Sunday, August 13, 2017

Crippling Democracy

Even as I write this, violence has broken out in Charlottesville, Virginia between so-called “alt-right” demonstrators (read Nazis, Fascists & KKK-ers), and counter-demonstrators over Virginia’s attempt to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park. What’s interesting about Charlottesville is that it is the home of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, which itself was the founding home of James McGill Buchanan’s Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy and Social Philosophy (what an insult to Jefferson’s thought). This confluence of right-wing street thugs with the center founded by the man, Buchanan, who, almost singlehandedly, charted the course for the libertarian right, is almost uncanny. But given the passions engendered by both Buchanan’s books and his work toward a right-wing “revolution” in American government, perhaps it should have been expected—especially with an incendiary like Donald Trump now tweeting violent rhetoric from his presidential post almost daily (and notably refraining from condemning the terrorists who openly carried guns, one of whom drove a car deliberately into a crowd, killing at least one person).
            All this is by way of saying that the most impressive and infuriating book I’ve read in a while features this same James McGill Buchanan at its core: history Professor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Viking: 2017). MacLean announces her theme early on as an analysis of “the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance” (xv). She goes on to describe the root idea from James Buchanan: i.e., that “taxation to advance social justice or the common good was nothing more than a modern version of mob attempts to take by force what the takers had no moral right to: the fruits of another person’s efforts…a legally sanctioned form of gangsterism” (xxii). This is the nub of the whole effort of the radical right and Buchanan’s “public choice” theory (for which he won a Nobel Prize): to prove that democratic Government, through graduated income taxes, was illegally stealing from the wealthy (“makers”) and giving to the poor (“takers”) and calling it ‘social justice’ or the common good. Further, that government bureaucrats and lawmakers were able to do this because the majority were allowed to vote to keep in place such New Deal “thefts” as social security and medicare and unemployment, and even public schooling. Buchanan called this the government’s “bad faith,” because “activists, voters, and officials alike used talk of the public interest to mask the pursuit of their own personal self-interest at others’ expense.” Therefore, “Manacles, as it were, must be put on their grasping hands” (xxx). To be absolutely clear, what Buchanan and his followers planned was nothing less than a revolutionary change in the United States Constitution to keep government from using taxation and regulation to prevent capitalists from doing whatever the hell they wanted to do with their profits (this is what radical rightists sanctify as “liberty”). Nancy MacLean bluntly calls this “a return to oligarchy, to a world in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few” (xxxii).
            MacLean then gets to specifics, and they are horrifying, not just because of what they reveal about the complete lack of ethics on the part of the radical right (both thinkers and activist “intellectuals” in such “think tanks” as the Cato Institute, and the entirety of George Mason [so-called] University), but also because of what the specifics reveal about how much these intellectual prostitutes have already accomplished. Concerning the former, consider how Buchanan thinks of human nature: in his book, the Limits of Liberty, he writes, “Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves” (150). This may be an unintended echo of Buchanan’s hero, the slave-owning Sen. John C. Calhoun, who worked mightily to shape government to allow and extend slavery. Be that as it may, everyone, in Buchanan’s view, wants not only maximum freedom for himself, but also strict controls “on the behavior of others [slaves] so as to force adherence to his own desires” (150). In a piece he called “The Samaritan’s Dilemma,” Buchanan opined that Jesus was actually mistaken in his story about the Good Samaritan because modern man had lost the courage to keep the market (and people) in order. So, what might seem ethical and Christian—to help someone in need—was really the opposite. Why? Because helping a needy person only encouraged this “taker” to exploit the “giver” (the Samaritan) rather than solving his own problems. Like naughty children, parasites such as the needy required “spanking” to keep them from “exploiting” society’s producers. The only problem was how those in the know, like Buchanan and his corporate backers, could put shackles on the Samaritan—i.e., democratic government.
            When it comes to what these stealth bombers have already accomplished, I’ll limit myself to two examples. First, Chile under Gen. Pinochet. It turns out that James Buchanan was invited to Chile in May 1980 to help the right-wing thugs there make their government coup permanent. That is, Pinochet wasn’t content with killing most of the leftists whom he ousted when he overthrew the Allende government. No, he wanted to make sure that Chileans could never again institute what he called ‘socialism,’ no matter what the people wanted. The solution was to rewrite the Chilean constitution “to forever insulate the interests of the propertied class they represented from the reach of a classic democratic majority” (155). And it was Buchanan who guided the Pinochet government in binding democracy with “locks and bolts.” So Pinochet’s government first instituted seven modernizations, including banning labor unions, privatizing social security (eliminating the company’s contribution), privatizing health care, forcing public universities to become “self-financing,” at the same time edging out humanities and liberal arts departments to minimize student questioning. Buchanan then arrived to help with rewriting the 1980 “Constitution of Liberty” to cast in stone such ‘improvements,’ a move that was so successful that even when Pinochet resigned and was formally disgraced, successive governments have been unable to undo the damage to Chile’s once-democratic procedures. That’s because the new constitution gave “the president unprecedented powers, hobble(d) the Congress, and enable(d) unelected military officials to serve as a power brake on the elected members of Congress,” while the new electoral system “would permanently over-represent the right-wing minority party to ensure a ‘system frozen by elite interests’” (160). It also prohibited all references to “class conflict” or “attacking the family.” The result, according to MacLean, was that even Michelle Bachelet’s presidency was crippled in its attempt to promote needed reforms.
            The second example has to do with Social Security. MacLean points out how David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s economics chief, had to admit by 1982 that changing Social Security was impossible. The program was too deeply entrenched and was relied upon by too many Americans. So Buchanan and his minions (unlike George W. Bush, who openly advocated privatizing social security in an attempt that failed miserably) decided they had to use stealth, or misdirection, i.e. lies they called a “crab walk.” Buchanan advocated two basic steps in the strategy. First, the far-right had to change the thinking of its beneficiaries that Social Security was sustainable, so that abandoning the system would look reasonable. Second, the right had to employ the classic strategy of “divide and conquer.” With  respect to this latter step, Buchanan advised separating beneficiaries into three groups. Group 1 were those already receiving benefits (or close to it). They were to be assured that their benefits would NOT be cut. Buchanan called this “paying off” existing claims, to remove from the fight those who would resist most fiercely. (If any of this begins to sound familiar, that’s because much of this strategy has already been employed in recent years, and it’s working.) Group 2 were those with high income. In a totally dishonest ploy, proponents would say that these high earners were going to have to pay taxes at higher rates to get their benefits. This would have the effect of dirtying the already dirty image of Social Security, and get the wealthy to see it as a “means-tested” program like the ones they already hated. Group 3 were younger workers. The ploy here was to remind them again and again that the FICA deductions from their salaries were, in essence, a “welfare subsidy” for old people. And to add to the discontent of almost everyone, those in power should propose “increas(ing) the retirement age and payroll taxes” to “irritate recipients at all income levels” (180). Again, sound familiar?
            The point was simple: to split apart the groups who had always counted on Social Security as a mainstay of support in one’s old age so they would begin to fight one another. Clever bastards, aren’t they? But there was more. Legislation should be pushed to make private retirement saving easier—as in IRAs—by providing tax deductions for them. Where most people thought this was just a welcome hedge against indigence in old age, the far right saw the Individual Retirement Account as “a powerful vehicle for introducing a private Social Security system” (180). Remember Chile? One of the first things Pinochet did was to privatize social security. Why? Because of three benefits: 1) it would sever the average citizen’s connection to government; 2) it would weaken the appeal of the collectivity (one of the betes noires of Buchanan’s thought has always been the dreaded ‘collective’ will of the people) by fracturing groups that were once united; 3) it would put vast sums of money into the hands of the financiers, thus making them eager to donate huge sums to right wing groups leading this charge.
            The frightening thing about all of this, as noted at the outset, is that it is working. Social Security Privatization, once a laughable proposal, has now become a central part of policy debates in government and media circles. Legions of people, particularly young ones, have been convinced by propaganda that Social Security will not be there for them when they retire, and that it is already forcing them to unfairly subsidize an older generation’s retirement. Almost everyone takes part in the IRA programs, thus paving the way for “self-sufficient retirement.” All this while Social Security is constantly said to be “out of money” when, in fact, it has surpluses of trillions (especially if unscrupulous leaders like George W. Bush did not “borrow” from the trust fund to support tax cuts for the wealthy and war spending.) But that is only on the surface. What Social Security Privatization really involves is the first step, the key step, in promoting the final revolution envisaged by James Buchanan and implemented by the Koch Brothers and their right-wing organizations. And that is the revision of the Constitution. Remember Chile? It was Buchanan who advised the Pinochet government on how to disguise that revision to make it seem like a bolstering of freedom, of liberty. That is precisely what he and, even more deceitfully, the Koch-funded operations, had, and still have in mind for the United States. Here is how Nancy MacLean puts it:

What was needed was a way to amend the Constitution so that public officials would be legally constrained from offering new social programs to the public or in engaging in regulation on their [i.e. citizens’] behalf even when vast constituencies were demanding them…The project must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule” (184).  

Look at that again. “Removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule!” What these right-wing zealots intend is not just to win elections (change the rulers), but to alter the very basis of government (change the rules, like rule of the majority). The Constitution itself, the very core of democratic government, with its provisions for majority rule and the rights of the people to gather and petition their government to respond to their grievances—that is seen by the right as a constraint on freedom. A constraint on wealthy capitalists to do whatever they want to do. Indeed, as one of the chief barriers to economic freedom, Buchanan has identified excessive “governmental regulation of business,” with “the biggest threat…coming from the environmental movement” on a “quest for control over industry” (195). When you add in the impediments (to these zealots) of “government-backed health and welfare” and the education industry as manifested in government-run public schools and public universities that nurture “community values, many inimical to a free society,” and then throw in feminism, seen as “socialistic for no apparent reason,” you get a rather complete picture of the range of government programs and ideas and people now targeted for extinction. 
            This is serious, America. These hatchet men are well on their way to destroying the very rights and values that makes the United States of America what it is. Chief among them majority rule. And why is that? Because they know that their toxic ideas make them a permanent minority. Indeed, they exult in being a minority—the ones with the money; with the desire to be “free,” which to them means free to do whatever they want, no matter who or what gets hurt. The desire to keep all that they have earned, regardless of how much government-funded infrastructure or research or police protection or military adventurism is necessary to that earning. No matter how much that earning requires the enslavement of others to increase their almighty profit. No matter how much that profit requires the wholesale destruction of the very earth and its beings who supply the material basis and energy for their profiting in the first place. No matter. They want it all. Free. For themselves. And no one else. And will do whatever they must, engage in whatever lies and subterfuge they have to engage in, to get it. To steal it.
            And it is time that the people of this country—those who care about rights and justice and the earth and all it means—wake up to what has been going on, what is still going on, and unite in the way that drives these assholes crazy. As a majority. To stop the damage and expel or eliminate from power those perpetrating it. Before the damage is too extensive, and it’s too late.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Osage Murders

The Osage are an Indian tribe that originally controlled much of the territory bought by Thomas Jefferson as the Louisiana Purchase: Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and the lands west to the Rockies. But despite the usual white promises, the Osage were soon forced to give up most of these traditional hunting lands and settle for a much smaller area of southeast Kansas. This ‘homeland’ lasted for a time, but, as always, settler encroachment forced the Osage to sell their Kansas lands as well (for $1.25 an acre to white settlers), and purchase rocky land unsuitable for farming in “Indian Territory” that would eventually become Oklahoma. The towns of Grayhorse and Pawhuska grew up in this Osage territory, and especially after the 1893 race for free land (made famous in the musical Oklahoma), white settlers began to invade even this inhospitable terrain. Oklahoma settlement might have signaled an end to the Osage but for some clever dealing by tribal representatives James Bigheart and John Palmer, who managed to persuade the U.S. government not only to legally parcel out the Osage land to individual members of the tribe (657 acres each), but to include in Osage rights any “oil, gas, coal or other minerals covered by the land.” This 1906 allotment made the Osage rich—for not long after Oklahoma became the 46th state in 1907, rich oil deposits were discovered in those once-unpromising Osage lands. With major oil companies bidding for drilling rights, their ownership of “headrights” beneath their parcels made the Osage wealthy—by all accounts the wealthiest group of people in the world at the time.
            This wealth was a mixed blessing. Though initially the Osage could and did buy whatever they wanted, from mansions to fancy cars, their money attracted the worst hustlers America had to offer. This included a paternalistic U.S. Congress, which added its devilry by deciding to “care for” these unsophisticated Indians, assigning them “guardians” to (ostensibly) protect their wealth. In a 1921 law, Congress not only empowered guardians to oversee their Osage ward’s finances, but severely restricted the amount each Indian could withdraw from his or her funds to an annual pittance. This accorded with the government’s estimate that all Indians had an inborn “racial weakness” that made them incompetent to manage their money. As one guardian put it, an Osage adult was “like a child six or eight years old, and when he sees a new toy he wants to buy it” (78).
            It is this guardian system that David Grann puts at the heart of his shocking tale of Osage murders, Killers of the Flower Moon (2017). For in whatever way they could, white settlers in and around Osage territory flocked to the area to figure out how to fleece these wealthy Indians, legally or otherwise. Some, like Ernest Burkhart, married Osage women like Mollie (originally Wah-kon-tah-he-um-pah), and became her guardian. Mollie’s mother Lizzie and her sister Anna, also had white guardians, while her sister Minnie was married to Bill Smith, until Minnie suddenly “died” mysteriously, after which Smith married Mollie’s other sister Rita. As for Mollie’s husband, Ernest Burkhart, he was conveniently the nephew of the wealthiest white man around Pawhuska, William T. Hale. All of them would figure in the series of strange deaths and murders which make up the main tale.
            Essentially, William Hale was the inspiration behind the more than twenty-four deaths of Mollie Burkhart’s family and relations, in a diabolical and long-running scheme to get control of those valuable Osage “headrights.” So what we have is yet another example of the rape and theft of Native American possessions that began almost immediately with the English settlement of New England and moved west as the American continent expanded all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and beyond. Settlers would arrive in a newly opened territory, find Indians blocking their ability to grab the new land, and call for the United States military to clear the pesky Indians out. As noted above, the Oklahoma territory was supposed to be a more or less permanent home for Indians displaced from the East. But like every other safe haven, Oklahoma land was lusted after by always encroaching white settlers, and when abundant and accessible oil was discovered, the encroachment turned to outright murder. At first, of course, the murders were somehow left unsolved by what passed for local law enforcement. But around the mid-1920s, the FBI established an Oklahoma field office in Oklahoma City, and put an ex-Texas Ranger named Tom White in charge of it, specifically to solve the growing catalogue of Osage murders. White and his investigators met the usual resistance from locals, but eventually uncovered a web of collusion that included the countless guardians swindling (and/or murdering) Indians in every way they could, local law enforcement and judges covering it up, medical doctors falsifying death certificates, and the guiding hand of the area’s most prominent citizen, William T. Hale, directing it all. As Grann notes, “One government study estimated that before 1925 guardians had pilfered at least $8 million directly from the restricted accounts of their Osage wards” (154). That’s $8 million in 1920s dollars.
            Eventually, White and his agents were able to ferret out the schemes and those behind the murders in Mollie Burkhart’s family, though Mollie herself had a difficult time believing that the man she had married and loved, Ernest Burkhart, was colluding with his uncle to swindle her and murder her relatives. But she saw the light and went into seclusion while the FBI brought the perpetrators to trial in the summer of 1926. Even then, William Hale was confident he’d never be convicted; he controlled nearly all the law enforcement and political power in the area. And that became a central question: given the attitude of white settlers towards Indians, could or would a jury of twelve white men ever punish a white man for killing an American Indian? An Osage tribe member put it succinctly:
            “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals” (215).

That very question hangs over the entire history of the treatment of indigenous peoples by white settlers in the New World, and it is quite clear from the record that for most of that history, Native Americans were not considered human at all. Indeed, it could be argued that they were considered less than animals. And that is the thinking behind the ability of a whole culture in Oklahoma, even into the twentieth century, to collude in the twenty-four murders of Mollie Burkhart’s family, and the hundreds and hundreds more that subsequent research has turned up. In the trial in question, however, the question was soon answered: on August 20, 1926, the trial of William Hale and his accomplice James Ramsey ended in a hung jury. Twelve white men in Oklahoma could not convict a white man of the murder of an Osage Indian. Fortunately, in this case, the prosecutors filed for another trial, and this one—benefiting from the direct testimony of Ernest Burkhart himself, who had earlier been found guilty of blowing up his sister-in-law’s house while she was inside—ended differently. On October 29, the jury found William Hale and John Ramsey guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced them to life in prison. Then, five years later, without the corrupting influence of William Hale, Mollie Burkhart (now divorced from Ernest Burkhart and married to John Cobb) won her case to be freed of guardianship: she was “restored to competency, and the order heretofore made adjudging her to be an incompetent person is hereby vacated” (229).
            Grann goes on to explore the case further, and finds that the murders solved by the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover publicized the case relentlessly as an example of his bureau’s efficiency) were only the tip of a very large iceberg. A relation of one murdered Osage Indian, a reporter at the Washington Post, investigated the murder of his grandmother in a book called The Deaths of Sybil Bolton (1994). Dennis McAuliffe therein wrote of the real scale of the Osage murders:

            “Over the sixteen-year period from 1907 to 1923, 605 Osages died, averaging about 38 per year, an annual death rate of about 19 per 1,000. The national death rate now is about 8.5 per 1,000; in the 1920s, when counting methods were not so precise and the statistics were segregated into white and black racial categories, it averaged almost 12 per 1000 for whites. By all rights, their higher standard of living should have brought the Osages a lower death rate than America’s whites. Yet Osages were dying at more than one-and-a-half times the national rate…” (283)

Louis F. Burns, an Osage historian, wrote that “I don’t know of a single Osage family which didn’t lose at least one family member because of the head rights” (283), while Garrick Bailey, an anthropologist specializing in Osage culture said that “…virtually every element of society was complicit in the murderous system.”
            In sum, the Osage murders provide a stunning example of a racially-charged history that Americans have never fully come to terms with. Not only could white Americans not bear the presence of Native Americans on lands they coveted for their own (and which they obtained for nothing), they could bear even less the spectacle of their inferiors possessing the goods and wealth that they venerated as inerrant signs of mental and moral and spiritual worth. The only solution was to set upon these wealthy Indians in every way possible so as to rape them of that which threatened to allow them to “pass” as human. Not even murder was off limits for such a project; for murder and genocide had been the core of the project, the preferred solution of the “civilized” invaders, from the very beginning.

Lawrence DiStasi