Saturday, May 30, 2009

Your tax dollars at work

The still-ballyhooed after all these years "War on Drugs" surely has been profitable for some folks. Ever wonder who reaps the spoils? Here's a hint from one front:
A jaw-dropping new investigative report from Teo Ballvé turns up a metric shit-ton of evidence that Plan Colombia has been funneling millions of dollars directly to drug traffickers and paramilitaries, who in turn use it for their "legitimate" business interests: biofuel production on land that they've stolen from campesinos! It's a win-win situation, for evildoers!
That's all on your dime - or rather your half trillion dollars annually.

On the home front, the war on drugs has certainly been profitable for the prison-industrial complex, and done irreparable damage to local communities.'s a secret:

Contra The Other McCain: Obama never lost Ted Rall, because Ted Rall was never in Obama's corner to begin with. Anyone following Ted Rall's comic strip over the last year would have figured that one out.

Robert Jay Lifton on the American Psychological Association and Torture

Found in the references to Psychologists Abandon the Nuremberg Ethic: Concerns for Detainee Interrogations by Kenneth S. Pope and Thomas Gutheil.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Things to read

Nature publishes a recent editorial that comes across as a propaganda exercise with regard to psychologists' involvement in "interrogations" (which as I think I've tried to mention before, is just a nice cold clinical way of saying torture sessions).

Jeff Kaye at Invictus offers up a counterpoint:

The idea that psychologists are necessary to ensure "responsible interrogation" may be popular among APA staffers and military psychologists, but it was rejected last summer by the APA membership at large when they voted by almost 60% to change official APA policy and ban psychologists from participating in settings where human rights violations, including torture, take place.

From the referendum's text:

Whereas the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Mental Health and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have determined that treatment equivalent to torture has been taking place at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Whereas this torture took place in the context of interrogations under the direction and supervision of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) that included psychologists.

Whereas the Council of Europe has determined that persons held in CIA black sites are subject to interrogation techniques that are also equivalent to torture [4], and because psychologists helped develop abusive interrogation techniques used at these sites.

Whereas the International Committee of the Red Cross determined in 2003 that the conditions in the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay are themselves tantamount to torture [6], and therefore by their presence psychologists are playing a role in maintaining these conditions.

Be it resolved that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.

Yet none of this appeared in the Nature editorial, which instead quoted a member of the APA's PENS commission, Mike Gelles, to the effect that psychologists are needed to prevent abuse at interrogations. Gelles at least comes by his position honestly, having reported to higher ups on abuse occurring at Guantanamo while he was there in the capacity of chief psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. What Gelles doesn't mention is that his whistleblowing did very little, and that abuse and torture at Guantanamo continued for years, if not to the present day.

But for the cynical APA bureaucracy, sensitive to the winds of politics change -- the recent moves by President Obama to embrace "war on terror" rhetoric, to propose the indefinite detention of WOT prisoners, and to restart the military commissions prosecutions -- current events are pushing them to return to their previous stance vis-a-vis psychologists and interrogations. After all, the referendum is only advisory and not enforceable, according to APA by-laws, as APA leadership is fond of quoting when they are in the mood. As an advocacy group, they are unstinting in their vigilance over access to government jobs, and with the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, there will be plenty of openings for psychologists who like to work in operational roles with Special Forces.

Moreover, the stance of the Nature editorial writer did not drop from the skies, as apparently, that individual got plenty of assistance in this task from APA brass. Writing to the APA Council of Representatives (COR) about the Nature editorial, Associate Executive Director for APA's Public and Member Communications department, Kim Mills, told COR members (emphasis added), "APA staff worked with one of the editors to provide detailed history and background, which led to what we think is a fair and balanced piece."

See also Ten Percent.

Feel like reading something lengthier? Check out this report by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody. It provides the latest evidence that contra the Nature editorial, psychologists have not been safeguarding detainees, but rather have been instrumental in creating the conditions in which torture occurs.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

From the mailbag - torture edition

From one of my mailing lists, I received a link to a video of a Playboy journalist being waterboarded. The journalist at least seemed to approach the assignment a bit more seriously than "Mancow" had recently, and the setting was made a bit more realistic - the journalist was actually restrained and had the experience in an environment that resembled what a prisoner in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, or Bagram might be placed in. Not too surprisingly, the results are quite similar. The journalist barely lasted a few second.

One thing to note is how the soldier who administered the waterboarding on this video describes the method. He does so with a euphemism: "invoking an existing fear." I've probably commented in the past about how euphemisms are often used by those involved in torturing another person in order to trivialize and routinize their actions.

The latest on the still-suppressed Abu Ghraib torture photos

From the right-wing British paper Telegraph comes this headline: Abu Ghraib abuse photos "show rape". Here are a few bits from the article:

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.

Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.

Another apparently shows a female prisoner having her clothing forcibly removed to expose her breasts.


The graphic nature of some of the images may explain the US President’s attempts to block the release of an estimated 2,000 photographs from prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan despite an earlier promise to allow them to be published.

Maj Gen Taguba, who retired in January 2007, said he supported the President’s decision, adding: “These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.

“I am not sure what purpose their release would serve other than a legal one and the consequence would be to imperil our troops, the only protectors of our foreign policy, when we most need them, and British troops who are trying to build security in Afghanistan.

“The mere description of these pictures is horrendous enough, take my word for it.”
Pardon me if I don't just take his word for it. As I see it, really all of the attempts to weasel out of coughing up the damning photos are self-serving for the powers that be. The old canard of "our troops will be put in more danger" by the release of these photos fails if for no other reason than that horse left the barn some time ago. Some of the photos were leaked to the Australian media a few years ago. Besides, one would imagine that all the bombing, human displacement, and such would have the victims of our current wars sufficiently maxed out on anger already as it is. The claim of "troop endangerment" may be the talking point to try to keep the American public shielded from what its government does, but what purpose does shielding really serve other than to allow those who authorized what happened to remain unaccountable a while longer?

Here's a bit of what I said about four years ago regarding the release of any additional Abu Ghraib photos:
Typically, as Haritos-Fatouros (2003) notes, there are a number of ways that governments and their respective societies can react to the news that their state police or military personnel are engaging in torture. One is denial. The release of the first set of pictures last year makes denial a moot point. It's obvious it did occur. Another approach is to minimize the torture, by simply villifying and punishing the supposed "few bad apples" who typically are the low men and women on the totem pole. Both of those approaches are certainly self-serving for the government, which would prefer to keep its current policies in practice. My take on the Abu Ghraib photos, then, is one of illumination. I see their release to the public as a means of shedding some light into what is going on in our US run prisons in Iraq (and perhaps elsewhere). By knowing what has happened, and learning how and why it happened, we have some hope in preventing future acts of torture.
Really, it's quite a mild statement considering the nature of what has taken place. A few weeks later, I added the following:
As the government tries to weasel its way out of forking over the remaining Abu Ghraib pictures, someone writing for Lenin's Tomb appropriately calls bullshit:
This is absolutely extraordinary. The logic of this argument is twofold and utterly, fatally bankrupt. It posits that:

i) If the consequences of revealing crimes which we fully acknowledge having committed threaten to prove harmful to our cause, we have no obligation to reveal them. I.e., the way to avoid harmful consequences is not to avoid committing the crimes, but to refuse to reveal them later, even when we've admitted to them.

ii) The fact that our enemies allegedly fabricate similar evidence of wrongdoing on our part absolves us of responsibility to reveal true, unfabricated evidence. This is completely fallacious; the one accusation, even if true, has exactly no bearing on the other assertion. If we didn't want to hand our opponents propaganda-on-a-platter, we might have considered not issuing orders abrogating international conventions on prisoner abuse. But tough luck, we did, and now we have to belly up to the fallout. The fact that it gives Iraqis more reason to loathe and resist us is not some unfortunate collateral effect, it is precisely the point.

The government's obligation to reveal the Abu Ghraib images is an obligation not particularly to Iraqi insurgents who may indeed use it for 'propaganda' purposes (wouldn't you?), but to its own citizens, to the abuse victims and Iraqi citizens who suffer under the jackboot of this depravedly human-rights-indifferent occupation, and in fact to the entire world, which has every moral right to demand accountability from the hyperpower that claims the quasi-divine prerogative of enforcing global Freeman Moxie at the point of a gun.
It's pretty damned obvious that our government is hell-bent on evading responsibility for its actions, and even more obvious that its leaders believe they can get away with it - perhaps with good reason given the state of whatever passes for journalism, "oppositional" political parties, etc. It is true that US citizens, as well as the world community, have the moral right to expect and in fact to demand accountability from the US government. It is equally true that this government does not respect moral rights. Hence we'll continue to get the usual morally and logically bankrupt arguments as to why "we" must "stay the course," why damning evidence of the horrifying consequences of its leaders' policies must be suppressed, and so on. The truth won't come out by politely asking for it.
Four years and one US regime change later, and it looks like the same old same old. Unless or until the American public faces up to what its government has done and in all probability continues doing, the abuses in question will continue to occur.

Another scandal that wasn't

Owners of car dealerships (including both Chrysler dealerships being closed and Chrysler dealerships who will remain in business) tend to donate to Republicans. Who knew.

So much for the latest conspiracy theory making the rounds.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Worth ten thousand words



It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.

H. L. Mencken

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Miles Davis

That cat would have turned 83 today. His last album suggested one possible direction for Miles - namely merging hip-hop and jazz sensibilities (although that album, Doo Bop was a pretty mediocre effort - the horn was solid, but the raps were awful). I wonder what he would have made of Nu Jazz, or perhaps Soil and Pimp Sessions' death jazz. Regardless, Miles left behind one hell of a legacy.

Here's an interview of Miles from back in 1989.

Part 1:

Part 2:

A 1982 "Today Show" interview with Bryant Gumbel:

Always a class act.

Because it bears repeating

Mohandas Gandhi sez:
'Poverty is the worst form of violence.'

Monday, May 25, 2009

So how will the California Supremes decide Prop H8?

If I were to bet, I'd bet the Supremes, when they rule tomorrow, will attempt to weasel their way out by 1) upholding Prop 8 (which took away the right for same-sex couples to marry in California) but 2) throwing a bone to that proposition's opponents by maintaining the legality of those same-sex marriages that occurred prior to the proposition's passage. I've had a thing or two to say about the proposition before; no real need to repeat them.

Sara Robinson offers up an interesting perspective over at Orcinus. Her general conclusion seems to be reasonable enough - this is a battle that is hardly over, and time does appear to be on the side of those of us in favor of recognizing same-sex marriages as legal. A proposition to overturn Prop H8 has a decent shot at winning a majority next year or 2012.

What is striking is what Robinson offers up in terms of how the nation's right-wing extremists will react should the California Supremes actually overturn Proposition H8 tomorrow:
... if Prop 8 is overturned by the courts, the backlash from the right is likely to be far more ferocious and intense than anybody on the left reckons right now.


Yes, the right wing is losing on gay rights issues. That is, very precisely, why they’re more dangerous now than they have been in the past. Their impending irrelevance is not a reason to worry less; it’s a reason to worry more. And getting Prop 8 overturned in the courts would ignite the situation, because it will hit absolutely every angry-making right-wing button there is:

1. The biggest state in the country, comprising fully 1/8 of the nation's population, will have legal gay marriage. That, right there, will be pretty much the end of the war, and they know it. The five states currently on board are worrisome, but they're small and not considered the kind of cultural juggernaut California is.

2. Overturning Prop 8 would push every button the right wing has about Godless liberals on the coasts imposing their moral values on them. “Pushing their immorality down our throats" has always been one of rural America’s major recurring complaints, particularly among evangelicals who seriously believe that God will withdraw his special blessing from America – and possibly destroy the country -- if gays can get married. (I know, I know. But they are what they are.) While the feelings about this have always run strong and deep, they’ve become much more intense since their political power began slipping away from them in 2006, and particularly since Obama took office and they lost Congress.

In this brave new world, the perverts don't even have the basic decency to feel shame about it anymore. They don't even know where to start with that. It makes them absolutely desperate with rage.

3. The fact that the deed was done by a bunch of California liberal activist judges who had to reverse the outcome of a statewide election -- an election that every conservative church in the country had at least an emotional stake in, and often a financial stake as well -- is going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. They hate judges. They really hate liberal judges. They really, really hate California liberal judges, and have since Earl Warren. Having judges undo what they considered to be a major moral victory for their side could push their fury from merely seething to absolutely explosive.

So we’re left with a scenario in which their entire moral fight for the soul of the nation was lost because of nine liberal judges in California. I can't think of a narrative more guaranteed to push every hot button on the right, unless maybe one of the judges was Perez Hilton. Naw, maybe not even then.

And you can bet that right-wing True Believers across the country are going to be looking for targets to take out their frustration on. As I’ve written recently, they already think this government is not their own, and are moving into opposition to it. They really believe that the continued greatness of America is at stake, and they are the last line of defense against complete moral chaos. If this happens, God will withdraw his blessing from the US, and America will lose everything. They will not let that happen. Passing a gay marriage law in California -- the biggest and most influential state of all -- will be their Harper's Ferry, their Pearl Harbor. After that -- the deluge.

That's why a positive decision for California’s gay community could create considerable negative -- and potentially violent -- blowback throughout the nation. Since they can't get at California’s judges, they may decide to strike out at local gays, gay-owned businesses, gay bars, and their own local judiciary, wherever they happen to be. If I were associated with any of these things in a conservative patch of the country, I'd be spending today thinking through some serious security precautions.

In the worst case, this decision could become the catalyst for a new round of large-scale domestic terrorism from the right. As I've noted, everything I'm seeing points to a subculture that is gearing up for this kind of heroic last stand in defense of a lost cause. And this time, it's not going to be just a few white supremacist/militia/patriot/anti-choice wackos. The new crop of right wing militants is better connected, better trained, better armed, and absolutely determined to go down fighting. And, as the SPLC keeps telling us, there may considerably more people motivated to support them than there have been in the past. It’s not unthinkable that between 15 and 20% of the country could be inclined to start -- or at least support -- a civil war over this.

One thing that Robinson mentions that I wanted to highlight is the notion of displaced aggression (in this case displaced violent aggression) as a possible outcome. Let's just say that there is a ton of psychological research in both lab and field settings that demonstrate that when it is unfeasible to aggress against one potential target (for whatever reason) that often a more immediately available (and typically less formidable) target will suffice (think of the disgruntled office worker who can't punch his boss for fear of getting fired, so goes home and kicks the dog instead). Not being able to simply load up the old F-150 and pick of a few Supreme Court justices in another state, the local jugheads most likely to be upset about the legalization of same-sex marriage in California will be tempted to lash out against whoever appears to be gay or pro-gay (so expect an uptick in gay bashing incidents across the country, attempts to bomb or open fire on gay bars or "liberal" churches, etc.) in the next few days or weeks, much along the lines of the uptick in racial violence that has occurred in the aftermath of Obama's election as President. I'd also expect to see quite an uptick of hate-filled wingnut blogging chatter on those wonderful Internet Tubes if Prop 8 is overturned tomorrow.

Personally, I'm not particularly concerned about this being the event that sends the nation into civil war - the wackos who are spoiling for such may be better armed and organized than in recent years, but let's face it, they're not capable of anything quite that dramatic. That said, I'd keep an eye on some of our own homegrown terrorists, as they are quite capable of doing some serious damage (especially when their favored authority figures have been egging them on). It also bears repeating that by homegrown terrorists, we're describing a relatively small group of folks who are white, "Christian", prone to conspiracy theories, and whose political beliefs can be charitably characterized as paranoid. I say paranoid since any effort to remove some of the structural violence that has been perpetrated against minorities of one stripe or another is viewed as an attack on their values, their way of life, their idealized and delusional vision of what the US is and should be. The world is a very scary place to this particular demographic, and its members are bound and determined to spread some of that hatred and fear around. Personally, I wish they wouldn't share.

I've probably mentioned this before, but the Southern Poverty Law Center has a handy map of hate groups in the US. Never hurts to know if one or more of these groups is operating in your vicinity.

Update: As predicted, the Supremes weaseled. The haters will likely remain on simmer for now.

Because it bears repeating

There is something structurally dysfunctional about California's political system. I've said it before, and will say it again, with a little help from Paul Krugman:

What’s really alarming about California, however, is the political system’s inability to rise to the occasion.

Despite the economic slump, despite irresponsible policies that have doubled the state’s debt burden since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, California has immense human and financial resources. It should not be in fiscal crisis; it should not be on the verge of cutting essential public services and denying health coverage to almost a million children. But it is — and you have to wonder if California’s political paralysis foreshadows the future of the nation as a whole.

The seeds of California’s current crisis were planted more than 30 years ago, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that placed the state’s budget in a straitjacket. Property tax rates were capped, and homeowners were shielded from increases in their tax assessments even as the value of their homes rose.

The result was a tax system that is both inequitable and unstable. It’s inequitable because older homeowners often pay far less property tax than their younger neighbors. It’s unstable because limits on property taxation have forced California to rely more heavily than other states on income taxes, which fall steeply during recessions.

Even more important, however, Proposition 13 made it extremely hard to raise taxes, even in emergencies: no state tax rate may be increased without a two-thirds majority in both houses of the State Legislature. And this provision has interacted disastrously with state political trends.

For California, where the Republicans began their transformation from the party of Eisenhower to the party of Reagan, is also the place where they began their next transformation, into the party of Rush Limbaugh. As the political tide has turned against California Republicans, the party’s remaining members have become ever more extreme, ever less interested in the actual business of governing.

And while the party’s growing extremism condemns it to seemingly permanent minority status — Mr. Schwarzenegger was and is sui generis — the Republican rump retains enough seats in the Legislature to block any responsible action in the face of the fiscal crisis.
As I was noting back in February:
I always thought that the way the state's budget was voted on was very dysfunctional under the best of times. Budgets rarely get passed before the fiscal deadline, and God help anyone who proposes even a minimal tax increase. When times are hard, the proceeding get downright surreal. The requirement of a supermajority to pass any sort of tax increase effectively grinds everything down to a halt. Seriously - from what I can gather, the state's government is in some sort of paralysis. In the meantime, while California burns (figuratively) the last of the anti-tax brigade fiddle.

All I can say is good luck to anyone there who is a state employee or requires any of that state's services. While you're surviving the impotence of legislators and the governor, this would be a really good time to demand some major reforms to the legislative process with a particular eye to overhauling the budget process.
I'm not sure what sorts of options are really viable for California these days. Rolling back the damage done by Prop 13 and its successors will probably have to be done via the one of the very processes that has fallen apart - namely the ballot initiative. For what remains of the GOP's true believers, I'd pretty much write off the idea of persuading them to try something sane - even though at this late date some modest tax increases could help enormously, the true believers will simply pretend not to hear you if you dare to mention that fact. Instead the true believers undoubtedly view the current crisis as the answer to all their prayers (i.e., a state with a government existing in name only, in which such horrible afflictions such as functioning roads, schools, universities, and other public services are abolished once and for all). Howard Jarvis' and Paul Gann's "paradise" has finally arrived. Too bad their paradise amounts to the creation of a banana republic.

There's something perverse

about the whole "debate" about what to do with the people imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. The assumption made by both sides seems to amount to: "they are dangerous and must remain locked up." Hence the question ends up being one of where to lock 'em up and throw away the key. The position largely attributed to the movement conservatives is to keep 'em at Gitmo. The nominally "liberal" position amounts to putting them in Supermax prisons. I could almost imagine some similar "debate" in 1940s Germany about whether it would be better to gas their concentration camp prisoners in occupied Poland or more "humanely" closer to the Fatherland.

That aside, I can't help but notice what is ignored altogether: the vast majority of those imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay who had no business being sent there in the first place. I don't see anything particularly just or humane in sending a bunch of innocents to rot in some Supermax for the "crime" of simply being Central Asian and perhaps Muslim.

Stay tuned for the next exercise in perversity: "would it be more humane to paint smiley faces on bombs that are dropped on Afghan villages?" Obamabots say "yes" - Limbots say "no" but urge dropping any and all ammo available in the name of the Fatherland (erm..."Homeland Security").

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Happy Birthday Bob Dylan

He turns 68 today.

How the US media views the world

Bernard Chazelle sez:

Everybody knows. By now everybody knows we're slaughtering women and children in Afghanistan. We even worry about it. No, not worry in the sense, "OMG we're slaughtering women and children! How evil can we be?" Worry in the sense "How can we win that thing if we piss off the natives?" The Times explains

the trade-off between the short-term gain of eliminating enemy fighters and the larger danger of alienating the general population.
That's Jack the Ripper wondering if bumping off all those prostitutes might not end up hurting his popularity in London. Note how the Times's quote strips our "knowledge" of the slaughter of all morality. It's a chess game, really, with its "gains" and "dangers."
It all comes down to the question of "will we win" Miss Congeniality at this year's prom, rather than any actual introspection regarding the morality of mass murder.