Letter To The Millennials

A Boomer Professor talks to his students

Written by

  • Director, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer, “Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End Of the World”, “To Die For”

So we are about to embark on a sixteen-week exploration of innovation, entertainment, and the arts. This course is going to be about all three, but I’m going to start with the “art” part — because without the art, no amount of technological innovation or entertainment marketing savvy is going to get you to go to the movie theater. However, I think there’s also a deeper, more controversial claim to be made along these same lines: Without the art, none of the innovation matters — and indeed, it may be impossible — because the art is what gives us vision, and what grounds us to the human element in all of this. Although there will be lectures, during which I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned about the way innovation, entertainment, and the arts fit together, the most crucial part of the class is the dialogue between us, and specifically the insights coming from you as you teach me about your culture and your ideals. The bottom line is that the world has come a long way, but from my perspective, we’re also living in uniquely worrisome times; my generation had dreams of how to make a better life that have remained woefully unfulfilled (leaving many of us cynical and disillusioned), but at the same time your generation has been saddled with the wreckage of our attempts and are now facing what may seem to be insurmountable odds. I’m writing this letter in the hopes that it will help set the stage for a truly cross-generational dialogue over the next sixteen weeks, in which I help you understand the contexts and choices that have brought us where we are today, and in which you help me, and one another, figure out the best way to move forward from here.

When I was your age, I had my heart broken and my idealism challenged multiple times by the assassinations of my political heroes: namely, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Many in my generation turned away from politics and found our solace in works of art and entertainment. So one of the things I want to teach you about is a time from 1965–1980 when the artists really ruled both the music and the film industries. Some said “the lunatics had taken over the asylum” (and, amusingly enough, David Geffen named his record company Asylum), but if you look at the quality of work that was produced, it was extraordinary; in fact, most of it is still watched and listened to today. Moreover, in that period the most artistic work also sold the best: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was without doubt the best record of the year but also the best selling, and The Godfather was similarly both best movie of the year and the biggest box office hit. That’s not happening right now, and I want to try to understand why that is. I want to explore, with you, what the implications of this shift might be, and whether this represents a problem. It may be that those fifteen years your parents and I were lucky enough to experience was one of those renaissance moments that only come along once every century, so perhaps it’s asking too much to expect that I’ll see it occur again in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I do hope it happens at least once in yours.

I spoke of the heartbreak of political murder that has permanently marked me and my peers, but we have also been profoundly disappointed by politics’ failure to improve the lives of the average citizen. In 1969, the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today, it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a “Great Stagnation,” bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy (and, along the way, shattering our faith in the “American Dream”). The Reagan-era notion that what benefited the 1% — “the establishment” — would benefit everyone has by now been thoroughly discredited, yet it seems that we are still struggling to pick up the pieces after this failed experiment.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Stephen Kinzer wrote about those in power during the 1950s, “Exceptionalism — the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations — was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.”

From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined. The second principle of the establishment was that “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats’ efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the track record of Clinton’s treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers (specifically, their zealous efforts to kill the Glass-Steagal Act and deregulate the big banks and the commodities markets) to see that both major parties are guilty of sucking up to money; apparently, the establishment rules no matter who is in power. Was it any surprise, then, that Obama appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused? Was it any surprise that they failed? Was it any surprise that establishment ideas about the surveillance state were not challenged by Obama? The good news is that, as a nation, we have grown tired of being the world’s unpaid cop, and we are tired of dancing to Wall Street’s tune. Slowly, we are learning that these policies may benefit the 1%, but they don’t benefit the people as a whole. My guess is the 2016 election may be fought on this ground, and we may finally begin to see real change, but the fact remains that we — both your generation and mine — are right now deeply mired in the fallout of unfulfilled promises and the failures of the political system.

So this is the source of boomer disillusionment. But even if we are cynical about political change, we can try to imagine together a future where great artistic work continues to flourish; this, then, is the Innovation and Entertainment part of the course. It’s not that I want you to give up on politics — in fact the events of the last few weeks in Ferguson only reinforce my belief that when people disdain politics, their anger gets channeled into violence. But what I do want you to think about is that art and culture are more plastic — they can be molded and changed easier than politics. There is a sense in which art, politics, and economics are all inextricably and symbiotically tied together, but history has proven to us that art serves as a powerful corrective against the dangers of the establishment. There is a system of checks and balances in which, even though the arts may rely on the social structures afforded by strong economic and political systems, artists can also inspire a culture to move forward, to reject the evils of greed and prejudice, and to reconnect to its human roots. If we are seeking a political and economic change, then, an authentic embrace of the arts may be key. Part of your role as communication scholars is to look more closely at the communication surrounding us and think critically about the effects its having, whose agenda is being promoted, and whether that’s the agenda that will serve us best. One of the tasks we’ll wrestle with in this class will be how we can get the digital fire hose of social media to really support artists, not just brands.

In 2011, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) gave a lecture at the British Film Institute. He said something both simple and profound:

People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the Internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that — at the very least — this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colorful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, “What can we do to get people to buy more of these?

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

I think Charlie is right. People are starving, so we give them bread and circuses.

​ But I think Charlie is wrong when he says “there is no winning”. In fact I think we are really in a “winner-take-all” society. Look at the digital pop charts. 80% of the music streams are for 1% of the content. That means that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are billionaires, but the average musician can barely make a living. Bob Dylan’s first album only sold 4,000 copies. In this day and age, he would have been dropped by his label before he created his greatest work.

A writer I greatly admired, Gabriel García Márquez, died recently. For me, Márquez embodied the role of the artist in society, marked by the refusal to believe that we are incapable of creating a more just world. Utopias are out of favor now. Yet Marquez never gave up believing in the transformational power of words to conjure magic and seize the imagination. The other crucial aspect of Márquez’s work is that he teaches us the importance of regionalism. In a commercial culture of sameness where you can stroll through a mall in Shanghai and forget that you’re not in Los Angeles, Marquez’s work was distinctly Latin American. His work was as unique as the songs of Gilberto Gil, or the cinema of Alejandro González Iñárritu. In a cultural like ours that has so long advocated a “melting pot” philosophy that papers over our differences, it is valuable to recognize that there is a difference between allowing our differences to serve as barriers and appreciating the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to its people. What’s more, young artists also need to have the sense of history that Marquez celebrated when he said, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” Cultural amnesia only leads to cultural death.

With these values in mind, my hope is to lead you in a discussion of politics and culture in the context of 250 years of America’s somewhat utopian battle to build “a city on a hill.” I think many in my generation had this utopian impulse (which is, it should be observed, different than idealism), but it is slipping away like a short-term memory. I did not aspire to be that professor who quotes Dr. King, but I feel I must. He said the night before he was assassinated, “I may not get there with you, but I believe in the promised land.” My generation knew that the road towards a better society would be long, but we hoped our children’s children might live in that land, even if we weren’t able to get there with you. It may take even longer than we imagined, but I know your generation believes in justice and equality, and that fills me with hope that the dream of some sort of promised land is not wholly lost. The next step, then, is to figure out how to work together, to learn from the past while living in the present moment in order to secure a better future, and I believe this class offers us an incredible opportunity to do precisely that.

So what are the skills that we can develop together in order to open a real cross-generational dialogue? First, I would hope we would learn to improvise. I want you to challenge me, just as I encourage and challenge you. Improvisation means sometimes throwing away your notes and just responding from your gut to the ideas being presented. It takes both courage and intelligence, but I’m pretty sure you have deep stores of both qualities, which will help you show leadership both in class and throughout the rest of your life. Leadership is more than just bravery and intellect, however; it also requires vulnerability and compassion, skills that I hope we can similarly cultivate together. I want you to know that I don’t have all the answers — and, more importantly, I know that I don’t have all the answers. I am somewhat confused by our current culture and I am looking to you for insight. You need to have that same vulnerability with your peers, and you also need to treat them with compassion as you struggle together to understand this new world of disruption. I know these four elements — courage, intelligence, vulnerability, and compassion — may seem like they are working at cross-purposes, but we will need all four qualities if we are to take on the two tasks before us. One of our tasks is to try to restore a sense of excellence in our culture — the belief that great art and entertainment can also be popular. The second task is for baby boomer parents and their millennial children to form a natural political alliance going forward. As I’ve said, I don’t think the notion that we will get to “the promised land” is totally dead, and with your energy and the tools of the new media ecosystem to help us organize, we can keep working towards a newly hopeful society, culture, and economy, in spite of the mess we have left you with.

This is, at least, the plan. Of course, as the great critic James Agee once said, “Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.”

 

 

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The traumas and dramas of post-Cup, pre-Olympic Brazil

by Christopher Gaffney on August 25, 2014

Post image for The traumas and dramas of post-Cup, pre-Olympic Brazil

A decade of mega-events is unrecognizably transforming Brazil’s urban landscape, with the poor excluded and the benefits reaped unequivocally by the rich. 

Image by Edimar Soares for O Povo, taken during the 2013 Confederations Cup in Fortaleza.

Tied to a period of economic growth and political stability, Brazil has aggressively pursued a series of mega-events from the Pan-American Games in 2007 to the 2016 Rio Olympics. These events are used by the Brazilian national and local governments to showcase their economic prosperity and to promote the country as one that is on equal footing with global powers. However, with the comings and goings of the international sporting caravans, each requiring billions in public financing, the question remains: where is the benefit for the ordinary Brazilian that stays behind after the parade has moved on?’

For nearly a decade, major international sporting and cultural events have descended upon Rio de Janeiro. Starting with the 2007 Pan American Games, followed by the World Military Games, Rio+20, the Confederation’s Cup and World Youth Day in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively, this year’s FIFA World Cup and, to conclude a decade of mega events, the 2016 Olympic Games will be held in Rio too. To this list we can add Revellion (New Year’s) and Carnaval, both happenings drawing many hundreds of thousands of people.

Each one of these events is financed in full or in part with public money. Some of them leave behind infrastructure that is specific to the event and each comes with its particular demands and challenges. The events that have the most impact upon the city are undoubtedly this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

With a combined budget of an estimated US$40 billion, both events have been met with strong resistance as well as loud boosterism. Rather than having a clear, drawn-out plan as to how the hosting of these international sporting events would benefit Brazilians in the future, this question has been met with a careless “let’s wait and see” response. However, based upon experiences in the recent past, one prediction has proven true every single time: it will be the rich who benefit most, and the poor who will pay the highest price.

Human Rights for Sale

The legacy of the World Cup will vary depending on one’s position within Brazil’s socio-economic hierarchy. Wealthy Brazilians will look back on this decade of mega-events in an entirely different way than the average citizen, and thus the “legacy”, whether positive or negative, can only be framed in a wide array of class-specific analyses.

One of the defining elements of class distinction in Brazil is dependence on the state. The choice of the rich will always be for private health care, education, security and transportation. In neoliberal governance frameworks around the globe, the state is considered the provider of last resort. As education, transportation, environmental remediation and health care budgets are slashed and the private sector is favored, citizens are forced to look to the market for the provision of basic human rights.

One is entitled to clean water, good education, health care, mobility, leisure, and security to the degree to which one can purchase those “rights”. The World Cup has consolidated this tendency in Brazil and some of the most globally visible elements of this trajectory were the FIFA-standard stadiums, most of which have passed into private hands.

For wealthy Brazilians, the tournament will have very much been “worth it” (an economic calculus which we should also try to avoid) as they were able to see World Cup games in brand new stadiums that were constructed explicitly for their benefit. The upper classes in Brazil typically see the privatization of state-owned infrastructure as a step towards more efficiency and better service. These are, of course, the very same people who do not depend on the state for the provision of basic services. In post-World Cup Brazil, the Brazilian upper-middle and upper class will revel in their transfiguration from fans into clients.

The middle and lower-middle classes will likely feel that the World Cup was a wasted opportunity to materially improve their lives. Brazilian transportation, education, sewage, health and security infrastructure is notoriously poor and the World Cup has not been used as an opportunity to restructure cities in progressive and forward-thinking ways.

The vast majority of infrastructure projects associated with the World Cup did not pass through any kind of public contracting or permitting processes but were pulled out of the drawers of the civil construction firms that dictate public policy. Thus, the hasty insertion of major infrastructure into cities to attend to the short-term demands of the event and the medium-term interests of real estate speculators has wasted a golden opportunity to make use of unique political alliances and easy credit. As a result, billions of reais have flowed into the coffers of civil construction firms and bus companies under the guise of legacy projects.

The privatization of public transportation eliminates the public sector from taking responsibility for the expansion of mobility networks or the quality of service. On the contrary, the only guarantees in the contracts are for the profits of the private companies that run the transportation system. Many of the protests of 2013 and 2014 were focused around the disastrous state of mobility in Brazilian cities. The World Cup will have done very little to improve this situation.

In Brazil, the notoriously poor conditions of state-run infrastructure have facilitated the association of the word “public” with “belonging to nobody.” This is one of the reasons why Brazilians who can afford to escape public services do so at the first opportunity, and it is but one of the ways that middle class Brazilians can distinguished from the lower classes. More evidence that World Cup spending was targeted towards the elite were the contrasting investments in airports versus passenger rail service. The former received more than R$5.6 billion, while there was not a single real invested in intercity rail transportation.

Sacrificed for the Greater Good

The lower classes have been left both better and worse off with the World Cup. As within all levels of Brazil’s socio-economic scale, the diversity of social positions within favela communities and in lower-class, formalized neighborhoods makes it very difficult to generalize winners and losers.

However, in the realm of sports, one thing is certain: there will be a generation of poor children in Brazil that will never get to see a professional football match in any of the iconic Maracanã, Minerão, Castelão stadiums, or on any of the traditional football grounds of Brazil that have been reconstructed for the World Cup. Ticket prices for Brazilian football matches have increased 300% in ten years and are the most expensive in the world relative to minimum wage. The people’s game has been taken from them.

In the favelas themselves, and in particular in Rio de Janeiro, the arrival of the mega-events and the pacification process has radically altered political, social and economic dynamics. Most Brazilian cities have seen a sharp rise in real-estate values since 2009, when FIFA announced Brazil as World Cup host. This rise has been particularly acute in the “pacified” favelas of Rio de Janeiro: rents have increased by as much as 400% in some places.

While the majority of favela residents own their properties — even if they do not have legal title — they will not have benefited from a rise in rents. The only way they can benefit from the urban transformation projects is through increased access to manual labor in the civil construction sector. This extra money has generated a construction boom of sorts in the favelas as families are able to build extra square footage, which in turn increases the value of their property.

In the larger economy of a given favela, this additional constructed value benefits landlords and hurts small residential and commercial renters. That is, those who were in a position to benefit from price increases and entrepreneurial activity before the World Cup (and Olympics) will be those who benefit during and after.

The tens of thousands of families that were removed from their homes for World Cup-related infrastructure projects are the biggest losers of the month-long tournament. Hastily conceived and executed road building projects are to blame for the majority of these removals. In a country in which the poor have limited access to institutional democracy, those in the way of “order and progress” are simply considered collateral damage, sacrificed for the greater good.

Every World Cup host city, except Brasília and Manaus, expelled residents from their homes to execute publicly financed road projects that were managed by extra-legal authorities whose projects were largely exempt from environmental impact studies and due diligence in contracting. The state of exception that dominated the preparation for and realization of the World Cup radically impinged upon the constitutionally guaranteed right to housing. The stories are as innumerable and tragic as the human rights violations are grotesque.

Securitization, Evacuation and Fetishization

The differences in urban legacy predicated on class position also apply to the realm of public security and human rights. Brazil mobilized more than 150,000 armed police and army personnel and more than 50,000 private security guards for the World Cup. This means more jackboots and guns on the streets, in stores, around stadiums and in public spaces. It also means more data collection, less transparency and more aggression.

Before the World Cup final, dozens of activists were arrested as a preventative measure, and more than 25,000 armed security personnel were on high alert in Rio de Janeiro. Throughout the tournament, the police were under clear instructions to use maximum force against protesters. This security apparatus is intended to be part of the spectacle itself, but it acts very differently upon different populations. As ever, the presence of the state in the form of armed military police has its most devastating effects on young, black men.

The governor of Rio de Janeiro state called in the Brazilian army to “pacify” the Maré favela complex on the eve of the World Cup. The expanding pacification program in Rio de Janeiro is a hugely controversial and woefully partial measure to secure the city, its infrastructure, and its image for mega-events. The rapid up-scaling of military force in Brazilian cities brings to mind the military dictatorship. Journalists are beaten while covering protests; civil rights are suspended for the extraordinary conditions of the event.

The problem is compounded by the fact that cities are being managed so as to have an extraordinary event every year, every month, every week. The preparatory period for these events is filled with a sense of urgency, and the events themselves carried of within political regimes of exception. The positive results are always in the future, a “legacy” that will be forthcoming if we are only patient and gullible enough to wait for the delivery of a more just city, a better society.

The security apparatus is designed to protect the event, its infrastructure, its sponsors, dignitaries and the fans and tourists who are able to afford the party. When we see the white elites of Brazil posing in front of tanks and robocops on their way into the shopping mall-esque stadiums, we witness the fetishization of weapons of mass destruction. The right to consume is guaranteed by the state. Human rights are guaranteed by your ability to consume. The exercise of democratic rights, to protest, to freely circulate, to assemble — the right to the city — are curtailed by those same forces. The two-kilometer “zone of exclusion” that radiates out from FIFA stadiums is not offset by a “zone of inclusion” anywhere else.

Physical, Economic and Political Restructuring

In Rio de Janeiro, the epicenter of Brazil’s global mega-event production, the alignment of city, state and federal political forces stimulated investment and created a hegemonic discourse of legacy, urban development and valorization. As we approach an election cycle, this alignment is fraying somewhat, but the funding for the projects has been guaranteed so power and wealth can accumulate.

The extraordinary situation of preparing the city for a decade of mega-events has ushered in a state of exception that suspends ordinary paradigms of urban planning, security, construction and circulation. The privatization and militarization of public space, rampant real-estate speculation, exemptions to environmental regulations and zoning laws, illegal land grabs and rule by mayoral decree have defined the trajectory of the city since construction for the 2007 Pan American Games began in 2005. The 2016 Olympics will be the apogee of exceptional urban governance that will define the shape and texture of the city for the next generations.

Each of these events has brought increasing stakes for civil society. Having used each one of the previous events as a testing ground, the 2016 Olympics are being used as an excuse for the physical, economic and political restructuring of the city. Physically, major transportation lines are being directed to the residential suburb of Barra da Tijuca. Barra is the main site of the Olympics and is a closed-condominium, car-dependent landscape where the upper-middle classes have taken “refuge” from the expense and chaos of the traditional residential redoubts of Rio’s Zona Sul. The city government has called the Barra da Tijuca region a “natural zone of expansion”, but by design it is one of spatial fragmentation and social exclusion.

Economically, the Olympics are continuing with long-established traditions of public subsidy for private profit. The best example of this is the Olympic Village. Two of Brazil’s biggest civil construction firms, Andrade Gutierrez and OAS, formed a consortium to build closed-condominium residences for the 15,000 athletes who will compete in 2016. To do so they took a R$2.33 billion loan from Brazil’s Caixa Economica, a state bank.

After the Olympics, the consortium will be able to sell the apartments on the open market and use the profits to repay the loan. They will have risked no money of their own to build the Olympic Village yet will profit immensely from the real-estate deal. This scenario repeats itself endlessly across the Olympic landscape of Rio de Janeiro.

Politically, all of this makes very good sense for Rio’s elites. The current mayor comes from Barra da Tijuca and has civil construction and real-estate firms as his biggest campaign financiers. The tight and opaque relationships between big business and big government turn the Olympics into an excellent opportunity to make money and to consolidate political alliances. The lack of transparency in planning, bidding, financing and accounting for the Olympic projects makes it difficult to follow the money, but the general trend in all mega-event hosts is a consolidation of power and wealth at the top. In a city as unjust and unequal as Rio de Janeiro this is especially troubling.

The post-event utility of the mega-event projects is obviously questionable and may serve to distract from bigger debates of urban restructuring. The privatization of the Maracanã stadium is a tragedy for public life and culture and is indicative of the larger tendencies in the city.

The nearly complete absence of benefit from the 2007 Pan American Games appears to have been entirely forgotten. There is no facility remaining from that event that can be used without major upgrades. The Olympic Stadium was closed in 2013 for fear of a roof collapse; the velodrome was destroyed and a new facility must be built; and the swimming facility does not meet IOC requirements. The Maracanã underwent a R$330 million reform between 2005-’07, yet suffered a R$1.2 billion renovation for the World Cup and will likely need more public money for the Olympics.

Worryingly, the same people in charge of the Pan-American Games are heading up Rio 2016 — but now they are dealing with bigger projects, working under more pressure and with less time. How, then, can the result be any different?

Christopher Gaffney is an academic geographer who has lived in Rio de Janeiro since 2009. His research explores the wide-ranging impacts of sporting mega-events on cities. He is editor of the Journal of Latin American Geography and will be joining the Geography Department at the University of Zurich as a Senior Research associate in January 2015.

http://roarmag.org/2014/08/brazil-world-cup-olympics/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy

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AP Photo / Patrick Semansky

Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

TPM Interview: Scholar Behind Viral ‘Oligarchy’ Study Tells You What It Means

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.

The researches note that this is not a new development caused by, say, recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more money in politics, such as Citizens United or this month’s ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC. As the data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse.

“Ordinary citizens,” they write, “might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/princeton-experts-say-us-no-longer-democracy

Why moral perversity of U.S. position in Gaza is stunning

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters:

I think it’s safe to say that if U.S. neighborhoods were living under siege, folks like Rand Paul wouldn’t take it

Pink Floyd's Roger Waters: Why moral perversity of U.S. position in Gaza is stunning

Roger Waters (Credit: Reuters/Chip East)

The carnage in Gaza continues after the latest collapse of cease-fire talks and over four weeks of asymmetrical bombardment by Israel. With the death of more than 2,000 Palestinians, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more, the complicity of the American government has been exposed to the world as never before. Yet the mantra repeated ad nauseam by the U.S. government and media alike remains the same: Israel has a right to defend itself.

The moral perversity of the U.S. position is stunning. How can the U.S. government ask Israel to be more careful about civilian lives while simultaneously arming and then rearming the IDF so it can more effectively inflict such devastation on an imprisoned and occupied people?

The U.S. could act to stop the senseless slaughter but it won’t. Instead, it’s cheerleading.  Members of Congress are mindlessly parroting Israeli talking points without a thought given to the Palestinian perspective or to preserving human life. Brimming with righteousness, they argue for turning Israel loose – Sen. Rand Paul in particular – and invoke Israel’s right to self-defense, despite the fact that, as the occupying power, Israel has an obligation to protect the Palestinians it rules, not massacre them.

Do congressional leaders ever stop to wonder what they would do if they were born Palestinian, had their homes and private property stolen from them, and were forced to live without freedom under an illegal Israeli occupation for 47 years? Do they know what it means to be on the receiving end of Israel’s barbaric “mow the lawn” euphemism?  Scarcely a word is said about the rights of Palestinians who are being pummeled from the sky and shot dead in their neighborhoods by the region’s most powerful military.  What, I wonder, would Americans do if it were their neighborhoods being invaded and if they were the ones living under siege? I think it’s safe to say Americans wouldn’t stand for it.

Despite these realities, it’s far more advantageous in Washington to come down like a ton of bricks on the Palestinians and maintain that they are the cause of their own suffering. No politician’s career has ever been hurt by blaming Palestinians or by applauding Israel’s illegal occupation, colonization and war crimes.



Pressure on American politicians to conform to the party line is abetted by skewed media coverage.  For instance, CNN, while purporting to be a news channel, relentlessly churns out Israeli propaganda.

It is easy for those of us who do not live under the tyranny of the occupation to condemn the military wing of Hamas for using randomly fired rockets that might cause civilian casualties in neighboring Israel, and I do unreservedly condemn it. Having said that, an occupied population has the legal right to resist the military of the occupier. The occupier has a legal obligation to protect the occupied. Under these circumstances the reporting on CNN is biased beyond all belief.

Numerically, one can readily see the bias. Far more pro-Israel guests than pro-Palestinian experts are invited on air to make their case.

An exception to that general rule, and obviously not on CNN, is Henry Siegman, a prominent Jewish voice and a former national director of the American Jewish Congress, who recently got the opportunity to expose the shortcomings of Israeli talking points. Siegman was interviewed fairly and in depth by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!  Sadly Democracy Now! is not mainstream media. If only it were!

Contrast that appearance with the reception Yousef Munayyer received during an extraordinarily “unfair” Fox News interview by the execrable Sean Hannity. Actually, to dignify Hannity’s rude and infantile shouting and finger pointing as an “interview” would be wrong.

If only CNN – or Fox, for that matter – would sometimes rely for their analyses on someone as intelligent and humane as Siegman.  Unfortunately, however, CNN persisted for weeks with the extremely biased analysis of Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren. Even CNN appears to have recognized how biased a contributor Oren was as it recently changed his title from CNN analyst to former ambassador.

Staunchly pro-Israel voices like Oren’s have resoundingly proclaimed: Any resistance, violent or nonviolent, in fact any criticism of Israeli colonization and denial of Palestinian rights, is off limits. What they are advocating, in essence, is perpetual armed conflict until greater Israel is a fait accompli, and complete Israeli domination over any surviving Palestinians is accepted as a reasonable status quo. Commentators such as Oren feign interest in a two-state peaceful solution but they and the state they represent resist all attempts to implement such a plan.

On a positive note, I take heart from the fact that support for Jewish Voice for Peace has skyrocketed over the last month as members of the American Jewish community, appalled at Israel’s actions, have looked for a place to register their concern. JVP advocates for an end to occupation and the siege on Gaza, for Palestinian rights – as dictated by international law – and peace with justice for Palestinians and Israelis alike. It primarily does so by educating people with basic facts and by using the tools of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions to apply pressure on Israel to cease its human rights abuses.

Additionally, we welcome Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz to the swelling ranks of celebrity dissenters.  Their courageous stand is a beacon to us all. We need many more like them if we are to shift the discourse and persuade the American and Israeli governments to adopt more realistic, humane and hopefully fruitful policies. To paraphrase Siegman, “If you want to stop the rockets, end the siege of Gaza and the occupation of both Gaza and the West Bank.”  He sounds like a sage but this is just common sense. If I might stick in my two pennies’ worth, why not then engage in serious conversations with the Unity Palestinian Government, which up to now Israel has seemed determined to destroy.

The U.S. Congress, far too beholden to the right-wing Israel lobby, will be the last to figure out this tragic jigsaw puzzle and human catastrophe and grasp the critical need for a political solution.  And mainstream media, if unchallenged, will continue to distort reality and embolden the counterproductive, AIPAC-driven unrealistic position that it portrays as fact.

On a personal note, I am pro-human rights for all peoples all over the world.  I am pro-peace for all Israelis and Palestinians.  I am not singling out Israel.  I deplore all abuses and violence, whether in Syria, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, England, the USA, Egypt, Libya, wherever.  That said, international law was designed to protect against such human rights violations and should be applied fairly to all.

In the case of Israel/Palestine, legal channels have yet to be seriously pursued. Consequently, change will continue to be led by popular efforts.  Specifically, the growing nonviolent BDS campaign offers the best chance of successfully pressuring Israel to alter its ways and allow for Palestinian freedom and rights. Despite major efforts to destroy it, more and more people are joining the BDS movement. It is this growing momentum that gives me hope that, together, the people of the world will eventually help deliver what governments have been unwilling to secure: justice and a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

I wrote a short poem a few days ago that I have been encouraged to append here.

It is called “Crystal Clear Brooks.”  Although it expresses my feelings, I cannot but think that the children in Gaza would give anything but their birthright and their pride and their basic human rights for a glass of crystal clear water. And, I think too, of the Bakr children, the sons of fishermen, who were slain while playing on a Gaza beach.

 

Crystal clear brooks

When the time comes

And the last day dawns

And the air of the piper warms

The high crags of the old country

When the holy writ blows

Like burned paper away

And wise men concede

That there’s more than one way

More than one path

More than one book

 More than one fisherman

More than one hook

When the cats have been skinned

And the fish have been hooked

When the masters of war

Are our masters no more

When old friends take their whiskey

Outside on the porch

We will have done well

If we’re able to say

As the sun settles down

On that final day

That we never gave in

That we did all we could

So the kids could go fishing

In crystal clear brooks.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/25/pink_floyds_roger_waters_why_moral_perversity_of_u_s_position_in_gaza_is_stunning/?source=newsletter

Obama administration “review” aimed at systematizing transfer of military arms to police

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By Andre Damon
25 August 2014

Under the pretense of reining in police militarization in the aftermath of the crackdown on protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the Obama administration has called for a review of the federal government’s programs to transfer military weapons to local police departments. In reality, such a review is intended to regularize and professionalize the militarization of domestic police forces, which has been spearheaded by the federal government.

One senior White House official told the Washington Post that the administration’s review, which will take place together with a series of congressional hearings, will assess “whether state and local law enforcement are provided with the necessary training and guidance; and whether the federal government is sufficiently auditing the use of equipment obtained through federal programs and funding.”

Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a statement provided to the New York Times, “It makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it.”

The premise of Holder’s remark is that there is a “right” purpose for the police to be militarized, and thus that the program is entirely legitimate. The concern is that local police departments may be insufficiently trained as to “when and how” to deploy the billions of dollars in military assets that they have been given.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, the police forces involved were publicly criticized by military veterans and even Pentagon officials for what they called unprofessional conduct from a military standpoint. “These guys are idiots—riding around on the top of armored trucks looking like rednecks on a country drive, pointing their weapons at unarmed Americans,” one Pentagon official anonymously told the Christian Science Monitor. “Our troops would never do that stuff, even in a war zone,” he said. Notably, one St. Louis police officer was disciplined after he was caught on video pointing an assault rifle at journalists, proclaiming, “I will f*****g kill you.”

The aim of the Obama administration’s review—beyond being a public relations exercise—will be to cut down on such unprofessional displays and make the use of domestic military police more systematic, widespread and regular. In this it will be similar to the administration’s reviews of its domestic spying programs, each of which has only resulted in the extension of illegal spying by the US intelligence agencies.

Far from acting as a restraining influence on local police departments, the federal government has been the most active facilitator of police militarization. In June, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report entitled “War comes home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” which concluded that “the federal government has justified and encouraged the militarization of local law enforcement.”

The ACLU’s report documents the way in which the federal government has actively facilitated the militarization of local police forces, “in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is the largest such scheme, operating under the motto, “from warfighter to crimefighter.” This program has transferred more than $4.3 billion in property from the military to local police departments, including nearly half a billion last year. Local police have been provided with combat uniforms, night-vision goggles, belt-fed machine guns, military helicopters, armored vehicles and assault rifles, some of which were on display in the streets of Ferguson this month.

The military program provided law enforcement with $1 million of military hardware in 1990, $324 million in 1995, and nearly $450 million in 2013. The ACLU report notes that the federal government “requires agencies that receive 1033 equipment to use it within one year of receipt, so there can be no doubt that participation in this program creates an incentive for law enforcement agencies to use military equipment.”

Earlier this year, the Pentagon provided the New York Times with a database of military assets transferred to local police departments since 2006, which the Times published online last week. The statistics are staggering. Police in the Detroit Metropolitan Area, for example, have been given enough assault rifles by the Defense Department to arm a midsize battalion. This does not include rifles purchased by local police departments.

Los Angeles County has been given enough rifles for three battalions. The county has received 3,408 assault rifles, 1,696 pieces of body armor, 15 helicopters and seven armored vehicles. Meanwhile, every county in Connecticut except one, which has the highest per capita income in the country, got an armored vehicle from the Defense Department. More than six hundred such vehicles have been dispensed to local police departments.

Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight, will lead one of the congressional inquiries into the programs. McCaskill, according to the Times, “agreed that the military equipment had proved valuable,” but that the “government should be able to find a way to ensure officer safety and keep streets safe more strategically.”

Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, told the Times that he would support requiring police to certify that they were trained to use the military hardware they were provided

 

 

What happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson

by Jerome Roos on August 24, 2014

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For African Americans, the state of emergency has long been a permanent one. Now, under neoliberalism, it is fast becoming generalized across the globe.

Last week, the Governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard to the St Louis suburb of Ferguson to quell a fortnight of civil unrest following the police murder of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. It was the first time since the Los Angeles riots of 1992, after the severe police beating of another black man, Rodney King, and the Battle of Seattle during the WTO trade negotiations seven years later, that the army had been called in to restore public order within US borders.

But while images of phalanxes of militarized riot police firing teargas and rubber bullets at mostly peaceful protesters have captured the attention of the world, the media circus surrounding the “riot” actually risks obscuring a largely unseen everyday reality that simmers just beneath the surface. For African Americans, the real racist violence resides not in the spectacle but in the mundane; not in the headlines but in between. As Walter Benjamin so pointedly observed at the height of the persecution in Nazi Germany, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”

It should be clear by now that the Ferguson riots do not appear in a political vacuum. The militarization of police, the institutionalization of racism, the criminalization of the poor, the systematic marginalization of African Americans and other minorities, the rampant intensification of historical patterns of inequality, the spatial segregation along the lines of class and color, the impunity with which the forces of the law kill, maim and humiliate the dispossessed — these are all symptoms of a series of political and economic trends, some long-term and historical, others more recent.

Clearly, then, what happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson — and the state of emergency declared by Governor Nixon merely serves to highlight a social emergency that has been quietly brewing for decades. Faced with a long, grinding history of racist oppression on the one hand, going back to the days of slavery and segregation, and a more recent pattern in police militarization and economic marginalization on the other, Ferguson has as much to do with long-established patterns of white supremacism and racist policing as it has with the consequences of state power and the neoliberal imaginary run amok.

A Global and Permanent State of Exception

It is precisely in this confluence of temporalities that the state of emergency reveals its true colors. Walter Benjamin, before meeting his tragic end as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, insisted repeatedly upon the centrality of the Ausnahmezustand, or ‘state of exception’, to sovereign power. Today, the most influential theorist of the concept is the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who — building on the adage by the Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt: “sovereign is he who decides upon the state of exception” — has crafted a refined analysis and a dystopian vision of the myriad ways in which the state of exception has become not just a technique of government, but its very logic.

“Faced with the unstoppable progression of what has been called a ‘global civil war’,” Agamben writes, “the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics [and] has today reached its maximum worldwide deployment.” From Fallujah to Ferguson, the similarities run deeper than the military attire or the heavy weaponry of the troops on the ground. Both places appear at a threshold of indistinction between law and lawlessness, order and disorder — a space of anomie in which human life exists largely at the mercy of the soldiers and policemen who effectively act as a sovereign power upon it.

Here, in this permanent and globalized state of exception, the classical division between public and private increasingly begins to blur. In Fallujah, private contractors were brought in to keep public order, while the US military — at the expense of the public debt — made sure to protect private interests around the clock. In Ferguson, private property is protected from looting while the public is shot at even while standing on their private porches. America wastes public money waging foreign wars for private gain, while at the same time allowing private interests to directly fund local police departments — now armed with the surplus weaponry of these same wars — to maintain public order at home. Security becomes the overarching concern of government, even as government almost always defers to private interests in slashing security when it is social.

Between Democracy and Absolutism

One of the key features of neoliberal governmentality, then, is that it insists on combining a politics of absolute liberalism in world markets with an increasingly authoritarian paradigm in national government. Even as capital flows freely across borders, rivers of migrants and refugees are either blocked and diverted or dammed and detained. Even as the barriers to global commerce are smashed with a religious zealotry reminiscent of the early crusaders, new walls are erected everywhere to keep out the dark-skinned and the poor. Even as liberal “visionaries” press for universal integration, the global reality remains one of systematic exclusion. Where wealth concentrates in ever fewer hands, where gated communities mushroom amidst the squalor of a planet of slums, the vaunted “democracy” of the global marketplace finally meets the totalitarian ambitions of the nation state. “The state of exception,” Agamben writes, “appears as the threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism.”

Given this growing indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism, war and peace, order and disorder, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the events in Ferguson have resonated so strongly in a faraway occupied warzone like Gaza, where the absolutism of Israeli sovereignty is brutally brought down on life — to the point where Israel has even determined the exact allowed calorie intake for the strip’s 1.6 million inhabitants: 2.279 per day, to be precise. Of course, Ferguson is not Gaza (at least not yet), but there is an undeniable resonance between the two struggles, and it is not limited to Palestinian solidarity tweets for Ferguson protesters or practical advise on how to deal with tear gas and advancing police lines.

Much more than this, Palestinian/African American solidarity is the explicit subaltern expression of a recognition that not only the struggle but also the enemy is common. From the brand of tear gas to the assault tactics of the riot squads, Gaza and Ferguson are closer than many would feel comfortable to admit. Investigations have revealed that US law enforcement maintains close ties with its Israeli counterparts, and two of the four police forces deployed to Ferguson received their training in crowd control in Israel. Running an occupation is serious business, and US police departments have much to learn from their Israeli counterparts if they are to maintain America’s internal spaces of segregation in an era of deepening inequalities and growing racial tensions.

The Ghetto as an Open-Air Prison Camp

For Agamben, the state of exception finds its topological expression in the camp, which “delimits a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign.” For those on the wrong side of the war on terror, the camps are called Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. For African Americans, the camp is prison — or, increasingly often, the labor camp. If current incarceration trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend at least part of their lives behind bars. While only 12 percent of the US population is black, African American males make up 40 percent of the total 2.1 million prison population. More black men are in prison today than were enslaved before the Civil War in 1850.

As the state of exception becomes generalized, however, the boundaries between inside and outside begin to blur and the two gradually blend into one another. Bit by bit, the logic of the camp spills over into society at large. Gaza, which has been described even by UK Prime Minister David Cameron as an open-air prison camp, is perhaps the clearest contemporary expression of this phenomenon. But similar (though much less extreme) processes are afoot in the US and elsewhere, as spatial segregation becomes the hallmark of the neoliberal urban geography. Today, the ghettos of Detroit and the outer neighborhoods of St Louis, like the townships of Johannesburg and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, increasingly take on the form of open-air prison camps, in which the police permanently act as temporary sovereign, and in which poor blacks — and male youths in particular — are simply considered free game for the racist fantasies of white officers.

Patterns of Neoliberal Segregation

The contemporary nature of the ghetto and the slum as open-air prison camps is closely connected to deepening patterns of racial inequality and spatial segregation. Far from abolished, in many respects segregation — cultural and material alike — has only deepened as a result of the neoliberal restructuring of the economy. Not coincidentally, the state of Missouri, the city of St Louis and especially its restive suburb of Ferguson are among the clearest examples of these patterns of neoliberal apartheid in the US today. In 1970, only 1 percent of Ferguson’s inhabitants was black. By 2010, that share had risen to nearly 70 percent. The transformation of the town’s racial composition can be ascribed to a white exodus — partly the result of a collapse of the working class as a result of de-industrialization, with white workers moving away from the Midwest “Rustbelt”; and partly the result of an influx of cheap credit drawing a seemingly upwardly mobile white middle class out towards the suburbs.

As housing prices fell, black residents moved into the neighborhood, and pre-established local inequalities (between rental homes and self-owned properties, for instance) were only further accentuated. Meanwhile, the taxable base of local government eroded, leading to reduced budgets for public services and law enforcement. The Ferguson police department, of course, remained almost exclusively white, with obvious consequences for the black newcomers in the neighborhood: according to FBI data, 92 percent of people arrested in Ferguson on charges of “disorderly conduct” are black, while African Americans account for 86 percent of all vehicle stops. Far from protecting the peace, undertrained and overarmed police officers now consider it their job to keep a marginalized population in check through continuous harassment and accusations of petty crime. These are all mechanisms of social control.

In neoliberal America, questions of race and class have thus become nearly impossible to disentangle, and it is precisely at the intersection of the two that the neoliberal counterrevolution has struck African American families extra hard. Economic data shows that the gap in household income between blacks and whites has not been reduced since the end of de jure segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, while wealth disparities have only been deepened by the housing crisis of 2007-’08 and the subsequent recession, which affected African American households particularly badly (not least as a result of the racial profiling in Wall Street’s predatory lending practices). Today, 45 percent of black children grow up in areas of concentrated poverty, and the schools they attend are more segregated than they were in 1980. As class disparities are accentuated, so are the deeply intermeshed racial inequalities.

The Destituent Power of a Political Riot

For African Americans, therefore, the state of emergency has always been a permanent one — it did not start with the shooting of Michael Brown and it certainly will not end with Governor Nixon withdrawing the National Guard from Ferguson. What is different this time around is that the people rose up in defiance of the police murder of yet another young black man, and chose to answer the legal violence of the subsequent police crackdown with an extra-legal violence of their own. Suddenly, their mundane acts of everyday resistance coalesced into a collective act of refusal, giving rise to a political riot. And it is precisely this combination of broad-based peaceful protest with a refusal to respect the violence of the law that has instilled such fear in the halls of power.

The reason the authorities fear Ferguson is, first and foremost, the risk of “contamination” (or what we would call resonance). As the Rodney King riots of 1992 showed, a single spark can quickly set ablaze the dessicated prairies of America’s supposedly post-racial urban constellation. But there is a deeper reason why the authorities fear Ferguson, which is that sovereign power — which stands at once within and without the legal framework, capable of both enforcing and suspending the rule of law — cannot tolerate the existence of a pure form of violence outside the law. As Walter Benjamin noted in his Critique of Violence, “the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, furnishes proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible.” The fear, then, is that this local uprising could reveal a latent revolutionary potential in the very belly of the beast.

But even if this revolutionary potential is never fully realized, the movement towards it does appear to embody what Agamben would call a form of destituent power — a power that stands completely outside the law and that, by acting to dismantle sovereign power rather than to reform it, has the capacity to diminish the ability of the state to resort to violence and, in the final analysis, to abolish the cycle of law-making and law-preserving violence altogether. “On the breaking of this cycle maintained by mythical forms of law,” Water Benjamin once wrote, still full of hope, “on the suspension of law with all the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore in the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded.”

If we are to follow this line of analysis, the supposed “violence” of the Ferguson protests — which absolutely pales in comparison to the violence of finance capital and the state — may yet prove to be highly productive. And while the idea of a “pure” violence outside the law may sound ominous to some, we should remember that the urban riot, for all its seemingly irrational destruction and spectacular evanescence, has historically been a great force for progress. What we now call democracy would not have been possible without it. Indeed, in times of great injustice and institutional deadlock, when the violence of the law drowns out the voice of the oppressed, few things could be more welcome than the destituent power of a political riot to help recalibrate the scales of justice. This, at least, is how it starts. What happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. This article was written as part of his weekly column for TeleSUR English.

 

http://roarmag.org/2014/08/ferguson-state-of-exception/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29