Friday, October 24, 2008

Maverick News: Desperate Tactics

This Week: Stealing beaches, voting improvements, Mexican journalists under fire, Presidential Death Match Update, Bernie Sanders and Bill Maher talk socialism, and turning a “red scare” into a teachable moment. Live Broadcast Friday, October 24, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), with FP Cassini, Greg Guma, and Sulla Blaine, streamed on The Radiator.

BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE SOME SAND? You know it’s a recession when people start stealing sand. That’s the situation in Jamaica, where police are investigating the suspected theft of hundreds of tons of sand from a beach on the island's north coast. A couple of months ago 500 truck-loads of sand were lifted from outside a planned resort at Coral Spring beach. Detectives say people in the tourism business could be the culprits. A good beach is a valuable asset, at least to hotels on Caribbean islands. But no one has been arrested so far.

It’s known as illegal sand mining. People build their own homes here, which creates a huge demand for sand as a construction material. However, in this case the large volume and type of sand stolen points to the hotel industry. There’s also suspicion that some cops were working with the movers. The authorities are carrying out forensic tests on beaches along the coast to see if any of it matches the stolen sand. Can you see it, CSI, Kingston.

Obviously, something must be done to halt this redistribution of…beaches.

ADVENTURES IN VOTING. Predictions of voter fraud and suppression abound these days. But maybe we’ve actually learned something from the past. The Brennan Center, Common Cause and Verified Voting recently issued a 50-state report card that grades each state on its preparedness for election system breakdowns. According to Lawrence Norden, director of the Voting Technology Project at the Brennan Center, in the last few years election officials around the country have actually made dramatic improvements. Contrary to what we’ve been hearing, it’s much less likely this year that voters will be disenfranchised due to voting system failures. But more needs to be done to make sure everyone gets to vote and every vote is counted.

The report recommends that, "Election officials [should] have backup measures in place -- like emergency paper ballots and sound ballot counting procedures -- to ensure the integrity of the vote. ... Of the 24 states that use voting machines, eight states, including Colorado and Virginia, have no guidance or requirement to stock emergency paper ballots at the polls. In contrast, 12 states, including Ohio and North Carolina, recommend emergency paper ballots to be given to voters if machine failures are causing long lines."

FairVote has looked specifically at Virginia, a key battleground state, and found that the state doesn’t have a standardized method for allocating poll booths, which may cause long lines on Election Day. This has been a problem in lower-income neighborhoods in recent election cycles.

Rebecca Wilson, co-director of Save Our Votes, talked about the situation in Maryland. In 2004 and 2006, some voters had to wait for hours and this year many may leave without casting a ballot. Measures that could ease election-day congestion – like early voting or no-excuse absentee voting – have been blocked by Maryland's courts. One study predicts that many Maryland polling places could again experience wait times of greater than two hours this November. The solution would be for Maryland's State Board of Elections to authorize the use of emergency ballots to prevent or reduce long lines. States like Ohio have already taken this step.

TARGET: THE MEDIA. The media has been under attack in the US recently, accused on bias and gotcha journalism. But at least no one’s getting whacked. Not so in Mexico, where the bullet-ridden body of Miguel Villagomez, editor of a newspaper in Michoacan, was found last week in a garbage dump. His newspaper covers issues like drug trafficking, corruption and organized crime. Before he disappeared, Villagomez had received a threatening call from the Zetas, former soldiers who worked for the powerful Gulf drug cartel.

This is just the latest in a series of abductions, disappearances and murders of journalists during the past year in Mexico. It’s now one of the most dangerous countries in the hemisphere for the media, even surpassing Colombia. During the past eight years, at least 24 journalists and media workers have been killed, eight are missing, and dozens more have been threatened.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, Villagómez wasn't the only journalist murdered that day. David García Monroy, a freelancer who worked with the newspapers La Jornada and El Diario de Chihuahua, was one of 11 people killed when professional killers burst into the bar where he was drinking in Chihuahua and opened fire.

Impunity for press crimes is one of the most alarming aspects of the human rights situation in Mexico. Few successful prosecutions are brought forward. But last month the Mexican Congress promised a bill that would make crimes against journalists a federal offense. Meanwhile, press freedom groups have started their own campaign. At a regional conference held in Mexico City, delegates got safety guidelines and training from editors and journalists in hotspots like Tijuana, Colombia and Brazil.

At its General Assembly this month, the Inter American Press Association pointed to four major trends in Latin America: worsening relations between governments and the press; inappropriate government use of public funds to pressure and discriminate against the media by granting or withholding advertising; more violence; and, on the bright side, approval of freedom of information laws in Guatemala and Chile.

Eight journalists have been killed in Latin America this year, not counting the deaths last week. It doesn’t look like the situation will improve soon.

PRESIDENTIAL DEATH MATCH UPDATE. The 2008 elections took a detour into the past last week – namely back to the 1950s McCarthy Era. Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, appearing on MSNBC’s Hardball, attacked the patriotism of Barack Obama, based on his alleged relationship to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers and the values of Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

"I'm very concerned that he may have anti-American views," she said. "That's what the American people are concerned about." But she went even further, suggesting that all liberal views – held by people such as Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, professors, and people who identify themselves as "liberals" – are "anti-American."

Host Chris Matthews was stunned. Then she called on the media to conduct investigations into the anti-American activities of members of Congress, similar to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's discredited House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s. "I think people would love to see an expose like that," she claimed.

One unintended outcome of Bachmann’s outburst was that her Democratic opponent raised nearly three quarters of a million dollar for his campaign in the weekend following her appearance. However, the McCain campaign amplified her charge, calling the proposals of Democrats and Obama in particular “socialist.”

Here’s Sarah Palin on Obama’s “socialist” agenda:

One McCain backer even said the idea of “spreading the wealth” – which is what the tax system, social security and other programs have done for more than 80 years – is communist.

And here are Bernie Sanders, Ben Affleck and Martin Short discussing socialism with Bill Maher on his show Real Time:


A TEACHABLE MOMENT. So, now we’re discussing socialism. Somehow the idea that this country has had a generally progressive tax system for almost a century has become the basis for a slur. The L-word – liberal – has been replaced by the S-word. But the truth is that the US government, like most western democracies, has been operating with such socialist programs – in an undeniably capitalist system – for decades.

But what are we talking about here? Socialism: A theory of social organization where the state runs the production and distribution of goods, in order to create a society based on equality. Now, we clearly don’t have the state running the economy. But we have had programs designed to increase economic equality – and sometimes programs that have done the opposite. In other words, we’ve had redistribution of wealth. But during the last few decades it’s basically been redistribution toward the top.

What do socialists believe? That capitalism unfairly concentrates power and wealth, creating an unequal society. But they disagree about how much government intervention will work. Some socialists advocate complete nationalization of production. Others prefer state control of capital within a market economy. Social Democrats talk about selective nationalization of key elements in a mixed economy, along with tax-funded welfare programs. Libertarian socialists don’t like state control and prefer direct collective ownership – workers coops, workers councils, basically workplace democracy.

Libertarian socialists, and libertarians in general, weren’t happy about the financial bailout a few weeks ago. Social democrats felt it didn’t go far enough. And most capitalists? They decried the situation but went along, even chirping that “we are all socialists now.” Perhaps, at least as far as losses are concerned. The truth is, we’ve been living with socialist ideas – but not in a socialist society – for many years, and the sky hasn’t fallen.

In many European countries, socialism means a large role for the government in economic affairs. In the old Soviet Union and China today, socialism has meant the government owning and operating many industries. Karl Marx himself focused on the internal organization of production, saying that under capitalism workers produce a surplus and a small number of other people appropriate and distribute it to keep capitalism going. Under Communism the workers displace boards of directors and become, collectively, their own directors. Obama has endorsed none of these definitions of socialism.

The current attempt to stir up fear about socialism, and link it to terrorism and un-American activity, is a cheap but tried-and-true political ploy. It’s the new culture war, based on resentment, fear, ignorance, and selfishness. The subtext of the McCain campaign is that we are not all equal, that being pro-American means embracing a specific, narrow set of values, and that the government shouldn’t be a force for equality. The McCain argument depends on labeling and division.

Is Obama a socialist? No. But his campaign agenda has a vaguely democratic socialist ring, while McCain’s has a vaguely national fascist tone. So, is McCain then a Fascist? Probably not. But wouldn’t it be great to see talking heads debate that topic with the same speculative abandon they’ve devoted to socialism, Islamo-fascism, and other misleading labels.

Not likely. But at least the voting public is getting a good look at just how twisted a campaign can get when it’s desperate and has nowhere to go except cheap red baiting. Even better, people may even decide that a little redistribution of wealth – from the top to the bottom – might not be so bad. I could be wrong, but this looks like a teachable moment.
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