Saturday, February 5, 2011

Chomsky's Assessment

I hope Noam Chomsky won't mind my reprinting his article in its entirety. One of these days, I'll look up the law about reprinting. I think it's ok as long as it's properly credited. So, the below was written by Noam Chomsky who is Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. foreign policy. He writes a monthly column for The New York Times News Service/Syndicate.

‘The Arab World Is on Fire’
By Noam Chomsky (first published in the New York Times)

A common refrain among pundits is that fear of radical Islam requires opposition to democracy on pragmatic grounds. That formulation is misleading.

“The Arab world is on fire,” al-Jazeera reported on January 27, while throughout the region, Western allies “are quickly losing their influence.”

The shock wave was set in motion by the dramatic uprising in Tunisia that drove out a Western-backed dictator, with reverberations especially in Egypt, where demonstrators overwhelmed a dictator’s brutal police.

Observers compared the events to the toppling of Russian domains in 1989, but there are important differences.

Crucially, no Mikhail Gorbachev exists among the great powers that support the Arab dictators. Rather, Washington and its allies keep to the well-established principle that democracy is acceptable only insofar as it conforms to strategic and economic objectives: fine in enemy territory (up to a point), but not in our backyard, please, unless it is properly tamed.

One 1989 comparison has some validity: Romania, where Washington maintained its support for Nicolae Ceausescu, the most vicious of the East European dictators, until the allegiance became untenable. Then Washington hailed his overthrow while the past was erased.

That is a standard pattern: Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Chun Doo Hwan, Suharto and many other useful gangsters. It may be under way in the case of Hosni Mubarak, along with routine efforts to try to ensure that a successor regime will not veer far from the approved path.

The current hope appears to be Mubarak loyalist Gen. Omar Suleiman, just named Egypt’s vice president. Suleiman, the longtime head of the intelligence services, is despised by the rebelling public almost as much as the dictator himself.

A common refrain among pundits is that fear of radical Islam requires (reluctant) opposition to democracy on pragmatic grounds. While not without some merit, the formulation is misleading. The general threat has always been independence. In the Arab world, the United States and its allies have regularly supported radical Islamists, sometimes to prevent the threat of secular nationalism.

A familiar example is Saudi Arabia, the ideological center of radical Islam (and of Islamic terror). Another in a long list is Zia ul-Haq, the most brutal of Pakistan’s dictators and President Reagan’s favorite, who carried out a program of radical Islamization (with Saudi funding).

“The traditional argument put forward in and out of the Arab world is that there is nothing wrong, everything is under control,” says Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian official and now director of Middle East research for the Carnegie Endowment. “With this line of thinking, entrenched forces argue that opponents and outsiders calling for reform are exaggerating the conditions on the ground.”

Therefore the public can be dismissed. The doctrine traces far back and generalizes worldwide, to U.S. home territory as well. In the event of unrest, tactical shifts may be necessary, but always with an eye to reasserting control.

The vibrant democracy movement in Tunisia was directed against “a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems,” ruled by a dictator whose family was hated for their venality. This was the assessment by U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec in a July 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks.

Therefore to some observers the WikiLeaks “documents should create a comforting feeling among the American public that officials aren’t asleep at the switch”—indeed, that the cables are so supportive of U.S. policies that it is almost as if Obama is leaking them himself (or so Jacob Heilbrunn writes in The National Interest.)

“America should give Assange a medal,” says a headline in the Financial Times. Chief foreign-policy analyst Gideon Rachman writes that “America’s foreign policy comes across as principled, intelligent and pragmatic—the public position taken by the U.S. on any given issue is usually the private position as well.”

In this view, WikiLeaks undermines the “conspiracy theorists” who question the noble motives that Washington regularly proclaims.

Godec’s cable supports these judgments—at least if we look no further. If we do, as foreign policy analyst Stephen Zunes reports in Foreign Policy in Focus, we find that, with Godec’s information in hand, Washington provided $12 million in military aid to Tunisia. As it happens, Tunisia was one of only five foreign beneficiaries: Israel (routinely); the two Middle East dictatorships Egypt and Jordan; and Colombia, which has long had the worst human-rights record and the most U.S. military aid in the hemisphere.

Heilbrunn’s Exhibit A is Arab support for U.S. policies targeting Iran, revealed by leaked cables. Rachman too seizes on this example, as did the media generally, hailing these encouraging revelations. The reactions illustrate how profound is the contempt for democracy in the educated culture.

Unmentioned is what the population thinks—easily discovered. According to polls released by the Brookings Institution in August, some Arabs agree with Washington and Western commentators that Iran is a threat: 10 percent. In contrast, they regard the U.S. and Israel as the major threats (77 percent; 88 percent).

Arab opinion is so hostile to Washington’s policies that a majority (57 percent) think regional security would be enhanced if Iran had nuclear weapons. Still, “there is nothing wrong, everything is under control” (as Marwan Muasher describes the prevailing fantasy). The dictators support us. Their subjects can be ignored—unless they break their chains, and then policy must be adjusted.

Other leaks also appear to lend support to the enthusiastic judgments about Washington’s nobility. In July 2009, Hugo Llorens, U.S. ambassador to Honduras, informed Washington of an embassy investigation of “legal and constitutional issues surrounding the June 28 forced removal of President Manuel `Mel’ Zelaya.”

The embassy concluded that “there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch.” Very admirable, except that President Obama proceeded to break with almost all of Latin America and Europe by supporting the coup regime and dismissing subsequent atrocities.

Perhaps the most remarkable WikiLeaks revelations have to do with Pakistan, reviewed by foreign policy analyst Fred Branfman in Truthdig.

The cables reveal that the U.S. embassy is well aware that Washington’s war in Afghanistan and Pakistan not only intensifies rampant anti-Americanism but also “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state” and even raises a threat of the ultimate nightmare: that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists.

Again, the revelations “should create a comforting feeling—that officials are not asleep at the switch” (Heilbrunn’s words)—while Washington marches stalwartly toward disaster.

© The New York Times Syndicate

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Egypt Erupts

Favorite quote for the day by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, "Of course, you in the West have been sold the idea that the only options in the Arab world are between authoritarian regimes and Islamic jihadists. That’s obviously bogus. If we are talking about Egypt, there is a whole rainbow variety of people who are secular, liberal, market-oriented, and if you give them a chance they will organize themselves to elect a government that is modern and moderate. They want desperately to catch up with the rest of the world."

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Pakistani-American Novel

My review of Saffron Dreams by Shailah Abdullah in Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistani Studies, edited by Masood Raja. Visit the index here.

To order this book, go to

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Tea Party Farce

From: Merced Sun-Star
Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010
Keith Law: The tea party farce

While driving down Highway 99 the other day, I came upon a car decked out in "tea party" bumper stickers. One simply said "DOPE" in the same colors as Barack Obama's "HOPE" bumper stickers from his 2008 campaign.

I felt the urge to respond with a "DUPE" bumper sticker of my own.

The tea party movement is a farce, and it is disappointing that citizens are duped by the snake-oil show. The salesmen include the Wall Street traders who initiated the idea, as well as the defeated Republicans who promote the cause into the spectacle that it has become. These include Texas Republican Dick Armey's organization Freedom Works, and the cast of the conservative broadcasting company, Fox.

The original tea party evokes images of our founders who fought against an imperialist kingdom to create a more democratic union. The "tea party" movement is fighting against a president who was democratically elected by the processes established in the Constitution by those very founders.

Given the political beliefs and the demographic makeup of those who are in the "tea party" movement, a better historical reference would evoke the Confederate side in the Civil War.

In contrast to what they want us to believe, the "tea party" movement is not nonpartisan, it is not attempting to defend the Constitution, and it is not antideficit or antisocialism. What it is, mostly, is disgruntled elderly, white conservative men who lost the 2008 election that brought into office another smart, young politician from Illinois, the land of Abraham Lincoln. Both by his race and his political defense of our nation's underprivileged, Obama represents a threat to this group.

The demographic research is in; those who make up the tea party are primarily white (79 percent), male (61 percent), conservative Republicans (80 percent) and better off financially than the national average.

It is understandable that "tea party" goers would want to distance themselves from the Republican Party given the ruin we suffered under their eight years of governance. However, they would not be a movement if not for the clout received from disgruntled Republicans.

One could sympathize with the tea party's concern for deficit spending, and defer alleging there is a racist motive among many of its leaders, if their first protest didn't take place one month after Obama took office.

Where were these folks when President George Bush was turning the Clinton surplus into the largest deficit in our history? A good chunk of that deficit spending went to fund a war that was based on lies. Is that a better use of our resources than attempting to supply health care to the needy, or to assist the nation during a recession?

The first contemporary president to riddle us with debt was Ronald Reagan, a man conservatives love to love. If one graphs deficit spending since World War II, the picture that emerges depicts a world where Republicans are far less responsible than their Democratic counterparts.

Though they deny it, the stories we hear of the implicit and explicit racism within the tea party are not incidental to the movement. According to polling research done at the University of Washington, tea party members are more likely to believe that African Americans are less hardworking, less intelligent and less trustworthy; and they are less favorable to immigration.

Their grandest farce is the attack on illegal immigration, as if our loss of good-paying jobs beccause to folks came over to do manual labor for minimum wages. This is the same racist scapegoating that goes on in every economic bust since Germany did it to the Jews during the Great Depression.

Our job loss is caused by to many factors, but one of the most prominent is the flight of jobs overseas due to rich folks looking for cheap labor. These are the same rich folks who bankroll the conservative movement.

Before tea party followers assume their self-righteous battle in defense of our Constitution, they should take the time to read it. There, they will find that in the preamble our founders placed liberty last in a list of virtues that included establishing justice and promoting the general welfare. The preamble is important because it established the overall intention behind the rest of the Constitution.

There can be differences of opinion about how to establish a just health care system, or how to promote the general welfare in the deep recession and financial crisis that we inherited from the very Republicans who are now protesting under tea party banners.

However, it is ridiculous to argue that the path taken by Obama is against the principles enshrined in the Constitution.

The strategy of using the government to supply a public good goes back as far as Thomas Jefferson, who argued for a public education system.

Franklin Roosevelt used the government as the consumer of last resort during the Great Depression in order to stimulate the economy.

As everyone who has taken an economics course knows, the intention behind this is to save capitalism. Of course, we can debate the relative effectiveness of the remedy, but no reasonable person believes that it is a plot by an anti-American dictator, as tea party folks allege.

Finally, as research shows, tea party goers are not against socialism, as a disproportionate number are elderly folks who are counting on collecting Social Security checks and enjoying the socialized health care system known as Medicare. Further, the Dick Armey types have been supporting corporate welfare for the rich for generations.

Tea party followers are financially better off than the general population, so they hate paying taxes; however, they sure do like the programs that the government provides to them.

They want to get as much as they can from the government while paying as little as possible to support the government; A simple case of greed.

As long as this sentiment has sway in Washington we will suffer the massive deficit spending that tea party goers say they are against.

Keith Law is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Merced College.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Article Hits My Nail

Yes, I hammer too! And, sometimes I'm happy to hit a nail on the head. In John Cory's "Running on Bullshit," he captures my feeling on the media. While I'm glad Fox News has Maddow and Olbermann to punch back, I do get tired of the punching and yearn for PBS-like facts on what's what in the world. Meanwhile, let's all send PBS some money. We'd be a wasteland of information if it weren't for their work. And, they would be much better if not for having to cover or comment on the crapola-driven controversies that the media births then reports on.

"Running on Bullshit"
By John Cory, Reader Supported News
25 July 2010

In the 1976 film Network, Howard Beale explains why on the previous evening's broadcast he had announced that he would commit public suicide on the air: "Well, I'll tell you what happened: I just ran out of bullshit ... So I don't have any bullshit left, just ran out of it, you see."

That is not a concern for what passes as our modern media because bullshit comes with a golden microphone and silver-framed teleprompter. Bring your own pooper-scooper.

The media narrative of the Shirley Sherrod event began with, "racist discovered at NAACP," then promptly shifted to, "oops, my bad," and then to, "what's wrong with this White House and why is the President afraid of FOX?"

On Wednesday's ABC Nightline Cynthia McFadden introduced a segment about the kerfuffle Andrew Breitbart had stirred up. Kerfuffle? That sounds so harmless.

The NY Times ran an editorial that began: "The Obama Administration has been shamed by its rush to judgment," and ended by noting that this time, Glenn Beck was right.

Howard Kurtz gave cover to FOX and Breitbart by glossing over the whole incident and ending with, "Still, one fact is indisputable. It was Vilsack, not Breitbart, who kicked Sherrod out of her job."

Rachel Maddow on MSNBC chided the White House for continually falling for these FOX News stunts, and Keith Olbermann interrupted his vacation for a Special Comment on the whole Sherrod affair and lectured Obama about standing up to the right-wing FOX noise machine.

Let's be blunt here, the media is not interested in journalism or news or context or factual reportage; it is interested in what sells - and that my friends, is bullshit.

CNN is a slogan generating "news" organization. "Keeping them honest" is the term most often used while uttering the phrase "both sides do it," as protection against accusations of being part of the "liberal media."

MSNBC has positioned itself as the anti-FOX with its so-called "liberal/progressive" evening lineup that punches back at the propaganda of FOX. It is Keith versus Bill-O and Rachel versus Hannity or whomever she can snark and giggle at. It is the World Wrestling Federation of "I know I am but what are you!"

In other words - bullshit. Lethal repugnant odious, but oh so shiny bullshit.

It is time to re-read Gene Lyons' "Fools For Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater." It is time to remind ourselves that the NY Times and Washington Post were cheerleaders for war with Iraq and Afghanistan. The networks quivered in near orgasm over the chance to embed with troops and roll across the desert in glorious full battle-rattle. The "media" attacked Michael Hastings over his reporting on Gen. McChrystal and whined about the need for friendly access to the military, and at the same time complained that BP restricted their ability to cover the Gulf oil disaster. BP was being mean!

The truth is, had BP oil been used as a lubricant for a celebrity sex scandal, the media would have broken through the security lines and rushed the bedroom for photographs. But of course, the oil was only used to lubricate the screwing of America, so nothing to see here - move along.

Our "media news" outlets are nothing more than carnival barkers and hucksters. They are the last real manufacturer left in this country. They manufacture sensationalistic fear while selling conformity to the great, unwashed American consumer. They sell tribalism and all the products that go with it.

In other words - bullshit.

The Sherrod affair was never about racism. It was blowback for attacks on the Tea Party - that manufactured coalition of hate and anger supported by conservative corporate largesse - just like that other media creation - Sarah Palin.

All the media did was yell: Fight! Fight! Someone called someone else a racist and then someone else showed that the other someone was a racist too and both sides do it so - we're just keeping them honest. See?

Breitbart won the prize his kind desires most - headlines and media profile.

MSNBC and FOX got to punch and blame each other, so that's a win.

The American people lost. They lost an opportunity to have an honest discussion about people and racism, about institutional racism, about the progress and redemption of race in our society. But at least they were entertained for a while. And isn't that what it's all about, really, a little entertainment between job losses and military suicides and the 100 bank failures so far this year and oh yeah, having to talk about that scary race thing?

One night Howard Beale ran out of bullshit. Howard Beale is a fictional character.

So is our modern media.

Friday, July 23, 2010

USDA is racist, alright

Must read article about the Sherrod assault:

The Real Story of Racism at the USDA

Thursday 22 July 2010

by: Chris Kromm | Facing South

It's an astonishing development given the history of race relations at the USDA, an agency whose own Commission on Small Farms admitted in 1998 that "the history of discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture ... is well-documented" -- not against white farmers, but African-American, Native American and other minorities who were pushed off their land by decades of racially-biased laws and practices.

It's also a black eye for President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who signaled a desire to atone for the USDA's checkered past, including pushing for funding of a historic $1.15 billion settlement that would help thousands of African American farmers but now faces bitter resistance from Senate Republicans.

Forced Off the Land

Any discussion about race and the USDA has to start with the crisis of black land loss. Although the U.S. government never followed through on its promise to freed slaves of "40 acres and a mule," African-Americans were able to establish a foothold in Southern agriculture. Black land ownership peaked in 1910, when 218,000 African-American farmers had an ownership stake in 15 million acres of land.

By 1992, those numbers had dwindled to 2.3 million acres held by 18,000 black farmers. And that wasn't just because farming was declining as a way of life: Blacks were being pushed off the land in vastly disproportionate numbers. In 1920, one of out seven U.S. farms were black-run; by 1992, African-Americans operated one out of 100 farms.

The USDA isn't to blame for all of that decline, but the agency created by President Lincoln in 1862 as the "people's department" did little to stem the tide -- and in many cases, made the situation worse.

After decades of criticism and an upsurge in activism by African-American farmers, the USDA hosted a series of "listening sessions" in the 1990s, which added to a growing body of evidence of systematic discrimination:

Black farmers tell stories of USDA officials -- especially local loan authorities in all-white county committees in the South -- spitting on them, throwing their loan applications in the trash and illegally denying them loans. This happened for decades, through at least the 1990s. When the USDA's local offices did approve loans to Black farmers, they were often supervised (farmers couldn't spend the borrowed money without receiving item-by-item authorization from the USDA) or late (and in farming, timing is everything). Meanwhile, white farmers were receiving unsupervised, on-time loans. Many say egregious discrimination by local loan officials persists today.

Among those concluding that such racial bias persisted were the USDA's own researchers: In the mid-1990s, they released a report [pdf] which, analyzing data from 1990 to 1995, found "minorities received less than their fair share of USDA money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans."

Adding insult to injury, when African-American and other minority farmers filed complaints, the USDA did little to address them. In 1983, President Reagan pushed through budget cuts that eliminated the USDA Office of Civil Rights -- and officials admitted they "simply threw discrimination complaints in the trash without ever responding to or investigating them" until 1996, when the office re-opened. Even when there were findings of discrimination, they often went unpaid -- and those that did often came too late, since the farm had already been foreclosed.

In 1997, a USDA Civil Rights Team found the agency's system for handling civil rights complaints was still in shambles [pdf]: the agency was disorganized, the process for handling complaints about program benefits was "a failure," and the process for handling employment discrimination claims was "untimely and unresponsive."

A follow-up report [pdf] by the GAO in 1999 found 44 percent of program discrimination cases, and 64 percent of employment discrimination cases, had been backclogged for over a year.

Taking USDA Discrimination to Court

It was against this backdrop that in 1997, a group of black farmers led by Tim Pigford of North Carolina filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. In all 22,000 farmers were granted access to the lawsuit, and in 1999 the government admitted wrongdoing and agreed to a $2.3 billion settlement -- the largest civil rights settlement in history.

But African-American farmers had misgivings with the Pigford settlement. For one, only farmers discriminated against between 1981 and 1996 could join the lawsuit. Second, the settlement forced farmers to take one of two options: Track A, to receive an immediate $50,000 cash payout, or Track B, the promise of a larger amount if more extensive documentation was provided -- a challenge given that many farmers didn't keep records.

Many farmers who joined the lawsuit were also denied payment: By one estimate, nine out of 10 farmers who sought restitution under Pigford were denied. The Bush Department of Justice spent 56,000 office hours and $12 million contesting farmers' claims; many farmers feel their cases were dismissed on technicalities.

The Politics Behind the Sherrod Affair

Shortly after coming into office, President Obama and his chief at the Department of Agriculture, Iowa's Tom Vilsack, signaled a change in direction at USDA. Vilsack declared "A New Civil Rights Era at USDA," and stepped-up handling of civil rights claims in the agency.

This year, Vilsack and the USDA also responded to concerns over handling of the Pigford case, agreeing to a historic second settlement -- known as Pigford II -- in April that would deliver another $1.25 billion to farmers who were excluded from the first case. As Vilsack declared:

We have worked hard to address USDA's checkered past so we can get to the business of helping farmers succeed. The agreement reached today is an important milestone in putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good.

But the Pigford II case was very much still alive when right-wing media outlets went after Shirley Sherrod this week. Sherrod herself had received $150,000 from the USDA last year as part of the original Pigford lawsuit, which has been bitterly opposed by Republicans and conservative media.

The settlement is also now a major political battle in Congress: President Obama had put aside $1.15 billion in May to cover Pigford II cases, which the House later approved. But Republicans stripped the money out of their bills, leaving the supplemental spending now being debated in the Senate as the final option to appropriate the funding.

Given the stakes of the Pigford II decision -- which again affirms the present-day consequences of decades of racial discrimination -- and the sharp partisan battle over spending in Congress, black farmer advocates don't think the attacks on Sherrod this week are a coincidence.

And given the history of racial discrimination at USDA, they can't help but note the hypocrisy. As Gary Grant, president of the 20,000-strong Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, said in a statement [pdf]:

The statement from Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, that USDA does not "tolerate" racial discrimination is a complete lie. Talk to almost any family member of a black farmer or check out ... the government's documentation of how USDA employees, on the local and federal level discriminated against black farmers, in particular. And nothing was ever done to penalize the all white officials bent on destroying a society of black farmers across the nation: not one firing, not one charge brought, and not one pension lost. Yet at the first erroneous offering by a conservative blogger that a black woman from USDA might have discriminated, she is immediately forced to resign.

Which begs the question: Where was the Republican and conservative concern over USDA "racism" before this week's swiftboating of Shirley Sherrod?