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

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Why Lobbyists Love Health Care Reform

The more we learn about the Democrats’ plan for health care, the more it seems that, though it might help to cover more people—which would be good—it really won’t address the underlying problem. That problem is simply put: as long as health care is a multi-billion dollar industry run not to care for people but to make huge profits, the profit makers will find ways to continue to drive themselves into profit Valhalla, and the public into sickness and ruin.

As confirmation, we have a recent report, by the Associated Press no less, informing us why there will indeed be a health care bill this year, even though the industry, and their Republican (and Democratic) stooges would prefer to keep things as they are. The report—“Lobbyists the silver lining in health care storm?” by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar—tells us why “the drug industry, the American Medical Association, hospital groups and the insurance lobby are all saying Congress must make major changes this year.” What? THEY want health care reform? How could this be?

The answer is elementary. First, they see the writing on the wall: Joe Sixpack can’t afford health care any more. Second, government programs have “gotten increasingly friendly to private insurance companies,” giving them “major roles as middlemen” in Medicare and Medicaid. You know, like Bush’s great prescription-drug boondoggle for Medicare, called, cynically, Medicare Advantage.

But the real bonanza for these guys is the central requirement, in both House and Senate plans, to require health care for all. That is, the new plan will require everybody to buy coverage. And what will this do? Why it will “guarantee a steady stream of customers subsidized by taxpayers not only for insurers, but for all medical providers.” In other words, 47 million more customers will now have to procure health insurance. And if they can’t afford it—otherwise, why wouldn’t they have it in the first place—good old Uncle Sam, which is the taxpayer, will help them to pay for it. No matter how high the costs go.

Dr. Marcia Angell, who was a guest on Bill Moyers’ show last Friday, said essentially the same thing. Unless, she said, there’s a change in the system—the economic system of unfettered capitalism willing to sacrifice anyone and everything for profit—all President Obama’s health care reform will do is increase the profits for private health care companies, doctors, and hospitals by presenting them with a CAPTIVE MARKET—i.e., of Americans now REQUIRED to buy health care.

The thing is, we already know how this turns out. Massachusetts and a half dozen other states have already enacted this kind of reform, giving subsidies to the poor in order for them to buy insurance from the private health industry. And it has turned out to be more expensive, not less. So it appears that the only way our obscene medical costs will ever be reduced is by means of a government-run plan (the so-called “public option” the Republicans have tried to characterize as, ugh, socialism!), or, even better, a single-payer plan like Medicare. It would be a real plan that, by virtue of the numbers enrolled and the government’s power of mass purchasing, for instance from drug companies, but also from doctors and hospitals, would be able to reverse the trend of ever more expensive treatments for the ever more numerous conditions the industry can soak us for. Without that—and it is not clear at this moment if a “public option” will survive the congressional bartering and lobbying process—the sharks will remain in business, with the predators growing ever fatter, and thus ever more able to bludgeon our so-called representatives in our so-called representative democracy (including the President himself) into doing their multibillion-dollar bidding.

Lawrence DiStasi