Monday, January 12, 2015

Torture? What Torture?

Torture? What Torture?

Americans have a rather baroque view of what constitutes torture.  That is easily seen in the 2 - 1 endorsement of the conduct that went down under the Bush II administration at various CIA black sites during the first two wars Bush and Company ran.  So many fellow Americans are ready to agree with Dick Cheney, and a small segment of the legal community, that all of that was merely enhanced interrogation.  All societies, it seems, define torture with some specificity, based on their own ideas of cultural norms, what the general public thinks is cruel and unusual punishment. And our country’s moderate and modulated response to the early December release of the Senate CIA torture program report bears this out. 
When I was a very young man, hardly a teenager, some decades ago I used to look at so-called men’s magazines that some older boys and fathers had left around.  These were not girlie magazines, but men’s magazines, full of manly subjects.  One of the most compelling was the often used spread on “Arab” crime management, the cutting off of hands and sometimes heads for minor infractions, or what I thought of at eleven as minor.  Now that was what I would have classified as torture.
What the Saudis may think of such acts I do not know, though they apparently continue to this day.  
No, what Americans think of when they think of torture usually involves chain saws, or sledge hammers, or the like.  Walk though any of the mega-hardware stores of the modern period, as Hollywood producers often do looking for new ways to kill people in movies, and you can gather what constitutes torture to most of the population.
It’s usually entails cutting, smashing, gouging, body parts lost, whatever carnage that  has appeared over the last couple of decades at the local multi-plex.  
I have always thought it curious that waterboarding has taken pride of place in the torture sweepstakes that have been roundly condemned of late.  Americans have very conflicted views about water and it has been seldom looked at as outright torture.  True, it has been seen as a vehicle of catastrophe, of peril, but not necessarily as an instrument of torture:  Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, for instance. But that of course, is weather. Various myths about water have taken hold in the American psyche: parents, particularly fathers, throwing children into pools as a means of instruction to either sink or swim.  Sharks in the ocean are scarier than the ocean itself.  Backyard pools were always a luxury to aspire to.  Everyone, or a lot of people, have found themselves at one time or another choking on too much water, either learning how to swim, or because of some other mishap when at play. Water water everywhere.
Former Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press made one odd concession to our country’s most recent form of waterboarding, in order to differentiate it from the WWII Japanese sort, for which perpetrators were hung by the neck till dead, Cheney said that we “elevated” the feet of the waterboarded, so they wouldn’t actually drown.  I had never heard that before, the elevated feet business, and I’ve paid attention over the years to the placating statements that the overly involved have made.
And all the business of slamming people into walls, and other sort of rough treatment.  Americans seem to give that a pass too, as official torture, given that NFL stars are knocking out their wives in casino hotels’ elevators and beating their children with switches, to say nothing of all the non-stars bad treatment of wives and children we all see about us.  Torture?  Almost usual behavior of some alarmingly high percentage of our fellow Americans.
But it is the waterboarding that people keep coming back to.  Somehow water’s properties are too conflicted, so many good, so few bad, for Americans to see water as real torture.  It is something: EIT.  Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.  George Orwell is spinning in his grave. Hanging from ceilings, sleep deprivation, so much of that sounds too familiar to too many people, something they have put up with. Rectal feeding?  Apparently, some folks have enemas for fun.
It does seem that Americans, at least 2 - 1, roughly 70 percent, are ready to give the CIA and the Bush II administration a pass on the torture question, as long as they don’t turn up at their doors someday with chain saws and sledge hammers, or gardening scissors and red hot pokers.  
A version of this ran in the South Bend Tribune, January 10, 2015:

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Oak Ridge 3

Last year, in April, there was a weekend event in Harrisburg, PA, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the trial of the Harrisburg 7, which had ended in 1972, with a hung jury on the major counts – conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up heating tunnels in Washington, D.C. – and convictions on minor contraband counts, smuggling letters in and out of a Federal prison in Lewisburg, PA. The Harrisburg trial became the capstone of a number of anti-war trials that had begun in the 1960s, some involving the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, most notably the case of the Catonsville 9; these trials had marked the new Catholic Left’s ascendancy in the public eye as symbols of “nonviolent” resistance to the Vietnam war. Though the government “lost” the Harrisburg 7 trial, its fomenters, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, won what they were after: to besmirch the reputations of the Berrigans and the larger Catholic Left resistance movement and to knock them from the high moral pillar they occupied.

A reissue of my 1972 book, The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, had appeared a month before, so I gave the keynote address following a panel on the case, held at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg. One of the original defendants, the former nun Elizabeth McAlister and spouse, now widow, of Philip Berrigan, had been on the panel and was in attendance. It was a large crowd of some 200 filling the bookstore, the size of a warehouse, where we all convened, the average age 60 plus. (A podcast of the event can be found here: I began my remarks saying that when I had written the new Afterword for the Harrisburg book I had never imagined that I would be reading parts of it aloud to Elizabeth McAlister.

Three months after that event, another nun, Sister Megan G. Rice, along with two men some decades’ younger – she was 82 in July of 2012, the men in their 50s and early 60s – were arrested after breaking into Y-12, our nuclear storage facility of storied history in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They came with the usual Plowshares movement equipment: hammers, spray paint, human blood, but also a hefty bolt cutter. The Oak Ridge 3. They were tried in Knoxville, TN, in early May, and, after a two-day trial, were convicted on two counts, one of obstructing the national defense and the second of “depredation” of a government facility. The former, the sabotage count, carries a potential penalty of 20 years.

There was very little coverage of the trial itself, nothing like the Harrisburg case received four decades ago, and the Knoxville local news and the AP, in their reporting, kept referring to the defendants as the Y-12 trespassers, not the Oak Ridge 3, thereby de-nationalising the case. Sentencing for the Oak Ridge 3, who currently remain in jail, is scheduled for September. The Washington Post did run a mini-book report on the case before the trial, on April 29th, in its Style section, complete with 14 “Chapters,” (all very short, Dan Brown-like), written by Dan Zak, with many web-friendly photos and extras. ( The Post is fly-fishing for a Pulitzer.

In 2012 the Nuns on the Bus had received more coverage than the Oak Ridge 3 (many things get more publicity), but beating swords into plowshares doesn’t get a lot of traction these days. It’s hard, in the Age of Obama, when the “anti-war” former presidential candidate continues to oversee the two wars his predecessor began, and Gitmo remains open (though the president really, really wants to close it), to push through all the noise with this type of anti-nuclear protest. The Plowshares movement rose from the ashes of the Harrisburg trial, nurtured and populated by both Berrigans, Philip and Dan, along with Philip’s wife, Elizabeth McAlister. Its protests began, more or less, in 1980, with the King of Prussia, PA, action at the GE Missile Re-entry Division. More hammers and blood. Eventually, after a number of protests, the Berrigans and Elizabeth spent time in jail, some shorter, some longer, as did others.

These days activists have taken to calling such events as the Y-12 prophetic acts, rather than protests, thereby sidestepping the endemic futility found in this sort of protesting. The participants have been mainly the remnants of the Catholic Left, carrying out their never-ending mission. Protest movements in the secular protest world, and their general fecklessness, were demonstrated most starkly by the Occupy movement, the marathon sitting-in sort in a park near the heart of the beast on Wall Street in 2011. Other moments of occupation have occurred elsewhere in the country with little effect, as well as the more anarchistic protests at G8 meetings (held infrequently in the US). One secular protest movement with teeth, though, has been the Tea Party, a largely astro-turf creation, though anchored in the small hardcore anti-tax groups of long standing, but was hatched into its current form by high-end Republican organizations with the bright idea of creating a “third” party within a party -- the GOP -- avoiding that way all the shortcomings of traditional third parties.

Coincidentally, a new documentary, Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance, which premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival last March, focuses on the Catholic anti-war movement, largely the draft-board raiding contingent, of the 60s, 70s. (Its web site: ). At a panel after the premiere, the usual question was asked: why weren’t more young people out in the streets protesting? My answer was that they were saddled with so much educational debt they don’t dare. And, there is the continuing influence of the Democrat anti-war president whose earnest rhetoric tamps down youthful fervor to protest the government he represents.

One often overlooked reason of why the late 60s and early 70s became the golden age of protest was the state of the economy back then. There was both an excess of surplus capital and, briefly, recession, which allowed a lot of youth the time to be both fancy free and willing to take a stand. Reagan economics and the transfer of most of the wealth to the top had yet to take place. Today’s economics perversely put a choke-hold on large-scale protests. The current volunteer army was not forced upon the government by the anti-war protestors of the time; the war makers longed for it, and got it in 1973. 1973! The one statistic that has changed in the wars we now fight is the average age of the dead. It has risen. We’re no longer killing the footloose teenage males we had such an oversupply of in the Vietnam period. Those who die now have marriages, families, some experience of real life, however truncated.

When the Plowshares people turned to anti-nuclear protests, going from protesting the humble starting point of organized warfare – draft boards, the recruitment of soldiers as good ol’ cannon fodder – the Berrigans jumped to the end of the process, protesting the technological height of the military-industrial complex, its most sacred and scary weapons, its nuclear stockpile. If Gandhi could end the British Empire’s colonial domination of a country, why couldn’t the Berrigans end our reliance on nuclear weapons? They chose to go from the limited and symbolic to the purely symbolic and sorely limited. Prophetic actions, indeed. The history of protest has many rooms, but these symbolic acts are demonstrations of resistance, idealized pleas for actual magic, as if spray paint and human blood and the marks of hammers could actually turn an article of war (a nuclear sword) into a helpful tool of humanity (a plow). Prest-O Change-O.

The general public might not have much reaction or exposure to octogenarian nuns spray-painting a building filled with enriched bomb-grade uranium, but Congress certainly did, and hearings on the Oak Ridge incident quickly were held. A number of representatives thanked Sister Rice for pointing out the deficiencies in its security systems. The thorough Lax account, courtesy of the Washington Post, points out the usual laughable lapses, the sort you get when you privatize the military. One of the horrors of nuclear weapons is how they wedded the greatest intellectual minds to the greatest amount of destruction. Our cultural DNA since the 1940s has been tainted, given this arranged marriage of science and war. It can be argued, though, it has always been so.

The Nobel prizes, the awards for the highest rarefied sort of thinking, were founded atop a pile of dynamite, or, rather Alfred Nobel’s patented dynamite and detonator. The first Nobel prizes were awarded at the start of the 20th century, in 1901. So many symbols speak for us, there is no quiet on the earth. The events of 9/11 are both symbols and facts. Though, in war, the presumption that you might die is a given, there is a stark difference when to die is the participants’ desire. The way our country and government has reacted to what we call suicide bombers is to redefine what war is and what we are willing to do in such a war. President Obama’s speech on counter-terrorism to the National Defense University on May 23rd tried to acknowledge that he, if nothing else, is aware that the not-so-brave new world we are now in cannot go on forever. But he may be wrong, for as he pointed out the contradictions between what we say and what we do, he also demonstrated neither the will nor the power to change it.

The Oak Ridge 3 may have carried out a profound prophetic action, certainly it was courageous, but it is our own government’s symbols and actions that contain the most alarming prophecies.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Oh, Rush, Poor Rush

Rush Limbaugh, as far back as 1989, named his fans “dittoheads”, though he is the chief dittohead himself. I’ve been listening to Limbaugh since 1996, when he played a role in a book I was writing, Campaign America ‘96: The View From the Couch, a book on the Clinton-Dole presidential race, from the consumer, not the producer, side. Happily, when I finished the book, I didn’t have to listen to him anymore and I stopped, except, occasionally over the years, when I turned him on while driving through radio-deprived areas of the country, where the only thing you could find were evangelical programs or Rush. None of my cars had the new satellite connections, where all stations are possible.

I am an absolute free-speech advocate for a variety of reasons. Though there are many people I would like to be able to shut up, let them all blather on is my attitude and that includes Rush. The transactions here are complicated. I grew up with George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” you couldn’t say on the radio, much less the TV. In 1978 the Supreme Court decided F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation in favor of censorship (aka regulation) in a 5-4 decision. Sound familiar? 5-4 is the current far-right censoring vote on the Roberts Court.

Now it’s Erectile Dysfunction ads on all the channels and what is on Cable is anyone’s delight or cause for dismay. OK, back to Rush. After my campaign book appeared I was on the Michael Feldman show, Whad’Ya Know? Feldman, a funny guy, was miffed I seemed sympathetic at times to Rush (and not to him, a misreading) and I replied, “I have a soft spot for overweight overachievers,” and Feldman shot back, “Oh, and not underweight underachievers?” Feldman is skinny. Rush, of course, is a big fat pig.

The young Rush had been the underachiever of a substantial mid-Missouri family, the almost ne’er-do-well son with successful siblings. Rush’s biggest job back then was working PR for the Kansas City Royals. He was one bloated bumpkin. Then he got on the radio and found his fortune and his shtick: finally an overachiever! When I caught up with him in 1996 he was close to the zenith of his influence. Bill Clinton had energized him, along with Newt Gingrich, the contract on America, etc., the first rising of the New Republican Party, the one that has now reached its apotheosis in 2012.

By the time I was on the Feldman show Rush had gone into eclipse and, as I told my host, that was cyclical: Rush would wax and wane. The waning included his drug scandal in 2003. A number of media figures have survived these life-style scandals (such as Bill O’Reilly), and Rush did too. His subsequent hearing problems seemed punishment enough to the general public. Now he’s been waxing again, during these crackpot months of the Republican primaries. But once again he’s gone too far.

Or so many think. I’m not for silencing people. Let Rush say what he wants. Let the people see it, hear it – judge it. Rush is listened to, mainly, by white guys who drive a lot, salesmen, truck drivers, God knows who? (And God and the ratings people do know.) Dittoheads. When Rush’s current victim, Sandra Fluke, expressed surprise that it seemed “acceptable in today’s society to say these things about women,” one wonders where’s she’s been the last twenty years.

Rush was doing his best to be clever, lecturing the “feminazis” (one of his earliest coinages which he employed during his current remarks) on the notion that free contraception was payment for having sex and he used the words “slut” and “prostitute” to insult Ms. Fluke. (Then he continued, really letting his id out, imagining videos on You Tube.) What struck me, hearing reports on what he said (I, thankfully, was not listening to Rush) was that was just what many others were calling sexually active women lately, given the debate over contraception waged by the Catholic Bishops, Virginia lawmakers, and the Republican candidates, especially Rick Santorum. Or, at least, what was implied, the unspoken words that traveled under the conversation, not above, except in the case of Limbaugh. Again, let free speech reign, let us hear what they really think.

The last First Amendment case I wrote about (in The Nation and elsewhere) was Barnes v. Glen Theatre, which was about go-go dancers in strip bars claiming that their dancing should be granted protection as speech. I agreed, but not the Rehnquist Court, which, in 1991, decided 5-4 (again!) in favor of police power, rather than artistic expression. Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, but the swing vote then was Justice Souter, who held that Indiana’s (the case started in South Bend, of all places) statute helped prevent secondary effects, such as prostitution. Souter was more or less calling the dancers prostitutes, not to say sluts. But that was the implication. Since Ms. Fluke is a law student at Georgetown she should look up the case. If only one of the dancers had ended her routine making the black power fist, the Court would have been stymied.

Just as the public has profited from seeing the slap-stick show of the Republican primary candidates, it actually helps to see what men like Rush Limbaugh actually think – when he can be said to think. Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Barney Rosset U.

Upon his recent death, I realized I had matriculated in the Barney Rosset School of Literature, or, more correctly (since I didn’t know who Barney Rosset was when I started), The Grove Press University of the Arts. I also went on to graduate school at New Directions U., founded by James Laughlin. I didn’t know him, either, back then, in my teens and early twenties.

There’s been a lot of bemoaning over the decades of how badly students are being educated, how little they know. Leave Most Everybody Behind, etc., has been the general rule. Since I came along at the pre-dawn of the Baby Boomers (born in December of 1945), my generation benefitted enormously from the paperback revolution that was underway. Why? Not just because of the cheapness of paperbacks, which took hold via the military, since they were distributed to WWII soldiers, but because of the authors they published. It wasn’t altruism, even in the case of Barney Rosset; it was because the great authors, or Dead White Males of yore, were out of print, not afflicted by copyright, and the publishers didn’t have to deal with even the minimum problem of royalties.

So, who did my generation get to read? What were the mass paperback books filling up newsstand racks (not the snooty “trade” paperbacks of today)? Oh, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Homer, Balzac, Victor Hugo, those guys. And cheap. Less than a buck. The first book Barney Rosset published at Grove Press was Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. That cost more than a dollar.

Try to find any of the above at an airport bookstore these days. And people wonder why everyone has gotten more stupid over the years. Take a look at the dates when the SAT scores turned downward. By 1972 the shelves began to be full of other sorts of books.

Publishers played an unique role for the 60's decade – and some of the 70's. They set the curriculum for a generation of curious and avaricious readers such as myself. It might all be called pornography now, but Rosset brought me D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the mid-sixties, which, of course, led me to other Lawrence titles. Rosset made available to my cohort almost the entire reading list of modernism, even as it swerved toward post-modernism. And it wasn’t just international. He championed Henry Miller, became the publisher of the sexual revolution of the time, literary division, and made a lot of young people eager readers. Now they have, alas, Harry Potter.

Grove Press led me to New Directions, which carried on the same tradition, though more thoroughly continental, Sartre, etc., but also the new expatriate American generation, Paul Bowles and his crowd, along with Tennessee Williams, authors who filled the list of doctoral dissertations to come and come.

When I got older and more established, I met an early Grove Press author, the world-class translator Anthony Kerrigan, who introduced Borges to the English speaking world, or, certainly, to Americans, with the publication by Grove Press of Ficciones in 1962. Tony told me Barney Rosset had asked him whether he wanted royalties, or cash now, a “for hire” contract, for his translations. Tony, being of the older generation of writer/bohemian, took the cash up-front. If he had waited for royalties, instead, he would have had an annuity for life – and he sorely needed one, which he didn’t have.

Of course, this super tutorial that two publishing houses carried out for so many students and writers-to-be didn’t last forever. But, it certainly helped fuel a good bit of what has become to be known as “the Sixties.” Yet when you’re filling a void, it sooner or later is no longer a void. Now, it’s a matter of oversupply. Publishers today are no longer playing that guiding role.

Now, with Amazon and other outlets, any book ever published is available for purchase. But when you can have everything, there is often no way to choose anything. Or too many ways. It was limitation, back in the ’60s, that had power. Grove Press and New Directions opened the literary world’s doors for me and many others. Now, there are nothing but doors open and, alas, very little (or far too much) awaits beyond them.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Contraception Wars and Woes

I share at least one attribute of the Catholic Bishops, now at war with the Obama administration: I don’t want to talk about contraception, either.

I’ve taught for over three decades at the university which some characterize as the place where the American Catholic Church “does it’s thinking.” Well, here are some thoughts on the matter. The first is the one above: the Catholic Bishops are really put out, miffed, because they don’t want to talk about contraception, but the Obama administration, allegedly, has forced their hands.

The Bishops don’t mind talking about abortion. They find some purchase on that topic, some sympathy with the larger American public, along with a good many of the “faithful”. Indeed, most everyone wants the number of abortions decreased to as close to zero as possible. But a debate over contraception puts the Bishops in another place altogether.

Had the Obama administration announced their “compromise” first, rather than second, after a bit of clerical harrumphing, the issue may have left the public square and gone away. Indeed, more than half the states, as it’s been pointed out, already have similar mandates, and Catholic universities and hospitals have been dispensing “birth control” for a variety of reasons for many years.

It’s not clear whether the Obama administration took this strategy – getting the Bishops all exercised – deliberately, or accidently, by mishandling the policy rollout. Regardless, it’s out there now. The Bishops don’t want to talk about contraception, because it puts a spotlight on one of the Church’s least defensible, and most paradoxical, strictures.

Oh, it can be defended alright: as a matter of faith. A show of loyalty demanded of the flock, an act of hazing and abnegation, aka sacrifice. My generation wasn’t to eat meat on Fridays, though this dietary no-no eventually just went away. But religions require this sort of thing on the part of their co-religionists; the secular version pops up in the news now and then when fraternity members die because their hazing rituals had become too intense.

And speaking against contraception in the 21st century makes the Bishops look anti-science. Catholics are not anti-science, though a number of their evangelical supporters certainly are. It puts Catholics in a crowd that they don’t necessarily want to be in: All those anti-evolutionary troglodytes scraping their knuckles on the ground, the we-don’t-descend-from-apes crowd.

Whenever the word “abortifacient” is uttered, the attack-on-science banner is raised. We’re down to molecules and bio-chemistry at that point. But, it is an attempt to drag contraception onto safer ground, or, at least, ground they have captured, the well-tilled anti-abortion fields.

But another important, but hardly mentioned, reason the Bishops don’t want to talk about contraception is it makes them talk about themselves, which highlights, in the starkest ways, the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church and its women problem. The control of women. And the Bishops did not want to get into any of that, since it is obvious to all that a totally male clergy, saddled with a vow of celibacy, wants its parishioners to be like them, mostly celibate, however preposterous that sounds today. Abortion, however, lets the Bishops talk about two people, one of whom might be male.

The pro-abortion movement has been saddled with a all-too-focused name. It’s actually a pro-woman movement, insofar it was always women who took the lead to change the laws of the land. The pro-“life” anti-abortion movement, began as a male-dominated movement and male figures are featured most prominently still. You should have seen the odious figures who showed up at Notre Dame when President Obama’s commencement speech was announced: Alan Keyes and Randall Terry, grubbing for attention (which they got).

Since the early 70s and the passage of Roe v. Wade the term Catholic Right has been more or less coined. Back when I originally published The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left–there is a new edition with a fresh Afterword out – what was new was the Catholic Left. There had been the old Dorothy Day Catholic Left, but the anti-war priests and nuns of the Vietnam period were the New.

They were in opposition to the Bishops back then, too; but the Catholic Church wasn’t thought of as the “Right” back then. The Bishops were, of course, that, but then there was no need for labels. But over the decades a Catholic Right was created, or, rather, more pertinently, a religious right was hatched, to try to ecumenically turn back the progressive impulses that reared their multiple heads throughout the period. The Catholic Bishops being the repository of authority does not go unchallenged, as Gary Gutting effectively points out.

Natural law, of course, is full of contraception. Garry Wills goes into the theological background of “natural law,“ but I prefer a more pragmatic approach: Fertilized eggs are lost in the thousands, if not millions, world-wide by couples trying to get pregnant. (There is always a poignance in the case of couples trying to get pregnant and the majority who are trying to avoid it, or those who become pregnant at the drop of a hat.) And Natural law also includes the ever-present, it seems, tried-and-true, centuries old, methods of birth control that include famine, pestilence, natural disasters; and, in place of abortion, we have infanticide. You see where all this sort of logic can lead.

Catholics have wrestled with contraception and the Church’s teachings on it over the decades, generation by generation. The younger generation seems to be wrestling less, given the advances in the methods of contraception now available. One of my sisters (I’m from a family of eight children) got birth control pills back in the 1960s when the doses involved would choke a horse (or, at least, make a horse infertile), because of her “irregular” periods, before she went off to a nunnery for a couple of years.

My mother, at the same time, had three painful, late miscarriages in a row, after having her eighth child, when a friendly priest finally permitted her to use birth control, saying she had brought enough Catholic children into the world. Such stories of my mother’s generation are legion – and often heartrending.

But, enough. Religion may no longer be the opiate of the people, but it is certainly the father – not the mother – of all political wedge issues.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Not Saving Social Security, Again (An Update)

The Republicans, once again, have “caved” on allowing the extension of the payroll tax reduction – if you consider furthering their anti-Social Security strategy an act of caving. Among the many stories the media has misreported over recent decades, Social Security is one of the most egregious. I have been writing about Social Security on and off for over twenty years, but the subject bears repeating. Even calling the monies going into the program a “payroll tax” is misleading. They are premiums, since Social Security is an insurance program.

It is actually called the federal Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program. So, you may call them taxes, but they are premiums. Do you want to stop paying your fire, car, life insurance premiums?

Insurance is usually a bet, because no one knows what hazards lie ahead or how long anyone lives. Do you moan the loss of your car insurance if you never have a wreck? The system works, since there are different outcomes for different people. It needs to be a pool of most everyone to insure a basic floor for everyone.

The anti-Social Security privatizers, though their various “think tanks” and talking heads, have spread so much misinformation about the program over the last three decades, it is no surprise that so many people are confused.

A curious shell game is being played by the anti-SSS forces: they have convinced most journalists that Social Security is supposed to be a “pay as you go” system. It is actually a transfer system, where one generation transfers wealth to the next. There wouldn’t be a trust fund surplus nearing 3 trillion if it was, or had been, a pay-as-you-go system. But, the fact that Social Security has taken in for years more than it has put out has somehow been ignored, made meaningless. It’s the new GOP mantra: keep saying it until people believe it.

George W. Bush, during his push for privatization, called the bonds issued to cover the Social Security surplus over the years worthless. (Tell the Chinese that the bonds they have been buying from us are worthless; see what kind of reaction you get.) Now the yearly surplus is less, but it remains – because of the interest paid on Social Security’s total income, according to the Social Security Media Watch Project. If the unemployment rate was cut in half, one wouldn’t even have to count the interest to see a yearly surplus.

But, GOP politicians and some journalists don’t consider the Social Security trust fund surplus a surplus; they consider it debt, because it has been spent: given to Wall Street and the military industrial complex, mainly. We arrive at the sad irony that America’s working stiffs have been paying the bonuses for all the investment bankers over the years, as well as for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush kept off the books, while lowering taxes for the wealthy at the same time.

But, the shell-game of now-you-see-the-surplus-now-you-don’t in the media continues. Journalists at both the Washington Post and the Kansas City Star have swallowed the sugar water that it doesn’t really exist. In the Post, Lori Montgomery wrote in October, “The 2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief,” and E. Thomas McClanahan, on the K. C. Star’s editorial board, claimed recently, “The payroll tax holiday is also destroying the myth of the trust fund.” Such remarks have now become the chief talking point of the anti-Social Security forces. Of course, they don’t say what I’ve said: We’ve stolen the payroll “tax” surplus over the years to fund the 1 percent.

And now, we have the sad, smaller irony that the American workers are continuing to provide for Obama’s administration tiny stimulus program, by means of lowering the “payroll tax.” We paycheck workers are giving ourselves the puny amounts each month that Obama takes credit for.

This is even worse. Everyone is used to the Republicans trying to damage Social Security. But it is the Democrats who need to be watched. They like this “tax” break because it is so “efficient”. No need to cut checks, start a program. Just reduce the amount coming in, and, voila, money in everyone’s pocket. Of course, it is their own money, which is being taken out of their insurance system and will eventually have to be put back – but at what cost? More federal workers furloughed? More Medicaid and Medicare cuts?

It was too tempting for the Democratic suits in Washington, all that efficiency. They consider it a version of domestic realpolitik. But their chipping away at the system allows other attacks to wiggle in. They’ve managed to give Social Security one fatal attribute of the 401(k) “retirement” program. It can be raided, gotten to when “emergencies” arise, which is why, among other reasons, so many 401(k)s have such small amounts in them at retirement.

But, again, the chief irony is that working Americans have been funding the bubble spending, the wars and the bonuses, as George W. Bush merrily spent the Social Security trust fund surplus and now everyone bemoans the deficit and wants to have the people, the workers, who contributed the cash for the bubble, take the hit and change Social Security so they will be paid back less, get fewer benefits and take the haircut that the Wall Streeters have avoided, in order for the rich to continue to give less and take more.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Halftime in Pink America

The Super Bowl was, well, super. The game had its moments: the first “free” touchdown in the big game that was, supposedly, not meant to happen (but once a running back turns around in a sitting position on the goal line, he’s only gonna fall in backwards, pushed by all the momentum he already generated) and Tom Brady’s last-second Hail Mary pass that was almost caught by a Patriot, but not quite.

But there were other Hail Mary(s) thrown that night. First there was Madonna, the original Hail Mary, her namesake that is. The present earth-bound Madonna, all 53 years of her, did the cougar world proud. All those hours working out over the years paying off big. Now there was a production! Those folk know how to put on a show. I kept wondering how many of its participants were in the Actors Equity union, but it was abundantly clear this sort of spectacle has replaced the Broadway Musical in the hearts of the younger generation, used to these sorts of extravaganzas at the concerts of pop singers for at least two decades now.

Madonna’s performance might have been aimed at her faux protégé, Lady Gaga, showing Gaga who’s who and what’s what. But there were also echoes of other, older grand dames, for instance, Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra,” given all the beef-cake “slaves” supposedly hauling Madonna onto the Lucas Oil field’s fifty yard line. After the Material Girl’s exhortation of capitalism unbound, she signed off with World Peace. Ho, ho, ho.

But it was another halftime performance that seems to have more legs: Clint Eastwood and his Chrysler commercial. It was instantaneously clear that it would be taken as an Obama endorsement. From Chrysler, which we, the people, more or less, still own. But, what struck me was that this commercial may be the first time the word “halftime” was used, or understood, politically to stand for a second term presidential election.

I wrote a book about the ‘96 second term election, Clinton v. Dole (Campaign America ‘96: The View From the Couch), which covered how the campaign was covered, and I don’t recall any of the hundreds of commentators I heard ever use the term “halftime” that way, meaning the pause between a possible two terms for a sitting president. But its usage was unmistakable in the Eastwood commercial.

Which is why Republicans are complaining. But, it’s been another bad week for the GOP, because of yet more Hail Mary(s). The Susan G. Komen for the Cure pink ribbon flap, defunding Planned Parenthood and, consequently, the women of America reacting and Komen’s decision eventually reversed. This, too, was a commercial of sorts, but one aimed at Mitt Romney, not Barack Obama. The Komen “charity” had managed all these years to avoid scrutiny the way anyone not running for president avoids scrutiny.

But, defunding Planned Parenthood put them in the election season spotlight and what was seen was not very pleasant. It was like seeing Mitt Romney’s 2010 and the “summary” of his 2011 taxes: all those Swiss and Cayman accounts. In Komen’s case, it was the ratio of what was raised yearly and what was given to breast cancer research, roughly 20%, while around 80% went into the fund raising itself. It was the same, it appeared, as the salaries and bonuses of the 1%, because the Komen foundation was run like any Wall Street hedge fund. The lion’s share in expenses, a pittance for the disease in question. Komen is certainly a job creator, since it does employ a lot of lawyers suing people who want to use the word “cure” in their fund raising.

Those who were paying attention learned more about the Komen foundation in the last ten days than they ever knew the last ten years and what they had known was next to nothing: How Republican it was, how its new, and now resigned, V.P., Karen Handel, was a GOP losing candidate running for governor in Georgia, like Romney is currently doing, on the I hate Planned Parenthood GOP platform.

Karen Handel carries on the GOP tradition of calling black white when she said, in her resignation letter, “no one’s political beliefs” were involved in Komen’s decision to defund PP. This is all an election period neurosis, an emperor’s new clothes phenomenon. The naked truth is clothed. What everyone can see is false I will claim as true.

But, back to the Super Bowl: Madonna said there would be no “wardrobe malfunction” in her show. Maybe not, though that malfunction had to do with a breast, and, thanks to the Komen foundation and Karen Handel, the malfunctions have been many and frequent and now Komen world stands as naked and exposed as poor Mitt Romney.