HANG THE JURY

If a juror believes a defendant is guilty of breaking the law, but believes also that the law itself is not just, she has the right to vote with her conscience and not with the law.

A single juror has the ability to acquit a defendant in a trial for any reason. Even if the juror believes the defendant is guilty. This is called jury nullification. This is not a loophole. Nor is it illegal. But it’s a secret and it shouldn’t be.

With that said, let’s begin.

A cursory review of prison statistics illustrates the nightmare that is African Americans’ experience with our criminal “justice” system. There are currently more than 7 million Americans caught up at some point in the prison system between probation, incarceration and parole. Incredibly, 40 percent of our prisoners are black even though African Americans comprise only 13 percent of the total U.S. population. I live in a state where that number is closer to 50 percent. All told, America has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population despite only having 5 percent of the world’s population. This makes the sheer number of blacks in the prison system today even more overwhelming.

If you think there’s something wrong with this picture, continue reading, as there’s something that you can do about it. If you think this is because black people commit crime at a higher rate than white people do, then there’s a special place for you in hell or, worse, Congress.

Half of the prisoners in the United States are serving time for non-violent drug-related charges and 80 percent of those charges are for possession. Advocates and activists throughout the nation are attempting to reverse this trend, as the mass incarceration of black men specifically has become an epidemic. Despite the best efforts of groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU to reverse the trend, the problem persists unabated with most feeling helpless to change the system in a meaningful way.

But something can be done. By understanding your rights as a citizen to participate in the legal system, change can occur. Simply performing a civic obligation and reporting for jury duty gives every American the ability to weigh in on this issue.

Few people who are arrested on drug possession charges ever make it to trial for two reasons. One is that most cases are settled with a plea deal that a defendant often learns of for the first time while standing in front of a judge. The court-appointed attorney is basically there just to explain the plea to the defendant. The second reason is that plea deals are often considerably more attractive than the potential of losing in a trial and being sentenced by a judge, who is obligated to hand down sentences in strict accordance with the law. In states with mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, the risks are enormous.

But for those rare cases that do make it to trial, most people would be surprised to know that the most powerful person in the room is not an attorney or even the judge, for that matter. It’s the juror. One dissenting juror has the ability to decide whether or not a defendant should be set free no matter how the facts are presented. If a juror believes a defendant is guilty of breaking the law, but believes also that the law itself is not just, she has the right to vote with her conscience and not with the law.

Whether or not a judge has an obligation to inform a jury of this right has been battled over for two and a half centuries. As it stands now, judges are not required to inform a jury of their right to nullify a verdict; therefore, most do not.

Intrigued? Incredulous? Inspired? If you are brave enough to defy injustice and provide the last line of sane defense in an insane world, it’s best to arm yourself with an understanding of how we arrived at this point in history and your constitutional right to turn the tide.

The Modern “Middle Passage”
In order to properly describe the extent to which our criminal justice system is inherently and overwhelmingly racist, we must learn to speak about it with a new language. The current language, inculcated into the population by the government and corporate media over several decades, includes phrases such as “tough on crime,” “zero tolerance,” and “three strikes.” This type of rhetoric has been delivered repeatedly and enthusiastically since President Ronald Reagan declared the official start to the War on Drugs in 1982. Thirty years and a billion episodes of Law & Order later, we are all fluent in the language of narcotics.

Unfortunately, most of us have turned a blind eye to the mass incarceration of young black men in America during this time. Most of us shrugged it off. Most of us have failed to comprehend the rise of the prison industrial complex. Most of us, but not all of us.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander speaks to both the sociological and institutional aspects of racism in the American legal system. Since its publication in 2010, her book has been gradually galvanizing members of the black community around the concept of incarceration as a new form of slavery. And because of the efforts of outspoken leaders such as Dr. Cornel West, tireless advocacy from grassroots drug and prison reform groups and the comprehensive analysis provided by Alexander, the nation is beginning to speak about incarceration with a new language.

Rev. Roger Williams, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Glen Cove, N.Y., and president of the local NAACP chapter, says the reaction in the black community has been “multifaceted.” He says Alexander’s book has certainly inspired debate, with some putting “all of the onus on the black community,” others who have a “balanced understanding,” and “then you have those who feel like white folks are coming for you.” In every case, says Williams, “it’s almost like shoveling smoke trying to get a consensus, but it’s certainly stirring leadership.”

Fred Brewington, a prominent New York attorney and activist, has lectured frequently on this issue and even given sermons on The New Jim Crow, as he lives it every day in the criminal justice system.
“Unfortunately, the system has become the norm,” says Brewington. He shares Williams’ view that the book hasn’t necessarily filtered through the black community, but it has started to take root. “It’s not as though everyone is waking up and saying, ‘Where are all our African American men?’” But he calls Alexander’s book a “wonderful compilation of information that is there for the use of front-line advocates.”

Alexander’s book boldly equates the effects of today’s punitive drug laws to those of the Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation and unequal treatment under the law with respect to race. Specifically, she addresses the mass incarceration of black men in America under draconian drug statutes. For those who believe her analogy is a stretch, Alexander has a powerful weapon at her disposal: statistics.

Our modern journey to enslavement begins in 1972 in the years immediately following stark gains made during the Civil Rights movement. The prison population was around 350,000 as compared to 2.2 million people today. In 1972, violent crime had already peaked and was on the decline in the United States. The reason for the peak during the prior years was arguably the result of the Baby Boomers being between 18 and 25 years old—the prime adolescent years of criminal agitation—mixed with civil unrest and protests during the Vietnam era.

But by the mid to late ’70s, conscription had formally ended, the Boomers were more worried about getting jobs than getting high and violent crime was precipitously declining. As Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended as early as 1973, “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.”

Sociologists and criminologists had come to realize that punitive punishments and long-term sentences had little to no positive impact on crime statistics and that rehabilitation and treatment were more appropriate measures for all but the most violent criminals. Plus, the numbers were on their side. Despite a difficult economy, violent crime was falling—not only in the United States, but also around the globe. Given these circumstances, it was somewhat surprising that President Reagan declared an official “War on Drugs” in 1982, only two years into his first term. Surprising also because America didn’t really have a drug problem in 1982.

Ask enough people from a black neighborhood where “crack” came from, and it won’t take long for someone to tell you it was the CIA. This point has been hotly debated for years. But the fact remains that the period during which cocaine first began flooding the streets of American cities coincides precisely with the start of CIA operations in Central America, specifically Nicaragua. In the early 1980s guerrilla fighters in Nicaragua were suddenly flush with cash from American drug dealers—cash used to purchase American weapons in their fight against the Sandinistas, the Marxist government that aligned itself with Cuba.

In 1982, the U.S. Attorney General drafted a Memorandum of Understanding to the CIA establishing the United States’ interest in overthrowing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua; the same year the Reagan administration declared the War on Drugs. But crack cocaine had yet to reach the streets. It would take another three years for crack to begin appearing in the black neighborhoods; crack derived from cocaine funneled from Nicaragua. Call it a conspiracy or an incredible coincidence, but the timing is irrefutable. In the meantime, however, the Reagan administration didn’t sit idly by and wait for crack to become an epidemic. It had laws to change and a paradigm to shift. It didn’t take long.

Despite the downward trend of violent crime and no evidence yet of a rampant drug problem, the Reagan administration increased anti-drug funding for the FBI, Department of Defense and the Drug Enforcement Administration tenfold between 1980 and 1984; almost the exact size of the funding decrease to federal drug treatment, rehabilitation and education programs. Cocaine funneled from Central America hit the streets in 1985 in the form of crack and was deemed an epidemic by the media by 1986. By the end of 1986 the country had already adopted mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for drug-related felonies.

In less than five years a crisis had been fully manufactured in our cities and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies were given incentives in the form of military arsenals and cash to increase the number of arrests. Police departments were suddenly competing for cash grants, assault weapons and air power. The government’s sudden change of course and willingness to fund anything related to drug crimes also created an opportunity for private industry, which was only too anxious to jump into the fray.

In 1983, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the first privately held prison corporation, was formed. Despite the historically low prison population, the government’s drug war prompted private industry to suddenly jump into the incarceration game. Today, CCA is a nearly $2 billion (and growing) corporation with more than 90,000 “beds” under its control.

Allowing for privatization of our prisons is one of the more egregious examples of how divorced our policymakers are from common sense in this country. The goal of a private penal corporation is to profit from high and extended rates of “occupancy.” (CCA literally speaks in these terms as though it was part of the hospitality industry.) The private prison lobby in America has pressured lawmakers over the years to maintain harsh minimum sentencing requirements as corporations have little financial incentive to encourage rehabilitation of prisoners. As far as the private prison industry is concerned, the only useful felon is one who is incarcerated, not reformed.

Reagan’s “war” saw a clean population getting hooked on drugs. During this “war,” rehabilitation was replaced with recidivism. Treatment was abandoned in favor of solitary confinement. Education was upended by “stop and frisk.” Prevention was sacrificed in the name of incarceration. The result? Half of all inmates today are in prison for drug-related crimes, of which 80 percent are related to possession of marijuana. To say the black community bore the brunt of this war is an understatement. To wit, more black American men are in the prison system today than there were slaves just prior to the Civil War. Present the statistics any way you please. There’s no pretty picture to paint. Black America is once again in chains.

The System
Each year, hundreds of thousands of “stop-and-frisk” acts are performed in black neighborhoods. They are rarely, if ever, conducted in white neighborhoods, office complexes or college campuses. Nevertheless, politicians point to the success of “stop and frisk” in the absolute number of people arrested for carrying drugs instead of the miniscule percentage of people found carrying drugs who were searched. I’m no mathematician, but logic would dictate that if you only stop and search people in black neighborhoods, then when you find drugs on someone the chances are that person is going to be black.

The reasoning behind “stop and frisk” is so specious and the process itself so unconstitutional it defies logic. And yet, it’s generally upheld in court. In 2012, 533,000 people were subjected to “stop and frisk” by the NYPD, according to the NY Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). Once again, even though blacks comprise 25 percent of the city’s population, they made up 55 percent of those who were stopped and frisked.

Many officers are unhappy with the “stop-and-frisk” protocol but are caught up in the nightmare due to pressure that comes from the top. Recently, the New York Daily News reported on a case where NYPD Officer Pedro Serrano testified against the department after taping his supervisor, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, telling him to target “male blacks. And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem [to] tell you this, male blacks 14 to 21.” These kinds of orders are not unique. They stem from quotas that are often handed down from the police brass. And officers such as Serrano who speak out against these practices are often shunned by their colleagues.

But wrestling with one’s conscience and struggling to maintain police quotas is nothing compared to the hell that awaits a young black man swept up into the web of “stop and frisk.” Once in court, the odds are stacked against him. In a recent conversation, Brewington described the harrowing the process of being caught by the police and ushered through the “system.”

Those with a prior arrest who are brought in on possession charges may meet an attorney such as Brewington in the holding cell. They’re actually one of the lucky ones, as a staggering number of accused felons make it all the way to sentencing in front of a judge without ever having spoken to an attorney. A far cry from what happens on TV. Brewington describes the encounter as something less than a conversation, as he advises his client to answer simply “yes” or “no” because everyone around him has an incentive to use his words against him in their own plea deal.

Time is of the essence, as he is typically carrying an offer from the D.A. that is set to expire quickly. Whether they want to go free is not a question he will raise. They’re in the system now. The only question is, how long? Risking an appearance in front of a jury means risking a much longer sentence.

“The fear is that you’re going to get a jury that’s really not of your peers,” says Brewington, who is loath to advise a jury trial. He says many of the young men he encounters “have not acquired the requisite skills to appear sympathetic” in front of a jury “that looks at you as though you must have done something wrong.”

The confusing whirlwind of circumstances between being frisked by law enforcement officials and accepting a plea deal is just the start, a piece of the legacy from Reagan’s “War on Drugs.”
But if Ronald Reagan was responsible for putting so many black people behind bars, it was Bill Clinton who was most responsible for keeping them there. In an effort to make Democrats appear “tough on crime,” the Clinton administration institutionalized punitive measures outside of the system, such as lifetime bans on some forms of welfare including access to food stamps, government jobs and public housing. Parolees, now branded as felons for life, were suddenly unable to leave their district while being forbidden from returning home, accessing food and gaining employment in the public sector.

“If the initiative is to eradicate the drug trade,” says Williams, the opposite occurred. “What you’re doing is inducing the necessary anger on the inside that will be accentuated when they come back. And the only thing that will accept them back is the game.”


Throughout the ’90s, recidivism spiked and parolees came face to face with President Clinton’s most punitive anti-crime measures—the “Three Strikes” rule and mandatory minimums. Under Clinton, life sentences were mandated for any third-time felon, or felon convicted of multiple counts, regardless of the nature or severity of the crime. Mandatory minimum sentences for even the lowest level drug offenders were implemented as outrage finally began to creep into American consciousness. Black churches and organizations were up in arms. Some judges resigned. Alexander even recounts the story of a notoriously harsh judge who wept when forced to hand down a 10-year sentence “for what appeared to be a minor mistake in judgment in having given a ride to a drug dealer for a meeting with an undercover agent.”

Beyond the practical hindrances a felon faces in attempting to re-enter society, there’s an emotional burden and stigma that is carried forever; a burden that extends to the family as well. Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, runs programs to counsel children of incarcerated parents. While their parents are on the inside, the kids “suffer guilt, shame and isolation,” says Reynolds, adding, “Seventy percent of kids of incarcerated parents, without intervention, wind up incarcerated themselves.” But he speaks to the effectiveness of intervention, saying, “None of our kids have been incarcerated. With a little bit of help and a little bit of energy, it makes a huge difference.”

Even those who are released carry with them the shame of having been on the inside and the painful memories that accompany incarceration. Horrifically, more than 70,000 prisoners are raped every year. Additionally, tens of thousands of prisoners are locked in solitary confinement at any given time in the United States, a punishment usually employed by totalitarian regimes that was all but outlawed in the United States prior to Reagan’s War on Drugs and the emergence of the modern prison industrial complex.

Nullification is a “Juror’s Prerogative”
“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”
—Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

You don’t have to agree that the “War on Drugs” was an intentional war on the poor, disenfranchised people of color in this country to understand that this was the result. Thinking, feeling people know these laws must be changed. And while we, as citizens, must indeed protest, engage in civil disobedience and write to Congress, there is more that can be done and it begins with understanding your rights.

In a New York Times op-ed last year, Alexander floated a question raised to her by a woman named Susan Burton. Her question was simple, but brilliant: What if there was a movement to convince “thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out?” Her supposition was that this would theoretically crash the criminal justice system. She’s right. But the risk would be enormous given the potential and very legal retribution the system provides for.

But if the black community is examining this option and weighing the risks of such a strategy, it is incumbent upon the white liberal community to do the same on the opposite side of the equation. In this scenario, African Americans have everything to lose and white people have nothing to lose. So to possess this knowledge, have nothing to lose and still refuse to be an “upstander” is to be silently complicit in modern-day slavery.

Most white Americans have only a casual relationship with our legal system. Their understanding of what is just and what is legal generally comes from watching television crime shows and movies. This is why most people have the impression that the sole responsibility of a juror is to deliver a verdict based upon legal facts and that his or her personal feelings of fairness and justice cannot be considered.

This is patently false.

If you manage to get by “voir dire,” the process of questioning jurors to sit for a particular trial, and are fortunate enough to be selected, you can participate in a revolutionary movement. You can hang a jury without ever having to explain why. Jurors such as this are referred to as “stealth jurors.” Quiet activists who are guided by conscience not convention, or as Fred Brewington says, “The jury becomes the advocate for society.”
But first, you have to be in the position to do so. The key to getting through voir dire is to answer honestly without revealing anything ideologically. There is a science to voir dire and cases are often determined by how adroit an attorney is at selecting a jury. So remember these simple facts:

1) Less is more: You cannot misrepresent yourself by exercising restraint during voir dire.
2) You are not the one on trial.
3) Your goal is to get on that jury.

Serving on a jury is tedious, time-consuming and may even be financially detrimental. There is nothing romantic about the inner-workings of our legal system, no matter how glorified it is on television. Moreover, only a handful of Americans will actually be selected for a trial that involves drug possession charges for the reasons I stated in the opening of this piece. The goal here is to make enough people aware that the reason our system was designed to have trials decided by a “jury of one’s peers” was to prevent unjust laws from unfairly condemning citizens to incarceration or any form of punishment.

Like I said, the chance of being picked for a jury that involves drug possession charges is extremely remote. But our ability to disseminate a simple message of civil obedience to encourage defiance in the face of injustice has never been greater. If millions of Americans know who Joseph Kony is and know how to dance “Gangnam-Style” then they can at least understand their legal right and moral obligation to hang a jury in the case of drug possession charges.

Twitter. Facebook. Smoke signals. Whatever your preferred method of communication, it’s time to spread the word and find the “one in twelve” willing to hang the jury.

 

This article is an excerpt from Jed Morey’s forthcoming book titled The Great American Disconnect: Five Fundamental Threats to our Republic

“America in Chains” Illustration by Jon Moreno
“Dissenting Juror” Illustration by Jon Sasala
“Hang The Jury” Video by Rashed Mian
www.hangthejury.com created by Michael Conforti

Bill O’Reilly Was Right

Congress, under the watchful and exhausted eye of John Boehner, has to reprioritize, since denying Obama a second term has failed in spectacular fashion. Now they just have to pull out any stops to defeat his legacy.

On the eve of the President’s inauguration, I can safely let the sigh escape from my chest, a deep exhale of relief that we escaped a Romney/Ryan administration and their consequent taking of the country back(wards).  From the administration of Reagan onwards, momentum has been building in a movement to revert the country to its constitutional origins: of, for, and by monied white men.  And while this is certainly nothing new, candidates and elected officials of the past at least had the decency to pretend to equality.  Not so anymore.  With the election of our first black President, it seemed like the country was turning a chapter entitled “post-racism.” Yet what resulted was quite the opposite, with the right digging in their heels and ushering in the “Philosophy of No” and culminating in Mitt Romney’s address to the NAACP in July, blatantly dismissing an entire segment of the population because they could offer him little political capital.   The right said “No” to anything the President proposed, be it fair pay for women or compensation for the first responders of September eleventh.  We could argue that the divisiveness has roots beyond the specific kink of Mr. Obama’s hair, and some of it might be, but not all of it.  Not by far.

It can’t be easy for the Romneys, blindsided by their loss as they were.  The Fox pundits as well, though they’ve had time to recoup now, to double down on their anti-left propaganda.  And Congress, under the watchful and exhausted eye of John Boehner, has to reprioritize, since denying Obama a second term has failed in spectacular fashion. Now they just have to pull out any stops to defeat his legacy, to deny him any legislative victories, and if it continues to come at the expense of the constituency that voted them in, so be it. They have an endgame in mind; they’re looking at the big picture.  If all goes right (right, get it?), they won’t have destroyed the country beyond repair.  And when they get back into office, the magnitude of their success will be two-fold: they can blame the destruction on the Obama administration and exact greater power in creating positions to help clean up the mess.  Hey, it will create jobs, right?  Right?

What stuck in my mind in the days after the election were not necessarily the sputtering of Karl Rove or the disingenuous conciliatory speech of Romney, but a statement uttered by Long Island’s own Bill O’Reilly.  “Obama wins,” he spit, “because it’s not a traditional America anymore.” He went on to speak about the white establishment losing its position in the majority, about the black and hispanic votes, women.  His face mourned the loss of a country he’d known.  I felt for him.

Because he was right.

Traditional society had walls.  It was segregated into sects with borders, color-coded in socio-economic terms.  We had the pride of a country whose leaders were for the most part homogenous and our brown people were cared for as best we could.  But we had expectations: they needed to speak our language, to buck up and to thank the establishment for the spoils of what it meant to be American. Yet, somehow, that wasn’t enough. Some people started to feel “entitled.”

The Internet age ushered in the modern era where people began to see over the walls separating “us” and “them.”  A global economy brought with it the unintended consequences of a global society, multi-languaged, multicolored and multi-ethnic.  The model of success wasn’t the white-bread version of the trust fund baby boy being inducted into his father’s fraternity based on donations to the alumni association, making inbred connections among the masters of the universe.  The pool so small, in fact, that the name Bush is being floated as we speak as a 2016 candidacy. It started to look more Horatio Alger than anybody ever intended.  Black leaders in business and politics started to pave a way, but was America ready for a black man in the white house?

Gone now is the pretense to the political correctness of Clinton’s nineties.  Clinton, whom Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison deemed “America’s first black President” due to the ferocity with which he was hunted and treated by the establishment during the Whitewater scandal, ushered in a time when derogatory language went underground and was whispered behind the backs of hands.  Now, twenty years after he first took office, the culture has shifted so decisively that it is a faux pas not to utter a racist slur, but to accuse someone else of racism.  With commentators like Rush Limbaugh feeling comfortable making statements like, “The NAACP booed Romney because he’s white,” and Bill O’Reilly lamenting the diluting of the power of the white vote, we find ourselves at a crossroads.  We can take this country back(wards) or, as Obama supporters shouted from streets and eaves and stadiums, we can move “Forward.”

Because once upon a time, a brown child of a single mother on welfare with an un-American father, who was raised on a far-away island and spent some formative years in Indonesia, dared to think that maybe this was his country too.  He thought that maybe he had something to offer this modern America, that is neither black nor white, Eastern or Western, monied or in need, but all of it. All of it.

And so America begins a new tradition.  And the Bill O’Reillys of the world live unhappily ever after.

Putting the “Fun” in Fundamentalism

For those who insist on God as part of the original intent in America, allow me to disabuse you of the most commonly mistaken beliefs. To begin, there are no references to God in the Constitution.

The “my-perverted-form-of-Christianity-is-crazier-than-yours” show will be coming to New York soon when the GOP candidates come-a-barnstorming through our blue state. I have already received a lovely letter from Willard Romney asking for my support as if things aren’t bad enough with Tebow-mania sweeping the region.

My pitiful Jets. Sigh. That’s for another day.

Recently, my wife and I were fortunate to procure tickets to The Book of Mormon on Broadway. As one would imagine, it was delightfully wicked and painfully funny. (Unless, of course, you’re a Mormon, in which case I wouldn’t recommend it.) But its brilliance isn’t necessarily its provocative humor as much as its ability to bring the audience from uproarious laughter to dead silence within seconds. For all of its entertaining vulgarity, this Broadway show is a cautionary tale against the evils of forcing a belief system down the throats of others. If nothing else, it will leave you wondering how this particular sect became so powerful and accepted as to produce the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination.

On the same side of the bizarro-spectrum is the new breed of Christian fundamentalist personified by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. In addition to the many things I find loathsome about him and other sanctimonious politicians is their annoying habit of twisting the words of the Constitution and, in particular, the Founding Fathers.

The rise of the conservative Christian fundamentalist clutching the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other is one of the more intellectually insulting developments of our time. The Founding Fathers were undoubtedly brilliant. But many of their flaws such as their racism and infidelity have been whitewashed over time, explained away as unfortunate characteristics of the era instead of the morally reprehensible traits they have always been. By claiming ownership of their ideas and intentions, the conservative fundamentalist movement has completely distorted the spirit of the Constitution. In everything they did the Founding Fathers—many of them downright heathens if ever there were any—took great pains to eradicate the role of God in governance. After all, these were men who knew and understood that America was settled by people fleeing, not seeking, religious persecution.

One needs to look no further than the Constitution itself to discover that our form of government was intended to be an entirely secular affair. Moreover, The Federalist Papers, which offers the greatest insight into the intentions set forth by the most scholarly of the Founding Fathers, explicitly denounced religious influence over government.  In his portion of the introduction, James Madison credits the “zeal for different opinions concerning religion,” among other things, with having, “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” The majority of the writings proffered by our forefathers echo this sentiment. While freedom of religion among citizens was indeed a critical aspect of their collective philosophy, so too was freedom from religion.

This doesn’t mean they weren’t men of faith. In fact, my guess is that if they heard Rick Santorum profess that JFK’s insistence upon separation of church and state made him want to throw up, the Founding Fathers would likely vomit themselves.  After a good laugh at Santorum’s expense and a few hits of opium, Benjamin Franklin would take off with one of his several prostitute paramours, Jefferson would go back to chasing Sally Hemmings around her slave quarters, Washington would return to bidding on a few more colored people, Hamilton would resume paying hush money to the husband of his 20-something-year-old mistress, Adams would continue attempting to imprison reporters under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Aaron Burr would get back to his target practice.

These guys would have fit in perfectly today with the likes of former Nevada Sen. John Ensign and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who both called for President Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal while simultaneously carrying on extra-marital affairs of their own— the former with the wife of his best friend.

But enough about those God-fearing noblemen; let’s get on to the oft-abused phrases that seemingly comprise the bulk of Middle America’s knowledge of American history.

For those who insist on God as part of the original intent in America, allow me to disabuse you of the most commonly mistaken beliefs. To begin, there are no references to God in the Constitution. Period. Furthermore, the phrase “under God” was not part of the original Pledge of Allegiance, which was written by a socialist, by the by; it was formally adopted by Congress in 1954 as a reaction to the rise of secular Communism. I’ve also heard the argument the president serves the Almighty first and foremost because the Oath of Office closes with the phrase: “so help me God.” This is true, but you should know that it was ad-libbed by George Washington, not originally written as such. And finally, “In God We Trust” is neither from the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. It’s on our money. How very Christian of us.American history is fascinating and the work of our Founding Fathers is legendary and enduring, but it’s important to get it right. So too is it important to understand the origins of the modern Christian fundamentalist movement. In a nutshell:

A couple of babbling prophets roamed the country in the 1800s and early 1900s selling a new shiny brand of Jesus with little attention paid to them. Then, in the 1920s, Bruce Barton, best known as one of the “B’s” in the BBD&O ad agency, published The Man Nobody Knows. It was a self-help book about Corporate Jesus that spread like wildfire, and the fundamentalist movement latched on immediately with the thought that if you’re successful in this life, then Jesus must love you. Of course, the flip side of that coin is that if you’re poor through no fault of your own, it must be because Jesus hates you. Fundamentalists don’t like that side of the story much, though.

That’s right; the babbling nomadic Christian fundamentalists who evangelized throughout the United States were universally recognized as the crazy people they were until they got a makeover by the Don Draper of the 1920’s. The result: Rick Santorum. And the people who believed Jesus buried golden tablets (that no one ever actually saw) in the three days between dying on the cross and rising again only to later tell an angel named Moroni to let Joseph Smith know that the plates were buried in his back yard…in Rochester…New York…? I give you, Mitt Romney.

These are the GOP frontrunners that shall walk among us next month in a primary that looks like it actually might matter. And since I have maintained my Republican registration, I get to weigh in on this contest. Any thoughts on which one I should pull the lever, er, fill in the bubble for? Can I just go all the way and write in “Tim Tebow?” What the hell, right? Oops! There I go again.

Our Prime Yearning Years

The only true and good thing about Ayn Rand and objectivism (a fancy word for “that which screws the masses”) is that they’re both dead. Rand may have been a wonderful writer but objectivism is the Scientology of economic theory.

Part II of The Season of Our Disconnect (PART I)

Alan Greenspan
"Deregulation is fundamen... what's that dear? Oh yes, I would like some more pudding."

The haul from Hempstead Harbor was so big the first week it had reopened after being closed for more than 40 years of remediation that the axle on my friend Jimmy’s truck was bending slightly at the end of each day. He said the mood of the other diggers on the water was ebullient. Their boats were tightly locked together, with guys shouting to one another in celebration; it was a strange scene for men who typically toil in solitude to put food on their table by harvesting the ocean floor for food to put on our tables.

I caught up with Jimmy at the end of the first week, and he said, although he was physically exhausted, he wouldn’t trade the week for anything. According to him, the only disappointment was the complaints registered by local residents on the hill overlooking the water who were unhappy to discover their formerly too-toxic-to-fish harbor suddenly filled with small commercial vessels.

It seems the boats’ presence was less of an environmental and commercial triumph and more of a case of urban blight. Jimmy shrugged it off but his words stuck with me. He characterized the irate citizens’ reaction as both funny and sad, saying, “It’s amazing how people with millions of dollars are complaining about watching me scrape hundreds of dollars from the ocean floor.” Though nothing came of their complaints, it is another example highlighting our Season of Disconnect when class warfare seems to be erupting in every corner of our nation.

While politicians argue about the debt ceiling and preserving tax cuts, the big, slogging, hairy middle-class squeeze continues. Across the country people are either accepting the “new normal” or, worse, turning their pitchforks and torches on one another instead of storming the castle. Somehow we’ve lost sight of what brought us here and who is to blame for all of this—and there are some very real people and institutions to condemn.

Those who dare to protect “entitlements” are vilified by the free market despots in this nation who have taken hold of the seminal piece of misinformation that has infiltrated every meaningful discussion regarding the economy: that government is somehow corrupting the markets by attempting to inject any level of consumer protection into the financial system. Rays of common sense such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ impassioned plea to restore sanity to the markets and protect America’s working class shone brightly for a moment only to be snuffed by the likes of Michele Bachmann and her quixotic presidential campaign kickoff.

This is a woman who mistakenly believed discussions about pegging global markets to Chinese currency instead of the dollar meant that the Treasury was actually contemplating using Yuan as America’s official money. Beyond the usual mash-up of libertarian, conservative, objectivism ideals that comprise the Tea Party, Bachmann (of course) believes that climate change is a hoax, that anyone who supports healthcare is unpatriotic, and that the best way to protect Americans and the U.S. economy is to dismantle the agencies designed to protect Americans and the U.S. economy.

It’s this last point that is so troubling because it’s what people like Bachmann are gaining traction with. Even the former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the most famous and powerful disciple of free market guru Ayn Rand, testified before Congress that his extreme laissez faire policy and “markets-will-cure-all” attitude were devastatingly wrong because they fail to recognize the most natural  fundamental force that comprises the capitalist economy: Greed. Don’t get me wrong. Greed is indeed an important component of capitalism as it is simply another name for competition. But it cannot go unchecked, as it will feed on itself and everything around it when unfettered by logical behavioral constraints.

To put it bluntly, Alan Greenspan was wrong and admitted as much. So were Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt and Treasury Secretary and White House economic advisor Larry Summers. So too were the men they served who facilitated their beliefs. Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush and now, Barack Obama, all of whom surrounded themselves with these free market hucksters and relied on the dearth of financial wherewithal in Congress while counting on the masses’ inability to understand the destructive potential of unregulated markets.

 

The only thing that is honest and true about Ayn Rand and her theory of objectivism is that they’re both dead. Ayn Rand was a wonderful writer. But in terms of her being considered a prophet of sorts, Rand’s theory of objectivism (a fancy word for “that which screws the masses”) is the Scientology of economic theory. And yet, one of history’s silliest figures is now gathering momentum with copies of Atlas Shrugged flying off Amazon’s virtual shelves and middle America wondering aloud, “Who is John Galt?!”

Forget John Galt. We need to start asking the question, “Who are we?” America is stuck in the largest identity crisis we have faced since the Civil War. The unmitigated and unwarranted assault on the middle class, the working poor and, yes, the poverty-stricken in this nation, must end. We begin by restoring authority to the regulatory agencies in our nation instead of simply requiring more bureaucratic paperwork for businesses already playing by the rules. Business owners know the difference between prudent regulation and the appearance of it.

On a level playing field it’s possible to get ahead while looking down on everyone else. It might even change the perspective of a person jaded enough to be offended by the view of men scraping shellfish from the ocean, no matter how far up the hill they live.

Chuck Schumer Is Responsible For The Price Of Gas

A market where only a handful of powerful people determine the price of commodities, buy and sell them at will, and reap huge rewards while starving millions of people worldwide and decimating the savings of Americans almost overnight is anything but moral.

Bubble, Bubble, Oil and Trouble

We assemble around the pumps staring at gas prices like hominids around the monolith, shrieking and beating our chests. But whereas Stanley Kubrick’s primates in 2001 were willing to touch the slab and receive the divine, other-worldly intelligence it offered, we simply tighten the cap and blithely go about our day, all the while filling the wallets of oil companies and banks that conspire to pick every last nickel, dime and piece of lint from our pockets.

The ongoing drama in the Beltway, quibbling over mere billions of a multi-trillion dollar problem, is the ultimate subterfuge blinding us from the true budgetary crisis in our nation and the world. The $39 billion compromise achieved on Capitol Hill last week is a billion shy of ExxonMobil’s profit for 2008, the last time oil prices crippled the nation and filled the corporation’s coffers. This was the largest profit ever posted by an American public company. Once again analysts are predicting record profits when the publicly traded oil companies release their first quarter earnings in the coming weeks.

I’m officially calling bullshit; calling it on the whole stinking lot of them. While oil companies reap historic profits and politicians try to out-Ayn Rand one another, espousing free market ideals they completely misinterpret, Wall Street and Big Oil are about to deliver the coup de grace on the American people and the world at large.

The Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), in partnership with NASDAQ, recently upped the ante to purchase the historic New York Stock Exchange (NYSE Eurodex). Naturally, your next questions should be: “What does this have to do with the price of gasoline at the pumps?”  “Why is this important?” “Why should I care?” and “What can I do about it?”

Glad you asked.

What does this have to do with the price of gasoline at the pumps? Everything. Here’s the short version of exactly why gas is so high right now. All you have to do is memorize the following paragraph to be able to shut anyone up at a party who claims that Middle East uprisings are responsible for driving up oil prices.

Nearly 20 years ago Wendy Gramm and her senator husband Phil Gramm created the Enron loophole when Mrs. Gramm chaired the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under President George H.W. Bush that cleared the way for trading energy futures on the commodities exchanges. On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed it into law. In 2001, the two largest investment banks in the nation, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, teamed up with British Petroleum (BP) to start their own exchange called the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) to handle commodities transactions. In January of 2006, George W. Bush made it possible for anyone investing in commodities to hide their identity, turning the ICE into a powerhouse exchange overnight. When the Glass Steagall Act was repealed, deregulating the banking industry, banks and investment banks merged; further, because of the commodities deregulation under Clinton, then Bush, banks are now able to set the price of commodities by having their analysts forecast pricing and purchase large quantities of commodities through the banking end on exchanges they own and control.

There you have it. I mention all of the presidents involved in this fiasco to illustrate that this is not a partisan issue. Both parties have blood on their hands. They have created a trading exchange that, despite being only 10 years old, is so big and powerful it can partner on an $11 billion bid to acquire the New York Stock Exchange.

Why is this important? The obvious, most immediate reason is the pain at the pump that you’re experiencing personally and the pain that threatens the global economic recovery. But there’s a larger problem. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been vociferously warning anyone who will listen that there is a direct correlation between sharply rising crude oil prices and starvation.

There are three reasons for this: 1) The surge in oil prices has increased demand for bio-fuel substitutes, so instead of feeding people we feed our vehicles. 2) Higher oil prices means higher production costs. At the farm level the hard production costs of fertilizer and irrigation rise in lockstep with crude oil prices. 3) Lastly, the cost of transporting goods from farm to table increases directly and dramatically.

So, the answer to the first question is: This is important because high oil prices kill people.

Why should I care? Another wonderful question. Well, apart from the obvious fact that we are all part of the human race and should care about things like forced hunger and starvation, there is a distinctly American reason to care about this issue: Fairness.

Politicians, lobbyists, policy makers, and pundits are all mixing metaphors and messing with the essential American principles of fairness. Tea Partiers, conservative radio hosts, radical free-market freshmen Republicans in Congress and kooky presidential candidates are carrying weathered copies of Atlas Shrugged and the Bible, and screaming from the mountaintops, “Set my market free!” (The Bible-toting Objectivist is my new favorite American oxymoron.)

Talking about “free-markets” is fun, but there are seriously flawed fundamentals at work here. As we have learned from every bubble burst in the era of deregulation, the markets do not self-police nor are they inherently moral. Markets, like people, must be guided by regulations and boundaries; investors must have the freedom to maneuver within these parameters, and suffer punishments for exceeding them. Free market radicals should understand better than anyone that a market without regulations is like the Bible without Commandments.

A market where only a handful of powerful people determine the price of commodities, buy and sell them at will, and reap huge rewards while starving millions of people worldwide and decimating the savings of Americans almost overnight is anything but moral. It’s exactly immoral and completely un-American.

 What can I do about it? Plenty.But we have to work together. It starts with understanding the fundamentals behind oil pricing and then figuring out who’s lying. First and foremost, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are both lying unabashedly through their teeth by blaming political unrest and upheaval for potentially hindering supply and causing speculative panic in the market. They’re ignoring that the United States and OPEC oil reserves are at an all-time high, that actual demand is still sluggish, and that we continue to build more energy-efficient vehicles and access natural gas and renewable resources. 

Now they’re playing a game of chicken and managing our expectations, sending mixed signals about “demand destruction” and how high energy prices might have a deleterious effect on the global economic recovery even though their own analysts set the price of oil futures contracts and their own bankers buy them up. What they’re doing is establishing a new low, an artificial floor. It’s genius. Get us used to the idea of $5 per gallon pricing so that $4 doesn’t seem so bad. This is a test and we’re eating up their lies.

There are four primary solutions to the global oil problem. They’re a heavy lift and you should know what they are, but don’t be overly concerned with these details; your part comes later. Briefly, the solutions are as follows: (1) Reinstate Glass-Steagall, (2) Incentivize oil companies to invest in renewable energy by levying enormous fees on non-compliant companies, (3) Strip the ICE of its foreign-based exchange status to restore transparency to the commodities and derivative market and (4) Kill all speculative conflicts of interest by crafting legislation that prohibits investment banks from owning a controlling interest in any oil-related corporation.

202-224-6542. Give him a jingle.

Sounds like a crazy, impossible pipe dream. Not to worry. Thankfully there is one man with the power to get all of this done. Who is that powerful you ask? New York’s own Sen. Charles Schumer.

Schumer sits on the Rules, Economic, Judiciary, Finance and Banking committees. When it comes to anything related to finance, Charles Schumer is the single most important man in America. Now for your part: Because his office doesn’t accept emails, please call his office at 202-224-6542 and tell whoever answers the phone that you would like Sen. Schumer to please lower the price of gas at the pump. Don’t take no for an answer.

Then we go viral. It’s on. Tweet and post a link to this article with the message: “Only Chuck Schumer can lower the price of gas. If he doesn’t, I guess he’s responsible.”

Good luck and Godspeed. Remember, there are tens of millions of starving people counting on you to tweet our demands.


Charles knows enough to cancel the subsidies (starting around 1:30).

Click on the following links to read other oil-related entries

LIBYA. MORE BLOOD FOR OIL. “Crude Behavior” March 23, 2011 – JedMorey.com

BEHIND THE BUSINESS OF EXCHANGES. $4 Per Gallon: Beating the Oil Drum. March 9, 2011 – JedMorey.com

HAPPY NEW YEAR AMERICA. OIL’S HEADING TO $4. “Why Is Oil So High?” Crude: Part II – Long Island Press

OP-ED: INITIAL REACTION TO BP OIL SPILL. “Our Addiction To Oil” June 24, 2010. – JedMorey.com

CRUDE: HOW WALL STREET SCREWED AMERICA IN THE SUMMER OF 2008 – Long Island Press