Until criminal charges are brought against big banks and their employees for potentially criminal acts, banks will continue to evade the law, knowing they will merely face fines as the cost of doing business and thus be free to continue being sleazy. Wells Fargo is one of the worst, with a long list of offenses yet curiously, no one ever goes to prison. This seems to be regulatory capture, where public agencies charged with regulation or enforcing laws against an entity mostly protect the entity or impose fines instead of filing criminal charges. As an example of what should be done, when real estate and the economy of Iceland cratered, Iceland nationalized the banks and put banksters in prison.
Wells Fargo Bank employees driven by strict sales pressure issued unwanted credit cards and opened unauthorized accounts that charged customers fees and damaged their credit, according to a lawsuit filed by the city of Los Angeles.
The civil complaint filed Monday contends the largest California-based bank violated state and federal laws by misusing confidential information and failing to notify customers when personal information was breached, City Attorney Mike Feuer said at a Tuesday news conference.
Thousands of victims — many of them working-class Haitian Americans from South Florida — are one step closer to receiving restitution for a Ponzi scheme that bilked them out of at least $30 million.
Wikipedia has more on the seemingly endless civil charges against Wells Fargo, including subsidiary Wachovia laundering drug money, high cost subprime loans targeting Blacks and Latinos, gouging customers, a HUD investigation, and much more.
For the first time in modern history, Labour and Conservatives did not win a British national election. Xenophobic, EU-skeptic, populist UKIP bested them both. Lib Dems got wiped out, Greens came in 4th. Only a very strong vote in London kept Labour from also being trounced.
There’s just no way to spin this as anything but a ginormous upset with long-term ramifications. UKIP is right-wing populist, anti-immigration, anti-Euro – and now a serious political force. I think their appeal is primarily populist. When economies are troubled, and middle and working classes get hammered while banksters loot at will and don’t go to prison, a populist party, no matter how wrong-headed it may be on other issues, will attract votes. This effect will be more pronounced when other parties, as is happening now, studiously avoid such issues.
In a stunning warning to the established political parties, Ukip was on course to win as much as 28% of the national poll. That is a near doubling of the 16.5% it secured in the last European elections in 2009, when it came second to the Tories with 13 seats.
These various parties have nowhere close to majorities. However, in parliamentary governments, majorities rarely happen. Several of them now have the power to be coalition members with influence over policy.
<b“To repeat myself ad nauseum, I still don’t see how our city’s chief economic development officer can hold and promote views that are fundamentally anti-capitalist in nature.”
–Â Â March 19, 2013, email from the Montpelier mayor to the city manager
When a city employee promotes a point of view that happens to center on an aspect of populist economics that seeks to serve the public good, and the democratically-elected mayor of that city has an opposing ideology that he’d rather not debate openly, why would anyone expect the resolution of this conflict to be anything but ugly?
That describes the often-covert, year-long struggle by minions of the private banking industry in 2013 to strangle the nascent idea of aÂ Public Bank for Vermontin its cradle before the public might begin to admire it and help it grow.
In this preliminary outline of the circumstances that appear to have culminated in a process so blatantly unfair as to be laughable if it were in a movie, the three main actors all worked for the City of Montpelier:
John Hollar, the mayor ofÂ Vermont’s capitol, Montpelier (population about 8,000), is an attorney in the Montpelier office ofÂ Downs Rachlin Martin, one of the state’s more prominent law firms, for which he is a registered lobbyist with some thirty years of lobbying experience. His clients include Bank of America and Wells Fargo. In March 2012, he ran unopposed and was elected in a citywide vote as mayor of Montpelier, a part-time position paying $4,000 a year.
Gwendolyn HallsmithÂ published “The Key to Sustainable Cities: Meeting Human Needs, Transforming Community Systems” in September 2003. She was serving as executive director ofÂ Global Community Initiatives, a small 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, when she went to work for the City of Montpelier as the Director of PlanningÂ and Community Development. Her hiring letter of October 11, 2006, makes specific allowance for her activity with Global Community Initiatives, which she founded, and other organizations, as well as her attendance at related conferences at city expense. Â
Vermont’s reputation for having a green streak was justified
In 2001, the Montpelier City Council endorsed the Earth Charter, which defines itself as “a universal expression of ethical principles to foster sustainable development.” Montpelier was the first state capitol to endorse principles that might appear anti-capitalist in nature, as expressed in the Earth Charter preamble:
“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”
In this context, the city’s hiring of Gwendolyn Hallsmith made complete philosophical sense. Starting in 2007, the planning director oversaw the development of the 247-page Montpelier Master PlanÂ using Earth Charter principles to guide “enVision Montpelier, a community driven, longrange planning initiative.” The City Council adopted the plan in September 2010, with a 30-100 Year Vision Statement that said in part:
“Our vision is to excel as a creative and sustainable community. More specifically, we seek to safeguard the natural environment and enhance our small-town setting. We aspire to strengthen community ties and expand civic participation. We aim to encourage learning and cultivate good jobs.”
For awhile Montpelier’s government followed its own plan
Even though the City Council was changing, with two new members including Mayor Hollar elected in 2012, the governing body seemed to maintain principled continuity. In December 2012 the city again paid the planning director to attend and speak at aÂ New Economy conference, which she helped organize as a co-sponsor through Global Community Initiatives. Also co-sponsored by the Public Banking InstituteÂ and the Donella Meadows Institute, the conference promoted itself by announcing its potentially anti-capitalist nature:
“We all want vibrant, resilient economies that support our communities, but it’s becoming clear that our current economic system can’t deliver all that”¦. Â and profits are shared very unevenly. There are alternatives. Our economies can be better, healthier, and stronger. They can be more sustainable, more fair, and more local.” [emphasis added]
The conference keynote speaker was Los Angeles attorneyÂ Ellen Brown, chairman and president of the Public Banking Institute, formed in January 2011 “to further the understanding, explore the possibilities, and facilitate the implementation of public banking at all levels – local, regional, state, and national.”
Mayor Hollar opened the conference with aÂ three-minute welcomeÂ speech, using talking points Hallsmith had prepared for him. The mayor touted the city’s Master Plan as a guide to developing a creative local economy, and he noted recent initiatives including a wood-burning power plant, a time bank exchange, and the effort to make Montpelier bicycle and pedestrian friendly. He concluded saying, “Thank you to Gwen [Hallsmith] for all your work on behalf of the city.”
Introducing the mayor, the planning director had just said, “I’ve been working hard over the last six years to make Montpelier a model of a resilient local economy ”¦ trying to set an example for other communities.”
By the end of 2012, public banking legislation had been introduced in at least 16state legislatures, but Vermont was not among them. As of November 2013, banking lobbyists continued to be successful in keeping the Vermont Legislature from even forming aÂ study committeeÂ on public banking.
How many personal attacks does it take to add up to “ad nauseum”
It’s not clear precisely when Mayor Hollar started ragging on his planning director for her “views that are fundamentally anti-capitalist in nature,” but by March 19, 2013, by his own email account, the mayor had been repeating himselfÂ ad nauseumat least to the city manager. That particular email outburst was apparently prompted by an email he had received about an hour earlier from Lucie Garand, a fellow attorney at Downs Rachlin Martin.
Garand was reporting to him and other lawyers in the firm about legislative testimony earlier that day dealing with pending public banking legislationÂ and the threat public banking could pose to the firm’s private banking clients. AÂ Demos reportÂ in February hadÂ argued thatÂ “large out-of-state banks are failing Vermont small businesses.” Even though the Senate committees on finance and appropriations reported the bill favorably, it died quietly April 30, on a parliamentary move by Democratic senator John Campbell, and never came to a vote.
Whatever the mayor may have expected on March 19 that the city manager would do about the planning director, the city manager appears not to have done it. On April 10, while chairing a City Council public meeting with startling ineptitude (so startling it might appear to have been deliberate), Mayor Hollar allowed a disgruntled member of the Planning Commission (John Bloch) to vent at length, including thinly veiled personal attacks on the planning director (although apparently not for her anti-capitalist views). Bloch’s uncontrolled vitriol prompted at least one member of the public toÂ complain at lengthÂ (four pages, single-spaced) to the mayor directly, with copies to the council and the city manager. [The video of this meeting is no longer available on the city website.]
Three days after the April 10 meeting, Mayor Hollar sent a four-line apology to the planning director, with copies to the council and the city manager. The mayor said, in part:
“I want to apologize for not intervening and cutting off John Bloch’s rambling criticism of you and the Planning Department”¦. Â and you should have been given an opportunity to respond in any event.”
What happens when city officials try shutting down free speech?Â
The day after the meeting, Planning Director Hallsmith had filed a complaint form with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), seeking their help in defending her First Amendment rights. The city manager had by then showed her the mayor’s “anti-capitalist” email, with its clear intent to coerce the city manager into quieting Hallsmith. She summed up her situation this way to the ACLU:
“On two separate occasions now, my supervisor – the city manager – has expressed his concern about my outside speaking and writing, and last week, on April 4th, he told me that serious changes are being considered for my job responsibilities because members of the City Council think that the ideas in my books and outside writing are not consistent with what the city should be doing”¦.
“Last night the City Council met to discuss one of the changes to my job responsibilities and reiterated their belief that the role I have been playing in community and economic development is not appropriate, due in part to my interest in the public side of it, as opposed to the private sector side. While no action has been taken yet, the atmosphere at work has become very intimidating, and I feel as if I’m being punished for the writing and speaking I have done when it doesn’t match the ideological bent of a few City Councilors.”
Hallsmith did not claim that city officials were creating a hostile workplace by their actions, but she describes workplace conditions that would support such an allegation. Nor did she complain that she was under pressure, in effect, to violate the law as expressed by the city’s duly-adopted Master Plan, which some city officials wanted to ignore, although that, too, appears to be the case.
“I am hoping that it can be resolved without a huge public scandal,” Hallsmith wrote the ACLU. “I am not looking to make headlines – but I feel my rights are being compromised and my job is in jeopardy. I work hard for the city, and I do not like being treated this way.”
Her request of the ACLU was simple and moderate: “I think it would probably be sufficient to send a letter to the city manager advising him of the questionable legality of his actions.” In a letter to Hallsmith almost six weeks later, the ACLU declined to meet with her or offer her any help whatsoever.
The mayor was on notice in April of potential city illegalities
Responding to the mayor’s apology the same day, Hallsmith thanked Mayor Hollar for his “belated regrets” while criticizing his failure to maintain order and civility by reining in obstreperous city officials who were making unfounded personal attacks. She went on to point out what Attorney Hollar surely knew: that it was her duty to follow the Master Plan and the state law that gave it authority. [She did not mention that one of the contentious zoning issues involved property in which the mayor had a personal interest.]Â Â She outlined the larger city government problem bluntly:
“In both Planning Commission and City Council meetings, there appears to be very little understanding that the zoning needs to be in compliance with the other city policies. When I’ve brought it up in City Council, [councilor] Tom Golonka accused me of ‘throwing the Master Plan in our face.’ [Planning commissioner and attorney] Eileen Simpson was quoted in the paper questioning the need to change the zoning in the first place. At the City Council the other night, Tom Golonka said again that ‘policy changes’ needed to be vetted with City Council first. When the City Council adopted the Master Plan and received Growth Center designation, you established the policies the zoning needs to implement.”Â Â [emphasis added]
To resolve this collective impasse, the planning director suggested to the mayor “that we schedule a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Commission where we do a workshop on state land use law, the master plan and zoning adoption and amendment processes, and the substance of our current policies ”¦ to insure that a few people can’t change the overall city policy direction without due process.”
There is no available record of the mayor or others responding to the planning director’s response to his personal apology (she sent copies to the same list he had copied his apology to). No workshop has been held in the interim and, as of late 2013, the city government is no less dysfunctional and peppered with conflicts of interest than it was in the spring.Â
The slow kabuki of Gwen Hallsmith’s kangaroo court proceededÂ
On April 15, according to Hallsmith, an angry city manager, accompanied by his assistant, berated Hallsmith for writing to the mayor directly, even though it was in response to an email directly from the mayor and the city manager was on the copy list of the exchange. Hallsmith reports that the city manager ordered her “not to speak or write about New Economy issues,” which includes public banking, and warned her that the mayor was still “angry about the December 7 conference” at which he had spoken.
Through the summer and into the fall, Hallsmith continued to speak and write about the issues she cared about, without immediate consequence.
On April 23, Jed Guertin, a Montpelier resident and former state employee, whoÂ likes to keep track of city government issues (he’s watched the broadcast or attended most of the Planning Commission meetings in 2013), wrote a letterÂ to Mayor Hollar, the Council and the manager about the April 10 Council meeting. Guertin was disturbed by several facets of the meeting, including the mayor’s failure to control personal invective. There is no available response from anyone to Guertin’s letter, which independently confirms the governmental failures the planning director had described. At Guertin’s request, the City posted his April 23 letter with the December 20 city manager’s report.
At its June 24 meeting, the Planning CommissionÂ made clear its intention to ignore the City’s ethics policy when discussing properties in which members had some interest.
In July, Vermonters for a New Economy, one of Hallsmith’s projects, initiated a “State Bank Town Meeting Campaign,” designed get Vermonters at a town meeting on March 4, 2014, to support this resolution:
“We call on the State Legislature to create a Public Bank for Vermont that enhances the work of the Vermont Economic Development Authority, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the Municipal Bond Bank, and Vermont chartered community banks and credit unions by accepting deposits from the state and municipal governments and making loan programs available for students, homeowners, municipalities and enterprises to make Vermont economically stable, self-reliant, and successful.”
State turf defenders squeal, Mayor Hollar seeks Hallsmith’s head
The executive director of one of the targeted state agencies – the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) – got hold of an earlier version of the resolution that called forÂ consolidating, not just enhancing the agencies. VHFA’s Sarah Carpenter took the wrong version of the resolution and raised an alarm with a “high importance” email to a short list of people that included Attorney Jennifer Hollar, the wife of the Montpelier mayor. Forwarding the email to his city manager, Mayor Hollar added his own volcanic response (here in its entirety) in his own “high importance” email:
“I would like to know 1) how Gwen manages to run her non-profit and pursue this initiative while maintaining her obligation to the City; and 2) how this campaign is consistent with the City’s economic development policies and her job
description. Why in the world would the city want to take a position in support of consolidating the agencies below (and antagonizing some of the ‘most senior economic development officials in the state’)? More importantly, this is something the council has never discussed. Gwen obviously can pursue interests on her own time, but as the City’s chief economic development officer, her position on these issue can’t be distinguished from her official position with the City.
“Between this and the planning commission fiasco, this really can’t continue. I’m not sure I see the point in my meeting with her to outline these concerns. I’ve raised them before with you, I assume they’ve been communicated to her, andÂ nothing has changed.”Â Â [emphasis added]
The mayor admits the City Council has never discussed public banking, much less determined a City policy on public banking. The planning director cannot possibly be speaking out against a policy that does not exist. The point is that she has been told not to speak at all and, while working to keep his fingerprints off the apparent plot to decapitate this anti-capitalist, the mayor manages to make it clear that he’s had more than enough!
This has long been a traditional response of power to truth, illustrated similarly in the 12th century, when an angry King Henry II took umbrage at the integrity of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury. “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” the King complained to his underlings, and soon the archbishop was murdered in the cathedral. Montpelier in the 21st century may not be so grand, but a willing city manager and a kangaroo court would soon accomplish a similar if less bloody end.
Who needs evidence when you’re just following orders?Â
On September 27, a week after hearing from the mayor, and without any official action by the City Council or any further documentation to justify his decision (other than the mayor’s angry email demanding ideological purity), the city manager made this series of unsupported, ex cathedraÂ assertions:
1) You have lost the confidence and support of the City Council.
2) You have lost the confidence and support of the Planning Commission.
3) I have lost trust in your ability to communicate effectively when carrying out your official duties.
4) Your extensive non-profit corporation Work and other non-city Work continues to raise questions about your commitment to the city and your allocation of time.
5) Despite multiple conversations that we have had, you continue to be involvedÂ with and/or take public positions on political matters that may not reflect city policy and may, in fact, be in direct opposition to the city’s economic development goals. This has diluted your credibility as a city official.
To make these arbitrary assertions even less credible, the city manager prefaced them by saying: “I acknowledge that there are multiple sides to all of this and that this warrants a more complete discussion and review.”
The city manager went on to place the planning director under the supervision of his assistant (who had been on the job about six months and had no special expertise in planning or economic development). Â He also ordered the planning director to prepare zoning regulations as the Planning Commission requested, without regard as to the legality of the commission’s request. And he put a limited but vague gag order in writing: “You will refrain from involvement in external political issues such as public bankingÂ which may impact your effectiveness as a Montpelier City official.” [emphasis added]
Without referring to the mayor directly, the city manager offered this final, ambiguous understatement: “l sincerely regret that circumstances exist which require me to take these actions.”
Handwriting on the wall? Let everyone read it.
In early October, Planning Director Hallsmith went on vacation, much of which she spent organizing Vermonters for a New Economy events. She also had what she described as “an off-the-record conversation with people at the Times Argus [a Montpelier newspaper] about Mayor Hollar’s email of September 20th, which impugned my integrity and my personal reputation.” The city manager got wind of this meeting and started sending Hallsmith somewhat frantic emails that did little to clear the air, as he accused Hallsmith of being the problem: “You have created the difficulty by disclosing confidential matters to the press.”
The first news storyÂ ran October 23 in the Times Argus, and other stories followed in Vermont media. According to the Times Argus, the city manager said Hallsmith was “in no danger of losing her job over this.”
In the VTDigger story, “Public Banking Campaign Sparks Controversy at Montpelier City Hall,” both the mayor and the city manager continued to misrepresent the town meeting resolution Hallsmith was actually promoting.
On October 24, in the wake of the first news stories, Hallsmith attended a contentious Planning Commission meeting at which she was a target. Despite what the city manager had written, the Planning Commission did not hold a vote or otherwise collectively express confidence in Hallsmith. On the contrary, attorney Kim Cheney (who has his own zoning conflict of interest and chairs the commission) wrote Hallsmith a conciliatory email after the meeting, saying in part: “We need your expertise to write a new law with new concepts.”
A week later the City Council issued aÂ formal statementÂ on the controversy that included this fundamentallyÂ dishonest assertion: “Aside from raising legitimate questions with the city manager about conflicts between the planning director’s outside advocacy and her job responsibilities to the City, the mayor has had no role whatsoever in this personnel matter.” The statement did not go on to mention that silencing Hallsmith would be a service to Mayor Hollar’s big bank clients.
Maintaining a collective fiction may require heads to roll
On November 6, the city manager removed the planning director from her job, putting Hallsmith on paid administrative leave. The next day he published a slick, self-serving, and dishonest version of eventsÂ that included the falsehood: “The allegations against Mayor John Hollar are simply not true.” Mayor Hollar’s role is complicated and devious, to be sure, but it’s hard to believe that without his conniving, Gwen Hallsmith wouldn’t still have her job. In any event, the mayor’s “detached disinterest” is the new reality that city officials are repeating ad nauseum. Anything else, like an email all but demanding change, would appear to be a violation of Title X, Section 9 (Non-interference by the City Council) of the MontpelierÂ City Charter.
On November 25, the city manager and the city attorney met with Hallsmith and her attorney, who objected at length to the City’s procedures on the grounds that they were unfair and violated state law. The next day the city managerÂ fired Hallsmith. The city manager had provided a rambling memo alleging Hallsmith’s supposed misdeeds, but there was no serious effort to analyze essentially trivial complaints to show how they rose to the level of a firing offense under the City’s personnel policy.
That policy allows Hallsmith to seek a grievance hearing, which she did. Under the policy, the hearing officer at the grievance hearing would be the city manager, who would also be the main witness for the prosecution.
Hallsmith’s lawyer objected to this strongly in a letter to the city manager: “You cannot possibly sit as factfinder in a case where you, yourself, will be a witness, subject to cross-examination and be called upon to judge the testimony of witnesses which is adverse to your own.”
The City solved this problem by having the city manager’s assistant, Jessie Baker, serve as the hearing officer at the hearing where her boss was the only prosecution witness. The assistant’s name was also on the official “Procedures for Hallsmith Grievance Hearing” held December 20.
The rules might have derived from the jurisprudence of Alice in Wonderland.
Hallsmith would be allowed to be represented by counsel, but counsel wouldn’t be allowed to question the City’s witness. She chose to save money and not question the witness herself. Â The rules of evidence would not apply and the hearing officer could rely on hearsay at her whim. Despite Hallsmith’s request for an open hearing, the City closed the hearing to the public.
City officials have maintained that the “termination decision” was made properly. In a relatively non-responsive reply to an inquiry, the city manager wrote: “The hearing was held under the process established in the city’s personnel planÂ which was adopted by the City Council pursuant to the authority established in the City Charter”¦. The pre-termination hearing [on November 25] and right to judicial review provide full due process as recognized by the courts. The grievance hearing is additional non-mandatory process pursuant to the personnel plan.”
The grievance hearing on December 20 lasted about five hours and a decision was reportedly promised within ten days.
Meanwhile, the city manager’s weekly reportÂ of December 13 had already noted:
“The Planning Commission met in open meeting on Monday, December 9, 2013. The Manager and Assistant Manager both attended to address their agenda item of Commission staffing during the transition with the planning director position. The Commission voted unanimously to hire a consultant to work specifically with the Commission on the rewrite of the zoning ordinance. The city manager’s Office will facilitate bringing on this consultant.”
In the event that the assistant city manager decides the grievance hearing in favor of the city manager, Hallsmith has indicated that he will take her case to the Vermont Superior Court.
Back in April, when Jed Guertin objected to the rancorous April 10 Council meeting, he says he had no idea Hallsmith’s head was on the block. Nevertheless he wrote then: “If there is a real issue with staff, please deal with it appropriately. I’ve seen what firing good staff, because of a political power play, can do to a community here in Vermont. It was not pretty and cost this one community over twenty years of disharmony.”
* * * * *
[Author’s disclosure: Almost the first I heard of this story was an email looking for participants in a demonstration at City Hall the day of the grievance hearing. The idea was to hold a kangaroo court on the steps of the building. I volunteered to be the judge, since clearly someone needed to explain the need for verdict first, trial after, as well as the compelling interest of the city to enforce obedience to the thought demands of the mayor. As it turned out, the demonstrators were too unorganized to demonstrate, and the forces against anti-capitalist heresy remain in control in the Capitol City, whose motto is “A Little Capital Goes a Long Way.”]Â
Taking No Chances, The Empire Strikes Back With the BBCÂ
“Russell Brand, who are youÂ to edit a political magazine?” asks BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.) interviewer Jeremy Paxman with all the arrogant irrelevance required of an establishment shill at the beginning ofÂ an eleven-minuteÂ interview on the BBC’s October 23 edition of Newsnight. Posted on the BBC Newsnight channel on Youtube, the interview had almost 6 million views in its first three days
Disappointingly, Brand does not immediately respond to the insult with something like, “Well who are youÂ to decide who does or doesn’t get to edit anything in a country that more or less claims to have a free press?”
This segment of Newsnight isn’t exactly for serious news. It’s also a promotional appearance by Brand, whose primary work is as a comedian and actor, currently on a world tour of his stand-up show, Messiah Complex. It opened in June, but doesn’t get even a mention in the interview. Brand is on the program now because one of Britain’s more successful political magazines, New Statesman, has just published its October 24 issue for which Brand served as guest editor, organizing the content around the present need for global revolution. He explained his appearance in New Statesman in aÂ 4,500-word editorialÂ that began:
“When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me. I chose the subject of revolution because the New Statesman is a political magazine and imagining the overthrow of the current political system is the only way I can be enthused about politics.”
So when the over-dressed, neatly bearded Paxman challenges the under-dressed, shaggy Brand about his “credentials,” Paxman is both quietly bullying, and is committing a basic logical fallacy: basing his argument on authority, rather than facts. Instead of pointing this out, Brand answers with a variation on the opening paragraph of his editorial, with an added joke about being “a person of crazy hair, quite a good sense of humor, don’t know much about politics – I’m ideal!”
“But is it true you don’t even vote?” Paxman immediately asks next, already knowing the answer. Brand confirms this, he’s never voted. Then, not even thirty seconds into the interview, Paxman seems to go gently for the jugular: “Well, how do you have any authority to talk about politics then?”
Can we then assume that, if you don’t vote, you don’t really exist?Â
Brand takes the bait without missing a beat. He doesn’t challenge the presumptuous premise of the question – that you have to participate in a system in order to earn the right to criticize that system (a standard by which there was no authority for the Cold War). But Brand takes the question at face value and offers a perfectly coherent, brief answer about deriving his authority from looking for alternatives “that might be of service to humanity – alternate means, alternate political systems.”
Still on the attack, the BBC interviewer presses the comic for a blueprint of his alternate systems, but this time Brand ridicules the ridiculous question. He points out some of the worst abuses by the current system, noting that the world would be improved merely by stopping these abuses (such as destroying the planet, creating massive economic disparity, or ignoring the needs of the people) – “the burden of proof is on the people with the power.”
Paxman pounces on the mention of power and tries to argue that people “get power by being voted in”¦. in a democracy, that’s how it works.” This is just another paraphrase of the traditional establishment defense, that you have to be part of the system if you want to change the system. It’s so patently false, it’s hard to imagine Paxman actually believes it. But it’s an argument he’s tacitly expected to make as part of his job.
So Paxman presses on with the same rutted irrelevance, in an ad hominem form: “If you can’t be asked to vote, why should we be asked to listen to your political point of view.” When Brand bats that away with more sharp criticism of the system, Paxman tries a guilt inflection, asking Brand, “Well why don’t you change it then?”
Challenging the powerless to change things is what the powerful do
When Paxman learns that Brand has never voted, he tries to make the issue completely personal, saying to Brand: “so you struck an attitude, what, before the age of eighteen.”Â This is tantamount to calling Brand’s politics nothing more that an adolescent pose, rhetoric without substance. Just over two minutes into the exchange, Paxman seems to be on top when Brand says:
“Well, I’d really been a drug addict at that point, because I come from the kind of social conditions that are exacerbated by an indifferent system that really just administrates for large corporations and ignores the population that –“
Paxman interrupts with a desperate ploy: “You’re blaming the political class for the fact that you had a drug problem?” But Brand keeps on with an articulate critique of the present moment that reduces Paxman to accusing Brand of not believing in democracy and wanting a revolution. Something is happening here, and he doesn’t seem to know what it is.
Now, in response to Brand’s articulate litany, Paxman goes in a completely different direction: “All of those things may be true –“ They are true!” says Brand. “I wouldn’t argue with you about many of them,” Paxman responds, at which point the interview appears to be edited and what follows is some nonsense about Paxman’s beard.
Paxman shifts back to the inquiry mode, asking Brand for details again about what me means by revolution and what are the specifics of the new system he wants, but his tone now is less confrontational. Even so, when Brand says voting makes no difference, Paxman responds, “It does make a difference,” without offering any evidence that it does. And he’s already agreed with Brand that in many important ways, voting hasn’t made a difference.
After six minutes, Paxman seems more hesitant, the exchange becomes more of a conversation. Having conceded most of the problems facing the world, Paxman tries yet another tack in defense of the powerful: “It’s possible that human beings are just overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.”
That seems desperate and improbable, since he’s defending people who, rather than appearing overwhelmed, are actively making the problems worse. When Brand lucidly says as much, Paxson, without looking Brand in the eye, says, “You don’t really believe that.” But he’s quiet almost to the point of inarticulateness at this point and offers no rebuttal. Brand by now is energized and needs no questions to continue his hyperactive analysis than ends with, “why pretend, why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion?”
Lacking a relevant response, he tries irrelevance, and then silence
Paxman, defender of the status quo, answers only: “Because by the time somebody comes along that you might think it worth voting for, it may be too late.” In other words, Paxman is suggesting, your analysis of the crisis is essentially correct, but the only way to fix it is to work within the system. At this point, after almost nine minutes, Paxman even looks as hopeless as he sounds, and Brands spins on.
After another minute of saying nothing, Paxman asks quietly, “Do you see any hope?”
“Yes, totally, there’s going to be revolution, it’s totally going to happen,” Brand snaps back. And then he gets personal with Paxman in a startling way. Brand says:
“I remember seeing you on that program where you look at your ancestors and you saw that your grandmother had to brass herself or else get f**ked over by the aristocrats that ran her gaff and you cried – because you knew that it was unfair, and unjust. And that, what was that, a century ago?
“That’s happening to people now. I’ve just come from a woman who’s being treated like that, I’ve just been talking to a woman, today, who’s being treated like that. So if we can engage that feeling, instead of some lachrymose sentimentality trotted out Â on TV for people to pore over, emotional porn – if we can engage that feeling and change things, why wouldn’t we? Why is that naive? Why is that not my right because I’m an ‘actor’? I’ve taken the right. I don’t need the right from you. I don’t need the right from anybody. I’m taking it.”
The segment ends and Paxman hasn’t said another word. Â Â Â
That the Syrian regime’s sycophants should demand a “hands off” policy from Washington, London, and Melbourne is logical. They do not want any outside force to interfere with the regime’s all-out war on its own people. They do not want Western arms for the Free Syrian Army, U.S. or British efforts to block Russian warships from bringing guns, bombs, bullets, helicopter parts, and gasoline to Assad, or Western airstrikes against the regime’s tanks, aircraft, and helicopters.
What is bizarre and disturbing is that Western progressives who are fighting for the very same freedoms and rights revolutionary Syrians are being killed for wanting are adopting the same slogansand policy preferences as Assad’s defenders, namely: “hands off Syria” and “no to Western intervention in Syria.”
The Western left has by and large adopted the Assad counter-revolution’s preferred slogans and policies as their own because they have not asked themselves (as Lenin did) who stands to gain from them? Who stands to gain from British and American imperialisms standing idly by while an unholy alliance of Russian and Iranian imperialisms, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime tries to bury the Syrian revolution? Who stands to gain from unimpeded Russian arms shipments, unimpeded Syrian tank movements, and under-armed Free Syrian Army fighters?
The answer is blindingly obvious: the Assad regime.
When our opposition to U.S., British, or other imperialisms leads us to unwittingly assist counter-revolutions in Libya, Syria, or any where else, then it is time to rethink our anti-imperialism, or rather, how we apply anti-imperialist principles to a multi-polar world crawling with imperialists of all different shapes, sizes, strengths, and orientations, a world where every government and 1% has its own version of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its own edition of Fox News to advance its predatory interests in every situation, at every turn.
The Russian edition of Fox News is Russia Today, the Syrian edition is SANA, and the Iranian edition is FNA (Voltairenet, on the other hand, is the French equivalent of Glenn Beck even though it is financed by the Assad regime). All three of these outlets are favorites among Western anti-imperialists even though they provide misinformation about Syria. The reality is that all three of these outlets are just as “fair and balanced” as Fox News is, meaning they all have hidden, unstated 1% agendas. This is why Occupy-style peaceful protests in Russia, Syria, and Iran get the same treatment in their media that Occupy gets in the American media.
Protesting too long, too effectively, or too loudly in any of these countries can get you killed, as the list of Russian journalists murdered proves, but it can get you killed here too.
We have been spared the fate of our Syrian, Libyan, Iranian, and Russian counterparts as of late only because our organizing has been mostly ineffective and not a threat to 1% power and profits. Right now, we are more likely to be killed by rampaging psycho-cops than we are by America’s secret police or other “law enforcement” agencies.
That will change if and when we become as massive, militant, and successful as the Arab Spring.
If you think Assad and Ghadafi are bad, just imagine the Assads and Ghadafis in Washington that sit at the top of the world’s food chain of repression, armed with nuclear and other nefarious weapons, who have perfected the art of divide and rule not only at home but on a truly global scale. They have armies of advisers, armies of intellectuals, armies of lawyers, armies of spies, armies of collaborators, armies of turncoats and traitors-to-be, armies of managers, armies of bureaucrats, armies of fund-raisers, armies of spokesmen and women, armies of court scribes, armies of hackers, armies of cops, and armies of armies to do their bidding against us.
On the up side, as in Syria and Libya the American armed forces have not been called on to use lethal force on a mass scale against our 99% for decades. There is no doubt in my mind that military personnel who are barely above the poverty line (and in some cases on food stamps) are not going to be gung-ho about shooting their own flesh and blood if, or rather when, that comes to pass. Most of them take the oath they swore to defend the Constitution with their lives very seriously, and orders from the Mitt Romneys and Barack Obamas of the future to dispense the rabble exercising their constitutional rights are not going to go over well.
Thinking about revolution and civil war here at home in this way ought to give us a bit of insight into what is really going on in far away lands like Syria and clue us in to what we should and should not do about it.
Peaceful protests in Syria broke out in spring of 2011 just as they did in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and everywhere else in the Middle East and North Africa where hungry people were tired of being beaten by cops, cajoled for bribes by government officials, and forced to silently endure every indignity imaginable out of fear, sheer terror, that you or your loved ones could disappear without a trace and end up in a ditch or a river somewhere without a face, I.D. card, or teeth for identification purposes.
The millions of grievances silently accumulated by millions of people over decades under the watchful eyes of murderous police states exploded in 2011 in an outpouring of festivity, celebration, and unrelenting bravery that did not line up nicely and neatly with the pro/anti-U.S. dichotomy that divides Middle Eastern and North African governments from one another. The Arab Spring’s failure to conform to this divide divided the international left into three camps: those who support smashing revolutions against “anti-imperialist” regimes, those who support revolutions smashing all the regimes pro and “anti-imperialist” alike by any means necessary, and those who seek a “middle ground” between these two camps and attach terms, conditions, fine print, asterisks, and caveats to their support for the Arab Spring’s revolutionaries over issues like non-violence, Western intervention, and sectarianism.
It is the comrades in the middle like Tariq Ali, John Reeds, and Phyllis Bennis who are doing themselves and the Syrian revolution a tremendous disservice by lining up politically with the Assad regime’s supporters by demanding “hands off Syria!” and “no to Western intervention!”
We in the West should not unite for any reason with any force that supports the murderous counter-revolution in Syria that is the literally killing the country’s best shot at political freedom, democracy, progress, and a future free of bloody, debilitating sectarianism.
To those firmly in the camp of Assad’s counter-revolution: if you can watch these videos of children in Aleppo or teenagers in Damascus without feeling like running out into those streets to join their clapping, dancing, chanting, and singing, I have to question whether you are a human being with feelings and emotions much less a so-called revolutionary.
If you think the CIA or the Israeli Mossad trained these kids and teenagers in the fine art of revolution, if you think they can conjure that defiant, rebellious, uncompromising spirit out of thin air, at will, you are either a damn fool or on some serious drugs. Cocaine is a helluva drug but it is nothing compared to whatever you are on if you think intelligence agencies staffed by professional killers, liars, and con men can engineer popular, broad-based revolutions almost overnight that are strong enough to withstand not just getting kicked out of a park but widespread torture and wave after wave of executions.
If you think the Syrian revolution was made in or is controlled by Washington then you should nod your head in agreement the next time Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Governor Scott Walker claims “outside agitators” are responsible for our street scuffles and protests because it is the same pack of lies the 1% use no matter where they rule, what language they speak, or how they measure up on the scale of “anti-imperialism.”
Whenever the 99% begin to move and make noise, the 1% try to convince us that it is outsiders and not we ourselves who are disturbing the thrones that rest on our backs.
The sad part is that these lies are largely recycled, reused throughout history, copy and pasted from one era to the next. The master classes have never been masters of invention or originality; they can buy both on the open market with their blood-stained dollars, euros, pesos, yuan, silver, or gold.
The Viet Nam generation heard this same song and dance from the likes of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and John F. Kennedy: nefarious outside agitators, trained in Moscow, financed by China, backed by the full weight of world communism were infiltrating poor defenseless little South Viet Nam’s fledgling democracy, stirring up trouble, wreaking havoc, and attempting to pull the country behind the Iron Curtain. Change a few words around and you have the so-called anti-imperialist view of the Syrian revolution today: nefarious outside agitators, trained in Turkey, financed by the Saudis, backed by the full weight of U.S.-Israeli imperialism are infiltrating poor defenseless little Syria’s fledgling self-reforming monarchy, stirring up trouble, wreaking havoc, and attempting to pull the country behind the curtain of American capitalism.
And what is even sadder is that men like Rees and Ali who lived through those days seemed to have forgotten the sound and rhythm of this all-too-familiar tune.
So what is the point of this lengthy diatribe?
The first point: disowning people in Libya or Syria because they got so desperate they begged a far away band of murderous crooked thieves to help them get rid of the murderous crooked thieves that were cutting their throats, torturing their kids, and doing God knows what else to them because we, as a matter of principle, are opposed to murderers and thieves is almost as criminal as it is stupid.
The second point: agitating and organizing to stop the U.S. or British governments from arming Syrian revolutionaries, blocking Russian ships filled with Assad’s weapons, or blowing his helicopters out of the sky is the single best way to stab the Syrian revolution in the back, and by stabbing them in the back, we stab ourselves in the heart because the impetus for Occupy came from the Arab Spring and not the other way around.
Occupy and the Arab Spring are one hand, and so we have a duty and an obligation to support, fight for, and aid the victory of the Syrian and all other revolutionary movements no matter how many spies the CIA sends, no matter how much Saudi money flows into the coffers of the Free Syrian Army (if they cannot afford weapons to take out Assad’s tanks and helicopters or nightvision goggles that could help them protect Syria’s nightly peaceful protests the amounts are underwhelming), no matter what political or sectarian mistakes they make, and no matter what side the U.S. decides to back in which country for whatever reason. All of that is secondary to our primary task: helping them win.
If the only thing you can focus on or see is one bunch of murderous thieves in Tel Aviv and Washington and their weaker rivals in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing edging each other out of influence in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan you are missing the most important thing: the 99% are waking up, rising, moving, organizing, and where they have to, arming, fighting, and bombing their oppressors into the dustbin of history.