The king is dead, long live the king

(This article was originally published in Canadian Dimension.)

In early 2008, as the subprime mortgage crisis laid waste to the American financial system, a young, charismatic, African-American politician by the name of Barack Obama mounted a challenge to the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton.

At the time, I was a securities class actions lawyer practising in Canada. I had recently negotiated the settlement of North America’s first securities class action against a subprime mortgage lender, FMF Capital.

FMF’s subprime lending business was conducted entirely in the United States, but in 2005, Canadian underwriters, led by the Bank of Montreal’s investment banking subsidiary, enabled FMF’s management to list the company’s shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Within months of that listing, FMF suddenly collapsed, resulting in massive losses to Canadian shareholders.

Days after FMF’s failure, I was retained by one of its indignant shareholders to investigate the causes of FMF’s demise. My colleagues and I began by tracking down FMF’s US-based, former employees.

By interviewing them, we learned about rampant fraudulent practices in the US mortgage industry, like ‘liar’s loans’—mortgage loans knowingly extended to borrowers who had lied about their income and assets. FMF’s ex-employees explained that these loans, which were destined to go into default, were quickly sold by FMF in large bundles to Wall Street banks. The banks then re-packaged the loans into complex, mortgage-backed securities and sold them to unsuspecting institutional investors, including union pension funds.

Our class action against FMF and its bankers was later described as the “canary in the coal mine”—a harbinger of an historic credit crisis that was about to bring the global economy to its knees.

As the scale of America’s fraud “epidemic” became clear, Obama emerged. He eloquently expressed his compassion for the dispossessed and his indignation at their dispossession. He was young, cool and unsullied by the cesspool of Beltway politics. He had a history of community activism. He came from a racialized community in a country where no racialized person had ever held the presidency.

In April 2008, Obama inspired me to act. As an important Democratic primary in Indiana approached, I informed my law partners that I was taking a brief absence to assist Obama’s campaign.

The next day, I drove from southwestern Ontario to Indianapolis. Upon my arrival there, I presented myself at the local headquarters of the Obama campaign and offered to volunteer.

I was immediately assigned to canvass for Obama in poor, predominantly African-American neighbourhoods. My task was to get out the vote.

In the days that followed, I interacted with hundreds of voters, the majority of whom were Black. As I stood on their doorsteps urging them to vote for Obama, many of them expressed amazement that a white Canadian man like me had come to a poor Black neighbourhood in the US to canvass for a Black presidential candidate.

Barack Obama embraces a child at a campaign rally held in Indianapolis, Indiana on the eve of the Indiana Democratic Primary in May 2008. Photo by Dimitri Lascaris.

After 10 days of canvassing, and on the eve of the Indiana primary, I and other volunteers were rewarded for our efforts with a front-row view of Obama at his last rally before the Indiana primary.

Six months later, after Obama had secured the Democratic nomination, I returned to the States. On the weekend before the election of 2008, I went to Pittsburgh to canvass for the Obama campaign a second time. This time, I was accompanied by a few other Canadians, including my good friend, Atul Bahl, and my former law partner, Mike Eizenga.

As had happened in Indianapolis, the Obama campaign assigned us to canvass in poor, predominantly African-American neighbourhoods. Mike later authored an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen in which he described our experiences in Pittsburgh. In an article entitled “Barack’s Canucks,” Mike explained that the local organizers of the Obama campaign had sent us to canvass “somewhere nobody else wanted to go.”

On election night in November 2008, we watched Obama’s victory in a large and raucous union hall in Pittsburgh. When it became clear that Obama would win, we shed tears of joy.

But, within a few months of that joyous night, I realized that I had been deceived.

The first sign that Obama was not the candidate he had claimed to be was his decision to appoint Eric Holder as attorney general. After serving as a US attorney under Bill Clinton, Holder worked for the elite law firm Covington & Burling and represented the firm’s multinational corporate clients in litigation.

Holder’s firm had acted for tobacco companies for decades. It had deep ties to Wall Street. There seemed little prospect that an attorney general who had devoted much of his legal career to clients such as these would vigorously prosecute the elite bankers who had caused so much suffering through their fraudulent activities. Indeed, when Holder stepped down as attorney general six years later, he had not sent a single banker to jail for the mortgage crisis.

Then came Obama’s refusal to prosecute a single American official for torture. Throughout his campaign, Obama had rejected Dick Cheney’s preposterous claim that waterboarding is not torture. Yet, when Obama was presented with the opportunity as president to hold the torturers accountable, he dismissed their savagery as a “mistake” and refused to prosecute any of them. He justified his refusal on the basis of Bush-era legal memoranda whose logic was as tortured as the victims held in CIA-run black sites around the world.

Finally, in late December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a series of brutal attacks on the densely populated Gaza Strip. In that operation, Israel’s military killed at least 1,383 Palestinians, including 333 children (in contrast, 13 Israelis were killed during the three-week conflagration). Multiple human rights groups documented the commission of war crimes by Israeli forces, including the unlawful use of white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that causes severe burns upon contact with the skin or eyes.

Rather than criticize or seek to restrain Israel’s government, President-elect Obama chose to remain silent, leaving it to the fiercely pro-Israel Bush administration to do nothing about the IDF’s mass killing of Palestinians. Meanwhile, Obama’s aides repeated the mantra that “there is only one President at a time.” Only weeks earlier, however, the President-elect had not hesitated to express his support for the bailout of Wall Street. If indeed there is only ‘one President at a time,’ why did the president-elect publicly support a taxpayer-funded plan to save fraudulent banks?

In the years that followed, the scale of Obama’s electoral deception became clearer.

In his first term, his administration deported far more people than the Trump administration.

Joe Biden holds a campaign rally at Hiatt Middle School in Iowa. Photo by Phil Roeder/Flickr.

Immediately upon taking office, Obama embarked on a global drone-killing spree in which countless innocents died, prompting Dr. Cornel West and others to condemn Obama as a “war criminal.”

And in a wealthy country where tens of millions lacked access to decent healthcare, Obama refused to support a public option—a government-owned and -operated health insurer that could offer coverage on a not-for-profit basis and therefore at lower cost to vulnerable Americans.

Today, 12 years after Obama first assumed office, the world awaits the presidency of Obama’s Vice-President, Joe Biden. What should we expect?

The answer should be abundantly clear—as long as we do not allow our collective joy at the demise of Trump’s presidency to cloud our judgment.

Biden first became a US Senator in 1972, almost 50 years ago. His half-century record of holding public office is a rich source of information about the kind of president he is likely to be.

First, Biden’s record raises troubling questions about his commitment to anti-racism. As noted by Ed Kilgore in a recent New York Magazine article:

But the reminiscences and actual events of the past that keep getting Biden into hot water are not, by and large, sudden revelations of previously unknown aspects of his political career. His early Senate years as an anti-busing advocate were well-known. The whole world watched his erratic stewardship of the Clarence Thomas hearings and his associated dubious treatment of Anita Hill. The 1994 Crime Bill that was used against Hillary Clinton by both Democratic and Republican critics in 2016 was universally understood to be a Joe Biden product; I personally sat spellbound in front of a TV back then and watched him indefatigably promote it on C-SPAN. And his chummy relationship with the racist grandees of the Senate Judiciary Committee was evident for all to see as he climbed the seniority ladder over the years. Before he was known as a grabber and a hugger, Joe Biden was most definitely known as a back-slapper.

Biden’s commitment to environmental justice is as questionable as his commitment to racial justice. Biden has repeatedly vowed not to ban fracking, which has enabled America to become the world’s largest producer of oil. Biden has declared his opposition to the Green New Deal. On Biden’s watch, the Obama administration opened up pristine wilderness in Alaska to oil drilling.

Biden is also a warmonger. He supported Bush’s criminal war on Iraq, and before that, the bombing of Yugoslavia. The NATO-led destruction of Libya happened while Biden served as vice-president, as did Obama’s drone-killing spree. In one of the debates leading up to this year’s election, Biden vowed to make Iran—a country whose people have been devastated by US sanctions—“pay a price” for the unsubstantiated claim that its government tried to interfere in the US election. During his presidential campaign Biden assured the press that he foresaw no significant cuts to the US government’s stratospheric military spending. Indeed, within hours of his victory, defence contractors expressed confidence that Biden will preserve the status quo.

What about the vitally important issue of healthcare? The US is the only wealthy country that does not have universal health coverage. Its citizens pay far more per capita for healthcare than the citizens of any other wealthy state. Tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance. An estimated 530,000 American families declare bankruptcy each year because of medical issues and bills. It is no surprise, therefore, that 72 percent of Americans want a “government-run healthcare plan”—but not Joe Biden. The supposed saviour of the American people has repeatedly expressed opposition to the wildly popular Medicare-For-All.

Joe Biden is no saviour. There is nothing progressive about the man. He is as beholden to the plutocracy as Trump. One can easily imagine that Biden is relieved by the Democrat’s apparent failure to gain control of the Senate, because Republican control of the Senate provides Biden with a convenient excuse to abandon his empty promises of progressive action.

Since Biden’s victory became clear, he has repeatedly stressed unity. After four years of Trump—the most divisive President of our lifetimes—the promise of unity seems appealing, but not from the lips of someone like Biden. For the new president, ‘unity’ means making concessions to Republicans and abandoning the progressives who fought so hard to ensure Trump’s defeat.

The real Joe Biden will re-emerge in the weeks ahead, as he selects and announces the members of his cabinet. The people Biden chooses to help him govern a superpower that is in rapid decline will tell us all we need to know about the presidency to come.

In the final analysis, the best indication we have about the type of leader Joe Biden will be is the assurance he provided to some of his rich donors at a ritzy Manhattan fundraiser in June of last year: if he were to become the President of the United States, Biden told them, “nothing would fundamentally change.”

Mercifully, Trump has lost, but the profound injustices that empowered him remain.

Puerto Rico Faces a Flood of Fracked Gas in Wake of Hurricane Maria

I recently travelled to Puerto Rico to examine the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

While there, I learned that, faced by an existential climate crisis, the Trump administration is exploiting the island’s severe energy challenges to promote the interests of America’s fracking and LNG industries.

This is my report for The Real News:


My thanks to my Real News colleagues Steve Horn and Oscar Leon for their excellent work on this report.

New Poll Shows Increased Bipartisan Desire to Act on Climate Change

According to a new poll by researchers at George Mason and Yale Universities, climate change concerns are more bipartisan than political elites would have us believe.

Among other things, their study found that 81% support the congressional Green New Deal.

For The Real News, I spoke to Dr. John Kotcher of George Mason University about the data. Our discussion can be seen and heard here:

Americans’ Concern About Climate Change Surging to Record Levels

For the Real News, I speak Dr. John Kotcher of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

As Dr. Kotcher explains, a new poll has revealed that Americans’ belief that climate change is happening and is human-caused, and their concerns about how climate change will affect them, have surged to record levels.

My interview of Dr. Kotcher can be watched and listened to here:

The Art Of Peace Requires Us To See The World Through The Eyes Of Our Enemies

Note: This article is adapted from a speech I delivered on October 27, 2017 in Corinthos, Greece, at a conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution.

The year 2017 is not only the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution.  It is also the 70th anniversary of the “Doomsday Clock”, which was established by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In 2017, however, the Science and Security Board finds the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. The Doomsday Clock is now at two and a half minutes to midnight.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

Today, the United States, Russia and the other nuclear powers possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. The U.S. alone possesses a staggering 6,800 nuclear warheads. Now, in blatant violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States has embarked on a $1 trillion ‘modernization’ program. This program began not under Donald Trump, but under Barack Obama, who began his presidency with a lofty vow to rid the world of the existential nuclear threat.

Experts believe that America’s so-called nuclear weapons ‘modernization’ program will increase the temptation to employ them in a first strike, and will precipitate a new nuclear arms race.

In July of this year, sensing that the U.S. government is taking us down a disastrous path, 122 states negotiated a treaty calling for a complete ban on these monstrous weapons of mass destruction. To its great shame, my country, Canada, which does not possess nuclear weapons and has no plan to develop them, boycotted the negotiations over a nuclear weapons ban. That is precisely what the Trump administration wanted Canada to do, and Canada obliged. Continue Reading ›