Friday, July 16, 2010

Election Fraud Expert Calls the U.S. a “Sham Democracy”

Freeman Headlines “Earth Is for People, Not for Corporations” Panel


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Steven Freeman, Marjorie Cohn, Simon Mayeski, Mera Szendro Bok, Pedro Rios, Ken Sobel, Annie Lorrie Anderson-Lazo

“The U.S.A. is a sham democracy,” said Steven Freeman, University of Pennsylvania faculty member and founder of Election Integrity, at the start of his keynote speech at the “Earth Is for People, Not for Corporations” program July 1 at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest, San Diego. “Elections have been stolen and will continue to be stolen. It’s amazing how much effort people continue to put out in this country [to influence campaigns and political decisions], but unless you have fair elections, all those efforts will be in vain. All our rights depend on the right to vote and to have your votes counted.”

Freeman’s presentation closed a two-hour program that also featured a stellar lineup of local activists, discussing various aspects of how the corporate domination of U.S. politics and economics affects our lives. Marjorie Cohn of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law talked about “Illegal Wars and Corporate War Profiteers.” Simon Mayeski of the San Diego branch of Common Cause spoke about the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which for the first time in over 100 years allows corporations to buy advertising for or against a particular candidate, and how that is likely to skew the playing field of U.S. politics even more strongly for the corporations’ priorities than it is now.

Annie Lorrie Anderson-Lazo of People United for Social Justice talked about the California state budget and how the state constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote both to pass a budget and to raise taxes — a double whammy against majority rule no other state has to deal with — consistently favors business and corporate interests over those of ordinary people. Pedro Rios, director of the local office of the American Friends Service Committee, talked about “How Corporations Have Helped to Create Our Immigration Problem,” including the passage of the heavily corporate-backed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and how it decimated the Mexican economy and led many Mexicans to become undocumented immigrants to the U.S.

Ken Sobel of the Sustainability Alliance of Southern California talked about Proposition 23, the corporate-backed initiative on the November 2010 ballot to block AB 32, the landmark 2006 bill to combat global warming Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed through the California legislature. Mera Szendro Bok, communications strategist for New Media Rights, talked about the ongoing threat to so-called “net neutrality” — the ability of anyone to communicate freely on the Internet without Internet service providers (ISP’s) blocking access to certain content or charging more for access to some Web sites than others — and also the campaign to block the takeover of NBC by the Comcast cable corporation. Jim Monday came on between Szendro Bok and Freeman to discuss his group’s failed campaign to keep a progressive talk radio station on the air in San Diego.

Freeman’s focus, as indicated by the title of the book he co-wrote with In These Times editor Joel Bleifuss, which he was giving away at a table after the event: Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen? Unquestionably yes, Freeman answered, relying on data from exit polls that showed John Kerry with a four-point lead over George W. Bush in the key battleground state of Ohio. Freeman argued that there was no way the exit polls could have differed so dramatically from the final result — which gave Bush the state, and the election, with a 2.5 percent lead — since the difference was outside the six-point margin of error of the poll.

“In the 2004 election, I studied the exit polls because I was teaching workshops on polling, and there were exit polls that said Kerry had won,” Freeman said. “Until 2000, the only complaint about exit polls had been that they were too accurate. In 1980, many Democrats were upset that the TV networks predicted, on the basis of exit polls, that Ronald Reagan had won the presidency before the polls had even closed on the West Coast, thereby allegedly discouraging West Coast Democrats from voting. Then, all of a sudden, we were told in 2000 and in 2004 that they didn’t work.” Freeman pointed out that the same year Bush ran for re-election, the U.S. used exit polls in the Ukrainian election to document that the incumbent had stolen his re-election victory, which sparked a grass-roots movement in Ukraine that forced him to give up power.

Freeman explained that the exit polls in Ohio in 2004 sampled 3,400 people. “If Kerry had only got 48.5 percent of the vote, as the official tally had it, the numbers on the exit polls would have been between 45.6 percent and 51.4 percent,” he explained. “The exit polls said 52.1 percent.” Other U.S. elections Freeman cited as stolen were Florida’s in 2000 (“they did that one in the open,” he said), Georgia in 2002, Arizona in 2004 and Ohio in 2005. He noted that the final report on the shenanigans by which the Bush team had engineered the 2000 Florida outcome had originally been scheduled for release on September 12, 2001 — but after the 9/11 attacks the release was delayed for two months and was not covered by the media.

In fact, Freeman accused the media of being part and parcel of a conspiracy to cover up America’s stolen elections. In the book he co-wrote with Bleifuss, the authors argued that after Kerry’s loss in 2004 “the mainstream media showered their scorn on the very idea of a stolen election before having done any investigation. This could not have been more unlike what happened in 2000. … By treating allegations of election fraud as the domain of the unhinged, … stories in the mainstream press established an official story about the official count. … For a journalist to publicly raise questions about the integrity of the election … was to invite ridicule.”

Freeman’s presentation also discussed the questions regarding the validity of electronic voting and ballot-counting mechanisms in general. “In most parts of the country,” he said, “you go in a booth, push a button, it goes through millions of lines of proprietary code and we have no idea whether what comes out has any relation to what went in. A first-year programming student can [hack a computerized election system and alter the outcome]. Even when there are paper ballots, proprietary machines do the counting. A manual audit can be done, but it’s a very difficult process.” According to Freeman, the only fair way to run an election is the old-fashioned way — paper ballots hand-counted by volunteers — no matter how long it takes or how few opportunities that creates for private businesses to sell easily rigged election computer systems.

This is the demand of one of the sponsoring organizations of the “Earth Is for People … ” event, Psephos (pronounced “SEE-fose”). Their name comes from the ancient Greek word for pebble or stone and refers to the practice, in the world’s first democracy, of casting stones into urns and then counting them to see which side won an election. “Greece transitioned from a monarchy to democracy by creating the first constitution based on democratic principles around 502 B.C.,” the “about us” page on the Psephos Web site ( explains. “More than two millennia later the U.S. Constitution and our young democracy are threatened by the use of electronic voting systems, secret vote counting and lack of rigorous public oversight.”

Corporations Rule Government

The “Earth Is for People … ” event was introduced by Martin Eder, founder and director of Activist San Diego, who recalled his recent attendance of the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June. According to Eder, Detroit was selected largely because of its symbolic importance in showing the rise and fall of American capitalism. “Detroit is an example of capitalism in crisis,” he said. “It has devastated communities. The African-American community is once again falling into poverty, despair and institutionalized racism associated with casino capitalism” — and, Eder added, the term “casino capitalism” isn’t just a metaphor. Part of Detroit’s current economic plan is to build actual gambling emporia “to extract the last pennies from working people.”

Eder called the current American scene “a suspended reality, an Orwellian society where peace equals war. We’re told the wars are patriotic and wonderful ways to save our lifestyle by bombing innocent people. The corporations, above the three branches of government, actually rule the three branches of government.”

War Is Profit

Marjorie Cohn of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, the first of the official panelists to speak, started by quoting U.S. Marine General Smedley Butler’s 1935 book War Is a Racket, in which Butler — who’d served in the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in response to the success of the original Sandinista revolution in the 1920’s — said all his efforts had been just to make rich people and corporations richer and suppress ordinary working people both in the U.S. and abroad. She made it clear that she thinks that’s still the purpose of the U.S. military — especially since, under Obama as under George W. Bush and all other presidents in the last 50 years, the military budget grows every year and is “almost as large as the rest of the world’s defense spending combined, and nine times as large as the military budget of China.”

According to Cohn, the Obama administration has proposed a 2010 defense budget of $533.8 billion — $663.8 billion when you add in something called “overseas contingency operations” — and that doesn’t even count the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Bush, Obama is hiding the price tags for those wars in so-called “supplemental appropriations” bills, including one for $33 billion the House was expected to pass even as Cohn spoke.

“War is a lucrative cash cow,” Cohn said, going on to name some of the corporations milking the defense spending teats: Halliburton, Veritas Capital Fund’s Dyncorp (which trains Iraqi police forces), Washington Group International (which maintains and restores “high-output” oil fields), Environmental Chemical (which cleans up spent ammunition and weapons), Aegis (private security operations), International American Products (electrical wiring in war zones), Aarons (training the Iraqi Guard Force to protect oil fields from resistance fighters), Fluor (Iraqi sewer systems) and Perri, controlled by Richard Blum — husband of hawkish Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who, Cohn said, “appears to have used her seat on the Military Appropriations Committee to steer the $650 million environmental cleanup deal in his [company’s] favor.”

Other war profiteer corporations Cohn named included URS (environmental cleanup in Iraq), Parsons (which, she said, “reportedly mismanaged the construction of the [Iraqi] police academy so completely that human waste dripped from its ceilings”), and San Diego-based First Kuwaiti General Contracting and Trading, Armour Holdings, L3 Communications, AM General, HSBC Bank, Cummins, Merchant Bridge, Global Risk Strategies, Control Risks, Khaki and Titan (which trained interrogators assigned to Abu Ghraib), Bechtel, Custer Battles, NorUSA and General Dynamics. She also mentioned Northrop Grumman, which is building the controversial drone aircraft being used in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These drones, which cost $4.5 million apiece, allow the U.S. to conduct bombing raids, often killing civilians, while the “pilots” are safe on U.S. bases operating them by remote control.

“What is the money for? To prosecute Bush’s and Obama’s illegal wars,” Cohn said. Repeating an argument she often made while George W. Bush was still president, Cohn explained that under the United Nations Charter — which, because it was ratified as a treaty by the U.S. Senate, is therefore as much the law of the land as the U.S. Constitution — “one country can invade another only in self-defense or with the approval of the U.N. Security Council. The war in Afghanistan is not self-defense. Afghanistan never attacked us. The 9/11 attack was not an act of war, it was a crime against humanity, and 15 of its 19 perpetrators were Saudis. Moreover, Obama is committing war crimes in Pakistan with the unmanned CIA drones, dropping bombs and killing civilians indiscriminately.”

Corporations United

Simon Mayeski from California Common Cause, up next, discussed the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and its likelihood that it will “make it even easier for corporations to control our elections” than it is now. “The decision,” Mayeski explained, “eliminated the ban on independent expenditures by corporations. With no factual basis, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporate spending does not corrupt elected officials. This needs to be a wake-up call. The Court has put our democracy for sale to the highest bidder. Government ‘of, by and for the people’ will turn into government of, by and for the corporations.”

Until Citizens United, corporations could finance political campaigns only indirectly, through political action committees (PAC’s) or lobbyists. With corporations free to spend out of their own corporate treasuries to influence elections, Mayeski explained, they can now influence political decision-making not only by spending on campaigns but merely by threatening to do so. He argued that a corporation could sway the vote of a politician merely with a veiled promise that unless he or she got on board the corporate agenda, it would take out ads attacking him or her and supporting his or her opponent. “Officials will change their minds and vote with the corporation,” Mayeski said, “and without the corporation even needing actually to spend the money.”

Mayeski conceded that the Supreme Court did not wipe out all limits on corporate spending on politics. Corporations still can’t contribute directly to candidates for federal office, and legislators still can require corporations to disclose their contributions. But even disclosure can prove unexpectedly controversial; when Congress took up a bill to force corporations to disclose the money they spend on politics under Citizens United, the bill “started out great” until the special interests started to pick it to pieces. “Democrats wanted [the bill] to favor unions, Republicans wanted to help business and the National Rifle Association (NRA) threatened enough conservative Democrats to get a written exemption from the disclosure requirement altogether.”

While the weakened Disclosure Act passed the house, Mayeski said he and his group wanted an even stronger remedy: the Fair Elections Now Act. This would extend to federal offices a law pioneered in Maine in 2000, in which as an alternative to financing their campaigns privately through their own contributions (or, if they can afford it, with their own money, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina are doing now), “candidates can choose to raise small amounts of money and have those matched, up to a limit, with public funds. This will allow federal candidates to choose to run without private contributions and to be free to pay attention to what the people want.”

Unfortunately, the road to this sort of publicly financed campaign alternative has proved rocky. The U.S. Supreme Court recently blocked Arizona from paying out public funds to candidates who had qualified under a similar law, also passed in 2000 and under continuous legal challenge since. The main legal argument against it was that the law violated the ability of multimillionaire candidates to buy office for themselves by raising the public financing offered to qualified candidates who had to run against an opponent self-financing with a personal fortune. Also, a modest attempt in California to put the system in place for just one office — secretary of state — was overwhelmingly defeated by voters in the June 8 primary. Apparently the opponents’ argument that publicly financing elections forces taxpayers to fund candidates with opinions they disagree with won the day — while voters remained unconcerned about how a corporation that is financing political activity is essentially forcing its customers to fund candidates and causes with which they may disagree.

Corporations Over People in California’s Budget

Next up was Annie Lorrie Anderson-Lazo, activist with an organization called People United for Social Justice which has worked since 1998 “to bring fairness and transparency to the California state budget,” as she explained. Even before the 2008 recession hit California harder than most states, the state’s Republican governor and legislative minority had forced the legislature’s Democratic majority to accept massive cutbacks in education, health and other social services to get the state a budget at all. Hamstrung by the state’s constitutional requirement that both the budget itself and any tax increase pass by a two-thirds vote of the legislature, the Democrats have had to agree to budgets that give corporations massive tax breaks and slash the social safety net merely to keep the state operating.

“Time and time again, the Governor’s fiscal policy reveals that corporate interest groups have more power than we do,” Anderson-Lazo said. “The Governor’s backroom deals eliminate sensible revenue solutions. The Governor’s own spokesperson has referred to the most recent round of [proposed] budget cuts as ‘terrible.’ The Governor proposes to eliminate CalWorks (the state’s welfare-to-work program), IHSS (a program that pays workers to take care of senior citizens and people with disabilities in their homes rather than force them into nursing homes) and emergency food assistance, and refuse health care access by increasing premiums and co-pays.”

According to Anderson-Lazo, such cutbacks are not only gratuitous and cruel attacks on the poor, the old and the sick, they don’t make sense economically either. “Health and human services help hundreds of thousands of Californians go to work and stay healthy and safe, and are delivered through thousands of home workers, doctors, providers and case workers,” she explained. “The Governor proposes to sacrifice an additional $36 billion in economic output, $1.9 billion in state and local tax revenue and at least 330,000 jobs in California’s two strongest labor sectors. The Governor insists that cuts to the safety nets are the only option, and taxes on corporations sacrifice jobs, even though in 2006 corporations paid 8 percent less in taxes than in previous years.”

As an alternative, Anderson-Lazo endorsed repeal of the corporate tax breaks “that were passed closed doors” last year as part of a package to get a state budget after a record 81 days without one; a so-called “split roll” that would tax business and corporate real estate at a higher rate than people’s homes; a 10 percent severance tax on oil companies producing in California (every other U.S. state and foreign country in the world that produces oil has such a tax); and reinstatement of the upper-income tax brackets that existed under Republican Governor Pete Wilson in the 1990’s. Any one of these proposals, she argued, “could generate enough revenue to preserve funding for eye care for kids, and adult day care for seniors and people with disabilities.” All of them, she said, would raise up to $19 billion and virtually wipe out the state’s budget deficit. Needless to say, she also called for an end to the 2/3 vote requirement for budgets and tax increases — an idea rejected by sizable majorities of Californians in opinion polls.

Corporations and Immigration

The next speaker, Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee’s San Diego branch, came up to address “what corporations have to do with immigration.” He began with a wrenching tale of 19 undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America who died in the back of a trailer truck in Victoria, Texas in May 2003. The Mexicans came from Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí and Veracruz, “and the ones from Veracruz were coffee growers who were displaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” Rios explained. “NAFTA removed tariffs and allowed imports of coffee into Mexico, so the coffee growers and workers could no longer sustain their families.”

While immigration opponents blame the explosion in the population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — from three million in 1986 to an estimated 12 million today — on the Simpson-Mazzoli bill passed by Congress and signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986, immigrant rights and anti-corporate activists say it happened because of NAFTA. In corn — Mexico’s staple crop and one its indigenous farmers basically invented — as well as coffee, domestic Mexican production proved no match for the mighty U.S. agribusiness corporations, which flooded the Mexican markets with cheap corn, coffee and other agricultural products, and thereby forced Mexican farmers to take drastic measures to survive at all.

“The waves of migration usually take place from rural Mexico into urban centers like Mexico City or Tijuana,” Rios explained. Then, when the rural Mexicans can’t find jobs in Mexico’s cities because corporations have abandoned the maquiladoras of the 1990’s in search of even cheaper wages in China and other Asian countries, they cross the border into the U.S. — often mortgaging their futures to coyotes (smugglers) to get in. “Immigration patterns tend to follow where the money is,” Rios explained.

Another wrinkle of U.S. immigration policy is that since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2003 and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) — now Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a name change which says volumes about the shift in priorities — was folded into it, U.S. immigration policy has become a subsidiary part of the “war on terror,” Rios argued. He said that corporations are not only making money by hiring immigrants and using them to drive down wages, but other corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) are making money by building private detention centers for immigrants who are caught and held — often in inhuman or substandard conditions — for deportation.

Other corporate profiteers from the war on immigrants, Rios said, include Boeing — which got a $67 million contract for a 28-mile “virtual” border fence (with the promise of between $2 and $8 billion if the pilot fence worked) — and L-Bit Systems, which is building separation walls across both the U.S.-Mexico and Israel-Palestine borders. “Corporations are profiting through a concept called ‘managed migration,’” Rios explained.

Rios’s gloomy presentation offered one ray of hope when he reminded his audience that January 1, 1994 — the date NAFTA took effect — was also the day the Zapatistas made their first public appearance and launched their campaign of resistance against the Mexican government. According to Rios, when people from this side of the border ask Zapatistas what they can do to help, “they say, ‘You have to organize in your own communities and make sure the powerless have a chance to speak out about these policies.’” Rios called on U.S. activists to “turn the tide of how we frame the narrative about immigrants in our own communities.”

Environment and Jobs vs. Corporations

The next speaker, Ken Sobel of the Sustainability Alliance of Southern California, had a specific campaign he wanted to get the activist audience to work on: the fight to save AB 32, the landmark global-warming law passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, from Proposition 23, an initiative slated for November’s ballot which will effectively repeal it. Based on the argument that programs to stop global warming and other efforts to protect the environment cost the state jobs — which, Sobel argued, isn’t true — Proposition 23 “will suspend AB 32 until California’s unemployment rate reaches 5 percent or less in four consecutive quarters” — which, he explained, has happened only three times in the last 30 years.

Challenging the notion that environment and employment don’t mix, Sobel said, “If AB 32 was such a game-changer, why did California’s economy grow, and joblessness go down, in the first 10 months after it passed?” He also pointed out that, according to the state’s legislative analyst, stopping AB 32 might actually cost the state jobs. “California now has a green economic sector that’s the envy of the country,” Sobel said. “Green jobs increased 36 percent, and green investments increased 45 percent, in the last 15 years. There are now more than 10,000 clean energy companies in California. In the last five years, green jobs in California have grown five times faster than the rest of the economy. Between 1997 and 2008, San Diego green jobs grew by 50 percent.”

All that hard-won economic progress is threatened by Proposition 23, Sobel explained. The reason is that getting rid of AB 32 will eliminate the requirements that California utilities increase the percentage of their energy they get from renewable sources — and it’s those requirements that are creating the market all those companies are investing in and hiring workers to produce for. “If Proposition 23 passes, we will be more dependent on foreign oil and more vulnerable to disasters like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” Sobel said. “Stand up with your neighbors, friends and communities, and take a stand against Proposition 23.”

Media Corporations: Arbiters of U.S. Politics

The final two speakers before Freeman took the stage (there was supposed to be a 10-minute intermission but, with the entire program running late and the clock ticking before they had to vacate the room, the meeting organizers canceled it) both addressed the corporate domination of media, how it shapes and limits political debate in the U.S., and what we can do about it. Mera Szendro Bok, communications strategist for New Media Rights, mentioned Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as guaranteeing “a human right to communicate,” and said her group is “now asking the United Nations to recognize the danger modern corporations pose to the right to communicate.”

Szendro Bok’s group is also working on issues closer to home: stopping the proposed mega-merger between the Comcast cable, satellite and Internet communications provider and the NBC network, and preserving so-called “net neutrality,” the freedom to post and read information on line without interference or discrimination from Internet service providers (ISP’s). She cited a study that said if the Comcast/NBC merger goes through, that one company “will be calling the shots for one-fifth of the media,” and noted that Comcast has been aggressive in asserting their right to block certain information from its Internet customers — including sites representing the pro-choice position on abortion.

The details of the conflict over “net neutrality” are arcane, but the basic principle is simple. When the telephone was invented, the federal government declared phone companies to be “common carriers.” That meant they were legally obligated to carry whatever communications anyone using their system chose to express. It also insulated them from criminal prosecution for any customer’s illegal use of their service. For example, if a private citizen calls in a bomb threat, he has committed a crime and can be prosecuted — but the phone company can’t be, even though the crime could not have happened without their technological infrastructure.

When the Internet emerged from its U.S. Defense Department cocoon and became commercialized in the late1980’s, however, the bipartisan mania for deregulating the economy was in full swing. Instead of being made “common carriers,” Internet service providers were treated like radio and TV stations — allowed to control the content moved over their systems and made criminally liable for illegal content. Fortunately, in the first two decades of commercial Internet service, they rarely used this power. As a result, Internet users became used to uncensored access to read whatever they wanted to on line — and, as it became easier to create Web sites and publish to the Internet, to write whatever they wanted to as well.

All these freedoms Internet users now take for granted are under attack by giant communications companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, Szendro Bok explained. For one thing, all those companies want to charge Internet users extra for Skype — a Web-based satellite phone service that allows you to bypass traditional land-line and cell phone providers like AT&T and Verizon. Other companies want to set up “tiered” access to the Internet, charging extra for accessing certain Web sites or for using more than a specified amount of bandwidth. Comcast’s alleged actions in suppressing pro-choice sites and AT&T’s alleged removal of a whistle-blowing site set up by some of their own employees have led media activists to fear that these giant companies will soon systematically censor the Internet to deny users access to political information and opinions the corporations don’t like.

What’s more, Comcast already won the legal right to do just that from a corporate-friendly appeals court last April, which ruled for the company and against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a case involving users of so-called “peer-to-peer” file-sharing software like BitTorrent. Comcast claimed they had a right to restrict use of such software because its users tend to take up more bandwidth than others on line. BitTorrent is also hated by studios and other content producers like NBC — the company Comcast wants to merge with — because it allegedly facilitates pirating movies and other copyrighted material.

The response from the FCC as well as from some people in Congress —notably U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) — has been to see about reclassifying ISP’s as common carriers, like phone companies “But even the suggestion of re-regulation of Internet lines is sparking fierce opposition,” Wall Street Journal reporters Amy Schatz and Julia Angwin warned in their April 7 article on the case, “and phone and cable companies are already lobbying lawmakers and FCC officials to reject the idea.”

The first half of the program was closed by local activist Jon Monday, an independent filmmaker who came to show clips from his work-in-progress documentary on the failed grass-roots campaign to save San Diego’s short-lived progressive talk-radio outlet, KLSD. A part of the now-defunct “Air America” network, KLSD was part of an experiment by media mega-corporation Clear Channel Communications, most of whose AM stations provide a steady diet of Right-wing talk shows, to reach beyond that market and make money off Left-of-center listeners as well. But for reasons the company never made public, Clear Channel abruptly terminated KLSD and replaced it with a sports-talk station.

Monday had problems presenting his film. He tried to show it from a computer file, only the size of his file overwhelmed his computer and it kept stopping and starting again. Monday tried to deliver his presentation as a speech, only to find his film and its soundtrack cutting in again and again as he tried to speak his message instead of relying on his computer to show it. Nonetheless, he eloquently expressed the frustration felt by many in his audience that the mainstream media offer a steady diet of center-Right and far-Right views, biases and opinions and keep progressive sources isolated on the margins and usually read, heard or seen by the already converted.

“The overarching issue is media consolidation,” Monday said, arguing that as long as the media are so relentlessly biased towards the Right as they are today in the U.S. in general and San Diego in particular, positive social progress on all other issues — the environment, electoral reform, the budget deficit, Queer rights, economic inequality and immigration — is virtually impossible. “The thread that runs through all these issues is media reform,” he argued. “Through media consolidation, the spectrum of public opinion has been narrowed and skewed to the Right. The restrictions on media consolidation were removed during the first Bush administration, and stations with another point of view are being pushed off the air.”

Like many other progressive meetings today, “Earth Is for People, Not for Corporations” was a good deal better at identifying problems than offering solutions. Perhaps because all the speakers except Freeman were told to stick to six-minute time slots (though most of them actually did speak a bit longer than that), they weren’t able to address just how the progressive community can address and overcome the enormous advantages of concentrated wealth and power the corporations bring to bear on virtually every political and social issue in the U.S. today. The closest the audience got to an answer was from conference organizer John Falchi, who spoke early on and called on them to go back to the basics: “Go see your Congressmember, but don’t go alone. Go with the ministers, the doctors, the activists. If you bring enough people, they can’t pass you off with just one sentence to a staff member. They have to see you personally. We need to unite.”

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

8: The Mormon Proposition: Two Movies in One


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Director Reed Cowan’s film 8: The Mormon Proposition is really two movies in one: a story of the involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the campaign to pass California’s initiative banning same-sex marriage in November 2008, and a grim tale of how rough the Mormons are on their own Queer people, especially Queer youth, who are frequently disowned by their families and left to fend for themselves on the streets. The two movies —which each take up roughly half of the film’s total 80-minute running time — don’t mesh together all that well, and more creative editing might have bridged the gap between them and made this film even more powerful than it is, but as it stands this film is an indictment not only of one church but of the entire religious mind-set that emphasizes blind faith and obedience and denies the importance of individuality and freedom of thought.

Cowan knows first-hand whereof he is speaking. Like one of his film’s major protagonists — Gay ex-Mormon Tyler Barrick, whose parents told him point-blank when he called them long distance from the San Francisco City Hall where he was about to marry his partner that they saw only shame, not joy, in what he was about to do — Cowan grew up Mormon, Indeed, he was born and raised in Utah, which has been Mormon Central ever since the faith, driven out of New York, Illinois and Missouri in the 1840’s for their own peculiar beliefs about marriage, settled there in the 1850’s. Originally he had set out to make the film that dominates the second half of 8: The Mormon Proposition — a heart-rending documentary about Mormon youth living on the streets of Salt Lake City and the inflexible condemnation and anti-Queer hatred that have become pillars of the Mormon faith as preached by a church leadership whom Mormons believe to be in direct communication with God.

Midway through his project, however, Cowan’s focus shifted as the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 that same-sex couples had an equal right to marry under the California state constitution. The Mormons and other religious opponents of marriage equality had already mobilized a signature drive to amend the California constitution to bar legal recognition of any sort of marriage other than one man and one woman — which, ironically, would have put the polygamous forebears of many latter-day Latter-Day Saints beyond the pale. They had already worked out the strategy for reversing court decisions allowing same-sex marriage by initiatives, and had tried it out in response to the first such decision in Hawai’i in 1993.

According to internal Mormon Church memoranda and e-mails leaked by a church whistleblower to Fred Karger, founder and executive director of Californians Against Hate, the Mormon campaign against the Hawai’i decision began with a public opinion survey funded by the church. The survey revealed that the Mormon Church was not particularly popular or well-liked in the state, and therefore the only way to win an anti-marriage initiative was to organize Roman Catholics and other more highly regarded denominations to lead the opposition. They also realized the need for ordinary Hawai’ians to front the campaign and make it appear to be a grass-roots effort. The Mormon leaders realized that they could provide the funding, but in order to succeed they had to let secular activists and leaders from other religions appear to be running the coalition in support of the initiative.

They won a sweeping victory at the ballot box in Hawai’i — where voters reversed their high court’s marriage decision by a 2-to-1 margin — and, though Cowan’s movie doesn’t mention this, initiatives banning same-sex marriage have passed in all 35 U.S. states that have had a chance to vote on them. The memos Karger obtained and Cowan’s other sources reveal that the Mormons practiced the same strategy in California as they had in Hawai’i and elsewhere: set up a coalition to run the Yes on 8 campaign, let other religious leaders and groups (like the Roman Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus — who, unlike the Mormons, were openly identified on the Yes on 8 commercials as having helped to fund them) appear to be leading the campaign, while the Mormons actually provided much of the money. According to the film, $22 million of the total Yes on 8 budget of $39 million came either from the Mormon church itself or from individual Mormons who were urged and, Cowan argues, pressured to donate directly to Yes on 8.

The pressure wasn’t at all subtle, according to Cowan’s interviewees. Mormons, he explained, have a long tradition of blind obedience to the dictates of their ministers. Cowan plays an audio recording of a conference of the Council of 12 Apostles who actually run the Mormon church, emphasizing the importance of defeating same-sex marriage in order to preserve traditional Biblical morality and protect the workings of God’s plans on earth. In a church with a long tradition of mandatory tithing — Mormons are expected to give at least 10 percent of their income to support the church — Cowan and his interviewees describe church officials showing up at the homes of their parishioners telling them, essentially, “Here’s what you earn. Here’s what we think you can contribute to Yes on 8. Here is your checkbook. Write the check.”

8: The Mormon Proposition delivers a strong but incomplete picture of the Proposition 8 campaign. You wouldn’t know from this film (or from “David v. Goliath,” the name of the production company Cowan formed to make it) that the No on 8 campaign actually had just as much money as Yes on 8 — actually a little more ($40 million and change versus Yes on 8’s $39 million and change) — and one reason Proposition 8 passed by a five-percent margin is that the Yes on 8 side utilized their money far more effectively. You also wouldn’t know from this film that, while the Yes on 8 campaign mobilized both Mormons and non-Mormons to go door-to-door, the No on 8 side decided against mounting a grass-roots door-to-door drive and instead ran phone banks as their sole one-on-one outreach to voters. Cowan’s film also doesn’t explain why, when the tactics and arguments the Yes on 8 campaign would use were already familiar to marriage equality supporters from previous elections in other states, the No on 8 side did such a piss-poor job of challenging them.

But Cowan wasn’t interested in making a movie about the relative effectiveness of the campaigns on both sides of Proposition 8. What he was interested in was challenging the whole idea of a church using its money, members and resources both temporal and spiritual to affect the outcome of their election and write their own morality into a state constitution. Critics of the film have suggested that Cowan is denying the right of religious people and institutions to seek to affect political issues and the outcomes of elections at all — which is nonsense. Religious people have as much of a right to campaign in a free society as anybody else; what they don’t — or at least shouldn’t — have is the right to use that to write their own morals into law and thereby discriminate against anybody who doesn’t share them.

Indeed, one could have made a case against Proposition 8 on the ground that a ban on the legal recognition of same-sex marriage discriminates against religions like the United Church of Christ, Friends (Quakers), Unitarian-Universalists and others who believe in marriage equality for same-sex couples and wish to be able to marry their Gay and Lesbian parishioners on the same basis as their heterosexual ones. Contrary to the Yes on 8 propaganda, allowing the legal recognition of same-sex marriage would not have forced churches who opposed it to conduct same-sex weddings — just as the Roman Catholic Church has a legal right to deny church marriage rights to divorced people, even though divorced people can legally marry under civil law. Of all the mistakes the No on 8 campaign made, one of the most serious was its utter failure to engage Queer-supportive ministers and other people of faith as public spokespeople against the initiative — thereby allowing the Mormons and their allies in other churches to create the impression that the entire religious community was united against same-sex marriage and in favor of 8.

The second half of 8: The Mormon Proposition is, in some ways, a better movie than the first. It’s more heart-rending and certainly grimmer and more intense. It’s a systematic attack on the Mormon church for being so relentlessly homophobic that they literally drive young Mormons struggling with their sexual orientation to suicide. One of the film’s most revolting sections is an interview with Bruce Barton, who as a student at Brigham Young University was victimized when he was one of 12 people named by an anonymous source as being homosexual. He was forced to watch pornographic images and drink a vomit-inducing drug in order to be psychologically conditioned away from being Gay — a technique called “aversive therapy” that was actually part of the psychiatric mainstream’s response to homosexuality until the major psychological and psychiatric associations voted in the early 1970’s no longer to regard homosexuality as a mental illness.

Barton said that for his last session he was given a button that administered electric shocks to himself and told to push the button when he saw a sexually explicit image he either strongly hated or strongly liked. He was also told that if he didn’t push the button himself, the people running the “therapy” would push it for him and administer the shock anyway. He doesn’t remember just how long he was forced to endure this torture, but he did say that a number of people on that list of 12 names committed suicide, two of them disappeared completely, and one ended up a psychological basket case with no sex drive at all. The only response from the Mormon church quoted in the film is a statement that they don’t do that sort of thing anymore — and Cowan is a bit unfair to the church by showing some of their anti-Queer actions but not giving the dates when they occurred.

What he does show, however, is grim on its face. Among the footage shown in 8: The Mormon Proposition is grainy black-and-white surveillance video of a Mormon security squad beating up two Gay men whose “crime,” so we’re told, was kissing each other within eyeshot of the main Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. He also takes us inside an encampment for homeless youth in Salt Lake City and lets them — particularly a boyish young man named Miyo, who describes the horrors of his life in a matter-of-fact style that makes them that much more frightening — tell us how they live and how their parents flatly, firmly and coldly rejected them for being Queer … or at least for having homosexual urges, since the Mormon church flatly rejects the idea that sexual orientation is innate and says they offer programs to help people “struggling” with “homosexual feelings” to get over them.

Though one could argue that 8: The Mormon Proposition overstates the importance of the Mormons in getting Proposition 8 on the ballot and passed by Californians, the film is nonetheless a powerful indictment not only of one church and its position on one issue but of religion, especially authoritarian religion, in general. Whether it is the medieval Roman Catholics using the tortures and executions of the Holy Inquisition to enforce their doctrine and suppress free thought — including the “dangerous heresy” that the earth orbited the sun, not the other way around — or the Massachusetts Puritans setting up a Calvinist theocracy in the 1600’s and executing their political opponents as “witches,” the Communists (who officially denied the existence of God but were so highly dogmatic their cult functioned as a secular religion) sending people to gulags and “re-education camps”or modern-day religious movements seeking to ban reproductive freedom and thereby enslave women to their wombs, the evil lies not in one church or one issue but in the whole idea of a hierarchy of men (and yes, they almost always are all men) claiming some degree of wisdom from God or the dialectic or whatever and using that to impose a standard of obedience and deny even the legitimacy of debate, much less dissent.

And yet in the case of the Mormon church and the ferocity of their opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples there’s also a singular element of tragedy. As Cowan’s film mentions in passing, in the 19th century it was the Mormons themselves who were persecuted, and many of them (including the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr.) murdered, for advocating a form of marriage that was not “one man and one woman.” Indeed, for people who take the Bible as a guide to morality, the early Mormons who preached and practiced “plural marriage” — one man and more than one woman — had a much stronger case than the advocates of same-sex marriage today, since the traditional Biblical definition of marriage is actually one man and as many women as he can support financially — which, in practice, made polygamy a luxury of the rich.

One writer, commenting on the Nazis when they were still a going concern, coined the phrase, “Those to whom evil has been done/Do evil in return.” He was arguing that the harsh peace imposed on Germany at Versailles after World War I, especially the huge reparations payments that crippled the German economy, led the Germans to support the Nazis and elevate them to power. In turn we’ve seen the Jews, the Nazis’ principal victims, become the victimizers themselves in their insane policy of occupying Palestine and sentencing the inhabitants of Gaza to brutal collective punishment for daring to elect a government the Israeli leaders and their U.S. backers didn’t like.

And in 8: The Mormon Proposition we see a church that was driven to the desolate land of Utah in the first place by persecutors revolted by the 19th century Mormons’ redefinition of marriage — and being forced to renounce a basic principle of their religion by the U.S. government, which had massed federal troops on the Utah border ready to invade if the church leadership did not immediately ban polygamy — now taking a holier-than-thou attitude and leading an attack on a Queer community who are only asking that marriage be redefined to include them. The Mormons are yet another example of a group who have responded to past persecutions by becoming persecutors themselves, and 8: The Mormon Proposition depicts just how relentless and unscrupulous they have become in their jihad against this generation’s group of marriage rebels.

8: The Mormon Proposition is now playing at the Reading Gaslamp Plaza Cinemas, 701 5th Avenue in downtown San Diego.