Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hyphenated America

Hyphenated America
Passionate Detachment, Middle East International, 27 May 2010

From Ian Williams

In the equations of bigotry, substituting the terms, as in algebra, reveals the prejudice. For ace neo-con Daniel Pipes, Rima Fakih, an Arab-American of Muslim background, winning the Miss USA pageant, made him “suspect an odd form of affirmative action”. He does seem to have had the acuity to pull back from his initial knee-jerk position, unlike the rest of what perforce we will call the Judeo-Christian blogosphere.

In the great prejudicial spirit of having cakes and eating them, Fakih was an unworthy floozy because she had performed in some pole-dancing contest – and a crypto Shi’i Hizbullah agent because she was, after all, Arab and, what is more, Lebanese. Her appearance in a skimpy bikini was deep uncover for some even deeper Islamic plot. Others speculated that the admittedly odious Donald Trump, owner of the franchise, had contrived her victory in order to further some business deal with Arabs.

If you wanted investment from, say, Saudi Arabia, it is arguable that getting young Arab maidens to prance about in their underwear is not the way to go. But it is such sheer lunacy in the commentary that showed the deep vein of ugly and irrational anti-Muslim prejudice. At least Pipes conceded that Fakih had qualifications as a beauty queen, by being, well, attractive. Now let us reverse the terms of the equation. Patrick Buchanan, a paleo-conservative of the old nativist school, pointed out that if Elena Kagan were nominated to the Supreme Court, it would mean an overwhelmingly Protestant state was being judged by six Roman Catholics and three Jews. Even though Buchanan is a Catholic himself, his mathematics brought down hellfire on his head, with accusations of anti-Semitism redoubling against him.

It is easy to be suspicious of American, and indeed modern Anglo-Saxon bean-counting. After all, when you consume beans, you get flatulence. After Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi, the idea that electing women to positions of power necessarily did much, either for the world in general or women as a group, had, surely, been discredited. Indeed, the conservatives have had their own fun with the idea: the only black judge on the Supreme Court bench is the un-regenerately conservative Clarence Thomas, whose views have little or no support whatsoever from black Americans.

The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ may have begun as a reflection of perceived Western cultural identity, but there is little doubt that its use in the United States has often been a conscious attempt to create a spurious philosophical unity between Jews and Christians – and against Muslims, who are being punished for the mistake of inhabiting the place that Zionists had decided was their own. After all, on the big theological issues, who is closer? Muslims who revere Jesus and Mary, and even accept the virgin birth, or Jews who either ignore or disdain the Galilean prophet? If Muslims are excluded for adding an extra prophet, how do we fit in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith?

However, this rhetoric, with a big helping hand from the likes of Usama Bin-Laden, has successfully positioned Muslims as the outsiders. It would, truly, be anti-Semitic to say that all Jews are crooks because of Bernie Madoff, and prejudicial to cast all blacks as murderers because of Willie Horton. But far too many Americans can safely assume that because al-Qa’ida claims to be Muslim, all Muslims are tainted with its crimes.

That is why, within days, the usual suspects exploded again. Near the World Trade Centre in downtown New York, two new mosques are under consideration for congregations that are already worshipping in the vicinity. Mark Williams, Chairman of the Tea Party Express, denounced them as monuments to the 9/11 hijackers, and derided their dedication to the “Monkey God”. Admittedly, with the sophisticated sense of balance so characteristic of the Tea-Partiers, he apologised. But it was to Hindus he said sorry, in case anyone mistook his words as a slight against the god Hanuman.

Facebook immediately had 45,000 people sign up for a page denouncing the attempt to build a mosque close by. They had even more signing up for the page demanding cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in response to threats from some fanatical Muslims against cartoonists. Many of the signatories invoked a defence of free speech, but once again we substitute the terms.

When Mayor Rudi Giuliani tried to close down a Brooklyn museum for showing works that included a crucifix in urine, I do not remember hosts of defenders racing to micturate on icons. Rather, they protested his disregard for the First Amendment, and indeed went to court to overthrow his decision to de-fund the museum.

It all leads to the unsurprising conclusion that in the modern United States, there is only one permissible form of naked prejudice. The good news is that the statements made about Arabs by the pro-Israeli right, including the convenors of the Tea Party crowds, reveal their bigotry, and that alienates them from most Americans, including American Jews. If it weren’t that the know-nothing minority was disturbingly large, it would be almost music to the ears to hear bigoted blowhards talking themselves out of political influence in such a fashion.

The End of the Beginning for Obama?

Obama must take the gloves off

After the success of the healthcare reforms, Obama’s position suddenly looks much stronger
by Ian Williams
Sunday, April 11th, 2010 Tribune

The United States creaked triumphantly into the middle of the 20th century when Barack Obama’s team finally squeezed through his healthcare reform bill.

The string and sealing wax effort will need patches almost immediately – although it could have done without the President’s executive order banning federal money being spent on abortions. That was his price for the anti-abortionists in his own party, who were prepared to let 30 million uninsured real people die prematurely in order that embryonic life be preserved or, rather, that no taxpayers’ money be spent on their potential termination.

Those on the left of the Democrats who held out to the last for inclusion of a public option were right to stand firm for as long as they did, but right to fold when the time came. This was a once in a century possibility to rewrite the agenda.

The Republicans, whipped in by the far right, were and are solid against any reform that Obama might introduce – even if many elements of the bill had in the past been proposed by their own party luminaries such as Richard Nixon.

The Republicans’ detachment from reality should make them unelectable, but that depends on how successfully they can detach the electorate from the real world – and their degree of success is worrying. One almost has to admire their cynical Orwellian skill in brandishing two fingers on each hand to voters and persuading them that they make five.

They have been relatively successful in persuading millions that the bank bailout – conceived and passed under George W Bush and executed by Bush appointees to deal with a disaster that had developed and come to fruition under Bush – is really an Obama plan. Perhaps the most eloquent commentary on the Bush presidency is his complete absence from the casting call for the role of national elder statesman. His silence suggests that he has shrunk into the obscurity he worked so assiduously to achieve.

Or perhaps, for the paranoid among us, the Republican leadership has made a conscious decision to let Bush and his mistakes drop into the memory hole. By ignoring him, they help to obscure the disaster of his two terms. After all, they have persuaded millions that the way to protest against the big business domination of American life is to vote for the Republican Party which epitomises that domination. Indeed, it is the Republicans who are fighting to the last vote to thwart any plans to stop government regulation of the banks and financial houses or any attempt to recoup through taxes the bonuses with which the guilty chief executives are rewarding themselves.

The classic Republican poster was “Get the government’s hands off my Medicare”. Medicare is the public healthcare option for American pensioners, which is so successful that Taiwan took it as the model when it introduced a national health service 15 years ago, and is the system that the left Democrats want extended to all citizens. The Republicans would love to destroy it on ideological grounds, but cynically concede that this outstanding example of “socialised medicine” is so popular with senior citizens – who vote in disproportionate numbers – that they try to appear as its defenders.

The first problem for the Democrats is their equivalent of “new” Labour – the Democratic Leadership Council and the so-called “Blue Dogs” that function as a conservative fifth column in the US Congress and are always prepared to hold crucial votes to ransom, whether it be to stop the public option or dilute financial regulation.

To be fair to the Republicans, because of this faction, the Democrats under Bill Clinton were equally to blame for deregulation and the general adoption of the neo-liberal consensus. But since fairness has disappeared from the political arsenal in Washington, it is not the history, more the present that inhibits the administration from coming out with all guns blazing.

Then there is the temperament of Obama. With America’s poisonous history, there is no doubt his election marked a huge milestone. But it would almost be a form of inverse racism to assume the election of a black President in itself changed the country, rather than symbolising the possibility of change. Margaret Thatcher’s election in Britain was not necessarily a big step forward for womankind, any more than all-women shortlists have moved the Labour Party leftwards.

As I said when he was elected, Obama is no leftist, despite the fevered nightmares of the right and the daydreams of the left. He is a vast improvement on Bush and the Republicans, but of all comparisons that is the most odious. He is certainly committed to social justice in a way that they are not – but his choice of tools to effect that still ties him to the neo-liberal Republican/DLC bankers’ consensus.

At the same time, the disciplined war of attrition waged by the Republicans against his agenda, particularly healthcare, has not stopped him making some much improved appointments, for example in the National Labour Board. Now he has won on healthcare, one can only hope that he follows through with an all-out assault on the industry lobbies and the Republicans and Democrats who dance to their tune.

This would prove popular for the mid-term elections, put the blame for the crisis back where it belongs and allow him to build on his achievements. At home, as in the Middle East with Benjamin Netanyahu, if Obama wants to succeed, now is payback time.
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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fundamentalism, not faith

Passionate Detachment

Ian Williams, Middle East International 7 May 2010

When the Times Square bomber was first reported to be white, many liberal Americans, even atheists, muttered silent prayers that it was a ‘Tea Partier’ trying to make a point. The would-be bomber was in fact Pakistani, and many on the net don’t read past the first syllable, so that made him an honorary Palestinian.

Not that it made much difference, since looking through the prism of American Islamophobia, the distinction between terrorist, Muslim and Palestinian is infinitesimal. The same week, the state of Arizona gave its police force basically the right to demand proof of legal residence from anyone in the state. To be fair, they are more likely to be looking for a Miguel than a Muhammad, but heaven help anyone they stop with a double-whammy name like Omar, both Hispanic and Arabic.

It reminded me of the year after 9/11 when I was coming out of Newark airport and saw a South Asian man in a blazer and tie being led away by immigration officers as his white American wife ran after him shouting: “What’s up, Muhammad?” Comment was truly superfluous.

In an only slightly more sophisticated version of this red-neckery, right after the bomb was discovered, Senator Joseph Lieberman called for the immediate removal of citizenship from any suspected terrorist so that the allegedly guilty party could be deprived of any due process rights. Admittedly, there were also calls for the immediate removal of the senator’s Harvard law degree, since it did not take a great legal mind to see that there were serious flaws in the idea.

Just as in Arizona, Lieberman wants to grant to police and other officials not often renowned for their sensitivity the power to arrest anyone whose name or looks they do not like, and deprive them of due process rights.

Incidentally – showing that the likes of the senator do not really see themselves as others see them – Lieberman was asking for the existing laws that take away the passports of US citizens serving in foreign armies to be extended to terrorists. He is on shaky ground here. Each year, several hundred Americans volunteer for service with the Israel Defense Forces. Their passports could be forfeited – but that never happens. Which is just as well, since Lieberman could lose many voters and even more supporters if it did.

Faisal Shahzad seems to have confessed to both the bomb and to having been trained in Pakistan to make it. One can have no sympathy for someone who wanted to kill and maim hundreds of civilians thronging Times Square, but it is interesting that he was caught by old-fashioned police work, with no FBI paid informers inciting him. Nor was he tortured and incarcerated here or anywhere else. Indeed, it was so old-fashioned that the cavalry came to the rescue: it was a mounted policeman who saw the fizzing bomb and cleared the area.

In short, the system worked without any of the violations of human rights that Lieberman called for. However, the senator’s solution is based on a firm conviction that Muslims have a lesser regard for human life than so-called ‘Judeo-Christians’, even though the latter include the Stern Gang who blew up the King David Hotel, killing Jews, Christians and Muslims in a multi-faith bloodbath, and the deeply patriotic army veteran Timothy McVeigh, whose bomb in Kansas City did the same. McVeigh told a reporter before being executed: “Death and loss are an integral part of life everywhere. These people in Oklahoma that lost loved ones, I’m sorry. But you know what? We have to accept it and move on.”

Of course, we have to be careful not to do mirror-image stereotyping: just because McVeigh was a Christian gun-rights fanatic, Joe Stack (who flew his plane into the IRS building) opposed taxes, and Sen Lieberman seemingly has an implacable anti-Muslim and pro-Israeli attitude, does not mean that those who attend Tea Party rallies are all terrorists, even if they share so many principles. Indeed, this fact brings into focus the axis between far-right Christianity and far-right Zionism, which so many American Jews find disturbing.

However, all of those beliefs are identifiably home-grown, or at least naturalised through long domicile in the country. There is no doubt that for a significant number of Americans, Islam is still alien, even though there are probably more Muslims than Jews in the United States. The pairing of Muslim and fundamentalism comes more easily than Jewish (or Christian) and fundamentalism, even though the evidence clearly shows that it is the fundamentalism, not the faith, that moves people to horrendous acts.

Brown and Barack

Written for publication before the result of the UK election would be known, which is why, of course, I did not mention the war- Fawlty style
Barack Bamboozled by Bankers?

Letter from America Tribune 7 May 2010
Ian Williams

Any rational billionaire would think twice before wanting to see crazed ideologues elected to run their country. If you had a big financial stake in a country would you want see it run by people with only a tenuous connection to reality, like Tories verging on dual membership with the UKIP and BNP or Republicans who think that Obama is a foreign Muslim and who are prepared to see people die in their thousands rather than countenance abortion or socialized medicine? Which is of course why business people  have put their money behind New Labour and the New Democrats – both happily untainted by ideology and pragmatically adaptable to their own best interests.

But on a single issue, like regulated trading for the finance industry, or indeed protecting health insurers, the torrents of cash now flow to the Republican Party despite its trying to stop a financial reform bill by loudly claiming that it was too soft on the bankers.

Republican strategist Frank Luntz had drawn up a plan that party leaders have followed almost to the letter. "Public outrage about the bailout of banks and Wall Street is a simmering time bomb set to go off on Election Day. Frankly, the single best way to kill any legislation is to link it to the Big Bank Bailout."  In reality, there is no link. Indeed  the very bailout that they are reviling was a Republican Bush era administration measure designed to cope with a crisis that had indeed been brewing for decades but came to boiling point while he was President and was too busy invading Iraq to pay attention.

The Republican leadership followed this breathtaking cynical ploy through, to the point of threatening a filibuster of any debate on the bill. And it could play to decades of Alice in Wonderland output from Fox and the mainstream. The party blamed big government for the crisis, which is true, up to a point. Except that it was government’s acts of omission that actually caused it: its withdrawal from its previous oversight and regulation.

The floodgates are now open with cash pouring towards the Republicans and lobbyists bending their ears, which is what makes the new, mid-Atlantic phenomenon of conservatives masquerading as radical populists so truly nauseating.

It was of course, not the nonexistent bailout, but the regulation, the scrutiny of derivatives – and much overlooked, the extension of shareholder rights- in the bill that outraged the monstrous regiments of Mammon. The general staff of those regiments is the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of the biggest corporations and has put untold millions of shareholders money into pressuring Congress to defang the Securities and Exchange Commission and averting any threat to their looting.

American shareholders, who nominally own American companies, have no rights to vote on the pay of executives or the board, nor even the right to nominate new directors and campaign for them. It is this formula for a self-perpetuating self-enriching oligarchy at the helm of companies that has destroyed American industry, impoverished American workers and corrupted American politicians at every level.

Only a very confident and cynical group could pull off such an inversion of reality. But confident and cynical is what they are – and imbued with mistrust of government is what their constituency is – unless the government is locking up foreigners, Muslims and radicals, in which case it is always right.

What also helped was that the Republicans have a point about Obama’s banking bill, just as they had a point about his Healthcare reform. Big business and bank lobbyists had indeed secured too many concessions. It is also true that Goldman Sachs and Wall Street gave more money to Obama and the Democrats than they did to Republicans, which is of course what inhibits the Administration from a more vigorous all-out attack on the sharks and vultures of the banking world, leaving the radical populist rhetoric to the opposition.

For once again, many Democrats have played their part, usually those belonging to the equivalent and inspiration for New Labour, the Democratic Leadership Council, whose text is “the poor ye shall always have with you,” with a subtext – “so ye can ignore them and pander to the rich.” The rich in this case is the Business Roundtable.

Sadly, in the short term that has been true, but the traumatic effect of the meltdown has been to stir up the poor and everyone else. Neither Republicans nor Democrats now want to be seen siding with the bankers – in public at least. What happens behind closed lobby doors is another matter.

Several Democrats trousered the bankers’ cheques and but told them that it was more than their jobs were worth to defy public sentiment on the issue. The Republicans  reconsidered the effect on the public of filibustering financial reform, which would have made daily  headlines of their opposition and exposed their outrageous claims to popular scrutiny. They dropped the filibuster. But perhaps from the bankers’ point of view, they earned their money. Their ferocious opposition to the Democrat Bill has made it appear as if it were far stronger on the bankers than it actually is.

So where is Obama in all this? Sadly, like Gordon Brown, he genuinely does seem to believe what the bankers in his administration tell him, even as he deplores what he would call excesses. He has not yet realized that it is all about excess. What Adam Smith said “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices,” is even more true of bankers.