January 12, 2013

Thoughts on Casino Jack documentary

I recently watched Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary on the Jack Abramoff scandal. I followed the story when it unfolded in the early-to-mid 2000s, of course. But this documentary put everything in context and helped cement the information in my mind.

Abramoff's Indian lobbying scandal was perhaps the worst of his crimes. You may recall these highlights:Abramoff and his partner Scanlon are alleged to have engaged in a series of corrupt practices in connection to their lobbying work for various Indian gaming tribes. The fees paid to Abramoff and Scanlon for this work are believed to exceed $85 million.

In particular, Abramoff and Scanlon were alleged to have conspired with Washington power broker Grover Norquist and Christian activist Ralph Reed to coordinate lobbying against his own clients and prospective clients with the objective of forcing them to engage Abramoff and Scanlon to lobby against their own covert operations. Reed was paid to campaign against gambling interests that competed with Abramoff clients.
And:In emails now made public by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is investigating his activities, Abramoff repeatedly referred to Native Americans as "monkeys," "troglodites," and "morons."

Abramoff once asked his co-conspirator Scanlon to meet a client, saying in an email, "I have to meet with the monkeys from the Choctaw tribal council. You need to close the deal... with the client..." In another email message he wrote, "we need to get some money from those monkeys!!"
More interesting to me was the history leading up to this scandal. Here are some thoughts I posted as I watched Casino Jack:

Roots of Tea Party hate

The doc makes it clear that the Republican Tea Party = hate and intolerance = lies and hypocrisy was launched by Reagan, Rove, Norquist, Ralph Reed, and Jack Abramoff in the 1980s.

he Young Republicans watched Patton and substituted "liberals" for "Nazis" in Patton's speech urging death to the evildoers.

Norquist modeled himself on Lenin in terms of using lies and propaganda to foment a revolution.

"Hostage shame" helped spur the Young Republicans in the '80s. Shame at letting 9/11 happen helped spur the Republicans in the 2000s.

So it's all about proving their manhood without, you know, actually going to war. Hence today's war on women, opposition to gay marriage, and love of guns. Real men are strong and tough, not weak and compassionate.

Obviously the Young Republicans weren't in office or setting policy then. But they were creating the ideology of worshiping Reagan as a demi-god, drowning government in a bathtub, and vilifying liberals as traitors. Which led directly to the Tea Party and today's partisan gridlock.

The Young Republicans compared themselves to James Bond and Indiana Jones. They thought of themselves as heroic "freedom fighters," the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers. "The cult of the freedom fighter," says Thomas Frank.

Hence their similarities to the Taliban, the "freedom fighters" whom Reagan was talking about. As well as to Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin.

Which explains why they loved so many thuggish dictators. And why they love America's present security state. To them, iron-fisted rule = freedom (from liberal values).

Killers = "freedom fighters"

Jonas Savimbi's UNITA was financed by apartheid South Africa. It "was famous for kidnapping thousands of children, turning vast farmlands into minefields, and murdering political opponents."

The Young Republicans considered Savimbi one of them because he was a man who stood up to Communism. The way Patton would've done: by crushing and killing the bad guys.

Maybe the Young Republicans learned their dogma from the robot in Lost in Space. Crush, kill, destroy!

Reagan sent Savimbi a letter and a George Washington bowl as a token of support. Thus launching Reagan's career of backing right-wing oppressors and murderers.

Americans in general and conservatives in particular like to invent an enemy to prove themselves against. Sort of a national manhood test. Previous enemies have included Indians, immigrants, unions, Nazis, and Commies. The present enemy is "terrorists" (Muslims), with China coming on strong.

Written and produced by Jack Abramoff, the movie Red Scorpion was a fictionalized version of the Angola conflict with a white super-soldier (Dolph Lundgren) helping a noble black freedom fighter overthrow the dirty Commies.

First taste of power

The Republican revolution reached fruition in 1994, when Newt Gingrich led the party takeover of both houses of Congress. It began with demonizing women, "secularist humanists," and others who weren't white male Christians at the 1992 convention--the beginning of the so-called "culture wars."

After demonizing Clinton for invented scandals (Whitewater), gay rights, and healthcare reform, they made their big play: their first, but not last, attempt to shut down the government. Does this sound familiar?

Gingrich had close ties to Norquist and Reed. So the Lenin/Patton/Savimbi wannabes were nearing the reins of power.

"Under Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition became a political powerhouse." Reed campaigned with Pat Robertson against unmarried sex, gambling, and abortion. (Two of three issues aimed at keeping women in the kitchen and bedroom.)

This is when Norquist became an anti-tax crusader and made his "drown government in a bathtub" comment. He founded the K Street project to pressure lobbyists to fire Democrats and hire Republicans.

Norquist promoted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as the "hammer" to get Republican legislation through Congress. Their goal was to eliminate rules and regulations on corporations. Abramoff turned to lobbying and promised access to DeLay, whom he took on trips around the world.

Marianas = capitalist dream

Tom DeLay began implementing the former Young Republicans' corrupt schemes. Perhaps the most interesting one was in the Marianas Islands. Some thoughts on that:

DeLay explicitly touted the Marianas as a free-enterprise zone. It's a perfect example of what happens when you don't regulate capitalism.

Jack Abramoff CNMI scandalIn testimony before the Senate, it was described that 91% of the private-sector workforce were immigrants, and were being paid barely half the U.S. minimum hourly wage. Stories also emerged of workers forced to live behind barbed wire in squalid shacks without plumbing. A Department of the Interior report found that "Chinese women were subject to forced abortions and that women and children were subject to forced prostitution in the local sex-tourism industry." The Senate passed the Murkowski worker reform bill unanimously. The bill was then blocked by Tom DeLay in the house.Abramoff ties cloud Schaffer's '99 fact-finding tripAt heart of the issue is the islands' massive textile industry, which is exempted from the U.S. minimum wage as well as most American immigration laws. The Northern Marianas economy is built on thousands of workers from China, the Philippines and Bangladesh, some of whom pay labor recruiters as much as $7,000 to land a job on U.S. soil.

A class-action lawsuit filed the year Schaffer toured the islands alleged that many of those workers lived in slum conditions, housed seven to a room in barracks surrounded by barbed wire designed to keep the workers in. Workers in some factories labored 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the suit alleged—without pay if they fell behind set quotas.

A U.S. Interior Department investigation found that pregnant workers were forced to get illegal abortions or lose their jobs. Some were recruited for factories but forced into the sex trade instead.

The islands' factories were cited by the U.S. Department of Labor more than 1,000 times for safety violations in the late 1990s.

"There were some examples of problems that we found, and we raised those with the equivalent of the attorney general," Schaffer said of his visit. But in many others, "the workers were smiling; they were happy."

Said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee: "The fact that (Schaffer) sided against the human rights of those workers, not just then, but still today, shows he was more interested in doing the bidding of the people who set up the trip than in actually investigating abuses."

At the time, those alleged abuses and a push by the Clinton administration led to a flurry of congressional action. Several bills passed the Senate that would have brought the islands' factories under stricter American laws, but the legislation failed in the House.

Hired by factory owners and the government of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Abramoff and his firm were paid more than $11 million over nine years to fend off those efforts, according to reports.
Conservative Congressmen on "fact-finding" pleasure junkets didn't notice anything wrong. Until someone met with a worker who offered to sell a kidney so he could pay off his debt and go home. Wow.

This is what Tom DeLay wanted to turn America into, too. It's what the Republican Party still wants.

You're a freakin' idiot if you don't understand this. Read a history book about sweatshops and child labor. Or look at the evidence in front of your face. Unregulated capitalism => indentured servitude if not slave labor.


Casino Jack uses entertaining techniques to keep the story interesting. For example, it didn't rely on static screen images of text with the key passages highlighted. Instead, actors Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd dramatized e-mail exchanges while a shadowy figure typed the messages and the letters appeared on the screen.

When the conspirators met during a racquetball game, Casino Jack showed two people playing to illustrate the words. When someone talked about showering money on politicians, a rain of dollar bills fell from the sky. Little things like this were effective in bringing the story alive.

I'd say the first two-thirds of the documentary--from Abramoff's beginnings through the Indian gaming scandal--were intriguing. But as Abramoff became involved in several more scandals, the story became more convoluted and harder to follow. I guess the SunCruz Casinos scandal was integral to Abramoff's arrest, trial, and conviction, but I would've spent less time on these scandals. The meat of the story is how Abramoff became a super-lobbyist, not what happened after he did.

Anyway, Casino Jack and the United States of Money is an eye-opening look at how corrupt our politics have become. If you think our government still follows the Founding Fathers' noble ideals, you need to watch this documentary. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

For more on the movie, see Summing Up the Abramoff Scandal and Preview of Casino Jack. For more on related subjects, see The Facts About Indian Gaming and The Best Indian Movies.

Below:  Jack Abramoff.

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