May 21, 2008 archive

It Can’t Happen Here

cross posted from The Dream Antilles

It Can’t Happen Here is the title of a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  It raises the question whether a rightwing, fascist political party can come to power in the US.  It used to be that the very idea was preposterous, unthinkable, impossible.  I’m no longer so sure of that, and acknowledging the frightening possibility has changed my reading of stories about events in other countries in frightening, perplexing, alarming ways.

A short synopsis of It Can’t Happen Here may help:

It features newspaperman Doremus Jessup struggling against the fascist regime of President Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who resembles (to some extent) the flamboyantly dictatorial Huey Long of Louisiana and Gerald B. Winrod, the Kansas evangelist whose far-right views earned him the nickname “The Jayhawk Nazi”. It serves as a warning that political movements akin to Nazism can come to power in countries such as the United States when people blindly support their leaders.

Hmmm. This isn’t the only novel with this theme.  The most recent may be Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America:

The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as antisemitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels.

The President Lindbergh of the book is, well, a fascist, a Nazi sympathizer decorated earlier by Nazis.  And his presidency fosters nationalism, isolationism, anti-semitism and racism as if those were aspects of US patriotism.

The New York Times review described the book as “a terrific political novel” as well as “sinister, vivid, dreamlike, preposterous and, at the same time, creepily plausible.”

Preposterous.  Because it couldn’t happen here, right?  Or could it?  I used to believe it couldn’t happen here.  I don’t know what we call the trend of the last 7 years, but we cling desperately to the idea that that couldn’t really happen here, not really, why, our country is constructed in a way that prevents that from happening, right?  I mean, we have the Constitution and a democracy and checks and balances, don’t we?  Hah.

But what if you believe it could happen?  Just assume for the sake of this discussion, that it could.  Let’s assume that what is happening now and has been happening for the past seven years (the Patriot Act, the torture, the repression, the throttling of free speech, the lawlessness, the signing statements, the extraditions, the raids on immigrants, the endless, long list of abuse of power) became even more pronounced and even more widespread and even more blatant. Then all of those stories we read about the excesses of nearby, foreign governments but dismissed as not being able to happen in the US, all of those stories might actually be read as cautionary tales, stories about what might happen in the US unless things changed, unless Constitutional government were restored.

Three stories, all from South America in the 1970’s illustrate this nicely.  They make it clear that horrible injustices that have occurred in other countries aren’t so impossible in the US. And we need to think of them differently.

Item 1. Jacobo Timmerman:

In the decade of the 1960s, Timerman established himself as a popular journalist, and, before the decade had come to a close, he was able to found two different weekly news magazines. Later, from 1971 to 1977, Timerman edited and published the left-leaning daily La Opinión. Under his leadership, this paper publicized news and criticisms of the human rights violations of the Argentine government during the early years of the “Dirty War”. On 15 April 1977, Timerman was arrested by the military. Thereafter, he was subjected to electric shock torture, beatings, and solitary confinement. These experiences were chronicled in his 1981 book , CellPrisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, and a 1983 movie by the same name. /snip

After his release from prison in September 1979, Timerman was forced into exile and sent to Tel Aviv, Israel.

Item 2. Juan Carlos Onetti:

He went on to become one of Latin America’s most distinguished writers, earning Uruguay’s National Prize in literature in 1962. In 1974, he and some of his colleagues were imprisoned by the military dictatorship. Their crime: as members of the jury, they had chosen Nelson Marra’s short story El guardaespaldas (i.e. “The bodyguard”) as the winner of Marcha’s annual literary contest. Due to a series of misunderstandings (and the need to fill some space in the following day’s edition), El guardaespaldas was published in Marcha, although it had been widely agreed among them that they shouldn’t and wouldn’t do so, knowing this would be the perfect excuse for the military to intervene Marcha, considering the subject of the story (the interior monologue of a top-rank military officer who recounts his murders and atrocious behavior, much as it was happening with the functioning regime).

Onetti left his native country (and his much-loved city of Montevideo) after being imprisoned for 6 months in Colonia Etchepare, a mental institution. A long list of world-famous writers-including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Mario Benedetti-signed open letters addressed to the military government of Uruguay, which was unaware of the talented (and completely harmless) writer it had imprisoned and humiliated.

As soon as he was released, Onetti fled to Spain with his wife, violin player Dorotea Mühr.

Item 3. Charles Horman:

In 1972, he settled temporarily in Chile to work as a freelance writer. On September 17, 1973, six days after the US-backed military takeover, Horman was seized by Chilean soldiers and taken to the National Stadium in Santiago, which had been turned by the military into an ad hoc concentration camp, where prisoners were interrogated, tortured and executed. The whereabouts of Horman’s body were presumably undetermined, at least according to the Americans, for about a month following his death, although it was later determined that, after his execution, Horman’s body was buried inside a wall in the national stadium. It later turned up in a morgue in the Chilean capital.

If you read these three items with the idea that Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile aren’t the US and these things just couldn’t happen here, they are far away, exotic but commonplace examples of banana republic injustice.  They feel like scary fiction, but fiction nonetheless.

But if you assume instead that ’70’s South America isn’t really all that very much different from the present US, or, if you insist, from where the US is headed, the stories become chilling, frightening, and worrisome in a new way.  They smell like oppression, abuse, repression, and loss of human rights.  Are we protected from these things or not?  Are we safe?  Are we free?  

This is just another reason why we simply cannot afford to continue the current trend in this country.  And it’s a reason why we have to take the present threats from Bushco and its allies seriously.  And it’s a reason why we need jealously and vigorously to protect our civil rights.

These Also Died for Their Country

My stepfather’s brother died with other Marines on the beach at Guadacanal during World War II.

My best high school friend was killed in the early days of the Vietnam War.

These men will be honored at next Monday’s Memorial Day ceremonies along with nearly a million of their soldier, sailor, marine, coast guard and air force compatriots who gave their lives in military service. No distinction is made between the hundreds of thousands who died fighting in wars most Americans would consider righteous and the hundreds of thousands who were killed in the furtherance of bad causes or died in vain because their criminal or reckless leaders sent them into harm’s way for greed, stupidity or empire. Those who fought in gray uniforms in a war of secession are given the same reverence, the same moments of silence, the same commemoration of sacrifice as those who wore blue into battle.

It doesn’t matter whether they were white boys from the First Tennessee Infantry Regiment who fell in the land-grabbing war with Mexico in 1847, or black soldiers of the 93rd Infantry Division fighting Germans in the war to end all wars, or Japanese-Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team slugging their way through Italy while their relatives lived incarcerated in camps back home.

It doesn’t matter whether their name was Hernández, or Hansen, or Hashimoto. Nor whether they caught enemy shrapnel or a bullet from friendly fire. Nor whether they were drafted or volunteered. Nor whether they died fighting for liberty more than 200 years ago at Bunker Hill or crushing it more than 100 years ago in the boondocks of the Philippines. On Memorial Day all American warriors who lost their lives are honored because they did lose their lives.  

With one exception.

Answer to Monday Brain Teaser

Bayes’ theorem is useful in evaluating the result of drug tests. Suppose a certain drug test is 99% sensitive and 99% specific, that is, the test will correctly identify a drug user as testing positive 99% of the time, and will correctly identify a non-user as testing negative 99% of the time. This would seem to be a relatively accurate test, but Bayes’ theorem will reveal a potential flaw. Let’s assume a corporation decides to test its employees for opium use, and 0.5% of the employees use the drug. We want to know the probability that, given a positive drug test, an employee is actually a drug user. Let “D” be the event of being a drug user and “N” indicate being a non-user. Let “+” be the event of a positive drug test. We need to know the following:

   * P(D), or the probability that the employee is a drug user, regardless of any other information. This is 0.005, since 0.5% of the employees are drug users. This is the prior probability of D.

   * P(N), or the probability that the employee is not a drug user. This is 1 ? P(D), or 0.995.

   * P(+|D), or the probability that the test is positive, given that the employee is a drug user. This is 0.99, since the test is 99% accurate.

   * P(+|N), or the probability that the test is positive, given that the employee is not a drug user. This is 0.01, since the test will produce a false positive for 1% of non-users.

   * P(+), or the probability of a positive test event, regardless of other information. This is 0.0149 or 1.49%, which is found by adding the probability that the test will produce a true positive result in the event of drug use (= 99% x 0.5% = 0.495%) plus the probability that the test will produce a false positive in the event of non-drug use (= 1% x 99.5% = 0.995%). This is the prior probability of +.

Given this information, we can compute the posterior probability P(D|+) of an employee who tested positive actually being a drug user:

P(D|+)  = (0.99 x 0.005)/(0.99 x 0.005)+(0.01 x 0.005)

P(D|+)  = 0.3322

Despite the high accuracy of the test, the probability that an employee who tested positive actually did use drugs is only about 33%, so it is actually more likely that the employee is not a drug user. The rarer the condition for which we are testing, the greater the percentage of positive tests that will be false positives.

Four at Four

  1. The Washington Post reports that FBI reports Of detainee abuse were ignored by the White House.

    Complaints by FBI agents about abusive interrogation tactics at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other U.S. military sites reached the National Security Council but prompted no effort to curb questioning that the agents considered ineffective and possibly illegal, according to an internal audit released yesterday.

    Reports that Guantanamo detainees were being subjected to extreme temperatures, religious abuses and nude interrogation were conveyed at White House meetings of senior officials in 2003, yet these questionable tactics remained in use, a lengthy report by the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded.

    In one instance, colleagues of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft reported that he personally aired concerns about Defense Department strategy toward a particular detainee with Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, while other Justice managers shared similar fears with the council’s legal adviser in November 2003, the report said.

    From the report via TPM Muckraker, an inventory of the abuse and torture reported by the FBI agents to the Justice Department Inspector General. Of the 450 interviewed, “nearly half reported witnessing or hearing about ‘rough or aggressive treatment of detainees, primarily by military investigators.'”

Four at Four continues with stories about big oil, the environment, and tornadoes.

Through the Darkest of Nights: Testament XVI

Every few days over the next several months I will be posting installments of a novel about life, death, war and politics in America since 9/11.  Through the Darkest of Nights is a story of hope, reflection, determination, and redemption.  It is a testament to the progressive values we all believe in, have always defended, and always will defend no matter how long this darkness lasts.  But most of all, it is a search for identity and meaning in an empty world.

Naked and alone we came into exile.  In her dark womb, we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother?  Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?  Which of us has not remained prison-pent?  Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?      ~Thomas Wolfe

All installments are available for reading here on Docudharma’s Series page, and also here on Docudharma’s Fiction Page, where refuge from politicians, blogging overload, and one BushCo outrage after another can always be found.

The National Assembly

In an attempt to reenergize the U.S. antiwar movement, activists from the American Friends Service Committee, U.S. Labor Against the War, and veterans against the war have formed a steering committee, the National Assembly. The Assembly’s first act is to call for a national meeting of antiwar activists, to be held on June 27-28, 2008, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio. All antiwar coalitions, organizations, and activists are welcome to attend.

Endorsers of the National Assembly include the Iraq Moratorium, Veterans for Peace, A.N.S.W.E.R., UFPJ, the National Lawyers Guild, Progressive Democrats of America, AfterDowningStreet, Cindy Sheehan, Howard Zinn, Ramsey Clark, Scott Ritter, and many others.

The position of the assembly is that there must be an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Since there is no mechanism such as a national referendum to force a withdrawal, the American people are left with mass action in the streets. It is believed by the organizers that the best way to prepare such mass mobilizations is through “democratic and open conferences that function transparently, with all who attend having the right to vote.”

You can endorse the National Assembly, and details of the conference and their positions can be found at their website.

Please cross-post this wherever you like.

FBI Ordered to Shut Down GITMO “War Crimes” File

(h/t to GreyHawk for pointing to this story. GH’s post at epluribus media.)

Yes, the FBI kept a “War Crimes” file about GTMO. So reports the NY Times in  Report Details Dissent on Guantánamo Tactics:

WASHINGTON – In 2002, as evidence of prisoner mistreatment at Guantánamo Bay began to mount, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents at the base created a “war crimes file” to document accusations against American military personnel, but were eventually ordered to close down the file, a Justice Department report revealed Tuesday.

Ordered closed down by whom exactly?

Presidential Tech debate liveblog from CFP

Liveblogging a presentation at the 19th Annual Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy by tech advisors to the Obama and McCain campaigns, entitled the Clinton Campaign was invited to participate, but declined. The official title of the session, Presidential Technology Policy: Priorities for the Next Executive

In attendance a blend of academics, dotgovs, corporados, civil liberties orgs, cyberpunks.

Opening, Conference Chair Eddan Katz of Yale reminds that the only tech question of the 2000 Predidential debate cycle, asked at the MYV/CNN debate, was “Mac or PC.” Apparently, the questioner had a more sophisticated question in mind, but was told to use the softball by debate organizers.

McCain fundraising in the tank. Republican Party to have to foot the bill.

John McCain is having some serious difficulty getting the big Republican doners (you know those guys; the 1 percenters with all the money) to give money to his campaign for the Republican Presidential nominee.

It has gotten so bad and his funding is trailing both of the Democratic Presidential Candidates by so much that McCain is planning to tap into the Republican National Committee to help him fund his campaign.

From The New York Times:

Pivoting toward the general election, Senator Barack Obama is turning again to his history-making fund-raising machine, which helped to anoint him as a contender against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and then became a potent weapon in their battle for the Democratic nomination.

To confront the Obama juggernaut, Senator John McCain, whose fund-raising has badly trailed that of his Democratic counterparts, is leaning on the Republican National Committee. Mr. McCain’s efforts to raise money suffered a blow this weekend when a key fund-raiser, Tom Loeffler, resigned because of a new campaign policy on conflicts of interest.

UN, ASEAN Press For More Aid to Burmese Cyclone Victims

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is en route to Myanmar today, but already his presence in the region seems to have had an affect:

“We have received government permission to operate nine WFP (World Food Program) helicopters, which will allow us to reach areas that have so far been largely inaccessible,” Ban told reporters in New York on Tuesday before departing for Southeast Asia. His announcement was not immediately confirmed by officials in Myanmar.

“I believe further similar moves will follow, including expediting the visas of (foreign) relief workers seeking to enter the country,” Ban said, warning that relief efforts to save survivors of the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis had reached a “critical moment.”

“We have a functioning relief program in place but so far have been able to reach only 25 percent of Myanmar’s people in need,” he said.


Progress can’t come too soon, as cyclone victims, desperate for food, beg by the side of the road:

Pony Party, The Devil’s Clothes

I read an interesting article at the Christian Science Monitor called “Iraqi Women Eye Islamic Law”. (its written by jill carroll, btw)

Because the United Iraqi Alliance is currently being controlled by Shiites, the oppressive sharia law is now taking away some of the rights and freedoms afforded Iraqi women under Sadaam Hussein.  Where Iraq had once been progressive, in relative terms, for a Muslim nation, the laws imposed on women are becoming more conservative.

Three Simple Words

What makes a President?

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