Monday, November 2, 2009

A Belated Tribute to Robert Cox

Tomorrow, November 3, the Municipal Legislature of the City of Buenos Aires will honor Robert J. Cox as a Ciudadano Ilustre, which literally means 'renowned citizen' but which would be roughly the equivalent in the United States of being given "the key to the city".The reason that this honor is being granted to Cox - a British-born journalist who worked in Argentina for twenty years and who recently retired as Associate Editor of the Charleston Evening Post (South Carolina), where he was employed for nearly another three decades after being forced to leave Argentine - is in recognition of his work in the field of human rights.

Caption: Robert J. Cox today

The award may be thirty years late in coming, but better late than never. He has been honored in many other ways in the meantime - having been, for instance, a recipient of the Mary Moors Cabot Award for excellence in journalism, having been the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), and having also been elected that institution's President.

During the dark years of extremely repressive State counter-terror activities in Argentina, starting under the government of Isabel Perón in 1974 and continuing under the military regime that took power in 1976, Cox spent half a decade, until his decision, under extreme duress, in 1979, to go into exile in the United States, denouncing the kidnapping and disappearance (read: murder) of political prisoners without benefit of due process or civil rights of any kind. Thirty thousand such disappearances occurred in the brief period from 1975 to about 1980.

Cox went a lot further than simply reporting on these almost daily events that included not only kidnappings by paramilitary gangs, but also institutionalized torture, summary executions, the underground "adoption" of missing people's children, and a long list of other aberrant acts that no law-abiding, civilized society could possible tolerate.

Through the newspaper that he edited, the Buenos Aires Herald, he created a virtual "registry" of missing people and of acts of extreme violence perpetrated by a rogue de facto government against its own people, and any foreigner that got into its way. The Herald was singular in its action, giving faces, names, histories and families to those who disappeared, thus preventing each of them from becoming just one more nameless body ground up in the cogs of the State counter-terror machine.

But his work went beyond his role in the newspaper. Cox built strong ties with the foreign press and the diplomatic community, particularly with the US Embassy under the Jimmy Carter Administration, to begin increasing pressure on the military regime so as to force it to modify its barbaric policies and move toward a greater policial and judicial opening, while publishing articles in the press in the United States and Europe to bolster the effects of the Herald's human rights campaign.

And thanks to his efforts, and those of the staff members and friends that accompanied him in his fight, pressure was indeed brought to bear, becoming so great t hat the regime decided that, one way or another, Cox had to go. They tried arresting him, but the international outcry was so swift and powerful in coming that they had to let him go within 24 hours of his detention. And so they began a campaign of threats and terror against him and his family until finally, after his nine-year-old son, Peter, receive a personal letter telling him to get his daddy to leave 'or else', Cox decided it was time to put his family's welfare before his cause, and left.

  • Caption: A photo of Bob Cox much as he looked when I first met him, on the cover of Dirty Secrets, Dirty War, a book by Bob's son, David Cox, about his father's exile (Published by Charleston Evening Post with Joggle Board Press).

I was privileged during those five years from 1974 to 1979 to work for Robert Cox and to be able to stay on afterwards until the end of the military regime, as news editor and editorialist, seconding editor James Neilson in actively demonstrating that "getting rid of Cox" would not be sufficient to shut the Herald up or even to shut it down.

It was Cox who gave me my first chance to work in journalism and he too who was my mentor. Those five years in which I went from being a starting-level apprentice to being the newspaper's general news editor were my formative years as a journalist and writer, and they were years too in which I was able to count Robert Cox as both my teacher and my friend.

The following is an excerpt from a book-length work in progress that I am currently writing, the working title of which is "The Truth in Any Language". This is the section of the story in which I tell about how Bob Cox and I first met. I want to share it with the readers of my blogs and I heartily welcome your comments:

Courting the Herald. (Excerpt from The Truth in Any Language, by Dan Newland, copyright 2009).

Armed then as I am today with three decades of experience, hundreds (thousands perhaps) of journalistic assignments under my belt and more rejections, too, than I care to recall, I never would have had the intestinal fortitude to impose my presence on a journalist of the austere eminence of Robert J. Cox. But at a brash 23, with a personal vision of my future laid out neatly in my mind as a sure road to success, I felt back in 1974 that I was owed a chance to prove my worth. And the fact was that the only show in town for an English-language 'wannabe' writer with a hankering for news-related experience was the Buenos Aires Herald.

I had already tried haunting the offices of the correspondents of the big U.S. publications and agencies — Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, AP, UPI, the New York Times and more — but to no avail. All of them either asked about my 'experience' or wanted to know what j-school I had gone to. Ultimately, to a man, they asked me if I had talked to "Bob Cox over at the Herald" yet.

Born in Hull, England, Cox had been recruited to the paper's ranks in 1959 as a copy-editor, but it was not long before his writing ability and news sense moved him up the ladder to news-editor. Founded in 1876, the Herald was one of Argentina's three oldest newspapers. Created as a maritime-oriented paper at a time of all but sovereign British power over Argentina's trade and transport interests, the Herald had gradually decayed, since the days of rekindled nationalist fervor in the 1940s and '50s, to become a rather pokey little rag serving the interests of what was left of an aging and shrinking English-language community.

In Buenos Aires, Cox had met and married his wife, Maude Daverio, a young lady of considerable status in Buenos Aires society, with whom he would have five Argentine children while rising to the post of Editor-in-Chief. Such strong ties to Argentina had already made the Herald his only viable source of full-time news work. Although he would also gain international prestige as an honored stringer for such sacred cows as Newsweek, the BBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others. So it was that, by the time his predecessor, Norman Ingrey, retired in 1970, Cox was pretty much ensconced as a credible, savvy, foreign observer of political and social life in Argentina. His professional presence, in turn, was what kept the paper from sinking further and further into oblivion and dying what, otherwise, could only have been considered a natural death. As natural, surely, as the one the 'old school tie' Anglo-Argentine community was dying as its youth decided that they were less Anglo than Argentine and began wanting to 'mingle with the natives' in what clearly seemed to be shaping up as a post-colonial age.

Cox was aided in this task by the fact that at around this same time, the Charleston Evening Post Publishing Company (Charleston, S.C.) acquired about 60 percent of the Herald, which, since the 1920s, had been an (Anglo)-Argentine family-owned concern. There must surely have been some speculation at the time about why on earth the Charleston group would want a foreign white elephant like the Herald, but if so, it was only among observers who had never met Peter Manigault, then President of that media group and the moneyed son of the family that controlled it. A true Southern gentleman of urbane tastes and education, Manigault was also a bit whimsical. Add that to the fact that he dabbled in Spanish-language studies and loved South America and this was enough to provide him with all the justification he needed to purchase a quaint, colonial-style 'gem' like the Herald even if cynics must surely have asked themselves if it wasn't, perhaps, a tax write-off or something. At any rate, Manigault and Cox were to hit it off almost immediately — since if Manigault was uncommon, Cox was genuinely eccentric. And the friendship would certainly come in handy to Cox in the future when his authority was called into question by one on the local owners of the remaining 40 percent interest.

For now, however, in late 1973, when I first met him, Cox was the clearly over-extended Editor of a paper with plummeting advertising revenues and a shrinking readership. It could barely afford its skeletal staff and the third floor it rented in a shabby office building (that also housed the down-at-heel English Club) in what was then the red-light district near the port. As such, Cox could ill-afford the time or money to make any major changes in the paper itself. The result was a rather quirky, provincial, outdated, ill-proofed little 12 to 16-page tabloid with a wire-copy front and local news page, a few really good columns and stories provided by good-willed, ill-paid contributors and staffers, and an extraordinarily high-quality editorial page that made the rest of the paper look like a mere excuse to have a frame in which to publish it.

And that, in fact, was what it was fast becoming. Not that Cox wouldn't have liked to have professionalized it. He tried as often as he could to impress on his tiny staff the importance of dedication to objectivity and professional care, but he was obviously overworked and just as obviously more a writer than a hands-on editor, so he dedicated more and more time to chronicling the nightmare that was unfolding in Argentina on his editorial page and less and less to trying to extricate the rest of the paper from the malaise of routine mediocrity into which it had slumped and now wallowed.

Anyway, I simply decided one day to call the Herald and ask for an interview and, somewhat to my surprise, was given one for the following evening. When I arrived at 6 p.m., the advertising and administrative employees were bidding each other good night and leaving, as the editorial staffers were just arriving. There was no waiting room to speak of, just a green leather armchair wedged in at the end of the classified ads counter partially blocking the door to the editor's office and just a few feet from two big metal and translucent glass doors that bore a sign reading Editorial Department. I was asked to take a seat and wait. When the last of the clerks and ad reps had said good night and taken the elevator, a very prim, very English-looking woman with whom I had spoken on my arrival shut off all of the lights except for one just over my head and said, "He'll be with you in a moment." And then she added, "Good night," and followed her fellow workers down on the elevator.

I sat there alone for quite a long time with just the buzzing drone of the neon light to keep me company. Eventually, however, the double doors to the editorial department swung open and a pleasant-faced, rotund woman bustled through on her way to the restroom at the end of the hall. When she saw me, she stopped and said, "Hello, I'm Maggie," and extended her hand. I stood, shook it and said, "Hi, I'm Dan Newland."

"Does Bob know you're here?"

"I think so," I said a little dubiously. "He's been told."

"Have you been here long?"

I checked my watch. "About an hour," I said.

She said, "Just a minute," and went back the way she had come, through the editorial department. I could hear the teletypes and manual typewriters chattering away in her wake, before the heavy doors swung shut again behind her and wanted nothing more than to already be in there doing a job I knew I was made for. I sat back down but within an instant after Maggie had gone, the editor's door burst open and through it rushed a man with an almost wild look about him. His brow was furrowed in a look of genuine worry, his white dress shirt was wrinkled and perspired. He wore loafers, I noticed, that were in dire need of a shine and one was split along a seam so that you could see his bright red stocking through it, in sharp contrast to his conservative pinstriped trousers. He was slender and tallish and wore a full beard that was too neglected to be distinguished and his thinning dark-brown hair swirled in erratic tentacles around his head as if he were in the habit of running his fingers through it repeatedly, or had just been in a gale-force wind.

"So sorry, so sorry...must be Dan...Dan, isn't it? Yes...lost track of time, please come in...terribly sorry." he muttered almost under his breath as we shook hands.

His uneasiness was somewhat contagious and I nervously launched into my spiel as soon as we were seated, telling him my life story in five minutes or less: former professional musician, just out of the Army, three years with the Army bands, a little over one in Europe, married to an Argentine, always been a writer, what I want to do with my life, need a chance in journalism, fast learner, hard worker, etc., etc. But my uneasiness was hardly quelled by the surroundings. Cox's office was a truly extraordinary, almost horrifying place. The room was cramped, hardly executive dimensions, perhaps 12 feet by 7 feet, if that. The only light came from the bluish neon ceiling tubes, one of which hummed nerve-rackingly. Every square inch of counter, desk and table space was trembling under mountains of books, papers, magazines, wire copy, radio-photos and files. Stacks of them, piles of them, heaps of them, in no apparent order, almost as if a dump truck had simply avalanched it all into the room. There were heaps of papers on the floor against the wall, a stack on the chair in front of his desk that he cleared away for me to sit down, a mound on top of the radiator by the venetian-blinded window, a veritable landslide on the overstuffed green leather couch along one wall that dominated the tiny office and made Cox at his desk behind chin-high bales of paperwork look rather as if he had been bulldozed into a corner along with a load of wastepaper. The office bore no personal touches, no mementos, no hint of residence or proprietorship, except for the predominant influence of paper of just about every kind. En lieu of wall decorations, too, there was paper: rough drafts, printed articles, syndicated columns, notes, messages, invitation cards, scribbled reminders, underscored phone numbers and names, all scotch-taped to the plaster and all obviously pieces of information that were somehow more important to the editor than the general mounds of miscellaneous data that were heaped all over the rest of the room, and thus deserved a place of privilege on the wall, where he was sure to see them and perhaps recall whatever action it was that they merited. Finally, there was his "workstation", a weighty, battered Olivetti Lexicon manual typewriter. Parts of the machine's housing had been stripped away, obviously so that the user could tinker with it and make it work whenever it decided to pack up on him. It sat atop a ramshackle wooden typing table on wheels that had at one time been a fine piece of office furniture but that now listed in two directions, slightly west and dangerously north, so that it had to be propped against the only tiny piece of empty wall in the room in order to prevent it from simply keeling over and dying, taking the moribund Olivetti with it.

Cox had a polite and humble manner, not at all the kind of hard-nosed, disdainful cynic I had rather expected to meet. He listened patiently to my plea for a chance to "come in on the ground level" and "learn the trade". I added that he wouldn't be sorry, that I wanted to be a writer more than anything on earth and that I would be as dedicated as a monk. But while he was cordial and sympathetic, I noticed that sweat was beading on his brow, that he was almost compulsively scratching both of his forearms beneath the rolled cuffs of his shirt and that he kept glancing furtively over at the piece of letter-size, yellowed newsprint rolled into the Lexicon, where he had obviously been working on something when I arrived. It was calling him even now and he had to get back to it.

"Okay," I said, at last, "I've taken enough of your time. Please just tell me you'll give me a chance and I be on my way."

"Perhaps your could contribute..." he tried.

"No, Mr. Cox..."

"Bob, call me Bob."

"Bob, I want a full-time job. I want to be a newsman. I want to write for a living."

He looked a little pained, shook his head and said, "Look, Dan, this is a slave job. Nothing like what you'd expect. We do a little of everything here. And we all have to do other things outside the Herald. We write for papers abroad to make ends meet. This is very hard...a lot of sacrifice, and frankly, I simply don't have anything for you — for anyone right now."

"Can I stop by now and then to see if something has opened up?"

He looked doubtful but said, "Yes, of course. Perhaps next time we can have a coffee at the bar around the corner. I'm just a little, uh, busy at the moment and uh..."

That was enough for me. I had his permission to come back. And come back I did — once every week or ten days for several months. Even though he sometimes had trouble restraining his irritation at my simply showing up unannounced, he seemed to admire my persistence. I would camp outside his office door for as long as it took. Sometimes he would say, "Sorry Dan, but I'm just too busy today," and I would smile and say, "No problem, see you in a few days," and leave, only to return as promised. It seemed to make him feel guilty when he rejected me and the next time he would be extra polite and we would have a cup coffee at one of the bars nearby and talk for awhile about journalism and what was going on in Buenos Aires and how Perón's return was affecting the country and about our favorite authors, and so on.

I eventually contributed a couple of very lightweight vignettes to a weekend editorial page section called Saturday Sidelight, where just about anything went, but Cox liked them and assigned me a research article on the quagmire of identity documents, work visas and travel permits invented as bureaucratic stumbling blocks by the government and about which I was accumulating abundant personal experience. But still, no job. This went on for about six months, and although I felt that, to a certain degree, he and I had become friends, I eventually lost hope that Robert Cox was ever going to give me a job. So I quit going to visit him at the Herald, simply resigned myself to having to continue to rent cars for Avis while working on my writing and hoping for the best.

It wasn't three weeks before the phone rang at home one evening and my wife told me with no little excitement in her voice that it was Robert Cox on the line.

"Hello, Bob," I said. "What a surprise!"

"Yes, uh, Dan, uh, just calling to see if you're all right."

"Well, of course I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Yes, well, bad times and all, so dangerous for foreigners you know, and you haven't been by lately, I thought perhaps something..." he trailed off.

"Listen, Bob," I said. "I like you well enough, but did you really think I was just dropping by for coffee every week? I want a job in your newspaper. I want to be a journalist. Understand?"

"Uh, yes, well, pop by next Monday then...may have something for you. Cheers."

And there I stood still holding the phone, thinking, "Hey, did I dream this or did I just land a newspaper job?"

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Sonia Factor

Unless a couple of dozen US senators lose their minds at the last minute and vote against their own conscience, Federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor will make history today by becoming the first Hispanic Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, and only the third woman to ever hold that august office.

Republican “anti-Sonia” hardliners, meanwhile, will have sealed their fate by not only alienating the Hispanic constituency (an ever-burgeoning segment of the public, with the Latin population now numbering over 42 million in the United States), but also by locking themselves into their ever more clear-cut image as knee-jerk reactionary dinosaurs wading deeper all the time into the tar pits of their own prejudices.

Try as they might, opposition senators have been unable to dig up any dirt that will stick to the brilliant 55-year-old jurist’s impeccable image. The only arguments that they have been able to raise in the grueling nomination hearings have been superficial to say the least. Every point of debate made against Judge Sotomayor has appeared subjective, involving issues that have seemed to be merely her word against that of the hardliners. They have accused her on the basis of a handful of rulings in her 17-year career on the Federal bench in which they argued that her decisions have disregarded such things as gun rights – as espoused, it bears saying, by the powerful National Rifle Association, not as stated in the Constitution – property rights and job discrimination claims by white employees. But while the opposing senators have continued to hammer on these issues, Sonia Sotomayor has been able to argue in all cases that her decisions stood on legal precedent, and hardliners have been unable to prove her wrong.

Moreover, the three-quarters of the Republicans in the Senate who are expected to vote against Judge Sotomayor have demonstrated in these hearings that their decision to do so is purely political and has more to do with racial issues and wanting to hurt President Obama than with safeguarding the country’s highest court. This is easy to see if you bear in mind that some of her harshest critics prior to the hearings – such as South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who grilled her mercilessly and hostilely in the hearings – have now declared that they will vote in her favor. Her brilliant performance under fire has obviously been the key to swaying these votes.

Republican Kit Bond of Missouri bluntly chided his fellow party members saying that partisanship had no place in debates over judges, adding that, "There's been no significant finding against her, there's been no public uprising against her…I will support her, I'll be proud for her, the community she represents and the American dream she shows is possible."

All things considered, the entire argument against her confirmation, then, has boiled down to a 2001 speech the judge made in which – in a rhetorical twist which even she has admitted was unfortunate – she said that she hoped a “wise Latina” would be able to make better decisions than a white male. Clearly, this was a statement that, if indeed public, had nothing to do with any decision of her court or with her investiture as an official of the Federal Justice System.

Furthermore, much has been made of this snippet of Judge Sotomayor’s statement, but little indeed of the context. First, the venue: The judge was speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, as a guest speaker for a symposium entitled “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation”. The whole point of the speech within the context of such a specific event was for her to illustrate precisely how her ethnic background affected her as a person, a woman, a professional and a judge. It was a personal and somewhat emotional speech in which she pointed out that while she was an American, born and raised in New York City, she was also an American who liked “morcilla and garbanzos”, whose tastes were not only not like those of white mainstream Americans but also not even like those of Mexican Americans. Rather, they were the tastes of a “niuyorican” [New York Rican] a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, whose education was definitively mainstream, but whose background was specifically Hispanic and even more specifically Puerto Rican, within the melting pot of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic culture like that of the United States.

And then there is the specific context of the controversial phrase within the speech itself. Here’s what she actually said: “Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences…our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice [Sandra Day] O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life…Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case.”

This obviously had a positive spin. What she was saying was that diversity was a good thing – something hardliner fundamentalists disagree with, which is precisely what makes them hardliners and fundamentalists – that people with rich life experiences and a more ample view of society and life might well be better equipped to make insightful and judiciously compassionate decisions than those who had led a relatively sheltered or highly indoctrinated existence. She was not, as Republican hardliners tried to make it sound, saying that she could out-think any white man, just because she was Hispanic.

To be familiar with some 450 Federal Court decisions handed down by her, as the senators were, and pretend that this one statement disqualified her was mean-spirited at best and discriminatory at worst – besides being just plain ludicrous and stupid. So much so, that it belies any claim of objectivity these senators could possibly offer and makes manifest the fact that they simply felt threatened as white males by this “uppity Latina”. Far from making her eat her words, however, they made her point by showing just how obtuse a group of powerful white male elitists could be.

The point is that if Sonia Sotomayor had been an Italian-American or an Irish-American, or a German-American, for instance, this type of issue would never have come up in a confirmation hearing. Yet all three of these other ethnic groups saw other moments in the evolution of American society in which their ethnicity might have been questioned or have precluded them from participation at such levels. The triumph of Judge Sotomayor’s appointment, when it comes, is enhanced by the fact that her ethnic group is one that has still not been fully accepted by the American establishment. Her struggle to win a spot on the Supreme Court bench, then, brings to light underlying racial prejudices that still require treatment in the United States. And her victory will have brought the US a step closer to being a truly open society, in deed and in spirit, rather than merely in the letter of the law.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

‘Wise Latina’ Proves Simply Brilliant

  • Caption: Judge Sonia Sotomayor (Official White House Photo)

Hey, do you hear that? Me either…That’s the sound of Judge Sonia Sotomayor NOT making headlines. Yesterday morning was the first time in days that President Barack Obama’s controversial pick for the Supreme Court – the first nominee for the high court named by a Democrat in 15 years and the first Hispanic appointee in history – wasn’t leading the news schedules.

I have to admit that, at first, I found the silence eerie and a bit disquieting. But then I checked around a little and figured it out: The usually flamboyant jurist, whose blunt comments have openly rankled conservative white Republican senators had handled herself with such admirable restraint as she stood up to grueling interrogation starting on Monday of this week, that by the end of the week she had successfully “underwhelmed” everybody. No longer even a headliner, she appeared to be on a course toward sure approval, no matter how hard far-right holdouts tried to delay the inevitable. In fact, one could say that, by now, if by some Republican-hardliner “miracle” she were not confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, it would be one of the greatest travesties in the history of Senate oversight.

All week long, in the Senate hearings to decide whether or not lawmakers would honor the President’s wish for her to become one of the nine justices charged with the task of making the country’s most difficult legal decisions, Democrats sought to raise a protective net around Judge Sotomayor, while Republican opponents to her appointment attacked her with rabid enthusiasm, gnashing away at her to see if they could get her to show what they had speculated were her “true colors”.

Before the 17-year veteran of the Federal Courts had ever gotten to the confirmation hearings, far-right senators and news commentators had already done their best to characterize her as a hothead, an activist, a reverse-racist, an over-emotional and perhaps even dangerous Latina of far-left persuasions, who decided cases based more on her gut than on the law. By the time Judge Sotomayor settled into the appointee’s seat before the panel of Senate ‘inquisitors’, a number of mainstream Americans were probably a little surprised that she didn’t arrive wearing olive drab fatigues and puffing a Cuban corona.

But the public hearings put that myth to rest immediately – or rather, Judge Sotomayor’s stunning performance before the hearing committee did. If she was any of the things far-right Republicans tried to lead the public to believe she was with their racist, sexist, paranoid gossip, there was never a glimpse of it all week. In fact, she received and answered (or sidestepped answering) all of their accusatory grilling with serenity, logic, grace and eloquence, demonstrating herself to be the well-focused and utterly brilliant jurist and intellectual that she is.

It was surely clear to no few objective observers that the most fervent of her opponents came to the hearings with an at least pre-conceived if not downright prejudiced bias against her. Their line of questioning made that fairly easy to see. For instance, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham saw nothing wrong with reading out a list of anonymous insults – more than criticisms - from alleged jurists who “knew” Sotomayor. Or did the senator just make them up himself? Anybody who has taken Journalism 101 knows that if you’re going to hurl accusations you had better have the sources to back them up. And in a court of law, Graham’s assertions would certainly have been referred to as “unsubstantiated hearsay” designed to bias the jury.

He claimed he knew of people who had called her “nasty”, “a bit of a bully”, a “terror” and “lacking in judicial temperament”. Graham then asked her if she thought she had a “temperament problem”. (This was tantamount to classic loaded questions of the sort of “Is it true that you’re no longer a drunk?”).

But even as insulting and gratuitous as Graham’s line of sophomoric questioning was, you could almost feel the yogini-like ooooooooooommmmmmmm vibrating in the jurist’s chest as, without allowing a flicker of the irritation she must have felt show on her face, she calmly answered, “No, sir, I can only talk about what I know about my relationships...” adding that she was on cordial terms with those she considered her colleagues, and going on to say, “…when I ask lawyers tough questions, it's to give them an opportunity to explain their positions on both sides and to persuade me that they're right.”

Obviously miffed that he couldn’t get a rise out of her, Graham, himself a lawyer, came back at her again saying, apropos of nothing, “I never liked appearing in court before a judge I thought was a bully.” To which Judge Sotomayor said that she did indeed ask attorneys tough questions, but that she did so even-handedly, on both sides of each case.

Prior to the hearings, Graham had been quoted as telling Sotomayor that “unless you have a complete meltdown, you’re going to be confirmed.” He was apparently trying to provoke just such a ‘meltdown’, but his attempt – clumsy and unsophisticated - was frustrated. In the end, the one who seemed rattled was the senator himself as he churlishly and condescendingly said that perhaps the hearings would provide Judge Sotomayor with “a time for self-reflection”. Nor was it the only time he sought to treat Sotomayor as his inferior. Twice he asked her if she recalled her now famous “wise Latina” remark (which, she had already explained, had been taken out of context and had been meant as a rhetorical device in a debate situation), then calling on her to recite it for the senate panel. When she hedged the second time he said he “had it right here” did she want him to read it? And he proceeded to do so. But to what end, other than harassment and attempted character assassination was anyone’s guess.

Clearly, the only bully in this case was Senator Graham, who seemed to be making a puerile attempt to get back at all those judges of the past that he had just admitted being scared to face in court. And like all bullies, he ended up looking flustered and foolish and decidedly un-gallant when faced with someone of true strength and self-confidence.

Earlier in the week she had also shown this strength when senior Republican committee member and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions badgered her about the same “wise Latina” remark from a 2001 speech she had made and tried to tie this alleged “attitude” to how she would rule in cases with racial implications. She said that it had been a rhetorical device gone awry and indicated that her rulings as a judge were clearly based on the law and not on anything else. The indication was that her record spoke for itself. In further questioning about racial profiling which was also linked to fears of terrorism that have been rampant in the United States ever since the nine-eleven Twin Towers attack, Sotomayor referred to a World War II Supreme Court decision that upheld the internment of Japanese-Americans saying that the decision had been wrong. Considering the obvious parallel with present attempts to combat terrorism, she also explained how current courts could keep from repeating the mistakes of World War II. In conclusion she said: “A judge should never rule from fear. A judge should rule from law and the Constitution.”

By the end of the week Senator Sessions was showing no further interest in blocking Sotomayor’s appointment and even said, “I look forward to you getting that vote before we recess in August.” And Lindsey Graham had gone as far as to say that he “might even vote” for her, stating that her decisions as a judge had been “generally in the mainstream”, an impression echoed by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

In the end, the conservative Republican committee members’ line of questioning showed that their doubts were obviously more about their own racial bias and unfounded fears than about the judge’s judicial record or her outstanding qualifications as a jurist. And throughout the questioning, Sotomayor consistently managed to underscore the fact that she was precisely what she had had to apologize for being all week long: a “wise Latina” and a brilliant professional, clearly suited to the Supreme Court seat.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor: Does White Make Right?

  • Caption: Judge Sonia Sotomayor. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

US Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has just had a lightning-bolt revelation. Namely, that President Barack Obama’s candidate for the Supreme Court, Federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is “out of the mainstream”...

I’ll wait a moment for the applause to die down before I go on.

You kind of have to figure that if Senator Sessions is just now noticing this about the New York-born Hispanic judge he either wasn’t listening before or he is just hopelessly obtuse. Well, of course, then there’s the other possibility: that he’s just now bringing it up and saying it on a nationwide news broadcast because he is still hoping against hope to hurt the 55-year-old jurist in the her confirmation hearings that started today, July 13.

One of Judge Sotomayor’s most avid defenders in the Senate, Democrat Patrick Leahy, has sought to show that the scare tactics the Republican opponents to the nomination are using are clearly unwarranted. The Associated Press has quoted him as stating that "…in truth, we do not have to speculate about what kind of a justice she will be because we have seen the kind of judge she has been. She is a judge in which all Americans can have confidence. She has been a judge for all Americans and will be a justice for all Americans…"

Leahy was talking about Sotomayor’s 17-year career as a Federal Judge, an achievement in itself considering that when she rose to the Federal bench she was approximately a decade and a half younger than most jurists are who receive that honor. Leahy stated that her record in the Federal Courts proved that she was “mainstream”.

Senator Leahy is also missing the point, however. Sonia Sotomayor is not mainstream. Not by a long shot. If her nomination makes it through the Senate hearings, she will be only the third woman ever to reach that august post, following the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 and that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (currently serving) in 1993. She will also be the first Hispanic ever to sit on the Supreme Court bench and only its third minority member in history, sharing this well-deserved honor with Thurgood Marshall (first African American, appointed in 1967) and Clarence Thomas (the only serving black Justice, appointed in 1991). But apart from these obvious differences between Judge Sotomayor and other select jurists who have acceded to the highest court in the land, there is her own personal style to be considered. Sotomayor’s absolutely stunning honesty and audacious directness are what have gotten her into trouble with traditional white male conservative opponents. They question her statements regarding her Latin-ness, about the ability of a “wise Latina” to perhaps make clearer-cut decisions than some white males. And they have strived to connect her straightforward way of talking with her court’s decisions that they have attempted to brand as unfair, when, in fact, if they have erred at all, they have done so on the side of justice for all.

The fact is that what opponents are seeking to pass off as “weaknesses” in the argument for her appointment to the Supreme Court are really among Sonia Sotomayor’s strengths. Saying what the public wants to hear and making judgments according to popular belief rather than being true to oneself and one’s values and making decisions based on sound legal and ethical analysis is not what a Supreme Court justice should be known for, nor should running with the pack.

That Judge Sotomayor is capable of seeing the world from an angle other than that of the head-on mainstream should, in fact, be considered a welcome addition to the Justice system in the United States. Clearly, as a human being, no judge, no matter how lofty a position he or she attains, can see cases without doing so through the filter of their own upbringing, education and ethnic background. While it is their duty to be objective, it is their burden but also their virtue to be able to apply what they know about themselves and their own lives to the decisions they make and the opinions they give. And one would like to think that they are appointed, among other reasons, precisely because of their personal virtues.

The arguments that have been presented against Judge Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court, while dressed up in the guise of judicial issues, have been clearly racist and sexist in their underlying tone. Many mainstream, white, conservative Americans would probably like to continue to think of the Supreme Court as nine gray-headed, grumpy old white men, there to preserve and defend to the death the white Anglo-Saxon Puritan heritage that they would like to perceive as the “real heart and soul” of America. And these people tend to find Sotomayor downright “uppity”. But the truth is that the United States is an immigrant melting pot and that it has been this highly creative life-force that has been responsible for a large proportion of the country’s development and strength, its amazing diversity and its incredible adaptability. Never has this been truer than today, when in just a few short decades, the Hispanic population of the United States has gone from a scant 9 million to more than 45 million today, with projections for as many as 100 million US Hispanics to be living in the country by 2050.

Presuming that Judge Sotomayor should have to “answer for” her ethnicity and gender as an Hispanic woman is unquestionably gender and race-driven. For her opponents to try and pretend that race only enters into the issue in as much as Sonia Sotomayor is viewed as a “racist Latina” is truly hypocritical. Would they permit themselves to be questioned regarding their pride at being of “traditional” white origin or as a result of their making decisions that reflect their own ethnic background? And if not, does their “whiteness” somehow place them in the permanent position of inquisitor rather than respondent?

Fortunately, her approval appears almost assured even if it is highly improbable that she will win the approval rating of her white women predecessors, Sandra Day O’Connor, who received a Senate approval vote of 99 to 0, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was sworn in after a vote of 96 to 3. In the end, however, the outcome of the vote matters little, as long as it is positive, thus permitting the United States to enjoy the advantage of having a brilliant jurist with a fresh take on major issues sitting on its highest Court.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Temptations of Torture

US President Barack Obama has been quite clear as regards his stance on waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques”: He considers them torture, plain and simple, and under his presidency, the United States will refuse to condone torture under any circumstances…period.

So why does the debate continue about whether or not the United States government can or cannot apply torture under certain circumstances (in which, far-right-wing commentators and torture proponents would have us believe, the ends justify the means)? Why do reporters from right-wing news media continue to hound President Obama on the subject, as if his answer to torture required justification, as if he were the one who was somehow unethical for defending the non-use of torture? Answer: Because certain officials and advisers of the former administration, who decided that they possessed the power to throw more than two centuries of American ethics regarding the inalienable and universal rights of Man out the window may now have to answer for their unmitigated arrogance and absence of moral character. And the possibility that high-ranking officials (including former presidents of the United States of America) might someday be called upon to be accountable for the questionable decisions they make, scares the daylights out of the far right. Why? Because the far right believes in central power, in some people’s being “more equal” than others, in certain rights only applying to “people like oneself”. And they had long sought a leader that was less interested in doing what was right than in doing “whatever it took”, a leader who thought that he was above the law and the Constitution, a leader who would give in to the temptations of torture, the temptations of lawlessness, the temptations of the “hanging judge” mentality of the Old West, a leader who felt that the “expediency” of vigilante “justice” was preferable to the preservation of the highest ideals of a nation that was once the shining beacon of individual and collective rights and the worldwide defender of democratic rule.

And they found that leader in the person of George W. Bush, who wasn’t averse to giving the “great unread”, movie-culture masses the fantasy they longed for: the one that says, what if there weren’t any rules and you could do whatever you wanted to the “bad guys”? The fantasy that justifies the actions of the “Dirty Harries”, and the “Rambos”, who, from the silver screen, teach the public that there’s a point at which the law no longer works and you have to take justice into your own hands.

Tyranny by Any Other Name

Most of us have that fantasy at one point or another. It is almost natural for us as individuals to have such fantasies and even for us to occasionally be tempted to act them out by getting mad and getting physical. (I myself, in this sense, do not hold myself up as an example, notorious hothead that I am). But in order for civilized society to function properly, the law and its representatives must be coldly, clearly and objectively above such feelings and the system must be devised in such a way as to ensure that officials, including the President – perhaps even especially the President – act not as individuals, but as the worthy representatives of the law, and the keepers of the morals and ethics of the nation. If not, if it becomes the attitude of the Executive that rules are made to be broken, then mob justice will simply run amok and civilization and rule of law will be such in name only, a caricature cited for effect in political rhetoric, because it is the law that is the framework for civilization and if the law and the ethical standards of a people are only applied “when they are convenient”, then they become nothing more than an expression of good intentions. And, in the end, unless they are systematically preserved as inviolable, their application is only as effective as the individual in charge at any given time. So applied (or not), ethical and legal standards eventually cease to exist. They become obsolete and are replaced by the arbitrary decisions of the powers that be.

There is a name for this state of affairs: It is called tyranny. Here, I speak not from a textbook, but from experience, having lived through a decade of this kind of authoritarianism in Argentina back in the mid to late1970s and early ‘80s. Based on that experience – back in the early days of Bush’s war on terrorism, when Guantánamo first became an issue, and when perhaps the greatest living American statesman, Jimmy Carter, was one of the few people speaking out against the holding of political prisoners without trial on the offshore US base – I had an unexpected clash with a friend, an intellectual for whom I have the highest respect, who is as bi-cultural as I myself am – a sort of reverse of my own experience, his having been born in Buenos Aires and then having spent many years living in New York. In the midst of an otherwise friendly phone conversation, I stated my opinion that what was happening in the United States, in view of the special powers the Bush government had granted itself following Nine-Eleven, had clear parallels with what had happened in Argentina (as well as in Chile and Uruguay, for example) in the 1970s.

To my surprise, my friend couldn’t figure out what I was taking about. Well, I explained, suspension of civil and human rights, detention without trial at the disposal of the Executive Branch, military council’s of war instead of proper trials, the use of coercion and mental and physical abuse to elicit confessions, etc., etc. All of those things that the military junta imposed and that, back then, would have been inconceivable in the USA, were now a part of accepted US policy. What the United States is living through, I said, are the early stages of authoritarian rule. My friend found this funny, crazy even. He laughed. Treated me with the condescension reserved for imbeciles and madmen. It wasn’t like that, he insisted. He lived in New York. He knew what he was talking about. I was “misinformed”. It was just these terrorist guys that they were holding, nothing more. It wasn’t as if the whole system were jeopardized.

Frankly, I was shocked that he failed to see the comparison, since he was an expert in political science. Because the very same arguments were used here in Argentina to justify the abuses of power and sidestepping of the law and of the Constitution indulged in by the supposed “defenders of democracy” that stepped in to “save the Republic” in this country in 1976. And at the time, a very broad spectrum of the public agreed that in order to fight terrorism you had to throw the rulebook out the window. But in the end, it would become clear to the majority of Argentines – although the far right here as in the United States, still clings to the idea of the ends justifying the means – that defending democracy and rule of law by suspending them and applying a greater lawlessness to the battle against outlaws was tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bath water. If a single person’s rights were violated, everyone’s rights were violated. Because if it could be done to one today it could be done to all tomorrow.

The arguments applied by the so-called National Reorganization Process in Argentina for methods that were clearly at odds with international standards of decency and respect for human rights and jurisprudence, as well as with the country’s own Constitution and Bill of Rights, were very much like those quoted by the Bush Administration: the existence of aggression by a “non-Western and un-Christian enemy with ties to hostile foreign powers”, the need to fight fire with fire in the kind of “dirty war” waged by lawless terrorists, the “unfortunate reality” of “collateral damage” in confrontations of this kind, the practicality of applying “extraordinary means”, justified by the greater good of saving innocent lives through “expedient preventive action”, the justification of “extraordinary powers” being assumed by the Executive Branch so as to not “tie the hands” of government in the face of a clear and present danger to “the values and way of life of an entire nation”.

But in Argentina, what this led to, in the end, was institutionalized State terror, in which tens of thousands of people were tortured, most of the time simply to “see if they knew anything” rather than based of any proper intelligence, with the “evidence” wrung from non-person prisoners by means of water torture, electric shock, beatings, extreme humiliation, drugs and so on being used to justify the detention and torture of still other thousands, with this in turn leading to the summary executions of as many as 30,000 people still referred to simply as “the missing”.

At this juncture, when the far-right is very vocally accusing President Obama of being soft on terrorism and of endangering the United States by not doing as the Bush Administration did and pretending that the Bill of Rights and the human rights treaties signed, often promoted and once-championed by the US government are non-binding suggestions rather than inviolable statements of principle, it almost seems ironic that one of the main factors in stopping the slaughter in Argentina was then-President Jimmy Carter’s insistence on respect for human rights among all countries that sought friendly ties with Washington. With what face could the United States have judged any other country’s treatment of suspects and prisoners under the Bush Administration? And as a world leader, is this the face that the people of the United States wish the Nation to have: that of a country that condones torture and is not averse to suspending rule of law for the sake of expediency; that of a country that applies one law to certain of its citizens and another to others, or that is exceptionally lawless and cruel in dealing with its prisoners of war, no matter what their nationality may be. And if this is indeed the image we are willing to accept, then, what will be the extent to which we can express outrage when our own citizens are treated with brutality when captured?

A Case in Point

The question is: Can democracy, constitutionality and rule of law escape unscathed from attempts to “work around them”? Once a rule has been broken, is it ever “hard and fast” again? And if not, if every time a single man (in this case, the President of the United States), decides that a situation warrants a constitutional “time-out”, of what use is the law and democracy as our forefathers conceived it? And if the Executive has the power to switch the legal rights of individuals on and off like artificial light and effective darkness, then what is the difference between that and authoritarianism – indeed, between that and tyranny?

Almost as controversial as the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy is the case of the late Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro (b.1916 - d.1978). Moro was a high-profile Italian politician who twice served as the country’s premier (1963-1968 and 1974-1976). On the ever-volatile Italian political scene, he was the country’s longest serving post-war leader and one of the most important figures in the Christian Democracy Party. He was an intellectual and was considered a skilled and patient mediator.

In March of 1978, members of the Red Brigades communist terror organization kidnapped Moro, demanding the release of jailed terrorist leaders in exchange for his freedom. The government took a hard line making, it clear that it refused to deal with terrorists. Despite appeals from Moro’s family that the government save him by any means necessary, the government maintained its position. In view of the government’s refusal to negotiate, the Vatican intervened, with Pope Paul VI calling on the Red Brigades to unconditionally release the former prime minister. When this didn’t work, the Pope offered to take Moro’s place as the terrorists’ hostage if they would agree to the politician’s release. Nothing worked, and after holding Aldo Moro for 54 days, his kidnappers murdered him and left his body in the trunk of a car parked on a street in Rome.

There is now speculation that, despite the fact that the Red Brigades were almost surely involved in the kidnapping and murder, there was collusion with others who stood to gain from his death, including US and other interests in NATO and Moro’s successor and co-party member, Giulio Andreotti. Moro and Andreotti were from different factions of the Christian Democrats. While Andreotti was strongly rumored to have ties to both the CIA and the Italian and US Cosa Nostra and, as such, to be radically anti-communist, Moro, ever the mediator, saw the advantage of bringing members of Italy’s then-influential Communist Party into a coalition government. According to statements attributed to Moro’s widow, the former premier had received such strong warnings not to pursue this idea from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Nixon Administration) that he had, at the time, become frightened and ill and had considered leaving politics altogether. The ties between Moro’s assassination and Andreotti came up in a trial against the Andreotti years later for the murder of yet another politician and for his alleged Mafia ties. Andreotti was found guilty on a prosecution appeal and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, but the decision was later overturned in a defense appeal, and to this day, the former Prime Minister (now aged 90) sits in the Italian Parliament with the title of Senator for Life.

While interesting and revealing, these facts are not, in themselves, the point. What is germane, however, is that despite the extremely high profile and importance of the Moro abduction and in spite of the political machinations behind it, government and security officials at the time refused to bend the law to fit their political needs. Italy’s staunch pro-human rights stance remained firm despite the formidable threats posed at the time by the Red Brigades on the one hand and the long-standing Mafia on the other. When it was widely suggested that certain political-profiled prisoners’ feet should be put to the coals in order to expedite the investigation and secure the immediate release of the former prime minister, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa – a ranking officer in the Italian Carabinieri and one of the architects of the country’s anti-terrorist policies and enforcement strategies – is quoted as having responded: "Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture."

Dalla Chiesa himself was murdered along with his wife and driver by the Mafia in 1982. But that didn’t make him any less right about what he said. Although the fight waged by all legal means against the Sicilian Mafia and the Red Brigades brought the assassinations of numerous law enforcement and justice officials, persistent legal action eventually brought the substantial dismantling and stunning debilitation of both movements and the clear strengthening of Italy as both a political power and as a paladin of civilized culture and society.

But Does It Work?

Torture as an interrogation technique is highly questionable, not only from a moral and ethical standpoint but also with respect to its actual efficacy. Here in Argentina false leads gained through torture were, perhaps, the singlemost cause for the subsequent torture and summary executions of other people who were absolutely innocent of any links with terrorism. Torturing someone beyond all boundaries of human resistance while repeating a question or demand obviously begs an answer – whatever answer pops into his/her head – from the torture victim. In Argentina, it was reportedly not uncommon for interrogators to simply repeat, “I want a name! A name! A name!”, while punctuating each demand for a name with a blow from a nightstick, a kick in the ribs or a punch in the face. After long minutes of mistreatment, prisoners would obviously come up with a name…any name: an rival, a casual acquaintance, their landlord, their boss, any name at all that might stop the abuse.

Or in other words, such unsophisticated techniques often lead to bad intelligence. And experienced intelligence agents and military interrogators in the United States are not unaware of this. There is reason to believe that intelligence professionals may well have been bullied into using the techniques by political officers in the Bush Administration, judging from reports that show that more than a few of them have left little doubt that they find torture an unreliable tool for extracting sound information.

In 2005, the New York Times quoted CIA Inspector General John Helgerwon as saying in a 2004 report that the so-called EITs (advanced interrogation techniques) “appeared to constitute cruel and degrading treatment under the [Geneva] Convention” – an international treaty that the United States has waved in the faces of its enemies in successive wars when these foreign powers have mistreated US captives.

Former CIA officer Bob Baer is reported to have told ABC News that torture made for “bad interrogation”. He said: “I mean, you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture’s bad enough.”

Another former CIA officer, Larry Johnson, who also served for a period as Deputy Director of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Office wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “What real field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust…than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets.”

ABC and other media have quoted CIA sources as saying that certain presumably crucial information extracted from Libyan-born al Qaeda trainer Ibn al Shaykh al Libi through torture ended up being proven false. Al Libi was subjected to the whole battery of progressively harsher “enhanced interrogation techniques” over a two-week period, and finally broke after being waterboarded and left to stand naked overnight in a cold cell, while being periodically hosed down with cold water. The statements he gave under duress where largely the basis for the Bush Administration’s claims that Iraq possessed biochemical weapons and trained al Qaeda members in their use. In other words, his confession was a major plank in the administration’s platform for launching its attack on Iraq. It was later established by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that Al Libi really had no such knowledge and had only told his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear – either to purposely mislead them or simply in order to make the torture stop.The DIA said in an official report that the Libyan’s statements were “unreliable”, since he could provide no further details to corroborate his confession resulting from torture.

Justice Where Justice Is Due

President Obama has been criticized for leaving the decision as to whether to try officials who condoned and ordered torture under the Bush Administration to Justice and the Courts.

Hard-line liberals had hoped the President would be an avenging angel, who would swoop down on human rights violators in government and make them pay for undermining North America’s image and substance as a staunch defender of human rights and rule of law. Far right-wingers wanted him to “show patriotism” by intervening and granting immunity to those who permitted and ordered the use of the torture techniques – which they whimsically refer to as EITs.

But in the end, the criticism in both camps is morally, politically and ethically misplaced, since in the hands of Justice is precisely where that decision must lie, not in those of the Chief of State, if Americans’ rights are to be properly protected and tyranny is to be kept at bay.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Obama and the ‘tea-ed off’ GOP

For a lot of people abroad who were following the events of last week in the United States on TV, this whole thing about the “tea parties” held around the country must have been baffling. In fact, with what some Americans themselves know about our history in this day and age, in which vast sectors of the population appear to have developed a virulent allergy to books and reading, it was probably just as puzzling an event to many of them as well. The fact is, however, that the original “Boston Tea Party”, was a brief but very major event in American history, since it constituted a catalytic episode in the run-up to the Revolution against British imperialist tyranny.

Caption: "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor", an 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier.

The ones who know precisely how important that “party” was, however, are the guys in the Republican Party’s dirty-tricks think tank who organized and promoted it. And don’t give me that bull about how it was a spontaneous outpouring of American anti-tax and anti-liberal sentiment, because I’m not buying it. You don’t get the kind of press this protest got – especially on “fair and balance” Fox news (come on, Murdock, gimme a break!) – if it’s a spontaneous grassroots thing, especially not when it all ostensibly came together “overnight”. And particularly not when they bring out the big guns in prime time to rally ‘round the cause.

Fox and (Dubya’s) Friends.

Take “registered independent” (as he reminds us, ad pukeum) Fox News star Bill O’Reilly, who “doth protest too much” when anyone accuses him of being a conservative lackey, but who, if he doesn’t already have a GOP elephant tattooed on his chest, should really get one, because he clearly got hit in butt with the White House door when ex-President Bush left office and is ticked off about it. Yes, Bill, we can tell. If not, his night-time “news” commentary show, The O’Reilly Factor, wouldn’t keep on defending the Bush Administration tooth and nail every evening, when it’s so obviously a new day in Washington. I means, geez louise, Bill! Get the heck over it! Dubya’s gone home. He’s through. And unless you’re going to stop toiling every single night with all of the rest of the far-right dinosaurs on your show (like your buddy and arch-conservative pit-bull Newt Gingrich) to prepare the groundwork for the next election four years down the road, then maybe you ought to quit insisting about how “independent” you are or how “fair and balanced” Fox is. How can you expect decent, fair-minded folks not to call you (to paraphrase one of your favorite epithets) a “rightwing loon” when you rant and rave like you do every night against the Obama Administration. Especially when the guy who writes your multi-million-dollar pay check each year (Fox President Roger Ailes) was a media consultant for Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush (the elder) – let’s face it, telling three US Presidents, all from the same party, how to meet the press, seems like a trend – before he was recruited from NBC’s cable division by Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdock to create Fox News.

And then there’s Sean Hannity who follows O’Reilly each night with practically the same format as his – bash everyone left of Adolph Hitler – but in this case, with no apologies for being a frothing-at-the-mouth far-right mad dog. Even the Fox News management seems to have thought that Hannity was too right to be “right” and for 12 years created a parody of fairness by running him alongside “Fox liberal” (and I use the term advisedly) Alan Colmes. Colmes’ job was basically to lose every argument and let Hannity bully and dump on him every night, but still, there was a limit to just how insanely far-right Hannity could get without someone saying, “Hey, wait a minute, Sean, get a grip!”

But even the almost comatosely mild Alan Colmes apparently decided a dozen seasons of playing the “straw man” to Sean Hannity’s ruthless attacks was more than enough and this year left the show, according to him, “to make a greater contribution” to the network. If his personal blog, Alan Colmes’ Liberaland, is anything to go by, Alan’s “greater contribution” isn’t going to scare Hannity in the ratings. Topping yesterday’s items was this lead, and I quote:

“Edgar Mitchell, who flew on the 1971 Apollo 14 mission to the moon, says there is extraterrestrial life, and that it’s being concealed by the United States government, among others.”

The story’s legitimate enough, though not original – it has already been on other TV channels as a human interest feature – but is just the sort of thing that promises to keep Colmes’ “contribution” as zanily “liberal” as possible and keep him or anybody else from undermining the apparent intention of Fox News to destabilize and, if possible, destroy the current administration of the United States.

An exaggeration? Suffice it to say that after cheerleading for the “tea parties” for days on end, Sean Hannity last night interviewed former Vice President Richard Cheney and the clear theme of his questioning was “just how dangerous is Barack Obama to the security of the United States and the world?” Cheney, the most dangerous vice president in history, as current Vice President Joe Biden once referred to him, was only too happy to comply in the orchestrated, nightly character assassination that Fox has sought to carry out since Day One of the Obama Presidency. The virulence of Hannity’s attacks is the kind formerly reserved by rightwing commentators only for figures like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez, openly considered enemies of the United States. But it should be remembered that the person he is attacking in this way now is the overwhelmingly elected Chief of State of his own country, and his intention is obvious: to undermine the presidency of the United States of America. If the shoe were on the other foot, and the person under such virulent attack were George W. Bush instead of Barack Obama, both Hannity and O’Reilly would surely be asking their audiences if the perpetrator weren’t, perhaps, a terrorist and deserving of waterboarding to find out whom he is working for.

But, okay, let’s all pretend we don’t know who’s behind the “tea parties” – like many tried to pretend they didn’t know Nixon was behind the Watergate break-in scandal that ended up costing him his presidency – and just agree that whoever organized them, their purpose was to send out a message of rebellion, with a pseudo-patriotic bent.

The Original Festivities.

The original Boston Tea Party took place in 1773, three years before the 13 original New England colonies declared their independence from Britain and engaged the crown in full-scale war. Details are somewhat sketchy as to the event itself, but not so regarding the context. What it boils down to is that friends of the Court who formed part of the British East India Company – a concern that was long at the forefront of British expansionism – lost some of the tax breaks that it had been receiving under former agreements for the tea they brought into England from abroad. The East India Company did not supply tea directly to the American colonies, but sold it at auction in England to tea merchants who then exported it to the colonies, adding their commissions to the cost. However, when the crown imposed its thirst for greater revenues on the East India Company’s tea trade, it was the American colonists who took the hit for the higher costs that the East India monopoly passed on to the tea merchants.

To add insult to injury, the colonists could buy their tea much more cheaply from Dutch traders, for instance, but the East India monopoly began to lose vast sums of money to these traders from other countries. To get around this, the solution arrived at by the British government, with a nod from King George, was the Tea Act of 1773. This law gave the East India Company a full refund of a 25% tax it paid on the tea it imported into England, while permitting the monopoly, for the first time, to export tea directly to the colonies. This allowed it to cut out the cost of middle men and to better compete with Dutch traders. But to further cripple the competition, the only merchants that could handle tea in the colonies were now crown-appointed colonial merchants in major American ports, with any purchases they made elsewhere becoming tantamount to smuggling. The main fly in the ointment, however, was a tax known as the Townshend Tax that was only paid on tea shipped to the colonies. It was a direct imperial tax on the settlers and was considered discriminatory by the colonists. Those who favored the tax in Britain argued that it was used to defray the cost of salaries paid to British officials in the colonies. If the tax were repealed the risk was that payment of colonial officials would eventually become the responsibility of the colonists themselves and the fear was that the imperial officials’ loyalty would eventually lie with the British Americans who paid them, rather than with the crown. So the controversial tax on tea stood.

The colonists of Massachusetts protested that they had a right to only pay taxes levied by their elected colonial representatives – and this was backed by earlier agreements hammered out with the crown – since, in England itself, they were not adequately and directly represented and, therefore, whatever was dictated in this way was basically tyranny. Furthermore, it seemed to them that they were the butt of a cruel irony since the Townshend Tax paid colonial officials whose very job it was to protect the interests of the crown in detriment to those of the colonists themselves.

And they were not alone in their protests. By the time of the uprising in Massachusetts, demonstrators in three other colonies had already managed to prevent British merchant ships from unloading taxed tea in their ports. But the crown had apparently decided to make a stand in Boston Harbor and Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson was under pressure to keep the protest from succeeding in the influential Massachusetts Colony. Despite his subjects’ fervent requests – and, eventually, heated demands, with angry rallies in Boston where protesters numbered in the thousands – that the tea be turned away from the harbor, the governor refused to be a part of the self-styled embargo and the tea landed on Boston’s wharf, backed and enforced by the governorship.

Hutchinson was obviously out of touch with the depth of sentiment among the colonists he governed regarding actions taken by a Parliament on the other side of the ocean in which they had no direct representation and it was his stubborn refusal to listen to reason that led to the direct action taken by a group of what today would probably be called “terrorists” and “leftwing loons” – especially by “conservatives” of the ilk of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and former Speaker of the House Gingrich.

Details of this action, as I say, are sketchy but it seems that somewhere between 30 and 130 men (…um, what shall we call them? Militant activists? Far-left extremists? Freedom fighters? Enemy terrorists? Far-left loons? Patriots? Pinheads? You call it, O’Reilly…), some disguised as Indians to avoid identification, climbed aboard the ships under cover of night, broke open the crates on board and dumped the taxed tea into the waters of the Boston Harbor.

British demands that the rebel colony pay for the damages were rejected, resulting in a British embargo on trade with Massachusetts until reparation was made. It was indeed a controversial point, and even some people who would later be considered major American patriots, such as Benjamin Franklin, thought such a vandalistic act was going too far and that reparation should be made. But the stand-off between the colonies and the crown over this and other increasingly coercive acts on the part of the British government eventually led to the first shots of the Revolution’s being fired just two years later.

Tea Parties Today.

So what does this have to do with last week’s “tea parties” organized and orchestrated across the United States? In point of fact, nothing. Indeed, it is important here – since the GOP has insisted on making the comparison by shamelessly using an act of rebellion against imperialist tyranny with a tax package passed by the elected Congress of the United States in a desperate effort to clean up the ungodly mess that an eight-year Republican administration left behind – to figure out who’s who in this farcical tableau.

What every schoolchild recalls about the Boston Tea Party is that it was about “taxation without representation”. But what no one knows without in-depth study of the event, is that the accent was on representation. The tax was no more than a symbol of imperial tyranny. What the colonists were seeking by refusing to pay the Townshend tax was self-determination and what the British crown was seeking by insisting on imposing it was authoritarian control over its American subjects. The protests of last week that shamelessly sought to link the Obama Administration’s policies to this historical event were about perceived high taxes. That was never the issue in the Boston Tea Party. In fact, with the passage of the Tea Act, certain taxes were repealed and the price of tea in the colonies went down to such a degree that it became competitive with smuggled Dutch tea. The Townshend tax on the colonists was only 3%. So the protest and direct action were not because of taxation as such, but because of the principle involved. What the colonists rejected was London’s tyrannical decision to impose a tax in which they had no say and from which they derived no benefits. What they were opposing was despotic interference in their internal affairs. The tax was merely a symbol of their enslavement to and exploitation by the crown.

Last week’s protest has nothing to do with anything except the GOP’s whining about losing the election last November and being so soundly trounced by Barack Obama. Typically, rather than seeking to cooperate and help find a consensual solution to a grave crisis that is affecting the nation, the ultra-conservative political machine is busy seeking ways of taking advantage of the situation in order to undermine the authority of the Democratic Administration and further deepen the perception of crisis and chaos, with the aim of weakening the president’s position at every turn and ensuring that he will be replaced by a Republican at the end of his four years. It is an attitude that is unworthy and unpatriotic, but, unfortunately, not unexpected in a group of self-interested, far-right radicals who refuse to admit that the problem, like the bailout itself, started with them and that it is now President Obama’s job to try and fix the overwhelming mess they left behind.