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Thursday, September 17, 2009

ACORN Hysteria: Attacking the Powerless and Downtrodden to Distract from the Pillaging of America by Corporate Interests

The Distracting Benefits of ACORN Hysteria

by Glenn Greenwald

Earlier this week, I wrote about how the Fox-News/Glenn-Beck/Rush-Limbaugh leadership trains its protesting followers to focus the vast bulk of their resentment and anxieties on largely powerless and downtrodden factions, while ignoring, and even revering, the outright pillaging by virtually omnipotent corporate interests that own and control their Government (and, not coincidentally, Fox News). It's hard to imagine a more perfectly illustrative example of all of that than the hysterical furor over ACORN.

ACORN has received a grand total of $53 million in federal funds over the last 15 years -- an average of $3.1 million per year. Meanwhile, not millions, not billions, but trillions of dollars of public funds have been, in the last year alone, transferred to or otherwise used for the benefit of Wall Street. Billions of dollars in American taxpayer money vanished into thin air, eaten by private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, led by Halliburton subsidiary KBR. All of those corporate interests employ armies of lobbyists and bottomless donor activities that ensure they dominate our legislative and regulatory processes, and to be extra certain, the revolving door between industry and government is more prolific than ever, with key corporate officials constantly ending up occupying the government positions with the most influence over those industries.

Exactly as one would expect, the prime beneficiaries of all of that pillaging continue to grow. The banks that almost brought the world economy to collapse but then received massive public largesse because they were "too big to fail" are now bigger than ever; as The Washington Post delicately put it: "The crisis may be turning out very well for many of the behemoths that dominate U.S. finance." Everything involving the government turns out well for these "behemoths" because they own and control the U.S. Government. Just this week, The Post detailed how the government and Wall St. are now so intertwined that banking executives are spending vast resources to increase their presence in Washington:

So, too, for [BlackRock Chairman Laurence] Fink, who said much hinges on his relationship with Washington. He often has talked to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and his predecessor, Henry M. Paulson Jr. Fink was among the first regulators reached out to when they needed urgent advice on pricing exotic securities or predicting the global fallout from the failure of large financial firms like Lehman Brothers.

"We are going to be spending more time inside the Beltway, either by helping the government or, if we are asked, shaping policy and decisions," Fink said. "It is beholden on us on behalf of our clients to have input in Washington" . . .

Some firms are bringing Washingtonians to them.

A year ago, James B. Lockhart III was the top federal regulator overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when the Bush administration seized the two mortgage finance companies, saving the home loan market from collapse. When Lockhart said last month that he would step down from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, he was snapped up quickly. Today he is vice chairman of WL Ross, which is looking to make money by buying mortgage assets and loans cast off by lenders as unprofitable.

Other former federal officials are scrambling for a piece of the action. Joseph J. Murin, former president of Ginnie Mae, which guarantees securities linked to government-backed mortgages, and former Federal Housing Administration commissioner Brian Montgomery, set up a consulting shop on L Street in mid-August.

As previously documented, Goldman Sachs itself has a virtual lock on the top Treasury positions no matter which party is in power. The vaunted bipartisan "Baucus plan" was literally written by a Baucus aide who just left her position as Vice President of Wellpoint to write the health care reform plan for the Senate -- a revelation which barely caused a ripple. And the Supreme Court is on the verge of striking down the few limits on corporate involvement in our politics, a ruling which may (or may not be) constitutionally defensible but which will flood American politics with so much corporate money that it will give new meaning to the term "oligarchy."

So with this massive pillaging of America's economic security and its control of American government by its richest and most powerful factions growing by the day, to whom is America's intense economic anxiety being directed? To a non-profit group that devotes itself to providing minute benefits to people who live under America's poverty line, and which is so powerless in Washington that virtually the entire U.S. Senate just voted to cut off its funding at the first sign of real controversy -- could anyone imagine that happening to a key player in the banking or defense industry?

Apparently, the problem for middle-class and lower-middle-class Americans is not that their taxpayer dollars are going to prop up billionaires, oligarchs and their corrupt industries. It's that America's impoverished -- a group that is growing rapidly -- is getting too much, has too much power and too little accountability. Anonymous Liberal has a superb post on the manipulative inanity of the Fox-generated ACORN "scandal" (h/t D-day):

Let's take a step back and consider just what ACORN is. It is a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower and improve the lives of poor people. As with many other organizations, ACORN has a number of legally distinct parts, each of which has different sources of funding and engages in different kinds of activities (ACORN's conservative enemies routinely conflate these various parts to imply that ACORN is using federal money for improper political purposes). Since its founding the 70s, ACORN and its employees and volunteers have fought successfully to, among other things, increase minimum wages across the country, increase the quality of public education in poor areas, and protect people from predatory lending practices. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, ACORN helped rebuild thousands of homes and assisted victims in relocating and finding housing outside of New Orleans. The ACORN activity that has drawn the most conservative ire is its voter registration efforts which, consistent with ACORN's mission, are primarily aimed at low-income voters (who tend to vote Democratic). . . .

But even if you take these film-makers at face value and assume the worst, the reality is that ACORN has thousands of employees and the vast majority of them spend their days trying to help poor people through perfectly legal means (and receive very little compensation for doing so). Even before yesterday's Senate vote, the amount of federal money that went to ACORN was very small. This is a relatively insignificant organization in the grand scheme of things, but it's an organization that has unquestionably fought over the years to improve the lives of the less fortunate in this country.

That the GOP and its conservative supporters would single out this particular organization for such intense demonization is telling. In September of last year, the entire world came perilously close to complete financial catastrophe. We're still not out of the woods and we're deep within one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. This situation was brought about by the recklessness and greed of our banks and financial institutions, most of which had to be bailed out at enormous cost to the American taxpayer (exponentially more than all of the tax dollars given to ACORN over the years). The people who brought about this near catastrophe, for the most, profited immensely from it. These very same institutions, propped up by the American taxpayer, are once again raking in large profits.

But rather than focus their anger on these folks, conservatives choose to go after an organization composed almost entirely of low-paid community organizers, an organization that could never hope to have even a small fraction of the clout or the ability to affect the overall direction of the country that Wall Street bankers have. ACORN's relative lack of political influence was on full display yesterday, when the U.S. Senate (in which Democrats have a supermajority) not only entertained a vote to defund ACORN, but approved it by a huge margin (with only seven Democrats opposing).

If one were to watch Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh -- as millions do -- one would believe that the burden of the ordinary American taxpayer, and the unfair plight of America's rich, is that their money is being stolen by the poorest and most powerless sectors of the society. An organization whose constituencies are often-unregistered inner-city minorities, the homeless and the dispossesed is depicted as though it's Goldman Sachs, Blackwater, Haillburton and combined, as though Washington officials are in thrall to those living in poverty rather than those who fund their campaigns. It's not the nice men in the suits doing the stealing but the very people, often minorities or illegal immigrants, with no political or financial power who nonetheless somehow dominate the government and get everything for themselves. The poorer and weaker one is, the more one is demonized in right-wing mythology as all-powerful receipients of ill-gotten gains; conversely, the stronger and more powerful one is, the more one is depicted as an oppressed and put-upon victim (that same dynamic applies to foreign affairs as well).

It's such an obvious falsehood -- so counter-intuitive and irrational -- yet it resonates due to powerful cultural manipulations. Most of all, what's so pernicious about all of this is that the same interests who are stealing, pillaging and wallowing in corruption are scapegoating the poorest and most vulnerable in order to ensure that the victims of their behavior are furious with everyone except for them.

UPDATE: John Cole highlights what might be the most telling aspect of all of this: demands for a "Special Prosecutor" into Obama's so-called "relationship with ACORN" from the very same circles that vehemently objected to investigations into torture, illegal government spying, politicized prosecutions, military contractor theft, Lewis Libby's obstruction of justice, and virtually every other instance of Bush-era acts of criminality. Those, of course, are the very same people who, before that, demanded endless inquiries into Whitewater and Vince Foster's murder.

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.

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