America’s Top Hypocrites

Was there ever a nation so marinated in hypocrisy as America? At home and abroad President Barack Obama trumpets Uncle Sam’s virtues and dispenses patronizing homilies to other nations on how to behave themselves and honor freedom and democracy. This last week it’s been Europe’s turn to hear these self-righteous preachments.

A couple of weeks ago Secretary of State Clinton attacked China, contrasting untiring efforts by the US to encourage human rights around the world, at a time when the Chinese “are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.”

A week earlier Obama signed an expanded trade pact with Colombia where in 2010 51 Colombian labor organizers were murdered, many of them by government-sponsored death squads.  As Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO remarked, he doubted the trade agreement would be moving forward if 51 CEOs had been killed.

If there’s one state in the Middle East where the US surely has clout it’s Bahrein, which just happens to be the base for the US Fifth Fleet. While Clinton was wagging her finger at China, details were surfacing of the ferocious repression of Bahrein’s Shi’a majority by Bahrein’s Sunni rulers, backed by Saudi troops.

Masked squads raid Shia villages at night, At least 27 Shia mosques and religious meeting places have so far been wrecked or bulldozed flat. If this was Libya, Clinton would trumpeting the repression as further justification for

NATO’s onslaught. Not so in Bahrein. As my brother Patrick Cockburn reported here on this site a couple of weeks ago: “Facing little criticism from the US, otherwise so concerned about human rights abuses in Libya, the al-Khalifa family is ruthlessly crushing opposition at every level? al-Jazeera revealed ?that the Bahraini police has been raiding girls’ schools, detaining and beating school girls, and is accused of threatening to rape them.”

On this site Peter Lee recently described the repression in Bahrein and referred to:

“a 17-minute clip from an Australian investigative show called Dateline?The reporting is deliberately low-key, a welcome contrast to the hyperventilating outrage needed to keep the humanitarian intervention balloon inflated in Libya (or the anti-Iranian jihad barreling along in the Gulf states, for that matter).

“In one sequence, a Human Rights Watch representative directs the reporter’s attention to a crime scene that has come to symbolize the worst excesses of Bahrain’s riot police: the place where a young man, Hani Jumah, was beaten. Apparently, he was not a demonstrator; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time as riot police swept the area. The camera pans on the bloodstained floor of a deserted construction site as the HRW staffer relates with forensic detachment: “We found fragments of his kneecap…we also found one of his teeth.” And you’re left to wonder: how does someone get beaten so severely a piece of his kneecap is dislodged from his body? The young man was taken to the hospital for treatment, then got disappeared from the hospital. His family was summoned to retrieve his body four days later.”

Amid Obama’s grandiose eloquence about freedom, he has effectively excluded Palestinians from his supportive embrace and, amid meaningless verbal froth, collapsed yet again in the face of Israeli intransigeance, and the Lobby here. As Uri Avnery wrote of Obama on this website Thursday, after Natanyahu’s address to Congress:

“He will pretend that the spittle on his cheek is rainwater. His promise to prevent a UN General Assembly recognition of the State of Palestine deprived him of his main leverage over Netanyahu?.

“Now, with all the roads blocked, there remains only one path remains open: the recognition of the State of Palestine by the United Nations coupled with nonviolent mass action by the Palestinian people against the occupation. The Israeli peace forces will also play their part, because the fate of Israel depends on peace as much as the fate of Palestine.”

US diplomacy and strong-arming, supervised by Obama and Clinton, will of course be dedicated to efforts to hold back history and strong-arming the UN into attempting to do the same.

Wearisome  though these exhibitions of  US’s double standards abroad may be, they pale before the macabre spectacle of Obama and Clinton extolling the moral credentials of a country with a vast gulag of some 2.3 million behind bars — some 743 prisoners per 100,000 population, compared to Russia’s 580, China’s 186, England and Wales’ 154 and India’s 32. African Americans, who are one eighth the nation’s population, are almost half its 2.3 million prisoners, and Latinos, also an eighth of the U.S., are more than a quarter of those locked down.  In America today more than 7 million people are under correctional supervision.

At the start of last week the US Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population, currently running at 143,335, by more than 30,000. The state’s prisons, at anything even remotely approaching standards not in violation of  the 8th Amendment forbidding cruel and unusual punishment, can accommodate 80,000.

Not for the first time the ghastly conditions of California’s prisons have been unsparingly described: people with terminal cancer in spaces the size of telephone booths left to die without treatment or even pain killers; convicts crammed three tiers high in prison gyms. California rarely executes prisoners in San Quentin on Death Row.  Informal executions are a different matter. A California court found that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”

Everything awful about California’s prison system is duplicated in other state  penal systems across the country. One million of the 2.3 million prison population are inside for non-violent offenses, predominantly related to drugs. More than 800,000 are arrested each year for marijuana alone. Prison rape  across the country  is a given ? at least 216,000 in 2008. Most of the rapists  (according to the libertarian magazine Reason, which recently  published an excellent special issue  on the  US penal system) aren’t other prisoners but corrections officials.

Governor Jerry Brown has suggested non violent prisoners be sent from the state prisons to local jails, but California has no money to beef up the these hoosegows to accommodate the flood of prospective inmates.  Meanwhile policies deriving from the Nineties and before feed more and more prisoners into the system, many of them under the 3-strikes law which hands out twenty-five year sentences for a third offense as trivial  as stealing a $2 pair of socks. In California at any given time about 140,000 are out on parole, which can be ? and is often —  revoked for the most trivial of reasons, swelling the prison population once more.

America’s penal conditions make a mockery of the constitution and foster crime, all against a backdrop of statistics ? the FBI dispensed another batch last week — showing that crime rates have been steadily falling to levels unseen for a generation or more. America’s current Depression has not seen a surge in robberies and violent crime, as many expected. Attempts to prove the efficacy of harsh codes of imprisonment and sentencing speedily collapse under the weight of rationally assessed statistical data.

America’s prison population and treatment of citizens and immigrants trapped in the judicial system are  foul blots on our society and  political culture? but not ones that Obama has shown the slightest interest in confronting. Indeed his Justice Department is intent on adding more “mandatory minimum sentences” to the sentencing guidelines.

These days it’s conservative governors reeling in the face of budget-draining mandatory sentencing laws, who are trying to shift resources into treatment programs and so forth. In this context Reason cites Perry of Texas, Sanford of South Carolina before he left office and reports that “in the first few months of this year, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama and Oklahoma have all hopped on the reform bandwagon. None of these states was carried by Barack Obama in 2008.”

As for Obama, how much more pleasant it is to lecture other nations, while running on a reelection platform currently based on dispatching a government death squad halfway round the world to Abbottabad on a lawless mission of revenge.

Cornel West’s Teapot Tempest

On May 20, 2011, at 10:55 AM, Bob Marston wrote:

“Hi Alex

Do you have anyone working on an article about the Cornel West blowout with Obama and the Democrat Party Suckups/Feminists?”

On Fri, May 20, 2011 at 12:00 PM, Alexander Cockburn wrote:

“I read West’s embarrassingly  egocentric, whiny blast Seems a bit of a tempest in a teapot, no?”

I’ve always thought Prof. West to be a total hot air factory. In this case his major beef with Obama seemed to be that he didn’t get a ticket to the inauguration.

On May 20, 2011, at 1:59 PM, Bob Marston wrote:

“Tempest in a Teapot, yes I think that is a credible argument. But like most outbursts of this nature there are some very good points with substance that will now be lost under the bile. West has no corner on the Hostility Market. A few months ago when Amy Goodman was Utah for the Sundance Film Festival she interviewed Harry Belafonte. In the interview Goodman asked Harry about communications he has had with Obama. Belafonte responded he has had little in the way of communications with O. Just a few brief exchanges. Obama jabbed at Belafonte asking ‘when are you and Cornell West going to cut me some slack?’ Belafonte snapped back ‘what makes you think we haven’t?’”

Glen Ford gets this little fracas right in Black Agenda Report:

“Cornel West’s foray into Obamanalysis gave them the opportunity to explode in reams of outraged words that had little or nothing to do with policy. It is a shame that Princeton professor Cornel West did not stick to a disciplined critique of the corporatist policies that have made Barack Obama richly deserving of the label, a ‘Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.’ Instead, the Princeton professor slipped into psycho-babble, musing on the president’s supposed ‘fear of free Black men’ and associated personality deformities. The particularities of Obama’s racial background may, or may not, have contributed to his malignant neglect of the African American condition, but we will not forge a movement to defeat Obama and his Wall Street masters by putting the president on the couch.”

Glen also writes that “the rationale for continued Black and progressive support of the Obama administration has been reduced to one factor: a primal fear of the Tea Party boogeyman.”

True enough. How desperately the left wants Palin to run. I’m a Herman Cain fan myself, at least for this week. Here he was, on Fox with Chris Wallace, who suddenly popped Cain a question about the Palestinians’ right of return, freshly rejected by Natanyahu.

CAIN: Right of return? Right of return?

WALLACE: The Palestinian right of return.

CAIN: That’s something that should be negotiated.

Quizzed again, Cain seemed foggy about the Israeli position on the matter, as well as his own.

CAIN: Yes, but under – but not under – Palestinian conditions. Yes. They should have a right to come back if that is a decision that Israel wants to make?. I don’t think they have a big problem with people returning.

Of course this was immediately pounced upon by the Commentariat as evidence that Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and recently declared aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination, is not a serious candidate. But Cain stuck to his guns on an ensuing appearance on Fox:

“Chris [Wallace] caught me off-guard. I didn’t understand the right of return. That came out of left field, out of all the questions I anticipated him asking me, I didn’t even conceive of him asking me about the right of return. I now know what that is. The thing that you’re going to learn about Herman Cain, if he doesn’t know something, he’s not going to try and fake it or give an answer that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Now here’s the thing about that right of return that I’ve learned since Sunday. It wasn’t that they were kicked out of Israel by the Jews, no! Their Arab leaders asked them to leave because they thought they were going to annihilate what was left, and then they’re going to go back. So yes, I still stick by my answer. “

In our latest newsletter

Takashi Hirose outlines in persuasive detail how How Japan can prosper without nuclear power. Andrew Cockburn reviews Donald Rumsfeld’s mendacious memoir of his stint running the Pentagon and promoting the attack on Iraq, Known and Unknown. As Andrew emailed me when he sent the review along:

“The opening paragraphs tell us much of what Donald Rumsfeld thinks about himself, and what we need to know about him.  Referencing his title, he proudly cites the 300,000 internet citations of ‘known unknown,’ 250,000 of them linked to his name, thanks to his observation at a 2002 press conference that there ‘are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.’

“Given the deferential attitude evinced by contemporary press and public, there is little sign the remark generated any enlightened intuition, but it certainly left  reason aside.  What can ‘unknown unknowns’ mean other than simply  that there are things we don’t know?   Like similar exercises ? ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’ — it carries intimations of profundity, and has been much acclaimed as such, not least by Rumsfeld himself, who introduces it here as ‘a larger point on the limits of human knowledge.’  Though sourcing a variant of the phrase ‘known unknowns’ to a former colleague, he leaves us with the belief that this is a unique Rumsfeld insight, though old Pentagon hands recall it circulating independently in xeroxed form as far back as the 1960s.”

Also in this edition of our newsletter Margot Patterson reports on a recent trip to Syria and the risks of a dreadful civil war.

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And once you have discharged this enjoyable mandate, I also urge you strongly to click over to our Books page, most particularly for our latest release, Jason Hribal’s truly extraordinary Fear of the Animal Planet ? introduced by Jeffrey St. Clair with the brilliant essay featured in this weekend’s website — and already hailed by Peter Linebaugh, Ingrid Newkirk (president and co-founder of PETA), and Susan Davis, the historian of Sea World, who writes that “Jason Hribal stacks up the evidence, and the conclusions are inescapable. Zoos, circuses and theme parks are the strategic hamlets of Americans’ long war against nature itself.”

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.