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Wednesday, 9 April 2008
A deplorable state of affairs
Topic: politics

"State of..." speeches are supposed to be taken as grand civic convocations, celebrations of unity and shared purpose, but they're really no more than elites talking to one another - just like most other aspects of very small "d" democracy. You know how it works: the president or governor or mayor appears before the citizenry secondhand - quite literally mediated through the camera and microphone. His or her principal, if not exclusive audience is the assembly of legislators, political appointees, business leaders, and other powerbrokers, joined by certain invited guests who serve as rhetorical props when the Head of State must soften the script with a touch of humanity. Everything's carefully scripted, and the speaker is showcased to convince Everyman and Everywoman that he or she is the center of attention. But that's illusory. There's no real communication, no give and take, no opportunity for the voice of the powerless to be heard.

You're probably already seeing Dubya in your mind's eye - and indeed, he and his handlers are true professionals in this context. But the principles of the "State of..." speech apply even to the best of leaders. Take Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy's "State of the City" 2008, delivered at the Hochstein auditorium this week. I think Bob Duffy is an honest man - Rochester has been lucky in this regard, having had decent, honorable mayors in Tom Ryan, Bill Johnson, and now Duffy - but this year's address did not engage the community as it might have, nor did it go to the heart of the problems facing the city.

The venue itself was a confession of failure. Hochstein is a great place for music and theater, but it's not suitable for a true democratic mass gathering. The mayor should be energizing the multitudes from a downtown bridge, like the fireworks on New Year's. Or he could speak at the War Memorial or Frontier Field. Why is it that sports events attract people by the thousands, while actual civic events draw mere hundreds (and small radio and TV audiences)? I remember being at a grand public event commemorating the Triumph of the Revolution in Managua, Nicaragua, in the early 1990s. The Sandinista leadership spoke from a platform directly to 100,000 or more highly charged-up citizens. Why do such things never happen here?

They don't happen here because of a democracy deficit. And because of a string of analytical fallacies and dead ends. Consider, for example, what Bob Duffy didn't say the other night. He spoke about urban problems - you know the litany - but he didn't identify the source. He didn't speak about structural racism, even though his State of the City came only a few days after the much-observed 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. But isn't racism the core issue in places like Rochester and Monroe County? We live under an apartheid regime of impressive persistence. All the more so because it's generally unacknowledged - by whites, that is. Our leaders deplore poverty and violence, but they do nothing to change the paradigm.

Similarly, leaders never, never, never blame the corporate classes for regional decline. The manufacturing sector may have largely abandoned us - tens of thousands of jobs gone down the drain as whole industries left for sunnier climes and more easily exploited labor - but our political leaders won't even mildly criticize, much less sanction the business leaders who made it all happen. No, it's a lot easier to dwell on "entrepreneurship" and "innovation" - witness the bullshit campaign now in full flower at RIT under new President Bill Destler, a man who seems almost genetically wired to deliver empty speeches - and trash the public schools and generations of young people for their shortcomings.

And then there's the war and military spending. The plain fact is that American cities, most assuredly including Rochester, are suffering precisely because we're spending ourselves silly and mortgaging our future to keep the imperial legions operating at levels that would have embarrassed Hadrian and Trajan. What's the figure, 737 foreign military bases? And three-quarters of a trillion dollars in current annual military spending (including the Pentagon, the Dept. of Energy's weapons programs, the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and other incidentals)? Meanwhile, we're strangling every community that doesn't hop onto the hypermilitarist gravy train.

Shouldn't all decent, honorable mayors point out this little contradiction?

 

 


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:12 EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 9 April 2008 22:23 EDT
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Wednesday, 5 March 2008
Gandhi revisited
Topic: politics

New chapters are being added to the Arun Gandhi story.

It’s mostly Gandhi’s critics who are writing these chapters; the defense has mostly fallen silent. But I believe Gandhi has once again shot himself in the foot, to use an expression quite alien to his philosophy of nonviolence. I think he has failed to clarify sufficiently the views that resulted in so many guns trained on him. (See my comments in a blogpost below.) Still, he did not deserve to be forced into resigning from the institute he founded and led – and certainly it’s a shame his work as a true man of peace will be hobbled, at a minimum.

It’s also shameful that local media are looking the other way regarding certain things his critics have said - things that go way beyond the bounds of “misstatement,” over-generalization, and other venial sins Gandhi was guilty of. These critics are purveying myths and factoids that lend a false legitimacy to Israeli/US government military policies, thus almost ensuring that Israel, with indispensable US support, will commit further war crimes against Palestinians (civilians and combatants) in Gaza, vastly out of proportion to the rocket attacks launched against Israeli communities by some Palestinian fighters. (For up-to-date information on casualties and atrocities on both sides, and thus for an understanding of the huge asymmetry of suffering, consult the preeminent Israeli human rights monitoring group B’tselem, www.btselem.org.)

Foolish critic number one: the Democrat and Chronicle. In a critique of Arun Gandhi that read like a parody of satygraha, the D&C editors claimed Israel has been driven historically by “desires… not unlike those of Mahatma Gandhi.” I’m accustomed to whoppers and knee-slappers from the D&C, but this one takes the prize. I doubt any serious Israeli journalist would attempt such a rhetorical high-jump. Indeed, the serious Israeli press is full of pieces deploring the nation’s militarism and regular resort to violence instead of diplomacy. See, for example, the excellent work of writers Gideon Levy and Amira Hass in Ha’aretz.

The D&C poses as centrist in the Gandhi affair, but some liberals, too, have perhaps unwittingly provided cover for IDF atrocities in Gaza. Take a letter that appeared - without comment or rebuttal - in City Newspaper late last month. The letter, from a noteworthy local activist, did raise some good points about Arun Gandhi’s missteps and flubs. But one paragraph credited the Israeli government with “one of the largest acts of nonviolence in military history.”

If you understand the history not just of Israel but of any nation-state, you may now be rubbing your eyes and asking yourself just what this nonviolent act might have been. Well, the writer was talking about former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon’s so-called unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. But Sharon’s maneuver – it was surely no more than this – wasn’t remotely nonviolent in execution or intent.

One leading analyst, Phyllis Bennis of the Insitute for Policy Studies, has offered an analysis that debunks the conservative-liberal US elite consensus on Gaza, a consensus which accommodates the Sharon-as-peacemaker fallacy and similar dreck. Consider the following from Bennis, who begins with obvious foundational facts that almost never are mentioned in American media:

Disengagement?

By Phyllis Bennis, July 27, 2005 (via Znet)

“Israel has a unilateral obligation to withdraw its troops and settlers and end its occupation of Gaza as well as of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But the Gaza ‘disengagement’ is not designed to, and will not result in an end to occupation.

“The ‘disengagement’ will leave Gazans worse off economically, socially and politically than they are now, isolating the 1.2 million Palestinians in a besieged prison surrounded and controlled on all sides by Israel.

“Sharon's goal is to maximize the chaos and televised scenes of Israeli pain and division, so he can refuse any U.S. or international demands that he withdraw from the West Bank and Jerusalem, claiming that the price Israel is paying is too high to go further. ‘Gaza first’ will become Gaza last.

“The construction of Israel's Wall continues despite the rulings of the International Court of Justice finding it illegal; it will soon be completed, locking West Bank Palestinians into tiny cantons separated from each other and from their own land.

“All Israeli settlements - from tiny ‘outposts’ to the largest settlement cities such as Ma'ale Adumim and Ariel - are illegal, violating the Fourth Geneva Convention's prohibition against moving any population from the occupying country into the occupied territory.

“There is no question that Israel, as the illegal occupying power, bears full responsibility under international law to end its occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Sharon's planned "disengagement" from Gaza is not a step towards ending occupation; it is designed to change the character of Gaza’s occupation from direct troops-in-the-streets and settlers-on-the-land occupation to a kind of occupation-by-siege, in which Gaza will be completely encircled by an Israeli fence, as well as Israeli troops and military force. All entry and exit to and from Gaza will be controlled by Israel. The Israeli military will control all crossing points, Israel will control Gaza's skies and seas, the building and operation of any future port or airport will be under Israeli permission (or denied permission), and the people of Gaza will have no ability to move in and out of their land, to ship agricultural products out or bring crucial medicines in, except under intrusive Israeli control.

“Although the "disengagement" may well result in the withdrawal of all settlers out of Gaza, and the redeployment of all Israeli soldiers to the Gazan borders (though not completely out of Palestinian territory), Gaza will be far from independent. Israel has announced that it retains what it calls the "right" to reoccupy Gaza at any time it sees fit. Further, Gaza is an inseparable part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories; withdrawing from one sector of that land, while the military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem remains, does not constitute an end to occupation.

“Sharon has announced that once the settlers and soldiers are out of Gaza (a process which may take months, because of soldiers remaining throughout the process of demolishing settler houses) Israel will no longer have any responsibility towards the people of Gaza. This is a false claim. Under international law, a besieging power has exactly the same obligations as any other occupying power - to provide for the humanitarian needs of the occupied population, including provision of food, health care, education, etc. Whatever Sharon may claim, "disengaging" from Gaza does not constitute an end to occupation. The end of occupation was defined by the post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal: "The test for application of the legal regime of occupation is not whether the occupying power fails to exercise effective control over the territory, but whether it has the ability to exercise such power." As long as Israel surrounds Gaza, controlling its borders, skies and seas, it "has the ability" to control the territory. Israel's plan for Gaza will turn the Strip into a big prison, surrounded by guards, in which the 1.2 million Palestinian inmates may be allowed to move on their own within the walls but will remain imprisoned…”


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:39 EST
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Thursday, 28 February 2008
The health of the state?
Topic: politics

Like many of you, I’ve been watching with dismay as the remaining Democratic candidates, those with enough cash to be contenders in an ultimate World Series, attack each other’s health plans. It’s not the attacks that bother me, though. (It’s amazing how little tolerance Americans have for substantive disagreement.) It’s that the plans in question are so anemic.

It should obvious by now – especially to those who’ve experienced the tender mercies of our current profit-oriented system – that only something like “Medicare for All” can succeed. Yet politicians posing as reformers continue working mightily to preserve the status quo.

That’s why it’s so important to support groups like Physicians for a National Health Program (http://pnhp.org), which haven’t let up on fighting for a single-payer system. Check out the open letter below and, as PNHP suggests, send it to the candidates, your reps and friends.

 
PHYSICIANS FOR A NATIONAL HEALTH PROGRAM

An Open Letter to the Candidates on Single Payer Health Reform

America's health care system is failing. It denies care to many in need and is expensive, error-prone, and increasingly bureaucratic. The misfortune of illness is often amplified by financial ruin. Despite abundant medical resources, care is often inadequate because of the irrationality of our insurance system. Yet our political leaders seem intent on reprising failed schemes from the past, rejecting the single payer national health insurance model that is the sole hope for affordable, comprehensive coverage.

Leading Republicans propose tax incentives to encourage the uninsured to buy coverage, but these subsidies fall far short of the cost of adequate insurance. For cost control, they suggest high co-payments and deductibles. Yet these selectively burden the sick and poor, discourage preventive and primary care, and have little effect on costs, since seriously ill patients - who account for most health spending - quickly exceed their deductibles and are in no position to forgo expensive care.

The incremental changes suggested by most Democrats cannot solve our problems; further pursuit of market-based strategies, as advocated by Republicans, will exacerbate them. What needs to be changed is the system itself.

Most leading Democrats offer a mandate model for reform. Under this model, the government would require people (or their employers) to buy private coverage, while offering an expanded Medicaid-like program for the poor and near-poor.

Variants of the mandate model, first proposed by Richard Nixon, were passed with great fanfare in Massachusetts (1988), Oregon (1989) and Washington State (1993). All died quiet deaths. As costs soared, legislators backed off from enforcing the mandates or funding new coverage for the poor. Massachusetts' recent reform, which largely excuses employers from the mandate but imposes steep fines on the uninsured, appears poised to follow a similar path. Of the middle-income uninsured who are required to pay the full premium for coverage, few have signed up. Meanwhile, the state has already announced a $147 million shortfall in funding for subsidies for the poor.

Mandates and tax incentives can add coverage only by increasing costs. They augment the role (and profits) of private insurers, whose overhead is four times Medicare's, and whose efforts to avoid payment impose a costly paperwork burden on doctors and hospitals. The cost cutting measures often appended to such reforms - computerization,
care management and medical prevention - have repeatedly failed to yield savings.

In contrast, single payer reform could realize administrative savings of more than $300 billion annually - enough to cover the uninsured, and to eliminate co-payments and deductibles for all Americans. It would also slow cost increases by fostering coordination and planning.

Political calculus favors mandates or tax incentives, which accommodate insurers, drug firms and other medical entrepreneurs. But such reforms are economically wasteful and medically dangerous. The incremental changes suggested by most Democrats cannot solve our problems; further pursuit of market-based strategies, as advocated by Republicans, will exacerbate them. What needs to be changed is the system itself.

We urge our political leaders to stand up for the health of the American people and implement a non-profit, single payer national health insurance system.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 15:48 EST
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Saturday, 23 February 2008
Brooks strikes again
Topic: politics

Under former county executive Jack Doyle - to whom Al Franken’s epithet for Rush Limbaugh, “big fat idiot,” so precisely applies – Rochesterians got almost weekly reminders of how vicious and ignorant the local Republican ruling clique can be.

Then came Maggie Brooks, whose stage presence, honed by years as a TV “personality,” put a human face on the GOP machine. But every once in a while, the velvet glove slips off the raised iron fist.

And so it was late this week, when Brooks said the county would appeal a recent decision by a state Appellate Court (one step below the highest state court, the Court of Appeals) in favor of marriage rights for two local women, one of whom is a Monroe Community College employee. The Appellate Court decided that this couple’s marriage, performed a few years ago in the province of Ontario, Canada, where same-sex marriages are legal, must be recognized in New York State.

The legal principle is straightforward: New York has long recognized legal marriages from other states and countries that use different criteria from those obtaining here.

Brooks has couched her appeal, or at least her advance PR, in “moderate” language. In effect, she pleads she’s only doing the right thing – preserving the commonly understood definition of marriage and the sanctity of the law - not harming anyone or sowing hatred and division. But oh yeah, there are financial considerations: she hints that Monroe County can’t afford to give marriage-related benefits to the hordes of sodomites on the county payroll who will now demand them.

The county exec always adopts a pleading tone when she does this kind of damage. Take her insistent claims that her “FAIR” tax-shifting scheme was so, so equitable – and wouldn’t take candy from babies. In that case, of course, she just ignored the numbers, as she has right from the beginning of her years at 39 West Main Street. (Remember how she ran for county exec the first time on a plan that would cut taxes yet not gut any popular programs? That was a most painful exercise in the new conservative math.)

Nobody will ever call Brooks a big, fat anything. No, she’s more subtly dangerous than the Limbaughs of the world, mostly because she gets things done for the Limbaughs behind the scenes – like Steve Minarik, who by the way is married to Judge (!) Renee Forgensi Minarik, who ran for Congress against Louise Slaughter on the (hold your breath, or nose) Contract With America.

You might therefore say Brooks is just working on contract now: imposing the moral vision of the neo-Reaganites on us at the local rather than the federal level.

And it’s all perfectly legal! So far.

Let's hope the Court of Appeals sees the light and does the right thing.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:51 EST
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Sunday, 27 January 2008
After Obama surge: don't forget Dennis
Topic: politics

Call them the establishment, the defenders of the status quo, the business community, whatever: in celebrating the withdrawal of Dennis Kucinich from the presidential race and denigrating his campaign of conscience, our betters are telling us to forget about fair trade and labor policies, true universal health care, peace and nonintervention, and much more.

The Big Boys are telling us to accept whatever they’re willing to concede. And so we’re supposed to swallow years more of troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, half-trillion-dollar annual Pentagon budgets, pennies for housing, unaffordable health care and inadequate insurance, and relentless attacks on unions and working people’s lives.

I hope Kucinich will win re-election to Congress. His Cleveland-area district is fortunate to have him; voters there should watch out for the business-friendly Dems who’d like to snatch the reins from him and put them back in “respectable” hands. Kucinich’s presence in Congress is important for all Americans, too, since his steadfast progressive voting record shows the way for others (like our own Louise Slaughter) to oppose war and corporate power.

The other day on the Diane Rehm show (NPR), commentator Juan Williams, who plays a liberal on the radio though he profits from an association with Fox, chuckled loudly when Rehm asked him about the effect of the Kucinich campaign. The laughter was typical of the lumpen pundit class: these people don’t recognize anything beyond economic brute force, in the form of political contributions, which they regard as the sine qua non of the “credible” candidate, and promises of revolving-door payoffs. Populist insurgencies? Don’t make these guys laugh.

But as bad as Williams was on NPR, a Rochester liberal beat him in this media race to the bottom. Mary Anna Towler, in a City Newspaper editorial endorsing Barack Obama, dismissed Kucinich as one who ran more on rhetoric than substance. Even more oddly, she charged his “anger is troubling.” (Vital context: She said much the same about John Edwards. In this case, too, it’s probably a pro-union stance that put her off. I know from hard experience that she and her associates and attorneys are fans of what in the trade is called “union prevention.” City Newspaper occasionally papers this over with sympathetic coverage of local workers’ issues. Don’t be fooled.)

Towler’s characterization comes out of nowhere. I’ve followed the Kucinich campaign pretty closely; I’ve seen him in debates, on news programs, and in video clips – and never once have I seen anything like anger. He’s consistently analytical and measured, with just the right level of intensity to show he really cares. But I know Towler has had a mindless grudge against Kucinich for years. She brushed his 2004 candidacy aside in a rush to endorse John Kerry for the New York primary. The pattern is clear: City Newspaper hunkers down in the undemocratic wing of the Democratic Party.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:36 EST
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