Youth Activists Need to Think Outside the Ballot Box

Big Dubya/Flickr

There’s been a lot of buzz recently around left-wing candidates running in — and winning — local races across the country. That’s particularly true now in Chicago, with the Sun-Times reporting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election bid would be vulnerable to challenge from Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis.

But, as I write in my column for The Chicago Bureau this week, redirecting funds and energy into the electoral process would carry serious opportunity costs for activists committed to movement-building.

This critical appraisal of electioneering won’t come as a surprise to longtime readers. During the 2010 midterms I argued that left-leaning voters shouldn’t reward the Democratic Party for its staunch support of war and corporate welfare. I made a similar case during the 2012 presidential campaign, when I advanced a moral argument for electoral abstention.

My new piece for the Bureau expands on these themes by offering a more tactical critique of electoral campaigns, especially how they divert needed resources from front-line activists and foreclose more radical possibilities. Check it out here.

Immigration Reform Is Dead — And That’s a Good Thing

Valerie Hinojosa/Flickr

I’m thrilled to announce the launch of my new weekly column with The Chicago Bureau, a youth issues watchdog. Last summer I wrote a feature for the Bureau examining some of the more troubling elements of the Youth PROMISE Act, which was embraced by leading advocacy organizations as a step toward ending the school-to-prison pipeline. The Bureau does fantastic work on a range of issues, from juvenile justice to education policy to racial and economic inequality, so it’s great to be back.

My first Bureau column, “Immigration Reform Is Dead — And That’s a Good Thing,” takes aim at the immigration reform bill recently killed by House Republicans. The bill has been advertised as a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and its demise has outraged immigrant justice advocates.

Yet passage of the current bill would be only a symbolic victory for the immigrant justice movement. As I write in the column: “The reform’s brutal border security provisions and classist path to citizenship would seriously harm immigrant communities while undermining the solidarity needed to resist the onslaught.” You can read the rest here.

I’m happy to report that the piece has also been picked up by

The Limits of Dystopian Fiction

Tom Woodward/Flickr
Tom Woodward/Flickr

Cross-posted from

The problem with films like the Hunger Games series is that, no matter how clear their parallels to contemporary violence and inequality, the takeaway message is ultimately one of reassurance. As they leave the theater, audiences can take comfort in the knowledge that the society depicted on-screen is far worse than the one in which they live. America has its flaws, they may think to themselves, but at least we don’t round up kids and force them to kill each other!

The truth is not nearly so reassuring. While the United States may not hold Reaping ceremonies, its economic lottery is just as grimly effective when it comes to channeling working-class teens into the military to kill other poor kids in the Third World. That the Hunger Games fails to make such connections explicit is not the fault of author Suzanne Collins, who has said her books were partially inspired by media coverage of the Iraq War. Nor is it the fault of the filmmakers who brought her vision to the screen. It is, rather, an illustration of the limits of dystopian fiction.

Dystopian fiction can enlighten through its depictions of nightmarish societies, but it can also obscure. This is true even of genre classics like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. By dressing up contemporary critiques in futuristic or foreign clothing, by presenting colorful villains and sensational portrayals of evil, dystopian fiction can blind us to the calculated cruelties of the real world, which rarely announce themselves with the heavy-handedness of Collins’ Peacekeepers or Orwell’s Thought Police. The result is that even politically-savvy people tend to see such stories as cautionary tales about far-off threats rather than calls to action in the here and now.

This exotification of evil raises larger questions about our society’s apparent inability to face the most pressing issues of the day head-on. Why must we construct elaborate fantasies of totalitarian rule and savage blood sports? Are the evils of liberal democracy – imperialist war, the prison-industrial complex, mass deportation – not serious enough to warrant resistance? These are the questions that today’s artists must grapple with. But it is far easier to write about revolution in a fictional society than in one’s own backyard.

It is also safer. Alan Moore, the author of the graphic novel V for Vendetta, captured this feeling when he told MTV that the film adaptation of his work had been “turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country.” Indeed, when stripped of what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “fierce urgency of now,” such works not only fail to challenge the status quo, but help to reinforce it by redirecting anti-government impulses against imaginary targets. In this way, people can purge themselves of subversive feelings by cheering for freedom fighters at the multiplex and then return to being spied on by the National Security Agency without noticing any contradiction.

Dystopian works like the Hunger Games series are important. They raise questions of complicity, collaboration and resistance that often go unexplored in other genres. But until artists are willing to speak frankly about the time and place in which they live, hope for a better future – like their visions of dystopia – will be just another fantasy.

Obama, Aurora, and the Nature of Power


Obama on the Aurora massacre, July 20:

“Now, even as we learn how this happened and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this. Such violence, such evil is senseless. It’s beyond reason.”

The New York Times on how U.S. sanctions have, for the past 17 years, blocked the sale of desperately-needed civilian airliners and spare parts to Iran, causing thousands of deaths:

“I support the pressure on our leaders,” said Janet, a 54-year-old homemaker who did not want to give her full name, for fear of the authorities. “But I don’t understand why the U.S. wants to hurt us, normal people. Don’t we have the right to travel safely?”

For several weeks now, Americans have struggled to come to terms with the atrocity in Aurora, Colorado. In their attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, they have picked through the detritus of James Holmes’ personal life – his academic failure, his recent breakup – to discern some motive.

But these explanations do not cut to the heart of the matter. Most people endure such hardships without lashing out at innocent people. So why did Holmes do it? The most honest answer may also be the simplest, and perhaps the most frightening: he did it because he wanted to do it. Because he felt like it. Because he wanted to assert his dominance over others, wanted to experience what George Orwell called “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.” For a few frantic, bloody minutes, he got his wish.

This is not a satisfying answer, but the nature of power does not lend itself to satisfying answers. Power, whether it is wielded over a theater full of frightened people or entire nations, provides its own justification. Orwell understood that. As the political dissident Winston Smith learns from his interrogator in Orwell’s masterful 1984:

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently… . Power is not a means; it is an end… . The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

And again:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation… .”

Former Moscow Times columnist Chris Floyd has explained how the U.S. government’s embrace of torture serves little, if any, strategic purpose while inflicting massive suffering. The same holds true for the airline sanctions on Iran. American policymakers know that the sanctions have killed thousands of innocent people in plane crashes. They know that these measures do not target Iranian officials – as they claimed, falsely, about the recent economic sanctions – but the civilian population at large. They know from the 1990s sanctions on Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of children but did not unseat Saddam Hussein, that collective punishment will not inspire Iranians to overthrow their rulers. And they know that this terrorism will not persuade the Iranian government to halt its nuclear weapons program for the simple reason that the program no longer exists. It was halted back in 2003, and top U.S. military and intelligence officials have admitted this on a number of occasions.

So why do American policymakers persist in imposing policies that they know will harm innocent people for no discernible, much less justifiable, reason? As Floyd grimly concluded: they want to hurt these people. There is no “good” reason. There never is.

Of course, American policymakers never admit to harboring this impulse. Most likely they do not even recognize it within themselves. They lack the self-awareness of Orwell’s interrogator. Indeed, as I have written previously, Obama and his cohorts are utterly divorced from reality. They inhabit a fantasy world in which the U.S. promotes freedom by supporting dictators, protects civil liberties by destroying them, and defends itself by committing aggression. This same diagnosis applies to virtually the entire American foreign policy establishment.

Many people will never acknowledge that a moral equivalence exists between the Aurora shooter and the state-sanctioned murderers in Washington. On the contrary, they will deny it to the bitter end. When a libertarian group in Idaho posted a billboard contrasting Americans’ shock at the Aurora massacre with their acceptance of Obama’s murderous foreign policy, the result was spluttering outrage. Most online commenters dismissed the comparison as disgusting and offensive without elaborating on why exactly this was so. A Village Voice blog provides a more substantive example of this double standard by noting that the billboard’s statements are indisputably true, and then denying the logical conclusion:

Since Obama entered the Oval Office, yes, there have been thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, including our soldiers, enemy targets and citizens. Yes, drone attacks have spun out of control and the remote control killings of innocent people have been heavily reported on… .

But, regardless, making a connection between the foreign policy of the United States of America and the massacre of twelve people at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises is downright idiotic. It is an amateur attempt in political criticism, in which the absurd six degrees of separation is pulled out to receive shock value.

It’s like the ‘Bush is Hitler’ signs of yesteryear or the Stalin/Mao/[insert dictator here] billboards of Obama – the fringe that do actually believe that bullshit need hyperbolic narratives to explain points that [sic] cannot explain in coherent sentences. Here’s how we can explain it to them: Barack Obama is not like James Holmes. James Holmes is like James Holmes and Barack Obama is like Barack Obama.

But there is no need for hyperbolic narratives when discussing Obama’s penchant for deliberately killing people his own administration acknowledges to be innocent. Stories like this one, featured on the front page of the May 29 New York Times, will do:

Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.

“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission simply because the target had people around them and we were able to loiter on station until they didn’t.”

But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.

Make no mistake: if Obama were not the president of the United States but an ordinary citizen, his decision to bomb an adversary’s home and willfully kill his target’s extended family would be prosecuted as exactly what it is – multiple counts of first-degree murder.

But Obama is the president of the United States, and that is precisely the point. For many people this fact elevates him to a plane that is effectively beyond good and evil. As with a deity or force of nature, traditional moral standards simply do not apply. This is the same attitude that led Nixon to infamously declare, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Today it is clear that Nixon was not thinking big enough. Call it a twenty-first century update to his archaic view of executive power: now when the president does it, it is not immoral, either.

Cross-posted from

What’s Wrong With Obama’s Foreign Policy?

Matthew Kovac/The Protest

Cross-posted from

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have painted Obama as an anti-war president, albeit for obvious political reasons: the Democrats want to mobilize their progressive wing in November’s election, and Republicans stand to gain from portraying him as soft on terror. So why did NATO protesters have such harsh words for Obama at the Art Institute Sunday night? One need look no further than the Obama administration’s horrendous foreign policy and human rights record.



For all Obama’s talk of “drawing down” in Afghanistan, the fact remains that there are nearly three times as many U.S. troops in the country as there were when he took office, and Obama plans to maintain a significant military presence through at least 2014. Approximately 88,000 U.S. troops currently occupy the country. They are supported by 100,000 private contractors in their efforts to protect the hated Karzai government and crush the Afghan resistance movement. Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed in the decade-long occupation, and the number of civilians killed by U.S. air strikes has increased under Obama.



Obama announced the withdrawal of approximately 40,000 troops from Iraq to great fanfare late last year. But, as National Journal’s Yochi Dreazen pointed outthen, “The troops aren’t being withdrawn because the U.S. wants them out. They’re leaving because the Iraqi government refused to let them stay.” In fact, the Obama administration fought tooth and nail to extend the U.S. military presence, giving up only when Iraqi lawmakers refused to grant U.S. forces legal immunity for the crimes they would inevitably commit if they stayed. Today, 5,500 security contractors remain in Baghdad to guard a militarized U.S. “embassy” the size of Vatican City, and CIA and Special Operations forces continue to prop up the Iraqi police state.



The Obama administration was a driving force behind NATO’s seven-month bombing of Libya, which left at least 72 civilians dead, according to Human Rights Watch. The NATO intervention empowered the U.S.-backed interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to consolidate control of the country and engage in systematic violence against black Libyans, who they accused of being Qaddafi loyalists. The NTC has ties to the ousted Qaddafi regime and reportedly cut oil deals with Western governments and corporations in the midst of the civil war.



The Obama Administration has drastically expanded the drone-bombing campaign in Pakistan, launching 270 drone attacks since taking office, or one every four days. While Obama claimed that his relentless bombing of Pakistan “has not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has confirmed the deaths of hundreds of civilians in U.S. drone strikes, including at least 174 children. Obama has also expanded drone attacks in Yemen and Somalia, with similarly disastrous consequences for innocents in those countries.



Obama’s defenders often cite his executive order banning torture by American forces as proof that he repudiated Bush-era torture policies. But extraordinary rendition – the practice of kidnapping people overseas and shipping them to U.S. client states to be tortured by foreign intelligence agencies – remains alive and well under the Obama Administration. As The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill reported last year, the CIA continues to operate secret prisons in places like Somalia, where prisoners can be tortured without interference from the International Red Cross.



To date, not one victim of U.S. torture has had their day in court, due to the Obama Justice Department’s invocation of the “state secrets privilege” to dismiss lawsuits on national security grounds. As’s Glenn Greenwald has noted: “One of the most amazing statistics of the last decade: not a single War on Terror victim — not one, whether foreign or American — has been permitted to proceed in an American court in an effort to obtain compensation for illegal treatment by the U.S. Government; instead, American courts have unanimously dismissed those cases at the outset, without reaching their substance.”



With his signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last New Year’s Eve, Obama codified indefinite military detention of U.S. citizens as the law of the land. As the Bush administration demonstrated with its torture and three-year imprisonment of U.S. citizen Jose Padilla, due-process-free military detention of citizens was already occurring before the Obama team arrived in Washington. But Obama has made de facto military detention de jure. Indefinite detention remains the norm for non-citizens, as evidenced by the continued imprisonment of foreign nationals without trial in Guantánamo Bay and Bagram prison in Afghanistan.



Obama is waging a war on whistleblowers that is unprecedented in U.S. history. In the course of a single presidential term, the Obama administration has charged twice as many people under the Espionage Act of 1917 as all previous presidential administrations combined. Perhaps the most notable of these is Pfc. Bradley Manning, who allegedly supplied WikiLeaks with classified documents detailing U.S. war crimes. The administration held Manning in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for 11 months, treatment that was condemned as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” by the UN special rapporteur on torture. Manning, 24, now faces more than 50 years in prison.



As Atty. General Eric Holder explained at the Northwestern University law school in March, the Obama administration claims the power to assassinate anyone in the world, including U.S. citizens, without so much as charging them with a crime. To date, three U.S. citizens in Yemen have been assassinated by drone strikes, including New Mexico-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Denver native Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

This assertion of absolute, life-or-death power effectively one-ups the Bush Administration, which merely claimed the right to indefinitely imprison people without trial. As Noam Chomsky observed recently: “If Bush, the Bush administration, didn’t like somebody, they’d kidnap them and send them to torture chambers; if the Obama administration decides they don’t like somebody, they murder them.”