Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What we can learn from the adventures of Chelsea Manning


Last year Chelsea Manning was in prison serving a 35 year sentence for releasing a lot of classified information to WikiLeaks. She had entered prison seven years before as Bradley Manning a male soldier. While in prison she transitioned to Chelsea Manning, a woman soldier.
Then Pres. Obama commuted her sentence. Not too long afterward Harvard University invited her to be a visitor at its Kennedy School where future diplomats and bureaucrats train to work in the US government. Every year the Kennedy School invites a number of notables to be available to talk to the schools students. The invitees this year included Manning. It also included Sean Spicer, until recently spokesperson for President Trump and a notorious liar. A third questionable appointment was Cory Lewandowski, one time campaign manager for President Trump, known for his disrespectful treatment of women journalists.
No one cared much about Spicer and Lewandowski. But the appointment of Manning created an uproar. The current head of the CIA protested loudly. One of the other appointees as visitors to the Kennedy school, Michael Morell, a former CIA manager resigned his appointment to the School.
Harvard folded and uninvited Chelsea Manning. The Dean who had first invited her professed that he was not aware that her appointment would be controversial. Where has he been all these years?
(Manning has since been invited to a prestigious book discussion on Nantucket. Having been uninvited by Harvard has made her a desirable person to invite to fancy events.)
There are some interesting lessons to be learned from this whole misadventure besides that you can be a dean at Harvard and be incompetent or untruthful.
Pompeo, the current head of the CIA, and the other former CIA manager protested against Manning's appointment on the grounds that Manning was "a traitor" and that releasing the information she did possibly endangered many lives. Present and past managers on the CIA stood up in protest against persons endangering human lives.
Impressive, isn't it?
Two days earlier in the newspaper carried a story that the CIA, which was currently waging drone warfare in the Mideast and elsewhere but was barred from using drone killings in Afghanistan, was urging the President to allow them to employ drone weapons also in the war zone. This story reminds us that the CIA is regulalrly killing people with drones. The targets of the drone attacks are presumably terrorists. Some drone attacks have been misdirected and killed large wedding parties. Others may have succeeded in killing a terrorist but only at the cost of also killing women and children at some festive event or another.
The protest of present and past CIA operatives against Manning for possibly endangering human lives is massively hypocritical.
The really interesting aspect of this entire story is that no one I have heard of has called the CIA operatives on their hypocrisy. No one has reminded them of what is part of their job day in day out – killing people who have not been arrested, charged or tried – and often killing people who are innocent of any political involvement.
Harvard acceded to the demands of the CIA managers. Their story that Manning had endangered lives was generally accepted. Manning was uninvited.
What this tells us is that one of the important perks of political power is that you can shape the dominant narratives. The way you tell the story is most likely to be believed by everyone even if you story is transparently false or incomplete or misleading or just a plain lie. The general public does not have to be forced to believe this story spread by the powerful. No threats of arrest by the secret police or of torture persuaded the general public that Manning was not a suitable fellow at the Kennedy school while former CIA managers complicit in the drone killing of civilians were acceptable.
In our present situation, powerful persons do not lie. On the whole, most of us are naive enough to swallow that. This the lesson to be learned from Chelsea Manning’s misadventure at Harvard.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Our moral bankruptcy

The news from home is not good.
Drug deaths, especially in older white men, have increased significantly in recent years. Drug overdoses are more frequent every year.
"Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest level in nearly 30 years." [https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/health/us-suicide-rate-surges-to-a-30-year-high.html] The suicide rate is particularly high among veterans and not, as one would think, among combat veterans but among soldiers who spent their tour of duty on military reservations back home. [http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-veteran-suicide-20150115-story.html]
The number of women who give birth and then succumb to postpartum depression has increased in recent years. [https://www.sciencedaily.com/ releases/2013/10 /131002131400.htm]
And on a slightly different note, there is a steady increase of students who miss classes in middle and in high school for more than 10% of school days.
The news is better with respect to the divorce rate, the frequency of domestic violence, and the rate of physical and sexual abuse of children. The incidence of all three has gone down but all of them, of course, remain serious problems.
All of these statistics are controversial. There are always real and so-called experts who have different numbers. But these statistics are regarded as reliable by people who understand statistics and who know where these particular ones come from.
I came across these data at the same time that newspapers reported an apparently good piece of news, namely that household income has been rising. On closer consideration, however, this good news is very qualified. It turns out that individual income of people who work for wages has remained stagnant. Household income has risen because people work more, work longer hours, work full time where they worked part-time before.
Individual income of wage earners remains unchanged at a time when corporations report rising income. Corporations earn more money because they manage to keep costs down and one significant kind of cost are labor costs. Workers earning the same as what they took home a long time ago is one of the reasons for the rosy earnings reports of corporations. Workers are being exploited to benefit corporate bottom lines.
The failure of workers' wages to rise in a time when the well-to-do, the recipients of dividends, the CEOs of enterprises, lawyers and doctors, see their income go up and their standard of living improving steadily is often blamed for the the reports about depression and suicide and other negative statistics.
But that explanation leaves out an important component of the malaise that has our country in its grip. There are a large number of people who feel insulted, whose sense of their own worth is under attack.
The rise of neo-Nazis, of white supremacists is a clear symptom of this offended sense of self. Significant numbers of Americans rest what little self-esteem they have on their skin color – a characteristic for which they cannot take credit. We are born with different skin colors. They are not earned. They are not an accomplishment. If the best I can say about myself is that I'm white, I admit that I have not done anything that I can take pride in.
The white supremacist will reply: 'I am proud of being white because whites are superior to persons of color.' But consider this analogy. Jimmy is a member of an illustrious family: among his relatives are a US President, a Supreme Court Justice and several super-rich entrepreneurs. For himself, Jimmy has not done so well. Married several times but now divorced, Jimmy has had many jobs but is always living pay-check to pay-check. His life has been a series of failures. But he is proud of his distinguished family. This is pride by association, a poor source of self-esteem for those whose own life is beset with failures.
If your self-affirmation rests on sharing the skin color of persons who are famous for their accomplishments--ignoring for the moment whether those accomplishments are mythical or real--you are acknowledging that your own life is lacking in accomplishments and legitimate sources of pride.
Why are so many Americans unable to achieve a solid self-esteem? Why is the color of their skin the most remarkable about them?
Success, in America rests on being upwardly mobile. As the years pass, one needs to increase one's earnings and in order to accomplish that one needs, most of the time, to increase one's power to extract wealth from other people. The working people whose salaries remain the same year in, year out are the victims of this extraction of value. Because their income is flat, their employer's prosper. The employer has the power to keep them working for low wages. Their income does not substantially rise; their power remains minimal.
By prevailing standards of success in America these working people are not successful. They have not accomplished anything.
This version of success is reprehensible. This idea of what makes a life worth living is utterly immoral. The good life according to this American doctrine rests on the ability to harm others, to extract value from them and their work. The successful people are those who can injure others. Life is not worth living for those who are unable to harm others.
Perhaps this ethic is behind the American love affair with guns and the high murder rate in some of our cities. If you cannot enrich yourself at the expense of others, at least you can threaten them with your guns or shoot them.
The much discussed "opioid crisis," the rate of suicide and of depression and other negative statistics such as the rate of poverty in this, one of the richest countries in the world, is a symptom of our moral failure. The big people, the people in the news, are all rich and they have become rich at the expense of others. In the prevailing morality that is acceptable. Devastated lives, misery, is the result.
Only a moral reformation would make America great again.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Violence in politics today

President Trump is by no means the only person who tries to equate violence on the right to violence on the left. Many newspaper columns tell us that the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, anti-Semites, anti-Muslims, KKK and other splinter groups on the far right are not significantly different from splinter groups on the far left. Both, we are told, use of violence as a political tactic.
This equivalence is deceptive and is meant to deceive. Violence on the right is different from violence on the left. Neo-Nazi and neofascist ideologies openly profess to admire German Nazis who murdered mentally ill citizens, citizens with limited abilities, homosexuals, Romas also known as "Gypsies", Jews, labor unionists, Communists and others. The Nazi ideology that neo-Nazis profess to admire does not hesitate to kill human beings. Theirs is a murderous violence as illustrated most recently in Charlottesville, only the most recent murder committed by right-wing neo-Nazis. It does not respect human life. It does not respect people of different persuasions but is willing to assassinate those who disagree.
Some left-wing groups--they often call themselves "anti-fascist" or also "anarchist,"--are willing to engage in violence. But this is a very limited kind of violence. Quite explicitly it excludes harming human beings and is limited to destruction of property, to disrupting traffic, to engaging in fist fights with police and so-called "alt right" groups.
Claiming that far left and far right groups are really the same because both employ violent tactics confuses different kinds of violence, it erases the difference between at most throwing a punch, on one hand, and driving a truck into a crowd of people to kill random pedestrians, on the other.
Confusing these very different kinds of violence legitimates right-wing militias, some of whom showed up in Charlottesville armed to the teeth, and at the same time delegitimizes left-wing groups who appreciate the grave danger these right-wing militias and admirers of German Nazism constitute and are willing to oppose them with their fists.
In addition, the equivalence between the left and right violence serves also to delegitmate Anarchists who are an important component of the far left. Anarchism is a long established political movement that aims all its efforts to struggle against the many different forms of coercion in our societies. The anarchist ideal is a society where coercion is at an absolute minimum. What each person wants for his or her life, anarchists assert, should be the main determining factor of what happens in that life. In pursuing this ideal, anarchists point out to the very many situations where citizens in our society are forced to live their lives in ways they have not chosen.
The groups that are most powerful in our society have always tried to make the anarchists look as dangerous, unreasonable persons. In the interest of maintaining their own coercive power and making it look as if it were a version of a free society, distorting the message of anarchism has been an important tactic.
But the anarchist message needs to be taken seriously. In the last two or three years many white people have begun to understand how persons of color live day to day in a state of siege. In their communities they are stopped and frisked. The police that is supposed to protect them more often murders them. Excessive numbers of people of color end up in prison and once discharged from prison are often unable to find work.
White women as much as black are forced to work for lower pay than men. More often than not they are not only breadwinners, as are the men and their family, but they also are mothers and housekeepers – projects their husbands or boyfriends often participate in only minimally. A very large media apparatus forces on them bizarre standards of beauty as well as the obligation to make themselves attractive to men even when they themselves are not interested in that.
For anyone in this society whether a person of color or white, female or male, the laws supposedly made at the behest of citizens are enforced by heavily armed police. The power of the government is backed by the power to injure and kill.
Nor is that the end. Employers have tremendous power over their employees, even at times of full employment. Landlords have power over their tenants. Schools impose their rules and lessons by force and under the threat of punishment and even expulsion. The poor receive some public support and pay for that by constant supervision from the courts and social workers.
Wherever you turn in the society there is someone telling you what to do and forcing you to pay attention.
Is that "the land of the free"? The anarchists say "no." Instead of listening to the calumnies of those who compare them to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, we need to listen carefully to what anarchists say and enter the struggle to defend what little freedoms we have left in a world of constant coercion.