Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dial W for Waziristan

For quite some time the Obama administration has stonewalled the likes of Amnesty International and the ACLU in their efforts to have the legal justification for the CIA drone campaigns made public, repeatedly invoking ‘state secrets privilege’ to prevent details of such a sensitive program getting out. In doing so, the administration once again demonstrates its determination to use secrecy in order to Keep Americans Safe™.

Barack Obama abruptly abandoned this official stance during a recent encounter with ‘Evan’ from Brooklyn in a webchat, when he frankly admitted the existence of the drone program…and much more:

Evan: “Mr. President, since you took office you've ordered more drone attacks in your first year than your predecessor did in his entire term. These drone attacks cause a lot of civilian casualties. I'm curious to know how you feel they help the nation and whether you think they're worth it."

Obama: "First of all, drones have not caused a great number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates. We have been very careful in how it's been applied."

He went on to say that the drone program is "kept on a very tight leash" and that it's not "just a bunch of folks in a room somewhere making decisions."

Obama also confirmed that “a lot of these strikes have been in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas."

Amnesty International and the ACLU need to track down Evan from New York right now and offer him a job. These casual admissions demonstrate that not only does the administration actively condone these attacks, which may be illegal under international law according to Philip Alston (the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions until July 2010), but also that Obama has no qualms whatsoever about them.

They also demonstrate that in stark contrast to his predecessor, Obama has the knack of making people believe what he says; according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 83% of Americans support the current drone policy. If this were not shocking enough with regard to a program that the government refused even to discuss until Evan arrived on the scene, 77% of liberal Democrats also support the policy, the same liberals who screamed blue murder almost daily when Cheney et al were committing atrocities with civil liberties and human rights both at home and abroad.

And yet Obama’s ability to cast a spell on critical faculty is not the only factor here. Recall, for instance, that 70% of Americans believed there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9-11 attacks fully two years after the attacks occurred, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that even GW Bush himself unequivocally rejected such a claim.

While the phenomenon of lazy thinking is plainly at work, as well as the inevitable tribalism resulting from the tired Republican versus Democrat narrative, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of a lax, compliant and indeed negligent establishment media, which showed its true colors in spectacular fashion in the run-up to the Iraq War. After that particular debacle, The New York Times, a so-called ‘newspaper of record’, was forced to revise its confidential news sources policy after its shamefully uncritical ‘reporting’ at that time, when the likes of Judith Miller regularly had fear mongering WMD articles on the front pages.

For those with recent feelings of déjà vu: don’t worry - we’re all having them. The fear mongering is now back with a vengeance throughout the establishment media, this time with regard to Iran. The US public is subjected to daily scares on an industrial scale on cable news channels and in major newspapers about how WMDs could be used to attack the US homeland via ICBMs and so on. Quite clearly, Americans (and people around the world) are being mentally prepared for the coming attacks on Iran.

One consequence of this 24/7 beating of the war drums in the media is desensitization to the realities of war among a public who have never personally experienced it, their only sources of information being carefully worded government talking points reported uncritically by the media along with sanitized imagery - sanitized, that is, unless a villain du jour receives his comeuppance. War, behind its Hollywood sheen, is something that happens far away to bad people who probably deserve it.

This desensitization applies also with regard to the drone program. The 83% of Americans who support it hear words like ‘suspected terrorist’ or ‘militant’ when they see or read reports of strikes. Civilian casualties, when mentioned, are tacked on like an afterthought, and normalization quickly sets in due to endless, mechanical repetition.

In 2011, the not for profit, London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported (warning: report contains some upsetting pictures of dead children) that it had ‘identified credible reports of 168 children killed in seven years of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas’. One wonders how many of the 83% would change their mind if their media did their jobs as diligently as the Bureau.

The legal concept of due process is being fatally eroded. Suspected ‘terrorists’ are now tried, convicted and executed by an administration working with neither transparency nor accountability. Not only is this an outrage from the point of view of law, it sets a chilling precedent for anyone with the temerity to challenge or criticize those in power. After all, future definitions of ‘terrorist’ could so easily be expanded to include ‘opponent of the administration’ – you’re either with us or against us.

Whatever it is called, however it is justified, anyone orchestrating or supporting (actively or tacitly) the CIA drone program has the blood of children on their hands. Enablers in the establishment media, instrumental in softening the realities of this abominable campaign, are also culpable. This sociopathic program leads directly to the deaths of children, and nothing in the realm of existence can justify that level of evil.

The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy’ by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter and Facebook or at his blog.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Corruption of Democracy

The 18 months of each presidential term that it takes to elect the next leader has shifted up a gear with the Republican caucuses well underway. This translates to 37.5% of each term being taken up by single-minded and aggressive media attention at the cost of actual news.

Races between candidates are billed in sporting terms such as ‘clashes’ and ‘nailbiters’ which ‘go down to the wire’. When the Republicans finally pick their challenger, he will go on to the main event against reigning champion Barack Obama. The big fight will have all the usual attractions: preliminary bouts (the presidential debates), rule-breaking and unsporting behavior (the campaigns), ‘expert’ commentary (the media and the pollsters), cheerleaders (the media), entertainment between bouts (the media) and anything else you can imagine (the media).

It is a sham. As a not particularly credible trader once infamously (but correctly) claimed live on the BBC: ‘The governments don’t rule the world; Goldman Sachs rules the world’. And not only Goldman Sachs, but also the other top banks and financial institutions, big corporations and certain billionaires.

Conspiracy theory? No. The US presidential campaign in 2012 will be an increasingly desperate affair as even wall-to-wall media coverage on which candidate has the most attractive first lady and other information deemed essential to democracy will fail to drown out the fact that the Democrat versus Republican narrative is utterly out of touch with the realities of modern society: namely the fact that the US, and by extension numerous other nations, are controlled by a small powerful and wealthy elite, and that the inequality gap between the very rich and the rest is widening into a yawning abyss.

As can be seen in this graph, between just after the end of World War 2 and 1979, US productivity rose 119% and the incomes of the bottom 20% of the population rose by 122%. Between 1979 and 2009, productivity rose by 80%, while the incomes of the bottom 20% fell by 4%. The top 20% saw an increase of 55%, the top 1%: 275%.

Numbers like these resound far more with ordinary people than partisan party politics. The precise differences about where candidates stand on social issues like guns and abortion, while of clear importance, fade into insignificance when compared with concerns about the economy, jobs, homes and simple quality of life. This is because significant numbers of people really are suffering now in terms of personal wealth, employment, prospects, education for themselves and their kids, and ditto for access to healthcare.

In the recent State of the Union address, Barack Obama inevitably co-opted the message put forward by the Occupy movement and others, making it his platform for the coming election, because he knows it is the defining issue of our time. He spoke of inequality, and of the rich paying their fair share. The question for his campaign team is simply this: will the electorate believe this new version of Hope and Change?

They just might, but they would be fools to. Under Obama, powers claimed by George W Bush post 9/11, which at that time horrified supporters of the Democratic Party, have been greatly expanded and extended. In his election campaign in 2008, Barack Obama strongly criticized the Bush NSA wiretapping program, leading his supporters to believe that he would end the program when elected. After he was safely in the White House, Obama performed an about-face, expanding the powers of this program and also extending it, betraying those supporters who had given him their money and votes for the very purpose of ending this program.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Law Professor Jonathon Turley detailed ten powers which have been aggressively pursued under Obama, significantly reducing civil liberties in a nation which has always prided itself on the freedom of its citizens. Hope and Change turned out to be something quite different from what those who voted for him expected.

Fool me once.

With widespread access to the internet, far more people than at any time in history are able to find information directly, as opposed to having it spoon-fed to them by the newspapers and television news networks. Ordinary people have become aware that Congress (in which almost half of the members are millionaires) is in the pocket of corporations by means of donations to political campaigns; that a large chunk of the establishment media is owned by large corporations; that successive administrations are filled to the brim with former bankers or those with former ties to banks, financial institutions and corporations; and that executive boards always have chairs pulled out for politicians who retire or are voted out. With all their contacts in Washington, they make excellent lobbyists.

This situation is hardly surprising: after all, from a poisoned lake you will get poisoned fish.

Via lobbying and this revolving door policy, the US government is owned by the rich, the banks and the corporations. As their interests rarely, if ever, coincide with those of ordinary people, a better word to describe the modern US system of government would be ‘oligarchy’.

What can be done? The ballot box is essentially worthless as there is broad bipartisan agreement on so many domestic and/or international issues, particularly in the field of foreign policy, leading to serious repercussions for the rest of the world. The predator drone program, for example, started under President GW Bush, has been dramatically expanded under Obama. For those Americans who feel uncomfortable with their tax dollars paying for remote controlled flying machines which kill hundreds of civilians (collateral damage) in poor countries, and, shockingly, even target rescuers who come later to the scene of a strike looking for survivors, there is simply no voice for them at the ballot box as both main parties support the program.

Popular protest? To take one well-publicized example of recent protest, the Occupy movement is subjected daily to police violence or intimidation, as well as endless slander, ridicule and condemnation from the establishment media and paid astroturfers on comments boards, discussion forums and elsewhere. In such a hostile atmosphere, only the hardiest, the most passionate, or those with nothing to lose will venture out into the streets.

What else is there? At this point, many political writers might throw in the obligatory line lamenting the fact that the vast majority of people are sleepwalking through this horror show. This is human nature, however, and until people are confronted with direct and undeniable evidence that they no longer live in a democracy, and that their own personal interests are in imminent danger, they will continue to go about their lives, no matter how hard they may be. Yes, they will grumble, but grumbling does nothing to improve dysfunctional systems.

A common expression on discussion boards these days: ‘Obama is the lesser of two evils’. In other words: yes, Obama has gone back on his word on many things he promised, but the Republicans are even worse. This apathetic and defeatist attitude ill serves the legacies of those who fought and, in some cases, gave their lives for the freedoms guaranteed in a democratic society, those same freedoms which are now being so blithely quashed.

In the state of Wisconsin, around a million signatures, almost double the amount needed under state law, have been collected in an effort to remove Governor Scott Walker from office. This is a simple form of so-called ‘direct democracy’, a system of government which, in its most basic form, allows ordinary people to wield the power of veto over unpopular laws and power of recall over corrupt or incompetent public officials. With the internet now accessible to so many, direct democracy could be extended even further into direct governance based on policy recommendations from scientists, economists and other experts, and voted for by the people directly perhaps once or twice a year.

Given that it has been established that the ballot box and popular protest have been rendered ineffective, the only viable alternative is to begin a grassroots movement towards direct democracy, a form of government which is almost impossible for the elites to corrupt. It is now an indisputable fact that corporations and banks have co-opted democracy for their own interests; given the evidence now freely available, only the naïve or ignorant could deny that. Along with corporate editorial control of the establishment media, the enormous power and wealth in their hands gives them control by extension of key societal institutions, as well as military and police forces, essentially covering the bases for the stifling of all serious dissent.

For these reasons it is vital that the people regain executive power over their lives and societies. The alternative is further erosion of human rights and a long, irreversible descent into greater misery and inequality both in the US and out.

The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy’ by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood (on twitter and Facebook)