Thursday, December 31, 2009

Night Thoughts

It is that time of year again when the change from one calendar year to the next, though wholly artificial, leads many of us to take stock. What has the year amounted to? What have our lives amounted to? Is there some way to make things better?

This always leads me to the thoughts F. Scott Fitzgerald identified as those dark demons of the mind that occur when we wake at 3 in the morning and all seems impossible, lost. How can one possibly get through? Does it matter?

Simone Weil once wrote: “It is our function in this world to give our consent to the existence of the universe.”

But does the universe even care about our consent? Perhaps, perhaps not. Without the old concept of a personal god, it hardly seems likely. Who would there be to care? And even if there were, would that translate into the critical question: does he/she/it care for me? For my family and friends? For my country? And if the answer is yes, then whence all this nastiness, as in the year just ended? Economic collapse. Afghanistan out of control. Rapacious banks and bankers still maintaining their death grip on our lives. What’s left of the health care bill laughable, a pathetic joke. And on Christmas day, yet another fanatic from the Middle East trying to blow up a plane full of innocents. Us.

It’s something most of us in the United States have great difficulty imagining: there are people in the world who actually hate us. US. The greatest nation ever to bestride the planet. We who saved Europe, saved civilization, and have no aspiration for anything but the welfare of others, to extend to the unwashed masses of the Third World a democracy like ours so that all will be able to enjoy the benefits we enjoy—liberty, free choice in the global supermarket, and the opportunity to be whatever our hearts desire.

And yet. There are these people. Malcontents. Fanatics. Willing to blow themselves up so they can blow a few of us up as well. Must there not be a way to prevent such things? And not just suicide bombers either. Prevent the Bernie Madoffs of the world from doing their dirty work. Prevent the right wing-nuts from torpedoing every meaningful reform. Prevent the corporations from exploiting the rest of the world so they’ll love us again? Because that’s really the underlying notion: we humans, and especially we Americans are geared to think that if we just get smart enough, farsighted enough, our military powerful enough, our scientists well-funded enough, our foundations generous enough, our nation integrated enough, we can avoid or outwit all the problems the universe can blow back at us and finally live the carefree life we have been promised: peace and liberty and justice for all.

But can we? Has there ever existed a nation or a world without problems? Without shit happening on a regular basis? Is not shit happening the very nature of the universe—that universe we are supposed to give our consent to? It seems. And yet, how hard it is to come to terms with that. How nearly impossible to assent to the real nature of things, which is change. Change in every cell of our bodies and all else in every second and nanosecond of our lives. On both the very large and the very small scale. The American moment is changing. The American empire is changing. The sun itself is changing. And so are we all, entropic every one. And it is almost impossible to assent to, almost impossible to give our consent to this aspect of the universe’s existence, of all existence. No, we want to preserve it, keep it from slipping from our grasp. One way being to record it. Manically, desperately.

How else explain the mind-bending proliferation of gadgets, even in this season of economic discontent? With more and more of us insisting on our ipods and ipod nanos and flips and cell phones and computers and digital cameras and HD screens to take in everything, grasp everything, record everything in the vain hope that our lives will be preserved and amount to something, our nations will be permanized and celebrated as having counted. For something. Nevermind Ozymandias. Nevermind "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." We matter. We must. Our way must matter, it must be “right.” For if not, if all our photos and films and recordings and constructions are nothing but matter for the growing trash heap of history, then all we have left are absurd, meaningless moments, arising, and fading. Things and events being born and dying. Endlessly. Like grass. Where is the good, where is the nobility, where is the crown of creation, the god-chosen centrality of our perfectly adorable species in that?

Sadly, there are no answers. Save perhaps the old notion we’ve been hearing for aeons: pay attention. Pay attention to as many moments as you can. Pay attention to dirt, to grass, to spiders, to rain, to scum, to shit, to the least of creatures. And pay attention to what animates the conceptions and prejudices we all carry: that “they” are nothing, that “we” are the chosen, that our way is the superior way, that my god is the one true god who gives me the right to not feel/see/hear/attend to you and all else if it means I and mine can thrive. Survive for even a bit longer.

Yes, pay attention. Pay attention even to paying attention. It is, inherently, consent.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Health Care and Other Sorrows

President Obama and various Democratic Senators trumpeted their “victory” this weekend, when they managed to bribe Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson to pledge his vote for the Health Care Bill in exchange for concessions on abortion (how abortion became part of the health care debate is another matter). Here is how an AP report characterized the concessions: Not only would health plans not have to offer coverage for abortions, but

“In plans that do cover abortion, beneficiaries would have to pay for it separately, and those funds would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.
Moreover, individual states would be able to prohibit abortion coverage in plans offered through the exchange, but after passing specific legislation to that effect.”

Thus, one reactionary senator from one corny state has dictated the health benefits offered to women in the entire nation.

The rest of the benefits once considered firmly in the bill have been torpedoed by other reactionary senators like Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. So gutted has the final bill become that Howard Dean, once a presidential candidate and chairman of the party, wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that appeared today, condemning the compromise in no uncertain terms. His words pretty much sum up the defeat of Senate liberals on healthcare:

“If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers’ monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health care reform.
Real reform would insert competition into insurance markets, force insurers to cut unnecessary administrative expenses and spend health care dollars caring for people. Real reform would significantly lower costs, improve the delivery of health care and give all Americans a meaningful choice of coverage. The current Senate bill accomplishes none of these.
Real health care reform is supposed to eliminate discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. But the legislation allows insurance companies to charge older Americans up to three times as much as younger Americans, pricing them out of coverage. The bill was supposed to give Americans choices about what kind of system they wanted to enroll in. Instead, it fines Americans if they do not sign up with an insurance company…”

If you want to read more of what Dean said, and it is powerful, check out his op-ed.

But the important thing here, as in numerous other initiatives of the Obama Administration and the craven Democrats who promised reform in this and other areas, is the continuing abandonment of long-held principles upon which they were elected. A recent article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone Magazine (“Obama’s Big Sellout” Dec. 9, 2009) cites these concessions chapter and verse. It is not a pretty picture. Basically, according to Taibbi, the Obama Adminstration took action as soon as Nov. 5 to abandon the promises (and people—Austin Goolsbee, Karen Kornbluh) that got him elected, and steered deliberately towards the center and the moneyed interests who reign there. It was clear in the appointments Obama made to his economic team—and which we have commented on before. People like Tim Geithner as Secretary of Treasury, Lawrence Summers as Head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, Michael Froman as head of the National Economic Council, and countless others, all came out of a very specific area of Wall Street, many of them aides or protégés of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. According to Taibbi, Rubin, who came originally from Goldman Sachs, has screwed up every job he’s ever had. Nonetheless, he has been consistently demoted upward, most recently to the Chairmanship of Citigroup, which the Federal Government has bailed out with billions (upwards of $300 billion) of taxpayer dollars. His legacy in the current administration has been extensive and toxic:

"The significance of all of these appointments isn't that the Wall Street types are now in a position to provide direct favors to their former employers. It's that, with one or two exceptions, they collectively offer a microcosm of what the Democratic Party has come to stand for in the 21st century. Virtually all of the Rubinites brought in to manage the economy under Obama share the same fundamental political philosophy carefully articulated for years by the Hamilton Project: Expand the safety net to protect the poor, but let Wall Street do whatever it wants. “Bob Rubin, these guys, they're classic limousine liberals,” says David Sirota, a former Democratic strategist. “These are basically people who have made shitloads of money in the speculative economy, but they want to call themselves good Democrats because they're willing to give a little more to the poor. That's the model for this Democratic Party: Let the rich do their thing, but give a fraction more to everyone else.”

It is sickening to realize that this pretty much sums up the moves made by the Obama administration in virtually every arena of government: the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan, the policy on torture and Guantanamo, health care reform, and global warming. It is always a compromise with the most reactionary forces, and justified by the catch-phrase that has now become their mantra: Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. But what good is a good that makes matters worse, as Dean says about the current health care compromise? What good is a Nobel Peace Prize for a president who has just ordered 30,000 more troops to a war that never should have been started in the first place?

All one can conclude is that one’s optimism that Obama was a “necessity” ran its course on Inauguration Day when people wept to see a black man as President. Since then, it’s been downhill all the way. The real power in this nation has remained unchanged, and firmly in the hands of Wall Street bankers, corporate CEOs, health-care moguls, and the same wealthy elites who have run things since the beginning. One might have thought that the near-catastrophe that brought the financial system to its knees would change this, but, if anything, it has made conditions for most of us worse. Now the health care “reform” bill threatens to add to the stench.

In this dark season, one cannot help but veer towards that prophetic question of William Butler Yeats:

“..what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Family, by Jeff Sharlett

By now, most of you have seen on TV or read in a magazine or newspaper about the clique of politicians embroiled in sex scandals while living in a C-Street mansion in Washington, DC. While Senator Ensign and a host of other notables were using this address as a hangout and refuge and ignoring the commonly accepted rules for personal responsibility, they also prayed together. Yes, the family that prays together also preys together. What a concept! Unfortunately for them, since the book was published, their tax exemption for the house as a church has been revoked.

Jeff Sharlet (The Family, Harper Collins: 2008) conducted extensive research that required years of interviewing members of the Family in wide ranging settings from Washington, where he was accepted as a sort of research intern, to Colorado Springs where he joined fundamentalists in their everyday religious activities to develop information that uncovered an extra-legal and off-government influence of worldwide events.

The group began formally in 1935 when a Norwegian immigrant (Abraham Vereide) established the International Christian Leadership that became a front for American fundamentalism that has since expanded beyond any reasonable expectation. Now who could have any objection to prayer? That is a fair question that only reading the book will begin to answer. To start with, the name “Christian” has a different meaning for most of us because the theological base of the New Testament seems paramount in the mix of things. Not so for many fundamentalists who seem to be focused on the Old Testament and especially King David whose reputation for adultery and murder might seem at odds with a religion that touts the Beatitudes.

The answers seem rooted in the concept of power that the Family espouses. The powerful do not have to live by the rules of the ordinary folk. God chose David. This act gave David power and power does not have to answer to ordinary rules. You can see where this is going on the level of individuals in power, but what you cannot easily see is that a concept like this would go nowhere unless it was enabled by people in power. Note that the National Prayer Breakfast (formerly the Presidential Prayer Breakfast) is organized by the Family, so that the group creates access to those currently in power.

Some of you will probably see in this fabric the hint of a Calvinistic pre-ordained nature of humanity. Either you are saved or not, and nothing you do will change the outcome. This surely reinforces the powerful and it also makes the rest of us a little out of the picture unless we take sides and join with the powerful to get God’s work done. This is less an illusion and more a matter of secrecy and organization. Concentric organizational circles are drawn that offers something to everyone. Those on the inside touch power and make things happen. Those nearby such as in Ivanwald in Arlington, Virginia, support the Family directly and hope to grow from being congressional aides to men with real power. And, yes, men, because women have a different role in this scheme and direct access to power is not a fundamentalist role for women. Those several circles away take pride in doing God’s work as they see it, and they pray to support the aims of the leaders.

Sharlet carefully explains the links between economic Darwinism and political power through the policies that are promoted by the Family. This allows the group to endorse strong leadership without any flinching and also promotes the image of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, and even Mao as examples of how power gets things done. Abraham Vereide (Abram) expressed preference for Hitler over Roosevelt who dared to curtail the suffering of Americans during the Depression while Hitler took action against those who were adding nothing to the German community (as he saw it). Later, Doug Coe, taking over the Family from Abram, did likewise. Coe often told the story of how just seven men (Hitler’s closest group from the putsch) were able to do so much to change history (and that the Family should also do so by using power and secrecy).

Again, all this would mean little unless something happened to change “prayer groups” into action committees (cells) at home and abroad. The Family does that handily using Supreme Court judges, senators, representatives and ambassadors and generals in several of the concentric circles. If somebody in the Family feels that it is God’s will that the people of Uganda should have abstinence education instead of condoms to slow the ravage of AIDS, look to Senator Brownback and others to introduce legislation to do that for God and the Family. Unfortunately, the AIDS rate spiked up when he succeeded, but then, pain and suffering are part of God’s plan, so that is not a problem.

In the 40s and 50s the Family effort was to provide get-out-of-jail cards for Nazis. In the 60s and 70s, the Family took the side of Suharto against the citizens of East Timor. Over 600,000 were massacred according to Sharlet (men, women and children, if that makes a difference to the pure), while Wikipedia allows only 100,000 for those killings. What is also
chilling is the language that Suharto used. He spoke of the “New Order.” That language was also used by Hitler, Abram Vereide and our own neocons. How could that be? Suharto was invited to the Family’s prayer groups and, incidentally, they never condemned his actions. The reason they supported Suharto was because he was anti-communist although communists did not control East Timor, Suharto was a strong man doing god’s will. The “New Order” calls for hegemony built on absolute acceptance of “Jesus plus nothing.” That is a concept where Jesus is stripped of everything but power and it is a tenet of the Family that separates it from most of Christianity.

This Family scenario is replicated with African and Central/South American dictators and with similar devastating results and, in each case, whether the excuse be homosexuality, communism, or even the lack of “free” markets, the results were the same and help was obtained through our own and allied elected and appointed officials who went to extraordinary efforts to support foreign murderers and thieves. The list includes Papa Doc Duvallier, Emporer Selassie, General Park of Korea and General Medici of Brazil. American resources were spent through foreign aid and other means to do what the Family could not do on its own but did through influencing power sothat, in the end, the will of the Family prevailed.

Jeff Sharlet studied several religions for years and then got on the ground with hundreds of fundamentalists here and abroad to discover how this strange group with its concentric circles of faithful was able to get business done. The concentric circles have decreasing power and knowledge of the secrets of the Family as they become more distant from the small group of leaders. The common element appears to be a prayer breakfast. That is something most of us have participated in, so how could anything so innocuous become so powerful in a this-worldly and vicious manner?

Much of the present magnetism of the Family is derived from early American fundamentalists with the ingenious addition of the focus on power. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in today’s reality. I commend this book to anybody that is curious as to why things are as they are. It is a sobering look at how things get done, even when they are too horrible to contemplate.

George Giacoppe

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving and its Myths

One of the dubious pleasures of the internet is the opportunity it offers for finding endless variations on something one used to call “truth.” The past couple of days have offered me such a variety—“truths” about the “real Thanksgiving,” and how they contrast with the mythology we have all been taught: Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together for a feast of turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, all in thanks for the bounty God had given them. First, there is the truth that this wasn’t a religious thanksgiving at all, but rather a harvest festival, which probably took place in September or October. Second, is the truth that there was no turkey, but rather ducks and geese, and deer supplied by the Indians—the local Wampanoags of the Patuxet area north of Cape Cod (which is where the Separatist Pilgrims actually landed, not at Plymouth Rock), who joined the Pilgrims as a way of offering peace so they could forge an alliance with powerful Europeans, whom they needed in their conflict with the more powerful Narragansett tribe nearby. Third, the truth that the Pilgrims didn’t wear those black outfits with big top hats and buckle shoes, but rather much more humble and colorful garb.

Fourth, and most damaging to the myth of peace and harmony conveyed by the usual image of a festal meal in lovely togetherness, comes the alleged truth that the first real Thanksgiving ceremony took place many years later, around 1637, this one an actual religious ceremony to thank the Christian God for helping the white settlers massacre 700 or so Pequot Indians with whom they had been at war. As William Bradford in his Of Plymouth Plantation described the massacre,

“Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prays (praise) thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”

The next day, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children,” and establishing a law setting aside this day as “a day of celebration for subduing the Pequots.” It is claimed that this day of Thanksgiving, or another one declared more formally in 1676, at the conclusion of yet another Indian “war,” King Philip’s War, was the real precursor of our Thanksgiving Day. Here is what Almon Lauber wrote in 1913, in his Indian Slavery in Colonial Times Within the Present Limits of the United States (Columbia University, 1913):

"According to the Massachusetts Records of 1676-1677 a day was set apart for public thanksgiving, because, among other things of moment, "there now scarce remains a name or family of them (the Indians) but are either slain, captivated or fled."

Lauber’s book also recites, in horrifying detail, the common and continuing practice, by all the English settlers, from Maine to Florida, of capturing those Indians they did not kill (mostly women and children), and selling them into slavery—some given to local soldiers and other gentry for their homes, some shipped to slave markets in Spain, some shipped directly to West Indian slave markets in the Caribbean. Here is but one example referring to the practice, by the United Colonies of New England, during King Philip’s War:

"During King Philip’s War the various New England governments, with Massachusetts and Plymouth in the lead, again took charge of the disposal of the captive Indians. Various methods were adopted to convert their Indian captives into a source of immediate revenue. One was to sell them outright outside of the colonies, or, on occasion, within the colonies, and thus replenish the exchequer,and, so far as might be, defray the expenses of the war. At a meeting of the Plymouth Court in 1676 to consider the disposal of more than a hundred captives, the conclusion was reached, “upon serious and deliberate consideration and agitation” concerning them, “to sell the greater number into servitude.” A little later, in the same year, several more were sold. In each case the colonial treasurer was ordered to effect the sale for the benefit of the colony. A fiscal report of Plymouth for the period from June 25, 1675, to September 23, 1676, gives among the credits the following, which relates to the sale of the one hundred and eighty-eight Indians already mentioned: “By the following accounts, received in, or as silver, viz.: captives, for 188 prisoners at war sold, £397 13s.” (p. 138)

As noted above, however, there are debunkers of most of the above material, those like Jeremy Bangs, former director of the Plymouth Rock National Monument, and a scholar who has studied the Pilgrims both in Holland and in the United States (see his “The Truth About Thanksgiving is that the Debunkers are Wrong,” Bangs discredits one of the primary debunkers, William Newell, a Penobscot Indian said to be the head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Connecticut. According to Bangs, Newell was 79 years old when the department was founded in 1971, and further, elicited no memories from faculty members when they were asked about him. Newell’s claims thus seem cloaked in doubt—including the main one that the real Thanksgiving Day commemorated the 1637 massacre noted above, and the general idea that a religious holiday for Pilgrims would have included neither feasting, merriment, nor Indians. But Bangs notes that his research in the community of Scituate, MA in 1636 found records of a “religious service followed by feasting.” Others have objected that the debunking material about the 1637 and 1676 “real thanksgivings” referred not to the Pilgrims of Plymouth, but to the Puritans of the later Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded 1631). The idea here is that the Pilgrims were gentle people, ancestors of the later Quakers, and thus unlikely to be engaged in a massacre of Indians.

At this point, one wants to consult the original documents referring to the Thanksgiving event, and fortunately, two can be found rather easily. The first is from Edward Winslow’s letter in Mourt’s Relation, published in 1622, and it goes like this:

..our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.


The second is found in William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, written by the governor of Plymouth in 1641, but lost shortly thereafter and not recovered and published until 1854:

"They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; For as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which they tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports." (both in original 17th century spelling.)

The discovery of this last document by Bradford—which does mention turkeys, giving some support to those who insist that the eating of turkeys was original—actually prompted the first official U.S. sanctioning of Thanksgiving as a holiday. For it stimulated the interest of one Sarah Barbara Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and said to be the 19th century’s Martha Stewart, in the historic celebration. She wrote articles about the alleged original meal, including turkeys, stuffing and pumpkin pie (leaving out waterfowl and deer), and then, in 1858, petitioned the President to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. When he became President, Abraham Lincoln responded positively to the idea (the value of uniting the divided nation via a holiday commemorating its roots was clear to him), and declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1864. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress established the fourth Thursday in November as the official date for the holiday.

So, then, what do we have? It appears there was some sort of festivity that included eating, though the motive for it remains in question. The Wampanoag Indians, and their chief Massasoit, no doubt brought deer to the feast, and probably were motivated to join the settlers due to the drastic reduction smallpox had wrought in their numbers—the disease brought to them by prior visits of Europeans who had been trading with them for several years. These prior trading trips also aided the communication in 1621, because Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe who had earlier been seized and taken to England, had learned English there; it was also by means of this language ability that he was able to show the desperate Pilgrims how to plant corn and otherwise survive. So for this, and for their survival (52 of the original 102, at least), the Pilgrims celebrated. However, there is no record that the celebration was continued annually in subsequent years. For that, it is necessary to go to the “thanksgivings” of 1637 and 1676, when the English settlers thanked god for aiding them in slaughtering and enslaving the Indians, by now their arch enemies. Nor was such thanksgiving a new sentiment among the allegedly freedom-seeking, religious settlers in North America. I have had occasion before to quote from the New England Charter of 1620, in which it is noted that God’s favor towards English settlers can be discerned in the ‘wonderful plague’—smallpox—which has, even before 1620, so auspiciously dispatched so many of the aboriginal inhabitants:

"We have been further given to knowe, that within these late Yeares there hath by God’s visitation reigned a wonderfull Plague, together with many horrible Slaugthers, and Murthers, committed amoungst the Sauages and brutish People there, heertofore inhabiting, in a Manner to the utter Destruction, Deuastacion, and Depopulacion of that whole Territorye…whereby We in our Judgment are persuaded and satisfied that the appointed Time is come in which Almighty God in his great Goodness and Bountie towards Us and our People, hath thought fitt and determined, that those large and goodly Territoryes, deserted as it were by their naturall Inhabitants, should be possessed and enjoyed by such of our Subjects and People as heertofore have and hereafter shall by his Mercie and Favour, and by his Powerfull Arme..." (

From the very outset, that is, and even before landing, the English were thankful that so many potential obstacles—other human beings—to their occupation of North America had been removed. This sentiment, as Lauber documents in his study of slavery, continued unabated throughout the colonies, and for hundreds of years thereafter, until the entire continent was “cleansed.” Of course, it is not exactly polite to give overt thanks for such cleansings these days, but it might be useful to bear them in mind when contemplating that first—whichever one you choose—“thanksgiving.”

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Condemning Goldstone

The sniveling, cowardly behavior of United States officials regarding Israel continues unabated under President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (who recently trumpeted the “courage” of Israel in agreeing to “restrict” its illegal settlements in the interest of peace; which is like congratulating a rapist for confining his assault to mere intercourse). It also continues in the House of So-called Representatives, with the prospective passage of a resolution, H. Res. 867, drafted by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, condemning the Goldstone Report for bias against Israel, and resolving to block “any further consideration” by the United States of its findings.

For those who have been on Mars, the Goldstone Report is the UN-sponsored report headed by South African Justice Richard Goldstone, which recently investigated the alleged war crimes in Israel’s attack last year on Gaza. Goldstone, himself a Jew and longtime Zionist supporter of Israel, insisted, before he agreed to head the report, that the UN resolution include investigations into rocket attacks by Hamas as well, attacks which Goldstone’s report also condemns as war crimes. But to read the House Resolution, one would never know this—for it goes on and on about how the report is biased, the UN is biased, the Human Rights Council is biased, the whole world is biased against Israel. Nor would one know that Goldstone actually responded to each of the Resolution’s charges in detail—showing how each is either factually incorrect or misleading. Consider this response, for example (the House Resolution condemning his report is in quotes, and Goldstone’s response is not):

Whereas clause #8: “Whereas the report repeatedly made sweeping and unsubstantiated
determinations that the Israeli military had deliberately attacked civilians during Operation Cast Lead”

This whereas clause is factually incorrect. The findings included in the report are neither
"sweeping” nor “unsubstantiated” and in effect reflect 188 individual interviews, review of more than 300 reports, 30 videos and 1200 photographs. Additionally, the body of the report contains a plethora of references to the information upon which the Commission relied for our findings. (from Goldstone letter to U.S. Representatives Howard Berman and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Oct. 29, 2009, cited on website of U.S. Representative Brian Baird.)

But the jurist’s responses are not expected to affect the outcome. Reports suggest that the House Resolution will pass easily—especially given the fact that the House of Representatives is controlled from top to bottom by AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations, the combined weight of which terrifies and targets House members who dare to question the United States’ undying support for any crime Israel chooses to commit.

This resolution, though, is taking things to absurd lengths. For what does it say about a nation, the United States of America, and a legislature, the House of Representatives, which, while continually bragging about its commitment to human rights, condemns a UN report commissioned to investigate war crimes, and which indeed finds evidence of war crimes? For that is what the Goldstone Report’s findings amounted to: that Israel, in attacking Gaza and its civic infrastructure including schools, hospitals, and individual homes with the most devastating modern weapons available, committed numerous violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law required of all militaries. And though the report also condemns the firing of rockets by Hamas, the weight of its findings—as indeed the weight of the damage, 1387 Gazans killed, 13 Israeli soldiers killed; no damage to speak of in Israel; Gaza left in ruins—is a condemnation of Israel and its brutal invasion last year (during, it should be noted, the interregnum period when Bush was leaving office and Obama had not yet been inaugurated.)

The only bit of positive news in all this is that at least one House member, Brian Baird of Washington state, has condemned the House Resolution in no uncertain terms. In a piece appearing on Common Dreams on Nov. 3, and on his website (, Baird’s essay, “Israel and Gaza Deserve Better than a Misguided Resolution,” asks some pertinent question about H. Res. 867, most significantly, “Have those who will vote on H. Res. 867 actually read the resolution? Have they read the Goldstone report?” Clearly, Baird believes that the answer to both questions is “no.” Nor, he writes, do most House members have any idea what took place in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009: “Since scarcely a dozen House Members have actually been to Gaza, what actual first-hand knowledge do the rest of the Members of Congress possess on which to base their judgment of the merits of H.Res.867 or the Goldstone report?” And most important, “What will it say about this Congress and our country if we so readily seek to block ‘any further consideration’ of a human rights investigation produced by one of the most respected jurists in the world today…”

What will it say indeed. Representative Baird considers the issue vital, both to the Middle East, and to the United States of America, whose reputation in the world has taken such a beating in recent years, and most directly, to the conscience of the Congress. Because unlike most of the toadies who will vote to protect their backsides and their pro-Israel funders, Baird himself has seen the devastation caused by Israel in Gaza, and says it seems to support what the Goldstone Report asserts. This makes it more than “just another imposed political litmus test,” Baird writes:

“This is about whether we as individuals and this Congress as an institution find it acceptable to drop white phosphorous on civilian targets, to rocket civilian communities, to destroy hospitals and schools, to use civilians as human shields, to deliberately destroy non-military factories, industries and basic water, electrical and sanitation infrastructure. This is about whether it is acceptable to restrict the movement, opportunities and hopes of more than a million people every single day….”

Clearly, Baird thinks it unacceptable, especially given the fact that “our money and our weaponry play a leading role in those violations.” Would that more of his sniveling associates in the United States Congress, and, regrettably, in the White House itself, felt the same way. But at this writing, it appears that the United States is about to announce to the world that not only does it consider such behavior perfectly legitimate and even praiseworthy, but that those who would dare question it deserve public condemnation and burial.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The So-Called Public Option

I’ve been hearing and reading some unsettling things about the vaunted “public option” Congressional Democrats have included in the health plan they rolled out on October 29. Since this is the heart of what the Dems have supposedly done to provide “health care for all,” the effect, as has been apparent for many months now, is to vitiate to almost nonentity the idea that the United States of America will have decent coverage for all its people any time soon.

Here’s what the Democrats, under pressure from their conservative wing and the idiotic dregs left of the Republican Party (not to mention that traitorous pig Joe Lieberman), have done. First, in their “public option,” the government would not get to use the lower rates it has long established through the Medicare system already in place. No. The lobbies have raised hell about that, because our devoted “health care providers” (i.e. doctors and hospitals and companies who provide monitors and digital beds and all the other paraphernalia Americans have come to expect in their sick rooms) were worried that their remuneration would be too low. How, after all, could doctors and hospital execs afford a new Mercedes each year, if they had to provide a special rate for massive numbers in a government plan? Only Walmart and Exxon Mobil get to do that kind of bargaining. So the new plan decrees that the government will have to “negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals” individually. And you know what that means. It’ll be like the Pentagon negotiating with Cheney and Halliburton.

Then the second thing these spineless pols have done is reserve the so-called public option for only those individuals who currently do not have insurance. In other words, if you have insurance through your job, you don’t get to choose the public option, no matter how attractive it might be. Nor can your company choose it, unless it’s a very small business. This means that the “competition” Obama and the other Dems have been trumpeting is less than meaningless—because the only people who can opt for the public option are those without insurance (estimates now run at about 6 million people). And most are either too poor, or too jobless, or too sick to get insurance on the private market. What the hell kind of competition is that? The insurance companies don’t want these people. Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office has already estimated that the public health plan will probably cost MORE than the private plans, because the public option would be insuring those few most likely to be or get sick—so even without the overhead of the private insurers, the public plan, because of its demographics, would spend more covering all those sick people. And, of course, the lobbies all know this because the reason single payer would work, and put them out of business, is that it would cover everyone, with the young and healthy subsidizing the older and more sickly.

So what we’ve got here, as many have noted before (Miles Mogulescu’s Oct. 30 column at contains great details), is little more than a huge bonanza for the existing insurance companies and the doctors and hospitals they collude with. Because the main provision of this 1,000-page plan, is simple: every American has to obtain insurance, or pay a penalty. And most insurance would come, as it does now, from private insurance companies—the ones who are driving this nation towards bankruptcy. The reason? It’s a big business, folks, amounting to something like one-sixth of the entire American economy. That’s many billions of dollars, a nice chunk of which goes into the pockets of the very people who are supposedly “fixing” this system—our fair politicians.

So when you see the Democrats rejoicing on the steps of the Capitol because they’re closer to passing a health reform bill, take a minute to wonder what’s in the bill, and who benefits. And then take a very large pill.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The News Today, Oh Boy

I read the news today, oh boy. (some of you may remember this Beatles’ line from one of their albums, Sgt. Pepper maybe.)

Actually, most of these itemscome from sources other than newspapers.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, for example, is reported to contain this lovely statistic:
Between 1979 and 2007, the top 1% of American households saw their share of all pretax income nearly double—while the share of the bottom 80% of households fell by 7%! To put this in another perspective, according to the NY Times, it is as if every household in the bottom 80% had written a check for $7,000 every year and sent it to the top 1%.

The question is, why has there been no reaction to this???

Another item, this one heard on “This American Life,” NPR’s radio show hosted by Ira Glass, added to my ire about healthcare, which was the theme of the show. The first segment was titled “One Pill Two Pill, Red Pill Blue Pill”—after Obama’s admonition to consumers to buy the blue pill if it’s cheaper. On the segment, Planet Money’s Chana Joffe-Walt explained the scam behind the drug companies’ generosity in handing out prescription drug coupons. Here’s how it works. First, the ploy was invented to combat the moves by Health Insurers to use co-pays (what the customer pays after his Health plan pays part of the drug’s cost) to discourage customers from choosing very expensive, name-brand drugs and choosing cheaper generics instead. That is, generics, in virtually all cases, are just as effective as name brand drugs like Lipitor, but are many magnitudes cheaper. If you use the generic, the Health plans make your co-pay considerably less, because their payment is also less. Seems to make sense.

But the drug companies couldn’t let their cash cows be dissed this way. And so they came up with the prescription coupon. You get the coupon “free”—either from your doctor, or directly from the drug company. With it, you can get a huge discount on your prescription. Thus, one name-brand drug used by a guy with acne, sold for about $600-800 a month. His co-pay had been $130, but with the prescription card, it was only $10. What a great deal! he thought. And who wouldn’t? The problem comes in the details: though the drug company only got $10 from the consumer, it billed the health care provider over $600. And it worked beautifully: the doctor prescribes the name brand, knowing his patient can get it cheaply, and having no idea that the drug company is making a huge profit from the health provider. But that’s not the end of it. In order to stay profitable with this kind of payout, the health care provider will naturally have to charge its customers more—all of which comes back to the poor consumer in the end, who is hit with rising costs for health care.

This is really the gorilla in the room of the whole health care debate. Doctors say they can’t be expected to know how much drugs cost—so they just assume patients have health care, and prescribe name brands which cost 10 or 20 times what the generics do. Who makes money? Pfizer and their ilk. And who gets screwed? As always, it’s John/Jane Q. Public.

As for the doctors, whom everyone seems inclined to excuse from having any role in rising health care costs, a recent medical experience I had demolished that theory as well. I had a knee problem, and though I was wary of the suggestion, after two months or so of pain agreed to have the knee x-rayed—even though my GP (a damn good one) allowed as how it probably wouldn’t show much, but was a necessary step in the progression. Anyway, since he had no x-ray machine, he sent me to the local hospital (Marin General). I knew it was going to be bad when I had to go through a full registration, the way one does when admitted. Finally got the knee x-rayed after a fairly long wait—with three or four pics taken. Then they told me the report would be sent to my doctor. “But I thought I was getting the results,” I said. “We’ll give you copies of the x-rays,” they said, “but our radiologist will send the diagnosis.” I knew that was trouble, but had no idea how much.

The x-rays came back showing the normal degeneration of a knee in my age range. No help. But for that little diagnosis (which, by the way, any competent doctor can do unaided by specialists), I received two bills. One was from Marin General: my charge was $59.50, but only after Medicare paid $409.50 (i.e. the total charge for a simple knee x-ray was $469.00). My daughter tells me that in a veterinarian’s office, the x-ray charge is usually around $90. Same x-ray, same competent diagnosis. But that’s not the worst of it. I also received another bill, this one from Advanced Imaging Medical Association, for diagnosis—you know the guy who reads the x-ray—and for his services, the total charge was $719.86. Medicare paid most of that, but the point is clear. For one x-ray (actually they took 3 shots), which contributed virtually nothing to the diagnosis or the healing of my knee, the charge was $1189.86. And though one tends to imagine that because Medicare pays for this, it’s free, the truth is, it’s not. Ultimately, we all pay for this stuff. And there can be little question that everyone—the doctors, the hospitals, the insurance companies, and everyone in between—is in on the take.

Finally, today’s news had a piece about foreclosure auctions going on in long-suffering Detroit, once the thriving Motor City, now the most depressed and distressed city in the nation. Homes were starting at $500. There were pages and pages of them. One comparison showed the number of homes in foreclosure (or abandoned completely), if put together, would cover an area the size of Boston. And who was getting to buy most of these places? You guessed it, not Detroit natives who were hoping to be able to get a house cheap and live there, but mostly speculators from California and New York, seeking to make a killing while the killing was still good.

But then again, this is the free market, folks. And the “free” market, after all, is the most efficient and most humane of all systems yet devised by man. Oh boy.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bend Over, Suckers

I have just been on the phone with my Congresswoman’s office (Lynn Woolsey), and with my bank credit card representative. The news is not good. The taxpayers are being screwed once again, this in order to beat the deadline mandated by the new Credit Card Bill of Rights, which goes into effect soon. So get ready: the banks will all be socking it to their customers to the limit before their options are limited by the new bill.

It starts with a letter—like the one I received yesterday from Wells Fargo. It notifies me that my interest rate is being increased, both the standard rate and the cash advance rate. There is an increase both in the “margin” to 10.45 percentage points; and in the APR on purchases (based on the Index Rate plus the “Margin”) to a now hefty 16.20%. That is nearly a 4-point jump in my interest rate, which has already been bumped recently by a couple of percentage points. Worst of all, “these increases to the Purchase APR will apply to both new Purchases made on your account AS WELL AS ANY EXISTING PURCHASE BALANCES.” And if you don’t like it, you can drop your card--so long as you pay your entire balance.

Of course I was outraged to read this. I have never missed a payment on my credit card, a fact which was confirmed when I called my credit card representative, who said, “you have an excellent credit history.” And yet, my rate is being bumped. But why??? I asked the representative, who said it was a “management decision. All Wells Fargo credit card customers are having their rate bumped by upwards of 3%.” But why, I again asked, noting that the prime rate which banks pay for their money from the Fed was down around 3% the last time I looked. The banks have been in difficulty, she said (yes, I argued, because of the rapacity of their greed to cash in on subprime lending, which loans have gone bad and left the banks needing to ramp up their other cash cow, credit cards.) She said she had no information on that. She also said she had no information on the upcoming changes mandated by the Credit Card Bill of Rights either. But I had already learned about this, with a little help from my Congresswoman’s office, and here’s the news.

The bill was passed to great fanfare and signed by President Obama on May 22, 2009. Among other things, the bill says:

“No interest rate increases on pre-existing balances. If your credit card issuer decides to increase your interest rate, that new rate would only apply to new balances. Your current balance would continue to be subject to the old interest rate. There's an exception, however, if you become more than 60 days late on your credit card payments.”

Aha, I thought. I’m protected; they can’t do this. But then I looked to the bottom of the website and found this disconcerting news: These rules won't take effect until February 22, 2010.

So now you get the picture. The banks, devils that they are, are fully aware that after February 2010, their ability to screw their credit card customers will be circumscribed. They won’t be able to arbitrarily raise rates, and apply them to purchases that were made, in full faith and knowledge by the customer, based on the old interest rate. Under the new rules, rate hikes can be applied only to new purchases; the old balance will be charged at the old rate. Poor old bankers—they won’t be able to just make an announcement that your rate is now higher, and have it apply retroactively. What an imposition! And so, in order to rake in billions and billions before the new rules go into effect, they’re hitting us all with higher rates now.

So this is our payoff, suckers, for allowing the Washington boys to bail out these same banks, to the tune of trillions of dollars, which bailout is going to sink this entire nation soon. Which is to say, sink all of us. Bail them out, let them continue raking in their usurious bonanza, and then bend over for your individual reward.

I let both my credit card rep and my congressional rep know my feelings about this. I would suggest that every single person who feels the same let their reps know as well. Because sooner or later, somehow or other, the criminality that is the banking system, along with the white-collar thugs who profit by it—and I include our sitting so-called representatives and president who all have their hands in the same cookie jar—are going to have to be brought to heel. The only question is, what’s it going to take?

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dictating Democracy

The logic behind American foreign policy becomes more difficult to fathom each day. Last night’s news, for example, informed us that the State Department was exploring new initiatives to open diplomatic contacts with the Generals who rule Burma. Now this is a lovely regime made up of those geriatric thugs who came to power by overturning a peaceful election which should have brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power, and who have since employed the most brutal methods to eliminate protestors, including the beating and jailing of Buddhist monks. After that, they ripped off much of the international aid sent to that benighted country by America and others to relieve the suffering population after the monsoon floods in May 2008. And the American State Department now thinks it’s a good idea to open negotiations with these creeps. On what grounds exactly? On their notable commitment to democracy and the rule of law?

Similarly, in late June, reactionary forces in Honduras overthrew the democratically-elected president of that country, Manuel Zelaya, by arresting him in the middle of the night and hustling him out of the country. This wholly illegal maneuver, reminiscent of a Woody Allen movie, was initially greeted by the United States with temperance and patience and hemming and hawing calls for both parties to negotiate. Negotiate? This was a wholly illegal coup, engineered by thugs who have consistently employed the U.S.-trained military to put down the populace protesting such blatant disregard for international law. Virtually every Latin-American nation and the Organization of American States have all condemned the coup in no uncertain terms—all, that is, except our Clintonesque State Department, which continued to resist calling the overthrow a “coup,” and which took its sweet time cutting off aid as its statutes required it to do. What is going on here? Is it that the United States, even under Obama, really hoped (schemed?) to see another episode of the sick drama that played out in Haiti, where leftist President Aristide was also spirited out of his country and has remained in exile ever since? Can it be that there’s a little pattern here, a pattern that, regardless of the administration’s color, blue or red, Republican or Democrat, pays lip service to the glories of democracy, but in reality makes certain that only certain democracies—those that toe the imperial line—receive U.S. support?

What else can one conclude? Recent so-called elections in Afghanistan have been routinely condemned by most observers, including Peter Galbraith, as not only flawed, but outright fraudulent. Ah, but our man in Kabul, the drug-dealing Hamid Karzai, is allegedly, and necessarily for us, the winner. Because we’ve sacrificed hundreds of American lives and billions upon billions in treasure to defeat the terrorists we say have a home there. So admitting that we’re sacrificing so much to maintain a crook in power just wouldn’t do: imperial interests are one thing, but theft requires a deodorant. By contrast, when the 2006 elections in Palestine, internationally validated, produced an outcome that displeased us—the victory of Hamas, otherwise known in the western press as muslim devils incarnate, with the gall to advocate resistance to Israeli oppression—why then it was a different story. Then, we, with our “democratic” ally Israel, decried the stench and cranked up the propaganda and strong-arming to the point where an international boycott was imposed, a boycott so cruel and crippling that it has left over a million people in Gaza bereft of even the most basic human elements—food, fuel, shelter, medical supplies—even before Israel invaded last year and destroyed most of what was left.

And then, of course, there’s Iran. When recent elections there produced street demonstrations, the American media covered the protesters night and day. For a few days it appeared that yet another “orange” revolution similar to that in the Ukraine, fomented and financed by the CIA, was about to take place. But no, the Ayatollahs clamped down on the demonstrators, and the American press duly condemned those in power as illegitimate, the result as undemocratic. Because, after all, Iran might some day threaten the “middle east peace” we’ve done so much to preserve. Because, after all, Iran has centrifuges and is producing fissile material. And that material, we are sure, is meant for nuclear weapons. And if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon, why it would upset the entire balance (i.e. Israel’s death grip) in the region because now muslim devils would possess the bomb. But what about the devils who already have the bomb, and not just one puny nuke but hundreds! Israel, that is, not only has a stockpile of nuclear weapons that numbers at least two hundred, but that includes not just your puny atomic bomb but thermonuclear ones as well, complete with the most sophisticated delivery systems outside the U.S. And has threatened to use them on Iran, and Egypt and Russia, among others. Furthermore, it has never even signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which we so dramatically accuse Iran of violating (which it has not; the treaty gives every nation the right to produce nuclear power, which is what Iran appears to have done so far); nor has Pakistan, also equipped with numerous nukes, signed the NPT, nor India, which also possesses an unknown but considerable number, aided and abetted recently by the Bush administration which generously gave the Indians more technology to build still more.

So what is going on here? What is this rhetoric about democracy? What is this hysteria about rogue states, and nuclear proliferation when, in fact, the United States now and in the past has supported and colluded with some of the most vicious dictators on the planet? Including the late and not lamented General Musharraf of Pakistan, who also took over in a coup and who also had his rogue nuclear program, but whom we coddled and cuddled until the stench and incompetence and unpopularity of his regime demanded that he be scuttled. Nor can we forget that it was the United States, in the person of Kermit Roosevelt, who, in 1954, engineered the unrest that forced the democratically-elected Mohammed Mossadegh from power in Iran, and replaced him with the Savak-wielding Shah—thus necessitating the rise of the Ayatollahs.

In which regard, some statistics put together by Anthony DiMaggio are revealing:
NUMBER OF MAJOR U.S. INVASIONS SINCE WWII: 13—including attacks on North Korea (1950 and 1951), Cuba (1961), South Vietnam (1962), The Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1970), Lebanon (1982), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Haiti (1994), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq again (2003). And that doesn’t count covert invasions and attempted overthrows and crushings of populist-nationalist movements.
NUMBER OF IRANIAN INVASIONS: 0 (Iraq invaded Iran to initiate the 1981 war)

So what is this nonsense demanding that Iran show its “peaceful intentions”? What about the thugs in Burma—have they ever shown even a hint of “peaceful intentions”? Have the Honduran coup leaders? Indeed, has the United States? (check the stats).

Perhaps a little less invading and a little more withdrawing might be in order. Perhaps a little less dictating to others might be in order. Because dictating democracy, not to mention dictatorial democracy, is an oxymoron. A contradiction in terms. A beast with two heads—or two asses; can’t be. There can’t be a dictated democracy, or a partial democracy, or a democracy with rights for only certain religious or ethnic groups. In which regard we might ask if the United States itself has ever been a real democracy—i.e. a democracy governed by all its people rather than a small elite serving wealthy or propertied or corporate interests. But that is a question for another blog. For now, it is enough to observe that the United States would do well to look to itself, rather than seeking to dictate democracy elsewhere.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Justice System???

It’s been a sad few weeks for the American system of justice. Most recently, the constantly deified (at least on TV) role of police and parole officers has suffered an irreparable blow, when it was discovered that a convicted sex offender had been able to hide his kidnapped victim for 18 years in his Antioch, CA back yard, all while fathering two children upon her. Incredibly, the whole crew (one cannot bear to call them a family) have been living in this northern California suburb beneath the eyes of neighbors, parole officers, and visiting police, without once having been noticed by authorities. Phillip Garrido, who kidnapped 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard 18 years ago, openly ranted and raved, most recently at UC Berkeley’s campus, and never once, until days ago, aroused the suspicions of the local constabularies. Indeed, in 2006 some budding Inspector Colombo actually answered a neighbor’s complaint (she had seen the girls back there, and called 911) and visited the Garrido home, but never inspected the series of tents and fenced-in shanties in the back yard, where the women were hidden. Not aware the man was a registered sex offender, the officer only allowed as how Garrido might have to face a building code violation for the backyard mess; never calling the building inspector, of course.

Most shocking of all, Garrido’s parole officers actually met with the parolee several times a month and visited his home regularly for spot checks, but never once thought to inspect the back yard where his victims were secreted. Talk about keystone cops. And it gets worse (making one wonder: who are the fools that become parole officers?) At some point, Garrido took to visiting the UC Berkeley campus, where he would rant about God to the undergraduates. He then met with a UC Berkeley police officer to apply for a permit to hold a campus event he called “God’s Desire.” The police officer, Lisa Campbell, (the one bright spot in this otherwise sordid tale) noticed that the two girls Garrido had with him, whom he called his daughters, appeared “robotic.” After another meeting, Campbell had Garrido checked on the computer, found that he was a registered sex offender, and called his parole officer to alert him to the children.

Now here is where one would think parole officers would jump. But astonishingly, the officer to whom Campbell spoke tried to make excuses: Garrido had no children, he said, perhaps the girls were his grandchildren! Still, the call had to be dealt with, so the parole office called Garrido in—and he showed up with his wife, his abductee, now 29, and the two children, aged 11 and 15. With the evidence now tossed into their laps, even Keystone Cops couldn’t ignore it any longer, and the case broke, the backyard shanties and playgrounds were uncovered, and Garrido and his wife were taken into custody. The whole panoply of police power is now aroused and humming, promising justice. But what can justice possibly mean to Jaycee Dugard, a prisoner and rape victim since she was 11, or her two daughters, one or both of whom have probably been violated as well? And what are we to make of such stunning incompetence on the part of police and parole officers? What do these people do when they’re not napping?

The case of Troy Davis perhaps gives us a clue. What police officers do is bring the hammer of justice down, without mercy, upon those who fit their profile of criminal. They find “witnesses” to convict those against whom there is no evidence. Davis, that is, was fingered—by Sylvester “Redd” Coles, for one; a man most now say actually committed the crime—for killing a Georgia police officer. Eight other witnesses also said Davis, a black man, had done the deed. Despite the lack of evidence tying him to the murder, he was convicted, and sentenced to death. But, and it is an enormous BUT, seven of those eight witnesses have, since the trial, recanted their testimony. For example, Jeffrey Sapp, one of the recanting witnesses, said in an affidavit:

“The police…put a lot of pressure on me to say ‘Troy said this’ or ‘Troy said that.’ They wanted me to tell them that Troy confessed to me about killing that officer…they made it clear that the only way they would leave me alone is if I told them what they wanted to hear.” (from Amy Goodman, “Troy Davis and the Meaning of ‘Actual Innocence,’”

Recantations notwithstanding, the Georgia parole commission refused to commute Davis’ sentence, while Georgia courts have refused to hear the new evidence alleging Davis’ innocence.

On August 17, however, the Supreme Court heard the Davis case, and voted, 7 to 2, to order the District Court in Georgia to “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.” Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority, “The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing.”

One would think. One would hope that any jurist, any court, any law officer would be similarly reluctant to put an innocent man to death, that delaying the man’s execution and holding a hearing would be a no-brainer. But one would be wrong. For sitting on this Supreme Court are two justices, Antonin Scalia and his puppet, Clarence Thomas, who seem to have no such qualms, or even qualms about making their lack of qualms known, and strongly dissented. For them, mere innocence is no defense; or, to put it in the legalese Scalia loves to pen, there is “considerable doubt that ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable”. Here are the great Scalia’s words:

This Court [i.e. the Supreme Court of the U.S.] has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

For Scalia and Thomas, in other words, Davis had his trial, and that’s all he has coming to him. The Constitution of the United States, and therefore the Supreme Court of the United States, has, and never should have any truck with soft-headed concerns like “actual innocence.”

We have heard this kind of thing from Justice Scalia before, notably when he engineered the false election of George W. Bush in 2000 by simply foreclosing the right of the Florida courts to re-count the ballots. Mere accurate vote counts, he judged, had nothing to do with it. This, however, is the first time we have heard asserted in the highest court in the land that innocence has nothing to do with the law, or with constitutional protections, or with stopping the state from wrongful murder.

When we put these two cases together, then, the implications are dire. If Jaycee Dugard cannot count, for eighteen agonizing years, on parole officers or police officers to make routine checks to discover her plight, if Troy Anthony Davis cannot rely on innocence as a defense, but only on cops and judges and Supreme Court Justices to be diligent in agreeing to kill him, what kinds of protections can anyone—save only wealthy bankers, torture lawyers, corporate flim-flam artists, and political hacks—expect from the American system of justice? Sadly, the answer seems to be none; for to expect more, to expect rationality or intelligence or due diligence, or, god forbid, compassion, is to expect blood from a stone.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tortuous Presumptions

The recent release of the “CIA Inspector General’s Special Review of Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities, September 2001 to October 2003”—detailing once again the appalling torture techniques employed by U.S. interrogators in their attempt to get information from “the worst of the worst”—has been discussed by experts far more qualified than myself. One aspect of the report, however, especially as disclosed by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern (“Closing in on the Torturers,” Aug. 26, 2009,, struck me forcefully. It concerned the operating assumption among interrogators, in the absence of any evidence, that their Al-Qua’ida captives (called “high value detainees) must have had crucial information, and were refusing to give it up. Here is what the report says:

“According to a number of those interviewed for this Review, the Agency’s intelligence on Al-Qa’ida was limited prior to the CTC (Counterterrorist Center) Program. The Agency lacked adequate linguists or subject matter experts and had very little hard knowledge of what particular Al-Qa’ida leaders—who later became detainees—knew. This lack of knowledge led analysts to speculate about what a detainee ‘should know’…When a detainee did not respond to a question posed to him, the assumption at Headquarters was that the detainee was holding back and knew more; consequently, Headquarters recommended resumption of EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques].”

McGovern adds one more bit of data from the Review, and then a comment:

“Some participants in the Program, particularly field interrogators, judge that CTC assessments to the effect that detainees are withholding information are not always supported by an objective evaluation of available information and the evaluation of the interrogators but are too heavily based, instead, on presumptions of what the individual might or should know.”

And then comes McGovern’s comment:

“People were tortured on the basis of ‘presumptions.’ Nice.”

What struck me when I read this was how similar it sounded to the root rationale governing the arrest and detention of American civilians during World War II. The phrase then in vogue by the FBI, military intelligence, and the Alien Enemy Control Division of the Department of Justice, was “potentially dangerous.” This was the term that was used to justify first investigating and then preparing dossiers on thousands and thousands of Americans with roots in the three prospective enemy nations—Japan, Germany, and Italy—even before war broke out. These investigations were undertaken primarily by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, starting in 1936 after a meeting the Director had with President Franklin Roosevelt. By 1940, the individuals investigated—many of them targeted by informants—were placed on a Custodial Detention Index prepared by Hoover’s FBI. The term “custodial detention” clearly indicates that anyone on the list was automatically a candidate for arrest and detention in the event the United States entered the war, which it did on December 7, 1941. And on that date, and in subsequent months, thousands on the list (some 60,000 domestic arrests were made during the war) were arrested, detained, interrogated about their activities, and, if they could not “prove their innocence,” interned at Army-run camps for the duration of the war. Most were so-called “enemy aliens,” those immigrants who had been born in Italy, Japan or Germany and had not yet become U.S. citizens, but many were naturalized U.S. citizens with roots in those now-enemy nations.

It was in respect to the latter that the Department of Justice, under the direction of Attorney General Francis Biddle, in about 1943 looked into the reasoning behind the term “potentially dangerous,” and came to some stunning conclusions. It should be noted that both Biddle and his predecessor, Robert Jackson (later elevated to the Supreme Court) had expressed reservations about many such wartime assumptions earlier. Specifically, Jackson had warned about the casual use of the term “subversion” or “subversive activity” with regard to the spying then being done on Americans. Jackson maintained that subversion was a dangerous concept because there were “no definite standards to determine what constitutes a ‘subversive activity’, such as we have for murder or larceny.” The Attorney General expanded on this problem with more examples:

“Activities which seem benevolent or helpful to wage earners, persons on relief, or those who are disadvantaged in the struggle for existence may be regarded as “subversive” by those whose property interests might be burdened thereby. Those who are in office are apt to regard as “subversive” the activities of any of those who would bring about a change of administration. Some of our soundest constitutional doctrines were once punished as subversive.”

That the Attorney General knew whereof he spoke could have been grimly attested to by one Italian immigrant and “enemy alien” named Federico Dellagatta. Dellagatta had been reported for making suspect statements—“irresponsible talk about the greatness of the Italian people and the Italian army”—while shining shoes in Providence RI’s Union Station He was arrested and detained by the FBI, judged no danger to the nation by his hearing board, and recommended for parole. But when his case was reviewed by the DOJ’s Alien Division, the term “subversive activity” came into play, with grim results for the bootblack. Here is what the reviewer said:

"In the opinion of this reviewer, subject’s persistent talk in praising and boasting of the greatness of the Italian people and of the Italian army while employed in a shoe shining shop constitutes downright subversive activity..” [emphasis added, ed.]

Because of his “subversive” talk, therefore, Dellagatta was interned. Francis Biddle, shortly afterward, weighed in on the related danger of sedition statutes, one of which had been included in the Alien Registration Act of 1940. The act made it a criminal offense for anyone to advocate overthrowing the Government of the U.S. or any state, or even to be “a member of an association which teaches, advises or encourages such an overthrow.” For Francis Biddle, then Solicitor General, such sedition statutes were too easily misused, and often conflicted with the bedrock First Amendment right to free speech. As he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brief Authority:

"History showed that sedition statutes—laws addressed to what men said—invariably had been used to prevent and punish criticism of the government, particularly in time of war. I believed them to be unnecessary and harmful."

When he became Attorney General, Biddle opposed many of the proposed measures demanded by the military (though to his everlasting shame, he cooperated in the internment of 110,000 Japanese, including 70,000 U.S. citizens), especially its Individual Exclusion Program aimed at naturalized citizens of German and Italian descent. Biddle actually refused to prosecute several who violated their exclusion orders. His real objections came in 1943, however, when he ordered his department to prepare a report on the Program. After examining and completely invalidating the entire rationale for removing individuals from allegedly vulnerable coastal zones, the report then attacks the concept of “potential dangerousness” as the basis for exclusion (and, by implication, for internment as well.) It notes, first, that “the concept of potential dangerousness itself contains the element of possibility.” Saying someone is “potentially dangerous,” that is, is equivalent to saying that someone “might possibly be a possible threat.” The report then concludes:

"Practically, the use of phrases such as this [i.e. ‘potentially dangerous’] suggests that those who use them hold the view that a subject of an exclusion case must be excluded unless it is clear that there is no reason to exclude him. This is analogous to saying that the burden of proof is on the excludee, although the excludee, of course, cannot meet the burden, since he is not advised of the charges against him."

Unfortunately, there were no Robert Jacksons or Francis Biddles in George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, or in his CIA. Where those two WWII Attorneys General understood and, for the most part, respected the law, the Constitutional protections afforded all persons in the United States (such as the right to know what one is charged with), and the presumption of innocence enshrined in English law since the 12th century, Bush’s political appointees did not. Therefore, it seemed perfectly natural to them and their underlings to make “presumptions” about what a detainee could be expected to know, and to torture him if he did not reveal what was expected. Of course, as lawyers, they were adept at coining novel names for such practices, names like Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. They were also adept—Yoo, Addington, Bybee, Gonzalez, on up to the President and Vice-President—at issuing diabolical directives to both define what torture was (or more often was NOT), and why those interrogators who employed it could not be liable for prosecution. As the Review notes:

"The OLC [Office of Legal Counsel, where Yoo and Bybee worked] determined that a violation of Section 2340 [of the torture statute,18 U.S. Legal Code] requires that the infliction of severe pain be the defendant’s “precise objective.” OLC also concluded that necessity or self-defense might justify interrogation methods that would otherwise violate section 2340A.

"OLC produced another legal opinion on 1 August 2002 at the request of CIA…The opinion concluded that use of EITs on Abu Zubaydah would not violate the torture statute because, among other things, Agency personnel: (1) would not specifically intend to inflict severe pain or suffering, and (2) would not in fact inflict severe pain or suffering."

So there you have it. Interrogators “presume” that a detainee knows more than he’s saying, and on that basis get permission to use “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” like wall slamming, sleep and food deprivation, and waterboarding. Then, having done this—in Zubaydah’s case, using the waterboard over 180 times—they then say that legally ‘We didn’t intend to hurt the little fellow, nor did we even know it hurt or caused any suffering whatever; we only wanted information. The fact that people tend to emerge from these sessions gibbering like idiots may be due to the diabolical training they all get. And besides, the bosses insisted.’

Though torturing suspects based on a “presumption” of what they know is different from interning them, or excluding them from vast areas because of their “potential danger,” the entire policy forms a continuum which turns on the same idea. That idea seems to be that, regardless of the law, one can never take too many precautions, or be too squeamish about methods when confronting what one presumes to be a “potentially dangerous" or "potentially knowledgeable” population.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Search for Meaning

We are all always doing it, consciously or not: searching for meaning. It often involves going back to look at what god is, what religion is, what faith is. And when we do, all are found wanting. No god who is specific to a single group of people should, these days, with all our knowledge of anthropology, psychology, and comparative religions, get our fidelity, much less our support or money (or, sadly, the delusional fealty of puerile U.S. Presidents; about which an August 15, 2009 piece, “A French Revelation, or The Burning Bush” by James A. Haught informs us—to wit, that George W. Bush, in trying to sell the invasion of Iraq to President Chirac of France in 2003, appealed to Holy Writ as justification: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”) No. It is simply preposterous to think that every people known has had a god exclusive to them, who looks out only for them—their "one" always being the “right and most powerful and only one,” of course. Thus, the conclusion: no personal god. God, as seen historically, is a figment of group imagination, perhaps a necessity for group coherence, for group pride, for personal anxiety reduction and some nice art, but hardly more. Evolution, if looked at strictly, teaches us not only that there is no heavenly destination for the “faithful,” but more crucially that there is no meaning, no progress or eschatological goal towards which life/evolution tends. In fact, if looked at coldly, the emergence on this planet of humans—the alleged apotheosis of evolution, the crown of God’s creation— has led to more problems than that of any other species. We humans are destroying not only life but the planet as well, in which sense we seem more like a devolution, and a diabolical one at that. All other animals, or many, at least, are symbiotic, like bees and flowering plants. Bees are indispensable to the flower’s pollination; the flower’s pollen is indispensable to the bee’s honey. And we seem to be ravaging that bee-flower symbiosis too (as in bee-colony collapse). The deflating truth is, we humans seem not to be indispensable to anything. We have no symbiotic relationship with any other life form (with the possible exception of fruit, whose seeds we are supposed to scatter in our stool—though even there, we modern humans, with flush toilets, prevent ourselves from scattering seed, and scatter mostly toxic waste instead). In short, we humans are primarily, if not exclusively takers of the natural wealth created by others. Destroyers.

Which seems a pretty grim conclusion; and it is. But perhaps, like most things, it contains its own obverse. If looked at carefully, that is, this human penchant to destroy can be seen to derive from being unaware; oblivious to what we are doing. So if there is anything about humans that we might label potentially meaningful, it would have to be not our “knowledge” in the academic sense (the unconscious realization of which is probably the cause of so many returning to today’s fundamentalisms—which are rather futile attempts to find in rigid tradition something, some raison d’etre which science has not only been unable to provide, but which it appears instead to demolish), but rather our awareness. To be aware means many things. But surely one is to see that every breath, every pulse of our blood is constituted of billions of years of evolution, of the lives and deaths of countless creatures (which is one reason why some knowledge, i.e. learning about the lives of all creatures, via biology, is instructive and perhaps salvational), and before that, of the formation of countless stars and planets and galaxies and black holes where every element used in our miraculous assemblage—carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, iron, etc.—must be created. To be aware means to see that everything before me has cooperated to bring me to this very point, here and now, to enable me to breathe, to enable my neurons to fire, my eyes to see, my hair to grow, my limbs and muscles and cells to function as they do. Consider just one or two facts from Natalie Angier’s recent book The Canon:

"In the average human cell, some 2,000 new proteins are created every second, for a daily per-cell total of almost 173 million neonate [i.e. newly-born] proteins. Multiply that figure by the roughly 74 trillion cells in the human body, and you get a corpuswide quota of…1.29 x 10 to the 21st power..proteins manufactured each day." (p. 203)

That’s 10 with 21 zeroes! Now this is just staggering. And it is just one hidden, awe-inspiring element of every body’s activity that goes on each second of each day of each year for its threescore and ten years, and more. The other pole of this immense activity that goes on inside each of us, all without our conscious aid, is the cleanup end: cells also destroy billions of proteins each second, by means of enzymes devoted to nothing but this crucial task; for the way the cell works is that it wants tons of proteins ready for any job that might come up, but doesn’t want them hanging around clogging things up; so its motto becomes, “synthesize the proteins constantly, but make them unstable.”

What this means—especially when we see that all cells in all life forms are constructed on the same essential plan—is, again, that all of evolution, all the creatures before me, have brought the planet and its creatures, its basic plan for life, to the stage that has produced me, that has allowed me to exist, to breathe, to walk, to sleep, to grasp, to think, most of which is no individual achievement of mine. And every other thing in my world—rocks, plants, water, leaves, trees, grass—is similarly the product of countless eons and adaptations, and so deserving not only of my respect, as kin, but of my gratitude, as progenitors.

Which is what we are left with in the end if we are truly aware: gratitude for this very moment, and all that it contains (simply contemplating the fact that what will transpire in this moment, and the next, is utterly unknowable, is the edge of a monumentally incomprehensible Niagara of happenings and changings that is literally creating the world anew as it creates me, is dizzying), and the very fact that I can at this moment even contemplate it, appreciate it, be grateful for it. This is, I gather, what love is. Love in its most exalted sense. Simple gratitude for being. For the fact of my being. For the fact of my being able to be. And it can be contemplated and appreciated in any one of a billion ways, on any one of a billion levels—my breathing, the air I breathe which has been exhaled by green plants; the bacteria which have made and make the soil and all else of importance including my very cells; the rocks which have been composed over eons of flowing lava and compressed into their individual shapes and pounded into sand and soil and, ultimately, me; the fish and clams and salmon and birds and whales and raccoons and crows and swallows and spiders and fungi and the whole panoply of creation. All of which, each element of which has an indispensable function in making us, as humans, possible. Most of us, most of the time, necessarily ignore all this. Are completely unaware of how much has been done and suffered by so many for so long so that we can breathe, eat, walk, leap, laugh, talk, think. But in a real sense this awareness is what we are for. We are that which can become aware of all this, appreciate it, consciously foster it—though we can do almost nothing to create it in the sense that a bee makes honey or a plant makes oxygen or worms make soil or bacteria make just about everything. Indeed, with respect to these great workers, we are the useless organism. The functionless organism. And for that we should be far less cavalier, and far more grateful that we have even been allowed to be.

“God,”in this sense, is simply a shortcut, or shorthand, (or perhaps short-circuit) for expressing all this. And it may be a greater disservice to the truth and vastness of it all than was the old polytheistic view of those whom we call, in our arrogance and ignorance, primitives or pagans. Because at least their spiritual systems were attempts to comprehend and appreciate the multiplicity and interdependence of it all. Our “one god” concept induces us to forget, makes it too easy to simply say, ‘It’s up to Big Daddy in the sky, he who loves and fosters me above all others and in a pinch will massacre all others on my behalf, so I can forget all else, forget my responsibility for it and to it.’ No. Because that’s precisely the problem—forgetting it, taking it all for granted. And that was something the old native tribes, the tribal peoples, at least tried not to do. They had ways of expressing their debt to it all, as for instance, when they would express gratitude, propitiation and guilt for taking the lives of animals like bison, or fish like salmon, to whom they expressed their gratitude, their awareness of their dependence upon, by figuring them as their gods. We, in our arrogance and ignorance, simply package all our consumables (ugly word) in plastic, and seldom if ever take the time to feel that it is an animal or a fish or a fruit we are consuming; seizing energy, our very lives, from. We expend, in fact, endless energy to remain unaware of what it is we are doing when we eat. The same with all else that we plunder and consume and kill: we don’t want to know. Thus, knowing, not in the sense of grasping so as to collect and exploit more of that which we ‘know,’ but in the sense of awareness, of cultivating respect for the inexpressible depth of that which we are using and benefiting from—this may be what we are for. This may be the one sense in which a notion of meaning or progress can be considered. And it is not at all clear if it is enough. Not with all the waste we have already piled up, with all the planetary mayhem we have already caused and continue to cause and plan to cause. Not, that is, unless something like awareness can eventually touch enough of us, in sufficient numbers, to exhale a very large, collective “enough;” we can do this no longer. It is too cruel, too unconscious, too dismissive of all that is, of all we are.

That might, if we are lucky, mean something.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, August 21, 2009

Health Care on Life Support

As progressives have watched in horror and disbelief—can it be possible that the same right-wing fools who gave us Bush/Cheney, the war in Iraq, and its related bag of lies, fraud, raiding of the public treasury and outright criminality, have regained the initiative?—the alleged movement for health care reform has been chopped to pieces and is now threatening to collapse altogether into some fraud tailored to the specifications of big Pharma and big Healthcare. Sarah Palin has accused the new Democratic proposals of providing “death panels” to threaten the life of her Down’s syndrome child (has there ever been so shameless a public figure, willing to use her handicapped child to score political points?), while health care companies like United Health have urged their employees to mob the Democrats’ vaunted town hall meetings and shout them down with their slogans. To top it off, several of these yahoos have shown up at town meetings packing guns—one yo-yo at a recent Obama event with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder was featured in every newscast.

The coup de grace came this week, with both Obama himself and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying that the “public option” wasn’t really essential to health care reform, and that co-ops could be a way to go. This was mightily pleasing to both Republicans and that “key” senator from the crucial state of North Dakota, Kent Conrad, who characterized co-ops as a workable compromise that could pass the Senate.

In the midst of the sinking feeling that whatever does emerge as health care reform will be so gutted as to be meaningless (or worse: it turns out that Obama has already made a deal with big Pharma that his health care plan won’t, repeat WILL NOT use the government’s bargaining power to get lower prices for drugs!), two recent proposals seem worth considering. One was posted by Thom Hartmann on Common Dreams August 17. In the form of a letter, it suggested to the president that a simple solution would be: let all who choose to buy into Medicare. No new program to invent. No nonsense about forcing people into something they don’t like. Simply amend Medicare so that

“any American citizen can buy into the Medicare program at a rate to be set by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which reflects the actual cost for us to buy into it….To make it available to people of low income, raise the rates slightly for all currently non-eligible people under 65, to cover the cost of below-200%-of-poverty people. Revenue neutral.”

Seems like a plan to me. Nearly everyone who has Medicare seems to be quite satisfied with it (even the morons who have been ranting at town-hall meetings that they’re dead set against government-controlled health care, most of whom actually have Medicare!). Hartmann’s point is, why limit it to just people over 65? Let everyone buy in, pay for their own coverage until they reach 65, and thus cover everyone who’s dissatisfied with the Health-Care pirates.

The other is a brilliant piece by renowned linguist and activist George Lakoff, who analyzed what’s wrong with the Obama approach so far. In a piece titled “The PolicySpeak Disaster for Health Care,” (, 8/20/09), Lakoff points out what he’s been trying to drum into Democrats for years, the importance of “framing.” The Republicans, by imitating marketing techniques, have long since mastered this stuff. The Democrats seem to think it’s manipulating the public and try, instead, to employ Policy Speak to appeal to the public’s reason. According to Lakoff, this is based in 17th century views that “if you just tell people the policy facts, they will reason to the right conclusion and support the policy.” In other words, rational discussion and logic will persuade people of the rightness of liberal democratic principles. WRONG. As Lakoff points out, even though 80% of the public wants a public plan, calling it the “public option” is a disaster. As cognitive neuroscientists have discovered—and marketers and Republicans, unlike Democrats, have taken into account—you have to appeal to people as they really think, in a way that resonates with them, and inspires them to act. Emotions are a big part of this, and emotions as well as the moral sense must be appealed to (Republicans appeal to emotions in the most calculating, irrational, and truly nefarious ways: “death tax,” “death panels,” “socialized medicine,” even Obama with a Hitler mustache—at the same time he’s accused of being a Commie).

Accordingly, Lakoff suggests a simple narrative, using a simple patriotic title: The American Plan. It would tell the truth, but tell it simply, without fear of appealing to morality:

“Insurance company plans have failed to care for our people. They profit from denying care. Americans care about one another. An American plan is both the moral and practical alternative to provide care for our people.
“The insurance companies are doing their worst, spreading lies in an attempt to maintain their profits and keep Americans from getting the care they so desperately need. You, our citizens, must be the heroes. Stand up, and speak up, for an American plan.”

Lakoff also recommends using other simple, but emotional/moral language and slogans instead of boring “policy speak”: Doctor-patient care; Coverage is not Care; Insurance Company profit-based plans ration care; Doctors care, insurance companies don’t; and so on.

Lakoff also punctures the simple-minded Democrat attempt to avoid the dreaded accusation, “culture wars.” As he notes, the culture war is already on and can’t be ignored. Call the villains and liars out, in public. The president has the biggest bully pulpit in the land. He has to start using it, instead of continuing to make a vain attempt to achieve some longed-for spirit of bipartisanship. He needs to demonstrate some passion, if for no other reason than to counter the evil passions being stirred up by his opponents, and that includes so-called moderates like Senator Chuck Grassley. Grassley displayed no reluctance at all to suggest, on the Newshour recently, that Obama’s plan was a government takeover of all health care and equivalent to socialism. There’s no way to make nice or use logic with such people. Use the power of the presidency, and the power of the Democratic majority, letting the Republicans know that if they wish to come along, fine, but if not, they will be accused of placing their corporate constituents ahead of the majority’s welfare.

I would also add that it’s time the administration started to play hardball with the so-called Blue Dog Democrats. Why should these refugees from conservative districts, along with a few white-bread legislators from small-population states like Montana and North Dakota shape and control the most important legislation of our time? Every Democrat should know that a “public option” (finding another name for it) is critical, that it must be included in any bill that the president will sign, and that failure to support it will be dealt with by means of all the patronage tactics available to the party’s leadership.

Short of these course corrections—and it’s not too late, though the fight now, if Obama has the political and moral courage to engage it, will be long and dirty—the signature initiative of the Obama presidency will go down in flames. With it will go the hopes that the United States might be saved from the military/corporate/privatizing corruption that has engulfed it these last thirty years.

Lawrence DiStasi