Monday, July 29, 2013

On being a black president

I must confess that my first reaction to Pres. Obama's remarks about Trayvon Martin was outrage. Here was one more young black man victimized by white racism, and the president asked us to reflect on his fate. Where were the suggestions for job and education programs for young black men, where a re-examination of our voracious prison system, where the bold call for an alliance of people of color and white anti-racists to resist the new racism as we see it in voter identification laws, in "stand your ground" laws, and progressively more punitive treatment of young black men?
But soon I realized that this reaction was unfair and completely unreasonable. The President can barely get his cabinet members approved by the Senate. The House of Representatives seems to have only one goal, to prevent the president from doing anything useful at all. So how could we expect him to call for a new crusade against racism?
But that made me think about being a black president in the United States today. The United States is still a white country when it comes to power, to getting one's way, to determining who gets what, who is a full citizen and who needs to be on the defensive every day. Barack Obama finds himself at the head all of this white power structure. His position is to execute laws and regulations, frequently supported by people motivated by racism. As the head of this white establishment, he compromises his integrity because he is not only the President of people of color but also of white citizens, many of whom are deeply racist. He has to restrain himself and refrain from proposing actions to mitigate the worst injustices white citizens and their institutions commit every day.
Yes, it is progress of a sort to have a black president. Not long ago that was completely unthinkable. But this black president and any future one for years to come will be in a terribly ambiguous position that must surely be painful for him, of being unable to resist racism where he encounters it and being unable to counteract it by positive government initiatives.
When, hopefully soon, we elect a woman as president, we will place her in the same ambiguous and no doubt painful situation.

We owe President Obama a debt of gratitude for exposing himself to the pervasive racism in the US and making himself, occasionally, its executor. He benefits the country at significant personal cost.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Racial discrimination is alive and well.

Representative Andy Harris of Maryland had this to say about George Zimmerman's acquittal:  "We're hung up on this one case where this one fellow was in fact found not guilty by a jury. That's the way the American law system works. Get over it."

But he left out something. That's the way the American law system works if you are white. If you are black, the system works very differently.

Consider the case of Marissa Alexander.

According to the Washington Post of July 15, 2013: "Marissa Alexander, a 32-year-old mother of three, fired what she described as a warning shot in the direction of her husband — against whom she had a protective order — and two stepsons. No one was injured, but she was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 20 years.” (

"Attempted murder" by a black woman earns her 20 years in prison; a murder is actually committed by a white man, and the murderer goes free.

That is how the American law system works.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

How secure are we? – 2

Authoritarian governments have always told their subjects that the government's coercive and violent acts were necessary in order to protect the people. The inquisition protected the faithful against helpers of the Devil. Stalinist violence was justified by the alleged threats of capitalist reaction and its plan to overthrow the socialist society. Nazi coercion was said to protect the German people against the international Jewish conspiracy and against communism. Episodes of right wing hysteria in our own country were defended on the grounds that they protected us from a communist threat.

The same tired authoritarian rhetoric has become commonplace once again in the last few years as the government has arrogated to itself new powers which are clearly denied it by our Constitution. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution explicitly protect citizens against “unreasonable search and seizure” and demands a warrant before the police can enter your home to search it, before law enforcement can listen to your phone calls or read your e-mails.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was motivated by the experience of the American colonists of having the British customs services search merchandise and confiscate it without giving the citizens any recourse. Hence the importance of the Fourth Amendment is not only in the demand that law enforcement obtain a warrant before searching your house or arresting you. The importance of the Fourth the amendment lies in the publicity of this requirement. If the police come to your door they have to show you the warrant. They may not enter your house when you are not home.

The reasons for that are obvious: only if the warrant is public, only if you know about it, only if there are no secret invasions of your home or your privacy, can you complain by going to court and challenging the government action.

Your safety as a citizen depends on this ability to challenge the government action. You cannot challenge actions you do not know about. The legal system manages to protect us if we are informed about government actions against us and are given an opportunity to defend ourselves, to bring in evidence and witnesses to show that the government action against us is unjustified or even illegal.

This safety of the citizen is threatened by the USA Patriot Act and by the whole institution of the FISA courts.

The USA Patriot Act allows police to enter your house when you are not home. It may secretly enter your house, confiscate items or install various forms of listening devices. Because these actions are secret, you are in no position to challenge them. Your freedom as a citizen is suddenly limited in very serious ways.

The FISA courts were instituted in 1978 after the government had been caught performing illegal wiretaps on political enemies of the president. The original intent was merely to put an end to using law enforcement for clearly political purposes. Over the years, both the courts themselves and their functions have been expanded. Now the FISA court can allow the national security agency to demand extensive records about phone calls from the phone companies and monitor our actions and communications in other ways.

In order to obtain permission for citizen surveillance, the government needs to go to the secret FISA court and ask for a secret warrant for its surveillance.

Many critics complain that the government does not need to allow the other party to appear before the court. But that is unreasonable. When the police applies to a court for an arrest warrant for a person they consider a criminal, that person is not informed and is certainly not allowed to make a case before the court. But once I am arrested, I go to trial and can there defend myself.

The problem about the FISA courts is its secrecy. These courts have given the government authority to monitor many of my activities. Were it not for Edward Snowden and others we would not even know about that. But now we are still not able to challenge these FISA court warrants in the regular court system, because the government will say that FISA court proceedings are secret and therefore cannot be discussed, let alone challenged.

Once court proceedings become secret, citizens lose their ability to challenge the government. A country where citizens may not challenge the government is by definition an authoritarian country.

The US government trumpets American freedom while it tramples them in the FISA courts. To preserve our freedoms those courts must be abolished.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How Secure Are We?

During his confirmation hearing as the new head of the FBI, James Comey, told Congress that he thought that the government surveillance of everyone's phone conversations was justified because it was making us safe.
We have been hearing that for a long time from a long series of government officials, many of them in the military, who have told Congress not to worry about our progressive loss of civil rights.
Anti-terrorism actions may make us more secure against terrorism attacks. But there are many other dimensions of safety which they do not affect at all. In many respects, Americans are unsafe regardless of threats by terrorists. Anti-terrorism acts affect only a small part of the security of American citizens:
During their lifetime one in six women are the victims of attempted or completed rape. 26,000 soldiers, men and women, have been sexually assaulted in the military in the past year and it is quite obvious that, so far, the generals and the admirals and the other big shots are unable (or unwilling?) to deal with this problem.
The government taping phone messages – only “meta-data” of course-- will not reduce sexual assaults in the US.
Here are some other data about how secure we are: The US incarcerates more of its citizens than any other society. At any time, 37% of young black men are behind bars.
The New York police has, in recent years, adopted an aggressive stop-and-frisk policy. 87% of those stopped and frisked are black men. That is hardly being safe.
And now George Zimmerman has been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Of the 1600 nursing homes in the US, one third have been cited by state authorities for abuse of elderly residents.
I could go on and on, with reports about the treatment of migrant farm workers, of harsh conditions for low wage employees, for inmates of mental institutions. I could go on and talk about illegal home foreclosures, about the troubles of the homeless, but the message would always be the same.
It will take a lot more than taping meta-data on phone messages to make many Americans safe. The progressive infringement on civil rights by our government does nothing to make large numbers of Americans more secure than they are today.
(On the contrary, the current extension of government power to invade the privacy of citizens is a serious threat to each of us. But that is the topic for another blog.)
But we need to ask a second question: how insecure are we, how serious is the threat of terrorist acts? The government claims that its infringement of civil rights has allowed it to prevent many terrorist attacks and thus has saved lives.
But here is the rub. We don't know how many security threats the government actually uncovers and manages to prevent. Because all of this stuff is supersecret. Were it not for Edward Snowden we wouldn't even know about the taping of phone calls.
We are deprived of civil rights for our own good, and for our own good the government does not provide any evidence for that. We need to trust big brother government—for our own good.
But how can we trust a government that lies again and again? In testimony before Congress several higher-ups in the surveillance apparatus have in recent weeks denied point blank, that the government is engaging in surveillance of phone calls or of reporters. A few weeks later it emerged that they had been lying.
Even the government knows that citizens are not that gullible. So when someone lets out some secret information, the government uses its extensive powers of arm-twisting to make sure the whistle-blower is apprehended and punished harshly. In the case of Pfc. Manning they made it very clear that they are prepared to be brutal in stopping leaks. In the world-wide arm twisting of countries considering giving asylum to Edward Snowden, the same unflinching violence is manifest.
The government is quite clear that it will stop at nothing in punishing those who break the veil of secrecy. Would they have to be so harsh and vindictive if their conscience were clear?
These snake oil salesmen are armed and dangerous.
So if Comey or other government officials come before Congress and boast that they have been protecting us against terrorist threats, we have no way of telling whether they are lying to us or not. Governments have consistently lied to their people in order to justify military and other violent actions they thought desirable. Pres. Lyndon Johnson invented an attack on an American warship in order to justify escalating the Vietnam war. President Bush invented weapons of mass instruction in order to justify the invasion of Iraq.
We have good reasons to be really suspicious of the assurance by government officials that they are violating our rights is in our own best interest.
Before we let the NSA scandal pass, we should insist that the government come clean on the actual success of the counter terrorism efforts. Some people have been in court and have been convicted. Have any of them been railroaded by phony charges or perjured witnesses?

Obama should give Edward Snowden the presidential medal of freedom and then follow Snowden's example and open the books on the so-called war on terror.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Revolution anyone?

  v     v 

The growing capacity for collecting large amounts of data about individual citizens has brought big brother government a step closer. We are indebted to Edward Snowden making major personal sacrifices in order to let that ferocious cat out of the bag.
But this capacity for accumulating information confronts us once again with a split in American traditions that has been with us for a long time but does not always receive the attention it deserves.
This reflection begins with an innocent news story. A group of smart medical researchers has developed a plan to use cell phone data to assess the extent to which diabetics get exercise and otherwise take good care of themselves and their disease. Doctors and others can remotely access the extent to which diabetics follow instructions for keeping their disease under control. Management of the disease passes more firmly into the hands of professional health-care providers. Disease management, in this model, leaves the patient pretty passive, following orders of the medical experts.
Interestingly enough, at the same time there is a lot of experimentation which puts more responsibility for managing their chronic disease on the patient. Instead of simply issuing instructions to the patient's, the health-care establishment will train diabetics to help each other manage their disease more effectively. Researchers have developed various visual aids to make it easier for patients to assess their own condition and to act to stabilize it. The emphasis is on the self-reliant and autonomous activity of patients to keep their disease in check.
This example from health-care represents a deep split in the American tradition. As in health-care, we also have two models of education. The one, currently dominant, inculcates information and skills and then tests the effectiveness of this effort. In the alternative tradition, which used to be more powerful than it is at the moment, the emphasis is not on transmitting information but on developing skills for exploration, for teaching oneself, for "learning to learn." The goal is to develop self-directed and self motivated learners.
This same split is manifest in politics. Often electoral politics is considered the center of democracy. Citizens presented with carefully vetted and manipulated information are asked to make various choices. Governing, formulating policy, actually running things, is the exclusive domain of politicians and bureaucrats, of experts and professionals. But on the other hand there is a lively tradition of community organizing. People in neighborhoods, in cities and towns, and nationwide, get together to protest, to resist and win changes from government or private businesses. The recent spate of laws legalizing gay marriage is just one example of this other form of American politics. This startling change in our institutions is the result of intense and persistent organizing. Gay rights organizations were not willing to restrict their political activity to voting.
When I became a US citizen, the presiding judge delayed all of the day's business because he insisted on reading the entire Declaration of Independence to this group of new citizens. He wanted us to remember, he said, that the United States was born in revolution. This revolutionary tradition has been with us ever since – in the spectacular accomplishments of the civil rights movement and of women's liberation as well as in many unsung victories (and defeats) of local groups of citizens who met, organized and demonstrated to make their lives better.
But there are many forces that have been habituating us to a very different role as citizens: the military trains its recruits to obey orders without questions, employers demand obedience from employees on pain of losing their job, in many churches the faithful are exhorted to obey the teachings of the priesthood, society demands conformism on pain of being ostracized.
Americans have faced this difficult choice for a long time between striking out for themselves and their communities together with their neighbors, or be passive followers of some religious, or temporal authority.

The development of new digital surveillance techniques confronts us with this choice in a new area of life. It is not clear at the moment, which of the two kinds of Americans will lead us into the future. Most of us are fortunate not to be faced by the agonizing choices made so bravely by Edward Snowden. But we too must decide, almost daily, whether to be obedient and do as we are told, or whether we will keep alive the American tradition of independence and self-organization to make life better for all of us.