Narrative insurgency | grassroots communications tips pt.3

( – promoted by Paul Rosenberg)

This is the third post in a series at

Progressive change agents often engage in something that I call narrative attack; they make a direct attack on one narrative or worldview from the vantage point-and in the language-of their own opposing narrative or worldview.  For example, when some people wrap up their anti-environmental views (e.g. climate change denial) in the rhetoric of their creationist beliefs, it is all too tempting for more scientifically minded people to directly attack the climate change deniers’ whole belief system.  That is narrative attack.  Once a direct attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible, because people feel that their whole belief system is under siege.

(Clearly conservatives do this as well, but given that the purpose of this post is not to criticize but to offer communications strategy suggestions, I’m just discussing this from the viewpoint of progressives.)

A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative, learning the component parts, looking for “allies” inside the narrative.  In the Biblical creation story, for example, God charges humankind to be the caretakers of God’s sacred creation.  Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment “home-grown insurgency” inside the belief system against the most problematic beliefs (which, in this case, is indifference to climate change).  By stressing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation, that ally belief is singled out for positive reinforcement within a complex belief system.

This approach works with people’s tendency toward confirmation bias, which smartMeme summarizes as “people’s habit of screening information based on their own beliefs. In other words, people are much more likely to believe something that reinforces their existing opinions and values than to accept information that challenges their beliefs.”

To be clear, the term “narrative insurgency” is internal and strictly metaphorical, and it may be a more useful metaphor for some social change groups than others.  I first introduced the framework of narrative insurgency versus narrative attack in Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

If we are to transform cultural meanings, we need to think not in terms of attacking culture from the outside, but rather in terms of homegrown insurgency, indigenous to the culture. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative. [We need to change] the culture from the inside out. (With the term narrative insurgency we are stressing that new meanings must rise up within existing cultural narratives – a nonviolent and thoroughly political process.)

Returning to the original example of climate change denial, the narrative insurgent approach-assuming that it is well executed with a well-crafted message and an orientation to genuinely connect with others-is likely to help in important ways.  First, it helps to find and draw out allies: creationists (or closet evolutionists in the given religious community) who care about the environment.  Second, this approach will make it more difficult for your hardest opposition to win allies for their extreme position – or to demonize advocates of environmental stewardship.  Finally, by repeating and positively reinforcing this message (in the context of ongoing engagement and relationship), the belief that we should care for the earth is strengthened within the given community’s complex collective belief system.  Organizers then have the challenge of helping to give positive collective expression to the emboldened belief.

Again, from Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

Cultural narratives (e.g. America: Beacon of Liberty, Purveyor of Democracy) are characteristically complex, often rife with contradictions, and vary from one person to the next. Narrative insurgents do not reject narratives wholesale, but distinguish between those components that are allied, hostile or neutral to their cause. They embrace as much of a cultural narrative as possible-the allied and neutral components-and encourage the further development of the allied components, using these as the foundations for their organizing efforts in the given community.

It’s important to point out that this approach is not about inherently avoiding direct confrontation with destructive narratives and beliefs.  Rather it is a preference for utilizing positive reinforcement at many points in a long-term social change process.  Ultimately there comes a time when a destructive narrative becomes untenable to a critical mass of people, and when a new polarization will be useful (a revolutionary moment, for example).  The strategy here is for the necessary lead-up work to such a moment: to feed the allied components within a narrative until they are strong enough to burst out of the old framework.  (I will explore this moment of the mass psychic break in a future post.)

Since publication of Building a Successful Antiwar Movement four years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to lead campaign strategy sessions in which participants brainstorm together to list beliefs and stories that are popular among the constituencies they are engaging.  They categorize the beliefs into five categories on a spectrum: strongly supportive, somewhat supportive, neutral, somewhat opposing, and strongly opposing.  A strongly supportive belief would be one that lends itself strongly to the group’s mission and purpose.  This mapping helps the group to identify what kinds of messages are likely to have the strongest resonance in their campaign messaging.

This is only a genuinely grassroots approach if the framework is applied in the context of accountable relationships and with reliable feedback loops.  It’s about connecting with people’s positive values – not tricking them.  Concluding on that note, once again from Building a Successful Antiwar Movement:

If change agents do not love the people and communities they are engaging, then narrative insurgency for them will likely be an unsuccessful attempt to manipulate people to further an agenda. It is not enough for that agenda to be human liberation or even love itself – in the abstract. A change agent must love the specific people and communities s/he engages. S/he must value each relationship in its own right. While s/he will often disagree with others’ opinions, s/he still values and even empathizes with their perspectives. S/he is forgiving toward their shortcomings. S/he is always rooting for them, always finding something worthy of praise, even when it seems like finding a needle in a haystack. As such, narrative insurgency begins to come naturally; s/he does not have to feign identification with the allied and neutral components within the narrative, within the culture … A change agent learns the intricacies of cultural narratives not to deceive people, but to communicate common values in a language that holds meaning for them.

Egypt: Mubarak Departure Virtually Inevitable, But Then What?

Perhaps the most important news from Egypt today, via the BBC:

1854: The BBC’s Jon Leyne in Cairo says: “The announcement by the Egyptian army that it will not use force against their own people, and that it considers the demands of the protesters “legitimate”, could be a devastating blow to President Mubarak. To regain control of the streets, he would need the use – or at least the threat – of force from the army. It comes after a call by the opposition for a million-strong demonstration on Tuesday in central Cairo. It now seems increasingly likely that the 30-year rule of Mr Mubarak is drawing to a close.”

Things are a bit confused in the short run, as army units have been deployed to apparently limit protesters’ mobility.  But this is perfectly compatible with an army plan to replace Mubarak via a velvet coup, a scenario that could take advantage of the military figures just appointed to top posts.

OTOH, the protesters’ call for a massive “million man march” tomorrow could tip the military toward a less closely-held approach, if they value prestige more than tight-fisted control.  (One interviewee I heard on Al Jazeera said there would be a “million man march” in Alexdria as well.)

No one seems to have any sort of handle on internal army politics, which increasingly seems almost synonymous with Egyptian politics as a whole in the near term.

As the protest movement matures, it may also be on the verge of starting to splinter, with participants interviewed starting to talk about what sort of end-state they want, even as El Baradei, the Muslim Brotherhood and other more identifiable figures are focusing attention on the immediate demand for Mubarak to leave, and idea of a transitional “government of national unity”.

Presumably, much more is going on in the background both inside and outside of Egypt, and legitimate fears are that the longer this goes on, the more cosmetic any changes will be–despite the outward forms.  Limits on who can run for parliament and for president are the most obvious forms this could take, and these could easily be “adjusted” from a rather open system to one just as repressive as the current system.

The marches tomorrow will make it a very big day.  But more than ever, the question, “for what?” looms over everything.

As above, so below

Maybe it’s a toss-up as to which is which–the State of the Union or the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Final Report.  Both, however, got not one, but two Republican responses, one more profoundly disconnected from reality than the other.  

Investigation/Intimidation: The New McCarthyism

But while Obama’s State of the Union was so relentlessly buy-partisan that it drew support from the Chamber of Commerse, the FCIC Final Report was far too reality-based for that sort of reception.  Indeed, that’s precisely why there were two Republican dissents: to deny a consensus for moving foreward. But that was merely step one–the defensive posture put into place when GOP power was at it’s lowest ebb (more on this momentarily).  Now, as Paul Krugman notes, with Republicans in charge of the House, and Darryl (“I shoulda been governor”) Issa in charge of investigations, the GOP is going on the offensive, with planned investigations of “corruption”:

Inquiry and Intimidation

I haven’t seen this reported elsewhere – but Republicans in Congress are planning to investigate the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, looking for evidence of corruption and wrongdoing.

It’s absurd, of course: a tiny commission with a small budget didn’t offer much scope for corruption.

But what this is really about is intimidation – in much the same way that investigations of climate scientists are about intimidation.

What the GOP wants is to make people afraid even to do research that produces conclusions they don’t like. And they don’t stop at trying to undermine the research – they go after the researchers personally.

Indeed, the irony here is spectacular. The Financial Times story Krugman links to says:

Monday is the deadline set by Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House oversight committee, for Phil Angelides, chairman of the commission, to provide financial information and e-mail records to allow a congressional investigation of the investigators.

Mr Issa says he wants to check that taxpayers got value for money in the investigation and to examine any potential conflicts of interest, the high staff turnover, requests for more funding and the breakdown in relations between Republicans and Democrats.

But when it comes to questions of “value for money” it’s not the commission as a whole that stands out, but rather the Michelle Bachmann analogue, as explained by Mike Konczal in the most thorough instant analysis of the report, “FCIC Report, 1: The False Politicalization of the Final Report.”  Taking just one tidbit for the moment, he wrote:

[I]t was almost 100% likely that Wallison’s report was going to be exactly what he and a handful of other true-believers at the conservative think tank AEI believed before the FCIC panel. Sure enough, first four footnotes of the Wallison dissent:

This report is exactly what he believed in 2009. Think about this. We paid this guy at a level IV of the Executive Schedule, which is a juicy six-figure salary, for the days he worked. He had a staff, subpenoa power, researchers, documents, access, interviewers. And he ultimately had a responsibility to be an investigator. And his final product is a handful of AEI white papers from 2009 stapled together. If there is new evidence from his investigations I didn’t see it on the first pass. He could have not been on the FCIC, we could have put in a conservative who was serious about getting to the bottom of what’s broken with our financial system, and Wallison could have written the same exact thing on his own.

So there’s a bit of “corruption” as Issa defines it, just ripe for the picking.  Dollars to donuts it goes right past him and his crack team of investigators.  And of course, as Issa’s witch-hunt gets going, we can expect Glenn Beck to give Angelides & Co. the Frances Fox Piven treatment as well. The Republican thugocracy is just getting started.  Did Angelides hire the New Black Panthers as part of  his “investigation?  Just asking.  You see what a bottomless pit this is set up to be?

Narrative Wars

Meanwhile, in a much more cursory overview, at Dkos, Meteor Blades captures some high-level narrative snapshots.  From the official report he gives us this overview:

“The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire. The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand, and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble. While the business cycle cannot be repealed, a crisis of this magnitude need not have occurred. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not in the stars, but in us.”

And from the majority minority report, he gives us this:

The majority says the crisis was avoidable if only the United States had adopted

across-the-board more restrictive regulations, in conjunction with more aggressive

regulators and supervisors. This conclusion by the majority largely ignores the global

nature of the crisis.

The majority minority has a point in their second sentence–albeit a point that completely undermines the more popular conservative attempt to blameit all on the darkies and the liberal do-gooders.  The housing bubble was indeed a global phenomenon, as seen in this chart I’ve run before:

But this hardly means that the American government was inherently helpless to avoid the collective downside risk this represented.  I mean, whatever happened to American Exceptionalism?  Why wasn’t the historical narrative, “America alone avoided the folly…”?  At a bare minimum, this was a legitimate question to ask and to pose for the commission to answer.  But, of course, it was much worse than that, since the American financial system took this global phenomenon, and made it all much more risky and calamitous when it failed. Thus, the conservative majority minority trots out an initially appealing narrative whose purpose is not to elucidate, but to distract.  This becomes even clearer when one looks at their causal timeline:



The following ten causes, global and domestic, are essential to explaining the financial and economic crisis.

    I. Credit bubble. Starting in the late 1990s, China, other large developing countries, and the big oil-producing nations built up large capital surpluses. They loaned these savings to the United States and Europe, causing interest rates to fall. Credit spreads narrowed, meaning that the cost of borrowing to finance risky investments declined. A credit bubble formed in the United States and Europe, the most notable manifestation of which was increased investment in high-risk mortgages. U.S. monetary policy may have contributed to the credit bubble but did not cause it.

Except that–as Dean Baker pointed out long ago–the US housing bubble started in 1995, and the US interest rates didn’t start dropping until Greenspan started his crusade to inflate our way out of the first Bush recession & its aftermath.  Thus, the history of US interest rates bears no relationship whatsoever to the starting point of the conservative majority minority explanation:

The international scope of the housing bubble shows that there clearly was a global capitalist system disequilibrium much bigger than America alone, and the FCIC was not tasked with trying to deal with it–hardly a surprise given the dominant true-believerhood of Versailles.  But this does not mean the FCIC was wrong in its conclusions–only that they are necessarily limited in scope.  In his analysis, Konczal writes:

The Republicans and conservatives did a great job trying to hatch-job and politicize the reception of this volume by breaking away and writing a dissenting opinion, since the FCIC’s opinion has virtually all the honest conservative thoughts expressed in there.

He then gives a couple of examples.  And continues:

The report spends a lot of time analyzing how the GSEs failed, and what the CRA’s role in the crisis was, and handles the topics in a fair, critical and investigative manner. I haven’t gone through the full dissent by the three Republican members yet, but on the first glance it look like an aesthetic critique at best. Their narratives are virtually identical, except that the Republicans don’t actually call out Wall Street in any serious manner.

I think David Dayen gets it right here: “My sense is that somebody told the Republicans on the commission that they’d better not assent to the final report, or else there would be some kind of consensus for action.”

No one is threatening to criticize the capitalist system as a whole, they’re only threatening to criticize the ideologically unhinged version of it that crashed the global economy–and to point the way for some relatively modest corrections.  But this must be treated as a “corrupt” ideological enterprise, just as Obama’s embrace of the Heritage Foundation’s healthcare plan must be treated as a socialist government takeover of healthcare.

Larger Problems Left Untouched

Meanwhile, in the real world, real fundamental problems remain.  Capitalist economics ultimately relies on incoherent arguments. Economics as currently practiced is not a science, although it does have scientific elements to it.  It is, rather, a highly politicized, structurally corrupt   discipline–an argument made in Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Mythology by Michael Perelman, which I’ve referenced in a number of diaries, though never specifically about his argument that economics is not a science.  However, an excellent story at Huffinton Post by Ryan Grim last September–“Priceless: How The Federal Reserve Bought The Economics Profession”–serves to illustrate some of the internal sociological problems plaguing economics that Perelman talked about. It begins thus:

The Federal Reserve, through its extensive network of consultants, visiting scholars, alumni and staff economists, so thoroughly dominates the field of economics that real criticism of the central bank has become a career liability for members of the profession, an investigation by the Huffington Post has found.

This dominance helps explain how, even after the Fed failed to foresee the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, the central bank has largely escaped criticism from academic economists. In the Fed’s thrall, the economists missed it, too.

“The Fed has a lock on the economics world,” says Joshua Rosner, a Wall Street analyst who correctly called the meltdown. “There is no room for other views, which I guess is why economists got it so wrong.”

One critical way the Fed exerts control on academic economists is through its relationships with the field’s gatekeepers. For instance, at the Journal of Monetary Economics, a must-publish venue for rising economists, more than half of the editorial board members are currently on the Fed payroll — and the rest have been in the past.

The Fed failed to see the housing bubble as it happened, insisting that the rise in housing prices was normal. In 2004, after “flipping” had become a term cops and janitors were using to describe the way to get rich in real estate, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said that “a national severe price distortion [is] most unlikely.” A year later, current Chairman Ben Bernanke said that the boom “largely reflect strong economic fundamentals.”

The Fed also failed to sufficiently regulate major financial institutions, with Greenspan — and the dominant economists — believing that the banks would regulate themselves in their own self-interest.

Although logically no more than a sidebar, the Fed’s treatment of Paul Krugman is deeply telling:

And celebrity is no shield against Fed excommunication. Paul Krugman, in fact, has gotten rough treatment. “I’ve been blackballed from the Fed summer conference at Jackson Hole, which I used to be a regular at, ever since I criticized him,” Krugman said of Greenspan in a 2007 interview with Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! “Nobody really wants to cross him.”

An invitation to the annual conference, or some other blessing from the Fed, is a signal to the economic profession that you’re a certified member of the club. Even Krugman seems a bit burned by the slight. “And two years ago,” he said in 2007, “the conference was devoted to a field, new economic geography, that I invented, and I wasn’t invited.”

Three years after the conference, Krugman won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for his work in economic geography.

If climate science were conducted like this, we’d never hear the end of it.  It would make the periodic eruptions we endure nowadays seem like a Victorian tea party.

As a result, fundamental problems are almost entirely buried.  The neo-Keyensian/anti-Keyensian battles that Krugman has described entirely sidestep the wide array of different approaches and arguments that post-Keyensians advance, as well as other approaches that more or less overlap with them–including efforts to properly value nature, or to ground economics in sound social science. The real debates we ought to be having as a nation are not even close to getting even passing mention.  There is far more talk about global warming being “a hoax” than there is any mention of how nature ought to be properly valued.  That is how utterly delusional our public economic discourse is today, as we still struggle deep in the grips of the Great Recessions and denial that it’s still going on, and will be for at least another 7 years or so.

Three Hugely Positive Early Reviews for BACK TO OUR FUTURE

I’m about 7 weeks away from the launch of my third book, which is entitled BACK TO OUR FUTURE: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now.How the 1980s Explain. This is usually the time I start freaking out and fearing for the worst. But in the last week, the book has gotten a huge boost from two of the tougher early review magazines in the publishing industry.

The first came from Kirkus Reviews (which, incidentally, slammed my last book). Here’s an excerpt of their review:

Born in 1975 and a proud child of the ’80s, In These Times senior editor and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist Sirota ponders what it means when America has suddenly started “speaking the ancient 1980s dialect of my youth.”…The scope of the author’s period knowledge is indisputable, and he parlays his experience as a Democratic strategist into politically charged discussions about the anti-governmental preaching on The A-Team, Ronald Reagan’s questionable approach to Vietnam veterans and the bulletproof vigor of movies like Rambo, Red Dawn and Top Gun. While applauding the morale-boosting heft of Nike’s 1988 “Just Do It” campaign, Sirota evenhandedly criticizes today’s reality-TV-obsessed, attention-starved Facebook generation for its self-centeredness as something “the 1980s did to us, and what the 1980s mentally makes us want to be.”…Maybe most important is Sirota’s chapters on the impact The Cosby Show and others like it had on ’80s black America and, now, on Obama’s “postracial” image.

A sharp, dizzying history lesson that packs a punch.

Then, at the end of last week, Book Forum published a review saying this:

“Sirota has picked through the decade’s cultural detritus to reconstruct the scene of a generation’s ideological poisoning…In Sirota’s telling, this transformation was a group effort, with much of the credit going to Rambo, Rocky, “Dirty Harry’ Callahan, the A-Team, Michael Jordan, Alex Keaton, Crockett and Tubbs, Murtaugh and Riggs, Maverick and Goose, Charles Barkley, the insipid yuppies of Thirtysomething, and Hulk Hogan and Sergeant Slaguther…

He tells the tale with wit and subtlety – stressing (the) way that adept mythmaking, wedded to new media technologies, exerted a strong pull on his mind and those of others who feasted on ’80s pop culture, and in the process transformed (the) nation.”

And now this from Publishers Weekly this morning:

Sirota (The Uprising) ushers readers back to the era of big money and bigger hair, the yuppie and the Gipper to show how the 1980s transformed–and continues to influence–America’s culture and politics. As Carter’s presidency began to crumble in 1978, a revival of back-to-the-’50s theater, television, and film productions (Grease, Happy Days, La Bamba) overtook grittier 1960s imagery of “urbanity, ethnicity and strife” and came to define the Reagan era in a country eager to forget–or unwilling to learn from–the failure of Vietnam…His arguments are well informed and sparkle with wit and irreverence.

Obviously, I’m pretty psyched that the early reviews are so positive. Writing is an incredibly tough way to make a living, and it can be really demoralizing – so this is a really big psychological boost. And I hope after reading those reviews you will pre-ordering the book. If you like my work, are interested in the 1980s and the decade’s relevance today, please consider it!

The Art of Demonization

One of the oldest excuses for war is that the enemy is irredeemably evil. He worships the wrong god, has the wrong skin and language, commits atrocities, and cannot be reasoned with. The long-standing tradition of making war on foreigners and converting those not killed to the proper religion “for their own good” is similar to the current practice of killing hated foreigners for the stated reason that their governments ignore women’s rights. From among the rights of women encompassed by such an approach, one is missing: the right to life, as women’s groups in Afghanistan have tried to explain to those who use their plight to justify the war. The believed evil of our opponents allows us to avoid counting the non-American women or men or children killed. Western media reinforce our skewed perspective with endless images of women in burqas, but they never risk offending us with pictures of women and children killed by our troops and air strikes.

Imagine if war were really fought for strategic, principled, humanitarian goals, the “march of freedom,” and the “spread of democracy”: wouldn’t we count the foreign dead in order to make some sort of rough calculation of whether the good we were trying to do outweighed the damage? We don’t do so, for the obvious reason that we consider the enemy evil and worthy of death and believe that any other thought would constitute a betrayal of our own side. We used to count the enemy dead, in Vietnam and earlier wars, as a measure of progress. In 2010 General David Petraeus revived a bit of that in Afghanistan, without including civilian dead. For the most part now, however, the higher the number of dead is, the more criticism there is of the war. But by avoiding counting and estimating, we give the game away: we still place a negative or empty value on those lives.

But just as the supposedly irredeemable heathen were converted to the correct religion when the screaming and dying stopped, so too do our wars eventually come to an end, or at least a permanent occupation of a pacified puppet state. At that point, the irredeemably evil opponents become admirable or at least tolerable allies. Were they evil to begin with or did saying so just make it easier to take a nation to war and persuade its soldiers to aim and fire? Did the people of Germany become subhuman monsters each time we had to make war on them, and then revert to being full humans when peace came? How did our Russian allies become an evil empire the moment they stopped doing the good humanitarian work of killing Germans? Or were we only pretending they were good, when actually they were evil all along? Or were we pretending they were evil when they were only somewhat confused human beings, just like us? How did Afghans and Iraqis all become demonic when a group of mostly Saudis flew airplanes into buildings in the United States, and how did the Saudi people stay human? Don’t look for logic.

Belief in a crusade against evil remains a strong motivator of war supporters and participants. Some supporters and participants in U.S. wars are motivated, in fact, by a desire to kill and convert non-Christians. But none of this is central to the real, or at least the primary and surface-level, motivations of war planners. Their bigotry and hatred, if they have any, may ease their minds, but do not typically drive their agenda. War planners do, however, find fear, hatred, and revenge to be powerful motivators of the public and of military recruits. Our violence-saturated popular culture makes us overestimate the danger of violent attack, and our government plays on that fear with threats, warnings, color-coded danger levels, airport searches, and decks of playing cards with faces of the most evil enemies on them.

Evil vs. Harm

The worst causes of preventable death and suffering in the world include wars. But here in the United States, the leading causes of preventable death are not foreign cultures, foreign governments, or terrorist groups. They are illnesses, accidents, car crashes, and suicides. The “War on Poverty,” “War on Obesity,” and other such campaigns have been failed attempts to bring to bear on other great causes of harm and loss of life the same passion and urgency usually associated with wars against evil. Why is heart disease not evil? Why is cigarette smoking or the lack of workplace safety enforcement not evil? Among the rapidly growing unhealthy factors impacting our life chances is global warming. Why do we not launch urgent all-out efforts to combat these causes of death?

The reason is one that makes no moral sense, but makes emotional sense to us all. If someone tried to hide the danger of cigarettes, knowing this would result in much suffering and death, he would have done so to make a buck, not to hurt me personally. Even if he did act for the sadistic joy of hurting lots of people, though his acts might be counted evil, he still would not have specifically set out to hurt me in particular through a violent act. Athletes and adventurers put themselves through fear and danger just for the thrill. Civilians enduring bombing raids experience fear and danger, but not the trauma suffered by soldiers. When soldiers return from wars psychologically damaged, it is not primarily because they have been through fear and danger. The top causes of stress in war are having to kill other human beings and having to directly face other human beings who want to kill you. The latter is described by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his book On Killing as “the wind of hate.” Grossman explains:

“We want desperately to be liked, loved, and in control of our lives; and intentional, overt, human hostility and aggression – more than anything else in life – assaults our self-image, our sense of control, our sense of the world as a meaningful and comprehensible place, and, ultimately, our mental and physical health….It is not fear of death and injury from disease or accident but rather acts of personal depredation and domination by our fellow human beings that strike terror and loathing in our hearts.”

This is why drill sergeants are pseudo-evil toward trainees. They are inoculating them, conditioning them to face, handle, and believe they can survive the wind of hate. Most of us, fortunately, have not been so trained. The airplanes of September 11, 2001, did not hit most of our homes, but the terrorized belief that the next ones might hit us made fear an important force in politics, one that many politicians only encouraged. We were then shown images of foreign, dark-skinned, Muslim, non-English speaking prisoners being treated like wild beasts and tortured because they could not be reasoned with. And for years we bankrupted our economy to fund the killing of “rag heads” and “hadji” long after Saddam Hussein had been driven out of power, captured, and killed. This illustrates the power of belief in opposing evil. You will not find the eradication of evil anywhere in the papers of the Project for the New American Century, the think tank that pushed hardest for a war on Iraq. Opposing evil is a way to get those who will not profit in any way from a war on board with promoting it.


In any war, both sides claim to be fighting for good against evil. (During the Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush mispronounced Saddam Hussein’s first name to sound like Sodom, while Hussein spoke of “Devil Bush.”) While one side could be telling the truth, clearly both parties in a war cannot be on the side of pure goodness against absolute evil. In most cases, something evil can be pointed to as evidence. The other side has committed atrocities that only evil beings would commit. And if it hasn’t really done so, then some atrocities can easily be invented. Harold Lasswell’s 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War includes a chapter on “Satanism,” which states:

“A handy rule for arousing hate is, if at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man. Originality, while often advantageous, is far from indispensable. In the early days of the War of 1914 [later known as World War I] a very pathetic story was told of a seven-year old youngster, who had pointed his wooden gun at a patrol of invading Uhlans, who had dispatched him on the spot. This story had done excellent duty in the Franco-Prussian war over forty years before.”

Other atrocity stories have more basis in fact. But usually similar atrocities can also be found in many other nations against which we have not chosen to make war. Sometimes we make war on behalf of dictatorships that are themselves guilty of atrocities. Other times we are guilty of the same atrocities ourselves or even played a role in the atrocities of our new enemy and former ally. Even the primary offense against which we are going to war can be one we are guilty of ourselves. It is as important, in selling a war, to deny or excuse one’s own atrocities as to highlight or invent the enemy’s. President Theodore Roosevelt alleged atrocities by the Filipinos, while dismissing those committed by U.S. troops in the Philippines as of no consequence and no worse than what had been done at the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, as if mere mass murder were the standard of acceptability. One U.S. atrocity in the Philippines involved slaughtering over 600, mostly unarmed, men, women, and children trapped in the crater of a dormant volcano. The General in command of that operation openly favored the extermination of all Filipinos.

In selling the War on Iraq, it became important to stress that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons, and equally important to avoid the fact that he had done so with U.S. assistance. George Orwell wrote in 1948, “Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral color when it is committed by ‘our’ side….The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

At some point we have to raise the question of whether the atrocities are the real motivation of the war planners, which should lead us to also look into the question of whether war is the best tool for preventing atrocities.

A Plank in Our Own Eye

The record of the United States, sadly, is one of big lies. We are told that Mexico has attacked us, when in reality we attacked them. Spain is denying Cubans and Filipinos their liberty, when we should be the ones denying them their liberty. Germany is practicing imperialism, which is interfering with the British, French, and U.S. empire building. Howard Zinn quotes from a 1939 skit in his A People’s History of the United States:

“We, the governments of Great Britain and the United States, in the name of India, Burma, Malaya, Australia, British East Africa, British Guiana, Hongkong, Siam, Singapore, Egypt, Palestine, Canada, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Virgin Islands, hereby declare most emphatically, that this is not an imperialist war.”

Britain’s Royal Air Force kept busy between the two world wars dropping bombs on India, and took the prime responsibility for policing Iraq by firebombing tribes who did not or could not pay their taxes. When Britain declared war on Germany, the British imprisoned thousands of people in India for opposing World War II. Were the British fighting imperialism in World War II, or just German imperialism?

The original enemies of bands of human warriors may have been large cats, bears, and other beasts that preyed on our ancestors. Cave drawings of these animals may be some of the oldest military recruitment posters, but the new ones haven’t changed much. During World War II the Nazis used a poster depicting their enemies as gorillas, copying a poster that the American government had produced for the first world war to demonize or sub-humanize the Germans. The American version carried the words “Destroy This Mad Brute,” and had been copied from an earlier poster by the British. U.S. posters during World War II also depicted the Japanese as gorillas and bloodthirsty monsters.

The British and U.S. propaganda that persuaded Americans to fight in World War I focused on demonization of the Germans for fictional atrocities committed in Belgium. The Committee on Public Information, run by George Creel on behalf of President Woodrow Wilson, organized “Four Minute Men” who gave pro-war speeches in movie theaters during the four minutes it took to change reels. A sample speech printed in the committee’s Four Minute Men Bulletin on January 2, 1918, read:

“While we are sitting here tonight enjoying a picture show, do you realize that thousands of Belgians, people just like ourselves, are languishing in slavery under Prussian masters?…Prussian ‘Schrecklichkeit’ (the deliberate policy of terrorism) leads to almost unbelievable besotten brutality. The German soldiers…were often forced against their wills, they themselves weeping, to carry out unspeakable orders against defenseless old men, women, and children….For instance, at Dinant the wives and children of 40 men were forced to witness the execution of their husbands and fathers.”

Those who commit or are believed to have committed such atrocities can be treated as less than human. (While Germans committed atrocities in Belgium and throughout the war, those that received the most attention are now known to have been fabricated or remain unsubstantiated and very much in doubt.)

In 1938, Japanese entertainers falsely described Chinese soldiers as failing to clear away their dead bodies after battles, leaving them to the beasts and the elements. This apparently helped justify the Japanese in making war on China. German troops invading the Ukraine during World War II could have converted surrendering Soviet troops to their side, but they were unable to accept their surrender because they were unable to see them as human. U.S. demonization of the Japanese during World War II was so effective that the U.S. military found it hard to stop U.S. troops from killing Japanese soldiers who were trying to surrender. There were also incidents of Japanese pretending to surrender and then attacking, but those do not explain away this phenomenon.

Japanese atrocities were numerous and hideous, and did not require fabrication. U.S. posters and cartoons depicted Japanese as insects and monkeys. Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey told the New York Times:

“Fighting Japs is not like fighting normal human beings. The Jap is a little barbarian…. We are not dealing with humans as we know them. We are dealing with something primitive. Our troops have the right view of the Japs. They regard them as vermin.”

A U.S. Army poll in 1943 found that roughly half of all GIs believed it would be necessary to kill every Japanese on earth. War correspondent Edgar L. Jones wrote in the February 1946 Atlantic Monthly, “What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.”

Soldiers don’t do that sort of thing to human beings. They do it to evil beasts.

In fact, enemies in war are not just less than human. They are demonic. During the U.S. Civil War, Herman Melville maintained that the North was fighting for heaven and the South for hell, referring to the South as “the helmed dilated Lucifer.” During the Vietnam War, as Susan Brewer recounts in her book Why America Fights,

“War correspondents frequently did ‘citizen soldier’ interviews with articulate young officers who would be identified by name, rank, and hometown. The soldier would talk about being ‘here to do a job’ and express confidence in eventually getting it done….In contrast, the enemy was routinely dehumanized in news coverage. American troops referred to the enemy as ‘gooks,’ ‘slopes,’ or ‘dinks.'”

A Gulf War editorial cartoon in the Miami Herald depicted Saddam Hussein as a giant fanged spider attacking the United States. Hussein was frequently compared to Adolf Hitler. On October 9, 1990, a 15-year- old Kuwaiti girl told a U.S. congressional committee that she’d seen Iraqi soldiers take 15 babies out of an incubator in a Kuwaiti hospital and leave them on the cold floor to die. Some congress members, including the late Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), knew but did not tell the U.S. public that the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, that she’d been coached by a major U.S. public relations company paid by the Kuwaiti government, and that there was no other evidence for the story. President George H. W. Bush used the dead babies story 10 times in the next 40 days, and seven senators used it in the Senate debate on whether to approve military action. The Kuwaiti disinformation campaign for the Gulf War would be successfully reprised by Iraqi groups favoring Iraqi regime change twelve years later.

Are such fibs just a necessary part of the process of stirring up weak souls’ emotions for the truly necessary and noble work of war? Are we all, each and every one of us, wise and knowing insiders who must tolerate being lied to because others just don’t understand? This line of thinking would be more persuasive if wars did any good that could not be done without them and if they did it without all the harm. Two intense wars and many years of bombing and deprivation later, the evil ruler of Iraq was gone, but we’d spent trillions of dollars; a million Iraqis were dead; four million were displaced and desperate and abandoned; violence was everywhere; sex trafficking was on the rise; the basic infrastructure of electricity, water, sewage, and healthcare was in ruins (in part because of the U.S. intention to privatize Iraq’s resources for profit); life expectancy had dropped; cancer rates in Fallujah surpassed those in Hiroshima; anti-U.S. terrorist groups were using the occupation of Iraq as a recruiting tool; there was no functioning government in Iraq; and most Iraqis said they’d been better off with Saddam Hussein in power. We have to be lied to for this? Really?

Of course, Saddam Hussein did actual evil things. He murdered and tortured. But he caused the most suffering through a war against Iran in which the United States assisted him. He could have been the pure essence of evil, without our own nation’s needing to qualify as the epitome of unstained goodness. But why did Americans, twice, somehow choose the precise moments in which our government wanted to make war to become outraged at Saddam Hussein’s evil? Why are the rulers of Saudi Arabia, just next-door, never any cause for distress in our humanitarian hearts? Are we emotional opportunists, developing hatred only for those we have a chance to unseat or kill? Or are those who are instructing us as to whom we should hate this month the real opportunists?

David Swanson is the author of “War Is A Lie” from which this is excerpted. See

History repeating itself

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and with it Warsaw Pact and eventually the Soviet Union.  It caught almost everyone in the West by surprise.  The CIA didn’t have a clue–in part because of Robert Gates, who had dutifully politicized the intelligence throughout the 1980s.  But he was just a cog in a much larger machine.  More fundamentally, it happend because the CIA had been ambushed by neocons in 1976, with the help of then-CIA director George Herbert Walker Bush, producing the infamous “Team B” report, which falsely imagined a massive Soviet arms build-up. When Reagan was elected in 1980, this became the foundation of US military policy and intelligence analysis–but it was completely and utterly wrong.  The Soviet Union was declining even as the Team B report was being written, and a case can be made that the aggressive posture the US assumed under its misguidance actually prolonged the Cold War by strengthening the hands of Soviet hardliners.  

A succinct account of this, “Team B: The trillion-dollar experiment” by Anne Hessing Cahn, was published in the April 1993 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Cahn published a book-length account five years later, Killing Detente: The Right Attacks the CIA.  I mention this for three reasons.  First, because the neocon’s were essentially spinning a fantasy out of whole cloth, openly disdaining facts:

Team B accused the CIA of consistently underestimating the “intensity, scope, and implicit threat” posed by the Soviet Union by relying on technical or “hard” data rather than “contemplat[ing] Soviet strategic objectives in terms of the Soviet conception of ‘strategy’ as well as in light of Soviet history, the structure of Soviet society, and the pronouncements of Soviet leaders.”

This was directly parallel to how the neocons spun 9/11, not as a lucky shot by a marginal group of criminal terrorists who got lucky in large part due to Bush Jr.’s ineptitude and knee-jerk antipathy to anything associated with Bill Clinton, but as a signal of a new existential threat to the security of America.

Second, just as the “Team B” neocon fantasy deeply exacerbated what was actually an increasingly manageable threat, so, too, the “Great War on Terror” neocon fantasy did exactly the same thing with Al Qaeda.

Third, just as the “Team B” neocon fantasy collapsed roughly a decade later with a completely unexpected and unforseen wave of democratic revolution from below, something remarkably similar is happening in the Arab world today.  The two cycles of historical folly differ in many respects that should not be overlooked or forced into pre-conceived forms to make for a neater narrative/theory.  The similarities that do exist are striking enough on their own not to need any gussying up.

But my point here is not to delve deep into comparative narrative. Rather, I want to use it as a backdrop for better grasping what is unfolding right before us in Egypt today….

Soft Power I: The Cold War & Its End

One major thing the neocons in and around “Team B” did not grasp was the tremendous soft power of Western democratic ideals, and the vibrant cultural consequences thereof.  This harkens back to a fundamental clevage in controlling models of what the Cold War was all about, which I have revisted on several occassions, and which was masterfully explained by Efstathios T. Fakiolas in “Kennan’s Long Telegram and NSC-68: A Comparative Analysis,” East European Quarterly, Vol. 31, no. 4, January 1998.  

Fakiolas described two models, both within the realist foreign policy tradition–the first embraced by Paul Nitze in the long-secret NSC-68, the second embraced by George Kennan in the Long Telegram:

On running the risk of oversimplification, we can make two basic classifications: the billiard ball perspective and the tectonic plates model…. The principal argument of the billiard ball perspective is that the international system is composed solely of egoistic sovereign states interested in maximizing their relative power capabilities at the expense of others; world politics is a “zero-sum” game in which national security conceived of in military and territorial terms is the one and only states’ national objective. On the other hand, the main assertion of the tectonic plates model is that even though states are the most important protagonists in world politics, there exist many other non-state actors; the distribution of power determines the outcomes in many fields of international system to the extent that the interaction of states structures varying patterns of behavior; for the world is not “zero-sum,” and the opportunity for mutual cooperation is most often present.

It’s worth noting that these models echo the basic conceptions of orthodox neoclassical “free market” economics (the billiard-ball model, embraced by Nitze) and of Keyensian, Minskyian and various other macro-economic and other hetereodoxies (the tectonic plates model, embraced by Kennan).   The key difference between these models for the current discussion is this: Kennan recognized that Western society’s greatest strengths were cultural and political, and that the greatest of these, at least potentially, was our capacity for self-correction by taking Soviet criticisms non-defensively as a guide to self-perfection.  Fakiolas wrote:

The following lines, though drawn from a subsequent piece of work by Kennan, highlights more persuasively this argument: “it is not Russian military power which is threatening us, it is Russian political power […], the threat lay in the terrible truths which the Russians have discovered about the vulnerability of liberal democratic society […], it is not entirely a military threat, I doubt that it can be effectively met entirely by military means.”

And even more pointedly, for current purposes, in the “Long Telegram” Kennan himself wrote this concluding comment item:

(3) Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meets Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqu

Obama’s “constructive engagement” with Mubarak: A shameful legacy approaching a shameful end.

Obama’s first public political speech, at Occidental College on February 18, 1981, was delivered in opposition to apartheid, and in support of the divestment movement. (The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick [pp 109-110].)

“There’s a struggle going on!” he said, “A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No–it’s a harder choice than that.  It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong.”

As the divestment movement grew, Ronald Reagan developed a counter-strategy, known as “constructive engagement”, which was overtly supposed to counter apartheid, but was actually intended to counter the divestment movement.

While Obama and Reagan were on opposite sides way back when, things have changed a lot since then.  South African apartheid is long gone from the international scene, but something disturbingly similar has emerged in Israel, with illegal Israeli settlements and pass laws turning occupied Palestine into a near-perfect replica of apartheid-era South Africa–hardly a surprising outcome, given that Israel was long South Africa’s leading supporter, even helping out with its nuclear program.  And Egypt is Israel’s prime enabler in the region, supported by $1.3 billion in US military aid, as the historic peace treaty brokered by Jimmy Carter has become a means for creating a condition of unspeakable evil–about which, of course, America says nothing.  (Hence, unspeakable.)  What’s more, as WikiLeaks cables revealed, in UK Guardian coverage last Friday, the US was well aware of routine torture in Egypt (“US reported ‘routine’ police brutality in Egypt, WikiLeaks cables show”), but wanted to keep on Egypt’s good side (“WikiLeaks cables show close US relationship with Egyptian president”).

The sharp contrast of endless kind words in public, and stark assessments of brutality in the cables serves to underscore why the Obama Administrations “nuanced” public statements are far more popular with the conservative Versailles punditalkcrazy than they are with the Egyptian people in the street, who find Obama to be unconvincing in his role of would-be champion of democracy and human rights.  Indeed, it’s only a secret here in heavily-propagandized America that the entire Mideast order is based on coercion–military force, secret police, and intelligence agencies that routinely employ torture.  Israel’s “democracy” is free to drift farther and farther into delusional rightwing fantasies thanks to our support and the collusion of Arab dictatorships. Nothing there could be remotely similar if it needed democratic foundations and the consent of the governed–all of the governed–to survive.

One of the WikiLeaks cables cited by the Guardian has a summery section that reads:

1. (C) Summary and comment: Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 15 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.

Independent NGOs have criticized GOE-led efforts to provide human rights training for the police as ineffective and lacking political will. The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution. We want to continue a USG-funded police training program (ref F), and to look for other ways to help the GOE address police brutality.

That last bolded sentence is the very essence of “constructive engagement.”  As the main text of the cable makes clear, there is no real interest in actual reform, motivated by respect for human rights.  Instead, to the extent there is any insterest at all in change, it is an interest in minimizing friction, and targeting torture victims more carefully.  Thus, it’s only when Muslim Brotherhood members get involved in political matters that they can expect to be tortured.  The cable continues:

Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. One human rights lawyer told us there is evidence of torture in Egypt dating back to the times of the Pharaohs. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone.

None of this matters, of course, because of America’s special relationship with Egypt, underwiting its “peace treaty” with Israel, and its active and passive support for Israel’s Bantustanization of Palestine. Which is not to say that American elites give a rats ass about Arab democracy or human rights anyway.  (Not that American democracy means anything, either. See the Senate filibuster as a prime example.*) The stability of “reliable allies” has always counted for much, much more, and in that respect, nothing has changed.

But they have to pretend to care–particularly for one another’s sake.  It’s called “keeping up appearances”, and it’s the one thing they’re very good at.  Not really, of course, so far as the rest of the world is concerned. But they devote so much more attention to it than they do to, oh, say, basic fact-checking, that one has to find some way to acknowledge the effort.

And, of course, even though they screw things up in the short run, their ability to define reality by endless repitition in the long run means that Obama really has nothing to worry about, so long as he continues to basically hue to the neo-con “long war” policy line, with a few prettifying gestures here and there along the way, as he has so far chosen to do.

To underscore the long-term powers of official revisionism, consider this: After Reagan’s death in 2004, amidst the chorus of hosannas that his cheerleaders orchestrated, Derrick Jackson wrote an oped that’s currently Googleable only overseas:

The dark side of Ronald Reagan

June 12, 2004

President Bush proclaimed this week: “Ronald Reagan believed that God takes the side of justice and that America has a special calling to oppose tyranny and defend freedom.” In the first three days of news reports on the death of the former US president, not a single major American newspaper, television station, or politician dared to exhume the following counterpoint to the Reagan’s legacy: “Immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian.”

These were the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, spoken on Capitol Hill at a US committee hearing in late 1984. It was just after Reagan’s easy re-election. Tutu had just been awarded the Nobel peace prize for his non-violent struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Throughout the United States, a rising number of Americans were calling for American companies to stop doing business there.

Reagan ignored them. The president of so-called sunny optimism attempted to blind Americans with his policy of “constructive engagement” with the white minority regime in Pretoria. All constructive engagement did was give the white minority more time to mow down the black majority in the streets and keep dreamers of democracy, such as Nelson Mandela, behind bars.

In the weeks leading up to his appearance on Capitol Hill, Tutu said in speeches that it seemed that the Reagan White House saw “blacks as expendable” in South Africa. The white government forced black people from prized lands and into horrid townships. Migratory labour laws split families for 11 months at a time. Education was gutted for black children. There was virtually no due process for black defendants. Tutu said it was “reminiscent of Hitler’s Aryan madness”. Tutu declared that “constructive engagement is an abomination, an unmitigated disaster”.

On Capitol Hill, Tutu became a public relations disaster for Reagan. Tutu started off the hearing by saying apartheid itself “is evil, is immoral, is un-Christian . . .” I was there, and all breathing stopped.

Tutu continued: “In my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian . . . You are either for or against apartheid and not by rhetoric. You are either in favour of evil or you are in favour of good. You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can’t be neutral.”

Tutu received an unprecedented standing ovation by the committee. Even Reagan’s Republican allies told the South African embassy they would reluctantly support sanctions if Pretoria did not move to end apartheid.

With no Tutu-like figure anywhere on the scene, what are the odds, 20 years from now, that even such a faint trace of objection will survive?

Human rights?  Democracy? They are the last things that actually matter in Versailles.

* Here in America, our government is legislatively controlled by a Senate minority that can represent as few as 31,435,000 people (2009 figures, US Statistical Abstract, xls file), which is more than 5 1/2 million people less than California’s population of 36,962,000. What kind of democracy is that?

Republican Leaders Again Equivocate on Spending Cuts

Once more since arriving on Capitol Hill, the new Republican dominated House of Representatives and the newly reinforced Republican Senate minority has equivocated on the topic of spending cuts. By now we are all well aware that the Republicans have abandoned the goal of cutting $100 billion dollars this fiscal year and likewise, they have failed to produce a pro rata spending reduction plan to address that shortened year. We all remember that taxes, debt reduction and spending cuts were in the forefront of the Republican agenda for the 2010 elections as these headlines from conservative sources show: “Tax, Spending Cuts Top GOP Campaign-year ‘Pledge” or “Tax, spending cuts lead Republican campaign manifesto” Needless to say, You get the idea.

Okay so what then happened to all of the bold talk about taking on entitlements and spending? When faced with having to answer that question on national television Mitch McConnell echoed the reluctance that Speaker of the House John Boehner had previously stated. As if by magic, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appearing on “Meet the Press” danced around the question that Republicans seemed obviously reluctant to come out with bold measures to tackle deficit spending as the following exchange between Senator McConnell and host David Gregory reveals:

“MR. GREGORY: Well, that’s very interesting because I’ve also detected a great deal of caution on the part of Republicans who, who campaigned on the idea of spending cuts. And yet, when it comes to a program like Social Security–it was Speaker Boehner who told a group of us this week, “Well, look, we need to spend more time defining the problem before we get in the boat with the president here and say that we’ve got to make long-term changes.” Is that your view?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, look, we have, we have two problems here. It’s our annual deficit, completely out of control. We’re going to send the president a lot less–we’re going to allow him to sign onto a lot less spending than he recommended the other night and that he’s likely to send us in the budget. Then with, with regard to long-term unfunded liabilities, the entitlements, Speaker Boehner’s correct, you cannot do that on a partisan basis. President Bush tried doing that in 2005 with regard to Social Security’s problems. And by the way, the announcement this week that Social Security’s gone into deficit, it will run a $45 billion deficit this year and for as far as the eye can see. Look, entitlement reform can only be done on a bipartisan basis. It’s happened before. Reagan and Tip O’Neill fixed Social Security in ’83. Reagan and the Democratic House did tax reform in ’86.

MR. GREGORY: So, but if the president were to say, “OK, Leader McConnell, if, if you’re prepared to deal with some revenue increases, we can also deal with some benefit cuts. Let’s take a balanced approach to Social Security,” you could support that?

SEN. McCONNELL: Look, you know, you’ve tried this before. I, I’m not going to negotiate the deal with David Gregory. I’d be happy to negotiate it…

MR. GREGORY: I keep hoping you’ll change your mind.

SEN. McCONNELL: I’d be happy to try to negotiate the deal, and Speaker Boehner would too, with the president and the vice president and others.

MR. GREGORY: But does the president have to go first before you’ll take on entitlement reform?

SEN. McCONNELL: We have to go together. We have to go together. The American people are asking us to tackle these problems. I think the president needs to be more bold. We’re prepared to meet–I’ve got a lot of new members, and Speaker Boehner does as well, who came here to tackle this big problem. We were waiting…

MR. GREGORY: But you’re saying, “Be bold on entitlements and Republicans will meet you halfway”?

SEN. McCONNELL: We’re happy to sit down and talk about entitlement reform with the president. We know Social Security is in trouble. It was just announced by CBO this week. We know Medicare is on an unsustained path. They took a half a trillion dollars out of it to fund this healthcare program that they enacted. Look, we need to get serious about this.”

As the above commentary reveals, what we have before us is a Republican leadership cadre that has already deviated from the rhetoric of the campaign trail by putting the ball in Barack Obama’s court by stressing that it is the duty of the President to come up with “bold” proposals on deficit and spending reduction as per Senator McConnell’s commentary above. But wasn’t that what the Republicans ran on in the first place? For all of the rhetoric of 2010 can’t they showcase their own bold ideas on “Meet the Press”, America’s premier Sunday morning political talk show? Likewise, Speaker Boehner’s comment that Republicans “need to spend more time defining the problem” also seems to ring hollow, coming from a guy who on this very show said before the 2010 elections that the G.O.P. had spent the past last year listening to “the American people.”

Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t the Republicans present themselves as the people who had this problem figured out and who knew what to do to get this country back on the right track, which oddly enough they got us off of in the first place when they squandered a trillion dollar plus surplus and launched two wars while cutting taxes, a historical first for the United States? They had the opportunity to put that surplus into the Social Security system or to use it to pay down the national debt as they were advised to do by Alan Greenspan, yet they chose to do otherwise. Now when elected to produce bold public policy to address our fiscal problems they plead for “more time” and look a president much maligned by them for “bold” proposals!

What’s also semi-comical is Mr. McConnell’s new found affinity for bipartisan cooperation. Isn’t it a bit curious that they very guy who said it was his goal to see that Barack Obama be a one term president, now openly solicits the President’s support and cooperation? Is this borne of a realization that the Republicans can’t possibly meet their agenda alone? Is this a maneuver concocted to throw a curve ball at the Tea Party crowd as there has been little beyond rhetoric on the part of the G.O.P. when it comes to deficit reduction specifics? We’ve all heard about Congressman Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America” yet it’s a document that few in the Republican Party had signed onto in the run up to 2010.

In the final analysis it seems that the bold rhetoric of the campaign trail has now faded in the harsh winter of political reality. Hence the old adage, “talk is cheap.” Now that they are in a position of power in Washington, the Republicans will have to finally translate their rhetoric into policy, thus far they have done little but dance around the tough issues and meet tough questions with clever rhetorical replies. How long will that last before their constituents hit the streets and demand some form of accountability from those who went to Washington to turn back the tide of Obama “the Socialist.”

Steven J. Gulitti



Meet the Press transcript for Jan. 30, 2011… … anscripts/

The Tea Party Agenda: Is It Already Slip Sliding Away ?… … iding_away

Republicans Lower Goal for Cuts to Budget;… … 1&emc=eta1

GOP Exempts Deficit Busting Policies From New Budget Rules;

http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo… … -rules.php

New pay-go rules reveal GOP’s misplaced priorities;… … s_opinions

House GOP Backtracking on Promised ‘Reforms’ Before They Even Get Started;… … 04227.html

“Tax, Spending Cuts Top GOP Campaign-year ‘Pledge”…id371215

Tax, spending cuts lead Republican campaign

manifesto … publi.html

60 Minutes: Putting the BS in CBS

The reason people in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the world have been influenced to some extent by the work of Wikileaks is that they have read or heard about the material that Wikileaks has helped to make public.  The CBS program “60 Minutes” has just published video of an interview with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange — with the video focused, of course, on Assange himself, with almost no substantive content related to the massive crimes and abuses that have made news around the globe.

The value of the “60 Minutes” video is not in its potential to inform anyone about Wikileaks.  We can’t, after all, judge the utility of informing Americans about their nation’s illegal spying, bombing, war making, or coup facilitating until Americans are actually informed of it, which will require that we finally drop the BS “reporting” on Assange’s childhood and haircuts.

The value of the “60 Minutes” video is in its potential to inform us about CBS and the corporate media in the United States, of which it is a typical or even above average example.  60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft shot six hours of interview with Assange, which “60 Minutes” cut down to snippets for tv viewing.  Some decent questions may have been asked.  If so, they didn’t make the cut.  

Kroft tries desperately in the interview to distinguish Assange from respectable journalists.  At one point he explains to Assange that most reporters interpret information, whereas Wikileaks puts out raw data for others to interpret.  Of course, this isn’t true of Wikileaks, which has often provided context and explanations, transcriptions and timelines.  What it hasn’t done is pile ideological spin and fluff on the information it has sought to communicate.  

An example of what’s wrong with the practice of most U.S. reporters is Kroft’s video presentation of this interview. Kroft does show a bit of the famous “Collateral Murder” footage but “interprets” it by leaving out the criminal shooting of the van, a clear crime committed by U.S. forces in Iraq.  

Immediately after accusing Assange of not really being a reporter, Kroft asks Assange why he mistrusts authority.  Assange begins to answer, and before three words are out Kroft jumps to a voiceover focusing on Assange’s childhood.  Who knows whether Assange tried to answer the question Kroft should have asked: “Where do you see the greatest and smallest gaps between actual governmental behavior and public pretenses?”  Kroft had already introduced the segment by calling the belief that governments use secrecy to suppress truth a “conspiratorial view,” so presumably Kroft thought he already knew the answer: there are no such gaps.

Kroft describes Assange as paranoid and explains nonsensically: “There are reasons for his paranoia.”  Kroft cites Wikileaks’ release of information that might have displeased governments in Kenya and Tunisia, a neo-Nazi group, and the Scientologists.  When Kroft finally comes to the United States, it doesn’t seem as likely a source of danger to Assange as the dreaded Scientologists’ death squads.  Assange points out the number of U.S. government officials and media figures who have called him a terrorist or proposed killing him.  Kroft insists that not many people take seriously the idea that Assange is a terrorist.  And yet Kroft later claims that Americans believe Bradley Manning, an accused leaker of information to Wikileaks, is “a traitor.”  Kroft cites no polling to substantiate either claim.  We’re just supposed to credit his wisdom as a real journalist.

Digging for a way to accuse Assange of something (just as the U.S. Department of Justice is openly and criminally engaged in trying to invent a crime for which to prosecute him), Kroft reaches for that old standby, the laughably inaccurate suggestion of hypocrisy.  Kroft tells Assange that he abhors secrecy and yet runs a secretive organization.  Assange rightly responds that he keeps sources secret for good reason (something U.S. journalists were once able to relate to) and that he does not oppose governments keeping any secrets at all, he opposes them covering up crimes and blocking accountability.  

Well, well, well, says Kroft, you’re just weird, cult-like, and paranoid — or at least that’s what I heard.  Kroft always attributes his fluff and BS to others, which is what makes it “objective,” although it fails to make it valuable.  When the you’re-weird accusation doesn’t seem to stick, Kroft tells Assange that he can’t be a journalist because he’s an activist.  When Assange replies that “activist” has become a dirty word in the United States, Kroft agrees.  But Assange points out that Wikileaks does a particular sort of activism; it doesn’t advocate for policies, it informs people so that they are able to advocate for or against things.  This strange sort of activism could also be called journalism, if “journalism” hadn’t come to mean advocacy for a corporate agenda and celebration of government secrecy.  

Without noting the power of investigative journalism, Kroft does note the power of Wikileaks — without apparently wondering where it comes from.  This is another, more absurd than ever, chance to accuse Assange of hypocrisy.  If you are a check on the powerful, Kroft says, who is a check on you?  A-ha, caught him!

Assange replies that sources and donors would dry up if Wikileaks were not doing good work.  There is a far better answer than that one.  For all I know, Assange gave it and it was cut.  That answer is this: If Wikileaks releases information that people find valuable and informative, then that information will make its way to those who diligently search for it on the internet or live in nations with decent communications systms.  If not, then Wikileaks will be ignored.  But as long as Wikileaks is interesting masses of people, any error of any sort made by Wikileaks will be attacked by those in control of governments and television networks.  

When Kroft calls Assange anti-American, Assange claims the lineage of Jefferson and Madison.  In fact, Jefferson, on his best days, wanted the public fully informed of what its government was doing, and believed that only an informed public could prevent complete corruption.  We’re almost there — at complete corruption — right now.  Wikileaks is an exception.  Those following its lead are a threat to the current system.  Kroft, a so-called journalist, tells Assange that there are special rules to be followed in handling classified information.  Assange corrects him.  There are rules, Assange points out, for government employees and members of the military, but not for publishers.  Publishers are covered by the First Amendment.  Assange is right, of course, but shouldn’t Kroft know this already?  And shouldn’t he be deeply ashamed to have published this video?

If they let you get away with this . . . , Kroft tells Assange, who interrupts to finish his sentence: “. . . they’ll have to have freedom of the press.”  Exactly.  Assange tells Kroft he’s willing to risk jail for that.    Kroft gives us no reason to believe he doesn’t hold such behavior in contempt.  No doubt the early Christian saints, if alive today, would be smart enough not to risk punishment and professional enough to intersperse advertisements for Pfizer’s drugs in their pronouncements, as Kroft does.  

And yet, Kroft almost certainly believes that by asking Assange about every crazy point of view invented on Fox News he has done Assange a great favor, played devil’s advocate, offered Assange a platform from which to respond to what everybody who’s anybody thinks of him.  In an extra video on the “See BS” website, Kroft declares Assange a journalist or at least a publisher.  

This extra clip, believe it or not, is an interview of Kroft by one of his colleagues who praises him for his “intellectual sparring” with Assange, as he recounts the exciting behind-the-scenes work of conducting an all-fluff interview of an actual reporter.

It’s all the more frustrating to watch this crap after having spent days watching actual live television news reporting from Egypt on Al Jazeera English.  The lack of journalism in the United States is not a function of the medium of television.  It is a function of many systemic weaknesses, but also of our willingness to treat the pretense of journalism like the real thing.

Those who consider “activist” among the cleanest of words can get involved in preventing the United States from imprisoning or killing Assange here:  

One last filibuster reform myth

Chris Bowers has a good, detailed write up on how the Senate rules reform fight happened.  It’s good reading for those interested in the tactical and strategy debates for how the netroots can most effectively bring about change and so forth.  Lots of good grist for that in there, including Chris himself backing away because he might be a liability and the impact of the pro-choice groups who came out quietly against reform behind the scenes.

The myth I would like to challenge is that the Republicans will necessarily kill the filibuster themselves on the first day of the next Congress if they take the majority in 2012.  Not very likely.

The Republicans know how useful the current rules are for them and would never give up such an advantage until they had to in order to win some bigger fight.  

The filibuster is not a knife that “cuts both ways” – or at least a knife that cuts both ways even close to equally.  Aside from the long history of the thing where it is almost always used in support of conservative aims (really, try to name an important conservative item filibustered by liberal Senators, I have to go back to Huey Long to even find a candidate worth discussing), the filibuster theoretically favours conservatives for two big reasons:

First that since conservatives tend to represent the interests of the wealthy and powerful, these interests are satisfied to have government do nothing as they have enough power already to go about their business of acquiring more power and wealth.  They will gladly accept government help when they can get it, but they don’t usually need it.  Mostly what the filibuster is good for is vetoing measures that would see government act to help the powerless which always comes at expense of the powerful.

Second is that most conservative priorities can already be passed under reconciliation rules, which circumvent the filibuster for “budget” items (like tax cuts).  There was a lot of discussion about what parts of the health care reform could or should have been passed under reconciliation.  The existence of that debate became obvious cover for conservadems to oppose using reconciliation for the public option or other liberal ideas for the bill, meanwhile Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 were both passed using reconciliation.  

So even before we get to discussions of the gutlessness, cowardice or just plain believing in conservativism on the part of too many Democratic Senators we already have the filibuster as a loaded die before the players even reach the table.

The 2005 filibuster fight over judicial nominees tells us how this fight will really go:  Republicans will end the filibuster if necessary to get the things they want.  When they threatened to do so, enough Democrats backed down and gave them what they wanted so that it wasn’t necessary.  Even then they weren’t going to nuke the entire filibuster, but rather the artificial category of “judicial” filibusters they invented out of whole cloth so that they could preserve legislative filibusters which advantage them so much.

Of course it would have been much better for the Democrats if they had let the Republicans do this, since many many more of Obama’s lower court nominees would have been confirmed and Democrats wouldn’t have let down the netroots when they failed to filibuster Alito since no such thing would be possible.  In exchange, the same horrible Bush nominees that were confirmed would have been confirmed.  Zero downside, much upside.

Don’t get me wrong, if a bill repealing Social Security is on the table and the filibuster is the last obstacle to President Gingrich signing it, they’ll nuke it in a flash, but they won’t do it on the first day of Congress or any such thing.  They know they can use the nuclear option whenever needed and they know the “process” stories written about such an event will only be followed by a small fraction of the nation anyway.