Right to Free Speech?

Defenders of the Constitutional right to First Amendment free speech are always quick to assert that the U.S. is a wonderful country because citizens have the right to disagree with their government without fear of reprisal. When Medea Benjamin stood up and spoke out during President Obama’s foreign policy speech on May 23 at the National Defense University (whew!), the President made the point that she was exercising her First Amendment right to speak her mind. Then Obama made the fatuous claim that he was doing the same, implying that their rights were equivalent. This brought thunderous applause, as the saying goes, from the audience.

What nonsense. The rights of Medea Benjamin are in no way even remotely comparable to those of a President of the United States. Obama made this ridiculous claim even as Ms. Benjamin was being forcibly escorted from the room. President Obama can command the attention of the media at any time, and the population at large usually has the option of listening in. Dissenters such as Ms. Benjamin have no such right. Often, she doesn’t even have the right to stand on a soapbox on a city corner with impunity. In some cities of this great nation, she would be summarily arrested, illegally of course, but arrested none the less.

In this country there is a broad right to speak freely about just about any subject, but there is no right to be heard, that is to have a venue to make such free speech meaningful. The President can call a press conference and always be guaranteed an audience. Medea Benjamin has the right to call a press conference as well, but that doesn’t mean anyone will show up. Even I have a right to call a press conference, but it is certain that no one will show up to hear me.

The plain truth is that in practice, this right exists so long as your expression of it doesn’t make a difference. There are many clear examples of this. The Occupy Movement, according to an increasing number of citizens, was beginning to make a difference. Their campaign was attracting attention, and worse, from the point of view of those holding power, more and more people were beginning to agree with them. Try to find the Occupy Movement today. The Movement continues on Web sites and such, but effectively they were stripped of all means of expression of free speech by the imperial corporate state, in accordance with the corporate powers that are really in control. There was no way that the power structure of this nation was going to allow the Occupy Movement to jeopardize the accumulation of profit.

Worse still, the government, and therefore the power lords, will have the right under the terms of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 to detain U.S. citizens based on a suspicion that such persons might possibly commit some act of terrorism at some time in the future in the opinion of unspecified government “authorities,” presumably Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, NSA and such, although such power could conceivably reach to much lesser minions of the corporate state. No habeas corpus here. Under the circumstances of the Act a prisoner or detainee cannot petition if there is no way for a court even to know that a petitioner exists. This is Gitmo for the rest of us. Or worse, like disappearances in Argentina or Chile. Oh boy, are we in trouble, morally for the government and physically for just plain folks.

“National Security” has become the shibboleth for all manner of expression of state control over the population. A government agency has merely to claim that virtually any action is a threat to “national security” without proof or even definition of the term and therefore may be suppressed. “Action” does not necessarily involve physical acts. Conceivably expression of dissent may be so classified, and in fact often is.

Formally, citizens of the United States of America still have broad rights under the First Amendment. The Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Now, these rights are all subject to interpretation, and technically such interpretations fall under the aegis of the Supreme Court. Good luck.

This post conflates habeas corpus and the First Amendment. Yet they are connected in a practical sense. It is the erosion of habeas corpus that facilitates denial of free speech in the extreme. Lawyers could easily shred my layperson’s apprehension of these matters. They are good at that, especially when they want to exert control. Yet how far are we from the sort of society wherein police or military will break down doors in the night and spirit citizens away, never to be seen or heard from again?

Would You Rather?

Some Choices You Might Have

  • You’ve just met a woman or man who seems the embodiment of all you yearned for when you were young. Your heart beats with excitement, with the possibility that your life could be blissful, after all.
    Or would you rather have more money?
  • Perhaps you have a child who asks about suffering in the world, and wants to know how to change it. The child wants you to help transform the world.
    Or would you rather get a little richer?
  • Your spouse admits to a secret desire to lead a simpler life. S/he tries to convince you of the rightness of this course.
    But after all, you could make lots of cash if you continued working, working, only just a little bit harder.
  • You are sitting in your car on I-93, inching along toward a job that does not satisfy, in order to make enough money to buy the car that gets you to the job you hate.
    Does this make sense? Does it?

Morgan Stanley Gets Stronger, 1,000s “Cut”

According to my favorite source of news of the “progress” of the empire, The New York Times (All the News We See Fit to Print), reporting on page one of the business news for January 19, 2013, “Morgan Stanley has taken aggressive action to bolster profit. Over the last year, the Wall Street bank has cut thousands of employees, sold costly assets and retooled major businesses.” Furthermore, according to reporter Susanne Craig “Those efforts worked. In the fourth quarter, Morgan Stanley reported earnings of $481 million … . Profit was equally strong for the year.” Even so, analysts are not particularly impressed. For one thing, return on equity is not good enough.

Okay. I thought the big deal in improving the American economy was to create jobs. That’s what our President tells us, repeatedly. That’s what the Republicans promised if taxes for the rich, the “job creators,” were only lowered. Well, Wall Street has a different way of looking at things. This is, after all, finance capitalism we’re observing here. Anyone who has even casually perused this blog has an idea of my opinions regarding capitalism, especially finance capitalism. Return on equity not good enough? Hmm. Return on equity is just one of capitalism’s measures of profitability. And profits are all that counts.

Supposedly unemployment is a major worry about the health of the economy. Humph. Unemployment means nothing to the Masters of the Universe except insofar as it might be construed as affecting profits. The government makes a lot of noise about having a “jobs plan.” But if such a plan interferes with profits, well, jobs become an “externality.” The truth? Jobs are never anything more than an externality to the corporate state and its corporate masters. If profits can be improved by hiring, then there will be hiring. If carrying too many employees might possibly hurt profits, then there will be firings, not hirings. Capitalists like to assert they have a goal of increasing “productivity.” The usual measure of productivity (an imprecise term, despite economists and their particular brand of shenanigans) is “output per man-hour of direct labor.” Well, if goods could be produced without any direct labor at all, then productivity would be infinite! Surely a capitalist’s wet dream. No, capitalists, and thus the state as well, being a client of capitalism, care not a whit about workers, unless it be a political expedient. For these capitalist predators, creating jobs is OK, or at least tolerable until the power of the corporate state becomes absolute, so long as wages are pushed lower and lower.

Usury and Finance Capitalism

Usury, I believe, is forbidden by both the Bible and the Q’uran, but not by the state and by finance capitalism. I have written about this before, but the U.S. mail compels me to consider it again. In today’s mail is a missive from “the company ranked #1 in customer loyalty,” namely Discover card. Discover is offering me a credit card for which, it seems, I am “pre-approved.” The mailing lists the supposed advantages of accepting this card, which list makes the idea of having a Discover card tempting, or so they hope.

But it’s usury, nonetheless. Money costs big financial interests essentially nothing, as close to zero interest as you can get without actually being free. If I am to believe what I read in the newspapers, the government, or rather the Federal Reserve, which we all know has no connection with the government and is also fully independent of corporate and capitalist influence, has established this ultra-low discount rate, currently 0.75 percent, to encourage banks to lend money to consumers. This rate is the interest rate at which qualified banks or other financial institutions may borrow funds directly from a Federal Reserve bank. The Federal Funds Rate, the interest rate at which banks and other depository institutions lend money to each other, is even lower, at 0.25 percent. One can, indeed, after dizzying rounds of credit checks and other hoops, get a mortgage at about 3.25 percent, about prime, if your credit score is above 800.

But it’s usury when it comes to credit cards. Even though there was supposedly a credit card “reform” passed by Congress, the rates charged by credit cards are simply banditry. For example, the offer from Discover was magnanimous, a mere 16 to 19 percent! Oh, pardon me, 15.99 to 18.99 percent. Every once in a while I receive an offer from a credit card company to write a check to myself for which the interest rate is zero for a short period. Consumers, tempted to take advantage of such seeming largesse, and far too frequently drowning in debt, far too often do write such checks. Most probably fully intend to pay off this interest-free loan within the allotted time, but credit card companies don’t make such offers out of the goodness of their hearts. They know full well that most of these debts will not be paid off in time, and the interest on the balance will jump to the customary usurious rate. And it’s all perfectly legal. You tell me, whose interests is the state protecting here? Not mine, and not yours. The state is protecting finance capitalists, to whom the state is in thrall.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

How fascinating to contemplate that indeed “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” When the Defense Department banished the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, one might have thought that LGBTQ folks would be accepted in the armed forces. Fat chance. Obama might declare in his Inaugural Address that he believed that gays should be equal to straights in our society. Fat chance. In the New York Times of January 20, 2013 on the front page below the fold was an article “Military Rules Leave Gay Spouses Out in Cold.” The article, by Rachel L. Swarns, describes a female Army Lieutenant who, after returning from nine months in Afghanistan, “… signed up for a military retreat to help soldiers and their husbands and wives cope with the pressures of deployments and relocations.” Alas, the Lieutenant, legally married to another woman, and her spouse were denied permission to attend. The military chaplains running the program told the couple that their presence made the others uncomfortable. These men of the cloth apparently went to the trouble of determining that under federal law only heterosexuals couples could be helped with coping.

It is pathetic that these chaplains would do such a thing. Sadly, it is predictable that the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” only meant that gays and lesbians would not be summarily discharged for being so. So, this lesbian woman, who apparently served honorably, would just have to cope on her own with such things as PTSD and other results of involvement, directly or indirectly, in killing other human beings.

Ah, me, the really distressing part of this story to my mind is the fact that the presence of gay or lesbian couples would make straight couples uncomfortable, and furthermore, rather than trying to deal with this psychological dysfunction, for that is what it is, the Armed Forces prefer to remove the irritant.

Well, it’s nothing new. Throughout history, serving in the military has been for far too many a means of proving “manhood.” One can only presume that such proof is desired because of insecurity. It’s like the middle aged, overweight, grey-bearded men riding their Harleys, invariably with open pipes. (I don’t buy the argument “loud pipes save lives” but I will concede that you know when they are coming.)

Voter ID Laws Amount to Unconstitutional Poll Taxes

With all the uproar about voter ID laws passed by conservative lawmakers, probably to suppress the minority vote, the assertions by progressives and liberals and such about why they should be defeated surprise me. These are principally that it places a hardship on the poor, the elderly, and others who might find it difficult to obtain the ID documents required by the laws. While this is generally true, to my mind it is not the best argument against such laws. All forms of ID required, to the best of my knowledge, involve the spending of considerable sums to obtain them. To me, a non-lawyer, this amounts to a poll tax, and is therefore unconstitutional. In my opinion, it’s as simple as that.

Strip Searching SCOTUS Ruling

On April 2, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States as reported in the New York Times, ruled that “… officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor, before admitting them to jails even if the officials have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband.” Also according to the august Times, “… Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by the court’s conservative wing, wrote that courts are in no position to second-guess the judgments of correctional officials who must consider not only the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs, but also public health and information about gang affiliations.”

Say, what? Has the world gone completely mad? This is so transparently goofy, I wonder that anyone can take it seriously, except, oh, wait a minute – a simple majority vote of the SCOTUS determines the law of the land. And the mainstream media, such as it is, continues to treat Justice Kennedy as some sort of “moderate” instead of the conservative that he is. “Liberal” and “conservative” have lost any meaning in today’s society. As far as I can see, even the so-called “liberal” Justices are really just a little less conservative.

It’s just plain silly, or it would be if the ramifications were not so disturbing. “… no position to second-guess”? By that reasoning, courts are in no position to second-guess correctional officials if they shoot a prisoner down. After all, there is a possibility that the person may have smuggled weapons. The logic is the same. It’s sort of a “Stand Your Ground” for the state. This is akin to the National Defense Authorization Act that gives the military power to take anyone, citizen or not, into custody without a hearing, without habeas corpus, the “suspect” just disappears, based on nothing more than what the military thinks or asserts that the person might do sometime or another. No, this is just one more step in the establishment of the authoritarian state. George Orwell, here we come. And no one seems to care except of course the redoubtable Chris Hedges.

On Capitalism, Version 2012

An Op-Ed in the New York Times for March 13, 2012 by Thomas Friedman expounds on a new book, “Power, Inc.” by David Rothkopf, editor-at-large and chief executive of Foreign Policy. Rothkopf is apparently (I have not yet read the book, just Friedman’s Op-Ed about it) expounding on the future of Capitalism. No longer facing a threat from communism, various flavors of capitalism are now engaged in a competition to decide what form of that economic and political ideology will emerge as dominant for the immediate future. For my part, I am not very interested in this competition, although free-market capitalists ought to rejoice, as they believe religiously that competition inexorably brings about the greatest possible benefit. Left unsaid is how those benefits will be distributed.

My problem is with the very idea that capitalism should prosper. This implies a belief in progress, and that progress means by definition more. At the top of the capitalist pyramid of power are the capitalists themselves. At the bottom are the millions enslaved by this economic system or worse yet are brought to their end. On a certain level, it matters not what flavor of capitalism prevails. All capitalism is predicated on eternal growth of the economy, and if possible on profits that increase even faster than the growth. This leads inexorably to degradation of the environment, degradation of whatever values we may possess, and increasing stratification of society. It is simply not a stable economic system, or social system for that matter. It only works if you think only of yourself in the short run. I’m 72 years old, but I have three grandchildren aged 4, 2, and two months. They will be at my current age in some seventy years, say, in 2090. I won’t be around, but let’s hope they will be. If half of all the petroleum discovered has been consumed in the last half century or so, what will be the situation in 2090? A blog post is not a suitable forum for detailed discussion of the fate of the Earth, but it should be clear to anyone with an unbiased mind that it will not be good. The Left and the Right have the same goals regarding growth, they simply want different distribution of the result.

I believe we must discard rigid ideological positions about left and right, liberal and conservative, and come up with a new paradigm for sustaining the planet and its inhabitants, not just humans, but all inhabitants. An economic system must be devised that is not chained to expansion fueled by debt and credit. I can’t say what that system might turn out to be, but it most emphatically will not be capitalism in any form. Capitalism is driven by power, not by love, and by greed, not by compassion. This must change.

Guatemala and the Sins of Capitalism

This is not a post about Guatemala, not in particular. It’s about treachery. It seems there is no limit to the chicanery of modern capitalists. It is so tiresome writing on this blog, writing about things for which I feel I have a useful message, with virtually no one reading what I write, and yet continuing on, heedless of the pathetically ineffective results of my efforts.

Yet continue I must since, as the saying goes, hope springs eternal. Our disgusting politicians continue with their blatant lies about the benevolence of capitalism. Capitalism, provider of a cornucopia of bounty, provider of all things to all, provided they submit, submit to the demands of the capitalist credo. You want truth? The truth is, capitalism provides profits to capitalists. Period. Except for all of the serious destruction of lives and the planet that is concomitant to the profit-making.

Guatemala, home to descendants of the Maya peoples, has been subjected to the cruelties of the Guatemalan right and the North American monster for at least six decades, since Arbenz Guzman was forced to resign. The U.S. supported the overthrow of Guzman because of the land reforms he instituted, reforms that distributed large land holdings of the United Fruit Company to Guatemalan peasants. Guatemala was immersed in a brutal civil war for 36 years. Eventually Otto Pérez Molina, leader of the right wing Patriot Party, was elected president in November 2011. Molina has been accused of many atrocities, including genocide and torture during the civil war.

But all of this is introductory to this tale of the perversions of capitalism and corporations in present-day Guatemala and elsewhere around the globe. Scientific American, in an online article (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=biofuels-land-grab-guatemala&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_ENGYSUS_20120119) describes how land is being appropriated around the world for agribusiness. In Guatemala it has been largely for sugarcane and palm oil production. Elsewhere, confiscated land might be destined for food production, or for cash crops. It matters not, the land is taken with impunity, usually with the complicity of powerful local families or businesses. According to the Scientific American article, 56 million hectares (138 million acres) have been “negotiated” since 2008, with help from the IMF or the World Bank.

It is not my intent to simply relate the story already reported by Scientific American. I just want to reiterate my contention that capitalism is literally raping the poor of the Earth, reducing them to debt-slavery. Once the land is taken, the local peasants have no choice, if they want to survive, but to submit to the new masters of the land. If there is no choice, then this is servitude. Involuntary servitude is slavery.

The perpetrators of this outrage disingenuously claim that their objective is to create jobs! These jobs, of course, never appear. But here’s the really bad part, to my mind. None of this morally bankrupt activity would be worth doing if we in the “advanced” countries were not eager to take advantage of the “fruits” of this thievery. We think we cannot live without our cars and trucks, and abundant fuel to run them. We think we cannot live without fresh blueberries from the other side of the planet in February. We cannot live without the latest electronic gadgets, infantile as they so frequently are. We cannot live without huge televisions and the power to run them ten hours every day. We cannot imagine life without a cell phone. And on and on. I ask you, how did the human race survive without all these amenities?

Debt slavery? Us? Yes, for sure. Most Americans are deeply in debt, mortgage debt, credit card debt, all kinds of debt. We are dupes of the most infantile, naïve sort. We are literally led down the garden path by the corporate forces of capitalism. And we do it willingly! And that may just be a good thing. Why? The state, which is after all an arm of the corporate establishment, has a monopoly on power and violence. If we resist too vigorously, we will be dealt with harshly, if you catch my drift.

Etta James, 1938-2012

Etta James has died. My heart is heavy. May God bless her.

Rest in Peace.