When Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose back in 1986 Tip O'Neill and
Ronald Reagan raced each other to show the world who could punish the
poor quickest and hardest.
Amid the elegies for the dead and the ceremonies of remembrance,
seditious questions intrude: Is there really a war on terror; and if one
is indeed being waged, what are its objectives?
The Taliban are out of power. Poppies bloom once more in Afghan
pastures. The military budget is up. The bluster war on Iraq blares from
every headline. On the home front the war on the Bill of Rights is set
at full throttle, though getting less popular with each day, as judges
thunder their indignation at the unconstitutional diktats of Attorney
General John Ashcroft, a man low in public esteem.
On this latter point we can turn to Merle Haggard, the bard of
blue-collar America, the man who saluted the American flag more than a
generation ago in such songs as "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie From
Muskogee." Haggard addressed a concert crowd in Kansas City a few days
ago in the following terms: "I think we should give John Ashcroft a big
hand...[pause]...right in the mouth!" Haggard went on to say, "The way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope
ya'll will bail me out."
It will take generations to roll back the constitutional damage done in
the wake of the attacks. Emergency laws lie around for decades like
rattlesnakes in summer grass. As Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch
points out to me, one of the main legal precedents that the government
is using to justify detaining "enemy combatants" without trial or access
to a lawyer is an old strikebreaking decision. The government's August
27 legal brief in the Padilla "enemy combatant" case relies heavily on
Moyer v. Peabody, a Supreme Court decision that dates back to
The case involved Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of
Miners, a feisty Colorado trade union that fought for such radical
reforms as safe working conditions, an end to child labor and payment in
money rather than in company scrip. As part of a concerted effort to
crush the union, the governor of Colorado declared a state of
insurrection, called out the state militia and detained Moyer for two
and a half months without probable cause or due process of law.
In an opinion that deferred obsequiously to executive power (using the
"captain of the ship" metaphor), the Supreme Court upheld Moyer's
detention. It reasoned that since the militia could even have fired upon
the strikers (or, in the Court's words, the "mob in insurrection"), how
could Moyer complain about a mere detention? The government now cites
the case in its Padilla brief to argue that whatever a state governor
can do, the President can do better.
Right under our eyes a whole new covert-ops arm of government is being
coaxed into being by the appalling Rumsfeld, who has supplanted Powell
as Secretary of State, issuing public statements contradicting offical
US policy on Israel's occupation of and settlements in the West Bank and
Gaza. Rumsfeld has asked Congress to authorize a new under secretary of
defense overseeing all defense intelligence matters, also requesting
that the department be given greater latitude to carry out covert ops.
Wrap that in with erosion or outright dumping of the Posse Comitatus Act
(1878), which forbids any US military role in domestic law enforcement,
and the silhouette of military government shows up ever more clearly in
the crystal ball.
The terrorists in those planes a year ago nourished specific grievances,
all available for study in the speeches and messages of Osama bin Laden.
They wanted US troops out of Saudi Arabia. They saw the United States as
Israel's prime backer and financier in the oppression of Palestinians.
They railed against the sanctions grinding down upon the civilian
population of Iraq.
A year later the troops are still in Saudi Arabia, US backing for Sharon
is more ecstatic than ever and scenarios for a blitzkrieg against Saddam
Hussein mostly start with a saturation bombing campaign that will plunge
civilians in Iraq back into the worst miseries of the early 1990s.
Terror against states springs from the mulch of political frustration.
We live in a world where about half the population of the planet, 2.8
billion people, live on less than $2 a day. The richest 25 million
people in the United States receive more income than the 2 billion
poorest people on the planet. Across the past year world economic
conditions have mostly got worse, nowhere with more explosive potential
than in Latin America, where Peru, Argentina and Venezuela all heave in
Can anything stop the war cries against Iraq from being self-fulfilling?
Another real slump on Wall Street would certainly postpone it, just as a
hike in energy prices here if war does commence will give the economy a
kidney blow when it least needs it.
How could an attack on Iraq be construed as a blow against terror? The
Administration abandoned early on, probably to its subsequent regret,
the claim that Iraq was complicit in the attacks of September 11. Aside
from the Taliban's Afghanistan, the prime nation that could be blamed
was Saudi Arabia, point of origin for so many of the Al Qaeda terrorists
on the planes.
Would an attack on Iraq be a reprisal? If it degraded Saudi Arabia's
role as prime swing producer of oil, if it indicated utter contempt for
Arab opinion, then yes. But no one should doubt that if the Bush
Administration does indeed topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Baghdad,
this will truly be a plunge into the unknown, one that would fan the
embers of Islamic radicalism, which actually peaked at the end of the
1980s, and amid whose decline the attacks of September 11 were far more
a coda than an overture.
Would Iran sit quiet while US troops roosted in Baghdad? And would not
the overthrow of Saddam be prelude to the downfall of the monarchy in
Jordan, with collapse of the House of Saud following thereafter?
Islamic fanatics flew those planes a year ago, and here we are with a
terrifying alliance of Judeo-Christian fanatics, conjoined in their
dream of the recovery of the Holy Land. War on Terror? It's back to the
thirteenth century, picking up where Prince Edward left off with the
Let's start with Cynthia McKinney. Don't you think that if Arab-American
or African-American groups targeted an incumbent white, liberal, maybe
Jewish, congressperson, and shipped in money by the truckload to oust
the incumbent, the rafters would shake with bellows of outrage?
Yet when a torrent of money from out-of-state Jewish organizations
smashed Earl Hilliard, the first elected black Representative in Alabama
since Reconstruction, you could have heard a mouse cough. Hilliard had
made the fatal error of calling for some measure of evenhandedness in
the Middle East. So he was targeted by AIPAC and the others. Down he
went, defeated in the Democratic primary by Artur Davis, a black lawyer
who obediently sang for his supper on the topic of Israel.
At that particular moment the liberal watchdogs were barking furiously
in an entirely different direction. Ed McGaa, a Green candidate, has had
the effrontery to run in Minnesota for Paul Wellstone's Senate seat.
Such an uproar! Howls of fury from Marc Cooper and Harold Meyerson
lashing McGaa for his presumption. Even a pompous open letter from Steve
Cobble hassling the Minnesota Greens for endangering St. Paul. Any of
these guys think of writing to Artur Davis, telling him to back off, or
to denounce him as a cat's-paw of groups backing Sharon's terror against
Palestinians? You bet they did.
Then it was McKinney's turn. A terrific liberal black Congresswoman.
Like Hilliard, she wasn't cowed by the Israel-right-or-wrong lobby and
called for real debate on the Middle East. And she called for a real
examination of the lead-up to 9/11. So the sky has fallen in on her.
Torrents of American Jewish money shower her opponent, a black woman
judge called Denise Majette. Buckets of shit are poured over McKinney's
head in the Washington Post and the Atlanta
Here's how it's been working. McKinney sees what happened to Hilliard,
and that American Jewish money is pumping up Majette's challenge. So she
goes to Arab-American groups to try to raise money to fight back. This
allows Tom Edsall to attack her in the Post as being in receipt
of money from pro-terror Muslims. Lots of nasty-looking Arab/Muslim
names fill Edsall's stories.
Now just suppose someone looked at names in the pro-Israel groups
funding Majette, who by mid-August had raised twice as much money as
McKinney. Aren't they supporting the terror that has US-made F-16s
bombing kids in Gaza? What's the game here? It's a reiteration of the
message delivered to politicians down the years, as when Senator Charles
Percy and others went down: Put your head over the parapet on the topic
of Israel/Palestine, and we'll blow it off. And when blacks denounce the
role of outside Jewish money in the onslaughts on Hilliard and McKinney,
there'll be an avalanche of hysterical columns about the menace of black
anti-Semitism. Just you wait. It's a closed system.
Next sour thought: Yes, Katha, you did raise a little stink re McKinney,
in overly decorous but still commendable terms right here in The
Nation. Which reminds me, here's what I wrote to a fellow angered
over a piece by Ellen Johnson we'd run in CounterPunch,
criticizing you for saying Dennis Kucinich's position against abortion
rendered him ineligible as the progressives' future champion:
"Hi Matt, I'm forwarding yr note to Ellen, but allow me to say that I
think your reaction is too hasty. Ellen raised some very serious points
about the monoptic way NOW and leading feminists address the abortion
issue. I think it is right to emphasize that we should battle for social
conditions where abortion ceases to be regarded by many progressives as
a prime indicator of freedom and liberation for women.
"Surely you cannot regard the killing of fetuses as somehow an
intrinsically 'good thing.' The real friends of abortion are the
Malthusians who want to rid the world as much as possible of the
'over-breeding' and disruptive poor, particularly minorities....
"More generally, I think liberal women's groups gave Clinton the pass on
savage assaults on the poor because the Clintons unrelentingly preached
commitment to abortion.... we ran the piece because we think it's high
time to get beyond bunker liberalism, where progressives huddle in the
foxhole, holding on to 'choice' as their bottom-line issue, with a
sideline in telling black teen moms that they are socially
irresponsible. Best, Alex Cockburn"
More sourness: The ILWU? That's the West Coast longshoremen. Their
contract expired on July 1. The contract is being extended on a daily
basis. The employers are playing tough, well aware that the Bush high
command has told ILWU leaders that Bush will not hesitate to invoke
Taft-Hartley, bring in troops if necessary and destroy the ILWU as a
bargaining agent for the whole West Coast. Tom Ridge, calling in his
capacity as chief of Homeland Security, has done some heavy breathing in
the ear of ILWU leaders about the inadvisability of a strike at this
The ILWU's coastwide contract was won in the 1934 strike, along with the
hiring hall, which replaced the old shape-up system, in which the boss
could keep out organizers and anyone else. These are bedrock issues, for
which strikers fought and died that year in San Francisco and Seattle.
The West Coast longshoremen stand as a beacon of what union organizing
can do. Of course, the Bush White House yearns to destroy it, maybe
using the War on Terror as pretext. If ever there was a time for
solidarity, this is it.
Final sour thought, on Paul Krugman. Krugman? He has just conceded that
maybe neoliberal policies haven't worked too well in Latin America. Look
it up. It's in his New York Times column for August 9, "The Lost
Continent." He spent 184 words on the matter. "Why hasn't reform worked
as promised? That's a difficult and disturbing question."
Gee Paul, since you constitute the entirety of the Democratic Party's
opposition to Bush, I know you're busy as hell. But since your crowd
supervised a good deal of the economic destruction of Latin America, and
your economic faction offered the basic rationales for that devastation,
I sure hope you return to the problem. Maybe you won't be so snooty
about opponents of "free trade." Maybe you'll even have a quiet word
with Tom Friedman.
When did the great executive stock option hog wallow really start? You
can go back to the deregulatory push under Carter in the late 1970s,
then move into the Reagan '80s, when corporate purchases of shares
really took off with the leveraged buyouts and mergermania, assisted by
tax laws that favored capital gains over stockholder dividends and
allowed corporations to write off interest payments entirely.
Between 1983 and 1990, 72.5 percent of net US equity purchases were
bought by nonfinancial corporations. At the end of this spree the
debt-laden corporations withdrew to their tents for three years of
necessary restraint and repose, until in 1994 they roared into action
once more, plunging themselves into debt to finance their share
purchases. This was the start of the options game.
Between 1994 and 1998 nonfinancial companies began to load themselves up
with yet more debt. The annual value of the repurchases quadrupled,
testimony to the most hectic sustained orgy of self-aggrandizement by an
executive class in the history of capitalism.
For these and ensuing reflections and specific figures, I'm mostly
indebted to Robert Brenner's prescient The Boom and the Bubble,
published this spring with impeccable timing by Verso; also Robin
Blackburn's long-awaited book (now being released by Verso) on the past
and future of pensions, Banking on Death.
Why did these chief executive officers, chief financial officers and
boards of directors choose to burden their companies with debt? Since
stock prices were going up, companies needing money could have raised
funds by issuing shares rather than borrowing money to buy shares back.
Top corporate officers stood to make vast killings on their options, and
by the unstinting efforts of legislators such as Senator Joe Lieberman,
they were spared the inconvenience of having to report to stockholders
the cost of these same options. Enlightened legislators had also been
thoughtful enough to rewrite the tax laws in such a manner that the cost
of issuing stock options could be deducted from company income.
It's fun these days to read all the jubilant punditeers who favor the
Democrats now lashing Bush and Cheney for the way they made their
fortunes while repining the glories of the Clinton boom, when the dollar
was mighty and the middle classes gazed into their 401(k) nest eggs with
the devotion of Volpone eyeing his trove. "Good morning to the day; and,
next, my gold:/Open the shrine, that I may see my saint."
Bush and Cheney deserve the punishment. But when it comes to political
parties, the seaminess is seamless. The Clinton boom was lofted in large
part by the helium of bubble accountancy.
By the end of 1999 average annual pay of CEOs at 362 of America's
largest corporations had swollen to $12.4 million, six times more than
what it was in 1990. The top option payout was to Charles Wang, boss of
Computer Associates International, who got $650 million in restricted
shares, towering far above Ken Lay's scrawny salary of $5.4 million and
shares worth $49 million. As the 1990s blew themselves out, the
corporate culture, applauded on a weekly basis by such bullfrogs of the
bubble as Thomas Friedman, saw average CEO pay at those same 362
corporations rise to a level 475 times larger than that of the average
The executive suites of America's largest companies became a vast hog
wallow. CEOs and finance officers would borrow millions from some
complicit bank, using the money to drive up company stock prices,
thereby inflating the value of their options. Brenner offers us the
memorable figure of $1.22 trillion as the total of borrowing by
nonfinancial corporations between 1994 and 1999, inclusive. Of that sum,
corporations used just 15.3 percent for capital expenditures. They used
57 percent of it, or $697.4 billion, to buy back stock and thus enrich
themselves. Surely the wildest smash and grab in the annals of corporate
When the bubble burst, the parachutes opened, golden in a darkening sky.
Blackburn cites the packages of two departing Lucent executives, Richard
McGinn and Deborah Hopkins, a CFO. Whereas the laying off of 10,500
employees was dealt with in less than a page of Lucent's quarterly
report in August 2001, it took a fifteen-page attachment to outline the
treasures allotted to McGinn (just under $13 million, after running
Lucent for barely three years) and to Hopkins (at Lucent for less than a
year, departing with almost $5 million).
Makes your blood boil, doesn't it? Isn't it time we had a "New Covenant
for economic change that empowers people"? Aye to that! "Never again
should Washington reward those who speculate in paper, instead of those
who put people first." Hurrah! Whistle the tune and memorize the words
(Bill Clinton's in 1992).
There are villains in this story, an entire piranha-elite. And there are
victims, the people whose pension funds were pumped dry to flood the hog
wallow with loot. Here in the United States privatization of Social
Security has been staved off only because Clinton couldn't keep his hand
from his zipper, and now again because Bush's credentials as a voucher
for the ethics of private enterprise have taken a fierce beating.
But the wolves will be back, and popgun populism (a brawnier SEC, etc.,
etc.) won't hold them off. The Democrats will no more defend the people
from the predations of capital than they will protect the Bill of Rights
(in the most recent snoop bill pushed through the House, only three
voted against a measure that allows life sentences for "malicious
hacking": Dennis Kucinich and two Republicans, Jeff Miller of Florida
and the great Texas libertarian, Ron Paul). It was the Senate Democrats
in early July who rallied in defense of accounting "principles" that
permitted the present deceptive treatment of stock options. Not just Joe
Lieberman, the whore of Connecticut, but Tom Daschle of the Northern
Popgun populism is not enough. Socialize accumulation! Details soon.
Amid all the recent assaults on the Bill of Rights, including the latest
trashing in the USA Patriot Act and the denial of habeas corpus to
citizens, amid all this, in the span of one week, the Supreme Court has
issued rulings almost beyond the dreams of the most ardent civil
Listen to the exultant cry of Steven Hawkins, executive director of the
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, who said this is "the
most favorable term in a quarter of a century, in terms of death penalty
For those who have gazed aghast over the past generation as jury rights
have been trampled by tough-on-crime fanatics and liberal elites, there
are paragraphs in certain opinions in the Court's rulings that are as
momentous as any in the Warren Court. From whose pen did these
"My observing over the past twelve years the accelerating propensity of
both state and federal legislatures to adopt sentencing factors
determined by judges that increase punishment beyond what is authorized
by the jury's verdict, and my witnessing the belief of a near majority
of my colleagues that this novel practice is perfectly OK, cause me to
believe that our people's traditional belief in the right of trial by
jury is in perilous decline. That decline is bound to be confirmed, and
indeed accelerated, by the repeated spectacle of a man's going to his
death because a judge found that an aggravating factor existed.
We cannot preserve our veneration for the protection of the jury in
criminal cases if we render ourselves callous to the need for that
protection by regularly imposing the death penalty without it."
John Paul Stevens, you guess? No, Antonin Scalia. His emphasis on the
fundamental role of the jury as guardian of our rights under the
Constitution runs entirely counter to the trend of the past couple of
decades, when judges have, with either the approval or indifference of
legislatures and the press, been allowed not only to deprecate the
jury's fundamental right to nullify and set the law aside but also to
set jurors' verdicts aside and impose their own, often with lower
standards of proof.
By and large, liberals have been the architects of these erosions of
fundamental popular rights, whether it was Tip O'Neill rushing through
totalitarian drug laws in the mid-1980s; or Clinton's Antiterrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act (which, among other horrors, junked the
doctrine of habeas corpus); or the hate crimes statutes written into
many state codes at the behest of gay, feminist and liberal civil rights
groups in the wake of the James Byrd and Matthew Shepard killings.
Scalia exposes the contradictions tellingly in his concurring opinion in
Ring v. Arizona, where the Court struck down, 7 to 2, an Arizona
statute that allowed judges rather than juries to impose the death
penalty. He rightly chides Justice Stephen Breyer for inconsistency in
endorsing the right of judges to overrule the jury in tacking on
enhanced punishment under hate crimes statutes, and then, in Ring v.
Arizona, for tacking the other way. Scalia's term for this kind of
pirouette is "death-is-different jurisprudence."
Another momentous Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia,
concerns a case in which a man with an IQ of 59 was sentenced to death
for committing a robbery and murder. The Court has ruled 6 to 3 that
times have changed and that it's not OK these days to put the retarded
Scalia, dissenting, made an argument in consonance with his view of the
jury's paramount role, as expressed in Ring. Why, he asked,
should the determining of a person's mental competence be allotted to
the social scientists, the IQ testers, the battery of so-called experts
so memorably stigmatized in the works of the late, great Stephen Jay
Gould? Liberals don't want to execute the mentally retarded; they just
want to abort or sterilize them. In the Atkins trial, Scalia noted, the
jury had been given testimony on the murderer's mental capacity but had
regarded it as insufficient in detaining the defendant from the death
Scalia asks, How can one exempt people from the capital penalty on the
grounds of mental incapacity to recognize the concepts of punishment and
retribution, and then put them away in prison for their rest of their
Where Scalia is caught in an obvious contradiction is in his endorsement
of the notion that only those prepared to vote for the death penalty
should be allowed on a jury, and that appeals court judges opposed to
the death penalty should recuse themselves in capital cases. "There is
something to be said," Scalia writes in his dissent in Atkins,
"for popular abolition of the death penalty; there is nothing to be said
for its incremental abolition by this Court." Again, it's a good
argument, but abolition of slavery began in part with the refusal of
juries to abide by statutes endorsing slavery. Ditto with religious
freedom, starting with William Penn, whose jury refused to convict him
for flouting the Conventicle Act.
If he were consistent, Scalia would recognize that jurors should be
rejected only if they have a material interest in the outcome of the
case. And given that some 30 percent or more in the United States are
opposed to the death penalty, such juries would more than likely have a
death penalty opponent among the twelve. On the role and rights of the
jury I strongly recommend Godfrey Lehman's Is This Any Way to Run a
Meanwhile, we should honor the tremendous efforts of the defense teams
who fought these cases to the Supreme Court and who have been rewarded
by two decisions that overturn the death sentences of hundreds. But the
fact remains that it is the death penalty itself that needs to be
abolished, and this is a peerless moment of opportunity for death
penalty activists to press forward.
The Court majority said in the Atkins decision that the Eighth
Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment reflects social
values, which change from century to century and decade to decade
(notwithstanding Scalia, who gazes back nostalgically 2,000 years to St.
Paul). What an excellent springboard for an invigorated campaign to end
the barbarism of judicial killing.
Gangbangers with dirty bombs! Now we're talking. The big news about the
latest suspected terror bomber is not that he now calls himself Al
Muhajir but that he was formerly José Padilla, a Puerto Rican
raised in Chicago. Padilla became a son of militant Islam in the
slammer, same way thousands of other young denizens of our gulag do.
In the normal order of business, suspected gangbangers don't have much
purchase on the Bill of Rights. Their rights of assembly and protection
against unreasonable search and seizure were curtailed long since.
Padilla's current status could foreshadow a trend. Pending challenge in
the courts, he's classed as an "enemy combatant" and locked up in a Navy
brig in Charleston, with no rights at all.
Tuesday, June 11, all the way from Moscow, Attorney General Ashcroft
fostered the impression that Padilla/Muhajir had been foiled pretty much
in the act of planting radioactive material taped to TNT in the basement
of the Sears Tower or some kindred monument of Chicago. "US: 'Dirty
Bomb' Plot Foiled," exulted USA Today.
Next day came a modified climb-down. "Threat of 'Dirty Bomb' Softened"
muttered USA Today's front-page headline. It turned out Muhajir
had ten grand in cash and maybe big dreams but nothing in the way of
radioactive dirt or even TNT. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
told the press, "I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some
fairly loose talk." He should know.
But at least we're now sensitized to the "dirty bomb" menace. It seems
that ten pounds of TNT, wrapped around a "pea-size" piece of cesium-137
from a medical gauge, would give anyone within five blocks downwind a
one in a thousand chance of getting cancer. We should be worried about
this? I'd say it should come pretty low on the list of Major Concerns.
Suppose Al Qaeda were to plan something really nasty, like shipping
spent nuclear fuel by rail from every quarter of the United States to a
fissured mountain in Nevada not that far from one of America's prime
tourist destinations. That's the Bush plan, of course.
What a gift to the forces of darkness the War on Terror is turning out
to be, as a subject-changer from the normal terrorism inflicted by the
state. Right now, across the United States, the final cutoffs for people
on welfare are looming. The guillotine blade ratcheted into position by
Clinton's 1996 welfare reform is plummeting.
Take Oregon. It has a terrible recession, the worst unemployment rate in
the country and the largest deficit in the state's history. Back in
1979, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, 39 percent of
poor Oregonians were getting public assistance. These days it's under 10
percent. Does that mean the previously destitute are now in regular
jobs? No. It just means you have to be a lot poorer to get any sort of
handout. It means the usual story: exhausted mothers scrabbling for
petty cash, doing occasional starvation-wage work. Over the first
fourteen months of the current recession, the combined number of
unemployed in eight Oregon counties grew by 92 percent. At the same
time, the number of welfare cases went down by 16 percent.
This is the Terrorism of Everyday Life, at the most elemental level,
aimed at the weakest in our midst: no money for food, for shelter, for
the kids, and a President who actually wants to stiffen the work
requirements. Thus do we nourish the next generation of Enemy Combatants
on the home front.
Dershowitz: Baby Slaughter Plan Flawed
Nathan Lewin, a prominent DC attorney often tipped for a federal
judgeship and legal adviser to several Orthodox organizations, has told
the Forward, as reported there on June 7, that the families of
Palestinian suicide bombers should be executed, arguing that such a
policy would offer the necessary deterrent against such attacks.
According to the Forward, Alan Dershowitz and Abraham Foxman,
national director of the Anti-Defamation League, argue that Lewin's
proposal represents a legitimate attempt to forge a policy for stopping
terrorism. Foxman refused to take a stand on the actual proposal,
instead deferring to Jerusalem on Israeli security issues. Exhibiting
his habitual moral refinement, Dershowitz--also an advocate of
judge-sanctioned torture here in the United States--argues that the same
level of deterrence could be achieved by leveling the villages of
Lewin cites the biblical destruction of the tribe of Amalek as a
precedent for measures deemed "ordinarily unacceptable." Those who
consult the first book of Samuel will find the Amalekite incident
vividly described. First, the divine injunction: "Thus saith the Lord of
hosts.... Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they
have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and
suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."
King Saul hastens to obey. "And Saul smote the Amalekites...and utterly
destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword." But Saul spares
Agag, king of the Amalekites, "and the best of the sheep, and of the
oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs." Even though the animals were
scheduled for sacrifice to Him, God is furious at the breach of orders
and prompts the prophet Samuel to berate Saul: "To obey is better than
sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the
sin of witchcraft....
"Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the
Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the
bitterness of death is past. And Samuel said, As the sword hath made
women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And
Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal."
Now that's what I call getting back to fundamentals!
Greens running against Democrats, and maybe giving Republicans the edge?
Anyone who thinks we'll have to wait till the Bush-Gore rematch in 2004
to get into that can of worms had better look at Minnesota this year.
Here's Senator Paul Wellstone bidding for a third term, with the tiny
Democratic majority in the Senate as the stake. Writing in The
Nation, John Nichols sets the bar even higher. "His race," Nichols
wrote tremulously this spring, "is being read as a measure of the
potency of progressive politics in America."
Wellstone's opponent is Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul and
enjoying all the endorsements and swag the RNC can throw in his
direction. The odds are against Wellstone. Coleman is a lot tougher than
the senile Rudy Boschwitz, whom Wellstone beat in 1996, and many
Minnesotans aren't enchanted about his breach of a pledge that year to
hold himself to two terms.
But ignoring Wellstone's dubious future, liberals are now screaming
about "the spoiler," who takes the form of Ed McGaa, a Sioux born on the
Pine Ridge Reservation, a Marine Corps vet of the wars in both Korea and
Vietnam, an attorney and author of numerous books on Native American
religion. The Minnesota Green Party picked him as its candidate on May
18 at a convention of some 600, a lively affair in which real politics
actually took place in the form of debates, resolutions, nomination
fights and the kindred impedimenta of democracy.
Aghast progressives are claiming that even a handful of votes for McGaa
could cost Wellstone the race. Remember, in 2000 Ralph Nader got 127,000
in Minnesota, more than 5 percent. Some national Greens, like Winona
LaDuke, Nader's vice-presidential running mate, didn't want a Green to
run. Some timid Greens in Minnesota are already having second thoughts,
For his part, McGaa confronts the "you're just helping the Republicans"
charge forthrightly: "Let's just let the cards fall where they're at,"
he recently told Ruth Conniff of The Progressive. "It will be a
shame if the Republicans get in. On that I have to agree with you. I'm
not enamored by George Bush's policies." But McGaa says he'll probably
get a slice of Jesse Ventura's Independent Party vote too: "So you
Wellstone people can just calm down."
McGaa's own amiable stance contrasts markedly with liberal Democratic
hysteria. Wellstone is now being pitched as the last bulwark against
fascism, whose defeat would lead swiftly to back-alley abortions, with
the entire government in the permanent grip of the Bush Republicans.
A sense of perspective, please. Start with Wellstone. This was the guy,
remember, who promised back in 1991 that he'd go to Washington with his
chief role as Senator being to work "with a lot of people around the
country--progressive grassroots people, social-action activists--to
extend the limits of what's considered politically realistic."
So what happened? Steve Perry, a journalist with a truly Minnesotan
regard for gentility and good manners, wrote in Mother Jones last
year the following bleak assessment: "10 years after he took his Senate
seat, Wellstone has disappeared from the national consciousness. He
never emerged as the left's national spokesman for reforms in health
care, campaign finance, or anything else."
Early on, Wellstone took a dive on the biggest organizing issue for
reformers in 1993. He abandoned his support for single-payer health
insurance in the face of blandishments from Hillary Clinton.
No need to go overboard here. As with all liberal senators, Wellstone
has had some lousy votes (yes to an early crime bill, no on recognition
of Vietnam) and some honorable ones. He denounced the Gulf War in 1991
but in 2001 endorsed Ashcroft's war on terror, when Russell Feingold was
the only senator to vote no. Wellstone has been good on Colombia but, in
common with ninety-eight other senators, craven on Israel. (McGaa has
spoken up for justice for Palestinians and is now being denounced as an
anti-Semite for his pains. Imagine, a Sioux having the nerve to find
something in common with Palestinians!)
So one can dig and delve in Wellstone's senatorial career across twelve
years and find grounds for reproach and applause, but one thing is plain
enough; he's not shifted the political idiom one centimeter to the left,
even within his own party, let alone on the overall national stage. In
the Clinton years, when he could have tried to build a national
coalition against the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council, he
mostly opted for a compliant insider role.
You don't have to be in the Senate as long as Bobby Byrd to put together
an impressive résumé. There are examples of heroic
one-term stints. Look at what Jim Abourezk of South Dakota achieved in
his one term, between 1972 and 1978. Within a year of getting into the
Senate he was taking on the oil cartel. In one of the most astounding
efforts of that decade, he pushed a bill to break up the oil companies
to within three votes of passage in the Senate.
Abourezk and Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio thwarted one boondoggle after
another by all-night sentry duty on the floor of the Senate in final
sessions, when the barons of pork tried to smuggle through such treats
as a $3 billion handout to the airline industry, which Abourezk killed.
He and Phil Burton managed an epoch-making expansion of Redwood National
Park. Abourezk worked with radical public interest groups and was a
lone, brave voice on Palestinian issues.
The suggestion that progressive politics will now stand or fall in sync
with Wellstone's future is offensive. Suppose he were to lose of his own
accord, without a Green Party third candidate? Would it then be
appropriate to sound the death knell of progressive politics in America?
Of course not. Even the most ardent Wellstone supporters acknowledge
that Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is moribund. Hence
Ventura's triumph. The Greens have every right to hold Wellstone
accountable, and if they have the capacity to send him into retirement,
then it will be a verdict on Wellstone's failures rather than some
supposed Green irresponsibility.
Right in the wake of House majority leader Dick Armey's explicit call
for several million Palestinians to be booted out of the West Bank, and
East Jerusalem and Gaza as well, came yet one more of those earnest
articles accusing a vague entity called "the left" of anti-Semitism.
This one was in Salon, by a man called Dennis Fox, identified as
an associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University
of Illinois. Leaving nothing to chance, Salon titled Fox's
contribution "The shame of the pro-Palestinian left: Ignorance and
anti-Semitism are undercutting the moral legitimacy of Israel's
Over the past twenty years I've learned there's a quick way of figuring
just how badly Israel is behaving. There's a brisk uptick in the number
of articles accusing "the left" of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt
varying strategies. Particularly intricate, though I think
well-intentioned, was a recent column by Naomi Klein, who wrote that "it
is precisely because anti-Semitism is used by the likes of Mr. Sharon
that the fight against it must be reclaimed." Is Klein saying the global
justice movement has forgotten how to be anti-anti-Semitic? I don't
think it has. Are all denunciations of the government of Israel to be
prefaced by strident assertions of pro-Semitism?
If this is the case, can we not ask that those concerned about the
supposed silence of the left about anti-Semitism demonstrate their own
good faith by denouncing Israel's behavior toward Palestinians? Klein
did, but most don't. In a recent column in the New York Times
Frank Rich managed to write an entire column purportedly about Jewish
overreaction here to news reporting from Israel without even fleeting
reference to the fact that there might be some factual basis to reports
presenting Israel and its leaders in a bad light, even though he found
time for abuse of the "inexcusable" Arafat. Isn't Sharon "inexcusable"
in Rich's book?
So the left gets the rotten eggs, and those tossing the eggs mostly
don't feel it necessary to concede that Israel is a racist state whose
obvious and provable intent is to continue to steal Palestinian land,
oppress Palestinians, herd them into smaller and smaller enclaves, and
in all likelihood ultimately drive them into the sea or Lebanon or
Jordan or Dearborn or the space in Dallas-Fort Worth airport between the
third and fourth runways (the bold Armey plan).
Here's how Fox begins his article for Salon: "'Let's move back,'
my wife insisted when she saw the nearby banner: 'Israel Is a Terrorist
State!' We were at the April 20 Boston march opposing Israel's incursion
into the West Bank. So drop back we did, dragging our friends with us to
wait for an empty space we could put between us and the anti-Israel
sign." Inference by Fox: The banner is grotesque, presumptively
anti-Semitic. But there are plenty of sound arguments that from the
Palestinian point of view Israel is indeed a terrorist state, and
anyway, even if it wasn't, the description would not per se be evidence
of anti-Semitism. Only if the banner had read "All Jews Are Terrorists"
would Fox have a point.
Of course, the rhetorical trick is to conflate "Israel" or "the State of
Israel" with "Jews" and argue that they are synonymous. Ergo, to
criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic. Leave aside the fact that many
of Israel's most articulate critics are Jews, honorably committed to the
cause of justice for all in the Middle East. Many Jews just don't like
hearing bad things said about Israel, same way they don't like reading
articles about the Jewish lobby here. Mention the lobby and someone like
Fox will rush into print denouncing those who "toy with the old
anti-Semitic canard that the Jews control the press." These days you
can't even say that the New York Times is owned by a Jewish
family without risking charges that you stand in Goebbels's shoes. I
even got accused of anti-Semitism the other day for mentioning that the
Jews founded Hollywood, which they most certainly did, as recounted in a
funny and informative book published in 1988, An Empire of Their Own:
How the Jews Invented Hollywood, by Neal Gabler.
So cowed are commentators (which is of course the prime motive of those
charges of anti-Semitism) that even after Congress recently voted
full-throated endorsement of Sharon and Israel, with only two senators
and twenty-one reps voting against (I don't count the chickenshit
twenty-nine who voted "present"), you could scarcely find a mainstream
paper prepared to analyze this astounding demonstration of the power of
AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, plus the Christian right and the
military industry, which profits enormously from military aid to Israel,
since Congress has stipulated that 75 percent of such supplies must be
bought from US firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
The encouraging fact is that despite the efforts of the Southern Poverty
Law Center to drum up funds by hollering that the Nazis are about to
march down Main Street, there's remarkably little anti-Semitism in the
United States, and almost none that I've ever been able to detect on the
American left, which is of course amply stocked with non-self-hating
Jews. It's comical to find the left's assailants trudging all the way
back to LeRoi Jones and the 1960s to dig up the necessary anti-Semitic
gibes. The less encouraging fact is that there's not nearly enough
criticism of Israel's ghastly conduct toward Palestinians, which in its
present phase is testing the waters for reaction here to a major ethnic
cleansing of Palestinians, just as Armey called for.
So why don't people like Fox write about Armey's appalling remarks
(which the White House declared he hadn't made) instead of trying to
change the subject with nonsense about anti-Semitism? It's not
anti-Semitic to denounce ethnic cleansing, a strategy that, according to
recent polls, almost half of Israelis now heartily endorse. In this
instance the left really has nothing to apologize for, but those who
accuse it of anti-Semitism certainly do. They're apologists for policies
put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an
unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct.