Sunday, May 20, 2007

Traitors to Their Own

Condoleeza Rice. Colin Powell. Alberto Gonzalez. John Yoo. All the neocons from Paul Wolfowitz to Irving "Scooter" Libby to Eliot Abrams to god knows how many more. Add in the Supreme Court Judges: Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, as well as—though Clinton appointed him—old "Slam Dunk" Tenet. And suddenly, after thinking that perhaps the Bush Administration does indeed represent all that’s great about America—its ethnic and racial diversity, whose best and brightest all get promoted to positions of prominence regardless of the fact that the appointers are upper class privileged white males appointing those from well beneath their class—one begins to wonder. Who are these representatives of the oppressed classes? And under what constraints and disavowals do they actually serve their White House masters? And why?

Immediately what comes to mind is that lacerating term of opprobrium, "house nigger" (originally, "house negro," from a speech by Malcolm X, "Message to the Grass Roots," delivered in Detroit on Nov. 10, 1963). In the ante-bellum South, these chosen ones were the most carefully selected of the slaves—the best and the brightest and the least threatening, at least once they had been favored with positions in the big house. The ones who had agreed to a pact with the devil: serve and be servile, and get to live another day not just as a miserable survivor, but as one of the privileged. Enjoying at least some of the southern comforts: food, warmth, clean clothing, some education, and the protections of power and the powerful. Such insider status persuaded many to swallow the humiliation that came with proximity to the master in exchange for the safety and status the position automatically conferred.

And of course, what immediately comes to mind next is the benefit for the master as well. For power, the powerful cannot exist without the collusion of the classes over whom they rule. There are always too few masters and too many slaves. Too few lords and too many serfs. Too few and too weak to rule by force alone, the lords and masters always require some of the slaves to join them in return for favors, either overtly given or covertly promised. Come with me, join my household, my estate, my company, my army as sergeant or lieutenant, as overseer or counsel or financier, and in return, when our campaign of plunder succeeds, part of the spoils shall be yours. And in the end, there may even materialize a grant of gold, or jewels, or land, yes, an estate of your own to reward you and yours, even perhaps a title to be yours and your heirs’ for as long as titles and property shall retain their meaning. Which is forever.

And so we have Condi and Colin and Alberto and John, willing and eager to do the dirty work for their white benefactor, George W. Bush, master of the Whitest House on the planet. To make the speech ominously warning of "the smoking gun coming in the form of a mushroom cloud." To present to the United Nations the pack of well-rehearsed, visually-supplemented lies needed to justify an unjustified invasion. To write the legally illegal memos defining torture in such a way that torture can be applied promiscuously, universally, without any worry for, after all, "the Geneva Conventions have become quaint," relics of a more na├»ve time. To confirm for old Massa his megalomaniacal notion that the President of the United States is a "unitary executive," the man who alone, in a democracy, is above the law, equivalent to a king, no, more powerful than a king for the king had to submit to the Magna Carta, whereas our Massa, protected by the war powers granted him in the Ccnstitution, need not submit to anyone or any law for his power is unlimited and unlimitable. To dismiss the evidence, the intelligence from one’s own agency, and shout, when asked about evidencing Saddam’s WMD: "It’s a slam dunk." Or, when that dastardly special prosecutor gnaws ever closer to our inner circle, to fall on your sword as a good soldier must, remembering always: house niggers never do jail time.

And above all, to keep always in mind: when the dirty work is done, the land grant is at hand. Though of course in this, our democratic republic, nothing so obvious as land or gold can be proffered. The grant must be subtler: Condi knighted upward to Secretary of State; Alberto raised to the chief law enforcement office of all, Attorney General of the United States; John adorned with the plush appointment to the Boalt School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley; George crowned high with the Medal of Freedom; and Wolfie, dear Wolfie, mastermind of the war and related plans to enslave the new Middle East, Wolfie to rise like cream to the presidency of the World Bank, able, finally, to minister to his beloved underprivileged. To all of which American punditry says "Amen. All is as it should be. Who takes the heat for the Massa, deserves the rewards. It is the way of the world."

Though unstated, always, necessarily unmentionable, is the real subtext. The reward is rendered not alone in return for taking the heat, falling on the sword. The reward is rendered equally for the unavoidable betrayal of one’s class, of one’s origins. For when one thinks about it, what does Condi or Alberto or John or Colin say to their families, their friends, their compatriots below, in the old neighborhood? After all the congratulations and the pride in their success—that one of their own has "made it" and can perhaps, no must, sooner or later, throw a crumb or two from Massa’s table their way—after all that, what can these brightest of super Novae say to those they’ve left behind? For they are always there, the laggards, the "field negroes," always looming in memory, always lurking in the shadows, always ready to appear suddenly and demand at least the old grin, the old handshake. And of course, one rarely has time for that any more. After all, one must take the helicopter to Camp David, or the jet to Davos or Helsinki or Cairo, when one isn’t working 18 hour days, that is, on the latest position paper due yesterday, the latest interview or press conference needed to assure the masses that all is well, the President knows precisely what he’s doing and surely would not lie about so serious a matter as war or torture or spying on his own people. On my own people, on you, my people, whom I have certainly not forgotten and certainly do not place myself above in any way, nor—shame on you for even suggesting it—harbor contempt for, because why, why would I harbor that, allow that, think that? These custom-made suits mean nothing, these long black cars and private jets mean nothing, this well-groomed exterior is only a front and inside I’m still the same old me who knows how to get down and party with the crowd. Of course one can’t do that tonight, one has been invited by the President to his ranch, he loves to hear one play Beethoven on his piano which, he laughs, never gets touched except when one is there, this gorgeous Steinway, can you imagine, that just sits there untouched most of the time. But I’ll call, honestly honey I will first chance I get there’s a bill coming up that I’m sure…..

Yes. It is always thus. Class traitors always do the dirty work, always aspire to do the dirty work as the tried and true way of rising above the mud and muck of their origins. And the masters always have dirty work to be done, for after all, oppression goes down so much more easily when the oppressor is one of their own, because doesn’t the fact that one of you has risen give the lie to oppression to begin with, does it not offer to all of you, each and every one of you the same opportunity to one day, yes, rise up and join the club and become an instrument of oppression on your own? Of course it does. And the complainers and nay-sayers are only the green-eyed ones, the envious ones who want to tear everything and everyone down. Down to their level. It’s the way they are, everyone knows that, pay them no mind, they’re beneath you beneath your level your talents your capacities, cannot rise to the heights you have achieved and so wish only to drag you down, drag all of us down, pay them no mind. Rather, see them for what they are. The necessary cloth upon which we must work. Upon which you, now, having worked, must continue to work for they matter only as cloth, as material upon which we all up here, must work, must always work, to advance the work.

In a word, Contempt. That is what the whole system runs on. Contempt for those below, those whom one has left behind, the family and neighborhood and class one has left behind. Anyone who has risen knows this. Anyone who aspires to rise knows this, knows that the taste of personal advancement, the price of individual achievement, is always the same: betrayal and contempt. My father arrived in this country in 1914, an immigrant from the despised south of Italy, and thus despised by the America he came to as a 12-year-old boy. And he fed his fill of that scorn, somewhere along the line vowing that he would rise above it, though the path open to him was not schooling, of course, he was booted out of 6th grade for insubordination before he could take that path, so he trained as a barber, first, and then as a hairdresser, and got to a position on 5th Avenue where he strutted his stuff to the adoring glances of society matrons like Gloria Vanderbilt and stars like Gene Tierney. And it rubbed off eventually, rubbed off in scorn and contempt for the old neighborhood known as the Hollow in Bridgeport CT where he grew up, and which he forsook just as quickly as feet could carry him. In short, he took on the airs of the wealthy, pampered matrons he served. Tailor-made suits. Sulka ties. LaSalle convertibles. Like the upstairs servants lording it over those downstairs, he lorded it over his origins and cost himself part of himself in the lording for he always returned to the local bars and hangouts where he grew up, trying to re-connect himself somehow to the nameless something he had left, knowing all along it was no longer truly possible, or even nameable.

In my way, I did the same. A product of the lower middle class in a sordid industrial town, I aspired higher, and made it via scholarship to the Ivy League. A fish out of water, I took on all the accoutrements of the wealthy and the privately-schooled who were my classmates. Button-down shirts. Penny loafers. Baggy sweaters. But never inside. Because the inside accoutrements are not truly obtainable in one generation. Still, I learned to scorn the ways and preoccupations of those from whom I had come, felt I had earned the right (we always take credit for what we’ve had nothing to do with) to that flight, that betrayal, that contempt. And must, to this day, fight its recurrent eruption in my mind, my attitudes, my worldview.

That is the point here. We are all, always being trained in this contempt. In this betrayal. Those who are masters know this, know they must continually attend to this training. They know their survival depends on this training of underlings in contempt for their own, contempt for their origins, for those below from whom they derive, and who have become, relative to their ascension, "other." In a real sense, the Italian immigrants with whom my father arrived in 1914, knew this. They knew that even absent a diabolical offer, America itself would, whenever and wherever it could, train their children in contempt—for them. First by teaching those children its language, a language which they, the immigrants, would never master. And then in all the other manners and mores and customs which they, the immigrants, could not master either and so would reject and scorn in their turn: American food and American materialism and American lack of respect and American business with its concomitant heartlessness towards life and love and family. It was for this reason that my father periodically would erupt in his favorite curse, the immigrant’s curse of America: mannaggia l’America. God damn America. For at the same time that the immigrant needed, lusted after the survival and wealth that America offered, he hated the fact of his compulsion, the fact of his absolute need to beg for America to accept him which necessarily meant rejecting that from which he came, and could never stop longing for.

Constantly, then. We are constantly being trained in contempt for the "other." Which, in the end, becomes contempt for ourselves. (…To be continued.)

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It Can't Happen Here, II

I have written before about the creeping fascism that the Bush Administration’s manipulation of voting in both the 2000 and 2004 elections represents. The point there was that if we can’t throw the bums out via the ballot box, there is no recourse to citizens of a democracy, ergo, no democracy.

The Frontline documentary, Spying on the Homefront, that aired last night (May 15) on Public Broadcasting added another dimension to this notion of creeping fascism. The documentary, written by one of the great reporters of our time, Hedrick Smith, detailed how the Patriot Act made it possible for this administration, especially the FBI and the NSA, to spy on Americans in contravention of the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment, that is, guarantees to every American the right to be safe from government searches and seizures in his/her home and person. In order to breach that privacy, the government must get a search warrant, granted by a judge, which requires a specific cause to justify the search—i.e. that a crime has been or is about to be committed. Absent that probable cause, the government cannot make the search.

In 1978, Congress added a loophole for enforcement agencies seeking to spy on foreign powers or agents. It set up a FISA court to which government agencies could appeal when they felt the need to spy on such foreign operations. The FISA law allows government agencies to conduct electronic searches both with and without warrants. To surveill with a warrant the FISA court must find probable cause that the target is a "foreign power" or an "agent of a foreign power." Most notably, if the surveillance pertains to US persons, the surveillance must meet certain "minimization requirements," i.e. the government must justify itself. To surveill without a warrant, the President can authorize spying for a year, provided it is only "for foreign intelligence information…and there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party." In short, the safeguards against spying on all persons living in the United States (not only citizens, note) stands. To do otherwise, the government must justify its case to a judge.

The problem for the Bush Administration is that it does not ever want to go to court to justify its spying. It simply insists on arrogating to itself the power, in the person of the President as putative Commander in Chief (the President is not Commander in Chief of the nation, by the way; he is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces only during a declared war), to spy on anyone, foreigner or citizen, anywhere, in the US or outside it, at any time, no matter what. It knows that if it has to get a judge’s permission to do such spying, it will have to show probable cause. It does not want to do that—presumably because much of the time it cannot. What it insists on—and has practiced since 2002 as revealed in December of 2005—is the ability to record all communications, which it can then troll through to find out if anyone is doing or saying anything it considers suspect or dangerous to national security, or itself. The exponential growth of electronic communications, and the corresponding growth of computer programs to monitor and inspect those communications, has given it the ability to do such mass data mining, all without the knowledge of those involved.

That’s what Spying on the Homefront portrayed. Focusing on the alleged threat to major cities like Las Vegas in 2004, the documentary showed how the FBI sought and received the records of everyone, mostly U.S. citizens, staying in Las Vegas for the New Year holiday. It then scanned those records via computer programs to determine if anyone in that blanket search matched its database of suspected terrorists, or those in any way connected to terrorists. Hedrick Smith interviewed one couple, in Las Vegas to be married, regarding those searches. They were outraged, not only because they had been watched during their marriage, but also because the husband—a computer expert—knew that the FBI’s claim to have destroyed all the records obtained in Las Vegas was a lie: they would in fact persist in some database indefinitely. Worse, the government announced after the fact that the alleged security threat to Las Vegas had been a mistake: someone misinterpreted their data, itself no doubt derived from previous spying.

Spying on the Homefront also interviewed the ATT worker who discovered the secret office set up in ATT headquarters in San Francisco, apparently to record all records that come through ATT—phone calls, emails, and every other form of communication facilitated by the communications giant. Reports indicate that Verizon and Bell South, among others, have also handed over their records.

The coda to this story is the testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, by assistant Attorney General James Comey. It concerned an episode in 2003 at a hospital where then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was recovering from gall bladder surgery and Comey was acting AG. At that time, the Bush Administration was expanding its NSA search procedures to include spying on Americans. Comey had been instructed by AG Ashcroft—no civil libertarian by the way—to refuse to give Justice Department approval to the Administration’s plans. Comey then found out about a cynical end run being attempted by the White House: the President sent Chief of Staff Andrew Card and then-counsel Alberto Gonzalez to Ashcroft’s hospital room, in an attempt to browbeat the ailing Attorney General into giving his approval for their secret wiretapping program. Comey arrived in time to brief Ashcroft, who then, even in his weakened state, bellowed his disapproval and refusal to the White House team. Still the White House persisted, and only after Comey threatened to resign rather than sign off on the program did the White House agree to a compromise proposal--though even this did not stop their later-to-be-revealed secret surveillance of American citizens in clear violation of FISA.

One other interview in the documentary is worth mention. The notorious John Yoo served as White House counsel during Bush’s first term. When asked if the NSA spying didn’t violate the law, Yoo stated matter of factly that "there is a higher law" than FISA and the 4th Amerndment. No, he did not mean God’s Law. Yoo meant the President’s authority as Commander in Chief. According to this now-professor of jurisprudence, the President’s authority, detailed in the Constitution, cannot be abridged by any law. When Hedrick Smith asked if he really meant that the 4th Amendment—the core of English law for a thousand years, i.e. the right of citizens to be safe in their homes from illegal searches and seizures, the violations of which led the American colonists to revolt against the King of England and declare American independence—could be violated by the President, Yoo maintained that indeed it could. In other words, according to this criminal enabler, the President is above the law, possessed of dictatorial powers over his subjects. He can and has ordered surveillance of anyone, of everyone, under the justification of what he has decreed to be a virtually endless war on terror.

What this means is that every American, no matter who or where or why, has now, and for the foreseeable future, effectively become suspect. His every communication is open to the Federal government to spy on, record, examine, and use however it wishes in its alleged attempts to find terrorists.

A government that can search its citizens regardless of what they do; a government that secretly authorizes such searches in clear violation of the laws designed specifically to prevent them; a government that raises itself to the level of a monarch or a dictator—that government has become a tyranny. Any distinction between it and other governments it condemns and targets as anti-democratic dictatorships is a distinction in name only. For a democracy means the people have the ultimate power. A democracy means the people have the right to be safe in their homes and possessions from unwarranted government intrusion. When that safety and privacy have been rendered moot, democracy has been rendered moot as well.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


Monstrosity. The monstrous. I’ve been thinking about them lately. Entities whose growth runs riot, beyond all rational or irrational bounds, to the point where they outrun the ability of nature to contain or tolerate them.

We have many monsters in our time; in fact, this may be the age of monsters. The United States as an empire without the opposition of the Soviet Union to balance or contain it (or its "free" economic system). Until 2006, the Republican Party, as exemplified by the Bushies, without the constraint of a viable Democratic Party to curb its unprecedented abuses of power. Israel, the sole nuclear power in the Middle East yet still claiming to be under seige, to justify its attempts to destroy an entire people, an entire region. Wal Mart, the retailer with buying and selling and hiring practices so ruthless that no Sears, much less local retailers, can compete with it. Microsoft, whose stolen operating system has become so integral to the manufacture of PCs that none any longer even question its hegemony. And of course our revered human species, now at 6 billion and growing, whose triumph over every predator and dominance of every ecosystem now threatens the survival of all life on earth, including its own.

In each of these cases, the success of the species or business or political or national entity runs so thoroughly amok that, like the dinosaurs, it leads to monstrosity. And as with the dinosaurs, nature or the universe at some point responds, and strikes back at so monstrous an imbalance. For that is what monstrosity is: imbalance. The lack of a predator, of a competitor, of a legal constraint, of an inhibitory factor which normally balances growth in a natural system, which indeed defines natural systems. All natural systems thrive on this inhibition vs. growth dance. The ancient Taoists imaged the idea as the yin/yang figure: where black exactly balances white, where one curve exactly balances the equal and opposite other. Where this inhibitory factor is temporarily lacking, on the other hand, monstrosity arises. And you have growth without limit, domination without limit, the crowding out of all other attempts to grow or be or survive.

Until, that is, enough is enough. Until, that is, nature responds with tiny counterbalancing factors, little revolts, small denials of hegemony, miniscule organisms that grow in the shadows of monstrosity too small to be noticed. Until they strike. This response, this natural restoration can be cruel and indifferent in the extreme. It can be a worldwide bacteria or virus, an Aids epidemic, a shift in the climate, a sudden rise in an opportunistic population which says no, which optimizes itself by preying on the wealth and size of monstrosity, which initiates terror in the night. And when it comes, as come it must, monstrosity must collapse of its own weight, a weight which allows it to be surprised, knocked off balance, rendered helpless to respond quickly enough, precisely enough.

Now, at this moment, the signs are growing that monstrosity, the monstrosities mentioned above and others not even thought of, are reaching critical mass. The planet is gathering its destructive responses. The universe is gathering its miniscule minions. Which is at it should be. For nature not only abhors a vacuum, it harbors a repugnance for monstrosity, which it must, in the end, retard, reverse, cause to collapse of its own weight, and disappear. Whereupon all the little entities which have been crushed beneath it for so long can rise, and dance upon its putrefying, recycling, unwept-for corpse.

Lawrence DiStasi