Thursday, December 28, 2017

Vermont’s Progressive Candidates Blur Party Lines to Win

Rather than nominate a candidate for mayor, Burlington’s Progressive Party decided in early December to endorse Carina Driscoll, who had announced in advance her intention to run as an Independent. This is the second time since 2012 that the Party has gone without a standard-bearer in the race. One reason is that neither Driscoll, the step-daughter of Progressive “godfather” Bernie Sanders, nor her insurgent opponent, Infinite Culcleasure, wanted the Party’s nomination. 

Anthony Pollina
Instead, Driscoll at first expressed interest in seeking additional Party endorsements, from local Democrats and even Republicans. Although she has since abandoned that idea, the underlying strategy of crossing, and sometimes blurring party lines has been effective for the independent coalition that supports Bernie Sanders and other Progressives. 

In 2010, for example, Anthony Pollina was elected to the state Senate, joining Tim Ashe as the second Progressive leader to run successfully as a fusion candidate with both the Democratic and Progressive nominations. It was his first term in office. But Pollina had entered statewide politics with a splash many years earlier. In 1984, he won an insurgent victory in the Democratic primary for US Congress, then decisively lost in the general election to Jim Jeffords, the popular incumbent. 

Unlike Bernie Sanders, who rarely misses an election cycle, Pollina didn’t run again for years, but did serve during the 1990s as Senior Policy Advisor to then-Congressman Sanders. Returning to electoral politics as the Progressive’s candidate for governor in 2000, Pollina received 9.5 percent in a crowded field with Republican Ruth Dwyer, who received 37.9 percent, and incumbent governor Howard Dean, who won with 50.4. 

Two years later, in the race for Lt. Governor, he received 24.8 percent in a three way race, behind Peter Shumlin, with 32.1 percent, and Brian Dubie, who won with 41.2. Dean had retired, and was planning his race for President. Michael Badamo ran for governor as a Progressive – but without much support from the Party — and got only .6 percent. Jim Douglas was elected.
In the midst of his last term as Burlington’s Progressive mayor, Peter Clavelle returned to the Democratic Party in 2004 and challenged Douglas’s first re-election bid. Douglas won again, this time with 57.8 percent. Clavelle received 37.9. The Progressive Party didn’t field a candidate for governor that year, or in 2006.

In 2008, however, Pollina ran for governor again. Yet at a July press conference the Progressive Party leader announced that he would appear on the ballot as an Independent. It was “by far the best way” to build a coalition, he claimed. The decision raised questions about his reasons and the future of the party.
Both Sanders and his predecessor Jeffords had been embraced as Independents, Pollina argued. But Sanders became an Independent in the late 1970s after several disappointing runs as a third party candidate. At the time he publicly announced that the timing wasn’t right for a new Party. He had since served four terms as Burlington mayor and eight as a US Congressman, before running for the US Senate in 2006. In every race, until his 2016 bid for President as a Democrat, he ran as an Independent.
Jeffords, on the other hand, was a life-long Republican, serving in the US House and Senate for decades. He left the GOP in 2001, citing deep differences with the Republican leadership and the Bush administration. It turned out to be his last term, and there is no way to know how Vermont voters would have responded had he attempted to seek re-election as an Independent.
Pollina’s reasons were different. He had devoted years to building Vermont’s Progressive Party, and had declined to enter the Democratic primary earlier the same year, saying he had no intention of running as anything but a Progressive. “You know, I’m a Progressive,” he told columnist Peter Freyne. “I’m not going to leave the Progressive Party to become a candidate of another party.”
Doing so "would undermine people's faith in me and also in the process," Pollina said,  "I woudn't be too surprised if there were Democrats who would accuse me of being oportunistic in switching parties." Once he announced the intention to change his status to Independent, some Democrats did exactly that. "This is about opportunistic decision-making," Democratic Party Chair Ian Carlton told The Burlington Free Press. 
The underlying question raised by Pollina’s move was whether it was more important for progressives to build a party or win races. Thirty years earlier Sanders faced the same choice, made it, and held office almost continuously since 1981 – as an Independent. Although also wielding considerable influence as the unofficial head of the state’s progressive movement, he never joined a Party and didn’t feel accountable to any political organization. At times he was criticized for not doing enough to build an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. He simply ignored such criticism and, if pressed, explained that he was just too busy doing his job in Congress.
By running as an Independent in 2008 Pollina claimed that he hoped to build on his Progressive base, then possibly as high as 25 percent, attracting voters who had no firm allegiance to the other parties. Driscoll is making a similar calculation in her mayoral campaign.
Pollina’s 2008 gubernatorial race won the support of the three largest unions in the state; the Vermont-National Education Association backed an independent candidate for governor for the first time. He also received support from the Gun Owners of Vermont, a "libertarian" connection Sanders also made in his campaigns. But when the votes were counted, Pollina came in with 21.8 percent, just a tenth of a percentage ahead of the Democrat. Douglas won again, this time with 53.4 percent.
Two years later, Pollina ran for the state Senate --and won -- as a Progressive and Democrat. Since then State Auditor Doug Hoffer and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman have taken the fusion path to victory as candidates of both parties.

In his 2011 campaign for mayor, Tim Ashe sounded similar to Carina Driscoll when he defined himself as the person “who can bring people together and end the partisan fighting.” But his approach to Fusion was to seek the nomination of both the Progressive and Democratic Parties. Driscoll didn’t want the former and can’t win the latter.

Ashe’s pitch was that looming threats, combined with Burlington’s unique political dynamics, called for someone able to unite a “new majority.” However, fusion wasn’t a familiar concept for many local voters. Candidates sometimes won multiple endorsements, and even ran as Republican/Democratic candidates. But this was usually due to a lack of competition or the nature of the office. A few Progressives in the legislature had already run with Democratic support. But as a political tactic, fusion was an unfamiliar, mainly urban tool.

Ashe faced two hurdles: convincing enough Progressives that attending a Democratic Caucus wouldn’t undermine their Party. And, at the same time, persuading wary Democrats that this wasn’t just a Progressive ploy, that he truly wanted to be more inclusive and less partisan. Hundreds of Progressives did show up for that caucus, but not quite enough to beat Miro Weinberger. After Ashe’s defeat, local Progressives opted not to nominate or endorse anyone for mayor.

“I’ve taken an unusual path," Ashe acknowledged at the time. However, he felt that his successful Senate run, with the support of both Democrats and Progressives, had “changed the culture of the Senate” and created the possibility of a “new era of collaboration.”

He also had a message for his Progressive base. By joining forces with past opponents, Ashe suggested, they would be in a better position to preserve “a legacy we can be proud of” – meaning the projects and achievements of three Progressive administrations. Driscoll’s candidacy so far suggests a similar objective.

After his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders launched Our Revolution. An independent coaliton operating inside and outside the Democratic Party, it coordinates electoral support for Sanders and his approved candidates in targeted cities and states. In Vermont, the original Independent Coaliton has evolved to include most leaders of the Progressive Party, elected Progressives, and members of Rights & Democracy, which functions as Our Revolution’s chapter in Vermont and New Hampshire. Driscoll has been endorsed by all three organizations. 

Back in 2008, the endorsement of Progressive Party Chair Martha Abbott indicated that the movement’s leaders backed Pollina’s decision to go Independent. As he argued then, they didn’t want to let a label get in the way of a possible victory. On the other hand, Progressives had misjudged their base before. A prime example was Burlington after Clavelle, when some pragmatic leaders backed Democrat Hinda Miller. Unsatisfied with that move, the Party’s grassroots recruited an upset winner, Bob Kiss, who served two terms. 

Whether running as an Independent rather than a Progressive will expand Driscoll’s appeal, especially given her close association with the movement and its leader, is currently a very open question. The answer will come on March 6.

Material in this article is adapted from “Progressive Eclipse: Burlington, Bernie and the Movement That Changed Vermont.” Greg Guma is the Vermont-based author of “Dons of Time,” “Uneasy Empire,” “Spirits of Desire,” Big Lies, and “The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.” His latest book is “Green Mountain Politics: Restless Spirits, Popular Movements.”

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Peaceful Revolutions and the Power of Disobedience

While most people want to reduce nuclear and environmental threats, many also believe that neither climate change nor arms proliferation can be reversed through traditional channels alone.

When we talk about the American Revolution, the stories are often about military clashes or personal acts of courage in dangerous circumstances. This concept of our early history may account for the widespread identification of radical change with violence in the United States.

In reality, America's revolution, like many political upheavals, was largely a nonviolent liberation movement that spanned more than a decade. Certainly there were armed struggles, but the real transformation came from the building of substitute governments and massive resistance that led to virtual economic self-sufficiency before bullets were fired.

The power of Britain over the colonies was undermined between 1765 and 1776 by nonviolent civilian campaigns such as tax resistance, boycotts, hunger strikes and nonimportation agreements. It was a powerful outpouring of conscience and direct action, similar in many ways to the abolitionist and civil rights movemebnts, and later Gandhi's crusade to free India.

Today the world is again experiencing a powerful movement of conscience. Countless millions in North America, Europe and Asia have joined together in demonstrations, marches, sit-ins and other nonviolent activities to end the threats to global survival. While most people support initiatives to reduce nuclear and environmental threats, many also have a clear sense -- call it skepticism or realism -- that neither climate change nor arms proliferation can be reversed by the use of traditional channels alone.

If that's true, what will it take? Perhaps the same kind of active resistance that has been crucial in other movements for freedom and justice.
In the early 1980s, for example, Americans voted and spoke out overwhelmingly in favor of halting nuclear weapons production and deployment. During this period, Vermonters voted to freeze and reduce nuclear arms, cut military aid to repressive regimes like El Salvador, and transfer federal funds from military spending to programs that would create more jobs and meet social needs.

In the face of such sentiments across the country, as the government proceeded with the development of first strike weapons such as the Cruise, Pershing II, Trident II and MX missiles, many Americans moved from the halls of government to the streets. Churchgoers and religious activists were deeply concerned about what they viewed as idolatry of weapons. In the face of such militarism, the message of many religious traditions was similar: obedience to government cannot be absolute, and we must discriminate when human law conflicts with moral right.

When Jesus cleansed the temple during the week of his arrest and crucifixion, he was also conducting a campaign of civil disobedience aimed at the power centers of the established order. His law-breaking was a tool of rebirth and social change. The approach of Jesus is not unlike the modern democratic notion that a "loyal opposition" is obligated to resist unjust laws and policies to protect the integrity of the body politic. In the 20th Century Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated this principle when he broke segregation laws to show that apartheid was incompatible with the Constitution.

Taking inspiration from Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated the power of nonviolent action to undo an unjust government. The "consent of the governed" was removed in India through a long revolt involving tax refusal, boycotts, raids, resignations, parades and seditious speeches. Gandhi's method confronted violence with civil defiance and love.

"Disobedience without civility, discipline, discrimination and nonviolence," Gandhi explained, "is certain destruction. Disobedience combined with love is the living water of life."

These days, with the threat of violence and nuclear escalation ever present, many determined people still turn to nonviolent resistance to prevent the outbreak of wars that could spark global catastrophe. In Burlington, this tradition goes back decades, to the June morning when dozens of protesters blocked the truck entrance to the local General Electric plant, producer of the Vulcan Gatling gun. 

For engaging in this sit-down action, the protesters were ready to be arrested. And they were. But they were prepared because they believed that Vermont's many votes, petitions and rallies hadn't been really heard. Development of new weapons continued, intervention in Central America intensified, and anti-personnel weapons produced in Burlington were a significant component of this deadly foreign policy.

By blocking the factory gate, those committed to peace were moving beyond lobbying to incorporate tactics of active resistance. For them, obedience in the face of militarism, war and nuclear terror was a denial of conscience. But nonviolent acts of resistance can instead spark a redemptive transformation of society, one that includes well-planned conversion of weapons plants that protects the jobs of workers.

Like the American colonists who developed a new economy before their revolution, we can start the process of peace conversion by establishing local groups that involve workers, management and the community in planning for alternative, socially useful non-military production. At the same time, we can work for a broader change in priorities by supporting national conversion legislation that includes retraining and income security for those displaced.

Combining such direct actions with practical goals, in this high tech violent world, would be revolutionary in the best sense of the word.

The original draft of this essay appeared in The Burlington Free Press in June 1983, days before a march and civil disobedience to protest local weapons production. Those who participated in the large sit-in at GE, a first in Burlington, were arrested on orders of Mayor Bernie Sanders. At the time, Greg Guma was on the board of the Burlington Peace Coalition and, with Murray Bookchin, co-chaired  the Vermont Council for Democracy.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Rise of the Anti-Masons: America's First Third Party

In 1826 William Morgan, a Freemason and printer from Batavia in New York, became dissatisfied with his lodge and decided to publish the details of some Masonic rituals. That September he was seized by parties unknown, taken to Fort Niagara, and never seen again.

     It was widely believed that Morgan had been kidnapped and killed by fellow Masons, a suspicion that fed growing hostility to the order. The Anti-Mason movement spread rapidly across New England and eventually west, along the way introducing important political innovations like nominating conventions and the adoption of party platforms.
     Morgan’s disappearance – a crime-based political scandal in its day – led more people to suspect that Freemasons were just not loyal citizens. In fact, many Masons were judges, businessmen, bankers and politicians, which made it easy at the time for ordinary people to view the group as a powerful, secret and potentially anti-democratic society. Others suspected its links to the occult and ceremonial magic. This was, after all, the time of the Second Great Awakening.
     A more broadly persuasive argument was that the secret oaths administered by lodges could bind members to favor each other over “outsiders.” Popular outrage spread as people decided to challenge what they viewed as basically a conspiracy.
     One of the leading Anti-Masons was Thaddeus Stevens, a Vermont native of Danville who made his name in Pennsylvania and later emerged as a leading abolitionist, founder of the Republican Party, and post-Civil War activist for civil rights and stiff retribution against the south. Attending the Anti- Mason Party’s first national convention, Stevens attracted notice with his strong speeches and oratorical style. In one of them, “On The Masonic Influence Upon The Press,” he deplored the lack of publicity given to the convention and attributed that as well to Masonic influence.
     In 1833 Stevens was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature on the Anti-Masonic ticket, where his legislative talents quickly showed themselves. He was an excellent debater with a devastating wit who could cut his opposition to shreds. He also knew how to maneuver behind the scenes. But that’s another story…
     Two years before Stevens’ election in Pennsylvania the Party was already so popular that Vermont elected an Anti-Mason governor, William Palmer. His victory indicated the intensity of public opposition to elite power in the state, not to mention how far a single-issue movement can go.

Vermont’s Anti-Mason Interlude

     William A. Palmer was no political newcomer. He was a popular Jeffersonian Democrat and former judge who had previously represented Vermont in the US Senate by the time he ran for governor on the Anti-Mason ticket in 1831.
     Vermonters had already elected another Anti-Mason to Congress, and more than 30 members of the movement represented the party in the General Assembly. Still, it was a shock to the establishment when Palmer led in the statewide popular vote. It took nine ballots in the legislature before he won.
     And who was Palmer? A graduate of UVM with a law degree, he had practiced in Chelsea and held numerous posts, including State Supreme Court judge for two years. In 1818, when Palmer was elected to the US Senate he was a Democratic-Republican. In 1823 he became a National Republican. He was a delegate to three State Constitutional Conventions between 1828 and 1850. In other words, Palmer was clearly part of the political establishment – but not a Mason.
     He sincerely believed that secret societies were “evil.” But he didn’t make radical claims in his speeches. In his first inaugural speech, Palmer promised to appoint only men who were “unshackled by any earthly allegiance except to the constitution and laws,” and he suggested legislation to prohibit the administration of oaths except “when necessary to secure the faithful discharge of public trusts and to elicit truth in the administration of justice.”
    And why did Palmer want to “diminish the frequency” of oaths, as he said. Because of the “influence which they exercise over the human mind.”  In other words, a chilling effect.

     In 1832, the national Anti-Mason Party conducted the first presidential nominating convention in US history in Baltimore. Its presidential candidate was William Wirt, a former Mason who won 7.78 percent of the popular vote – but Vermont’s seven electoral votes. William Slade, who would later become Vermont governor as a Whig, was sent to Congress as an opponent of both Masonry and slavery. Since the state had one-year terms of office, Palmer ran and won again. But he still couldn’t attract a clear majority of the vote. This time it took 43 ballots before he was re-elected. 
     In 1834, he finally won on the first ballot, but that was because the other political parties could see the collapse of the Anti-Masons coming and were competing to win over its constituents. 
     Palmer also led in the 1835 vote. But this time he couldn’t convince the legislature. After weeks of wrangling and 63 ballots the lawmakers declared themselves deadlocked and turned to Silas Jenison, a former Anti-Mason official and winner of the Lieutenant-Governor’s race. The rest of the Anti-Mason ticket was endorsed by the Whigs. 


     Gridlock in Vermont’s General Assembly over Palmer’s elections was so disruptive that it led to a Constitutional Convention and the amendment that created the State Senate. Criticism of the unicameral legislature was not new and proposals for a second chamber dated back to 1793. But in 1836 the idea of reducing the power of the House achieved critical mass. The Convention stripped it of “supreme legislative power.” 
     Crucially, bankers backed the change, mainly with the expectation that two chambers would be easier to handle. This is circumstantial evidence suggesting that, in opposing the Masons, the movement was also confronting the banks. The general public mainly thought the House had become too arrogant, intransigent and uncooperative. 
     For Vermont Anti-Masons, the use of secret oaths represented an invasion of the “civil power of a sovereign state” and a violation of liberty. In June 1833, at the height of movement, the Anti-Mason State Convention passed a dozen resolutions defining its position. 
     Vermont’s Anti-Masons ultimately succeeded in forcing the lodges to close – for a while. But that left the state party with less reason to exist. In 1836 Vermont’s Anti-Mason leaders, including future governor Slade, joined the new, anti-Jacksonian Whig Party. 
     The party’s third and final National convention was held in Philadelphia’s Temperance Hall in November, 1838. Almost entirely engulfed by the Whigs, the gathering unanimously supported William Henry Harrison for President and Daniel Webster for Vice President. When the Whig National Convention chose Harrison and John Tyler, the Anti-Masons did nothing... and soon vanished.

Originally posted on December 14, 2015 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Too Big to Care: Why Equifax hasn't been credit worthy

It should not come as a shock that Equifax, one of the three big agencies that track credit status, has failed to protect the data it has on 143 million people. Nor should it be surprising that the company didn't inform its affected customers for six weeks after discovering that hackers had gained access to their private information. Collecting, selling and sometimes misusing mountains of sensitive data for decades, Equifax has evidently become too big to care.

Instead, three executives sold $1.8 million of their company shares days after the company discovered the problem, more than a month before it was made public. "If that happened, somebody needs to go to jail," threatened Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee. In the days following the breach announcement Equifax shares dropped 20 percent. 

At first, the company wanted customers to pay for a freeze to their accounts. That would protect their personal data. But after a deluge of complaints, the offer changed, with Equifax opting instead to waive fees for customers who want to freeze their credit files -- but only until November 21. Going forward, it could face the largest class action lawsuit in history, with the potential to bankrupt the company. 
1978 investigative feature
Original Publication PDF Here 

When I first looked into Equifax in 1978, it was already a corporate force, with 1,800 offices, 14,000 employees, and a nationwide investigative system maintaining dossiers on 46 million people. The oldest of the three largest US credit agencies, it had revenues of $275 million a year. Equifax's services at the time ranged from credit reporting, insurance investigations and underwriting to motor vehicle data tracking and assorted "management system services" - aka private investigations. 

Today Equifax holds information on more than 800 million consumers and almost 90 million businesses. Operating in 14 countries it produces annual revenues of more than $3 billion. On the other hand, the employee roster is down to about 9,000. 

Founded in 1899, Equifax had not fully committed to computers by the late 1970s. But an industry transition was underway. In Vermont, the Credit Bureau of Burlington had taken an early lead, working with Trans-Union Systems, a national computer network used by retailers and credit card companies. Data flowed in multiple directions, with stores seeking information on potential customers and other clients using the data those businesses amassed.  

Before the digital age, collecting information and creating a customer profile -- to establish what was known as "creditworthiness" -- involved a larger staff and considerable legwork. For Equifax "field investigators" it meant conducting interviews, with the subject as well as friends and neighbors. From courts and police departments they gathered any criminal information, while desk-bound staffers clipped newspapers and gathered reports. To complete a dossier, an investigator might talk to your employers, hunt down old government records, or even strike up conversations with local shop keepers. 

But mass producing customer dossiers (investigators worked on up to 40 a day), particularly profiles that included not just hard data but also tidbits of gossip, could lead to mistakes and abuses. Creditworthiness was a slippery concept, an imprecise composite of job patterns, credit and bank accounts, character, habits, family status and morals. As a result, Equifax was hit with a batch of lawsuits during the 1970s, losing some and quietly settling others. 

One Michigan woman collected $321,000 when the company falsely reported that she was an excessive drinker. Another woman from South Dakota won a settlement when Equifax said that the money for her new Chevy had come from prostitution -- also proven false.

There was also the California insurance broker who won $250,000 when Equifax investigators alleged she was dishonest. In New Jersey there was trouble when State Farm refused coverage to a Princeton faculty member after Equifax reported (accurately but irrelevantly) that she was living with a man "without the benefit of wedlock."
When I called up Ralph Bushey at the Equifax office in Burlington, the first thing he asked was how I spelled my name. Frankly, the same thing happened every time I interviewed someone in the industry. But Bushey was more cautious than most and said he had to check with higher ups. After he didn't call back, I decided to make a personal visit. 

Equifax had outposts in Burlington, Rutland and Bennington, all reporting to a branch office in Albany, New York. A Barre office, along with the rest of eastern Vermont, reported to Manchester, New Hampshire. The regional office was in Boston. 

The Burlington station was small and didn't maintain files, in contrast with Burlington Credit's relatively high tech layout. But the modest appearance was deceptive. Bushey explained coyly that Equifax  handled "all the major insurance groups," specifically mentioning Prudential and National Life. "We've gotten away from the credit line of work, and have picked up more types of business."

At times, Equifax operated like a private detective agency. In at least one case, it was caught helping a corporation to obtain gossip about a critic. An executive at American Home Products, a major drug manufacturer, had hired the company to dig into the personal affairs of Jay Constantine, a congressional staffer who was helping to write legislation opposed by Big Pharma.

This was before the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta, Georgia changed its name to Equifax. After 77 years in business, the 1976 rebranding was prompted by all the bad press, including a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit filed in 1975. The charges, as outlined for me by an FTC staffer, included illicit use of consumer information, failure to disclosure terms, and false and misleading advertising. 

The technology of data gathering has changed since then, but the shabby tactics have survived.  In 2000, Equifax, along with Experian and TransUnion, was fined $2.5 million for blocking and delaying phone calls from consumers trying to obtain information about their credit. In 2013, a federal jury in Oregon awarded $18.6 million to Julie Miller against Equifax for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. 

In contrast, Equifax has had no problem sharing files and data with the FBI and other government agencies, according to George O'Toole, a former CIA agent. While reporting on Vermont's private intelligence industry, I was told that Equifax tended to hire ex-State Police officers, possibly because they might have access to government information that was off limits to the public.

Another ex-CIA operative, Harry Murphy, claimed that Equifax was especially useful to federal agencies. The draw was its enormous files of auto and life insurance applicants. Even back in the 1970s, however, big data transfers between public and private entities were difficult to control, and law enforcement and intelligence officers often moved into the private sector after retirement, or for the paycheck. 

The emerging private dossier industry was run largely by law enforcement and intelligence alumni, an Old Boy Network that closely linked it with government operations. The data moved freely, but the potential for mischief was not widely recognized.

During my research into the activities of Equifax and other big data agencies, I also heard about an odd encounter with Earl Hanson, a Barre resident who applied for insurance with Colonial Penn Mutual. In return he received a letter from Equifax asking for more information about an auto accident he had forgotten to report. Hanson was cooperative, explaining all about hitting a deer. But the exchange made him curious to know what else they had discovered about him, from the Motor Vehicles Department or anywhere else. 

After writing to the company's Dataflo center and to the New Hampshire branch office, however, Hanson was told that Equifax actually had no file on him. Unsatisfied with that response, he filed a complaint with the Attorney General's office. But the State lost interest, eventually closing the case, and Equifax didn't share any further information. As usual, it was too big to care. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Hollywood Whitewashes History into Action Adventure

The latest Tom Cruise movie, American Made, manages the incredible -- to sympathize with an amoral drug smuggler and government informer whose lies sparked a deadly, early example of fake news. The target of the disinformation was Nicaragua, the authors were the President and his men, and the Big Lie was that Sandinista leaders had struck a deal with the Medellin cartel to smuggle drugs into America. 

While director Doug Limon's thrill ride version of Barry Seal's story does acknowledge his questionable role in the Contra war, the film is really about an exuberant flyboy -- Maverick is back as an anti-hero -- who stumbles into high adventures and government conspiracies. The twist (spoiler) is that this time Cruise dies. 

Think Air America meets Mission Impossible and The Parallax View. We've seen this movie before, only this time it's a whitewash of some relevant history.

Bay of Pigs veterans Rene Corvo and Felipe Vidal were "lieutenants"
 for John Hull and provided a link between Contras and Cuban exiles.
From Iran-Contra Scandal Trading Cards by Salim Yaqub.
Let's begin with a televised speech by President Ronald Reagan on March 16, 1986. During this appearance Reagan displayed a photograph taken in Nicaragua, reportedly proving that top Nicaraguan officials were involved in cocaine trafficking. As it turned out, this was a lie. There was no real evidence, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was later forced to issue a low-key "clarification." 

Still, the smear proved effective as a narrative changer. Like a series of Trump tweets, it distracted attention from an ongoing investigation of Contra involvement in the drug trade. And Barry Seal, apparently the only person who knew the truth about the grainy picture of men loading a plane near Managua, was already dead.

A DEA informant and pilot, Seal was murdered in Baton Rouge on February 19, 1986 -- a month before Reagan's fake news address -- reportedly on orders from the Columbian cocaine boss who had arranged the shipments in association with the Contra network. Although the assassins were captured and convicted, some believe that the CIA was also complicit in Seal's death. 

His activities, and their Contra-cocaine connections, were the subject of several in-depth investigations at the time. But Cruise sought the role because of his interest in Seal as a character. “I don’t agree with what he was doing, but you can’t help but be utterly fascinated by it,” he told People Magazine. “One of my favorite authors is Mark Twain, and Seal reminds me of one of his characters. It’s not every day you get to play a character who is a devoted husband and father and a drug runner, a CIA operative working for the DEA.”

That's one way to see it. Another appeared in a report by the International Center for Development Policy, which was directed by former UN Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White. For them, Seal was a dangerous pawn who knew too much. For example, he knew that Columbia's Medellin cartel was using a ranch owned by John Hull as a shipping point. Hull was a US citizen with CIA and National Security Council connections, and his ranch was also a Contra base for weapons shipments and recruits.
John Hull owned the ranch used by Contras and drug smugglers. 
More to the point, Seal knew that the famous photo shown on TV by Reagan was actually taken on US government orders. He had flown into a Nicaraguan airstrip with CIA cameras installed on his plane, snapping pictures that purportedly showed Pablo Escobar and other members of the Medellin cartel loading kilos of cocaine onto a plane. Seal claimed they were being assisted Sandinista soldiers. He even alleged that one of those present was a close associate of Tomas Borge, Nicaragua's Minister of the Interior. In short, he was circulating disinformation. 

Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny effectively debunked the accusations, establishing that there was no evidence tying any Nicaraguan officials to the drug shipment. But someone in the White House wasn't satisfied, and leaked a story about Sandinista links with the Medellin cartel, along with the photo, to The Washington Times.  Among other revelations, Edmond Jacoby's report discussed Seal’s role and appeared to out him as a government agent. As a result, noted Ambassador White, the Columbian cartel put a $2 million price on his head.

After Seal's death, Louisiana attorney general William Guste protested the government’s failure to protect their "extremely valuable witness and informant in the country’s fight against illegal drugs.” For him, Seal's murder warranted a serious inquiry, one that explained why "an important witness was not given protection whether he wanted it or not?”

American Made, which is slated for US release in late September, doesn't settle this question. But there is an obvious answer: Seal was a loose end and his shipments were just a small part of a much larger, ongoing operation to transport cocaine in exchange for funds to purchase arms. Hull and anti-Castro Cubans had begun to work together in 1983, providing refueling and packaging services on his Costa Rican ranch in exchange for up to $25,000 per shipment from the Columbians.

According to Dan Sheehan, whose interfaith law and policy center dug deeply into the private network that fueled the Contras, the same team continued to smuggle a ton of cocaine into the US each week for several more years. Its street value was $25 million per shipment. Sheehan also claimed that some of the profits were deposited in Miami and Central American banks, then later withdrawn to purchase weapons.

Similar charges were leveled in a civil complaint filed by journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey. They charged that the network was responsible for a bombing in Costa Rica in which Contra leader Eden Pastora and several others were injured or killed. 

Honey and Avirgan discovered that a deal was struck between Hull, the Cuban-Americans and Contra leaders to get rid of Pastora, who had refused to merge his operations with other anti-Sandinista forces. From their Costa Rica base on Hull's ranch drugs flowed to several distribution points in the US. The profits paid for weapons from Florida, Israel and South Korea, according to the White report. When Pastora declined to cooperate, the network hired a professional assassin to eliminate him. Avirgan was one of those injured in the attack.

Now that would make a great political action thriller, one in which the heroes are independent journalists on the trail of an international conspiracy rather than a smuggler/snitch who facilitated it and got himself killed. 

On January 20, 1987, the New York Times revealed that the DEA had known for months that US flight crews transporting arms to the Contras were also smuggling cocaine on their return trips to the US. When told about the investigation, however, one crew member reportedly warned a reporter that he was under the protection of a White House official, Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Predictably, the State Department denied all knowledge of Contra involvement in cocaine deals. And the US Customs Service claimed to know nothing about any arms shipments leaving Florida without official clearance. Nevertheless, both the weapons and drugs reached their destinations, and the same network -- in which Barry Seal was one cog -- conducted both operations.
Oliver North defended the "enterprise" in Congressional Testimony. 
Over time, various elements of this covert network, which became known as the Secret Team, were exposed. For example, we learned -- and subsequently overlooked -- that as Vice President George H.W. Bush and his national security advisers had close ties with the covert air supply operation. Elliott Abrams, then in the State Department and still a foreign policy player, was directly involved in coordinating Contra activities, bringing together State, the NSC and CIA. The Department of Defense organized air drops over Nicaragua and helped to build the Contra infrastructure. The entire inter-agency program was initially under the control of CIA Director William Casey.

The private network that emerged from all these connections used the money obtained from Iran arms sales and other sources to buy weapons and ship them to Central America, South Africa, and Angola. They also worked with operations in both El Salvador and Costa Rica, moving drugs and guns back and forth. But this bigger picture doesn't feature in Limon's Catch Me If You Can take on covert war in Central America. 

After elements of the Contra-cocaine conspiracy were exposed, Seal was not the only key witness to die under mysterious circumstances. Still others were threatened, while groups attempting to bring those responsible to justice were burglarized and harassed. It sounded like high-pitched rhetoric at the time, but Christic Institute lawyer Dan Sheehan charged that ultra-right elements were responsible for a pattern of intimidation. In its Central American embassies, he claimed, the US had embedded "a series of fascist and Hitlerite cells." It's not as hard to believe thirty years later.

Of course, not everything can be tracked back to the White House, or even to the Intelligence community. But covert operations like those chronicled in American Made did become almost standard operation procedure during the 1980s. And although they were sometimes clearly illegal, they were also widely rationalized as acceptable "initiatives" in defense of democracy. 

One powerful excuse, made by President Reagan himself, was that any laws restricting military intervention did not apply to him or his national security staff. It was a bold assertion of unilateral executive power. He and his aides even claimed that, by extension, any attempts to "protect the initiative" -- and that included covering it up -- are part of the authority flowing from the sovereign president. We may soon hear the same argument again, as more damaging details emerge about Russia, Trump and today's Secret Team.

Greg Guma is the Vermont-based author of “Dons of Time,” “Uneasy Empire,” “Spirits of Desire,” "Big Lies," and “The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.” His latest book is “Green Mountain Politics: Restless Spirits, Popular Movements.” 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Peter Diamondstone's Long Socialist Road

Peter Diamondstone was justly proud that, with only one exception, he had been on Vermont's general election ballot every two years since 1970. At first he was a candidate for Attorney General. Later, he debated James Jeffords and Bernie Sanders, his old Liberty Union ally, in campaigns for Congress. 

We first met shortly after Liberty Union (LU) was founded. He had come to my apartment in Bennington during a 1970 canvas of local activists. There to recruit he generously spent more than an hour explaining why the new party was needed. Although a socialist himself, Peter and others had joined forces with liberal Democrats like Bernard O'Shea, an Enosberg newspaper publisher, and William Meyer, a former Democratic Congressman, to form a "third party" that would fight for economic justice and oppose the War in Vietnam.

Unlike others with strong political convictions, Peter was able to disagree without becoming disagreeable. Without his efforts, there would not have been a Party structure for Bernie Sanders' early runs and things might have gone differently. Born in New York in 1934, he died at home in Brattleboro on Wednesday, August 30, at 82.
Peter Diamondstone in 2004, in Montpelier (GG Photo) 
The last time we talked was during the 2004 election cycle, the occasion an interview for a Vermont Guardian feature story on the six candidates running for Vermont governor. The incumbent was James Douglas, then seeking his first re-election. His challengers included Libertarian Hardy Machia, a software engineer touting free market control of health care; Independent Patricia Hejny, an "angry grandmother" who wanted to legalize hemp; Cris Ericson, an artist heading her own Marijuana ticket; Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, who was running as a Democrat with a focus on health care for all; and Diamondstone.

He was "filling in," Diamondstone said. "I'm a back up candidate." But he wasn't "running" for office and would correct anyone who said so. "When you use arena language, you create an arena atmosphere," he explained. Instead, he looked at the process as "applying for a job." 

Like the Libertarian candidate, he was absolutist in his approach to politics. It was all or nothing. But their programs could barely have been more different. Where Machia wanted less government, Diamondstone favored "socialized health care, run by the state of Vermont," as well as a State Bank.

He readily admitted that his ideas were utopian, ideal solutions that would take time to be accepted. "But at some point a 'Diamondstone' will get elected and the battles will go on," he predicted. 

Did Clavelle's campaign for governor represent a modest step in that direction, I asked. No way, he replied. "If Peter is elected, it's even worse. Nothing will change." In the end, neither man came close to defeating the incumbent.

Diamondstone insisted that "State Socialism can work. But it has to come about without the use of force, by the willingness of the people." By that time he had run 17 statewide campaigns, and still believed that such a transformation was only a matter of time.

In his ideal Vermont there would also be a maximum income that anyone could make. He didn't provide an exact figure, but did advise that "once we set a maximum, people will be damned careful about spending money on war."

Returning to Clavelle, he explained the source of his skepticism -- Clavelle's willingness that year to allow Diamondstone and other candidates to be excluded from most gubernatorial debates. "He doesn't want to hear what I have to say," he said. "And if he won't listen now, he won't listen later." 

He contrasted that with then-U.S. Senator Jeffords, who had insisted on the inclusion of all candidates. "On that important process issue, no one is more honorable," Diamondstone said of Jeffords, who by then had left the Republican Party. As for Clavelle, until recently a member of the Progressive Party, he concluded, "he's a Democrat now. That's why I'm here." 

Greg Guma is the Vermont-based author of Dons of Time, Uneasy Empire, Spirits of Desire, Big Lies, and The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. His latest book is Green Mountain Politics: Restless Spirits, Popular Movements.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Doublethink and Newspeak: Do We Have a Choice?

More people are becoming alienated, cynical, resentful or resigned, while too much of mass and social media reinforces less-than-helpful narratives and tendencies. The frog's in the frying pan and the heat is rising.

On the big screens above us beautiful young people demonstrated their prowess. We were sitting in the communications center, waiting for print outs to tell us what they'd done before organizing the material for mass consumption.
      Outside, people were freezing in the snow as they waited for buses. Their only choice was to attend another event or attempt to get home.
      The area was known as the Competition Zone, a corporate state created for the sole purpose of showcasing these gorgeous competitors. Freedom was a foreign idea here; no one was more free than the laminated identification card hanging around your neck allowed.
       Visitors were more restricted than anyone. They saw only what they paid for, and had to wait in long lines for food, transport, or tickets to more events. They were often uncomfortable, yet they felt privileged to be admitted to the Zone.
      Citizens were categorized by their function within the Organizing Committee's bureaucracy. Those who merely served -- in jobs like cooking, driving and cleaning -- wore green and brown tags. They could travel between their homes and work, but were rarely permitted into events. Their contact with visitors was also limited. To visit them from outside the Zone, their friends and family had to be screened. 
     Most citizens knew little about how the Zone was actually run, about the "inner community" of diplomats, competitors and corporate officials they served. Yet each night they watched the exploits of this same elite on television.
     The Zone, a closed and classified place where most bad news went unreported and a tiny elite called the shots through mass media and computers, was no futuristic fantasy. It was Lake Placid for several weeks in early 1980 -- a full four years before 1984.
     In a once sleepy little community covered with artificial snow, the Olympics had brought a temporary society into being. Two thousand athletes and their entourage were its royalty, role models for the throngs of spectators, townspeople and journalists. This convergence resulted in an ad hoc police state, managed by public and private forces and a political elite that combined local business honchos with an international governing committee. They dominated a population all too willing to submit to arbitrary authority. 
    Even back then, Lake Placid's Olympic "village" felt like a preview of things to come. Not quite George Orwell's dark vision, but uncomfortably close.
    In Orwell's imagination, society was ruled in the future by Big Brother. It wasn't a computer, but rather the collective expression of the Party. But not like the Republicans; this Party was an autonomous bureaucracy and advanced surveillance state interested only in perpetuating itself as a hierarchy. In this dystopia, "the people" had become insignificant, without the power of "grasping that the world could be other than it is." 
     Concepts like freedom were perverted by a ruthless Newspeak perpetuated by the Party through the media. A Goodthinker was someone who followed orders without thinking. Crimestop was the instinctual avoidance of any dangerous thought, and Doublethink was the constant distortion of reality to maintain the Party's image of infallibility.
     Writing in 1948, Orwell was projecting what could happen in just a few decdes. By most measures, even 70 years later we're not quite there yet. But we do face the real danger that freedom and equality will be seriously distorted by a new form of Newspeak, a Trumpian version promoted by the administration and its allies through their media. We already have Trumpian Goodthinkers -- the sychophantic surrogates who follow his lead without thinking, along with Crimestop -- the instinctual avoidance of "disloyal" thought, and Doublethink -- the constant distortion of reality to maintain Trump's insatiable ego and image of infallibility. Orwellian ideas are simply resurfacing in a post-modern/reality TV form.
     Our fast food culture is also taking a long-term toll. More and more people are becoming alienated, cynical, resentful or resigned, while too much of mass and social media reinforces less-than-helpful narratives and tendencies. The frog's in the frying pan and the heat is rising.
     Much of what penetrates and goes viral further fragments culture and thought, promoting a cynicism that reinforces both rage and inaction. Rather than true diversity, we have the mass illusion that a choice between polarized opinions, shaped and curated by editors and networks, is the essence of free speech and democracy. In reality, original ideas are so constrained and self-censored that what's left is usually as diverse as brands of peppermint toothpaste.
      When the Bill of Rights was ratified, the notion that freedom of speech and the press should be protected meant that the personal right of self-expression should not be repressed by the government. James Madison, author of the First Amendment, warned that the greatest danger to liberty was that a majority would use its power to repress everyone else. Yet the evolution of mass media and the corporate domination of economic life have made these "choicest privileges" almost obsolete.
     As community life unravels and more institutions fall into disrepute, media have become among the few remaining that can potentially facilitate some social cohesion. Yet instead they fuel conflict and crisis. It's not quite Crimestop, but does often appeal to some of the basest instincts and produce even more alienation and division. 
     In general terms, what most mass media bring the public is a series of images and anecdotes that cumulatively define a way of life. Both news and entertainment contribute to the illusion that competing, consuming and accumulating are at the core of our aspirations. Each day we are repeatedly shown and told that culture and politics are corrupt, that war is imminent or esclating somewhere, that violence is random and pervasive, and yet also that the latest "experts" have the answers. Countless programs meanwhile celebrate youth, violence, frustrated sexuality, and the lives of celebrities.
      Between the official program content are a series of intensely packaged sales pitches. These commercial messages wash over us, as if we are wandering in an endless virtual mall, searching in vain for fulfillment as society crumbles. 
      In 1980, Ralph Nader called the race for president at that time -- between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan -- a choice between mediocrity and menace. It was funny then, but now we can see what real menace looks like. Is Trump-ism what Orwell warned us about? Not quite, though there are similarities. Like Trump, you can't talk to Big Brother. And he rarely gives you the truth, only doublespeak. But Trump is no Big Brother. More like a Drunk Uncle with nukes. 
     So, is it too late for a rescue? Will menace win this time? Or can we still save the environment, reclaim self-government, restore communities and protect human rights? What does the future hold?
     It could be summer in Los Angeles in 2024, the end of Donald Trump's second term. The freeways are slow-moving parking lots for the Olympics. Millions of people hike around in the heat, or use bikes and cycles to get to work. It's difficult with all the checkpoints, not to mention the extra-high security at the airports. Thousands of police, not to mention the military, are on the lookout for terrorists, smugglers, protesters, cultists, gangs, thieves, and anyone who doesn't have money to burn or a ticket to the Games.
      Cash isn't much good, and gas has become so expensive that suburban highways are almost empty. 
      Security is tight and hard to avoid, on or offline. There are cameras everywhere, and every purchase and move most people make is tracked by the state. Still, there are four bombings in the first week of the Games. There is also another kind of human tragedy. Four runners collapse during preliminary rounds as a result of a toxic mix -- heat and pollution. 
     Despite his low approval on the West Coast, President Trump eventually visits L.A. to witness the spectacle. And drops dead suddenly after eating too many hot dogs. This sparks a riot, which is followed closely by a bomb blast at the media command center. Then the Earth begins to shake....
     That's one scenario. But it could also be a peaceful summer in your hometown. People aren't as preoccupied with conflict and spectacle as they used to be. The change began with the young, and in the schools. Just in time people began to understand that what they saw on their screens was just one version of reality, not the real thing. 
     Malls are closing, but smaller and independent businesses are making a comeback, some located in restored neighborhoods or emerging out of buyer's coops. Major corporations still sell mostly online, but their market dominance is starting to falter. Renewable energy has largely replaced coal and gas, and electric vehicles are everywhere.
    People are changing, in subtle and important ways. They are becoming more...discriminating, depending more on one another than either their media or the government.
    Hey, it could happen.