Autumn of the Patriarchs, Part II

As my grandmother quietly loses her mind, her thoughts turn to her girlhood. She can recite the street corners of every house in which she lived and its memories: of her and her brother for days watching from a slope the employees of the Polar beer company create a float for that year’s carnival, and of being asked to ride on it; of cars crunching on thousands of crabs at the height of the season along the Malecon; of flying in a single engine plane at her husband’s insistence on their honeymoon, their only other companion besides the pilot a one-armed man. Last Sunday as FOX News aired a clip of a bare flagpole in what was the former Cuban Interests Section in DC and is, again, the Cuban embassy, she muttered, “It’s about time.”

A ninety-year-old woman’s unbidden expression, maybe. In my grandmother’s dotage nostalgia rules. She wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. A lot has happened since I wrote a post assessing fifty-three years of families separated, blood shed, property snatched, promises broken. Tomorrow Hillary Clinton will call for the end of the embargo at my university. Some will correctly wonder what kind of courage it takes to endorse the Obama administration’s policy goal. To which I respond: she’s a Democrat calling for the end of the embargo in Miami, and she will likely receive applause.

Here’s what I posted last December, revised for clarity:

During a banal conversation about holiday plans at my grandmother’s last week, her caretaker said she was spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Cuba. “Take me with you!” the ninety-year-old said, five minutes after she’d denounced the Castro brothers for “nationalizing” her newly finished house in 1960. The cognitive dissonance aside — she has gradually lost some of her formidable concentration — the incident sums up the basic incoherence of Cuban-American policy, especially how the remittances and increased travel allowed by the Obama administration several years ago have leveled what remained of my genuine solidarity for my parents and grandparents. The caretaker, students I’ve taught over the years, and neighbors, all to a man and woman, voice their disgust with the Castro regime. Almost all of them have a story about a crime perpetuated by the regime against them, showing particular disgust for the quasi-apartheid preventing them from shopping and in some cases visiting tourist hotels. None of them want the Castros in power; at best I sense a kind of abused-wife kinship with the greybeards. But they don’t understand why they can’t have the freedom to spend and travel.

Instinctively, the normalizing of the relationship makes sense to me. But I understand the paradox, and it’s heartbreaking. Pawns of the Cold War, recruited by the United States with phantom hopes of, well, doing something for them, Watergate burglars, mayors, legislators, redoubtable political players who have shaped local and presidential elections for decades, the exiles are also parents and grandparents, many of whom have lived in the United States since adolescence; they wouldn’t think of packing and leaving even if the Castros had abdicated or been assassinated in 1992. Their roots are here. Their souls, however, remain in Cuba. From the United States they sought redress. At worst they wanted respect. It’s December 2014, the Castros are in power, many of the relatives who chose to stay in Cuba are dead, the confiscated property is gone. And most of the world thinks the exiles are a joke.

A joke also is the parade of Democrats and Jeff Flake unable to answer questions about Cuba’s human rights abuses — legitimate questions, asked even by the Cuban men and women I’ve mingled with. Not one of them yet has responded with the cynicism buttressing the question. Last week the Senate released a report in which the world learned the extent to which the United States tortured men accused of terrorism — twenty-six of whom, let me be clear, were innocent. A poll yesterday revealed that a majority of Americans approve. Socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor — I’ve never tired of quoting the Gore Vidal line. Human rights abuses for supporters of the embargo, just and necessary enhanced interrogation techniques to keep America safe for the rest.

The caretaker asked me if I was interested in visiting Cuba. “Of course I am,” I said. “I will. Someday.”

DHS ‘monitoring’ #BlackLivesMatter movement

To quote a band I don’t much like, no alarms and no surprises:

The Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the Black Lives Matter movement since anti-police protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri last summer, according to hundreds of documents obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The documents, released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Operations Coordination, indicate that the department frequently collects information, including location data, on Black Lives Matter activities from public social media accounts, including on Facebook, Twitter, and Vine, even for events expected to be peaceful. The reports confirm social media surveillance of the protest movement and ostensibly related events in the cities of Ferguson, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and New York.

They also show the department watching over gatherings that seem benign and even mundane. For example, DHS circulated information on a nationwide series of silent vigils and a DHS-funded agency planned to monitor a funk music parade and a walk to end breast cancer in the nation’s capital.

The tracking of domestic protest groups and peaceful gatherings raises questions over whether DHS is chilling the exercise of First Amendment rights, and over whether the department, created in large part to combat terrorism, has allowed its mission to creep beyond the bounds of useful security activities as its annual budget has grown beyond $60 billion.

As much as presidents move the bureaucracy in incremental bits, stubborn elements persist. Here is a federal agency sufficiently persuaded about the radicalism of a movement. Progress, I guess?

‘How a politician can chalk up wins against structural racism’


f you look at a typical presidential campaign site under a heading like “Issues,” you’ll see that there isn’t a bullet point that lists a candidate’s plans to attack the complicated issue of structural racism with specific steps. This should change. And in this, candidates can take a lesson from President Obama.

His administration, even as it nears its end, recently offered an example of how a politician can chalk up wins against structural racism. Two weeks ago, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro announced that previously unenforced Fair Housing Act rules would now become requirements. As the Los Angeles Times reported, HUD will now require towns and cities to study patterns of segregation and how they are linked to access to jobs, high-quality schools, and public transportation—then submit specific goals for improving fair access to these resources. This is a policy, not a speech.

I wince from the language of victories and “wins” but this response largely coincides with what I posted a few days ago. By promoting the Fair Housing Act requirements, he forces everyone else on the trail to respond.

Obama Unbound

It’s staggering to consider that no sitting American president has visited a federal penitentiary. And why should he? Republican want to burnish their tough-on-crime bonafides. Democrats have wanted those bonafides. That’s why I give Barack Hussein Obama credit for taking lame duck status seriously. As his poll numbers rise, he has made it difficult for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to escape his legacy. By embracing years-old liberal positions, he he forces candidates to adopt or perish. Janell Ross review the remarkable last few weeks:

But Obama came to the NAACP convention and laid out a criminal-justice reform agenda that included everything from calls for a close and hard look at what sends people to jail, which crimes and which defendants get the longest sentences and the use of solitary confinement. That agenda, Obama said Thursday, also has to include resolving the massive disparities in school quality and discipline that federal data tells us begin in pre-kindergarten classrooms…

…this Obama didn’t do what he has so many times before. He didn’t lecture black America about its behavior while making only passing mention of some of the social and economic conditions that solid research — not just political ideology — tells us has at least helped to foster inequality. He gave a full airing to his sense that there is a need for wholesale policy reforms. And he stayed completely clear of the politically expedient and at-times-outright-popular act of saying that young black men should do something about the way some wear their pants or how they speak.

He even said we should stop joking about prison rape!

I watched a portion of today’s press conference, most of which concentrated on the Iran deal. It relieved me to watch an intelligent man answering questions as if he had actually read his briefing papers. He didn’t speak as if he underestimated congressional resistance; he didn’t speak as if he expected GOP allegiance. In one of the few times in recent years he spoke as a leader who expected his party to vote like he wanted them to and would damn them to hell if they didn’t go his way. Fuck, he acted as if he knew he’d make Hillary squirm again.

‘I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands’


So the P5+1 and Iran have reached a deal on delaying Iran’s development of nuclear weapons for ten years. Before Bibi Netanyahu runs to John Bolton’s shoulder for a good cry, let’s make clear what the alternative could’ve been. Larison:

This will limit Iran’s nuclear program more effectively than a decade of sanctions and coercive methods ever did, and it makes Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon much less likely than any other available course of action. The alternatives that Iran hawks have been proposing for the last two years–ending negotiations, more sanctions, threatening or taking military action–would have left Iran’s program under fewer constraints and would have pushed Iran towards building nuclear weapons. It is important to remember that the loudest, shrillest opponents of this deal would have made a nuclear-armed Iran more likely if they had their way. So when the hard-liners start their inevitable cries of “appeasement” and “surrender” start, keep in mind that their “solution” would have failed and backfired as usual. If the deal is implemented fully, this should take the nuclear issue with Iran off the agenda for at least the next decade and possibly much longer than that.

But this is to me the most significant possible outcome:

It is too early to know how the deal will affect internal conditions in Iran, but it is probable that Rouhani’s success in these talks will give him more room to push for some measure of economic and social reform. Sanctions relief will take some of the economic pressure off of the Iranian people, and especially the Iranian middle class, and that will gradually aid the cause of Iranian opposition groups that the sanctions have been helping to strangle. There aren’t likely to be any dramatic changes in Iran’s internal politics, but reducing sanctions can only help loosen the grip of the regime and the hard-liners that they have strengthened in the past.

It’s worth reminding readers that the right wing — assured in its belligerence, its droit du seigneur to question any deal and at any time that threatens defense contracts but guarantees a berth on FOX News — has issued these threats before, even against their own. Look what Charles Krauthammer was writing about Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1987:

Stalin was, in the prophetic words of a 19th-century Russian revolutionary, Genghis Khan with a telegraph. Gorbachev is Khrushchev with a tailor. Why is Gorbachev so readily extenuated by the leaders of the leading democracy? Because there is nothing that Western public’s hunger for more than a communist with a human face. So when the smile reveals iron teeth, it is best to pretend we do not see them. Or better still, to argue that they cannot be there.

Substitute “Hassan Rouhani” for Gorbs. “I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands,” Reagan said to his Soviet counterpart in Geneva, 1985.


If true, this is big news: the Department of Labor may propose a rule that will increase the percentage of the workforce eligible for overtime. The rate, set at $23,660, will double to $52,000. Policy Mic quotes EPI’s example: <blockquote[A]n assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant with a salary of $24,000 and who spends 95% of his (or her) time cooking fries, running a cash register and sweeping floors can be required to work 60 or 70 hours a week and yet be denied any overtime pay, simply because he's classified as a manager. On the weeks he works more than 64 hours, his effective hourly wage is below the federal minimum wage of $7.25; workers who are exempt from overtime regulations are also exempt from minimum-wage regulations.

As the expectations for white collar labor have grown in the last thirty years, coinciding with the collapse of organized labor and the rise in outsourcing (no, it can’t be a coincidence), so have loopholes like comp time.

Past exemptions for white-collar workers earlier were predicated on the idea that many of them naturally have stronger bargaining power and flexibility in how many hours they work. While that made some degree of sense in an earlier era, today’s economy includes many low-paid knowledge workers and service workers whose responsibilities can have managerial or administrative aspects but which by no means guarantee them autonomy in their workplace.

During my retail days, I saw the abuse of managers often, and not ill-intentioned either. A manager would stay past his appointed shift; if it was more than a hour, he was expected to come in an hour later his next shift or swallow it. I suspect this practice will continue – one of the perks of management should be to work without clockwatchers timing movements – but at least they’re on notice should the president sign this thing.

Best: Labor can make the decision without Congress.

‘A new round of alarmism’

If the air smells rank and Americans feel an uncontrollable tremor, it’s not that Tash has entered America — it’s Donald Rumsfeld, the human pustule, separating himself from a democracy project that he no longer espouses because he’s been exposed as someone who didn’t believe this twaddle in 2001 anyway. He is worse than cynical — he’s a talk show guest. Meanwhile the Obama administration, partly thanks to its stitching of incoherent threats and use of proxies, has to defend itself against foreign policy establishment hacks responsible for inciting the people we’ve bombed and targeted with drones since 2003. Nothing will change because the sellers of this rotten fruit know that decrying a nebulous threat will result in no price paid or think tank tenure rescinded. Larison:

The U.S. keeps paying a price for overestimating threats to our security and for overreacting to the exaggerated threats. However, because relatively few Americans are directly harmed by policy debacles and because most Americans are otherwise not significantly burdened by these debacles, there is little resistance to proponents of more aggressive policies and their threat-inflating ways. Perversely, hawks can seize on the chaos created by their previous failed policies to justify more of the same. Hyping the threat from Iraq in the ’90s and early 2000s led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which proved far more damaging and costly to the U.S. than anything Hussein’s government had done or could do to the U.S. Now we are being treated to a new round of alarmism about the threats from jihadists that have filled part of the vacuum created by the earlier disastrous war, and that has dragged us into yet another unnecessary conflict. In both cases, the actual threat to the U.S. is small or non-existent and is entirely manageable in any case, but the impulse to exaggerate it and then to overreact to it with military action has not diminished that much.

This is deplorable for many reasons, but perhaps the most important one is that the alarmist assessments are utterly false and misleading. The U.S. is more secure now than at almost any point in the last century, and it is certainly more secure than it was even thirty years ago, and yet threat inflation persists and actually keeps getting worse.

Floridians face deadlier threats from Marco and Jeannette Rubio’s driving than from ISIS.

“Post-terror” world, my fanny

Boy, we sure love personalities, don’t we? Musicians, actors, politicians, even traitors (to quote Dana Perino) like Edward Snowden, who has never stopped being the story about the American surveillance state. Very well. Let’s recap what we learned from the man whom Charles Pierce calls the International Man of Luggage:

Rather than transmitting information to foreign powers, Snowden handed over his electronic stash of documents to reporters from the Guardian and the Washington Post, with the stipulation that they treat its contents sensitively and carefully. Although the leak led to some sensational stories—Michael Morell, a top C.I.A. official, called it “the most serious compromise of classified information in the history of the U.S. intelligence community”—the journalists largely adhered to Snowden’s stipulation.

The news stories brought to light many details about domestic surveillance, such as the bulk collection of phone records and the PRISM program, which enabled the N.S.A. to retrieve users’ e-mails and search histories from Internet companies such as Google and Facebook. Another story revealed that the N.S.A.’s own internal auditor had concluded that the agency had breached its own privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times a year since 2008. But despite some embarrassing details about overseas operations (such as the fact that the United States had tapped the phone calls of world leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel), the stories based on the Snowden leaks didn’t reveal much about specific U.S. intelligence operations around the world.

Even so, I wish I could agree with the Man of Luggage that after Congress’ vote last week “we are witnessing the emergence of a post-terror generation, one that rejects a worldview defined by a singular tragedy.” No. When I see “post-” affixed to a noun, I reach for my gin and tonic. Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry, and Barack Hussein Obama’s careers depend on a terror generation, frightened by brown-skinned heffalumps and woozles that could have done us harm under other names in 1993, 1986, and 1983.

‘I warned you, that I am really irritable’


Isaac Chotiner interviews Seymour Hersh about his story debunking the Obama White House’s claims regarding the death of Osama bin Laden. It does not go well:

Chotiner: Well let’s talk about sources. A lot of the reporting that got us into the last stupid war was based on bad and often anonymous sources. Is there a problem with journalists having a limited number of sources, just generally speaking? Is this a problem? With unnamed sources—

Hersh: Are you kidding me? Unnamed sources? You are smarter than that. This is too boring.

Chotiner: Let me finish my question and then you can yell at me.

Hersh: I am done yelling.

Chotiner: Is there some sort of journalistic standard that reporters should try to meet to prevent more errors?

Hersh: Let me say something to you. There was a practice at the New Yorker that continued at the London Review of Books. The reason I like the LRB is that it isn’t tied down to Americana. It is more open to being … In Europe people think this story makes sense. There is not the quibbling. It is a different approach. By that I mean that the view of America is less cheery abroad but the standards are the same. The people at the London Review knew whom I talked to. It is the same at the New Yorker. David Remnick knows who I talk to. I do have sources, which is a problem for a lot of people that don’t.

Chotiner: OK well it seems like the upshot of what you are saying, and correct me if this is wrong—

Hersh: I just said what I said. I don’t want to hear what the upshot is. If you have another question then ask it. This is going on too long. I am too old and too cranky and too tired. I have been doing this fucking thing for a day. I told you, I warned you, that I am really irritable.

His contempt for Andrea Mitchell, self-styled national security expert for NBC, is refreshing.

Spy and punishment

No, domestic spying does not go on. Why worry?

The FBI breached its own internal rules when it spied on campaigners against the Keystone XL pipeline, failing to get approval before it cultivated informants and opened files on individuals protesting against the construction of the pipeline in Texas, documents reveal.

Internal agency documents show for the first time how FBI agents have been closely monitoring anti-Keystone activists, in violation of guidelines designed to prevent the agency from becoming unduly involved in sensitive political issues.

Surely these agents got approval from superiors, no?

Confronted by evidence contained in the cache of documents, the agency admitted that “FBI approval levels required by internal policy were not initially obtained” for the investigation, but said the failure was remedied and later reported internally.

The FBI files appear to suggest the Houston branch of the investigation was opened in early 2013, several months after a high-level strategy meeting between the agency and TransCanada, the company building the pipeline.

For a period of time – possibly as long as eight months – agents acting beyond their authority were monitoring activists aligned with Tar Sands Blockade.

Because the American press defines opposition to Keystone as the work of environmental extremists, we will never see this story get the play it deserves. These methods reflect what the national security establishment, comprised of Democrats and Republicans (think Dianne Fienstein in the Senate and Peter King in the House) regards as normal. It’s the assumption of illegality that most strikes me: of course these people don’t have the best interests of the United States in mind.

Elizabeth Warren: ‘possible to punch holes in Dodd Frank without directly repealing it’

The struggle over giving ‘fast track’ legislation to the Trans Pacific Partnership has another dimension. Central to Elizabeth Warren and other’s problems with TPP is a piece called Investor-State Dispute Settlement or ISDS. This is “neutral international arbitration mechanism that creates a stable legal environment, facilitating investments in countries where investors might fear unfair legal treatment by foreign governments,” and if this sounds like gobbledygook then Greg Sargent has failed to explain the stakes. In an interview with Sargent, Warren explains the consequences of ISDS:

PLUM LINE: You can’t envision even in theory a way to structure ISDS that would assuage your concerns?

WARREN: Once a group of independent arbiters, whose decisions cannot be appealed, can issue a money judgment of any size, then the ISDS problem arises….Here’s what you could do. If corporations had to go through the same procedures that anyone else has to go through to get the trade deal enforced, then the problem wouldn’t exist.

Now, if a labor union says, ‘Vietnam promised not to work people for a couple of dollars a day, and to raise working conditions, and then failed to do it,” they have to get the U.S. government, through the trade rules, to go to Vietnam and prosecute the case. If corporations had to do the same thing, then it would be a level playing field…ISDS gives a special break to giant corporations, a break that nobody else gets.

PLUM LINE: What you’re arguing is that six years of fast track, plus ISDS, could ultimately result in the weakening of financial regulations? You’re not saying ISDS itself would do that?

WARREN: Absolutely right…six years means that whatever the Obama administration has committed to won’t bind the next president. If that president wants to negotiate a trade deal that undercuts Dodd Frank, it will be very hard to stop it.

PLUM LINE: Couldn’t a Republican president simply go straight at Dodd Frank? Would this be any easier than that?

WARREN: Absolutely. Because trade will be fast tracked for six years….A direct run at Dodd Frank potentially takes 60 votes in the U.S. Senate. But doing it through trade authority needs to be done with 51 votes.

I tend to think things get worse before there’s hope — any — of improvement.

Democrats ‘stunned’ by intensity of lobbying mounted by White House

Katrina vanden Heuvel is not my favorite representative from the left, but this column nails it:

It has come to this. To sell his trade treaty — specifically the fast-track trade authority that would grease the skids for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), President Obama is mobilizing a coalition anchored by corporate lobbies, the Chamber of Commerce and Republican congressional leadership. He is opposed by the majority of Democratic legislators, the labor movement and a broad array of mainstream environmental, consumer and citizen organizations.

Democrats are stunned by the intensity of the lobbying effort mounted by the administration. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch supporter of the president, noted that Democrats have been “talked to, approached, lobbied and maybe cajoled by more Cabinet members on this issue than any issue since Barack Obama’s been president. That’s just sad. I wish they put the same effort into minimum wage. I wish they put the same effort into Medicare at 55. I wish they put the same effort into some consumer strengthening on Dodd-Frank.”

Brown’s complaints might be shadowplay, said to enrage liberal lobbying groups while having no basis in fact. But it is true that the president’s patience and humor vanish when liberal critics question his motives.