Friday, July 29, 2011

DEBT CEILING crisis: Thomas Nast - Who drove the country into bankruptcy?

Thomas Nast drew the above cartoon for Harper's Weekly in August 1871 as a slam against rampant graft by New York City's political boss William M. Tweed.  Easily the most corrupt politician in American history, Tweed (the big fat man with the huge diamond chest pin in the drawing) and his circle stole an estimated $200 million from the city (billions in modern money) during their brief reign in power, a record that stands even today.  

The New York Times that summer of 1871 got its hands on a stolen copy of the Tweed Ring's account books, which it published on its front page.  The disclosure -- considered the newspaper Scoop of the Century back then -  demonstrated that huge thefts had taken place, but failed to connect them to individual names.  Nast, in his cartoon, simply asks: "Who Stole the People's Money?" and every member of the Tammany Ring - Tweed, his top henchmen, city contractors, and the rest - points to the one next to him and his "Twas him."  

Thomas Nast, the brilliant young artist whose Harpers Weekly
cartoons helped do in Boss Tweed's political machine.
Ultimately, further detective work would trace the stolen money directly to Tweed's personal bank account, and Tweed would spend much of his final years in various prisons.

All of which brings us to the humiliating spectacle being played out this week in the United States Congress, dragging the US literally to the brink of default by its failure to lift the technical debt ceiling before borrowing authority runs out on August 2.  This remarkable, breath-taking act of political incompetence -- the question of who is right or wrong on the underlying policy issues became moot long ago -- is a financial crime almost as bad as that of Tweed and his cronies.  A US default or credit downgrade will affect people across the country far more cruelly than anything Tweed did.  

Yet ask any of today's political leaders about it, and the answer is the same:  Don't blame me.  Somebody else did it.  It's not my fault.

I think Tom Nast's 1871 cartoon perfectly captures the situation in Washington, D.C. today, with a two minor changes:
  1. The caption should be:  "Who drove the country into bankruptcy? -- Do tell."
  2. And instead of Tweed and his Tammany cronies, the faces in the circle should include Obama, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party zealots, the media talking heads, Democrats and Republicans, Wall Street bankers, and don't forget George W. Bush.

The fact is, today's political crisis is everybody's fault. They all did it together.  And now nobody takes responsibility.  (Though, as I write this on Friday morning, July 30, Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) is trying to move a last-minute plan, after the House last night failed to pass Speaker John Boehner's last attempt.) 

Sorry for the rant.  Hopefully the weekend will bring better news on this front.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

CIVIL WAR: The "Great Skedaddle" -- Union disaster, modern fitness event, or dumbing down history?

Re-enacters at Manassas, Virginia, for the 150 anniversary this past weekend.  The way a re-enactament should be.
Don't get me wrong.  I love Civil War re-enactments.  A few thousand guys -- fellow history fanatics -- camping out on a summer weekend, with horses, explosions, cool uniforms and antique gear,  marching and charging, noise, gunpowder, celebrating the minutiae and deeper meanings of iconic events -- all the good things about a war, and nobody gets hurt (except the occasional horse bite, twisted ankle, bad food reaction, or heat stress).

Can you imagine a better sign that two once-enemy peoples have buried the hatchet than being able to re-enact an old battle for the sheer fascination with history, legacy, and friendships?  Imagine a world, for instance, where some day Israelis and Egyptians might stage annual re-eactments of the Suez Canal crossings of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Imagine the great gear for that!), then trade memorabilia and drink beers together over a campfire.  Then you'd know that true peace had really come to the Middle East. 
Stonewall Jackson and his Virginians turning the tide 
First Manassa, (Bull Run), July 21, 1861.  

The American Civil War is re-enactment heaven. We stage hundreds each year, especially here in Virginia, so rich in sites.  And this past weekend, the 150th anniversary of the first great Civil War battle -- what Virginians call Manassas (for the town) and people up north call Bull Run (for the stream) -- saw some of the best.

But even I had a swallow hard at seeing the strangest proposed event so far, what sponsors are calling The Great Skedaddle.  Scheduled for September 3, here's how they describe it on their web site:  

 "The Great Skedaddle is a term used to describe the disorganized retreat of Union troops back to Washington after their unexpected defeat at the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. We will commemorate this historic retreat along the Washington and Old Dominion Trail with a running, walking and biking event along the paved W&OD Trail."  

Really?  A celebration of a disorganized retreat?  For the sake of a bicycle ride?  At $20 per ticket?

Some quick history:

Here's the problem.  The battle of First Manassas (I'll stick with the Virginia name) was the first large engagement of the Civil War, some 30,000 Union troops under recently-promoted Brigadier General Irvin McDowell facing some 30,000 Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard  (McDowell's West Point classmate) and Joe Johnston.  The war had barely just started, being just three months since South Carolinians had shelled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.  McDowell personally felt his own quickly-assembled army not ready yet for a major fight, but political pressure for a quick Union victory pushed him into the field.  "You are green, it is true, but they are green also," President Abe Lincoln assured him before the battle.

Washington socialites and politicians gleefully joined the excitement.  When McDowell and his army took the field in July 1861, many local big-shots followed in carriages, along with wives, girls friends, and gourmet picnic baskets.  They all expected a rousing good time, the exciting spectacle of a victory against disorganized rebels.  

Union soldiers and supplies fleeing the Manassas battlefield on 
July 21, 1861.  Painting by  William T. Trego. 
The two armies met on July 21 near what is now the Washington, D.C. suburb of Manassas, Virginia, a short drive out today's traffic-clogged Route 66.   McDowell struck first, sending his soldiers, full of fight and idealism, across Bull Run creek to attack the confederate camp. 

Despite many missteps and miscommunications, McDowell's troops took an early advantage.  But after hours of hard fighting, the tide began to turn.  Union soldiers, trying to press an advantage at one key point, came up against Confederate Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, a little-known former professor from VMI (Virginia Militray Institute), who lined up his Virginia troops and ordered them to hold.  "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall," Confederate Bernard Bee famously shouted.   "Rally behind the Virginias." 

And so they did.  Whether Bee meant it as insult or compliment is unclear -- he died in the battle -- but the "Stonewall" nicknamed stuck and Jackson emerged hero of the day.

The Union soldiers began an orderly retreat.  But when traffic clogged a stone bridge back across Bull Run Creek, fear turned to panic.  Many of the exhausted soldiers, having just faced combat for the first time in their lives, dropped their weapons and ran as bullets flew overahead and cannon continued to bellow.  Supply wagons clogged the roads, along with the civilian tourists and picnickers joining the retreat -- which heightened the panic and disorder.  They all raced back in the direction of the Capitol, and had covered ten to fifteen miles before order could be restored.  

The name people attached to the spectacle -- the Great Skedaddle --- was no compliment.   

Dumbing it Down:

What the picnickling spectators expected to see at Bull Run that day in 1861 was something much like the re-enactors of 2011: a fine visual spectacle,full of pomp and glory.  Instead, the came face to face with war: terror, death, and live ammunition.   In the end, the two sides at First Manassas suffered over 5,000 casualties, including over 800 Union and Confederates soldiers killed in battle.   McDowell would be replaced as Union commander. 
The W&OD trail today.  Things are much calmer.

 The Great Skedaddle, that panicked retreat,  was a sober growing-up moment for North and South alike. It ended any hope on either side for a quick war, and any pretense that war might mean glory and spectacle rather than pain, fear, and death.   The enormous courage and commitment of soldiers north and south who pressed on over the next four years was made all the more eloquent after they had faced the reallity of terror on the road home from Manassas in July 1861.  

So what does it say about out modern understanding of the Civil War that this same Great Skedaddle would become a moment to emulate?  Not a exactly a re-enactment, rather an excuse for theme-based outdoor exercise?    Yes, today's W&OD bicycle trail -- built on the old Washington & Old Dominion railroad track bed -- approximately was the scene of much of the retreat, but that's not exactly the point.

On one level, I suppose some of the soldiers from 1861 might be touched to know they risked their lives so that some couch potato 150 years in the future might stand up and turn off the TV for a few hours and get some exercise.  On balance, though, the Great Skedaddle gets my award for most dumbed-down history of summer 2011.

Again, don't get me wrong.  Let's have bike rides galore on Virginia's beautiful trails.  But please, a different name.  Or, if you must (I admit, the name is kind of cute), then maybe another story?

Monday, July 25, 2011

CONTEST: Debt Ceiling Russian Roulette !!

Cartoon by Marshall Ramsey of Creators Syndicate.

Just when you think Washington can't screw it up any worse.....  

For weeks, as the Capitol has consumed itself in its summer tragi-comic fire drill to raise the debt ceiling, expert after expert has come forward with cataclysmic predictions that if the USA actually does end up defaulting on its $14.3 trillion debt on or about August 2 -- the current target -- financial markets will implode.  Investors will dump American stocks and bonds and send the country careening into fiscal chaos, a depression worse than the 1930s.  Are they right? 

Unfortunately, with President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and the other Capitol Hill leaders apparently incapable either of solving the puzzle or trusting each other with a deal, it now looks increasingly like we're going to find out. 

So while the rest of the country faces calamity, we at Viral History have decided to mark this truly historic moment with a contest.  We call it Debt Ceiling Russian Roulette

See if you are any smarter than the Washington politicians and TV expertsTo enter Debt Ceiling Russian Roulette, just post a comment on this Blog telling us what you think will happen to the Dow Jones Industrial Average on August 2, 2011, the day of the expected default (or August 3 if the US Treasury waits until after markets close on the 2nd to announce the default - or lack thereof).  Will the Dow Jones --
  • Crash as global investors dump American assets, like the experts say?  If you think so, tell how how many points you think it will lose.  Hundreds?  Thousands?   
  • Soar through the ceiling as Congress and Obama reach a surprise last-minute deal?  If so, how high?
  • Stay relatively flat as investors either shrug at the latest boneheaded news from Washington or wait for other shoes to drop?  or
  • Rally, having collapsed in the days beforehand, staging a technical "dead cat bounce"?  
The entry closest to the actual number (points up or down on the Dow Jones for the day) wins.  If there's a tie, victory goes to the earlier entry.  So don't dawdle.  No entries will be accepted after midnight, August 1. 

My own guess is that Wall Street will shrug at first, and the real ugly crash will come later in the week when overseas markets panic.  So my official entry is this: Dow Jones +12.

Enter today.  And tell your friends.  It's free (as all speech in America should be), and the winner will receive a bottle of wine from us. 
[In the increasingly unlikely event they agree to raise the debt limit before the weekend, ending the crisis and making this contest moot, we'll give a tepid half cheer and call the whole thing off.] 

Meanwhile, enjoy the hot summer weather.   

Thursday, July 21, 2011

GUEST BLOGGER: Amy Arden on Buck Taylor, the original Cowboy Hero

One of the many books, pamphlets, and dime novels featuring Taylor during the 1880s.

Western history buffs easily recognize the name “Buffalo” Bill Cody, the soldier-turned-showman who transformed the American frontier from remote hinterland to popular entertainment. But the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—really America’s first cowboy celebrity—remains relatively obscure, despite a biography nearly as colorful.

Buck Taylor, the handsome, physical cowpoke
during his height as Buffalo Bills star performer.
William Levi Taylor, better known as “Buck,” probably born in Texas in 1857, was orphaned at a young age.  Buck taught himself to ride and found work on ranches, eventually making his way to Nebraska. Here, he met Buffalo Bill, who saw something promising in the strapping young Texas and began grooming him for performance.

At 6’ 3”, Buck Taylor towered over most men, with his thick, shoulder-length brown hair and handsome features. A reporter for New York Daily Tribune, seeing Buck standing alongside Buffalo Bill and a show manager in early 1887, desccibed them this way:  “Three fine specimens of American manhood stood together yesterday in the cafe of the Hoffman House and attracted a great deal of attention. Their marked physiques alone would have insured notice.”
Buck Tayler was no actor.   He had a wooden presence on stage and got poor reviews in the 1880s when Buffalo Bill asked him to fill in for him in the title role of a Western-themed play he’d written for himself called The Prairie Waif

Buffalo Bill Cody, writer, actor, showman,
promoter, entrepreneur, creator of the highly
profitable Wild West Show.
            Nevertheless, Buck Taylor delighted crowds in the arena, showing off his riding and roping and even a form of square-dancing on horseback. Buffalo Bill dubbed him “The King of the Cowboys.”  He attracted fans, reporters, and, during a European tour, even the British prime minister, who dropped by to say hello during one of the show’s stopovers in London.  Prentiss Ingraham, who authored scores of dime novels back then, made Taylor the hero of numerous cowboys-and-Indians yarns with colorful titles such as Buck Taylor, the Saddle King; The Lasso King’s League; The Cowboy Clan; Buck Taylor, the Comanche Captive, and Buck Taylor’s Boys or The Red Riders of the Rio Grande. Ingraham freely invented scenes and dialogues that burnished Taylor’s legend while paying scant attention to historical fact. 

            Buck Taylor left the Wild West show around 1890 and bought a ranch in Wyoming.  Later he tried to start his own Western show, but it soon failed.

            Even after retirement, Buck stayed in the public eye.  He spawned an impersonator, a man whose real name was Barry Tatum. Tatum (as Taylor) campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt during Roosevelt’s 1898 campaign to be governor of New York State, and, even more bizarrely, appeared in advertisements for Peruna cough syrup in the Buck Taylor guise. The two men became so confused that when Tatum died in 1900, several newspapers, including The New York Times, believed he actually was Buck Taylor and ran erroneous obituaries.
       The real Buck Taylor spent his old age as a farmer in Pennsylvania, where he died in 1924 and was famous among the locals for wearing a sombrero.  There is yet another Buck Taylor, the actor Walter Clarence aka “Buck” Taylor, best known for his appearances on Gunsmoke.

Amy Arden is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and first discovered Buck Taylor at the Library of Congress.  She has been following his trail ever since.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

HISTORY: GUEST NOTE: Robin Rausch on the Library of Congress's National Jukebox

One of the many very cool tune collections on this new LC site.

Hey Ken!

I wanted to call your attention to the National Jukebox project at the Library of Congress.   Launched in May, the National Jukebox is a collaboration between the Library of Congress and Sony Music Entertainment.   The new website features over 10,000 rare historic sound recordings produced between 1901 and 1925 by the Victor Talking Machine Co.

While most of it is music, there is a "spoken word" category that includes speeches by William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Warren G. Harding.   Thought your readers of Viral History might like to take it for a spin:   Click on "genres" on the left to locate the spoken word recordings.

Hope you're having a great summer.

Best,   Robin

Robin Rausch is a writer and Senior Music Specialist at the Library of Congress.

I checked this out and found amazing things: Ragtime, Yiddish theatre, old banjo bluegrass and blues, politicians and comedians in dozens of languages.  Some were scratchy, clearly recorded from old 78 rpm records, but that just adds to the sense of time.  My favorite was a 1912 recording of Theodore Roosevelt ranting against big business bosses: Here's the link.  All best. -KA

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

AIRPORT SECURITY: How did we create this paranoid mess?

Security at Denver International Airport -- a giant empire of bureaucratic overkill?    

Flying from Washington, D.C., to Albany, NY, a few weeks ago for July 4th, I could not help but be reminded of the monstrosity we have made of airport security in this country. 

This simple one-hour, non-stop flight turned into a multi-hour affair each direction.  Going north, the security screeners stopped the long line and made me pass multiple times through the metal detector before discovering my cough drops had foil inside the paper wrapper.  Going south, it was a cemamic coffee mug -- a gift my sister made -- that set off the machines.  Coming home from a vacation last winter, they stopped me to confiscate a plastic bottle of listerine and a jar of pineapple marmalade (both slightly over 3 ounces).  Then there was the day last February I flew on a business trip wearing a metal ankle brace (I had twisted it in a clumsy running accident) and, as a result, got the full crotch patdown.

Airport metal detector, 1973.
 But the July 4th trip reminded me of something:  It has now been 38 years (January 1973) since anyone in America has enjoyed the simple pleasure of walking onto a commercial airline flight without being searched by a metal detector.  I am old enough to remember what that was like.  As a result, I have always considered airport searches strange and intrusive, ever since the first time I walked through one of those contraptions at the Albany, New York, airport in 1973 flying off to law school.  

But anyone born since 1973 (or anyone too young back then to remember) has never known anything else their entire lives.  To them, airport searches are simply part of the world.  Water runs downhill.  TVs change channels by remote control.  And obviously you walk through a metal detector to get on a plane.  

I see this as a big deal change in America -- the way we think about our personal freedoms.  Does anyone still remember the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution?  In case you forgot, here's what it says:  "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,  supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized."  

Today, we are all criminal suspects --  just because we show up at an airport.  Probable cause?  How silly.  How Twentieth Century !!

How this started:

It wasn't always this way.  Before 1973, the big threat to jet airplanes came from hijackers -- someone rushing into the airplane's cockpit, pulling out a gun, and telling the pilot "Take this plane to Cuba."  These were rare, about five per year, until the late 1960s when a spate of publicity made hijacking fashionable. The numbers suddenly jumped to 38 and 82 hijackings in 1968 and 1969. (And yes, some of these hijackings were actually ordered by the CIA as a covert weapon against Fidel Castro.)  

In late 1972, the Federal Aviation Admnistration decided to crack down on hijackers by requiring all airlines to start screening passengers and carry-on bags starting January 1973 -- one of the later signature acts of then-President Richard M. Nixon.     It mostly worked at first.  There was a rush to produce thousands of new metal detectors to handle the traffic, but the basic screening remained a small inconvenience.  Hijackings dropped off, the Cold War ended, and the world seemed safe.
Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001.  All nineteen of the September 11 terrorists had managed to trick the airport security system that day, sneaking box-cutters and other weapons past the screeners to attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  Not only did this reveal how weak the system was, but it showed just how crazy the bad guys had become.  No longer were we up against hijackers seeking asylum in Cuba.   Now, we were up against suicide bombers . 

How we use technology today in the TSA state.
Immediately, the system tightened.  Airline cockpit doors were ordered locked.  On flights into Washington, DC, passengers were barred from using the bathrooms during the last half hour.  Airport searches became major league, and passengers were ordered to start arriving two hours early before a flight to reach their gate on time.

Since then, each new incident has brought new rules.  After the shoe bomber, they made everyone take off their shoes.  After the shampoo bombers, they barred anyone from carrying liquids or gels over three ounces onto a plane, and required the smaller bottles be placed in separate clear plastic bags for inspection.  After the underwear bomber, they began the crotch patdowns and the scanners to see through clothes. 

Today, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which operates the system in airports across the country, is a $6.8 billion bureaucracy with 45,000 screeners, 1,500 inspectors, and 430 canine teams.  Add the private contractors, the hi-tech x-rays, scanners, and gun-powder sensors, and the police and military backups, and the taxpayer tab runs into tens of billions of dollars.  Then add all the lost time -- the hundreds of millions of hours Americans spend each year waiting on line or milling around airports, a direct drain on the economy.  One study even found that between 2001 and 2003, airport security resulted in 2,300 traffic deaths from people rushing to airports to stand in security lines.

Security?  Or bureaucratic overkill?

Don't get me wrong:  Terrorism is real, and letting a fanatic take control of a jet plane full of fuel and innocent passengers is unacceptable.  We need airport security screening, and we need to do it in smart and effective ways.  As for the TSA screeners, they are clearly good guys, doing tough jobs under high stress and almost always doing them well.  They keep us safe, they deter killers, and we all owe them a big thank you.

But this is still no excuse for the crazy mess we have allowed to evolve in the USA.  The cost -- in money, time, and personal rights -- is out of control.  There has to be a better way to police the sky against fanatics and psychopaths. 

Message from over-38 year-olds to under-38 year-olds:   It doesn't have to be this way.

Monday, July 11, 2011

REALITY CHECK: Two cheers for the debt ceiling !!

Everyone complains about the debt ceiling.  And, yes, there's plenty about it not to like:

  • Red Ink:  First, there's the debt itself.  Today, the US government owes over $14.2 trillion to creditors and bondholders.  This is a remarkable amount of money -- over $47,000 for every man, woman, and child in the USA, and higher than the country's annual gross domestic product.  In its  235-year history, America has run up tabs this big only twice: during World War II and during the Civil War.  

          This time, we dug the hole with no war at all, with little or nothing to show for the money.  Still, it
          threatens to bankrupt the government and wreck the economy for decades.  Even more galling is 
          the fact that we licked this problem in America just a dozen years ago in the 1990s and stood on 
          the verge of endless surpluses.  How did we screw things up so badly and so fact?  
  • Legal tricks:  Then there is the ceiling itself -- what looks like an arbitrary legal trick designed to embarrass politicians.  Unless Congress raises this legal limit from its current $14.2 trillion (which we reached a few weeks ago), the US Treasury is banned from borrowing any more money.  By early August, we will have emptied all the "rainy day" funds.  After that, when the next interest payment comes due on that enormous debt, the US government must default -- something never done before in US history.  (Note the one technical exception: FDR in 1933 refused to pay interest on US bonds in gold, but paid instead in cheaper paper dollars.  See Perry v. United States, 294 U.S. 330 (1935)).  

           What will happen?  Calamity?  A stock crash?  Nobody really knows, but it won't be pretty for 
           our collective credit score.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle,
  • The Circus:  Finally, there is the political circus in Washington, D.C. as leaders pontificate, posture, and generally fumble trying to avoid calamity -- or at least prepare to blame someone else if it happens.  "No new taxes!!" say Republicans.  "Don't persecute poor and old people," say Democrats.  No retreat.  No compromise.  Damn the torpedoes.     

So why is this a good thing?

Yes, this is all bad, very bad.   But look more closely.   Is that not a silver lining I see amid this formidable bank of dark clouds?  Have you noticed that, as crisis looms, Congress, with the White House, is actually starting to do it's job?

Some history

Here's the point.  The debt ceiling is not just some crazy trick created my one group of politicians to embarrass another, while playing Russian Roulette with global finance.   The US constitution gives Congress, among other things, one very specific job: the "power of the purse" -- that is, the responsibility  to keep the country solvent by (a) controlling spending and (b) controlling debt.  

This is no small thing.  Congress's power over borrowing is written right at the beginning in Article I, section 8, the enumerated powers of the national legislature.  The very first one states:
  • "The Congress shall have the Power ... to pay the debts... of the United States... To borrow Money on the credit of the United States." 
Then, the very next section (section 9) makes Congress responsible for spending: 
  •  "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money, shall be published from time to time." (sec.9)
[Don't be fooled!  Some people claim there's a "nuclear option," language in clause (4) of the 14th amendment, that lets the President short-circuit the process and pay the debt by himself.  This is baloney.  Look it up.]

Up until World War I, Congress did its job very carefully.  It took the trouble to approve every single issue of bonds by the US government.  But in 1917, at the height of World War I, when credit needs were skyrocketing, Congress decided to simplify things by creating a single unified debt ceiling, allowing Treasury Department accountants to manage all US borrowing under a single umbrella.  

This was a fine idea.  But, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished.  

Over the next decades, Congress (pushed by Presidents) began changing the way the US government spends money.  Instead of approving specific line-by-line appropriations (which now account for barely 20% of Federal spending), it began making open-ended mandatory legal commitments, like medicare, medicaid, farm programs, and the other so-called entitlements.  If you qualify, then the government must pay -- no matter how many of you there are.   As a result, when Congress passes a new entitlement, it has no idea what it will actually cost -- just an educated guess called a "budget score."

As a result, rather that knowing exactly how much borrowing to authorize each year when it passes an annual budget, Congress has gotten into the lazy habit of simply raising the debt ceiling whenever it happens to run out.  In fact, Congress has failed to enact any governmentwide budget at all for several years.  It has simply raised the debt ceiling.

Add to this chaotic process three final indignities: (a) the massive Bush-era tax cuts primarily for wealthy people, (b) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and (c) the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and related Great Recession, and the result has been a fiscal train wreck -- from surplus to bankruptcy in the relative blink of an eye.

Doing their jobs?
So what can possibly be good about this?  Now, with disaster looming, leaders of Congress, along with Obama and Biden in the White House, finally have started to meet in order to try and cobble together a coherent budget plan: a way to control spending, control debt, and raise revenue.   Yes, they look too often like a dysfunctional circle of cranks, short-sighted, hand-cuffed by ideology, each side terrified of blinking first or looking weak. 

But at least they are doing their jobs as assigned by the Constitution.   Conservatives are right to refuse to expand debt without a plan to control spending.  Liberals are right to refuse massive program cuts without a plan to increase revenue and include the wealthy and corporate giveaways.  Both sides are right to bargain hard.   That's what they're elected to do.

At the end, though, comes the hard part: The art of coming together and finding common round.   Are they still capable of it?   

My own view is that Republicans, by signing iron-clad advance commitments against any change in taxes, no matter how small, are the main culprits in this stalemate.  And Obama hurt himself badly by caving to them last November and blessing an extension of the ruinous Bush-era tax cuts.  But that's just me.

Success will be easy to spot in this drama: A large deal cutting debt and deficits over 10 years, fixing long-term programs like medicare and other "entitlements," and including a rational tax provision.   Failure will be even easier to spot:  A default on the debt in early August, or a limp deal that fails to solve anything and simply extends the debt ceiling a few months, so the circus can start all over again.

What will it be?  I think they'll reach a deal, but only after a default.  The debt ceiling can force politicians to do their job, but it can't make them do it well.   Till then, enjoy the show.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

GUEST BLOG: Wounded Knee Epilogue - Karla Fetrow on the incarceration of Leonard Peltier.

Leonard Peltier.
A big thank you to our friends at online magazine SUBVERSIFY: An alternative subversive perspective to Mainstream Media, which ran this piece last Friday (July 1) and gives us permission to share it here.  Karla Fetrow brings the Wounded Knee saga into the 21st Century with the tale of Indian activist Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) that conducted the Wounded Knee 1973 uprising, who in 1975 was accused of murdering two FBI agents under questionable circumstance (described below), and who remains in prison today.    

 Links to prior posts in this series:

                  --WOUNDED KNEE: Sacred ground for American Sioux Indians;
                  --WOUNDED KNEE part 1: The closing frontier;
                  --WOUNDED KNEE part 2: 1890 -- The Massacre;
                  --GUEST BLOGGER: Marshall Matz on Indian uprising at WOUNDED KNEE, 1973
                  --WOUNDED KNEE: 1890, a take from Johnny Cash. 

The Elements of Special Prosecution

June 26th. marked the anniversary of one of the greatest infamies committed in contemporary times by the U.S. Government against its own First People. On that day, in 1975, federal agents entered the Sioux Reservation, purportedly to question a crime suspect. Their invasion dissolved into mayhem and overt violence. Their primary motivation, however, was as it has been since 1870; to coerce or persuade the property owners to sell their land for industrial and natural resource development; primarily in heavy minerals, including Black Hills gold. A gunfight broke out and two of the F.B.I. agents were killed. Three of the inhabitants were later arrested and charged with murder. Two of the defendants were acquitted through a self-defense plea. One was not. He was tried, found guilty, and given two consecutive life sentences. His name was Leonard Peltier.

Attempts to free Leonard Peltier of the charges that occurred under the same circumstances with the same anxiety to defend his own life, have repeatedly failed. His initial arrest and confinement caused a flurry of interest in Native American affairs. “Free Leonard Peltier” posters decorated the homes of political activists, protests lined the streets of major Universities, and a copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” lay on the coffee table of every informed household.

What does the book, which is a historical account of the 1870′s US Government’s battle with the Sioux Nation have to do with Leonard Peltier? Quite a bit. In the late 1960′s, frustrated by decades of discrimination and intrusive federal policies, Native American community activists led by George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt met with 200 other tribal members to discuss these issues and the means of taking over their own destiny. Together, they created a new entity, a powerful voice speaking out against slum housing, joblessness and racist treatment among the First People. They became the foundation for the American Indian Movement (AIM).

The American Indian Movement opened the K-12 Heart of the Earth Survival School in 1971, and in 1972, mounted the Trail of Broken Treaties march on Washington, D.C., where they took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in protest of its policies, and with demands for their reform.

Photo of Wounded Knee during 1973  protest/takeover.
According to the Minnesota Historical Library, “The revolutionary fervor of AIM’s leaders drew the attention of the FBI and the CIA, who then set out to crush the movement. Their ruthless suppression of AIM during the early 1970s sowed the seeds of the confrontation that followed in February, 1973, when AIM leader Russell Means and his followers took over the small Indian community of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in protest of its allegedly corrupt government. When FBI agents were dispatched to remove the AIM occupiers, a standoff ensued. Through the resulting siege that lasted for 71 days, two people were killed, twelve wounded, and twelve hundred arrested. Wounded Knee was a seminal event, drawing worldwide attention to the plight of American Indians. AIM leaders were later tried in a Minnesota court and, after a trial that lasted for eight months, were acquitted of wrongdoing.”

Wounded Knee is part of the eight district Pine Ridge Ogala Lakota Reservation. Leonard Peltier traveled to the reservation in 1975 as an AIM member to help try and bring a peaceful end to the violence. He became caught up in the conflict when the two FBI agents entered the reservation in search of a Pine Ridge resident named Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for questioning in a robbery and assault.

The invasion of federal officers, which lasted well into the late nineteen seventies, continuing after the arrest of Peltier, is referred to by the Lakota tribe as the reign of terror. Fifty-six names are listed on a memorial page honoring the Pine Ridge members who had lost their lives during this modern day battle with US Government sponsored land grabbers. Fifty-six names that did not make the headlines, whose deaths were not investigated to discover the culpable, whose voices were not heard by the American public. The fight Leonard Peltier joined in was the same as the seventy-one day siege at Wounded Knee, the same as the one that silenced forever fifty-six members of his community, the same as the one in which two other men were arrested on charges of murder and later acquitted through a self-defense plea.

According to the Leonard Peltier Defence Committee website, “Key witnesses were banned from testifying about FBI misconduct and testimony about the conditions and atmosphere on the Pine Ridge Reservation at the time of the shoot-out was severely restricted. Important evidence, such as conflicting ballistics reports, was ruled inadmissible. Still, the U.S. Prosecutor failed to produce a single witness who could identify Peltier as the shooter. Instead, the government tied a bullet casing found near the bodies of their agents to the alleged murder weapon, arguing that this gun had been the only one of its kind used during the shootout, and that it had belonged to Peltier.

Later, Mr. Peltier’s attorneys uncovered, in the FBI’s own documents, that more than one weapon of the type attributed to Peltier had been present at the scene and the FBI had intentionally concealed a ballistics report that showed the shell casing could not have come from the alleged murder weapon. Other troubling information emerged: the agents undoubtedly followed a red pickup truck onto the land where the shoot-out took place, not the red and white van driven by Peltier; and compelling evidence against several other suspects existed and was concealed.”

The Poet Behind the Bars

Leonard Peltier is behind bars, but his voice has not been silenced. His book, “Prison Writings; My Life is My Sun Dance”, has received International acclaim, attracting even the attention of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth of Britain. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it: “A deeply moving and very disturbing story of a gross miscarriage of justice and an eloquent cri de coeur of Native Americans for redress and to be regarded as human beings with inalienable rights guaranteed under the United States Constitution. We pray that it does not fall on deaf ears. America owes it to herself.”

His list of achievements has been extraordinary:
  • In 1992 he established a scholarship at New York University for Native American students seeking law degrees.
  • Instrumental in the establishment and funding of a Washington (state) Native American newspaper by and for Native young people.
  • Has been the sponsoring father of two children in Childreach, one in El Salvador, and the other in Guatemala.
  • Has worked to have prisoners’ artwork displayed around the country and the world in art galleries in hopes of starting art programs for prisoners and increasing their self-confidence.
  • Has sponsored several clothing and toy drives for reservations.
  • Distributes to Head Start and halfway houses, as well as women’s centers.
  • Every year he has sponsored a Christmas gift drive for the children of Pine Ridge, SD. Organized and emergency food drive for the people of Pohlo, Mexico in response to the Acteal Massacre.
  • Serves on the board of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.
  • Donates his artwork to several human rights and social welfare organizations in order to help them raise funds. This most recently includes the ACLU, Trail of Hope (a Native American conference dealing with drug and alcohol addiction), World Peace and Prayer Day, the First Nation Student Association, and the Buffalo Trust Fund.

One of Leonard Peltier's paintings: Grandma Jumping Bull.

By donating his paintings to the Leonard Peltier Charitable Foundation, he was able to supply computers and educational supplies such as books and encyclopedias to libraries and families on Pine Ridge.

By donating his paintings to the LPCF, he was also able to raise substantial supplies for the people of Pine Ridge after last year’s devastating tornado hit and caused a multitude of damage on the reservation.

He has been widely recognized for his efforts and has won several human rights awards, including the North Star Frederick Douglas Award, Humanist of the Year Award, and the International Human Rights Prize.

America’s Third World Citizens

Understanding Peltier’s passion requires understanding the conditions of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The 11,000-square mile (approximately 2,700,000 acres) Pine Ridge Reservation is the second-largest Native American Reservation within the United States. It is roughly the size of the State of Connecticut. According to the Oglala Sioux tribal statistics, approximately 1,700,000 acres of this land are owned by the Tribe or by tribal members.

The topography of the Pine Ridge Reservation includes the barren Badlands, rolling grassland hills, dryland prairie, and areas dotted with pine trees.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to approximately 40,000 persons, 35% of which are under the age of 18. The latest Federal Census shows the median age to be 20.6 years. Approximately half the residents of the Reservation are registered tribal members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation.

The median income of the Pine Ridge Reservation is $2,600 to $3,500 a year. The unemployment rate averages around 83-85% and can be higher in the winter when travel is difficult or even impossible. The average life expectancy for women is fifty-two years, for men, it’s forty-eight. The rate of diabetes and tuberculosis are eight hundred times the U.S. National average. The rate of cervical cancer is five hundred times the U.S. National average.

It is reported that at least 60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with Black Mold, Stachybotrys. This infestation causes an often-fatal condition with infants, children, elderly, those with damaged immune systems, and those with lung and pulmonary conditions at the highest risk. Exposure to this mold can cause hemorrhaging of the lungs and brain as well as cancer.

A Federal Commodity Food Program is active but supplies mostly inappropriate foods (high in carbohydrate and/or sugar) for the largely diabetic population of the Reservation. A small non-profit Food Co-op is in operation on the Reservation but is available only for those with funds to participate.

In most of the treaties between the U.S. Government and Indian Nations, the U.S. government agreed to provide adequate medical care for Indians in return for vast quantities of land. The Indian Health Services (IHS) was set up to administer the health care for Indians under these treaties and receives an appropriation each year to fund Indian health care. Unfortunately, the appropriation is very small compared to the need and there is little hope for increased funding from Congress. The IHS is understaffed and ill-equipped and can’t possibly address the needs of Indian communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Living conditions are crowded. As many as seventeen people live in two and three bedroom homes, while homes built to contain six to eight people will have up to thirty inhabitants. Many of the homes lack adequate furniture, use their cooking stove for heat, and some have only dirt floors. Thirty-nine percent of the homes are without electricity. Sixty percent of the reservation families have no land-line telephones. Computers and Internet connections are rare.

Efforts to improve their living conditions by investing in businesses have been met with frustration. Currently there are no movie theaters, only one grocery store, one motel and a few scatter bed and breakfast arrangements. Several of the banks and lending institutions nearest to the Reservation have been targeted for investigation of fraudulent or predatory lending practices, with the citizens of the Pine Ridge Reservation as their victims.

Many wells and much of the water and land on the Reservation is contaminated with pesticides and other poisons from farming, mining, open dumps, and commercial and governmental mining operations outside the Reservation. A further source of contamination is buried ordnance and hazardous materials from closed U.S. military bombing ranges on the Reservation.

Scientific studies show that the High Plains/Oglala Aquifer which begins underneath the Pine Ridge Reservation is predicted to run dry in less than 30 years due to commercial interest use and dryland farming in numerous states south of the Reservation. This critical North American underground water resource is not renewable at anything near the present consumption rate. The recent years of drought have simply accelerated the problem.

Scientific studies show that much of the High Plains/Oglala Aquifer has been contaminated with farming pesticides and commercial, factory, mining, and industrial contaminants in the States of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Silent No Longer

The conditions of the Sioux reservation are not unique. To varying degrees, these conditions exist on nearly all the U.S. reservations. It is to this plight that Peltier and others like himself would address our attention. It’s not an appeal to assimilate into a society that rejects their cultural heritage, but an appeal to accept them complete with their culture. It is not an appeal for hand-outs but for fair business practices. It’s not an appeal based on abandoning their old ways, but one of incorporating modern technology and education for a new nation. For over a hundred years, Pine Ridge has defended itself against self-interested groups that sought to establish themselves from within. Now they are encroached upon by these same interest groups from without. They have been harmed. They have lost their means of livelihood, their health, their clean water, and yet they keep gathering. The community grows as their urban cousins leave the cities to join them. They gather because they must. Their desperation is a call to all who have been swept aside as unimportant, unsubstantial, inconvenient. They will be heard.

                     Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.
                     But silence is impossible.
                     Silence screams.
                     Silence is a message,
                     just as doing nothing is an act.

                                            -Leonard Peltier-
 Leonard Peltier was born September 12, 1944. In 1977, at the age of thirty-three, he was sentenced to prison. In 2009, he was granted a full hearing before the United States Parole Commission. His parole request was denied. Peltier’s next scheduled hearing is set for July, 2024. Should he live that long, he will be eighty years old. He has already spent more than half his life in prison for a crime that began as a crime against the Native American people and that amounts to selective prosecution, suppression and the concealment of vital evidence. In the time he has spent behind bars, he has contributed more to the good of his country than most of our Senators, Representatives, Congressmen, diplomats, business owners and billionaires. He is a humanitarian, yet the humanitarian compassion of the US public has not freed him. He is an author, a poet, a craftsman, a spokesperson for human rights. History will not remember him as a murderer, but as a man who sought equality. The wounded hearts, suffering under the tyranny of corruption, will embrace him.

Whatever debts he owed society, Peltier has more than adequately paid them. Society owes him a debt in return. It owes him the safe guarding of the rights of America’s First People to thrive. It owes him recognition of his worth, which cannot be measured in terms of war against the Government of the U.S., or in personal wealth, but in his deeds. It owes him his freedom.

Karla Fetrow is head editor at Subversity.comClick here to enjoy a few more of her recent pieces.