Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Trade pact good—for corporations

The love of money is the root of all evil.

--First Timothy 6:10

“The Soul of Capitalism,” written by William Greider in 2003, is a fine book except for the title. Capitalism has no soul.

This truism is proved once again by the proposed Colombia Free Trade Agreement. “Free trade” is not free.

Jonathan Tasini, in his online “Front Page Posts,” tears down the façade erected by treaty backers.

“Foreign investor rights--a typical pro-corporate measure--would tighten the grip that large corporations have on Colombia’s natural resources and launch a large-scale plundering of timber and minerals,” he writes. “Without a government willing to nationalize such resources…you can be sure that huge riches will flow to a handful of people while most of the population will remain penniless.

“The underlying dynamic for so-called free trade is corrosive: driving down wages and seeking the lowest cost and most compliant labor pool.” (The lowest rate is Vietnam at $50 a month. The Thailand rate is a magnificent $70 a month.)

Every so-called agreement starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 has been proclaimed as a wonder of the economic world. Yet that “wonder” has been nothing of the kind.

The Colombia pact is being pushed by President Bush just as he recently lauded NAFTA. But if Bush is for “free trade” it is bad for everyone but Big Business.

Free trade is unfair trade. It means job losses in the United States. It means sweatshops abroad. It means exploitation--and murder in Colombia.

Nearly 2,600 union members have been killed in Colombia since 1991. The government lets paramilitaries do the killing. Some of the vigilantes are even paid by U.S.-based multinational corporations.

Unfortunately, such crimes against humanity, condemned globally, are OK in America just as torture is.

No wonder AFL-CIO president John Sweeney says: “Congress must reject this agreement until workers in Colombia can exercise their fundamental human rights without fear.”

Another reason Bush gives for adopting the treaty is a bad reason: Colombia is one of the few allies the United States has left in Latin America. Bush’s reasoning is that Colombia is a foe of Venezuela and other leftist governments escaping U.S. tutelage.

Another reason Bush promulgates is equally bogus: national security. Many sins are committed in the name of national security. It is used by governments to hide embarrassment or, in the trade case, to cloak corporate bias.

It recalls an illustrative story. When under intense fire during Watergate, President Nixon asked an aide: “Gee, what’ll we do, what’ll we say?”

“Say it’s national security,” the aide replied. Et voilà!

Now the Establishment press is rallying behind the pact with its Big Business mindset. The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, liberal on social issues, urge treaty ratification. The Times argues fatuously that the union murder rate has “improved,” dropping to 39 last year from 197 in 2001. Some “improvement”!

More and more American companies are outsourcing. They are what The Nation calls free riders. “They enjoy all the benefits of being ‘American,’ getting government services and subsidies, protection of the U.S. military while discarding reciprocal obligations to the host country, jobs, economic investment and paying a fair share of the tax burden.”

NAFTA started the trade deceit. It was ratified by so-called Democrats joining the money-hungry Republicans in Congress. The Central American Free Trade Argreement followed, passing because of GOP chicanery that included, in effect, bribery.

Before the 2005 CAFTA vote, President Bush visited the Capitol to twist the arms of reluctant GOP lawmakers from textile-producing and sugar-growing states. Then Speaker Dennis Hastert kept the vote open for nearly two hours to cajole opponents, getting them to switch sides with promises to do whatever necessary to restrict imports into their districts.

Now the lobbyists for the Colombia pact have brought the siege guns to batter Congress. More than 50 members got all-expense-paid trips to Colombia, including dinners at posh restaurants. Meanwhile, Clintonites are applying pressure on behalf of ratification.

Tocqueville, that acute observer of America in the 19th century, noted that nothing is greater in America than commerce. It’s still true. It’s also true as Marx wrote in “The Communist Manifesto”: capitalism leaves “no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest and callous ‘cash payment.’ ”

Gorbachev showed the world that socialism has a human face. It is impossible for capitalism to have a human face.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Intellectuals: critics, rebels, loners

Intellectuals live the glorious life of the mind. But they are often unhappy because they see the grim reality of public affairs rather than the fantasy and apathy of most people.
What is an intellectual? Definitions vary.
Richard Hofstadter in “Anti-Intellectualism is American Life” answers: radical critic…someone who loves to grapple with ideas…moral antennae of the human race…custodians of values like reason…someone who searches for truth…someone who strikes angrily at gross abuse…and someone with a passion for justice.
Intellectuals put reason above all else. The world is their country, all mankind is their brethren, as Thomas Paine put it. Their concern is the human condition.
Intellectuals have a wide cultural background, knowledge of art and music. (Nietzsche: “Without music life would be a mistake.”) Intellectuals know U.S. and world history and have a deep knowledge of political science.
Few academics qualify as intellectuals by those definitions. PhDs, advanced degrees, law degrees. Bright people. Some brilliant scholars. But most professors are narrow in scope.
Classic literature is beyond them. As Hofstadter writes: “It is painful to imagine what our literature would be like if it were written by academic teachers of ‘creative writing’ courses whose main experience was to have been themselves trained in such courses.”
Few academics wrestle with the thoughts and ideas of the great minds of literature throughout the centuries. Few have the outrage of three great intellectual writers like Voltaire, Hugo and Zola (“J’Accuse”).

The culture of most academics is stinted. They know little about art, painting, sculpture and music. Not many professors grapple with concepts ranging from religion to politics, mores to history.
Few academics can talk knowledgeably about the intellectual clash between Hamilon and Jefferson. Few are capable of noting that the self-righteous, racist PhD Wilson gave America the great gift of Justice Brandeis.
Few academics can give a preference between two great American poets, Whitman and Frost--and why. Few can discuss why “Hamlet” is better than “King Lear” or vice versa. Few see beauty and truth in lines of poetry. Few can say that Beethoven was greater than Mozart--and why--or vice versa.
Intellectuals repudiate American policies domestically and internationally. They note the crassness and vulgarization of society, its materialistic cravings. They note America’s shameful history of invasions, seizure of Indian and other nation’s land, its empire-building and its feeling of “manifest destiny” to rule the world.
Intellectual are rebels. They are constantly in opposition.
Emerson said of Thoreau that that he was always in opposition, as if that is bad. Emerson did not understand his man. Thoreau was right to oppose slavery, the Mexican War. Thoreau was right to see John Brown as a great man rather than the madman nearly everyone else called him, including the fiery abolitionist Garrison.
But then Emerson was so often wrong about Thoreau. He fatuously declared that Thoreau, ”instead of engineering for all of America,” was a mere “captain of a huckleberry party.”
Intellectuals should be democratic socialists. Capitalism may be “religion” in America but as Hofstader wrote: capitalism is ugly, materialistic and guilty of “ruthless human exploitation.” all affronts to “sensitive minds.”
Intellectuals see the stark reality of world and national affairs, not the glowing exceptionalism that Americans feel about their county. Intellectuals are exponents of critical thinking. They point out that the emperor has no clothes. They are atheists. They are leftists. They see the soullessness of capitalism. They see the lie behind the rhetoric of freedom and democracy.
Intellectuals should not become advisers to politicians. Why? Because they cannot serve power and truth. Intellectuals feel alienated from society. Indeed, most are alienated in their thinking from most of their colleagues. Intellectuals are loners, not better, but ever so much different from most people.
Intellectuals see that Bush, with his master’s degree, may be the most schooled yet ignorant man who ever lived. Jefferson read widely and deeply. Lincoln read the Bible and Shakespeare. Eisenhower? Western novels. The cretinous buffon Bush II? He does not read.
“The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time,” Hofstader wrote. “No subsequent era in our history has produced so many men of knowledge among its political leaders.”
The nation has regressed from intellectual leaders to ignoramuses like Bush.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Court rules for property (as usual)

The pro-business bias of the Supreme Court was clearly laid out in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine. It was aptly titled: Supreme Court Inc.
Yet the article by Jeffrey Rosen was hardly surprising. Law schools inculcate conservatism. Lawyers, judges and law professors are overwhelmingly conservative. They have been swept into the Big Business orbit and the mania for rampant capitalism.
Exceptions prove the rule. Justices Brandeis, Holmes, Black, Douglas and Brennan have been certified liberals. Brandeis was a people’s justice but naturally conservatives complained that he was a socialist and hence un-American. Douglas was such an economic populist that he was “ready to bend the law in favor of the environment and against the corporations.”
But the vast majority of the 111 justices in history have been conservative. They have put property over people. That’s why the late, lamented Warren Court was the best court ever. It put people over property.
Even the social liberals on today’s Roberts Court are conservatives in business cases. They doubt the validity of lawsuits challenging corporate wrong-doing, what conservatives call “regulation by litigation.”
These court rulings, as Jim Hightower phrased it in his Lowdown newsletter, allow “owners to reap all the profits of corporate activity while they are protected from any responsibility for corporate illegalities.”
In the 2006-2007 term the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, powerful lobbying force for business, filed briefs in 15 cases. It won 13. Of 30 business cases decided last term, 22 were decided unanimously or with only one or two dissents.
Business cases, in which the arguments are often abstruse, get little attention as opposed to enflaming issues like abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action.
But as Rosen notes of business cases: “They involve billions of dollars, have huge consequences for the economy and can have a greater effect on people’s daily lives than the often symbolic battles of the culture wars.”
Already this term the Roberts Court has ruled, 8-1, that makers of medical devices like heart defibrillators and implants cannot be sued for personal injuries if the FDA approved the devices.
A New York Times editorial noted that the decision written by Justice Scalia showed far too much faith in the FDA. “The supposedly expert and rigorous reviewers at the FDA are hardly infallible,” the editorial said. It cited many reports of “serious defects in the agency’s management and scientific capabilities.”
The decision lends support to the Rosen thesis. It also underscores the success of regulatory agencies in the Bush administration to protect corporations at the expense of aggrieved citizens.
But how could it be otherwise? Chief Justice Roberts once argued cases for the Chamber of Commerce. He was described glowingly as the “go-to lawyer for the business community.” (Forty years earlier Justice Lewis Powell had been a corporate lawyer.)
Two other court decisions this term show pro-business bias. In one, the court refused to allow a shareholder suit against suppliers of Charter Communications. In the second, the court refused to hear an appeal in which investors are trying to recover $40 billion from Wall Street banks that aided the Enron fraud.
It has always been thus.
Thomas Cooley, a Michigan judge and law professor, was highly influential in the 1860s with his “Treatise on Constitutional Limits.” He argued that “legislative enactment is not necessarily the law of the land” and that state laws to curb business excesses were interfering with liberty and property.
In 1894 President Cleveland sent federal troops to bust the Pullman Car railway strike, wrecking the union. Strike leader Eugene Debs was arrested on a charge of contempt. Thousands of strikers were blacklisted.
Thus, Social Darwinism reigned in the 1880s and 1890s with judges striking down hundreds of state laws. The reign continued into the 20th century. In 1905 the court killed a law limiting the working day of bakers to 10 hours, provoking a stinging dissent from Holmes that the Fourteenth Amendment (due process) does not enact Herbert Spencer’s reactionary policies.
After the court ruled in 1918 that a law barring child labor was unconstitutional, socialist Debs denounced the decision as allowing the “junkers of Wall Street” to “grind the flesh and blood and bones of puny little children into profits.” And Holmes excoriated the majority for intruding its personal judgments into “questions of policy and morals.”
In business matters the elite justices triumph over the will of a vast majority of Americans. They are economic royalists backing the evils of capitalism.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Obama confronts demon of racial bias

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me. And yet I swear this oath: America will be!
--Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”

Langston Hughes, a powerful voice in the Harlem literary renaissance during the 1920s, suffered discrimination and desegregation as most blacks in America have. But he continued to hope that America would “be the dream the dreamers dreamed,” that it would be the “great strong land of love.”
Barack Obama has the same hope and and drive for social justice that poet Hughes had. And that is why Obama has stirred mass enthusiasm, heavy voter registration and ardent support throughout the nation.
Obama confronted the demon of racial prejudice with a speech recently that was hailed by some observers as great, magnificent, a landmark, a masterpiece.
Columnist Bob Herbert of the New York Times said it should be required reading “in classrooms across the country.” Author George Lakoff called it “one of the greatest ever,” comparing it to the eloquence of Lincoln.
Perhaps. Time will tell, not the emotions of the moment. As Shakespeare said: “Ripeness is all.” The Obama speech has yet to ripen.
Nevertheless, the speech was terribly important. Obama sought to exorcise forever the racism in politics. He wanted to render race irrelevant--as it should be. Yet the bitter truth is that race-baiting has played a despicable role in politics for more than 40 years. It still wins elections.
Nixon in the 1970s developed the racist Southern Strategy. Reagan made a point of opening his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the grisly murders of three civil rights workers, as a blatant gesture to racists. Bush II started his 2000 campaign at Bob Jones University, which prohibited interracial dating. And McCain condones the segregation-forever Confederate flag flying over the state capitol in South Carolina.
Another bitter truth: so many people in America vote their racial prejudice at the expense of their own economic interests. So many people vote for Republican candidates who are strongly opposed to their social and domestic needs.
As Obama told columnist Herbert: “It hard to address big issues if we’re easily distracted by racial antagonism.” And as he said in The Speech: the enormous challenges the nation faces, in Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in the failing economy and in climate change, cannot be solved in an environment riven by divisiveness and hostility,
The Speech had its own symbolism. Place: Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were framed. Site: Constitution Hall. Obama, surrounded by the de rigueur American flags, began his speech with the first words of the Constitution: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union….”
Then he urged “a more just, more equal, more free, more caring” America. He repeatedly noted the “empathy deficit,” what author Lakoff calls “the heart of progressive politics.”
The policies of the Bush administration have been anything but empathetic and progressive. A President Obama would reverse those shameful policies. He has already displayed his empathy by posting the most liberal voting record in the Senate.

The ‘Economic draft’
The Iraq war is being fought with an “economic draft.” As Michael Zweig wrote in The Nation recently:
“Members of the armed forces come mainly and disproportionately from the working class and from small town and rural America where opportunities are hard to come by. The economic draft operates, in effect, to recruit young people from these communities as they sign up to gain job skills, experience and educational opportunities absent from their civilian lives.”
Mac Bica, former Marine officer turned peace activist, makes the same point: “It is apparent that the burden of this war is not being shared fairly. Only a fraction of our citizenry is directly affected while the majority go about their consumption-driven lives as usual, oblivious to the sacrifices and the death and destruction being prosecuted in their names.”

Dulce et decorum est
Wilfred Owen, British poet killed in World War I, wrote of “The old Lie: dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” The lines come from a Horace ode in the first century B.C. They mean: “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”
Untrue. Never has been. Governments take those lives.
Dalton Trumbo in his 1939 anti-war novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” wrote: “You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life…You can find them in newspapers and Congress.”
Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, went to jail in 1947 for refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about former communist associates. Then he was blacklisted.
Trumbo. American hero.