The numbers that define 2014

Numbers define the last day of the year for me. As the owner of a small business, I typically spend December 31 creating detailed balance sheets and sorting corporate income and expenses into various categories—kind of a dry run for doing our corporate taxes next month. I also start to organize the financial information we send our clients at the end of every month. Personal finances also get attention because I take a look at how all my family’s investments performed in 2014 and compare where we stand now to how much we had a year ago. Thank goodness, we’re without debt, so I don’t have to add up the money owed or the interest paid.

These numbers have usually put a smile on my face for about 30 years now. I have a good business and a nice portfolio of investments.

But every year when I turn to the numbers that define where we stand as a society, my facial expression immediately turns dour. Number of soldiers and innocents dead in wars. Number of victims of gun violence. Number of people in the United States and worldwide starving or experiencing food insecurity. Number of people locked in prisons for victimless crimes. Number of children and women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence. Number of people dead from epidemics and violent weather.

Even when these numbers go down, they still dismay.

Then there are the numbers that suggest our decline as a society. Rate of inflation in the cost of a college education. Estimated number of people denied the right to vote because of recent state voting laws. Amount that average temperatures for the year exceeded historical averages. Decline in the upward mobility of those in the lowest 80% of the population. Loss of buying power of the minimum wage. Decline in union membership.

The big numbers news for 2014 came in April and November. In April, Belknap Press released Arthur Goldhammer’s English translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which detailed the steady increase in the share of the wealth and income pies in industrialized nations going to the top 1% and the top .1% of the population. Piketty proved what most people have experienced: the net transfer of wealth and income from the bottom 99% of the population to the top 1% over the past 35 years. While the numbers were depressing, progressives could at least take solace in realizing that Piketty had turned the world’s gaze to the problem of growing financial inequality and redefined the premises of public discourse on the economy for years to come.

No such consolation can we find in the outcome of the mid-term elections, which saw Republicans win the U.S. Senate and tighten their hold on the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures.

A confluence of many forces caused this crushing defeat for those who want to see a more equitable distribution of wealth, higher taxes on the wealthy, more investment in infrastructure and basic research, more government support of public education, gay marriage, greater women’s reproductive rights, more restrictive gun control laws and the shrinking of our military and military budget:

  • Continued fallout from the Democrats’ decision essentially to sit out the 2010 election, thereby insuring that Republicans could gerrymander Congressional seats after the 2010 census.
  • The mainstream news media’s insistence on providing more coverage to Republican candidates, strategy and disputes, and on defining all issues from the point of view of right-looking moderate Republicans.
  • Obama’s decision to wait until after the 2014 election to begin taking stands on immigration, climate change and normalization of relations with Cuba instead of doing so in the heat of campaign when it could have energized traditional Democratic voters who felt there was no reason to come to the polls.
  • The impact of the slew of laws passed over the past four years that make it harder to register to vote and to vote.
  • The truly obscene amount of money spent by corporate interests to support both parties, mostly the Republicans.
  • An insidious form of racism—the racism that makes people apply higher standards when judging the performance of African-Americans in public, business, civic, social service or government roles. I’m convinced that Americans were more disappointed in President Obama’s performance than they would have been if a white president had done the same things and gotten the same results. Right-wingers and the news media fueled this disappointment in Obama’s performance by the manufacturing of a series of phony crises that somehow demonstrated administration incompetence or duplicity. These crises turned out to be mostly overblown. Nothing that the Obama Administration did related to Benghazi, the Ebola crisis or ISIS compares to how the Bush II Administration botched response to Hurricane Katrina or its incompetent prosecution of the war on terror. Well, there was the healthcare website in late 2013….

These explanations don’t still the gut-wrenching anxiety that comes from knowing that under Republican control of the legislative branch of the federal government, the sequester is likely to remain or be replaced by a miserly budget that continues to cut funds for infrastructure, global warming, social net programs and public education; that there likely will be no raise in the federal minimum wage; and that there will be lots of votes attempting to turn back the clock on Obama’s legislation and executive actions.

And the explanations don’t assuage the dismay in knowing that as long as the Republicans control Congress and most state governments, we will likely make no progress in creating a more equitable society and economy.

Foreign Affairs latest pub to glorify entrepreneurs, pretend befuddlement that entrepreneurism hasn’t led to greater wealth equality

Once again, Foreign Affairs is pretending to cover an issue extensively while presenting opinions running the gamut from y to z. I write “y to z” because the original expression is “running the gamut from a to z.” When you write or print out the alphabet, “a” is on the left and ”z” on the right. Thus when creating a play on words to describe the narrow and conservative range of points of view Foreign Affairs typically considers, the most accurate formulation is that it runs the gamut from “y to z.”

The selection of experts all saying the same thing is one of the more pernicious rhetorical devices by which propagandists try to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. The publication suggests that the narrow range of opinions it is presenting covers all possibilities, when in fact those giving the opinions generally agree on everything except a few details.

In its last issue, Foreign Affairs presented the opinions of about a half dozen experts on what the United States can learn from the experience of fighting the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars. These so-called experts focused exclusively on how we can fight wars better and spent no time discussing how we can better evaluate if a war is worth fighting.

In the current issue, called “Here Comes the Disrupters,” Foreign Affairs turns to a discussion of entrepreneurship, which loosely means the craft and science of starting businesses. The publication concerns itself primarily with entrepreneurs whose business ventures disrupt an industry, usually through technology. In the mythology of capitalism, entrepreneurs are heroic disrupters who through their vision, talent and perseverance overcome the great odds facing anyone who starts a business (except those who start with a lot of money and connections, which seems to apply to Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, Meg Whitman, Bill Gates and most of the other entrepreneurs lauded by the mass media).

The introduction by editor Gideon Rose sets the stage for the one-note pony show in the magazine by praising Joseph Schumpeter, a mid-20th century Austrian free-market apologist who postulated that innovation was crucial to economic growth and that entrepreneurs were solely responsible for all innovation. Rose, like most right-wingers, praises the “perennial gale of creative destruction” (a translation into English of Schumpeter’s words) that roils the lives of individuals but benefits the overall economy and therefore helps all individuals raise their standard of living.

Yet Rose expresses befuddlement at how to share the fruits of entrepreneurship with the rest of the humanity: “Everybody wants more growth, more dynamism, and more broadly distributed benefits, but nobody seems to know how to get there.”

But we do know how to get there. We tax the entrepreneurs for their excess profit and use that money to provide a range of benefits and incentives to others, such as a decent minimum wage, high wages for all; job creation programs, low-cost college education, social nets for the poor and active public investment in infrastructure and research and development. That’s what the industrialized nations did roughly between 1935-1975.

Fostering entrepreneurial creative destruction was and remains a major rationale for virtually every aspect of the Reagan revolution, including lowering taxes on the wealthy, passing regulations making it harder for unions to organize, letting the buying power of the minimum wage deteriorate, scrimping on societal investments and retreating from our commitment to free public education and low-cost universities. The result—a steady decline in new start-up companies (that is, companies less than a year old) since 1978 from more than 14% of all U.S. firms to around 8%.

In other words, by writing that nobody seems to know how to broadly distribute benefits in society, Rose has either not read even the basics of 20th century history or is consciously lying. I’ll leave my readers to decide which one.

One reason that entrepreneurship has slowed down may be that our society has become less equitable since the late 1970s. To start a business requires resources that the entrepreneur must either have or borrow—but most start-up business people must pledge their house and other assets as collateral to borrow money from banks. Even venture capitalists want the entrepreneur to have some “skin in the game.” But fewer people have the “skin” to get into the game, as technology automates ever more middle class jobs, wages have stagnated for essentially 35 years and the cost to gain the education needed to be an effective technology entrepreneur becomes ever more expensive. The basic dynamics of capitalism have always depended on the accumulation and investment of capital. No wonder entrepreneurship is declining—fewer people can muster the capital needed to compete.

Rose follows his wave-the-free-market-flag encomium to entrepreneurship with interviews with six of the world’s leading technology capitalists whose companies significantly changed the dynamics of their respective industries, people like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom. The publication creates an artificial diversity by featuring an American man and woman, plus males from South America, Africa and Scandinavia and a Jew from Wales. But the diversity is only ostensible, as all come from either upper middle class or wealthy backgrounds and all attended elite educational institutions or exclusive colleges.

The six entrepreneurs seem to agree on most things. Yes, entrepreneurs help the entirety of society and not just themselves. Yes, competition, free markets with government investment in pure research, little regulation and open immigration are the ways to foster entrepreneurial activity. Yes, it’s too bad that creative destruction causes people to lose jobs, but what can we do about the vast wealth and income inequalities that have formed in virtually all countries of the world? All agree that “creative destruction” is a good thing.

Interestingly enough, the chiming of this chorus of “disrupters” rings most harmonious when discussing the single most important factor in their success. All blame their success on the luck of being at the right place at the right time with the right product or concept, the right contacts and a goodly amount of financial backing. Yet none seem to understand the major implication of relying on luck, which is that these captains of technology don’t deserve all the accolades and rewards they get. To rely on luck really means one is relying on society, since society creates most of the conditions which shaped the successes these people have had. If you don’t believe, consider the bad luck of living in a society with no roads or telephones.

Without knowing it, these entrepreneurs build the best case possible for high rates of taxation on the incremental income of the wealthy. Taxes quantify the value of luck to the entrepreneur. The more one makes, the luckier one has been, the less one has had to do with one’s success and the greater share should be returned to society to pay it forward for the next generation of the lucky few and the just-muddling-through rest of us.

Funny thing, though, none of these entrepreneurs want to complete the thought process. They prefer instead to speculate on what society can do to make it easier for entrepreneurs to succeed, as if that were the end goal of society.

To stop future assassinations of police, we must toughen gun laws & end police brutality against minorities

No sane person would condone or try to justify the execution-style killings of two New York City police officers in broad daylight. It is a senseless act of terror by an emotionally disturbed individual. Not even a political or religious terrorist of the most violent sort could approve. The very fact that the assassin Ismaaiyl Brinsley turned the gun on himself when he still had a chance to escape demonstrates that mental illness, not politics, motivated his horrifying actions.  Brinsley’s action is completely unconnected to any group, nor did it occur during a mass protest or riot. He was just a psychopath with a gun.

Yet, at the same time, no rational person should fail to see that this type of killing was inevitable. It results from a combination of a long and sad history of brutal police treatment of minorities throughout the United States and the ready availability of guns in American society. Anyone who doubts cop-killing or any kind of killing is a direct function of the proliferation of guns in American society should check out the statistics in other countries of the world, in which gun controls laws are far stricter than ours and far fewer people own them. I hope that the police and politicians realize that the way to minimize the possibility of future premeditated attacks on police is to change police policies and stiffen gun control laws.

The tragic irony of Brinsley’s deed is that he travelled all the way from Baltimore to kill men named Wenjian Liu and Raphael Ramos—a Chinese and a Hispanic, members of two minority groups that have suffered discrimination in the United States. It has been exclusively a white establishment that has allowed police to target minorities for “special” treatment in the criminal justice system.

Most sides in the controversies over the killing of innocent African-Americans in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York and elsewhere have understood that now is not the time to score political points, but to mourn the loss of yet two more innocent victims of firearm violence. A shameful exception has been New York City’s Sergeants Benevolent Society which tweeted that the “blood of two executed police officers is on the hands of Mayor de Blasio.” All de Blasio did was to question the handling of the Eric Garner choke hold case and to end the illegal practice of focusing stop-and-frisk activities in minority neighborhoods. De Blasio is a pro-union guy who has settled contracts with city unions that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to negotiate.

This woefully mistimed manifestation of an “if you don’t think we’re perfect, you’re against us” mentality belongs on any list of factors on why handfuls of bad police officers across the country can routinely kill innocent citizens with little or no punishment.  Instead of condemning one of labor’s best friends, the good sergeants should be figuring out how to repair relations with minority communities and campaigning to make the gun laws across the country as strong as they are in New York City.

A composite of recent polls may depress progressives & those who have read the Constitution

Recent polls paint an unappetizing portrait of the United States and its citizens. If you believe these polls, we have a violent, gun-toting, intolerant and racist society ruled by lies. These polls are very disappointing for progressive Americans, as majorities or large pluralities support conservative positions. Funny thing is—in almost every case the rightwing position works against the best interests of virtually all Americans. These polls show how much the rightwing has succeeded in manipulating large portions of the American people through fear-mongering, lies and racism.

Here are what the latest surveys tell us:


Americans support torture, which is illegal in the United States and most of the world, has been proven to yield no results and is a debasing, shameful practice that goes against most moral codes. According to a Washington-Post­-ABC –TV poll, 59% of all Americans believe the United States was justified to engage in torture after the 9/11 attacks. A Pew Research Center study says that 51% of Americans support our now-dismantled torture program.

Gun Control

Studies conducted mainly in foreign countries demonstrate that the number of violent crimes increases in societies in which there is more gun ownership. The more guns out there, the more deaths by guns and the more violent crimes occur. These studies of the impact of gun ownership dismantle the old saw that “when guns are outlawed, only criminals will have guns,” since in countries that outlaw guns, fewer crimes are committed using them. Note that these studies only involve foreign countries, because a federal law passed forbids the use of federal money to conduct studies involving gun ownership and gun violence.

But most people haven’t seen these studies but do hear National Rifle Association propaganda on a weekly basis. Thus, a recent Pew Research poll finds that 52% of the population support additional protection of gun rights and 46% support gun control, the first time in about 20 years that Pew found more support for gun rights than gun control.

Police treatment of African-Americans

Numerous statistics and studies show that police departments and the criminal justice system treat African-Americans unfairly. Blacks are caught and convicted of more victimless crimes, i.e., drug-related offenses, than are whites. Stop-and-frisk policies focus almost exclusively on black and Hispanic neighborhoods. African-Americans represent 14% of the population, but 39% of unarmed people killed by the police.

And yet a recent NBC/Marist poll concluded that 52% of whites believe that police officers in their community treat blacks and whites equally and just 39 percent of whites say law enforcement uses different standards for whites and blacks.

A Diverse and Secular Society

The Constitution established the United States as a secular society with a strict separation between church and state. The American ideal has always been that people of different faiths and creeds come together in public places to conduct the business of the economy, government and our society, and then everyone goes home to her or his own belief system. And yet in the 21st century, yet another Pew study reveals that a whopping 72% of all Americans want nativity scenes on public property. Planting a nativity scene inside a public school or in front of a government building shows a decided preference for the various sects that make up Christianity over the other religions practiced by Americans. It imposes one belief system on the public realm and makes many holding a different faith feel estranged or at least oppressed.

Using these surveys to build a composite picture of the average American leaves us with someone who believes in torture, feels comfortable in an inherently violent society, sees nothing wrong with the criminal justice system singling out one race for harassment and has no problem committing society-wide acts of cultural imperialism.

And yet virtually everyone I know is against torture, favors gun control, is distraught over the unequal treatment of and the all-too-frequent acts of police brutality against minorities and prefers to practice religion (or lack thereof) in private. Of course, I have always lived in big cities in blue states (except for two horrible years in Florida during high school) and mostly know educated professionals, many of whom are minorities.

Based on these studies, I must have been doing anecdotal thinking all these years by imagining that a majority of my fellow Americans matched the views that I learned during my university years and are held by my very large circle of acquaintances. I consider myself a real-world kind of guy. But I think I may prefer living in my anecdotes, which, while they may not represent the views of most Americans, do reflect both factual reality and the ideals we are taught in public school.

Like the Nazis & other evil-doers, American torture apologists use language to sanitize evil

How do we know that those who are defending the American torture program under the presidency of George W. Bush recognize that they are wrong and that torture is both illegal and immoral, in other words, evil?

We can tell in the language they use.

As soon as the Central Intelligence Agency, Dick Cheney and his cute little friend George Junior decided to call it Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, they as much as admitted they knew it was wrong and illegal. They understood full well that knowledge of the program would revolt a large part of the population, and that even most of those who approved it would do so reluctantly and that their approval would be based on a lie—that torture works to get bad people to tell us where their fellow baddies are hiding. So they decide to call it something else.

Calling torture Enhanced Interrogation Techniques surely raises a lot fewer eyebrows than calling it torture. Except for one thing: lots of Americans have become cynical of such euphemisms.  From “pacification” of villages in Viet Nam to “Clear Skies” to describe a program to gut the Clean Air Act, for decades the federal government has been trying to soften the impact of bad stuff they want to do by giving it a pretty name.

Enter one of the favorite friends of corporate communicators throughout the world: the abbreviation or acronym (which technically is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term). In testimonies and interviews, virtually all defenders of U.S. torture have depended heavily on the abbreviation EIT.

I’ve worked and consulted for many large organizations, so I can tell you that they deal in abbreviations and acronyms. They breed them and use them. There can be no doubt that the torture program was primarily referred to as EIT, especially among the cognoscenti. Even secret programs must make their way through bureaucratic channels: budgets, human resources, purchase order numbers, all must be tied to specific activity for all bureaucracies, government and private enterprise. Requisitions for the EIT program. Reports from the EIT program.

All of this use of an abbreviation of a smelly euphemism among the coteries of people who knew exactly what EIT meant. At one point, I can imagine Rumsfeld exploding to Tenet, “This EIT program uses a shitload of electricity! Dick is going to have a heart attack when he sees these numbers.

Just like the Nazis used euphemisms to conceal their destruction of the Jews. Just like Stalin and Mao Zedong, who also used euphemisms for programs they knew were evil or would hurt or kill many innocent people.

Compare the lengths to which the United States, Germany, the Soviet Union and China have gone to hide the evil they perpetrated on people to the Spanish Inquisition, which burned people at the stake in public. The implementers of the Spanish Inquisition believed that what they did was just, mortal and sanctioned by their god, so they did it in public.

The only conclusion we can come to is that our torture gang knew it was illegal and immoral, AKA evil.

All large bureaucracies tend to sanitized their decisions—good and bad—through language and language shortening that turns great masses of activity with enormous impact on individuals into bite-sized phrases that the bureaucracy further sanitizes by putting them through the jargon-laden special language it has evolved for internal communications.  People are too busy developing and monitoring budgets, evaluating metrics, requisitioning and processing invoices for the ABC, ABACUS or EIT program to remember what each program does, whether it helps poor women with children or tortures other human beings.

We can certainly improve the bureaucracy by making it more open, changing the way it approaches communications at all levels and making it easier for oversight. But let’s be clear: Bureaucracies don’t create evil, they just process it in their emotionlessly banal way. Men in women as individuals and in small groups create the evil.  If we want to make sure that no future American government engages in torture, we have to prosecute those involved in creating the Bush II gulag, including our former President and Vice President.

The various and tortuous ways we Americans bring shame to our country

Republicans and conservative pundits who blasted the release of the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) torture gulag brought shame upon themselves and their country. They were really saying that they believe in torture and/or believe in keeping important information from the American people, both extremely un-American traits. Yet I know these men and women to be patriots.

Some who opposed release of the report said that it would embarrass or endanger the country. One female Fox News performer even averred that the President released the report to embarrass us on purpose because he hates this country which elected him president twice. It is their viewpoint that is embarrassing. First of all, endangerment is a joke—homegrown and foreign terrorists of all religions have enough gripes against the United States already, plus they’ve known about the tortures for years.

Why can’t these people just admit that the United States made a mistake? As a country dedicated to freedom, justice and truth, we have a moral—and probably a legal—obligation to admit when we have collectively made a mistake. We gain stature in the world by admitting our mistakes and improving our behavior. Now that President Obama has ended our torture program and the Senate has released its report, all that’s missing is to punish the creators of the torture gulag, who broke numerous laws and sullied our country’s reputation. Obama doesn’t want that to happen, but I wouldn’t do much traveling abroad if I were Bush II, Cheney, Tenet, Yoo, Addington, Bybee or Rumsfeld, since the International Criminal Court will be able to prosecute them.

Particularly shameful are those who still insist that torture works, such as psychologist James Mitchell, who was paid millions to develop CIA torture techniques. These unusually cruel individuals seem to forget that it doesn’t matter whether or not torture works—it’s barbaric, immoral and illegal. I wonder why the news media still pays attention to the discredited views of those, like Dick Cheney and John Yoo, who in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still believe torture is both legal and effective.

But Republicans and conservatives were not the only ones who embarrassed themselves this week by supporting acts such as torture and cover-ups that are obnoxiously un-American and against our shared notions of freedom and civil liberties. During the same timeframe, the national news media, many of the New York elite and many officials in Washington, D.C. shared in the humiliating display of welcoming and tending to the ego needs of a pair of mediocre nobodies whose only job in life is to represent the last vestiges of the pernicious idea that certain people are inherently better than others. I’m talking about the reception that the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William received during their visit to New York City this week. They attended a basketball game where they met Jay Z, Beyoncé and LeBron James. They rendezvoused with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton elsewhere, and the Prince skedaddled to Washington and back for a meeting with the Prez.

What is wrong with these people? Haven’t they read any history? Don’t they know we fought a war to free ourselves of royalty? Don’t they know how many people died at the hands of soldiers in wars fought for the pleasure or aggrandizement of royalty? How many people starved because of confiscatory taxes to support kings, queens, princes and the whole rot of them in a luxurious lifestyle?

LeBron is the best basketball player and Hillary Clinton is one of the three or four best-known and respected women in the world. They are busy people. Why do they take the time to meet with a couple who have done absolutely nothing?

Many readers are probably shocked that I’m comparing the U.S. torture program to receiving a British prince and his lady. But think of it this way: We tortured fewer than 200 people over a period of less than 10 years. British royalty was responsible for millions of deaths—sometimes by torture, but also by slavery, warfare, induced famine and confiscatory policies—over about 700 years. Consider, too, that Bush II henchmen authorized torture in defense of our representational democracy; the goal of virtually all the torture and wars inflicted by kings and queens was to enlarge their own wealth.

Bush II and Dick Cheney symbolize the torture that took place on their watch. And until he resigns his position as prince, forswears becoming king one day and gets off the public dole, Prince William remains a symbol of all the evil the British kings and queens committed. He also embodies the evil idea that some people are inherently better than others and deserve more than others by divine right.

If Hillary, Chelsea, Jay Z, LeBron and everyone else who went out of their way to show the royal couple a good time wanted to take a stand for democracy and freedom, they would have politely had something else to do when the Duchess and Prince came to town. The news media could have ignored their trip completely, just as they usually ignore the comings and goings of celebrities in the fields of science, engineering, poetry and history. In short, the American establishment should have shunned the royal couple, while making it clear that we will welcome with open arms any legitimate representative of the British government.

Considering how I feel about royalty, I couldn’t help but get angry viewing a photo in the New York Times this week that made a mockery of the history of freedom. Holding a bouquet of flowers, the Duchess greeted children and parents—mostly black—at a Harlem children’s center. Everyone is smiling and two of the children look as if they are in complete awe of the Duchess.

What we see is a joyous encounter between the descendants of people who were forced as slaves to come to the United States and endured generations of oppression and discrimination with someone who married into a family that received a share of the profit generated by selling slaves to its territories and of all the wealth created by exploiting slaves, at least until the American slave owners joined the American rebellion so they could keep the profits all for themselves.

And what is in store for the Duchess and the children and parents she met after their brief afternoon soiree? The parents will go to minimum and low-wage jobs and struggle to make ends meet for their families on less purchasing power than they had 10 years ago. The children will go back to impoverished lives without the extra lessons, tutoring, expensive camps, college consultants and other educational advantages enjoyed by the children of the upper middle class and wealthy. Studies indicate that very few will escape poverty or near poverty, far fewer than used to rise before we became a nation of rich and poor. And the Duchess will continue to live a dream life, a perpetual vacation of meeting other celebrities, smiling at bigwigs at parties, enjoying the finest of foods, wines, clothes and jewelry, getting prime seats at every game and opera, officiating at events, hiding from paparazzi on exotic and luxurious vacations and dabbling at charitable causes. All the while, she will represent the idea of royalty, that some people deserve better lives, not because they worked hard or have some special talent, but because of an accident of birth.

Imagine if instead of being born the child of the next-in-line to the British throne, Prince William were born in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. He shows all signs of being a good soldier who follows directions. That means living in the Middle East, he might have ended up with a tenuous connection to terrorists. The American army might have swept him up in a police action and deposited him at an undisclosed CIA location. Instead of swapping yarns with President Obama this week, he might be a pathetically shell-shocked survivor of water-boarding, shock treatments and rectal hydration.

Yes, we in the United States have a lot to be ashamed about this week.

ACLU idea to pardon Bush II torture crew won’t prevent future administrations from torturing

Former Vice President and Torturer-in-Chief Dick Cheney disputes the two main findings of the report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, AKA, America’s torture gulag started by George W. Bush’s administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Cheney believes that torture is legal and that it yielded information that helped in the war against terrorism. The Senate Committee report questions the legality of torture and concludes that the CIA’s torturing of 119 incarcerated men yielded absolutely zero information of value. Why anyone needed our grotesque experiment in barbarism to learn that torture never works is beyond me. All you had to do was ask torture victim John McCain.

It makes sense that Dick Cheney would defend his own policies, but I wonder why more responsible conservatives are so upset at the release of the report. It’s too early to tell whether the report will incite violent reactions in the Islamic world, but not to release the report would do much more harm to American ideals than having a few embassies pelted with eggs or hearing crowds exclaim anti-American slogans. We’re an open society, and an open society does not bury its mistakes.

In the United States, we may not bury mistakes, but we often do not make the offenders pay a price for making them. Certainly when a country wages all its wars thousands of miles from its borders, the citizenry is never fully aware of the savagery that wartime inflicts on its victims. Those responsible for the illegal bombing of Cambodia never paid for their crimes. Nor did those who illegally sold guns to the Iranian government and used the profit to fund illegal activities of right-wing rebels in Nicaragua. When he first took office, President Obama quickly ruled out prosecuting anyone in the Bush II administration for torture, even as he moved quickly to eradicate most vestiges of the torture system. Bush II torture gives Obama a perfect straw man: no matter what he does, be it drones, spying on U.S. citizens or killing instead of trying Osama bin Laden, Obama—and the country—can always proudly say that at least it’s not torture.

In good American fashion, Anthony Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, wants to pardon the instigators and implementers of our torture machine. In a New York Times editorial, Romero says that by pardoning the torture crew, we set into stone the idea that torture is illegal, since you can only pardon someone for crimes they commit. Obama is not inclined to prosecute. The pardon would substitute for a conviction in establishing the illegality of torture, thus short-circuiting any future administration that wanted to claim torture was legal.

Romero forgets that torture is already illegal in the Geneva Convention, which the United States signed and has never repudiated. Very few legal experts believe torture is legal–about as many as there are scientists who doubt the Earth is warming.

He also forgets that Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon did not prevent future presidents from spying on people, bombing other countries without the permission of Congress or carrying out illegal covert operations. All it did was tie a ribbon on the Nixon story, allowing the country to move forward and forget.

I for one don’t want there to be public closure on this disgraceful stain upon American history and ideals. The best case scenario would be to bring Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Tenet, Addington, Yoo and Bybee up on charges, but that’s probably not going to happen. But it certainly won’t happen when the organization most associated with civil liberties in the country stops clamoring for some kind of court or tribunal for these monsters.

In proposing pardons for the torturers, Romaero is doing some Obama-like negotiating: giving away the store as the opening position. The ACLU chief negotiates away the threat of prosecution for what amounts to very little—closure on a shameful era. Instead of proposing pardons, the ACLU should launch an aggressive public communications campaign advocating prosecution of the Bush torture crew. As part of its mission, the ACLU should do whatever it can to use our 21st century inquisition as a constant reminder that in securing the peace we must remain vigilant of the freedoms that make that peace worth securing.

3 cultures poison U.S. policing & lead to killing of black men in Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, Brooklyn & elsewhere

There are some human beings, mostly men, who like to kill or would relish killing if given the opportunity.  Although I am a pacifist and despise all wars, I understand why such individuals would make fine soldiers on the battlefield.

But they make lousy cops, because the job of a police officer is to protect and keep safe, not to kill.  When they slip through the rigorous selection process of police departments and then slip up, they should not be protected, but rooted out. Knowing they will be protected if they kill makes these men even more trigger happy. It also makes them do what men who like to kill naturally do—seek the company of other men who like to kill. And thus a culture of violence against civilians develops. I imagine the arming of local police departments with military grade weaponry and armaments only encourages the formation of such a culture.

Let’s change perspectives now and consider that everyone makes mistakes. But adults must pay for their mistakes. Sometimes they make small mistakes and the pay is minimal and even salutary—learning a new skill or technique, taking a class, listening to your wife a little more carefully for a few weeks. The bigger the mistake, the bigger the payment.  No one fires you the first time you give a customer the wrong change, but they do if you’re caught stealing.  But when an institution decriminalizes mistakes—for example, if employees are not reminded when they turn in reports late or don’t get approvals for cost estimates—then people will continue to make the mistake and a culture of mistakes develops. Looking the other way about chokeholds is no different from winking when someone tells a little white lie to a customer, except for one thing—a chokehold can kill.

It’s clear that most police officers, like virtually all public school teachers, are competent professionals. Most know how to use restraint in their responses to the public. In the prominent recent cases of police officers reacting too quickly or going too far, the cops in question are quite young or have a history of excessive force with suspects. But because police departments, prosecutors and police unions rush to protect the police officer who kills a civilian no matter what the circumstances, those prone to make mistakes feel they have nothing to fear.

The creation of both the culture of violence against civilians and the culture of condoned mistakes certainly explain why police officers commit 3% of all homicides in the United States.

But why are the victims always African-American?

African-Americans are only about 14% of the population. Only 27% of gun owners are black. Compare either of those numbers to the 39 % of all Americans killed by police during an arrest who were unarmed. Estimates of how many unarmed African American die at the hands of armed white police officers range from two a day to six a day. And every high profile case, which means every case in which the police actions were so egregiously overwrought that it caught the attention of the news media, involves an African-American victim.

The culture of racism is the third pernicious culture that turns police departments full of mostly good cops into killing machines. I’ve been reading David Brion Davis’ scholarly three volume analysis of the idea of slavery in western culture, published over a period of about 50 years.  One dynamic I have noticed is that as the ideas of representational government, the free market and social mobility crept into western thought in the 17th and 18th centuries, political thinkers began to justify slavery in a world of free agents by conceiving of black people as inferior and more animal-like. The more the ideas of democracy assumed central importance, the more virulent and widespread racist notions became. The supposed inferiority of Africans justified keeping people of dark color as slaves. These attitudes persisted after a nation emancipated slaves, growing even stronger where the former slave populations lived.

The poisonous legacy of racism persists in America.  Blacks charged with the same or similar crime as whites receive harsher punishments. Whites demonize those who accept food stamps or welfare and associate poverty with blacks, even though the overwhelming number of people who receive food stamps or are on welfare are white. Politicians use racial code words to win elections.  Stop-and-frisk policies and other aggressive policing techniques always focus on minority neighborhoods.  The same prosecutor who can’t convict a white man of shooting down a black man (Trayvon Martin) is able to get a jury to send away a black woman 21 years (later overturned) for firing a gun in the air to warn her abusive husband to keep his distance.

Police violence against African-Americans is part of the institutional racism that has not just plagued, but destroyed much that is great about our country. Racism was the primary motive for people to move to the suburbs and into a wasteful car-centric lifestyle after World War II. Racism led to the decline of the cities in the last half of the 20th century. Racism was at the root of the original home schooling and private school movements in regions that were forced to desegregate their schools, movements now gone national and threaten to destroy our public school systems.  Racism filled our nation’s prisons with non-violent offenders convicted of victimless crimes.

But we can’t see into the minds of men and so will never know whether racism had anything to do with the acts of the individual police officers who killed Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and other innocent black men.  The facts, however, prove that police, police unions and prosecutors condone mistakes and the “shoot first” mentality, even if these institutions and the people who run them proclaim they want cops to avoid violent mistakes and recklessly endangering the public.  It is the unwillingness to prosecute and the tendency to close ranks and protect the offenders that allows institutional racism to turn deadly in a system supposedly run according to a fair and consistent application of the law.

Ferguson grand jury verdict probably not racist, but policing strategies and judicial system are

According to Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, the altercation that led to him pulling the trigger of his gun and killing Michael Brown last August started when either Brown or his friend said “Fuck what you have to say.”

Let’s be clear: everyone in the United States has the right to say “Fuck you” to a police officer. I’ve done it myself a time or two, and every single time, the police officer has stood there passively and taken it, or returned the conversation to the subject, likely my jay-walking or breaching of a police barrier.

Now at the point at which Brown or his friend “fuck-you’d” Wilson, no one had committed a crime. All these kids had done was walk in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk, something I remember doing all the time when I was a teenager in Miami, Florida.

There seemed to be no reason for the interaction to turn into an altercation, just as there seemed to be no reason for the altercation to have turned into the killing. We can only imagine the deeply felt emotions both Wilson and Brown must have had inside them that spurred this deadly incident.

But as no crime was committed and Wilson proved clueless as to how to cool down the situation, he should at the very least have lost his job or been suspended for using poor judgment. Except for one thing—hassling Black youths is a tried-and-tried-again police tactic throughout the United States. Everywhere it seems as if young Black men have targets on their backs when it comes to being stopped in the streets by the local constabulary.

Our indictment should start then not with Wilson, but with the Ferguson police department and the exceedingly racist if widespread idea that hassling young Black men helps to prevent crime.

As to the grand jury, I’m inclined to believe that the members did a proper job of weighing the evidence before them and that they bent over backwards not to reach a knee-jerk decision in favor of Wilson. But even if the grand jury appears to have come to a proper decision given all the evidence, Michael Brown remains a victim of institutional racism. Even if the grand jury had indicted Wilson for manslaughter, Brown would still be dead, still a victim of a system that treats minorities and the poor much more harshly than it treats whites and rich folk.

The protests in the wake of the decision not to indict were thus not about the decision not to pursue a criminal case against Darren Wilson. The uprisings, both those planned and those spontaneous, were about the system that routinely produces police shootings and beatings, virtually always of minorities.

Sadly, since the Michael Brown case there have been incidents of police shooting innocent bystanders in Los Angeles, Cleveland and New York. In the Cleveland case, a child was killed after he pulled out a fake gun. In a New York case, someone late at night in a public housing complex entered a darkened stairwell at the very moment a rookie police officer was walking up the steps. The police officer saw the body—but no gun—and shot. In what looks like a complete whitewash, the New York police department is calling it an “unfortunate accident.” Funny, the panicking rookie still had the presence of mind to shoot to kill. In fact, the ironic but tragic coincidence in all these cases is that the police officers are good enough shots to kill but not good enough shots to hit the leg or arm or in some other way disable the victim. Perhaps police departments should not teach their officers to shoot to kill.

There is of course the possibility that the incidence of police violence is actually low when you take into account the large number of guns on the streets and the crime rate, which by the way has been falling steadily for the past 25 years. For all we know, a hypothetical study might prove that the number of police killing of innocent victims was actually quite low. That still wouldn’t explain the fact that the innocent victims are almost always minorities.

To say that more African-Americans are involved in violent altercations with police because more of them commit crimes is a crude lie based on a misreading of statistics. More whites than Blacks commit crimes, just as more whites than Blacks are on welfare. Even if the percentage of criminals is higher among Blacks than whites (to be expected since there are always more criminals among impoverished groups), there are still more white criminals committing more crimes.

So how come the victims of these police shootings or other acts of violence such as death by chokehold are virtually always African-American? For the same reason that I can say “fuck you” to a cop after crossing the street on the red and my African-American male friends (all professionals and graduates of Ivy League or Ivy League level schools) routinely get stopped by police while driving their late model cars by for absolutely no reason.

It’s called racism. And people of all social, ethnic and racial backgrounds are sick of it. That’s why people protested last night and why they’ll return to the streets next time a police officer mistakenly kills an African-American, be it by gunfire, chokehold or beating.

Should we mourn end of the American holiday of Black Friday or celebrate new holiday of Black Friday Week?

How long is Black Friday? A day? A weekend? A week?

Now that American retailers have freed themselves from the taboo against shopping on Thanksgiving, Black Friday can mean anything one likes. With more and more stores offering discounts and revving up advertising right after Halloween, the holiday shopping season threatens to consume the entire fall, much as the harvest, processing and storage of the crops used to do before the industrial revolution. Instead of sickles, threshers and canning equipment, we wield credit cards and smart phones.

I wonder how traditionalists feel now that Black Friday sales begin the Monday before Thanksgiving and earlier? Do they miss the week-long anticipation of a one-day bacchanalia of shopping bargains and surging crowds? Do they sob in dismay as presales drain the true meaning out of Black Friday—the official kickoff to a month-long potlatch of buying and consumption? Or do they embrace the greater opportunity for celebration, as the de facto number of shopping days swells? Perhaps some even welcome the expansion of Black Friday, as it swallows Thanksgiving and diminishes the imperatives of that competing holiday of an older culture. After all, why should a family meal impede the imperatives of consumer culture?

All facetiousness aside, I find it fascinating to see how different vendors are approaching the start of the holiday shopping season now that the rigidity in start date imposed by the obligations of celebrating Thanksgiving has eroded. I applaud the many national retailers such as Costco, Marshall’s, Barnes & Noble, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s and Burlington Coat Factory who are staying closed on Thanksgiving. I wonder if they ran the numbers and realized that keeping the doors closed for Thanksgiving does not cost them any overall sales. I’m sure they have happier employees, and happier employees are usually more productive.

Walmart has opened its doors on Thanksgiving for almost 25 years now. It currently intends to treat Black Friday like an invasion—phasing in different sales events as if they were deploying tank divisions to breach a border at several points. At the chime of midnight on Thanksgiving, Walmart starts a blitzkrieg of sales on its website. While Walmart will have its doors opened all day Thanksgiving, it will offer a round of special sales at 6:00 pm and another at 8:00 pm. Then comes the main event—the traditional 6:00 am Black Friday opening with its own set of special sales.

Walmart, by the way, is far from the only retailer to desecrate Thanksgiving. Macy’s, Kmart, Sears, Penney, Target, Kohl’s and Best Buy are just a few of the many national retailers who think they can make extra bucks by getting a head start on the holiday shopping season.

For my household, Black Friday week started when the mail came today, and we saw the New York magazine holiday gift guide—551 gift suggestions ranging in costs from one penny to $4 million, virtually all of which are completely frivolous and inessential. Some of the more conspicuously useless of the gifts under $50 include “Yoga Joes (G.I. Joes doing Yoga instead of waging war), an evil-eye key chain, a bottle of water from the so-called fountain of youth, Japanese KitKat bars, socks from the tailor who supplies the pope and a banana slicer.

Unlike the traditional magazine gift guide, the New York guide is an interactive tool. All you have to do is download a free app and then scan the image of the products you want to buy by holding “the smartphone steady 4-6” away from the printed page and let your camera focus until you hear a chime,” as a full-page ad in the publications tells us. The third step—since it’s as easy as one, two, three, like everything else in the dreamland called American commerce—is to buy the items from the e-commerce page.

We somehow finagled a year’s free subscription to New York, but some people are actually paying money to get this special issue, which conveniently arrived on the first day of the new American holiday of Black Friday Week.

I must have somehow become an obstinate old codger. I proclaim the virtues of diversity all the time, and yet the diversity in Black Friday celebration that we currently have by the various national churches of commerce such as Walmart, Macy’s and Costco leaves me uneasy. I find it unseemly that in generating Black Friday Week we are naming a week after a day. I also wonder what meaning there can be left in the shared traditions of camping out overnight, pushing together to break through a logjam of people and sending different family members with lists to different departments or stores—all the fun stuff we associate with Black Friday and remember from our childhood—all of it must lose some meaning knowing that you could have picked up the same hand-held computer or hot toy earlier in the week. I should instead marvel at the fact that in the United States, you have so many options for buying meaningless crap—that is provided, you have the money.

LOL or COL (crying out loud).