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Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, Victories Come in All Sizes

6:26 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

I was electrified, and my own trajectory in life changed, by the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.  That experience, those years, mobilized me.  They shocked me — quite literally — about what my country was capable of.  They destroyed my rather idealistic urge to be a part of the government.  I had long dreamed of becoming a diplomat, and at one point in the 1960s even applied for a job at the United States Information Agency.  In the years when I was growing up, the thought that I should and could find some way to represent my country proudly to the world was a powerful and motivating one for me.  In it lay a citizenly urge to serve.  What I learned in the anti-Vietnam movement stripped me of that urge or, at least, of the urge to apply it to the U.S. government.

Even when that movement died out and great effort in the popular sphere went into turning the dismal, disastrous, and deeply destructive war that called it up into a “noble cause” and the movement I had been a part of into so many “hippies” who “spit on” the returning troops, I never forgot.  Nor, by the way, did I, or anyone I knew in those years, ever see any antiwar activist spit on returning troops.  My life then had, in fact, been thoroughly entangled with Vietnam vets who had come back from the war in a state of protest and G.I.s still in the military who were antiwar and happy to say so.

Even in the decades after, when I demobilized and my most active work was simply putting good books into the world as an editor at the edge of mainstream publishing, I remained a changed person, primed for I had no idea what.  After 9/11, the urge to serve manifested itself powerfully once again and what the antiwar movement had taught me decades earlier helped organize and mobilize me to create TomDispatch.com, which has been the obsession of my later life.  Today, I feel that, thanks to what a movement now half-forgotten did to my life and sense of self, I do in some modest way finally represent my country — the best of it and the worst of it — to the world (and to us as well).

Still, if you had looked at my life in the 1980s or 1990s, you might have been hard-pressed to know just what, if any, effect those antiwar years had on me.  You might well have said: none at all.  Similarly, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit points out — in a piece adapted from her introduction to Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy — we tend to want to measure the importance of any oppositional movement by its instant results, not by the seeds it may plant in its participants that sometimes don’t sprout for years or decades. Tom 

Joy Arises, Rules Fall Apart: Thoughts for the Second Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street
By Rebecca Solnit

I would have liked to know what the drummer hoped and what she expected. We’ll never know why she decided to take a drum to the central markets of Paris on October 5, 1789, and why, that day, the tinder was so ready to catch fire and a drumbeat was one of the sparks.

To the beat of that drum, the working women of the marketplace marched all the way to the Palace of Versailles, a dozen miles away, occupied the seat of French royal power, forced the king back to Paris, and got the French Revolution rolling. Far more than with the storming of the Bastille almost three months earlier, it was then that the revolution was really launched — though both were mysterious moments when citizens felt impelled to act and acted together, becoming in the process that mystical body, civil society, the colossus who writes history with her feet and crumples governments with her bare hands.

She strode out of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City during which parts of the central city collapsed, and so did the credibility and power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI that had ruled Mexico for 70 years. She woke up almost three years ago in North Africa, in what was called the Arab Spring, and became a succession of revolutions and revolts still unfolding across the region.

Such transformative moments have happened in many times and many places — sometimes as celebratory revolution, sometimes as terrible calamity, sometimes as both, and they are sometimes reenacted as festivals and carnivals. In these moments, the old order is shattered, governments and elites tremble, and in that rupture civil society is born — or reborn.

In the new space that appears, however briefly, the old rules no longer apply. New rules may be written or a counterrevolution may be launched to take back the city or the society, but the moment that counts, the moment never to forget, is the one where civil society is its own rule, taking care of the needy, discussing what is necessary and desirable, improvising the terms of an ideal society for a day, a month, the 10-week duration of the Paris Commune of 1871, or the several weeks’ encampment and several-month aftermath of Occupy Oakland, proudly proclaimed on banners as the Oakland Commune.

Weighing the Meaning

Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear is a sign of their recognition that real power doesn’t only lie with them.  (Sometimes your enemies know what your friends can’t believe.) That’s why the New York Police Department maintained a massive presence at Occupy Wall Street’s encampment and spent millions of dollars on punishing the participants (and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more, in police brutality payouts for all the clubbing and pepper-gassing of unarmed idealists, as well as $47,000 for the destruction of the OWS library, because in situations like these a library is a threat, too).

Those who dismiss these moments because of their flaws need to look harder at what joy and hope shine out of them and what real changes have, historically, emerged because of them, even if not always directly or in the most obvious or recognizable ways. Change is rarely as simple as dominos.  Sometimes, it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly turn out to be flowers that emerge from plants with deep roots in the past or sometimes from long-dormant seeds.

It’s important to ask not only what those moments produced in the long run but what they were in their heyday. If people find themselves living in a world in which some hopes are realized, some joys are incandescent, and some boundaries between individuals and groups are lowered, even for an hour or a day or — in the case of Occupy Wall Street — several months, that matters.

The old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come. It is, in fact, more than possible. It is something that participants have tasted many times and that we carry with us in many ways, however flawed and fleeting. We regularly taste failure, too. Most of the time, the two come mixed and mingled. And every now and then, the possibilities explode.

In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a “we” that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency. New possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society reemerges and — at least for a little while — shines.

Utopia is sometimes the goal. It’s often embedded in the insurrectionary moment itself, and it’s a hard moment to explain, since it usually involves hardscrabble ways of living, squabbles, and eventually disillusionment and factionalism, but also more ethereal things: the discovery of personal and collective power, the realization of dreams, the birth of bigger dreams, a sense of connection that is as emotional as it is political, and lives that change and do not revert to older ways even when the glory subsides.

Sometimes the earth closes over this moment and it has no obvious consequences; sometimes it’s the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall and all those glorious insurrections in the East Bloc in 1989, and empires crumble and ideologies drop away like shackles unlocked. Occupy was such a moment, and one so new that its effects and consequences are hard to measure.

I have often heard that Freedom Summer in Mississippi registered some voters and built some alliances in 1964, but that its lasting (if almost impossible to measure) impact, was on the young participants themselves. They were galvanized into a feeling of power, of commitment, of mission that seems to have changed many of them and stayed with them as they went on to do a thousand different things that mattered, as they helped build the antiauthoritarian revolution that has been slowly unfolding, here and elsewhere, over the last half century or so. By such standards, when it comes to judging the effects of Occupy, it’s far too soon to tell — and as with so many moments and movements, we may never fully know.

Preludes and Aftermaths

If aftermaths are hard to measure, preludes are often even more elusive. One of the special strengths of Nathan Schneider’s new book about Occupy Wall Street, is its account of the many people who prepared the fire that burst into flame on September 17, 2011, in lower Manhattan, and that still gives light and heat to many of us.

We know next to nothing about that drummer girl who walked into a Parisian market where many people were ready to ignite, to march, to see the world change. With every insurrection, revolution, or social rupture, we need to remember that we will never know the whole story of how it happened, and that what we can’t measure still matters. But Schneider’s book gives us some powerful glimpses into the early (and late) organizing, the foibles and characters, the conflicts and delights, and the power of that moment and movement. It conveys the sheer amount of labor involved in producing a miracle — and that miraculousness as well.

Early in Thank You, Anarchy, Schneider cites a participant, Mike Andrews, talking about how that key tool of Occupy, the General Assembly, with its emphasis on egalitarian participation and consensus decision-making, was reshaping him and the way he looked at the world: “It pushes you toward being more respectful of the people there. Even after General Assembly ends I find myself being very attentive in situations where I’m not normally so attentive. So if I go get some food after General Assembly, I find myself being very polite to the person I’m ordering from, and listening if they talk back to me.”

This kind of tiny personal change can undoubtedly be multiplied by the hundreds of thousands, given the number of Occupy participants globally. But the movement had quantifiable consequences, too.

Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street appeared in the fall of 2011, it was clear that the national conversation had changed, that the brutality and obscenity of Wall Street was suddenly being openly discussed, that the suffering of ordinary people crushed by the burden of medical, housing, or college debt was coming out of the shadows, that the Occupy encampments had become places where people could testify about the destruction of their hopes and lives. California passed a homeowner’s bill of rights to curtail the viciousness of the banks, and in late 2012 Strike Debt emerged as an Occupy offshoot to address indebtedness in creative and subversive ways. Student debt suddenly became (and remains) a topic of national discussion, and proposals for student loan reform began to gain traction. Invisible suffering had been made visible.

Change often happens by making the brutality of the status quo visible and so intolerable. The situation everybody has been living in is suddenly described in a new way by a previously silenced or impacted constituency, or with new eloquence, or because our ideas of what is humane and decent evolve, or a combination of all three.  Thus did slavery become intolerable to ever more free people before the Civil War. Thus did the rights of many groups in this country — women, people of color, queer people, disabled people — grow exponentially. Thus did marriage stop being an exclusive privilege of heterosexuality, and earlier, a hierarchical relationship between a dominant husband and a submissive wife.

When the Silent Speak

Occupy Wall Street allowed those silenced by shame, invisibility, or lack of interest from the media to speak up.  As a result, the realities behind our particular economic game came to be described more accurately; so much so that the media and politicians had to change their language a little to adjust to — admit to — a series of previously ignored ugly realities. This, in turn, had consequences, even if they weren’t always measurable or sometimes even immediately detectable.

Though Occupy was never primarily about electoral politics, it was nonetheless a significant part of the conversation that got Elizabeth Warren elected senator and a few other politicians doing good things in the cesspit of the capital. As Occupy was, in part, sparked by the vision of the Arab Spring, so its mood of upheaval and outrage might have helped spark Idle No More, the dynamic Native peoples’ movement. Idle No More has already become a vital part of the environmental and climate movements and, in turn, has sparked a resurgence of Native American and Native Canadian activism.

Occupy Wall Street also built alliances around racist persecution that lasted well after most of the encampments were disbanded. Occupiers were there for everything from the Million Hoodie Marches to protest the slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida to stop-and-frisk in New York City to racist bank policies and foreclosures in San Francisco.  There, a broad-based housing rights movement came out of Occupy that joined forces with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) to address foreclosures, evictions, corrupt banking practices, and more. Last week a conservative warned that “Occupy may soon occupy New York’s City Hall,” decrying mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio’s economic populism, alleged support for Occupy, and opposition to stop and frisk (while Schneider warns that the candidate is a liberal, not a radical).

Part of what gave Occupy its particular beauty was the way the movement defined “we” as the 99%.  That (and that contagious meme the 1%) entered our language, offering a way of imagining the world so much more inclusive than just about anything that had preceded it. And what an inclusive movement it was: the usual young white suspects, from really privileged to really desperate, but also a range of participants from World War II to Iraq War veterans to former Black Panthers, from libertarians to liberals to anarchist insurrectionists, from the tenured to the homeless to hip-hop moguls and rock stars.

And there was so much brutality, too, from the young women pepper-sprayed at an early Occupy demonstration and the students infamously pepper-sprayed while sitting peacefully on the campus of the University of California, Davis, to the poet laureate Robert Hass clubbed in the ribs at the Berkeley encampment, 84-year-old Dorli Rainey assaulted by police at Occupy Seattle, and the Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen whose skull was fractured by a projectile fired by the Oakland police. And then, of course, there was the massive police presence and violent way that in a number of cities the movement’s occupiers were finally ejected from their places of “occupation.”

Such overwhelming institutional violence couldn’t have made clearer the degree to which the 1% considered Occupy a genuine threat. At the G-20 economic summit in 2011, the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said, “The reward system of shareholders and managers of financial institution[s] should be changed step by step. Otherwise the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ slogan will become fashionable in all developed countries.” That was the voice of fear, because the realized dreams of the 99% are guaranteed to be the 1%’s nightmares.

We’ll never know what that drummer girl in Paris was thinking, but thanks to Schneider’s meticulous and elegant book, we know what one witness-participant was thinking all through the first year of Occupy, and what it was like to be warmed for a few months by that beautiful conflagration that spread across the world, to be part of that huge body that wasn’t exactly civil society, but something akin to it, perhaps in conception even larger than it, as Occupy encampments and general assemblies spread from Auckland to Hong Kong, from Oakland to London in the fall of 2011. Some of them lasted well into 2012, and others spawned things that are still with us: coalitions and alliances and senses of possibility and frameworks for understanding what’s wrong and what could be right. It was a sea-change moment, a watershed movement, a dream realized imperfectly (because only unrealized dreams are perfect), a groundswell that remains ground on which to build.

On the second anniversary of that day in lower Manhattan when people first sat down in outrage and then stayed in dedication and solidarity and hope, remember them, remember how unpredictably the world changes, remember those doing heroic work that you might hear little or nothing about but who are all around you, remember to hope, remember to build. Remember that you are 99% likely to be one of them and take up the burden that is also an invitation to change the world and occupy your dreams.

Rebecca Solnit, author most recently of The Faraway Nearby spent time at Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and wrote about Occupy often for TomDispatch in 2011-2012. This essay is adapted from her introduction to Nathan Schneider’s new book, Thank You, Anarchy (University of California Press).

Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit

Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, What If Congress Says No on Syria?

7:57 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of We Meant Well

Whistleblower Peter Van Buren brings his Iraq experience to the Syrian conflict.

Looked at one way at least, the president’s Syrian war proposal — itself an ever shifting target – couldn’t be more brain-dead. The idea that one country, on its own, has the right to missile and bomb another to resolve the question of a chemical attack and war crime should, on the face of it, seem strange to us, like the most random death-dealing response to an already horrific act. Certainly, if done, it would have an effect; it’s just that no one has any idea what that would be, though as with so many military-first acts of the U.S. government in recent years, it already has “This Can’t Turn Out Well” scrawled all over it.

If you believe in the cycles of history, the Obama administration’s Syrian policy should seem eerily cyclic. Last Sunday, after all, Secretary of State John Kerry proudly announced that the Saudis were “backing” an American strike plan (and might even be willing to pay for it). Shouldn’t this have fired some residual brain cells in Washington and produced a bit of a memory buzz? After all, in some twisted way, the present plan developed at the Pentagon, the White House, and an ever more militarized State Department brings us full circle to the moment in the early 1980s when this all began.

In the Syrian nightmare, we see an old alliance being reconstituted. Back then, the Reagan administration (spearheaded by the CIA) and the Saudis, as well as the Pakistanis, supported with money, training, and weaponry the most extreme and fundamentalist of the Afghan mujahedeen in their struggle against the Soviet Union. They were then called “freedom fighters” by the president. Their job, as Washington saw it, was to give the Soviets a bloody nose in their own special Vietnam (and so indeed they did). We know, of course, just where that propitious plan ended.

Now, the Saudis are, it seems, doing the same thing in Syria, once more funding and arming extreme fundamentalist forces and, however reluctantly, the U.S. is backing and being backed by them. As a result, if the Obama administration, with or without congressional agreement, were to launch an attack on Syria, it would functionally be fighting on the same side as, and advancing the fortunes of, al-Qaeda-cloned forces. It’s not exactly an ad man’s — more a Mad Men’s — dream and, if you think about it for a moment, can you doubt that the whole crazed project has “This Can’t Turn Out Well” scrawled all over it?

In the tragicomedy that is now American policy, it may be the president’s good fortune that a seemingly inadvertent comment by his secretary of state (who seems to be a paid staff member of The Daily Show) about how the Assad government could save itself by handing over its chemical weaponry within a week may provide him with an exit ramp. A funny thing happened on the labyrinthine road to Damascus: the Syrians quickly assented and Russian president Putin (clearly playing a smart hand and evidently having the time of his life) offered to help out.

It seems the American people are pitching in as well. Unlike the Obama administration and its congressional backers, opinion polls clearly show that, decades later, as another grim 9/11 of endless war planning passes, Americans have gotten the message. They don’t want to see Washington loose the missiles and drop the bombs. As TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, the former State Department whistleblower and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, notes, the question is whether, at this late date, Congress is finally capable of responding as well — or whether it will even have the chance. Tom

Giving New Meaning to the Day After 9/11
Why Saying No to Syria Matters (and it’s not about Syria)
By Peter Van Buren

Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones. Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.

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Andrew Bacevich: Drama from Obama

5:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here

Here is the strangeness of our moment: the U.S. has no rival on the planet. Its global military stance is historically unparalleled and largely uncontested. And yet somehow, in crucial areas of the world, Washington’s power to do anything is significantly, visibly lessening. Consider this: In 1990, in the very last days of the Cold War, our former ally in the Persian Gulf, Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein (whom we supported in major ways when he was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the mid-1980s), invaded Kuwait. He may even have thought that he had gotten a green light from Washington to do so.

Bacevich cover

Andrew Bacevich’s latest.

President George H.W. Bush then formed what he called a “grand coalition” of 30 nations (his son, when president, would use the phrase “coalition of the willing”), got the backing of Congress, drove Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait, and invaded Iraq. Other countries, including the Gulf States, Japan, and Germany, were even willing to shoulder a significant part of the financial burden of the build-up to war and the actual campaign. Twenty-two years later, preparing to launch a far more limited missile and possibly air assault on Syrian military facilities, President Obama tried to do the same. His officials even resurrected the term “coalition of the willing.” He instead found himself in a coalition of one — and a half, if you count French President Hollande, two-and-a-half, if you count the Saudis. Much of the rest of the world proved to be a “coalition of the unwilling.“ This could certainly be taken as a measure of waning American power in the Greater Middle East and, for that matter, Europe over the last two decades.

Think of this Obama moment as one in which the chickens have literally come home to roost — and by chickens I mean everything from the manipulations that led us into a “slam dunk” war in Iraq to the recent NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, which have left enough of the planet ticked off to make the formation of an American-sponsored coalition of anything that much harder. Today, Andrew Bacevich catches the strangeness of how all this is playing out domestically in the onrushing Syrian congressional debate (or perhaps “debate”). For the last 12 years, it has also played out in a military-first set of global initiatives that have turned what used to be called “foreign policy” into a kind of permanent war policy run by an ever more engorged national security state. The pressures on the actual military have been striking. In Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, his new book published this Tuesday, Bacevich lays out the ways in which that military has essentially been abandoned by a public that heaps endless praise on “the troops,” but leaves them to fend for themselves as something ever less like a citizen’s army and ever more like a foreign legion. Tom

The Hill to the Rescue on Syria?
Don’t Hold Your Breath
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Sometimes history happens at the moment when no one is looking. On weekends in late August, the president of the United States ought to be playing golf or loafing at Camp David, not making headlines. Yet Barack Obama chose Labor Day weekend to unveil arguably the most consequential foreign policy shift of his presidency.

In an announcement that surprised virtually everyone, the president told his countrymen and the world that he was putting on hold the much anticipated U.S. attack against Syria. Obama hadn’t, he assured us, changed his mind about the need and justification for punishing the Syrian government for its probable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. In fact, only days before administration officials had been claiming that, if necessary, the U.S. would “go it alone” in punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its bad behavior. Now, however, Obama announced that, as the chief executive of “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he had decided to seek Congressional authorization before proceeding.

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Todd Miller, Surveillance Surge on the Border

9:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

National Guard at the Border

The US border with Mexico is becoming increasingly militarized.

I mean, come on.  You knew it had to happen, didn’t you?  In a 2010 Department of Homeland Security report, wrested from the bowels of the secrecy/surveillance state (thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation), the Customs and Border Protection agency suggests arming their small fleet of surveillance drones.  The purpose: to “immobilize TOIs,” or targets of interest, along the U.S.-Mexican border.  Those arms would, of course, be “non-lethal” in nature.  It’s all so civilized.  Kinda like the Star Trek folks putting their phasers on “stun,” not kill.  And count on it, sooner or later it will happen.  And then, of course, the lethal weapons will follow.  Otherwise, how in the world could we track and eliminate terrorists in “the homeland” efficiently?

All of this comes under the heading of self-fulfilling prophecy.  You create and take to your battle zones a wonder weapon that, according to the promotional materials, will make the targeting of human beings so surgically precise it might even end the war on terror as we know it.  (Forget the fact that, in the field, drones turn out, according to the latest military study of Afghanistan, to be far less precise than manned aircraft if you’re measuring by how many civilians are knocked off, how much “collateral damage” is done.)  Anyway, you use that weapon ever more profligately on distant battlefields in distant wars.  You come to rely on it, even if it doesn’t exactly work as advertised.  And then, like the soldiers you sent into the same war zones (who didn’t exactly work as advertised either), the weaponry begins to come home.

Drones?  You can rant about them, write about them, organize against them, try to stop them from flying over your hometown. And still, like the implacable Terminators of film fame, they will arrive in “the homeland.” Will? Have. As FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee recently, the Bureau is already using them.  In a coda meant to relieve us all of drone anxiety, however, he pointed out that it’s employing them “in a very, very minimal way and very seldom… we have very few.” And, oh yes, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are testing drones for similar use. Also undoubtedly very minimally and very few, so don’t fret (for now).  As for police departments wielding armed drones, count on that, too, sooner or later.

In the meantime, those Border Patrol types, according to the New York Times, have been oh-so-happy to lend their military-grade Predator B drones to, among others, the North Dakota Army National Guard, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Forest Service.  In 2012, they loaned their robotic planes out 250 times.

And these days, drones are the least of it.  Lots of stuff is “coming home.”  As Todd Miller, who covers the U.S. borderlands for TomDispatch, makes clear, sometimes you just have to change the label on the package to suddenly find reality staring you in the face.  Call it “immigration reform” and it looks like you’re dealing with enormous numbers of human beings in this country illegally.  Think of it as “surveillance reform” and you’ll see that, as Miller points out, we’re using our borderlands and those undocumented migrants as an excuse to build, experiment with, and test out a new kind of surveillance state, drones included.  And count on it, too: one of these days, maybe tomorrow, some version of that surveillance state will make it to your hometown, no matter how far you are from any border. Tom

Creating a Military-Industrial-Immigration Complex 
How to Turn the U.S.-Mexican Border into a War Zone 
By Todd Miller

The first thing I did at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix this March was climb the brown “explosion-resistant” tower, 30 feet high and 10 feet wide, directly in the center of the spacious room that holds this annual trade show. From a platform where, assumedly, a border guard would stand, you could take in the constellation of small booths offering the surveillance industry’s finest products, including a staggering multitude of ways to monitor, chase, capture, or even kill people, thanks to modernistic arrays of cameras and sensors, up-armored jeeps, the latest in guns, and even surveillance balloons.

Although at the time, headlines in the Southwest emphasized potential cuts to future border-security budgets thanks to Congress’s “sequester,” the vast Phoenix Convention Center hall — where the defense and security industries strut their stuff for law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — told quite a different story.  Clearly, the expanding global industry of border security wasn’t about to go anywhere.  It was as if the milling crowds of business people, government officials, and Border Patrol agents sensed that they were about to be truly in the money thanks to “immigration reform,” no matter what version of it did or didn’t pass Congress. And it looks like they were absolutely right.

All around me in that tower were poster-sized fiery photos demonstrating ways it could help thwart massive attacks and fireball-style explosions. A border like the one just over 100 miles away between the United States and Mexico, it seemed to say, was not so much a place that divided people in situations of unprecedented global inequality, but a site of constant war-like danger.

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Tom Engelhardt: You Are Our Secret

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

NSA HQ

NSA Headquarters in Ft. Meade. Snowden’s whistleblowing has revealed much about what goes on in places like this.

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats.  When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage.  Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself.  It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.”  But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated.  Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.”  If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.”  It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze.  By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).  Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun.  The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.”  We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future.  One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

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Kramer and Hellman: It’s the Politics, Stupid

8:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

After the first $6 billion election, $3 billion in (mostly attack) ads, billions paid out to political consultants, presidential campaigns that raised more than $1 billion each, piles of “dark money,” and a year of debates, punditry, robocalls, ground games, polls by the trillions, and just about anything else you might want to name, Election 2012 is officially over — and strangely, it’s left the country with the same president, and essentially the same party breakdown in the Senate and the House of Representatives.  In other words, the most expensive, most gargantuan election of our lifetimes has brought us an almost exact replica of the week before yesterday.  The (same) president is already talking about the (same) bipartisanship to the same House of Representatives whose leader has just, post-election, reclaimed the (same) mandate as theirs.  We’ve lived this story.  Don’t we kinda know how it ends?

Livening up the period between the old Congress and the old president and the “new” Congress and the “new” president is a brewing Washington “crisis” we’ve been hearing about for months on end and that’s already back in the headlines.  It’s the “fiscal cliff” and the only question, it seems, is who or what exactly is going to run off its edge, Wile E. Coyote-style.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, for example, has for a year been assuring Americans that, should Congressionally mandated automatic defense cuts go through as 2013 begins under what’s called “sequestration,” the biggest military on the planet, engorged with staggering sums of money these last years, will face nothing short of a “devastating” situation.  No kidding, actual doom.

Congress is similarly launching fearsome warnings about its own decision to institute such cuts.  Imagine, in fact, a wrestler who has put himself in a fearsome hammerlock and is now railing against his fate and his own arms, pleading for outside help or mercy.  This largely fake crisis whipped up into a froth of warnings out of far deeper problems is going to keep the pundits and headliners busy indeed for the next two months.  So expect the news, punditry, and governmental equivalents of screams of pain, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments.  As it happens, TomDispatch has two preternaturally sane and reasonable analysts, Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman of the superb National Priorities Project, who suggest that a little old-fashioned rolling of eyes is in order. Tom

Washington’s Cliff Notes 
How to Get Yourself to the Edge of the Fiscal Abyss and Not Jump 
By Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman

They don’t call it the “cliff” for nothing.  It’s the fiscal spot where a nation’s representatives can gather and cry doom.  It’s the place — if Washington is to be believed — where, with a single leap into the Abyss of Sequestration, those representatives can end it all for the rest of us.

An Americorps worker fights a forest fire. Americorps could face austerity cuts.

In the wake of President Obama’s electoral victory, that cliff (if you’ll excuse a mixed metaphor or two) is about to step front and center. The only problem: the odds are no one will leap, and remarkably little of note will actually happen.  But since the headlines are about to scream “crisis,” what you need to understand American politics in the coming weeks of the lame-duck Congress is a little guide to reality, some Cliff Notes for Washington.

As a start, relax.  Don’t let the headlines get to you.  There’s little reason for anyone to lose sleep over the much-hyped fiscal cliff.  In fact, if you were choosing an image based on the coming fiscal dust-up, it probably wouldn’t be a cliff but an obstacle course — a series of federal spending cuts and tax increases all scheduled to take effect as 2013 begins. And it’s true that, if all those budget cuts and tax increases were to go into effect at the same time, an already weak recovery would probably sink into a double-dip recession.

But ignore the sound and fury.  While prophecy is usually a perilous occupation, in this case it’s pretty easy to predict how lawmakers will deal with nearly every challenge on the president’s and Congress’s end-of-year obstacle course. The upshot? The U.S. economy isn’t headed over a cliff any time soon.

Sequestering Congress

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Tom Engelhardt: A Global-Profiling President

6:04 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Obama Contradiction

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

He has few constraints (except those he’s internalized). No one can stop him or countermand his orders. He has a bevy of lawyers at his beck and call to explain the “legality” of his actions. And if he cares to, he can send a robot assassin to kill you, whoever you are, no matter where you may be on planet Earth.

He sounds like a typical villain from a James Bond novel. You know, the kind who captures Bond, tells him his fiendish plan for dominating the planet, ties him up for some no less fiendish torture, and then leaves him behind to gum up the works.

As it happens, though, he’s the president of the United State, a nice guy with a charismatic wife and two lovely kids.

How could this be?

Crash-and-Burn Dreams and One That Came to Be

Sometimes to understand where you are, you need to ransack the past. In this case, to grasp just how this country’s first African-American-constitutional-law-professor-liberal Oval Office holder became the most imperial of all recent imperial presidents, it’s necessary to look back to the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Who today even remembers that time, when it was common to speak of the U.S. as the globe’s “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower,” the only “sheriff” on planet Earth, and the neocons were boasting of an empire-to-come greater than the British and Roman ones rolled together?

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Bill McKibben: How You Subsidize the Energy Giants to Wreck the Planet

6:33 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Just in case you’re running for national office, here are a few basic stats to orient you when you hit Washington (thanks to the invaluable Open Secrets website of the Center for Responsive Politics). In 2011, the oil and gas industries ponied up more than $148 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies of various sorts. The top four lobbying firms in the business were ConocoPhillips ($20.5 million), Royal Dutch Shell ($14.7 million), Exxon Mobil ($12.7 million), and Chevron ($9.5 million).

And note that those figures don’t include campaign contributions, although I can’t imagine why corporate money flowing to candidates or their PACs isn’t considered “lobbying.” When it comes to such donations, the industry has given a total of $238.7 million to candidates and parties since 1990, 75% of it to Republicans. In 2011-2012, Exxon ($992,573) and — I’m sure this won’t shock you — Koch Industries ($872,912) led the oil and gas list.

Or think of this another way: the Senate recently voted down a bill sponsored by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez to end congressional subsidies for the top oil companies. The senators who nixed the measure, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY, $264,700), received approximately $1.48 million in oil and gas campaign contributions in 2011-2012; those who voted for it, a mere $400,000. Not surprisingly, this fits a longer-term congressional voting pattern in which money talks. In fact, it shouts.

And of course, a similar pattern can be seen in the presidential sweepstakes (with a similar Republican to Democrat ratio). In the present election campaign, Mitt Romney has already received $598,000 from oil and gas types, President Obama $131,000. The Koch brothers have, in fact, given $250,000 to Mitt Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future, and that’s undoubtedly a small down payment on contributions to come. And as novelist Kurt Vonnegut might once have written, so it goes in Washington.

TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, suggests that the flood of money through, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor, Washington’s infamous “revolving door” is so overwhelming that we don’t even have an adequate language for discussing it, no less our 1% election or our republic of the richest. Tom

Payola for the Most Profitable Corporations in History
And Why Taxpayers Shouldn’t Stand for It Any More
By Bill McKibben

Along with “fivedollaragallongas,” the energy watchword for the next few months is: “subsidies.” Last week, for instance, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez proposed ending some of the billions of dollars in handouts enjoyed by the fossil-fuel industry with a “Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act.” It was, in truth, nothing to write home about — a curiously skimpy bill that only targeted oil companies, and just the five richest of them at that. Left out were coal and natural gas, and you won’t be surprised to learn that even then it didn’t pass. [cont] Read the rest of this entry →

Bill McKibben: Buying Congress in 2012

7:30 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(image: crumj/flickr)

(image: crumj/flickr)

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Startling numbers of Americans are “underwater” — homeowners and students alike — and so, for that matter, is Congress, even if in quite a different way.  In these last years, it’s been flooded with money.  Millionaires, including at least 10 centimillionaires, now make up nearly half of our representatives there, and as a group, they have been growing ever richer as Americans grow ever poorer.  Bad times?  Never heard of them.  Congress’s median net worth rose by 15% between 2004 and 2010 — and this news, in a recent front-page New York Times piece, hardly caused a stir.

Of course, everything is relative.  Compared to the giant energy companies, ours is a Congress of paupers.  After all, the Big Five oil outfits (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell) announced a combined $36 billion in profits in the second quarter of 2011.  Exxon alone pulled in $10.7 billion (and spent more than half of those profits simply to buy back its own stock).  In the third quarter, the same five companies returned for an encore.  They made another $32.6 billion in profits, with Exxon at $10.3 billion (about half of which it again spent on stock buybacks).

Out of a deep sense of civic-mindedness, they and other oil and gas companies have, in turn, showered Congress with their pocket change.  From 1989 through 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ invaluable OpenSecrets.org website, oil and gas companies gave Republicans in Congress $126 million and Democrats $42 million.  Throw in a few hundred thousand dollars for the odd “independent,” and you’ve got $169 million dollars of pure oil and gas generosity over that period, which for them, as Jackie Gleason might once have said, is a “mere bag of shells.”

In case you’re interested, you, the American taxpayer, through Congressional subsidies for the oil and gas industry, reach deep into your own pockets and pony up billions every year to support those poor dears.  And they turn around and pour what is, in essence, your money into the American electoral process to achieve the usual noble oil-and-gas ends.  And just how well does all of that work?  Here’s a little surprise: oil company political action committees (PACs) handed out $1.2 million to members of the House of Representatives in the first six months of 2011 and let’s not say “in return,” but — consider it an unrelated fact — 94% of the House members who received such funds voted to keep those industry subsidies flowing. Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Jailed Over Big Oil’s Attempt to Wreck the Planet

5:53 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

What might have happened if John McCain had won the presidency in 2008?  One thing is certain: there would have been a lot more protest from Democrats, progressives, and the left.  Take it as an irony of his election, but Barack Obama has proved remarkably effective in disarming the antiwar movement, even as the use of war in American policy in the Greater Middle East has only grown.  That Obama, the supposed anti-warrior of the 2008 campaign, has paid less than no attention to his antiwar critics is no news at all.   It’s now practically a cliché as well that he seems to feel no need to feed his political “base” and that, generally speaking (and explain it as you will), his base has not yet pushed back.

This has been particularly true of Obama’s wars, especially the disastrous, never-ending one in Afghanistan.  Had Afghanistan been “McCain’s war,” you would surely have seen growing waves of protest, despite the way 9/11 ensured that the Afghan War, unlike the Iraq one, would long be the unassailable “good war.”  Still, as American treasure surged into the ill-starred enterprise in Afghanistan, while funds for so much that mattered disappeared at home, I think the streets of Washington would have been filling.  What protest there has been, as John Hanrahan of the Nieman Watchdog website reported recently, tends to be remarkably ill-covered in the mainstream media.

Obama, only two points ahead of Ron Paul in the latest Gallup Poll in the race for 2012, is a beyond-vulnerable candidate.  (Somewhere there must be some Democratic pol doing the obvious math and considering a challenge, mustn’t there?)  Fortunately, in another area at least as crucial as our wars, demonstrators against a Big Oil tar-sands pipeline from Canada that will help despoil the planet are now out in front of the White House — you can follow them here — and they haven’t been shy about aiming their nonviolent protests directly at Obama.  Will he or won’t he act like the climate-change president that, on coming into office, he swore he would be?  Time will tell.  Meanwhile, let Bill McKibben, TomDispatch regular, an organizer of the protests, and just out of a jail cell, fill you in.  Tom

Arrested at the White House
Acting as a Living Tribute to Martin Luther King

By Bill McKibben

I didn’t think it was possible, but my admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., grew even stronger these past days.

As I headed to jail as part of the first wave of what is turning into the biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement for many years, I had the vague idea that I would write something. Not an epic like King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but at least, you know, a blog post. Or a tweet.

But frankly, I wasn’t up to it. The police, surprised by how many people turned out on the first day of two weeks of protests at the White House, decided to teach us a lesson. As they told our legal team, they wanted to deter anyone else from coming — and so with our first crew they were… kind of harsh.

We spent three days in D.C.’s Central Cell Block, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it might be. You lie on a metal rack with no mattress or bedding and sweat in the high heat; the din is incessant; there’s one baloney sandwich with a cup of water every 12 hours.

*****

I didn’t have a pencil — they wouldn’t even let me keep my wedding ring — but more important, I didn’t have the peace of mind to write something. It’s only now, out 12 hours and with a good night’s sleep under my belt, that I’m able to think straight. And so, as I said, I’ll go to this weekend’s big celebrations for the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Washington Mall with even more respect for his calm power.

Preacher, speaker, writer under fire, but also tactician. He really understood the power of nonviolence, a power we’ve experienced in the last few days. When the police cracked down on us, the publicity it produced cemented two of the main purposes of our protest:

First, it made Keystone XL — the new, 1,700-mile-long pipeline we’re trying to block that will vastly increase the flow of “dirty” tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico — into a national issue. A few months ago, it was mainly people along the route of the prospective pipeline who were organizing against it. (And with good reason: tar sands mining has already wrecked huge swaths of native land in Alberta, and endangers farms, wild areas, and aquifers all along its prospective route.)

Now, however, people are coming to understand — as we hoped our demonstrations would highlight — that it poses a danger to the whole planet as well.  After all, it’s the Earth’s second largest pool of carbon, and hence the second-largest potential source of global warming gases after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. We’ve already plumbed those Saudi deserts.  Now the question is: Will we do the same to the boreal forests of Canada. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has made all too clear, if we do so it’s “essentially game over for the climate.” That message is getting through.  Witness the incredibly strong New York Times editorial opposing the building of the pipeline that I was handed on our release from jail.

Second, being arrested in front of the White House helped make it clearer that President Obama should be the focus of anti-pipeline activism. For once Congress isn’t in the picture.  The situation couldn’t be simpler: the president, and the president alone, has the power either to sign the permit that would take the pipeline through the Midwest and down to Texas (with the usual set of disastrous oil spills to come) or block it.

Barack Obama has the power to stop it and no one in Congress or elsewhere can prevent him from doing so.  That means — and again, it couldn’t be simpler — that the Keystone XL decision is the biggest environmental test for him between now and the next election. If he decides to stand up to the power of big oil, it will send a jolt through his political base, reminding the presently discouraged exactly why they were so enthused in 2008.

That’s why many of us were wearing our old campaign buttons when we went into the paddy wagon.  We’d like to remember — and like the White House to remember, too — just why we knocked on all those doors.

But as Dr. King might have predicted, the message went deeper. As people gather in Washington for this weekend’s dedication of his monument, most will be talking about him as a great orator, a great moral leader. And of course he was that, but it’s easily forgotten what a great strategist he was as well, because he understood just how powerful a weapon nonviolence can be.

The police, who trust the logic of force, never quite seem to get this. When they arrested our group of 70 or so on the first day of our demonstrations, they decided to teach us a lesson by keeping us locked up extra long — strong treatment for a group of people peacefully standing on a sidewalk.

No surprise, it didn’t work.  The next day an even bigger crowd showed up — and now, there are throngs of people who have signed up to be arrested every day until the protests end on September 3rd.  Not only that, a judge threw out the charges against our first group, and so the police have backed off.  For the moment, anyway, they’re not actually sending more protesters to jail, just booking and fining them.

And so the busload of ranchers coming from Nebraska, and the bio-fueled RV with the giant logo heading in from East Texas, and the flight of grandmothers arriving from Montana, and the tribal chiefs, and union leaders, and everyone else will keep pouring into D.C. We’ll all, I imagine, stop and pay tribute to Dr. King before or after we get arrested; it’s his lead, after all, that we’re following.

Our part in the weekend’s celebration is to act as a kind of living tribute. While people are up on the mall at the monument, we’ll be in the front of the White House, wearing handcuffs, making clear that civil disobedience is not just history in America.

We may not be facing the same dangers Dr. King did, but we’re getting some small sense of the kind of courage he and the rest of the civil rights movement had to display in their day — the courage to put your body where your beliefs are. It feels good.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben