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Social Commentary

If It’s not Class Warfare, What Is It?


When the wealthy act collectively to defend their interests it’s called a CORPORATION

And conservatives will fight tooth and nail to preserve the RIGHTS of the CORPORATION.

But when working people act collectively to defend their interests it’s called a UNION!

And conservatives will fight tooth and nail to destroy it!


If you are a working person then you should be supporting the workers in Wisconsin…

…because YOU are NEXT!

Egypt Teaches Us a Lesson in Democracy

And School’s Not Out Yet!


Egypt is one of the world’s oldest cultures. The lessons that we can learn from this ancient and expansive culture are too numerous to recount here. However, we can add a few more lessons that one does not typically associate with Egypt, at least not among the globally self-sequestered Americans. These are lessons in democracy, and the classroom is Tahrir Square, Cairo. The passion of the young men and women who defied the infamous Mubarak police force and loyalist thugs set to whip them into fear and angry retaliation is a reminder of democratic fundamentals. It is a lesson of the most elemental expression of democracy—the power of people en masse saying “NO!” or “No more!” Once The People rise up and speak in a single voice and refused to be silenced, there isn’t a force in the world that can topple them.

Democracy is a bottom up movement. It is a demand by The People that their inherent human rights and dignity be respected. Government is “of the people” and those in power govern at the behest of the citizen. And if that government becomes oppressive then it is the right, and dare I say the responsibility of the people to overthrow that government and replace it. This should not be a radical statement for Americans.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…

Remember that little bit of radical literature. Written in 1776 Thomas Jefferson held that these “truths” are “self evident.” They are not subject to anyone’s interpretation, or anyone’s best interest. It’s not about the security of Israel or the political expediency of the United States or irrational fears of Islamofascism. Mubarak was a brutal and tyrannical dictator from whom the Egyptian people were in their right to liberate themselves. This is what we believe, or at least proclaim, as true and valid. If it was true for our founding fathers in the 18th century then it is equally valid among Arab Muslims today. “All men are created equal.” Conspicuously, Jefferson used the term “their creator” rather than “the creator” in suggesting the endowment of these rights.

It’s a mistake, and a largely American mistake, to assume that the events in Egypt are the result of a spontaneous uprising or millions of disconnected people suddenly inspired by the will to be free. Yes, there was an initial period of spontaneity as Egyptians responded to catalyzing events in Tunisia and took to the streets. Protestors responded with vandalism aimed at government buildings, Molotov cocktails and rocks aimed at the hated police. Yes, there was some violence as vast crowds responded to police riot measures. They drove the dreaded constabulary from Tahrir Square with menace and ire over a generation of hatred for the torture and abuse suffered at the hands of the state.

At the base, however, were dozens of political activist organizations with years of protest, dissidence and organizing under their belts. Most of these groups were involved in years of labor organizing. They were propelled by this experience, combined with youthful idealism. Within short order the mass of people in Tahrir Square were an organized and disciplined movement less likely to be moved by tyranny than the mountain was moved by Muhammad. By the time Mubarak’s loyalist bullies descended on the protestors with whips and cudgels, a dedicated and peaceful movement was in place. This was recognized by the Egyptian military who upheld their honor by refusing to fire upon peaceful demonstrators.

And yes, Muslim religious groups were also involved in the protests, including the questionably notorious Muslim Brotherhood. Why not? Isn’t it the hallmark of a democracy to embrace divergent ideas, even those which we view as radical fundamentalism? We know that the best defense against an Iranian style theocracy is a vibrant and robust democracy that allows for religious tolerance without trying to stifle spiritual expression. The Muslim Brotherhood is not to be feared in this case. Democracy can be defined as an ongoing conversation between diverse peoples regardless of differences. Yet another lesson we can derive from our Egyptian friends.

Another lesson that might be hard learned for Americans is that the principles of liberty and equality that we hold dear are not specific to European culture or dependent upon Christian values. The demonstrators in Tahrir were almost certainly as diverse a group as any American gathering, though heavily influenced by Arab culture and Islam to be sure. Yet this was not an expression of Muslim ideology or a call to Jihad. Rather, the Egyptian protests were an expression of Enlightenment values, more an homage to Locke and Jefferson than an appeal to Muhammad and Allah. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Human rights and dignity are universal values. From Egypt we learn that all people, regardless of culture and gender and religion and creed want exactly the same things—to be free, to be respected, to have a hand in their own future. An Arab/Muslim democracy should be no more alien to us than a European/Christian democracy.

What’s more, the birth of democracy did not require American intervention, let alone American soldiers with American guns and American bombs. Indeed, after 30 years of support for the very tyrant who provoked the Egyptian protest, the United States was best sitting on the sidelines and keeping its presence on the down-low. The United States does not have the best track record when it comes to establishing democracy, considering this nation’s unflinching support for almost all dictators in the region, including such bestial luminaries as the House of Saud, and yes, Saddam Hussein. In the last decade the US military has been recklessly involved in the creation of two governments in the region and has demonstrated the impotence of military nation building. In Iraq the US imposed government is a house of cards lacking any credibility among the Iraqi people. It is now subject to the same popular pressures spreading through the region and will almost certainly fall. In Afghanistan the US created government is blatantly corrupt. How’s that for a track record?

It is American arrogance to believe that only the US can bring liberty and stability to the “uncivilized” tribes of the Middle East. The Egyptians have demonstrated without a doubt that they can take care of themselves, thank you very much. We owe it to them to trust their judgment and their movement. It would be nice if the Egyptians, in establishing their government, took American interests into account. Continued preferential treatment on the Suez Canal would be nice. Continued treaty obligations with Israel would be optimal. The United States can and should do its part to maintain and strengthen relationships with the nascent Egyptian government, but the ultimate decisions about the structure and status of the government must be a contract between it and the people of Egypt. As it should be. As we, Americans, hold to be a basic human right.

It is true that this lesson is not over. There is no predicting the ultimate outcome for Egypt. I’ve said a lot of nice things about democracy. Indeed, the youth of Egypt and the movements of which they are a part seem intent on democratic government. But intentions have a way of being twisted in the helter skelter of revolutionary politics. Currently, the Egyptian military, a social class in itself in Egyptian culture, appears to be taking the lead in ensuring a smooth transition. The People appear to accept its authority at this point. My concern is that militaries are not democratic, and have a questionable track record when it comes to power vacuums. There is a tendency for armies to fill the power void left by an outgoing government. As it stands, the outcomes are up in the air, and we cannot assume that democracy will prevail. But I have faith in the Egyptian People. After all, they’ve already taken down one tyrant. They can take down another.

To add to this uncertainty, the protests appear to be spreading. Iran is vulnerable, Bahrain is feeling the heat, Jordan has already taken steps to ameliorate a protest before it happened, Yemen, Libya and Iraq are host to popular protest. Each instant has its own variables and its own personalities, institutions and networks. Is it reasonable to assume that democracy or republicanism will prevail in all nations so affected? Again, perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I have faith in The People to overcome.

Now let’s work toward change in our own nation. The tyrannies that we face in the United States are of a different breed and caliber than those faced in North Africa and the Middle East. As it stands, however, we mostly don’t have to worry about being “disappeared” or assassinated by the government for speaking our minds. All we have to face is the scorn of powerful elements in our society who have us chained by the tyranny of our own ideas. In certain respects this is the most oppressive form of tyranny…the kind that’s wrapped in false righteousness.


(Cartoon by Medi Belortaja)

Socialists/Liberals are not Nazis

Stop getting your history from Glenn Beck and do your own research


There’s just something about the Beckian Conservative mindset. They seem to be incapable of political discourse without calling someone a Nazi. This is especially true if that someone is a Liberal/Socialist (because according to the Beckian schema all liberals are socialists). The socialist as Nazi has crept into the extreme right discourse because, let’s face it, there’s no better way of delegitimizing someone than by associating them with Hitler.

This post has been moved to the New Mad Sociologist Page. Click here to finish reading.

The “N” Word is not Just a Word

A Response to Dr. Laura Schlesinger


Note: I know this topic isn’t exactly timely, but my life has been pretty busy. I have so many ideas right now, but not the time to get them out. Bear with me, Mad Sociologist fan


When I was teaching literature one of the books on my required reading list was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. There were times when the students were expected to read passages from the book aloud so I could assess their reading ability. Of course, Twain’s novel was chock full of the “N” word. Despite this, I would not allow my students to skip over it, or to use a euphemism when they had to read the offending word. They had to read it aloud.

This made my students uncomfortable, and not just my white students. Contrary to Schlesinger’s insinuation that black people can just say the “N” word without issue, my black students were demonstrably uncomfortable using this word in the context of a classroom. This underscores the complexity of social dynamics that are often blurred by the generalizations made by pundits. However, I happen to believe that discomfort is often a very good educational tool (at times).

After the read aloud I would lead a discussion about what was read. In this case, the discussion centered around the “N” word. “Why did you guys have such a hard time reading that word? It’s just a word.” The students squirmed and often reiterated my comment that it’s just a word…”it’s just hard to explain.” One student summed it up best when she said, “but it’s not just a word. It’s not. There’s more to it than that.” What these students seemed to know instinctively, but were finding it difficult to elucidate was that words, in this case the “N” word, are infused with more than just definitive meaning, but that they carry with them a historical and cultural contextual meaning. In this case, the “N” word carries with it a brutal history of oppression and dehumanization. It cannot be separated from that cultural memory.

Invariably, the discussion turns to “so why is it okay for black people to say it, but not for white people?” This is a good question for high school students steeped in a culture of fairness. Yes, here’s a word that has a historically and profoundly negative connotation, but changes with the interpersonal context. One could see how this inconsistency would be confusing to teenagers.

One cannot, however, understand how a so called expert in interpersonal relations, like Dr. Laura, could be derailed by this topic.

Sociologists recognize the existence of dominant and subordinate groups within a given society. Historically and socially the “N” word was used by the dominant group as a means of demeaning and dehumanizing the subordinate group. It was one of many tools used for keeping blacks “in their place.” So based on the cultural context of the “N” word, yes, it will have a different meaning when used by members of the historically dominant group than when used by the historically subordinate group.

Among blacks, the use of the “N” word could be a form of symbolic resistance to domination. It could be a minstralization of the word that betrays its destructive meaning. And, yes, it could be used as a means of establishing dominance in intragroup relations. The bottom line is that the “N” word, in and of itself, is not just a word, and Dr. Laura should have known better.

Then I can ask the question, is Huckleberry Finn a racist book simply because it makes such constant reference to the “N” word? Indeed, it is not. Twain uses the word in exactly the context it was used during that time. Regardless, Huckleberry Finn turns social convention on its head as the rascally Huck questions the legitimacy of the social norms of which he could never really master on his own. It isn’t Huck who is a deviant, it’s a ridiculous society. Among the most ridiculous elements of that society was in race relations, the idea that one human being can and should be slave (or one could dare say subordinate) to another human being. Huck realizes this when he affirms his willingness to go to Hell in order to help Jim, the runaway slave and the all round best person in the novel.1

So, no, Dr. Laura is not necessarily a racist based on her use of the “N” word alone. Certainly it’s not the point of this post to paint her as a racist. However, Dr. Laura’s repeated use of the “N” word despite protestations from her caller is disconcerting, at best. Dr. Laura used the “N” word out of anger, and as a means, either conscious or in the heat of the moment, to belittle this caller…to put her in her place. And this was the original, abusive intent of the “N” word.


  1. Of course, the argument can be made the Twain minstralizes Jim, thus reinforcing racial stereotypes. I would submit that this is true. Mark Twain was ahead of his time in many ways…but not in all ways.

What do you and Naomi Campbell have in common?

Unless you happen to have a supermodel body, or happen to have been forced to testify before The Hague, this is a difficult question to answer.

Last week former supermodel Naomi Campbell was finally compelled to give testimony in the war crimes trial against blood-stained, deposed dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor. According to witnesses, Campbell received a large “blood diamond” as a gift from the tyrant. Campbell had had a conversation with Taylor (what witness Mia Farrow referred to as “flirting”) in the home of Nelson Mandela shortly before receiving the gift. She claims that two men woke her in the night and presented her with the diamond. Before The Hague court she denied any knowledge of the conflict jewel’s origin.

It’s interesting that Campbell should be spotlighted for her ownership of a conflict mineral. The chances are pretty high that everyone reading this post right now, including this author, is in possession of minerals with a similar, bloody history as Campbell’s alleged blood diamond. If you have a cell phone, lap-top, i-pod, or any of a number of micro-circuit devices, then you are also in possession of a conflict mineral known as coltan.

Coltan is a component of resisters that are necessary for the functioning of all of our electrical devices. Indeed, more than just a mere shiny bauble like that received by Naomi Campbell, it could be said that our very civilization could not function without this crucial mineral. Yet coltan, like the infamous blood diamonds, have a similar history.

Most of our coltan is mined in West Africa. Those who actually do the digging, often children (see picture), live under slave conditions making less than subsistence wages. Money spent on coltan often goes to brutal, militant tribal leaders responsible for heinous acts of cruelty and inhumanity. Since electronics manufacturers pass on the costs of production to the consumer, that means our money is finding its way into the bloody purses of tyrants and child slavers.

Yet none of us will find ourselves before The Hague any time soon, I would suspect. Unlike blood diamonds, coltan and other conflict minerals do not make for good press. It’s easy to vilify the consumers of blood diamonds. Diamonds themselves have a romantic aura about them. They are shiny and valuable, and it’s easy to visualize evil, boney fingers lifting a blood diamond for examination under unscrupulous and greedy eyes. After all, who accepts such a gift from a known tyrant? Certainly no one like me, that’s for sure.

But what happens when we find that the integral, technological components that define modern life are similarly blood soaked? After all, I’m no Naomi Campbell (by any stretch of even the most disturbed imaginations). I don’t have a shiny trinket among countless other shiny trinkets (Campbell claims that she donated the diamond[s?] to a children’s program in South Africa). I’m just a working guy who needs to get to work even if the computer components in my car contain the fruits of child labor. I need access to the internet and software, even if the components of my computer are funding systematic rape on the Congo. I need to update my cell-phone when a sale becomes available because my outdated phone is no longer in production, even if that means funding arms used to destroy villages or impress children into an ad hoc military. This particular mineral is vital to my functioning as a post-modern individual.

Under such circumstances it’s easy to ignore the blood, the traces of which can be found on all of our hands. Whereas I can become indignant about the exchange of a blood diamond from an enamored tyrant to a beautiful model, I’m unlikely to become so emotionally responsive to a dull mineral in my own i-pod. There’s a certain distance between blood diamonds and my lived experience. I can avoid this luxury, can take action against those who would produce and consume this product because I do not see myself in their lovely faces. But necessary components that are an everyday reality in my life, what am I to do? How radical should I be in this regard? Should I refuse medical attention because the technology used on me might contain conflict coltan? Coltan is something that touches my life. Something I’m close to every day.

It’s also seemingly unstoppable. How can I, just a working man, with everyday concerns and responsibilities, contend with institutionalized slavery and brutality thousands of miles away? Even should I decide to go off the grid, eschew all forms of solid state circuitry in my life, such a decision would not make a dent in the exploitation in coltan mines. So it’s a no-win situation for me. Understanding such a calculus de-motivates me from getting involved. Much easier to say, ‘oh well,’ and move on with my life.

And here’s the elephant in the room. The fact is that I benefit from this exploitation. Every penny saved through child slavery and abusive labor structures makes the commodity cheaper for me. If everyone involved in the production process of making my cell phone made a living wage and received benefits, then I would be paying more for my cell phone. Since I benefit directly from this exploitation, I’m not likely to be motivated to end it.

Of course, the direct benefit may not be as clear as one would think. In fact, improving the conditions and wages of working people does not necessarily increase costs to the consumer; at least not by much. Research done on textile sweatshops shows that paying workers a living wage would add no more than twenty-five cents to the cost of, say, a shirt. In fact, valued workers are more productive workers. Increasing productivity in the coltan mines through worker investment, living wages and benefits would increase the supply of the mineral and thus decrease the costs.

Yeah, but the fact remains, I was able to get half-off my cell during up-grade time under the current system. If I work hard for change in the extraction process of electronics production, the best I can hope for is—half-off my next cell phone.

On the other hand, how much is eliminating child slavery worth to you? If you reduce moral action to mere dollars and cents, then you must be prepared to explain your budget priorities. Is a child in slavery worth, say, saving twenty-five dollars? Ten dollars? What are your acceptable savings in exchange for child slavery? If you feel uncomfortable about his question; if you don’t think it’s fair, or are having a hard time answering it, then it’s time to assess your priorities.

The bottom line is that children, who by the very values we cherish should be in school, or in playgrounds, are toiling and dying in mines. After reading this post and the associated links you are now aware that you are a part of this brutal and bloody system. If you have even a trace of humanity in you then every fiber of your ethical fabric tells you to do something about this travesty. Will you listen?

See the Agitation Links at the Journal of a Mad Sociologist within the next few days for resources through which to get involved in this very important matter.

What was ACORN guilty of?


A preliminary report by the Government Accountability Office was assigned by congressional conservatives to review the case against ACORN and found that this organization, though flawed, did nothing illegal. It mostly exonerates the organization of all wrongdoing. It does highlight that some individuals working for ACORN either plead guilty to attempts at voter fraud or were found guilty in court, but the report specifies that much of the information used against these individuals was provided by ACORN itself.

So, of course, I knew that “Fair and Balanced” Fox News would be quick to highlight this GAO report. After all, Fox News practically lived and breathed assertions that ACORN pandered to pimps and prostitutes. The video, heavily edited it turned out, seemingly exposing ACORN’s complicity in prostitution was a staple of Rupert Murdoch’s right wing sounding board for many weeks. Turns out that investigations by the Brooklyn District Attorney and the California Attorney General concluded that the videos were fraudulent.

Imagine my surprise when I checked the Fox News website and couldn’t find a single article, video, transcript or snippet on the GAO report. One would think that a truly fair and balanced news organization would, at the very least, include a link to the report in the face of an incessant barrage of coverage for a fraudulent video. Just a little balance? A little bit?

Of course, I’m being tongue in cheek with my reference to Fox News as “fair and balanced.” But Fox wasn’t the only mainstream news organization to ignore the GAO report. NBC News, ABC, CBS, New York Times. MSNBC? Apparently nobody was interested. In fact, a Google search revealed not a single mainstream news outlet, with the exception of the The Hill, thought the GAO report newsworthy.

So let me get this straight. A heavily edited amateur video made by right wing activists accusing a community organizing group of complicity in prostitution is news. A congressionally requested, independent report from the Government Accountability Office…is nothing. Not even a peep.

True, suggestions that the GAO report is “vindication” of ACORN may be jumping the gun a bit, here. After all, this was a preliminary report. The GAO does not make clear where they will go from here. Will there be a more thorough and probing final report? I’d like to think so.

But if the media response to the GAO’s preliminary report is any indicator, it really won’t matter.

Is it a conspiracy?

If I was one to find conspiracies I would think that contemporary political discourse was a well staged ruse coordinated by the Democrats and the Republicans. Here’s how I might imagine this conspiracy would have taken place in 2008…

Imagine, if you will, a windowless room bathed in subdued light. In the center of the room is a great, rectangular table. On one side of the table are members of the Democratic Party, looking confident and smug in their recent success. Across from the Democrats are the Republicans, shaken and uncertain about their future after thirty years of dominance over our political institutions. At the head of the table, sitting on a great golden chair, is the ringleader, head of the Old World Order Conspiracy. We’ll call him Earl!

“Okay,” says Earl, “the people are angry at the way things have turned out. To be frank, if I was them I’d be angry, too. But I’m not. So far we’ve done very well. We can’t complain. Corporations have been able to do what they want without any scrutiny at all from a largely complacent public. But now they are not complacent. They are demanding change, and change is what we are going to have to give them…at least the appearance of change.”

All the petty members around the table nod numbly.

“So here’s what we are going to do. Democrats, since you are the ones in the driver’s seat now you will have to present the pretext of change. I know it’s going to be hard for you to suggest changing a system from which you benefit, but unless you want angry mobs tearing through the Capitol Building with pitchforks you’ll have to do something. So what you will do is offer some tepid and moderate legislative plans and call it reform.

“Republicans, you have the fun and easy job. It doesn’t matter what kind of reform is proposed, you have to insist that it is the most radical departure from the mainstream ever offered in American history. Of course you’ll use the standard accusation of socialism and comparisons to Nazi Germany. That’s just par for the course. But that won’t be enough. So you’ll have to come up with all kinds of nonsense—it doesn’t matter what—just make sure it has nothing to do with the actual legislation being proposed. Imagine the most dystopian science fiction plot line and insist that it is included in the legislation. Conservatives, having their fear strings plucked, will immediately sing along to whatever tune you are playing. Liberals will end up spending so much time fighting the nonsense that they won’t notice that the so called reforms being offered are just more of the same, leaving the status quo and the prevailing power elite—that’s us—perfectly in-tact.”

Insert evil sounding laugh here.

Now I’m not suggesting that the above scenario has actually taken place. Indeed, I don’t believe it has. I’m not a purveyor or patron of conspiracy theory. The consequences of the above plot, however, are very real. Democrats offer some kind of reform that does, in fact, offer benefits for common people while at the same time neglecting the very real systematic and structural elements of the problem. Republicans, on the other hand, offer absolutely absurd objections to the suggested reforms that are often pure fictions. Liberals and reformists then find themselves in the awkward position of countering non-sense and, in the process, defending the status quo by ignoring the flaws in the proposed reform packages.

Health care was a perfect example. Health care reform frittered away almost every truly liberal idea. Single payer was immediately taken off the table, without the least debate. An individual mandate was included despite near universal disapproval. By the time health care reform was brought to a vote it was a milquetoast legislative offering that may offer some benefit to working American people, but leaves the status quo firmly in position. Republican balderdash about the government taking over health care, and accusations of death panels straight out of Logan’s Run served as idiotic distractions from the real issue.

Instead of a debate about the health-for-profit system that has evolved in this country, a system designed to serve shareholders before serving the sick, we debated death panels. There were big issues here that should have been debated. What is the role of the government in personal matters such as health care? How are the costs and benefits of a private health care system weighed against the desire and need of the individual to a healthy life? There are important and legitimate perspectives on all sides of the political spectrum. Instead we desperately attempted to apply reason to insane diatribes about death panels and Nazism.

We don’t need a conspiracy to understand our current discourse. Both the Democrat and Republican parties as institutions benefit directly from the status quo; this is also true of the individuals who serve these institutions. Barack Obama did not rise so quickly in politics because he raged against the machine. He conformed. He played according to the institutionalized rules. There’s nothing in his political history to suggest the kind of radicalism and reform mindedness as accused by the right or hoped for by the left. He was a successful bureaucrat in a very large institution, one dedicated to self perpetuation. So the strategies of both parties makes sense as they both benefit and hope to benefit from an entrenched system.

History may repeat itself with finance reform. Democrats have offered mostly moderate ideas that increase transparency and enforce some semblance of accountability on the financial market, but neglect some very real questions about the intangible nature of a system designed to benefit only the elite while leaving working men and women out to dry. There are very real concerns about the legitimacy of finance capitalism, global economic interconnectedness and the responsibilities of the corporation to society. These issues are not addressed and will not be addressed because the Republican spin machine is already in full mode with false accusations of socialism and perpetual taxpayer bailouts that are not even real.

Well, I’m no longer playing this game. It is my intent to no longer get involved with nonsense, or expecting rational discourse from the crazy fringe. When confronted with such foolishness as death panels and accusations of socialism we should meet these with ridicule and sarcasm, then move on to those who are open to reason. I’d like to name this strategy the Penguin Plan after this cartoon from Tom Tomorrow…

Extremism and Violence: On Letting the Lunatic Fringe Own the Paradigm

What has happened to the political discourse? This has been a concern of mine since the victory of Barack Obama and the disenfranchisement of modern conservatism. Yes, the political spectrum has swung from the Reagan conservatism of the last generation to, perhaps, a centrist liberalism represented by the Obama administration. Indeed, this is a paradigm shift, and should be an inspiration for social debate about the role of government, the responsibility of the economic sector to society, the sustainability of the commons, the costs and benefits of globalization, America’s status as a world leader not only economically and militarily, but also culturally and morally, among many other very important topics. I was looking forward to being a part of this discourse, in doing my small share on steering the future. I recognize that this is a crossroads era, and the direction that our nation chooses has rarely been as important as it is now. But I remain disillusioned by the course and contentious discourse I now find myself embroiled in.

From where I stand on the left it appears that the inmates are taking over the conservative asylum. Wrapped in the flag and standing on the Bible the defunct conservatives are spewing some of the most wretched and vile rhetoric I’ve ever heard. I’ve read about such vitriol, the whipping up of the madding crowd with fire and brimstone, with romantic fantasies of revenge, revolution and rampage. I just never thought I’d be in the middle of it. And I must admit, it does serve to elicit equally inflammatory response. When confronted with violent rhetoric I often find myself torn between a visceral, “go ahead and try it…see how far you get,” and a more rational understanding of the consequences of reactionary response. And that’s just the point, isn’t it.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. For almost thirty years conservatives have steered the political-economy. As a result, we’ve experienced a generation of greed being rewarded as the wealth gap widened to extents not seen since the 20’s. The social safety net has been so riddled with holes and so frayed that it hardly breaks one’s fall. Our economy has been a roller coaster ride with working Americans working harder while their pay stagnates and their benefits vanish. This culminating in almost total economic collapse. In 2006 and 2008 the people of the United States voted against the status quo…and yet largely voted for a somewhat milder version of the status quo. Despite this really tepid paradigm shift, one would think that Martians had invaded by the response from the turned out conservatives.

But the political discourse cannot be understood by simply looking at the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. This is about institutions, a once robust Republican Party now discredited, and a largely anemic Democratic Party thrust into the top echelons of power largely through default and desperation. It’s about the contest of power between our two dominant power institutions, the overlapping interests of the economic elite who pull the strings of both, and the growing social discontent consequent to the former variables.

Having taken the fall, deservedly so as far as this writer is concerned, the Republican Party and the more conservative elements they represent are understandably upset. They have been dethroned, their ideologies invalidated. They need a scapegoat, which isn’t hard to find—liberals. They need to make this scapegoat as scary as possible; after all, they’ve spent the last thirty years ridiculing the impotence of liberals. So the problem isn’t just liberalism, it’s progressivism, which is really a nice way of saying socialism, which everyone knows is just another way to say communism, which is a sister ideology with fascism. So liberals are fascist/communists. Scary stuff. By defining Democrats as the bastion of liberalism, and thus by default, the source of everything that is evil, there can be no compromise. Any victory by the enemy is a victory for tyranny.

Does the above paragraph sound extreme? Well it is. It is extremist rhetoric exemplified by the hate filled rhetoric that permeated the health care debate. It wasn’t that those driving the conservative discourse really believed their own bile about death panels and a government takeover of health care leading to a socialist dictatorship. No. It was about defeating the opposing institution for the sake of gaining power and voice in the direction of the social discourse. That’s all. Yet it is important that those who accept the conservative discourse believe the rhetoric as gospel. That Obama and Democrats and anything they do is one more step toward a totalitarian state. Period

The Republican and Democratic parties are reference groups through which we as individuals define ourselves. As the largest political reference groups in the nation they speak to and for millions of Americans and have a great deal to gain or to lose in the process, including monetary rewards, a guaranteed place among the power elite and the driving seat of national policy in the most powerful country in the world. That’s nothing to sneeze at!

So when a relatively tepid, moderate health reform bill was signed into law, the extremist discourse could not be assuaged by good sportsmanship and an “oh, well, maybe next time” response. It had to be followed by more extremism. And that’s the hook of the extremist way. Once the most extreme elements own the paradigm, once the competition has been defined as “the enemy” and the enemy is defined as the source of all that is bad and wicked, one can’t just shake hands after a contest and call it cool until the next issue. One must rail against the injustice and the damage that has been done. One must fight against the travesty that has been “shoved down the throat” of freedom loving Americans.

And that’s where the violence comes in. After all, the legitimate means through which we in the United States preserve our freedoms could not stop the political juggernaut of Obamacare and the Obama/Reid/Pelosi Triumvirate and their socialist agenda. The good cannot hope to win within a system controlled by the evil. Revolution is the only course of action. We must eradicate those elements that would destroy our freedoms. We must not retreat, rather we must reload! Extremism breeds extremism.

Now it’s very likely that those who are perpetuating violent rhetoric really are simply stimulating the base to get active. They are using rhetorical flourishes to inform the party faithful of the importance of these very dire issues. Perhaps. I don’t foresee Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck raising an army and laying siege to the Capital Building. What worries me is that the conservative movement, including the Republican Party and the Tea Party, represent millions of people with various levels of understanding, emotion, reason and…um…sanity. Indeed, almost all members of the conservative movement (or any movement for that matter) are well meaning folks with legitimate concerns and interests. They are reasonable people, perhaps under volatile circumstances, but overall reasonable. Notice I wrote “almost all.” Every major reference group has among its faithful those few who take terms like “reload” and “eradicate,” “riot” and “revolution,” seriously. These are the folks I’m concerned about.

I’m also concerned that violent rhetoric could also inspire violent reaction from the opposing institution. Liberals are also a large reference group with millions of adherents with various levels of understanding, emotion, reason and…um…sanity. Yes, almost all members of liberal movements are well meaning folks with legitimate concerns and interests. They are reasonable people, perhaps under volatile circumstances, but overall reasonable. However, one must note that again, I had to use the qualifier “almost all.” The vast majority of liberals understand that the fire and brimstone of the right is mostly hot air, rhetorical, or perhaps even an irrational response to an extremist political discourse. But when we see the offices of liberal congressmen receiving white powder in the mail (which turned out to be non-toxic), civil rights heroes called “nigger,” African American congressmen being spit upon or receiving faxes of nooses; when we hear right wing preachers talking about the blood of Christians running in the streets, most of us become, at the very least, concerned. Of course, there are some who might be inclined to say, as the Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenak said with obvious satire, “bring it on.” His point was well taken. If talking about health care justifies someone throwing a brick through my window then what am I justified in doing to them for throwing a brick through my window? What if I’m inclined to shoot back? What if I’m inclined to take “preemptive action?”

After all, violence isn’t exclusive to right wing extremists. Liberal extremists have a long history of violence. In fact, violence is foundational in the more extreme forms of liberalism, namely communism and anarchism. For instance, in 1919 a string of bombings and attempted bombings were carried out by anarchists. Anarchists were responsible for multiple assassinations of world leaders like King Humbert of Italy and President William McKinley, as well as the Archduke Ferdinand, the spark that set off World War I. In more contemporary times liberals have pandered to violent rhetoric of their own.

So the problem isn’t conservatism or liberalism. It’s extremism! Unfortunately, there are extremist elements in all such reference groups. The trick is to make sure that they don’t own the paradigms of any given discourse. When the extremists are beating the drums, the beat is that of war, of violence and revenge for some perceived injustice. When party pundits aim their rhetoric at the extremist fringe of their movement because that kind of speech gains attention, makes it on the evening news, inspires passion as well as response from competing institutions, they are only fanning the flames of a conflagration that they will not be able to control.

The only means of quelling such fires is if party leaders, especially those fanning the flames, make a concerted and concrete stand against the use of violence on the part of their own followers. They should not try to justify the violent rhetoric as a response to “totalitarian tactics” or such nonsense, for that provides the justification in the minds of those who would perpetuate violence. No. The movement leadership must affirm, in no uncertain terms, that violence is not the way to “win” and that they will not condone or support such behavior.

For my part, and I do not claim that this blog or the Journal of a Mad Sociologist is a leader of any movement, I will not condone the use of violence in perpetuating any agenda, be it liberal or conservative. I happen to think that we can debate, even argue, with conviction, with passion, even with anger, without the threat of or use of violence to make our point. Violence destroys the legitimacy of any movement.

Just How Much “Shock” Can Haiti Take?

Last week I finished reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein highlights with meticulously researched precision how the demagogues of extreme free market ideology use catastrophes, be them natural or manmade, to reform a nation’s economy. Such economic advisers use the destruction of political, economic and physical infrastructure to institute harsh, free market “shocks” that create a blank slate for a perfect laissez fair economy through which all will prosper. Of course, such actions are never popular with the people of said nations as they lose access to all entitlements held in the public trust in exchange for inequitable access to a privatized and selective marketplace.

In every instance noted by Klein such free market engineering resulted in vast economic inequities between the haves and the have-nots, social instability and the use of intensive and intrusive state violence and surveillance to enforce the Chicago School austerity measures. The US, in the interests of Friedmanite economic experimentation, has been accomplice to horrifying examples of tyranny and oppression in the name of these not so free markets.

Klein also weaves an intricate metaphor/description of torture to illustrate her case. On one hand she employs an allegory between the methods used to torture individuals with the technologies utilized to torture a nation into a privatized utopia for globalized corporate interests. On the other hand she describes the very real and vivid torture of individuals who stand opposed to such economic imperialism.

No sooner did I turn the last page of this gut wrenching expose than I heard news of the catastrophic earthquake outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My heart fell double: first for the unimaginable saga of human suffering that such an event vouches; secondly for the awareness that this earthquake is quite possibly the worst case scenario example of Klein’s shock doctrine. Here we have a devastating event that destroys not only the infrastructure of this already devastated nation, but the very seat of government. The capital city lay in ruins under its own rubble and the detritus of a history of foreign imposed ruination. This tortured country is softened perfectly for an invasion of free market radicalism.

But just how much shock and torture can one nation take? Klein’s torture metaphor only goes so far. The reality is that in torturing a man there is a only so much one can take before the victim dies. As for a society…at what point does the torture become too much? Haiti has, in a very real sense, been tortured for hundreds of years. As a slave colony under the French, Haiti’s people and culture were twisted under the whip. Two hundred years ago Haiti won its independence, and there the economic torture began as the new nation was forced to pay reparations to dispossessed French slave owners! In the last two hundred years Haiti has been the whipping boy of American international politics, including invasion and the support of tyrants like Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier.

Free market torture has been a mainstay for Haiti as its economy has been stretched and twisted under IMF austerity plans. Vast resources were shifted to foreign corporations. Haiti’s thriving rice trade was destroyed by international fiat that virtually erased the nation’s import tariffs on the product. IMF loans were given to help this struggling economy; in exchange, however, Haiti was expected to derail its public domain and open its economy to privatization. Leaders like Jean Bertrand Aristide, who opposed such austerity measures, were removed.

Then my heart sunk even more. The International Monetary Fund, under whose thumb the Haitian economy has struggled for the last fifteen years, announced that it would expand its loan agreement with Haiti by $100 million. Great news! That is if you didn’t read between the lines. One article headline state “IMF to Give Haiti $100 million.” Give? Unlikely. Then I read further the article stated, “the IMF will make available $100 million…” Make available? Why don’t we call it what it is? It’s a loan! In fact it’s an expansion of a loan that is already instrumental in the crippling of this nation’s economy.

Nowhere is it mentioned that the IMF will forgive its loan agreement that Haiti was paralyzed by even before the earthquake! After all, the IMF loan was part of a gross economic experiment that not only failed, but had catastrophic consequences for the people of this nation. If Haiti was expected to make reparations for winning its own freedom in 1804 should the IMF be expected to make reparations for the economic enslavement of this rich culture? I don’t see it happening.

There are certain constants when a tragedy such as this happens, regardless of who is affected. First, the outpouring of human sympathy and charity for the suffering of others; second, the soulless drive of the wealthy to exploit tragedy for personal gain.

Charity and giving is wonderful and must continue for the relief of suffering in this tortured land. Of equal if not greater importance is political activism to end destructive economic oppression of all peoples.

A Time to Imagine

Lennon Logo

Every year around this time I like to abandon my sociological imagination and just use my…um…normal imagination to describe my hopes and dreams for the coming year. These dreams are not necessarily grounded in the most current research, but I like to think they are unexpurgated by prevailing social and political trends. I allow myself the luxury of free expression unrestricted by the normal fact checking and data searches that normally ground the Journal of a Mad Sociologist and the Agitate newsletter.

This year I was inspired by a popular song, John Lennon’s Imagine. Can there be a better song with which to start the New Year? Imagine! That’s what the New Year is all about, isn’t it? Imagining what the coming year will be like, the accomplishments, resolutions and even the hardships and obstacles that will be overcome.

Lennon’s song, however, asks us to do more than that. It asks us to imagine an entirely different world; some might even suggest an alien world or an unrealistic utopia. Some might even suggest that John Lennon’s invocation of a world without a Heaven or a Hell or religion in general is rather dystopian, or a world of unrestrained immorality and bestiality. I disagree, but that’s not the point.

Lennon was not necessarily offering us a world with no God, or no morality, but rather a world unbound by institutions that constrain us and keep us from recognizing the basic humanity in others.

This year, Imagine seems to strike a different chord in me, one that resonates within and reminds me of my most basic tenet—that all human beings are, in essence, the same. I have a theory describing what I call the Basic Human Essentials. In fact, the first draft of this issue of Agitate started out by laying down the principles of this theory, but I realized that that was not what I wanted to do. I did not want to be saddled down with theory and sociology and philosophy. I just wanted to imagine for a little while. I wanted to contemplate this wonderful song.

I think Imagine captures the idea of Basic Human Essentials quite well. It refutes all the things that distract us from recognizing the essential humanity in our neighbors, in our countrymen and, especially, in those with whom we share this magical planet.

Instead of embracing the basic human essentials common to all humanity, we embrace ideologies that narrow our vision, blinding us to the great and beautiful human panorama around us. This tunnel vision brings us pain, forcing us to accept a lonely existence in a world of billions who share our desires. In our loneliness and desperation we accept the cold embrace of those who use our blindness to achieve power and dominance.

We dedicate to such follies as earning our way into Heaven, or trying to keep ourselves out of Hell because we are told that somewhere there is a judgmental god who is keeping tabs on us. This god is, by all accounts, great enough to bring forth existence, creator of Heaven and Hell, all that is seen and unseen, all that is known and unknown, but petulant enough to be offended if we kneel in the wrong temple, or call out the wrong name in our prayers. Proselytizers endear us to the fantastic poetry of an ancient book, thousands of years old, whereas those who endear the verses of their own books are suffered as misdirected fools who must be ignored, ostracized, converted—or killed.

Would those who abandon fantasies of Heaven recognize their fellow human beings as infidels? Would they be inclined to torture or kill if their actions were not condoned by the varied names of some capricious god? Would we accept as gospel the archaic wisdom of those who believed the Earth was flat if it did not have the imprimatur of the holy attached to it? If not for charlatan shamans would we be inclined to condemn others for nothing more significant that how they love, or the clothes they wear or choose not to wear, or the holidays they celebrate? Wouldn’t the world be better off if we lived our lives without the great weight of Heaven pressing down on us? “Imagine all the people living for today,” rather than the prospects of some Heavenly reward tomorrow.

I remember many years ago, before the invasion of Iraq, I was reading a report by Amnesty International. I don’t remember the contents of the report, but it was about the consequences of sanctions on the people of Iraq. Though the text is lost to recall I remember clearly a picture that accompanied the report. It was a little boy suffering from a flea born virus, a virus spread because Iraq could not import the necessary pesticides to control the sand fleas. He was two years old and he looked just like my own son of the same age. His body was wracked with pain and you could almost hear him screaming through the photograph. His mother held him, desperate to comfort him, to save her child, by force of will, from what would almost certainly be death. In that boy I saw my own son, and felt my own desperation, and my own un-reconcilable anger at those who would sentenced my child to death for nothing more flagrant than being born in the wrong country.

I’ve spoken with many immigrants over the years. Most of them have endured the process of legal entry into the United States. An undisclosed number of them were in the United States illegally. They were all good people who wanted only to have a better life for themselves and their families. Indeed, they wanted exactly what I wanted, a basic human essential. However, they had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of a little, muddy river. On one side of the river, a corporate induced poverty, on the other side, hope. In between, nothing but nonsensical bureaucracy that defines a human being as “illegal” depending on which side of the river he or she happens to be standing.

And yet money can travel freely across this river. Corporations can travel freely, taking their jobs with them. Trade goods can travel freely across the Rio Grande…

…but not people!

“Imagine there’s no countries.” Imagine there was no such thing as nationalism and patriotism on which to justify the exclusion, imprisonment and even extermination of others based on nothing more real than on what side of an imaginary line they happen to reside. How about a world where a human being can freely pursue his hopes and dreams, where she can escape the prison of the sweatshops and labor camps by crossing a river? Only a world of national boundaries can provide corporations with lucrative opportunities to exploit poverty and increase their profit margins.

Only a world divided by imaginary lines could parcel humanity into a globalized medievalism. Within these lines are the serfs and slave laborers, who assemble the goods consumed by those between other lines. Those who consume need do nothing but consume. Certainly they shouldn’t worry about the working conditions between lines that are not their own, the forced labor, the slave wages, the sexual exploitation, the children in the coltan mines, the death. After all, that’s what those people are for! They produce, you consume. And there are precisely mapped national boundaries that clearly delineate one’s role in the new world order of globalization.

The only one’s free from these imaginary lines…multinational corporations. So long as we are willing to ignore their abuses in our artificial quest for cheap consumables the world remains theirs. Our addiction to stuff feeds the fungal growth of corporate greed and power. “Imagine no possessions.”

Of course there are those who hear this song and read this essay and think I’m dreaming of a back to the Stone Age communal atheism. That’s not true. I imagine a world in which one’s religion or nation of origin is considered secondary to their basic humanity. I imagine a productive world that raises the standard of living for all by rewarding the producers for their labor rather than the one in which we now live, which raises the few on the backs of the many. I imagine a world not bereft of religion or national identity, or possessions, but rather a world that recognizes the “brotherhood of man.” In such a world brothers and sisters come together, working toward a common goal, working toward the basic human essentials (which I will address in the next Agitate commentary).

These musings might not be easily attainable. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But they are not unrealistic. They are not outside the realm of possibility. Humanity has been through many transformations in the last 5000 years. It’s unrealistic to think that our current form of global medievalism is the end of history. There will be other transformations to come, and I imagine being a part of them; I imagine fulfilling my role, however significant, in bringing about the world I dream.

“You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

Have a great year…

…let your imaginations soar

…and let your dreams come true.



For a PDF version of this essay click here

Turning Against Capital Punishment

Death Penalty

It’s always difficult arguing against the death penalty.  It really doesn’t matter on what grounds one is making such an unpopular (in the US) stand.  The bottom line always devolves to the accepted eye for an eye concept that those who take a life deserve to die.  Indeed, when one considers the kinds of psychotic and sadistic killings that make the headlines, the rape/murders of children, mass murder, serial murder, it’s hard, if not impossible, to suggest that those who commit such violence do not deserve to die.  In fact, such people do deserve to die. I have no sympathy for such monsters, myself.

The question for me has always been, “can the state, or any institution for that matter, be trusted with the responsibility to decide who should live and who should die?” The sociology behind this question is clear.  No system known to man is flawless enough, rational enough, objective enough to make such a decision.

The United States is the only western power that uses the death penalty.  Since the death penalty was reinstated in the late seventies violent crime has risen and fallen without regard to capital punishment.  The system itself has been soundly criticized for being burdened with racial, ethnic and class biases. The expense of pursuing capital punishment is astronomical, leading some to call for less time on death row with quicker implementation of the sentence.  Such a strategy would be disastrous considering the number of people who have been exonerated after many years on death row. The death of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 is just the only example of an innocent man being put to death. It’s unknown how many more innocent people have been executed as investigations almost always end after the death penalty has been successfully applied.

Willingham Family

This last fall The American Law Institute, the group that was instrumental in the reinstatement of the death penalty as a legitimate punishment, rescinded it’s opinion on capital punishment (this paragraph references the linked article).   The ALI cited “…the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.” According to the New York Times: “A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience had proved that the system could not reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment was plagued by racial disparities; was enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers were underpaid and some were incompetent; risked executing innocent people; and was undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.”

This is not news to sociologists.  Capital punishment decisions have a long history of reflecting societal prejudices rather than justice.  What is the acceptable level of error in a system designed to kill only those who are deserving?

A Quote from President Obama’s Nobel Peace Lecture

Obama Quote

What Nobel Peace Prize?


Obama Peace Prize

A Plausible, Fictional Scenario

Scene: conference room of the Nobel Prize Committee:

Committee Person 1: “Hey, I have an idea! Why don’t we give the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama? This might motivate him to abandon the militant/imperialist policies of his predecessors and pursue more peaceful and reasonable policies for solving international problems like terrorism.”

Committee Person 2: “That’s a great idea.  I second that motion!”

Committee Chairman: “All in favor?”

Committee: “Aye!”

So How’s This Working Out For You?

                About a month after being elected, Barack Obama sent 17,000 soldiers into Afghanistan.  A few months later he learned that he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

This post has been moved to the Updated Mad Sociologist Blog. If you wish to continue reading, please click here.

Some important videos on body image:

Our kids need to know that even the most beautiful of celebrities don’t look like their pictures in the magazines or on the screen. The reason they believe they can never be as beautiful as their most admired celebrities is that no one, even the celebrities themselves, can look that good in real life. For some time now we’ve been involved in an ongoing and healthy debate about the nature of beauty and the consequences of creating fantastic expectations of real people.

What I find interesting is that all of the videos below emphasize the unrealistic expectations placed on women to live up to the standards of female models and actresses. Are women the only ones so influenced? Could things like steroid abuse and eating disorders among boys also be tied to unrealistic images of men and masculine bodies? Where’s the advocacy for boys?


Droning on and on about why Pakistan doesn’t like us!

Why are we so shocked when people whom we are bombing…don’t like us?

Secretary of State Clinton, this week, found it difficult to convince the people of Pakistan that sending our killer flying robots into their neighborhoods was being done for their own good.

Really, it’s for your own good

During Vietnam we destroyed villages to save them.  In the eighties we encouraged freedom in Central America by making sure that their death squads were the best trained in the world. In Iraq, after bombing them back to the stone age, instituting a murderous sanctions program and then…uh…bombing them back to the stone age again, we expected them to welcome us as liberators.  How disappointing!

Now we can’t understand the difficulties we are having winning the hearts and minds of states like Afghanistan and Pakistan. After all, we deposed a tyrannical government in Afghanistan and replaced it with one so backward and blatantly corrupt that people around the country are thinking that maybe tyranny isn’t such a bad thing. In Pakistan we embraced their butchering tyrant as an ally in the war on terror.  Now the same tyrants we drove out of Afghanistan are taking over Pakistan. In response,  we send in our Predator Drones to kill the terrorists…at least most of the time…or some of the time…well, according to some reports one time out of ten.

It’s baffling that the local population doesn’t rush to embrace our nation’s representatives like Secretary Clinton.  After all, who’s trying harder to blast them into a thriving democracy? The Obama Administration has already performed more Predator Drone strikes in the last nine months than the Bush Administration ordered in the last three years! Of course, the Bushies really weren’t too attentive of our allies (or our enemies) in that region once they entered Iraq.

Maybe we need some fresh ideas for dealing with the Afghan/Pakistan region.  I know. We should consult a Nobel Peace Prize laureate on the matter. He’ll know what to do…

…oh yeah

…never mind.

What Do President Obama and Mahatma Gandhi NOT Have In Common?

Gandhi Obama peace

Answer: Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prise.

Yes, it’s true. One of the greatest examples of peaceful resistance in the history of man never received the Nobel Peace Prize.  What’s funny is that I’d always assumed he had.  I was shocked to discover this omission when I was researching the Nobel Prize after hearing that President Obama had won.

This post was moved to the updated Mad Sociologist Blog. To continue reading, click here.

ACORN and the Politics of Perfection

The situation with ACORN has really got me thinking.  Okay, I’ll have to admit that I think there should be some penalty for the group which, at the very least, was caught doing something stupid in re, offering tax advice to a pimp.  What has me intrigued, however, is the amount of effort and energy and scrutiny that has been heaped on ACORN in the last few years.   This is a group that has been under the glass for a while.  That some embarrassing information has surfaced may indicate some larger, more significant issues with the organization, or could be seen as just a matter of time.

I can’t help but wonder if I were placed under such scrutiny what kind of embarrassing details might come to surface? I shudder to think. Now multiply that effect by placing an institution, not an individual, but a collective of flawed individuals, under such a magnifying glass.  Is it any wonder that, eventually, some shortcomings might be dug up.

Granted, it could be said that offering tax advice and legitimacy to a pimp and prostitute who were planning an under-aged sex ring could be considered significantly more than a “shortcoming.” It’s not my place to minimize the significance here. I just wonder what would be dug up if we subjected  James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles to such scrutiny how would they fare after a few years.

The Politics of Political Surveys

Just when I was wondering what to blog about (I, in fact, have another blog in the making).  Yesterday I received an invitation from Representative Connie Mack to attend his Health Care Forum in Fort Myers. Included with the invitation is a Health Care Reform Survey.  Well, I’m a sociologist.  Surveys are the staples of sociology, so I’m interested.  Then I read the survey and, come to find out, it’s not anything that would pass for a valid research instrument in any academic department that I know of.  Indeed, I teach introduction level courses, and if any of my students presented such a survey to me I would fail them.

Mack’s survey disregards the rules of actual survey taking.  It’s not hard to spot that, in fact, the Mack survey is not a survey, but rather a propoganda instrument.  Let’s take a look at the four survey questions for a fuller understanding of what I’m talking about.

Mack Survey

Question 1:

Should Representative Mack keep fighting to protect our nation’s health care system from total government control? Yes, No, Unsure.

This question is great. First, take a look at the opening language.  It presents Connie Mack as fighting to “protect.” Indeed, there’s a bias toward protection.  We usually want our politicians to protect us from whatever it is we need protection from. In this case, the protection is from total government control of the nation’s health care system.  Oooh! Scary stuff! Except, of course, that there is no such battle going on.  Not one of the bills going through congress right now, nor any of the dominant voices on health care reform, is advocating for “total government control” of health care.  Sure, if such was the case I might just be against that policy.  But it’s not true. So exactly what is this question asking.  Rather, it’s a tool to spread misinformation about the current health care debate. Just what we need.

Question 2:

Do you agree that a free enterprise system is better than too much government? Yes, No, Unsure.

This is a great question for analysis. To my knowledge there is no way to use the phrase “too much” in a survey and expect valid results. “Too much” is always a bad thing.  Of course a free enterprise system is better than too much government.  It’s also better than not enough government.  It’s also better than too much mayo in a tuna fish sandwich. What’s your point? This question is designed to lead the respondent to the “correct” answer rather than a “valid” answer.

Question 3:

Do you think a government run health care system would be better or worse than what we have now? Yes, No, Unsure.

This question almost looks like a valid question if, that is, that there was a real probability of a government run health care system (which there isn’t). The problem is that the question is looking for a “better/worse” option, but does not offer either “better” or “worse” as a choice.  How exactly does one respond “yes” or “no” to this question? What are you saying yes or no to?

Question 4:

Are you in favor of paying higher taxes for universal health care? Yes, No, Unsure

Now this is a great question. One that has been asked in other survey venues.  Indeed, according to a CBS/New York Times Poll, a majority of Americas would be willing to pay higher taxes if it meant everyone was covered (the definition of universal health care).  That number increases if you ask Americans if rich people should be taxed more to provided universal health care. Of course, the CBS/New York Times poll may have a liberal bias, and of course people are going to be fine with “other people” paying high taxes, especially if they perceive that the other people can afford it and are subject to negative perceptions.  That’s an issue for another blog.  For this question it’s important to look at the rest of the Mack pamphlet.  Before we get to the survey, Mack states, “I oppose the attempt to nationalize our health care industry. Some call it universal health care; others call it nationalized health care or socialized medicine. Regardless of what you call it, it’s a bad idea.” Then, in the survey, he asks you if you think it is a good idea. Talk about teaching to the test!

Mack Survey 2

Connie Mack is not one of my favorite politicians. There’s no secret there.  But I would have been willing to pay some attention to this survey if it was a legitimate instrument for measuring people’s attitudes regarding health care. It’s not. It’s a means of spreading propaganda and falsehoods. My guess is that Mack website will publish the results of this survey as definitive of what his constituents want him to do.  It may even reinforce his resolve to keep “fighting to protect our nation’s health care system,” even though this health care system he presumes to protect is a national embarrassment.

Illegal Immigrants and Health Care

One of the many axes on which health care reform rests is whether illegal immigrants will have access to health care.  There appears to be unanimous outcry from Republicans bewailing the possibility that illegals might weasel access to health care.  Joe Wilson even breached congressional decorum by screaming “you lie!” at the President for stating that illegals will be denied such access.  Since then Democrats have been desperately assuring us that that Republican allegations about illegal immigrants getting a free ride on Americans’ dime is just not true.  If there’s bi-partisan support for anything in healthcare it is that illegals should not be able to get it.


It’s no secret that I have pretty radical ideas about immigrants, especially illegals. This matter cuts close to my heart. I support and fight for health care reform not because I see a problem in the health care market, not that I recognize health care as a scarce commodity which I want to equally distribute to the masses. I recognize health care as a right.  I also have a perspective on rights as being “human” rights rather than purely “American” rights. If health care is a right, then how can we deny access to that right to an individual based on which side of the river he happens to be on.

As it stands, illegal immigrants are not likely to see a doctor until they are in dire, medical straights. At this point the default health care provider is the emergency room.  Yet emergency rooms are becoming over crowded.  Among the reasons for overcrowding is lack of insurance and poverty, in which illegals often fall.  Research has demonstrated that illegal immigrants do not overuse the emergency room, and emergency medical costs for illegal immigrants is lower than it is for legal immigrants as well as natural born citizens.  Regardless, for millions of illegals, the emergency room is the primary care provider, and many emergency rooms claim to be overburdened with illegals.

How much of this burden could be lifted if medical services and programs were provided for illegals? I’ve not seen any such research.  According to the American Journal of Public Health, restrictions on undocumented immigrant’s access to health services is costly to local communities. Such restrictions add to the administrative and bureaucratic costs of running a health care facility, keep afflicted people from seeking health care when needed (until matters get out of hand), discourage preventative care such as pre-natal care and health screenings, and poses a danger to the community with regard to the spread of communicable diseases.

Then there’s the matter of ethics. Doctors are already conflicted with their professional ethics of caring for the sick without regard to status, and the legal restrictions put on them to do so.  The emergency room is one of the few places where illegals cannot be turned away. We as a society should also feel conflicted when human beings cannot get access to health care.

This is about “us” and the “other.” It’s about “deserving” and “not deserving.” All social groups identify their members as being deserving of the status and privileges of being a group member.  Those outside the group do not merit such rights. Illegals, and some might even suggest immigrants in general, are not deserving by virtue of the fact that they are not us, they are not Americans.  It’s not about money, as providing for illegals may be more cost effective than letting them languish.  It’s about group privilege. It’s a shame that we are still mired in the medieval barbarism of such group prejudices, but this debate could be a step toward true civilization.

What do we do about Wall Street

This weekend a great deal of time has been spent remembering 9/11.  This is important.  We should always commemorate the suffering and sacrifice of that fateful day.  But there’s another day we must not forget.  October 6, 2009, the day the Stock Market crashed. Now this might not have been as dramatic as a terrorist attack, but the consequences were at least as momentous and damaging.

Yet our memories are not so inspired by the Stock Market crash.  Perhaps because it is so much more complicated.  On 9/11 the cause of our sorrow was clear, precise. Nineteen men committed a profound act of terror against the United States.  Yeah, there are more complicated dynamics, international relations, policy ramifications, but as far as a causal understanding 9/11 is fairly easy to grasp.

The Stock Market crash is not so easy to grasp.  How could a trillion dollars disappeared the blink of eye, one day it was there, the next day it was gone.  Where did it go? Where was it to begin with? What are hedge funds, securities, speculations and derivatives? Even professional economists really don’t fully understand the consequences of these financial phenomena, how could the layman?

Consequently, as we settled into the morass that is the current economy, we stopped paying attention to the postmodern robber barons.  It is, for the most part, business as usual in the finance sector. Deregulation and poor regulation, combined with arcane money making schemes that cannot be fathomed let alone controlled, caused the economic collapse we must now pull ourselves out of.  What’s more, these very same factors are still at play.  Only now these touchy investment strategies are being financed by the taxpayer.

I have an idea, however. Nothing radical. We pass a law that if investors and speculators want to put money into these capricious investments they must put an equal amount of money into an Economic Superfund. This fund will be a risk free set aside in the event that the stock market collapses again…and it will surely collapse again! This way the corporations that create economic insecurity can bail themselves out without taxpayer help. It will also increase the costs of such investments, discouraging risky behavior, yet would also create an element of security so as not to rule them out entirely.

But corporations don’t like the idea of setting money aside for a rainy day. And why should they? After all, they have all of the security they need. It’s called the American taxpayer.

Watch the New York Times Video: Wall Street Today

A Larger Fishbowl! (An Agitate Commentary)


                If you were to design a surveillance system for keeping our nation safe from terrorists how would you do it? You might start by analyzing the data that you already have regarding terrorists and terrorist organizations.  If you have good relationships with allied nations you might also be able to tap into their databases to reinforce your own. From there, you might want to establish legal surveillance operations on known terrorist organizations and, as further networks are exposed to your analysis, expand your surveillance to include additional branches.

                If you follow this method you can maximize your use of intelligence resources by focusing on known threats. You are also minimizing the probability that your system will trammel the rights and expectations of privacy among innocent citizens. You won’t eliminate this threat, of course, as social networks are often very complex and intertwined.  It’s certain that some innocent bystanders will be caught under your surveillance microscope, their privacy can restored through new legal means that take current technology and historical contingencies into account and are designed to protect the innocent

                This is a sensible system.  One that recognizes the importance of surveillance in maintaining the national security while at the same time minimizing illegal and immoral intrusions on the rights of innocent people.  Nothing radical here.

                Now, let’s say you wanted to create a surveillance system designed to maximize and extend elite power throughout society.  How would you design that system? Well, such a system would need access to as much information about as many people as is technologically possible.  Every possible intrusion into the lives of individuals, regardless of their affiliations, would have to be maximized.  Computer technologies that could filter and sort countless bytes of information would have to be developed.  Such a system would have to remain secret, with no accountability to the general public. 

                In 1974 the French social theorist Michel Foucault used a prison designed by the humanitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to elaborate a new model of power dynamics.  The prison was called a panopticon, and Foucault’s theory became panopticism.  The panopticon was an idea for a humane prison designed so that a few guards could keep an eye on all prisoners at all times. The idea was that if prisoners knew that there was a certainty that they could be seen at all times then they would adjust their behavior accordingly despite the fact that the guards were not necessarily always looking at them. Prisoners would govern their own behaviors without physical coercion from the guards. It’s the power of the gaze.

                The Foucaultian idea of panopticism works much the same way for society as a whole.  If people know that they can be watched at all times then they will act as if they are being watched at all times. They will be less inclined to participate in acts of deviance or crime. In essence, they will govern their own behaviors in accordance to the dictates of the state without the state having to resort to militaristic technologies of coercion.  And, just as with Bentham’s prison in which the guards cannot be seen by the prisoners, a Foucaultian panopticon must operate under the awareness of the population, yet under strict secrecy.  In other words, one must know that they can be watched at any given time, yet can never see who is watching and when. “In order to be exercised, this power had to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance capable of making all visible as long as it could itself remain invisible.” (Foucault 214)  

                Of course, Foucault was talking about rationalized (bureaucratic) institutional power. He saw the regimens of schools, hospitals, clinics, prisons and the military as a non-coercive, though all encompassing, technology of power. This was the 1970’s and the level of technology had not developed to the point it has today.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the information age, technology is such that a cyberpanopticism is not only possible, but imminent.  The ability of the elite to record and analyze the everyday routines of our lives  is at hand. New technologies of power, the likes of which Foucault could only have imagined, are no longer relegated to paranoid science fiction novels.  The future is now. 

                According to author James Bamford the government and its corporate allies have built and are expanding a surveillance infrastructure that can subject every citizen to the power of the gaze.  In the meantime, laws are being written to ensure that the exercise of this power remains beyond public scrutiny and outside of any conventions of checks and balances.

                This vast infrastructure is being constructed on the premise of fighting terrorism.  If such was the case then we could expect that it would be designed much in the manner as the first program described in this essay.  It is not.  The intelligence infrastructure captained by the NSA is not merely targeting known terrorist groups and individuals in an ever expanding examination of affiliated networks.  Indeed, it is being designed to intercept every communication, every commercial transaction, every movement of individual citizens regardless of affiliation. At the same time, legislation is being created to keep those involved in intelligence gathering secret and under the wing of government protection. 


A New Member of the Power Elite


                In 1954, sociologist C. Wright Mills published the results of his extensive research into the power elite.  Mills recognized that the power elite was a collection of institutions working together to perpetuate its own class interests. At the top of this pyramid was corporate executives who, despite the supposition that they are expected to compete, are actually better served by cooperating with regard to their class interests.  Next is the executive branch of government, the President and his cabinet, and the high ranking members of the executive bureaucracy.  Then there is the top brass of the military, headquartered in the Pentagon and represented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

                According to Mills, these three institutions share common interests despite what may appear to be very different functions.  Indeed, since the advent of the military industrial complex as exposed by none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, corporate, political and military power are conjoined in ever tightening bonds.  “As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequences, the leading men in each of the three domains of power—the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate—tend to come together, to form the power elite of America.” (Mills 9)

                Indeed, they do more than come together. In fact, they overlap in significant ways.  The corporations fund political campaigns. Often they hedge their bets by funding both parties.  In exchange for important funds the politician agrees to give access to corporate lobbyists, pander to the corporation’s legislative wet dreams and appoint corporate representatives to high level cabinet positions.  Corporations have also created institutional allies in the military, offering to add industrial might to the military machine.  Corporations win major contracts to produce the needs of the military.  In exchange for military support, politicians perpetuate the corporate projects regardless of their use. The military thus becomes a major player in the economy.  To further the convergence of interests at this highest level, corporations provide comfortable jobs and exorbitant salaries to retired, high ranking officials and military officers.  The military continues to grow while the executive continues to feed valuable contracts to corporations that, in turn, provide political and social security to both.  It’s a cozy relationship.  

                Now Mills wrote The Power Elite in the mid fifties.  I’d like to think that if he were conducting this research today he would add a fourth element to this trifecta.  In the 1950’s the intelligence community was a nascent institution getting its feet wet in the international arena. It was accurate to describe the intelligence community as a fraternal order of ivy league school mates playing a dangerous game of international espionage to greater or lesser effect. Despite the retrospectively obvious distinctions of class in this arena, it’s forgivable that Mills did not include them in his description of the power elite.

                Fifty years later, the intelligence community has graduated from fraternity to fully fledged member in good standing of the power elite.  Wars are no longer defined by the movement of armies, battle lines, logistics and tactics.  The postmodern army runs on information processing, satellite surveillance, smart weapons and computer hubs often thousands of miles away from the battlefield.  Intelligence is also a central aspect of civil law enforcement as the nation is carpeted with surveillance cameras and listening devices. Communication signals can be pulled from the air or culled from convergences of fiber optic cables in select cities in the United States. This communication infrastructure is owned and operated by corporations, already members of the power elite.

                As it stands, communications corporations allow intelligence officials to have access to their information.  The executive then distributes this information to civil law enforcement and the military.  For their assistance in spying the executive guarantees secrecy and immunity to prosecution for providing information on innocent citizens whose rights have been ignored. High ranking intelligence officials are often pulled from the corporate world, and again, cushy chairs on the boards of directors for intelligence firms await high ranking government and military officials.  In return, the executive finds more and more reasons to expand the intelligence community, often by conjuring a secretive and ubiquitous enemy that can only be defeated by surrendering our privacy.  Such an enemy is also a boon to the military industrial complex.

                Modern surveillance technology and refined intelligence gathering sciences are used to broker the intelligence community a seat at the elite table.  In a Foucaultian leap the intelligence community also offers the power elite the prospects of a true social panopticon. By being able to keep an eye on our every move, our every purchase, our every communication, the power elite can motivate our actions. 

                Oh, it’s not so much that citizens who know they are being watched are going to govern their behaviors in the Foucaultian sense.  I think Foucault took some theoretical leaps here. Rather, the power elite can collect vast amounts of data on us as a population.  They can then use this data to learn what is motivating us, our concerns, our fears.  Then, they can shape their paradigms, political speeches, advertisements, justifications for war, in such a way that they know we will respond to their liking.  They can legislate our fears into reality.  They can sell us solutions to our perceived problems, increasing our dependence on the corporate machine.   Total Information Awareness equates to total knowledge control.

                Our intelligence infrastructure is not designed to fight a war on terror.  It is designed to control the motivations of society. Surveillance is not a technology for keeping us safe. Rather it is a method for perpetuating elite interests that are contradictory to the interests of the commons.  As the intelligence community is further integrated into the highest echelons of society, the power elite becomes more monolithic. 

                That does not mean that the prospects of resistance are lost.  Indeed, it requires that those of us who dissent from the concentration of wealth and power demonstrate more courage to speak the truth.  We must demand more from the institutions that are supposed to serve our interests.  The very first thing we must defeat is the fear that the power elite perpetuates by committing us to war and false patriotism.  If we are not to be the pawns of the powerful we must not participate in their games.  

Why I’m Against the Death Penalty

It’s hard to be against the death penalty in the United States.  Sometimes it’s even hard in my own mind.  When I read stories about brutal killers, serial murderers, child killers and molesters I must admit that I really do believe that such people deserve to die.

Yet, that they may indeed deserve to die does not mean that I think the state should have the power to make that decision. No institution should, in my opinion, have that power since all institutions are flawed.  The decision of life and death over an individual is too important to be left at the discretion of any institution.  Since the institution making the decision is flawed, the unintentional death of innocents is a certainty.

So the question boils down to how many innocent deaths are justified by the knowledge that some who deserve to die do so?  Can we countenance the death of even one innocent person in order to continue meeting out lethal “justice” on a hundred guilty people?  These questions have, historically, been nothing more than interesting philosophical fodder and perhaps even the prompt for some interesting sociology class discussions.

Now, however, such questions are no longer academic.  The death of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 has now cast a glaring and real spotlight on the grotesque consequences of a capital punishment system. It turns out that a scientific analysis of the forensics proves that Willingham was innocent of the crime for which he was ultimately executed.  Willingham was accused of intentionally burning his three children to death in a house fire. Turns out the fire was an accident, and his insistence that he was innocent was true. Ironically, his  stubborn refusal to admit guilt is what lead to his death, as he was offered a plea bargain to save his own skin with a confession.  What does this say about the American system of justice?

We really don’t know how many people have been unjustly killed by the state. Courts do not re-open cases after an execution.  This peculiar form of blinding hindsight is a great way to keep our heads in the ground about the possibility (no, the certainty) that in a flawed human system innocent people will be hurt. We do, however, know that plenty of innocent people have gone to prison for crimes they did not commit.  Some were later discovered to be innocent and were freed with apologies, as well as possible lawsuits. Since it’s the same system that sentences people to prison and to death, it’s a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that there will be instances of wrongful conviction in both capital and non-capital cases.

So now we return to the original question with renewed vigor and profound wariness. How many innocent victims are we, as a nation, willing to tolerate in order to perpetuate a flawed system? One?  Mr. Willingham?  How many more are there? Mr. Willingham was found guilty and executed. He was later acquited in the court of history. I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is good enough.

Political and Rhetorical Uses of Hitler!

All right, I’ve had enough!

In the past couple of weeks I could not help but notice just how often the specter of Nazism and Hitler have been used as rhetorical conventions. It appears that Nazism is alive and well…and living in the minds of policy wonks and desperate lobbying firms intent on perpetuating their own interests at all costs.  It is not, however, alive in any real way in public policy or American politics.

This post has been moved to the new Mad Sociologist site. Click Here to finish reading.

Africa, Women’s Rights and Hillary Clinton

If there is a miracle that could happen in Africa today that would go furthest in bringing this beleaguered continent into the twenty-first century it would be a spontaneous recognition of the inherent and inalienable rights of women. Of course, this is not going to happen.  If the rights of women are to be recognized in Africa then the process must be the same that it has been in every nation and culture on earth that does so recognize…it must be fought for.

Cultures that do recognize an equal status for women with men, even where such status is unevenly applied, experience great benefits.  Birth rates decline allowing for healthier women and children.  Women become a dominant force in the marketplace, strengthening the economy.  Politics is enriched by the perspectives of increasing numbers of women in office. The arts and letters blossom with new found energy and creativity.

This is no small matter for Africa where, in many cultures, the second class status of women is not only reinforced through culture and tradition, but also by societies in which the devaluation of most men can only be countenanced by deeper devaluations of women. In places like the Congo, as analyzed on this blog, the social position of women is an effective weapon against rival groups.  Though there is a nascent women’s movement in Africa, and global networks directing their energies to that end, the rights of women are a long way from being realized.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Africa she vouched the kind of example of encouragement and possibility for every woman she met.  Here was a woman who was the primary diplomatic voice for the most powerful nation on earth.  Regardless of how one feels about Clinton’s politics, imagine the impact she must have made on women who must struggle every day just to survive and to ensure the survival of their children.  She may have been the very epitome of hope…

…and fear…

…for men who are used to women confined to very acutely defined social spaces.  When the male student insulted the Secretary of State by asking her husband’s opinion, or the opinion of a male star athlete who was present it was likely that this was an attempt to remind Hillary and her audience of the proper woman’s place in society.  It may very well be that the young man was so institutionalized by a socially constructed reality of women that he did not even realize that his question was insulting. Such is the nature of reified social knowledge. He was quickly educated by an indignant Clinton.

What I thought was interesting was the response in the room.  There was a smattering of laughter and even some applause (by whom it was impossible to tell), but the most prominent response was the collective gasp.  There was a tension and uncertainty in that room at that moment that was palpable.  And it happened after Hillary’s response.  Had the student asked such a question of a male politician the response would have elicited nothing more than a joke, but to ask such a question of a woman was most likely considered reasonable.  What was not reasonable was the bombshell that landed when Clinton responded out of anger and, in essence, put the man in his place.  This must have been socially awkward. Here was a man being confronted with anger and sarcasm by a woman.  What’s more, there was nothing he could do about it.  This was an example of reinforced deference to authority, which was in this case a woman. And the assembly did not know exactly how to respond to such an alien presentation of roles. Awesome!

There is debate as to whether or not Secretary Clinton was justified in such a response.  Hillary was in Africa as a representative of the United States and, as an envoy between our culture and the many cultures of Africa.  She was also there as an emissary for the rights of women not just in the United States (where there’s still work to be done) but for women all over the world.  Had she backed down from the question, or even worse, answered the question, she would have demonstrated that even the most powerful diplomat from the most powerful nation on earth can be put in her deferential place if she happens to be a woman.  Instead she attacked the notion of second class status head on and demonstrated that she, as a political figure as well as a woman, did not have to submit to insult.

New York Post Picture of Hilary

Of course, there can be different interpretations and speculation as to the kind of example she provided.  Regardless, it would have been helpful if she received support from her own nation. Instead, Hillary’s response was often represented in the media as, yes, female hysterics.  Complaints abound about Clinton’s “undiplomatic” response, and some commentators to the Lede post suggested that she was just trying to act like a man, one suggesting that when a woman tries to act like a man it undercuts her message.  Wow! There’s also the suggestion that Hillary is frustrated (frustration is another emotion often applied to women who respond with anger) by living in the shadow of her husband.  Apparently Africa is not the only place that expects women to know their place.


I have one su-bnote here, and it’s purely speculative (I’ve not looked at any data). During the Clinton Administration, however, it was often rumored that Hillary was the really the secret president and Bill just a happy figure head.  Interesting how the paradigm shifts, but doesn’t really change.

Also, notice the misplaced modifier in the New York Post line above. It should read …she, not Bill, runs state.