Archive for August, 2012

Breivik court verdict: security lessons?

by Robert Lambert 

Now that the legal question of Anders Breivik’s sanity has been resolved it should be possible to focus more closely on his political motivation and the security lessons that arise from this case. This should help inform a debate about how best to tackle the growing problem of far right violence in Europe and the US

Today Anders Breivik’s trial came to a conclusion when he was found to be sane and sentenced to a maximum twenty one years in prison. Previously two teams of court-appointed psychiatrists who examined Breivik had reached opposite conclusions. The first said that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and the second assessed him to be sane.

As the psychiatrist Tad Tietse noted in respect of the first report, it may have told us ‘more about the socially embedded nature of psychiatric diagnosis and the prevailing political climate in Norway than any claim it was the result of some kind of cold, hard, value-free science’. Be that as it may, it is to be hoped that if and when the next serious case of far right terrorism takes place in Europe or the US, governments, police and judiciary will have a better grasp of the political rationale that drives it irrespective of the mental profile(s) of the individual perpetrator(s).

To express the same point on a different premise:  it is to be hoped that far right terrorists will in the future be treated the same as all other terrorists. Whether they operate as ‘lone wolves’ (or ‘solo terrorists’) their far right political affiliations (like Breivk’s prior membership of the Progress Party) should not be lightly disregarded.

Notably, the legal and medical fixation with Breivik’s mental health followed an immediate interest in the same topic by political commentators determined to deny a political terrorist motivation for Breivik’s violence.

Such a strong focus on the mental wellbeing of the accused is unusual in a case of political terrorism. That said, cases of political terrorism are rare in Norway and it is probable that the psychiatrists in the case lacked experience of examining politically motivated individuals like Breivik. Unfamiliarity with political violence might help explain a failure on the part of the first team of psychiatrists to grasp the significance of Breivik’s lengthy manifesto 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence - a document he circulated to hundreds of contacts that helps reveal the extent to which he was influenced by a global anti-Muslim movement known as the Counter Jihad Movement.

Significantly, the counter-jihad movement contains commentators who are notoriously quick to link a handful of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in Europe and the US to what they call the ideology of radical Islam or Islamism (or sometimes Islam itself). In fact, the links (in terms of a shared political ideology) may be much closer between prominent members of the counter jihad movement and Breivik than between most al-Qaeda terrorists and many mainstream Muslims who are regularly and pejoratively stigmatised as fellow travellers or closet supporters of al-Qaeda by the counter jihad movement.

It should not be left to Breivik to explain and promote his political motivation and his political campaign from his prison cell. Now is the time to expose it, discern its proximity to the counter jihad movement and, at some points, its alarming appropriation of mainstream discourse on Islamism, Muslims and immigration. To hide instead behind the legalities of sanity and insanity serves Breivik’s victims – and the unknown or unremarked victims of countless acts of lesser political violence against Muslims, ethnic minorities, immigrants and their allies – very poorly indeed.

Duty to the victims and the bereaved

The overwhelming majority of Anders Breivik’s victims were young, left wing activists who would still be alive today if their killer had not taken his attachment to far right politics to such a lethal conclusion. While their bereaved parents, siblings, relatives and friends are bound to be relieved that Breivik has finally been brought to justice at least some will, in addition, be eager to understand why and how he carried out his violent acts as part of their difficult bereavement journeys.

For some it may be comforting to witness the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens standing steadfastly against a significant minority of far right bigots. But political terrorists like Breivik are always a tiny minority (within a much larger community of like minded activists) who will seek to conceal their preparations so as to avoid detection prior to carrying out their criminal attacks. Therefore, for all that is positive and effective in ‘open confrontation with right-wing bloggers and activists’ as a ‘strategy to combat [far right] extremism’ it is also necessary to tackle far right terrorism and political violence as effectively as any other kind, including that which is carried out or threatened by Muslim extremists, generally under an al-Qaeda banner .

Police failings

Just weeks before the verdict was announced, an official report highlighted police failings that may have prevented Breivik being arrested shortly after his first bomb attack against a government building in Oslo and before he landed on Utoya Island to carry out a shooting spree. The report also highlighted a separate police failure to arrive on Utoya Island as speedily as possible and thereby bring an earlier halt to the killing.

The second of these two failures revolved around a decision by police officers to wait for expert colleagues before taking a ferry to Utoya Island – a disturbing scenario that suggests a negative example of ‘health and safety’ culture overruling a fundamental police commitment to public safety. As a result Norway’s police chief Oeystein Maeland resigned from his post.

Less explicit, the report suggested that ‘with better ways of working and a broader focus, the police security service could have become aware of the perpetrator prior to 22 July’. This might well be taken to refer to missed intelligence opportunities to monitor Breivik after he purchased ingredients for his bomb. It is hard to imagine that such a failure would have occurred if Breivik had instead been an identifiable Muslim purchasing the same ingredients in the same circumstances.

The report was oddly silent on Breivik’s far right political motivation saying instead that it had ‘foregone issues related to the perpetrator’s motive….’ and intriguingly, that it had ‘not explored the measures society puts in place for the early prevention of radicalisation’.

Far right radicalisation

How might the ‘early prevention of radicalisation’ relate to Breivik’s case? Had Breivik been a member or associate of a white supremacist or neo-Nazi organisation it is reasonably safe to assume that he would have been actively monitored by police and police security services. Instead, Breivik was able to take advantage of the fact that his prior membership of the Progress Party and his wide engagement with the counter jihad movement was apparently not regarded as evidence of ‘extremism’ or as a basis for reasonable suspicion in his activities.

There are numerous examples of how ‘the new far right’ has successfully re-invented itself and created sufficient distance from ‘the old far right’ so as to become immune to pro-active police and security investigation. In the UK, for example, government and police have steadfastly refused to cast the English Defence League (EDL) in the role of ‘extremists’ despite a growing catalogue of violence carried out by its members and supporters. In consequence EDL (and their counter-jihad counterparts across Europe and the US) are considered as more of a public order or social cohesion problem than a counter-terrorist or political violence issue. As a result they are not considered as suitable for ‘counter-radicalisation’ strategies in the way that supposedly ‘radical’ Muslims often are.

Instead, in Norway, across Europe and the US, ‘the early prevention of radicalisation’ has come to denote intrusive strategies that are aimed at individual Muslims who are suspected or deemed to be at risk of radicalisation into violent (or increasingly non violent) Muslim extremism (which includes terrorism inspired or directed by al–Qaeda). The UK has been a leader in this field of work and while some work carried out under the Prevent umbrella has been narrowly and effectively focused on terrorism and violent extremism other strands of work has been ineffective and counter-productive by virtue of being too broadly cast against politically active Muslims who pose no threat to security or social cohesion.

It is far from certain that any of Anders Breivik’s victims – particularly those members of AUF (Labour Youth) killed on Utoya Island who he regarded as prime targets – would be alive today if their killer had received psychiatric treatment or counselling during the months he was planning his acts of terrorism. In contrast, it is safe to assume that the AUF summer camp of 2011 would have reached a peaceful non-violent conclusion if Breivik had not become influenced by the Counter Jihad Movement. So rather than medical help did Breivik need political counselling?

This is not an idle thought. In neighbouring Sweden, for example, there is an experienced street based group in Stockholm called Exit run by former far right activists that helps individuals disengage from far right politics and far right violence. Admittedly, Breivik was not as visibly engaged in far right politics as some Exit clients but if he had been subject to closer security monitoring it is entirely feasible that he could have been ear marked for such an intervention.

Even handed counter-terrorism policy

However, so long as the disparate elements of the counter jihad movement in particular, and the new far right movement in general, are wrongly treated as somehow representing a lesser threat of extremism and violence than their less sophisticated neo-Nazi colleagues in the old far right we will fail to tackle the motivation for both Breivik’s actions and hundreds of acts of lesser political violence that have gone largely unremarked during the last decade.

It is of course vital not to infringe the civil liberties of far right activists and counter jihad activists unless there is compelling evidence of the kind that might have arisen during Breivik’s long period of terrorist preparation and planning. That said, it is equally vital that governments and law enforcement agencies do not show sensitivity to the civil rights of the far right and the counter jihad movement while disregarding the civil rights of politically active Muslims. From now on there needs to be an even handed counter-terrorism policy in Europe and the US.

Robert Lambert is Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews. He is the author of Countering al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership, Hurst, London in September 2011.

This article was first published at Open Democracy / Open Security

Homicides, homosexual advances and male honour: will NSW act on provocation law?

by Thomas Crofts and  Stephen Tomsen

Murder is the most serious of all violent crimes, and needs a determined criminal justice response. If there are circumstances in which a killing might be seen as wholly or partly excusable, then this is of interest to all citizens – particularly if these circumstances weigh unevenly against a specific social group.

Provocation is a defence that signals reduced culpability for an intentional killing by replacing a murder conviction with one of manslaughter. Historically it differentiated killings worthy of the death penalty from less heinous killings committed “in the heat of passion” without premeditation.

This was linked to a tradition of male social honour, a breach of which tended to provoke an angry response. Behaviour seen by criminal courts in the past as an affront to male honour included insults arising from drunken fights or a wife’s adultery. Unfortunately, the latter situation is still seen by some, such as Christian lobby group FamilyVoice Australia, to be an acceptable defence to murder today. The perpetuation of such views is partly the reason why provocation has been subject to so much criticism and why some jurisdictions have abolished provocation.

An affront to male honour which in recent decades has been used to argue a case of provocation is the so-called “homosexual advance defence” (HAD), sometimes incorrectly referred to as the “gay panic” defence (which is actually a failed US version of the defence strategy).

Since the 1990s, gay and lesbian activists have expressed serious concerns about homicide cases in which an accused male killer or killers pleads provocation on the basis of an alleged unwanted sexual advance from the victim who was known or assumed to be homosexual.

The argument is that a man who is the subject of an unwanted sexual pass by another man finds this so provoking that he loses self-control and kills. According to the law, if an “ordinary” person could have reacted the way that the offender did by losing their self-control in the face of victim’s behaviour, then the charge of murder will be reduced to manslaughter.

This strategy relies on negative courtroom depictions of the homosexual victim. The logic is that the perpetrator is a “regular” masculine man or youth whose goodwill is pushed to the limit by being propositioned or even sexually touched by a homosexual “nuisance”.

The use of this defence strategy in the NSW case of Green v The Queen in the 1990s reached all the way to the most senior judges in the land. A majority ruling by the Australian High Court favourably viewed the accused killer’s appeal against a murder conviction and paved the way for his eventual securing of a much lighter sentence for manslaughter.

The Green case was subject to much criticism because the court allowed claims of a homosexual advance to substantiate a claim of provocation. In reaching this decision the majority of these judges did not take the opportunity to rule that no ordinary person could be provoked to kill by a non-violent sexual pass. In fact, several comments were made which suggested that such extreme violence may often be expected.

The High Court result in Green mobilised gay and lesbian lobbyists nationwide. It spurred an official Attorney-General’s Working Party Inquiry in NSW which in 1998 recommended that a non-violent sexual advance should be barred from forming the basis of a provocation defence. Nothing came of those recommendations.

More general feminist opposition to provocation because of the way in which it has traditionally privileged male violence and not worked for females has to an extent been more successful and led to provocation being abolished in Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Other jurisdictions have retained the defence of provocation but amended it with the aim of removing its more problematic aspects. For example, amendments in the ACT and Northern Territory bar the use of provocation on the basis of a non-violent sexual advance. Queensland also retains provocation but bars the defence of provocation in response to the ending or changing of a domestic relationship. Parallel to this reduction in the scope of provocation Queensland has also introduced a specific defence of killing for preservation in an abusive domestic relationship.

The result of these changes is that NSW and Queensland are the only jurisdictions that still retain provocation and have no legislative bar against provocation claims based on a sexual advance (in South Australia provocation is a common law defence and is not found in statute). Two recent cases in Queensland in which provocation was used successfully to reduce charges from murder to manslaughter have once again ignited concern about allowing the defence on the basis of sexual advance.

The ensuing campaign for change led to the creation of a working party in 2011 to examine the operation of the homosexual advance defence and a government pledge to amend the Queensland Criminal Code to, in the words of the former Attorney-General Paul Lucas:

make it crystal clear that someone making a pass at someone is not grounds for a partial defence and by no means an excuse for horribly violent acts.

But a change in government means there is now no commitment for reform in Queensland, as stated by the current Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie.

Meanwhile, things might be about to change in NSW. In the fifteen years since the Attorney-General’s Working Party recommended changes to the law, successive governments have reneged on their promises of reform or ignored this issue. Now, however, a select committee has been established to inquire into provocation in NSW, and is currently accepting submissions.

This review was sparked by the case of Chamanjot Singh, who was sentenced to six years imprisonment after being found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder of his wife on the basis that he had been provoked by verbal abuse.

It remains to be seen whether NSW will join Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia in abolishing provocation outright, or whether it will make amendments to remove more controversial elements such as its use in HAD claims.

What sort of signals about male interaction and violence does the legal status of the homosexual advance defence send to men and boys? If the answer to this question suggests physical and even fatal violence as the acceptable response, rather than a simple declaration of non-interest, then we should consider why our society would not tolerate a similar violent reaction from women who are subjected to routine unwanted overtures from men.

The ongoing failure to scrap the homosexual advance defence and the partial excuse it provides to certain forms of male violence is an embarrassment and an injustice for the citizens of Queensland and NSW.

The politicians of NSW now have the chance to change this and we should all hope they do not fail a second time.

Thomas Crofts, Associate Professor, Sydney Law School at University of Sydney and  Stephen Tomsen, Professor of Criminology at University of Western Sydney

First published on-line in The Conversation

The Unrepentant And Unreformed Bankers

By Phil Angelides

Money laundering. Price fixing. Bid rigging. Securities fraud. Talking about the mob? No, unfortunately. Wall Street.

These days, the business sections of newspapers read like rap sheets. GE Capital, JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Wells Fargo and Bank of America [2] tied to a bid-rigging scheme to bilk cities and towns out of interest earnings. ING Direct , HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank  facing charges of money laundering. Barclays caught manipulating a key interest rate, costing savers and investors dearly, with a raft of other big banks also under investigation. Not to speak of the unprecedented wrongdoing that precipitated the financial crisis of 2008.

Evidence gathered by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission clearly demonstrated that the financial crisis was avoidable and due, in no small part, to recklessness and ethical breaches on Wall Street. Yet, it’s clear that the unrepentant and the unreformed are still all too present within our banking system.

A June survey of 500 senior financial services executives in the United States and Britain turned up stunning results. Some 24 percent said that they believed that financial services professionals may need to engage in illegal or unethical conduct to succeed, 26 percent said that they had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace, and 16 percent said they would engage in insider trading if they could get away with it.

That too much of Wall Street remains unchanged is not surprising. Simply stated, the banks and their leaders have paid no real economic, legal or political price for their wrongdoing and thus have not felt compelled to change.

On the economic front, the financial sector has rebounded nicely from its brush with death, thanks to an enormous taxpayer bailout. By 2010, compensation at publicly traded Wall Street firms had hit a record $135 billion.

Last year, the profits of the nation’s five biggest banks exceeded $51 billion, with their chief executives all enjoying pay increases. By 2011, the 10 biggest U.S. banks held 77 percent of the nation’s banking assets.

On the legal front, enforcement has been woefully inadequate. Federal criminal financial fraud prosecutions have fallen to a two-decade low. Violations are settled for pennies on the dollar – the mere cost of doing business, with no admission of wrongdoing and with the bill invariably picked up by insurers or shareholders. (When it’s shareholders, that’s not someone else far away, that’s your 401(k), pension fund or mutual fund.)

When Goldman Sachs was charged with failing to set policies to prevent insider trading, it was fined $22 million, an amount the bank collects in about seven hours of trading. Goldman’s record $550 million penalty for securities fraud in 2010 amounted to less than 2 percent of that year’s revenue.

On the political front, after a brief stint in the penalty box, the big banks have resumed the political muscling that got them two decades of deregulation.

To block reform, the financial industry has spent more than $317 million on lobbying in Washington over the past two years and more than $230 million in federal political contributions in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

It’s been to good effect. Two-thirds of the regulations called for in the financial reform law passed two years ago are still not in place. And the House Republicans, the banks’ sturdiest allies, have slashed at the budgets of the Securities and Exchange Commission and theCommodities Futures Trading Commission to impede their ability to investigate wrongdoing.

Clearly, the present order is unsustainable. We need to demand fundamental changes now, breaking up the big banks to snap their stranglehold on our markets and our democracy, ensuring that the newly minted financial reform laws are implemented, and wringing out rampant speculation.

But true reform can only occur if we root out the corruption that has distorted our banking system and undermined the productive work of the many good people in the financial sector.

The system of financial law enforcement is clearly broken. Think of it this way: If someone robbed a 7-Eleven of $1,000 but could settle a few days later for $25 and no admission of guilt, would they do it again?

Only enforcement with real consequences will work. That means vigorous pursuit of criminal cases against individuals involved in wrongdoing, the surest method to deter malfeasance.

It means enforcement agencies eschewing weak settlements in civil cases and seeking remedies with teeth such as civil penalties, restitution and executives forfeiting their jobs. And, it means tougher financial fraud laws. In that regard, the bipartisan proposal by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to increase fines for securities fraud is a place to start.

To make any of this a reality, the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal regulators must have the will and the resources to do the job. President Obama has asked for additional funds for the Department of Justice, the SEC and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

Giving these agencies the tools to detect and prosecute wrongdoing will more than pay for itself – the Commodities Futures Trading Commission’s fine against Barclays for interest rate manipulation alone will pay for almost an entire year of that agency’s budget.

None of these changes will come easily, but this much is clear: We cannot allow Wall Street to continually flout our sense of right and wrong, to erode faith in our legal and political systems, and to put our financial system and economy in jeopardy.

Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Strange bedfellows: Julian Assange and Ecuador

by Erin Fitz-Henry

Julian Assange’s appearance on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London to hold forth on his current situation, and President Obama, added a bizarre new chapter to the long-running Wikileaks saga.

It remains to be seen whether Assange will indeed be able to take up asylum in Ecuador as British police maintain they will arrest him as soon as he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy, and may even move to seize him inside the building.

But how is it that Assange has come to see a small South American country as his saviour? And what does Ecuador have to gain from confronting the UK, and by extension the US, over Assange?

A new South American reality

On Saturday, August 18th, the socialist and social-democratic leaders of ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) convened in the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador to debate whether and how to support Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks editor, Julian Assange.

The decision? Perhaps not surprisingly, a full-scale denunciation of the threats by the United Kingdom to “storm” the Ecuadorian embassy if Assange were not released and a renewed commitment to honouring Ecuadorian sovereignty and international law. As representative after representative underscored, Latin America will no longer tolerate the “colonial” incursions of either the UK or the United States, the latter of which is seen by growing numbers in the region to be ultimately behind the most recent “witchhunt” against Assange.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ricardo Patino, put it with characteristic bluntness on August 15th:

“Colonial times are over, but through its behaviour, the United Kingdom and its allies have shown they retain the same imperial condescension toward the ideals of liberal governance and the rule of law that they have held in the past, applying or discarding them whenever it’s convenient…The fact that such a mentality exists at the highest levels of government shows why people like Julian Assange are necessary to keep official excesses in check – and why people like him are so ruthlessly pursued when they speak out.”

By late in the weekend of 18-19 August, the “anti-colonial,” “pro-sovereignty” rallying cry of the Correa administration seemed only to be growing in force – as supporters descended on the embassy in Quito and Evo Morales of neighboring Bolivia underscored that it was not just Ecuador’s sovereignty, but that of the whole region that was at stake: “Britain … is wrong,” he said decisively on Friday, August 15th: “The threat is not only an aggression to Ecuador, it’s against Bolivia, it’s against South America, against the whole of Latin America.”

 

The banana republic mistake

For observers unfamiliar with Ecuadorian politics, the investment of this small Andean country in the well-being and safe passage of an Australian national wanted by the United States, the UK, and Sweden for crimes ranging from attacks on national security via the release of classified State Department documents to sexual assault, seems baffling at best and little more than outdated, “banana-republic” hyperbole at worst.

After all, with important trade relations with the UK and the U.S. hanging in the balance, there is apparently far more to lose than to gain – especially when the actual extradition of Assange is not only unlikely, but near-impossible.

To most observers, it seems that Correa is engaged in a kind of political grandstanding – more symbolic than pragmatic – that will likely consolidate his bid for re-election in early 2013 and position him squarely as a charismatic, front-line participant in the “Bolivarian Revolution.”

While in recent years Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have occupied international center-stage as the outspoken leaders of the “Bolivarian revolution” – engaging in sweeping reforms that include the nationalization of formerly foreign-dominated industries, the institutionalization of broad-ranging social welfare programs that target the poorest of the poor, and the re-writing of national constitutions to ensure novel sets of indigenous and environmental rights, it may be that Rafael Correa is now making a play for greater visibility as a new kind of leader of the global Left.

The new socialism

At a time when the regional turn toward “the socialism of the 21st century” is increasingly volatile (since the administration is alienating large segments of its indigenous constituency by opening the country to large-scale mining and other extractive projects in partnership with the Chinese – who, perhaps not incidentally, nominated Assange for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010), there is a need for precisely the sort of anti-colonial, anti-imperial rallying cry that brought Correa so decisively into office in 2007.

A protestor outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London. EPA/Karel Prinsloo

 

For some on the ground in Ecuador, however, the ironies surrounding this power play are great. While the country has been exalted from afar for its radical environmental rights legislation, and it is unquestionable that it has achieved impressive gains in fighting illiteracy, improving access to primary school, and increasing cash transfers to single women and low-income families, the administration that now claims to be defending Assange on the grounds of protecting “freedom of the press,” has been involved in repeated and aggressive attacks on its own national media.

As highlighted by groups like Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Correa has gone violently after mainstream newspapers, like the Guayaquil-based El Universo, whose opinion editor was sued by the administration in 2011 for defamation of character and subsequently sentenced to 3 years in prison and a $40 million dollar fine (subsequently rescinded).

While such ironies anger those who are losing faith in “the citizen’s revolution” overseen by Correa’s Alianza Pais, it should not be forgotten that Correa has good reason to both fear the duplicities of the United States and to support those – anywhere, of any nationality – who seek to expose them.

For more than four years after the signing of the agreement for the U.S. military base in Manta in 1999, the U.S. military allegedly sunk eight Ecuadorian-flagged fishing vessels in Ecuadorian territorial waters in flagrant violation of the terms of the agreement. In 2008, when Colombian forces violated Ecuadorian sovereignty by killing Raul Reyes – a lead commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – in the northern province of Sucumbios, it was believed that they had done so with information provided by the U.S. government. And as Correa himself recognises, the U.S. has for a long time been actively funding anti-progressive police forces within the country.

Since he took office in 2007, he has worked hard to eradicate such influence from Ecuadorian politics – and as a result, he is perhaps excessively sympathetic to the sorts of revelations made public by Julian Assange.

While the desire to step into a clearly defined leadership position within the Bolivarian Revolution is doubtless at play here, there is also no reason to doubt Correa’s well-founded concerns about the assaults on Ecuadorian sovereignty in which the U.S. has long been engaged.

Erin Fitz-Henry is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Melbourne. Her current research focuses on the rights of nature in Ecuador. She teaches courses in political anthropology, the anthropology of religion, and development studies.

This article was originally published at “http://theconversation.edu.au”

US 2012 – The Ryan Choice

by Robert Reich

Paul Ryan is the reverse of Sarah Palin. She was all right-wing flash without much substance. He’s all right-wing substance without much flash.

Ryan is not a firebrand. He’s not smarmy. He doesn’t ooze contempt for opponents or ridicule those who disagree with him. In style and tone, he doesn’t even sound like an ideologue – until you listen to what he has to say.

It’s here — in Ryan’s views and policy judgments — we find the true ideologue. More than any other politician today, Paul Ryan exemplifies the social Darwinism at the core of today’s Republican Party: Reward the rich, penalize the poor, let everyone else fend for themselves. Dog eat dog.

Ryan’s views are crystallized in the budget he produced for House Republicans last March as chairman of the House Budget committee. That budget would cut $3.3 trillion from low-income programs over the next decade. The biggest cuts would be in Medicaid, which provides healthcare for the nation’s poor – forcing states to drop coverage for an estimated 14 million to 28 million low-income people, according to the non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Ryan’s budget would also reduce food stamps for poor families by 17 percent ($135 billion) over the decade, leading to a significant increase in hunger – particularly among children. It would also reduce housing assistance, job training, and Pell grants for college tuition.

In all, 62 percent of the budget cuts proposed by Ryan would come from low-income programs.

The Ryan plan would also turn Medicare into vouchers whose value won’t possibly keep up with rising health-care costs – thereby shifting those costs on to seniors.

At the same time, Ryan would provide a substantial tax cut to the very rich – who are already taking home an almost unprecedented share of the nation’s total income. Today’s 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million of us put together.

Ryan’s views are pure social Darwinism. As William Graham Sumner, the progenitor of social Darwinism in America, put it in the 1880s: “Civilization has a simple choice.” It’s either “liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest” or “not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”

Is this Mitt Romney’s view as well?

Some believe Romney chose Ryan solely in order to drum up enthusiasm on the right. Since most Americans have already made up their minds about whom they’ll vote for, and the polls show Americans highly polarized – with an almost equal number supporting Romney as Obama — the winner will be determined by how many on either side take the trouble to vote. So in picking Ryan, Romney is motivating his rightwing base to get to the polls, and pull everyone else they can along with them.

But there’s reason to believe Romney also agrees with Ryan’s social Darwinism. Romney accuses President Obama of creating an “entitlement society” and thinks government shouldn’t help distressed homeowners but instead let the market “hit the bottom.” And although Romney has carefully avoided specifics in his own economic plan, he has said he’s “very supportive” of Ryan’s budget plan. “It’s a bold and exciting effort, an excellent piece of work, very much needed … very consistent with what I put out earlier.”

Romney hasn’t put out much but the budget he’s proposed would, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, throw ten million low-income people off the benefits rolls for food stamps or cut benefits by thousands of dollars a year, or both.

At the same time, Romney wants to permanently extend the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy, reduce corporate income taxes, and eliminate the estate tax. These tax reductions would increase the incomes of people earning more than $1 million a year by an average of $295,874 annually, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.

Oh, did I say that Romney and Ryan also want to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law, thereby leaving fifty million Americans without health insurance?

Social Darwinism offered a moral justification for the wild inequities and social cruelties of the late nineteenth century. It allowed John D. Rockefeller, for example, to claim the fortune he accumulated through his giant Standard Oil Trust was “merely a survival of the fittest… the working out of a law of nature and of God.”

The social Darwinism of that era also undermined all efforts to build a more broadly based prosperity and rescue our democracy from the tight grip of a very few at the top. It was used by the privileged and powerful to convince everyone else that government shouldn’t do much of anything.

Not until the twentieth century did America reject social Darwinism. We created a large middle class that became the engine of our economy and our democracy. We built safety nets to catch Americans who fell downward, often through no fault of their own.

We designed regulations to protect against the inevitable excesses of free-market greed. We taxed the rich and invested in public goods – public schools, public universities, public transportation, public parks, public health – that made us all better off.

In short, we rejected the notion that each of us is on our own in a competitive contest for survival.

But choosing Ryan, Romney has raised for the nation the starkest of choices: Do we want to return to that earlier time, or are we willing and able to move forward — toward a democracy and an economy that works for us all?

This column first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog.

Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. His new book ‘AFTERSHOCK: The Next Economy and America’s Future’, was published in September 2010 by Alfred Knopf.

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