So You Think You Know the Second Amendment?

by Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker, December 18, 2012

Does the Second Amendment prevent Congress from passing gun-control laws? The question, which is suddenly pressing, in light of the reaction to the school massacre in Newtown, is rooted in politics as much as law.

For more than a hundred years, the answer was clear, even if the words of the amendment itself were not. The text of the amendment is divided into two clauses and is, as a whole, ungrammatical: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The courts had found that the first part, the “militia clause,” trumped the second part, the “bear arms” clause. In other words, according to the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.

Enter the modern National Rifle Association. Before the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. had been devoted mostly to non-political issues, like gun safety. But a coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party. (Jill Lepore recounted this history in a recent piece for The New Yorker.) The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms. It was an uphill struggle. At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as “a fraud.”

But the N.R.A. kept pushing—and there’s a lesson here. Conservatives often embrace “originalism,” the idea that the meaning of the Constitution was fixed when it was ratified, in 1787. They mock the so-called liberal idea of a “living” constitution, whose meaning changes with the values of the country at large. But there is no better example of the living Constitution than the conservative re-casting of the Second Amendment in the last few decades of the twentieth century. (Reva Siegel, of Yale Law School, elaborates on this point in a brilliant article.)

The re-interpretation of the Second Amendment was an elaborate and brilliantly executed political operation, inside and outside of government. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a gun-rights enthusiast to the White House. At the same time, Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, became chairman of an important subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he commissioned a report that claimed to find “clear—and long lost—proof that the second amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.” The N.R.A. began commissioning academic studies aimed at proving the same conclusion. An outré constitutional theory, rejected even by the establishment of the Republican Party, evolved, through brute political force, into the conservative conventional wisdom.

And so, eventually, this theory became the law of the land. In District of Columbia v. Heller, decided in 2008, the Supreme Court embraced the individual-rights view of the Second Amendment. It was a triumph above all for Justice Antonin Scalia, the author of the opinion, but it required him to craft a thoroughly political compromise. In the eighteenth century, militias were proto-military operations, and their members had to obtain the best military hardware of the day. But Scalia could not create, in the twenty-first century, an individual right to contemporary military weapons—like tanks and Stinger missiles. In light of this, Scalia conjured a rule that said D.C. could not ban handguns because “handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.”

So the government cannot ban handguns, but it can ban other weapons—like, say, an assault rifle—or so it appears. The full meaning of the court’s Heller opinion is still up for grabs. But it is clear that the scope of the Second Amendment will be determined as much by politics as by the law. The courts will respond to public pressure—as they did by moving to the right on gun control in the last thirty years. And if legislators, responding to their constituents, sense a mandate for new restrictions on guns, the courts will find a way to uphold them. The battle over gun control is not just one of individual votes in Congress, but of a continuing clash of ideas, backed by political power. In other words, the law of the Second Amendment is not settled; no law, not even the Constitution, ever is.

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty.
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The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre Has Blood on His Hands

AlterNet [1] / By Peter Drier [2]  ecember 15, 2012  |

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has a 62-page list of mass shootings in America since 2005. It is Wayne LaPierre’s resume.

For the past 21 years, LaPierre has been the National Rifle Association’s executive Vice President and chief political strategist.

It is tempting to say that these shootings—including the most recent one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday—reflect something basically wrong with American culture or the nation’s very soul. But the majority of Americans favor strict gun control laws. No, let’s not burden Americans with collective guilt. The problem is more narrow—and more fixable—than that.

The long list of killings is due in large measure to the political influence of the NRA—and the campaign finance system that allows the gun lobby to exercise so much power. But an outraged and mobilized public can beat the NRA’s clout and pressure Congress to put strong limits on gun sales.

The blood of the 27 victims of the Connecticut shooting, including 20 young children, is on LaPierre’s hands. Of course, LaPierre didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s the NRA’s hit man when it comes to intimidating elected officials to oppose any kind of gun control and the nation’s most vocal advocate of gun owner rights.

There should be special place in hell reserved for LaPierre. He likes to fulminate about gun owners’ rights. But so far he’s has been silent on the nation’s most recent gun massacre.

The NRA not only lobbies on behalf of “stand your ground” laws, but also offers insurance to members to pay for the legal costs of shooting people in “self-defense.” The NRA also defends the right of Americans to carry concealed weapons, including handguns.

Adam Lanza—the 20-year old man who walked into the Connecticut school shot his victims with a semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle—is no doubt deranged. He’s not alone. There are lots of crazy people around. But if we make it easy for them to obtain guns, they are more likely to translate their psychological problems into dangerous and deadly anti-social behavior.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011 there were 15,953 murders in the United States and 11,101 (30 a day) were caused by firearms. Suicides and unintentional shootings account for another 20,000 deaths by guns each year. Of course, many more people are injured—some seriously and permanently—by gun violence.

The shooting in the Connecticut school was not an isolated incident. We’ve almost become used to a regular diet of gun-toting rampages. The most visible of them—like Columbine, the Virginia Tech killings, the murders in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, and the Arizona shooting that nearly claimed the life of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and left six others dead—stick in our minds, but there are many others. Even more Americans are killed each year in one-on-one shootings.

Until we tame the power of the NRA, we can expect more killings like this.

The NRA has two knee-jerk responses to this. The first is that the Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to possess guns of all kinds—not just hunting rifles but machine guns and semi-automatics. Efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership is, according to the NRA, an assault on our constitutional freedoms.

The second is the cliché that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” To the NRA, gun laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings.

Both of these arguments are bogus, but the NRA has the money and membership (4 million) to translate these idiot ideas into political clout to thwart even reasonable gun-control laws.

Most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally. Others purchase or steal them illegally, but their ability to get access to guns is due to our lax laws on gun ownership. LaPierre’s job is to make it easier for people to buy and use guns. And so far he’s been very successful. Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn’t enacted any major gun regulations.

It is no accident that the United States ranks first in the world—by a wide margin—in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries. Compared with every other democracy, we have the most guns per capita and the weakest gun laws. But the danger isn’t simply the number of guns; it is the type of guns we allow people to legally purchase. Other countries permit hunting rifles. But many Americans believe it is their right to own an assault weapon.

Even in countries with strong gun-control laws, some people will get their hands on a weapon and destroy others’ lives. The tragic killing in Norway last year is testament to this reality. (Although let’s recall that Anders Breivik bought $550 worth of 30-round ammunition clips from an American gun supplier for the rifle he used to kill 69 Norwegian kids at a summer camp. Thanks to American laws, it was a legal online purchase.) But the shooting in Norway was an infrequent occurrence; it is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world. In contrast, the U.S. is off the charts in terms of murder rates.

In other well-off democratic countries, gun violence is rare and shocking. According to the recent comparative figures, the US had five murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. Finland was next with only 2.3 murders per 100,000 residents, followed by Canada (1.8), Belgium (1.7), France (1.3), England and Australia (both 1.2), Netherlands (1.1), Sweden (1.0), Germany (0.8), Norway (0.6) and Japan and Austria (both 0.5). In other words, America’s murder rate is more than eight times greater than Norway’s.

The news media will spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to figure out what was in Lanza’s head before he put on his protective gear, carried two guns into the Connecticut school, and began his shooting rampage. Although the psychology and motives of the murderer may be fascinating, it should not be the major focus. There are plenty of deranged people in the world, but in most well-off countries they can’t easily get their hands on a firearm.

Here’s where the NRA comes in. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the gun rights lobby, led by the NRA, has contributed $29.2 million to candidates for Congress and the White House, 87% of it to Republicans. In the most recent election cycle, gun rights groups donated $3.1 million to political candidates and spent another $5.5 million in lobbying.

In contrast, since 1990 gun control groups have donated only $1.9 million to politicians, 94% to Democrats. In the most recent election cycle, these groups contributed only $4,000 to candidates and spent only $420,00 on lobbying.

Of course, Democrats are not immune from the NRA’s influence. This summer, 17 House Democrats recently voted in favor of criminal contempt for Attorney General Eric Holder for his oversight of ‘Operation Fast and Furious’. Not surprisingly, each of them received campaign contributions from the NRA in the previous two election cycles.

At the top of the gun rights food-chain is the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. It is hard to know if he’s mentally unstable but he’s certainly crazy like a fox (and Fox News). For example, LaPierre gave a speech earlier this year to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in which he said that President Obama was part of a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.”

LaPierre added: “All that first term, lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.” He also warned that everything that “gun owners across America have fought to achieve over the past three decades could be lost” if Obama won a second term.

Well, Obama did win a second term. In a statement soon after the Connecticut massacre, Obama called for “meaningful action” to curb gun violence. “Meaningful action” does not mean educating young people about bullying and violence. It does not mean instructing gun owners to be more responsible. It does not mean, as Mike Huckabee suggested on Friday, restoring God in our schools. It means pushing for strong gun control laws.

If Obama does take this kind of leadership, he will have the backing of an overwhelming proportion of Americans who support stricter guns laws. For example, 82% of Americans support limiting the sales of military-style assault weapons. Also, 87% of Americans support background checks on private sales of guns, including sales at gun shows. And 79% support requiring a police permit before the purchase of a gun. A majority of Americans oppose the NRA’s top federal legislative priority—national reciprocity for concealed carry permits—which would allow people to enter any state with a concealed, loaded gun even if they fail to meet local permitting requirements. Not surprising, almost all (94%) police chiefs favor requiring criminal background checks for all handgun sales.

Although the NRA likes to portray itself as representing grassroots gun owners, the bulk of its money comes from gun manufacturers. LaPierre does not speak for America’s gun owners. He is a corporate lobbyist. In fact, a majority of gun owners support stricter gun laws.

Every American grieves for the families and friends of the people killed and injured in the Connecticut shooting. But until we tame the power of the NRA, we can expect more killings like this, as well as the deadly daily diet of murders throughout America committed by angry and in some cases crazy gun-toting people whose “freedom” to own weapons of mass destruction LaPierre defends.

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Why America Can’t Pass Gun Control

By Steven Hill and Robert Richie, The Atlantic, December 2012

Hint: It’s not the NRA or a gun-loving culture.

The horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., is the latest grisly episode in what has become a muted debate in the United States: what to do about gun violence and well-armed mass murderers. But we will make a prediction: Even in the face of this national tragedy, President Obama will have little success enacting substantive gun control.

Here’s why: Obama can read the political map as well as anyone, and he knows that, just as in the past after previous brutal tragedies, the politics of gun control rest on complicated terrain. Many gun control advocates blame the lack of policy action on America’s gun-loving culture and the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), but that’s too simplistic. Already in the wake of the Newtown carnage we have seen a slew of pundits drawing the wrong conclusions, just as they have after previous tragedies.

Sure, Americans like their guns more than other nations, but polls often have shown a majority of Americans wanting more gun control, with two-thirds calling for more regulation following the Columbine massacre in 1999. But the political system – including the Democratic Party — has failed to respond. And it’s not because Democrats and Obama are afraid of the NRA’s deep pockets, as so many pundits are wrongly concluding. Quite the contrary, the NRA has money because it is powerful, not the other way around. And the NRA is powerful because it is clever at working the clunky architecture of our political system, which gives immense clout to a tiny slice of swing voters in a handful of congressional districts.

To understand the importance of this factor, Obama and gun control advocates have to grapple with the fact that Mitt Romney carried 228 out of 435 House districts (52.4 percent) despite losing the national popular vote to Obama by 4 points. According to an analysis by FairVote, the median House district (the 218th) is one that leans 52 percent Republican. Cook Political Report analysis found that of the 234 Republicans elected to the 435-seat U.S. House in November, fully 219 came from districts that were carried by Mitt Romney. That means that these Republicans don’t need to worry much about challenges from the left or accommodating the president over the next two years. It also means that Democrats will have a very steep uphill climb to retake the House in 2014, since their candidates would have to run well ahead of their presidential nominee in at least a dozen Republican-leaning districts.

Just like our recent presidential election was settled in only a handful of battleground states, control of the U.S. House of Representatives comes down to only about 35 districts — fewer than 10 percent of the 435 districts — every two years. That gives overwhelming power to undecided voters who live in these swing districts, many of which are rural and conservative-leaning. This set-up also gives enormous power to the NRA, because many NRA members live in these rural swing districts.

So the Democrats and Obama know that the NRA doesn’t have clout because it has lots of money — it spent $18 million in congressional elections in 2012 — but the contrary. The NRA has money because it has clout. And it has clout because it has a lot of votes in key battleground House districts and battleground states voting for president and U.S. senators.

Back in 2000, Republican strategist and NRA board member Grover Norquist summed it up nicely, saying, “The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their ‘control’ position?” Though many voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn’t really motivate them when they go to the polls. “But for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this.”

Things have hardly changed since Norquist made those comments. The NRA’s job is made easier because it can target its resources at the three dozen swing districts like a military strategist dividing quadrants on a battlefield. That allows a small number of NRA voters to form a potent single-issue voting bloc, since a change in 5 percent of the vote in any swing district can make all the difference. The NRA has power not so much because of its deep pockets but because of the fundamental design of our geographic-based political map in which representatives are elected in single-seat, winner-take-all districts.

Many Democrats believe that strong support for gun control has cost their party key elections in such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They believe that Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000 in his home state of Tennessee because he was on the wrong side of this issue.

That led to Democrats ducking and even pandering on this issue. Who can forget the ridiculous sight of John Kerry trumpeting his own prowess as a gun owner when he ran for president in 2004. When Democrats regained the House after the 2006 elections, they did so largely based on victories by Democrats winning in Republican-leaning districts. Knowing that support for gun control could cause them to lose their race, no matter how broad national support was, most of those winning Democrats backed the NRA positions. And in his first term, President Obama continued the Democratic duck, not even pushing to reauthorize the lapsed ban on semi-automatic weapons.

The reality is that the dynamics of winner-take-all elections allow gun control opponents to form a potent single-issue voting bloc that far outweighs their minority status — much like anti-Castro Cubans in Florida have pushed Democrats as well as Republicans to go hard on Castro. Despite lobbying from his liberal constituency, Obama has not fundamentally changed the Cold War era policy towards Cuba, due to fear of how that would play among a key bloc of swing voters in a key presidential swing state. Democrats know how to count not only votes but swing votes, whether in battleground states or battleground House districts.

That gives pro-gun swing voters and their advocates like the NRA tremendous influence in our political system. American pundits and political scientists often portray multiparty democracies elected by proportional representation, such as in Italy and Israel, as being beholden to tiny political parties of extremists who hold their governments hostage. Yet they fail to recognize how the dynamics of our own winner-take-all electoral politics allow well-organized political minorities such as those represented by the NRA to mobilize anti-gun control swing voters to push a radical agenda on the mainstream.

Looking ahead to 2014, control of the House once again will come down to the outcome of 35 or so close races. To earn a House majority, Democrats will need to sweep nearly all of them,  largely in districts where a pro-gun control position doesn’t play well. The math of the 2014 election is daunting, since Democrats can’t win control of the U.S. House without winning more than a dozen districts where Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in 2012 — and that assumes that the Democrats sweep all 207 districts carried by Obama. So this dilemma for President Obama and the Democrats will not be settled easily.

Obama might manage to use the passion unleashed by this latest tragedy to re-authorize the ban on semi-automatic weapons. But any hope that he will lead an effort to enact substantive gun control is pure fantasy. Tragically so. When it comes to gun policy and the House, demography is destiny.

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Copyright © 2012 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.

Pro-Capitalist, Anti-Government Extremists

Southern Poverty Law Center / By Leah Nelson [1]  December 18, 2012  |

Back in 1978, when the world was young and “Saturday Night Live” was only in its third season, a young comedian named Steve Martin took to the stage and told his audience how to become millionaires and never pay taxes.

“First … get a million dollars,” he said [2]. “What do [you] say to the tax man when he comes to [your] door and says, ‘You have never paid taxes?’ Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: ‘I forgot!’”

Porter Stansberry, an “investment advisor” with a knack for lining his own pockets, used a slightly different strategy in 2003. When the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) came to his door and accused him of making over a million dollars selling false “inside tips,” the self-aggrandizing financial guru claimed that it was his First Amendment right to tell his subscribers whatever he wanted — even if what he wanted to tell them was, as the SEC put it [3], “baseless speculation and outright lies.”

The courts disagreed. In 2009, after years of very public litigation, a federal appeals panel upheld the SEC’s charges and fined [4] Stansberry $1.5 million.

Stansberry — who had enjoyed some respect in financial circles and whose First Amendment argument (though not his conduct) was endorsed [5] by respected news outlets who feared the case would set a precedent for punishing the press for publishing incorrect financial analysis — did not take the verdict well.

He did not stop peddling advice — but these days, it’s about more than get-rich-quick schemes. Evidently soured on the government by his brush with the law, Stansberry has turned from scam artist to antigovernment radical, using various Internet publications to mix dubious investment advice with apocalyptic warnings about a coming era of tyranny that will destroy America.

His most recent insight? According to a YouTube video distributed across a multitude of far-right websites and discussed with great seriousness by figures like antigovernment conspiracist Alex Jones [6], President Obama is planning to overthrown the Constitution, implement socialism, and seize a third term in office.

According to Stansberry, Obama won’t even have to use force to do it. Instead, the president plans to buy his third term with untold profits gained from mining America’s vast shale oil deposits, which will lead to an era of extraordinary prosperity unlike anything America has seen before.

“All of this new wealth,” Stansberry says, “will seem like a gift from the Prophet Muhammad to the administration of Barack Obama.”

And his supporters will eat it up. Once the black gold really starts flowing, Stansberry claims, the president will execute a Hugo Chavez-like [7] power grab, distributing money and favors to friends, cronies, and political allies, who in return will cheer for him in the streets as he seizes an unconstitutional third term — and, possibly, even a fourth — in office. During his reign of terror, Obama will replace America’s market economy with a socialist dictatorship and “punish and tax those who work hard,” using the wealth they create to “buy favors and luxuries for millions of Americans … who have done nothing to earn it.”

America, of course, will be ruined.

Stansberry is not the only ultra-libertarian to promote such ideas. One of his most prominent fellow travelers is Doug Casey, an antigovernment “investment guru” who on Nov. 29 told subscribers to his newsletter that being a taxpayer in America today is analogous to “being a Jew in Germany in the mid-1930’s.”

On the surface, Casey (who often cross-promotes Stansberry’s articles on his various websites and newsletters and who is described by Stansberry as a friend and mentor) seems a cheerful misanthrope, whose breezy manner and self-deprecating wit (he often says Uncle Scrooge McDuck is his hero) is a refreshing change from the pompous grandiosity of his close cousins in the far-right “Patriot” movement.

But scratch that surface and it’s clear that this self-described “anarcho-capitalist,” who in 2009 outlined a plan to privatize a small country and take it public on the New York Stock Exchange, is courting the same audience of government-fearing radicals. Though he puts a fresh face on tired conspiracies and a new spin on old animosities, Casey’s message is the same: The government is your enemy, and if you don’t prepare, it will destroy you.

If you stripped the Patriot movement of its pseudo-legal rhetoric, conspiracist malarkey and allusions to supposed Christian virtue, you’d end up with an ideology much like the one espoused by Stansberry, Casey and their compatriots. Often described as “anarcho-capitalists” or “voluntaryists,” their belief in essence is that government — any government — is by its very nature tyrannical and unnatural. They propose instead an essentially stateless society in which all relationships, economic and otherwise, are voluntary and untaxed. Services like roads and mail delivery would be built and maintained by private entities that would charge market-based fees for those who desired to use them. Government in any recognizable form simply would not exist.

In some respects, Casey and Stansberry’s rhetoric sounds like laissez-faire capitalism taken to its logical extreme. But Casey, Stansberry, and similar ideologues espouse beliefs that are even further out than that.

Mainstream conservatives often allege that the balance between states’ rights and federal power has tipped too far towards the latter, with the federal government exercising powers the framers of the Constitution never dreamed of. But Casey actually believes that the Constitution itself “was essentially a coup.”

Explaining this assertion in the same Nov. 29 newsletter in which he compared being an American taxpayer to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, Casey said: “[T]he delegates to what we now call the Constitutional Convention were not empowered to replace the existing government — only to improve upon the Articles of Confederation between the then-independent states. The framers of the Constitution drafted it with the notion of a national government already in place.”

They “calmed fears of loss of state sovereignty by calling the new government the ‘United States of America’ – a verbal sleight of hand that worked for over half a century. Then the southern states decided to exercise what these words imply, their right to leave the union … and the wrong side won.”

In other words, as Casey sees things, the Constitution and its built-in plan for a national government caused the Civil War.

“I’ve always suspected that U.S. and world history would be different – and better – if those delegates had done as they were told and just smoothed over the rough spots in the Articles rather than replaced them with the Constitution,” Casey explained in an April 2012 article. “Greater independence among the states could have led to more innovation, and I doubt there would have been the unpleasantness of 1861-’65. People with differing ethical values and economic interests would not have been forced to obey the same laws.”

Translation: Confederate partisans — people whose “ethical values and economic interests” included buying, selling, beating, raping and killing other human beings whose skin color happened to be different from their own — were unjustly stopped by overweening federal power that was built into the Constitution from Day One as part of a long-acting stealth coup to steal power from the states.

This is one place where Casey and portions of the Patriot crowd very definitely part ways.

Patriot ideologues tend to revere the Constitution — at least up to the 14th Amendment — as an almost divinely inspired document, and talk about the founding fathers as near-infallible prophets. In some ways, Casey’s pseudo-history of the United States is the political inverse of the one promoted by Christian pseudo-historian David Barton [8], who contends that the American Revolution was fought to free slaves and that the founding fathers “already had the entire debate on creation and evolution” and chose creationism. Casey, who once described Santa Claus as “God on training wheels” and who jokes about saying grace to Crom, the fictional deity featured in Conan the Barbarian, would not likely get along well with Barton.

Yet in a Venn diagram of antigovernment extremists, Barton is one of the few who would fall clearly outside of the overlap between Casey- and Stansberry-style anarcho-capitalism and Patriot ideology.

The areas of overlap, particularly with the radical “sovereign citizens” movement, are significant – and not unknown to adherents of anarcho-capitalism, or “voluntaryism,” as it is called by some. Carl Watner, who has been publishing a newsletter called “The Voluntaryist” since 1982 and who appears to be the godfather of Casey and Stansberry’s hyper-antigovernment ideology, grapples with many of the same issues that sovereign citizens do.

In a 1994 article titled “Un-Licensed, Un-Numbered, Un-Taxed,” Watner wrote approvingly of what he called “conscientious objectors” (sovereign citizens, as readers of this blog would call them) “who prefer to remain individuals rather than embrace a statist system which licenses, numbers and taxes them in hundreds of ways.”

Watner’s essay focused on the “Embassy of Heaven [9],” an Oregon-based sovereign citizen group and church that sells fake passports and licenses for so-called “Ambassadors of Heaven.” As Watner explains it, members of the “Embassy” consider themselves to be residents of Heaven and subjects of Christ – and like ambassadors from anywhere, they reason, they are entitled to live within the United States without being subject to its jurisdiction.

Voluntaryists and sovereign citizens are not identical. One difference Watner identified between his approach and that of the Embassy of Heaven “is that the church relies upon the Christian religion as its bulwark in resisting the State.”

Not all sovereign citizens belong to an organization like the Embassy of Heaven, but many do carry licenses identifying them as members of nonexistent nations – a concept Watner does not approve of, as it suggests that people properly ought to carry identification in the first place.

“Whereas the Church says its members are not residents of the state, thus escaping its jurisdiction, the voluntaryist says that the state should have no jurisdiction over any one at all,” he wrote. “The state is a coercive institution, completely at odds with the moral laws that decry thievery, slavery and murder. Evil in any form should not be legitimized, so the voluntaryist refuses to grant validity to the state’s claim of jurisdiction, even over residents.”

Still, he managed to find common ground with the “conscientious objectors” of the Embassy of Heaven: “Voluntaryists believe in challenging the state head-on, yet they and other conscientious objectors share a common philosophical insight with the members of the church: might does not make right. The state rests on might: therefore it should be rejected.”

The Embassy of Heaven, therefore, “will then receive our praise for living by the voluntary principle, even if we do not choose to personally endorse it by becoming a member.”

Today, Casey, Stansberry, and other like-minded ideologues continue Watner’s tradition of conceding overlaps between themselves and Patriots, even as clear disparities exists. The two ideologies do appeal to much the same audience – and sometimes, their representatives share the same stage.

At 2012’s “FreedomFest,” for instance, Casey was listed as a keynote speaker together with a plethora of Patriot bigwigs, including Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News personality and 9-11 “truther” [10] who thinks the government was behind the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and G. Edward Griffin, co-author of a popular Fed-bashing tome called The Creature from Jekyll Island [11]. FreedomFest was organized by Mark Skousen [12], a friend of Patriot ringmaster [13] Glenn Beck [14] and nephew of the late W. Cleon Skousen [15], a hugely influential figure in Patriot conspiracist circles.

And at “Libertopia 2012,” Casey was a listed speaker along with Larken Rose, a blogger who made news in 2011 with an post titled, “When Should You Shoot a Cop?” which proposed that it is acceptable to kill law enforcement officers if you perceive them to be violating your constitutional rights. Also featured at Libertopia was Ryan William Nohea Garcia, an “ambassador” for the ultra-libertarian SeaSteading Institute [16], which envisions building custom floating countries in international waters.

Stansberry also has shared platforms with Patriot nabobs. For years, he was a financial columnist for WorldNetDaily [17], a Patriot-leaning online publication with a theocratic bent that specializes in antigovernment conspiracy theories, end-times prophecy and revisionist histories of the Civil War. And this November, he appeared on the “Alex Jones Show” to promote his prediction about Obama’s supposed secret plan to run for a third term. The same episode featured commentary from Edwin Vieira [18], a Patriot grandee and militia supporter who in 2005 called for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, saying that the conservative jurist’s opinion striking down an anti-sodomy statute “upholds Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law.” Also appearing was Lew Rockwell [19], a libertarian commentator and blogger with a long history of promoting neo-secessionism and other extreme-right ideologies.

The Patriot movement is noteworthy for its followers’ forceful assertion of the right to bear arms, and form private militias willing to face down tyrannical government forces when the time comes. In contrast, Casey, Stansberry, and their sympathizers make a lot of noise about opposing violence, stressing the need to bring about their desired revolution through education and activism.

But in a 2011 essay titled “The Corruption of America,” Stansberry began to sing a very different tune. “The nation will soon face a choice between heading down the path toward fascism … or turning back the power of government and restoring the limited Republic that was our birthright,” he wrote. “What gives me confidence for the future? Gun sales, for one thing. U.S. citizens legally own around 270 million firearms – around 88 guns per 100 citizens (including children) today. That’s a hard population to police without its consent.”

Sounding very much like his Patriot cousins-in-arms — and very little like a proponent of nonviolent resistance — he continued: “[I]f the government attempts to take our guns … my opinion would change immediately. … But that’s one right the Supreme Court has been strengthening recently.”

“It gives me hope,” Stansberry said, “that most people in America still understand that the right to bear arms has little to do with protecting ourselves from crime and everything to do with protecting ourselves from government.”


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Group Challenges Corporate Power, Government Secrecy With Crowd-Funded Transparency

Andrea Germanos, December 17, 2012 by Common Dreams

‘We all have a stake in the Freedom of the Press Foundation’r

A new organization launched Monday aims to fight government and corporate corruption by crowd-funding transparency journalism, and believes “that not only does WikiLeaks need to survive, it must be joined by an array of others like it.”

The financial embargo of WikiLeaks catalyzed this new group, Freedom of the Press Foundation, whose co-founders include whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, and Rainey Reitman, founder of Bradley Manning Support Network.

Lawyer and Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, who is on the board of directors of the foundation, writes:

The primary impetus for the formation of this group was to block the US government from ever again being able to attack and suffocate an independent journalistic enterprise the way it did with WikiLeaks. Government pressure and the eager compliance of large financial corporations (such as Visa, Master Card, Bank of America, etc.) has – by design – made it extremely difficult for anyone to donate to WikiLeaks, while many people are simply afraid to directly support the group (for reasons I explained here).

“Financial transactions are speech. The financial embargo was censorship – not just of WikiLeaks but of all of us who wished to donate to WikiLeaks,” stated Barlow, who is also board member.

Explaining how the funding will work, Greenwald continues:

We intend to raise funds ourselves and then distribute it to the beneficiaries we name. The first group of beneficiaries includes WikiLeaks. We can circumvent those extra-legal, totally inappropriate blocks that have been imposed on the group. We can enable people to support WikiLeaks without donating directly to it by donating to this new organization that will then support a group of deserving independent journalism outlets, one of which is WikiLeaks. In sum, we will render impotent the government’s efforts to use its coercive pressure over corporations to suffocate not only WikiLeaks but any other group it may similarly target in the future.

The first group of beneficiaries, Ellsberg and EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow write, are “the still-beleaguered WikiLeaks,” as well as “MuckRock News, which streamlines Freedom of Information Act requests so that ordinary people can file them easily, The National Security Archive, which has been prying open the black boxes of classified information for years, and The UpTake, a combative Midwestern collective of citizen journalists focused on bringing transparency to state and local governments.”

“So much of what impacts us happens locally and it’s where information is most likely to be hidden or overlooked,” said one of The UpTake’s founders, Executive Producer Michael McIntee.

Explaining their effort to “crowd-fund the right to know,” Ellsberg and Barlow write that “secure conduits for anonymously-provided documents that the citizens whose lives and liberties they impact have a natural right to see… are needed more than ever.”  They continue:

In 2011, the U.S. Government classified over 92 million documents, four times more than were classified under George Bush in 2008. Moreover, President Obama’s Justice Department has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all the previous administrations combined.

When a government becomes invisible, it becomes unaccountable. To expose its lies, errors, and illegal acts is not treason, it is a moral responsibility. Leaks become the lifeblood of the Republic.

Urging support for the group, Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight center for digital media entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite school of journalism and mass communication, writes that it is not just journalists who should care about the organization; “we all have a stake in the Freedom of the Press Foundation:”

The obvious question raised by the Freedom of the Press Foundation initiative is whether the payment systems will shut this off, too. If they do, they’ll be punishing not just WikiLeaks, but the entire journalism ecosystem – and ultimately, your right to get the information you want and need. Will they extend the bad faith they showed two years ago?

That I even have to ask this question is evidence of the power of these centralized mega-corporations. They have far too much power, like too many other telecommunications companies and a number of others in the information and communications industries on which we rely more and more for our daily activities.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation can be a first step away from the edge of a cliff. But it needs to be recognized and used by as many people as possible, as fast as possible. And journalists, in particular, need to offer their support in every way. This is ultimately about their future, whether they recognize it or not. But it’s more fundamentally about all of us.

In addition to Ellsberg, Barlow, Greenwald and Reitman, the board of directors includes Josh Stearns of Free Press, actor and activist John Cusack, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, founding partner and co-editor of Boing Boing Xeni Jardin and writer, activist, and lawyer Trevor Timm.

You can follow Freedom of the Press Foundation on Twitter and its website.

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Foreign Policy Mag’s ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’: A Rogue’s Gallery of Imperialists, Billionaires and Cheerleaders of Capitalist Domination

Al Jazeera English [1] / By Belén Fernández [2]  December 30, 2012

A few years back, Foreign Policy magazine began [3] compiling annual lists of “The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers”. Aside from some worthy exceptions [4], the lists are populated by individuals whose dearth of intellectual qualifications [5] tends to render the whole business an exercise in oxymoron proliferation.

With this year’s survey of Global Thought [6], FP purports to “present… a unique portrait of 2012′s global marketplace of ideas and the thinkers who make them”.

Given the neoliberal presentation of the mission statement, it’s not surprising to find corporate apologists well-represented in the marketplace. Global Thinker no. 65, for example, is US economist Paul Romer, whose crusade to revive the practice of colonialism [7] in the world is creatively euphemised by FP into a “novel idea for persuading a developing country to sign away a parcel of land to be governed by a foreign power as a model for economic growth”.

Multibillionaire Bill Gates is meanwhile elevated to the rank [8] of “perennial FP Global Thinker for the enormous scale and ambition of his efforts to finance – and reimagine – global health and development”.

Some of these virtuous efforts were showcased in a 2007 Los Angeles Times report [9] revealing that “the Gates Foundation funded a polio vaccination clinic in Ebocha, Nigeria, in the shadow of a giant petroleum processing plant in which the Gates Foundation was invested” and which itself contributed in no small way to the deterioration of local health.

The brains of empire 

Of course, no inventory of Global Thought would be complete without a celebration of the cognitive processes underpinning US imperial predations. Among the 2012 honourees are President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Vice-President Dick Cheney [10] - the latter two icons dating from the administration of someone who has been excluded from the FPlist despite notable thoughts such as that Africa is a country [11].

To be sure, reports [12] that the Obama team has managed to conduct five times as many drone strikes in Pakistan as the preceding cowboy – a practice inevitably resulting inrampant civilian casualties [13] - are a sure sign of civilised progress and a conclusive rejection of George W Bush’s “smoke them out [14]” rhetoric. Obama, the “brainy 44th president”, is recognised for his “more restrained view of America’s role in the world” and for “curb[ing] his predecessor’s dangerous excesses”, thereby “conclusively put[ting] cowboy diplomacy out to pasture”.

In similar counter-intuitive fashion, Clinton is praised by FP, along with her husband, for her “vision” that the US can “promote democracy and development abroad without… needlessly antagonising other countries. It’s a different kind of American exceptionalism, based on more than just firepower”.

FP does not care to explain how Clinton’s campaign to validate [15] the 2009 coup d’état against the democratically-elected president of Honduras constitutes democracy promotion or an eschewal of needless antagonising of a country that has for the duration of its contemporary history been at the mercy of US corporate and military interests.

That the coup has ushered in an era of intensified murder and impunity raises additional questions about the merits of “American exceptionalism” [16].

According to FP, Clinton “has emerged as one of the Obama administration’s most forceful advocates for human rights and democracy” based on her preeminent role in “the push for the United States to intervene in Libya last year”.

This assessment overlooks the fact that even the New York Times - bastion of imperial apologetics [17] - has drawn attention to disconcerting accompaniments to firepower in Libya such as NATO’s refusal to acknowledge or investigate the substantial civilian casualties [18] that resulted from its own bombardments.

Condoleezza Rice is meanwhile hailed as an “optimist” with an “unwavering belief in American indispensability” in the world. This indispensability was previously asserted via such events as the 2006 Israeli destruction of Lebanon [19] and 1,200 persons (primarily civilians) therein, assisted by rush shipments [20] of US weapons to Israel and hailed by Rice as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East [21]“.

The presence in the annals of Global Thought of Iraq war profiteer Dick Cheney [22] - described by FP as Rice’s “dark-side-minded rival” who is to thank for “keeping the neocon flame alive” – is cast as a mere diplomatic reflection on the man’s influence: “Cheneyism is alive and well in today’s Republican Party”.

After decreeing that “If scaring us silly were a religion, Dick Cheney would be its high priest”, FP goes on to observe that the former VP “is still waging a campaign… to convince us that the dark side of terrorists and rogue states is out there and must be defended against at all costs”.

Israel’s global musings

Despite apparently mocking Cheneyesque propaganda concerning alleged “dark sides” and “rogue states”,FP devotes slot 13 [23] on its Global Thinkers list to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak “[f]or forcing the world to confront Iran’s nuclear programme” and for “[a]lmost single-handedly… wrench[ing] the world’s attention toward the apocalyptic potential of a nuclear Iran”.

That Netanyahu and Barak’s alleged feat is not as single-handed as FP implies is made quite clear in a recent essay for the Journal of Palestine Studies [24] by Edward S Herman [25], professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, and journalist David Peterson.

Entitled “The Iran ‘Threat’ In a Kafkaesque World”, the essay presents such findings as that, from July 2002 to June 2012, “the volume of media attention devoted to Iran’s nuclear program [in English-language wire services and newspapers]… was 88 times greater than that devoted exclusively to Israel’s (and 105 times greater in the New York Timesalone)”.

Never mind that the International Atomic Energy Agency has not, in the course of obsessive inspections, stumbled upon the Iranian “nuclear programme” that FP passes off as unquestionable reality.

As Herman and Peterson note, “[t]he last major US National Intelligence Assessment of Iran’s ‘Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities’ in November 2007 concluded with ‘high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme’” – something that cannot be said for the bellicose homeland of Global Thinkers no. 13 [26], a country that is nonetheless exempt from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well as from weapons inspections.

That non-Iranian entities may enjoy a monopoly on “apocalyptic potential” is furthermore suggested by the authors’ contention that the hype over Iran “allows the United States to divert attention from the real threats that it poses itself, including its own contribution to the spread of nuclear weapons by its refusal to live up to its own disarmament obligations [as stipulated in Article VI of the NPT] and its acquiescence in the nuclear weapons programmes of Israel, India and Pakistan outside the NPT”.

As for FP’s assessment of Netanyahu and Barak’s global influence – “Pretty impressive for a country the size of New Jersey” – impressive is not the first word that ought to come to mind when faced with the possibility of regional destruction.

Perhaps in an effort to appear less blatantly warmongering, FP assigns slot 14 on the Global Thinkers list to another pair of Israelis: ex-Mossad director Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, for “mak[ing] a convincing, hard-nosed case that a strike [on Iran] would only make the Iranian threat greater”.

Lest we start feeling overly warm and fuzzy at the prospect of human co-existence in the Middle East, however, FPassures us that “[t]hese former soldiers are no peaceniks… Netanyahu once praised [27] Dagan by saying that he went to war not with a knife but with ‘a rocket-propelled grenade between his teeth’”.

According to FP, “[i]f the Israeli government doesn’t end up launching a war against Iran, it won’t be because of the persuasive abilities of US President Barack Obama or the political machinations of Israel’s opposition parties”. It presumably won’t be because of FP either.

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Bolivia’s Morales Calls for New Era of ‘Peace and Unity’ to Break Greed of Capitalism

Published on Friday, December 21, 2012 by Common Dreams

The ‘end of the world’ it is not, says president of Bolivia, but rather an opportunity to dispose of ‘capitalism’s greed’ and unite in happiness and unselfishness

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Bolivian President Evo Morales is marking today’s winter solstice and the much-discussed calendar date by celebrating a hopeful vision for a “new era of peace and love” in the world, one in which the spirit of community and respect for Mother Earth will win out over the greed induced by global capitalism.

In an open invitation to celebrate the day, Morales explained that “the Mayan calendar’s  21 of December is the end of the non-time and the beginning of time. It is the end of the Macha and the beginning of the Pacha, the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood, it is the end of individualism and the beginning of collectivism.”

And continued, “The scientists know very well that this marks the end of an anthropocentric life and the beginning of a bio-centric life. It is the end of hatred and the beginning of love, the end of lies and beginning of truth. It is the end of sadness and the beginning of happiness, it is the end of division and the beginning of unity, and this is a theme to be developed. That is why we invite all of you, those of you who bet on mankind, we invite those who want to share their experiences for the benefit of mankind.”

Morales, a champion of indigenous rights and himself a descendent of the Andean Aymara people, helped supplant the idea that the 2012 winter solstice marked the “end of times” or an “apocalypse” by clarifying that the lunar happening was simply an opportunity for spiritual renewal. Though auspicious for the Mayan people, most of the loud rhetoric clamoring about the “end of the world” is a Western invention, pushed by those who know little of the traditions or spirit of the indigenous people and their deeper history.

As The Guardian reports:

Morales will mark the day by boarding one of the largest reed ships built in modern times and join thousands of people for celebrations on the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca.

“According to the Mayan calendar, the 21 of December is the end of the non-time and the beginning of time,” he told the UN in September. “It is the end of hatred and the beginning of love, the end of lies and beginning of truth.”

The Bolivian government has hailed the solstice as the start of an age in which community and collectivity will prevail over capitalism and individuality. Those themes have long been present in Morales’s discourse, especially in the idea of vivir bien, or living well. He has stressed the importance of a harmonious balance between human life and the planet, though some people question its application in Bolivia, where the economy depends heavily on mining, oil and gas industries.

A fuller excerpt from Morales’ speech announcing the celebration for the solstice is provided by the Indian Country Media Network, in which he said:

“I wish to take this opportunity to announce an invitation to an international meeting on the 21 of December this year. A meeting closing the age of non-time and receiving the new age of balance and harmony for Mother Earth. It would take so long to tell you about the knowledge of our indigenous brothers in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Bolivia, in Ecuador, but basically we are issuing this invitation to hold a virtual debate, and also in person, on the following topics:

Number 1: Global crisis of capitalism

Number 2: Mold of civilization, world government, capitalism, socialism, community, culture of life

Number 3: Climate crisis, relationship of the human being with nature

Number 4: Common energy, energy of change

Number 5: Awareness of Mother Earth

Number 6: Recovery of ancestral uses and customs, natural cosmic calendar

Number 7: Living well as a solution to the global crisis, because we affirm once again that one can only live better by preserving natural resources. This is a profound debate that I would like to have with the world.

Number 8: Food sovereignty of course, security with food sovereignty

Number 9: Integration, brotherhood, community economy, complementarity, right to communication, community learning for life, the new holistic human, the end of patriarchy, awakening of self knowledge, and of course health which is so important.

“And I would like to say that according to the Mayan calendar the 21 of December is the end of the non-time and the beginning of time. It is the end of the Macha and the beginning of the Pacha, the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood, it is the end of individualism and the beginning of collectivism – 21 of December this year. The scientists know very well that this marks the end of an anthropocentric life and the beginning of a bio-centric life. It is the end of hatred and the beginning of love, the end of lies and beginning of truth. It is the end of sadness and the beginning of happiness, it is the end of division and the beginning of unity, and this is a theme to be developed. That is why we invite all of you, those of you who bet on mankind, we invite those who want to share their experiences for the benefit of mankind.”

And Shankar Chautari, also from The Guardian, reports back from a recent trip to the Mayan regions of Central and South America that there is little or no sense that the day marks the end of anything in a physical sense.

Throughout our trip, we encountered many ordinary Mayans from every walk of life to check out their reaction to the supposedly doomsday prediction. Most of the Mayans we spoke to were largely baffled by the question; others flatly denied that there was any reason that the world would come to an end. Told that a lot of conventional wisdom behind the doomsday scenario in the rest of the world supposedly derived from ancient Mayan texts, they politely replied that they were not aware of any such prediction or text.

In every place we visited, whether in a large city like Merida or a smaller town like Celestun or Uayamon, we found the local people going about their business in perfect calmness without any concern for any impending apocalypse.

Perhaps that was because no such apocalypse is foretold. David Stuart, a noted Mayan and Meso-American specialist at the University of Texas at Austin, observed in his book The Order Of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012, that “no Maya text – ancient, colonial or modern – ever predicted the end of time or the end of the world.”

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A Checkerboard Strategy for Regaining the Progressive Initiative

30 December 2012 07:55 By Gar Alperovitz, Truthout | Op-Ed

An innovative “checkerboard” approach offers a range of specific progressive strategies that could be implemented at the state, county or municipal levels to democratize wealth and power.

President Obama is Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” – the first Democratic president to receive two consecutive popular-vote majorities since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet these are clearly tough times for progressives. Everything progressives have fought for is seemingly on the chopping block nationally, and in many states and cities. Programs are being cut; public assets are being sold off; school teachers are losing their jobs; unions are being attacked; pension and health care benefits are being slashed – even Social Security is being challenged.

Progressives, in short, remain on the defensive.

No one would deny that defense is important. But even as every effort must be made to hold the line, how, specifically, might it be possible to regain the political initiative?

History suggests one powerful strategy – one that begins by getting clear about the checkerboard of power, and its possibilities.

Washington may be stalemated. But Washington is not the only space on the political checkerboard. The American system of federalism allows for political initiatives that can take the offense across a range of scales and locations, and politics involves many different squares on the board. Some are currently blocked, but others may be open for doing something interesting. A serious checkerboard strategy may also open the way to national solutions as well.

The steady city-by-city, state-by-state Progressive Era buildup to national women’s suffrage offers one well-known example of a checkerboard offensive. Another involved the state-by-state buildup of work and safety regulations prior to the New Deal. In more recent times, numerous places on the checkerboard have demonstrated how progress on social issues can be made as well, square by square, over time, even in a very conservative era.

Prior to 2004, for instance, no state in the nation allowed same-sex marriage. Today, less than ten years later, same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. Moreover, broader public opinion is slowly turning in favor of equal rights for same-sex couples. Step-by-step, further progress is all but certain.

Similarly, fed up with the harsh repercussions of the failed drug war, a majority of Americans now favor legalization or decriminalization of marijuana – and two states on the checkerboard, Colorado and Washington, recently voted in favor of legalization. (Many more already permit the use of medical marijuana).

Along with such highly visible successes on social issues, just below the surface of public awareness numerous important economic and institutional advances have long been developing in cities and states occupying different squares on the board. Although the increasingly hobbled national press rarely covers state and local issues, the advances include little noticed progressive policies in support of cooperatives and worker-owned firms, public- and neighborhood-owned land development, public power and internet delivery, new environmentally sustainable energy strategies and even public enterprise, including publicly-owned health care facilities.

Numerous additional policies operating in various parts of the country also could be turned to progressive advantage and expanded over time – if there were a clear strategic determination to do so (and a lot of hard work). Among others, these include: municipal investing strategies, state venture capital investing, pension and retirement fund investing, move-your-money and bank-transfer efforts, land and mineral revenues for public benefit and municipal methane-capture efforts. On a larger scale, public banking efforts similar to the Bank of North Dakota and progressive health care reforms similar to those recently adopted in Vermont are being pursued in dozens of states.

What is striking about the new range of possibilities is that most also introduce the concept of democratizing wealth ownership into practical and political reality.

There is obviously every reason, first, to learn about what is happening just below the surface of media attention and, second, to build up and steadily expand the number of squares on the checkerboard that are currently open to expansion. The goal should not only be to help people in specific local communities and states, but also to demonstrate possibilities to others working in other squares – and together to slowly surround the hold-back cities and states with what makes sense as they flounder and fail on their regressive path over time.

In certain cities and states a comprehensive strategic option also appears to be opening up – and here the issue is how it might be tested, refined, and then put forth as a serious approach in one or more cities or, ultimately, on a number of squares on the board – especially as economic difficulties and the fiscal crisis intensify.

Traditional progressive strategy for financing public expenditure has always tried to focus taxation at the very top to the extent feasible – both as a matter of equity and of good politics (keeping the middle class out of the line of fire and out of the political embrace of the opposition). There is nothing wrong with this approach except that it is obviously inadequate – as the ongoing right-wing budget program/salary-and-benefit-cutting bonanza so painfully remind.

The strategic way out of the box, logically, is an approach that draws on demonstrably viable checkerboard efforts to rebuild the local economy (and the local tax base) in ways that are effective, stable, redistributive and ongoing – and that also capture greater revenues and profits for public use. Which means a different form of “democratized” development – and a specific plan for how to implement it over time so as to secure funds for vital institutions and infrastructure (such as schools and mass transit), for obligations to past and future retirees, and for programs to conserve resources and protect the environment – all while preserving and expanding services for those who badly need them.

Numerous practical ingredients that can be included in a comprehensive checkerboard strategy include:

• The use of city, school, hospital, university and other purchasing power to help stabilize jobs, anchor wealth, support employee-owned businesses and cooperative ownership, strengthen local small- and medium-sized business and improve the local economy.

• The use of public and quasi-public land trusts (both for housing and also commercial development) to capture development profits for community use, and to prevent gentrification.

• An all-out attack on absurdly wasteful and costly – around $70 billion a year in public subsidies! – giveaways that corporations extract from local governments.

• The use of community benefit strategies – and community organizing, backed also by labor unions – to achieve traditional development but also, where possible, to democratize the local economy, stabilize the tax base and support public services.

• The exploration of further ways for cities to make money by directly managing resources and providing services, thereby offsetting costs and taxpayer burdens. These include taking direct public ownership over utilities (as cities like Jacksonville and Los Angeles already do) to improve services, reduce costs and secure added revenues; and expanding city revenues through city-owned land and other existing strategies that provide non-tax revenue.

Obviously, not all these approaches can be adopted at once. And they may be viable at the outset only on very specific squares on the checkerboard. On the other hand, practical precedents for every element in the mix are now operating in one or more city or state – and the stark reality is that times are getting worse and are likely to continue to get even worse in the coming years.

As problems and pain at the local and state level increase, at some point more squares on the checkerboard are certain to open up. And, as always, it will take some specific person or group of people to grab the reins, set the wheels in motion and flip the switch to light up that square with a new way forward.

Equally important – as the long developing pre-history of women’s fight for the vote, the long developing pre-history of the New Deal, and now the developing state-by-state changes in connection with same sex marriage and marijuana all suggest – the pre-history of potentially much larger national change is all but certain to be developed through such efforts in local and state laboratories at various places on the checkerboard.

And the notion of democratizing ownership in general through such practical efforts – at a time when a mere 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom 185 million Americans taken together – is likely to be of additional political significance to increasing numbers as social and economic difficulties increase.

For progressives bruised by the battles of recent months and years, a cool look at other opportunities on the checkerboard offers a different way to think about change. Defensive struggles must continue. But forward movement is available on the board, and time and pain are on the side of a serious strategy.

The Moral Animal

By JONATHAN SACKS, New York Times, December 23, 2012



…Religion in the West seems alive and well. But is it really? Or [is the] West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?… the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago…in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising…Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

[Charles] Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animalsNeuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animalswe survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain…The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational.. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained…religion…remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions…Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology…

Full text

IT is the religious time of the year. Step into any city in America or Britain and you will see the night sky lit by religious symbols, Christmas decorations certainly and probably also a giant menorah. Religion in the West seems alive and well.

But is it really? Or have these symbols been emptied of content, no more than a glittering backdrop to the West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?

At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.

Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.

Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords.

5 Ways GOP Tried to Subvert Democracy in 2012 — And They’ll Try Again

AlterNet [1] / By Steven Rosenfeld [2]  December 28, 2012  |

Creating barriers to voting, demonizing communities of color, attacking voting rights laws and their defenders, unleashing billionaires who financed candidates like an extreme sport, and hiding corporate donors behind opaque front groups—these were the chapters in the Republican Party’s electoral playbook in the 2012 election cycle.

While Democrats copied [3] but did not quite match [4] the GOP on the campaign finance abuse side of this depressing ledger, the 2012 campaign cycle arguably was the worst for democracy issues in years. And the GOP’s prospects for changing course are dim.

The nation’s most comprehensive [5] 2012 Election Day survey of voter attitudes found [6] that upwards of one-fifth of Republicans believed the GOP’s voter fraud propagandists. That cadre claimed that non-citizens voting, people impersonating others, voting more than once, and tampering with ballots and results occurred in their counties.

Meanwhile, top GOP officials in Pennsylvania [7] and Wisconsin [8] are hoping to change the way their states allocate Electoral College votes to dilute future Democratic victories.

To be fair, the Democrats are no angels when it comes to using [9] the same campaign finance tactics as the GOP—although the GOP was first to pioneer and exploit 2012’s newest and biggest loopholes. But on voting rights, the GOP clearly is a party that does not want [10] everyone to vote, whereas Democrats believe in expanding the franchise.

1. Voting Barriers     

The bad news was that between January 2011 and October 2012, 19 states (all but one with GOP majorities) adopted [11] 25 new laws and two executive actions that created barriers at varying stages of the voting process, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. These new laws weren’t just newly restrictive voter ID requirements, but also curbs on registration drives and early voting options.

The good news was liberal voting rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice (after doing little in 2011) reversed or weakened new laws in 14 states, according to Brennan’s count [11]. But in some of the most contested fights, such as Pennsylvania’s new photo ID law, the Court only postponed [12] the law from taking effect until after 2012.

2. Voter Intimidation

The GOP’s propoganda machine went into overdrive in 2012, with a handful of Tea Party governors and secretaries of state—led by Florida Gov. Rick Scott—falsely claiming [13] that hundreds of thousands of non-citizens were on voter rolls. Scott’s claims of 180,000-plus illegals led to hundreds of legal voters, including World War II vets, being incorrectly purged. He retracted [14] that figure, but the initial publicity did its dirty work: intimidating new voters from communities of color, according to Florida election officials like Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho [14]. And as Election Day neared, Republican activists paid for billboards in several swing state cities with big minority populations that cited penalties for illegal voting, another voter suppression tactic.

The good news was that in Florida, election supervisors from both parties rebelled against Scott’s false claims. But rightwing media trumpeted these and other fabrications. On Election Day, a nationwide survey [6] by CalTech/MIT of 10,200 voters found that 35 percent of Republicans believed non-citizen voting was a problem in their county. (This is the nation’s largest survey of voter attitudes and experiences.)

Twenty-two percent of Republicans said there was voting by people pretending to be someone else in their county, CalTech/MIT found. The same number said there was voting by people more than once; 17 percent said people tampered with ballots; and another 16 percent said election officials tampered with the count. In contrast, only 9 percent or less of Democrats believed these issues were real problems.

Taken together, roughly one-third of the 2012 electorate believe some version [6] of GOP-defined voter fraud was widespead—even though innumerable academic studies have shown that these kinds of infractions are singular events, on par with getting hit by lightning. (In fact, 2012’s most notable examples of election fraud were by Republicans, such as the Indiana secretary of state’s resignation [15] after falsified candidate filing papers surfaced, or GOP consultant Nathan Sproul was caught dumping [16] voter registration forms submitted by Democrats, or Ohio counties barring the new GOP voter vigilante group True the Vote from polling places after lying [17] about members’ credentials.)

There is plenty of evidence that the GOP’s accusations and tactics—on top of Obama being a mixed-race candidate—backfired and increased minority turnout. On Friday, Pew Research Center reported [18] that blacks voted at a higher rate than whites in 2012, a first. But when partisan beliefs carry more weight than facts, it is all but impossible to reach consensus solutions in the political world. That takes us to the next big trend that will continue to unfold in 2013—the GOP’s assault on federal voting rights laws.

3. Rolling Back Federal Power

The goal of this page in the GOP playbook is to weaken the federal government’s power to regulate voting law changes in states and counties that have past histories of racial discrimination. Led by Republicans such as Texas’ attorney general, the GOP is seeking to overturn [19] the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the DOJ used this year to reject voting laws in Texas, South Carolina, Florida and other states. The DOJ also used the VRA to reject Texas’ post-2012 Census redistricting, which ended up electing more Latino (Democrats) to the U.S. House after federal courts intervened.

These legal challenges are heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Chief Justice John Roberts has said [20] that these enforcement sections of the Voting Rights Act are outdated. Arizona has another legal challenge to DOJ oversight that will be heard by the Supreme Court in 2013, over requiring new voters to provide citizenship documents when registering to vote. (Most states allow people to sign an oath.)

To say that the GOP is hypocritical on race and voting is an understatement. In these anti-VRA lawsuits, GOP attorneys general are arguing that America has outgrown affirmative action to ensure voting rights. On the other hand, GOP officials such as Florida’s Scott and many partisan secretaries of state (Colorado, Michigan, Kansas and New Mexico) demonize [10] communities of color with irresponsible and unproven allegations of illegal voting. And rightwing public intellectuals keep writing articles that personally attack [21] current and former DOJ Voting Section attorneys, to try to discredit their efforts.

2012’s Real Problems

It’s worth noting what the CalTech/MIT survey [6] found were the real problems faced by voters in 2012—to offer a sense of perspective.

Of the 128.6 million [22] voters this fall, 13 percent (or 16.7 million) said they waited in line longer than 30 minutes. (Early voting lines were longer than Election Day because there were fewer polling places.) African Americans and Latinos faced longer waiting times than whites, sometimes twice as long or more, it found in its preliminary analysis. The longest waits were in Florida (averaging 45 minutes); the District of Columbia (35 minutes); Maryland (32 minutes); Virginia (28 minutes); and South Carolina (27 minutes).

Three other big-picture statistics are worth remembering. Three percent of voters, or 3.85 million people, reported a problem with voter registration records. In contrast, 2 percent or 2.57 million reported a voting equipment problem. Importantly, one-third of voters didn’t believe that all the votes cast would be counted.

4. Billionaires Steer Presidential Race

On the campaign finance front, the biggest trend in the 2012 campaign cycle was the emergence of independent political spending by the super wealthy via so-called super PACs [23] and secretive groups that could also spend without [24] disclosing their donors.

It may very well be that Mitt Romney would have been a stronger candidate facing Obama were it not for the battering he received from fringe Republicans—first Newt Gingrich, then Rick Perry, then Rick Santorum—all of whom were propped up [25] by elderly white businessmen relishing their impact in the GOP nominating contest. Texas Gov. Perry called Romney a “vulture capitalist [26],” defining him long before Democratic attacks and Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe surfaced, and Pennsylvania’s ex-senator Santorum said Romney was the “worst candidate [27] to face Obama.”

However, the trend of billionaire-funded outside groups that publicly claim no relation to candidates—even though they are run by people who worked for the men they’re helping—was just one way big money distorted 2012’s elections. The GOP nominee would have emerged months before were it not for the meddling billionaires. (In 2016, we may see the same pattern for Democrats.)

5. Secret Big Money Groups

At least with the super PACS that landed like flying saucers in the GOP desert, the public quickly learned who was behind their money drops, as they had to file Federal Election Commission reports. But these political venture capitalists were just an opening act for the far more secretive operations led by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove—and copied [28] by Democrats.

By early summer, the airwaves in swing states were inundated [29] with attack ads that were not sponsored by candidate campaigns or their political parties. Instead, groups with opaque names that were organized as non-profits—which would allow them to hide donor’s identities—sprang up anywhere [30] in the country where a race was thought to significantly impact the presidential election or balance of power in Congress.

This recent profile [9] of how these secretive groups infiltrated the Montana Senate race is illustrative of this pernicious trend. Political scientists and analysts say that $6 billion or more was spent on 2012’s federal elections, with $1 billion of that coming from the so-called dark money groups that are accountable to no one except their secret donors.

The Democrats and the Obama campaign tried [31] to employ this same campaign finance strategy as the GOP, but did not have as many billionaires willing to write multi-million-dollar checks as the GOP. Obama and the Democrats also had many more small donors than Republicans, and enlisted their help in get-out-the-vote efforts.

But there was a big winner in 2012 that was neither candidate nor political party, and that was big money. Unless there are significant new federal campaign finance reforms or a new U.S. Supreme Court majority willing to regulate campaign finances, then the latest presidential race has established new rules and modes of campaigning—welcoming wealthy Americans and pushing everyone else to the back of the bus.

See more stories tagged with:

voting rights [32],

voter suppression [33],

campaign finance reform [34],

2012 election [35],

money-in-politics [36]

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