good bet,” Ford says, that ‘we’re, in all likelihood at the leading edge of an explosive wave of innovation that will ultimately produce robots geared to nearly every conceivable commercial, industrial, and consumer task.’ Robots will be not only in factories, they’ll be everywhere. Then there’s 3D printing, which Jeremy Rifkin describes as the ‘manufacturing’ model that accompanies an Internet of Things economy. In earlier stages of automation, Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, explains, firms automated physical work but required humans to be the control system. Now the control system can be automated.
The four most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson, cashier, food and beverage server, and office clerk – jobs are highly susceptible to automation. Ford sees 50% of fast-food jobs disappearing, and argues it is likely there will be ‘explosive growth of the fully automated self-service retail sector – in other words, intelligent vending machines and kiosks.’ The two sectors of the economy harboring the most professionals, health care and education, are also under increasing pressure to cut costs, and expert machines are poised to take over. The last remaining labor-intensive areas in agriculture – primarily picking – are susceptible to automation as well.
In China robot installations have been increasing at a 25% annual rate since 2005. It still has only thirty robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees compared to South Korea (437), Japan (323), Germany (282), and the United States (152), however, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Consider the example of Foxconn, the largest maker of electronic components in the world and the largest exporter in China. Foxconn is single-handedly responsible for manufacturing nearly half of the consumer technology in the world, and much, if not most, of what Americans own in terms of smartphones and tablet computers. It has annual revenues of $135 billion and is the third-largest employer in the world, with 1.2 million workers. Foxconn grabbed its market share by providing a low-paid and heavily exploited workforce for Western firms. Soon after its Apple factories received worldwide attention following a string of suicides by workers in 2010, the company began an aggressive program to replace many, or most, of its workers with a robots. Foxconn CEO Terry Gou said in 2015 that he expects robots and automation to be doing 70% of the company’s assembly-line work by 2018.
A few low-tech industries, like garment manufacturing, have been moving from China to places that still have even lower wages, like Bangladesh, but many industries, particularly electronics, are still moving factories to China. That’s because so many of the parts suppliers are now in China that it’s often more costly to do assembly elsewhere. So although building robots to replace workers isn’t cheap, a growing number of companies are finding it less costly than either paying ever-higher wages in China or moving to another country.
The profit system pushes firms to automate as much as possible, and to de-skill remaining jobs as well. But when all firms automate and de-skill, there’s substantially less demand for their products, and the economy stagnates. In our view, for this reason and because of the immense suffering thus produced, the capitalist economic needs to be fundamentally reformed, if not replaced. The number of true believers who think leaving firms and wealthy investors alone to do as they wish will solve all problems is shrinking, and is, after all, a faith-based position. There are also some with a similar faith that technology is innately progressive and powerful enough to solve capitalism’s problems. But researching this book, what’s been striking to us is that many, perhaps most, of the people who have studied these matters recognize that the system, left alone, won’t right itself. Structural changes are needed, and government will have to play the central role in determining and instituting them. The solutions to the employment and economic crises in the United States are political. How will these technologies be deployed, and how will the wealth they generate be distributed?”
The authors review our country’s recent history, and come up with some interesting facts. For example, “since Dwight Eisenhower was president, the top federal income tax rate has collapsed from 91% to 39.6%,” with, as we know, most corporations and rich individuals paying even less than that thanks to ‘loopholes.’
“Progressive tax policy was part of the democratic infrastructure.”
Global trade agreements like NAFTA and the proposed TPP are similarly undemocratic and harmful to workers and the environment, preventing states and localities from passing corrective legislation. They don’t even benefit the national economy in terms of trade deficits – they’re for the benefit of large multinational corporations. The authors describe how Barack Obama spoke out against these kinds of “back-room deals” as a candidate, then reversed himself “within days of assembling the delegates he needed,” and as president “signed sweeping free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama,” and is now pushing for “the biggest trade agreements since NAFTA: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asian countries and a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe.
Nothing says ‘shut up and give up’ quite so effectively as a candidate who tells the people he’ll champion their interests on a complex issue that matters greatly to them and then, upon his nomination and election, betrays them. It bakes in cynicism about politics and about what’s possible in a democracy, signaling that fundamental issues are off the table. Meanwhile, the elites need only convince a handful of policymakers who are, for reasons of campaign finance, eternally beholden to them.
The news media also play a crucial role in keeping democracy citizenless. Mainstream journalism, even at its best, generally takes its cues for what the range of legitimate debate is on an issue by what political and economic elites say about it, rarely providing critical analysis. Political journalism, with a few fine exceptions, is mostly pointless gossip and nutritionless assessments of spin and polls. During political campaigns, it hits rock bottom, playing along with the fiction that elections represent the will of the people, and that those elected will protect the interests of the voters.
Understandably, voter participation in the United States is declining to record-low levels. Despite all that was at stake in the 2014 midterm elections in the United States – control of the US Senate and a majority of governorships and state legislative seats – only a third of those eligible voted. Non-voters were, on balance, younger and poorer, meaning that a small, older and relatively affluent minority picked the winners and defined the governance of the most powerful country in the world for the next two years. All of this is well understood in Republican circles, where repressing the voter turnout, especially among younger, poorer, and non-white citizens, has become job one for state governments over the past six years. In the 2014 election the Republicans won a whopping 59-seat advantage over the Democrats in the 435-member House of Representatives. Thanks to gerrymandered district lines, drawn largely by Republicans who won control of statehouses in the low-voter-turnout off-year elections of 2010, the Republicans were able to win 57% of the House seats with only 51% of the total votes for the 435 House races. The 2014 Republican House candidates nationwide – winners and losers – received the votes of only 16% of the voting-age citizens of the United States, less than 1 in 6 Americans. Things were around the same in the Senate, where all the Republican candidates for the hundred Senate seats received votes from just under 21% of the voting-age population, or one in five Americans. Matters were only marginally better for the Democrats the last time they controlled both the House and the Senate, following the 2008 election. The party’s candidates received the votes of 26 and 28% of the voting-age population, respectively, or just more than one in four.
Groups that monitor voter turnout, such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, regularly rank the United States near rock bottom on global turnout measures. Voter turnout in the United States is less than half that of other countries with established electoral systems. The 2013 German elections drew a turnout of 72%. In France, turnout in the 2012 presidential election topped 80%. In Sweden, turnout for the 2014 parliamentary elections was 86%. The United States is barely on the democratic grid when it comes to representative democracy. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks it 120th in the world for turnout by eligible voters. Turnout used to be higher – often above 70% in presidential and midterm elections during the 19th century and close to 65% among eligible voters as recently as 1960. But the research of the United States Election Project reveals a marked decline since the 1970s. Americans tend to vote more during periods of crisis and when they believe their vote might make their lives better. For example, FDR won the presidency in 1936 not by convincing Republicans to switch teams, but because in the crisis of the Depression millions of Americans came to the polls for the first time to vote for him. This means that if the promise of American democracy is ever going to realized, it will not be because the dwindling number of mostly older, whiter, and richer voters start to cast ballots for different candidates and parties – it’ll be because of a surge of new voters. That means guaranteeing the right to vote for all voting-age Americans, making it the aggressive policy of the government to do all it can to encourage people to vote, and to ensure that elections decide essential issues that are now held off the table. No change for the better will come within the narrow confines of the low-information, low-engagement, low-turnout politics we have now.”
Turning to our hallowed Constitution, the authors quote political scientist Robert Dahl, who wrote that a constitution must “‘maintain political institutions that foster political equality among citizens and all the necessary rights, liberties, and opportunities essential to the existence of political equality and democratic governance.’ Constitutions aren’t the only place these matters are determined, but they’re central to the process. The framers of our Constitution flunked Dahl’s test miserably. First, African Americans and Native Americans were written out of the picture as potential citizens. In fact, Gerald Horne and other historians make a convincing argument that it was fear of the burgeoning British anti-slavery movement that motivated slaveholders and merchants dependent on slavery to throw in with the American revolution.
Even when looking strictly at the white male population as the relevant group of prospective citizens, as the framers did, the Constitution is a dubious product for democracy. Its intent wasn’t to promote democracy, which the founders feared as ‘mob rule;’ it was to prevent it. The government was originated and organized upon the initiative and primarily in the interest of the mercantile and wealthy classes, even though the revolution had been fought by the poor and those of limited means, inspired by the radical democratic words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense. The federal Constitution was in significant part a reaction to uprisings (like Shay’s Rebellion) by this class, as well as by the more democratic state constitutions. The most radical, Pennsylvania’s, was written in the summer and fall of 1776 by a group that included Paine and Benjamin Franklin. Much of the momentum for it came from rural farmers, the poor, artisans, and the mid-level merchants of Philadelphia, who by 1775 had become, as William Hogeland puts it, ‘a powerful street constituency in favor of American independence as a way to promote economic equality.’ The Pennsylvania constitution allowed for universal male suffrage and the election of a powerful unicameral legislature for one-year terms. The judiciary and executive branches were weak, and no bill could become law after being passed until it had been in print for a year so citizens could respond to it. It also called for the state to promote public education and the establishment of universities. The first assemblies elected under this constitution ‘began passing laws to regulate wealth and foster economic development for ordinary people.’ Laws were passed to restrict monopolies, equalize taxes, and abolish slavery.”
As the authors point out, the US Constitution was also written way before the development of modern capitalism. It was also “drafted during an era in which the notions that the endless increase of one’s wealth and property is good both for society and a person’s inherent right – central, even necessary, postulates of a modern capitalist society – were considered dubious or even dangerous. As Franklin put it in 1783: ‘All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.’ As corporations began to proliferate in the first few decades of the 19th century, the framers, not to mention many others, while recognizing corporations’ economic advantages, were immediately and deeply concerned about the ability and commercial incentive of corporations to corrupt and destroy the political system. In 1816 Jefferson wrote: ‘I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws.’”
The founders also had a much more proactive concept of the first amendment right to freedom of speech and a free press than we do now. “For Jefferson, just having the right to speak without government censorship is a necessary but insufficient condition for a free press, and therefore democracy, which also demands that there be a literate public, a viable press system, and that people have easy access to this press. Jefferson and Madison argued for such a free press as a check on militarism, secrecy, corruption, inequality, and empire. Near the end of his life, Madison observed, ‘A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.’ There was no sense in this period (and for a long time thereafter) that as long as the government didn’t censor newspapers, private citizens or businesses would have sufficient incentive to produce a satisfactory press. Indeed, the Constitution’s creation of the Post Office was above all else a commitment to seeing that newspapers were distributed effectively and inexpensively. For the first century of American history most newspapers were distributed by the mails, almost for free. It was a conscious subsidy by the federal government to make it economically viable for many more newspapers to exist than would otherwise be the case. Throughout much of the 19th century, newspapers constituted more than 90% of the Post Office’s weighted traffic, yet provided only about 10% of its revenues.
This recognition of the constitutional commitment to a free press declined by the end of the 19th century: newspaper publishing became extremely lucrative and the subsidies disappeared or came to play a smaller role. But today, with the emergence of the Internet, the commercial journalism model based upon advertising providing the lion’s share of the revenues is disintegrating. There are far fewer paid reporters and editors on a per capita basis in both old and new media than there were 25 years ago, and much important news goes unreported. It’s Jefferson’s and Madison’s worst nightmare, and since there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest a commercial solution to the problem, it’s time for Americans to embrace their full constitutional rights and demand policies and subsidies to create a viable, competitive, independent, and uncensored news media. As the framers understood, nothing remotely close to a democratic society can exist unless this happens.
The Constitution has been amended only sixteen times in the past 220 years; two of those were the prohibition amendments that cancelled each other out, and six other amendments were largely noncontroversial bookkeeping measures. Not only is it out of date, constitutional scholar Daniel Lazare writes, but ‘by imposing an unchangeable political structure on generations that have never had an opportunity to vote on the system as a whole, it amounts to a dictatorship of the past over the present.’ Because it’s ‘virtually impossible to alter the political structure in any fundamental way,’ Lazare adds, Americans have ‘one of the most unresponsive political systems this side of the former Soviet Union.’ Jefferson would have agreed. ‘Each generation is as independent as the one preceding. It has then a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness,’ he wrote in 1816. He called on the Constitution to be amended so that there would be a new constitutional convention every ‘nineteen or twenty years,’ such that every generation would have the opportunity to create its own politics and governance. Again, the states provide a rich alternative approach in American history; unlike the federal Constitution, popular involvement in state constitutions is encouraged. This began back in the 1770s and 1780s, when states were routinely meeting to draft and redraft constitutions, and has continued to this day. By 2005 the fifty states had held a combined 233 constitutional conventions, adopted 146 different constitutions, and ratified over 6,000 amendments to their existing constitutions. In general, what one finds when examining state constitutions is that Americans have used their constitutions to demand protective and interventionist government, beginning in the mid-19th century.”
The authors remind us of another important part of American history, noting that when “FDR unveiled the Four Freedoms in his January 1941 State of the Union Address to Congress, he offered up four universal principles for a free and democratic world, which he hoped would define the war against the Axis powers: ‘In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.’
Three years later, in his 1944 State of the Union Address, with victory in the war all but certain, FDR introduced the idea of an economic bill of rights, or what has been called the Second Bill of Rights. ‘It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. We have accepted a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are: the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; and the right to a good education. All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and wellbeing.’
In effect, FDR is saying that unemployment and poverty should be unconstitutional, a massive amount of democratic infrastructure must be created, and monopolistic big business is now officially a dubious force. Instead of seeking constitutional amendments, he asked Congress to ‘explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights.’ So close was Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican candidate for president, to FDR, including on the component parts of the Economic Bill of Rights, that the two of them broached the idea of forming a new political party to unite all the liberals in the nation, and leave the Southern segregationists and big business ‘reactionaries’ to have their own party. Alas, Willkie died suddenly in October 1944 at age fifty-two, and FDR died six months later. With FDR in poor health and then gone, the Second Bill of Rights never got anywhere in Congress. Vice President Henry Wallace never wavered, however; he argued in 1944 that to defeat fascism in the postwar era, the great benefits of the ‘immense and growing volume of scientific research, mechanical invention and management technique’ needed not only to be promoted, but the benefits shared across society. The last hurrah for the issues in the Second Bill of Rights came in 1948. Wallace bid for the presidency on the ticket of a new Progressive Party, opposing President Harry Truman and more cautious Democrats on a third-party platform that not only embraced the economic bill of rights but included the Four Freedoms’ call for demilitarization and an end to Jim Crow. Polls showed Wallace to be competitive early on, but his numbers declined with relentless redbaiting attacks. By the end of the 1940s the country experienced a massive red scare that ended labor’s surge, and established a continual warfare economy. By 1949, if not earlier, to advocate loudly what the president had proposed in January 1944 might be enough to cost a person her job. The weltanschauung had turned on a dime. Still, most of the existing New Deal reforms and much of the democratic infrastructure were too popular to be rolled back, and they provided the foundation for the next democratic surge in the 1960s.
The influence of the Second Bill of Rights played a major role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, finalized in 1948 under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and publicly endorsed by American officials at the time. The great political scientist Robert Dahl once asked this rhetorical question: ‘If our constitution is as good as most Americans seem to think it is, why haven’t other democratic countries copied it?’ Well, we now know they have copied it and been inspired by it – only it was the one generated in the 1940s that was never quite made part of the federal Constitution.”
Skipping ahead to 1972, the authors write that “the Democratic Party nominated George McGovern as its presidential candidate after a successful grassroots insurgency campaign. McGovern, who’d supported Henry Wallace’s campaign for president in 1948, was probably the most left-wing major party presidential candidate in US history. ‘Our traditions, our history, our Constitution, our lives, all say that America belongs to its people. But the people no longer believe it,’ the platform began. ‘They feel that the government is run for the privileged few rather than for the many – and they’re right.’ It went on to call for ‘a guaranteed job for all Americans, with government providing employment if necessary at a living wage; huge expansion of public spending projects to rebuild cities, create mass transportation networks, address pollution, and build housing for the poor; progressive tax reform to generate equitable distribution of income and wealth; stepped-up antitrust action to break-up “shared monopolies” like those found with the massive corporations that dominated the automobile, steel, and tire industries; establishing a national economic commission to examine the role of large multinational corporations in the economy to see if federal chartering of corporations is necessary to reduce their influence; policies to directly attack the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands; extension of trade union rights to workers in the nonprofit and public sector; establishing universal comprehensive health insurance controlled, financed, and administered by the federal government so all Americans are covered at all times; supporting equalization of spending among school districts to end the disparity between the caliber of public education based upon family income; recognizing human rights of prisoners and fundamentally restructuring prisons to make them effective rehabilitation facilities; reestablishing the congressional role in military affairs, reducing military spending, and ending secrecy, except where absolutely necessary; a total overhaul of the campaign-finance system with clear limits on donations to prevent candidates from being “dependent on large contributors who seek preferential treatment,” and an increase in public funding of elections; and universal voter registration by postcard, abolition of the Electoral College, and a run-off election for president if no candidate gets at least 40% of the vote.’
In short, the 1972 Democratic Party platform effectively called for the fulfillment of FDR’s and Henry Wallace’s anti-fascist democratic vision, along with addressing issues that had emerged since then. The Republicans positioned themselves to the right of the Democrats, but their platform was nothing like what would become de rigueur for the GOP by the 1980s. The basic contours of the welfare state were supported, and when Nixon won his landslide victory over McGovern it wasn’t a referendum on New Deal policies like Social Security, the right to form trade unions, or the more recent turns to environmental and consumer regulation. In fact, the Nixon administration (1969–1974) is noted for its passage of trailblazing environmental and consumer legislation, far more sweeping than anything that would follow. More than a few commentators have observed that on balance Nixon’s administration was well to the left of the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It wasn’t that Richard Nixon was a closet lefty; it was the nature of the times.
What drove both parties leftward were the social movements of the period, particularly the civil rights, student, antiwar, and black power movements, joined later by the women’s and environmental movements. Organized labor still aggressively supported liberal candidates for office, and some elements of it were strong proponents of civil rights, but it tended to be uncomfortable with criticism of the military-industrial complex and the war in Vietnam, and had little sympathy for the student left, black militants, or the ‘hippie’ counterculture. It was cool toward the 1972 McGovern campaign, despite that campaign’s having what was possibly the most pro-labor platform for a major party in US presidential election history.
Between 1969 and 1971 a spate of articles appeared in the business press and trade publications addressing the diminished prestige of business and the apparent embrace of socialist ideas by what seemed like a large segment of the population, especially young people. The most influential communication of this period, by a wide margin, was the Lewis Powell Memorandum of August 1971. It was a confidential memo, prepared for the US Chamber of Commerce and only distributed to a few score corporate executives and wealthy investors. ‘What we are dealing with is quite new in the history of America,’ Powell wrote. ‘The assault on the enterprise system, broadly based and consistently pursued, is gaining momentum and converts. Business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late.’ Powell called for a huge increase in the cash commitment of business, its trade associations, and the wealthy to changing the culture and making the media, universities, and schools more sympathetic to business and free enterprise. He also called for business to dramatically increase spending in the ‘political arena,’ through increased lobbying and attention to campaigns such that politicians from both parties are beholden to business interests.
In the early 1960s, corporate lobbyists were few and far between, but in the early 1970s businesses and trade associations increased their Washington lobbying efforts dramatically, and coordinated their activities. Where better to find insider lobbyists than from former members of Congress? In the early 1970s, 3% of retiring or exiting members became lobbyists; by 2012 the figure was more like 50%, with lobbyists often earning seven-figure incomes after their stint in ‘public service.’ And, thanks to a process initiated on the Supreme Court by Justice Lewis Powell in the late 1970s, beginning in 2010 the US Supreme Court overturned a century of legislation and jurisprudence and allowed, in effect, unlimited and unaccountable corporate and individual donations to political campaigns. With this newly shaped and decidedly less-democratic infrastructure, business domination and control of governance was all but guaranteed.
The Watergate scandal and an economic recession gave the Democrats overwhelming control of the Congress after the 1974 elections. The progressive wing of the Democratic party went on the offensive and in the middle of the 1970s advocated strongly for guaranteed full employment, tax reform to make the system more progressive, excess-profits taxes on large corporations, Ralph Nader’s proposal for a cabinet-level Department of Consumer Protection, same-day voter registration to encourage and increase turnout, labor-law reform to benefit unions, and national health insurance (Medicare for all), among other things. A few years later, the package of progressive legislation that had seemed likely to pass the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated in January 1977 went down to ringing defeat within two years thanks to business lobbies. Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential race to mark the ascension of this ‘neoliberal’ approach, though only a few short years earlier the prospect that someone with Reagan’s views might win a national election would have been seen as preposterous.
The Republican Party has moved steadily to the right since the 1970s, purging its entire liberal and moderate wings, and the Democratic Party has moved right as well. The Democratic Leadership Council founded by people like Bill Clinton made the party far more pro-business, pushing for deregulation, lower taxes on business and the rich, cutbacks in social services, and secretive trade deals that benefiting only large corporations and investors. Structural constraints on the political process and the lack of sufficient democratic infrastructure have prevented the development of viable third, fourth, and fifth parties with meaningful alternatives. In the past, when the United States has had great periods of conservatism where elite interests dominated, such as the original planter/merchant aristocracy, Southern slavery, the Gilded Age, and the 1920s, they were followed by reform periods dedicated to lessening inequality and corruption. By historical standards, the United States is long past due, by a good two decades, for such a reform moment. In our view, the evidence points to the deterioration of the democratic infrastructure as perhaps the key factor in delaying or preventing a new era of reform; people have little way to effectively participate in the governing process and they respond (or opt out of responding) accordingly. Until that changes, the paradox will only continue and deepen, despite a universal sense that the United States has entered into a period of crisis.
Still, there are signs that the roots of a new activism on behalf of economic democracy are growing underneath the corporate media radar. There was no movement for a $15-an-hour minimum wage when we were touring in 2010, and only the barest hints of one in 2013. Now that movement is everywhere. Movements like this aren’t as powerful as they will be, and they aren’t yet linked together. But the remarkable response to the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders suggests that the prospect for a transformational moment is real. The country has a more militant labor movement than at any time since the early 1970s, possibly even the ‘30s. Despite the lack of labor reporting by most major media, there are still almost 15 million union members in the United States. They’re under brutal assault by corporate-funded Republican governors and legislators – and, notably, a number of Democratic mayors – who seek to shut down the steadiest defenders of public services and public education in our politics. Yet, in states such as Missouri and West Virginia, workers have blocked anti-labor right-to-work laws. And in cities like Los Angeles and New York, and unexpected regions such as the Rio Grande Valley, unions are actually expanding their membership, especially among low-wage workers.
The country is also seeing the renewal of historic ideals of public and cooperative enterprise. New movements are taking on what Gar Alperovitz, the cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative, refers to as the ‘huge and agonizing long-term task’ of developing and popularizing alternative models for ownership and job creation, transforming the system over time, beginning in local communities where the pain is greatest.’ Along with renewing old ideals of worker ownership and consumer involvement, there are proposals to democratize finance, with public banking at the state and local levels (along the lines of the century-old and highly successful State Bank of North Dakota), and a coalition of unions and consumer groups is working to renew postal banking as a vehicle to strengthen the US Postal Service and provide necessary and responsible financial services to low-income and rural communities.
Along with the climate change and Black Lives Matter movements, the country also has the most vibrant crusade for constitutional reform in a century. More than 600 American communities have formally demanded congressional action to begin the process of undoing the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United, and McCutcheon decisions. They seek nothing less than a constitutional amendment that will renew the fundamental American premises that money is not speech, that corporations are not people, and that citizens and their elected representatives have a right to shape campaign finance laws to ensure that votes matter more than dollars. Sixteen states have formally requested action to amend the constitution. Millions of Americans have voted in referendums, signed petitions, and appeared before legislatures, city councils, and town boards to demand an electoral politics defined by ideas rather than the money power of self-interested billionaires and pay-to-play corporations.
The number of Americans actively involved in the work of addressing the economic and social and political challenges of this moment is enough to form a critical mass, but the various movements aren’t yet communicating with each other, and there’s still a tendency on the part of advocates to imagine that ‘their’ issue must be dealt with first. If history is any indicator, however, the defining and uniting issue will be economic.
Most writers assume capitalism is the basis for democracy and freedom, and that whatever happens in the future, the necessity of preserving current capitalism (or some sped-up version of it) all but trumps other concerns. Even the truest believers in capitalism, if they are honest with themselves, have to recognize, however, that this is a political gambit, a means for taking the biggest issues off the table. When we can’t have a wide-ranging debate about economics, concentrated economic power translates into power, period.
The one solution that has currency, and that’s promoted by scholars who have done much to identify the concerns outlined in this book (Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Martin Ford, among them) is the notion of a guaranteed annual income. The idea is that everyone gets a sufficient income, usually between ten and twenty thousand dollars annually, so that no one starves to death or goes homeless in an era where jobs become far more scarce. The sales pitch to the affluent sector of the population that will pay higher taxes to bankroll the program is twofold: (1) these tens of millions of unemployed people will spend this money on goods and services, so it will end up back in your pockets and make the economy stronger, and (2) unless the wealthy buy off the majority of the population, there will be extraordinary social turbulence that could make the 1930s look like a day at the beach.”
In addition, the authors believe that “certain functions should be removed from the market altogether. Make broadband Internet, healthcare, education, and extensive public transportation access free and ubiquitous, for example. Our economy would need to be radically transformed – off the drug of militarism, and having ended crony-capitalism policymaking, in order to provide all the elements of the economic bill of rights, and the transformation would need to be ongoing. Today’s circumstances also require that a few new protections be added to FDR’s list. For instance, the ancient sanction against corruption must be updated to guard against the privatization and outsourcing of public education and public responsibilities. It’s imperative to remove profiteering from the provision of public goods: education, municipal services, public safety, and the defense of the land from foreign threats. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that, as taxpayers and citizens, we can’t afford a prison-industrial complex,” especially one that doesn’t rehabilitate prisoners. “Likewise, having an ecology that can sustain human life isn’t some premium channel a society can select in addition to the democratic basic package. It’s the very foundation for human existence for all societies and must be regarded as such.
A full democratic infrastructure provides more than the right to vote; it provides economic and social security, a free flow of information, and absolute protection against discrimination and corruption so that every citizen – not just those who are wealthy – has the freedom to engage fully in the politics and governance of the nation. None of this presupposes a particular type of economy, yet all of it presupposes that every American will have the right to participate fully and meaningfully in determining what type of economy best serves her, and best frames the future. When a crisis causes a jolt, as will surely be the case with the technological and social transformations that are now unfolding, citizens must retain the power to put economic options on the table, and to embrace the best of those options.
The Constitution should also be clarified so that it sustains rather than throttles democracy. Do away with the Electoral College. Ban the practice of gerrymandering. Close the loophole that allows governors to appoint cronies to vacant Senate seats. Ask why America maintains a House of Lords–like Senate where, today, the vote of a member elected by 121,000 Wyomingites can cancel out the vote of a member elected by 7.8 million Californians. Consider electing members of the House to four-year terms that parallel those of the president, so that the popular will of 131 million voters in a presidential election can’t be stymied by 90 million voters in the next mid-term election. Object to any calculus that prevents a majority–African American District of Columbia and a majority–Hispanic Puerto Rico from becoming states. Reexamine barriers to popular participation, including those of poverty, ignorance, and incapacity.
Citizens also need to be in charge of the funding of a more democratic media system, beginning with supercharged funding of public broadcasting, robust support for community media, and substantial public investments in journalism as a public good.” The authors propose that “every American adult get a $200 voucher to donate to the nonprofit news media of her choice. Imagine if a public television station in a metropolitan area of a million people ill-served by existing media – which is to say any and every metropolitan area – managed to get 50,000 viewers to donate half of their Citizen News Voucher to help with the development of a newsroom to cover state and local elections and government. Imagine if most of those 50,000 viewers donated the other half of their Citizen News Vouchers, in combination with similar numbers of viewers from twenty more metropolitan areas, to develop an evening radio and cable news program along the lines of Amy Goodman’s ‘Democracy Now.’ The program would have close to $100 million to hire journalists to cover national and international issues. Let’s put it all online, with podcasts, apps, and alerts so that each of these initiatives is available to everyone, as news happens. A condition for getting the vouchers would be that everything produced be put online immediately for free, entering the public domain where anyone can use it as needed. Old media and new media would work together to produce journalism that matters, not relying on advertising, subscriptions, or the vagaries of the market. The people who need the information would be paying journalists to go out, get it, and deliver it to them.”
As it goes about the process of breaking up undemocratic corporate monopolies, a democratically elected government could also take over, own, and manage “industries in which it’s impossible to maintain effectively competitive conditions,” including banks ‘too big to fail.’
“We would link the elements of the democratic infrastructure already described to the development of what the United States has never really had: a national industrial policy focusing on creating and retaining meaningful and well-compensated work in all sectors of the economy; guarding against the development of monopolies that reduce competition and innovation, and that threaten small business; supporting research and development, especially in areas where investment is necessary but not necessarily profitable in the short term; working with private and public employers and communities to establish a proper balance between work and leisure; maintaining the planning, funding, and support networks needed to guarantee healthcare, disability, and retirement security for all, as well as the education, training, and transportation services that are required by 21st-century workers; encouraging economic development in industrial sectors and geographical areas that may not be immediately profitable, but have great social value; ensuring that workers have a voice in their workplaces and, through their unions; recognizing the value of public utilities and public services to the whole of the economy and society, and encouraging public ownership and cooperative development; guaranteeing that the benefits of technological advances are shared by all, and that changes in the workplace are made to ease economic and social burdens rather than merely to boost profits; requiring that trade policies benefit workers and the environment in the United States and the countries with which it trades; maintaining a steady commitment to environmental protection and climate justice; addressing the unique challenges faced by rural and urban Americans, and by people of color and immigrants who have suffered from historical discrimination and contemporary inequity; and establishing a national land-use policy that supports sustainable agriculture and the development of livable communities rather than sprawl and factory farming. The process would constantly evolve in a transparent and inclusive manner, with democratic oversight and governance. Another way of saying this is that economic planning needs to be democratized, popularized, and made accountable, and this democratic planning must be done locally, regionally, and nationally.
Imagine if Americans recognized that what’s terrifying isn’t automation technology, or the fact that everything’s going to change. What’s terrifying is that they have no say about the scope and character and direction of the change. What’s terrifying is that they can’t put proposals for a new economy on the table and make them the law of the land and the framework for our future. What’s terrifying is that the essential economic [and other] issues of the time aren’t the essential political issues of the time. Imagine if the people recognized that they must have a say or they’ll have nothing at all. And imagine if they were hooped together, finally and fully, across what were once considered lines of division. Imagine if the people were ready to demand a new Constitution, a new politics, and a new economy. Imagine if the people were ready, finally, to demand democracy – and all of the freedom, fairness, and human potential that extends from the moment when the profiteers and the pretenders are pushed aside and we, the people, forge our future.”
Collectively, right now, probably not. See my first real post on the “Read the Writing on the Wall” blog, in which I take you through a recent article on “The Death of Adulthood” (if it ever really existed) in American culture, and what real maturity might look like (from The Great Turning by David Korten). Writing on the Wall is at http://www.writingonthewalldotme.wordpress.com.