Confronting Tyranny and Stupidity -- recent updates

It's been a little over four years since I delivered a brief talk -- "Confronting Tyranny and Stupidity: What Works?" -- for a teach-in on democracy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  The occasion was the abolition of the Faculty Senate at the university.  Much has happened since then, including this, this, and this from recent days. The natives are restless.  My talk was basically about the varieties of oligarchy that have afflicted many world societies and, alas, some contemporary American institutions as well.  (The YouTube video of the first part of the talk streams above.  Part II and Part III can be found here.) 

Dan Froomkin's essay in Nieman Watchdog describes the some of the broader patterns of oligarchy in the country right now, noting the forces now arrayed against the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Quoting political scientist Stanley Winters, he comments:

What this means, Winters says, "is that although U.S. democracy is founded on one-person-one-vote, each oligarch can bring to the political table the dollar impact of 20,000 Americans.  Decisions like Citizens United open the flood gate for oligarchs and their minions in the wealth defense industry to flex the maximum political muscle money can buy.  And that's just in the context of electoral campaigns.  No one is even talking about how the wealth defense industry silently and invisibly benefits American oligarchs every day, year-round."

By contrast, he says: "Anybody who wants to challenge the wealthy, they've got to get rained on, and eventually snowed on, and it means they have to stop whatever they're doing. Ordinary citizens actually have to join organizations and physically be there and participate, to the exclusion of anything else they might do. And that is at tremendous burden."

His conclusion: "This is one of the reasons a very small number of ultra-wealthy Americans can distort democracy in their favor against tens of millions of ordinary citizens."

My talk concludes with some reflections on Barbara Tuchman's wonderful book, The March of Folly, a work that grows in relevance each day.  Here is her optimistic vision of how citizens, leaders and whole societies might begin to dissolve the follies in which they are enmeshed:

"If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is the summit of the art of government."  

"Health and Safety" trumps 1st Amendment rights in L.A.

                        Guy Fawkes of Occupy Los Angeles stands in front of L.A. City Hall

Perhaps someone will explain to me why the so-called "liberal" majors of cities across the U.S. have suddenly decided that protecting "public health and safety" outweighs First Amendment protections of "the freedom of speech ...[and] the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  Are there worrisome signs of illness at Occupy sites?    Beyond the news of police beating, gassing and pepper spraying demonstrators, is there compelling evidence of danger to public safety?  The sites I've visited have been clean, orderly and welcoming with no signs of disease beyond ordinary autumn sniffling from allergies and colds.  Yet we are led to believe that the encampments are major hazards to our physical well-being.

Here's the crucial part of the statement of Antonio R. Villaraigosa, Mayor of Los Angeles, justifying his order to evict Occupy Los Angeles on Monday.

The Occupy movement is now at a crossroads. The movement faces the question of how it can build on its initial success.  It is a question of whether energy will be consumed to defend a particular patch of earth or whether that energy will be channeled to spreading the message of economic equality and signing more people up for the push to restore the balance to American society.

The encampment in City Hall Park is not sustainable. This is especially true from the standpoint of public health and public safety. Accordingly, we must close, repair and re-open the park to public access. For this reason, we will close the park on Monday, November 28th at 12:01 am. The park closure will include a set of measures that will assist Occupy LA participants to move their personal belongings and property from the park. We will also offer social and health services for those in need.

I am very proud of the fact that since the start of the occupation of City Hall Park, we have done things differently in Los Angeles. We have not stared each other down from opposite sides of barricades and barbed wire. We have communicated. We have listened. We have negotiated. It has allowed us to solve problems peacefully and to avoid the scenes of violence and brutality that have strained the civic fabric of other cities.

It is my hope that we can conclude this first chapter of Occupy LA in a similar spirit. I admire your courage and character. You have opened the eyes of your fellow citizens to the economic hardship in their midst. I am encouraged by your passionate commitment to social justice and look forward to the continued progress of your efforts.

The condescension that drips from this proclamation appears to be an attempt by Mayor Villaraigosa to salvage his reputation and (until now) promising political career at the very moment that he's calling in the riot troopers.  His promise of "health and social services for those in need" will come in handy for those likely to be injured in the tomorrow's melee, since Occupy L.A. has promised to stand firm.  His praise for the his efforts "to avoid the scenes of violence and brutality that have strained the civic fabric of other cities" leaves out an additional phrase -- "until now!"

The flagrant dishonesty of the rationale the Mayor offers has become standard boilerplate in justifications for brutal crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street protests nationwide.  If public health and safety have somehow become America's most urgent problem right now, why are budgets for Medicaid, public health services and local law enforcement being slashed in our towns and cities?

Do us a favor.  Just tell us the real reasons for the arrests, beatings and episodes of political cleansing taking place in America right now. We can handle it  (and make plans accordingly).

Science fiction as prophecy: Robocops 2011

Here's a photo of  Portland's finest, the fabulous "first responders" now called out to quash dissent and suppress freedom.  One thing that strikes me is how closely they resemble "Robcop" from the 1987 movie. These costly, disgusting cyborgs and now on parade in dozens of towns, cities and even college campuses  across the U.S., paid for by lavish spending on "homeland security." Is this the image of America's future?

By the way, all of the excited chatter about "hybrids" and "cyborgs" in the humanities and social sciences in recent years helped venerate creatures of this sort. How does it look now, cyborg theorists?