The Post-Racial America That Was Not: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the American Justice System
In July 2013, in what might be the most significant court case dealing with race in the US since Rodney King (1992) and O.J. Simpson (1994), George Zimmerman, a twenty-eight-year-old self-styled vigilante neighborhood watchman in Florida of mixed-race Hispanic descent, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old unarmed black teenager, in February of 2012.
On July 19, President Obama weighed in on the matter of race relations in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict and talked about the context in which many black Americans see this case. Here is the video recording, from the White House’s official YouTube-channel:
It did not take long, until Obama’s far-right critics lambasted him for speaking out on the case in the context of race relations in America. For instance, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly tried to divert attention from racial profiling in the Zimmerman case by shifting the attention to violent crime within black communities, supposedly caused by “gangsta culture” and “[t]he disintegration of the African-American family.”
So according to O’Reilly, violence against black Americans is black America’s problem. While the issues mentioned are worth discussion elsewhere, and are in fact addressed on a regular basis by organizations within these communities, the case in question has nothing to do with this. To me it appears that O’Reilly is consciously trying to blame the victim here.
The court of public opinion is divided
As a 2012 poll by the Christian Science Monitor highlights, the evaluation of the case among the American public breaks down along color lines, but also age, wealth, and politics.
Racialized clothing and suspicion
Before and during the trial, conservative commentators claimed that a hooded sweatshirt or ‘hoodie’ was suspicious criminal attire and that therefore Trayvon Martin was to blame for being perceived as a thug. This is another example of how race played into the case.
When black Americans wear a hoodie, they are deemed suspicious. When non-black Americans wear it, they are considered perfectly normal. Cenk Uygur, host of progressive talk show ‘The Young Turks’ highlights this racial double standard of clothing with a compilation of American celebrities who all wear hoodies. When non-black celebrities wear a hoodie, it is perceived as a non-threatening sweatshirt. The best part is when he shows images of Fox News hosts Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera, who blasted hoodies as “thug dress,” wearing hoodies. Of course they, as white and Hispanic males firmly entrenched within the mass media establishment are outside of any racial suspicion. Once again, the boundless hypocrisy of these two Fox News commentators shows. It is one standard for them, and another for ‘those black people.’
Debate over the shooter’s race
Even before the trial, a public debate about whether the shooter George Zimmerman was white, Hispanic, or white Hispanic, unfolded in the media.
Conservative commentators alleged that labeling Zimmerman as white Hispanic served a purpose of perpetuating a narrative of white-on-black crime.
What happened during Trayvon Martin’s last night?
According to police reports, Zimmerman had decided to pursue Trayvon Martin, whom he suspected to be a thug simply for walking down the street in a hoodie in a predominantly white neighborhood while being black. When Zimmerman called the police, they explicitly told him not to pursue the young man. Zimmerman did anyway, after stating “Fucking punks [. . .] These assholes, they always get away.”
When Zimmerman continued to pursue Martin, an altercation arose between the two, likely because Martin noticed he was being tailed by a complete stranger.
From there on, the details are shaky. But the end result is not: George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and killed him.
Believing the non-black shooter by default
What followed when the police arrived is a scandal unto itself. After some questioning on the scene of the killing, Zimmerman was free to go home and was not arrested for weeks. That the victim was black and the shooter was not might have played a role in why the police believed the shooter’s version of the event.
During the trial, Zimmerman’s defense team tried to paint a picture of Trayvon Martin as a criminal, implying that he basically deserved to die. Never mind the fact that it was Zimmerman who chased after Martin, was armed with a gun, and killed the young man, when he could have just stayed in his car, as he was told to by the police.
Acquitted by a not-so-diverse jury
Last weekend, a jury consisting of six women, five of them white, and one Latina, acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges. As Janell Ross at The Rootnotes, this is a pattern known to social science researchers.Racially homogenous (white) juries statistically tend to side with non-black defendants when the victim is black.
Members of the jury speak in public after the verdict
After the verdict, Juror B29, the one minority member of the all-female jury gave an interview to ABC News, telling the network that “he [Zimmerman] got away with murder.”
A frightening message to Black America
The effects of the Zimmerman verdict are chilling on Black America. As many commentators have noted  , black Americans, especially male black youth, are under general suspicion. They constantly have to prove to white Americans that they are not the dangerous criminals that the racial stereotype ascribes to them. And as the Trayvon Martin case shows, these racial stereotypes have deadly consequences. Self-styled vigilantes can kill black youth with impunity.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, some political writers and cultural critics lauded the dawning of ‘post-racial America,’ a new age wherein the nation would finally transcend its painful history of racist violence and discrimination, especially against black Americans. But as the past five years and the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in particular highlight, no such thing as ‘post-racial America’ has happened. Race relations may have changed in some respects. But even with a black/mixed-race president and attorney general in office, the realities of daily life still differ along color lines.
Read, listen, and see more:
[I will continue to add more links from time to time.]
“Trayvon Martin: What It’s Like to Be a Problem.” (Melissa Harris-Perry, The Nation, 2012/03/28) – On the parallels between post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and the suspicion of black Americans within public spaces informally designated as white.
[Podcast] “Getting Real On Race After Zimmerman Verdict.” (NPR barbershop, 2013/07/19) – Michel Martin discusses the Zimmerman verdict with writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, Fernando Vila, director of programming for Fusion, a joint venture between ABC and Univision, sportswriter and professor of journalism Kevin Blackistone, and Mario Loyola of the National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
[Podcast] “How President Obama ‘Showed His Brother Card.’” (Mark Memmott, NPR, 2013/07/19) – A Detroit radio host argues that the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is one of the rare occasions where Obama allows himself to show the part of his identity as a black man in America.
The Race Card Project – A project by NPR host Michele Norris (‘All Things Considered’) that seeks to foster an honest conversation about race in America via old-fashioned postcards.
We Are Not Trayvon Martin – A tumblr blog containing stories of white privilege in America. Mostly white people share stories that show how they experienced certain situations different than many black Americans because of their race.
“White Juries and Black Victims.” (Janell Ross, The Root, 2013/07/2013) – Social science research shows that all-white or nearly all-white juries are less empathetic towards the victim when it is black.
“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics and limited monarchies derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.” – Benjamin Franklin, “On Freedom of Speech and the Press”, Pennsylvania Gazette, 17 November 1737.
Obama returns to Berlin in the midst of NSA surveillance scandal
“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used [. . .] This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.” – Wolfgang Schmidt, former Stasi lieutenant colonel 1
In the midst of the NSA surveillance scandal, President Barack Obama returned to Berlin for a second visit. But this time, the enthusiasm among the German public at large was much lower than when he first visited the capital of Germany as presidential candidate in 2008. Back then, the term ‘Obamania’ described Germans’ overwhelming support for Barack Obama.
Apart from the revelations about the extent of the American intelligence services’ surveillance of the Internet, the continuation of other practices of the Bush administration’s ‘Global War On Terrorism’ is worrying to many of Obama’s former German fans.
On Wednesday, June 19, Obama held a speech in Berlin at the Pariser Platz, the location of the Brandenburg Gate.
Here it is (from CNN):
Perhaps the most notable item within in a speech full of nice-sounding generalities was the offer towards Russia to reduce some of each country’s nuclear arsenal.
“Memories of Stasi color Germans’ view of U.S. surveillance programs.” (Matthew Schofield, McClatchy, 2013/06/26) – “It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used [. . .] This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.” – Wolfgang Schmidt, former Stasi lieutenant colonel
On June 6, 2013, the British Guardian newspaper, based on information from—as we now know—former NSA analyst Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the agency’s PRISM program. This NSA surveillance program is capable of spying on everybody’s online communications via backdoors/direct access to products and services from Apple, Google/YouTube, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo, AOL, and PalTalk—basically all the big players in today’s digital world that most people are using in some or other form (full disclosure: me, too).
“There is a massive apparatus within the United States government that with complete secrecy has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world. [emphasis mine]” – Glenn Greenwald on CNN, 2013/06/07
Here is the series of articles from the Guardian (watch the dramatic build-up):
On June 25, journalist Glenn Greenwald told the Daily Beast that Snowden had given encrypted documents to several people as an insurance. Should “anything happe[n]” to him—translation: Should the intelligence services murder him—those documents would be released:
On July 1, the Guardian revealed documents showing that the US intelligence services are spying on other state’s embassies, including members of the EU. – This last point I did not find very surprising, as governments want to know what other governments are up to.
It is not just the US spying:
On June 17, the Guardian reveales that the British GCHQ spied on G20 summits by tapping politicians’ phones and setting up fake Internet cafés.
On June 21, the Guardian revealed GCHQ’s “Tempora” program which spies on global Internet communications and shares that information with the NSA, making a mockery of the US government’s claim that US citizens should not worry, because those programs are ‘only’ directed at foreigners. If every allied state ‘only’ surveilles foreigners and then exchanges that information with the others, that is a complete surveillance. To claim otherwise is just semantic games.
In the court of public opinion, a fierce debate over whether whistleblowers like Snowden are heroes or traitors is unfolding.
The government’s apparent strategy so far has been to shift attention from mass surveillance to whistleblower Edward Snowden and his (in their view) wrongdoing.
[Update, June 22, 2013] The Department of Justice charges Snowden with ” espionage and theft of government property.”
“USA: Snowden wird zum Verräter [erklärt].” – (Sabine Muscat, Zeit Online, 26.06.2013) – Die öffentliche Meinung in den USA kippt gegen Edward Snowden, weil er über Staaten geflohen ist, die den USA gegenüber mehr oder weniger feindselig eingestellt sind (Hong Kong/China, Kuba (wohl doch nicht), Russland).
[Update, July 1, 2013] The past two weeks have produced a plethora of stories about the cat and mouse game playing out between a fugitive Edward Snowden and the US government. Unfortunately, this focus on the person of Snowden and a spy-thriller-like chase around the globe along the lines of “Where in the world is Edward Snowden?” has been a distraction from the real issue at hand.
That issue is the blanket surveillance of citizens by their democratically elected governments, who increasingly view their own populations as potential enemies. In the national security state, a mockery is made of the rule of law by turning the long-standing legal principle of the presumption of innocence on its head. But as history has shown over and over, creating secretive, all-powerful, and unaccountable institutions inevitably leads to abuses. That is why President Obama’s message of ‘Trust us, we’re the good guys.’ is in the end meaningless.
And to be clear, the problem here is not just with the US government. At least since 2001, there has been a general trend within Western democracies of justifying all kinds of anti-democratic legal measures with reference to the necessity of fighting terrorism. But as important as that may be—and I do believe that terrorism poses a threat—these efforts are never worth turning our democracies into authoritarian surveillance states.
House Speaker John Boehner (R) called Snowden a “traitor.” Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) lambasted Snowden as “a high-school drop-out who had little maturity [and] had not successfully completed anything he had undertaken.” The point about lack of formal credentials might be true, but until Snowden became a whistleblower, his employers in the intelligence services and defense contractors obviously valued his skills.
On June 16, former Vice President Dick Cheney, unsurprisingly, joined the chorus of those calling Snowden “a traitor” and implied that Snowden might be a Chinese spy.
Independent of how one thinks of Snowden’s leaking in detail, that development is an alarming trend, indicative of a much bigger problem with mainstream media in the US.
The concept of an adversarial press, which is absolutely necessary to keep the government honest, has apparently been long-lost on many established so-called journalists, spoiled by their access and personal wealth. Rather than by default challenging the official statements of the government in search for the truth, these figures have decided to become the American version of Pravda. This is to the detriment of public awareness within a democracy. These parts of the press should remember the great American tradition of muckraking journalism.
Here is Glenn Greenwald’s article about how he is now on the receiving end of personal smears for working with Snowden as a source:
There is also some blatant partisanship going on around the issue. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly supported the NSA’s domestic spying under President Bush and now, under Obama, opposes it. Democratic Senator Al Franken, a harsh critic of the some practices under the Bush administration, now supports similar practices under a Democratic president.
Civil libertarian Senator Obama in 2007 versus national security hawk President Obama in 2013
You might remember a little-known Senator from Chicago who once was big on civil liberties. Here is what he said in 2007 about the massive surveillance put in place by the Bush administration:
“This [Bush’s] administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary. [emphasis mine]”
Against the recent revelations about the scope of the NSA’s mass surveillance, I can think of but two possible conclusions. Either Obama never really believed what he said back then and was just going to cynically exploit the growing public unease about Bush’s post-9/11 surveillance state, or, once elected President, he was swarmed by national security advisors who made him reconsider—everything (Richard A. Clarke seems to confirm the latter below).
Down the memory hole: Change.gov quietly removes pledge to protect whistleblowers
As the Sunlight Foundationreports, a pledge to protect whistleblowers was quietly removed from Change.gov, the website set up by Obama’s transition team, in July 2013. Here is what it said:
“Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process [emphasis mine].”
Unfortunately for the Obama administration, just as the NSA does not ‘forget’ any of our data, the Internet does not forget either. So this likely attempt to sweep an apparent and embarassing broken campaign promise under the rug will not be allowed to succeed.
One excellent resource on Obama’s transformation is http://www.obamatheconservative.com/ , a website by Ilari Kaila and Tim Paige “tracking Obama’s abandoning of the progressive agenda, and the disconnect between his words and deeds.”
Richard A. Clarke, a top counter-terrorism official under Clinton and Bush, Jr., voiced his concerns about government overreach in regards to the general collection of telephone records in an editorial for NYDailyNews.com:
“I am troubled by the precedent of stretching a law on domestic surveillance almost to the breaking point. On issues so fundamental to our civil liberties, elected leaders should not be so needlessly secretive.”
“[Obama] inherited this vacuum cleaner approach to telephone records from Bush. When Obama was briefed on it, there was no forceful and persuasive advocate for changing it. His chief adviser on these things at the time was John Brennan, a life-long CIA officer.”
“[W]e should worry about this program because government agencies, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have a well-established track record of overreaching, exceeding their authority and abusing the law. The FBI has used provisions of the Patriot Act, intended to combat terrorism, for purposes that greatly exceed congressional intent. [emphasis mine]”
Top spooks in denial mode
Earlier this year, on March 12, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress and was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) whether the NSA gathered “any type of data at all on millions of Americans.” As is now quite clear, Clapper lied “gave the least untruthful answer possible” when he denied it back then, as he now tells NBC News (June 11, 2013).
[Update] On June 18, NSA chief General Keith Alexander testified before the House Intelligence Committee about the two recently revealed surveillance programs PRISM and Boundless Informant. When asked whether the NSA was technically capable of spying on Americans’ phone calls or emails, he said this:
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: Does the NSA have the ability to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails under these two programs?
ALEXANDER: No, we do not have that authority.
ROGERS: Does the technology exist at the NSA to flip a switch by some analyst to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails?
Did you notice the diversion? Alexander did not reply to the question about capability but said that the NSA did not have the authority to spy on Americans. Technically, the NSA might not have a mechanical switch—that image seems rather anachronistic—but as whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed, it works via software on computers.
[Update] During his visit to Berlin on June 19, 2013, President Obama defended the NSA programs while talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming that the NSA would not scan ordinary citizens’ emails at home or abroad:
“This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else,” he said. “This is not a situation where we can go on to the internet and start searching any way we want.” – Barack Obama, June 19, 2013
But this does not seem wholly convincing, given that the basic principle of big data analysis on the scale of intelligence services such as the NSA contains the search for patterns in enormous amounts of data.
But there is also keyword analysis. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security released a list of keywords that it monitored on social media channels—after being sued to release the document.
Corporations like Google already scan all emails for keywords for the commercial purpose of displaying fitting ads to their users.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the only feasible way for intelligence services to check on a broad scale whether Bob is sending dangerous contents to Sally, is to scan emails for keywords. But to do that, they must have access to all those emails.
From this premise it follows that by design, the intelligence services have a vested interest in scanning all email traffic. If they do not bug individual computers in targeted operations, how else should they find out whatever they are looking for? Therefore, the denials of James Clapper, Keith Alexander, and Barack Obama seem rather unbelievable.
What do Americans think about surveillance, according to polls?
Fourty-five percent of Americans, according to a recent poll by the Washington Post and Pew, are willing to be spied on for a false sense of security.
Many think that they personally ‘have nothing to hide’ and that surveillance is thus not detrimental to them. But everybody has something to hide.
If the supposedly benevolent guardians of the NSA decided one day that democracy is, let’s say, a little outdated in a world where capitalism and authoritarianism converge so neatly, there would be big trouble ahead (see the Atlantic piece linked below).
As many historians will tell you, there is really nothing new under the sun. As npr reports, Americans have been ambivalent about the balance between security and privacy since the beginning of the country:
[Op-Ed] “Was Cheney Right About Obama?” (Patrick Radden Keefe, New Yorker, 2013/06/11) – Very interesting point: Former Vice President Dick Cheney, the architect of the Bush administration’s executive power grab, said in an exit interview in 2008 that Obama, or any successor, for that matter, would like the additional powers, once he gets into office. The article argues that Obama, as a candidate in 2008, benefitted massively from leaks which his administration now mercilessly persecutes. “Obama,” Radden Keefe writes, “knew the full extent of [the Bush administration’s] excesses because of unauthorized disclosures to the press. Without leaks, Barack Obama might never have been elected to begin with.”
[Op-Ed] “A Real Debate on Surveillance.” (New York Times Editorial Board, 2013/06/10) – Obama’s new ‘openness’ about surveillance is hypocritical, opines the New York Times.
“Our Reflection in the N.S.A.’s Prism.” (Maria Bustillos, New Yorker, 2013/06/09) – On PRISM, Boundless Informant, tech companies’ denial of their complicity with the NSA, and prior warnings about a growing surveillance state.
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 64: “75% of the Internet.” (unfilter Episode 64, 2013/08/21) – [Podcast] – “Declassified documents [. . .] reveal the NSA has intentionally abused their surveillance program, and retained data on US citizens despite a court order. [. . .] [T]he NSA collects nearly 75% of all US Internet traffic. David Miranda[,] Glenn Greenwald’s partner was held for nine hours under an Orwellian anti-terrorism law.”
[Podcast] “Die unerwünschte Diskussion – NSA Prism und die deutsche Politik.” (Peter Carstens, Deutschlandfunk, 17.08.2013) – Im deutschen Bundestagswahlkampf 2013 konnte die SPD mit dem Überwachungsskandal bisher kaum Punkte machen, da auch SPD-Politiker maßgeblich an der deutsch-amerikanischen geheimdienstlichen Zusammenarbeit nach 2001 beteiligt waren.
[Podcast] “Geheimdienste – Du warst es. Nein, du!” (Sebastian Sonntag, DRadio Wissen, 08.08.2013) – “Sebastian Sonntag mit der Webschau zum Polittheater um den BND-Skandal.” Über die Rolle der SPD bei der Zusammenarbeit zwischen BND und NSA.
[Podcast] “Spionage im Netz ist Selbstschutz.” – Der Politikwissenschaftler Anthony Glees meint: “Privates wird öffentlich – das ist nicht Folge von Schnüffelei, sondern die Logik des Internet-Zeitalters.” (Anthony Glees, Ortszeit:Politisches Feuilleton, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 08.07.2013) Anmerkung meinerseits: Ich finde, Spionage ist nicht gleich Spionage. Dass sich Regierungen gegenseitig ausspionieren ist etwas völlig anderes als wenn Geheimdienste die verdachtsunabhängige Totalüberwachung ihrer Bürger*innen und der anderer Staaten verfolgen.
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 58: “Standing with Ed.” (unfilter Episode 58, 2013/07/10) – “New leaks give us a better picture of how the NSA vacuums up your Internet traffic, and leverages their relationships with telecom companies to take what they want. Then Latin America stands with Snowden as multiple offers of asylum come in, we’ll bring you up to date on the hunt for Snowden and discuss his latest revelations.”
[Podcast] “Der NSA-Skandal und die Precrime-Fantasien der Ermittlungsbehörden.” – “Vera Linß diskutiert mit Alexander Markowetz, Ben Kees, Niko Härting und Benedikt Köhler im Online Talk darüber, [. . .] inwieweit sich mithilfe von Algorithmen und anderen Technologien kriminelle oder überhaupt Verhaltensmuster identifizieren und vor allem prognostizieren [lassen].” (NETZ.REPORTER XL, DRadio Wissen Online Talk, 07.07.2013)
[Podcast] breitband “Vergiss’ den Schlüssel nicht!” – Zur digitalen Selbstverteidigung mit Crypto-Tools, Cryptoparties und dem Erfinder der Computermaus, Doug Engelbart. (DRadio breitband, 06.07.2013)
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 57: “Obama Is Afraid Of You.” (unfilter Episode 57, 2013/07/03) – “Obama shrugged [Snowden] off, calling him some 29 year old hacker. But this week the administration’s actions spoke louder than their words. Their hunt for Edward Snowden intensifies as they twist the arm of Vladimir Putin, ground the jet of the Bolivian president, and placing frantic calls to nation leaders around the world.”
[Podcast] “Bändigt den Geheimdienst!” – Donya Farahani in der Webschau über die Proteste und Aktionen gegen Online-Überwachung. (DRadio WIssen, 28.06.2013)
[Podcast] Logbuch Netzpolitik, Episode 69: “Räume für Spezialbehandlung.” (LNP069, 27.06.2013) – Linus Neumann und Tim Pritlove berichten über Edward Snowdens Flucht und das britische Spionageprogramm “Tempora”.
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 56: “From Russia With Love.” (unfilter Episode 56, 2013/06/26) – “Edward Snowden [. . .] makes his escape from Hong Kong. We’ll reflect on [the mainstream media’s] continued character assassination [. . .].”; Britain’s GCHQ and the NSA share info [from Internet fiber optic cables], create “world-wide police state.”; the death of American investigative journalist Michael hastings and the technical possibility of hacking car control systems.
[Podcast] Datenkanal, Folge 25: “National Security Agency.” (21.06.2013) – Der Datenkanal-Podcast aus Jena gibt einen ausführlichen Überblick über die Geschichte der NSA.
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 55: “Snowden is Snowed Under.” (unfilter Episode 55, 2013/06/19) – “In the wake of the NSA leaks we’re being told to trust the government with our simple data, it’s the leaker we need to worry about. Edward Snowden takes to the web to defend his name, while the top officials in US intelligence answer softball questions read from prepared statements.”
[Podcast] unfilter, Episode 54: “The NSA PRISM.” (unfilter Episode 54, 2013/06/12) – “We’ll dig into the new revelations, how this could be technically be done, and then we’ll expose the lapdog media’s attempt manipulate the narrative.”
[Podcast] IQ – Wissenschaft und Forschung: “Spionage.” (IQ – Wissenschaft und Forschung, Bayern 2, 12.06.2013) – Wie die Überwachung des Internet technisch funktioniert.
[Podcast] Logbuch Netzpolitik, Episode 67: “Schon lange nichts mehr auf NSA gepostet.” (LNP067, 11.06.2013) – Linus Neumann und Tim Pritlove berichten über das amerikanische PRISM und die deutsche Variante “Strategische Fernmeldeaufklärung”.
[Podcast] Common Sense with Dan Carlin, Episode 255: “The Big Long Surveillance Show.” (2013/06/10) – Dan Carlin points out the historical irony of the Guardian, a British newspaper, taking on the role of the fourth estate on behalf of American citizens’ civil liberties.
[Podcast] EconTalk “Schneier on Power, the Internet, and Security.” (2013/06/10) – In a recent episode of EconTalk, security expert Bruce Schneier talks, among other things, about the worrying encroachments of the national security state and how the powerful have adapted to use the Internet to solidify their grip.
Other resources about Internet surveillance in general:
http://buggedplanet.info – “A [Wiki] about Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Communication Intelligence (COMINT), Tactical and Strategical Measures used to intercept Communications and the Vendors and Governmental and Private Operators of this Technology.
As anyone peeking into the current debate on gun control in the US, I have noticed that the NRA even opposes seemingly uncontroversial, mild, dare I say sane limitations on gun ownership, such as background checks for people with mental health issues or criminal records.
As I understand it, the NRA in its current iteration holds that in order to make America safer, all avenues should be explored except for one: stricter regulation of firearms.
Violent Hollywood filth is corrupting America…
So if lax gun regulation is not the culprit, who is to blame? Hollywood, of course!
As Talking Points Memo reports, LaPierre blasted Hollywood as “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.” He specifically railed against violent movies as “the filthiest form of pornography.”
…except when we love that Hollywood filth!
One might be tempted to take the NRA seriously, were it not for the following blatant hypocrisy on their part:
The NRA’s publication The American Rifleman recently—after LaPierre’s rant speech against violent movies— published a list of “the coolest gun movies” on their website.
The list includes gems such as the 1980s action flicks The Terminatorstarring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Die Hard starring Bruce Willis, or Delta Force starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin, all products of Hollywood’s “corrupting shadow industry.”
Having seen most of those movies myself at one point, I dare to state the obvious: It would be an understatement to say that they all share are a certain aesthetization of violence.
I am not arguing the case that watching violent movies or playing violent video games necessarily makes violent people. In fact I hope that my personal consumption of such entertainment in the past has not had too much of a detrimental effect on my frame of mind.
But if you do, like the NRA, you cannot all of a sudden turn around and tell the world with a straight face how great all of these violent action movies are.
Conveniently applying that double standard makes you unprincipled and hypocritical. Maybe given the twenty-four hour news cycle, people can be forgiven for a short attention span.
But if the NRA calls Hollywood a cesspool and five minutes later jumps in it, I call bullshit.
Consumers in the US (and elsewhere) are facing a dilemma: They may politically disagree with the corporations whose products they buy on a regular basis at their local supermarket. Often they do not know who they are supporting financially, because huge corporations own vast portfolios of consumer brands.
A new app called Buycott, available now for iOS and Android (soon) makes transparent who is behind a certain product that you buy in supermarkets. It helps individuals who want to engage in consumer boycotts.
The targeted corporations currently include Koch Industries, Monsanto, and Johnson & Johnson, but the database is being expanded. These corporations are US-based, but they are all huge multinational conglomerates.
The idea for the app was sparked at last year’s progressive Netroots Nation conference and brought to life by Ivan Pardo, an independent software developer from Los Angeles.
Heritage Foundation Analyst’s Dissertation: Hispanics Have Lower IQ Than Native Whites
The 2009 dissertation of Jason Richwine, a white (I think mentioning that in this context is relevant) (former) senior policy analyst at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, claims that Hispanics have a lower IQ than “white natives.”
Richwine concludes that “the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent” and that “new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren [emphasis mine].”
The Heritage Foundation itself distanced itself from Richwine’s dissertation after the public outrage.
To be fair, I have only read the report from HuffPo. You may read the whole dissertation here. But the gist of it seems to echo debunked theories of race and natural racial hierarchies from the nineteenth century.
In Germany, a similar scandal around concepts of immigration and intelligence was caused in 2010 by Thilo Sarrazin, a politician from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and former member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank. Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany Is Doing Away With Itself”) linked immigration from Muslim-majority countries to Germany to a collective dumbing down of the population.
House Republicans Announce On Twitter To Vote Against Obamacare For The 37th Time
The politics of obstructionism continued (Episode 37)
Because opposing the Obama administration’s Affordable Healthcare Act, better known as Obamacare for thirty-six times was not enough for House Republicans, they recently announced that they would vote to repeal it for the thirty-seventh (!) time.
Twitter battles as a new normal form of political communication
So far, so predictable. But here is where it gets interesting. In this age of ubiquitous social media technologies, leading politicians in the US—years ahead in this regard to, let’s say, German politicians— feel the need to engage in Twitter battles. Sometimes hilarity ensues.
“The House will vote next week for a full repeal of #Obamacare.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) then attempted to hype it up a little more with the hashtag #ObamaCareInThreeWords
To which the White House replied:
“It’s. The. Law.”
Well-played, sir. Well-played.
But the fact that large parts of the Affordable Care Act are right now being implemented is not clear to everybody at the moment. According to NPR, a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half of Americans do not currently know that the Affordable Healthcare Act is the law of the land.
Symbolic politics versus the 113th Congress in numbers
Unless Republicans in the Senate can convince a substantial number of Democrats to join them in voting against the Affordable Healthcare Act, the repeal they seek will not happen any time soon. As of May 2013, the distribution of seats in the 113th Congress is as follows: House: 233 (R), 201 (D); Senate: 55 (D) (53 (D)+ 2 (I)), 45 (R)
Maybe in the end, this is much ado about nothing. Still, it gives us an insight into how the new social media technologies are now being put to use for symbolic politics. In a way, they have joined their older peers of AM talk radio and cable television in the US.
According to the Guardian, the Obama administration wanted to find out the source of an “alleged Yemen terrorist plot story.”
Here is a report by Think Progress on the background of the DOJ’s action. According to them, the AP’s reporting on a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen “put AQAP [Al-Quida in the Arabic Peninsula] on notice that the CIA had a window into their activities.”
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project said the following:
Obtaining a broad range of telephone records in order to ferret out a government leaker is an unacceptable abuse of power. Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources.
Billionaires Koch Brothers Remodel Dark Money Operations
Billionaires Charles and David Koch, who funded various Tea Party groups throughout the last years, are adjusting their modus operandi.
As the Huffington Post reports, the Kochs have founded a new front group called Association for American Innovation, which is going to give massive amounts of money to other opaque political groups in order to further their agenda of economic deregulation and tax cuts for their class.
Among the groups expected to receive funding are Concerned Women for America and the Libre Initiative, an outfit promoting libertarianism to Hispanics.
The apparent goal of the Kochs’ public relations efforts is to convince middle and working class Americans that their economic interests neatly align with those of the wealthiest members of society. Basically it is the myth of trickle-down economics. Engineering this spin is paramount, from their perspective, to increasing their capital and protecting it from the rest of society.
Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty, which depicts the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is in some ways a CIA propaganda piece, according to a report from Gawker.
Based on declassified memos from the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs, which is the agency’s propaganda operation, the major revelation is that the CIA directly pressured director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal to take out scenes that would portray the CIA in a bad light.
And so Bigelow and Boal did.
What are the contents/scenes taken out that the CIA objected to?
Participation of CIA operatives in the torture (I am not buying the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation’) of detainees in the opening scene
Intimidation of detainees with dogs
A drunk CIA officer firing an AK-47 rifle into the air at a drunken rooftop party in Islamabad
The CIA analyzing videotaped interrogations of tortured detainees
Apart from the CIA’s influence revealed through the memo, the movie falsely suggests in its opening scene that it was torture that ultimately led to the revelation of Bin Laden’s location. This powerful image created by a product of popular culture retroactively works to legitimize the practice of torture in the public mind.
[Video] “Zero Dark Irresponsible – Killing Bin Laden With Blinders On.” (TheLipTV, 2013/11/26) – FIlm critic Peter Rainer criticizes Zero Dark Thirty for not contextualizing the torture scenes of the movie in the ‘Global War on Terrorism.’ In particular, he notes the absence of any mention of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as responsible for America’s torture policies.
As unnecessary gun deaths continue to take their toll on American society, one might have hoped that the National Rifle Association would nominate a reasonable person for their president. In the face of the latest series of school shootings and other horrible gun violence, it is quite apparent that there is a demand for somebody who might negotiate a balance between the interests of gun owners and the public’s longing for safety. But moderation of any sort is definitely not where the NRA is going these days.
Jim Porter, a former Alabama lawyer, is the new president of the National Rifle Association. And as you might have suspected, he is as extreme as they come. Judging by his statements, Porter is quite the dog-whistling, Neo-Confederate, conspiracy-mongering nutjob. Hyperbole, you say. Well, read on and see for yourself.
Where to begin? As the New York Times reports, he says that Obama is a “fake president.” His view of American history compels him to call the American Civil War the ‘War of Northern Aggression.’ He peddles conspiracy theories alleging that the Obama administration is conspiring with the UN to take all guns away from Americans. He also says that it is the NRA’s job to train Americans to fight against tyranny from their own government (the video of Porter speaking is linked in the New York Times article).
This strain of the political far-right in America surfaced in parts of the Tea Party Movement throughout the past years. But now the figurehead of America’s powerful gun manufacturers’ lobby is a race-baiter who is apparently driven by paranoid fantasies. Not a wise choice.
Provide wiretapping capabilities to hand over your (customers’) data to the FBI or be fined, Google and Facebook
The Washington Post reports on a government task proposal that aims to punish tech companies for not providing wiretapping capabilities for law enforcement officials. The FBI, which is the driving force behind this push for more more surveillance, justifies its demands with the need to counter a “going dark” problem, a “gap between authority and capability” in regards to online surveillance. The FBI mentions not just terrorism, as might seem likely briefly after the Boston Marathon Bombing, but also transnational narcotrafficking and child prostitution.
If successful, this initiative would not only concern Internet giants such as Google or Facebook, but potentially any tech company that collects user data. And that includes practically any new free-to-use online service.
This initiative by the FBI takes place in the context of a much larger secretive push towards extensive online surveillance (see below).
Over at OpenCulture, there is a fascinating article about Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage’s reporting on the Guantanamo Prison library. The library collection features items such as Captain America comics (!), the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter, and self-help books such as Don’t Be Sad (!). Savage has a photo blog featuring the prison library books.
What image of the West and America is being transported to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?
Reddit Users Edit Logos Of Campaign Donors Onto Politicians
Social news website Reddit comes up with a creative, satirical take on the legal bribery of campaign finance in America.
Money talks in American politics. So much so, that numerous contemporary observers and respondents to polls have described the current form of campaign financing as legal bribery, especially after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling of 2009 has made the system even more obscure.
Many Americans citizens of various political persuasions today see their political system as corrupt, dominated by a small number of large corporations and wealthy individuals who legally buy politicians of both major parties with campaign donations to protect their interests.
However diverse political opinions may be among the larger population, political representatives as a class tend to respond to those who fill their campaign coffers. To a large extent, this also includes the current President Barack Obama, who, despite his progressive campaign rhetoric, has appointed many former corporate executives and lobbyists who have in their interest anything but regulating the industries they themselves are products of.
DIY Transparency on Reddit
On the social news website Reddit, users have come up with an idea to make the influence of money more transparent to the average person. As the Huffington Post reports, they suggest that politicians wear the logos of their corporate campaign donors, just like Nascar race car drivers’ overalls are plastered all over with sponsors’ logos.
Because this is unlikely to happen, the Reddit community has taken to image editing software to create montages of heads of political representatives and overalls full of the logos of campaign donors (images are linked in the Huffington Post article below).
While this may seem like a satirical Internet meme that will never get any traction in the ‘real world,’ the idea behind it is rather serious. If money has such a corrupting influence on the political system, should it not be made transparent whose bidding elected officals will do?
There are websites such as opensecrets.org that attempt to track campaign donations to elected officials. However, these resources are sometimes difficult to navigate for the average person.
Update (March 28, 2013):
A recent example of corporate influence on American politicians, this time on the Democrats’ side: President Obama has signed a spending bill that includes what critics call protection of the genetically modified organism (GMO) manufacturer Monsanto against future litigation in case that GMOs might be proven to contain health risks.
Tomas Young, a dying Iraq War veteran, writes a condemning letter to Bush and Cheney
Recently, President Obama commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War in a White House press release. In that statement, he thanked American military for its sacrifices.
Now a letter by a severely injured military veteran illustrates what those sacrifices look like. Tomas Young, who joined the US military shortly after 9/11 has written a very condemning letter towards President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, in which he accuses both of war crimes and evasion of justice.
Young on how many military veterans view the Bush administration in hindsight:
You may evade justice but in our [military veteran’s] eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.
Among the issues Young talks about in his letter are the illegality of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, the catastrophic impact of the Iraq War on the Middle East, the war profiteering of oil companies, the chickenhawkishness of Bush and Cheney, their religious hypochrisy and their general betrayal of military veterans, especially when it comes to appropriate care through the Veteran’s administration.
I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned.
As a dying man,Young speaks truth to power and unmasks Bush and Cheney as moral failures:
Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character.
Read Tomas Young’s letter in full on the website linked below.
“The Last Letter.” (Tomas Young, Truthdig, 2013/03/18) – The letter in full, plus links to an interview with Tomas young by Chris Hedges.
President Obama’s Statement On The Tenth Anniversary Of The Iraq War
On March 19, 2013, the White House published a press release commemorating the tenth anniversary of the US-lead invasion of Iraq. You can read it in full here.
Obama thanks the US military and their families for their sacrifices, and argues for a “strong Post 9/11 GI Bill” to take care of military veterans, especially those suffering from brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But a certain sacrifice is carefully left out of the White House statement: that of Iraqi civilians. There is no mention of the civilian deaths caused by the war, no mention of civilian deaths by drone strikes, especially so-called signature strikes.
Certainly, Obama as the Commander in Chief and has responsibilities towards US military members, but their experiences alone constitute but a part of the whole story of the Iraq War in the past decade.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation has published the audio recording of Private First Class Bradley Manning’s statement to the military court in Ft. Meade on his motivations for leaking documents to whistleblowing website Wikileaks.
An Investigation By The Guardian and BBC Arabic Reveals Pentagon Involvement In Iraqi Torture Centers.
The abyss of US military involvement in torture in Iraq widens. According to a report by the Guardian and BBC Arabic, top US military brass was well-informed about Iraqi torture centers.
The expert for the dirty work: An ex-special forces organizer of deaths squads in El Salvador in the 1980s
The Pentagon brought Colonel James Steele to Iraq. “Who is this man?” you ask. Steele is a special forces veteran who spent his time in the US military, among other things, setting up right-wing death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s.
In Iraq, according to the report, Steele organized setting up Iraqi torture centers for detainees of the insurgency.
Petraeus knew about torture
Another top military advisor, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked together with Steele in the detention centers and—this is where it gets interesting—reported directly to General Petraeus.
It follows that Petraeus knew exactly what kind of abuse was going on, and let it happen.
WikiLeaks as threat to the official war narrative
The Guardian’s report is in part based on material that was leaked to WikiLeaks. It is not hard to see why the Justice Department is currently attempting to make an example of Bradley Manning and get their hands on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
As the dirtiest secrets of the Iraq war are revealed, the liberation narrative begins to unravel. Top military officials stand embarrassed, for they have been caught red-handed as ruthless condoners of torture. But as the maintenance of the facade of democratic values is elementary in order to win the home front, whistleblowers are quickly declared enemies of the state.
‘We’ are becoming ‘them’: Torture poisons our democracies
Reading the details on the practices in the Iraqi torture centers is frankly disturbing. It is all the more disgusting to learn that ‘we,’ i.e. the ‘West,’ and US military officials at the highest levels in particular, were completely fine with this.
It does not take much to realize the unbearable hypocrisy of it all. Not only is torture morally wrong, it is also ineffective, because victims will say anything to make their suffering stop.
Here in Europe, we have the best historic example of this: witch hunts in early modern times. Tortured victims would accuse neighbors or others they did not like of being witches just to save themselves. But that is besides the point.
If in this century’s ‘war on terrorism’ realpolitik prevails über alles, then the line between ‘them,’ the maligned autocratic rogue states, and ‘us,’ the liberal democratic West, becomes thinner and blurry to the point of being barely distinguishable.
And if we are not watchful, there might come a day when the next Mubarak or al-Assad has a more familiar-sounding name and speaks our own language. But then it will be too late.
Neocons, I beg to differ
Here is where I disagree with the neoconservative world view behind the Iraq war: I do not think that the end always justifies the means. And I doubt that the end of fighting terrorism can be achieved by becoming torturers, or having detainees tortured by proxy.
As for building a democracy, I am skeptical about how torture prisons constitute a solid foundation in this regard. But then again, the attachment of the neoconservative architects of the Iraq war to democratic values is questionable.
Torture enablers should be in prison
I do not know at which point the George W. Bushes, the Dick Cheneys, the John Yoos, the Donald Rumsfelds, or the David Petraeuses of the world became attached to this kind of amoral thinking, but when you read what is now publicly accessible, these men were not at all troubled by deploying torture and constructing a legal framework to make it seem legit. To the contrary. But torture is still wrong.
And to the big disgrace of the Obama administration and the Holder Justice Department, which I put high hopes in, none of these crimes had any consequences for the perpetrators.
In an ideal world, all of those who enabled the torture regime, including European government officials, would spend the rest of their days in prison for crimes against humanity. Call me naive, but not to speak up against this evil would make me an accomplice.
A Video Visualizes Wealth Inequality In The United States
If you have been following domestic politics in the US in recent years, the issue of growing wealth inequality will not have escaped your attention.
Here is an interesting video visualization of how Americans estimate wealth distribution, how they think it should be, and what the reality is really like. As far as I can see, the data is from 2010, but the general picture has remained the same, despite claims to the contrary.
Spoiler Alert: The distribution of wealth is way more skewed than the respondents to a recent large-scale survey thought it to be. Below the video, I linked its sources and further reading material.
Here are the video’s sources for the numbers:
“Wealth Inequality.” (Dan Ariely, behavioral economist, co-author of the study together with Mike Norton, which is linked in his blog post, 2010/09/30)
A Digital Archive Of Letters Expressing Grief Over The 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Is Being Created.
Ross MacDonald, an author, illustrator, and designer from Newtown, Connecticut, site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, works to create a digital archive of letters that were sent to the school in remembrance of that massacre on December 14, 2012. For this purpose, MacDonald has partnered with Mother Jones magazine and Tumblr. Watch the project’s introductory video below and make sure to read the longer article on the project (linked below).
“Letters to Newtown.” (Ross MacDonald, Mother Jones, 2013/02/06) – Ross MacDonald explains the ‘Letters to Newton’ project.
Conservative Activists/GOP/Fox News Claim That Obama’s Republican Nominee for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) Is Funded By Hamas-Affiliated Group.
While there are many legitimate criticisms of the Obama administration, as I mentioned in my earlier posts, the level of absurdity in American political theater is almost always guaranteed to rise to unimagined heights when one turns their attention to today’s GOP and the vocal ultraconservative conspiracy-minded base.
Case in point: President Obama nominates former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) for Secretary of Defense. Not only does the GOP plan to filibuster Hagel’s nomination, which is unprecedented. [Update]: The Senate GOP did filibuster Hagel’s nomination.
Unfounded Claims Of Links To Hamas
No, some conservative activists try to prevent Hagel’s appointment by linking him to terrorist organization Hamas (!). Seriously.
The absurd claim includes an allegation that Hagel received foreign funding from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” According to the Treasury Department, which monitors charitable groups connected to Hamas, this group does not even exist.
Furthermore, does it sound plausible that an organization trying to funnel money to a terrorist group would include that groups name in its own name? Absolutely not. It would be quite a bad disguise.
[Update (2013/02/17)]: As it turns out, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who led the filibustering of Hagel, is quite the massive hypocrite when it comes to accusing Hagel of a friendly stance towards Hamas. As Salon reports, Inhofe’s own words on Hamas from 2006 sound at least as friendly to that organization as what he accused Hagel of. As Alex Seitz-Wald puts it, “using his current standard, Jim Inhofe might have a hard time voting to confirm Jim Inhofe.”
One Probable Reason For The Smear: Hagel’s Harsh Criticism Of ‘Jewish Lobby’
In the past, Hagel had criticized the “influence of the Jewish lobby,” i.e. AIPAC (which, by the way, describes itself as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby” on its own website) in Washington, and in return received criticism by the above-mentioned and other pro-Israel groups.
And while the legitimacy of Hagel’s comments and the degree of influence in Washington by pro-Israel groups can be a subject of reasonable debate, the unfounded claim that Hagel must be associated with Hamas contains a classic fallacy: the excluded middle.
In my opinion, there are many shades of gray between supporting everything a particular government does and supporting a terrorist group that wishes for the murder of that state’s citizens. Criticizing particular activities of any government, be it the American, German, or Israeli one, does not make one anti-American, anti-German, or anti-semitic. It is the tonality that makes the difference.
One final word on lobbies: By definition, any lobby organization is supposed to represent their constituency’s interests. Despite the fact that there can be several lobbies claiming to represent the interests of any particular group, it is by no means conspiratorial to assume that there is a lobby for virtually any cause. A quick search with your favorite search engine will confirm this. Just read the mission statement of your organization of choice.
Other Probable Reasons Why The GOP Filibustered Hagel’s Appointment
Of course, Hagel’s statements on the ‘Israel Lobby’ are not the only reason why the GOP stonewalls his appointment.
According to Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post, the following reasons might also have factored into the GOP’s decision to filibuster Hagel’s appointment:
Because they can.—This should not be surprising. Since Obama took office, the main GOP tactic was obstructionism.
Some GOP senators believe Hagel to be inexperienced.
Rallying the party.—Romney lost the presidential election, the GOP did not win a majority in the Senate. Therefore, Senate Republicans needed something new to motivate themselves.
In the words of one man who arguably knew a thing or two about theater in the English-speaking world at the time, the great Chuck-Hagel-Hamas-conspiracy is much ado about nothing.
A Tea Party Senator From Texas Opens Another Smear Front: The Communists Are Coming!
In the context of the Chuck Hagel Senate confirmation hearing, Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) alleged, without providing evidence, that Chuck Hagel was funded by North Korea. So now it is not only those Islamist terrorists (Hamas) that Hagel is supposedly in bed with, but also those darn commies.
Furthermore, according to Senator Cruz, Harvard Law School was completely infiltrated by communists in the 1990s (!), when he himself studied there. Cruz even claimed, like Joseph McCarthy in his day, to possess a list of said communists, who schemed to overthrow the American government.
And because Harvard Law School was supposedly such a hotbed of communism, Barack Obama must have become a communist there, which totally proves that therefore Chuck Hagel must somehow also be a communist. Of course, Cruz himself was able to resist the influence of marxists and communists.
Even fellow Republicans Lindsey Graham and John McCain thought that this nonsense was a bit too much, and some liberal commentators rightfully noted that Cruz’s mannerisms were indeed quite McCartyite.
“Why John McCain turned on Chuck Hagel.” (David Rogers, Politico, 2013/02/17) – Op-Ed: McCain voted against Chuck Hagel to help make South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham appear more right-wing.
“Lindsey Graham, watching his right flank.” (Dana Milbank, Washington Post, 2013/02/15) – Op-Ed: South Carolina Republican Senator opposes Hagel’s nomination to appear right-wing enough for his own re-election.
“More GOP Hagel hypocrisy.” (Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, 2013/02/15) – Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), who lead the filibuster against Chuck Hagel’s nomination, had some friendly words for Hamas himself in 2006.
He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
— Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution
This year, Barack Obama’s State Of The Union Address is also an overture to his second term in office as the 44th President of the United States. Topics addressed in his SOTU include the state of the economy, immigration reform, foreign policy, the use of drones, dealing with gun violence in America, and solutions to climate change. Find my reflection on Obama at the begining of his second term below, the SOTU and more links further below.
Speeches Project Images, Not Realities
Anyone who has observed Obama giving speeches, except perhaps at the beginning of the past televised debates with Mitt Romney, knows that he is a great performer. His speechwriters are incredibly skillful at creating powerful history-laden images and evoking emotions. This is how they work and what they are supposed to do.
But while ritualized political speeches such as the State Of The Union Address do count as symbols, we as observers and students of these texts should try not to let our senses be clouded by those masterful emotional appeals. This is difficult, because as human beings, we are hard-wired to respond emotionally.
Nonetheless, a rational look at the factual first-term record of the Obama administration is much more revealing in regards to its true character. Political speeches, at the end of the day, are rather a reflection of the image that a speaker wants to project of themself than an accurate representation of what they actually do.
Some Social Progress At Home, But No Departure From Neo-conservative Disregard For Civil Liberties
Nobody can seriously expect any politician to fulfill all campaign promises, but watching Obama the vocal liberal-minded critic of Bush’s ‘war on terror’ policies transform into an accomplice and protector of those responsible for the torture architecture, and later granting himself powers to execute even US citizens on a clandestine kill list via the NDAA is quite frightening.
You can read about the discrepancy between the image of 2008 candidate Barack Obama and the actions of President Barack Obama it in my earlier blog posts here and here, or at exhaustive length at Obama the Conservative, a website that chronicles (with sources) how except on some social issues (the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, advocacy for gay marriage), the current POTUS has embraced and in some cases (such as executions by drone) expanded questionable policies of the Bush/Cheney administration.
To be clear: I am not downplaying the threat posed by militant religious extremism in the world today, as no sane observer would. Neither am I denying the necessity of an ideological, sometimes even violent confrontation between liberal democracy as a system and militant theocrats, be they states or non-state actors. But in the pursuit of this objective, the advocates of liberty must not abandon their ideals. Collateral damage tends to create new enemies.
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil“, Aphorism 146 (1886)
In my opinion, the neoconservative dictum of ‘taking off the gloves’—throwing out the rule of law and justifying activities like mass surveillance, kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial killings—in the name of protecting democracy is not only a farce but destructive to democracy.
Any authoritarian regime in the history of the world has justified similar actions by claiming that it acted for the benefit of its own people. Brought to its logical conclusion, the maintenance of the illusion of total security ultimately brings with it the reality of total surveillance.
The realization of the many continuities in the ‘War on Terror’ between the current and the previous administration is troublesome, especially considering that in 2008, Barack Obama ran as a civil liberties candidate who criticized the Bush administration for its conduct.
A Brand Image Is Not The Actual Product
Despite perhaps the greatest political campaign in recent times (in 2008), the ‘product’ Obama has proven not to be what its packaging promised. And I say this as someone who was, maybe somewhat naively, quite enthusiastic about the election result at the time. Of course, a government is and should be a complex construct with more agents than a head of state influencing the general direction. But to think that Obama had no hand at all in steering the course throughout the past four years would be a misjudgment as well.
Watch Obama’s 2013 State Of The Union Address here:
US Military Abuses Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy For Pro-War Propaganda on MLK Day
Civil Rights Movement icon Martin Luther King, Jr. is well-known for his anti-war stance, especially regarding the US involvement in the Vietnam War at the time. But now some people within several branches of the US military have decided, in true orwellian fashion, to abuse MLK as an advocate for militarism and expanding military budgets on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (January 15).
If we are to believe those within the US military apparatus who promote this fantasy version of MLK, then apparently, like the slogan of the fictional ‘Ingsoc’ party’ in George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ contends, “WAR IS PEACE” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”
King on militarism during the Vietnam War:
Here is what King had to say in his 1967 Riverside Church speech ‘Beyond Vietnam‘:
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
And just in case that was not clear enough:
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
Finally, King lambasted the US at the time as the
greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.
The US military mischaracterizing King:
In contrast, here is what the US Marines tweeted for MLK Day 2013:
“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” — Martin Luther King Jr. #MLK
And here is what the United States Air Force’s Global Strike Command claimed in an essay on its website:
Dr. King would be proud to see our Global Strike team – comprised of Airmen, civilians and contractors from every race, creed, background and religion – standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would roll over in his grave if he could witness these pathetic attempts at deceiving the American public. To take a peace advocate and refashion him into a mouthpiece for militarism amounts to nothing but disgusting propaganda. A figure like King surely deserves better than this.
In my opinion, there are good reasons to be outraged at such revisionist practices: They smack of Stalin erasing Communist Party members from photographs after they fell from grace, China’s censorship of material covering the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the GDR’s claim that the Berlin Wall was an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” —all purposeful distortions of reality unworthy of a democratic society.
There is something inherently evil in lying this way about historic figures. Whenever it happens, we need to be alert.
The Obama Inauguration 2013: Round Two For The 44th POTUS
On January 20, 2013, Barack Obama was sworn in for the second time as President of the United States. Will he change course towards a more progressive political agenda this time, as opposed to the past four years? Naturally, it remains to be seen, but from observing his first term in office, I got the impression that there were many continuities from the previous administration.
[Please note: I will add some sources for various claims that I make in this article later, when I have more time. In the meantime, please confirm any information by doing a news search with your favorite search engine. I will also continuously add more links to news coverage of the inauguration and background information.]
Looking back at Obama’s first election
Like many Europeans—and of course many Americans, for that matter—I was very excited about the first black (biracial, mixed, pick your favorite term) American president four years ago. Any student of American history should be. True, the campaign buzzwords ‘hope’ and ‘change’ were by themselves meaningless appeals to emotion, crafted by brilliant campaign strategists, but candidate Barack Obama also filled them with concrete policy proposals in his campaign speeches.
Obama positioned himself as a unifier, but it is clear that a key selling point was “I am not Bush.” Indeed, Obama was many things that Bush was not: a black man, an intellectual, not a son of privilege, urban, sophisticated, a Christian but not a religious fundamentalist with an eschatological interest in the Middle East. There were high hopes that Obama would act differently and that his administration would repair some of the damage caused by his predecessor.
Obama’s first term and continuities from Bush/Cheney
While Obama is certainly more socially liberal than any of the top Republicans, a substantial departure from neoliberal economic policies and a neoconservative security architecture is barely noticeable, despite any claims of America having fallen to communism on January 20, 2009, available on the usual propaganda channels. Of course an American president is not a dictator and legislation is supposed to go through Congress.
However, from the outside it looked like this: From day one, a Republican front aggressively attacked Obama at every turn while the POTUS offered concession after concession, ultimately in vain. The only times that the soft-spoken Obama did not find it difficult to metaphorically wack political opposition with the big stick that Theodore Roosevelt suggested to carry around at all times (referring to foreign policy) was when his own progressive political base reminded Obama of his campaign promises. So here we are, four years later:
The “War on Terrorism”
The paradigm shift caused by 9/11 still remains, and the behavior of the Obama administration is perhaps a good reminder to take seriously the phrase ‘paradigm shift.’ Osama Bin Laden is dead, even though his death was but a symbol, needed for closure, a counter to the terrorists’ symbol of attacking the World Trade Center. But the confrontation is not over.
The central question for democracies is how to act while engaging in that battle. In retrospect, unfortunately, the Obama administration’s answers sound very similar to those of the Bush administration in many cases. Guantánamo Bay is still open, the practice of kidnapping terrorism suspects, euphemistically called ‘rendition,’ has been increased, the drone killing program has been expanded and raises all kinds of ethical and legal questions, and the National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA) now allow for worldwide secret arrests and killings on the President’s orders, outside of judicial oversight.
The most severe damage to American democracy, however, has been done by the Obama-Holder Justice Department, shielding the architects and perpetrators of the Bush administration’s torture regime from legal consequences. Here was the opportunity to signal to the world that American exceptionalism also means that the US government is above using the methods of despotic regimes elsewhere. But the message sent was a very different one. As the Obama administration put it, the aim is to look forward, not backwards.
But if these practices are not being punished, the official position that “the US does not torture” is meaningless. If any future administration decides to go down that route again, it can and will point to the precedent set by Bush and Obama. And it is exactly this lending legitimacy to authoritarian tendencies of a transgressive national security state that will tarnish Obama’s place in history. It is particularly bitter that these policies are advanced by a former constitutional law professor.
Regulation of the financial sector:
The Obama administration did not push for legislation ‘with teeth’ for stricter regulations of investment banks after the financial crisis. The Justice Department has not prosecuted top banking executives who have clearly engaged in serious criminal activity. Apparently, the Obama administration believed that this class of people needed to be shielded from legal repercussions in order for the economic recovery to succeed. In addition, many of Obama’s economic advisors are neoliberals with a background in big Wall Street firms. It is difficult to ignore the conflict of interest set up by this dynamic.
The positive changes during Obama’s first term
Admittedly, Obama’s key domestic policy project was a big step within in the American context, and extremely controversial, to be clear. However, a European-model public option, not to speak of a single-payer system, was wiped off the negotiating table very quickly, and from the reports I have read, Obama did not really mind. Insurance companies did not mind, either. That is because they get millions of new customers who are obliged to buy their insurance packages.
The repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’
The Obama administration repealed the Clinton-era policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military while keeping in the closet. The policy, apart from being discriminatory, established a power dynamic that made LGBT military members vulnerable to blackmail for fear of being outed by colleagues. Contrary to rumors, the American military did not collapse once LGBT soldiers were allowed to express their identity. Interestingly, the military has become a venue of social progress for a second time after the desegregation during World War Two.
Few drastic changes in crucial areas
In sum, the notion of a president who would radically depart from the paths taken since 2001 has evaporated regarding most foreign policy and economic issues. While some symbolic changes were enacted, the big issues seem ‘path dependent,’ to borrow a sociological term. On civil liberties, Obama’s record is rather dim, except for the DADT repeal. Regarding economic policy, the financial sector—investment firms in particular—is back to business as usual, which is great if you happen to be an investment banker. The question remains whether Obama, now that he does not have to worry about reelection, will be a different politician. I am skeptical about that, even though I still have a tiny bit of hope.
What do you think?
[I will update the article from time to time and add more information.]
News coverage of Obama’s second inauguration
[Video] The New York Times has the full inauguration speech:
[Video] Politico’s live video coverage of the 2013 inauguration can be found here.
[Video] The New York Times reports from Washington prior to the presidential inauguration (2013/01/18):
“Obama’s Rorschach.” (John T. Woolley, Professor of political science, UCSB; Co-director, American Presidency Project, Huffington Post, 2013/01/23) – A political scientist explains how people interpret Obama’s inaugural speech according to their own political leanings.
Among the many loathsome things that humans are capable of inflicting upon each other, rape is way up there. That, however, does not stop some politicians from exploiting the issue while demonstrating a complete lack of empathy for rape victims, most of whom are women. In the US, the ultra-conservative wing of the ever more conservative Republican Party has infamously been filling that niche for some time now.
Rape comments were common in the past election season
Throughout the past election season, several GOP politicians have stirred up controversy with insensitive, misogynistic comments about rape. Typical commentary contained elements such as downplaying rape, or arguing for (and proposing bills designed to) limiting women’s access to abortion in the context of rape.
Predictably, remarks of that sort have created a public relations disaster for conservative politicians, as huge chunks of women voters tend not to like being lectured by old men on what constitutes rape and how they should feel and act about it.
Shut up, those pesky TV cameras are pointed at you!
So what is the solution to all that horrible bad press? Well, one anti-abortion group has decided that it is workshops for conservative politicians teaching how to keep their beliefs on rape but tone down the rhetoric just a notch while speaking in public so that nobody will notice. According to that logic, ‘rape culture’ and the underlying desire to control women’s bodies is not the problem, but the public figuring out some politicians’ extreme positions is.
I am not so sure that women in the US will buy into this. Say what you will about people’s short attention spans. On the Internet, all those comments are still accessible. And if the past election season has shown anything, it is that the wackier politicians can’t help themselves but say outrageous things all the time.
American talk radio is a phenomenon of its own with no comparison in the German media landscape. This is likely due to less strict broadcasting regulations on the US side of the Atlantic, especially since the fall of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987, a much broader definition of freedom of speech in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution in general, and the comparatively longer distances traveled in cars in the US. All of the above factors into the popularity of AM talk radio, especially political talk formats.
For the past decades, American talk radio has predominantly been the domain of angry white male conservative populist agitators, among them figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who have made a fortune feeding their audiences’ fears of American decline, multiculturalism, and the whole palette of issues subsumed under the term culture wars. A key trope of most far-right talk radio hosts has always been the claim of defending ‘freedom,’ a term so vague in the arsenal of political rhetoric that it can easily be loaded up with the most illiberal ideas, not in the meaning of liberal as in political ideology, but as in the theoretical political concept.
Case in point: Recently, conservative talk radio host Michael Savagehas called for a new “nationalist party” with a “charismatic leader.” Talking about the decline in popularity of the Tea Party Movement, the conservative populist movement that had emerged along with the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president, Savage said that “the rudiment” of that new party might be found among their ranks. Savage, who was born to Russian-Jewish parents, used the analogy of a “King David” that was needed to unite the American Right. Savage, who calls President Obama a “quasi-pseudo-crypto Marxist” thinks that the Tea Party Movement was not right-wing enough and that a new party should challenge the Republican party from the right on a platform of “borders, language, and culture.”
If that sounds eerily authoritarian, it’s because it is!
A severe economic crisis. Extreme nationalism. Calls for a charismatic leader. Writing from Berlin, I hear the jackboots stomping in my head.
Bruce Carlson, producer of the My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast has currently released a very entertaining episode about the history of redrawing electoral districts in the US, also known as ‘gerrymandering.’ For anybody who wants to feed their inner political history geek and get to know the ins and outs of winning majorities by changing electoral districts, this is very worthwhile.
Make sure to check out this episode, listen to some other ones as well, and support the podcast if you can.
I also demand a hearing into which hearings
I should have attended while demanding more hearings.
– Liberal blog Daily Kos summing up John McCain’s press conference on Benghazi1
Former GOP presidential candidate Senator John McCain recently gave a press conference on the Benghazi terrorist attack, demanding more investigation of the incident. When a CNN reporter pointed out to McCain that, instead of giving a press conference, he might be attending a confidential briefing at the Senate Homeland Security Committee, of which he is a member, McCain lost it. Oh my…
Barack Obama remains the President of the United States for the next four years. What is on the domestic agenda in American politics next?
The “Fiscal Cliff” and the “Grand Bargain”
Republicans in Congress plan to hold the approval of the federal budget hostage, as they did last time. What do they want? The continuation of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and severe cuts to social programs that benefit the less fortunate in the name of deficit reduction. Most interesting about this is that the freshly reelected president and Democrats have signaled their willingness to largely go along with Republicans.
In what is known as the “Grand Bargain,” Democrats including Obama have proposed to slash programs such as Social Security to decrease the federal deficit, in order to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” i.e. the blockade of the federal budget by the GOP. Other than one might think from the Democrats’ campaign rhetoric, the focus is not on tax increases for corporations and the wealthiest individuals.
To understand why Obama would support policies that seem to run counter to his campaign promises of even a few weeks ago, namely to put his support behind the struggling American middle class, one has to reach back into his not-too-distant past. And there it lies, in the open: Obama is a neoliberal. 123
It is visible in the people he appointed to his economic team during the first term in office, the ways in which the financial industry was not heavily regulated after the financial crisis, and the way a public option was given up on early in favor of an industry-based model during the health care reform negotiations.
The irony of it all is that Obama the neoliberal, who pretends to be an economic progressive (liberal) during election season, is decried as everything from a socialist to a communist by the far-right commentators on talk radio and the Republican propaganda machine of Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch that is Fox News.
Economically, Obama’s current proposals represent but a gradual difference to what a Romney/Ryan presidency would have wrought, but it is not qualitatively different. The interests of the super-wealthy are not touched by Obama and the Democratic Party.
The swift willingness to compromise with a Republican Party that has been playing hardball since day one (of Obama’s first term), combined with the Obama administration’s notable toughness towards its progressive supporters, reoccurring at the beginning of this second term, makes one wonder whether this is after all a game of good cop, bad cop. If Republican proposals seem extreme from a middle class perspective, the Democrats’ slightly less harsh plans all of a sudden look friendly in comparison. But it is a view from within a moving train.
[Update] My judgment of the situation was perhaps a bit too harsh. According to the New York Times (December 2), the Obama administration now forces the GOP to come to the table first with a serious offer, not the other way around like last time. Obama now wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to reduce the federal deficit.
“Following the Debt Talks-Interactive Feature.” (Alicia Parlapiano and Josh Keller, New York Times, 2012/12/06) – A nice graphic overview of what Democrats and Republicans each offer in the current talks on the federal debt and budget.
President Barack Obama won his re-election in 2012 with an impressive lead of 332 to 206 electoral college votes after taking the most important swing states inluding Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. The polls pointed towards this outcome, but the race had remained close until the end.
Here is my big list of links to articles about the 2012 presidential election. I will continually update it as I find new material.
Obama’s victory speech:
Romney’s concession speech:
News Coverage of the 2012 Presidential Election Outcome:
Among liberal commentators, but also some conservative voices, a narrative is beginning to emerge that the GOP lost because it kept appealing to racism, religious fundamentalism, and conservative populism among its base, all of which had been culminating in the Tea Party Movement, which had emerged with the 2008 election of Barack Obama. To get a glimpse at the GOP of 2012, and to see the ideological elements mentioned above, one may go to YouTube and re-watch the past primaries, or the video documents of CPAC 2012.
“How President Obama Won a Second Term.” (Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, 2012/11/23) – “Political strategist James Carville breaks down where the Republicans went wrong – and what it means for the future.”
“Romney Blames Loss on Obama’s ‘Gifts’ to Minorities and Young Voters.” (Ashley Parker, New York Times, 11/14/2012) – A professional politician complaining about another professional politician for making promises to voters to get elected—now that is quite amusing. As if Mitt Romney’s own party did not try to win the election by promising ‘gifts’ in the form of tax cuts to its one core constituency that really matters, i.e. the class of ultra-wealthy donors.
“Fox station tells Romney supporters how to ‘beat the traffic’ to Canada.” (David Edwards, The Raw Story, 11/08/2012) – Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, as they say. And for a local Fox News station, the re-election of Barack Obama means that the apocalypse has come. So what is their advice to Romney supporters? Fleeing to Canada, ironically a country with more ‘socialist’ government programs than the US.
[Op-Ed] “Hope and Change: Part 2.” (Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, 11/07//2012) – Friedman says that the GOP lost this time and last time because it moved so far to the right that it lost the political center.
[Kommentar] “Unsere Obama-Liebe ist infantil.” (Jan Fleischhauer, Spiegel Online, 08.11.2012) – Der konservative Kolumnist bei Spiegel Online ist der Meinung, die Deutschen würden die USA gerne “auf den Knien [. . . ] sehen”, seien geradezu besessen von Amerika-Bashing, übertrieben den Niedergang der USA im Allgemeinen maßlos und seien nur deshalb von Obama in den Bann gezogen, weil er vermeintlich das Gegenteil von allem was sie an Amerika schlecht finden verkörpere.
[Kommentar] “Untergang des amerikanischen Imperiums.” (Jakob Augstein, Spiegel Online, 05.11.2012) – Der Verleger des linken Freitag über die Macht des Kapitals in der amerikanischen Politik und das Unvermögen der Obama-Administration, den Kurs ihrer Vorgänger grundlegend zu ändern.
“Obama, Herrscher der Daten.” (Matthias Kolb, Deutschlandfunk Diskurs, 05.11.2012) – Bericht über die entscheidende Bedeutung der genaue Auswertung von Daten über Wählergruppen im Präsidentschaftswahl 2012.
On Tuesday, November 6, the 2012 presidential election will finally be decided. What is the latest state of affairs? The prospects of the incumbent, President Barack Obama, seem to increase towards the finishing line of this election cycle.
How Likely Is It That the Current POTUS (President of the United States) Will Also Be the Next?
The Princeton Election Consortium has calculated a 98.2 percent chance for Obama to be re-elected.
Statistician Nate Silver at the New York Times has calculated a 83.7 percent chance for Obama to win the Electoral College (November 2, 2012).
Nevertheless, polls do not amount to anything if voters do not show up at the voting booth or cast an absentee ballot. So what are the odds here? According to Gallup, voter turnout will be slightly lower than in 2008 and in 2004 (October 30, 2012).
Meanwhile…Robo-Calls, Commies Love Obama, and Voting Machine Software
While the chances of the Romney campaign are decreasing, there is no shortage of election shenanigans that may or may not be directly connected to said campaign (in some cases they are clearly not). Here are some examples of dirty campaign tricks of late:
In Massachusetts, voters reported robo-calls encouraging them to vote on the wrong date, i.e. one day after the election.
Red Cross Annoyed By Romney Disaster Relief Campaign Stunt:
The Red Cross was not amused about the Romney campaign’s window-dressing of a rally as disaster relief effort through busing in canned goods in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.
Abe Lincoln’s GOP Loves Black Voters:
A recent Super Pac ad tries to persuade African Americans to vote for Romney because the Republican Party freed the slaves—in the nineteenth century. While that is technically correct (Abraham Lincoln was a Republican), a quick glance at a quality American history textbook will reveal the historic realignments that have taken place in the American party system. Especially since the 1960s, the GOP, along with Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats), who soon joined the GOP, has deployed the Southern Strategy: appealing to white racism to peel off voters from Democrats. In short, the Republican Party of 1865 is not the Republican Party of 2012.
(Dead) Latin American Socialists and Communists For Obama:
In Florida, one of the important battleground states, the Romney campaign attempts to appeal to older anti-communist Cuban American voters in a Spanish-language ad by associating Obama with Fidel Castro (via his niece, who says she would vote for Obama), Ché Guevara (via a background picture from an EPA email featuring the famous portrait), and Hugo Chavez (who said that he would vote for Obama if he were American). In reality, the relationship between the actual socialist President of Venezuela, and Obama, who has been called a socialist by political opponents, has never been that cozy. Since July of 2010, there is no US ambassador in Caracas and no Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, respectively, because Chavez did not accept Washington’s appointee, due to his previous anti-Chavez remarks.
Voting Machines Get ‘Experimental Software Patches’:
In Ohio, another important swing state, Secretary of State Jon Husted plans to install “experimental software patches” on voting machines, which, due to a legal loophole, do not have to be certified in any way. Civil rights groups are worried about the potential for manipulation.
Vote For Romney Or Face Eternal Damnation:
All these prior arguments in favor of Romney may or may not help him win against Obama on Tuesday. But if that is not enough, there is still the biggest gun of American politics: the Christian God.
Not associated with the Romney campaign, but in support of him, are some clergymen. Their argument: Vote for Romney or face God’s wrath. Of course, they are not telling their flock whom to vote for—that would, in theory, endanger their tax-exempt status as a church. But their hints are not all that subtle either.
In September, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, IL, wrote in an email to his parishioners that voting for a Democrat might “plac[e] the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”
In late October, another Roman Catholic Bishop, David L. Ricken of Green Bay, WI, wrote in an email to his parishioners that voting for a party supporting “intrinsically evil actions” including “homosexual ‘marriage'” (which Democrats support) “could put your own soul in jeopardy.”
Also in late October, former Republican presidential candidate and Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee narrated an ad framing the upcoming election as a “test of fire” wherein “[y]our vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity.” You can watch it here:
Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose.
You can find more background information on the 2012 presidential election in my previous posts, for instance here.
Tonight (October 22, 2012), President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney hold their third and final debate, this time at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, and with a focus on foreign policy. During the last debate, Romney already attacked Obama’s foreign policy to some extent, for instance by (falsely) claiming that the president had not called the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 an act of terrorism—the respective transcript produced by the debate moderator proved Romney wrong on this allegation.
Topics that will certainly be on the agenda tonight: Iran’s nuclear program and relations with China. Other issues which I assume will not be discussed, even though they merit serious debate: the expanding drone wars under the current administration in the ‘war on terror,’ in particular so-called signature strikes, and the conscious decision of the justice department not to hold accountable the architects and enforcers of the torture regime in said ‘war on terror,’ which sets a precedent for future administrations. So let us see what the two candidates have to say.
[Update: They did talk about drones and Romney agreed with President Obama’s current policy.]
You can watch the debate here:
The complete final debate on YouTube:
The YouTube election hub also has a plethora of political videos here.
You can also watch the complete third Obama-Romney debate at the New York Times, which has a handy running transcript next to the video.
You can also watch the complete third Obama-Romney debate at the Washington Post, which has a handy running transcript next to the video.
2012 Election Central has a schedule of all 2012 debates here.
[Podcast] “Red State Blue State.” (This American Life Episode 478, 11/01/2012) – This episode covers how the current hyperpolarized political climate in the US affects families and friends who find themselves in opposite political camps.
[Podcast] “Das Streben nach Glück – Anspruch und Wirklichkeit: Amerika vor der Wahl.” (Deutschlandradio Kultur Lesart, 28.10.2012) – Die Diskussionsrunde nimmt Bezug auf Mark Twains kürzlich nach hundert Jahren der Geheimhaltung veröffentlichten “Geheimen Biographie” sowie David Remnicks Obama-Biographie “Die Brücke – Barack Obama und die Vollendung der schwarzen Bürgerrechtsbewegung”, im Original “The Bridge – The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” (2010).
[Video/Podcast] “Brennpunkt USA – Eine intellektuelle Spurensuche.” (Schweizer Fernsehen, Sternstunde Philosophie, 24.10.2012) – In der philosophischen Sendung des Schweizer Fernsehens interviewt Barbara Blasch amerikanische Intellektuelle wie Noam Chomsky, Katja Vogt und Michael Walzer zur Lage der Nation kurz vor der Präsidentschaftswahl 2012. Auch als Audioversion im Podcast-Feed der Sendung.
Tonight (October 16, 2012), President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney will have their second debate, this time at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. In their last debate, Romney came across better prepared and ‘won’ on style, not necessarily on substance. The big question concerning this debate is therefore: Can Obama be a match to Romney this time as a performer?
You can watch the debate here:
Here is the debate, courtesy of the YouTube Politics channel:
If you are short on time, here is the debate in 100 seconds, courtesy of Talking Points Memo:
The YouTube election hub has a live stream of the debates here.
You can also watch the complete second Obama-Romney debate at the New York Times, which has a nifty running transcript next to the video.
You can also watch the complete second Obama-Romney debate at the Washington Post, which has a nifty running transcript next to the video.
2012 Election Central has a schedule of all upcoming debates here.
“Das Streben nach Glück – Anspruch und Wirklichkeit: Amerika vor der Wahl.” (Deutschlandradio Kultur, 28.10.2012) – Die Diskussionsrunde nimmt Bezug auf Mark Twains kürzlich nach hundert Jahren der Geheimhaltung veröffentlichten “Geheimen Biographie” sowie David Remnicks Obama-Biographie “Die Brücke – Barack Obama und die Vollendung der schwarzen Bürgerrechtsbewegung”, im Original “The Bridge – The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” (2010).
In the press landscape, the Biden-Ryan debate last week (October 11, 2012) was for the most part counted as a strong comeback for the Obama campaign, following the president’s lackluster performance against Mitt Romney the week before (October 3, 2012). Biden pointed out the glaring factual flaws of his opponents arguments. You can find some links detailing these in my last post here. So what is left for the Romney campaign between now and the second presidential debate tonight in Hempstead, New York (October 16, 2012)? For one thing, it is damage control. In an attempt at portraying himself as a compassionate conservative, as opposed to the long-time follower of Ayn Rand that he is, Paul Ryan went to a soup kitchen in northeast Ohio for a photo op showing him and his family cleaning some dishes. That did not go so well, as the artificiality of the whole maneuver was quite apparent:
The second televised debate of the 2012 presidential elections is scheduled for tonight (Thursday, 11 October, 2012), featuring Vice President Joe Biden and challenger Paul Ryan. After the last debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, which a majority of commentators from all sides saw as a victory (at least on style) for Romney, it is going to be quite interesting to see, in my opinion, what debate strategy the Obama camp will choose this time around.
“Das Streben nach Glück – Anspruch und Wirklichkeit: Amerika vor der Wahl.” (Deutschlandradio Kultur, 28.10.2012) – Die Diskussionsrunde nimmt Bezug auf Mark Twains kürzlich nach hundert Jahren der Geheimhaltung veröffentlichten “Geheimen Biographie” sowie David Remnicks Obama-Biographie “Die Brücke – Barack Obama und die Vollendung der schwarzen Bürgerrechtsbewegung”, im Original “The Bridge – The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” (2010).
“The Lying Precedent.” (New York Times Editorial Page, 10/10/2012) – Not particularly about fact-checking per se, but a compilation of video clips, including ads from the Obama campaign, illustrating how Mitt Romney changes his political positions opportunistically throughout the campaign, from “severely conservative” to “moderate.”
“Das Streben nach Glück – Anspruch und Wirklichkeit: Amerika vor der Wahl.” (Deutschlandradio Kultur, 28.10.2012) – Die Diskussionsrunde nimmt Bezug auf Mark Twains kürzlich nach hundert Jahren der Geheimhaltung veröffentlichten “Geheimen Biographie” sowie David Remnicks Obama-Biographie “Die Brücke – Barack Obama und die Vollendung der schwarzen Bürgerrechtsbewegung”, im Original “The Bridge – The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” (2010).
With the 2012 Republican and Democratic party conventions behind a few weeks, and still some time to go until the actual presidential elections in November, let’s recapture what happened in the meantime.
After the Democratic National Convention, President Obama’s approval numbers increased slightly, a phenomenon known as the ‘convention bounce’ by pollsters.
Mitt Romney did not reap a convention bounce of that magnitude after the Republican National Convention.
How does the electoral map look after the conventions? Among the important swing states, Virginia and Ohio have become slightly more favorable to Democrats. That means 31 more electoral votes for President Obama.
At the same time, in important swing states like Florida or Ohio, a battle is fought over voter registration, with Republicans framing the issue as preventing voter fraud, while Democrats see it as an attempt at disenfranchising minority voters.
As opposed to the situation in Germany, where there is a mandatory national ID (Personalausweis), which is used for identifying at the polling place, in the American system there is no such mandatory document. Citizens could so far identify with a host of other documents, such as driver’s licenses. Also, German voters do not have to register as supporter of a particular party prior to voting. Instead, they walk into the polling station, identify, and then cast their vote—nobody knows for whom. Thus, in the US, there is an incentive for parties to register as many voters for their side, and potentially to disenfranchise the other side’s supporters.
Here are developments in the Romney campaign, including amusing/worrying bloopers:
During a TV interview with ABC in mid-September, Romney estimated that a household income of $250,000 should be considered a “middle income,” one that would benefit from tax cuts, should he be elected president. In sharp contrast to Romney, the Census Bureau lists as a median income household those in the range of $50,000.
Still, as Gallup reports, one third of lowest income voters support Romney (09/18/2012).
On September 18, a secret recording of Romney at a fundraiser was leaked to Mother Jones magazine, in which Romney characterized 47% of Americans, which he believes are all Obama supporters, as “dependent on the government” and that his job was “not to worry about those people.” The day the recording was released, the Romney campaign put together an emergency press conference at 10:30 pm.
When the US Ambassador to Lybia and several embassy staff were killed in an attack by radical Islamists after an anti-Islam video went viral, Romney used the occasion to blame President Obama.
At a press conference, while discussing alternative energy sources, Romney praised Adolf Hitler’s idea of using liquified coal as a fuel source. This, of course, does not imply that Romney endorses any other of Hitler’s ideas, but might still be a somewhat unfortunate political move.
On September 19, while giving an interview to Spanish-language TV network Univision, Romney appeared to have tanned in order to appeal to Hispanic voters. Also, a Univision anchor stated that the Romney campaign demanded a favorable audience for the occasion.
On September 27, Mother Jones magazine published an old video of Mitt Romney as CEO of Bain Capital. In this flashback to the 1980s, Romney explains how Bain Capital “harvests” companies for profit.
On September 23, Obama claimed in a TV interview that “Over the last four years, the deficit has gone up, but 90 percent of that is as a consequence of” President George W. Bush’s policies and the recession.” Fact-checking website PolitiFact rates this as ‘false.’
Last week, the RNC finished its party convention in Tampa, Florida. Now it is the Democrats’ turn to present themselves to American voters, nominate their presidential candidate (same as the old), and convince them of their agenda. I will update this post as the convention develops.
[Podcast] Common Sense with Dan Carlin #236 – “Trapped by the Inflexible Mind” (9/6/2012)—”Jobs are the main subject of both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, but Dan explains why both parties refuse to discuss the real reason good jobs are in such scarce supply.”
The Republican National Committee just officially nominated Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential candidate. But besides Romney and Paul Ryan, a variety of conservative speakers were trying to get their message across. Here is a selection of speeches, including the big one by Romney. I also collected some commentary and fact-checks of Romney’s and Ryan’s speeches.
Party platforms outline how a political party sees itself at a certain moment in time. They are a document of what the party in question wants to stand for. In the US, political parties publish their platforms every four years prior to the presidential election.
language dropped that says Jerusalem is the capital of Israel (because Palestinians also claim it as future capital)UPDATE (9/5/2012): Democrats put back in the notion that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and a reference to God, after three (!) rounds of not-so-clear voice votes. Watch it here:http://youtu.be/bjdj6K3yoR8
Over at the American Presidency Project, you may read the 2012 party platforms and earlier documents. Here is the 2008 GOP platform, and here is the 2008 Democratic platform. And even though elections mostly come down to a contest between Democrats and Republicans, there are third parties in the US, and they do have platforms, too.
Read the 2012 platforms of the Green Party here, Constitution Party here, and of the Libertarian Party here.
While observers are waiting for Mitt Romney’s big acceptance speech at the GOP convention, here is a flashback to April of this year, when Romney won the Republican primaries:
UPDATE: You can see Romney’s acceptance speech and more on the RNC convention in this blog post.
Fourty-seven years ago, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which strengthened the rights of African Americans to cast their ballot—after highly-visible violent crackdowns on peaceful civil rights activists in Alabama and immense pressure in their aftermath.1 Even though the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1870 as part of the Reconstruction Amendments shortly after the American Civil War, had on paper secured African Americans’ right to vote, the following century was marked by disenfranchisement through both legal tactics, such as literacy tests, but also mob violence, especially in the US South. In recent times, a push for stricter voter identification laws in some places has reignited the debate about voting rights.
Here is an excerpt of Johnson’s speech before Congress on the matter of voting rights in 1965:
Here is the full speech and its transcript at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Over at Crash Course World History (Episode #28), the hyperactive John Green presents a humorous look at the American Revolution, including a Monty Phython-esque cut-out Ben Franklin arguing with King George over taxation and representation, all in colorful animation. The most interesting serious point, in my opinion: the Founding fathers made sure that their revolution would not develop like the French Revolution, i.e. become radically democratic.
In a recent provocatively-titled piece following the Aurora shooting on July 20, 2012 at a screening of the new Batman movie, New Yorker columnist John Cassidy asks “Is America Crazy?” He points out that the latest iteration of the national discourse about gun control following such an act of violence, whereas many argue for buying more guns and against stricter regulations, highlights that attitudes towards guns are an “American shibboleth:” a widely-shared cultural-political national myth that evades rational discourse. Cassidy continues to give a list of what he considers to be such topoi:
1. Gun laws and gun deaths are unconnected.
2. Private enterprise is good; public enterprise is bad.
3. God created America and gave it a special purpose.
4. Our health-care system is the best there is.
5. The Founding Fathers were saintly figures who established liberty and democracy for everyone.
6. America is the greatest country in the world.
7. Tax rates are too high.
8. America is a peace-loving nation: the reason it gets involved in so many wars is that foreigners keep attacking us.
9. Cheap energy, gasoline especially, is our birthright.
It is probably a truism to say that these days there is extreme partisanship and division between the different political camps in the US. There are broad ideological differences regarding the right way to govern the country. But sometimes, things happen that seem to go way beyond mere disagreement on a particular policy matter.
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
You can read about HOTS here and here (pyramid chart), and about Outcome-Based Education here.
Higher Order Thinking Skills, based on the works of educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom (1956), are a taxonomy that establish a pyramid of thinking skills, from basic to advanced levels:
I fully admit that I am not familiar with the minute details of the educational system(s) in the US, but I was truly amazed that something I had assumed would be valued by most people regardless of their politics, would be so overtly attacked by one of the major political parties, if only on a state level.
Indeed, a student armed with critical thinking skills will ask many questions. And it is possible that, when presented with facts and the mental tools to evaluate them, students may arrive at different conclusions than their parents regarding any given issue at some point in the future. But such is the price of education. Is it not a good thing to be able to make up one’s mind independently?
The Argument From Authority and Democracy
As the Fallacy Files blog explains, the appeal to authority, also known as argumentum ad verecundiam (argument from respect/modesty (Latin)) is a logical fallacy structured in the following way:
Authority A believes that P is true. Therefore, P is true.
Note that the authority is not required to present any good reasons for its position.
I assume that the Texas GOP, perhaps instinctively, correctly understands that a citizenry trained in critical thinking will be less susceptible to arguments from authority. In the beginning, these arguments are necessarily coming from parents, but later in life the crowd of authority figures widens to include other public figures, such as the local clergy, news anchors, or politicians. Certainly, this makes it more difficult for authorities to defend the state of affairs, be it social or political. If the targets of their messages ask “Why do you think this?,” then the authority in question is forced to justify their position. “Do as I tell you, because!” becomes increasingly unconvincing.
That might be an unpleasant annoyance for those without good arguments, but it is necessary in a free and open society.
For a democratic society, an uncritical citizenry poses a fundamental problem. If citizens do not develop the mental capabilities to evaluate statements or actions by public figures, then their ability to hold elected representatives or any other authorities accountable diminishes.
The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.
Dewey also notes that education in a democracy is a prerequisite of social mobility. Preventing the education of the broader population, on the other hand, works towards establishing a hierarchical, static, class-based society, and is thus intrinsically undemocratic:
A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements. A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught and whose significance or connections they do not perceive. The result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others.
A 2011 study1 by Georgetown University seems to confirm this notion from a century ago for the near future, as far as predictions of the future based on current trends go. According to its findings, by 2018 almost two thirds of all occupations in the United States will require a college degree. On the face of it, Higher Order Thinking Skills as conceptualized by Bloom are essential to mastering college. Reading fairly complex texts and extracting concepts and ideas are going to be extremely difficult without some form of prior training. But as Dewey’s argument illustrates, the ability to think critically has implications far beyond mere personal future economic prospects.
Anti-Intellectualism in the 2012 Presidential Primaries
During the 2012 Republican Primary, Rick Santorumlambasted President Obama as a snob for wanting to enable more Americans to get easier access to some form of higher education. Pushing for this would be an elitist endeavor and out of touch with the average American. He also claimed that college education would lead to religious students losing their faith,2 which he, as an ultra-conservative Catholic, disapproves of.
But expanding higher education to larger parts of the population rather than limiting it to a tinier part is, by definition, neither snobbish nor elitist. What can be observed in this piece of political theater is an anti-intellectual populist gesture promoting the antagonistic image of an overeducated (liberal) elite in order to mobilize the resentment of blue-collar voters.
On a closer look, it becomes quite clear that for many of the the major players in the GOP, by whom, for the purpose of this argument, I just mean potential presidential candidates, agitating against higher education is but a political prop.
The hypocrisy on the part of Santorum, most of all, is that he himself holds several college degrees (a B.A. in political science, an M.B.A., and a law degree). In fact, most major Republican contenders at the time held advanced college degrees. Ron Paul has an M.D., Newt Gingrich has a Ph.D., and the victor of the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, Mitt Romney, has an M.B.A. and J.D. from Harvard. 3
How serious can you take a person who tries to discourage you from pursuing higher education because only sinister elites would be interested in such a thing, only to tell you the next moment that they themself are heading for the ivory tower? Not very much, in my opinion.
Even the most famous Texas politicians are no strangers to higher education. POTUS #43, George W. Bush, who was, on the one hand, depicted by his opponents as intellectually challenged, but on the other hand also forged his own public image as anti-intellectual, down-to-earth Texas cowboy, holds an M.B.A. from Harvard and a B.A. in history from Yale. It does not get much more ivy league than this.
The idea that democracy’s prospects are not bright when education is held in low regard is not new. Today’s Texas GOP might revisit the advice of POTUS #3, Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826):
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s health care reform, stating that the individual health care mandate was a legal form of taxation. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. enabled the 5 to 4 vote by joining the liberal side of the court.
Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.
– Chief Justice John Roberts
This article from Politico has a handy chart that shows how the health care law looks like after the ruling.
The cause of repealing ‘Obamacare’ had been a key mobilizing issue for the GOP and the Tea Party Movement since the law was enacted in 2010.
Here is an incomplete collection of news articles on the Supreme Court’s ruling:
NY Times here, Washington Post here, Huffington Post here, Wall St. Journal here, Politico here and here (key quotes from the ruling), SCOTUSblog here, Think Progress here, USA Today here, Daily Beast here.
Politico’s analysis of Justive Roberts’ motivations can be read here. In brief, some professional observers think that the conservative-leaning Roberts’ surprising decision has to do with creating his own legacy, a “Roberts Court,” and deflecting critics’ arguments about a Supreme Court characterized by conservative judicial activism.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who had introduced an almost identical individual health care mandate in Massachusetts as Governor, continues to campaign on repealing ‘Obamacare’ despite the fact that he had earlier advocated for the Massachusetts health care reform to become a model for national health care reform.
The Obama administration highlights this inconvenient fact in their campaign ads against Romney.
One of Romney’s arguments is that “Obamacare adds trillions to our deficits and to our national debt.” The fact-checking website PolitiFact rates Romney’s statement as ‘false.’
At Politiwhoops, a website of the Sunlight Foundation, you can read all the tweets deleted by politicians who were against the health care reform. Some of them falsely tweeted that the Supreme Court had repealed the individual mandate.
Juneteenth falls on June 19 every year and commemorates the liberation of African Americans from slavery. It was first celebrated by former slaves in Texas in 1865, when, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the American Civil War, Union General Gordon Granger reached Galveston Bay, accompanied by 2,000 troops.
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere. 1
The former slaves celebrated their newfound freedom with exuberant songs, barbecue, and rodeos. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Juneteenth was established an African American tradition. But with the Great Migration towards the Northern industrial centers, the holiday declined in prominence.
Moreover, during the Reconstruction Era and the rise of Jim Crow, Juneteenth was not widely endorsed by state and federal governments, especially in the former Confederate States. In Texas, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in 1890.
Since the last decades of the twentieth century, however, there has been an increased activism to bring back Juneteenth into public conscience. Currently, Juneteenth is recognized as an official holiday in thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia. [Update: It is now celebrated in fourty-two states]2
At the Griot blog, you can read about Barack Obama’s proclamation for Juneteenth 2012.3
Today, historian Charles Postel of San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at Heidelberg University, visited American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series to talk about the rise of the Tea Party Movement in the US.
Postel, who specializes in populist movements in America, sees the Tea Party Movement as driven by a convergence of two different forces: ideology and economic self-interest.
The Founding Myth: The Boston Tea Party
He mentioned the myth of the original Boston Tea Party of the eighteenth century in American folklore, which is widely seen as a tax revolt, but was, according to historians, much more complex, involving political ideas about freedom and economic self-interest of Boston merchants and smugglers.
In order to illustrate the anatomy of today’s Tea Party Movement, Postel noted that federal taxes are at the lowest level since sixty years and that tax levels for the highest income groups have declined even sharper than for the average taxpayer.
Ideological Roots: Cold War Hard Right Paranoia
Postel held that much of the ideology of the Tea Party Movement derives from anti-New Deal conservative movements of the Cold War Era, in particular the John Birch Society, who saw social programs such as Social Security, trade unions, and the Civil Rights Movement as communist subversion of America. The enemies of those anti-New Deal conservative Republicans were for the most part moderate Republicans of the time.
The John Birch Society, which was the first grassroots conservative movement in the US, achieved a victory in mobilizing for Barry Goldwater as Republican candidate in 1964.
Robert Welch, the founder of the JBS, even went so far as accusing Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy as communist agents. In fact, anyone in favor of the New Deal and Civil Rights was seen as a communist.
In this video clip on YouTube, you can see Welch’s presentation (ca. 1965) of the JBS.
Other leading conservative intellectuals, such as William F. Buckley, distanced themselves from Welch and the JBS.
Welch and his allies, among them writer Leon Scousen, whose books have had a revival among Tea Partiers, built their own conservative movement on an anti-New Deal agenda.
For them, America’s fall from grace began in the early 1900s with the Progressive Movement’s social reforms.
The Birchers demanded the repeal of early twentieth century reforms, the Sixteenth Amendment, which allows for the federal government to raise an income tax, and the abolition of the Federal Reserve. They also demanded that the Seventeenth Amendment be repealed, which allows for the direct election of Senators. This was subsumed under the idea that America was a republic, not a democracy.
The Tea Party Movement picks up many of those ideas. It aims at repealing the remaining elements of the New Deal. It wants to abolish the Fed and for the reintroduction of the Gold Standard. It wants to repeal the 16th and 17th Amerndments. It argues that President Obama is a socialist and points to the Affordable Healthcare Act or ‘Obamacare.’
According to Postel, Obama is actually a centrist Democrat. A health care legislation similar to Obama’s was first proposed by President Nixon in 1974. For a long time, Republicans endorsed this idea.
The Tea Party Movement sees any regulation of the health care sector as socialism.
The Comeback of Bircher Rhetoric
If the rhetoric reminds of Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, that is, Postel says, because the John Birch Society has a revival.
Leon Scousen’s books are advertised regularly on Fox News by opinion hosts such as Glenn Beck.
Right-wing corporate lobbyists, including groups like FreedomWorks or Americans for Prosperity, but also think tanks, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation or the libertarian Cato Institute promote ideas similar to those of the Birchers.
Overall, the Cold War Hard Right has made a comeback, and it has gained the upper hand within the Republican Party.
Moderate Republicans have become a pariah within their party.
[Update]: I just stumbled upon a recent example of Bircherite Tea Party rhetoric. Congressman Allen West (R-FL) suggesting that 80 House Democrats are members of the Communist Party (article from The Raw Story).
The Politics of Self-Interest: Medicare Is Fine, But Only For Me
Besides ideology, politics of interest play an important role in the Tea Party Movement.
Postel sees this embodied in the Tea Party Movement’s opposition to health care reform as fight against ‘big government.’
The size of the federal government has remained relatively stable over the last decades. Most federal spending has been shrinking in the last thirty years. The two big exceptions to this are military spending and Medicare.
Most Tea Party supporters are on favor of higher military spending.
Regarding Medicare, typical Tea Party supporters—older, better educated, white males—have in the past most profited from government programs.
In other words, the Tea Party Movement mobilizes in the name of defending Medicare for themselves.
Tea Party figures such as Michelle Bachman have argued to the effect that Obama would take funds out of Medicare to give it to younger people.
Postel mentioned that the Paul Ryan Budget, favored by Republicans, illustrated this interest: those over fify-five would keep Medicare, while everyone else will have to shop in the insurance market with private vouchers.
The Politics of Inequality
The Ryan Budget also includes tax cuts for top earners and budget cuts for social programs.
This plan is proposed within the context of rising inequality within the US. While problematic for many, Postel noted that tens of millions of Americans have also benefited from rising inequality.
So far, Tea Party-influenced legislation at the state and local level has fostered inequality, with a clear anti-immigrant, anti-union, anti-reproductive health, and anti-voting rights agenda.
Currently, about twenty percent of Americans sympathize with the Tea Party Movement.
The Tea Party Movement has links to corporate lobbyists. Postel highlighted the Koch Brothers, the fourth wealthiest individuals in the US with an industry conglomerate in petrochemicals. The Kochs bankroll the Tea Party Movement through lobby groups such as Americans for Prosperity. They founded libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, and ALEC, a legal think tank. Fred C. Koch, father of Charles and David Koch, was a founding member of the John Birch Society.
Despite the involvement of the Kochs and others, Postel said that the Tea Party Movement cannot be called purely an ‘astroturf’ or fake grassroots movement.
Postel also held that while the mass media often emphasize the Tea Party Movement’s anti-elite rhetoric, there is not very much of it on closer look. Rather, all political movements in the US since the nineteenth century have used some form of anti-elite rhetoric, out of necessity.
Blowing Up The Social Contract
For Postel, the core agenda of the Tea Party Movement is “blowing up the social contract.” While in Europe there is general agreement about the validity of some form of social contract, even among right-wing populist parties, who want to limit the beneficiaries of that social contract, Tea Partiers want to end it. To American Tea Partiers, European right-wing populist parties might look statist, which is opposite to Tea Party ideology.
Many Tea Partiers call themselves ‘tenthers,’ in reference to the Tenth Amendment, which gives established the federal system giving states all rights not granted to the federal government. Postel noted that in the US, political movements have always swung for or against states’ rights and federal rights, depending on whether the legislation in question aligned with their particular agenda.
Postel ended his talk noting that, ironically, the Tea Party Movement has nationalized politics more than anything else in the recent past.
Charles Postel is currently working on a book chapter for an anthology on the Tea Party Movement.
Here is a video from American Studies Leipzig featuring an interview with Charles Postel after his talk:
This Tuesday [March 27, 2012] I attended a talk on “The Upcoming U.S. Presidential Elections and U.S. Foreign Policy” by Dr. John C. Hulsman, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS). The talk was held at the Bibliotheca Albertina, the main university library in Leipzig, and presented by the AmCham Forum of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany.
In his talk, Hulsman argued that five issues were crucial to current developments in US foreign policy:
the decline of the US economy
the decline of the European economies
the Arab Spring
rising powers such as India and China
the question of an Iranian nuclear program
Elections and Political Views in the US
Concerning the elections, Hulsman said that polls show that more more Americans consider themselves conservatives [He was probably talking about thisGallup poll].
Independent Voters in the US
Presidential elections in the US, Hulsman mentioned, are won by courting independent voters, who are neither attached to Democrats or Republicans.
These independents are disaffected and are most concerned about the economy.
In 2008, independents were largely for Barack Obama. Before the crash of investment bank Lehman Brothers, however, John McCain was ahead of Obama in the polls with independents.
In 2010, independents swung back to Republicans, mainly because of opposition to the Obama administration’s health care reform bill.
To independents, Hulsman explained, the health care reform was another ‘entitlement,’ which they dislike, and they felt that their main concern—the economy—was neglected.
[Here is a Pew poll from April 2012 on general election preferences.]
Economic Troubles Illustrated
To illustrate the severity of economic troubles in the US, Hulsman gave these examples:
One third of Americans have no retirement savings. When the Social Security system was initiated, life expectancy was much lower than today. During the 1990s, many who owned real estate, such as a house, felt this was securing their retirement.
One fourth of all homes in the US are now ‘underwater,’ meaning that homeowners owe the bank more in mortgage than the house is worth on the market. The house thus loses saving potential and becomes a drag for the owner. Hulsman said that the Hayekian idea (after classical liberal Austrian economist Friedrich August von Hayek) would have been to just leave the keys and get out of the house.
One fifth of all savings were wiped out during the financial crash that started in late 2007. Hulsman stressed that in a federal system such as that of the US, it is important to examine the respective figures for state and local levels to get the full scope of the financial crisis’ impact.
If the US economy would not grow by eight per cent, it would not be able to cushion these problems.
Anger at Washington and the Labor Market
Hulsman explained that part of the general dissatisfaction of voters with the Washington establishment is the great disparity of experiences in the labor market.
Jobs within the Washington political class are generally very secure, and it is hard to get fired. On the other hand, regular employees and workers get fired very easily in the US, compared to Germany.
The economic difficulties of the US, Huntsman noted, might produce a spillover effect with ramifications for foreign policy, due to constraints on the federal budget. The high costs of war and nation-building [see below] come under closer scrutiny in this climate.
The Republican Primaries in Early 2012
In January 2012, Mitt Romney was twenty points ahead with independents in the polls.
This time, more Republican primaries allocate their delegates proportionally.
By doing so, they adopt the Democratic system of primaries, wherein two candidates fight for the nomination.
Splitting the Republican Vote with Culture Wars
A problem for Republicans in their relationship with independent voters is their focus on ‘culture war’ issues such as abortion, contraception, and the separation of church and state. For instance, Rick Santorum has put the issues of contraception and state-church separation front and center in his campaign. This does not fit well with independents, who worry most about the economy.
As of March 2012, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are splitting the conservative vote. This is beneficial to Mitt Romney, who is considered the more socially moderate Republican candidate.
Romney, Hulsman noted, does not like to talk about social issues. He is simultaneously forced to move to the right o social issues in order to appease conservatives, while trying to avoid alienating independents.
Hulsman bets his money on Romney becoming the Republican nominee in the end.
Obama’s campaign narrative to counter Romney will be that he stopped the ‘Great Depression.’
Partisan Differences in Foreign Policy
How would Republicans and Democrats differ on foreign policy?
Hulsman said that Republicans are always to the right of Obama and the Democrats, for instance on the issue of Israel.
Current Challenges in US Foreign Policy
Dealing with a Multipolar World
An ongoing general challenge for the US is how to deal with the new multipolar world, exemplified by the rise of countries such as Brazil, India, China, South Africa, or Malaysia.
The European financial crisis the tensions with Iran are examples of issues that the US cannot control alone. This is a new situation for the US and makes the Obama administration nervous.
The Arab Spring
Hulsman was skeptical about the long-term success of the Arab Spring, saying that he viewed it in Burkeian terms. History shows, he said, that the most well-organized groups prevail in revolutions. In Egypt, this would be the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. While Hulsman was optimistic about the situation in Tunesia, he had a very bleak outlook about developments in Syria.
Obama’s foreign policy style, Hulsman held, is basically one that focuses on limiting losses.
Iran, the US, and Israel
Hulsman noted that the US government realizes its own security interest does not equal Israeli security interest, even if both are close allies.
To illustrate this point, Hulsman explained that the US and Israel have different red lines in considering military action against Iran.
For Israel, an Iranian capability to build a nuclear weapon would be a reason to attack. For the US, the actual possession of nuclear weapons would be that flashpoint.
In Israel, the hawkish faction around Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Avigdor Liebermann want a military strike, but cannot get a majority of the population behind them without US support.
In addition, several former Mossad chiefs have publicly argued against attacking Iran.
In the US, public opinion is such that 75% strongly support Israel, but also do not want a unilateral strike. In Israel, the number concerning a unilateral strike is similar.
If Iran would at some point in the future have a nuclear weapon, nuclear proliferation would spread throughout the Middle East, especially the gulf states.
A bombing of Iran would have terrible results, according to Hulsman. If Israel attacked Iran unilaterally, that would perhaps set back the Iranian nuclear program for a year. But the high price to pay would be that hope for peace in the Middle East would be gone for a generation. Already now, an Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz has caused a spike in oil prices.
Currently, Washington talks to Tel Aviv to convince the Israelis to get more time to let the sanctions on Iran work.
Hulsman told the audience to behold the coming September, because the chance of a military strike at this time would be fifty-fifty.
Concerning Afghanistan, Hulsman, who is opposed to neoconservatives, held that it was a case of failed nation building, with a cost of $ 1 million per soldier per year. He said that failed nation builders always claim they need more time and money.
The US, the EU, and Global Influence
On the US as a global ordering power via the EU, Hulsman said that if the EU wants to play a greater role, it needs to spend more on defense. He said that the US cross-subsidizes European defense, while European nations spend very few on defense, and more on their social systems.
Here is a video from the US Embassy in Germany featuring John C. Hulsman talking about the 2012 elections:
Now that the Leipzig Book Fair 2012 (Leipziger Buchmesse) is over, I would like to share some thoughts about my impressions. There was so much to see that any attempt at catching everything of interest was doomed to failure. Nevertheless, I managed to attend some of the readings supported by the US Consulate Leipzig, as mentioned in my earlier post.
The book is based on a collection of interviews that Endler conducted with a variety American public intellectuals across the political spectrum. These public figures talked at length about how they imagine the role of the US as the remaining superpower after the Cold War.
Endler mentioned that the trauma of 9/11 is still present and informs national discourse in the US. He pointed to the 2012 Republican presidential primaries which had currently reached several Southern states in the US. Within the campaign rhetoric of the current crop of candidates, both the tropes of a potential Iranian nuclear threat and the fear of terrorism featured prominently.
Endler also talked about a specifically American “revolving door of public life,” a phenomenon wherein university professors often transfer to governmental posts, then to think tanks, and finally back to university or into journalism.
This mechanism, which is often difficult to understand from a German perspective, leads to a lively public debate in the US.
The discourses of public intellectuals in the US focus on such topics as the role of the US as a superpower, or the ability to survive crises.
Endler mentioned that in the public discourse, 9/11 entailed a sense of loss of the “free” US security provided by its geographic location. 9/11 was registered as the first attack on US territory since two hundred years, except for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Since 9/11, the US government has been willing to defend what it defines as American values with military force. This rationale has been put forward by the Bush administration, but also has been acknowledged by President Obama.
Endler mentioned that a look back at the past three years of the Obama administration reveals a shift towards “realism” in its foreign policy approach.
From a German perspective, he noted, US public debate often looks like a traveling circus, and seems rather strange. From the American perspective, on the other hand, this willingness to controversial discussion is seen as embodiment of democracy.
This also includes public opinion about the president, as documented by polls. Endler pointed out that recent polls show diverging evaluations of Obama as person and Obama as politician. While Obama as a person still gets relatively high approval ratings, Obama the politician is seen comparatively worse by the American public. The president also still has an image problem as he is seen as “elitist” by large parts of the population.
Endler also mentioned that in comparison, the political spectrum of the US is generally more to the right of Germany.
A few examples from the interviews with US public intellectuals underscored this point. For instance, he mentioned Michael Novak of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), whom he characterized as an archconservative Catholic who forms a bridge between the Christian Right and neoconservatives. Novak thought of Obama as an extreme leftist.
Endler described how many conservative public intellectuals in the US also see Obama as “great nibbler” who hesitates to tackle problems of foreign policy at the root.
On the other end of the left-right spectrum, Endler gave the example of MIT linguist and icon of the US Left, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky told Endler that there was no substantial debate going on in the US. In his opinion, the educated classes are indoctrinated. Chomsky noted broad support for the US invasion of Iraq, and the absence of a “principled objective” to invading other countries. According to Chomsky, there exists a double standard for other countries’ invasions of foreign countries. In Chomsky’s view, the nature of the discourse on the invasion of Iraq was such that the only question asked was “Does it cost US too much?”
Endler pointed out that foreign policy generally plays a small role in US elections and that war fatigue has risen among the US public. One case in point, Endler argued, was President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, which did not discuss foreign policy matters.
In Endler’s opinion, the dialogue between the US and the EU has been set aback lately.
He concluded that there is by and large a consensus across the political spectrum in American public debate about the status of the US as a superpower and the benefit of exporting democracy.
I found the talk very interesting, but it was unfortunately a bit short, as the whole event including introduction and questions at the end had to fit into a thirty minute time slot. I certainly would have liked to hear more about certain aspects of current US foreign policy, especially the aforementioned ‘realist’ turn of the Obama administration.
As the audience of a reading at the Leipzig Book Fair is much broader than merely American studies people, it is certainly sensible to not dwell on details only of interest to (aspiring) specialists. I am of course biased here and would have gladly taken in some more information. Then again, I am probably a little spoiled by attending readings at my university, which usually have the luxury of a ninety minute time slot.
Overall, the talk got me interested and I will put the book on my to-read list.