Saturday, December 20, 2014

You'd Better Not Pout, You'd Better Not Cry

You'd better not run and you'd better not hide. Because Stasi Claus has a new helper, and his name is Little Big Brother.

 To get American children (whom the Obama administration has creepily designated the "Homeland Generation") ready for a whole lifetime of surveillance, there's a grotesquely cute little plastic dude called Elf on the Shelf that parents are being urged to buy in order to get their kids used to a total lack of privacy.

It's up to Mom or Dad to place the Elf in a new spot every night after the children go to sleep. The little ones will never know when or where they'll be assaulted by his insipid little face as they go about their morning business. Some particularly abusive parents have even been known to perch the little gizmo on the toilet tank, setting the stage for a whole new generation of perverts and exhibitionists, not to mention kitschy bathroom artistes.



I wrote about this fascistic phenomenon last year. And despite the Ed Snowden revelations, the tradition remains as popular as ever, with the doll now esconced in an estimated six million American homes. Parents anxious to score a $50 gift certificate from Amazon are still sending in their photos (Shelfie Elfie Selfies are always welcome) and providing reams of free publicity to the toy manufacturer. Do I even need to mention that these overpriced toys are made in China for pennies, and that the infomercial of a cartoon about them was outsourced to animators in India?

This got me wondering: are the parents/guardians who buy into this sick game the same people who think torturing other human beings is O.K.? It wouldn't surprise me.

But anyway -- Here's the one that should get the grand prize, but probably won't:




It's good to read that some psychologists, besides condemning the torturer-shrinks in their professional midst, are also now coming forth and warning of the long-term deleterious mental health affects of creepy surveillance fetishes dressed in cheery Christmas red. Selina Nemorin and Laura Pinto of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives have written about Elf on the Shelf mission-creep, noting that the toy is now even included in Common Core curricula in many corporatized American classrooms. I guess it's one way to force bored kids to sit still and take those soul-crushing standardized tests.

It's also a way to register children for a master corporate data base. When families and schools sign up for the fun, they agree that all rights to privacy will be gladly relinquished. The corporation has the right to use your name and your likeness for sale and profit as well as for virtual mind control.

"Elf on the Shelf presents a unique and prescriptive form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life," the authors write. Children have to endure and contend with the rules of the game at all times. They may not touch or play with the all-powerful doll, because if they do, the consequences will be dire. The elf will disappear and report back to Santa. (who is called "The Boss" in the game... like a Tony Soprano kind of boss) It's designed to transform the average home into a virtual Panopticon, the model prison envisioned by Jeremy Bentham, where inmates are always docile because they never know when they're being watched.

What should be a toy has been subverted into The All Powerful Other. No cuddling and back-talk allowed. Or else.


Christmas All Year Round: The NSA Elf


Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.
The gaze of the elf on the child’s real world (as opposed to play world) resonates with the purpose of the panopticon, based on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century design for a model prison (a central tower in a circular structure, surrounded by cells). Backlighting in the central tower made it impossible for prisoners to discern whether or not they were being watched. Michel Foucault (1979) saw the panopticon as a perfect symbol of modern surveillance societies: a metaphor for discipline operating through a variety of social and institutional apparatuses that leave the individual on guard, never certain if she is actually being watched, but knowing structures are in place to monitor her movements at all times.
- See more at: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/whos-boss#sthash.ZQHNe4Oh.dpuf


First, an elf cannot be touched; Christmas magic is very fragile and if an elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole. Second, an elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! An elf's job is to watch and listen.
Elf on the Shelf teacher resources are designed with American curriculum standards in mind. The website encourages teachers to register for The Elf on the Shelf® “Teacher Resource Center” for free kindergarten to grade 5 lesson plans and classroom resources that support the Common Core State Standards which teachers in most of the 50 states are required to follow.
- See more at: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/whos-boss#sthash.ZQHNe4Oh.dpuf
he illustrated book enclosed with each Elf on the Shelf doll explains that elves are assigned to homes (or sometimes classrooms) with the explicit charge of observing children's actions all day on behalf of Santa Claus, who is referred to as “the boss”. These industrious elves perched high on shelves are managers of Santa’s “naughty” and “nice” lists with a central aim of ensuring that the children who have adopted them remain on the “nice” list. As the story goes, at night the elves step away from their shelves to return to the North Pole so they can report their observations to Santa Claus. According to The Elf on the Shelf website, there are two basic rules that children must know about having an elf:
First, an elf cannot be touched; Christmas magic is very fragile and if an elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole. Second, an elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! An elf's job is to watch and listen.
Elf on the Shelf teacher resources are designed with American curriculum standards in mind. The website encourages teachers to register for The Elf on the Shelf® “Teacher Resource Center” for free kindergarten to grade 5 lesson plans and classroom resources that support the Common Core State Standards which teachers in most of the 50 states are required to follow.
- See more at: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/whos-boss#sthash.ZQHNe4Oh.dpuf
The illustrated book enclosed with each Elf on the Shelf doll explains that elves are assigned to homes (or sometimes classrooms) with the explicit charge of observing children's actions all day on behalf of Santa Claus, who is referred to as “the boss”. These industrious elves perched high on shelves are managers of Santa’s “naughty” and “nice” lists with a central aim of ensuring that the children who have adopted them remain on the “nice” list. As the story goes, at night the elves step away from their shelves to return to the North Pole so they can report their observations to Santa Claus. According to The Elf on the Shelf website, there are two basic rules that children must know about having an elf:
First, an elf cannot be touched; Christmas magic is very fragile and if an elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole. Second, an elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! An elf's job is to watch and listen.
Elf on the Shelf teacher resources are designed with American curriculum standards in mind. The website encourages teachers to register for The Elf on the Shelf® “Teacher Resource Center” for free kindergarten to grade 5 lesson plans and classroom resources that support the Common Core State Standards which teachers in most of the 50 states are required to follow.
- See more at: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/whos-boss#sthash.ZQHNe4Oh.dpuf
The illustrated book enclosed with each Elf on the Shelf doll explains that elves are assigned to homes (or sometimes classrooms) with the explicit charge of observing children's actions all day on behalf of Santa Claus, who is referred to as “the boss”. These industrious elves perched high on shelves are managers of Santa’s “naughty” and “nice” lists with a central aim of ensuring that the children who have adopted them remain on the “nice” list. As the story goes, at night the elves step away from their shelves to return to the North Pole so they can report their observations to Santa Claus. According to The Elf on the Shelf website, there are two basic rules that children must know about having an elf:
First, an elf cannot be touched; Christmas magic is very fragile and if an elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole. Second, an elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! An elf's job is to watch and listen.
Elf on the Shelf teacher resources are designed with American curriculum standards in mind. The website encourages teachers to register for The Elf on the Shelf® “Teacher Resource Center” for free kindergarten to grade 5 lesson plans and classroom resources that support the Common Core State Standards which teachers in most of the 50 states are required to follow.
- See more at: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/whos-boss#sthash.ZQHNe4Oh.dpuf
The illustrated book enclosed with each Elf on the Shelf doll explains that elves are assigned to homes (or sometimes classrooms) with the explicit charge of observing children's actions all day on behalf of Santa Claus, who is referred to as “the boss”. These industrious elves perched high on shelves are managers of Santa’s “naughty” and “nice” lists with a central aim of ensuring that the children who have adopted them remain on the “nice” list. As the story goes, at night the elves step away from their shelves to return to the North Pole so they can report their observations to Santa Claus. According to The Elf on the Shelf website, there are two basic rules that children must know about having an elf:
First, an elf cannot be touched; Christmas magic is very fragile and if an elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole. Second, an elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! An elf's job is to watch and listen.
Elf on the Shelf teacher resources are designed with American curriculum standards in mind. The website encourages teachers to register for The Elf on the Shelf® “Teacher Resource Center” for free kindergarten to grade 5 lesson plans and classroom resources that support the Common Core State Standards which teachers in most of the 50 states are required to follow.
- See more at: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/whos-boss#sthash.ZQHNe4Oh.dpuf

Friday, December 19, 2014

"We" Still Torture Some Folks

Uh-oh. Looks like President Obama goofed in the grammatical tense department. Seriously, though, when he signed his executive order banning torture on his first day in office in 2009, he didn't say anything about not outsourcing torture to compliant friends, and allowing CIA and Special Ops forces to still threaten to torture and sexually abuse prisoners in black sites abroad.

No word whether these still-active "enhanced interrogators" were among the anonymous patriots whose identities were redacted from the Senate torture report, so that they may continue to work and thrive with impunity as shadow government thugs. (The Intercept has a chilling report on one of them, a female who reportedly was the inspiration for the "Zero Dark Thirty" Hollywood/CIA joint propaganda venture.)

Since a special UN rapporteur has also called long-term solitary confinement in US prisons torture, the detainee in the following report can truly be called an international torture victim. He was physically and psychologically abused in a tiny CIA-controlled African state before being "renditioned" back to the aptly named Tombs in New York City -- where he's been locked up in solitary for the past two years, for 23 hours a day.

US Attorney Loretta Sanchez, Obama's nominee to replace Eric Holder as attorney general, is handling the case. Her lame excuse that the detainee had not yet been charged when undergoing the "techniques," and so was not technically deserving of American due process at the time, gives us a hint about what kind of compliant, terror state-serving chief law enforcement officer she'll make. The two-year-long pretrial solitary confinement is blamed on the difficulty of extraditing witnesses.

Here's the whole scoop, cross-posted from the Great Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism: 

Citizenship Revoked


Former British citizen, Mahdi Hashi, ‘illegally interrogated’ by US officials in Djibouti

By Victoria Parsons

A former British citizen detained in Djibouti in 2012 alleges he was threatened with physical and sexual abuse and “strongly encouraged” to cooperate with American interrogators before being rendered to New York, court documents reveal.

Mahdi Hashi, who is awaiting trial in the US on terror-related charges, was stripped of his British citizenship in June 2012, just a few months before he was detained in the tiny east African state.

Documents filed in relation to his case by his US attorney, Mark Demarco, state that Hashi was detained “in a secret Djiboutian facility under extremely harsh conditions” and was subjected to “illegal interrogation” by US intelligence officials.

The revelation comes just days after the Senate Intelligence Committee published a damning report about the CIA’s use of torture on detainees held in secret prisons between 2002 and 2007. The CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” was banned years before Hashi was detained.

Somali-born Hashi arrived in the UK with his family as a five-year-old after they fled the civil war in their native Somalia and claimed asylum. At the age of 14, he became a British citizen.

After living in Egypt to study Arabic when he was 16, Hashi claimed he was “harassed” by British intelligence agencies and he and several others went public, telling the Independent they were being pressured into spying for MI5. Shortly after this he travelled to Somalia to care for an unwell grandmother.

By June 2012 Hashi was still living in Somalia, now married and with a son, when his parents called to tell him that a letter had arrived containing a deprivation order from the home secretary. The letter stated that his British citizenship was being removed on grounds he was “involved in Islamist extremism”. Under the law he had 28 days to appeal the decision.

Hashi claims he then left Somalia as there was no British embassy there from which he could launch an appeal. He travelled to Djibouti.

In legal filings the US government says that Hashi, and two others, were then “captured” by foreign authorities on suspicion of being terrorists. Hashi’s claims are laid out in hundreds of pages of court documents filed with the district court in the eastern district of New York. Many of the documents are not publicly accessible as they cover national security and have been sealed by the court.

According to publicly available court documents seen by the Bureau, interrogation of Hashi was conducted first by Djiboutian law enforcement agents. During this time he witnessed his co-defendant Ali Yasin Ahmed being hung “upside down from his ankles. He was gagged, blindfolded and beaten”. Hashi was blindfolded when taken from his cell and interrogated in his underwear, and threatened during those sessions with physical and sexual abuse. He was also told his co-defendants were being “raped and beaten”, he claims.

Following this was a two week interrogation by the Djiboutians along with ‘Americans’ – who Hashi believed to be either CIA or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He claims they repeatedly threatened him with physical abuse and “subjected [him] to psychologically abusive treatment with an aim of obtaining compliance and extracting additional information.”

Hashi claims that Djiboutian officers warned him that Americans “tortured uncooperative prisoners who refused to answer questions” and “strongly encouraged” him to cooperate.

The ‘Americans’ interrogated him more than ten times in eleven days. Hashi was not advised of his rights, namely his right to remain silent or his right to speak to a lawyer, which according to his attorneys was a violation and an “illegal interrogation”.

The US government argues that Hashi was not advised of his rights because the purpose of the interviews was to collect intelligence relating to potential, possibly imminent, threats to the United States and its allies.

The US government will not use statements made in these interrogations in their direct case. However, the government is seeking to use statements made by Hashi to FBI agents. The FBI began interrogating Hashi several days after the ealier interrogations, according to the US government.

Over the course of a month Hashi was interrogated seven times. Though he was informed of his rights prior to the FBI interrogations, he claims that each session was also attended by at least one of the Djiboutian officers who Hashi had observed torturing Ahmed or who had previously threatened Hashi with physical torture and sexual abuse.

“I feared that my refusal to cooperate would result in physical torture and sexual abuse”, Hashi has stated in an affidavit document filed with the US district court in New York.

Hashi provided the Americans with information about himself and others, including information about his alleged membership of al Shabaab.

He is charged with conspiring to provide material support to al Shabaab, a designated terrorist organisation, and with using firearms during and in relation to violent crimes.

The US government says that Hashi voluntarily provided “extensive statements” to the FBI on his involvement with al Shabaab. But Demarco argues that these statements were “tainted” by the previous threats made to Hashi and the fact that there had been no change in the conditions he was kept in between the initial interrogations and the subsequent interrogations by the FBI.

In November 2012 Hashi and his co-defendants were transported to New York, where they were held in secret for five weeks before the charges against them were made public in late December. Hashi has been in solitary confinement ever since.

In this case it appears as though a “deliberate, two-step strategy was used by law enforcement to obtain the post-warning confession”, Demarco argues.

Government attorney Loretta Lynch, recently nominated by Obama to be the new attorney general, argued in previous court documents that Hashi’s statements were voluntarily made and therefore admissible. The government has applied to the court for permission to call witnesses from abroad to give evidence on the interrogation of Hashi by the FBI.

Calling witnesses from abroad has caused a delay, and the government was recently given longer by the court to respond to the defendants motion to suppress. They must now respond fully by December 23.

A version of this story also appeared on VICE News.
Follow Victoria Parsons on Twitter. Read the Citizenship Revoked investigation here and sign up for email updates on deprivation of citizenship here.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

From the Department of Unintended Humor

This time, the Hillary Clinton campaign will be different. She's learned from her past mistakes, and by golly, she's proving it. Just this week alone, she's bravely jumped headlong into declaring that #BlackLivesMatter and #CubaLibre without first wading through polls and focus groups and then posting a YouTube video of her opulent self reading from a script.

 One of her operatives has even secretly met with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee to discuss the re-spinning and messaging we can all look forward to! (Because even "progressives" must be allowed to meet-and-leak to Politico in the Age of Obama and Transparent Opacity.)

And the New York Times -- which has maintained a throbbing full-time Hillary Desk even while getting rid of its environment and labor beats, and laying off at least a hundred news staffers --  is so totally covering New Improved Populist Hillary. Here is how she plans to reveal "a vulnerable, less scripted and entitled side":
“Inevitability is not a message,” said Terry Shumaker, a prominent New Hampshire Democrat and former United States ambassador. “It’s not something you can run on,” he added.
These topics are being quietly discussed at private dinners with donors, at strategy talks hosted by an outside “super PAC” and in casual conversation as Mrs. Clinton greets friends at holiday parties and a Clinton Foundation fund-raiser in New York.
“If she runs, it will be different,” said Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Nick Merrill.
What better way to learn to connect with working class voters than to casually canoodle with millionaires and billionaires in exclusive neighborhoods and at closed fund-raising dinners at five-star restaurants? 

Not getting enough belly-laughs yet? Then be sure to read David Brooks's New York Times column from earlier this week, in which he passive-aggressively urges Elizabeth Warren to challenge Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary and thereby, the unspoken message goes, pave the way for Jebbie Bush. Brooks not-so-subtly gaslights Warren by counting the exact number of times she used the word "fight" in her memoir and gushing about how her "conspiracy theories" on the big banks are so endearing to progressives.

My published comment:
When a GOP pundit jumps on the Elizabeth Warren bandwagon, you can be sure it means that Wall Street in particular and the plutocracy in general are absolutely terrified of this woman remaining in the Senate. She stands to do them some heavy duty damage in the next year and more. Her entering the "race" too early would give both Clintonites and GOP dirty tricksters more time to pull a reprise of a Howard Dean "gotcha" moment long before any serious campaigning gets started in earnest.
Would I love to see Elizabeth run? Of course I would. But she's very wise, at this moment, to be throwing cold water on the horse-race frenzy crowd. Better that she, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown and a whole army of progressives all get involved in the primaries. The more there are, the more the issues -- and not the personalities -- can be the focus.
The shallow media (Maureen Dowd comes to mind) would portray a Warren challenge to Hillary as a catfight, a spectacle sure to strike glee into the heartless hearts of the GOP and Fox News.
Brooks conveniently casts progressives as being simply "against" Wall Street corruption. Actually, progressives are also FOR a lot of things: a living wage, a tax on high speed trades, single payer health care paid for by a modest (for them) tax surcharge on multimillionaires and billionaires; expansion of the social safety net, student loan forgiveness and affordable college tuition, and most important of all.... a job for anybody who wants one.
Can you imagine Elizabeth Warren's first day in the Oval Office, when the joint chiefs of staff and the CIA would confront her with their magical dossiers of fate, and various other offers she can't refuse? 

To even aspire to be president of the United States, one absolutely must be a sociopath, a person willing to leave his or her soul at the door in order to become the brutal State in human form. And despite her votes for funding of arms for Israel in particular, and the war machine in general, I simply cannot imagine Elizabeth Warren personally presiding over Terror Tuesdays and ordering drone strikes against children. I simply cannot.

Even my cynicism has its limits.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

All We Like Sheep

Then one fog-of-war Christmas Eve, pollsters came to say: Americans with all their might, Proclaim that torture is all right.

Well, what else could we expect? If people are fine with presidential drone assassinations, what's a little waterboarding and rectal rape-feeding and sleep deprivation? From the Washington Post:
A majority of Americans believe that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half the public says the treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
 By an almost 2-1 margin, or 59-to-31 percent, those interviewed support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying they produced valuable intelligence.In general, 58 percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”
The pollsters didn't ask, however, whether torture would be justified if practiced by our government upon white American citizens suspected of plotting homegrown domestic terrorism. Nor did they inquire whether respondents consider Muslim victims of torture to even be members of the human race. They didn't bother ascertaining whether supporters of torture had actually read the Senate report, whether they had watched Creepy Veepy Cheney defend his psychopathic self on the Sunday shows, whether they were fans of  "Zero Dark Thirty" and "24," and if so, if they believed the propaganda fell into the category of documentary film, reality TV, aspirational fiction, or porn.

They should have also asked the people who believe that torture is justified and useful whether they think that child abuse and cruelty to animals is also sometimes justified and effective. I'm willing to wager that most of the self-proclaimed pro-torture crowd would swear they'd give their last nickel to save an abused dog from being euthanized at the kill shelter down the street.

Whatever. This poll, like so many skewed others, is sure to be misinterpreted by focus group-conscious politicians as a bona fide plebiscite. It's just the P.R. ticket for Obama, the CIA, and the small j justice department to sweep the war crimes under the rug and move on, look ahead, and wave the flag. Because The Randomly Selected People Have Spoken.

The fact that pollsters made sure to inquire of the respondents' political party affiliations, and then found that acceptance of torture is essentially bipartisan. is sure to strike Christmas joy into the heart of the Consensus Builder-in-Chief. It's not a red torture-loving America, it's not a blue torture-loving America, it's the United American Torture Lovers of America. (Pay no attention to those purist extremist outliers on the left.)
Views on the CIA’s tactics break down sharply along ideological lines. Liberal Democrats are most disgusted with the agency’s actions, while conservative Republicans are most likely to defend it.
 Democrats who identify as moderate or conservative are more supportive of the program, joining majorities of independents and Republicans who say it was justified. (my bold) For example, 38 percent of liberal Democrats say the CIA’s actions were justified compared with 82 percent of conservative Republicans who say so.
 In a CBS poll released Monday, nearly seven in 10 considered waterboarding torture, but about half said the technique and others are, at times, justified. Fifty-seven percent said harsh interrogation techniques can provide information that can prevent terrorist attacks.
That a third of self-described liberals feel that torture was justified kind of gives a whole new meaning to the word "liberalism," huh? (I am tolerant of anal rape if it keeps me safe.) So does the finding that a majority think that the actual release of the report endangers national security. They apparently believe that the torture victims -- not to mention the friends, families and countrymen of the torture victims --  had no earthly idea of the abominations they suffered until they read about them in the papers or watched the coverage on TV.

So bring out the chips, dips, chains and whips. Sing tidings of comfort and joy, and drink of the groggy grog. Exceptional America has gone astray, and each of us has turned to our own way.




Monday, December 15, 2014

The Bipartisan War on Workers

There was a brutal double-whammy of an assault on American labor last week. And what with the torture report and Wall Street once again putting taxpayers on the hook for its greedy bets, hardly anyone noticed.

Whammy Number One: a bill allowing multi-employer pension funds to unilaterally cut the benefits of 1.5 million retirees was sneakily tucked into the Cromnibus Bill. This legislation, co-sponsored by a "liberal" Democrat and a Republican, paves the way for the immediate evisceration, at employer will, of the benefits of 1.5 million current retirees and tens of millions of future pensioners. These workers will not even be allowed to sue. It's a done deal.

Whammy Number Two: In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Amazon warehouse temps don't deserve to be paid for the roughly half-hour per working day that they are forced to remain on the premises to undergo anti-theft body searches. The Obama administration fought hard for Scrooge, and Scrooge won. Besides being anti-labor, this odious ruling also falls neatly into the "pre-crime" rationale for the Surveillance State spying on American citizens. Not only are you presumed guilty for merely trying to live, but the highest court has effectively criminalized labor itself. The unanimous ruling has essentially paved the way for the workplace to become a jail, the boss to become the warden, and for the establishment to create a new tier of work: that of virtual enslavement. The ruling is mission-creep, plutocracy-style.

The pension plan-gutting (Whammy #1) is a double-whammy in and of itself, because the precarious worker-funded retirement plans now on the chopping block were made that way by the very Wall Street malfeasance which is again being handsomely rewarded and encouraged by the Obama White House and both parties in Congress.  As David Sirota writes in the International Business Times, this measure in the Cromnibus amounts to "the most consequential change to retirement policy in the United States since the passage of landmark pension legislation 40 years ago. Altering the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act to permit benefit cuts could prompt a slew of efforts to chip away at formerly untouchable guarantees of income to millions of retirees."
Lawmakers pushing to allow benefit cuts are citing the example of the $18.7 billion Teamsters' Central States Fund, which has 410,000 members and is the nation’s second-largest multiemployer pension plan. There’s an estimated $22 billion gap between assets in the Central States Fund and promised benefits to the system’s current and future retirees -- a shortfall that legislators point to as a rationale to pass a new law permitting multiemployer plans to slash promised retirement benefits.

“We have to do something to allow these plans to make the corrections and adjustments they need to keep these plans viable,” said Democratic Rep. George Miller in pushing the plan.
But critics of the provisions say the plight of the Central States Fund is not a cautionary tale about unsustainable benefits but an example of Wall Street mismanagement. They note that Central States is the only major private pension fund where all the discretionary investment decisions are made by financial firms rather than by the fund’s board. Roughly a third of the pension system’s shortfalls -- or almost $9 billion -- can be traced to investment losses accrued during the financial industry’s 2008 collapse. Those losses were in addition to more than $250 million in fees paid by the plan to financial firms in just the last 5 years.

Many pension funds followed strategies that involved high fees for Wall Street companies while producing “financial returns that trailed plain vanilla investment strategies,” said Jay Youngdahl, a fellow with the Initiative for Responsible Investment at Harvard University. Central States appears to be a prime example, he said. “Before cutting benefits, we need to examine what exactly has happened.”
The pension funds controlled by Goldman Sachs alone lost more than a third of their value in the 2008 meltdown. Had this criminal banking cartel behaved itself and not gambled with union money, the funds would now be flush with cash and earning enough interest to keep the workers who paid into them in relatively comfortable retirements. Not only are the banks not being forced pay compensation to their victims, they continue to make obscene profits. CEO Lloyd Blankfein roams free, stuffing his own pockets as well as those of his political enablers in Congress and the White House.

Now we come to Whammy #2 -- the plight of the low-wage warehouse workers, who don't even have a pension fund that Wall Street can loot. Therefore, the masters of the universe are doing the next best thing: they're robbing employees of their time and their dignity.

The workers are not even employed directly by Amazon, but by the ironically-named Integrity Staffing Solutions. The case gives a whole new meaning to the word "Temp" and "workplace" (plantation). It also gives a whole new meaning to the argument that we have to elect a Democrat to save the Supreme Court from right-wing hacks. A Democratic administration actually urged its own black-robed appointees to screw the workers in this case.

And boy, did they ever oblige -- unanimously. The Court ruled that because the body searches have nothing to do with actual work, they are not compensable. Being held against one's will does not contribute to the bottom line of the employer, so all's fair in profit and oppression. From David Hensel's blog:
In an Amazon warehouse in Las Vegas, NV, workers for the temp agency Integrity Staffing Solutions have to go through a security screening at the end of each day for which workers are not paid. The process is meant to prevent theft by workers. Workers say waiting for the screening can take 25 minutes. Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, two of these workers, sued the temp agency for the pay they were denied. The question asked is whether the security screening (and thus waiting for it) is an integral part of the principle activities for workers – should they be paid for the time spent in them?
 (snip)
The Court’s decision focused on what “integral and indispensable” work would be: it has to be absolutely central to why the workers were hired in the first place and a key part of completing that job.

"An activity is therefore integral and indispensable to the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform if it is an intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities."
In her concurring opinion reversing a lower court ruling, "liberal" Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the forced security screenings were simply part of the exiting procedure, comparable to showering or waiting in line for a paycheck, and therefore not part of official work duties for which the plaintiffs were hired. Being criminalized by one's boss falls outside the category of labor and therefore can't be paid.

Wall Street crime pays.

Worker criminalization does not.

 In other words, Kafka has infiltrated the Supreme Court to allow a cheapskate version of Orwell's Big Brother to infiltrate the American workplace. 

(Illustrations courtesy of Kafka; Precariat courtesy of the American Plutocracy)
 The freedom to search and screen employees at no cost to the boss? You might call this latest New Abnormal in the age of unfettered hypercapitalism the "Enhanced Clocking-Out Technique".

The working class has been transformed into a post-2008 sub-underclass called the Precariat: officially defined as being only a meager paycheck or retirement benefit away from outright destitution. Even people lucky enough to have jobs are never allowed to forget that there are plenty more people waiting outside, willing to be searched, suspected, and oppressed for even lower wages and fewer benefits. It's how the plutocracy's Divide and Conquer agenda works.   


Friday, December 12, 2014

House Passes Torture Bill


(Update, 12/14: Make that the entire Congress. A link to the gory details is below.)

They come not to abolish pain, but to inflict even more of it.

Congress just held its annual holiday party for its high-rolling donors. This year's cutesy theme  was The Cromnibus That Stole Christmas. Yet again, they reprised their Scrooge role, robbing the poor and giving to the rich. And boy, were they ever sneaky about it this time around. As the whole world was reeling over revelations that Torture R Us, our leaders hastily wrapped up an Economy-sized giant rectal feeding tube in shiny paper, bestowed it upon a reeling public, and told us to "crom" it up our asses. They robbed pension funds, they defanged an already toothless Dodd-Frank, and they made political bribery even sleazier by increasing ten-fold the allowable individual donations to the Duopoly.

And then the "People's House" packed it in and started going home for Christmas to collect more spoils from their grateful political donors, who should be cheery that their outsized clout has once again put taxpayers on the hook for the risky bets guaranteed to cause another financial implosion sooner or later. The upper-crusty Senate is expected to rubber-stamp the deal shortly*, in order to continue the beatings and to beat the get-out-of-town rush.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who only a year ago was urging her Democratic caucus to "embrace the suck" by throwing millions of long-term unemployed under the bus so as to keep the government humming, pivoted back to full populist mode yesterday, trying to outdo Elizabeth Warren in the anti-bankster rhetoric department.

 Barack Obama, practicing for his upcoming star turn as post-Clinton triangulator, played the part of the Uncloseted Republican, going into full court press for Wall Street. He rallied his whole cabinet of Citigroup lobbyists to twist the same arms that had so lately fiercely acquiesced to Citigroup's dictating of the actual bill. Once you've put out for Wall Street, it gets increasingly hard to say No to Wall Street.

It was Good Cop-Bad Cop Kabuki theater at its most nauseating.

The mainstream media, though, are cheering because it was essentially a very good show, chock-full of suspense and identity politics. The New York Times has this glowing review:
The House narrowly passed a $1.1 trillion spending package on Thursday that would fund most government operations for the fiscal year after a rancorous debate that reflected the new power held by Republicans and the disarray among Democrats in the aftermath of the midterm elections.
 The accord was reached just hours before the midnight deadline, in a 219-206 vote, amid the last-minute brinkmanship and bickering that has come to mark one of Congress’s most polarized — and least productive — eras. The legislation now heads to the Senate, which is expected to pass it in the coming days.
 The split in the Democratic Party dramatically burst into view when Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader and one of President Obama’s most loyal supporters, broke with the administration over a provision in the bill that would roll back regulation of the Dodd-Frank Act, which Ms. Pelosi said was a giveaway to big banks whose practices helped fuel the Great Recession. She spoke on the House floor in the early afternoon, expressing her strong opposition to the bill.
 As much as I believe that Pelosi's impassioned speech was cynically timed to provide some staged Shakespearean conflict with the paramour (Obama) who then publicly spurned her, for the Times to characterize the Democrats' new-found populism as "disarray" is a bit rich. The Gray Lady apparently likes her little marital spats to be decorous. The Gray Lady has reduced the shoving of a giant torture tube up America's butt to nothing but a little bickering among friends.
Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. were pressed to make a furious round of phone calls to try to persuade wavering Democrats, while House Speaker John A. Boehner worked to get more Republican votes.
The public support of the sweeping spending bill by the White House — which came just as Ms. Pelosi was making her speech on the House floor opposing it — was a rare public break with the minority leader and infuriated many of her loyalists.
Infuriated loyalists make the perfect targets for new rounds of Democratic fund-raising appeals. "Embracing the suck" cost them the mid-terms, so now it's back to the pretend-populism cycle again. I'm already getting emails urging me to show my solidarity with multimillionaire Nancy by throwing them some cash.
In a more than three-hour, closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Thursday night, many of the party’s more liberal members tried to rally support against the bill. The moment, they said, was one of conscience, and a chance for Democrats to demonstrate their allegiance with the middle class.
“We’ve got to stand up for principle at some point, or they’re going to kick us even more next year when they have a bigger majority,” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon. “They know we will stand our ground on principle in the future and not roll us so easily again.
Standing their ground is a little late, but at least it was a "chance for Democrats" to pander to the base by pretending to be on their side. It was an "opportunity" for them to be seen as pro-middle class, even though it was only a year ago that they joined with the GOP to impoverish millions of jobless people and compromise over cuts to the food stamp program. Those were the days when they thought they could win the mid-terms by simply out-fundraising the Republicans. They won't be rolled so easily again. Because veering to the right and openly rolling the American people comes with a price.
In an emergency gathering, Democrats also expressed anger at Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, at what they saw as the president’s undercutting of Ms. Pelosi and other progressives by coming out in support of the deal so early in the day. But Ms. Pelosi ultimately gave her members the freedom to vote how they wanted. “I’m giving you the leverage to do what you have to do,” she said. “We have enough votes to show them never to do this again.”
She showed them, all right. Because it was a show. She dog-whistled as much when she told them to go ahead and vote for their Wall Street donors if that's what they needed to do. Moreover, the fix was already in, so a "nay" vote would look good on paper, if not in reality. Pelosi is like the abused wife who tells her beater that next time, she'll call the cops. So there.
The final vote was a blow to Ms. Pelosi, the liberal wing of the party and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, who led the charge against the Dodd-Frank rollback. Mr. Boehner built a coalition of 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats, a rare achievement for a Congress that has often operated along strict party lines. Congress also passed a two-day funding measure to give the Senate time to pass the legislation.
This is the part where "the base" gets all riled up and their wallets get all opened up. And the bipartisan vote is anything but "rare." It is, in fact, quite common and well done to a crisp. When it comes to funding wars, the surveillance state, the banks and the corporate welfare queens, these clowns are always reaching across the aisle and slapping each other on the back while they slap the rest of us upside the head.

* The final vote tally is here

And here's my published comment to a piece by Gail Collins, suggesting that we discuss the Cromnibus at our weekend holiday dinner parties:  
We don't need a dinner party to discuss the Cromnibus from Hell. Who has the appetite? What this occasion demands is a national wake, because we're already spectators at our own funeral.
That Wall Street and billionaires own the government is a given. But our "reps" aren't even bothering to pretend any more. To me, the cruelest part of this plutocratic manifesto is that it allows multi-employer pension plans to slash the benefits of 1.5 million retirees. The irony is that many of these endangered pension plans were made that way by the same reckless Wall Street Casino behavior that Congress and the White House now want to restore and reward. Instead of another Glass-Steagall Act, the bad guys get richer and the workers get screwed.
The politicians we elect to represent us couldn't make their allegiance any plainer if they rubbed our noses in their effluent.
 What a week to be an American citizen. First we learn about the torture done in our names to people in other countries. Then we learn that even more economic torture will be foisted upon us.
We call it torture -- our leaders call it patriotism. We call it graft and corruption. They call it compromise and a victory for bipartisanship. We say we're mad as hell. They say we all have to have some skin in their rigged game, and to stop questing after unicorns.
They say change takes time and patience. We say that they'll continue in Gordon Gekko-Torquemada mode at their own peril.
 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Abolish the CIA

The Central Intelligence Agency, as far as I can tell, serves one major purpose. And that is of a taxpayer-funded criminal enterprise. Among the many hats it wears are: secret paramilitary wing of the White House, money launderer, drug and arms dealer (Iran-Contra) associate of the Mafia (Castro assassination plot) fomenter of coups, and overthrower of democratically elected governments. (Guatemala, Chile, Iran and the latest in Ukraine, with Cuba and Venezuela still very much in its sights) 

 Its ostensible, official function as a gatherer of actual intelligence has mostly been an abysmal failure for its entire 60-plus year life. It tends to make stuff up as it bumbles along. Which is why its warning on its own creation -- Al Qaeda --  fell mostly upon deaf Bushie ears.

The CIA failed to see the fall of Communism until the Wall came tumbling down. Though feebly warning of bin Laden's "determination to attack", it failed to stop 9/11. As a matter of fact, as the late Chalmers Johnson laid out in his series of books, the airplane attacks were "blowback" against CIA dirty tricks. Before he was a terrorist, Osama bin Laden was a paid (and later abandoned) CIA resource in America's proxy war against the Soviet Union.

And as Tim Weiner tells it in Legacy of Ashes, the CIA has been one long litany of failure ever since its misbegotten inception as a weapon against Communism in the days after World War II, when the first of a long line of unaccountable slush funds was known as the Marshall Plan.
Over the years, the agency threw around a lot of money and adopted a certain swagger. “We went all over the world and we did what we wanted,” said Al Ulmer, the C.I.A.’s Far East division chief in the 1950s. “God, we had fun.” But even their successes turned out to be failures. In 1963, the C.I.A. backed a coup to install the Baath Party in Iraq. “We came to power on a C.I.A. train,” said Ali Saleh Saadi, the Baath Party interior minister. One of the train’s passengers, Weiner notes, was a young assassin named Saddam Hussein. Weiner quotes Donald Gregg, a former C.I.A. station chief in South Korea, later the national security adviser to Vice President George H. W. Bush: “The record in Europe was bad. The record in Asia was bad. The agency had a terrible record in its early days — a great reputation and a terrible record.” And yet the myth of the C.I.A. as an all-knowing, all-powerful spy agency persisted for years, not just in the minds of America’s enemies but in the imagination of many American television-watchers and moviegoers. Among those fooled, at least initially, were most modern presidents of the United States. The promise of a secret intelligence organization that could not only spy on America’s enemies but also influence events abroad, by sleight of hand and at relatively low cost, was just too alluring.
The crimes exposed in the Senate Torture Report That Shook the World should come as no surprise to those who've been paying attention, or read such books as Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side" and Dana Priest's  "Top Secret America" or Weiner's exhaustive history of the CIA cited above.  We knew, through Mayer, about the Dr. Mengele-like psychologists who culled the literature to devise the methods to the madness. We knew, through Priest, about the black site prisons and the unlimited supply of cash thrown around with no accountability expected or even required by Congress. We knew about the murder-by-hypothermia of the detainee chained outside the Afghanistan gulag. We knew about the waterboarding (though the new report confirms there were more cases than previously realized.)

The difference is that the report released yesterday is getting a zillion times the attention the various excellent books, articles and other occasional exposes got when they were first published or aired. This, finally, is the US Government itself  airing its own dirty laundry for all the world to see. Thanks to the Bush Crime Family, the real meaning of the CIA is finally out there: Criminally Insane A-Holes.

 And the upshot is --- a screeching halt. A whimper, not a bang. No prosecutions. No firings. (At least in the Homeland.) To the contrary, the architects of torture are being amply rewarded and given air time to complain about how unfairly they're being portrayed. The "debate" is not whether torture is morally reprehensible and legally forbidden, but whether it worked.

President Obama, accessory-after-the-fact of the Bush administration's crimes, refuses to even talk much about the release of the report. From all indications, he fought tooth and nail, until the last minute, against even having the redacted form released. I suspect it was the threat of its leakage by someone he couldn't easily prosecute -- say, outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee member Udall -- that forced him to pretend to wave his pathetic white flag.

Ever the conciliator, the president is also a centrist when it comes to the effectiveness of  torture, which he is again euphemising as "enhanced interrogation techniques." Ever the coward, he lets one of his flacks do the post-game torturesplaining:
 That debate, after all, has left Mr. Obama facing an uncomfortable choice between two allies: the close adviser and former aide he installed as director of the C.I.A. versus his fellow Democrats who control the Senate committee and the liberal base that backs their findings. “We are not going to engage in this debate,” said a senior administration official close to Mr. Obama who briefed reporters under ground rules that did not allow him to be identified.
(Ever the willing CIA propaganda vessel, as most recently outlined in the Senate report itself, the Times still persists in granting  immunity and anonymity to the government bigwigs in order to spread the sympathy message of how uncomfortable Obama is feeling.)
The written statement Mr. Obama released in response to the report tried to straddle that divide. He opened by expressing appreciation to C.I.A. employees as “patriots” to whom “we owe a debt of gratitude” for trying to protect the country after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Then he judged that the methods they used in doing so “did significant damage to America’s standing in the world.”
(Give the Times credit where it's due. They perfectly encapsulated the Orwellian presidency in one paragraph. We should be thankful to the torturers because they tortured even though torture is wrong. And it's wrong because anything that damages exceptional America's reputation and power is wrong. You can hate the crime, but you sure gotta love those wascally criminals! They got the American flag in one hand, and a rectal feeding tube in the other.)
And finally, Mr. Obama asked the nation to stop fighting about what happened so many years ago before he took office. “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,” he said, “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong — in the past.”
(When crimes against humanity are downgraded to outmoded "techniques," and public outrage is denigrated to "old arguments," we can forget all about them and go on to the next big technique -- such as the Disposition Matrix, in which Muslims can be summarily executed by drone strike for the mere fact that they exist.)

Since Obama will not prosecute and will continue protecting the jobs of CIA employees who participated in torture, as well as the livelihoods of the torture contractors and the filthy rich Bush architects/retirees, how about Congress just abolish the CIA outright?  The agency not only serves no positive purpose, it has been amply proven to be a clear and present danger to everybody, everywhere.

Cut off their money. Cut them out of society. They had no sense of decency then, and they're not about to develop one now. And why should they? Obama has just declared them to be patriots.

We have seen the future. We are indeed, as Obama ordered, "looking ahead." The future is bleak. The war on terror has come home, and is now being waged against us by a cabal of Criminally Insane A-holes.... some elected, some self-appointed, and all of them very dangerous.

So we should be both angry, and scared to death.