Thursday, August 29, 2013

Creating a Pretext for War: Revisiting Yugoslavia

At the height of the Clinton impeachment "crisis," both defenders and critics of the embattled president often referred to what they liked to called "those stubborn facts," basically bits of information the other side preferred not to acknowledge. Mass media seized any opportunity to exploit such disputes, offering themselves as even-handed defenders of fairness and truth. 
     But just a few months later, facts became irrelevant as the US and NATO geared up for a war in Yugoslavia, and the same media outlets redefined their role as unofficial government spokespersons.
      In order to convince an initially skeptical public that air strikes, and possibly even a ground war, were justified, several arguments were offered. For instance, officials claimed that the government of Slobodan Milosevic had refused to negotiate on Kosovo, and was engaged in a brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that bordered on genocide. NATO, on the other hand, was intervening to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe," and sought only to alleviate human suffering and defend the rights of Kosovo's Muslim Albanians. Unfortunately, another series of "stubborn facts," all but censored once the bombing began, contradicted those comforting assertions.
     First, there were the pre-war negotiations. In February, 1999, when peace talks began in France, Yugoslavia was given an ultimatum: Grant Kosovo autonomy and let NATO station 30,000 troops there for the next three years -- or face the consequences. Contrary to reports, only the stationing of troops was rejected, on the grounds that it violated Yugoslavia's sovereignty. If anyone was refusing to negotiate, it appeared to be the US and NATO.
     But the relentless use of buzzwords like ethnic cleansing and genocide, plus the redefinition of Milosevic as the world's new “Hitler," quickly gave this unyielding stance the veneer of humanitarian concern. Usually omitted was the inconvenient reality that the violence in Kosovo was a part of an ongoing struggle between the government and separatists, who had been actively waging civil war for at least two years. Beginning in October, 1998, the well-armed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an extremist group with connections to Osama Bin Laden and drug smuggling, staged more than 200 attacks on government facilities and local leaders hostile to independence. The following February, the New York Times announced that KLA fighters would be brought to the US for training. You didn't have to be an apologist for Milosevic to recognize that such developments contributed greatly to his government's overreaction.
     Another stubborn fact was the US role in setting the stage for conflict, while turning a blind eye to inconvenient catastrophes. The breakdown of Yugoslavia, which began with the death of President Tito in 1980, was largely ignored outside Europe until it ignited regional war in the 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union no serious effort was made by Europe, the UN or the US, to safeguard the growth of democracy or political tolerance. Instead, US policy was preoccupied with finding a quick fix that would protect strategic and economic interests in Europe. After advocating Yugoslavian unity for too long, subsequent US mistakes included isolating the Serbs, prematurely recognizing Croatia, and imposing one-sided sanctions. According to Pentagon thinking, the desirable US strategy was to use the threat of military intervention to restore the status quo. In 1992, sanctions and diplomatic isolation destroyed efforts to build a new political structure in what was left of the country.
     The biggest single act of "ethnic cleansing" in the region was the 1995 forced removal of 600,000 Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia (a former Yugoslav republic) by the US-trained and armed Croatian military. Some of the 55,000 Serbs resettled afterward in Kosovo were among the refugees we subsequently saw on TV during the 1999 war. In the past, US policy had sanctioned the removal of Kurdish people in Turkey, as well as Palestinians, East Timorese, Guatemalan indigenous people, and many more.
     So, why intervene, and why against the Serbs? Contrary to official spin, the apparent US/NATO agenda was to break Yugoslavia into smaller pieces. The Balkans is a strategic region, a crossroads between Western Europe and the oil-rich Middle East and Caspian Basin. In addition to land routes, the Danube may someday carry gas from the ex-Soviet Caucasus to West Europe via the Rhine. In the 1990s, the Western powers had gained effective control over the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia, as well as Hungary and Albania. The only hold out was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In short, it stood in the path of the New World Order.
     With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO needed fresh and powerful reasons to stay in business. Thanks to Kosovo, it was able to celebrate its 50th anniversary by consecrating a new global mission: intervention anywhere in the world on humanitarian grounds. The recipe was deceptively simple: Arm a group of radical secessionists to ambush policemen and define the inevitable government retaliation as "ethnic cleansing." Next, promise the rebels that NATO will bomb their enemy if the fighting persists, and call the resulting mayhem a challenge to NATO's "resolve" that must be answered by military force. In the case of Yugoslavia, the KLA had nothing to lose it; refugees and casualties would help to prove a "humanitarian catastrophe" was underway, ultimately bringing NATO and the US into the conflict on its side. For the Serbs, restraint seemed pointless. Clearly, they would be blamed for whatever happened.

Waiting for the Body Count

On February 23, 1999, James Hooper, director of the Balkan Action Council, gave a revealing speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, at the invitation of its "Committee of Conscience." The Council was one of several think tanks that sprang up to justify the transformation of the former Yugoslavia into a NATO protectorate. The first item on Hooper's to-do list was to "accept that the Balkans are a region of strategic interest for the United States, the new Berlin if you will, the testing ground for NATO's resolve and US leadership."
     Writing about NATO in the French daily Le Monde early in the war, Jean-Christophe Rufin, former vice president of Doctors Without Borders, described it as "a purely military, operational alliance, designed to respond to a threat, that is, to an enemy. NATO defines an enemy, threatens it, then eventually strikes and destroys it. Setting such a machine in motion requires a detonator. Today it is no longer military. Nor is it political. The evidence is before us: NATO's trigger today is... humanitarian. It takes blood, a massacre, something that will outrage public opinion so that it will welcome a violent reaction."
     Civilians were targets in Kosovo largely because victims were the key to international outrage and reaction. "Let's be clear: the West wants dead bodies," Rufin advised. "We are waiting for them in Kosovo. We'll get them." In the middle of such a conflict, massacres can easily occur. And if not, they can be "arranged." There is almost always a camera at hand.
    In 1993, for example, Croatian officers staged a "Serbian bombing" of the Croatian coastal city of Sibenik for Croatian TV crews. When the scheme was exposed six years later, the former Commander of the 113th Croatian brigade headquarters became indignant. "Why so much fuss?" Davo Skugor complained. "There is no city in Croatia in which such tactical tricks were not used. After all, they are an integral part of strategic planning. That's only one in a series of stratagems we've resorted to during the war."
     Ignoring those and other "stubborn facts" during the attack on Yugoslavia, most of the media's talking heads instead assumed the role of cheerleader for the Western military and KLA, often repeating stories that turned out to be false. The fabrications began even before the bombing with the report of a "massacre" at Racak, the event that triggered the doomed "peace talks." In this case, the source was US State Department veteran William Walker, a former US ambassador to El Salvador and Nicaragua and player in the covert 1980s campaign to supply the Contras.
     Walker was US ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time. His version of Racak was soon challenged by documentary film footage. But the disinformation continued, complete with inflated casualty and refugee figures, silence about KLA attacks and atrocities, and the claim (later proven false) that Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova had been assassinated. That actually may have been a case of wishful thinking, much like the premature announcement that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a thorn for US oil companies, had been overthrown in April 2002; Chavez was back in his office within two days of an attempted coup. In Rugova’s case, the US/NATO concern was that he had condemned the attack and seemed more willing to negotiate with Milosevic than those claiming to defend Albanian interests.
     What really happened in Rajak? According to a team of Finnish pathologists sent in to investigate, Serbian police entered the village, a KLA stronghold, on January 15, 1999. Observers from an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Verification Mission and an Associated Press video team tagged along. In the ensuing fire fight, Serb police bested their attackers. The next day, however, KLA combatants led international media and Walker, who also headed the OSCE mission, to a gully at the edge of town littered with corpses.
     After the KLA showed the group the bodies of about 40 people, Walker immediately cried "massacre," accusing Serbia's security forces of killing "unarmed civilians." The story went global. Describing the incident as "a deliberate and arbitrary act of murder," President Clinton issued a harsh condemnation. The German foreign ministry agreed, warning those responsible that "the international community is not prepared to accept the brutal persecution and murder of civilians in Kosovo."
     The Yugoslav government denied the accusation, accusing the KLA of gathering the corpses of its own fighters and arranging them to resemble a mass execution. But hardly anyone was buying. What soon became known as the "Racak massacre" had made NATO intervention a virtual certainty. The Washington Post later reported that Rajak "transformed the West's Balkan policy as singular events seldom do." Soon after January 15, NATO held an emergency meeting, during which US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recommended bombing Yugoslavia as "punishment." But before the punishment could be administered, Washington had to go through the charade of "peace talks" in Rambouillet. The strategy here was apparently to issue demands that the Yugoslav regime could not accept.
     In February, forensic experts arrived from Belarus and Finland. The Belarus team said there was no massacre, but the Finnish spokesperson issued a vague report that allowed Walker's charges to stand. A year later, the same team was no longer so sure. According to a May 2000 CBC Radio News report, a Finnish pathologist's autopsies revealed no evidence that the 40 bodies were intentionally mutilated. Only one of them showed signs of murder at close range. The most plausible explanation turned out to be that KLA fighters were killed in a fire fight. But the truth had been suppressed long enough to help shape public opinion.
     By identifying Albanians as "victims" and Serbs as villains from the outset, the US and its allies were able to effectively short-circuit any meaningful debate. The Clinton administration also insisted that the Kosovar Albanians only wanted US-style democracy (their actual goal was control over territory), and that democracy, combined with a free market economy, would ultimately solve their problems. But NATO/US intervention was meanwhile making a bad situation worse, in effect creating the humanitarian catastrophe it was supposed to avert.
     Behind the scenes, a Brzezinski-style geostrategy was being played out: successful prosecution of the war would help to secure potential pipeline routes to Caspian oil, while expanding NATO's role as an tool of Western hegemony over Eurasia. The result was a convenient fiction that made reality virtually impossible to detect.

Specious Logic

As the war escalated, both backers and opponents became adamant, and marshaled more "facts" to support their positions. Critics of bombing noted that NATO and the US had not negotiated in good faith, or taken steps to deal with the refugee flow that predictably followed, even though they probably expected it. Supporters pointed to the mass removal of Albanians before the bombing, Milosevic's past betrayals and crimes, and evidence of atrocities. To some extent, both sides were right.
     During a conversation with an old friend -- once an anti-war activist, now a government staffer -- I suggested that the decision to bomb had more to do with NATO's credibility and US influence in Europe than protecting Kosovo Albanians or defense of human rights. He responded, "Milosevic is a brutal dictator and something had to be done to stop genocide. I'm not a pacifist." But equating opposition to bombing with pacifism, along with the argument that military action was justified by the mere charge of genocide, betrayed the myopic thinking of many supporting "diplomacy backed by force."
     The real issue was not choosing between doing nothing and "something" -- that is, going to war. It was whether bombing, or even a ground war, would solve the problem. As it turned out, NATO's battle plan murderously misfired. The results included an accelerated flow of refugees, increased ethnic hatred, and destruction of Yugoslavia's infrastructure and democratic opposition. Despite eventual "success," international law was weakened, higher US defense spending was justified, and the notion that the US and NATO should act as "humanitarian" globocops was considerably advanced.
     For many people, the genocide argument was especially persuasive. But ethnic cleansing is not genocide, and equating them trivializes the latter. Only a few months before the bombing began, Germany's Foreign Office had argued that neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide were occurring. A January, 1999 intelligence report stated that, "Even in Kosovo an explicit political persecution linked to Albanian ethnicity is not verifiable. The East of Kosovo is still not involved in armed conflict. Public life in cities like Pristina, Urosevac, Gnjilan, etc. has, in the entire conflict period, continued on a relatively normal basis." The "actions of the security forces (were) not directed against the Kosovo-Albanians as an ethnically defined group, but against the military opponent and its actual or alleged supporters."
     Lacking that rationale, some insisted the mission was "just" in any case. The fact that the US had failed to act in the past, many times even supporting murderous regimes, did not mean it couldn't do the right thing this time. So went the thinking at least. But the campaign did little to help the victims, while hurting many civilians and visiting untold damage on the environment throughout Serbia and Kosovo.
     Three years after extensive bombing, the UN found widespread low-level contamination due to the use of depleted uranium. Although UN scientists insisted that the levels did not pose a direct threat to human health, they did express concern about a potential risk of contaminated water sources due to the ammunition tips made out of depleted uranium. In other words, people were safe unless they drank the water. Expressing surprise that depleted uranium dust was still in the air, the researchers urged authorities to fence off and monitor affected sites.
     So, if Milosevic was a mugger and the Kosovars his victim, NATO might be called the macho bystander who decided to "help" by wildly firing a shotgun.
     There is no doubt that crimes against humanity were committed. But more than one defendant might have been charges. According to UN Human Rights Commission Chair Mary Robinson, an international war crimes tribunal could have investigated all sides. "The actions of individuals belonging to Serb forces, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), or NATO may therefore come under scrutiny, if it appears that serious violations of international humanitarian law have occurred," she announced in May, 1999. As it happened, however, only Milosevic and some Serb accomplices were indicted and tried.
     Those who said that bombing "was better than doing nothing" also ignored the fact that other options were available. Why weren't they pursued? Mainly because the main objective was not to protect Kosovo Albanians, but rather to prevent ethnic conflict from affecting other parts of Europe (a central reason why independence for Kosovo wasn't on the negotiating table), while advancing the role of NATO as enforcer of what it called "collective security."
     The Soviet Union's break up had made NATO's original mandate obsolete. The new agenda, as advocated by the US, involved a more assertive stance, including operations to stop ethnic violence and counter weapons of mass destruction inside and beyond the Alliance's borders. According to NATO's founding documents, however, it was obligated not to use force in any manner inconsistent with the UN Charter, essentially leaving that decision to the Security Council. The US nevertheless argued that the alliance should have the right to act if UN approval could not be obtained. Or, apparently, if it didn't bother to ask. The Yugoslavia war made this official policy.
     In response to the charge that NATO's intervention violated Yugoslavia's sovereignty, some experts suggested that sovereignty is a dubious right that should have limits. In the abstract, it is difficult to disagree. But that thinking essentially puts the strong, usually the US or another northern industrial state, in the position of punishing the weak whenever they see fit. No doubt the same argument wouldn't fly if Turkey, a NATO member, was bombed for its treatment of the Kurds.
     And the final fallback? Despite questionable NATO and US motives, supporters argued that the military's success in stopping Milosevic made it all worthwhile. But given the actual consequences -- more deaths, a damaged environment, the undermining of international law, and so on - this could be the most cynical argument of all.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

2008 Convention Watch: Highlights & History

The Big Story: Why It Mattered

It was just five years ago, and most of the media attention was on convention stagecraft and the horserace dynamics of the presidential race – change vs. experience, Clinton dramas and VP rollouts, who was a celebrity and who was out of touch. But actually at stake was the choice being offered on issues that mattered. Here are the Top Five, and what seemed to differentiate the Democratic and Republican candidates at the time:

The Economy: Barack Obama pledges to help-middle class families struggling with rising costs and stagnant pay, reform healthcare and education, and renegotiate free trade agreements. John McCain argues for keeping the Bush tax cuts but decreasing government spending, reforming social security, and cutting taxes on middle class families by abolishing the Alternative Minimum tax.

Iraq & Iran: Obama argues that there’s "no military solution" in Iraq, calling for withdrawal of most troops and a UN convention on national reconciliation. He says he would meet Iranian leaders without preconditions, pursue “aggressive personal diplomacy,” and change Iran’s behavior through incentives. McCain says that US forces should remain until Iraq is able to defend itself, backed troop escalation, and thinks withdrawal “timelines” could trigger genocide in the region. He wants to get other democracies to escalate economic sanctions against Iran, and backs a military solution if necessary to prevent its alleged nuclear weapons plans.

Climate Change: Obama wants to cut US greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, says it should lead the global effort, and favors investing $150 billion over 10 years in clean energy. McCain would consider joining with other nations to reduce emissions if China and India agree to participate.

Abortion: Obama says women should make their own choices "in conjunction with their doctors and their families and their clergy.” McCain argues that the landmark Roe v Wade decision should be overturned, would appoint judges who support that position, and backs aid for state efforts to boost adoption.

Healthcare: Obama calls for universal coverage but not compulsory insurance – except for children, subsidies to make coverage more affordable, and making insurer cover pre-existing conditions. McCain wants tax incentives to encourage people to get personal health insurance.

8/29: The American Promise (Obama's speech, Palin Pick)
8/28: Realizing the Dream (Nomination Video)

8/24: Florida and Michigan Votes Restored
8/23: Obama Taps Biden
(Full stories in News Section)
The Conventions and Beyond: A Guide
*Political Conventions: A Video History
*2008: Daily Highlights and TV Coverage
*Other Events: Alternative Media, Protests, Ralph Nader, Ron Paul
*News: Obama Taps Biden, Presidential Debate Schedule
*History: The Rise and Fall of the Original Third Party
Political Conventions: A Video History

2008: Daily Highlights and TV Coverage
The Democrats in Denver, August 25-28. Monday: Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Edward Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Jesse Jackson Jr.; Theme – One Nation. Tuesday: Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner (keynote), Patrick Leahy, and Kathleen Sebelius; Theme – Renewing America’s Promise. Wednesday: Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Harry Reid, Bill Richardson, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, and Tom Daschle; Theme – Securing America’s Future. Thursday: Obama accepts at Invesco Field; Theme – Change You Can Believe In. Clinton gets a roll call vote. Obama picks Biden for VP.
The Republican in St Paul, September 1-4. Monday: Laura Bush, Cindy McCain; Theme – Service. Tuesday: George W. Bush, Joe Lieberman, and Fred Thompson; Theme –Reform. Wednesday:Rudy Giuliani (keynote), Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Sarah Palin; Theme – Prosperity. Thursday: Tim Pawlenty, Tom Ridge, McCain acceptance speech; Theme – Peace. McCain picks Palin for VP. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney cancel appearances.
Catching the Conventions on TV
On cable MSNBC plans 20 hours of coverage daily, while CNN offers a “multi-platform” approach, including intermittent live coverage. ABC, NBC and CBS air one-hour reports at 10 p.m. (EDT) each day, Aug. 25-28 and Sept. 1-4. PBS airs three hours of coverage nightly, beginning at 8 p.m. The Daily Show on Comedy Central broadcasts from the convention cities. BBC’s World News America airs coverage at 7 and 10 p.m. weeknights during both conventions, with Ted Koppel as a contributing analyst. C-SPAN offers "gavel-to-gavel coverage" beginning at 6 p.m. August 25 for the Democrats and 3:30 p.m. Sept. 1 for the Republicans.
Other Events
The Big Tent: A 9,000-square-foot, two-story structure with work space for bloggers and new media journalists. It was a collaboration between the Denver groups Progress Now and Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, teaming up with Daily Kos, Google, and YouTube.
The Starz Green Room: An alternative media hub for elected officials, Democratic staffers, foreign dignitaries, business executives, media and the entertainment industry. The most visible, reflecting the progressive pecking order, were expected to be Van Jones, Arianna Huffington, John Podesta (head of the Center for American Progress), Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, and writer David Sirota. Various celebrities also stopped by.
Ralph Nader: The independent candidate for president (currently on the ballot in 31 states) planned rallies during both conventions to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and press for inclusion in the presidential debates. Nader's rally in Denver was set for Aug. 27, the day Joe Biden gave his VP acceptance speech. The Minneapolis rally was scheduled for Sept. 4, the day McCain accepted the GOP nomination across the river in St. Paul.
Ron Paul: The former GOP candidate held a counter-convention before and during the Republican gathering, August 31-Sept. 2. According to Paul, the speakers would include Jesse Ventura and Barry Goldwater Jr. He also planned a counter-rally in Minneapolis on Sept 2.
Protests: Re-Create 68 and other groups organized rallies, marches and concerts during the Democratic Convention, beginning with an End the Occupation march and rally on Sunday, Aug. 24. warned of “massive” anti-war protests, but attendance was disappointing. Denver police set up holding pens in case the protests get “too unruly.” The city passed a law barring people from carrying certain protest "tools" (chains or quick-setting cement) and noxious substances (urine or "feces bombs") that could be used to ward off authorities.
When 2,000 people participated in a peaceful anti-poverty march at the Republican Convention on September 2, police opened fire with gas and projectiles. On the previous day, 283 people were arrested after police fired projectiles, pepper spray and tear gas to disperse a crowd of 5,000 demonstrating near the convention site. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman was among those arrested.
A dozen groups planning protests sued the U.S. Secret Service and City of Denver over plans to confine them to a parade route and fenced-in zone, saying that their Constitutional rights to free speech were being violated. U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger agreed that the protesters would suffer some infringement on their freedom of expression but said those interests must be balanced with security concerns.
The ACLU obtained a copy of a Denver Police Department bulletin advising officers that violent protesters at the Democratic Convention might be identified from their use of hand held radio, bikes, maps, and "camping information. The Bulletin provided a "watch list" of items that police are to associate with violent protesters.

Both Denver and St. Paul became virtual fortresses during the conventions, protected by airplanes, helicopters, barriers, fences and thousands of police officers, National Guard troops and Secret Service agents. In Denver, police spent at least $18 million on equipment alone, bolstered by National Guard troops and hundreds of officers from surrounding suburbs. In St. Paul, police called on 80 law enforcement agencies to provide 3,000 officers to supplement the city's 500-person force. Congress earmarked $100 million for security at the two meetings.
Florida and Michigan Votes restored

8/24: The Democratic National Committee vote unanimously Sunday to restore full convention voting rights to Florida and Michigan delegates. The two states had been penalized for holding their primaries in January, violating party rules.
Obama Taps Biden
8/23: Barack Obama selects six-term US Senator Joe Biden to be his vice presidential running mate. Biden, who has represented Delaware in the US Senate since 1972, ran briefly ran for president in 1988 and again this year. A resident of northern, upscale New Castle County, he is also well known in Pennsylvania, a swing state in the 2008 race.
Biden currently chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His Senate career highlights include presiding over contentious Supreme Court nomination hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, and development of the 1994 Crime Bill. He was instrumental in pushing the Clinton administration toward air strikes on Yugoslavia and initially supported the Iraq War, although he has since become a critic of how it has been waged. In 2004, he suggested that John Kerry pick John McCain as his running mate.
The speculation turns to McCain’s choice. Leading contenders include former opponent Mitt Romney, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Ohio Congressman Rob Portman, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and US Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000. The Republican Party base wants someone with a conservative record on social issues such as abortion, but McCain could decide to go with Ridge to counter Obama’s selection of Biden.
Presidential Debate Schedule Set
8/23: The first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain will be held on Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi. The topic will be foreign policy, moderated by Jim Lehrer, host of PBS’ NewsHour. The second debate will be Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, moderated by Tom Brokaw. The format will be a town hall-style discussion. The final debate will be Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in New York, moderated by Bob Schieffer, host of Face the Nation. All debates will be 90 minutes, 9-10:30 pm. The Vice Presidential candidates will debate Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis, moderated by Gwen Ifill, host/moderator of PBS’s Washington Week.
The Rise and Fall of the Original Third Party
It began with a charge of murder. In 1826 William Morgan, a 52-year-old Freemason and printer from Batavia, New York, had become dissatisfied with his lodge and announced plans to publish the details of Masonic rituals. When it became known, however, he was harassed, and, that September, seized by unknown parties and taken to Fort Niagara. Morgan was never seen again.
Although his fate was never determined, it was widely believed that he’d been kidnapped and killed by fellow Masons, a suspicion that increased hostility toward the order and lead to the formation of the first national third party in the United States. Spreading rapidly from upstate New York to all of New England and eventually west, the Anti-Mason movement soon became a political party, and subsequently introduced important innovations, including nominating conventions and the adoption of party platforms. Yet a decade later the party was over.
Morgan’s disappearance led many people to believe that Freemasons weren’t loyal citizens. Since judges, businessmen, bankers, and politicians were often members, ordinary people began to consider it an elitist group and possibly a powerful secret society. Others suspected links to the occult and ceremonial magic.
One persuasive argument was that the lodges' secret oaths could bind members to favor each other over “outsiders.” Because the trial of the alleged Morgan conspirators was mishandled and the Masons resisted further inquiries, many concluded that they controlled key offices, abused their power to promote the interests of the fraternity, and were violating basic principles of democracy. Enraged, they decided to challenge what they considered a conspiracy.
In western New York, citizens attending mass meetings in 1827 resolved not to support Masons for public office. The National Republicans were weak in New York at the time, and shrewd political leaders used anti-Masonic feeling to create a new party to oppose rising “Jacksonian Democracy,” which favored a more powerful president, expansion of the right to vote, the patronage system, and geographical expansion. The fact that Andrew Jackson was a high-ranking Mason and frequently praised the Order didn’t help. One of the most prominent Anti-Masons was former President John Quincy Adams, who wrote a series of stern letters condemning the institution after Morgan’s disappearance.
Numerous Anti-Masonic papers were published, four of them –The Anti-Freemason, AntiMasonic Christian Herald, Free Press and Anti-Masonic Baptist Herald – issued from the same printing office in Boston. Anti-Masonic spelling books, school readers and almanacs were distributed, and Anti-Masonic book stores and taverns opened. In some churches it became a religious crusade.
Upstate New York was the flashpoint but the excitement soon spread through New England and reached as far west as Northeastern Ohio. In some parts of that state, lodge halls were reportedly destroyed by mobs, property and records were carried away, Masons were ostracized and businesses closed.
A national organization was planned as early as 1827, when New York leaders attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Henry Clay, a former Mason, to renounce the Order and head the movement. His slippery reply to an inquiry on his opinions about the group was that he’d become a Freemason as a young man but hadn’t given the order attention for a long time. In fact, Clay was a former Grand Master, but the growth of the movement led him to practically disown it.
In the 1828 elections the new party proved unexpectedly strong, eclipsing the National Republicans in New York. Within a year it broadened its base, becoming a champion of internal improvements and protective tariffs. The party published 35 weekly newspapers in New York, including the Albany Journal, edited by Thurlow Weed, who went on to become a powerful political boss. Openly partisan, one Journal comment on Martin Van Buren included the words "dangerous," "demagogue," "corrupt," "degrade," "pervert," "prostitute," "debauch" and "cursed" in a single paragraph.
When the Anti-Masonic convention met in Philadelphia in 1830 it adopted the following platform: “The object of Anti-Masonry, in nominating and electing candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency, is to deprive Masonry of the support which it derives from the power and patronage of the executive branch of the United States Government. To effect this object, will require that candidates besides possessing the talents and virtues requisite for such exalted stations, be known as men decidedly opposed to secret societies.”
The Party invented the political convention, electing local delegates to chose state candidates and pledge their loyalty. Soon the Democrats and Whigs recognized the value of the idea for building a party and began holding their own. By 1832 the movement’s focus on Masonry faded, but it had spread to more states, becoming especially strong in Vermont and Pennsylvania.
Vermont’s Anti-Masonic Interlude
In 1831, William A. Palmer was elected governor of Vermont on an Anti-Masonic ticket, and remained in office until 1835. In 1832, when the national Party ran a candidate for president, it was the only state to cast its electoral votes for the nominee, William Wirt, a former Mason.
Palmer was a former judge and US Senator with an established reputation. Formerly a Jeffersonian Democrat, he led in the popular vote for governor in 1831, but it took nine ballots in the state legislature before he was chosen. He won again the following year, but still didn’t get a clear majority of the popular vote. This time it took 43 legislative ballots before he was re-elected. In 1834, he won on the first ballot, but only because the other parties, anticipating the collapse of the Anti-Masons, hoped to win over its constituents.

Palmer also led in the popular vote in 1835. But this time he couldn’t win in the Legislature, and after sixty-three ballots Silas Jennison, winner of the Lieutenant-Governor’s race, was selected. The rest of the Anti-Masonic ticket was indorsed by the Whigs. The opposition to Palmer was due primarily to his Democratic leanings and the belief that he intended to support Democrat Martin Van Buren for the presidency the next year.

Governor Palmer believed that secret societies were evil. But he didn’t take radical stands in his speeches. In his first inaugural address, he declared the intention to appoint only men who were "unshackled by any earthly allegiance except to the constitution and laws," and suggested legislation to prohibit the administration of oaths except "when necessary to secure the faithful discharge of public trusts and to elicit truth in the administration of justice." He wanted to "diminish the frequency" of oaths because of the "influence which they exercise over the human mind."

Anti-Masons ultimately succeeded in forcing Vermont’s lodges to close – for a while. But that left the state party with less reason to exist, and in 1836 Vermont’s Anti-Masonic leaders joined the new, anti-Jacksonian Whig Party. The Whigs didn’t last long, and Vermont later changed its allegiance to the emergent Republican Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery.

John Charles Frémont, the Republican candidate for president in 1856, won about 80 percent of Vermont’s popular vote. In 1860, it backed Abraham Lincoln, giving him the largest margin of victory of any state. For the next 100 years, Vermont remained solidly Republican.
Scourge of the Masons
Thaddeus Stevens was born in Vermont, but made his name in Pennsylvania. He openly became an Anti-Mason in 1829 when he supported Joseph Ritner, the party’s candidate for governor, who was defeated that year but won a surprisingly large vote. A few months later Stevens became a delegate to the second State Anti-Masonic Convention, and then attended the first national convention in Philadelphia in September, 1830. He attracted attention by delivering speeches strongly attacking Masonry. In one of them, "On The Masonic Influence Upon The Press," he deplored the lack of publicity given to the convention and attributed it to Masonic influence.
"Look around,” Stevens declared. “Though but one hundred thousand of the people of the United States are Free Masons, yet almost all the offices of high profit and honor are filled with gentlemen of that institution. Out of the number of law judges in the State of Pennsylvania, eighteen-twentieths are Masons; and twenty-two out of twenty-four states of the Union are now governed by Masonic chief magistrates. Although not a twentieth part of the voters of this commonwealth, and of the United States are Masons, yet they have contrived, by concert, to put themselves into eighteen out of twenty of the offices of profit and power."

In 1833 Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature on the Anti-Masonic ticket. His legislative talents showed themselves from the start. An excellent debater with a devastating wit that cut his opposition to shreds, he also knew how to maneuver behind the scenes and bide his time.

His big chance came in 1835, when Anti-Masons took control of the legislature in coalition with the Whigs. Wasting no time, Stevens proposed a law designed to suppress secret societies and became chairman of a committee to investigate the "evils of Free Masonry." The proceedings that followed have been likened by Masonic writers to the Inquisition and led to Stevens being labeled the "Grand Inquisitor." Thirty-four witnesses were summoned, including some who had renounced Masonry.
The most dramatic incident occurred on January 18, 1836. Prominent Masons who had previously refused to appear before Stevens’ committee were being compelled to testify. Among these were ex-Governor George Wolf; George M. Dallas, Masonic Grand Master of Pennsylvania at the time, and ten year later US Vice President under James Polk; and Joseph R. Chandler, editor of the United States Gazette, published in Philadelphia. When ordered to answer questions, however, all three refused. In all, 25 witnesses were placed in the custody of the House Sergeant-at-Arms. After several days, when some of the Whigs broke with the Anti-Masons, the prisoners were released and Stevens' campaign ended.
Stevens stood almost alone in trying to maintain the Anti-Masonic party on a national basis. When the 1835 State Anti-Masonic Convention endorsed William Henry Harrison for President, he initially refused to accept it because Harrison wouldn’t pledge to use the government to go after the Masons. Due to his continued efforts to keep the Anti-Mason Party alive, Stevens couldn’t secure enough support to be elected to Congress until 1848. From then on, however, he began to attract attention with anti-slavery speeches, and subsequently helped to launch the Republican Party.
In 1858 Stevens returned to Congress as a Republican and soon assumed leadership of the House, where his strong abolitionist sentiments, plus his legislative skills, gave him tremendous power during the Civil War.
End of the Road
The Anti-Mason Party conducted the first U.S. presidential nominating convention in Baltimore in 1832. Its candidate, William Wirt, won 7.78 percent of the popular vote and Vermont’s seven electoral votes. The highest elected office ever held by a member of the Party was governor: besides Palmer in Vermont, Joseph Ritner served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1835 to 1838. By 1833, however, the organization was already in decline in New York, its members gradually uniting with the National Republican Party and opponents of Jacksonian Democracy in the Whig Party.
Following the election of Governor Ritner, a state convention was held in Harrisburg to choose Presidential Electors for the 1836 election. The Pennsylvanians picked William Henry Harrison for President and Vermont’s convention followed suit. But when national Anti-Masonic leaders couldn’t obtain assurance from Harrison that he wasn’t a Mason, they called a national convention. Held in Philadelphia in May, 1836, it was a divisive gathering. A majority of the delegates agreed that the purpose of the party remained anti-masonry but decided not to back a national ticket that year.
The third and final Anti-Masonic National convention was held in Philadelphia’s Temperance Hall in November, 1838. By this time, the party had been almost entirely engulfed by the Whigs. The convention unanimously nominated Harrison for President and Daniel Webster for Vice President. But when the Whig National Convention chose Harrison and John Tyler, the Anti-Masons did nothing and soon vanished.
Under the Anti-Mason banner savvy politicians were able to briefly unite many people who were discontented and suspicious of political elites. In the end, however, the fact that William Wirt – the Anti-Mason choice for president in 1832 – wasn’t just a former Mason but defended the Order during the convention that nominated him, suggests that, despite the party’s name, that single issue wasn’t so central after all, and clearly not enough to sustain a national movement for long.
Last updated September 4, 2008

Monday, August 19, 2013

From the Vault: Politics, Books and Poetry

Rare video, recorded in March 1986, recorded on the first birthday of a bookstore founded in Burlington. Check out the reading (near the end) of a little-seen poem by the great Allen Ginsberg -- Socialist Snow. 
It begins with these lines: Socialist snow on the streets / Socialist talk at the Maverick Bookstore...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Total Exposure: The End of Privacy

More than a year before 9/11 a blue-ribbon congressional commission on terrorism released a series of recommendations that made civil libertarians cringe. To prevent possible terrorist attacks, said the panel (which included a former CIA director) restrictions on wiretapping should be loosened and surveillance of foreign students should be increased.
     At the time, even the conservative Lincoln Legal Foundation labeled the cure "worse than the disease," arguing that such threats didn't warrant a suspension of constitutional rights. Most people barely noticed the dispute, however, and even if they had, it's unlikely that many would have expressed concern about the implications of more wiretapping or spying on people accused of no crimes. The problem was terrorism, after all.
     Since then, despite the American preoccupation with individual privacy, surveillance of everyday life has become so pervasive that it's difficult to resist the mounting intrusions. Video cameras perch around banks, airports, hospitals, ATMs, stores, freeways, and building lobbies and elevators. The Transportation Security Agency recently announced that it will expand its own "stop and frisk" domain to cover trains, buses and concerts.
     People often feel safer with cameras observing local streets and parking lots. There are complaints about Facebook's collection of data, and some consumers do object to the collection of information on their shopping preferences by Web sites and stores. Still, most accept it as an acceptable and relatively harmless trade-off.
    According to Bill Gates (who should know), computers will soon be able to inexpensively scan massive video records to find a particular person or activity. In his 1995 book, The Road Ahead, Gates already envisioned (but didn't directly recommend) a camera on every streetlight. "What today seems like digital Big Brother might one day become the norm if the alternative is being left to the mercy of terrorists or criminals," he wrote. Millions will choose to lead "a documented life," Gates predicted, keeping an audio, written, or video record of their everyday activities.
     Once considered a threatening intrusion, surveillance has also become a form of entertainment. Using the Internet, millions proudly put their images and private lives online. Thousands line up to be watched 24/7 by cameras and TV audiences. On "reality" TV shows the contestants willingly surrender their privacy in the hope of winning fame or fortune. Although those shows occasionally provide insights into group behavior, they primarily promote voyeurism while indirectly undermining objections to other forms of surveillance.
     In the past, concerns about privacy centered on the government's activities. The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution provided protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the State, and US Supreme Court rulings have suggested that there may be a constitutional right to privacy from government invasions. But there is little protection from the new technologies, and the dramatic expansion of private surveillance, along with a public embrace of "big brother" to guard against crime or provide amusement, make it harder to establish meaningful restrictions.
     The largest problem may not be conventional surveillance -- a bugging device installed with a warrant, or a cop with a camera -- but rather the indiscriminate use of video and other tools, along with the implications for manipulation of human behavior. People who know they are, or may be, watched end up acting differently. Through a combination of design and commercial accident, businesses are grafting surveillance to Skinnerian theory to create a powerful new form of conditioning.
     In the name of efficiency, employers use cameras and tracking programs to monitor and mold employees. In the name of entertainment, TV puts people in a competitive goldfish bowl, promoting the idea that being totally exposed is a privilege and, with "winning" -- not necessarily good -- behavior, can lead to financial reward or at least celebrity.
     For people already suffering from narcissism  -- a growing social epidemic with symptoms including addiction to vicarious, mediated experiences, fear of dependence and aging, and unsatisfied cravings -- a life of total exposure can become a prescription for more alienation and a cynical detachment from reality. Traditionally, the narcissist has been defined narrowly as someone who relates only to his or her own image. However, a more contemporary definition would also incorporate the characteristics mentioned above, as well as dependence on the warmth provided by others, a sense of inner emptiness, and boundless repressed rage.
     Narcissists can be pseudo-intellectuals or calculating seducers. Often, they are also fascinated with celebrities. Yet, even though such frustrated climbers tend to seek out the famous, they are frequently compelled to destroy their fantasy figures. 
     If this was merely a description of a few "sick" individuals we might find some comfort. But patterns of narcissism affect millions and are reinforced daily. Perhaps most disquieting, the narcissistic personality is ideally suited for positions of power.
     Selling oneself has become a major form of work in our mediated world, and success often rests on the ability to project "personality" and/or an attractive image. Self-promotion also meshes neatly with an idealization of powerful personalities who represent what the narcissist seeks. Narcissists identify with winners out of their fear of being losers. Objects of hero worship tend to give meaning to the otherwise unanchored lives of society's many emotional casualties. 
     Yet mixed with idealization is an urge to degrade the object of admiration, sparked when the narcissist's hero ultimately disappoints. This desperate urge, intensified by the machinery of mass promotion, can turn even assassination into a form of spectacle.
     Until very recently, the fact that the intelligence agencies of the US, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand operate a system of satellites and computers that can monitor almost all of the world's electronic communications barely registered as a problem. After all, we're all being watched anyway. The more "spying" we learn about, or participate in, the less unusual it seems to become. 
     Being watched almost constantly may provide a superficial sense of security, and watching others may be titillating and fun. The trouble is that it also undermines the impulse to act authentically, while numbing both the watcher and watched to the hidden threats posed to freedom and healthy development.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Deadly Experiments & Contaminated Reality

Half a century ago, on the spurious grounds that extreme sacrifices were required in the battle to prevent a communist takeover of the world, the US government decided to use the citizens of Nevada as nuclear guinea pigs. Although atomic testing was pursued there for several years in the 1950s, notification would have alarmed area residents. As a result, they weren't even advised to go indoors. Yet, according to declassified documents, some scientists studying the genetic effects of radiation at the time were already concerned about the health risks of fallout.

For most of those committed to the US nuclear program, the need to keep this type of research secret was a no-brainer. After all, if the public realized that the technology used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki had led to experiments at home, early nuclear research – not to mention weapons deployment – might have met stronger opposition. The government badly wanted its nukes, and the scientists yearned to unlock the secrets of human mutation. Thus, an unholy alliance was struck.

US citizens, and the thousands of soldiers who took dangerous doses of radiation as part of other studies, haven’t been the only victims of science run amuck. Between 1964 and 1968, for example, at least a dozen covert tests of nerve and chemical agents were carried out on servicemen in the Pacific Ocean, then concealed and denied for more than 20 years. Crews were used to gauge how quickly various poisons could be detected, how rapidly they would disperse, and the effectiveness of protective gear and decontamination procedures.

Three tests used sarin, a deadly nerve gas subsequently employed by a cult to kill a dozen people in a Tokyo subway in 1995, or VX, the nerve gas that the US later accused Iraq of developing. One test used staphylococcal enterotoxin B, known as SEB, a crippling germ toxin; another used a “simulant” believed to be harmless but subsequently found to be dangerous. “We do not see things like informed consent or individual protection,” noted Michael Kilpatrick, a Defense Department medical official. “We don't have the records for what, if any, protection was given to people."

In a test called Fearless Johnny, carried out southwest of Honolulu during 1965, a Navy cargo ship was sprayed with VX nerve agent to "evaluate the magnitude of exterior and interior contamination levels" under various conditions of readiness, as well as study "the shipboard wash-down system," according to documents declassified in 2002. Like all nerve agents, VX gas penetrates the skin or lungs to disrupt the body's nervous system and stop breathing. Exposure can kill.

Another test, known as Flower Drum, involved spraying sarin gas into the ventilation system of a ship. The crew wore various levels of protective gear. A third experiment, Deseret Test Center Test 68-50, was conducted in 1968 to determine the casualty levels from an F-4 Phantom jet spraying SEB. A jet dropped the deadly mist over part of Eniwetok Atoll and five Army tugboats in the Marshall Islands. Public exposure of the secret tests and identification of those affected did not begin until 2000, and only under pressure from Mike Thompson, a California congressman who responded to veterans suffering health damage.

During the same period, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) spent millions on an even more heinous project: comparing atomic bomb survivors with an "uncontaminated" control group in South America, the Yanomami, who live in the remote Amazon regions of Brazil and Venezuela. Without informed consent or any government’s approval, thousands of blood samples were taken from the Indians, and extensive studies were conducted to provide crucial genealogical information on each tribe member. That the AEC research did nothing to help the Yanomami was bad enough. That it led directly to much needless suffering is a prime example of cultural imperialism at its worst.

As Patrick Tierney explained in Darkness in El Dorado, his harrowing account of scientific and journalistic exploitation, the AEC study was but one step in a decades-long process that brought illness, death, and degradation to the Amazon. To study iodine metabolism, ambitious researchers administered radioactive iodine to Yanomami tribes for 10 years. To prove questionable theories about aggression, anthropologists invaded countless communities, neglecting the sick and malnourished, while imposing their own agendas and setting inter-tribal conflicts into motion. Film crews and journalists joined in, bribing tribes to stage fights and feasts for the cameras. The Yanomami became the most famous "primitive" people in the world. But with that attention came modern weapons and imported disease.

Scientists and journalists like to believe that they are neutral witnesses who don't affect the objects of their observation. But this is at best convenient self-deception, and at worst a callous lie. In the Amazon, a prime example was Napoleon Chagnon, the acclaimed anthropologist who made the Yanomami (and himself) famous through a series of expeditions, books, and films. He named them "the Fierce People." But in reality, the tribal warfare he chronicled was mainly sparked by his own invasive actions. Beginning in 1964, he brought shotguns, canoes filled with axes, and, later, helicopters packed with scientific tools, trade goods, and visitors. Playing villages and their leaders off against each other, he ultimately created the conditions he hoped to observe.

"Within three months of Chagnon's sole arrival on the scene, three different wars had broken out," Tierney wrote, "all between groups who had been at peace for some time and all of whom wanted a claim on Chagnon's steel goods." Far from being neutral, Chagnon became a central figure, much hated and feared, in Indian battles over trade goods and machetes. But he was also part of a team. Along with others scientists, filmmakers, writers, and mining entrepreneurs, he stole Yanomami history, extracted countless vials of their blood, corrupted their culture, and manipulated them to prove his theories.

A terrible tale to be sure, but certainly not unique. Every day, news crews and researchers descend on individuals and communities throughout the world, conducting themselves in similar ways. They arrive with embedded assumptions, carelessly conduct their "research," and usually find precisely what they are looking for, whether or not it is true. On TV, we see the products of this "field work," otherwise known as the news.

In recent years, we also have witnessed the manipulation of perceptions weekly in experiments called "reality shows." Most of these programs are based on the assumption that competition, fame and distrust are the fundamental truths of our time. But the contestants are not the only subjects of this research. In a sense, so are the viewers, closely watched to see if they accept the premise.

Finally, there is the largest experiment of the moment, known as corporate globalization. Described by many experts as an indisputable fact of post-modern life, it is actually another deadly project, a sequel to the industrial revolution. And we know how well that one has gone for the planet. But like the victims in Nevada, the South Pacific, and the Amazon, we haven't been told about the real costs or objectives. The truth, after all, might lead to resistance and accountability.

As many scientists now acknowledge, conceiving any experiment is the experience of an observer who is also a participant. Building on the theory of relativity, quantum physics has demonstrated that every measurement requires an act of intervention. As quantum physicist John Wheeler explained, “Participator is the incontrovertible new concept given by quantum mechanics. It strikes down the term 'observer' of classical theory, the man who stands safely behind the thick glass wall, and watches what goes on without taking part. It can’t be done, quantum mechanics says.”

And so, if there is really no way to observe any event or phenomenon without somehow affecting what happens, what are journalists or scientists to do? Well, at least act responsibly. This means acknowledging bias, intervening with compassion, and providing enough information to let the public make its own, fully informed choices.

Greg Guma's second novel, Dons of Time, will be published in October by Fomite Press.
This essay was originally posted 8/9/2008