No Money, No Speech, No Say

money
Have Money, Will Rule

W.J. Astore

When in January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and corporations are citizens, our democracy (or, if you prefer, our representative republic) took a serious hit.  Since then, we’ve witnessed America’s ongoing transition to an oligarchy, and an increasingly militarized and authoritarian one at that.

This was obvious even to me when the Supreme Court rendered its Citizens United decision in favor of corporations.  Right after that decision, I wrote this article for Truthout, which I’m re-posting below.  What do you think, readers?

Corporations Are Citizens – What Are We?
January 24, 2010

This week’s Supreme Court ruling that corporations are protected by “free speech” rights and can contribute enormous sums of money to influence elections is a de jure endorsement of the de facto dominance of corporations over our lives. Indeed, corporations are the new citizens of this country, and ordinary Americans, who used to be known as “citizens,” now fall into three categories: consumers, warriors and prisoners.

Think about it. Perhaps you’ve noticed, as a friend of mine has, that the term “citizen” has largely disappeared from our public and political discourse. And what term has taken its place? Consumer. That’s our new role: not to exercise our rights as citizens (perish the thought, that’s for corporations to do!), but to exercise our credit cards as consumers. Here one might recall President George W. Bush’s inspiring words to Americans after 9-11 to “go shopping” and to visit Disney.

Think again of our regulatory agencies like the FDA or SEC. They no longer take action to protect us as “citizens.” Rather, they act to safeguard the confidence of “consumers.” And apparently the only news that’s worthy of note is that which affects us as consumers.

As one-dimensional “consumers,” we’ve been reduced to obedient eunuchs in thrall to the economy. Our sole purpose is to keep buying and spending. Corporations, meanwhile, are the citizen-activists in our politics, with the voting and speech rights to match their status.

At the same time we’ve reduced citizens to consumers, we’ve reduced citizen-soldiers to “warriors” or “warfighters.” The citizen-soldier of World War II did his duty in the military, but his main goal was to come home, regain his civilian job, and enjoy the freedoms and rights of American citizenship. Today, our military encourages a “warrior” mentality: a narrow-minded professionalism that emphasizes warfighting skills over citizenship and civic duty.

And if that’s not disturbing enough, think of our military’s ever-increasing reliance on private military contractors or mercenaries.

The final category of American is all-too-obvious: prisoner. No country in the modern industrialized world incarcerates more of its citizens than the United States. More than 7.3 million Americans currently languish somewhere in our prison system. Our only hope, apparently, for a decline in prison population is the sheer expense to states of caring and feeding all these “offenders.”

There you have it. Corporations are our new citizens. And you? If you’re lucky, you get to make a choice: consumer, warrior or prisoner. Which will it be?

Don’t Vote for the Person You Believe In!

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Feel the Bern

W.J. Astore

The corporate-owned media is at it again, urging Democrats to vote for a sensible centrist like Joe Biden.  According to Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post:

“Warren is a much bigger risk for Democrats (and the survival of our democracy) than is Biden. There may be candidates who could, if they managed to rise to the top of the Democratic polls and win nomination, be as competitive as Biden, but Warren and Sanders fail to attract a chunk of voters that Biden grabs, and by the way they are campaigning, they are unlikely to remedy that deficit.”

Poor Elizabeth Warren.  Not only is she a “bigger risk for Democrats.”  Her very emergence as a contender imperils “the survival of our democracy.”  And I thought a Trump presidency was bad!

Unsurprisingly, the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post is against Warren, Bernie Sanders, and other progressives.  Bezos loves his billions and doesn’t wish to share them with anyone.  Taxes, after all, are for the little people, not for the mega-billionaire owner of Amazon.

It’s amazing how the mainstream media peddles the same narrative election cycle after election cycle.  Democrats are always told to reject “radical” or “extreme” politicians like Warren and Sanders, even though Warren is a former Republican and Bernie is basically FDR-lite.  Instead, Democrats are supposed to embrace the “sensible centrist,” someone like Joe Biden, who is basically a corporate hack who will run and rule as an Eisenhower Republican (just as Barack Obama did, as he himself admitted in an interview).

It’s funny how the “radical” Republicans got their man (Donald Trump), but Democrats are advised to reject “radical” candidates who promise them better health care, student loan debt relief, taxpayer-subsidized college education, affordable housing, and the like.  That’s crazy talk!  You can’t have your man (or woman), progressives.  You need to vote for solid old Joe Biden, or Milquetoast Mayor Pete, or someone similar who’s “safe” and “moderate” in their views.

What arrant nonsense.  We need to vote for the man or woman we believe in.  The one who excites us.  The one who stands for what we believe in.

For me, that candidate is Bernie Sanders.

Healthcare in America: No Pony for Us

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Wise up, America!  Only the richest little girls get ponies (Scene from “Gone with the Wind”)

W.J. Astore

The comedian and political commentator Jimmy Dore has a great sketch about Americans not getting a pony.  The “pony” in question is taxpayer-funded, single-payer health care.  Only the most naive or gullible or spoiled Americans could possibly believe they deserve such a pony — this is an argument advanced by Democratic sages like Hillary Clinton, among many others, like Nancy Pelosi.  She’s supported today by “sensible centrists” like Joe Biden and “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg, who argue that Medicare for All is wildly impractical and crazily expensive.

As my wife quipped, for “sensible centrists” and their ilk, we don’t get a pony — but we do get to pony up.

Yes, Americans get to pony up — and up — and up, in the form of high insurance costs, deductibles, co-pays, and the like.  And let’s not forget the high cost of life-giving prescriptions, such as insulin, which under our wonderful private systems have soared in price.

Those who attempt to sell Medicare for All in America, like Elizabeth Warren this weekend, are dismissed as delusional.  Take this headline at Reuters: Republicans, Democrats, ‘SNL’ attack Warren’s U.S. ‘Medicare for All’ plan.

Wow!  Everyone is against her — even liberal comedians at Saturday Night Live (SNL).  No pony for us!

Yet, as Jimmy Dore pointed out in his skit, other countries and peoples get ponies.  The Canadians do.  The British do.  The Germans.  The French.  The Italians.  The Japanese.  And so on.

Want a pony, America?  Better move to Finland.  Or Hong Kong.  Or Greece.  Or New Zealand.  Or Tara.  Because you’re not getting a “pony” here.

Edward Snowden and Turnkey Tyranny

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Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours.  Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state.  As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had.  (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.)  The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.

My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview.  I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.

Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:

1.  People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse.  Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way.  This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing.  (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)

2.  The American people are no longer partners of government.  We are subjects.  Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.

3.  Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power.  They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them.  This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism.  Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11.  They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere.  This was a goal they achieved.

4.  Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth.  Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth.  Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.

5.  The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials.  Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality.  Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.

6.  Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune).  Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.”  Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds.  As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.

7.  What is true patriotism?  For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people.  It’s not loyalty to government.  Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.

8.  National security and public safety are not synonymous.  In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated.  We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.

9.    We live naked before power.  Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them.  It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).

10.  “The system is built on lies.”  James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress.  And there are no consequences.  He goes unpunished.

11.  We own less and less of our own data.  Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government.  It’s become a commodity.  Which means we are the commodity.  We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.

12.  Don’t wait for a hero to save you.  What matters is heroic decisions.  You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.

In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes.  He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.

The Dangerous Myth of Patriotism

Richard Sahn

For most Americans, patriotism means love of country.  But I’d like to suggest this “love” is misplaced for three reasons.  First, I’d like to suggest that “country” is an imaginary construct.  Two, I’d like to show how patriotism is misused and abused by the powerful, most infamously by President Donald Trump.  And three, I’d like to suggest a new form of patriotism, the love of the tangible, and by this I mean our fellow human beings.

“Country” as an imaginary construct

“Imagine there’s no countries,” John Lennon wrote nearly fifty years ago. Generally, citizens of a given country insist they love their nation. But can one truly “love America,” or any other country or nation? For that matter can you love any state, city, town, or sports team?

In general semantics, a branch of linguistics which is itself a branch of philosophy, the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. Canada, France, the Red Sox are only names, concepts, phenomena of consciousness. Or a neurological system in the brain if you adhere to the Western materialist worldview.

Think about it: You can’t see, touch, feel, hear, or taste “France.” But you can taste a French pastry made in “France” and see and touch the Eiffel Tower. ”Vive La France” does not mean that French people collectively are going to live a long life. In fact, the concept of France vanishes if there are no longer any human beings left after, say, France is devastated by a massive nuclear attack.

Now, one can literally love the beauty of the land that comprises the legal territory of a given country. I love the mountains and the deserts of the Western U.S., the woods of northern Maine, the seacoasts of California.  I love Fourth of July celebrations, the fireworks and cookouts. I even love the old Frank Sinatra song, “The House I Live In” because it names things in America that you can put your hands on, such as the line “the ‘howdy’ and the handshake.” And then the concluding lyric, “that’s America to me.” (Notice there is no insinuation there is an America out there, only the symbolic meaning of the phrase.)

Love of country, in short, is nonsensical because a country, a nation, is an abstraction, a conceptual phenomenon, a byproduct of mental processes, that has no existence in the material universe.  Perhaps Lennon’s dream of “imagine there’s no countries” will only become reality when we no longer perceive people as enemies or opponents merely because they live elsewhere or look different.

The misuse and abuse of patriotism

Politicians and journalists tend to affirm, for obvious reasons, that it’s important to state how much you love America. Not to do so could easily result in your career or ambitions heading south. Still, proclaiming your love of country, whatever country that is, all too often has undesirable and destructive consequences. For instance, it becomes easier to support a government taking the country to war.  Or colossal military budgets in the name of “defending” the “country.”

To an unreflective patriot the country is not seen as the sum of its parts but as a reality sui generis, perhaps symbolized by a father figure like Uncle Sam.

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You know Uncle Sam isn’t real, right?

If I can make a sweeping generalization, among rural chauvinists “country” is part of the “God, Country, and Guns” trinity.  This idea is well captured by the Merle Haggard song from 1970 that “When they’re runnin’ down our country, man/They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”

President Trump’s recent call for members of the so-called squad, the four progressive Congresswomen of color, to “go back”  to where they came from (a takeoff of “love it or leave it”) is one step away from “I will hurt you if I see you  again.” Obviously, there is no place natural-born U.S. citizens can go back to. And even if they were not citizens by birth, why should they have to leave after having become U.S. citizens?  Trump’s “patriotism” is racist nationalism – and shamelessly so.

Patriotism, in the narrow Trumpian usage of that word, demands opponents, sides, an “us versus them” mentality.  And that’s a mentality calculated for division, distraction, and destruction.

Real patriotism

We humans can’t see national borders from space, but we do see our planet.  Our real “homeland.”  Nevertheless, the false choice of “America: love it or leave it” has recently been revived from the days when protesters against the Vietnam War were denounced as unpatriotic. In truth, they were performing the most patriotic act imaginable, if patriotism is properly defined as love of one’s fellow human beings. In that sense, real patriotism is humanitarianism.  It’s focused on humans and the home where we live, not on constructs that are insensible.

False patriotism may remain “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British social philosopher, observed.  Even so, a literal belief in “my country, right or wrong” could still do us all in some sunny day.  A dangerous myth, indeed.

Richard Sahn is a retired professor of sociology.  You may also wish to read his article on sports and reification.

Joe Biden: Clueless and Incoherent

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Biden: Nonsense or No Sense?  (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

There was another Democratic debate this week, and I have to admit I missed it.  I’ve been checking the highlights (or lowlights, if you prefer), and Joe Biden, as usual, figures prominently.

First, here’s his stunningly paternalistic, clueless, and incoherent response to a question on the legacies of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination:

Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take the very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the $60,000 level.

Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home. We have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher, my deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. Make sure that every single child does, does in fact, have 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds go to school. Not day care, school.

We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t want — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background — will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

Make sure you have the record player on at night?

How difficult is it, really, to admit to the legacy of slavery in this country?  But Biden would rather jumble a lot of words together, perhaps based on a few ideas that he memorized poorly.  So he mentions segregation and the practice of banks redlining predominately black/minority neighborhoods and denying them loans (which he doesn’t explain), then he pivots to education and social workers while suggesting the solution to helping minority kids to learn is for them to hear more words coming from record players and phones at night.

And Democrats think this man is going to defeat Donald Trump in 2020?

Second, Joe Biden was attacking Bernie Sanders on the cost of Medicare for All.  When Sanders accurately noted that Americans pay twice as much per capita for health care as Canadians do under their national health care system, Biden’s response was three words: “This is America.”

So apparently it’s the American way to pay twice as much as other countries for equivalent health care.  It’s the American way to be denied coverage, to pay large co-pays and deductibles, and to go into bankruptcy because of a serious medical condition.

“This is America.”  I feel better already!

Not so incredibly, the Democratic establishment would rather lose to Trump with a candidate like Biden than win with a candidate like Bernie.  And so Biden’s non-sequiturs, his gaffes, his prejudices, and indeed his stunning incoherence are shrugged off as “That’s Biden being Biden.”

I may not have watched last week’s debate, but I have a strong sense of who won: Donald Trump.

America’s Manufactured Culture War

W.J. Astore

So much of what passes for America’s Kulturkampf (culture struggle) consists of phony, made up, manufactured issues.  Consider the following sign, sent to me by a friend as he toured the wilds of Pennsylvania:

PC Penntucky

It is supposedly “politically incorrect” to say Merry Christmas, to state the Pledge of Allegiance (“one nation under God”), to salute the flag, and to thank the troops.  Those who do all these things apparently take pride in their alleged outspokenness and their love of all things American.

Sigh.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it’s never been politically incorrect to say Merry Christmas.  Virtually all Americans say they believe in God or some higher power.  Nearly all Americans respect the flag (even those who kneel in protest, I’d argue), and America’s respect for the military has never been higher.

But this sign with its false narrative encapsulates much of the Republican/Trumpian message: We’re the real Americans.  And anyone who says “Happy Holidays” or who suggests separation of church and state or who sees protest as legitimate free speech is obviously un-American and should leave the country.

I just wonder at all those Americans who buy signs like this, thinking that by doing so they’re showcasing their bravery at being non-PC and their pride in being so “American.”

One thing is certain: this manufactured culture war is a great way to distract and divide the commoners as the rich and powerful continue their looting of America.