Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Et Tu, YouTube?

I'm now on YouTube, thanks to the help of some of my friends (and a great videographer). My speech, No Common Ground with Torturers, at the Santa Barbara Human Rights Demonstration on 12/10/06.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Road Forward

Cheshirekatz: "I have talked to many people who know there is something wrong but cannot express it." People who aren't wedded to the vicious and plunderous policies that the ruling circles have been carrying out are deeply disturbed - as they should be.

But disturbed as they are, the movement against this desperate state of affairs lags behind where it needs to be. The 1/27/07 demonstrations were righteous and involved hundreds of thousands (contrary to press reports of "thousands" or "tens of thousands.") It's defintely a step forward and something to build on. But what is holding things back from moving to the level that will drive this regime from power? What issues need addressing the most? I believe there are two major factors.

One, there's the matter of leadership. The people who the public ordinarily look to and rely upon to provide the leadership, to be the watchdogs for the public interest, have either joined forces with Bush/Cheney, or have been cowardly and feeble in the face of the radical right. The people cannot move without leaders. So even though a majority of people want to see this regime ended, they aren't yet able to act fully in this vacuum of customary leadership.

Two, even though a majority of people want impeachment, not nearly enough of the people yet understand the enormity of the crimes and wrongs being committed and the extremely momentous and dangerous state that we are in because of the road that has been embarked upon. Ask most Americans today if the US is torturing prisoners and what would most of them say? That we don't. Most Americans who oppose the war in Iraq still do so because they see the war as failing or useless, not because they see the war as immoral.

A manifestation of part of this leadership vacuum problem is the peculiar phenomenon of those on the political left who continue to oppose impeachment as a "distraction," or who think that we ought to just wait it out till '08. Apparently, war crimes, genocide, torture as policy, global warming-denial, destroying a fabled US city, warrantless surveillance on an extraordinarily massive scale, suspending habeas corpus rights, profligacy, signing statements that negate the laws and declare that Bush is no less than a dictator - these are not impeachable offenses.

How can any self-respecting citizen, let alone a leftist, take such a position? (I hasten to point out that there are many grassroots activists and party activists who are heavily invested right now in backing particular Democratic candidates such as John Edwards or Obama who feel the need both to participate in Democratic Party politics and who are active or even extremely active in the impeachment movement. They will likely continue to try to do both these things. I am not speaking here of them primarily, but rather those who have left-wing credentials and whose primary political identity is that of being a leftist or radical).

We have a situation that is nothing sort of surreal: our government is openly torturing people, committing mass murder, brazenly spying on all of us, and has been caught lying (among other things) about the reasons for their invasion of Iraq - and yet, some people who ought to know better, are counseling patience and turning the other cheek in the face of these unspeakable outrages. How has it come to this?

Paletz and Entman (1981) make certain observations that are instructive in this regard. Bear with me a minute to lay it out.

To begin with, they disaggregate the "public" into specific coherent sectors. Beginning in reverse order of importance:

1) the apolitical 25% who are marginal to conventional politics.

2) the 60% who follow politics sporadically and vote sometimes. They read the popular press and watch television. They rarely see the prestige or specialized press. Their political preferences are unstable and their opinions fluctuate. These are the mass citizenry whose numbers decide elections [of course, Paletz and Entman are assuming here that the votes get counted properly].

3) the 10-15% of the non-elite who pay close attention to politics and have a high degree of information and a coherent understanding of politics. Paletz and Entman call this group the "attentives." These are primarily white-collar professionals, managers and their spouses. They read the prestige press and/or specialized press. Attentives orient themselves according to positions staked out in the prestige press by elites.

4) finally, the elite: the top 1%, comprised of public officials, corporate heads, major interest-group leaders, a few notorious professors, think-tank residents and some celebrated journalists. They "generate most original policy proposals in reaction to problems and events. Their views define the conventional wisdom and structure the public debate about politics. They provide the sources of most political stories in the national media." [Note that the policy proposals they generate are in general in reaction to problems and events, not in reaction or response to public opinion per se, contrary to classical democratic and pluralist theory.]

The section of the Left who are opposed to impeachment fit into the third category above. They are orienting themselves to the positions staked out by the Democratic Party. Since the Dems are opposed to impeachment, so too goes this section of the Left. It's pretty much as simple as that.

The situation we face today requires no less than that the grassroots mobilize themselves, in conjunction with the segments of the Left who have not thrown in their lot with the Democratic Party and with the segments of other political tendencies, even the political right, who despise what the neocons have done and stand for. This makes for an unusual emergent and possible coalition. To carry forward this mobilization, people from among the newly awakening to political life (including among youth and other strata) and from those who have some or a lot of political experience must come forward and come to grips with what is actually going on. Denial of what we truly face is fatal in this rapidly evolving situation. We must create new social movement leaders in the course of this battle. We can learn by doing. In fact, we have no choice but to learn by doing and by studying history especially very carefully.

The GOP has been the vanguard of the new order. As I discuss in Chapter Two of ITP, the Democrats (or at least a few of them) have sensed that the GOP stole the 2000 and 2004 elections. Kerry himself finally came to this conclusion, but was afraid to take this public. Why would he, and before him, Gore, be afraid to take this public? Because both the Democrats and the GOP fear the genie being released from the bottle: the masses fully embracing and directly engaging in political life, moving decisively away from thinking that they've fulfilled their political duties merely by voting and campaigning.

As I put it in Chapter 2 in ITP:

"Any serious attempts to change a society must involve the lower strata together with the middle strata. The Democrats find the prospect of the genie being released from the bottle in the form of the masses springing into political life just as threatening as the GOP does because they agree with the GOP that this system of globalized capitalism, this new American Empire, is the proper order of things. Recall that Kerry and Edwards promised to continue the war in Iraq. Their platform, in fact, was Bush-lite. Their platform was essentially that of W’s dad when he was president. This tells you something crucial about what is afoot in a larger sense."

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A conversation worth engaging in

Take a look at Sue's comment posted recently in response to "I have talked to many people...." Much to ponder and it will hopefully spark further conversation. We have momentous tasks ahead.

I am also hoping for some international commentary from my international readers.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Step Up! January 27, 2007 Demonstrations

As I wrote in our Preface to ITP:

"We stand at a crossroads. Will we obey and be 'good Germans?' In the years preceding Hitler’s naming to the German Chancellorship many German Jews and others kept telling themselves that it can’t possibly get any worse and it can’t possibly go any further. Except that it did. The 1933 Reichstag Fire, set by Herman Göring and the Nazis but blamed on the communists, was the Nazis’ excuse to suspend civil liberties and freedom of the press entirely. It was the German equivalent of our 9/11."

Join the demonstrations in D.C. and L.A. and S.F. and everywhere against this immoral, illegal, unjust war on Iraq and the war they surely intend to launch against Iran. The writing's on the wall. Let's paint this wall with something else entirely!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


I had a wonderful conversation recently with impeachment activists who have been using ITP in reading circles and carrying out actions. They discovered, serendipitously, after doing sign holding (and getting tons of supportive car honks and waves) that just holding a sign up while casually hanging out also elicited lively responses and inquiries from people. They're calling it "accidental activism."

In response to my raising the issue of youth and students not having yet stepped forward in the numbers and with the verve that is absolutely critical to the success of any social movement, one of them mentioned a survey that was conducted recently of US college students. This study, he said, found that college students today are extremely materialistic.

This was offered as an explanation for the relative lack of student participation so far. I pointed out, however, that in the weeks preceding the 1989 Spring Uprising in China (known most widely as the Tiananmen protests) which was not only in Beijing but in many cities and so on throughout the country, a similar survey of college students found the same thing: that students were very apolitical and into getting things. And then, from seemingly out of nowhere, erupts this massive protest against the widespread corruption, widening inequities and betrayal of the revolution by the new state capitalist leaders of China. (Of course, there were varying and contradictory trends among the participants, but this is something that I need to get into in detail on another occasion).

I know this because I wrote my masters essay on this topic (and perhaps I'll post it on this blog sometime). This movement of millions of students, intellectuals and later workers and peasants rocked the country and the world. But it wasn't until the workers starting joining the protests and started forming alliances with the students - an exceedingly potent and extremely dangerous and combustible combination that has spelled the end of regimes - that Deng Xiao-ping immediately came in with the tanks and crushed it ruthlessly.

This movement didn't actually come from out of nowhere. You could see the possibility for it and the basis for it if you were paying close attention. So we need to pay close attention now and recognize the possibility, the signs of a groundswell and the basis for such to bloom if the bravest among us step forward and create a standard for people to rally around and step forward themselves. We need to recognize that our very actions create more favorable conditions and bring forth things that won't come forward unless we tap them. The relative quiescence so far is not mainly due to public apathy. It’s mainly due to the suppressive actions of this country’s opinion-leaders who have failed to combat the fascist moves and the outright fascist laws being passed. They have shielded this regime and continue to do so - with precious, but few, exceptions (Helen Thomas, Lewis Lapham, Bill Maher, Rosie O'Donnell, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Keith Olbermann). This has created an atmosphere of disorientation among the public. The question is what will happen to this disorientation and where will it lead.

The Democratic Party and some people on the political left are doing their best to divert people into putting their hopes, once again, ad nauseum, into politics as usual and getting excited about who the next Democratic presidential nominee is going to be. Politics as electoral politics, however, is a terribly narrowly conceived view of what politics is. Campaigning and voting are what most Americans think is their role in politics. "I voted, therefore, I've done my part." But public policy isn't now nor has it ever been made by election results. Voting doesn't discharge your duties in the political arena. If you think about this for a minute, even in a hypothetically truly representative democracy, how could one realistically think that it would be enough to merely vote?

Politics decides how the resources of society are going to be allocated, among other things. How can decisions such as these be left to a handful of people? Who do you think is going to wield the most influence upon politicians and public officials in a society in which wealth is extremely unevenly distributed? The richest 497 individuals in the world today have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world's population: 3 BILLION plus people. When elections are largely decided nowdays by who has the most money and who controls the voting machines, how can we think that we are really doing anything political by merely voting and merely participating in the electoral game? People need to act politically in diverse and numerous ways. Demonstrate, form impeachment groups in your school or community, join World Can't Wait, get together with a friend or a few friends and hold up signs on the sidewalk or over freeway overpasses, put together your own flyers, write letters to the editor, put up signs on your lawns, your cars, your person, agitate, put together teach-ins, read widely and deeply, (read ITP!), get together with others to study history, politics, theory.

The people who don’t think that torture is ok are very disturbed and rightly so. And they are trying to figure out if they can do something and what they can do. One of the people who attended my book talk yesterday told me that she’s been feeling depressed because she recognizes how awful things are, but hasn’t known what she can do about it. Anger and passion turned inward, of course, turns into depression.

The people who've been saying "it will never happen, Bush will never get impeached" need to be shown through our actions and the actions of so many others, how wrong-headed they are. I plan to write more soon about what I mean about the basis for people to become a powerful groundswell, but for now let me briefly say this:

The political leadership and the opinion-leaders of this country are fundamentally restructuring what it means to be an American and what America is. They are normalizing - and getting people to accept - torture. They are normalizing massive surveillance and intrusion upon our lives. They are hacking away at due process and abrogating habeas corpus. They are doing all of these things because they need to remake what the terms of unity are, what people will accept and come to see as customary, and what the expectations are in this country. This is what the new normalcy will be. They are doing these things because they need to create new conditions in order to pursue the empire they are building. Long-standing, much vaunted principles, many of which date from the founding documents of this country, are being eliminated because they stand in the way of their imperialist plans. As they do this, a large majority of Americans, roughly 75% of us, are deadset against this. I say 75% because I think roughly 25% of the people would be perfectly happy to live in a society without the Bill of Rights (save the 2nd Amendment!). But for the 75% or so who are adamantly opposed to this, as more and more of that 75% are beginning to realize what is afoot, this large majority faces a choice: do we remain passive and get more and more depressed and afraid, or do we act? The restructuring that this government is conducting is creating a great deal of distress in the country because these government moves are violating on a fundamental level principles and practices that most Americans consider essential to living in a "free society." This wrenching process creates the potential for popular upheaval against these tyrants. That is the basis for a groundswell to turn into a massive, determined, irresistible movement for an entirely different future.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

On the Relationship between Media/Political Leaders and the Public

What follows is a paper that I plan to incorporate in a forthcoming book in some form, probably with a different title and possibly with a slightly different set of connectors to the overall book theme. I post it here primarily to expand upon an argument that frequently comes up in political and media discussions: how should we understand the correct relationship between public sentiments and the presentation of issues by politicians and by media?

First, some quick background: functionalist theory (sometimes referred to as structural functionalism) is the dominant tradition in sociology (at least in the US). Functionalism is consistent with classical and pluralist democratic theory which holds that the public's desires and views are expressed by the political leadership and by mass media. The nature of media's news coverage and that of their entertainment offerings and the kind of laws and public policies made by public officials are ascribed to public interest and public sentiment. Thus, for example, many people would explain the growth of reality-TV shows as due to public interest. Another example would be to account for the increasingly punitive criminal justice system as due to an increasingly conservative and punitive-minded public. The failure so far of impeachment proceedings being already underway (or finished!) is likewise seen by many people as a reflection of the apathy of the average American.

As I argue below, however, I believe that the functionalist model and the democratic/pluralist models are flawed for both theoretical reasons and on empirical grounds. This has momentous consequences in the real world of political action. It is, of course, not surprising that theoretical questions have real world implications. One cannot move forward to change the world if one doesn't understand correctly how things work. And theory is indispensible in this process because a wrong-headed theory will lead you astray inevitably.

The focus of the piece that follows is on social constructionist theory which is the dominant force within social problems theory in sociology. Social problems theory seeks to account for why and how certain issues become "social problems:" issues that garner a tremendous amount of public attention, usually measured by substantial shifts in polls, by public officials holding hearings, making pronouncements, passing resolutions or laws, and/or by media doing a lot of stories about that issue. Social constructionism is a particular thread within social problems theory.

The version I'm posting here lacks a bibliography - to be added later.

Theory of Problems, Problems of Theory:
A Critical Appraisal of the Dominant Models in Social Problems Theory


Dennis D. Loo

Social constructionism has yet to satisfactorily resolve one central problem: how to account for why one issue wins out over other issues. Social constructionists have typically solved this in a post hoc fashion: the winning issue triumphed because its claim must have been more compelling (Lowney and Best 1995). How do we know that it was more compelling? The fact that it won proves that it was more compelling. This is, of course, a circular argument. It does not tell us what distinguished the winning issue from the also-rans. In an attempt to overcome this post hoc problem, Lowney and Best (1995) cite three variables as decisive: an issue’s resonance with cultural themes, the mobilization of greater resources by the winning claims-making group, and contingent events (such as the drug-induced death of Len Bias which contributed to the mid-1980s Drug War).

Unfortunately, upon closer examination, Lowney and Best’s answer to the post-hoc problem still does not resolve the problem. Briefly put, their resolution does not fully answer the following objections: 1) There are numerous possible issues that could resonate with cultural themes. Why did this issue and not another get selected? 2) Did the successful interest group actually mobilize more resources than other groups? Frequently, the state and/or media decide on their own to pay more attention to an issue. Interest group mobilization does not necessarily enter into the picture at all. 3) While contingent events can play a role in the genesis of a social problem, whether those events are publicized heavily or not is a decision that rests ultimately with media and/or the state. If mainstream media elect not to call a great deal of attention to an event, then that event will almost invariably pass relatively unnoticed. The post hoc problem in social problems accounts remains unresolved because a key element is being overlooked both by Lowney and Best, and more generally, by the predominant models in social problems theory, structural strain and interest group: the key role media play in selecting, initiating and framing social issues.

The structural strain and interest group models do commonly devote substantial attention to media activity, and in particular, media’s tendency to exaggerate the incidence and prevalence of a social problem. These models, however, treat media as epiphenomenal to the process by which a social problem emerges. That is, the media are held to commonly react to other claims-makers rather than acting as claims-makers themselves. Best (2001:15), for example, describes media’s role as that of conduit for interest groups’ claims: “[s]uccessful activists attract support from others. The mass media – including both the popular and entertainment media … relay activists’ claims to the general public.”(italics added.). Similarly, Surette (1998) describes the relationship between media and claims-makers this way:

"The media serve the role of world knowledge conduit and playing field for the competition between claims-makers. Claims-makers compete for media attention and media favor claims that are dramatic, sponsored by powerful groups, and related to established cultural themes. (p. 10-11. Italics added.)"

Let’s examine each of these three factors in turn. Dramatic value is, of course, important. It is, however, only one among many factors that media weigh in deciding whether to feature a story. Indeed, drama does not by itself, in fact, constitute the most important factor (media studies has addressed this extensively, see, for example: Croteau and Hoynes 2001, Fishman and Cavendar 1998, Cose 1993, Kurtz 1994, Gans 1979, Loo 1996). Regarding powerful group sponsorship: media themselves collectively constitute a powerful group, yet the predominant models exclude media from consideration as a powerful group. Many of the stories that media feature are not sponsored by powerful groups outside of the media themselves.

For example, the 1980s so-called freeway shootings spree, and the 1980s Charles and Carol Stuart case in Boston (in which the pregnant Carol Stuart was allegedly shot and killed by a black male), did not become major, national, news stories because powerful advocacy groups called for media to cover them. Media themselves decided to run these stories. The alleged trend of freeway shootings was a media invention. Finally, for a story to register with an audience it must certainly resonate with one or more cultural themes. But resonance with cultural themes fails to answer the question of why one issue gets attention and another is ignored since there are heterogeneous and contradictory strains within every culture (Beckett 1994) and any number of possible issues could resonate with a given cultural theme. Resonance, in other words, is a necessary, but insufficient, condition. Taken together – dramatic value, mobilization of resources by powerful (non-media) groups, and resonance with cultural themes – these factors do not fully account for why one issue wins out over others.

Media as Mirror

The structural strain model posits that media adopt an issue because they are mirroring the general public’s sentiments. Hence, even when media attention to an issue clearly launched a social problem, the structural strain model does not view this as evidence of media initiating a social problem. Rather, it is interpreted as evidence of media and/or the state acting just like the rest of the polity (e.g., Best 1999, 1990, Surette 1998, Scheingold 1991). Similarly, the interest group model focuses exclusively upon the interest group’s ability to persuade the media (and the state) to recognize its issue. In the interest group model media are viewed as playing a passive role, never initiating attention to a social problem on their own.

The predominant models in social problems treat media as a kind of black box: what comes out of the box is predetermined before it enters the box. In other words, actors other than in the media fundamentally decide what media will feature. Media merely select the best “suitors” according to the predominant models. The fact that media always select, often invent, and frequently frame social problems makes the media, however, a claims-maker of the first stature. Once media’s key role is recognized, social problems accounts’ inability to explain why one issue wins out over another can approach being resolved because the cast of protagonists will no longer be missing one of its leading players.

Explorations into the question of what factors might have entered into media’s decisions to ratify a social problem, and their specific framing of that social problem, are by nature circumstantial arguments, and tendential, rather than determinist. Nonetheless, accounting for why a social problem emerged when it did cannot avoid coming to grips with the question of media’s (and/or the state’s) specific roles. Without such an analysis, determining why a particular issue became a social problem when it did will remain an unanswered question.

The Structural Strain Model

In the structural strain model an alleged generalized public anxiety (Best 1990; Scheingold 1995; Luttwak 1995) finds expression through a surrogate issue. Structural strain lays stress on a collective psychological displacement phenomenon. For instance, crime emerging as the number one social problem would be seen as the public manifesting anxieties about some other issue - such as economic travails or social/political disturbances.

Best (1990), for example, explains the 1980’s moral panic about missing children as a reaction to several different events: widespread public anxiety over the traumas of Watergate, the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, the oil embargo and energy crisis, AIDS threatening to become a global epidemic, America appearing to be in economic decline, and the threat of nuclear war. According to Best, these problems seemed both deeply threatening and impossible for the average person to do anything about. These diverse anxieties were then funneled into the supposedly more manageable issue of protecting the children against unknown individual child-abductors.

Best (1999) also employs a structural strain model. In his book Random Violence, Best tracks what he calls “the general sense that contemporary society is plagued by random violence.” (p. 5) This “general sense” does not come from media activity. Rather, “[a] review of recent press coverage provides evidence of growing concern about random violence.” (p. ) In other words, the press coverage manifests growing concern, but is not a source, or the source of concern. Media coverage does not reflect in any way a preoccupation by media itself with random violence. Instead, media coverage merely reflects a general, concern about random violence by the society as a whole. “There has been a general concern with random violence, and it is that general concern that is the subject of this book.” (p. 7) An absence of agency marks his sentence. Where did this “general” concern come from?

In the following sentence Best summarizes the impact of the theme of random violence. “[T]he notion of randomness distorts what we know about criminal violence. It exaggerates the degree to which violence is patternless, pointless, and increasing. It is imagery calculated to promote fear rather than understanding.” (pp. 21-2. Italics added.) This is an excellent statement about the consequences on public sentiment of certain kinds of media coverage of crime. But anyone who reads Best’s sentence could reasonably ask: calculated by whom? Who has done this calculating? In the structural strain model no one has done this calculating. Instead, “why is this melodramatic imagery so popular? The answer, of course, is that melodrama is powerful…. it challenges our most basic assumptions about social order….If violence is increasing, then everyone is in growing danger.” (p. 22)

This preceding passage bears some scrutiny. When our most basic assumptions about social order are challenged (e.g., the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) this constitutes a very disturbing event. Disturbing events are not popular events, outside of the confines of fiction and movies where social order is temporarily ruptured, but importantly, restored in the end. We may watch in horror and fascination as the events are replayed again and again on television, but that does not make the event something that we desire to see happen. Best may be saying that melodramatic imagery is popular among media and among other claims-makers and not the general public. Indeed, if that is his point, media and other claims-makers certainly gravitate towards melodrama and alarmist messages, at least in part because it does deliver the message that everyone is in growing danger, and thus makes their claims seem more pressing. But if Best means the general public, then it should be said that the public does not wish for news messages that disrupt their day-to-day assumptions about the stability of the social order. Explaining the prevalence of melodrama on media and among other claims-makers should not, in short, be attributed wholly or even primarily to public interest.

Scheingold (1991) also employs a structural strain model when he asks why the American criminal justice system is simultaneously the most punitive and the least effective among all the advanced industrialized countries. He concludes that our punitive criminal justice system reflects American individualism. That is, the individual street criminal gets his/her just desserts by being held personally accountable for his or her actions. “The crux is not... that the state somehow imposes retributive scenarios on American popular culture but rather that retribution expresses a collective yearning” (Scheingold 1991: 175).

Plausible as Best’s and Scheingold’s arguments may appear, there are a number of problems with their explanations and with the structural strain model in general. In essence, structural strain lacks a causal mechanism. The absence of a causal mechanism can be discussed with regard to four specific areas. They are the model’s 1) lack of specific predictive power, 2) inability to account for fluctuations in media coverage, 3) assumption that the public naturally selects a more “manageable” scapegoat, and 4) conflating of values (or sentiments) with policy-making. (Most social problems accounts incorporate the interest group model in an attempt to provide a complete causal mechanism. But as I discuss in the second section of this chapter, this does not resolve the problem either.)

1. Lack of Specific Predictive Power

Any number of issues could serve equally well as surrogates for the posited primary public worry. Why this particular issue? The structural strain model, because it asserts a displacement phenomenon, and since a surrogate could assume several different guises, cannot by its nature and by itself indicate the reason why this particular surrogate issue, as opposed to another, was selected. Structural strain in this regard reflects post-hoc reasoning.

2. Inability to Account for Fluctuations in Media Coverage

If public sentiment is merely being mirrored by media attention, as the structural strain model argues, then fluctuations in media coverage of an issue need to be explained. Best (1989; 1990) and Best and Horiuchi (1985) cite data that show a flood of media attention in certain years, and a paucity or absence of said reports in others, on dangers to children and the alleged Halloween candy tampering problem. Inasmuch as the time periods examined all fall within the general time frame of Best and Best and Horiuchi's hypothesized structural strain, how can one then specifically explain why there were more media reports sometimes and not in others?

As Fritz and Altheide (1987) point out, the structural strain explanation should predict a fairly invariant level of media and state attention to a social problem since the source of that attention is an anxious “public:”

"Urban legends are a reaction to pervasive societal stress and strain, and are not regarded as a social construction in and of themselves. Moreover, because the origin of the strain that produces urban legends is the broader social order, then information about such legends is not regarded as a crucial element of the process, merely a catalyst. At most, the information just tells people what they already know to be true. Thus, according to this view, it is not claims-making via the mass media that is important; indeed, the social strain thesis implies that new information, including counterclaimsmaking, would not affect the level of fear. .. [O]ur data suggest otherwise...."(486-487).

The data which Fritz and Athleide refer to is striking. Subjects were polled in a pre-test about their assessment of the danger of stranger child abduction. After the pretest they viewed a videotape that revealed the complexity of the missing children problem, and which called into question the widely propagated figure of 1.5 million missing children annually in the U.S. After viewing this videotape, there was a marked drop in the percentages now saying that they thought stranger child abduction was a serious problem. 61% said it was a serious problem before testing, only 33.3% said it was a serious problem after viewing the counterclaim videotape. While 74% of the cohort showed a concern of over 21 in the seriousness scale before testing, only 28% scored over 21 on the same scale after testing (Fritz and Athleide 1987: 483). In contrast to the structural strain model, Fritz and Altheide (1987: 486) conclude that mass media “contribute the most to the claims-making process.”

3. The Selection of a More “Manageable” Scapegoat

Within the structural strain model is a presumption that scapegoats are chosen by an anxious public as a means of selecting an easier and more manageable enemy. What makes these particular surrogates more manageable? In what sense does the focus on stranger criminals, who make up the minority of criminal offenders, constitute the construction of an easier and more manageable enemy? What makes such worries a more manageable fear than domestic violence hazards, for example? When a woman, for example, faces a nine-fold greater danger of physical injury from someone in her own household compared to someone in the streets, how do enhanced worries about stranger-on-stranger street crimes make her life more manageable? How is it, in other words, that displaced and, particularly, added-on, anxieties perform a psychological function for an anxious public?

The public scapegoats youth gang bangers, for example, because they are allegedly easier for the various publics to cope with psychologically than directly dealing with, say, job loss and job insecurity. There is a considerable body of research on the effects of heightened crime fears (e.g., Brooks 1974; McDermott and Blackstone 1995; Clemente and Kleiman 1977; Wilson 1968; Yin 1980). These studies have found that anxieties are increased by such reporting over and above what the various publics already feel.

In other words, rather than creating an enhanced sense of personal and/or collective mastery over forces that have come to be seen as outside of individual and/or collective control, crime scares generate greater anxiety and intensified feelings of insecurity. While it is not necessarily a structural strain argument that the surrogate issue relieves any psychic strain, the ready assumption that a deviant class as scapegoat makes for a more manageable enemy skips over a closer examination of why more systemic sources for the problem are usually not targeted as scapegoats.

What these particular scapegoats have in common - vicious, amoral, stranger criminals - is that focusing attention on them demobilizes the public, leaving most possible action against them in social control agents’ hands. Is settling on deviants as enemies inevitable and spontaneous? Such a selection process is better understood as contingent, subject to the presence or absence of contending interpretations from different identifiable protagonists, rather than inevitable.

The structural strain model tends to see downward scapegoating as automatic. But the process by which a scapegoat is selected is subject to social processes layered by power differentials in which elites possess unequal powers to direct blame away from themselves. The structural strain model leaves out of its analysis these differentials of power. It depoliticizes the question of the selection of a scapegoat, and naturalizes the process, rather than identifying it as contingent.

4. Conflating Cultural Outlooks with Policy-Making

Another of the weaknesses in the structural strain model is that while the model has heuristic value for identifying the receptivity of various publics to symbolic political movements, it tends to conflate cultural outlooks with policy-making. That is, the structural strain model identifies a cultural outlook (resentments born of economic and/or social/political anxieties) and assumes a translation of that value stance into a matching social policy (more punitive social policies).

Luttwak, for example, argues that the:

"… insecure majority ... vents its anger and resentment by punishing, restricting, and prohibiting everything it can. The most blatant symptom is the insatiable demand for tougher criminal laws, longer prison sentences, mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders, more and prompter executions, and harsher forms of detention (including, of late, chain gangs). Politicians ... have heard the people, and the result is a mass of new federal and state legislation that will greatly add to the staggering number of Americans already behind bars. This, however, is merely part of a much broader urge to prohibit and punish...all expressions of the same deep resentment, turned against convenient targets." (1995: 15-16)

Even if the assumption is made that a cultural outlook is necessarily translated into public policy, however, a general value or sentiment has more than one possible matching social policy.

There are a number of possible policies that could be matched up to a given value or sentiment. Thus, even if the structural strain model is correct in identifying a generalized disquiet among the populace, this still does not answer the question: why this particular social problem rather than another?

The structural strain model has difficulty answering this question with precision because it conflates initiative with receptivity. That is, it assumes that public receptivity is equivalent to public initiative in the emergence of social problems (Beckett 1994). But just because the public shows interest in an issue does not mean that the public originated attention to that issue. Thus, the prevalence of media news reports about a putative surge in random violence that Best (1999) notes does not mean that the public has demanded this kind of news coverage, and that media attention to this “problem” is attributable to public interest. Given the heterogeneity, diffuseness, and contradictoriness of public sentiment, any number of possible issues could equally well garner public attention. The structural strain argument misses a crucial distinction: the difference between public prerogative and public sovereignty (Beckett 1994). Choosing one item from among a set of alternatives is not the same thing as deciding what the alternatives will be in the first place.

"[C]apitalism would work to present consumer sovereignty as the equivalent of freedom, in the common view and the common parlance. ('If you don’t like TV, turn it off.’ ‘If you don’t like cars, don’t drive them.’ ‘If you don’t like it here, go back to Russia.’ ‘If you don’t like Crest, buy Gleem.’ ‘If you don’t like Republican, vote Democratic.’)" (Gitlin 1978).

Similarly, Sassoon (1996) compares the public’s options in determining policy to a person deciding what ethnic cuisine to prepare based on what raw materials can be found at the local grocery. If that grocery is mainstream, one is more likely to end up finding the necessary ingredients for an Italian meal even if the intent was to prepare Vietnamese cuisine. The public may, for example, choose street crime stories over other offered alternatives, but it does not have a say as to what those other alternatives are. Who decides what those alternatives will be?

The Interest Group Model

Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) argue that the interest group model answers the question of who decides the alternative. Does it? There are certainly times when an interest group initiated attention to an issue, for example, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers launched the anti-drinking and driving campaign. At other times, however, interest groups were either not pivotal in the launching of a social problem or were not even in existence (e.g., the Drug War declared by Ronald Reagan in 1986; the demonization of Iraq and Saddham Hussein, currently and prior to the war on Iraq in 1990; “road rage” in the 1990s; the home health care issue in the early 1980s (Cook, Lomax, Tyler, et al 1983)). Furthermore, even when an interest group was present and active, this still does not explain why this particular interest group succeeded and several others simultaneously pressing their claims did not.

The answer to this problem has traditionally been reached by circular logic: this claim became celebrated, therefore the claims-makers’ typification strategy must have been more effective than another claims-maker's. Lowney and Best (1995) have attempted to remedy this problem of retroactive reasoning by following the early stages of an issue – namely, the stalking of women -- through to its eventual emergence as a social problem. They conclude that constructions of “social problems become successful when typified in ways consistent with the larger culture’s concerns, and when they mobilize significant organizational support.” (Lowney and Best 1995: 52). In addition, they also point to contingent events as relevant. For example, the drug-induced death of Len Bias played an unmistakable role in the onset of the drug war.

What are those “larger culture’s concerns”? Lowney and Best cite Hilgranter and Bost (1988:64) who cite claims which “relate to deep mythic themes,” Gamson and Modigliani (1989:5-6) who cite “cultural resonance” and Best (1991:50) “cultural resources.” The cultural resonance argument really simply reiterates the structural strain paradigm: an issue becomes celebrated because it strikes a responsive chord in the public consciousness. A diverse array of potential social problems, however, resonate with deep cultural themes.

Lowney and Best (1995) propose to resolve this problem by incorporating the mobilization of organizational resources – the winning group succeeds by mobilizing more organizational support. This resolution, however, does not answer the question of whether interest groups become more visible because they mobilize more support, or because the media and/or the state independently decide to seek out interest group opinions more (e.g., by holding Congressional hearings or running a series of news articles).

A persuasive case can be made for Lowney and Best’s third factor, contingent events, as a “tie-breaker.” In some cases contingent events have clearly played an important role. Nevertheless, events still do not speak for themselves. They must always be interpreted. A presidential assassination, a 7.1 earthquake, a world war, the 911 attacks, the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and a few other similar catastrophes can be guaranteed to be headline material, but most other events cannot. The mugging panic that Hall, Critcher, Jefferson et al (1978) chronicle, or the panic about crimes against the elderly (Fishman 1978), were both “problems” in which the material events paled next to the furor created about them.

Legitimation as an active rather than passive process

Spector and Kitsuse (1973) argue that for an issue to become a social problem, not only must an interest group press an issue, but the group and its issue must be legitimated by media and/or the state. Spector and Kitsuse’s discussion of what leads media and/or the state to legitimate a social problem all concern attributes of the interest group, and none regarding the media and the state. They focus on three points:

1. The power of the interest group. This includes the group’s economic resources, the size of its membership, how large its constituency is, and how organized the group is.

2. The nature of the interest group’s claim. Spector and Kitsuse observe that the more specific the group’s claim, the better. More diffuse or general claims are more difficult to satisfy, and less likely to be legitimated by media and/or the state.

3. The interest group’s strategy and mechanisms for pressing claims. Spector and Kitsuse (and later, Ibarra and Kitsuse 1993) emphasize the rhetorical strategy pursued by claims-makers - how dramatic they make their typifications - as well as the effectiveness of their lobbying efforts and the kinds of allies they can muster.

If one further examines Spector and Kitsuse’s argument, in what they call a natural history of social problems, it becomes apparent that every step in the process applies with even greater force to the media and the state than to interest groups. Spector and Kitsuse identify four stages to that history. In stage one an interest group expresses grievances and makes claims upon government or other official or influential institutions. In stage two the claims-makers’ claims are acknowledged and the group’s standing to make said demands are legitimated by media and/or government. In stage three the interest group claims that official responses are problematic, and in stage four the interest group may seek ways outside of institutional channels to pursue their claims further.

With regard to stage one, a governmental agency or official, or a major media outlet, are ideally positioned to make claims and express grievances - upon themselves. Ronald Reagan as president, for instance, can declare a war on drugs through making a widely publicized speech. No middle-level group need necessarily have gotten involved in the process in its initial stages. No middle-level group did get involved in the launching of the War on Drugs. Alternatively, one or more major media outlets may decide to make an issue of missing children, or freeway shootings, or allegedly tampered Halloween candy, or an epidemic of juvenile homicides.

By this process, stage two in which the claimants’ issue and standing to make said claim are legitimated is already fulfilled by definition. The agencies who must place the imprimatur of legitimacy on a given issue have themselves initiated the issue. In stage three, media and/or state actors will argue that business as usual is somehow inadequate or intolerable regarding issue X, and in stage four, if blocked by recalcitrant sections of the state, major media and/or state actors can appeal to the broader public to by-pass the bureaucratic logjam.

Best argues that inattention to media’s specific role in the social problems process is valid because the media rarely initiate a social problem: “While press coverage may be especially visible and influential, claims-making rarely begins with the media; the press usually covers other, primary claims-makers, and its coverage is a secondary-claim.” Best (1990: 109) Speaking specifically of the missing children scare of the 1980s, Best states:

"In the competition among claims-makers, those able to present claims in compelling rhetoric have an advantage, and the new child savers found it easy to define their cause in terms of threatened, vulnerable innocents. These emotion-laden images encouraged the mass media to incorporate threats to children into news coverage and popular culture; the media’s treatment further emphasized the issue’s dramatic elements. In turn, the portraits drawn by primary claims-makers and relayed through the media’s secondary claims evoked reactions from the public." (Best 1990: 174-5)

Note the relative importance Best gives herein to the primary claims-makers (child savers), secondary claims-makers (media and the state), and the public. According to Best, initiative lay in primary claims-makers’ hands, whose “emotion laden images encouraged the mass media” to carry stories about threatened children. The media did not, in other words, exercise initiative or choice in deciding whether or not to run a spate of stories about threatened children. The media acted as a conduit between the primary claims-makers and the broader public, merely “relaying” the portraits drawn by the primary claims-makers, albeit the media do “emphasize” an issue’s dramatic elements.

Dramatic value certainly enters into media decisions, but to say that media carry a story because it is dramatic is a truism - it tells us nothing new. Best appears to assume that there are degrees of drama, and the most dramatically presented issues will receive media attention. The actual process is far more complicated. Drama is in fact a necessary, but insufficient, condition for a story to be chosen. Properly framed, in fact, any good conflict on either an interpersonal level or larger group level is dramatic. There are many and diverse dramatic stories available to media on any given day, or any given hour, from which media must choose. The question that ought to be asked is: why was this dramatic story chosen over that (equally or even more) dramatic story?

To begin with, decisions about whether to carry a story in the first place are always subject to ideological considerations. One example of how dramatic value does not mainly determine whether a story will be featured or not is cited by Cose (1993): the so-called Central Park Jogger case. In the same week that headlines across the country covered the so-called “wilding” rape and beating of a white female investment banker jogger in Central Park, New York, in the 1980s, an even more dramatic story was buried in the inside section of the New York Times. In that incident, a woman who had gone to the top of her high-rise office building to watch the sunset was set upon by two men, raped, and then thrown off the top of the building. Incredibly, she caught a wire in mid-air on the way down, and was screaming for help, dangling naked, and eventually rescued.

Certainly in terms of dramatic elements, the second story has more than the first. The difference, however, was that the woman in the second story was black and the incident occurred in the Bronx. In other words, media decisions about “drama” are shot through with differential treatment based upon race, gender, class, and often age. These are hardly neutral categories. They are in fact highly political. An interest group that presents a truly dramatic and compelling claim to the media about the plight of, say, lower class black females, is not likely to prevail over less dramatic claims made by a group making claims about the plight of upper middle class females.

Structural strain and interest group model advocates do explicitly note that some victims are more likely to receive media attention than others. This recognition is not, however, taken any further. It exists awkwardly within models that do not treat media as a key claims-maker.

Even more important than who started a claim is the fact that media and the state always exercise the power of deciding how to frame a story or issue. Since the issue frame that dominates the public arena fundamentally dictates how a problem is addressed, the issue frame (along with whether or not an issue makes it to social problem status in the first place) matters more than any other factor in the social problems game. The structural strain model precludes a thorough investigation of the process by which an issue is framed since it presumes that any claims arise out of the whole of the society, and therefore holding any party specifically responsible is a useless exercise.

The interest group model treats media and the state as secondary actors. That is, the interest group model asserts that media and the state simply adopt the problem frame presented them by the successful claims-makers. Since most social problems actually originate from the media or the state, this point is often moot. As for those issues that do not, while the issue frame is sometimes adopted from that pressed by the initiating group, it does not happen as any kind of rule. Gitlin (1980), for example, chronicles the dilemmas that the anti-war movement in the 1960s faced when the media finally covered the movement in any great detail since the problem frame used by the media clashed in important ways with the problem frame the movement itself advocated.

Structural strain and the interest group model are both based on pluralist democratic theory. That is, they assume that media and the state do not strike out on their own, initiating social problems themselves, bringing the public along with them, because public policy is assumed to always reflect public sentiment. Put another way, democracy dictates that government policies, and media attention, manifest popular desires. When public policies take a conservative (or liberal) turn, commentators nearly automatically assume that this can be attributed to a shift in public mood, with policy makers and media organizations sniffing the winds and adjusting their approaches accordingly. This belief that the public ultimately determines public policy and what media features in news and entertainment is so widely and strongly held that it escapes scrutiny.

Who launches a specific social problem at a particular point in time is an empirical question as much as a theoretical question. Theoretical questions are important for a number of reasons. Among these is the fact that a specific theory can tend to obscure the specific evolution of an issue. For example, if one applies a structural strain or Spector and Kitsuse model, issues that actually originate from media and/or the state might be mistakenly and automatically understood as originating from interest groups (or from structural strain).

Even when an interest group is active and prominent, whether or not an issue becomes a social problem is still always subject to media and/or state decisions. An issue becomes a social problem only after the media and/or state actors decide that it will. As Parenti (1970: 501) points out, “[o]ne of the most important aspects of power is not to prevail in a struggle but to determine the agenda of struggle - to determine whether certain questions ever reach the competition stage” (Cited by Gaventa, 1980 at 10). Or, as advanced by Cohen (1963), who was speaking specifically of the media, the media does not so much tell us what to think, as tell us what to think about.

By their nature interest group claim-makers’ claims are not yet before the various publics as a pressing social problem (awaiting its politicization within the public political arena and/or its publicization by major media before becoming a social problem). Media and/or the state are, therefore, not under heavy social pressures from the various publics to cover or deal with an issue. The general polity does not know about, or is not particularly aroused about the issue yet. Media and/or the state, or elites, have the power, in other words, of vetoing an issue simply through their silence. It may be an exceptionally important issue for the public(s), but becoming politically aroused over it invariably requires its being focused in the public arena in ways that only media and/or the state have the ability to provide.

The fact that an issue must be legitimated by media and/or the state is something which has been recognized by all scholars operating in the social problems tradition. But the full implications of this have not always been drawn. Legitimation by media and/or the state has generally been viewed as a passive, as opposed to an active, activity by media and/or the state. But why should media and/or the state’ role be seen exclusively as passive, and not variable - including at times, highly active? There is no reason in principle why not, other than the assumptions inherent in classical and pluralist democratic theory that media and the state invariably respond and react to public sentiment, rather than ever initiating any social problems.

The power exercised by media and/or the state is not, of course, unilateral and undivided. The exercise of influence and initiative in the making of a social problem is an interactive one. But it is a weighted interaction in which, because of their privileged positioning and social role, elites possess distinct advantages, not the least of which is that of initiative (Lippmann 1922; Beckett 1994). This is a rather different view than the rather naive view that concludes that policy shifts or marked changes in media coverage necessarily reflect preceding and corresponding changes in public sentiment.

The approach which focuses on interest group claims-maker's strategy puts the initiative in the hands of the interest groups. So the question of how the media decides whether it will cover an issue or not remains under-explored in the interest group model as much as it does in the structural strain model. Further, the question of how and why the media elect to pursue a particular approach to the issue merits greater attention than either the structural strain or the interest group models give it. Putting the stress on the interest group’s rhetorical skills, therefore, obviates the crucial role that media and/or the state play in the social problem definitional process. In the elite constructionist model, it is precisely the media and/or the state that are the focus of attention. The elite constructionist model has attracted relatively few adherents in social problems studies in recent decades. It deserves much more attention.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Question to my international visitors

My ITP co-editor Peter Phillips had a great idea recently: a national boycott of major businesses from April 15-22, 2007 to give people another way to express their desire for impeachment and to apply additional pressure for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. (See the ITP blog link posted in the right column herein for more information on the boycott). It would be great if my international visitors were to write me and let us know how they feel about making this national boycott into an international boycott.

Change of Pace: A Trial Poem

Let’s see if I remember how to do this

writing poetry

it’s been a long time
and when you haven’t done it in a while
you become rusty
like a nail no longer shiny in the light

not gleaming with the lines etched in its sides
now surreptitiously
smuggling lockjaw for the unfortunate soul
who cuts their flesh drawing blood
mixing their life force with toxic bacillus

can poetry be this lethal?

we wander about life
wearing shoes as a precaution
against rusty nails
but perhaps our eyes need shields

protection against bad poetry
inflicting mortal wounds

Thursday, January 18, 2007

"The truth is a useless commodity that will hang around your neck like an albatross"

Jeb Bush, speaking to retired Naval Intelligence Officer Al Martin:

“The truth is useless. You have to understand this right now. You can't deposit the truth in a bank. You can't buy groceries with the truth. You can't pay rent with the truth. The truth is a useless commodity that will hang around your neck like an albatross -- all the way to the homeless shelter. And if you think that the million or so people in this country that are really interested in the truth about their government can support people who would tell them the truth, you got another think coming. Because the million or so people in this country that are truly interested in the truth don't have any money.” - (cited by Uri Dowbenko in Bushwhacked, Sept. 2002).

Fascinating. Governor of Florida, brother of the President, Project for the New American Century member, thinks truth is a useless commodity and that there are only a million or so people in this country who care about the truth about their government. His comments are so self-revealing and so concentrate what is wrong in America today.

First, he thinks that truth's an albatross around the neck. Truth isn't something to be discovered, sought after, disclosed when found, and spread. Truth isn't something that sets you free. It's something to avoid and something that will interfere with what the government wants to do (and get away with). So this is both a statement about epistemology and about what he believes government to be. Government operates best when it shields the people from the truth. Weber, who said so much about bureaucracy, put it this way: "Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament - at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy's interests."

How contemptuous of the American people that only a million or so in his mind think truth is worth anything. I wonder what the people who vote GOP would think of this? Have they all been herded into the "faith-based community?" As Jason and Randy on ESPN's Cheap Seats would perhaps say to them: "Do you care?"

No wonder Jeb can sleep at night knowing that he was instrumental in rigging vote totals in Florida in 2000 and 2004- after all, who cares about the truth? But then, again, from his warped and privileged perspective, the only people who care about the truth are losers and impoverished. "Winners" like him treat truth as an obstacle. Truth doesn't matter. Creating something that looks real to people, a useful fiction, that allows people like him to do what they want - now that's for the winners of the world. "We are the champions of the world. And we'll keep on lying till the end."

Second, and this is possibly even more fundamental in what is wrong with Jeb and his ilk, is that he weighs everything in terms of commodities - if you can't sell it, can't buy it, then it's not worth anything. Marx put it this way in the Manifesto: "The bourgeoisie ... has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors,' and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'... It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."

Truth isn't an albatross around the neck except for those who seek to mislead and plunder the people. Truth as an albatross does deserve to ring the neck of people like Bush.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Book Talk Tues., Jan 23 Upcoming

If you can make it to the Santa Cruz, California area, I will be giving a book talk about ITP along with Elizabeth de la Vega, author of U.S. v. Bush at the Capitola Book Cafe at 7:30 pm. Hope to see you there!

Monday, January 15, 2007

"I have talked to many people who know there is something wrong but cannot express it."

Cheshirekatz, in the last sentence of her second comment on my "Anti-State and State Terrorism" piece, wrote the line I quote above. It's a very important and true observation. I have comments I want to make about it, but I want to invite my readers/visitors to weigh in on the question of what's holding people back from getting involved politically to end this immoral war on Iraq and on the world by the Bush/Cheney regime and to impeach and remove them from office. What do you think? You can either submit comments or you can email me if you don't want your comments posted.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The War at Home and the War(s) Abroad

This is a talk that I gave April 16, 2004 at the Pacific Sociological Association meeting. The issues I discuss below dovetail with my last posting on the identity/unity of opposites between anti-state and state terrorism. There is an intimate connection between our government's far-flung empire - we spend more on our military than all of the rest of the world combined - and their clampdown at home.

They cannot continue down the road they have embarked upon without also destroying long-standing principles and laws because what they are doing and plan to do are diametrically opposed to humanity's interests. Any adherence to previously vaunted ideals such as due process, habeas corpus, personal privacy, advise and consent, freedom of assembly and speech, humane treatment, the right to see the evidence presented against you and to confront your accusers, all these and more are being systematically ground into bits the way, well, much of the Twin Towers were oddly rendered into small particles.

Those of us who do not accept the Democratic Party's injunction - that we make common ground with torturers and war criminals - should remember this essential truth: this regime that appears now so powerful and fearsome has feet of clay. The people who run things now can only get away with this if people shrink before the smoke and mirrors this Wizard of Oz blandishes. This country needs - more than ever - to be shaken to its roots by a powerful, popular movement. Let's stop wondering why the Democrats insist on protecting tyrants. Let's stop being puzzled why the Democrats don't seem to "get it" and seem bent upon doing things that any ordinary person would consider foolhardy and clearly wrong. The Democrats are not the answer and they are not going to be our saviours. The only road forward consists of the people acting independently. An entirely different political atmosphere must be created. What else will avail? Who among us seriously believe that the awful crimes and wrongs that this regime has been committing and continues to commit, the terrible travesties that they are responsible for in an ongoing way, can be reversed through seeking to work with these criminals in a "bipartisan" manner? When the political institutions themselves have been complicit in this process, and announced explicitly that they intend to continue in this way, what else will have a chance of success other than a dramatic change in the political atmosphere through the autonomous actions of the people? The inchoate feelings that so very many people feel today need to be acted upon by the people. It needs to be organized and it needs to find its voice. The world awaits. The future beckons. Who will answer the call?

* * *

“Inextricably Connected: the War at Home and the War(s) Abroad”
Presented April 16, 2004 at the PSA by Dennis Loo

The reason why our civil liberties are under attack is because, ironically, given their comments about al-Qaeda, the Bush administration hates freedom. We [all] speak, of course, with different senses or understandings about what freedoms we most treasure. To Bush and Co., freedom means the right to invade other countries without provocation, to pursue profits unfettered by international treaties or, in Condi Rice’s words, the “fiction” of an international community, the freedom to grab other people’s resources outright or at unjust prices, to hold people indefinitely without charges or on grounds of “suspicion,” to fire on peaceful, unarmed demonstrators, to bomb mosques, to peek at people’s mail, track their political activities, harass and deport “Muslim” looking people, to have freedom from accountability for their actions, freedom to lie shamelessly to the public in order to do what they want… These are the freedoms that Bush Inc. specifically and imperialism more generally treasure.

They love these “freedoms” and are attacking civil liberties by choice, but even more than that, out of necessity. This is because their war(s) abroad require the consent or cooperation of Americans. This has always been true of wars, but it’s been even truer since the collapse of the Soviet Union [and China] and the disappearance of the socialist camp. They don’t anymore have to take into decisive account other nation’s opinions. They are, as they showed last year, perfectly willing to move unilaterally – even if they would rather not - and even though doing so exposes their plots as naked aggression to most of the world.

This government recognizes that they must stifle dissent as much as possible in order to give them the freedom to pursue these policies. The PATRIOT ACT, and its successors which are the cutting edge of their assault on civil liberties and civil rights, come about from the need by our government to gear up the mechanisms of repressive social control here at home as they pursue empire expansion abroad. [See this as well. Note the exceptions to the bill that Bush specifies in his signing statement.]

That empire expansion isn’t being pursued only through war. Since the 1980s, when globalization began in earnest, and when the socialist bloc collapsed opening up literally more than a billion people to the capitalist world, thus rendering a whole swath of the American working class and a good section of the middle-class superfluous from the perspective of capital, globalization means hard times for many, many Americans.

Neoliberal policies (mainly known [and not entirely accurately] in the US as neocon policies), which are the political manifestation of globalization, mean privatization and privation for all but the very rich. We’re in the midst of the complete dismantling of the New Deal aka the Keynesian Welfare State, and its replacement with the security or neoliberal state. This dismantling has been spearheaded by the GOP, whose ugly, mean-spirited, ruthless, go-for-the-jugular [style of] politics is well known. But what is not so well understood is how the Democrats are fully involved and implicated in this. Clinton, e.g., presided over the end of welfare as we know it, fully embraced the death penalty, put more cops on the streets, and pursued American imperialist interests abroad, albeit mainly under the guise of international cooperation.

The spinelessness that so much of Democratic politics has consisted of for several decades now is not basically a product of their lack of courage. It is a product of their agreement with the GOP that capitalism/imperialism is not to be challenged, with globalization the marching orders of the day.

When I speak of privation I mean not only the loss of millions of jobs, the withdrawals of state support for community services such as welfare, medical care and education and other infrastructure. I also mean the life and death dangers that globalization means to both the Third World and the First World. For the Third World it means especially savage exploitation, early deaths and uneven development. For the First World it includes all of us as targets for what Chalmers Johnson calls blowback. Al Qaeda is merely the inevitable reaping of what imperialism has sowed. [It is the bastard child of the arrogance and predations of empire.]

This is why in a certain specific sense [Condi] Rice was telling the truth, rare and odd as that is, when she said that there was no silver bullet to prevent 911. Not that they couldn’t have done something to possibly prevent 911, because they clearly could have. You don’t need Mohammed Atta’s itinerary before you can act on the wealth of information that they had. But where she’s telling the truth in a sense is: you cannot stop all terrorist attacks. Indeed, one of the things that the Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001 reveals is that the missile attacks that Clinton launched against Bin Laden’s Afghan bases in 1998 led to Bin Laden telling his followers that he wanted to retaliate on D.C. Gratifying as it was to hear Richard Clark apologize for being unable to prevent 911, his proposals, and that of liberal hawks like [Sen.] Bob Kerrey, consist of trying to enlist American support for a blank check to attack anyone and anywhere. These attacks by Clinton wouldn’t have and didn’t stop 911. In fact, they made it far worse.

What our government could do, and what our government won’t do, is take the steps that would undercut the wide popular social base for al-Qaeda and turn al-Qaeda into a fringe group without significant social support. They could begin by withdrawing their support for the reactionary and deeply unpopular regimes in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kuwait, Israel, and so on. They could pull out the military bases that ring the region in the Middle East. When this government speaks of bringing democracy to the region what others hear, and see, rightly so, is “democracy, hypocrisy, might makes right.”

The most important news of last Thursday [April 8, 2004] was actually not Rice’s testi-lying before the 911 Commission. It was the news that Iraqi insurgents had seized control over three Iraqi cities, because the resistance will only grow and the schemes of our government will not succeed. The Sunnis have united with the Shiites in opposition to the US. [A situation that in some respects obviously has evolved with internecine violence spawned since this talk was given]. Iraqis who were initially favorable towards the US for helping overthrow Hussein are now largely deeply angry at the US occupation.

My most important point tonight is that in times like these, when things seem and are terrible - for wars are terrible things - when governments must mobilize their armies and mobilize the citizenry, these governments SEEM more powerful than ever, but they are actually more vulnerable than in ordinary times. They are more vulnerable for several reasons. Among these: the fact that it is not business as usual and they are calling upon people to make unusual sacrifices for them. This includes not only the fact that they are sending troops abroad and these troops are both killing and being killed. It also includes the need for the citizens to support these war efforts, to be even more patriotic than usual. The government is more stretched out and more dependent on cooperation than in ordinary times.

This is why they are trying to clamp down on us by undercutting civil liberties and rights. They need very desperately to squelch dissent and intimidate people from exercising their rights to think and act and advocate and expose. For one thing, they are [of course] world-class liars. We who oppose them, on the other hand, have truth on our side. We also have the best interests of the vast majority of the world’s people on our side. We just don’t have the mass media on our side!

Last year at this time I argued that there was an unintentional symmetry in the notion of Asymmetrical Warfare – that the savage acts of imperialism would certainly provoke their equal and opposite reaction, resistance, insurrection and revolution. Rumsfeld continues to tell us that the insurrection in Iraq consists of remnants of Hussein loyalists, terrorists and criminal elements, and are a mere handful [quaint words viewed from 2007’s perspective!]. They think that they can just shock and awe those they oppress and they/we will just say, ok massa, we won’t resist no mo.’ Our rulers have a blind spot the size of the Milky Way when it comes to recognizing that people will rise up against their oppressors, no matter how sophisticated the weapons, how hi-tech the weapons, how terrible the savagery the imperialists brandish and use against the people.

When wars are waged, innocents are killed and property and persons are destroyed. Wars expose the actual inner workings and fundamental nature of regimes. They uncover what governments are willing to do to further their ends. This, it should be said, is one of war’s virtues, that it [at least] nakedly exposes the true nature of regimes. [Natural disasters also expose the same things about governments. Witness Katrina.]

This brings me to my second point: instead of retreating in the face of all of this, activists must act boldly and resolutely, and not accept half-steps in the name of “realism.” There are no better opportunities for us than in times such as these. There are no better conditions for us to agitate and expose the actual nature of the system and its world-class lying, hypocritical rulers.

Why should we put energy into, e.g., supporting another war candidate (John Kerry) against the current war candidate? I say this not because I want to see another four years of Bush, but because we should not be taken in by the delusion that a Democrat in office will fundamentally change anything. The work we should be doing is in the streets, building the movement to expose the truth about their schemes, to agitate among the people, to bring people into political life in a multitude of ways, to expose the true and full nature of imperialism and what needs to be done to get rid of it, but we should emphatically not be funneling all that energy into backing John Kerry or any other candidate for office because that’s a dead end.

Wars and invasions aren’t pretty things. Most Americans have a very sheltered, naïve, and Pollyannish view of what the US’s role in the world is and has been. This is a product of our history and geography, separated by two oceans from the great wars, able to dominate and use as our backyard warren all of Latin American and the Caribbean. Many Americans believe that whatever we do in the world, we must be on the side of the angels, that we foster democracy, protect the innocent, punish the evil, that our bombs are all smart, and we never do anything without full justification.

The reason they must lie to the people about this is because the majority of Americans aren’t pleased to plunder (even if all too many are thoughtless about driving around in behemoths, gas guzzling, global warming machines!). Consider how most Americans reacted when they saw the videotape of Rodney King’s beating? Or when wartime atrocities manage to make it into the news, rare as this is now days?

Our rulers know this and know that most people will spontaneously adopt the position of nationalism and patriotism, to see the world not as fellow citizens of the planet, but as Americans first and foremost. They count on this, they rely on this, and they absolutely need this. That is why they got an initial flurry of greater support when they actually launched the war on Iraq last year, even though a majority polled just before that were saying they wanted the UN to sponsor it. But it hasn’t proven to be smooth sailing for them. And small wonder!

My own take on this is that I live here, was born and raised here, and have citizenship here, but that doesn’t make me an American. I’m a citizen of this planet before I’m anything else. Isn’t this the truth when you get down to it? Aren’t we [all] just that? Can this planet continue if everyone were to adopt the American middle class standard of living/style of living?

Consent given can also be consent denied. How successful we end up in that, however, well, therein lies the rub… But one thing’s for sure, they will continue to try to cobble together that coalition of the domestic willing, and it’s our job to destroy that coalition.

Friday, January 12, 2007

"Anti-State and State Terrorism: Strange Bedfellows?"

(This is a paper I presented at the NSSA Meeting in Las Vegas, April 7, 2006. I post it for feedback and comments from anyone who'd like to do so. I would appreciate the feedback as the paper was meant to be exploratory rather than definitive.)

My talk is in three parts. In the first part I offer a definition for terrorism, partly for clarity so that we know what we’re all talking about and partly because the definitions that I have seen are unsatisfactory. They either define terrorism overly broadly and therefore mislead (for essentially political reasons which will become clear as we discuss it), or they capture some aspects of terrorism, but they don’t focus on the part that I think is the essence of terrorism as opposed to other political strategies. This section could be subtitled: The Trouble with Terrorism.

In the second part I argue that anti-state and state terrorism require each other for the other’s existence and that they tend to provoke each other into being. They are the obverse side of the coin from each other.

Finally, in my third part, if I don’t run out of time, I argue that the anti-terrorism measures employed by the Bush/Cheney regime are not only ineffective: they are designed primarily to repress the US population and not to prevent terrorism.

Part One: definitions

The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

This definition is overly broad and over-inclusive. This is not surprising in that not only is the FBI a political institution, but the anti-terrorism campaign is presently especially high profile and highly politicized.

The operative word in the FBI definition is “unlawful,” not coercion or intimidation, since states use force as well. As Weber defined it, a monopoly over the legitimate use of force is the essence of what a state is:

A “state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." Max Weber

It isn’t violence or intimidation or coercion per se, therefore, that makes something coercive. It is whether or not that force is seen as lawful or legitimate. If it’s seen as legitimate, then it’s not terroristic. The FBI itself uses force and violence for political or social ends, but would not view its actions as unlawful. The question then is: how is “unlawful” understood? Who settles the question of what is unlawful?

When police officers beat and shoot people it’s normally seen as legitimate since they do so under the color of law. When military forces bomb and kill it’s normally seen as legitimate because they are acting in times and conditions of war.

The important issue here is that legitimacy or illegitimacy is not an inherent property of the act or acts, it is a question of interpretation.

One of my points then is that terrorism, as illustrated in the FBI’s definition, is very subjective. That’s not surprising to anyone here. Let’s take a look at another definition.

The US State Department defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" [Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d)].

This is a better definition but it excludes state sponsored terror since the agents of such terror are state actors.

Britannica Dictionary defines it thusly:

Terrorism, n.' the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence…'.

This is better still, but neither it nor the State Department’s definition specifies that a key characteristic of terrorism is its indifference to the injury or death of innocent victims or even terrorism’s deliberate targeting of innocents. I believe that a proper definition for terrorism should include that.

Finally, here is the Patriot Act’s definition for a new crime dubbed “domestic terrorism:” “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws … [if such acts] … appear to be intended …to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”

Obviously, by this definition, any act of civil disobedience and any political protest could be readily categorized as “domestic terrorism” since they are all designed to influence the government’s policy. In fact, a particularly aggressive lobbyist’s actions could be defined as domestic terrorism according to this. The Patriot Act’s definition for “domestic terrorism” is so broad that it renders the meaning of terrorism null and void for all practical purposes and makes “terrorism” a catch-all label that can be used against almost any dissenters or advocates of policy that those in power do not appreciate. If truckers, for example, were to engage in a strike action or demonstration in which they used their trucks to block traffic in D.C. for an hour or more, this could arguably be seen as dangerous to human life and be treated as terrorism. Indeed, a group of demonstrators in Salt Lake City a few years ago were prosecuted as “domestic terrorists” for interfering with commercial businesses on the street where they were demonstrating.

Here is my definition of terrorism, which I believe is much less subjective and does not completely gut the meaning of terrorism altogether, as the Patriot Act does. I want to use it as a basis for my discussion of the intertwined relationship between anti-state terrorists and state terrorists:

Terrorism is the systematic use of force against persons or property with the intent to induce a general climate of fear in a population in order to produce a particular political objective. Such actions are carried out with either deliberate indifference to the fates of, or involve the conscious targeting of, noncombatant individuals.

I have included the explicit mention of innocent civilians in my definition because terrorism differs from political violence in that it is designed to induce fear by the injury or death of innocents. It is true that there are acts classified by some (e.g., the US government) as terrorist that do not result in injuries to civilians, but that classification is overly broad.

My definition has the virtue of bypassing the question of legitimacy since, as everyone knows, “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” By bypassing the question of legitimacy, it allows us to more impartially define whether something is terrorist or not. Now, of course, it isn’t really possible to offer a definition that everyone will accept. Some people will never accept a definition that includes the actions of their own government.

The intent of terrorists is an empirical question that must be settled through investigation. States in general will never admit that they act deliberately targeting civilians and other innocents.

Wars are in fact regularly depicted in bravado terms that overlook or drastically minimize any casualties. Witness, for example, Fox New’s Tony Snow’s cheerleading the initial quick toppling of Saddham Hussein on 4/13/03:

"Tommy Franks and the coalition forces have demonstrated the old axiom that boldness on the battlefield produces swift and relatively bloodless victory. The three-week swing through Iraq has utterly shattered skeptics' complaints."

The toppling of Hussein and the invasion were not relatively bloodless.

If innocents are hurt or killed or their property damaged and states are called to account for it happening, states’ explanations are likely to be that these acts were the product of rogue individuals, “collateral damage,” or the innocents hurt or killed were being used as “human shields” by the individual(s) the state was really targeting. States’ general response is that they had no intent to hurt or kill or damage innocents. It was accidental or unavoidable through no fault of theirs.

Of course in the course of war, even states that are being as careful as they can be and are not trying to deceive will sometimes inadvertently hurt innocents. The issue here is not individual acts then, it is one of state policy and that of the policy of anti-state terrorists.

Is the policy one that intends to do harm, or reflects utter indifference and criminal recklessness with respect to civilians? If so, then it’s terrorism.

Now to my main argument: As I hope I have shown in very brief discussion here, anti-state terrorism and state terrorism share, at a minimum, an indifference to civilians’ fates and in most instances they both deliberately target civilians. The object in both cases is to strike fear in the population in order to provoke a particular political response. States that use terrorism intend for it to cause their opponents and their supporters to give up their fight. Anti-state terrorists intend for the fear and disruption they cause for the population to provoke the state into granting certain political concessions. In most instances, anti-state terrorists want to cause a state to be toppled.

There is a very sharp distinction here that should be drawn between the actions, strategy and tactics of anti-state terrorists and those of revolutionaries. Revolutionaries aim to mobilize the populace and recruit them into the revolutionary army in some form, either directly as members of the revolutionary army, or indirectly (e.g., as a supporter or sympathizer, overt or covert). Because, in part, they have such a strategy, targeting civilians or being indifferent to their fates is anathema to revolutionaries. It would be counter-productive to their cause of a general mobilization of the population to kill indiscriminately.

Anti-state terrorists, by contrast, do not have patience for the kind of painstaking organizing that revolutionaries carry out. They also lack faith in the masses that they could be so mobilized. Instead, anti-state terrorists seek to provoke a crisis (the fact that they don’t usually succeed in this doesn’t alter the fact that this is what they would like). They see themselves as the lone heroes and the masses are seen as spectators for the terrorists’ heroic actions. In the case of groups like the Red Army Fraction in Germany or the Symbionese Liberation Army in the US they saw their actions as leading to the state clamping down on the civilian population so heavy-handedly that it would reveal to the benighted masses the true fascist face of capitalist rule. This would then somehow and somewhat magically ignite revolutionary consciousness among the people. These groups thus believed that the ordinary workings of the capitalist system were insufficient to produce the basis for incipient class-consciousness. The terrorists needed to help things along.

“Terrorist strategy is born out of a dangerous combination of desperation and grandiosity. In their minds, terrorists face an ultimate foe—an unbeatable foreign occupier, the forces of international capitalism, the earthly manifestation of evil. According to this line of thinking, only the terrorists now stand against this enemy; other groups, following ‘normal’ means, have already failed.” Tom Grant, Arms and Influence.

The actions of groups like Hamas in Palestine are born out of the PLO’s failure to actually wage a revolutionary struggle against occupation. They are characterized by a sense of utter desperation and a sense of hopelessness combined with rage.

Part Two: An Identity of Opposites

Both anti-state terrorism and state terrorism share a fundamentally identical attitude towards the people – people are dupes and they are expendable. They are best moved through the generous application of fear. Anti-state and state terrorism both evidence contempt and cynicism towards the people.

Political rule requires two elements: persuasion and coercion. As Weber put it, political power consists of the ability to get your way even against resistance. How do you get people to do something they don’t want to do? What do you do if all of your means of persuasion fail? You use coercion.

If coercion does not avail and resistance proves fierce, then states may resort to terror. State coercion is unpleasant or even nasty and brutal, but state terrorism aims to not merely force you to do something, but to terrify you into complying. The state wastes no effort when using terror to restrict its victims to limited and specific targets. State terror is by nature designed to be indiscriminate. Virtually the entire population is supposed to be terrified. It derives much of its power in fact from being indiscriminate. You are supposed to be so fearful that you will co-operate because you could very easily be the next victim.

A state that uses terror - as in the examples that follow – reveals itself to be in a particularly precarious state. It’s precarious because it must resort to means exceeding those that states normally employ in order to carry out their policies and/or in order to stay in power. The Nazis ruled through terror. The US military in Abu Ghraib and at GITMO and in their assault on Fallujah and Hilla where they have specifically suspended international rules of war by aiming phosphorous missiles at people and shooting at anyone who moves, rule through terror. In the case of Hilla, where they used cluster bombs on civilian areas, the object was to quickly crush any resistance to their drive to Baghdad because they did not think that American public opinion would tolerate a protracted war campaign. In the case of the siege of Fallujah, the point was to punish the people of Fallujah for their support of the insurgents. In spite of what the Bush Administration continues to claim, their invasion and especially their ongoing occupation of Iraq are very unpopular, both in Iraq and in the US.

Terror can work for a time. Anti-state terrorism almost always fails – they don’t have power after all, and they aren’t pursuing means that are designed to build broad support. State terrorism, on the other hand, sometimes works, for a time. Ultimately, it fails miserably because people in the long run cannot effectively be ruled by fear. There simply aren’t enough gendarmes to go around to force people to do what the state wants if much of the populace thinks that the state is illegitimate.

Part III

The Dangerous Incompetence of the Bush/Cheney Cabal and the Grave Dangers That They Pose.

It’s no secret that the Bush administration would not be in power today if 9/11 had not happened. (The 2004 GOP national convention would have lasted about 1/3 as long as it did and the speeches in particular would have been about 30 seconds long if they had not been able to invoke the specter of 9/11 over and over and over again.) As it is, they were actually outvoted both in 2000 and in 2004 and only took office through fraud. But they would have gone down to defeat by a record, or near record, level were they unable to convince many Americans that terrorism from al-Qaeda and the like was the most important political fact of our times. They certainly could never have gotten away with invading Iraq and blatantly violating international law without making the phony claim that Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda and 9/11.

The Patriot Act, under a different name, was something they tried to get through Congress before 9/11 - unsuccessfully. Awful as they are, the policies of the Bush administration are not unique. They are actually a continuation at a higher level of policies begun under Reagan and carried forward with certain different attributes by Clinton. In brief, they were carried out less aggressively under Clinton, but they are fundamentally the same. These policies are called neoliberalism (sometimes aka free market fundamentalism) and they are the political expression of globalization. That is, they are the political policies that advance globalization: deregulation, privatization, re-engineering, deindustrialization, and downsizing. Globalization renders the vast majority of the population increasingly insecure, especially economically, but also politically. Job security, for example, is increasingly jettisoned under neoliberalism and social safety nets have been getting shredded.

Growing reliance on coercion is also part and parcel of this picture. They need a rationale to justify this growing use of force. The specter of terrorism, while not the only rationale, provides the most effective. Invoking 9/11 has so far worked rather well in shutting people up. As Herman Goring put it: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders ... tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” The 1933 Reichstag Fire was the Nazi’s equivalent to our 9/11. Blamed on the communists, the Nazis (and Goring in particular) set the fire themselves, and used the arson of the German Parliament’s building as an excuse to suspend the German Constitution and give them emergency powers.

While 9/11 and terrorism are the rationale for the increasing use of force and of surveillance, the underlying, key reasons for this are a result of two things: 1) the sharply diminishing role of positive, informal and formal forms of social control such as jobs at living wages, and 2) their dreams of empire expansion which will require a much greater degree of brutal and direct force, including torture. Both of these factors mean that they are much more vulnerable to dissent and open debate about their policies since their policies are directly contrary to the vast majority of people’s interests and welfare, here and in the world. Thus, they are much more focused on repression of the population, not terrorism. This is the central reason why they have been tightening the screws on the people. Rather than preventing future terrorist attacks, these steps actually invite more terrorism, of both kinds. They actually benefit from terrorist attacks.

Introducing an incipient police state also creates potentially very severe fissures and cracks since it involves breaching long-standing civil liberties and fundamental beliefs in American governance. These include core matters such as habeas corpus and the right not to be spied upon.