Friday, January 20, 2017

Fra Noi book review

Wanted to share a review of my new book, Branded, written by Fred Gardaphe and published in the February 2017 issue of Fra Noi.

Available in both paperback and Kindle formats:  Click here to purchase on Amazon

Click on image to enlarge

Monday, January 16, 2017

America Gerrymandered

We have heard often in recent years of the Republican party’s success in gerrymandering House districts to favor Republican candidates. What this means is that districts are drawn every ten years by the party in power in such a way that their incumbents profit by the odd shape of the district—i.e. one shaped to exclude opposing votes and include mostly favorable ones.
            The word ‘gerrymander’ stems from the first time the procedure was used in Massachusetts in 1812. At that time, Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redistricted state senate districts to benefit his party, the Democratic-Republican Party. When shown on a map, one of the oddly-contorted districts in the Boston area looked to some like a salamander. The word ‘gerrymander’ was coined as a combination of the name ‘Gerry’ and the last part of ‘salamander,’ to yield “gerrymander,” this combining of parts of two words being known as a portmanteau.
In modern gerrymandering, districts are drawn to both include mostly favorable votes for a party’s candidate, and to exclude unfavorable votes, or pack those unfavorable votes into one district. This latter tactic means that many votes are wasted—there are far more votes for a candidate in one ‘packed’ district than are needed to win. Another tactic involves splitting large, usually urban districts to redistribute their unfavorable votes into districts where they can be outweighed by large rural districts. All of these tactics have been used with great success in recent years by Republicans, who, as a result, now control most of the nation’s state houses. And since they control the state houses, they also control the subsequent redistricting that results in gerrymandering. Some gerrymandered districts have become virtually vote-proof: no amount of campaigning by a Democrat can outweigh the effects of the gerrymander, meaning that only a Republican can win.
            In sum, much has been written in recent years about the effects of truly outrageous gerrymandering on the House of Representatives. And all this is true. Republican majorities have controlled the House since at least the 2010 election and the 2010 census on which the current gerrymandering was based.
            Now, however, the electoral map of the United States is beginning to look like one big gerrymandered district. This has to do with the rigged system known as the Electoral College. The Electoral College system, promoted mostly by southern states prior to the ratifying of the U.S. Constitution, was designed to give smaller, rural, and especially southern states a greater voice (out of all proportion to their populations) in the new federal government. Nor was it just the Electoral College that helped in this; several other expedients were designed with the same objective. The first was the three-fifths clause that said that slave states could bolster their representation by counting 3/5 of their slaves when calculating how many representatives each could have, even though the counted slaves could not vote or otherwise take part in self-government. The Senate itself was another expedient: no matter how small in population a state might be, it would still get to send two senators to the United States Senate, thus affording it a disproportionate weight in blocking any legislation it or its party opposed. This also meant that the vote of someone in a sparsely-populated state like Montana would weigh far more heavily than a vote by a voter in a heavy-density state like New York. 
            The Electoral College was another major achievement of the slave states (see Time Magazine, Nov. 8, 2016: “The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists,” by Akhil Reed Amar). This was because, instead of voters casting their votes directly for a Presidential candidate, their votes were actually cast for the electors in the Electoral College, who then voted for the President. And each state’s electors (whose numbers in southern states were fattened by the same three-fifths expedient that gave them more Representatives in Congress) were bound to vote as one body for whichever candidate got the most popular votes in that state. In other words, the overall popular vote nationwide did not determine the victor in the presidential race. The majority of electors determined the winner, and it was possible, given the sizes of the states and their composition—including slaves—for a candidate to put together enough electoral votes to win even if he or she did not win the most popular votes overall (popular vote or no, Thomas Jefferson would NOT have won the Presidency in 1800 had it not been for the electors made possible by the many ‘slave’ votes in the Southern states). Though this rarely happened, and though usually the electoral vote majority reflected the popular vote majority, it was not necessary for victory.
            We have just witnessed this in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump concentrated his strategy on winning certain safe states, like those in the South and Midwest, and also certain key states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania (how he and the Republicans managed this is another story of minority-voter disenfranchisment on a grand scale). His winning total in all three of the latter states combined was narrow, amounting to only about 100,000 votes. But Hillary Clinton won the electoral votes of much larger states like California and New York by big margins, giving her, in the end, a national popular-vote victory of nearly 3 million votes! And yet, she lost. How? The national gerrymander. The victory margin in the large states that voted for Hillary was huge—resulting in “wasted votes.” She didn’t need to win California by over 4 million votes. She only needed to win by one vote. All the surplus votes were, as far as the Electoral College was concerned, wasted. And like the ‘wasted’ votes in any gerrymandered House district, Hillary’s votes in California and New York and other large states like Illinois, were essentially ‘wasted.’ And they will be wasted for as long as we can foresee.
            In gerrymandered states, the cure for this type of “legal cheating” is for rules for redistricting to be changed—as they have been in California, say. There, an election commission, after each census, redraws districts based on logical and unbiased formulas that favor no one party. This means that the artificial effects of gerrymandering have been essentially eliminated. The same can and should be demanded by voters in every state.
            But the United States as a whole cannot be ‘un-gerrymandered.’ The Electoral College ensures that small states have an advantage in any election for the party that manages to secure just enough of their votes to win all of their state electors. It also ensures that large states with large urban populations are often guaranteed to produce large numbers of ‘wasted votes.’
            There is only one way to do away with the idiocy of a gerrymandered democracy that ignores the will of the majority of its people—that ignores the popular vote. The Electoral College needs to be done away with as an anachronism (and, some might say, a historical crime) that no longer serves a useful purpose. No politician these days could express his suspicion of the popular will, as was done early in our history. Neither can any politician express his disdain for the mass of minority voters, many of whom descend from slaves. They all have to pay lip service to the idea of rule by the majority—for that is what democracy means. Given that, they should all be held to their creed and forced into agreeing that the Electoral College is an inherently unfair system wherein, in at least two of the last three presidential elections, the will of the people has been thwarted. And this week we are again about to inaugurate a president whom the majority of the American people voted against. That makes the entire notion of American democracy a travesty. It undermines belief in the founding notion of this nation because a gerrymandered America is just as much a travesty and a tragedy as any dictatorship. And it must end if our much-heralded democracy is to survive as little more than a fond memory—or a sick joke.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, January 8, 2017

‘Outrage’ at the United Nations

In Alice in Wonderland, we hear this wondrously subversive quote from the White Queen:
“Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
            That pretty much describes the state of Israel’s outrage regarding the recent U.N. Security Council vote condemning its illegal settlements, and especially the United States’ refusal to block this vote. Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, called President Obama’s abstention (the U.S. didn’t vote for the measure; it abstained, thus withholding its customary veto which has allowed Israel to avoid the full censure of the U.N. in all past votes condemning it) a “shameful ambush.” This language, and Israeli outrage, thus qualifies as Alice-in-Wonderland thinking, or perhaps better, newspeak. Its sense is patent nonsense, not least because it turns the real situation on its head. Israel is the aggressor here, Israel is the violator of dozens of United Nations’ resolutions condemning its illegal settlements, as the last one did, as “a flagrant violation under international law.” That is, nearly 600,000 Israelis live in settlements, mostly in the West Bank (the presumptive home of a Palestinian state) and East Jerusalem (long allocated as the Palestinian portion of that putatively international city), and every one of them is illegal—an attempt, according to most observers, to literally steal Palestinian land and eventually make a Palestinian state an impossibility. Though the United States has not condemned the building of new settlements as international crimes, it has regularly objected to them as a hindrance to the peace process. Secretary of State John Kerry, in defending the U.S. refusal to veto the recent UN resolution, has said this specifically. The United States, he said recently, was actually standing up for a two-state solution when it abstained, because the settlements make a two-state solution impossible.
            To Israel, however, and to Netanyahu in particular (supported from the sidelines by President-Elect Trump in an unprecedented interference in foreign policy before he takes office on January 20), the U.S. action was a betrayal, an “ambush.” Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, called it a “misguided hit job.” And the United States Congress, continuing its shameful pandering to a foreign government, on January 5 voted 342 to 80 to ‘support Israel unwaveringly’ and to insist that the United States reject future actions at the United Nations that are similarly “one-sided and anti-Israel.” Several Congress members are going further, pushing the United States to cut the funding that the U.S. provides to the UN (about 22% of the UN budget), just as Israel has done recently. To see how absurd these statements are, consider these points about settlements.
1)    the settlements are in breach of Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention, which forbids an occupier from transferring its own civilians into the territory it occupies. That is because occupations resulting from war must be temporary, not permanent—and Israel’s occupation of Palestine’s West Bank has lasted for fifty years.
2)    the settlements are also in breach of Article 55 of the Hague Regulations, according to which an occupier must safeguard occupied properties and maintain the status quo. Instead, the Israeli settlements actually undermine public order, and inflict major and usually negative changes upon the territory they occupy.

That these are violations of international law is thus clear and evident to any impartial observer. Even Israeli groups like B’Tselem have agreed with such analyses and have called on the government of Israel to suspend all new settlement programs and, at the very least, stop giving financial incentives to Israeli citizens to populate new settlements. B’Tselem has also called for the gradual dismantling of all existing settlements and the resettling of the settler population, including the nearly 200,000 living in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, to legal communities within the borders of the Israeli state. In other words, far from encouraging new settlements, as the current government (supported by the rabid Israel supporters in the U.S. Congress) is doing, this Israeli organization calls for just the opposite: the government should dismantle settlements and adhere to Israel’s obligations under international law.
            But of course, any criticism both inside and outside of Israel, is treated as betrayal, terrorism, anti-semitism, and the ambush of the “only democracy in the Middle East.” As Alon Ben Meir notes in his piece “The Settlements: Self-Entrapment of Existential Proportions,” (Huffington Post Sept. 8, 2016), though Netanyahu claims that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace and a two-state solution,
…In the same breath, he publicly and repeatedly states that the Jews have an inalienable historic right to the entire “land of Israel,” especially the West Bank. As such, Israel is not an occupying power and has the inherent right to establish settlements on any part of its historic land.

Read that again. Despite the fact that the Israelis have occupied Palestinian lands illegally since the 1967 war, and despite the fact that every rational observer regards those usurped Palestinian lands as the basis for peace via a two-state solution (where Israel would keep its lands behind the green line and the Palestinians would get the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem for their state), Netanyahu dismisses all of this by recourse to the old “land of Israel” argument. ‘It’s in the Bible.’ ‘It’s in our book.’ ‘God gave us this land (hence the historic written-by-God right to the entire “land of Israel” or Eretz Israel) and we therefore own it— regardless of the Palestinians who have lived and worked this land for generations.’ Therefore, war or no war, UN or no UN, “Israel is NOT an occupying power” and can therefore establish settlements anywhere it chooses on its God-given land. And it can push and separate and create Bantustans for Palestinians who are nothing but interlopers squatting on God’s land anyway. And finally, as has long been the position of the extreme right in Israel—like Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, AND David Friedman, Trump’s choice to be America’s Ambassador to Israel—settlement expansion is really the tip of the spear of annexation of the entire West Bank into the longed-for Greater Israel that will do away with Palestinian statehood and Palestinians entirely.
            So when the United Nations Security Council passes a resolution that disputes Israel’s right to do whatever it wishes with its land and the ‘squatters’ who live there, it goes berserk (along with the white supremacist toadies in the U.S. Congress), and shouts “ambush” and “hit job” and “monumental betrayal.” And it gets the President-Elect to vow that once he gets into office, the United States of America will go the distance to support Israel’s God-given right to steal all the Palestinian lands it wants or needs to cement its European-based claim to dominance in the Middle East. End of story.
            Meantime, we who can read and who know the history of this most outrageous, most openly-fascist heist of a country in modern times, can only shake our heads and wonder how long this—the real outrage: the theft of Palestine from its indigenous people—can go on. And how a world that calls itself “civilized” can allow it, can encourage it to go on.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Nation Abuse

Some recent time I’ve spent with friends and family has suggested to me that alarming similarities exist between the way Donald Trump has operated to win the presidency and the way abusers treat their victims. I have relatives who have been abused by their husbands, relatives who have been abused by their parents, relatives who have been abused by their dogs. Strange as it may seem, the pattern is similar. The abuser usually tends to be charming or winsome in a way that allows him or her to carve out a place in the heart of the victim. He will flatter, cajole, cuddle or lick the victim to the point where she falls in love—or at least thinks she does. Sometimes a story is told outlining the difficult life the abuser has had, and it is sympathy over this past life that cements the relationship. The victim then is made to feel like a rescuer, the one person who can retrieve the abuser from a life filled with pain. The more the abuser can elicit this kind of reaction, the stronger will be the resulting emotional bond.
            Then, usually when things appear to be going well, an unexpected explosion occurs, when the abuser suddenly turns on the rescuer or someone dear to the rescuer. The abuser lashes out and strikes without warning for seemingly minor infractions of his or her rules or patterns. In the case of a husband, this can take place in any circumstance, but almost invariably while the couple is alone. He strikes out with a blow usually calculated to leave no marks, or at least no visible marks; though sometimes, and this precipitates the crisis, the blow does leave a bruise or a broken bone and the secret is out. In every case, though, the abuser expresses deep remorse and begs for forgiveness. He will claim he lost control or didn’t know what he was doing, and is very very sorry, so sorry it won’t happen again. With a dog, of course, the abuse is usually less subtle: the dog snaps and growls at anyone coming near his chosen one, and is only prevented from inflicting serious injury by the control the victim exerts restraining him on a leash. But this so terrifies all in the vicinity that the victim—the dog owner or rescuer—is completely prevented from any displays of affection with friends or family. Herein lies the abuse in such cases. The dog has won a place in the victim’s heart, and routinely goes through the same affectionate licking or tail wagging to reinforce this place—essentially apologizing for having acted out. Then the victim is persuaded that rehabilitation is indeed possible, and tries all over again to figure out ways to train the dog to be nice. To not lash out. But invariably, the same pattern is repeated again and again and friends and family grow wary if not terrified, while the victim grows isolated.
            The more one thinks about Donald Trump and  his wooing of the portion of the American electorate that voted for him, the more we see a similar pattern. The Donald knows how to charm. He flatters voters, he “speaks their language,” he appeals to their prejudices and fears, and he promises that he will “make America great again.” He will ‘bring back the jobs’ that once sustained them. Get rid of the ‘pesky regulations’ that have forced American companies to ship their operations elsewhere. Close borders that he says allow foreigners to steal American jobs, even the American way of life. Stop possible terrorists (read “Muslims”) from entering the country at all. Get tough with nations that supposedly steal our jobs and get tough with American companies that ship their factories to cheaper shores. All of this plays into the simple-minded notions of his constituents—the victims—who thirst for simple answers to solve their problems, even if it only amounts to someone actually appearing to listen to them, confirm their prejudices.
            But, like the abuser, Trump can suddenly be found wanting. Videotapes appear showing him to be a literal groper of attractive females, a serial “grabber of pussies.” Outed, he simply denies, he makes excuses, he implies that it was only locker room talk. He turns on the charm or bluster in a different arena. He attacks those who attack him—reporters like Megyn Kelly, whole networks, major newspapers. He warns that the reports of his miscues are creations of a media that hates him and his followers, that the election will be rigged by the powers that be, powers that hate him and his attempt to “drain the swamp” that sustains them. And soon, his victims—including American women—are making excuses for him in the same language he and his defenders have used. It’s all media lies, they insist. He didn’t really mean it. He’s not really a racist or a misogynist. His bankruptcies were only the natural outcome of a born risk-taker, part of the American DNA. He deserves another chance, deserves a free pass in spite of his abuse, deserves to be believed when he says he alone can change the corruption of government. And as always, the abused one is desperate to believe, to credit the arch-corrupter with sincerity and honesty despite the long record of his calculation and dishonesty and contempt for her in everything he has ever done.
            How can this happen ask the pundits, the rational observers. Just as those who surround and care for the victims of abuse keep asking, “How can you take him back? How can you believe him after so many beatings and betrayals? How many times can you believe that the dog will somehow get cured and stop attacking your friends?” And the answer is always the same: a victim is someone who is predisposed to believe. A victim is someone who needs to believe in something, is desperate to believe in someone, and that someone is too often an abuser. For the abuser is expert in one thing above all: spotting those in need, those who are desperate for attention.
            Now, America is about to find out how gullible and mistaken and abused it has collectively been. It is going to be used and abused in a way never before seen in its history. And the abuse of this particular abuser may rival the abuse of those other serial abusers in history, the Hitlers and the Mussolinis and the Stalins, and yes, the Kings and Popes and politicians and corporate bigwigs who have always done the same thing, followed the same patterns, made, endlessly, apologies for the murders and wars and corruptions and catastrophes they inflicted on their followers (“I only did it for you, for all of you,”), and sunk into everlasting shame and infamy. Though there will always be some, devoted to abuse to the very end, who will try to excuse them even from the depths of the hell into which they have been discarded.

Lawrence DiStasi