Truthout Stories Thu, 05 Mar 2015 07:07:21 -0500 en-gb Welcome to the New Corporate Feudalism

The kings and noblemen may be long gone, but here in the US, the business and financial elite reign supreme, and corporate feudalism is the name of the game. (Photo: Wisconsin Protest via Shutterstock)The kings and noblemen may be long gone, but here in the US, the business and financial elite reign supreme, and corporate feudalism is the name of the game. (Photo: Wisconsin Protest via AAraujo /

Feudalism is back, with a vengeance.

Right now, the Wisconsin legislature is considering a bill that would make Wisconsin the nation's 25th right-to-work-for-less state.

All signs point to this bill becoming law. The state senate passed it by a margin of 17 to 15 last week, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who supports right-to-work-for-less laws, said he will sign it if it reaches his desk.

This is a disaster in the making for Wisconsin.

Workers in right to work-for-less-states make less money, get skimpier health benefits and are more likely to die on the job than their workers in non-right-to-work-for-less states.

The line from Wisconsin Republicans, of course, is that the proposed right-work-for-less law will improve their state's economy and help build the middle class. But in reality, the exact opposite will happen.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

That's because right-to-work-for-less laws bring capitalism a lot closer to its natural, unregulated state, and capitalism, in its natural, unregulated state, tends toward massive levels of inequality that we usually associate with feudalism.

It looks a lot like this:

At the top, there is a very small class of super-rich oligarchs and financiers. They're the monarchs of capitalist society.

Below them, there is a slightly larger, but still very, very small, class of professionals and mercantilists - doctor, lawyers, shop-owners - who help keep things running for the super-rich and supply the working poor with their needs. They're nobles or knights of capitalist society.

And at the very bottom there is the great mass of people who make up the working poor. They have no wealth - in fact they're typically in debt most of their lives - and can barely survive on what little money they make. They're the peasants of capitalist society.

So, for average working people, there is no such thing as a middle class in "natural" capitalism. Wealth accumulates at the very top among the elites, not among everyday working people. Inequality is the default option, just as it was in Medieval Europe under feudalism.

The only ways a true middle class can emerge in a capitalist society are by massive social upheaval (a middle class emerged after the Black Plague in Europe in the 14th century) or by government intervention.

Historically, the government is the only thing that can put a check on the growth of feudalism, and it's what we used here in the United States, from the founding of the republic until the Reagan revolution, to fight the elite and build a middle class from the ground up.

Tariffs, workers' rights legislation, the Glass-Steagall Act, higher taxes on the rich, you name it - our government used all of these things to restrain the natural tendency of capitalism towards inequality and to create a middle class.

But ever since Reagan came to town and brainwashed everyone into believing that "government is the problem, not the solution," we've gutted regulations, busted unions and, as a result, returned capitalism to something resembling its natural, brutish state.

Inequality is now at a record high, and the richest 3 percent of the population now controls more than half of all wealth.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, the child poverty rate here in the US is now among the worst in the developed world.

Things have arguably gotten even worse since the recession, as the top one percent has absorbed almost all of the gains of our so-called "recovery."

The kings and noblemen may be long gone, but here in the US, the business and financial elite reign supreme, and corporate feudalism is the name of the game.

Thanks to Ronald Reagan and his modern-day followers like Scott Walker, the US is no longer a true democracy, it's an oligarchy, and every day it looks more and more like something out of the 14th - not the 21st - century.

The time is long past due for us to roll back the Reagan revolution once and for all.

Opinion Wed, 04 Mar 2015 15:22:23 -0500
Consumers Want GMO Labels, Not Barcodes

On February 25, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, once again floated the idea of consumers using barcodes to identify foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as an alternative to requiring food manufacturers to put a label on products that contain GMOs.

Referring to the ongoing debate over GMO labeling laws, Vilsack (according to the Associated Press) told the House during a hearing on agriculture spending: “We could solve that issue in a heartbeat.”

Solve the issue for whom? Tot-toting moms with busy schedules who would need to take the added step of scanning every item in the grocery store, instead of just glancing at the label? Older people who struggle as it is to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies?

Or how about for those people who can’t afford—or don’t want to own—expensive smartphones? (Vilsack suggested retailers could provide a scanner for consumers who don’t have smartphones—again, not exactly convenient for busy shoppers, or older people who already feel overwhelmed by the latest techno gadgets).

This isn’t the first time Vilsack has pushed the barcode scheme. Earlier this year, Vilsack’s comments in Europe on how “barcodes” might be a trade-friendly alternative to the European Union’s mandatory labeling of GMOs helped inspire 50,000 protestors to take to the streets in Berlin on January 19, chanting, “We are fed up.”

And last July, according to Agweek, Vilsack told attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival that the “‘challenge’ in the GMO labeling debate is that food labels have either provided people nutritional information about products or warned them about possible allergies.” 

The assumption here is that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) can’t require labeling of GMOs because the labels wouldn’t provide nutritional information or warn of a potential health risk, such as allergies—therefore the FDA has no authority to require the labels. 

This reasoning harkens back to the FDA’s 1992 decision that GE foods are “substantially equivalent” to foods that have not been genetically engineered (a fact the industry promotes, even though the corporations that make the seeds used to grow GE foods own patents on those seeds).
How did the FDA arrive at the conclusion that GMO foods are “substantially equivalent” and therefore “generally recognized as safe?” Not through valid testing or sound science. In a recent op-ed on Truthout, Alex James reports on how the FDA has never formally safety tested GE crops for human consumption: 

This was quietly mentioned in December 2014, during a testimony given by Michael Landa, former director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition with the FDA, before the House Subcommittee on Health.

His testimony drew attention to a fact often overlooked in the ongoing debate around GE food safety: The FDA has exempted developers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from premarket reviews of their products, which would normally result in a formal assessment and either a rejection or approval of their safety for human consumption.

Vilsack blindly supports the FDA’s flawed decision, despite mounting evidence that GMOs are linked to health issues. As reported by the Associated Press:  

Vilsack has been supportive of genetically modified crops, saying at the hearing that there is “no question in my mind” that they are safe.

Vilsack’s cronies in the biotech and junk food industry have enlisted the help of the media to create that same level of blind, unquestioning support among consumers. A perfect example of industry’s manipulation of the media is the cover story in this month’s issue of the National Geographic Magazine. In the article, titled “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”  author Joel Achenbach, writes: 

We’re asked to accept, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding. But to some people the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok—and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they talk about Frankenfood.

GMOs are safe because, “as the experts point out” there’s “no evidence” that they aren’t? 

We don’t know which “experts” Achenbach consulted—biotech industry “experts” maybe? But we do know that it’s patently false that there’s “no evidence” to suggest GMOs may cause health problems in humans. In fact, there’s so much evidence we couldn’t possibly cite it all here.

Let’s start with Vilsack’s own comment about the FDA not being able to require labeling because GMOs aren’t in the category of foods that may cause allergies.

In his March 2012 testimony before the American Medical Association Council on Science and Public Health, Michael Hansen, Ph.D, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, presented scientific evidence suggesting that at least some genetically engineered foods do contain allergens. Hansen wrote: 

In 2001, the report of a Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) Expert Consultation on Allergenicity of Foods Derived from Biotechnology, held at WHO headquarters in Rome, laid out a detailed protocol (a decision tree) for evaluating the allergenicity of GE foods. None of the GE crops, including GE corn, on the market in the U.S. have been assessed using such a protocol.

Allergies may be the least of the problems GMOs cause when it comes to human health. Responding to the National Geographic piece, US Right to Know pointed out that not only is there no legitimacy to the pro-GMO camp’s claim regarding a “scientific consensus” that GMOs are safe, but: 

A comprehensive review of peer-reviewed GMO animal feeding studies found roughly an equal number of research groups raising concerns about genetically engineered foods and those suggesting GMOs were as safe and nutritious as conventional foods. The review also found that most studies finding GMOs foods the same as conventional foods were performed by biotechnology companies or their associates.

How does the biotech industry get away with articles like the one in the National Geographic?
Timothy A. Wise, of the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University, explains it this way:

What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign to do exactly what National Geographic has knowingly or unknowingly done: paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages.

As for “scientific consensus” that GMOs are safe, Wise says this:

The consensus on the safety of GM food is perfectly clear: there is no consensus. That’s what the independent peer-reviewed literature says. And that’s what the National Geographic’s beautiful exhibit on its food series, in its Washington headquarters, says: the “long-term health and ecological consequences are unknown.” And that is an accurate statement of the consensus, or the lack of it.

The paid shills for the petroleum industry undermined a growing consensus on climate change that was inconvenient for industry, backed by a well-funded PR campaign sowing doubt about that scientific consensus. In this case, the biotechnology industry and its allies are declaring a consensus where there is none in order to silence their critics.

The debate is over what level of precaution we should apply before allowing the large-scale commercialization of this new technology. And anyone stating that there is a scientific consensus on GM safety is coming down squarely against precaution. Reasonable people disagree, and that does not make them “science doubters.”

Clearly, Vilsack comes down “squarely against precaution.” Which means, in his mind, consumers should settle for some techno-scheme involving barcodes, instead of demanding laws requiring food manufacturers to provide reasonable information for reasonable people.

Our solution? Tell Secretary Vilsack: We don’t want no stinkin’ barcodes. Consumers want mandatory labeling of GMOs.

Opinion Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:26:59 -0500
Noam Chomsky: After Dangerous Proxy War, Keeping Ukraine Neutral Offers Path to Peace With Russia

The recent ceasefire in Ukraine continues to hold after a shaky start, days after Secretary of State John Kerry publicly accused Russian officials of lying to his face about their military support for separatist rebels. The United Nations says the death toll from the nearly year-old conflict has topped 6,000. This comes as tens of thousands rallied in Moscow to honor the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who had accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of authoritarian rule. "It’s fashionable in the United States and Britain to condemn Putin as some sort of distorted mind," says Noam Chomsky, but he notes no Russian leader can accept the current Ukrainian move to join NATO. He argues a strong declaration that Ukraine will be neutralized offers the path to a peaceful settlement.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. Our guest for the hour is MIT institute professor emeritus, Noam Chomsky, known around the world for his political writings.

We’re going to turn right now to the issue of Russia and Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. The meeting comes just days after Kerry publicly accused Russian officials of lying to his face about their military support for separatist rebels. Russia and Ukraine are also holding direct talks in Brussels to resolve a dispute over the delivery of Russian gas. The U.N. said today the death toll from the nearly year-old conflict has topped 6,000. A recent ceasefire continues to hold, over a shaky start.

Also in Russia, the murder this weekend on Friday night of the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. A former deputy prime minister turned dissident politician, Nemtsov was shot dead Friday night near Red Square. He was going to lead a major rally that was critical of Vladimir Putin on Sunday. It grew much larger after his death, with tens of thousands, perhaps 50,000 people, marching past the Kremlin carrying signs reading, "I am not afraid."

Noam Chomsky, if you can comment on what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine?

NOAM CHOMSKY: What’s happening is quite ugly. And I think the criticisms are mostly accurate, but they’re kind of beside the point. There’s a background that we have to think about. It’s fashionable now in the United States and Britain to condemn Putin as some sort of a distorted mind. There’s an article in Psychology Today analyzing his brain, asking why he’s so arrogant. He’s been accused of having Asperger’s; an irritable, rat-faced man, as he’s described by Timothy Garton Ash and so on. This is all very reminiscent of the early 1950s, when I was a graduate student then. At that time, the U.S. had overwhelming power, and it was able to use the United Nations as a battering ram against its enemy, the Soviet Union, so Russia was, of course, vetoing lots of resolutions, condemning it. And leading anthropologists in the United States and England developed a—began to analyze why the Russians are so negative, what makes them say no at the United Nations all the time. And their proposal was that the Russians are negative because they raise their children in swaddling clothes, and that makes them negative. The three or four of us at Harvard who thought this ridiculous used to call it diaperology. That’s being re-enacted—a takeoff on Kremlinology. This is being re-enacted right now.

But the fact is, whatever you think about Putin—OK, irritable, rat-faced man with Asperger’s, whatever you like—the Russians have a case. And you have to understand the case. And the case is understood here by people who bother to think. So, for example, there was a lead article in Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal, by John Mearsheimer with a title like something like "The West is Responsible for the Ukraine Crisis." And he was talking about the background. The background begins with the fall of the Soviet Union, 1989, 1990. There were negotiations between President Bush, James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev about how to deal with the issues that arose at the time. A crucial question is: What happens to NATO? NATO had been advertised, since its beginning, as necessary to protect western Europe from the Russian hordes. OK, no more Russian hordes, so what happens to NATO?

Well, we know what happened to NATO. But the crucial issue was this. Gorbachev agreed to allow Germany, a unified Germany, to join NATO, a hostile military alliance. It’s a pretty remarkable concession, if you think about the history of the preceding century, half-century. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times, and now he was agreeing to have Germany join a hostile military alliance led by the only superpower. But there was a quid pro quo, that Germany—that NATO would not move one inch to the east. That was the phrase that was used in the interchanges, meaning to East Germany. And on that condition, they went forward. NATO immediately moved to East Germany. When Gorbachev vigorously protested, naturally, he was informed by the United States that it was only a verbal commitment, it wasn’t on paper. The unstated implication is, if you are naïve enough to think you can make a gentlemen’s agreement with us, it’s your problem. They didn’t say that; I’m saying that. But NATO moved to East Germany; under Clinton, moved right up to Russia’s borders.

Just a couple of weeks ago, U.S. military equipment was taking part in a military parade in Estonia a couple hundred yards from the Russian border. Russia is surrounded by U.S. offensive weapons—sometimes they’re called "defense," but they’re all offensive weapons. And the idea that the new government in Ukraine, that took over after the former government was overthrown, last December, late December, it passed a resolution, overwhelmingly—I think something like 300 to eight or something—announcing its intention to take steps to join NATO. No Russian leader, no matter who it is, could tolerate Ukraine, right at the geostrategic center of Russian concerns, joining a hostile military alliance. I mean, we can imagine, for example, how the U.S. would have reacted, say, during the Cold War if the Warsaw Pact had extended to Latin America, and Mexico and Canada were now planning to join the Warsaw Pact. Of course, that’s academic, because the first step would have led to violent U.S. response, and it wouldn’t have gone any further.

AMY GOODMAN: The Cuban missile crisis.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, and it’s very interesting to think about what actually happened at the Cuban missile crisis, which is very striking. The issue—the crucial issue with the missile crisis was—the peak moment was October 26th and 27th, right at the end. Khrushchev had sent a letter to Kennedy offering to end the crisis by simultaneous, public withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey. These were obsolete missiles for which a withdrawal order had already been given, because they were being replaced by much more lethal U.S. missiles and Polaris submarines, invulnerable submarines. So that was the offer. They would withdraw the missiles; we would withdraw obsolete missiles, which are already being replaced by more lethal ones. Kennedy refused. And his own subjective assessment, whatever that means, of nuclear war was a third to a half. That’s got to be the most horrific decision in history. Khrushchev backed down, fortunately. The U.S. did secretly say that it would withdraw the obsolete missiles, of course, which it didn’t need anymore. But if you take a look at the balance of power that was assumed to be legitimate, we are—you have to establish the principle that we have a right to surround anyone with lethal offensive weapons that can obliterate them in a second, but they can’t do anything anywhere near us. Same as with—take a look at the conflict with China over the maritime conflict. Where is it taking place? I mean, is it off the coast of California? Is it in the Caribbean? No, it’s off the coast of China. That’s where we have to protect what we call freedom of the seas, not in—in China’s waters. This is a part of the concept that we basically own the world, and we have a right to do anything anywhere we like, and nobody has a right to stand up to it.

Now, in the case of the Ukraine, again, whatever you think about Putin—think he’s the worst monster since Hitler—they still have a case, and it’s a case that no Russian leader is going to back down from. They cannot accept the Ukrainian move of the current government to join NATO, even probably the European Community. There is a very natural settlement to this issue: a strong declaration that Ukraine will be neutralized, it won’t be part of any military alliance; that, along with some more or less agreed-upon choices about how—about the autonomy of regions. You can finesse it this way and that, but those are the basic terms of a peaceful settlement. But we have to be willing to accept it; otherwise, we’re moving towards a very dangerous situation. I mentioned before that the Doomsday Clock, famous clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has just been advanced to three minutes before midnight. That’s very close. Midnight means we’re finished. That is the highest, closest it’s reached since 1983.

And we might remember what happened then. What happened then was that the Reagan administration, as soon as it came into office, began highly provocative actions. It wanted to probe Russian defenses, so they simulated air and naval attacks against Russia, very publicly and openly. They wanted the Russians to know, to see how they’d respond. Well, it was a very tense moment. Pershing II missiles were being installed in western Europe with a five- to 10-minute flight time to Moscow. Reagan had announced the so-called Star Wars program, which is called defense, but strategic analysts on all sides agree that it’s a first-strike weapon, what’s called missile defense. It was an extremely tense period. The Russians were concerned. It was known at the time that they were concerned, but recently released archives, Russian archives, indicate that the concern was very high. There’s a recent U.S. intelligence report analyzing in detail what their reactions were, and it concludes—its words are—"The war scare was real." We came close to war. And it’s worse than that, because right in the—1984, right at the peak of this—this is when the Doomsday Clock was approaching midnight—right in the midst of that, Russian automated detection systems, which are much worse than ours—we have satellite detection. We can detect missiles from takeoff. They have only radar detection, line of sight, so they can only detect missiles when you can kind of see them with radar. They detected a U.S. missile attack. The protocol is for that information to be transmitted to the high command, which then launches a preventive strike. It went to a particular individual, Stanislav Petrov. He just decided not to transmit it. That’s why we’re alive to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to break, then come back to Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of over a hundred books. We’ll be back in a minute.

News Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:22:16 -0500
Chomsky on Cuba: After Decades of US Meddling and Terrorism, Restoring Ties Is the Least We Could Do

The United States and Cuba have held a second round of talks as part of the effort to restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than half a century. The two sides could reopen embassies in Havana and Washington in time for a regional meeting next month. World-renowned political analyst and linguist Noam Chomsky welcomes President Obama’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba, but cautions that after more than half a century of U.S. meddling in the island nation, it’s the minimum step he could take.


AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our conversation with Noam Chomsky, we turn now to Latin America. Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté sat down with Noam Chomsky yesterday on Democracy Now!, the MIT professor emeritus. We asked him to talk about the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations and U.S. meddling in Cuba.

NOAM CHOMSKY: The U.S. has been at war with Cuba since late 1959. Cuba was—had been, essentially, a colony of the United States, a virtual colony. In January 1959, the Castro guerrilla forces took over. By late that year, around October, U.S. planes were already bombing Cuba from Florida. In, I think it was, March 1960, there was a formal decision internally to overthrow the government. John F. Kennedy came in shortly after, got the Bay of Pigs. After the Bay of Pigs, there was almost hysteria in Washington about how to punish the Cubans for this. Kennedy made some incredible speeches about how, you know, the future of the world is at stake in dealing with Cuba and so on. The U.S. launched a major terrorist war against Cuba. We kind of downplay it, and what you can get reported is CIA attempts, you know, to kill Castro—bad enough—but that was a very minor part of it. Major terrorist war is part of the background for the missile crisis, which almost led to a terminal nuclear war. Right after the crisis, the terrorist war picked up again.

Meanwhile, the sanctions have been very harsh sanctions against Cuba, right from the Eisenhower regime, picked up, extended by Kennedy, extended further under Clinton, who actually outflanked Bush from the right on extending the sanctions. The world has been totally opposed to this. The votes at the General Assembly—you can’t do it at the Security Council because the U.S. vetoes everything, but at the General Assembly, the votes are just overwhelming. I think the last one was 182 to two, you know, U.S. and Israel, and sometimes they pick up Papua or something like that. This has been going on year after year. The U.S. is utterly isolated, not just on this issue, many others.

Finally, notice that Obama didn’t end the sanctions. In fact, he didn’t even end the restrictions, many of the restrictions on travel and so on. They made a mild gesture towards moving towards normalization of relations. That’s presented here—the way it’s presented here is, we have to test Cuba to see if our long—as Obama put it, our efforts to improve the situation in Cuba have failed, right? Big efforts to improve the situation—terrorism, sanctions. The sanctions are really incredible. So, if, say, Sweden was sending medical equipment somewhere which had Cuban nickel in it, that had to be banned, you know, things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: And terrorism, you mean?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Terrorism just—it went on into the '90s. The worst part was under Kennedy, then picked up again in the late ’70s and so on. Major terrorists are provided refuge in Florida. The late Bosch is one, Orlando Bosch. Posada is another. You remember there was something called the Bush Doctrine, Bush II: A country that harbors terrorists is the same as the terrorists themselves. That's for others, not for us. We harbor them and also support their activities.

But we have to test Cuba to see if they’re making successful gestures, now that our old policy of bringing freedom and democracy didn’t work, so we have to try a new policy. I mean, the irony of this is almost indescribable. The fact that these words can be said is shocking. It’s a sign of, again, a failure to reach a minimal level of civilized awareness and behavior. But the steps—I mean, it’s good that there are small steps being taken. It’s interesting to see what the Cuban intellectual community—there is a dissident intellectual community in Cuba—how they’ve been reacting to it. Actually, there’s an interesting article about it by my daughter, Avi Chomsky, who’s a Cuba specialist. But we don’t look at that. We don’t hear what they’re saying.

AMY GOODMAN: What are they saying?

NOAM CHOMSKY: What they’re saying is approximately what I was just saying: You know, it’s a good step that the U.S. is beginning to move, but they’ve got to begin to face up to the reality of what’s been happening, which is that the U.S. has been attacking Cuba. And the reason for—the primary reason, probably, for Obama’s slight moves are that the U.S. was becoming completely isolated in the hemisphere. It’s not just that the world is opposed, the hemisphere is opposed. And that’s a remarkable development.

News Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:16:59 -0500
Noam Chomsky: To Deal With ISIS, US Should Own Up to Chaos of Iraq War and Other Radicalizing Acts

We air the second part of our two-day interview with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author. Chomsky is institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for more than 50 years. As Iraq launches an offensive to retake Tikrit and Congress prepares to debate an expansive war powers resolution for U.S. strikes, Chomsky discusses how he thinks the U.S. should respond to the self-proclaimed Islamic State.


AMY GOODMAN: Today, part two of our discussion with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than half a century. On Monday on Democracy Now!, Aaron Maté and I interviewed him about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Iran to Congress. Today, in part two, we look at blowback from the U.S. drone program, the legacy of slavery in the United States, the leaks of Edward Snowden, U.S. meddling in Venezuela and the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations. We began by asking Professor Chomsky how the U.S. should respond to the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s very hard to think of anything serious that can be done. I mean, it should be settled diplomatically and peacefully to the extent that that’s possible. It’s not inconceivable. I mean, there are—ISIS, it’s a horrible manifestation of hideous actions. It’s a real danger to anyone nearby. But so are other forces. And we should be getting together with Iran, which has a huge stake in the matter and is the main force involved, and with the Iraqi government, which is calling for and applauding Iranian support and trying to work out with them some arrangement which will satisfy the legitimate demands of the Sunni population, which is what ISIS is protecting and defending and gaining their support from.

They’re not coming out of nowhere. I mean, they are—one of the effects, the main effects, of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—there are many horrible effects, but one of them was to incite sectarian conflicts, that had not been there before. If you take a look at Baghdad before the invasion, Sunni and Shia lived intermingled—same neighborhoods, they intermarried. Sometimes they say that they didn’t even know if their neighbor was a Sunni or a Shia. It was like knowing what Protestant sect your neighbor belongs to. There was pretty close—it wasn’t—I’m not claiming it was—it wasn’t utopia. There were conflicts. But there was no serious conflict, so much so that Iraqis at the time predicted there would never be a conflict. Well, within a couple of years, it had turned into a violent, brutal conflict. You look at Baghdad today, it’s segregated. What’s left of the Sunni communities are isolated. The people can’t talk to their neighbors. There’s war going on all over. The ISIS is murderous and brutal. The same is true of the Shia militias which confront it. And this is now spread all over the region. There’s now a major Sunni-Shia conflict rending the region apart, tearing it to shreds.

Now, this cannot be dealt with by bombs. This is much more serious than that. It’s got to be dealt with by steps towards recovering, remedying the massive damage that was initiated by the sledgehammer smashing Iraq and has now spread. And that does require diplomatic, peaceful means dealing with people who are pretty ugly—and we’re not very pretty, either, for that matter. But this just has to be done. Exactly what steps should be taken, it’s hard to say. There are people whose lives are at stake, like the Assyrian Christians, the Yazidi and so on. Apparently, the fighting that protected the—we don’t know a lot, but it looks as though the ground fighting that protected the Yazidi, largely, was carried out by PKK, the Turkish guerrilla group that’s fighting for the Kurds in Turkey but based in northern Iraq. And they’re on the U.S. terrorist list. We can’t hope to have a strategy that deals with ISIS while opposing and attacking the group that’s fighting them, just as it doesn’t make sense to try to have a strategy that excludes Iran, the major state that’s supporting Iraq in its battle with ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the fact that so many of those who are joining ISIS now—and a lot has been made of the young people, young women and young men, who are going into Syria through Turkey. I mean, Turkey is a U.S. ally. There is a border there. They freely go back and forth.

NOAM CHOMSKY: That’s right. And it’s not just young people. One thing that’s pretty striking is that it includes people with—educated people, doctors, professionals and others. Whatever we—we may not like it, but ISIS is—the idea of the Islamic caliphate does have an appeal to large sectors of a brutalized global population, which is under severe attack everywhere, has been for a long time. And something has appeared which has an appeal to them. And that can’t be overlooked if we want to deal with the issue. We have to ask what’s the nature of the appeal, why is it there, how can we accommodate it and lead to some, if not at least amelioration of the murderous conflict, then maybe some kind of settlement. You can’t ignore these factors if you want to deal with the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about more information that’s come out on the British man who is known as "Jihadi John," who appears in the Islamic State beheading videos. Mohammed Emwazi has been identified as that man by British security. They say he’s a 26-year-old born in Kuwait who moved to the U.K. as a child and studied computer science at the University of Westminster. The British group CAGE said he faced at least four years of harassment, detention, deportations, threats and attempts to recruit him by British security agencies, which prevented him from leading a normal life. Emwazi approached CAGE in 2009 after he was detained and interrogated by the British intelligence agency MI5 on what he called a safari vacation in Tanzania. In 2010, after Emwazi was barred from returning to Kuwait, he wrote, quote, "I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. But know [sic] I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London." In 2013, a week after he was barred from Kuwait for a third time, Emwazi left home and ended up in Syria. At a news conference, CAGE research director Asim Qureshi spoke about his recollections of Emwazi and compared his case to another British man, Michael Adebolajo, who hacked a soldier to death in London in 2013.

ASIM QURESHI: Sorry, it’s quite hard, because, you know, he’s such a—I’m really sorry, but he was such a beautiful young man, really. You know, it’s hard to imagine the trajectory, but it’s not a trajectory that’s unfamiliar with us, for us. We’ve seen Michael Adebolajo, once again, somebody that I met, you know, who came to me for help, looking to change his situation within the system. When are we going to finally learn that when we treat people as if they’re outsiders, they will inevitably feel like outsiders, and they will look for belonging elsewhere?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s CAGE research director Asim Qureshi. Your response to this, Noam Chomsky?

NOAM CHOMSKY: He’s right. If you—the same if you take a look at those who perpetrated the crimes on Charlie Hebdo. They also have a history of oppression, violence. They come from Algerian background. The horrible French participation in the murderous war in the '90s in Algeria is their immediate background. They live under—in these harshly repressed areas. And there's much more than that. So, you mentioned that information is coming out about so-called Jihadi John. You read the British press, other information is coming out, which we don’t pay much attention to. For example, The Guardian had an article a couple of weeks ago about a Yemeni boy, I think who was about 14 or so, who was murdered in a drone strike. And shortly before, they had interviewed him about his history. His parents and family went through them, were murdered in drone strikes. He watched them burn to death. We get upset about beheadings. They get upset about seeing their father burn to death in a drone strike. He said they live in a situation of constant terror, not knowing when the person 10 feet away from you is suddenly going to be blown away. That’s their lives. People like those who live in the slums around Paris or, in this case, a relatively privileged man under harsh, pretty harsh repression in England, they also know about that. We may choose not to know about it, but they know. When we talk about beheadings, they know that in the U.S.-backed Israeli attack on Gaza, at the points where the attack was most fierce, like the Shejaiya neighborhood, people weren’t just beheaded. Their bodies were torn to shreds. People came later trying to put the pieces of the bodies together to find out who they were, you know. These things happen, too. And they have an impact—all of this has an impact, along with what was just described. And if we seriously want to deal with the question, we can’t ignore that. That’s part of the background of people who are reacting this way.

AARON MATÉ: You spoke before about how the U.S. invasion set off the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, and out of that came ISIS. I wonder if you see a parallel in Libya, where the U.S. and NATO had a mandate to stop a potential massacre in Benghazi, but then went much further than a no-fly zone and helped topple Gaddafi. And now, four years later, we have ISIS in Libya, and they’re beheading Coptic Christians, Egypt now bombing. And with the U.S. debating this expansive war measure, Libya could be next on the U.S. target list.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, that’s a very important analogy. What happened is, as you say, there was a claim that there might be a massacre in Benghazi, and in response to that, there was a U.N. resolution, which had several elements. One, a call for a ceasefire and negotiations, which apparently Gaddafi accepted. Another was a no-fly zone, OK, to stop attacks on Benghazi. The three traditional imperial powers—Britain, France and the United States—immediately violated the resolution. No diplomacy, no ceasefire. They immediately became the air force of the rebel forces. And, in fact, the war itself had plenty of brutality—violent militias, attacks on Africans living in Libya, all sorts of things. The end result is just to tear Libya to shreds. By now, it’s torn between two major warring militias, many other small ones. It’s gotten to the point where they can’t even export their main export, oil. It’s just a disaster, total disaster. That’s what happens when you strike vulnerable systems, as I said, with a sledgehammer. All kind of horrible things can happen.

In the case of Iraq, it’s worth recalling that there had been an almost decade of sanctions, which were brutally destructive. We know about—we can, if we like, know about the sanctions. People prefer not to, but we can find out. There was a sort of humanitarian component of the sanctions, so-called. It was the oil-for-peace program, instituted when the reports of the sanctions were so horrendous—you know, hundreds of thousand of children dying and so on—that it was necessary for the U.S. and Britain to institute some humanitarian part. That was directed by prominent, respected international diplomats, Denis Halliday, who resigned, and Hans von Sponeck. Both Halliday and von Sponeck resigned because they called the humanitarian aspect genocidal. That’s their description. And von Sponeck published a detailed, important book on it called, I think, A Different Kind of War, or something like that, which I’ve never seen a review of or even a mention of it in the United States, which detailed, in great detail, exactly how these sanctions were devastating the civilian society, supporting Saddam, because the people had to simply huddle under the umbrella of power for survival, probably—they didn’t say this, but I’ll add it—probably saving Saddam from the fate of other dictators who the U.S. had supported and were overthrown by popular uprisings. And there’s a long list of them—Somoza, Marcos, Mobutu, Duvalier—you know, even Ceaușescu, U.S. was supporting. They were overthrown from within. Saddam wasn’t, because the civil society that might have carried that out was devastated. He had a pretty efficient rationing system people were living on for survival, but it severely harmed the civilian society. Then comes the war, you know, massive war, plenty of destruction, destruction of antiquities. There’s now, you know, properly, denunciation of ISIS for destroying antiquities. The U.S. invasion did the same thing. Millions of refugees, a horrible blow against the society.

These things have terrible consequences. Actually, there’s an interesting interview with Graham Fuller. He’s one of the leading Middle East analysts, long background in CIA, U.S. intelligence. In the interview, he says something like, "The U.S. created ISIS." He hastens to add that he’s not joining with the conspiracy theories that are floating around the Middle East about how the U.S. is supporting ISIS. Of course, it’s not. But what he says is, the U.S. created ISIS in the sense that we established the background from which ISIS developed as a terrible offshoot. And we can’t overlook that.

AMY GOODMAN: MIT professor Noam Chomsky. When we come back from break, he talks about Cuba, U.S. relations with Venezuela, Edward Snowden, U.S. drones, the legacy of slavery, and a new chapter in Noam’s own life. Stay with us.

News Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:03:36 -0500
Netanyahu, "Censored Voices" and the False Narrative of Self-Defense

On March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an impassioned plea to Congress to protect Israel by opposing diplomacy with Iran. Referring to “the remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States” which includes “generous military assistance and missile defense,” Netanyahu failed to mention that Israel has an arsenal of 100 or 200 nuclear weapons.

The Six-Day War

The day before he delivered that controversial address, Netanyahu expressed similar sentiments to AIPAC, Israel’s powerful U.S. lobby. He reiterated the claim that Israel acted in the 1967 Six-Day War “to defend itself.” The narrative that Israel attacked Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in self-defense, seizing the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula in 1967, has remained largely unquestioned in the public discourse. Israel relies on that narrative to continue occupying those Palestinian lands. And the powerful film Censored Voices, which premiered at Sundance in February, does not challenge that narrative. 

But declassified high-level documents from Britain, France, Russia and the United States reveal that Egypt, Syria, and Jordan were not going to attack Israel and Israel knew it. In fact, they did not attack Israel. Instead, Israel mounted the first attack in order to decimate the Egyptian army and take the West Bank.

Censored voices uncensored

For two weeks following the Six Day War, Amos Oz and Avrahim Shapira visited Israeli kibbutzim and recorded interviews with several Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who had just returned from that war. Largely censored by the Israeli government for many years, those reels have finally been made public. Censored Voices features the taped voices of young IDF soldiers, as the aging, former soldiers sit silently beside the tape recorder, listening to their own voices.

The testimonies documented in the tapes reveal evidence of targeting civilians and summarily executing prisoners, which constitute war crimes. A soldier asks himself, “They’re civilians – should I kill them or not?” He replies, “I didn’t even think about it. Just kill! Kill everyone you see.” Likewise, one voice notes, “Several times we captured guys, positioned them and just killed them.” Another reveals, “In the war, we all became murderers.” Still another says, “Not only did this war not solve the state’s problems, but it complicated them in a way that’ll be very hard to solve.” One soldier likens evacuating Arab villages to what the Nazis did to Jews in Europe. As a soldier watched an Arab man being taken from his home, the soldier states, “I had an abysmal feeling that I was evil.”

In what proved to be a prescient question, one soldier asks, “Are we doomed to bomb villages every decade for defensive purposes?” Indeed, Israel justifies all of its assaults on Gaza as self-defense, even though Israel invariably attacks first, and kills overwhelming numbers of Palestinians – mostly civilians. Each time, many fewer Israelis are killed by Palestinian rockets.

Israel’s false self-defense claim

The film begins by showing a map of Israel surrounded by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, with arrows from each country aimed at Israel. The IDF soldiers felt those Arab countries posed an existential threat to Israel. “There was a feeling it would be a Holocaust,” one soldier observed. The Israeli media claimed at the time that Egypt had attacked Israel by land and by air on June 5, 1967. According to British journalist Patrick Seale, “Israel’s preparation of opinion” was “brilliantly managed,” a “remarkable exercise in psychological warfare.”

In his book, The Six-Day War and Israeli Self-Defense: Questioning the Legal Basis for Preventive War, published by Cambridge University Press, Ohio State University law professor John Quigley documents conversations by high government officials in Israel, the United States, Egypt, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain leading up to the Six-Day War. He draws on minutes of British cabinet meetings, a French government publication, U.S. documents in Foreign Relations of the United States, and Russian national archives. Those conversations make clear that Israel knew Egypt, Syria and Jordan would not and did not attack Israel, and that Israel initiated the attacks.

Egypt was the only one of the three Arab countries that had a military of any consequence. Israeli General Yitzhak Rabin told the Israeli cabinet that the Egyptian forces maintained a defensive posture, and Israeli General Meir Amit, head of Mossad (Israeli’s intelligence agency), informed U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that Egypt was not poised to attack Israel. Both the United States and the Soviet Union urged Israel not to attack. Nevertheless, Israel’s cabinet voted on June 4 to authorize the IDF to invade Egypt.

"After the cabinet vote,” Quigley writes, “informal discussion turned to ways to make it appear that Israel was not starting a war when in fact that was precisely what it was doing.” Moshe Dayan, who would soon become Israel’s Minister of Defense, ordered military censorship, saying, “For the first twenty-four hours, we have to be the victims.” Dayan admitted in his memoirs, “We had taken the first step in the war with Egypt.” Nevertheless, Israel’s UN Ambassador Gideon Rafael reported to the Security Council that Israel had acted in self-defense.

“The hostilities were attacks by the Israeli air force on multiple Egyptian airfields, aimed at demolishing Egyptian aircraft on the ground,” according to Quigley. On June 5, the CIA told President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Israel fired the first shots today.”

Article 51 of the UN Charter authorizes states to act in collective self-defense after another member state suffers an armed attack. Although Jordan and Syria responded to the Israeli attacks on Egypt, they – and Egypt - inflicted little damage to Israel. By the afternoon of June 5, Israel “had virtually destroyed the air war capacity of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria,” Quigley notes. “The IDF achieved the ‘utter defeat’ of the Egyptian army on June 7 and 8.”

The United States empowers Israel

U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that U.S. officials were “angry as hell, when the Israelis launched their surprise offensive.” Yet, Quigley notes, “Israel’s gamble paid off in that the United States would not challenge Israel’s story about how the fighting started. Even though it quickly saw through the story, the White House kept its analysis to itself.”

Although Security Council resolution 242, passed in 1967, refers to “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and calls for “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” Israel continues to occupy the Palestinian territories it acquired in the Six-Day War.

Israel has abandoned its claim that Egypt attacked first. Yet the international community considers that Israel acted in lawful anticipatory self-defense. Quigley explains how the UN Charter only permits the use of armed force after an armed attack on a UN member state; it does not authorize anticipatory, preventive, or preemptive self-defense.

“The UN did not condemn Israel in 1967 for its attack on Egypt,” Antonio Cassese of the University of Florence explained. Quigley attributes this to Cold War politics, as the USSR supported Egypt. “For the United States in particular, Israel’s success was a Cold War defeat for the USSR. The United States was hardly prepared to condemn Israel after it performed this service.”

The United States continues to support Israel by sending it $3 billion per year in military aid, even when Israel attacks Gaza with overwhelming firepower, as it did in the summer of 2014, killing 2,100 Palestinians (mostly civilians). Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and seven civilians were killed.

If Israel were to mount an attack on Iran, the United States would invariably support Israel against Iran and any Arab country that goes to Iran’s defense. Indeed, Netanyahu intoned to Congress, “may Israel and America always stand together.”

News Wed, 04 Mar 2015 10:47:52 -0500
Does the Supreme Leader Love Our Land Mass? ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Wed, 04 Mar 2015 09:38:31 -0500 Why Chuy Garcia Needs to Condemn Rahm Emanuel's Secret Police Interrogation Site

Guardian (U.K.) investigative reporter Spencer Ackerman has sparked a firestorm with a series of reports exposing a “secret” site, in the heart of Chicago’s predominantly African-American West Side, at which police have conducted off-the-books interrogations for more than 15 years.

Ackerman reports that black and brown suspects and witnesses, as well as white activists, have been taken by police to the abandoned Sears and Roebuck complex, known as Homan Square, and subjected to abuse. The victims describe, variously, being denied contact with lawyers or family for up to three days, being shackled hand and foot, and being subjected to starvation, sweltering heat, sensory deprivation and beatings. On at least one occasion, a detainee—John Hubbard, 44—died in an interview room. (After the Guardian article appeared, Cook County said the death was due to heroin intoxication.)

The initial Guardian exposé prompted calls for an investigation from two former high-level Justice Department officials, William Yeomans and Sam Bagenstos, and several progressive Chicago politicians (including one, Luis Gutierrez, who has been a conspicuous supporter of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel). The city attempted to give the growing scandal the back of the hand: Emanuel stated that the allegations were “not true. We follow the rules.” The police department issued a statement claiming that the site was not secret, that lawyers had access to their clients (the lawyers disagree) and that the charges of brutality were “offensive.” The local press, beaten on the story—by a UK paper no less—and having lost many of its award-winning investigative journalists years ago, turned to the Chicago Sun-Times’ veteran police reporter, Frank Main, who has long embedded with the CPD, to attack the Guardian reports. Main said that he had been to Homan Square 20 to 30 times to be shown drugs seized in raids. This, however, exhibits only the strange hidden-in-plain-sight nature of Homan Square: Press and lawyers were sometimes allowed in, but the interrogations and brutality were never reported. Nonetheless, a local NPR reporter, relying on Main's assertion and doggedly focusing on the Guardian’s use of the term “black site” to draw a parallel with the CIA’s secret interrogation sites in the Middle East, attempted to dismiss the reports as “exaggerated.” 

The Guardian countered with yet another story, which detailed four more cases of secret physical abuse in “kennel-like” cells at Homan Square. The young African-American men describe being grilled about gun and gangs for days. This time, the alleged practices included handcuffing both wrists in a way that, according to the victim, felt like being “crucified,” and stomping on another victim’s groin.

The textbook definition

So how should we view Homan Square? The U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which has been adopted, with reservations, by the United States, defines torture as follows:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Given this, the emerging evidence of abuses at Homan Square once again places the question of systemic, racially and politically motivated torture squarely at the doorstep of the political powers that be in Chicago.

The similarities to the Burge torture era of the 1970s and 1980s are hard to miss. While the coercive tactics that have so far been documented at Homan Square are not as extreme as those practiced by then-Police Commander Jon Burge and his men (which included electric shock, simulating suffocation with a bag and mock-executions), they still intentionally inflict ”severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” as forbidden by the CAT. During the Burge era, lawyers and family members would call the police looking for an African-American client or loved one who had been taken into custody, only to be told that he or she was not there. When the person was finally located, Burge and his confederates had finished their torture and abuse, and in most cases, obtained a confession. Similar to Homan Square, numerous black men, including Darrell Cannon, Michael Tillman, and Alonzo Smith, were taken offsite to remote locations or to the basement of the police station to be interrogated under torture. And, as in Homan, at least one person died under highly suspicious circumstances on Burge’s watch.

Homan Square itself has a direct tie to other brutal chapters of Chicago police history: The site is geographically located in the notorious Fillmore Police District, near the former Area 4 detective headquarters. In the 1980s and 1990s, a team of well-known Area 4 detectives interrogated suspects with a viciousness that was second only to that of Burge and his men. Decades earlier, in the 1960s, Fillmore District Officer James “Gloves” Davis, and his partner, Nedrick Miller, patrolled the streets with a brutality so extreme that they are remembered by residents to this day. (Davis has another claim to infamy: When the Chicago police were enlisted by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program to execute the deadly West Side raid on the apartment of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Davis was one of the leaders of the raid, and bullets from his carbine were found in the bodies of both of the slain leaders.)

More to unearth?

The first case of Burge related torture came to light in 1982, but it was more than two decades before the larger scope of his unit’s systemic torture on the South and West Sides of Chicago—120 victims and still counting—was unearthed. So it is little wonder that the stories emerging from the sprawling brick edifice chill those who have experienced similar terrorizing brutality at the hands of the Chicago police. At a rally in front of Emanuel’s City Hall on March 2, torture victim Darrell Cannon linked Homan Square to Burge’s racist torture, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.: “Justice denied to one is justice denied to all.” Angry young activists of color at the rally suggested that the revelations to date are just the tip of an iceberg and described everyday occurrences of brutal interrogations in their communities. Since the Guardian stories hit, lawyers have come forward and complained that holding clients incommunicado is a citywide problem.

That it is, without doubt, and it is much too early to call the story “exaggerated” or to conclude that there has been transparency with regard to what goes on in those kennel-like cells. One veteran and well-respected African American activist, Prexy Nesbitt, who has lived in the shadow of that complex of buildings and had tasted the lawlessness of the Fillmore cops back in the day, has asserted, with a straight face, that Homan Square is “where the bodies are buried.” Unfortunately, in Chicago that statement can be taken literally, as well as figuratively.

On the Saturday after the first Homan Square article broke, a group of hardy protesters, led by Black Lives Matter, gathered before the fortified entrance of the main building. A spokesperson posed questions to the silent row of police guards: “How many people are you holding there?” “What are you doing to them?”

Those questions deserve answers, along with many others. Foremost among them: Given Chicago lawyers’ reports that officers feel free to practice these kinds of abuses throughout the city, what is the purpose of taking people off the books to interrogate them at Homan Square? And who, among the thousands that may be taken into custody by the Chicago police on a given week, are brought there?

The CPD isn’t telling. But an answer may be pieced together from what the police, the embedded reporter and the Guardian’s exposé have so far revealed. Here’s what we know: First, the CPD’s undercover operations and intelligence and anti-gang units are based at Homan Square. Second, selected political activists are brought there, along with youth of color. The former are questioned about “terrorist” and other political activities, and the latter are grilled about gang activities, drugs and guns. Third, detainees are secreted away from their lawyers and families for as long as possible, sometimes days. Fourth, in many instances they are not charged with a crime. Fifth, one of Homan Square’s main functions  is, by the CPD’s own admission, to “disrupt” gang activity, in a chilling echo of how the FBI’s Cointelpro program characterized an illegal set of tactics, which were also practiced by the CPD’s notorious Red Squad and Gang Intelligence Unit to trample on the rights of political activists and people of color in the 1960s and 1970s.

All of this indicates that Homan Square houses a centralized police intelligence gathering and disruption operation—secret, lawless, and out of control. Since the tactics at least sometimes include human rights violations forbidden by the United Nations Convention Against Torture, it seems depressingly appropriate to liken Homan Square to Burge’s House of Screams, to Guantanamo Bay, and yes, to the CIA’s secret black sites.

The politics at play

Two final overarching questions also must be posed: How, if at all, will the Obama Justice Department respond? And will these related human rights issues impact the mayoral runoff between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and progressive challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on April 7?

With regard to the Justice Department, local activists remember all too well that Barack Obama, when a state senator, steered a wide berth around the Burge torture issue. That, coupled with his staunch support for his former chief of staff in the mayoral primary, make the chances of a meaningful federal investigation, at least in the short term, next to zero.

As for the race, Garcia, for his part, took a position in the primary elections that, to many progressives, appeared to be to the right of Emanuel on the issue of policing. He called for 1,000 more cops on the street in his one and only TV advertisement, a position that hardly resonated with those people of color and progressives who suffer the slings and arrows of overly aggressive, racially motivated policing. He does support the ordinance for reparations for Burge torture survivors, but came to it late in the campaign, with an ill-informed written statement. He thereby missed a golden opportunity to seize upon an issue that would have further separated himself from Emanuel—who has refused to commit to the ordinance despite its support by a majority of the City’s aldermen—while appealing to the African-American community.

The Homan Square scandal offers Garcia yet another chance to show progressives and people of color that he is committed to reform a corrupt and brutal police department. With a broad-based attack on his opponent for failing to support torture reparations or to halt Homan Square, Garcia would be taking a page from his mentor, the late and great Mayor Harold Washington. Harold’s campaign caught fire in 1983 when he heeded the advice of one of his progressive advisors and seized on the issue of rampant police brutality to attack the incumbent, Jane Byrne. His base was galvanized, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, to date, Garcia has ignored that successful example and remained silent on Homan Square. Time is running short, but to paraphrase the late Congressman Ralph Metcalfe, it is never too late to be right.

Opinion Wed, 04 Mar 2015 09:23:38 -0500
Behind the Supreme Court's Obamacare Case, a Secretive Society's Hidden Hand

Protesters outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning in Washington, March 4, 2015. The fight over the Affordable Care Act returns to the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments in a conservative challenge that could determine the future of the insurance program that now covers millions of people. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)Protesters outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning in Washington, March 4, 2015. The fight over the Affordable Care Act returns to the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments in a conservative challenge that could determine the future of the insurance program that now covers millions of people. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)

For more than 30 years, the Federalist Society has worked behind the scenes to shape Supreme Court outcomes to a conservative agenda. In King v. Burwell, its influence could eliminate health insurance subsidies for millions of people.

The Supreme Court has no shortage of potentially precedent-shattering cases on its docket this term. But the one the justices are hearing tomorrow, King v. Burwell, could be the most consequential.

King focuses on the issue of whether low-income people who get insurance under the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchanges are entitled to tax subsidies. Much has been said (and written) about what could happen if the justices rule “no”: Millions of people in as many as 37 states could lose their health coverage. The political earthquake could be cataclysmic.

Yet, few reports have highlighted the role of the Federalist Society, the conservative law group whose ideas are at the intellectual heart of the King v. Burwell challenge. That’s not surprising, given that the group’s members have played a mostly behind-the-scenes part in King — and in many of the most significant conservative legal victories of the last 30 years.

In a new book, Ideas with Consequences: The Federalist Society and the Conservative Counterrevolution, Pomona College political scientist Amanda Hollis-Brusky channels her inner investigative journalist to trace the group’s influence on the courts, and especially, the Supreme Court.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. What is the Federalist Society? What did it grow out of?

A. The Federalist Society was founded in 1982 by a small group of conservative and libertarian law students at Yale and the University of Chicago. Many of the founders had worked on the Reagan presidential campaign, and when they arrived in their elite law schools, they noticed a profound mismatch between the ideas that were achieving political ascendancy — about limited government and free markets and states’ rights — and a liberal orthodoxy that was embedded in almost all major legal institutions of the time.

Flash forward 30 years: The Federalist Society has matured into a self-professed “society of ideas” that claims 40,000 to 60,000 members. These include every Republican-appointed attorney general and solicitor general since the 1980s, dozens of federal judges, and four sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices: Antonin Scalia, who was one of the organization’s original mentors at the University of Chicago; Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts.

Q. How does it operate?

A. The Federalist Society doesn’t exhibit its power in a way that is easily recognizable. It doesn’t bring court cases, or lobby, or publish position papers, or officially endorse political or judicial candidates. Instead, it trains and socializes its members through thousands of events every year. It promotes collaboration. Members are encouraged to draw on their training and networks as they go about their work as judges, policy makers, litigators and academics. In this way, the Federalist Society’s influence is one step removed from the policy process. Yet that influence is profound.

Q. The Federalist Society doesn’t even make public its membership rosters. How did you trace its impact on policy and the courts?

A. I used speaker agendas from Federalist Society national student conferences and lawyer conferences from 1982 to 2012 to construct a database of everyone who’s ever participated in one of these meetings: 1,190 individuals in all. These are the thought leaders — the Mick Jaggers of the movement. If you are invited to speak at a national conference, it signals true believership.

Then I tracked their movements: What Supreme Court cases were they participating in? Were they consistently promoting a certain kind of scholarship or set of beliefs?

I identified the key areas of law that have taken a significant conservative turn over the past 30 years. And by reviewing transcripts from meetings and conferences, I was able to show how those ideas were gestated within the Federalist Society network for decades before being accepted by the Supreme Court.

Q. What kind of ideas?

A. The organization’s statement of principles provides a useful frame. The first part says: We believe the state exists to preserve freedom. Two key areas where this principle has played out are the Second Amendment — there has been a radical reframing of the right to bear arms as a right on par with speech and religious freedom — and campaign finance, culminating in Citizens United and the idea that corporations and individuals both have free speech rights.

A second Federalist principle holds that the separation of governmental powers is central to the Constitution. There’s been a very, very concerted effort to narrow the federal power over interstate commerce, to restrict the ability of Congress to regulate, and to dramatically expand states’ rights.

The third principle is the idea that it is the role of the judicial branch to say what the law is and not what it ought to be. That is the key issue in King v. Burwell.

Q. Let’s talk about the Supreme Court’s first Obamacare decision in 2012. Conservatives greeted that ruling with shock, outrage, disappointment. They lost — the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was upheld. But in your view, that ruling was actually an important Federalist Society victory. Why?

A. For one thing, they won on the Medicaid expansion issue. Conservatives and libertarians had fought that expansion, arguing that it was a coercive policy that infringed on states’ rights. The proposed expansion was a keystone of the ACA, so that part of the ruling was a huge blow to health care reform.

The Federalist Society also prevailed on the issue of the constitution’s Commerce Clause. Congress had argued that the Commerce Clause gave it the power to regulate health care, but a majority of the justices disagreed. That precedent has further contributed to the narrowing of the federal commerce powers.

It’s true, Chief Justice Roberts found a way to salvage the ACA’s individual mandate based on the power of Congress to impose taxes. That made many conservatives very unhappy. But the Federalist Society didn’t just get half a loaf, it got 80 percent of the loaf.

Q. King v. Burwell is avery different type of case. How does the issue at the center of it reflect Federalist Society thinking?

A. Unlike the 2012 challenge to the ACA, King v. Burwell is not a constitutional case. It’s a statutory case. At issue is whether people in states with federally facilitated health insurance exchanges are entitled to receive the tax benefits that make insurance affordable. The parties in this case are asking the Supreme Court to interpret just five words: what is meant by an “exchange established by the State.”

There are two very different ways to look at the issue of statutory interpretation. For many years, the dominant view was: If the meaning of that language is not immediately apparent, judges should look to legislative history – what was Congress’s intent when they wrote those words? In the case of Obamacare, the legislative intent is pretty clear: Congress’s aim was to provide tax benefits to lower income Americans to help underwrite the cost of insurance.

But since the 1980s, there’s been a quiet revolution in statutory interpretation by the courts. Instead of taking into consideration legislative history and intent, there’s been a shift to just looking at the plain meaning of the text and ignoring everything else because supposedly things like legislative history are too subjective. This revolution began with a core group of Federalist Society members centered in the Reagan Justice Department. Justice Scalia has been a major proponent.

If the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell prevail, the Federalist Society will have two victories. The obvious one is that Obamacare will suffer another major setback. The other will be to more firmly entrench this idea of statutory interpretation – we shouldn’t look at legislative history; we shouldn’t look at consequences; we should just look at the plain meaning of the words, and our inquiry ends there. The Supreme Court majority’s approach could well be: The ACA says what it says — let Congress fix it. But they know full well that this Congress will not pass that fix.

Q. This idea of ignoring Congressional intent, and just reading the plain text of a statute, comes up in another important Supreme Court case this year,Young v. UPS, which focuses on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. How has Federalist Society thinking shaped the Supreme Court’s rulings on sex discrimination?

A. Young v. UPS is another case of statutory interpretation — in this instance, the question centers on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. The Act prohibits employers from treating pregnant women differently from other employees who are “similar in their ability, or inability, to work.” But what does that mean? Women’s rights advocates say it’s obvious: Pregnant women must not be discriminated against in the workplace. But many employers said it means that pregnant women can’t be treated any differently than “similarly situated” male employees — otherwise women are getting preferential treatment. Never mind that men can’t be similarly situated because men can’t get pregnant.

One of the ways the Federalist Society has been effective is in changing the debate. Twenty or 30 years ago, if you were going to hear oral arguments in a case about the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, much of the discussion would have focused on statutory intent — the fact that the entire purpose of this Act, regardless of how the language is phrased, was to prevent discrimination on account of pregnancy. That is virtually not talked about now.

In the Young oral arguments last December, almost the entire focus was on the meaning of “similarly situated” and “similar in their ability or inability to work.” There was a lot of discussion about semicolons. And when you limit the conversation in this way, the effect almost always is to limit protections, to restrict rights.

Q. There’s another huge discrimination case before the Supreme Court this term, involving the Fair Housing Act (Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.) Does the Federalist Society’s approach to sex discrimination extend to race?

A. There’s a trope you hear over and over in the Federalist Society network: the idea of the “color-blind Constitution.” The implication is, to treat people equally, you treat them the same and it will all shake out in the end. The government shouldn’t try to equalize resources or equalize opportunity — that’s not its role. As long as discrimination isn’t intentional, it doesn’t matter whether a law or policy has a disparate impact on minorities.

But there’s another way of understanding equality, which is that if you want to treat some people equally, you have to treat some people — like pregnant women, or certain homeowners, or black voters in historically segregated states — differently. That is a line of thinking that Federalist Society members have absolutely rejected.

As we’ve seen, this Supreme Court has been pretty opposed to race-conscious remedies. It has seemed pretty bent on limiting, if not declaring unconstitutional altogether, affirmative action policies. In the Shelby v. Holder voting rights decision from a couple of years ago, it repudiated the idea that certain states should have to appeal to the federal government or courts before they make changes to their electoral voting procedures. That case, of course, also touched on another issue important to the Federalist Society network, states’ rights.

Q. I’ve been reading a lot about the pressures on Roberts in King v. Burwell.

A. Yes, there is a very active campaign, mostly by the left, to remind Chief Justice Roberts that the integrity of the Supreme Court as an institution is once again at stake and to argue that there are alternative paths he could take to uphold this provision of the ACA and still keep his conservative credentials. On the right, there’s been very quiet and subtle but potentially very effective counter-pressure. People say, we’re not worried about losing any of the conservatives on this, Roberts will follow the rule of law.

One important function of the Federalist Society has been to provide a counterweight to the so-called liberal media. There was a very conscious effort to build a counter-elite to counteract this effect.

Q. What do you think the outcome of King v. Burwell will be?

A. Because of this 30-year revolution in statutory interpretation, the justices have a shield. My sense is that conservatives have enough cover that if five of them want to strike down the law, they will.

Q. But unlike in 2012, the ACA has already gone into effect. Millions of people would have their subsidies and their health coverage taken away. The real-world consequences would be very different.

A. Yeah, but you’d have to believe that the justices are in touch enough with real people to believe that they’re going to take that into consideration.

Anthony Kennedy has demonstrated enough antipathy to the ACA that you would not normally count on him to be the one to save it. But he is the one who, in the marriage equality cases, for example, would bring up the fact that there are children who want their parents to be able to get married. So there are times that he will actually look outside the court and try to work in the real-world impact of potential decisions.

I don’t know if this is one such case. I don’t know how bent he is on disposing of Obamacare at any cost. But who knows — maybe he’ll be the John Roberts of King v. Burwell.

News Wed, 04 Mar 2015 09:16:41 -0500
And We Sat: Violence Against the Bodies of Diversity and Transparency Student Movement at Syracuse University

The ultimate connection cannot be the enemy. The ultimate connection must be the need that we find between us. It is not only who you are, in other words, but what we can do for each other that will determine the connection.

June Jordan, “Report from the Bahamas, 1982″

As we rolled out our sleeping bags onto the cold, brick floor under the gaze of public safety officers, I did not truly comprehend that my body had become both a weapon and a battlefield.

Since the start of the Fall 2014 semester, students had repeatedly gathered on the steps of Hendricks Chapel to cry out in pain and anguish—since September, we had rallied, and rallied, and rallied, and rallied, until our throats were sore and our hands were smeared with ink.

When the Advocacy Center, a facility and community for survivors of sexual assault, was closed without our consent (how apropos!), we rallied. When the Board of Trustees chose to not divest the university endowment from fossil fuels in spite of widespread support from other governing bodies, we rallied. When the contract with the Posse Foundation, a scholarship primarily benefitting students of color and low-income students, was prematurely and unilaterally broken, we rallied.

And when we realized that these were part and parcel of the same system that provided only one psychiatrist for 25,000 students, that allowed for us to go for ten years without a full-time Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, that did not report salary information to the American Association of University Professors for the first time in fifty years, that made our teaching assistants and graduate assistants some of the poorest-paid laborers in the entire city of Syracuse, that removed any mention of “diverse backgrounds” or “public good” from our mission and vision statements, we decided to rally one more time that year.

We are those students who are beat up on the street, assaulted in our beds, tormented in our homes, and left without money for rent. Peers and professors told us our struggles were irrelevant, and then defined and labeled us by them. I used to believe that an institution without a moral conscience would hear me and advocate for me.

So on November 3, 2014, we marched from the Chapel to Crouse-Hinds Hall, the building that hosts admissions, classrooms, and administrative functions. We delivered a document of grievances and demands that numbered forty-three pages to administrative staff, who then attempted to divert us to another building by blocking entrances. There was so much irony in the image of those men standing between us and the doors to the “admissions” building.

So we sat.

At first, we were told that we could only sit between the hours of 7:00 am and 10:00 pm.

We told them no, we will not be convenient for them. Then we were told that we could only have twenty-four bodies sleeping here overnight; fire codes that we were never allowed to see were cited. We told them no, you will not divide us nor make us choose who will labor and who will leave. So every night, forty bodies dreamt on the cold, brown bricks of Crouse-Hinds.

Then they sent an older woman of color—a dean—to mediate between the unreasonable protestors and the upper-level administration. We told them no, we will not be complicit in your sexist, racist labor practices. We waited to speak with the senior executive team.

And we sat.

Then they called us “unruly” and “irrational” because we had been loud, and because we had used student testimonies, not statistics, to demonstrate our grievances. We laughed, because we refused to play games of respectability and be policed into obedience. We laughed because our emotions and our stories were less valuable than data that did not exist because it could challenge the very institution that would collect and publish it.

And we sat.

Then they grabbed our ID cards from our hands and recorded them without our consent. That night, I whispered my name to myself over and over again, lest I forget that it was not theirs to own. When my eyes finally closed, the last thing I saw was the palatine gaze of a public safety officer.

And we sat.

Then they stood around the room as we shared stories of pain and hurt with each other. As we recounted histories of unbelonging and violence and silencing as a result of our classmates’ disrespect, which had been fostered by an institution that did not value us, one of the administrators recorded us on his cell phone. I saw another smile. When professors asked them (politely, in spite of our irrelevant, raging, radical politics) to respect our personal space, they refused to leave. As students continued to voice their discomfort, one white administrator boomed with bellicose authority over students and faculty of color. He marched out—what a luxury, to lose nothing in walking away!

And we sat.

Then they turned off the heat. So we huddled together, and the friction of an organic tenderness—sometimes called love—against an unfeeling, dark wall kept us warm.

And we sat.

Then they told us we could not use the classrooms for meetings. We told them no, you will not prevent us from educating ourselves. We held teach-ins every day, no tuition charged. Our attendance rate was stellar—hundreds of people came to learn for the sake of learning. Professors joined us, and they marched to Chancellor Syverud’s house to deliver a formal invitation to continue dialogues.

And we sat.

As the first weekend approached, they told us we would not be allowed re-entry between 5:00 pm Friday and 7:00 am Sunday. So we stayed, and sat. They told us that food would only be allowed into the building during two forty-five minute windows each day. So we went without. Still, there were teaching assistants who were eating better on donated food than they normally did on their substandard wages.

And we sat.

Then, we woke up to cameras trained on our tired, aching bodies. So we stuck out our tongues and said “cheese!”

And we sat.

Then they put up a tall, green fence around the building to hide us from view. So we turned that fence into a wall of remembrance for other students that had been lost to mental illness, who didn’t have the support they needed to survive. Those signs were torn down, but we were not.

And we sat.

Then they threw us envelopes with Codes of Conduct, cryptically highlighted with no explanations. Then they told us legal counsel would not be allowed into the building over the weekend. Our professors told them no, we will not let you criminalize our students. We will not let you “instill fear and compliance in our students.”

And we sat.

Then they told us that they had to balance our needs and those “of the 21,000 other students who attend our University” as if those other students would not also benefit from fairer wages, from more mental health services, from a more accessible campus. As if, in the event that our demands could not directly benefit the white, able-bodied, straight, upper-middle class students of the student body, that they would be any less meaningful.

And we sat.

When I stepped into Crouse-Hinds Hall, it became acceptable for my face and body to be photographed without consent; it became acceptable for me to be trivialized and objectified. Few folks outside of the movement realized that challenging and denigrating my activism was an attack upon my body as well. My politics aren’t spun from nothingness—they are a defense against the pain I have endured and a vow to never commit the same harm to Others. If you have no problem abusing my belief in structures of justice, I wondered to myself, how long before my physical presence, which relies on such justice, is also abused? I did not feel safe. I could not—cannot—separate my very public fight for a more supportive campus from my lived experiences of violence. Those who try to are erasing those experiences—another act of violence.

After days and days of this torment I reached my breaking point. At her keynote talk at the 2014 National Women’s Studies Association conference, bell hooks said, “If you stand up against certain forms of power, while that power has control over your life, it will use that power against you.” I was living in perpetual fear for my health, sanity, education, and willfulness. I had never wanted to run away from anything so bad. I contemplated transferring. I contemplated dying. Neither of these things happened, nor will happen—while I sit in discomfort as a continual participant in the academic industry, I could not empower it with my silence.

And because the collective was comprised of humans—individual, fallible humans—I can’t pretend this was some sort of immortal activist utopia. Sometimes these would be the first people I would turn to in the bouts of anxiety. But I also faced abuse at the hands of individuals who were sitting next to me. Just because we came together under a banner of solidarity does not mean we were solidly devoid of our own injustices. As we occupied one structure, we sometimes neglected the structures occupying us. One of my advisors remarked to me that certain mechanisms serve different purposes at different times—for now, I rest easier knowing that the recession of a particular group does not denote the extinction of its ideas.

Our bodies are any combination of Black, queer, disabled, ill, poor, assaulted, and undocumented. They aren’t the kinds of bodies accepted at respectable, alabaster dinner tables. If we had waited for an invitation, we would have been waiting ourselves into our graves. After eighteen days of protest, immeasurable community support, and administrative disregard, we left on our own terms. There is more work to be done, but it all starts from the ground on which we sit.

Opinion Tue, 03 Mar 2015 17:12:18 -0500