Obama: A Legacy of Ashes

Obama: A Legacy of Ashes

James Corbett (2017)

Film Review

In his excellent documentary about Obama’s presidency, James Corbett highlights important ways in which Obama systematically reduced civil liberties and democratic oversight of government.

  • After promising to end George W Bush’s de facto lawmaking via unconstitutional signing statements, Obama far signing statements than his predecessor.
  • He repeatedly inserted text into bills without informing lawmakers before they voted on them.
  • After promising to end the role of lobbyists in running government, he allowed Citibank to select his cabinet and the insurance lobby to write The Affordable Care Act.
  • While claiming to run the most transparent administration in history, he set a record for denying Freedom of Information Act requests and prosecuting whistleblowers.
  • Despite promising to end illegal wiretapping and spying on activists, he greatly increased routine NSA surveillance of ordinary citizens. He also introduced legislation repealing Posse Comitatus* and authorizing indefinite detention of American citizens without trial. And issued an executive order granting himself the power (which he exercised liberally) to arbitrarily assassinate his enemies, including US citizens.

Obama was also the only president in history who was continuously at war during his entire eight years in office.** All but two (which he inherited from Bush) were illegal and unconstitutional wars he launched without government approval.

I was intrigued to learn the Patriot Act (enacted by the Bush administration after 9-11) was originally written by Obama’s vice president Joe Biden in 1995.


*The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prohibited the US government using federal troops in domestic law enforcement, except in circumstances expressly authorized by the US Constitution.

**In addition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which candidate Obama promised to end), he launched illegal wars of aggression in Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Al Jazeera Film Challenges Trump’s Election Win

Unfair Game

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

The them of this documentary is that Trump used unfair tactics to win the 2016 electoral college vote, despite losing the popular vote by 3 million.

Most of the the film focuses on the California subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica, which purchased personal data from Facebook, Google, Twitter and other Internet data harvesting firms. It then used sophisticated algorithms to individually target potential Trump supporters in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

According to filmmakers, Cambridge Analytica compiled 4,000 data points regarding the personal lives of 23 million voters. They then used the data to generate paid “dark posts” on Facebook. Dark posts are the weird personal ads and messages that pop up briefly on your Facebook news feed and then disappear.

Although it was intriguing to learn how Cambridge Analytica massaged personal data to identify and influence potential Trump voters, I objected to the way the documentary blames the Trump campaign for introducing microtargeting (potential supporters) to US elections. It was actually the Obama campaign that pioneered microtargeting, which is largely credited for his ability to overcome Republican vote rigging and vote suppression efforts in 2008 and 2012.

When the Obama campaign engaged in microtargeting, they were widely hailed as ingenious public relations innovators. When the Trump campaign does it, he’s branded as a liar and a thief. While I have no love for Donald Trump, the clear bias in this film really irritates me. I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton, who inherited many of Obama’s campaign staffers, also used microtargeting in her campaign.

That being said, I found it significant that Cambridge Analytica was actually an offshoot of the British Strategic Communications Laboratory, which was widely used by NATO, NSA, the State Department and other deep state actors to influence US and global opinion and meddle in foreign elections. I was previously unaware that the California branch of Cambridge Analytica was headed by Trump’s campaign manager Steve Bannon and mainly funded by Trump’s biggest campaign donor, Robert Mercer.

The first 15 minutes of the documentary in which, “mainstream” corporate journalists decry the unregulated dissemination of “fake news” by “ultra right wing” online publications, is frankly embarrassing.It was the collective decision by so-called “mainstream” media to become a propaganda mouthpiece for the CIA, State Department and Pentagon that led Americans to look to the Internet for alternative sources of information.

China’s Persecuted Minority: How Did 22 Uighurs End Up in Gitmo?

The Guantanamo 22

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

The Guantanamo 22 is about 22 Uighur refugees who spent seven years at Gitmo after they were sold to US forces for $5,000 each by the Pakistan military and Afghan warlords.

The Uighurs are an oppressed Turkic ethnic minority who have been persecuted by the Chinese ever since China invaded their country (Gulja) in 1949. In 2000-2001, a number sought asylum in Afghanistan after being arrested, beaten and tortured for their participating in Islamic advocacy protests.

As one of the only countries with no extradition treaty with China, prior to 9-11 Afghanistan had an established Uighur community.

After US bombing began in late 2001, the Uighur village where they lived was destroyed, and 18 survivors sought refuge in Pakistan. The villagers who took them in tricked them and handed them over to the Pakistan army. Four others were kidnapped by warlords in Afghanistan.

Once they arrived in Guantanamo, the US military allowed Chinese authorities to interrogate and torture torture them for four days – in exchange for a promise China would support the US invasion of Iraq at the UN Security Council.*

By October 2002, after 10 months at Guantanamo, all 22 had been through the Status Review Board (ie a military tribunal in which detainees are denied access to a lawyer and the right to present evidence or challenge the US military’s evidence) and found innocent of all terrorism charges. Yet it still took another seven years for most of them to be released.

In late 2002, they were finally allowed to see a lawyer working with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The first three were transferred to Albania (which still regards them as terrorists), to spare the US government the embarrassment of defending an appeal against their unlawful detention.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that all Guantanamo detainees had the right to appeal their detention in US federal court. A short time later, a federal judge ordered the release of the other 19 Uighurs. Shortly after his inauguration, Obama attempted to transfer two of them to Virginia, but this was blocked by Congress.

In June 2009, the US reached agreement with Bermuda to take four Uighurs. In October 2009, Pelau agreed to take six, in return for a steep increase in US aid. Switzerland, El Salvador agreed to take the rest, though many remain stateless persons in their host countries and not allowed passports.


*China ultimately reneged on this commitment

The film can’t be embedded but can be viewed for free at The Guantanamo 22

The Trump Movement: How it All Began

Trumpland: Kill All the Normies

Fusion (2018)

Film Review

This documentary, featuring Kill All the Normies* author Angela Nagle, examines the origin of the political movement that elected an openly racist, misogynist and xenophobe to the US presidency. Nagle believes that Trump initially gathered most of his support from the “dark” sections of the Internet, namely 4Chan and a variety of its spinoff sites. 4Chan is a roughly 20-year-old site where anonymous geeks – mainly teenagers – try to outdo each other with the most repulsive and/or obscene posts they can think of.

According to Nagle, 4Chan and similar sites made an ideal platform for insecure white males to anonymously scapegoat specific social groups (women, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims) that they blame for their unhappiness. These sites came to be collectively known as the “manosphere community,” a multitude of social media sites hosted by PUA (pickup artists) and other members of the InCel (Involuntarily Celibate) known for their open hatred and degradation of women. The primary themes promoted by these sites are that women aren’t to be trusted, that they must be tricked into having sex by dwelling on their insecurities and that they should only deserve enough education to have children.

Eventually this “manosphere” would “weaponize” Twitter, by using it for toxic harassment of feminists and other publicly prominent women, with insults and threats to kill and/or rape them.

Trumps’ closest political advisor Steve Bannon, who tracked all these right wing sites, assisted Trump in mainstreaming the discontent he found there. Trump’s willingness to publicly give voice to these views provided him with an immediate fan base. Trump is the ultimate troll, drawing attention to himself by insulting people and generating outrage – a trait supporters fed up with “political correctness” particularly adore about him.

For me the most interesting segment criticizes Obama for setting the stage for the Trump movement by abandoning marginalized white workers, focusing instead on identity politics (mainly gay and gender rights) to maintain his liberal credentials.

One commentator blames backlash against against the “gender fluidity” movement, an extreme manifestation of identity politics (mainly concerned with gay and transgender rights) for the rise of the Trump phenomenon. This movement also weaponizes social media to attack views they deem to be “politically incorrect.”


*A “Normie” is Alt-Right speak for “mainstream.”

The Ugly History of the White Rights Movement

The People Against America

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

This documentary traces the rise of the “white rights” movement that elected Donald Trump. This movement, of mainly white blue collar males, promotes the distorted image of white people as a disenfranchised minority. According to the filmmakers, it has its roots in Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. By heavily emphasizing “states rights,” Goldwater successfully exploited the anxieties of Southerners over forced integration by the federal government. It would be the first time Southern states had voted Republican since the Civil War.

Nixon’s Southern Strategy

In 1968, the Nixon campaign built on Goldwater’s success by implementing a formal “southern strategy.” By reaching out to the “silent majority,” and emphasizing law and order in the face of race riots and anti-war protests, his campaign sought to win the votes of northern blue collar voters. In subsequent elections, Democratic Party strategists would seek to win back blue collar voters by recruiting two conservative governors to run for president (Carter and Clinton).

As the Watergate scandal undermined all Americans’ confidence in government, corporate oligarchs would build on growing anti-government sentiment by massively funding right wing think tanks, lobbying and conservative talk radio. This, in turn would lay the groundwork for Reagan’s 1980 massive deregulation and tax and public service cuts.

Corporate Giveaways By Clinton and Obama

When Clinton was elected in 1992, he quickly surpassed Reagan’s record of corporate giveaways, with his total deregulation of Wall Street, his Three Strikes and Omnibus Crime Bill (leading to mass incarceration of minorities) and his creation of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These free trade treaties resulted in the wholesale export of rust belt industries to Mexico and China, effectively ending any incentive for working class males to vote Democratic.

Obama, elected on the back of the 2008 financial collapse, would prove even more pro-corporate than Clinton or Bush. Instead of prosecuting the banks who caused the 2008 economic crash, he granted them massive bailouts, while ignoring the plight of millions of homeowners who lost their homes when these banks foreclosed on them. He also significantly increasing mass surveillance and aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers. He also effectively repealed posse comitatus* and habeus corpus.**

The Rise of Occupy and the Tea Party

Obama’s pro-corporate policies led to the rise of both left wing (Occupy Wall Street) and right wing (Tea Party) popular movements. The latter received major corporate backing (largely from the Koch brothers), enabling Tea Party Republicans to shift the blame for the loss of good paying industrial jobs from Wall Street to minorities, immigrants and women.

Is the US Moving to the Right?

For me, the highlight of the documentary is  commentary by former Black Panther Party president Elaine Brown, the only activist featured. Brown, who is highly critical of the left’s failure to acknowledge the problems of poor white people, is the only commentator to dispute that the US is “moving to the right.” She points out that prior Republican campaigns used coded language (such as “state rights,” “law and order”) to target racist fears of blue collar whites. Trump, in contrast, openly caters to these sentiments. Brown reports that some blacks welcome the end of political hypocrisy and greater openness about the pervasiveness of white racism.

She believes this new openness offers a good opportunity to build a genuine multiracial working class movement. She gives the example of successful collaboration in Chicago between black activists and the Young Patriots (a white separatist group) against corrupt landlords.


*The Posse Comitatus Act, enacted in 1878, prohibited the use of federal troops to enforce domestic policies within the US.

**The right of Habeus Corpus, guaranteed under Article I of the Constitution and the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, prevents government from illegal detaining US citizens without charging them.

 

US Military Burnpits: The New Agent Orange?

In their August 1 episode of The Stream, Al Jazeera English explores the plight of US veterans and Iraqi and American civilians exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan and the US. Although Obama outlawed the use of war zone burn pits, they continue to operate on 200 military bases across the US.*

Historically burn pits have been used to dispose of munitions, metals, plastics, chemicals and corpses, releasing a host of toxic chemicals to the atmosphere.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) listed 110,989 veterans and service members in its latest burn pits registry. However, as with Agent Orange exposure, the VA has been slow to investigate burn pit related illnesses and routinely denies medical benefits to veterans who become chronically ill from burn pit exposure. They most commonly suffer from acute and debilitating respiratory illnesses and throat, lung and brain cancers and leukemia.

In addition to highlighting a recent study of the birth defects and medical problems of Iraqi women and children exposed to burn pit fumes, the program questions why the Pentagon continues to operate nearly 200 open burn pits around the United States. According to a recent ProPublica investigation, these sites are getting rid of extremely toxic materials with little or no oversight and regulation, and often violate existing environment regulations.

At the Colfax plant in Louisiana, millions of pounds of munitions are burned  just a few hundred yards from a small, mostly black community. High levels of toxic vapors like acrolein and benzene have been found in the air, which according to the World Health Organization have “no safe level of exposure.”

The program host interviews the widow of a US vet killed by burn pit exposure, as well as Iraqi and American scientists.


*Although President Obama outlawed the use of war-zone burned pits by executive order, a 2016 article in Stars and Stripes  suggests US military bases continue to use them in Iraq.

 

Abby Martin Presents the Real House of Saud

The Real House of Saud

TeleSur (2015)

Film Review

This documentary was released following the appointment of Saudi Arabia to head the UN Panel of Human Rights in 2015. Its primary purpose is to highlight Saudi Arabia’s scandalous human rights record and the utter hypocrisy of the Obama administration in supporting their appointment to this role. Saudi Arabia’s recent economic attack (via economic sanctions and a boycott) on its former ally Qatar – coupled with its demand they shut down Al Jazeera – serves to remind us of their abysmal record in the area of civil and human rights.

The totalitarian Saudi dictatorship executes its citizens (via head chopping, stoning or crucifixion) at the rate of one every other day. Limb amputation and severe lashings are also frequent punishments. It’s common for women who report being raped to be punished via lashing.

Human rights groups are illegal in Saudi Arabia. In addition to an absolute prohibition on women driving, they need permission from a male relative to work, attend school or seek heath care. Seventy per cent of Saudi women who have graduated university – including 1,000 PhDs – are unemployed.

Only one family, the House of Saud, has ruled Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1925. Saudi princes live in opulent luxury from the country’s oil revenues, while 20% of Saudi citizens live in abject poverty. Youth unemployment is 30%.

Thirty percent of the Saudi population are migrant workers, subject to a slave-like system of indentured servitude in which they must work fifteen hour days, even if they’re sick and often without payment. They’re subject to arrest if they try to leave their employers, as well as being subject to execution for minor offenses.

The most interesting part of the documentary concerns the sordid history of US political and military support for Saudi’s ruthless dictatorship – including their open funding of international terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban – for the sake of cheap oil concessions for US oil companies. This support includes training by the CIA in suppressing unions and other grassroots organizations.

I was very surprised to learn that despite this brutal totalitarian control, popular uprisings are still fairly common, especially in Eastern Saudi Arabia, where much of Saudi Arab’s Shia minority reside. At the time of filming, Eastern Saudi Arabia was under virtual martial law to suppress mass protests inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions.