Friday, June 22, 2018

the NYT in the "I DONT CARE. DO U?" era, Yemen atrocity edition

In the "I don't really care. Do U" era of American history, there is so much to note! So much gets away, as worse things come faster and faster. But nevertheless, when the NYT opinion page writer Roger Cohen makes a special effort to justify the genocidal war being waged in Yemen, I think it deserves some mention, don't you?
American media has a tendency to simply copy the rhetoric of the Saudi dictatorship as it praises its new dictator, Muhammed bin Salmon. The publisher of National Enquirer actually flooded grocery stores with a grotesque travesty of Saudi propaganda recently entitled "the New Kingdom". The Daily Beast had a fun time slice and dicing it:
"The New Kingdom doesn’t feature any salacious gossip about MBS, but its coverage is just as breathless. “Our Closest Middle East Ally Destroying Terrorism,” the cover coos, sidestepping decades of Saudi Arabian financial support for terrorist groups and ideologues. It Disneyfies Saudi Arabia as “the Magic Kingdom.” It’s easily the most uncritical encomium to MBS since Thomas Friedman."
The reference to Thomas Friedman, the prat whose column about the Saudi dictator did perhaps one of the most thorough jobs of kissing ass ever known (you will not find a porn film that thorough, I guarantee), is of course a columnist for the NYT. Now, the NYT has pretensions, one of which is that it is some degree better than the National Enquirer. Thus, its would never do anything so undignified as present a thirty page gaudily photographed paen to Muhammed bin Salmon. No, it presents instead a two page thumbsucker, balancing the view that he might be the greatest Middle Easterner since Jesus Christ with the view that um, he might have a few flaws. This was penned by Roger Cohen, another of the predictably neo-lib foreign policy "analysts" that the NYT keeps around to remind us that free trade and pro-US authoritarianism are what makes the free world sing.
In the course of Cohen's asslicking, he does bravely approach the Yemen war.
(Brief reminder: Yemen over the past year has suffered around a million cases of cholera. And as the Saudis have been blocking Yemeni ports for the past two years, it is estimated that 50,000 kids died from starvation there last year. You wanna quick rundown, go to wikipedia  Go fast, cause in the age of net non-neutrality, it will probably be hard to find stuff like this about countries rich enough to stamp it out.)
So what does Cohen say about those 50,000 children?
"Most Saudis view it as a war of necessity; Prince Mohammed could not accept a surrogate of Hezbollah, itself an Iran surrogate, on his southern border. That’s a legitimate strategic objective. But absolutism in foreign policy tends to be self-defeating."
Ah, of course. Most Saudis were just aching to attack Yemen. Cohen has very fine x ray vision. He has talked with Saudis far and wide, in his excellent Arabic, he has - oops, the record is scratching, take the needle off! Cohen, it should be said, knows as much about what most Saudis think as he knows about how to cure hoof and mouth disease. As for the Hezbollah comparison, it is too funny. You mean, the Saudis couldn't accept a popular Shi'ite group that provided rudimentary social welfare in Yemen?
The moral flailing of the NYT when it comes to crucial U.S. allies - crucial, that is, if U.S. is to continue to be a plutocracy - is pretty easy to attack. But I did think there would be some modicum of shame. There isn't. Cohen talking of Muhammed bin Salmon as a "reformer" rather than a dictator like Assad, willing to wade through any amount of blood to keep power, is a spectacle to make the angels weep. But whenever the new edition of the NYT comes out, in the morning, the angels weep. The angels are getting tired of it. So am I.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

the cretinization process: The President is Missing, exhibit 1 million

No weak men in the books at home
The strong men who have made the world
History lives on the books at home
The books at home
Gang of Four

Poor Anthony Lane, the NY-er movie critic. He used to be an interesting mind to take to the movies. But I've noticed in the last couple of years definite signs of burnout - which have now flashed red with his spineless review of the Clinton-Patterson powerwank fiesta, The President is Missing. Itis written as though by a Clintonite who was still overawed by Bill Clinton'swankitude - Rolling Stones, 1992 - rather than appalled by Bill Clinton'slifestyle, friends, vanity, etc., etc. Lane is one of those people - probably alarge segment of the New Yorker readership - who actually bought Clinton'sautobiography. One born every second, as someone said.
Lane could have done with this kind of research:

"In a recent paper for International Studies Quarterly, J. Furman Daniel, III, and Paul Musgrave examine the genuine impact that military fiction can have on policymakers and military leaders. This is a somewhat controversial approach—Daniel and Musgrave note that a sizable portion of the political science field is devoted to “respectable” sources: scholarly writing, certainly not fiction. When examining political actors’ motivations, those in this school argue, resources like pop history and fiction have far less explanatory power than journal articles and vetted reports. This is a comforting idea. After all, we’d like to believe that the secretary of defense puts more faith in intelligence reports than paperback novels. Popular fiction in political science is mostly relegated to serving as a mirror of culture, not an explanatory factor. The technothriller, however, enjoys the position of being frequently cited by pundits and military influencers alongside policy papers and live reporting."
You cannot understand American foreign policy if you don't understand the enormous influence of Tom Clancy. It would be like trying to understand Athens without knowing about the Greek myths. To understand the thinking of right-center Dems like Lieberman, who was pathetically influential in the 00s, you have to go to the story - reported somewhere, I'll look it up later - in a portrait of the mook which depicted his excitement coming out of an action movie, one of those in which Arabs are casually blasted into the smithereens they deserve, since they are all evil.
Or there is this, from Mercer's article:

"Daniel and Musgrave present some well-known examples. Bill Clinton became interested in bioterrorism not from dry briefings but after reading Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event. While experts have decried to bioterrorism scenario in the novel as highly unrealistic, Clinton’s interest was nonetheless piqued. He ordered the government to invest more in bioterrorism preparedness. Ronald Reagan famously inquired about American strategic cybersecurity after watching WarGames, in which Matthew Broderick hacks into NORAD and narrowly averts a nuclear war."
Myself, I think this genre has had a sort of epidemic effect in that it has been a carrier of the mass cultural illiteracy that effects college educated white males. Historians will miss a trick if they don't examine the cretinizing process in the U.S., circa 1980 - 2018. Patterson and Clinton could be faces on the totem pole commemorating that cretinization.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

something on Marx

I resist the teleological interpretation of Marx – that all of Marx is there in every text, and if a text seems to say something that contradicts all-of-Marx, then we just have to either categorize Marx’s works to shunt it to the side – it was polemical! – or decide that it was an unfortunate collateral gesture. On the other hand, I’m not sure that my idea of Marx as constructing his all-of-Marx-ness in his text really purges the teleological impulse completely. Take the issue of the notebook, or the draft. We have these things. They were preserved. But the facile notion that Marx, too, having these things, goes back over them suffers both from lack of proof and automatic assumptions about research and writing that I have found, both in my personal experience and as an editor of others, to be false. I have found, instead, that one’s vital discoveries tend to fade and change and be renewed – that old intentions get submerged by new ones. Yet characteristic themes and inclinations will assert themselves, and the repressed will return.

This is why I favor the problem-based approach to reading monumental texts. For any theme or thesis carries with it both the problems it responds to and the new problems it creates. A problem is as much a token of memory as a thesis. Stripping a writer of his problems – translating his text into something like a list of answers such as you can find in the back of the math textbook - trivializes him.

This returns us to the thesis of necessity and revolution, a combo with a high visibility career in Marxism and twentieth century communism.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx gives the impression that the proletariat will inevitably overthrow the capitalist social order. In a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer dated March 5, 1852, Marx seems to affirm that interpretation: 

“Now as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [dass der Klassenkampf notwendig zur Diktatur des Proletariats fuehrt] 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition [Aufhebung] of all classes and to a classless society. Ignorant louts such as Heinzen, who deny not only the struggle but the very existence of classes, only demonstrate that, for all their bloodthirsty, mock-humanist yelping, they regard the social conditions in which the bourgeoisie is dominant as the final product, the non plus ultra of history, and that they themselves are simply the servants of the bourgeoisie, a servitude which is the more revolting, the less capable are the louts of grasping the very greatness and transient necessity of the bourgeois regime itself.”[Translation from MECW Volume 39, p. 58]

The dictatorship of the proletariat has, of course, a different coloration for readers in 2010, who are distant both from the experience of the 19th century and who are conscious that Stalinism and Maoism were formed under that slogan, among others. In Marx’s time, he could look around the world and see no society that allowed women to vote, no society in which blacks were allowed to vote, and few societies in which there was anything close to democracy in any real sense. Until 1913, in the U.S., the Senate consisted of white men appointed by state legislators. In the UK, the percentage of eligible voters out of the total population put the country on the level of a free medieval German town. According to Frank Thackeray, only about 15 percent of British males were eligible to vote up until the reforms of 1867, after which only one in three males - and all women - were excluded from the vote.In France, before 1848, suffrage was limited to about a quarter of a million voters - out of a population of 34 million. I am, of course, outlining democracy according to its thinnest definition. In the U.S., as is well known, anti-democratic measures were inscribed in the constitution - some of which, like the electoral college, are sill valid. Suffrage was more extensive for white males there, though. Never, until the dissolution of the empire, did Britain’s colonial subjects have any right to vote in Britain’s elections. In 1852, of course, the four hundred million people of India were held, by main force, in the clutches of an old British monopoly, the East India company, which existed as a quite open Mafia, a protection racket. Given this reality, the projection back into the England of Marx’s time of ‘representative institutions’ – such as delight the late Cold Warriors and those who, like Francois Furet, represented some kind of new "anti-Marxist left' in France – will always turn out to be the purest charlatanism, projecting the hard won virtues - such as they are - of the modern state back through its history - as though the Civil Rights marches of 1965-1968 are a good description of the state of ‘civil rights” of Dixie in 1848. Here one sees ideology at its most pathetic. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was the literal truth of Marx's time; of course, Marx and the worker's movements had a lot to do with destroying that state of affairs. That the Western "democracies" owe this to Marx does make the ideologues grumble and moan, since, essentially, they are the ardent workers for bourgeois dictatorship. 

Given these cardinal points, the dictatorship of the proletariat would, of course, have been more democratic, even in the 2 percent milk sense of ‘democratic’, than the political arrangements of Marx’s day. If there was a specter haunting Europe in 1852, it was not that the dictatorship of the proletariat would lead to totalitarianism, but that it would upset the system of monarchs, upper bourgoisie and great landowners whose power was woven out of a complex of rotten boroughs, slavery, a bribed press, a servile judiciary operating as an instrument of the executive, and the hocus pocus system of colonial administrators oppressing the great mass of mankind on the ‘periphery’. Capitalism would not have survived real democracy – a point that was clear to all observers, who tended to call real democracy ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’. 

However, I am more interested in necessity as it appears in the Weydemeyer letter. What is ‘necessary’ in history? And what is the relation between revolution – the overthrow of the current system in response to its level of unbearability – and historical necessity? As we know, these questions found their political correlate in the 1880s, as the Socialist party in Bismark’s Germany organized itself as a parliamentary party. Doesn’t necessity find its own instruments? If the new society choses the path of reform to overturn the old society, do we need revolution? Isn’t revolution an outmoded cult, worshipping the past – particularly the French revolution – with the same pathetic vigor Marx skewers in the 18th Brumaire, when he observes that revolutionaries in the past donned the masks of some chosen predecessor and its dead language in order to perform their work? 

Guizot, one of the French historians Marx read attentively, produced a theory of civilization based on a primitive bi-polar dialectic. This dialectic captured the positivist sense of what was meant by ‘progress’ in the first half of the 19th century. In the lectures collected in ‘The history of civilization in France”, (1828-1830) Guizot writes:

“I researched what ideas attached to this word [civilization] in the good common sense of people. It appeared to me that in the general opinion, civilization consisted essentially in two facts: the development of the social state (l’état social) and of the intellectual state (l’état intellectuel); the development of exterior conditions in general, and that of the interior, personal development of man; in a word, the perfectioning of society and humanity.” 

Perfectioning was still the preferred verb among the liberals in 1828, like some last unexploded bomb from the French revolution. Progress – that ameliorating word, that half and half word that the God of Revelations would surely have spewed from his mouth – just as Marx spewed it from his – had not replaced the icy utopian glitter of the perfect with the tradesman’s bonhomie of profits accrued, year by year.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

white collar crime 2: "Moving barrels at a chemical plant"

Now I have to admit something. I have rather extended Sutherland’s original point. Sutherland really believed that criminal behavior is taught – one thief teaches another. My more fuzzy interpretation is that within a group, what is taught is one’s identity as not the kind of person who commits crimes. It is this which is often the preface to corporate crime, as well as to the judicial and legislative response to crime.

I’d like to mix this take from Sutherland with Orlando Patterson’s notion of “social death”, which is the way in which Patterson wants us to think about slavery. I think that if we think of a social hierarchy as a matter of apportioning social death – of identities being created, in the eyes of judges and legislators, out of some fraction of social death – we have a sense of what inequality, the fundamental inequality that practically grounds law and order in the “democracies” that arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, is about.

That inequality is lied about – in fact, massively lied about. The one place equality supposedly rules is before the law. Nobody is above the law. All are equal before the law. Etc. This is all, frankly, bullshit. Bullshit, in journalistic and pundit-speak, is called an “ideal”. We fall short of the ideal, from this p.o.v., but we keep striving. In fact, though, we don’t fall short of the ideal, the ideal is kicked to the curb in our practical socio-economic life as an impediment to order, and is clubbed to death by the cops if it gets up on its hind legs and protests.

White collar crime, I’d argue, takes white collar enablers.
Let’s use an example, a plain vanilla example. Let’s use Allied Signal. Here’s a Dead Kennedys song about the Kepone Factory case, whichfills in the basic facts.

Allied Chemical made a contracting arrangement with a company named (amazingly) Life Sciences Products. As you would expect, when a corporation names something life sciences, it is all about producing deadly toxins -and so it was with this small factory in Hopewell, Virginia. It made kepone, an insecticide used on fire ants. The toxic ingredient in kepone is chlordecone. It is a very water soluble substance, meaning that it is rapidly spread throughout the organic body. It is a neurotoxin, and one of the rare pesticides which, apparently, exhibits in rodents like it exhibits in humans. Here’s a list of what overexposure can do to humans: nervousness, tremors, chest pains, weight loss, blurred vision, deterioration of fine motor skills. The children of pregnant women exposed to it also experience motor skills deterioration which seems to persist. It is left as an exercise to the reader to compare these effects to crack, which so shocked our legislatures in the 80s that they instituted a witchhunt against (African-American) women who smoked crack.

Life Sciences Products set up their factory and produced the world’s kepone, on a contract from Allied Chemical, from 1974 to 1975. Here’s a description of what was going on in the kepone factory:

“There were usually about 20 men a day working for about $3.75 an hour at the Life Sciences plant over the busy two shifts. Overtime pay was easy to come by, and turnover was high, probably because of the health problems. The workers talked among themselves about their symptoms — including involuntary shaking, vision problems and joint pain — suspicious that the chemical was causing it. But the factory owners were almost never there, so there was no one to ask about it. Most of Life Sciences’ workers weren’t college-educated and had families to support — the job paid too much to quit.

The men were not equipped with any protection from the kepone – no respirators, no gloves. None were, of course, required.

“Doctors and others accused the men of being drunks. “They thought we was alcoholics,” Dykes [a worker there] remembers. “You know how somebody [goes] into DTs? They accused us of that, said we were nothing but alcoholics. Then the state … pulled those blood tests and found those high levels of Kepone in us.”

All good and profitable things come to an end. Life Sciences made about 3 million pounds of the stuff, and about 200,000 pounds got into the surrounding environment, including the James River.

“After quick meetings with a state deputy attorney general, the next day, July 24, 1975, the Life Sciences plant was closed by order of the state Health Department. At around the same time, the Hopewell sewer system malfunctioned, sending raw sewage into the James River. Some mystery chemical was preventing solid waste from breaking down in the sewage systems’ digesters, special tanks that accelerated decomposition of solid waste. The situation was later thought to be caused by excess Kepone being dumped down drains by Life Science. State Water Control Board officials had already found massive amounts of Kepone in the Hopewell sewage system in winter 1974, but nothing was done about it. (Besides dumping excess Kepone into the sewage system, Life Sciences workers also disposed of it by dumping it in a big hole in a nearby field, Dykes says.)
Of course, closing down the James River, preventing fishing, and poking around the neighborhood of Hopewell, looking for shakers, was bad for business. Even worse, this being the seventies, the government even prosecuted the company.
So what is a company like Allied Chemical to do?
Well, it had to operate on two fronts. Technically, in the courts, it had to make sure that it wasn’t charged with anything criminal – the way an individual who poisoned his neighbors would be charged with something criminal. And it had to make the fines it would be assessed go down. On the other front, it had to find scientists to pooh pooh the toxicity of kepone. That was the easier task. Any scientist who wants to live the good life – in academia and out – had best accommodate pesticide companies. Otherwise, your grants tend to get the shakes – like a person poisoned by kepone – and wither away.
In the first stage of the court spectacle, a “respected judge”, Robert R. Merhige Jr. , finally assessed a fine of 13.2 million dollars. This was considered a wickedly high sum. In the second stage of the court spectacle, Judge Merhige ruled that two Allied execs charged with felony (a conspiracy to disguise what was going on) were innocent of the charges. He allowed Allied to plead no contest to 1000 charges against them.
There was a conference about the case twenty years afterwards, and the Judge talked rather frankly about the whole thing. It is a fascinating document, especially given the theory that crime involves a group that learns to commit crime through a complicated exchange of symbols and setting of expectations. This is what Merhige said:
“I explained to the people (who didn't need explanation) it was a corporation that we had and that it was tantamount to a guilty plea. In any event, they were found guilty of 940 counts. Then I got a presentence report, as I was supposed to do. It turned out that Allied, and I said this from the bench, had been a pretty good corporate citizen in Virginia. They had done a lot of good. They were not bad people, but there were a couple of people there who took short cuts and were throwing all this dirt like they owned the James River and they poisoned it. At the same time the state had some kind of a claim against them. While I was waiting for the presentence report, other suits were developing, about fifteen or sixteen of them. We thought the original group of people who had been allegedly injured were horribly injured. There were reports that their reproductive capacity had gone. In any event, the case was settled well before we realized or got the reports from the doctors that the injuries were nowhere near as bad as we had first anticipated, thank God. That was one of the happy things.”
The pretty good citizen part is crucial. It is unexplained, but we can sort of suss it out: they had executives in the Virginia area who were white, who paid their taxes and sent their kids to good schools, and probably – some of them – coached little league.
To use Aaron Persky’s invaluable phrase: to jail people like that or throw them out of work would have a “severe impact” on them. And, after all, the workers at the factory where all this dirt was being produced made 3.25 per hour, and surely did not suffer too much if they went through a modest period of blindness, shakes, pain and the like. Might have been unable to find work, but those kind of people – well, that is where you find your alcoholics and freeloaders.
In the event, the 13.2 million was for the suckers. Merhige eventually cut it down to 5 million. And to keep that money from going to Washington, and to benefit the James River fishermen, Allied set up a trust. With the finest people on board!
“I asked Mr. Cummings to get on because I knew he was thoroughly familiar with the case, and I didn't want any of the funds used to help Allied buy off their civil liabilities. He accepted. As I recall, I appointed Judge Henry McKenzie, who was an avid sportsman and very much interested in our environment; Admiral Ross P. Bullard, who was the Coast Guard Admiral in charge of the navigable waters around the Chesapeake Bay and the James River, so he was thoroughly familiar. Then I was fortunate enough to get Sydney and Frances Lewis, whose name may be familiar to you, who knew how to spend money from what I read in the paper. Then finally a banker. I thought we needed a banker. George Yowell accepted it. They were a great board.”

As a p.s. to this story: the 8 million dollars Allied donated to the environmental trust was not an entirely bad deal for Allied, as they took a 4 million dollar tax deduction for it. All is well that ends well in the world of white collar crime.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The man who coined the term "white collar criminal": Edwin H. Sutherland

Like Karl Marx, contemplating wood theft in Germany in 1846 and being struck by the fact that the crime was invented, in contradistinction from the way he was taught law operated, Edwin H. Sutherland was a criminologist/sociologist who, in the 1930s, began looking at crimes committed by people other than the urban marginals and degenerates who were the usual object of criminological interest, and he was struck by the inability of theory to capture either their practices or motives. 

Marx, of course, began to understand class out of the invention of crime, and soon went on to devise a vast theory about the way class conflict was shaping the society of capital. Sutherland did not go so far. But where he went is of interest.

The reason Sutherland started investigating “white collar crime” (indeed, he coined the phrase) had to do with his Deweyian theory that crime was a learned activity. The criminological paradigms of the 30s, inherited from the 19th century, attributed crime to inheritance, degeneration, poverty, broken homes, or individual viciousness. Sutherland’s theory, which he called differential association, was that crime was learned through the symbols and uses of groups. Not gangs, not groups that are composed of people personally acquainted with each other – although these, too, are groups – but groups in the larger sense of members who identify with some collective. It is in these groups that the inhibition or disinhibition to crime evolves.

Here’s an example, from the recent past. In 2016, Brock Turner, a Stanford University athlete, was actually caught physically raping a passed out woman. He was convicted of this rape. The sentence handed down by Judge Aaron Persky was six months. Three months was shaved off, as time already served. In his statement about the punishment, Persky said that sentencing Turner to prison for a long time could have a “severe impact” on him.

That phrase “severe impact” reveals an abyss of assumptions about class in the U.S. – and, in particular, the assumption that certain members of the group of the affluent and educated have “futures” that must be preserved. Persky, to use Sutherland’s phrase, was differentially associated with Turner.  Certain crimes that would be severely repressed by certain members of certain groups – for whom the “severe impact” of the penitentiary is designed – are treated much more softly when committed by members of other groups. This is not simply a statistical fact, but a passed around piece of knowledge – in the group, this is known. Impunity is a social bond.

Sutherland, however, is not concerned so much with class as with his theory, which, remember, is in opposition to the ruling criminological theories of the time – and of now. Criminology has not changed that much, and if Hilary Clinton was comfortable talking about “super predators” in the 90s, and the NYT opinion page is a reliable source for talk about the “underclass” now, it is due to this paradigm.

Sutherland, thus, turned to the upperclass. He compiled a list of the seventy largest publicly traded corporations, and went over 45 years of court records. Here’s what he found:
This tabulation of the crimes of the seventy largest corporations in the United States gives a total of 980 adverse decisions. Every one of the seventy corporations has a decision against it, and the average number of decisions is 14.0. Of these seventy corporations, 98 percent are recidivists; that is, they have two or more adverse decisions. Several states have enacted habitual crimlnal laws, which define an habitual criminal as a person who has been convicted four times of felonies. If we use this number and do no limit the convictions to felonies, 90 percent of the seventy largest corporations in the IUnited States are habitual criminals.”
Aye, but the kicker for some of Sutherland’s opponents was the conditional phrase, “if we do not limit the convictions to felonies.” Which gets us more into the question of class and power.
To be continued.

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...