Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence”–and the Mirror of Guilt

In The Look of Silence, over a decade in the making, Oppenheimer follows an Indonesian man, Adi Rukun, whose brother was violently murdered during a bloodbath under the military regime. In episode after episode, Adi calmly and impassively confronts the aging men who once orchestrated the mass killing that took his brother. He asks them, in simple words, to describe their role and react to the concept of moral responsibility. Many of the scenes are breathtaking.

When these men speak, the impulses of denial and self-justification are ever-present. The strength of The Look of Silence lies in showcasing the human condition to refuse guilt. Part of the shock of the documentary is that Adi is confronting the powerful in a society in which the perpetrators won and still reign supreme. This lies in stark contrast to similar scenes of moral culpability shown in the Nuremberg Trials or the Eichmann capture, in which those being interrogated had lost power and confront their guilt and their victims from a position of powerlessness.

Indonesia is a society still grappling with the living specter of the mass killings of the 60s and 70s (and in the case of East Timor until 1999). Much of the trauma and horror remains just under the surface. In one scene, a woman describes how proud she has always been of her father, who helped rid the country of Communists. When the father is prompted to speak, to describe his role in the events, what he says instantly shocks the daughter. He admits not only killing Communists en masse, but hacking them to death, one after the other, with a machete, and drinking two glasses of blood each night, apparently a local ritual of the killers, to embolden himself. The woman, his daughter, is horrified. With the camera still rolling, she attempts to recover from what she has just heard, to resituate her moral reading of her father and the history she had claimed to be so proud of. She appeals to Adi, asking forgiveness, asks that they be like family, that the ties of community be restored between them. Adi appears to accept.

In another scene, Adi, interviewing his maternal uncle, finds out he was complicit in the killings, having been conscripted as a guard. This is a fact neither Adi nor his mother were aware of. Adi suppresses his shock, and asks his uncle how responsible he feels for his complicity with the bloodbath and murder of Adi’s brother, Ramli. The uncle fervently insists on his blamelessness; he checks nearly all the boxes on the list of legitimation strategies: 1. It wasn’t me, I was just a guard. 2. I was just following orders. 3. I didn’t know what was happening. 4. They were guilty criminals anyway, since they denied God. Check, check, check, check.

Put abstractly, we have the familiar list of moral sidestepping, i.e. non-culpability by: 1. Insignificant role (I was just a tiny cog in a huge machine!). 2. Lack of agency or powerlessness (What could I have done?!) 3. Ignorance of atrocity (I didn’t know that this would happen!) 4. Moral high ground (But they were bad anyway, they deserved it in the end!). The only line missing is the the inevitability argument: if it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else.

Ask around in the aftermath of any atrocity, and these are the likely denial strategies. The uncle’s ability to move seamlessly from one to another breathtakingly showcases the human tendency to avoid looking in the mirror.

In yet another scene, Adi visits the family of a major killer, the leader of a commando group, who has recently passed away in his old age. Adi asks the family to reflect on the father’s role in the killings, and insists that he does not judge them. The killer’s family is totally uninterested in pursuing the matter, relentlessly repeating a statement of ignorance: we didn’t know, we don’t know anything about this. Adi soon produces a book the father wrote, which describes (and illustrates by hand) in detail the bloody murder of Ramli and others, who were tortured, hacked to pieces, and castrated before being dumped in the river. The family reacts with vigorous rejection–“we don’t know anything about this”–and promptly calls for Adi to leave. Joshua Oppenheimer, filming the scene, intervenes momentarily, producing a film clip of the father proudly presenting his book in the village street and proudly describing his role in the massacre in front of the camera (this was for Oppenheimer’s previous film, The Act of Killing [2013], in which he interviewed the killers and asked them to act out their atrocities). The family again vigorously protests, and pushes Adi to leave, insisting: “We don’t know anything about this.” The will to ignorance and denial in the face of complicity and moral guilt is often insurmountable, it seems.

The film uses several central metaphors to encapsulate its themes. Adi works professionally as an optometrist, testing patients for their clarity of vision and making them eyeglasses, so that they may better see what they look at. In many of the scenes, he is literally testing the eyes of the killers, finding out what prescription they need. It turns out that this was one of the ways he gained access to them, and it served as a tool to humanize the conversation even as it entered spaces of taboo and trauma and horror. Another central metaphor is the jumping beans, which Adi’s mother holds sometimes in her palm, asking: are you really in there? When will you come out? The beans move around, wobbling, clearly hiding an interior content that wishes to force itself out, to emerge. The trauma of the past, the truth, the conflict and tension between those living in the wake of such horror, this is the interior content that threatens, seeks to emerge, to produce, now metamorphosed, something beautiful or frightful. But will it emerge into a healing process or as an open wound leading to new cycles of trauma? Finally, there is Adi’s ancient father, who opens and closes the film. What does he remember? What traumas have sculpted his mind? What is he capable of doing?

*

The film opens up questions about history, trauma, and public memory. The educational system, we see in one prominent scene, is a prime vehicle for thought control. History and memory is controlled by the state; the pupils are shown scenes of gory violence and told that the perpetrators were “the Communists.” The military dictatorship, they are taught, saved them from this monstrosity. In the words of Orwell, “he who controls the present controls the past.”

The film also asks us to consider our own public memory. Have we looked into our own mirror? In one striking line of the film, one of the powerful killers reminds Adi that the American’s “taught us” to hate “the Communists.” The reference is likely to be missed by the typical American viewer, who probably knows little about his governments crucial support for the Indonesian dictatorship during the period of its worst atrocities. Once Suharto came to power, Indonesia quickly climbed to the position of one of the worst human rights violators on the planet. US support for the regime remained strong–and played a determinant role–throughout the period. While this is by now well known, during the period, the US role in supporting Indonesian atrocities was at first largely suppressed. What is surprising to some in the US is the fact that their government displayed no qualms about supporting the decades of brutality and war crimes of the Indonesian regime, constituting some of the worst crimes of the post-WWII era.

The US role has been most extensively documented by the National Archives Project here.

A sample 2006 report from Washington Post: “U.S. political and military support for Indonesia was vital to its ability to invade East Timor in December 1975 and to sustain a brutal 24-year occupation that cost the lives of at least 100,000 people [actual figures are much higher, at least 200,000. –N.], parts of a Timorese inquiry made public Tuesday show.”

Chomsky summarizes succinctly here, from 6:30-8:00.)

NPR summarizes the history:

Suharto’s regime was widely regarded as one of most corrupt and brutal of the 20th century. He came to power after a group of left-wing army officers and leaders of the Indonesian Communist Party tried to seize control in Jakarta. Suharto narrowly escaped the fate of many of his fellow generals who were assassinated during the uprising. In the coming days, he rallied loyal troops and crushed the uprising, massacring hundreds of thousands in the process….

During his years in office, Suharto brutally dealt with dissenters and was accused of siphoning off billions of dollars of state funds for himself, family and close associates.

… During the Cold War, Suharto’s anti-communist credentials made him a key U.S. ally; he enjoyed close relations with several U.S. administrations. In 2001, declassified documents confirmed a long-held suspicion that in a December 1975 meeting with President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Suharto was given the green light to invade the breakaway region of East Timor.

The NPR article doesn’t bother to list the dead from this invasion, armed and green-lighted by the US, which is over 200,000. Discussing the US role–not complicity but active and determinant support–for these crimes apparently lies beyond the moral standard of NPR.

But beyond the specific horrors of the US-supported Suharto regime in Indonesia, Americans have plenty of mirror-gazing to do. The truth and reconciliation process, the grappling with moral culpability, the willingness to apologize and pay reparations–these tools of delving into one’s past have not been used. The victims of US crimes must usually remain silent, or content themselves with a brief nod toward “our errors.” This certainly goes for the grand crimes of the native American genocide and the centuries of brutal chattel slavery; the Japanese victims of US atomic bombs; the 3-4 million Indochinese killed by American aggression in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam; without speaking of the consequences of US actions in Latin America. It is only by our willingness to look into the mirror, to admit our guilt for these crimes, that we will be positioned to prevent such crimes in the future.

Published Commentary on Look of Silence

Washington Post

“What does 50 years of living in fear do to a human being?” Oppenheimer asked an opening-night crowd in New York. The question was rhetorical but brought the director around to an oft-cited quotation, from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” …

As the filmmaker discovered as he met dozens of perpetrators living freely with no repercussions, Indonesia was something like Germany after World War II, but with the Third Reich still in power. “ ‘What if Nazis had won?’ may not be the exception to the rule, it may be the rule itself,” he said, speaking in an earlier conversation. “I knew I’d make a second film about what it’s like for survivors to have to live in such a regime.”

AJA

“Why should I remember if remembering only breaks my heart?” a former Indonesian death squad member croons, badly, into a karaoke machine at the beginning of “The Look of Silence,” director Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest documentary to delve into Indonesia’s genocidal past.

Maybe for the singer there is reason to forget — he did, after all, take part in slaughter.

But in the film, Adi Rukun, an empathetic optician, sits silently in a slatted wooden chair and watches footage of the singing genocidaire, trying to understand what happened in 1965. His brother, Ramli, was one of an estimated 1 million Indonesians killed in the wave of anti-communist violence that gripped the Southeast Asian nation in 1965-66.

Fifty years on, Ramli’s murder and its effects on Adi and his family form the centerpiece of “The Look of Silence,” the follow up to 2012’s “The Act of Killing” — a film that looked at the Indonesian genocide through the eyes of the perpetrators….

Ramli’s death was brutal. In 1965, in the Indonesian province of North Sumatra, Rami was released from a political prison and handed over to members of a local paramilitary group. The militia members beat him, sliced him with a machete, stabbed him in the stomach and loaded him onto the back of a truck with other suspected communists.

Despite his wounds, Ramli rolled himself out of the moving truck, escaping the fate of fellow prisoners in the vehicle: being hacked to death and then thrown into Snake River.

More than 10,000 Indonesians were killed along that stretch of water in 1965, a fraction of the estimated 1 million Indonesians slaughtered in the anti-communist purges, which cleared the way for 31 years of dictatorship under General Suharto.

Ramli’s reprieve was brief. He crawled to his parents’ house, only for the militia to arrive the following morning.

The death squad members lied to his mother, telling her they wanted to take him to a nearby hospital. Ramli’s mother relented, giving up her son, fully aware he wasn’t headed for medical care.

The paramilitaries beat, stabbed and left Ramli to die in a field. Ramli continued to yell in agony and call for help. He raised such din that the paramilitary members had to return, where they finally finished the job (supposedly by hacking off Ramli’s penis and letting him bleed out)….

“This was a desperate bid to make peace with his neighbors — to somehow end the fear he and his parents have been living with for decades,” Oppenheimer said of Adi. But remorse from Ramli’s killers never comes.

“The Look of Silence” doesn’t just highlight the lies individuals tell themselves so they can live with their misdeeds; it examines how a nationwide deceit that pardons mass murder is passed on through education.

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Greece, cont’d

Financial Times reports:

Greece’s anti-austerity government scored a decisive victory in Sunday’s referendum as voters backed its call to reject a compromise with international creditors, raising serious doubts about the country’s ability to remain inside the eurozone.

The No camp won 61.3 per cent of the vote and was victorious in every region of the country, a remarkable political exploit by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

So the gambit is potential working in Tsipras/Varoufakis’s favor, though much remains unclear. The goal is obviously to find a way to effectively pressure the Troika into agreeing to restructure Greek debt. Whether this move will succeed in doing so is totally unclear, with many analysts suggesting that Syriza is failing in its objectives. Yves Smith wrote a strong critique of the recent moves by Athens, whose tactics she sees as a failure:

the [European Central Bank] has now laid siege to the Greek economy. There is no scenario under which it will not prevail. If it shows any mercy, it is because it is to the ECB’s benefit, not Greece’s. The open question is whether the ECB breaks more banks than it intends to or forces a Grexit by accident.

The ECB’s incentives are to get a government that the Eurozone leaders deem to be workable in place. That means one with Syriza out or in a very diminished position, while keeping Greece in the Eurozone, since a Grexit entails unnecessary risks and complications and would therefor be best avoided.

Should Greece actually leave the EU then? This is a question on everyone’s lips. The consequences of doing so are difficult to predict with strong accuracy, but they are almost certain to be dismal, beginning with the overnight failure of the Greek banking system. Restarting the economy after exiting the Eurozone might prove a worse fate than staying the the Eurozone and facing further austerity, itself a recipe for economic disaster. Here again is Yves Smith:

The problem with a lot of the cheerleading for an exit (see the comments section of Joseph Stiglitz’s piece in the Guardian for some good examples) is that they conflate the idea of an exit in theory with the reality of an exit in the current real-world case. The two are not the same.

I see exit as being the equivalent of surgery. The patient may be very ill, but it matters a great deal who performs the surgery and under what conditions. In this particular case, the surgeon is inexperienced if not downright naive, the timetable is too short, and the conditions are precarious. With a competent government, significant lead-time, and an economy not on the brink of collapse, exit may be net beneficial; under the current circumstances, though, it could turn out to be a total catastrophe.

…As horrible as things will become, a Grexit will only be worse. None of the economists blithely recommending a Grexit have bothered to examine payment systems issues, what it takes to do software development in a mission critical setting (which payment systems are), how hard, time consuming and costly it is to resolve banks and introduce a new currency, and how an economy goes into free fall when you can’t import due to banking system failures and/or payment system issues. And that means you need to look at imports in detail and what happens if you don’t get them or can’t buy much/enough of them. Greece will have trouble fending off starvation for at least a year, for starters.

In other words, there’s a reason the Greek government says “no Grexit”. It’s not just to appease the voters. It’s also that some of the officials, particularly Varoufakis, understand or at least have a sense of what a catastrophe it would be.

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Greece, cont’d

New York Times

Yanis, if you keep talking about the debt, a deal will be impossible, Mr. Dijsselbloem said, according to people who were briefed on the exchange between the two men. …

But Mr. Varoufakis persisted on the issue of Greece’s staggering debt load, ignoring the admonitions of Mr. Dijsselbloem and others.

Then Mr. Varoufakis turned on Christine Lagarde, the French director of the I.M.F.

Five years ago, the fund had given its blessing to the first bailout, doling out loans alongside Europe despite internal misgivings that Greece would be in no position to repay them.

Now the I.M.F. was pushing Greece to sign up to yet another austerity program to access more loans even though the fund had now concluded that their initial misgivings were correct: Greece’s debt was unsustainable.

I have a question for Christine, Mr. Varoufakis said to the packed hall: Can the I.M.F. formally state in this meeting that this proposal we are being asked to sign will make the Greek debt sustainable?

Yanis has a point, Ms. Lagarde responded — the question of the debt needs to be addressed. …

But before she could explain, she was interrupted by Mr. Dijsselbloem.

It’s a take it or leave it offer, Yanis, the Dutch official said, peering at him through rimless spectacles.

Varoufakis obviously has a point. How can Greece be expected to make good on debts that everyone has known are beyond its means? Why bury Greece in further loans when there is no proposal for a way out? Moreover, the troika–IMF, EU CB, and European Commission–have been giving mixed and contradictory messages. The same day that Tsipras proposed a Greek referendum, the IMF was producing an analysis the bolstered Athens’s claims–Greece cannot be expected to meet its obligations without substantial debt relief. According to the Financial Times, the IMF is now agreeing with the call to restructure Greek debt:

Greece needs more than €60bn in new financial help over the next three years and faces decades under a daunting mountain of debt that will make it vulnerable to future crises, the International Monetary Fund has warned.

In a new analysis that lays out Greece’s economic dilemma in stark terms, the IMF on Thursday called for Europe to grant the country “comprehensive” debt relief, arguing for the doubling of the maturities on its debts from 20 to 40 years.

The fund’s assessment is likely to provide succour to the Syriza-led government which is campaigning for a No vote in a referendum on Sunday.

Any success in Greece at resisting austerity measures and pushing back against the EU troika may well spill over into other EU countries–one reason the EU elites probably intend to make an example out of Greece. (FT):

Enrico Letta, Italy’s former prime minister, told Avvenire, a Catholic newspaper, that the Greek crisis could potentially “pave a motorway for the affirmation of populism” in the eurozone’s third-largest economy — particularly if Greece’s travails spread and quash Italy’s tentative recovery.

Vincenzo Scarpetta, an analyst at the Open Europe think-tank, agreed. “Italy is possibly the eurozone country where political contagion would be the most significant,” he said. “If Greece leaves the eurozone, then eurozone membership is not irreversible,” he warned.

Mr Grillo’s party is already Italy’s second strongest, representing nearly a quarter of voters, according to the latest opinion polls, and is particularly excited by the Greek vote because it, too, has long argued for an Italian referendum on euro membership.

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Bernie Sanders 2016

First the good:

Senator Bernie Sanders held a rally at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, on Wednesday, and you would have thought he was Beyoncé or One Direction by the size of the crowd and the utterly overwhelmed and excited faces in it. …sanders2

The Sanders campaign also released its fund-raising numbers today, a day after Clinton’s campaign announced it had raised about $45 million since April. He has raised about $15 million since beginning his campaign. The average donation was $33.51, according to the Washington Post, and he received money from about 250,000 supporters.

During the hour-long speech in Madison, Sanders discussed paid leave, free tuition at state universities, getting rid of Citizens United, single-payer health care, civil rights, and Scott Walker, the governor of the state he was speaking in (and a potential presidential candidate). “I know that Governor Walker may disagree but, to my mind,” Sanders said, “the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage which must be raised.” (nymag)

Guardian:

Sanders, a 73-year-old self-described democratic socialist, is trying to appeal to the most liberal Democrats with his message of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, bridging the gap between rich and poor, criminal justice reform and raising taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street.sanders

Criticisms:

Sanders has seen his numbers rise in New Hampshire, but so far he lags well behind Clinton in Iowa. Just 2% of Democrats said he’s the best positioned to win against a Republican in 2016, according to a new CNN poll. And his diehard support may be confined to liberal enclaves like Madison.

But by attracting massive crowds, Sanders can build a movement around him and present the impression of momentum as he campaigns for wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond.

The giant rallies also offer a fundraising opportunity for Sanders, whose staffers collected names of attendees as they entered the arena. His campaign says he’s attracted 200,000 donors so far, most of them small, and will need a to keep firing up a national donor base to fuel his campaign.

“I’ve been frustrated for the last several years and he’s like a lone wolf out there for people with no voice,” said Todd Osborne of Madison.

Erika Hanson said too many Democrats, including Clinton, too often to do the bidding of corporations. “As far as I’m concerned he’s the only person who cares about the middle class,” she said.

Supporters here are hopeful he can beat Clinton, but most said they would vote for Clinton if she were the Democratic Party’s nominee next year.

The sea of faces skewed heavily white. Sanders, who hails from a state with a population that is 95% white, has acknowledged that most Democrats of color are unfamiliar with his message and vowed to address it.

More criticism:

[T]he foundational flaws in Sanders’ candidacy are pretty easy to spot. Sanders may be polling well in mostly white New Hampshire, but he hasn’t been able to figure out how to earn more than 5 percent of the nonwhite vote, according to national polls. Nonwhite voters make up more than a third of Democratic primary voters nationally.

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine why someone who has described himself as a socialist, has never competed for minority voters and has no roots within the Democratic Party should worry Clinton much. She might actually be relieved to be challenged by someone who has so little chance at winning the nomination. Let’s imagine a case where Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire. In that world, you’d likely see the Democratic establishment rush in to try to squash Sanders, much as Republicans did to Newt Gingrich in 2012 after he won South Carolina. (fivethirtyeight)

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Modern Money Analysis: Do Governments Function Like Households?

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On Greece, the Eurozone, and the Referendum

The EU is an institution that can overcome national democratic power using economic leverage. We are seeing this play out currently in the question of the “Grexit,” the Greek exit from the Eurozone. Greece has been strong-armed into destroying its economy in order to preserve the fortunes of European elites. Greece now faces a turning point: refuse to continue complying and face potentially immense devastation as it suddenly restructures its banking system and begins the long process of rebuilding, or consent to further economic destruction in the form of austerity.

Joseph Stiglitz:

European leaders are finally beginning to reveal the true nature of the ongoing debt dispute, and the answer is not pleasant: it is about power and democracy much more than money and economics.

the economics behind the programme that the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) foisted on Greece five years ago has been abysmal, resulting in a 25% decline in the country’s GDP. I can think of no depression, ever, that has been so deliberate and had such catastrophic consequences: Greece’s rate of youth unemployment, for example, now exceeds 60%.

It is startling that the troika has refused to accept responsibility for any of this or admit how bad its forecasts and models have been. But what is even more surprising is that Europe’s leaders have not even learned. The troika is still demanding that Greece achieve a primary budget surplus (excluding interest payments) of 3.5% of GDP by 2018.

Economists around the world have condemned that target as punitive, because aiming for it will inevitably result in a deeper downturn….

We should be clear: almost none of the huge amount of money loaned to Greece has actually gone there. It has gone to pay out private-sector creditors – including German and French banks….

But, again, it’s not about the money. It’s about using “deadlines” to force Greece to knuckle under, and to accept the unacceptable – not only austerity measures, but other regressive and punitive policies. …

concern for popular legitimacy is incompatible with the politics of the eurozone, which was never a very democratic project. Most of its members’ governments did not seek their people’s approval to turn over their monetary sovereignty to the ECB. When Sweden’s did, Swedes said no. They understood that unemployment would rise if the country’s monetary policy were set by a central bank that focused single-mindedly on inflation (and also that there would be insufficient attention to financial stability). The economy would suffer, because the economic model underlying the eurozone was predicated on power relationships that disadvantaged workers….

It is hard to advise Greeks how to vote on 5 July. Neither alternative – approval or rejection of the troika’s terms – will be easy, and both carry huge risks. A yes vote would mean depression almost without end. Perhaps a depleted country – one that has sold off all of its assets, and whose bright young people have emigrated – might finally get debt forgiveness; perhaps, having shrivelled into a middle-income economy, Greece might finally be able to get assistance from the World Bank. All of this might happen in the next decade, or perhaps in the decade after that.

By contrast, a no vote would at least open the possibility that Greece, with its strong democratic tradition, might grasp its destiny in its own hands. Greeks might gain the opportunity to shape a future that, though perhaps not as prosperous as the past, is far more hopeful than the unconscionable torture of the present.

Paul Krugman:

It has been obvious for some time that the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake. Europe never had the preconditions for a successful single currency — above all, the kind of fiscal and banking union that, for example, ensures that when a housing bubble in Florida bursts, Washington automatically protects seniors against any threat to their medical care or their bank deposits….

Greece should vote “no,” and the Greek government should be ready, if necessary, to leave the euro.

To understand why I say this, you need to realize that most — not all, but most — of what you’ve heard about Greek profligacy and irresponsibility is false. Yes, the Greek government was spending beyond its means in the late 2000s. But since then it has repeatedly slashed spending and raised taxes. Government employment has fallen more than 25 percent, and pensions (which were indeed much too generous) have been cut sharply. If you add up all the austerity measures, they have been more than enough to eliminate the original deficit and turn it into a large surplus.

So why didn’t this happen? Because the Greek economy collapsed, largely as a result of those very austerity measures, dragging revenues down with it.

And this collapse, in turn, had a lot to do with the euro, which trapped Greece in an economic straitjacket. Cases of successful austerity, in which countries rein in deficits without bringing on a depression, typically involve large currency devaluations that make their exports more competitive.

The problem with Grexit has always been the risk of financial chaos, of a banking system disrupted by panicked withdrawals and of business hobbled both by banking troubles and by uncertainty over the legal status of debts. That’s why successive Greek governments have acceded to austerity demands, and why even Syriza, the ruling leftist coalition, was willing to accept the austerity that has already been imposed. All it asked for was, in effect, a standstill on further austerity.

But the troika was having none of it. It’s easy to get lost in the details, but the essential point now is that Greece has been presented with a take-it-or-leave-it offer that is effectively indistinguishable from the policies of the past five years.

This is, and presumably was intended to be, an offer Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, can’t accept, because it would destroy his political reason for being. The purpose must therefore be to drive him from office, which will probably happen if Greek voters fear confrontation with the troika enough to vote yes next week.

But they shouldn’t, for three reasons. First, we now know that ever-harsher austerity is a dead end: after five years Greece is in worse shape than ever. Second, much and perhaps most of the feared chaos from Grexit has already happened. With banks closed and capital controls imposed, there’s not that much more damage to be done.

Finally, acceding to the troika’s ultimatum would represent the final abandonment of any pretense of Greek independence. Don’t be taken in by claims that troika officials are just technocrats explaining to the ignorant Greeks what must be done. These supposed technocrats are in fact fantasists who have disregarded everything we know about macroeconomics, and have been wrong every step of the way. This isn’t about analysis, it’s about power — the power of the creditors to pull the plug on the Greek economy, which persists as long as euro exit is considered unthinkable.

Costas Panayotakis:

For a long time, Syriza had been making significant concessions to the eurozone’s austerity agenda. I mean, the final offer that the Greek side made, you know, had made significant concessions when compared to the platform of the party. I mean, this is—we are talking about a country that has over 25 percent unemployment, and yet the Greek government was willing to basically propose budget surpluses. I mean, this is a policy—this is not wild leftist. This is a policy well to the right of Keynesian economics. But unfortunately in the eurozone today, there is no real democracy, because basically Keynesianism is bound out of court, and basically what would be a policy that would appeal to the far right of the Republican Party in the U.S. is the only economic policy that is allowed by the eurozone, even though this policy is basically destroying European societies. And Greece is a good example of that. …

My book was a critique of neoclassical economics, which is based on the concept of scarcity and argues that basically the free market is the best way to make effective use of scarce resources. And what we’ve seen, of course, with the Greek crisis is a precise refutation of this claim. An economy where 25 percent of the labor force cannot find a job, even though they need to, they want—they would love to work, obviously, it’s not going to—it’s not an efficient economy. An economy where, you know, the most educated young people have to leave the country, after the country invested in their education, and go somewhere else is clearly not an efficient economy. So, even though my book was not specifically on Greece—it did mention Greece, but it was not just on Greece—I think Greece is a good example of how mythical the neoliberal claim is that free markets lead to efficient use of scarce resources.

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Piketty, Krugman, Stiglitz on Current Economics

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Gay Rights and the Expansion of the Moral Sphere

The advance in gay right in the US represents the continued expansion of the moral sphere and the protection of forms of life previously marginalized and repressed. To see this, one has only to consider the prospects for gay life a century ago compared to today. The protections of the civil rights of gay people is part of the ongoing advance of rights in the US.

Today’s New York Times does a good job showing that progress is part of an ongoing marathon. When a battle is won, we proceed directly to the next front:

Exhilarated by the Supreme Court’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, gay rights leaders have turned their sights to what they see as the next big battle: obtaining federal, state and local legal protections in employment, housing, commerce and other arenas, just like those barring discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin.

While a major victory has been scored, gay people still face major discrimination and bigotry, and can often be made into second-class citizens. Many states, such as Tennessee, still allow open discrimination against gay people. Other states offer protections against bigotry.

At least 22 states bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, and most of them also offer protections to transgender people.

Tennessee is one of the majority of states that do not bar such discrimination. There, in East Nashville, Tiffany Cannon and Lauren Horbal thought they had found the perfect house to share with a friend, and the landlord seemed ready to rent when they applied in April.

Then he called them to ask what their relationship with each other was, Ms. Horbal, 26, recalled.

She said that when the landlord learned that she and Ms. Cannon, 25, were partners, he said, “I’m not comfortable with that.” He refused to process their application, even after they offered to raise their rent by $150, to $700 a month, Ms. Horbal said.

The women, both restaurant workers, are still looking for a place to live.

The inconsistency among the states on a question of basic rights calls for a federal-level policy governing the matter. Anti-gay advocates insist that they have the right to discriminate because this is part of the belief system, and they cannot be made to “violate” their beliefs by serving gay people. The moral poverty of this proposition becomes obvious if we change the terms from “gay” to “black” or “Jewish” or “female.” If the landlord in the example above were “uncomfortable” with renting to one of these identity categories, there would be an uproar. Or, more likely, it wouldn’t happen in the first place because of laws protecting Jews, blacks, and women against such second-class treatment.

Other forms of discrimination result merely from typical bigotry:

Patricia Dawson of Pangburn, Ark., 46, hopes to join that list. Ms. Dawson, who grew up as Steven, had more than 15 years’ experience as an industrial electrician and had been a rising employee at H & H Electric, an industrial contractor, for four years when she informed her boss in 2012 that she was transitioning to female and had changed her name.

The boss, she said in a Title VII-based lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, told her to keep her plans secret and not to “rock the boat” with clients.

When her identity became obvious and gossip raged at the work site, she said, the boss said to her, “I’m sorry, Steve, you do great work, but you are too much of a distraction, and I am going to have to let you go.”

There is a tension brewing between state and the federal government, with the latter playing a long strategy of slowly amping up the federal protections of gays:

Although a majority of states lack such protections, federal orders and court decisions, especially in employment, are gradually offering more safeguards.

With executive orders last year, President Obama barred discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal agencies and federal contractors, including companies employing about one in five American workers, Mr. Sears said.

At the same time, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing federal law in the workplace, has determined that discrimination against gay men, lesbians and transgender people amounts to illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and it is bringing or endorsing lawsuits under that provision.

The battle terrain is thus emerging clearly, with an religious conservatives on one side, insisting they have a right to discriminate based on religious grounds, since God is so clearly on their side, and civil rights advocates, claiming that all identity categories, from gender to race to sexuality should be protected against discrimination.

“People are going to realize that you can get married in the morning and be fired from your job or refused entry to a restaurant in the afternoon,” Mr. Merkley said. “That is unacceptable.”

But the effort will take years, he said, because it appears unlikely that Republican committee heads in Congress will advance such a bill.

In the emerging state-by-state battles for antidiscrimination laws, the strongest opposition has come from conservative religious groups that have been alarmed by a few well-publicized cases, like that of a florist in Washington State who was fined for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

“We’ve got good reason to be concerned about these laws, because they’ve been found to be coercive where they’ve been enacted,” said Greg Scott, vice president of communications at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group.

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What is Close Reading?

I spent several years of graduate school practicing a technique of literary analysis that my professors called “close reading.” At first I assumed there was something marvelous in the technique, tracing the footsteps of Spitzer, Auerbach, Trilling, Barthes, and other giants of literary criticism. However, as I continued my work in literary analysis, reading increasingly widely outside of my discipline, I became skeptical of this technique and its supposed majesty. Here are some thoughts.

As far as I can tell, “close reading” actually means “careful reading,” and the so-called “method” of doing this reduces to a free-association discussion of a textual passage, without purpose beyond “explaining” what is in the “text.” The text must be endlessly “explained,” its deep, secret meaning uncovered; the virtuoso of the analyst lies in noticing minutia, making clever connections, and bringing in the relevant set of literary discourse terms, social theory concepts, and impressive name-droppings to bolster the discussion.

“Close reading” serves the function of what was known 70 years ago as poetics, rhetoric, and stylistics. It is the inheritor of these traditions. The point is to get people to pay attention to the details of a text’s construction: punctuation; layout; structure; allusions and associations; repetitions or echoing; stylistic allusions or implications; word choice; discourse type; possible reasons for the choices made or sources for the text’s style and content.

In typical college close reading, the text is treated like a painting, and commented at substantial length by the commenter (close reader). This emerged from the reading of poetry, where such minute attention to a minutely crafted text is often warranted. It is also warranted in the case of painting, where the artist very carefully made choices about how to put together the piece (think of David’s Intervention of the Sabine women, which took him four years to complete).

In the case of prose, however, this level of minute scrutiny is not usually useful, except as a technical exercise to train students to notice things they might otherwise be unconscious of. As far as serious analysis goes, however, I don’t see the point really. I think it’s often inimical, in fact, because it encourages people to be irrational about the text, to pontificate about items that don’t really matter, to make claims that are irrelevant, and generally to just ramble on about arbitrary observations or unimportant ideas. If you doubt this point, read the work of literature professors in publications like the PMLA or Representations.

This kind of reading treats the text as an end in itself. Instead of seeking to make a claim or answer a question, so-called close readings start with the questions, What does this say? What is the hidden, deeper meaning here? Clearly, one could always pose this question to any text at any time, and do a “close reading.” You could pose this question to a DVD manual. This is not in itself an interesting operation, except as a technical exercise. Worse, it is likely to lead in wrong directions, since it begins with the questionable assumption that a given passage actually possesses some deep, secret meaning underneath its apparent meaning. Such an assumption is an invitation to free associate, like a Freudian approach to reading dreams. This is the opposite of a serious analytical approach, which begins with questions that matter, and then seeks to answer them.

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Common Sense Economics

Videos

Dean Baker lays out some of the basics behind what matters in the economy:

This excellent documentary, featuring a range of analysts and commentators, offers an incisive view into the major business structure of the contemporary age, and its consequences on society:

Books

In truly random order, here are some books that I have found especially useful in understanding and contextualizing economics.

Joseph Stiglitz, Economics of the Public Sector.

Douglas Dowd, ed., Understanding Capitalism: Critical Analysis from Karl Marx to Amartya Sen.

Fred Block, Postindustrial Possibilities: A Critique of Economic Discourse.

Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule.

Robin Hahnel, The ABCs of Political Economy.

Joel Baker, The Corporation. (Extension of the excellent documentary by the same name.)

Douglas Dowd, Capitalism and Its Economics, A Critical History.

Warren Mosler, The 7 Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy.

Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans.

Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.

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US Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria–Recent Data

Chris Woods is keeping extensive records and aggregated data of “US and allied air strikes” in Iraq/Syria here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1gswM0MC1_tBDnLWQWUy3DQSGYHdshxAh2mlj4Cw3K-4/edit

Credit: CNN

Current Figures

Below information is from the Woods database referenced above.

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After Destroying Gaza, Israel’s Benevolence

After destroying Gaza, Israel is generously letting some of the desperately needed reconstruction materials trickle through. One recalls Moshe Dayan’s quip that  Palestinians refusing submit to Israel will be forced to “live like dogs.”

Haaretz:

“Alaa Radwan, head of the Popular Committee for Monitoring the Reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, makes a simple calculation: “Given the pace at which construction materials are currently entering Gaza, it will be at least 20 years” before the damage caused by this summer’s war is repaired.”

“the quantities approved – some 40 truckloads of cement, iron and gravel (alongside 400 truckloads of other goods) – are far from sufficient; Gaza is thought to need about 6,000 tons of cement a day. Moreover, the supervisory process is so long and cumbersome that it is seriously delaying the reconstruction work.

“For instance, anyone whose house was damaged must submit an application detailing the scope of the damage and the amount of compensation sought. Representatives of the UN Office for Project Services, which is in charge of supervising the reconstruction, must then visit the house, reassess the damage, estimate the amount of construction materials needed and send a detailed list to the PA and Israel. The latter must approve both the project and the amounts.

“Once Israel gives its okay, the homeowner must sign a declaration that the materials will be used solely to rebuild his house. Only then will UNOPS give him vouchers to buy construction materials from one of Gaza’s major dealers.”

Financial Times:

The war left large swaths of Gaza in ruins and aid agencies have warned rebuilding would take many years without a relaxation of Israeli restrictions.

… Israel also said that in coming weeks it would allow the export of agricultural goods from Gaza to the West Bank, which it had prohibited for security reasons, hitting one of the few industries in the densely populated enclave able to sell its products abroad.

Israel said the first such transfer would include 15 tons of goods, mostly dates and sweet potatoes, but over time additional goods such as fish would be exported.

The National:

With 60,000 homes destroyed and more than 100,000 people homeless, this is a real emergency as winter draws closer. On the political front, two surprising elements are falling into place. The Palestinian national unity government, bringing together technocrats from the West Bank and Gaza under the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas – which previously existed only on paper – has been reaffirmed.

West Bank ministers travelled to Gaza yesterday to hold their first cabinet meeting there, symbolically ending Hamas’s absolute control of the territory. Hamas still controls the security forces in Gaza, however, and the unity agreement is lacking significant content.

Israel agreed to allow the ministers to travel to Gaza, reversing its previous rejection of the unity government, in accordance with its long-standing policy of isolating Hamas.

Foreign Policy:

The second floor of the al-Awda factory is covered in a sticky red liquid, as if a massacre had occurred here. The truth, happily, is much less gruesome: An Israeli tank shell had ripped open plastic cartons containing strawberry juice, which had been intended to be sold during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan — before the war intervened.

Until a month ago, this factory employed 600 people in the production of roughly 125 different snacks — everything from chocolate wafers to biscuits to ice cream. Now, it is gutted: The room that contained the milk, butter, and sugar is a sickly sweet ruin of charred parcels; a hole had been punched in one of the walls to create a makeshift slide that evacuated biscuits from an encroaching fire; the potato-chip machines imported from Europe have been ripped to pieces.

Mohammad al-Talbani, the factory owner, estimates that his production facility had been worth $30 million. It had been the work of his lifetime: He launched his business after finishing secondary school in the late 1960s, making sesame and coconut sweets by hand from his home in Gaza’s Maghazi refugee camp.

Talbani believes that his factory was not merely collateral damage in the ongoing war, but that the Israeli attack was part of a broader campaign of economic warfare on the residents of the Gaza Strip.

There had been no Hamas fighters anywhere near the factory when it was shelled, he insisted. “If someone had come here to launch a rocket, I’d shoot them myself,” he said.

… While Talbani’s claim is impossible to verify, nobody is denying the economic destruction in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority government has estimated that it could cost $6 billion to rebuild the territory: 50,000 homes have been totally or partially destroyed, roughly 250 factories have reportedly been rendered inoperable, and Gaza’s sewage treatment facility and power plant have been damaged, shrinking the available supply of drinkable water and creating a potential health crisis for residents.

… There are even more urgent problems, however, than the supply of cement. Gaza’s only power plant was hit during the war, leaving most residents with only two to four hours of electricity per day. Mauring estimated that before the war, Gaza received a total of about 300 megawatts of electricity from the plant and power lines from Egypt and Israel. Now, with the power plant offline and the electrical grid from Israel damaged, he said that Gaza is receiving about half of that.

The power plant isn’t only important for keeping the lights on. “The fact that the plant was hit means sewage pumps aren’t working, water pumps aren’t working,” said Nate McCray, a spokesman for Oxfam International. “So you see sewage and brackish water seeping up into the [refugee] shelters and contaminating the water systems.”

Mauring floated the possibility of bringing barge-mounted power plants to the shores of Gaza while the plant is being repaired, which could take over a year. As the Israeli Navy controls access to the Palestinian territory by sea, however, this is yet another topic that will be subject to drawn-out negotiations.

 Electronic Intifada:

“We started building on 20 June,” says Mohammed al-Sheikh Eid, a consultant engineer with Gaza’s Ministry of Interior. “Since this is the first time we’ve built something on this scale with mud bricks, we can’t estimate exactly how much longer it will take to complete. Maybe another two months or so.”

He is confident, however, that they will finish before the winter rains begin.

Since the war on Gaza ended, a number of houses have been built using mud to create simple, square, two or three-room homes. The new Sheikh Zayed police station is one of the larger and more ambitious projects.

… “The mud bricks take between one and two weeks to cast and dry,” he says, gesturing at the rows of bricks drying in the sun. “Each brick costs roughly one shekel [a quarter of a dollar] to make.”

Al-Khalout says the clay is brought from a nearby area of Beit Lahiya, and the straw comes from local farmers. “We will put plaster on the roof, to seal it and protect it from rain.”

Wood is temporarily used to buffer ceiling arches and windows until the clay mortar hardens. The wood is then removed and used elsewhere in the same manner.

Apart from these wood bracings, conventional and excessively expensive building materials are not used.

Cement smuggled in via the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza is as much as ten times the pre-siege price. A ton of cement costs 3,400 shekels ($850), compared to the 350 shekels it cost prior to June 2007.

Husam Toubil from the United Nations Development Programme says Gaza requires 50,000 tons of cement to rebuild destroyed homes, and 41,000 tons for public buildings.

… In an enclosed Strip where unemployment is near 50 percent and poverty has reached 90 percent, according to a recent UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCATD) report, the workers will brave the heat for the chance to earn 40 shekels a day.

Since the siege on Gaza tightened in June 2007, almost no construction materials have entered Gaza, according to the OCHA report. This is in comparison to the pre-attacks, pre-siege import levels of 7,400 trucks per month, from January to May 2007.

According to the United Nations Relief Web news, 3,900 truckloads entered Gaza from January to May 2007. Over the same period this year, six trucks were allowed in. These carried material for water projects, greatly in need and long awaiting completion.

… Over 20,000 Palestinians remain displaced in Gaza, with approximately 100 families still living in emergency tents provided by aid agencies.

PCHR also reports that 215 factories and 700 private businesses, 17 universities or colleges, 15 hospitals and 43 health care centers, and 58 mosques were destroyed or damaged during the attacks. The United Nations says that 298 schools were destroyed or damaged.

They all await reconstruction, as does Gaza’s shattered economy.

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Greenspan: “I Was Wrong”

I have been surprised in recent years to still encounter folks who have no idea what caused the financial collapse and who continue to proffer talking points about the virtues of the “free market” [1]. When I point out that even free-market ideology guru Alan Greenspan admitted that his ideology had a major flaw, I receive–shockingly–only blank stares in return.

This is major feat of indoctrination: despite the utter collapse of the financial system because of insufficient state intervention to stabilize it, and despite the admission by the preeminent guru of free market ideology that the ideology was wrong, the political class on the right remains ignorant of these basic facts.

For reference, here is the record on Greenspan.

“…in shocked disbelief…”

NY Times, Oct. 2008

For years, a Congressional hearing with Alan Greenspan was a marquee event. Lawmakers doted on him as an economic sage. Markets jumped up or down depending on what he said. Politicians in both parties wanted the maestro on their side.
But on Thursday, almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending.“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform…. “You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?”Mr. Greenspan conceded: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

Washington Post, columnist, 2006 [prior to US financial collapse], “Laissez-Fairest of Them All”:

A determination to substitute the wisdom of markets for the heavy hand of government runs through the Greenspan story.

… [P]erhaps Greenspan‘s most important contribution has been as the policymaker who, through the power of his office, the force of his intellect and the cunning of his behind-the-scenes maneuvering, engineered the wholesale deregulation of the U.S. banking and financial system. In this respect, his most enduring legacy is an American economy that is not only more prone to assets bubbles, corporate scandal and financial crises, but robust enough to absorb such shocks while continuing to deliver long-term economic growth.

The Washington Post in 2008:

The former chairman of the Federal Reserve said the crisis had shaken his very understanding of how markets work, and agreed that certain financial derivatives should be regulated — an idea he had long resisted.

… Yesterday, many members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee treated him as a hostile witness.“You found that your view of the world, your ideology was not right, it was not working?” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee chairman.

… With the global financial system unraveling, economists and political leaders are coming to doubt some of Greenspan‘s most closely held views: that markets can exact self-discipline, that central bankers should generally not try to prick bubbles in the price of houses or tech stocks, that a policymaker’s most powerful tool to encourage growth is to stay out of the way. Even Greenspan seemed genuinely perplexed yesterday by all that had happened, hard-pressed to explain how formerly fundamental truths about how markets work could have proved so wrong.“Absolutely, precisely,” Greenspan said.

The Guardian, 2008:

The former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, has conceded that the global financial crisis has exposed a “mistake” in the free market ideology which guided his 18-year stewardship of US monetary policy.

A long-time cheerleader for deregulation, Greenspan admitted to a congressional committee yesterday that he had been “partially wrong in his hands-off approach towards the banking industry and that the credit crunch had left him in a state of shocked disbelief. “I have found a flaw,” said Greenspan, referring to his economic philosophy. “I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.”

… he told the House oversight committee that he regretted his opposition to regulatory curbs on certain types of financial derivatives which have left banks on Wall Street and in the Square Mile facing billions of dollars worth of liabilities.

“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” said Greenspan.

… He suggested his trust in the responsibility of banks had been misplaced: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

The congressional committee’s Democratic chairman, Henry Waxman, pressed him: “You found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working?” Greenspan agreed: “That’s precisely the reason I was shocked because I’d been going for 40 years or so with considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

Here is an excerpt from a recent book by Nobel Laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz, providing context for the housing bubble and ensuing financial collapse:

Strikingly, the Fed and its chairman at the time, Alan Greenspan, didn’t learn the lessons of the tech bubble.  But this was in part because of the politics of “inequality,” which didn’t allow alternative strategies that could have resuscitated the economy without creating another bubble, such as a tax cut to the poor or increased spending on badly needed infrastructure.  This alternative to the reckless path the country took was anathema to those who wanted to see a smaller government—one too weak to engage in progressive taxation or redistributive policies.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt had tried these policies in his New Deal, and the establishment pilloried him for it.  Instead, low interest rates, lax regulations, and a distorted and dysfunctional financial sector came to the rescue of the economy—for a moment.

The Fed engineered, unintentionally, another bubble, this one temporarily more effective than the last but in the long run more destructive.  The Fed’s leaders didn’t see it as a bubble, because their ideology, their belief that markets were always efficient, meant that there couldn’t be a bubble.  The housing bubble was more effective because it induced spending not just by a few technology companies but by tens of millions of households that thought that they were richer than they were.  In one year alone, close to a trillion dollars were taken out in home equity loans and mortgages, much of it spent on consumption.  But the bubble was more destructive partly for the same reasons: it left in its wake tens of millions of families on the brink of financial ruin.  Before the debacle is over, millions of Americans will lose their homes, and millions more will face a lifetime of financial struggle.

Overleveraged households and excess real estate have already weighed down the economy for years and are likely to do so for more years, contributing to unemployment and a massive waste of resources.  At least the tech bubble left something useful in its wake—fiber optics networks and new technology that would provide sources of strength for the economy.  The housing bubble left shoddily built houses, located in the wrong places and inappropriate to the needs of a country where most people’s economic position was in decline.  It’s the culmination of a three-decade stretch spent careening from one crisis to another without learning some very obvious lessons along the way.

In a democracy where there are high levels of inequality, politics can be unbalanced, too, and the combination of an unbalanced politics managing an unbalanced economy can be lethal.

Notes

[1] Never mind that the free market is a term that is virtually without meaning outside of the world of economic theory, since there is no existing market system that does function with enormous state intervention and regulation, ranging from tariffs to patent law to immigration quotas to industry targets, subsidies, and tax exemptions (used as incentives or penalties for market practices). It has long been recognized by the business community that state intervention is a crucial factor in managing a stable economic system (this realization became policy with the business-driven New Deal policies, designed to stabilize the business system as well as satisfy some of the basic demands for a more human labor system). For further explanation and references on this point, see Columbia economist Ha-Joon Chang’s books Kicking Away the Ladder and Bad Samaritans. His points are excerpted here as well. A different approach to the same concept, using Polanyi, is developed here.

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Cost of New US War Front is Over Half a Billion Dollars–A Good Use of Public Funds?

An editorial today from the New York Times raises the issue of the cost of war to US taxpayers and the radically undemocratic processes by which the US is committed to ongoing planetary warfare in the 21st century. The Times:

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By How Much Would Walmart Need to Raise the Price of Macaroni to Pay Its Employees a Living Wage?

More references on this topic below.

Forbes:

Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report published to coincide with Tax Day, April 15.

Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state-level progressive groups, made this estimate using data from a 2013 study by Democratic Staff of the U.S. Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“The study estimated the cost to Wisconsin’s taxpayers of Walmart’s low wages and benefits, which often force workers to rely on various public assistance programs,” reads the report, available in full here.

EPI:

… between 2007 and 2010, while median family wealth fell by 38.8 percent, the wealth of the Walton family members rose from $73.3 billion to $89.5 billion. …

In 2007, it was reported that the Walton family wealth was as large as the bottom 35 million families in the wealth distribution combined, or 30.5 percent of all American families.

And in 2010, as the Walton’s wealth has risen and most other Americans’ wealth declined, it is now the case that the Walton family wealth is as large as the bottom 48.8 million families in the wealth distribution (constituting 41.5 percent of all American families) combined.

Politifact:

Six members of the Walton family appear on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans [in 2012]. Christy Walton, widow of the late John Walton, leads the clan at No. 6 with a net worth of $25.3 billion as of March 2012. She is also the richest woman in the world for the seventh year in a row, according to Forbes. Here are the other five:

No. 9: Jim Walton, $23.7 billion
No. 10: Alice Walton, $23.3 billion
No. 11: S. Robson Walton, oldest son of Sam Walton, $23.1 billion
No. 103: Ann Walton Kroenke, $3.9 billion
No. 139: Nancy Walton Laurie, $3.4 billionThat’s a grand total of $102.7 billion for the whole family.

Bloomberg:

America’s richest family, worth more than $100 billion, has exploited a variety of legal loopholes to avoid the estate tax, according to court records and Internal Revenue Service filings obtained through public-records requests. The Waltons’ example highlights how billionaires deftly bypass a tax intended to make sure that the nation’s wealthiest contribute their share to government rather than perpetuate dynastic wealth, a notion of fairness voiced by suppo

Forbes:

It was [in 2014] another record year for American wealth: The aggregate net worth of the richest 400 Americans was $2.29 trillion, up $270 billion from a year ago. It took a minimum net worth of $1.55 billion to make The Forbes 400, $250 million more than in 2013.
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On Israel’s President Rivlin–An Improvement, But Still Terrible

Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, made waves recently with his appraisal of the continued rise of racism in Israel. The Jerusalem Post reported on a conference entitled, in part, “Acceptance of the Other,” and which took place, ironically, on a Jabotinsky Street (named after the openly fascist Jewish supremacist who wrote openly about colonizing and excluding the native Arab population of Israel from any state-founding projects). Rivlin’s comments were reported as follows:

The time has come to admit that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment, President Reuven Rivlin said at the opening session on Sunday of a conference on From Hatred of the Stranger to Acceptance of the Other. …

Rivlin wondered aloud whether Jews and Arabs had abandoned the secret of dialogue. With regard to Jews he said: “I’m not asking if they’ve forgotten how to be Jews, but if they’ve forgotten how to be decent human beings. Have they forgotten how to converse?”

The longtime analyst of the Israel-Palestine Conflict Mitchell Plitnick has written a useful summary description of Israel’s new president. While still adhering to illegal and intolerable policies, Rivlin’s willingness to acknowledge some degree of Palestinian humanity is refreshing.

Here is Plitnick, describing both the good and the bad in Rivlin:

Rivlin opposes a Palestinian state and a two-state solution. He supports settlement activity. He believes Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. Yet he has also spoken out more forcefully than most Israeli politicians against what he himself has described as widespread “racism and arrogance” that Arabs encounter from Jews in Israel. He believes that Arabs should have the same rights under the law as Jews, and does not pretend that they do. He acknowledges the Arab connection to the land and strongly believes that Arabs are an indelible part of Israeli society that is being willfully marginalized, something that must be reversed. He believes in freedom of speech and that this freedom very much includes Palestinian views, as he demonstrated when he defended MK Hanan Zouabi from one of the many attempts by other Knesset members to boot her from office and even have her brought up on criminal charges.

Plitnick also offers useful contextualization for situating Rivlin in the recent generations of Israeli politicians, starting with the obvious fact that no party in Israel has been interested in permitting Palestinian statehood under any conditions or negotiating a peace deal. While Israeli domestic propaganda holds that the Labor party has long sought some kind of peace deal, this is a fairy tale. In reality, as Plitnick describes,

neither Labor nor Kadima was ever really serious about a two-state solution. Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” had the capital of Palestine being in Abu Dis, which they could rename Al Quds (the Arabic name of Jerusalem) if they wished, and offered next to nothing on refugees, while dividing the West Bank into three main Palestinian cantons barely connected by thin strips of territory. That was Labor’s big offer.

Kadima’s claims are a bit stronger, but still thin. Ariel Sharon, of course, formed Kadima in order to pursue his Gaza “disengagement” policy, in order, as Dov Weisglass so helpfully told us, to freeze the peace process regarding all the issues. His successor, Ehud Olmert, claims to have made a much stronger offer, which was thwarted by a combination of Abbas’ foot-dragging and the efforts of his own lead ministers, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, undermining his work.

What we know for certain is that current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been, by far, the most blatantly rejectionist of all Israeli Prime Ministers in the past twenty years, but all of them have seemed, to put it mildly, less than eager to strike a deal that could meet he bare minimum of Palestinian demands. And thus, the Oslo process collapsed.

Reuven Rivlin, a longtime leader of Likud politics was the Speaker of the Knesset and is now President of Israel. He had fallen out of favor in Likud because of his views on Palestinians, both in Israel and under the occupation. Netanyahu tried to prevent him from becoming president, despite the fact that the office is largely ceremonial. It is a platform from which ideas can be disseminated and injected powerfully into the public discourse in Israel. And Rivlin is using it.

[Rivlin’s] clear acknowledgment of the Kafr Kassem massacre of 1956, where 47 Arabs were slaughtered because they broke the curfew imposed on that village under Israel’s martial law. “Israel,” Rivlin said,  “must “look straight at what happened in the Kafr Qasem massacre and teach all future generations about it…A serious crime was committed here and needs to be repaired,” It seems like a small thing, but such a clear and unqualified admission from an Israeli leader is most unusual. It was not a tragedy or a symptom of a cycle of violence. It was a crime.

That the Palestinians’ humanity can get some form of acknowledgment by a Jewish Israeli politician is a welcome sign. That Rivlin’s policy positions continue to reflect an utter disregard for Palestinians’ rights–as well as for established international law–remains entirely unacceptable.

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Iraq War–From “Six Weeks” to War-Without-End

Murtaza Hussein makes the salient point that the US is still seeing military deaths over the Iraq War and its consequences. George W. Bush, and those who brought us that war, over utterly false pretenses, are responsible for all the deaths it has caused, on both sides of the battle line. They (and the US State) are also responsible for the havoc the Iraq War caused in the region, which is now in a state of dysfunction and turmoil as a direct result of the US intervention.

Last week, the Pentagon announced the death of the first American serviceman in the war against ISIS. Marine Lance Cpl. Sean Neal was killed in what was described as a “non-combat incident” in Iraq, making him the first American to die in “Operation Inherent Resolve” – America’s latest military excursion into that country.

Cpl. Neal was only 19 years old. He would have only been eight at the outset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and merely six on 9/11 – a child at the time of both these events.  The fact that he ended up losing his life in Iraq is on one hand tragic, and on the other completely absurd.

The tragedy here is that a young man with a long future ahead of him ended up dying in a distant country before even reaching the age of twenty. The absurdity is that men such as him are still losing their lives as a result of still-inexplicable decisions made over a decade ago. …

In this context it is stunning to remember the statements of those who assured us over a decade ago that the war in Iraq would take “weeks rather than months” to bring to its completion. The more cautious and conservative among them gave us an absolute maximum estimate of “five months” before we could go back to normalcy, and start watching America-friendly democracies begin to bloom across the Middle East. If this prediction had been in any way honest or correct, Cpl. Sean Neal may have been sitting in a college classroom today rather than lying in a flag-draped coffin on a military flight back home.

In brief, the US destabilized and dismantled a formerly stable and strong state, Iraq; caused conditions that created widespread ethnic cleansing and inflamed sectarian tensions; and left behind a dysfunctional (Iraqi) state incapable of policing itself internally or defending its borders, as well as a regional power vacuum.

Now ISIS has emerged. It is a largely opportunistic coalition of international fanatics alongside regional players with local concerns (such as Sunnis experiencing discrimination by the Maliki government).

With fanaticism, funding from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and battle experience emanatin from the Syrian conflict as well as the former Baathist army (stupidly disbanded by Paul Bremer during the US occupation), ISIS (a.k.a. IS, ISIL) has been an effective fighting force, deploying and attacking with unexpected alacrity and ferocity, and–here’s the clincher–often using captured American military equipment in its attacks. The US apparently shipped a ton of equipment to Iraq, compliments of US taxpayers, and left it in depots guarded by the dysfunctional, corrupt, poorly trained, unmotivated, and underpaid Iraqi military. So ISIS is now fighting Kurdish militias using top-notch US military equipment. The US vehicles, like armored humvees, have been put to especially effective use by ISIS, which uses them to rush through the front lines of their opposition and then attack from the rear.

The war-without-end scenario is now openly discussed in Washington as the norm for US foreign policy. Hussein points out that

One thing is certain … : [Marine Lance Cpl.] Neal won’t be the last [US citizen to die in Iraq]. Current and former American military officials are already preparing the public for a new conflict in Iraq – with scarcely suppressed and genuinely creepy elation – that they say will be “generational” and will take decades to bring to its completion.

Though his analysis is not keen, Christopher Hitchens appears to have been far more on the mark with this prediction:

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Learning About Columbus

Here is an encouraging student-produced video about high school students and teachers who decided to pierce through the textbook mythologies about Columbus and learn real history:

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On the Columbus Day v. Indigenous Peoples Day Debate

The second Monday of October is celebrated as Columbus Day. In some regions of the US, however, it has been rebaptized Indigenous Peoples Day. This lively debate, which takes place in the media, throughout the states, and in the practices and ideas of ordinary people, is part of the Great Debate of American History. What is true, what is good, how should we understand the past, and how should we understand ourselves?

Here are just a few examples of that debate of the past and present, of our own identity and values. Feel free to add your own ideas, comments, or sources below.

Patriotism or P.C.? A debate on Fox News.

http://nation.foxnews.com/2014/10/13/columbus-day-or-indigenous-peoples-day

Historian Kenneth Davis discusses the subject on CBS News.

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/is-it-time-to-say-goodbye-to-columbus-day/

The documentary 500 Nations offers its own take on Columbus and the “discovery” of the America.

And the History Channel, far too breathlessly and hastily, but nonetheless useful in its presentation, offers yet another take.

http://www.history.com/topics/exploration/columbus-day

And finally, here is an op-ed in the New York Times:

So why does the United States celebrate the guy who thought he found a nifty new route to Asia and the lands described by Marco Polo?” Mr. Wanjek wonders. “This is because the early United States was fighting with England, not Spain. John Cabot (a.k.a. Giovanni Caboto, another Italian) ‘discovered’ Newfoundland in England’s name around 1497 and paved the way for England’s colonization of most of North America,” he explains. “So the American colonialists instead turned to Columbus as their hero, not England’s Cabot. Hence we have the capital, Washington, D.C. — that’s District of Columbia, not District of Cabot.

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The New Jim Crow? (US Incarceration System)

INCARCERATION AND RACE

* 1 in every 14 black U.S. black men was imprisoned in 2001, compared with 1 in 106 white men.

* 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 35 was behind bars in 2006 and a much larger percentage was under parole, probation or some other form of penal control.

* The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its black population than did South Africa at the pinnacle of apartheid.

* In Washington D.C., home now to the nation’s first black president, 75 percent of young black men can expect to serve time in prisons.

* On any given day, nearly a third (30 percent) of black males ages 20 to 29 is under some form of correctional supervision.

* Blacks make up 12 percent of the overall U.S. population but account for more than 45 percent of the nation’s prisoners.

* One in three black U.S. adult males carries the lifelong mark of a felony record.

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According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, “mass incarceration” constitutes today “the single most damaging manifestation” of racial oppression in the U.S.

She lays out the case for this thesis in the first four minutes of the video below. (Note: the presentation after the 4-minute mark is presented in politically partisan terms, criticizing Republicans. Alexander criticizes Democrats even more severely, however, elsewhere [see below].)

MASS INCARCERATION AND “NEW JIM CROW”

Congressional Budget Office–“The Federal Population Buildup”

“Since the early 1980s, there has been a historically unprecedented increase in the number of inmates incarcerated in the federal prison system” (1). Between 1930 and 1980, “the federal prison population increased by approximately 12,000 inmates”; but between 1980 and 2013, the prison population increased to nearly 219,000, or “on average, by … 6,100 inmates each fiscal year” (1, 2). The trend has only been amplified, with the average yearly increase from 1990-2009 nearly double the yearly increase from 1980-1989 (2).

The “School to Prison Pipeline”

US Government v. City of Meridian, Mississippi (2012)

“Defendants … routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions …. Defendants do not afford children in the juvenile justice system even the minimum procedural safeguards required by the Constitution” (1). “Defendants … actions punish children … so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience, and deprive these children of liberty and educational opportunities on an ongoing basis.” “During the 2006 [through the first half of the] 2010 school years, all of the students referred to law enforcement by the District were black, all of the students expelled were black, and 96 percent of the students suspended were black” (8). “Defendants in this case collectively help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline”; “Meridian Police Department … arrests all students referred to [it] by the [school] District, which employs a system of severe and arbitrary discipline that disproportionately impacts black children” (9). “Meridian Police Department … responds to referrals of students from the [school]” involving behaviors “including disrespect, refusal to follow the directions of a teacher, and profanity” (11).

TIME

“What do these school kids have in common? The teenage girl with a bladder disorder who left class without permission, ignoring a teacher and racing for a bathroom rather than wet herself; the boy who was rude to a school administrator; another who was tardy. They are children of color who, as a result of breaking minor school rules, were allegedly arrested and thrown into a juvenile detention facility in Meridian, Mississippi. It appears to be the most blatant case in a nationwide phenomenon that the U.S. Department of Justice, in a 37-page lawsuit, calls a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Following an eight-month investigation and a two-month warning period, the Justice Department in October filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the Mississippi Department of Youth Services (DYS) and local Youth Court judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young for violating the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights of Meridian public school children.”

NAACP

‘ “The Meridian School District’s handling of school discipline that denied so many African-American children access to school parallels the segregation that was outlawed in the United States nearly 60 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education,” said Derrick Johnson, President of the Mississippi NAACP. He continues: “In Meridian, where officials fought ardently to block school integration in the 1960s, the unfair treatment of African-American schoolchildren is reminiscent of these historic battles over access to public education. This amendment to Meridian’s school desegregation order, Barnhardt and U.S. v. Meridian Municipal Separate School District, will, at long last, ensure that all of Meridian’s children are given a fair shot at getting an education and achieving their dreams.” …

‘ “Meridian was an egregious example of a school district running a ‘dual discipline system,’ where African-American schoolchildren were punished disproportionately, causing grave harm to the students. The school discipline was executed in a manner that is the modern manifestation of the “dual school system” that was prohibited by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education,” said human rights attorney, Shakti Belway, who worked closely with the families in Meridian.’

FELONY RECORDS–A NEW CASTE SYSTEM?

Northwestern University Sociology Study, “The Mark of a Criminal Record” (2003)

“With over 2 million individuals currently incarcerated, and over half a million prisoners released each year …. This article focuses on the consequences of incarceration for the employment outcomes of black and white job seekers. … The findings of this study [conducted in Milwaukee] reveal an important, and much underrecognized, mechanism of stratification. A criminal record presents a major barrier to employment, with important implications for racial disparities” (937).

“The expansion of the prison population has been particularly consequential for blacks. The incarceration rage for young black men in the year 2000 was nearly 10%, compared to just over 1% for white men int eh same age group. Young black men today have a 28% likelihood of incarceration during their lifetime, a figure that rises above 50% among young black high school dropouts” (939).

“[M]y interest here is in what might be termed the ‘credentialing’ aspect fo the criminal justice system. Those sent to prison are institutionally branded as a particular class of individuals–as are college graduates or welfare recipients …. The ‘negative credential’ associated with a criminal record represents a unique mechanism of stratification, in that it is the state that certifies particular individuals in ways that qualify them for discrimination or social exclusion” (942).

“[T]here is a large and significant effect of a criminal record [on successful employment outcomes], with 34% of whites without criminal records receiving callbacks [during the study], relative to only 17% of whites with criminal records. A criminal record thereby reduces the likelihood of callback [for whites] by 50%. …

“The effect of race in these findings is strikingly large. Among blacks without criminal records, only 14% received callbacks, relative to 34% of white noncriminals. In fact, even whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17% [callbacks]) than blacks without criminal records (14%)” (955, 957-58).

“No longer a peripheral institution, the criminal justice system has become a dominant presence in the lives of young disadvantaged men, playing a key role in the sorting and stratifying of labor market opportunities” (962).

Paul Street:

“Beyond sheer magnitude, a second aspect of America’s incarceration boom is its heavily racialized nature. On any given day, Chaiken reported, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 are “under correctional supervision” ‹either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. Especially chilling is a statistical model used by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine the lifetime chances of incarceration for individuals in different racial and ethnic groups. Based on current rates, it predicts that a young Black man age 16 in 1996 faces a 29 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life. The corresponding statistic for white men in the same age group is 4 percent.”

FELONY DISENFRANCHISEMENT

“Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions. Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in 1 of every 13 African Americans unable to vote.”

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Michelle Alexander, On Democrats and Incarceration:

“Democrats have actually been much worse than Republicans when it comes to the drug war. It was Bill Clinton who escalated the drug war far beyond what his Republican predecessor ever dreamed possible. And it was Bill Clinton and the so-called “new Democrats” who pushed through laws barring drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and barring drug felons from food stamps for the rest of their lives. Pregnant women, people with HIV and AIDS are barred even from receiving food stamps if they were caught with drugs and charged with a felony. Clinton, in his zeal to win over those so-called “white swing voters,” ramped up the drug war and “ended welfare as we knew it.” In my view, the movement that must be built has to fundamentally change the nature of our political system – not just get more Democrats in office.”

Crack v. Powder Cocaine

ACLU

“In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. The scientifically unjustifiable 100:1 ratio meant that people faced longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving the same amount of powder cocaine – two forms of the same drug. Most disturbingly, because the majority of people arrested for crack offenses are African American, the 100:1 ratio resulted in vast racial disparities in the average length of sentences for comparable offenses. On average, under the 100:1 regime, African Americans served virtually as much time in prison for non-violent drug offenses as whites did for violent offenses.”

Human Rights Watch, On the US Incarceration System

“The enormous prison population in the United States partly reflects harsh sentencing practices contrary to international law, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. The sentencing practices include disproportionately long prison terms, mandatory sentencing without parole, and treating youth offenders as adults. The US maintains the world’s largest incarcerated population, at 1.6 million, and its highest per capita incarceration rate.”

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Chinese Schools Attempt to Control Students’ Minds

Relocating the current row in Colorado over whether a local school board should be able to control educational curricula in the interest of specific ideological aims, let’s see how the same language sounds transported to, say, China (all quotes are real):

The official advocating curriculum change said: “I want to teach them [the students] that our country is a great place to live.”

The board sought changes that would “promote citizenship [and] patriotism” as well as “respect for authority,” among other aims.

The board held that all curriculum materials should be removed that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

When pressed, a board spokesperson clarified: “what I’m saying is let’s not encourage our children to disobey the law.”

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The problem here is the attempt to control minds. Instead of teaching children about the US or its economic system, the Jefferson Country school board wants to teach them what to think about the US and its economic system. This approach immediately devolves into mindless propaganda and chauvinistic nationalism, brought within the framework of education. So what the school board is actually trying to do is propagandize children and control their values, opinions, and judgments, rather than promote their abilities to think for themselves, come to their own conclusions as individuals, and effectively analyze the material of history.

Moreover, some of the board’s points are laughable, except that these people have real power, so perhaps cryable is a better term. The Jefferson County school board is calling for celebration of “the free enterprise system,” which means they must be prepared to condemn the economic policies of Hamilton, Jefferson, and the rest of the Founding Fathers, who established a policy that was anything but free market (instead it sought to deny British access to American markets and to grow infant industries in cotton, tobacco, and others). They must also be prepared to condemn the economic policies of Reagan, whose advocacy of protectionism is notorious (sources: one, two, three, four). The assertion that students should be unequivocally taught that disobeying the law is a negative thing assumes that laws are, and have always been, just and legitimate. They must then be prepared to condemn the Boston Tea Party, a direct action involving property destruction and theft, Rosa Parks, who flagrantly disobeyed the law and invited arrest, Daniel Ellsberg, whose leaking of classified documents was perfectly illegal (even though he was exposing the government’s systematic lies to the public). All of these people, apparently, had not properly learned from their history classes that they must always respect authority and obey the law.

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