News for progressives

How the U.K. and Ecuador Conspire to Deliver Julian Assange to U.S. Authorities

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:57

Photo Source Jeanne Menjoulet | CC BY 2.0

The accidental revelation in mid-November that U.S. federal prosecutors had secretly filed charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange underlines the determination of the Trump administration to end Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been staying since 2012.

Behind the revelation of those secret charges for supposedly threatening U.S. national security is a murky story of a political ploy by the Ecuadorian and British governments to create a phony rationale for ousting Assange from the embassy. The two regimes agreed to base their plan on the claim that Assange was conspiring to flee to Russia.

Trump and his aides applauded Assange and WikiLeaks during the 2016 election campaign for spreading embarrassing revelations about Hillary Clinton’s campaign via leaked DNC emails. But all that changed abruptly in March 2017 when WikiLeaks released thousands of pages of CIA documents describing the CIA’s hacking tools and techniques. The batch of documents published by WikiLeaks did not release the actual “armed” malware deployed by the CIA. But the “Vault 7” leak, as WikiLeaks dubbed it, did show how those tools allowed the agency to break into smartphones, computers and internet-connected televisions anywhere in the world—and even to make it look like those hacks were done by another intelligence service.

The CIA and the national security state reacted to the Vault 7 release by targeting Assange for arrest and prosecution. On March 9, 2017, Vice President Mike Pence called the leak tantamount to “trafficking in national security information” and threatened to “use the full force of the law and resources of the United States to hold all of those to account that were involved.”

Then came a significant change of government in Ecuador—an April 2, 2017, runoff election that brought centrist Lenin Moreno to power. Moreno’s win brought to an end the 10-year tenure of the popular leftist President Rafael Correa, who had granted Assange political asylum. For his part, Moreno is eager to join the neoliberal economic system, making his government highly vulnerable to U.S. economic and political influence.

Eleven days after Moreno’s election, CIA Director Mike Pompeo resumed the attack on Assange. He accused WikiLeaks of being a “hostile non-state intelligence service.” That was the first indication that the U.S. national security state intends to seek a conviction of Assange under the authoritarian Espionage Act of 1917, which would require the government to show that WikiLeaks did more than merely publish material.

A week later, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that arresting Julian Assange was a “priority.” The Justice Department was reportedly working on a memo detailing possible charges against WikiLeaks and Assange, including accusations that he had violated the Espionage Act.

On Oct. 20, 2017, Pompeo lumped WikiLeaks together with al-Qaida and Islamic State, arguing that all of them “look and feel like very good intelligence organizations.” Pompeo said, “[W]e are working to take down that threat to the United States.”

Moreno’s Government Under Pressure

During this time, the Ecuadorian foreign ministry was negotiating with Assange on a plan in which he would be granted Ecuadorian citizenship and diplomatic credentials, so that he could be sent to another Ecuadorian embassy in a country friendly to Assange. The Ecuadorian government reached formal agreement with Assange to that effect, and Assange was granted citizenship on Dec. 12, 2017.

But the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was responsive to U.S. wishes, refused to recognize Assange’s diplomatic credentials. The foreign office stated that Ecuador “knows that the way to resolve this issue is for Julian Assange to leave the embassy to face justice.” On Dec. 29, 2017, the Ecuadorian government withdrew Assange’s diplomatic credentials.

The Trump administration then took a more aggressive stance toward Assange and the policy of the Moreno government. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon Jr. visited Ecuador in late February 2018, and he was followed in March by the deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Joseph DiSalvo, whose task was to discuss security cooperation with the Ecuadorian military leadership.

The day after DiSalvo’s visit, the Ecuadorian government took its first major action to curtail Assange’s freedom in the London embassy. Claiming that Assange had violated a written commitment, reached in December 2017, that he not “issue messages that implied interference in relation to other states,” Ecuadorian officials cut off his access to the internet and imposed a ban on virtually all visitors.  The government’s statement alluded to Assange’s meeting with two leaders of the Catalan independence movement and his public statement of support for the movement in November 2017, which had provoked the anger of the Spanish government.

Ecuador’s economic situation offered further opportunity for U.S. leverage at that time. The steep drop in the price of Ecuador’s oil exports had caused the South American nation’s politically sensitive domestic fiscal deficit to increase rapidly.  In mid-June of 2018 an International Monetary Fund delegation made the organization’s first trip to Quito in many years in an effort to review the problem. A report by J.P. Morgan released immediately after the IMF’s mission suggested that it was now likely that the Moreno government would seek a loan from the IMF. The regime had previously sought to avoid such a move, because it would create potential domestic political difficulties. Seeking an IMF loan would make Ecuador more dependent than before on political support from the United States.

On the heels of that IMF visit, Vice President Pence traveled to Ecuador in June and delivered a blunt political message. An unnamed White House official issued a statement confirming that Pence had “raised the issue of Mr. Assange” with Moreno and that the two governments had “agreed to remain in close coordination on potential next steps going forward.”

In late July 2018, Moreno, then in Madrid, confirmed that he was involved in negotiations with the U.K. government on the issue of Assange’s status. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald reported that a source close to the Ecuadorian foreign ministry and the president’s office had warned privately that the two administrations were close to an agreement that would hand Assange over to the U.K. government. He reported further that it would depend on unidentified assurances from the United States.

The Tale of a Secret Plot Linking Assange With Russia

On Sept. 21, 2018, The Guardian published an article titled “Revealed: Russia’s secret plan to help Julian Assange escape from the UK.” In that story, Guardian reporters Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Dan Collyns and Luke Harding asserted that Russia had devised a plot to “smuggle” Assange out of the embassy in a diplomatic car and then whisk him out of the U.K. The authors also claimed that Moscow had negotiated the alleged plot with a close Ecuadorian confidant of Assange and suggested that the scheme raised “new questions about Assange’s ties to the Kremlin.”

But the story was an obvious fabrication, intended to justify the agreement to deprive Assange of his asylum in the embassy by linking him with the Kremlin. The only alleged evidence it offered was the claim by unidentified sources that the former Ecuadorian consul on London and confidant of Assange, Fidel Narvaez, had “served as a point of contact with Moscow” on the escape plan—a claim that the Narvaez had flatly denied.

A second Guardian piece published five days later implicitly acknowledged the fictitious nature of the first. It failed to even mention the earlier article’s claim that the Russians had concocted a plan to get Assange out of the embassy secretly. Instead the article, by Dan Collyns, cited a “classified document signed by Ecuador’s then-Deputy Foreign Minister Jose Luis Jacome” that showed the foreign ministry had assigned Assange to serve in the embassy in Moscow. But the author acknowledged that he had not seen the document, relying instead on a claim by Ecuadorian opposition politician Paola Vintimilla that she had seen it.

In a Sept. 28, 2018, story for ABC News, reporters James Gordon Meek, Sean Langan and Aicha El Hammar Castano reported that ABC had “reviewed and authenticated” Ecuadorian documents, including a Dec. 19, 2017, directive from the foreign ministry on posting Assange in Moscow. They noted, however, that the documents “did not indicate whether Assange knew of the Ecuadorean directive at the time.”  The ABC story relied on unnamed Ecuadorian officials who, the reporters said, had “confirmed” the authenticity of those documents.

Former U.K. Ambassador Craig Murray, who had been forced out of the British diplomatic corps in 2004 for having having refused to recant his reporting about rampant torture by the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan that was then supplying the United States with military bases, was a close friend of Assange and was helping him during the negotiations on a diplomatic post. “I was asked to undertake negotiations with a number of governments on receiving [Assange], which I did intensively from December to February last year,” Murray recalled in an email. “Julian instructed me which governments to approach and specifically and definitively stated he did not wish to go to Russia.”

Although Murray would not identify the countries with which he had conversations about Assange, his blog and social media postings between December 2017 and March 2018 show that he had traveled to Turkey, Canada, Cuba, Jordan and Qatar.

Murray also said that, to his knowledge, Assange had never been informed of any proposed assignment in Moscow. “Neither the Ecuadorian Embassy, with whom I was working closely, nor Julian ever mentioned to me that Ecuador was organizing a diplomatic appointment to Russia,” Murray said. According to the former ambassador, the Ecuadorian Embassy correspondence with the British Foreign Office, which the embassy shared with him, did not mention a posting to Russia.

Murray believes that there are only two possible explanations for those reported documents. The first is the Ecuadorian government was working on its own plan for Assange to go to Russia without telling him, and “intended to present it as a fait accompli.” But the more likely explanation, Murray said, “is that the documents have been retrospectively faked by the Moreno government to try and discredit Julian and prepare for his expulsion, as part of Moreno’s widespread moves to ingratiate himself with the USA and UK.”

On Oct. 12, the Moreno government took a further step toward stripping Assange of asylum status by issuing a “Special Protocol” that prohibits him from any activities that could be “considered as political or interfering with the internal affairs of other states.” It further required all journalists, lawyers and anyone else who wanted to meet with Assange to disclose social media usernames and the serial number and IMEI codes of their cellphones and tablets. And it stated that that personal information could be shared with “other agencies,” according to the memorandum reported by The Guardian.

In response, Assange’s lawyers initiated a suit against the Ecuadorian foreign minister, Jose Valencia, for “isolating and muzzling him.” But it was yet another sign of the efforts by both the British and Ecuadorian governments to justify a possible move to take away Assange’s protection from extradition to the United States.

When and whether that will happen remains unclear. What is not in doubt, however, is that the Ecuadorian and British governments, working on behalf of the Trump administration, are trying to make it as difficult as possible for Julian Assange to avoid extradition by staying in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

This essay originally appeared on Truthdig.

Categories: News for progressives

Zionism: Cycles of Trauma and Aggression in the Service of Settler Colonialism

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:57

Photo Source zeevveez | CC BY 2.0

Zionism is inherently reactionary

The origins of Zionism are profoundly misunderstood by many. This is not coincidental and can be seen largely as the result of propaganda, which opportunistically and erroneously asserts that Zionism is the natural expression of Judaism.

In fact, Zionism gained traction among some Jews only in the late 19th  century in response to antisemitism and romantic European nationalist movements. Zionists syncretized many white supremacist, antisemitic, messianic and fascistic racialized dogmas and were thus overwhelmingly unpopular among most Jews, who viewed the ideals of the enlightenment–emancipation, equality and integration – as their target.

Zionism first increased its influence in the small Jewish towns in Eastern Europe–the shtetls–at a time when many of their inhabitants became secular but not emancipated. Thus, their view of antisemitism and its accompanying violence and trauma was a modern one, not the traditional Jewish notion that deemed oppression and hardship as divine punishment for sins (for review see here). Zionism offered a seemingly empowering vision of a “new Jew”, who shed obsolete beliefs, which were viewed as passive and weak. Instead, Zionists reacted with force against oppression and adopted the antisemitic notion whereby Jews were the cause of their own oppression and should thus segregate themselves.

In response to antisemitism, Zionists embraced their fear and contempt of their abusers to produce defensive aggression, reinventing identity in a reactionary attempt to ensure survival and restore pride. The reward of violence–power-quickly enticed Zionist leaders to morph what began as a defensive strategy into an offensive one that culminated with a settler colonialist vision of a homeland in Palestine at the expense of its Indigenous population, the existing Palestinian people.

Defense and oppression–a self-sustaining cycle

It is instrumental to view this dynamic through a behavioral neuroscientific perspective, which affords a means of understanding underlying motivations of both persons and class structures, as well as informs on potential resolutions.

Studies show that the emotions of fear and anxiety and their corresponding neural circuitries are highly conserved among all mammals, including humans. In response to threat, fear is expressed in the form of defensive behaviors. These include flight if an escape route is available, freezing and avoidance if not (both techniques of choice in response to antisemitism prior to Zionism), and defensive threat and attack when confrontation is imminent.

Defensive aggression and its corresponding violence can lead to the rewards of resource acquisition–whether it be the sparing of one’s own life or access to the many spoils of dominance: sexual partners, money, land, power etc. Hence, a process that begins with oppression leads to fear in the oppressed (expressed as defensive aggression) and morphs to offensive aggression directed towards resource acquisition, which ultimately results in the subjugation of others by those previously oppressed. The once powerless become “hooked” to the rewards of violence; an addiction which facilitates the transition from defense to offense.

Thus, the everlasting and self-perpetuating dynamic of persecution often shifts the balance of power, yet always maintains an equal or growing level of violence.

How do the hegemonic forces sustain subservience in their subject population while reaping the benefits of oppression? through fear mongering and ever-escalating violence.

Fear conditioning and population control

Fear memories are formed when otherwise neutral stimuli are paired with pain or danger and are extinguished when they are decoupled (see here). Chronic, prolonged, generalized or an otherwise abnormal fear reaction to an ambiguous stimulus is viewed as maladaptive and linked to a range of psychopathologies, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Fear conditioning is “reinstated” in a person or a populace (“collective PTSD”) upon re-exposure to-or the recall of-the fear-inducing stimulus. In such a manner, reinstatement is a technique by which the political, religious, military and economic ruling classes manipulate their populace to gain support for their aggressive and expansionist policies, distract from their own corruptions, privileges and suppression of dissent.

Fear is reinstated in traumatized collectives using several methods: (i) focusing on-and decontextualizing an act of violence or resistance (e.g. “terrorism”); (ii) reminding the public of some atrocity in the past (memorial days, sanctifying bereaved families); (iii) shifting attention to perceived threats (e.g. the Iranian nuclear program); (iv) appealing to past glory, nostalgia (romantic nationalism) and; (v) segregating communities (apartheid), which preserves a process of dehumanization of the “other” and renders re-exposure and reconciliation (i.e. extinction of fear) virtually impossible.

Thus, fear manifests in increasingly violent displays of aggression promoting the interests of those in power. It is precisely these aggressive actions which are rewarded by the hegemony and therefore become more prevalent in the general population. Privilege enables little risk of harm for the hegemonic forces and the reinstatement of perceived imminent threats constantly raises the bar for-and serves to justify permissible oppression.

From an early age the population, through participation in violence in the army or elsewhere, are encouraged to transition from the defensive to the offensive expressions of aggression. As such, the population is made an accomplice to ruling class corruptions and crimes, and thus perceives, together with its leaders, any forms of dissent as treasonous existential threats (see here).

Breaking the cycle of oppression

The cycle of violence and inequality has been the backbone of all white supremacist, settler colonialist societies, past and present which engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide of Indigenous populations; e.g. the United States, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Israel and more.

Yet the question arises–how can the cycle be broken?

Victims of abuse can cope with trauma in two ways. They can either channel their rage toward weaker elements in their immediate society or outside of it and in so doing perpetuate the never ending cycle of abuse, or stand up to their abusers, who are stronger than them, resist the temptations of resource acquisition and break the cycle of violence and inequality.

The first option of picking on the weak is easy and can be a solitary endeavor; victims become abusers and in so doing feel empowered; e.g. the Zionist example. The second option of fighting oppressors poses a greater challenge and requires courage, resolve and social skills, i.e. collectivism, as bullies are usually stronger and more formidable than their victims.

For this purpose, it is advantageous for the oppressed to join forces and collaborate with fellow victims of white supremacy; women, immigrants, black and brown people, Indigenous, Muslim, Jews and others so that together they may form a winning strategy to overcome their oppressors.

Notably, Zionist propaganda works against this sort of alliance building and resistance by fragmenting and isolating Palestinian society within historical Palestine and outside of it.

BDS and defeating white supremacy

The non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Palestinian-led movement has demonstrated the utility of adopting an approach which implements the lessons learned by the many victims of settler colonialism and white supremacy.

These lessons include a series of steps which include: (i) promoting truth and dispelling propaganda; (ii) fostering accountability in the guilty (e.g. here); (iii) moving toward cessation of hostilities/injustices; (iv) breaking barriers, physical or otherwise; (v) adopting an intersectional, anti-racist leadership which recognizes interlocking systems of power and oppression that impact those who are most marginalized in society and (vi) creating empathy and forging bonds.

It is glaringly apparent that with every BDS victory the Israeli propaganda machine continues to lose credibility. The demonopolized nature of the internet provides accessibility to truth like never before and an opportunity for Palestinians and other victims of settler colonialism to connect and collaborate towards the breaking of the cycle of violence and inequality.

That said, the rise of global fascistic movements, stimulated by Donald Trump and his Zionist allies in the Israeli government, are hard at work toward their mutual interest of global apartheid, often using the internet to disperse false information (“fake news”). Thus, it is clear that the battle against Zionist expansionism and its oppression of the Palestinian people should incorporate a comprehensive dismantling of settler colonialism and white supremacy.

Categories: News for progressives

Nicaragua: U.S. Hypocrisy Knows No Bounds

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:57

Photo Source Tavox13 | CC BY 2.0

A rather puzzling news item caught the eye of this writer today: “The US has imposed sanctions on Nicaragua’s Vice-President Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega, accusing her of corruption and serious human rights abuses.”

As he read further, this bewilderment only increased: “On Tuesday, the US Treasury said it was using a new executive order issued by US President Donald Trump to punish Ms. Murillo, accusing her of undermining Nicaragua’s democracy.”

One of the crimes Murillo is purported to be guilty of is as follows: “She is believed to have held influence over a youth organization that the US says engaged in extra-judicial killings, torture and kidnapping.”

Let us all take a look at these brief statements, and see how many examples of hypocrisy can be found in them.

+ Murillo, the first lady of Nicaragua who rules the nation along with her husband, Daniel Ortega, is accused by the U.S. of ‘corruption’. President Trump, his son and daughter-in-law are believed to be benefiting financially by their positions in government, which, or course, is ‘corruption’ in the U.S. That this has not be seriously investigated is a mistake (to put it tactfully) that will no doubt be rectified in January, when the Democrats take control of the House, and will be looking for anything to discredit Trump. From all available evidence, such issues will not be difficult to find.

+ Murillo is also accused of ’serious human rights abuses’. Where do we start? In the U.S., white police officers shoot and kill unarmed teens and adults of African descent with nearly complete impunity. Tax laws in the U.S. hurt the poor, such that at least 40 million citizens, a third of them children, live in poverty. The U.S. supports the brutal regimes of Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which are guilty of the most heinous human-rights abuses, yet the U.S. says nary a word of objection.

+ The Nicaraguan first lady is accused of behaviors that are “undermining Nicaragua’s democracy”. Trump was installed as president, despite losing the popular vote by 3,000,000 votes; that doesn’t seem to be very supportive of democracy. The U.S. Congress is beholden not to its constituents, but to the wealthy lobby groups representing business and foreign governments, that finance its members’ campaigns. U.S. law allows unlimited financial donations to these campaigns from any business or industry.

Prior to Trump’s election, the Republican-controlled Congress blocked the Supreme Court nominee of President Barack Obama until after the election, with the hope (eventually fulfilled) of putting a more conservative justice on the Supreme Court. This left a vacancy on the court for nearly a full year. To this writer, that sounds more like political maneuvering than democracy.

+ An organization in Nicaragua over which the first lady has ‘influence’ has been involved, it is said, in “extra-judicial killings, torture and kidnapping”. At this point, this writer had to re-read the article, to assure that it was about Nicaragua, and not the United States. The U.S. is notorious for kidnapping suspected ‘terrorists’, transporting them to ‘rendition’ sites, where they are tortured, sometimes for years. At the Cuban-based U.S. torture chamber in Guantanamo, countless people have been held without charge, denied access to family or legal services, and tortured for years. The U.S. government doesn’t merely have ‘influence’ over these activities: it is completely responsible for them. The current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is Gina Haspel, known in some circles as ‘Bloody Gina’, due to not only her instruction to other agents on how to torture, but her experience torturing prisoners herself. These violations of international law, human rights and common decency are part and parcel of U.S. governance.

The United States is currently sending massive amounts of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, while that nation continues to decimate Yemen; millions of people, mostly children, are starving to death because of this ongoing assault. The fact that Saudi Arabia recently bombed a school bus full of children, and murdered a prominent journalist, mean nothing to Trump and many of his GOP cohorts.

Additionally, the U.S. provides apartheid Israel with $4 billion annually, while its own infrastructure is crumbling, its schools are failing, and the citizens of Flint, Michigan do not have clean drinking water.

The U.S. has supported terrorist organizations in Syria that seek to overthrow the legitimate government, and bombed Syria when the Syrian government was accused of using chemical weapons. Yet the U.S. government says nothing when Israel uses chemical weapons against the Palestinians. And after the bombing of Syria to ‘punish’ the Syrian government for using such weapons, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said there was no evidence to confirm that a chemical attack ever occurred.

The U.S. violated international law by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that regulated Iran’s nuclear program, despite the fact that Iran was and always has been in complete compliance with the agreement. The U.S. has sanctioned Iran (again), and has threatened to sanction any nation that does business with Iran, including some of the U.S.’s oldest and closest allies. Only two nations supported the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA: Saudi Arabia and Israel.

One might ask why the U.S. government feels it is in any position to criticize Nicaragua, or any other nation, for any of its policies. The U.S. is and always has been very selective in how it supports human rights and international law. Why it has now chosen to focus on Nicaragua is anyone’s guess.

Slowly, around the world, other nations are gaining in economic and military strength, thus weakening the hegemony that the U.S. has long had on the planet. The Chinese economy will soon rival and overtake that of the U.S.; India is becoming a powerhouse as well. In the Middle East, despite U.S. efforts, Iranian influence is growing.

Once other nations equal or exceed the power of the United States on the world stage, the planet will become a more peaceful and just environment. One must be cautioned, however: a world power in decline is always dangerous, and the U.S. has been dangerous even when its power has been unrivaled. It is possible, even likely, that prior to more reasonable nations becoming world leaders, the U.S. will do significant damage around the globe. In the White House, there are no ‘adults’ in the room; there is little to prevent Trump’s worst urges from damaging or destroying the world.

 

Categories: News for progressives

The Abortion Battle Continues

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:57

Photo Source Debra Sweet | CC BY 2.0

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued it momentous Roe v. Wade decision that legalizing a woman’s right to the privacy of an abortion.  In his decision, Justice Harry Blackmun noted, “… throughout the 19th Century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn ….”  The Roe decision forced 46 states to liberalize their abortion laws.

The Court’s decision occurred two days after Richard Nixon was inaugurated to his second term as president.  His landslide victory over Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) — who had been labeled the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” – was driven by the “Southern strategy” that reconfigured national politics.  These two events helped foster the culture wars.

Now, nearly a half-century later, Donald Trump’s election enabled the forces of the Christian right to seize state power, including two seats on the Supreme Court. Their efforts, combined with conservative legislators in states throughout the country, are intended to finally end – or severely restrict – the Roe decision and a woman’s right to an abortion.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and arecent lower-court abortion decision in Mississippi may take some of most virulent wind out of the anti-abortion movement. Unfortunately, like the culture wars in general – and hardcore support for Trump in particular – reactionary rage has little to do with statistical facts let alone court decisions.  These religious warriors, like fundamentalists the world over, blindly seek to impose their beliefs on everyone under their ostensible control.

***

On November 23rd, the CDC issued a report, “Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2015,” that found that in the decade from 2006 to 2015 the number of reported abortions decline by nearly one-quarter (24%) to 638,169 from 842,855 – and nearly one-third (32%) from the 1996 total of 934,549 reported abortions.

The study draws on data was from what it calls “participating areas,” including the 50 states, the District of Columbia and New York City.  It notes that the rate of abortions per 1,000 for women ages 15 to 44 fell to 11.8 from 15.9 percent during the 2006-2015 decade and that decreases in abortion rates occurred across all age groups.  It found that in 2015 abortion rates declined across all age groups.  Over the decade the study covers, the greatest decline was seen among adolescents; the rate of abortions of girls aged 15-19 fell by more than one-half (54%).  However, the majority of women who had abortions were in their 20s; nearly one-third (31.1%) were aged 20-24 and over one-quarter (27.6%) were aged 25-29.

The CDC study found that, in 2015, nearly two-thirds of all abortions occurred when the fetus was no later than at eight weeks of gestation and more than nine-out-of-10 (91%) abortions took place at 13 weeks or less of gestation.  Equally revealing, the study found that nearly three-out-of-five (59%) of the women who had abortions in 2015 had previously given birth – and more than 14 percent were women who’d had three or more births.

Rachel Jones, principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, attributed the sizable and sustained decline in abortions to proactive birth-planning practices.  “Affordable access to the full range of contraception and family planning options is critical for people deciding if and when they’d like to become parents, develop their careers, plan for their futures, and manage their health,” she said. “For women who become but do not want to remain pregnant, access to safe, legal abortion services remains critical.”

The CDC report was issued three days after a federal judge in Mississippi blocked one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, concluding that Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban is “unequivocally” a violation of women’s constitutional rights.

The so called “Mississippi Gestational Age Act” was enacted in March and sought to prohibit abortions after 15 weeks of gestation — except in case in which the mother faced medical emergency or if the fetus suffered “a severe fetal abnormality” that would prevent it surviving outside of the womb. The law called for doctors found guilty of violating the act to have their licenses suspended or revoked and face a fine. Judge Carlton W. Reeves ruled: “The record is clear: States may not ban abortions prior to viability; 15 weeks [since a woman’s last menstrual period] is prior to viability,”

In May, Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks. However, because the Mississippi ban was found unconstitutional, it’s unlikely that the Louisiana bill will take effect.

***

We live in a perverse period, a sad, pathetic state of affairs.  Faced with the CDC’s very good news about the significant decline in abortions, Pres. Trump failed to acknowledge it.  Equally disappointing, but predictable, Focus on the Family, a leading organization of the religious right, reported the CDC findings but failed to acknowledge that something socially “good” had occurred.  It dutifully reported the news, but then sought to debunk the findings as mere inadequate data.

After nearly a half-century of struggle, the anti-abortion movement has become a business.  As of October 2018, Christian right lobbying organizations, led by the Susan B. Anthony List, raised $820,000; in 2017, these groups garnered $1,050,000. Waging the culture wars has become a profitable scam like private prisons and private military contractors.

In 1992 there was a revealing exchange about the culture wars:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.  It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.  – Pat Buchanan

I regret to inform Pat Buchanan that those wars are over and the left has won.  – Irving Kristol

Over the last quarter-century, the religious right has socially lost the culture war but desperately fights on politically. The right has given up the fight against mainstream sexual commerce – e.g., sex toys, porn, adult (non-trafficked) prostitution – that has become a multi-billion-dollar business.  The once-decisive battle over the Equal Rights Amendment has been superseded by women increasingly securing more rights (e.g., wages, credit, military service) – and many men sharing in housework and childcare.

Nevertheless, religious warriors have captured the Republican Party and are exploiting corrupt electoral schemes to maintain political power.  The recent midterm elections suggest what might be coming in 2020 – an end to Trump’s presidency, Republican control of the Senate and this round of the culture wars. Hopefully, this will help protect a woman’s right to an abortion.

Categories: News for progressives

Creeping Neo-Fascism in Ireland and the “Open Borders” Question

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:56

Photo Source Ron Cogswell | CC BY 2.0

Apparently, so I have read, pop/rock band Coldplay are due to release fresh new music under a fresh new name. The venture will be undertaken in collaboration with the singer Pharrell, who recently revealed himself as a shameless supporter of the Israeli ‘Defense’ Forces; but that is neither here nor there, for now. The terrifying reappearance of Coldplay reminded me of some wise words once uttered by fictional character Superhans, a comical drug-taking party fiend from Channel 4’s Peep Show, which aired between 2003 and 2015.

In a back-and-forth with one of the other chief protagonists of the show, Jeremy, on the subject of setting up a pub somewhere in London and what food and beverages ought to be stocked in it, it is put to Superhans that the old dependables of lager and nuts should be considered, as ‘people like larger and nuts’. Superhans’s response is almost apoplectic; ‘people like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis! You can’t trust people Jeremy!’

An underbelly of intolerance

There seems to be some truth in that exclamation, especially in this climate of burgeoning neo-fascism, which we are bearing witness to across the globe today. In Ireland, in the recent presidential election campaign, a formerly marginal, Trump-like figure and crank named Peter Casey managed to secure 23.1% of the vote based on nothing more than anti-Traveller (Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority) and anti-immigrant rhetoric and hearsay. Crime rates certainly appear to be higher among Travellers per capita, but so too are school dropout rates, suicides, early mortality, and a host of other problems. These problems stem from decades of officially sanctioned exclusion from society’s institutions – justified in the 1963 Commission on Itinerancy Report – conveniently ignored by Casey.

In recent days, we have seen a meeting of ‘concerned’ locals in County Wicklow voicing their opposition to a direct provision centre for Syrian asylum seekers fleeing war in their home country. The ‘issues’ these locals raise – vocalised in thinly veiled racist terms – are about ‘safety’, despite there being no evidence to show correlations between other centres of this type already in operation and a rise in crime. Their other primary grievance is along the lines that, in the midst of a housing crisis, ‘we must look after our own first’.

This is not the first case of controversy stirred up around the opening of such centres, as a small protest by ‘concerned’ locals in Killarney, County Kerry, in 2017 demonstrated. Whether it be in Wicklow, Kerry, or elsewhere, these ‘concerned citizens’ are often encouraged by local political figures who cynically foster division and fear in order to maintain their own fiefdoms, while small-time local media outlets hungry for exposure, hits, and likes, have also played their part in enflaming volatile situations.

Social media activity

More troubling, however, with regards recent developments is the likely involvement of hardened neo-fascist activists – of both domestic and international origins – in stoking tensions. Having failed to organise publically in Dublin in 2016 after being met with large crowds of counter-demonstrators, Ireland’s neo-fascists have slinked back to their pathetic online ‘white pride’ forums and anonymous Twitter accounts. But it now appears as though they may have taken to attempting to infiltrate and influence public meetings posing as regular punters.

As a consequence of this mesh of online and ‘real world’ activity, it seems as though – only days after the Wicklow gathering – a hotel that had been intended to be used to house Syrian refugees in Moville, County Donegal, was attacked in the dead of the night by racist arsonists, perhaps leaving it uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. Gladly, the response in the immediate aftermath of the attack by numerous locals, who rallied in solidarity with the asylum seekers and condemned the arson, has been commendable.

Over in the so-called Twittersphere, meanwhile, another former presidential election runner, Gemma O’Doherty (or non-runner as it turned out, as she failed to secure the necessary council backing), has taken to laying the blame for a plethora of Ireland’s social ills, including homelessness, on the immigration policy of the EU and Ireland. O’Doherty had previously done some important work in exposing cover-ups, especially in relation to Garda (police) handling of the case of the disappearance of six-year-old Mary O’Boyle in Donegal in 1977.

But this has been negated since she has revealed herself in recent weeks to be a crackpot whose analysis of social issues is akin to that of a turnip’s, for she seems to believe that problems such as poverty and homelessness stem primarily from ‘corruption’. Apparently, if only we root out ‘the few bad eggs’ all will be well. In reality, corrupt behaviour is a rational outworking of the class interests and profit motive inherent in the capitalist economic system. Corruption is merely a by-product of that system, and, though it can fluctuate depending on who is in charge, it cannot be wholly eradicated or ‘cleaned up’ within it.

The reason I mention O’Doherty; she has a considerable following on social media and is giving voice to those who are, predictably, alienated and impoverished by the economic system, but whose first instinct is to scapegoat immigrants and minorities, rather than to tackle the problem at its core by apportioning blame on those who actually deserve it: the senior bankers; hedge fund operators; top civil servants and charity bosses, unscrupulous lawyers, corporate tax dodgers, and their lackeys among the established political class.

The (neo)liberal response

Indeed, the powers that be, and neoliberal figures such as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar in particular, are doing the work of the neo-fascists for them. Varadkar exudes a sneering upper-class attitude, regularly scapegoats the working class and welfare recipients, and possesses absolutely no desire to address the ubiquitous housing crisis through the construction of public housing or even through regulating landlordism and soaring rent levels in some way.

It is thus easy for the far right to link immigration to the housing crisis when Varadkar tweets about 3,000 new Irish citizens being sworn in at a ceremony this week. Not that the far right should deter him from doing so, and all right-minded people will welcome these new citizens, of course. But, Varadkar, in typical neoliberal fashion, by failing to invest in the public good, yet at the same time appearing to champion multiculturalism, further embitters that section of the working class who hold xenophobic views and quite likely adds more to their ranks.

This cohort understand the housing crisis not in terms of an utter failure by those wedded to market ideology to build public homes and distribute wealth more evenly, but as a locally played out zero sum game of who gets what. ‘They got a house and I didn’t’, they complain. The chorus then rings out, ‘we must house our own first’. But immigration or not, the market will not provide the necessary homes to alleviate the crisis, nor will it allow the so-called rights of property to be subverted so that the thousands of vacant dwellings standing idle might provide shelter to those sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation.

The Left’s Response

It is therefore incumbent on the left to articulate the actual source of these various crises, particularly in housing, to those disgruntled people and to the wider public in general. It is imperative that the neo-fascists do not steal a march on the left in Ireland as has occurred elsewhere. Nonetheless, global trends demonstrate how quickly far-right populists can become acceptable to the mainstream and rise to power.

Calling for ‘open borders’, as some leftists are prone to do, will only enhance the appeal of neo-fascism for the working class. The neoliberal states of the First World have no intention of providing decent living standards to the workers and destitute who already reside within them. Hence, it is clear that without fundamental societal transformation and the advance of real economic equality – both within and across the countries of the First World and the Global South – the concept of ‘open borders’ is based not on a sober socialist analysis, but rather on liberal notions of almsgiving.

It is easy for ultra-leftists to sloganize and call for ‘no borders, no nations’, as has been witnessed in recent days during the furore over Angela Nagle’s article, “The Left Case Against Open Borders,” published lately in the quarterly journal American Affairs. Whatever the contested economic spats around cheap foreign labour driving wages down, or the counter-argument that immigrants can enrich domestic economies through their labour and tax contribution, it is clear that sustained migration from the global south to the global north would have a profound social, cultural and economic impact on both hemispheres; one which neoliberalism is not equipped to deal with in a humane way. Furthermore, it would provide the perfect opportunity for neo-fascists to undermine left-wing struggle and make inroads into the support bases of the left.

Ideally, the objective for the left should be to achieve the free movement of people from south to north and vice versa. The reality of global inequity created chiefly by historical (and contemporary) white Anglo-American imperialism – and where the lion’s share of wealth is concentrated in the north – makes this impossible at this stage.

However, agitating towards such an ideal scenario in the future and campaigning for substantial reforms to immigration policy in the here and now are not mutually exclusive. In Ireland, the abolition of direct provision (effectively the modern version of the laundries and industrial schools) must be achieved and refugees must be allowed to integrate and work. These asylum seekers want to work and contribute, but are being prohibited from doing so due to the strict prison-like conditions of the centres.  Moreover, the Irish state, for its part, must live up to its international humanitarian responsibilities.

The callous actions of the EU, and states such as Italy in particular, in downgrading rescue efforts in the mass graveyard that the Mediterranean has become also need to be challenged. In America, the asylum seekers at the Mexico/US border need to be welcomed and processed, the hundreds of thousands of ‘undocumented’ already inside ought to be given their papers, ICE needs to be abolished as a matter of urgency, and any attempts to build Trump’s permanent wall opposed.

It is essential, too, that imperialism is consistently combatted. Decades of US interference in South America has created the context for the migrant caravans from Honduras, while the recent interventions of NATO in North Africa and the Middle East are directly responsible for increased migration to Europe from those war-torn regions.

Whom to trust?

But to return to, and conclude with, the question of trust. Superhans was wary of placing trust in ‘the people’ due to their track record of supporting fascism during the 1930s. Now, during the 2010s, we see vast swathes of people in the US, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Hungary, Finland, and, most recently, Brazil, once again lurching to the far right.

The real question, however, is not whether we should ‘trust’ people to do the right thing and expect them to denounce fascism out of some innate decency. In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 people are gravitating towards this cancerous ideology for the very same core economic reasons that they did in 1930s Europe in the wake of the Great Depression: mass unemployment; underemployment; precarity; inflation; low pay; the cost of living and so forth. Only this time the scapegoat is different.

The vital question, then, that demands asking is whether the left is prepared to engage in a clearheaded analysis of how to combat the neo-fascists, who will play on immigration as a bone of contention, while continuing the work of building socialism in local communities where xenophobic views – or at least the seeds of them – exist. Can it do this, or will it continue to pass liberal and ultra-leftist ‘open borders’ rhetoric off as a realistic answer to the issue of immigration and the threat of the far right? Does the global left trust itself enough to have the necessary debate on immigration without consuming itself and branding anyone who dissents from a policy of ‘open borders’ a fascist or a racist? Time will tell.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His latest journal article examines Irish republican democracy in Belfast during 1846-48.

 

Categories: News for progressives

Sacrificing Children: Pesticides in the Time of Oligarchy

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:56

Photo Source Andy Powell | CC BY 2.0

Oligarchy is bad for children’s health

All past civilizations protected children. It was self-evident that healthy children assured continuity, security and happiness.

However, machine-powered civilizations give the illusion corporations, oligarchies, and the government control everything. Children fade in this confused vision. The disproportional power of the few dehumanizes everything, including children.

Oligarchs control medicine, drugs, chemicals, farming and politics. If their products harm children, their lobbyists, scientists and politicians cover up the truth.

Delaney Clause 

In the United States, this oligarchic control has flooded the country with thousands of chemicals, most of them untested and potentially harmful to life. This fact angered Democratic Congressman James Delaney from New York. He found it intolerable that America in the 1950s was bathed in around 50,000 chemicals.

He convinced Congress to eliminate cancer-causing chemicals in food. He authored the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act — the Delaney Clause.

Suddenly, agribusiness, chemical, and drug industries faced a law that challenged their monopolies to do whatever pleased them with food. They set up roadblocks to the enforcement of the law. They purchased scientists to denounce the controversial law.

The General Accountability Office, the least partisan organization in the federal government, took up the Delaney Clause. The December 11, 1981 GAO report put the controversy in this light:

“The heart of the issue centers on Delaney’s “zero-risk” concept that no substance, in any amount, may be intentionally added to food if it has been shown to cause cancer.”

Science lipstick

The Reagan administration of the 1980s did not enforce the law. And the Clinton administration of the 1990s killed it. But Bill Clinton marshalled the power of science to cover up his shameful policy. He paid the National Academy of Science to prepare the ground.

The 1993 National Research Council report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, revealed the deadly connection between children, pesticides, and disease. But it did not name names or propose the banning of the pesticides making children sick. Instead, the report tried indirectly to sound the alarm by pointing to food as the source of disease and death among children.

With this report out, EPA issued its 1995 policy on evaluating “the risks to infants and children consistently and explicitly.”

However, EPA did no such thing, especially in its “regulation” of pesticides. By 1995, the consensus among industry and government was to get rid of the Delaney Clause.

Killing the only federal protection against cancer 

In 1996, the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, explained why:

“The Delaney Clause was designed to protect against… many [human] cancer types. It was based on the hypothesis held in the 1950s that human cancers are due to environmental chemicals. This is clearly not true for the great majority of cancers and therefore, the Delaney Clause… has not saved any lives, is obsolete, and should be eliminated.

In fact, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 where it deleted the Delaney Clause. This revised law is appealing in name only. It does practically nothing for food quality or the protection of children or adults. It’s a business as usual pesticides law.

The abolition of the Delaney Clause sparked a celebration at EPA. I remember watching bureaucrats from the White House, the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and lobbyists drinking and shouting.

Boosting industry propaganda

This expression of contempt for the law had consequences. It convinced the industry that a lie, repeated often, becomes truth. The industry and its bought and sold academics had published “articles” and advertisements that the Delaney Clause had to go.

Undermining the protection of health ignored the philosophical and scientific importance of the only American law against the intentional contamination of food by cancer-causing substances.

This misstep led to Bill Clinton’s cosmetic measure of siding with children. His Executive Order of April 21, 1997 says:

“A growing body of scientific knowledge demonstrates that children may suffer disproportionately from environmental health risks and safety risks. These risks arise because: children’s neurological, immunological, digestive, and other bodily systems are still developing; children eat more food, drink more fluids, and breathe more air in proportion to their body weight than adults.”

Like the 1995 EPA policy on children, this Order, sound on science but poor in children protection, had no effect in diminishing the constant threat to children from eating conventional food and drinking water potentially contaminated by farm toxins.

The National Institutes of Health “awarded nearly $144 million in new grants to develop new tools and measures that can be used to investigate more effectively environmental exposures from the womb through later years in a child’s life.” This was an Obama administration measure of September 28, 2015.

What happened to this money? Any benefits for children?

Neglect for children continues. The Trump administration is probably shutting down EPA’s symbolic but toothless children’s health office.

This immoral policy is sacrificing children. Instead of harsh labor, children now face an invisible enemy.

Food is medicine

Michelle Perro, a pediatrician, and Vincanne Adams, professor of medical anthropology, University of California-San Francisco, authored What’s Making Our Children Sick? (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) in which they denounced this invisible enemy.

They said: “we are seeing in clinics across the country chronically afflicted children
who suffer from being the unwitting participants in several decades of experimentation with agrochemically produced food. This is an epidemic-scale health crisis.”

Perro and Adams represent physicians and scientists who are breaking ranks with the agrobusiness-medical-pharmaceutical-government regulatory establishment. They are revealing an open secret that industrialized farming poisons food, which is causing “hard-to-diagnose, intractable, and often debilitating” diseases to children.

Our kids, they say, “are sick with chronic ailments today because of the cataclysm” of three things: We live in a “toxic environment” that makes the “foods we eat a source of disease.” Second, we confront obsolete ideas of “clinical care and disease causation.” And, third, physicians refuse to learn from “food-health science.”

Perro and Adams practice ethical medicine and science. They are right in advocating the banning of the genetic engineering of crops and pesticides, especially organophosphates causing neurological and brain damage.

Their book is full of insights on the diseases of children and how to treat most of those diseases with organic food. Yes, indeed, they are students of Hippocrates. Food is medicine.

Read this book. It will inspire you to become active in creating a world good for our children.

Categories: News for progressives

An Ode to Chomsky

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:55

Photo Source Matthew Straubmuller | CC BY 2.0

Ninety years old and still going strong. Almost twenty years after the age when that other great left-wing public intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre was already utterly frail, uncommunicative, pliable in the hands of his handlers, and prone to haplessly spilling egg and mayonnaise on his face while eating, Chomsky is still constantly giving interviews, traveling to distant countries to give talks on the political issues of the day, and in general is just as lucid as he always has been. It’s an unusual constitution that guy has.

A few years ago I wrote a long article about why I find Chomsky important, but I’m now embarrassed by that piece and unable to read it. Nor did it succeed in communicating what he has meant to me. So I thought that on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday I’d take another stab at it. A lot has been written about him, but little from the “personal” perspective I’ll adopt.

I’m well aware of Chomsky’s aversion to personalizing things, and to an extent I share his taste. There’s something inegalitarian about singling people out and praising them to the sky, something anti-democratic and anti-anarchistic about treating them as authorities (particularly if they’re perceived as nearly infallible). Even aesthetically one might object to doing so, if one prefers the coolly rational and objective aesthetic of classicism, of Bach and Mozart, the purity of a vision elevated above the spots and blemishes of the concretely existing. I’ve always much preferred the realm of ideas and perfection to that of personality and politics. It’s just so much cleaner, so much nobler and more sublime, timeless, transporting, this realm of philosophy, science, intellectual and art history, music from the Baroque and Classical eras, all things not merely time-bound or particular. The universal is what’s healthy; the particular slides into decadence.

But this is exactly why I can’t help but be fascinated by Chomsky. For he seems, at least from afar, to be a unique fusion of the particular and the universal, of personality and reason, a person who exists above the personal. I’ve never seen anyone so reluctant to say a word about himself or his private life, his personal grievances or feelings or experiences, so completely self-effacing that it’s hard even to believe he has a family or a life at all. He seems to be the disembodied voice of reason, compassion, and morality. I remember years ago jotting down some thoughts in my journal comparing him to certain other intellectuals, his antipodes:

For the last couple of hours I watched videos on YouTube of Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and such characters. It was almost an unreal experience. These people and evidently their circles were/are not ordinary, in the worst possible way. I was watching degenerates, narcissists, poseurs, boors, and bores. No doubt brilliant in their own diseased way. But I couldn’t help thinking I was in the electronic presence of personified decadence. Hitchens of course was the embodiment of sleaze, his whole being icky, greasyslimy. Those are the adjectives that come immediately to mind when I look at him. The perfect emblem of this group of people, this whole literary cocktail-party subculture, would be a picture of Hitchens’ face in the midst of an attempted smile. A grotesque, false image. Pop culture meets pretentious intellectualism meets Roman homosexual orgies.

The essence is simple: with those people, as with most pop culture, I can feel myself being lowered—to the particular. With Chomsky, as with much classical music, I can feel myself being elevated—to the universal. It’s pollution versus cleanliness. Shiny pollution versus radiant cleanliness.

I can think of no one else as intellectually, morally, and humanly clean as Chomsky (or as his persona, at least). And we should all, I think, strive for such “cleanliness,” a concept, incidentally, that moral theorists might expound on for its pithiness and evocativeness.

In any case, while there are dangers in personalizing or in hero-worship, there can also be gains. And insofar as humans are oriented towards humans and not only abstract principles, personalizing can never be wholly escaped. From childhood onwards, we enjoy putting certain people on a pedestal and perhaps emulating them; and this can be a quite important means of self-development, of the youth’s sculpting of his own identity—in the likeness of his hero. Chomsky is wrong to dismiss—if he does—the importance of role-models, and of his own status as a role-model, in his conviction that each person should follow his own inner light, realize his creativity in his own peculiar way unencumbered by subordination to an authority. On this point, at least, Nietzsche was nearer the mark, for Nietzsche saw that sometimes to revere an “authority” can serve precisely to liberate, not to enslave:

Your true nature lies [he wrote], not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be. Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the true basic material of your being is, something in itself ineducable and in any case difficult of access, bound and paralyzed: your educators can be only your liberators.

By fixing your gaze on a star and struggling to raise yourself to its height, you unwittingly find your way to your true self and perhaps, in the end, even become your own star, shining confidently apart from the distant celestial body you once worshiped. For it’s true you should never simply copy another; you should only use others to liberate yourself from the dreck and slime of your surroundings and finally, using what you have learned, “become who you are.”

Even Chomsky shouldn’t be followed everywhere. He may be the least decadent person in history, the least culturally polluted—“he’s a pencil-and-paper theoretician who wouldn’t know Jabba the Hutt from the Cookie Monster,” Steven Pinker has said—but sometimes a little decadence can be a good thing, can add depth and richness to life. To be as perfectly masculine, as rock-like, as Chomsky, nothing but the Enlightenment, can be limiting; there is also a place for the feminine, for, say, existentialism, phenomenology, popular music, dancing, receptiveness. And even Chomsky is just plain wrong from time to time. (For instance, he’s wrong to rarely mention particular left-wing organizations that could use donations or members.)

In the following, though, since it’s his birthday (soon), I’ll focus on the positives.

***

In fact, to be blunt, with this article I’m in the myth-making business. Again as Nietzsche understood, human life has need of illusions and is even grounded in them. The necessary illusion of our own importance, of the great value of our own little contributions, of the very existence of oneself as a substantival self, some coherent and enduring entity called “Chris Wright” or whatever (an illusion Buddhists, and not only they, have recognized as such—but can nonetheless not fully escape)—these and other lies are in some sense ineluctable. Easier to escape is the lie of traditional religion, but we still need values despite the death of God. The death of the human species itself is now a glimmer on the horizon, and yet we still, somehow, have to ward off nihilism. In a time of monsters and “morbid symptoms” (to quote Gramsci), of triumphant relativism and mass degeneracy, we need an anchor. My thesis is that Chomsky can serve as that anchor.

“Some people say, ‘What would Jesus do?’” remarks Lawrence Krauss. “I say, ‘What would Noam do?’” Myths, by inspiring and vivifying, can help ward off the rot and decay that creeps underground and far above ground in the White House, to seize on the living and sap their will to resist.

Living in this society, many years ago I woke up to find myself hemmed in and threatened on all sides by mediocrity. And in myself too I was more than disconcerted to see layer upon layer of mediocrity. But it was mostly the external mediocrity that troubled me, because it seemed so over the top. Everywhere I looked I saw stupidity, irrationality, meanness, proud ignorance, thoughtless conformity, an impossible lack of empathy, self-deception, hypocrisy, status-worship, an unbelievable amount of flakiness—just try internet dating for a few years if you want to become a misanthrope or a misogynist—in general a world governed by assholishness and idiocy. And cowardice. So I retreated into my music, my reading, and my writing. I was comforted by thinking of Karl Marx, or reading Schopenhauer, Byron, Leopardi, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche, and many other writers who gave lyrical expression to existential dissatisfaction.

Let’s just reflect for a minute on how objectionable the human species is. Actually, one has only to think of two words to decide that insects are morally superior to humans: Nazism happened. But let’s leave that aside. The mundane indignities of life are more than enough to justify ambivalence toward the species. I’ve always been disturbed, for example, by what the phenomenon of “charisma” says about humans. What a primitive quality it is, or can be! Just look at Donald Trump, or any number of oafish alpha males: big body, big head, tall stature, loud voice, overflowing self-confidence (with or without deep insecurities), and…that’s it. That’s all you need to be an “alpha male,” and thus to dominate, have influence, be taken seriously, be popular with women, have power. Or think of the frat-boy type, hideously common in the spheres of business, finance, politics, law, sports, and entertainment. I’m reminded of Tucker Max, the superhumanly sleazy self-proclaimed asshole who’s made a career of being an asshole and advertising how popular his assholishness is with the ladies. What does it say about men that everyonerecognizes this personality type? And what does it say about women that such an immense proportion of them are attracted to these jackasses?

Dumb brutes—even the intelligent ones, like (presumably) Brett Kavanaugh, are still just dumb brutes—and they’re popular and powerful. Humans are but apes, after all, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, when I’m feeling down about the species that’s how I cheer myself up: how astonishing it is that great apes have achieved what humanity has! We should be amazed by our talents, not by our amoral mediocrity, since what would you expect from a hairless ape except mediocrity?

But I’m not finished with the mediocrity yet. A few days ago I was in a car that grazed the door-handle of another car as it pulled out of a parking spot. We stopped to make sure there was no damage to either, and were about to leave when out of the other vehicle, originally hidden by tinted windows, stepped a gorilla of a man livid with murder in his eyes. “You bumped my car!” We apologized profusely and pointed out there wasn’t a scratch anywhere. No matter. He was inconsolable. So we left, lamenting that such creatures as this gorilla existed—by the millions.

It’s mine! You can’t touch it!”

“Get away, this is private property!” “But I’m just eating a sandwich on the edge of this courtyard—the sidewalk is two feet away.” “It’s private property, you’re not allowed here.” The hostility and paranoia that suffuse the capitalist mind are pathetic to behold. Chomsky mentioned once that all his neighbors’ houses and cars were outfitted with alarms, in a neighborhood where the worst thing that had ever happened was that a pet cat ran away. (In Chomsky’s house, apparently, they didn’t even lock the door. My god, what recklessness!)

Wherever there is atomization, there is sickness. It might be the sickness of “Don’t step on my lawn!” or it might be the sickness of “Don’t blame me, I’m just following the rules.” Or the sickness of hating the Other—the Jew, the Muslim, the immigrant, the liberal—or of pursuing profit at the expense of workers, communities, the natural environment, and life itself. The manifestations of alienated atomization are infinitely varied, from the pointless, stupid honking of car horns in cities to the bureaucratic mass murder of “the unpeople” by the U.S. and its client states. I ought to be numb to it by now, but somehow whenever I encounter the sickness again, every day, I still shake my head at the cruelty and predictability of humans.

In general, I’ve lived much of my life in a state of resentment at the smallnessof our species, the moral and intellectual smallness. There’s a cognitive and affective dissonance that arises when you spend a large amount of time immersed solitarily in “high culture,” overawed by the mysteries of life and the universe, by the grandeur and inconceivable beauty of the human brain, of existence itself, and then look up from your writing to see a world in which, say, the most embarrassing fools can become intellectual celebrities—Ayn Rand, Thomas Friedman, William F. Buckley, Ann Coulter, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson—or in which luck and subservience determine destiny, and rationality and courage are almost always punished. Not to mention the stupefying small-mindedness that, for example, sentences a teenager (black, of course) to 65 years in prison for having participated in a robbery when he was 15 that resulted in a police officer shooting his friend to death. Life comes to seem utterly picayune and pointless, the very opposite of majestic and beautiful, when it’s lived in such a world as this. A world in which the fate of millions can be determined by the merest accident, like a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that installs the reactionary Bush rather than the centrist Gore in the presidency. How can anything really matter in such a farcical, accidental world?

(Indeed, it’s an accident we still exist at all, considering how close we’ve come many times to terminal nuclear disaster.)

And then one starts to sympathize with, e.g., George Carlin’s nihilism and misanthropy. Late in his life, Carlin said the following in an interview:

We’re on a nice downward glide. I call it circling the drain. And the circles get smaller and smaller, faster and faster… And we’ll be gone. And that’s fine, I welcome it. I wish I could live a thousand years to watch it happen. From a distance, so I could see it all.

Interviewer: Does it depress you?

No, it lifts me up. It lifts me up because I gave up on this stuff. I gave up on my species and I gave up on my fellow Americans. Because I think we squandered great gifts… And that’s why I’m divorced from it now. I see it from a distance… I said, “George, emotionally you have no stake in this, you don’t care one way or another. So watch it! Have fun!”

It’s all a farce, so just enjoy the spectacle!

That’s the temptation, the “sinful” temptation. And it seems that many, many people have succumbed to it, have become wholly cynical and apathetic.

I might have succumbed to it too, feeling alone, disdainful, if it weren’t for my discovery of…yes, Chomsky. He helped prevent my “downward glide” into the depths of Carlinian cynicism. In finding someone who validated nearly all my instincts and intuitions, but who sharpened them and elevated them to a level of virtually complete objectivity, I felt both vindicated and somewhat forgiving of others’ faults. For it was clear that Chomsky was far above me in most respects, and yet was well-disposed toward humanity and hadn’t “lost faith”—so who was I to lose faith or wallow in disgust? I didn’t have the right to. And since then, Chomsky has served as a moral and intellectual guide—not an infallible one, but a pretty reliable one.

***

I suppose part of the explanation of my “hero-worship” is that I have a somewhat religious temperament, a mind oriented towards transcendence and desirous of objectivity, and I’ve never fully made my peace with the nonexistence of God. I’ve wanted objective confirmation of my worth—as we all do, only I was especially preoccupied with the ideal of objectivity or truth. Simply living in the world wasn’t enough; I wanted to transcend it, to penetrate mere appearances and understand, or even coincide with, something timeless and absolute. Something like “God.”

To say it in more mundane language, perhaps the only thing I find fundamentally interesting is objectivity or rationality. Or truth. Error and mere subjectivity are everywhere, predictable and boring. People are so certain of themselves, and they’re so wrong, it becomes difficult to take them seriously. But a genuine commitment to rationality, and an ability to follow through, to be consistently logical, open-minded, reasonable, concerned only to know truth even at the expense of “fitting in”—this quality is rare and precious.

For these reasons, I found it more than refreshing to come across Chomsky. He was, as Lawrence Krauss said or implied, the closest approximation to something transcendent or to pure reason that humans could hope for. In a world of rampant and rampaging self-indulgence, here was someone totally disciplined, fanatical about evidence, virtually masochistic in his devotion to principle, embodying moral and intellectual integrity in apparently every act and every utterance, a warm and kind person, and on top of it all, a genius with few peers in history who was right about seemingly everything. I felt that, well, if homo sapiens is capable of Nazism, at least it’s also capable of Chomsky.

He was the anti-capitalist, the anti-Milton Friedman, opposite of all things pop-cultural and postmodern, completely unpretentious and democratic, willing to answer even the most idiotic emails I sent him. I was impressed by the capacious humanity evidently possessed by someone who had spent thousands of hours writing letters and emails to people all over the world, who in his long life had seen everything humans have to offer but remained cheerful and, on some level, idealistic. In fact, he was so idealistic, so committed to upholding human dignity, that he seemed reluctant even to entertain negative thoughts about humanity. I was struck, for instance, by reading (somewhere) that he rejected the common interpretation of the infamous Milgram experiment, as showing that people tend to be slavishly obedient to authority. An equally plausible interpretation, he said, is just that the experimental subjects were acting rationally, on the best information available to them at that moment. Why not trust the guy in charge?

And so the more I familiarized myself with Chomsky’s perspectives, the more I was able to “problematize” (to use a fashionable postmodern word) my jaundiced notions. I had always been torn between Marxian optimism about people and Nietzschean or Schopenhauerian pessimism, being attracted both to the critique of capitalism and to the ancient critique of humans themselves, going back not only to Plato but even the Pre-Socratics (Heraclitus, for example) and beyond. It was, and is, kind of fun to be contemptuous, and intellectuals throughout history have found the pleasures of contempt irresistible. (No doubt in part because they think they lack the recognition or power they deserve.) But here, in Chomsky, was someone who, even more than Marx, rejected cynicism and misanthropy with scientific consistency—despite being reviled, calumniated, the target of every conceivable lie, and constantly bombarded by sheer stupidity, repetitive questions, audience hostility, heckling, willful misunderstanding, etc. So the “philanthropic” side of my nature was strengthened in its war against the misanthropic.

I know all this praise sounds effusive and embarrassing, but I did warn you that this article is in the Nietzschean business of myth-making. (Cf. the Übermensch.) And yet how false or exaggerated is the picture I’m painting? Somewhat, certainly, but not wildly so. You can test it by reading Chomsky’s books and watching his interviews.

The sparkling objectivity and impersonality of Chomsky’s analyses leads to one of his greatest contributions, his making a science, so to speak, of leftist philosophy. Marx, in a sense, had already accomplished this, but Marx made mistakes in his predictions and was a bit analytically sloppy on key questions (as I explain here—though you should disregard the oversimplified summary at the top of the page). Chomsky, in essence an anarchist Marxist, dropped the ideological baggage of Marxism but implicitly kept most of the theoretical framework—which, after all, is just common sense, insofar as class struggle, conflictual relations of production, the capitalist state, imperialism, and other basic concepts can hardly be denied except by vulgar ideologists. The factually rigorous interpretations of politics that Chomsky gave, backed up by overwhelming detail and an apparent command of almost the entire scholarly and journalistic literature, were and are of immense utility in substantiating the claim that to be on the far left is not just to be ideological or biased; it is to be scientific and rational, if the values you hold include democracy, human freedom, and human welfare. I had sometimes wondered if I was too left-wing; Chomsky convinced me I wasn’t nearly left-wing enough, nor consistent enough.

As I suggested earlier, there was something else I appreciated about Chomsky’s Olympian objectivity, or his focus on institutions rather than individuals: I loved the aesthetics of it. For one thing, I liked the withering contempt it expressed for functionaries of power, media figures, and intellectuals. Occasionally Chomsky would directly state what he thought of most intellectuals, as when calling them “specialists in defamation,” or the American intellectual community a “gang of frauds,” or the liberals at The American Prospect pathetic, frightened, cowardly little people”; but ordinarily it was just the tone of savage irony, and the refusal to treat most intellectuals as anything more than expressions of institutional interests—not people to be taken seriously in their own right—that made clear his attitude (which also happened to be mine, based on what I had seen of academia).

And he was exactly right, both morally and scientifically. It’s an obvious point that goes back to Marx: social behavior is overwhelmingly constrained by institutional context. Nearly everyone internalizes the norms appropriate to his institutional location—intellectuals maybe even more so than most, since they’re more educated and therefore more indoctrinated. So their self-expressions tend just to be sublimated expressions of power-structures and hierarchies, institutional jealousies and conflicts, often mere class interests or rationalizations of class interests. When interacting in academic contexts, I’ve frequently had the uncanny feeling that I’m not talking to a person so much as to a node in the network of institutional norms. An institutional automaton, so to speak. There were limits to what I could say: for instance, if I mentioned Chomsky or Norman Finkelstein, or if I said some critical words about Foucault or some other postmodernist hero, the atmosphere grew a little tense and uncomfortable. “Chomsky lacks academic bona fides,” I would be told. Or (after asking why Chomsky is rarely mentioned among scholars of Latin America) “Chomsky just borrows from scholars without producing original research,” or something along those lines. It was clear that these remarks were mere rationalizations of the desire to ignore him—since, after all, he draws on every conceivable source and puts forward compelling interpretations—and that what was really being said was “He’s not one of us, so we don’t mention him. But I’ll forgive you this time because you’re new.” It was interesting, in any case, to realize that at that moment I was talking to an institution, not a person.

As for the morality of it, well, to the extent that one lets one’s humanity be submerged underneath institutional norms, one is abdicating responsibility and ceasing to be a moral agent. It becomes perfectly legitimate, then, to treat such a person as “beneath contempt,” to use a term Chomsky is fond of.

But there was another aspect of the aesthetics of objectivity that I liked: as I said above, I appreciated the absence of any hint of cultural decadence. This was not a minor consideration. For whatever reason, for a long time my antennae have been hyper-attuned to indications of decadence. I’ve always thought, for example, that the greatest and healthiest music ever written was during the era of Bach to Schubert: after Beethoven and Schubert, decline set in—enervation, emotionalism, romanticism, self-indulgence, excess, stupefaction, a lack of discipline, etc. This isn’t to say I don’t love an enormous amount of Romantic music, from Chopin to Rachmaninoff; but I know it isn’t as spiritually healthy or creatively disciplined as Mozart and Beethoven. And with the twentieth century—impressionism, atonalism, Mahler, Stravinsky, and then eventually the indeterminacy of John Cage, and minimalism, and all the academic noise-crap that gets written today by classical composers—things got truly, repulsively decadent. There was still some great music, but it was on a lower order of greatness than the Holy Trinity Bach-Mozart-Beethoven.

I could discuss whole swathes of culture, from philosophy to poetry, explaining how and why there was a decline from the vigor of the eighteenth century (and Marx, its disciple) to the lassitude and fragmentation of the twenty-first, but that would take me rather far afield. The point is that Chomsky, the last great Enlightenment thinker, was the most significant exception to this trend of ever-increasing decadence. He struck me in fact as the most purely autonomous person ever, impervious to unhealthy influences or impulses.

Philosophically, for instance, I was pleased to see my contempt for behaviorism validated by two brilliant essays, the 1959 review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior and a lesser-known critique of Skinner that appeared in Chomsky’s For Reasons of State. From the first moment I had come across behaviorism, the notion of interpreting humans and all animals in terms of stimulus and response, conditioning, reinforcement, and so on struck me as ludicrously impoverished. Empiricism in general, the tradition emanating from John Locke and David Hume, who deprecated the rich innate endowment of the human mind in favor of interpreting it as virtually a passive absorber of sense-impressions and the like, I was never able to take seriously. It was just too contrary to common sense, and too scientifically primitive.

More clearly “decadent,” though, was the whole “paradigm” of postmodernism that Chomsky has consistently rejected, and that actually has some connections to the empiricism he has fought against his whole life. This isn’t the place for a systematic discussion of postmodernism, so hopefully I’ll be forgiven if I just refer passingly to its general thrust of interpreting the world, in the vein of empiricism and idealism, as formed and structured by “discourses,” “vocabularies,” “epistemes,” “imaginaries,” social constructions, mutually incommensurable and incommunicable paradigms, and other such idealistic notions. I’ve never been able to understand why intellectuals and activists who operate in this tradition can consider themselves to be exemplary leftists, since the leftist tradition has for a long time been associated with materialism. Its goal has been to change the objective world that constrains us, the institutions that govern our behavior, and thus the class structures that allocate resources. What’s so radical or transformative about withdrawing into the spheres of literary and cultural theory? What’s so radical about relativism, the denial of objective truth, a focus on subjectivity, denial that natural science can give us access to the nature of the mind-independent world, denial that there even is a mind-independent world? Doesn’t that tend to imply that power and oppression are only in the mind, that they aren’t objectively real, and so that people can free themselves from oppression if they only change how they think and talk?

But that, of course, is the point. The idealism serves two purposes: it allows intellectuals to pretend they’re important, since they’re the ones who produce the ideas and discourses that supposedly constitute reality; and it takes attention away from things that matter in the real world, like wages, working conditions, the natural environment, and living conditions, thus serving the interests of business. So the whole postmodern paradigm is allowed and encouraged to become culturally dominant, and colossal sums of money are directed to fund “research” in these academic fields. It certainly is no coincidence that the era of the triumph of postmodernism was the era of the triumph of conservatism.

It’s also worth noting that, as György Lukács describes in his masterpiece The Destruction of Reason, an idealism and relativism quite similar to the spirit of postmodernism pervaded German culture, and European culture generally, in the early twentieth century, and did much to prepare the ground for fascism—which itself was an idealistic and relativistic ideology and movement. So the postmodernists aren’t in great company.

Wherein consists the decadence of postmodernism? In brief: (1) its frequently obscurantist and impenetrable prose, which serves to give the impression of incredible profundity and also protects writers from criticism (since “you’re misunderstanding them!”); (2) its navel-gazing subjectivism and focus on language or terminology (or subjective identities, one’s relationship with one’s body, etc.), which discourages active, confident, productive engagement in/with the real world; (3) its agenda to deconstruct, tear down, “problematize,” refute, fragment, rather than confidently create and synthesize; (4) its relativism, pessimism about the possibility of mutual understanding—or even the existence of meaning itself—and ultimately its nihilism; (5) its supposed hyper-sophistication, its cynicism, its weariness with all the great philosophies and achievements of the past, which is the opposite of a healthy, youthful, strong naïveté; (6) its fetish of the particular over the general; (7) its extreme pretentiousness, which dresses up simple ideas in over-inflated, turgid prose and presents truisms as if they’re important discoveries; (8) its rejection of commonsense realism and the very notion of objectivity or truth; (9) its intellectual sloppiness and many self-contradictions (e.g., “[it’s objectively true that] there is no objective truth”); (10) its cloistered, elitist, hyper-academic nature; (11) its political cowardice, as in its refusal to confront class-structures; (12) its lack of seriousness and urge to just fecklessly play (with words, concepts, images, collages—bricolage); (13) its goal to provoke for the sake of provoking, to be outrageous for the sake of being outrageous, and in the end to just garner attention for oneself because nothing else matters in a world in which nothing matters. Etc. ad nauseam. Postmodernism is the very apotheosis of decadence, the kind of thing that happens just before the world ends.

So Chomsky has generally ignored it. And even this reaction is the healthiest and least decadent possible, because postmodernism is so obviouslyrotten, so clearly masturbatory, so vitiating, so polluted with intellectual, aesthetic, and moral vice, and in the end so unimportant compared to the crimes constantly being committed by the state and the business community, that one might as well focus on something else, something that truly matters. Just ignore these intellectuals as the self-promoting parasites and poseurs they are.

I’ve also appreciated Chomsky’s tendency to ignore another symptom of decadence: postmodern feminism, queer theory, gender theory, all the discussion of sexuality and bodies and so on that proliferates among liberal and leftist academics and activists. Practically the only time he ever acknowledges feminism is when describing progress that has been made since the 1960s. And he’s right, of course: the progress that has been made in women’s rights and sexual equality, as in gay rights, in the last two generations is of immense importance, and has had a civilizing effect on the culture. Moreover, this sort of activism remains urgent, as states roll back abortion rights, a conservative majority exists on the Supreme Court, the Trump administration tries to make it more difficult for sexual assault survivors to speak out, etc. Feminism will always be of great moral significance, because there will always be room for improvement in relations between the sexes.

But the specifically postmodernist aspects of contemporary feminism are of far less moral importance than the general goal to empower women. In fact, there’s an enormous amount of intellectual confusion, shallow thinking, self-deception, and hypocrisy among feminists. I’ve discussed the matter here, and won’t delve into it now. Suffice it to say that, for most feminists, the idealistic mantra “Social constructions!” substitutes for thought, and for open-minded perusal of the relevant scientific and psychological literature—not all of which (to say the least) supports favored politically correct dogmas. The radical empiricism of postmodern feminism, according to which the minds of males and females are a blank slate at birth onto which social expectations are written—such that genes, hormones, brain structures and such make nocontribution to the differences in behavior and psychology between men and women—is extremely primitive and scientifically illiterate.

But it’s an example of a very common and unfortunate human tendency: the tendency to believe something not on the basis of evidence but simply because one wants to believe it. Most people evidently are prone to thinking on the level of “I like” and “I don’t like,” not “The evidence suggests…” They think according to value-judgments, not disinterested investigation of evidence. This explains how religious belief can be so widespread despite being irrational and absurd: people want to believe in God, so they do. This phenomenon is such a “fundamental dishonesty and fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity,” to quote Bertrand Russell, that I find it hard to understand. But it’s present everywhere, among feminists, conservatives, liberals (“Obama was a great and moral president!”—despite his drone terrorism campaign, aggressive deportation of immigrants, refusal to prosecute bankers, slavish support of Israel, refusal to bail out homeowners after the 2008 crash, support for the 2009 military coup in Honduras, relatively meager actions on climate change, catastrophic intervention in Libya, support for dictators all over the world, and generally his abject subservience to the oligarchy that runs the U.S.), free-market fundamentalists, Leninists, and so forth.

Regarding Leninism, for instance, Chomsky is right to criticize both the theory and the practice (before, during, and after the Russian Revolution). Recent scholarship, such as that of Christopher Read and Orlando Figes, validates the old criticisms of Lenin by anarchists, left-Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg, and Chomsky himself, in showing how Lenin ended the experiments with workers’ control of factories in 1917 and established dictatorial control over the state and society. One can argue that he had to, given the conditions that prevailed; but it’s striking that his undemocratic, semi-Blanquist practice was wholly consistent with his earlier ideas, his vanguardism and elitism. But even apart from this, there is something at least prima facie odd in still worshiping and looking for profound lessons from a figure, or figures, who dealt with conditions that could hardly be more different from the U.S. in the twenty-first century. What does Russia in 1917 (and earlier, when Lenin was formulating his ideas) have in common with the U.S. in 2018? Why not stop obsessing over how Lenin seized power in a shattered late-feudal, early-capitalist country, or what his strategies were to seize power in such a country, and instead focus on conditions and problems that confront us now?

One other point about feminists, and many other young leftists today: conservatives’ criticisms of their totalitarian tendencies are not wholly off the mark. Free speech is, after all, an important value, however much feminists and others might not want to hear things that hurt their feelings. To give a trivial personal example: I was once invited to give a talk on worker cooperatives at a university, but the invitation was rescinded after some students came across the page on feminism I linked to above. They were offended, you see, by what they had read. I found the incident more amusing than anything, but it was a little disconcerting to have it vividly confirmed to me that even the sorts of obvious truths and mild provocations they had read are considered beyond the pale, so much so that it’s necessary to cancel a talk on a completely unrelated subject. Nothing less than absolute uniformity of thought is permitted.

Such censorship, incidentally, has an ironic similarity to the functioning of hierarchical institutions. In institutions, at least, one can argue there’s some necessity to conform fairly rigidly; otherwise the institution might break down. But leftists should be more careful about persecuting people, or refusing to listen to them, just because they don’t subscribe wholeheartedly to the party line.

Again, though, Chomsky’s attitude is right: however stupid and immoral the totalitarian intolerance of young leftists might be—and also self-defeating, because it risks alienating people who basically share their values and want to fight for a better society—the threat to free speech posed by such people is so minuscule compared to the colossal suppression of truth and free speech by government and the corporate media that it makes no sense to focus on the silly young leftists. Unless, of course, you’re as unprincipled as, say, Nicholas Kristof.

Moreover, Chomsky’s general reluctance to criticize the left, especially as compared with the fierce criticisms he levels against dominant groups, is precisely right. “The most important word in the language of the working class is ‘solidarity,’” Harry Bridges said. Privately, yes, one should criticize the actions or beliefs of fellow leftists if that might have a constructive effect. But one should be wary of making severe public criticisms, since that might serve only to foment resentment and thereby fragment and undermine the left. No living leftist better exemplifies solidarity than Chomsky. (On this point, he is far superior to the sectarian Marx.)

To sum up, Chomsky has been able to avoid all the decadence that has afflicted intellectual and cultural life for well over a hundred years. I have yet to come across instances in his writings and talks of sloppy thinking, intellectual dishonesty, a lack of commitment to principle, or the groupthink and status-consciousness that determine how virtually all “intellectuals” (and, in fact, nearly all people) think, write, and act. How common it is for people to take something seriously just because it’s taken seriously by others! Or to act in a certain way only because others do, and condemn those who act or think differently. Instead, one should step outside one’s own little subjectivity, one’s personal feelings and impulses, and evaluate every thought and act in the light of cold reason and warm compassion.

***

Another unusual quality of this Übermensch I’m over-praising is that he doesn’t waste words. His manner of speaking and writing is notably pithy and economical—which sounds odd, since he’s famously long-winded. He talks and talks, and could probably talk for days, until he collapsed from inanition, just following a train of thought where it led him. In general, though, every word seems necessary, every sentence furthers the argument or usefully illustrates it with examples. This economy of expression is, to put it mildly, unusual among intellectuals. As among everyone else. People love to hear themselves talk, and they’ll frequently talk for the sake of talking. It’s a phenomenon readily observable during most kinds of “meetings” (of activists, for example), academic seminars, and question-and-answer sessions during talks (in which audience members asking their questions frequently expatiate unnecessarily, and often incoherently, on all manner of topics, until the moderator has to interrupt them).

Again, I’m led back to the theme of decadence, and of particularity vs. generality. People are immersed in themselves: when talking at great length unnecessarily, they’re being self-indulgent, unempathetic, undisciplined, and just plain stupid. (Stupidity is utterly immersed in itself, whereas intelligence incorporates others. Particularity vs. generality.) In communicating, one should try to stick to the point. Even more importantly, one should have a point.

Chomsky’s practice in this respect holds some lessons for academics. He doesn’t describe for the sake of describing, recounting things that happened just because it’s interesting to tell stories or to probe the experiences of people from certain analytical perspectives (the perspectives of gender, race, sexuality, or whatnot). While there is value in doing so, in the manner of social historians for example, he prefers to take a more scientific approach to the study of society. As he says in this interview (near the end), if your goal is to explain, rather than just to describe, you have to apply general principles to particular phenomena and try to explain the latter in terms of the former. You don’t simply wade around in the particularity and remain on that level; and you certainly don’t celebrate the particular for its own sake, as postmodern scholarship—which rejects general principles like class conflict as either oversimplifications or of no special priority—often does. The whole point of science is to simplify, to explain the chaotic mess of reality in terms of simple principles like Boyle’s Law or Newton’s laws of motion. You abstract from complicating factors and isolate dominant forces; then you try to account for unexplained factors by using secondary principles, and so on. Throughout, the point is to test the general idea, not to say, in effect, “Reality is incredibly complex, but here are various ways of describing it and interpreting it (using gender, race, sexuality, class, individual psychology, etc.).”

Chomsky isn’t wrong when he says—while admitting that the picture he’s presenting is overdrawn—“Humanistic scholarship…says every fact is precious; you put it alongside every other fact. That’s a sure way to guarantee you’ll never understand anything. If you tried to do that in the sciences, you wouldn’t even reach the level of Babylonian astronomy.”

As I’ve explained in this essay, in the case of society, the dominant principle has to be class conflict. Or historical materialism more generally. Of course, society is different from nature: it’s not deterministic. So the “science” is of a different character than physics, and the explanatory principles are of a different character than Newton’s laws of motion. Still, the people who criticize Chomsky or Howard Zinn or Marx for being reductivist, oversimplifying, partisan, etc. are wide of the mark. The truth is that it’s the establishment intellectuals who are being far less scientific than the “partisan” leftists, because the latter recognize how science, or understanding, works. It isn’t “neutral.” It is grounded in“reductivist” principles.

A new book by the respected liberal historian Jill Lepore serves to illustrate the point. These Truths: A History of the United States has received the usual acclaim that establishment writers get, and in many ways it is an impressive achievement. But not as providing a framework of explanation for U.S. history. Insofar as the narrative is guided by general ideas at all, they’re the wrong ideas. “The United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea, rooted in Christianity, but it rests, too, on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching.” “The American experiment rests on three political ideas…political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people.” It’s the tiresomely conventional liberal idealism, which, incidentally, is grounded in value-judgments just as much as Zinn’s People’s History of the United States is. Lepore has given the usual criticisms of Zinn, that he simply reverses old value-judgments about the gloriousness of America, a reversal that, analytically, “isn’t an advance; it’s more of the same, only upside-down.” She fails to see that her own history is just a more subtle return to the narrative about how great and unique “the American experiment” is. She acknowledges that lots of bad things have happened in U.S. history, but then immediately qualifies this admission by saying it’s true of every other country too (which it is). And then the next sentence: “But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty.” This sentence isn’t followed by acknowledgement that the same value-judgment is true of other countries, because Lepore, as a good patriotic liberal American, still implicitly subscribes to the old notion of American exceptionalism (which Zinn, being a deeper thinker, rejected—and this wasan “analytical advance”). Her agenda is to celebrate the U.S.—to defend it against “critics” like Zinn—as a French historian might celebrate France, a British historian might celebrate Britain, etc. There isn’t much explanatory value in this sort of patriotic narrative history.

I’d also note, in defense of Zinn, that it isn’t true he does “nothing but” criticize the United States, as Lepore says. As a serious thinker, unlike Lepore, he knows that the very idea of criticizing the United States is meaningless, since the United States isn’t a single coherent entity. Being a nation, it’s an artificial construction that has innumerable dimensions. Zinn criticizes the U.S. government; he celebrates the American people, especially those who have resisted oppression. He has a far more sophisticated analytical method than a Lepore.

One of the reasons for his sophistication is that he doesn’t adopt a naïve idealism that tries to “explain” history using principles that aren’t robust enough to really explain anything. He uses truly explanatory principles, which, like a scientist would, he tests by deeply exploring the past. These “principles” amount to the single, commonsense statement that Chomsky makes in the film Requiem for the American Dream: “The history of the United States is a constant struggle between these two tendencies: pressure for more freedom and democracy coming from below, and efforts at elite control and domination coming from above.” It’s a history of power struggles, which amounts to a history of class conflict (including racial and other forms of conflict, conditioned in myriad ways by class). This is a realistic and substantive hypothesis that provides a framework of understanding, and that is backed up by a colossal body of world historiography.[1]

Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs has devastatingly criticized Lepore’s book, pointing out that it mostly ignores the history of working-class struggle, among other things that are central to the American story. But this is what happens when you don’t have much of an overall point except to tell particular stories that you rather arbitrarily judge to be important. If you lack a weighty analytical anchor, you lose your way.

I’ve always found it ironic that the idealists, whether liberal, conservative, or postmodernist, are bad at ideas, far worse than the materialists.

The fact is that you don’t need the endless verbiage of academics, the (usually hyper-specialized) books and articles ad infinitum, in order to understand the world. Essential truths can be expressed in a few words, as Chomsky shows. You state the hypotheses, and then you provide the factual documentation. Of course, we intellectuals have to get our paychecks, so it’s necessary for us to constantly come up with new research proposals and new stories to tell for their own sake, and to discuss and discuss unendingly in conferences and so forth, repeating and slightly reformulating old insights or “problematizing” them for the sake of problematizing them, pompously “theorizing” and pontificating, but little of our activity has much of a ‘scientific’—and certainly not a moral—payoff. It’s just how the institutions work, and how the political economy keeps educated people occupied who might otherwise spend their time on dangerous pursuits like challenging power-structures.

***

This article has gotten longer than I anticipated, but there are a couple more points I want to make before putting an end to the “endless verbiage” to which I’m subjecting the reader.

When reading Chomsky’s works or watching his interviews, I sometimes come across a startling statement that first elicits the reaction “What the…?”, which is momentarily followed by “Hm, that makes sense.” And then I envy the mind that was independent enough to have come up with the idea on its own.

I remember reading in Understanding Power that when some Vietnamese refugees in Canada had burned Chomsky’s books he wasn’t bothered by it. It’s a reasonable form of protest, he said (as long as it isn’t done by governments or corporations). Having been indoctrinated by writers of books into thinking that books are sacred, that book-burning is always a barbaric act, for a moment I was surprised. But then I thought, “Sure, why not? What’s so terrible about burning a few copies of books if you think they’re bad books? It’s not like you’re burning everycopy. It’s just a symbolic statement. It’s free expression!” Most other authors would have been outraged at a bonfire of their books, but Chomsky doesn’t take things personally. Abstract principles are what matter.

More recently, I was struck by his statement in this video (at 31:44) that “the concept of debate is one of the most irrational inventions that human beings have come up with.” Huh? “Just think about what a debate is. The ground rules for a debate are you’re not allowed to change your mind. You’re not allowed to say to the person you’re talking to, ‘oh, that was an interesting idea, why don’t we pursue it?’ It’s just the height of irrationality…” As he elaborates, you realize he’s basically right. Personally, I’m too much a product of my society, too groupthinking and conformist, to have had the thought on my own. I’ve always wished I were a better debater. But yes, surely the main reason debates happen at all is that ego and questions of power are involved. (Or the debate can be a game, a competition.) If it were only a question of reason, we would have open-minded conversations, not debates.

I now try never to automatically accept seemingly reasonable cultural ‘constructs,’ but instead to critically examine every value and idea I’m pressured to accept. It’s a hard thing to do consistently. But even ideas I’ve come to on my own I try to periodically challenge yet again, to see if they still make sense in the light of new experiences.

In the end, it’s this (relative) absence of ego that sets Chomsky (relatively) apart. He obsesses over politics not because he enjoys it—he surely finds it as dreary as I do—but because, given his abilities, he has a duty to. I think we all could be a little more conscious of our duties to each other, insofar as we subscribe to the Golden Rule (as we should). Duties to be kind, to answer emails, to not be too quick to judge harshly, to imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes, to give people the benefit of the doubt while yet taking a clear stand when certain moral lines have been crossed, and in general to strive for relative selflessness (because that is intellectually, aesthetically, and morally elevated).

It’s easy to be misanthropic and nihilistic, but there’s something a little self-indulgent, even decadent, about that. A more “clean” and virile response is to recognize the horrendous evils and absurdities of the world, indeed to take them for granted, but to imagine oneself as an objectively detached being who is committed, no matter what, to realizing certain universal values. Nothing can make you stray from your path. However stupidly and disgustingly people act, you continue to act kindly and respectfully because it’s a principle you’re committed to, your own categorical imperative. You keep working to improve the world in whatever small ways you can, because that’s the law you’ve given yourself. You try not to emotionally dwell on the negative, since there’s so much of the negative in the world that you’ll end up in suicidal despair. You remember there is also plenty of the positive, and the only healthy thing is to increase the aggregate amount of the positive.

In a sense, don’t take the world seriously. Don’t take the farce, or the “freak show,” as George Carlin called it, seriously. We’re here for a few decades, can observe and try to mitigate the freak show for a few decades, and then vanish into the oblivion from whence we came. Nothing really makes sense, not our existence and, especially, not what we’ve collectively done with our existence. The brutal Chomskian irony/sarcasm is appropriate. But you still make of life what you can, do what you can to live in a healthy way, not being surprised or overly depressed by all the cruelty and absurdity but impressed by the many positive qualities you encounter.

Nietzsche’s amor fati is perhaps unattainable, but Chomsky’s stoicism and good humor are the next best thing.

In short: happy birthday, Noam, and may you have many more.

Notes.

[1] But you really only need to read one book in order to get the rudiments of an education: Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that, together with its extraordinary footnotes, this may be the greatest book ever published in the fields of political philosophy and political science. I think it also suggests one of the reasons that intellectuals loathe Chomsky: he knows and understands so much more than they, despite lacking all professional credentials in these fields, that his existence is something of an embarrassment. Even worse, it’s hopeless to argue against him. All you can do is smear him.

Categories: News for progressives

Democratic Socialism: The Impossible Dream?

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:54

Photo Source David Shankbone | CC BY 2.0

The founders of “scientific socialism,” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, assumed it was quite possible, even historically inevitable, for working people to democratically govern an industrial society.  However, they never went into detail about how this would work.  Even today, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many orthodox Marxists persist in believing that vast, complex, globalized, industrial economies can be run by and for the workers who operate the machinery of production.  In fact, doctrinaire Marxists still cling to the fantasy that worker-run industrial socialism is not only possible, it is the historically destined, superior replacement for industrial capitalism.

This Marxist conviction is dubious for two reasons.  First, history has demonstrated that after many attempts, and despite their best intentions, the leaders of “socialist” revolutions have never succeeded in building an industrial society run by and for working people.  Second, the primary underlying reason for this failure flows from the structural requirements of industrial society.  Fossil-fueled industrial economies exert a powerful influence over their social structure. The extensive, intricate, hierarchical configuration of carbon-powered industrialism appears structurally unsuited and deeply resistant to bottom-up, democratic management.

When socialist-led revolutions seized political power in Russia, China, and elsewhere, Marxists were quick to label these countries “socialist.”  They were convinced that their ruling communist parties would industrialize these countries and bring them under democratic, working class control. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, reform-minded Marxists believed working people could gain power over their industrial economies through the ballot instead of the bullet.  But whether socialist parties were elected or seized power through revolution, they were never able to bring an industrial economy under the democratic management of working people.

Does this mean industrial societies are stuck with capitalism?  No. History has proven that industrial societies can possess relations of production other than profit-driven capitalism. Just as the agricultural societies generated despotic, slave, feudal, and capitalist class relations at different places and points in history, modern industrialism’s brief 200-year lifespan has generated a spectrum of economic relations as well.  But none of them have been democratic.

History demonstrates that industrialism can be dominated by capitalist owners out to maximize their profits or by central planners who manage the economy to benefit themselves while governing in the name of the people. Thus, the actual distance been industrial capitalism and the statist economies falsely labeled “socialist” or “communist” is much narrower than either old-line Marxists or free-market ideologues want to admit.  Throughout the 20th century, capitalists and communists waged ideological warfare over which type of industrial system was superior—privately run or government planned. But these arguments exaggerated the actual, real world differences between state-run (“socialist”) and corporate-run (capitalist) industrial systems.  In doing so, they hid the pervasive similarities between these two versions of industrial society.

During the Cold War, most Marxists asserted that the state-planned, industrial societies they called “socialist,” were far superior to capitalism. They denounced capitalism as a crisis-ridden system that benefitted the few by exploiting the labor of the vast majority.  These Marxists believed that government-planned industrial economies would outlaw labor exploitation for private profit and promote the general welfare of all.  Conversely, free market ideologues insisted these statist industrial economies (that they also called communist or socialist) suppressed economic liberty; stifled competition, efficiency, and innovation; and imposed totalitarian control over every aspect of life.

The original meaning of “socialism” and “communism” was lost in this ideological shadow boxing.  As originally intended by Marx and Engels, a socialist society would be run democratically, by the vast majority of working people, on the basis of human need, not profit.  In other words, socialism meant economic, political, and social democracy. They believed worker-run socialism would eventually become classless communism, as industry produced enough wealth to satisfy everyone’s basic needs and people became accustomed to contributing their abilities to a commonwealth that encouraged their talents and potentials in return.

When self-proclaimedsocialist revolutions came to power in Russia and China, Western capitalists were worried. They feared that thriving workers’ democracies could make capitalism look inferior and inspire more class rebellions around the world.  They tried to eliminate, subvert, and vilify these socialist experiments whenever possible. But sabotage failed to prevent these experiments in “socialist construction” from rapidly industrializing. Unfortunately, industrialization was never accompanied by economic democracy.

For years Marxists excused the failure of self-proclaimed socialist governments to promote democracy in the workplace, the community, and in government.  There was substantial truth in their excuses.  The conditions for promoting democracy were definitely not ideal in the USSR, China, or any of the other countries where communist parties came to power.  These countries were not the advanced industrial societies Marx and Engels believed would become the birthplace of socialism.  The working class was not the majority; instead, it was a poorly organized minority in underdeveloped nations of peasant farmers.

But even though the Soviet Union and China fell short of their vision of working class democracy, most Marxists were hopeful that they were a work-in-progress.  They claimed economic democracy would come later, after a modern industrial economy was constructed under the direction of the communist party’s central planners.  Unfortunately, later morphed into never.  Although the USSR and China industrialized and the “socialist” nations of Eastern Europe modernized rapidly after World War II, efforts to promote genuine economic and political democracy never gained traction, even after the working class was the vast majority of society.

In fact, no self-proclaimed socialist country, from Poland and East Germany to Cuba and Vietnam, ever achieved the type of economic and political democracy Marx, Engels, and most socialist revolutionaries envisioned. Instead, what passed for socialism were statist societies ruled from above by an elite cadre of party officials and central planners.  Needless to say, the proponents of capitalism seized every opportunity to disparage and vilify the idea of communism and socialism whenever these statist governments failed to live up to their self-proclaimed socialist ideals, which they invariably did.

The rulers of statist systems insisted they were Marxists, leading their socialist nations toward a classless, communist society.  Yet, as time passed, it appeared that centrally planned industrial systems consistently fostered an entrenched, privileged class of party officials and central planners rather than a socialist democracy run by and for working people.[1]  Yet, both communist and capitalist cold warriors insisted on mislabeling these statist societies “socialist” and either condemned them as grim totalitarian tyrannies or extolled them as prosperous workers’ democracies.

It is important to note that it served the interests of both sides to mislabel these statist systems “socialist” or “communist.”  Western capitalist governments wanted to discourage their citizens from seeing socialism as a viable alternative, so they highlighted the worst qualities of these state-planned economies to portray socialism as an evil totalitarian system.  From the other side, the ruling parties of these statist economies proclaimed themselves to be the leaders of prosperous socialist democracies on the path to classless communism, while glossing over the grim realities of industrial statism with glowing propaganda.

Thus, for opposite reasons, both sides of the Cold War tacitly agreed with the self-serving fiction that these statist industrial societies were genuine examples of socialism.  So when the Soviet system imploded and China integrated itself back into the global capitalist system, it became a commonly accepted myth that socialism (and communism) had failed and capitalism had won the Cold War.  When actually, what failed was statist industrialism.

In reality, genuine democratic socialism has never existed despite the self-serving claims of both sides to the contrary.  In fact, the complex, large scale, highly centralized, vertically integrated nature of industrial society cannot possibly accommodate authentic, bottom-up, democratic control over this top-down economic process.

There are multiple theories for why democratic socialism failed. Some critics of revolution insist that the leaders of socialist insurrections were merely power-driven opportunists who never intended to bring the working class into power.  However, to be a valid explanation for the universal failure of democratic socialism this would have to be true across the board, for all those who led and organized every socialist revolution.

History provides no evidence for the assertion that none of the revolutionaries who risked their lives to lead anti-capitalist revolutions were sincerely committed to democratic socialism.  Of course, there are always opportunists in every political movement.  But it is inaccurate to claim that socialism failed because these revolutionary Marxists were never genuinely committed to democratic socialism.  Instead, most either believed the communist party represented working people or hoped to bring the working class into power eventually. Yet, despite their best intentions, this never happened.  Why?

As Engels reminds us, sometimes our intentions,“are from the outset incapable of realization, or the means of attaining them are insufficient.”  He goes on to explain that when our intentions are unattainable, “the conflict of innumerable individual wills…for the most part, produce results quite other than those they intended–often quite the opposite.”[2]  The socialist-led revolutions of the 20th century did indeed produce results quite other than those they intended.  Yes, they were able to launch nations down a path of state-planned industrialization that did not operate according to the profit-driven imperatives of capitalism. But these statist systems bore no further resemblance to democratic socialism.

Most historians have rejected opportunism as a universal explanation for the failure of democratic socialism.  But many doctrinaire Marxists went so far as to insist that any criticism of self-proclaimed socialist countries was merely capitalist propaganda. However, less ideologically rigid Marxists have offered a range of plausible reasons why democratic socialism has failed to materialize.

Some blame capitalism.  Without a doubt, capitalist powers have tried very hard to vilify, abort, or undermine these revolutionary regimes at every turn.  Their efforts had an definite impact.  They made it very difficult for socialist experiments to succeed, while highlighting their failures to turn people against socialism.  Yet these efforts at sabotage did not prevent communist parties from rapidly industrializing or claiming they were constructing socialism despite “capitalist encirclement.”[3]

Other Marxists blamed the failure of democratic socialism on the authoritarian rule of communist vanguard parties that monopolized power while claiming to rule in the name of the workers.  There is truth in this criticism as well.  Most ruling communist parties extolled their nation’s faultless leaders and the infallibility of Marxist doctrine even as they departed further and further from anything resembling democratic socialism.  In fact, time after time, as countries became more complex and industrialized they became even less democratic.

The failure of democratic socialism was also blamed on the underdeveloped economies where revolutions brought communists to power.  When communist parties gained power after leading successful national liberation movements in the Third World, some Marxists doubted they could create socialism in these backward peasant countries. They believed socialism would be impossible unless communist parties pursued a policy of rapid industrialization to modernize the country and develop a working class majority.  But even in China and the Soviet Union, where rapid modernization succeeded and the working class became the majority, no working class democracy ever materialized.

Other Marxists reasoned that when communist parties led armed insurrections followed by policies of rapid industrialization they were compelled to impose top-down programs and directives incompatible with the messy, time-consuming process of bottom-up, participatory democracy.[4]  There is substantial truth to these Third World focused explanations because they reflect the underlying fact that rapid industrialization is inherently resistant to democratic management.

However, it is important to note that none of these partial explanations can account for the failure of socialists in the industrialized West to establish working class democracies—either through revolutions or elections.  In the more developed nations of the global economy, the revolutionary path to power has never succeeded.  Some Marxists attribute this to the enormous coercive power of the corporate state; others blame the false consciousness imposed by capitalism’s ideological “hegemony” over the entire culture.[5]

These Marxists highlight the political complacency fostered by media-hyped consumerism, individualism, and the higher living standards found in the industrialized core of the global economy.  These conditions produced a working class with no taste for revolution and a limited enthusiasm for electing “socialist” governments.  If elected, socialist and communist politicians never attempted to democratize the economy.  Instead they settled for taxing corporate profits and promoting welfare state industrialism.  But the economy remained largely in private hands.  Even when a “socialist” government exercised power over major portions of the economy, this power was never held by working people.

Ultimately, these are all partial, piecemeal explanations for the failure of democratic socialism.  Some theories focus on why it failed in poor nations, others on why it failed in wealthy nations; some focus on power-hungry politicians, working class apathy, or the inherent weaknesses of either reform or revolution.  However, universal failure would suggest that there are more pervasive, underlying, structural reasons why neither revolutionary nor reformist efforts to build democratic socialism have ever achieved more than welfare state capitalism or statist industrialism.  The essential truth remains that genuine democratic socialism has not succeeded anywhere, even though Marxists believed it would succeed everywhere.

Is it possible that a rapidly expanding, multi-state, globalized industrial economy—powered by an energy base of fossil fuels—is incompatible with nationally restricted efforts to bring it under genuine democratic control?  In hindsight, it appears that the physical constraints and social requirements imposed by globalized industrialism foster undemocratic, hierarchical economic relations resembling either corporatist or statist political economies that resist bottom-up, democratic governance.  This is the most feasible, comprehensive explanation for the failure of democratic socialism in both emerging and mature industrial societies.  The other piecemeal theories discussed above are partially accurate, yet limited, derivatives of this pervasive, underlying restriction on genuine economic democracy.

The problem solving theoretical principle known as Occam’s razor (or the law of parsimony)considers the strongest theory to be the one that provides the simplest, most comprehensive explanation in line with the evidence.[6]  The conclusion that economic democracy is incompatible with the hierarchical, vertically organized structure of industrial production meets these criteria.  By its very nature, fossil-fueled industrialism promotes extensive, highly integrated economies of scale that require top-down managerial direction.  Complicated, highly mechanized, global chains of industrial production frustrate nationally confined, workplace-centered economic democracy.  They require an managerial elite to oversee the planning, administration, and supervision these technologically elaborate, vertically integrated operations. Therefore, it becomes virtually impossible to govern these political economies in a decentralized, democratic manner—especially when chains of production override and transcend national borders.

Even for the “socialist” countries that tried to remain detached from the global capitalist economy, industrialization defied “democratic socialist planning.”  Without profit margins and market signals to influence economic decisions and erratically adjust supply and demand, the extremely complicated process of fossil fueled industrial production had to be centrally planned to meet the multiple contending needs of the workforce, the surrounding community, the entire nation, and the sophisticated technologies needed to operate it.

Grassroots democratic control over this “pyramid of production” has never succeeded at the national level and is hard to even imagine on an international scale.  Invariably, the nature of this giant, complicated, hierarchical system resists democratic oversight and impedes bottom-up decision-making procedures.  Therefore, despite the polarized, antagonistic ideologies of capitalism and “socialism,” the spectrum of real world production relations compatible with carbon-powered, highly mechanized societies is much narrower than these rival ideologies care to admit.

Whether they call themselves socialist or capitalist, all modern societies generate a managerial elite of central planners or corporate executives to oversee them.  Even so, the enormity and complexity of globalized industrialism defies strict, comprehensive control.  However, by occupying society’s commanding heights, ruling elites dominate the decision making process and claim an inequitable share of the benefits for themselves.  They control the technologies of energy conversion and the institutions of economic power; they use this power to shape society’s political priorities and cultural institutions.  Thus, the party officials and state planners of “socialist” countries like China bear a remarkable resemblance, in both appearance and function, to the top corporate executives and government policymakers of their capitalist counterparts.  In each case, complex, centralized, mechanized, urbanized, fossil-fueled economies beget a powerful industrial elite who attempt to control the flow of energy, resources, money, power, and information.

While capitalist ideologues, in theory, extol the virtues of the competitive “free market” and spurn state regulation, in reality corporate executives revile competition and do everything in their power to avoid it unless the game is rigged in their favor.  As Marx pointed out long ago, each successive bout of boom and bust reduces capitalist competition, which inevitably succumbs to centralization and oligopoly.  Instead of a regulation-free competitive environment, giant corporations prefer a corrupt “revolving door” relationship with government policymakers who favor them with political influence, lucrative contracts, tax breaks, and subsidies, while forcing small businesses to contend with regulatory barriers and rigged markets that make competition nearly impossible.  The supposed separation between the public and private sectors is more artifice than reality.  At the pinnacles of power, capitalist elites circulate constantly between highly integrated “private” and “public” sectors of social control.

Powerful industrial states, whether capitalist or statist, always possess a well-funded national security apparatus of armies, propaganda and intelligence operatives, police, courts, and prisons.  These institutions of social mind control, coercion, and violence are used in exactly the same way: to defend and advance the industrial elite’s interests at home and abroad and to suppress any significant dissent and unrest.

Beneath this powerful class of industrial “socialist” and capitalist elites there are middle class functionaries, scientists, bureaucrats, and professionals who provide the intellectual talents, technological expertise, and managerial skills necessary to keep a complex society functioning. This middle class lives better than the vast majority of the population whose days are spent doing the mind-numbing, back-breaking, minimum wage jobs needed to tend the bureaucratic-industrial machine.

Except for relative differences in social welfare, modern conveniences, and purchasing power, these basic relations of production have characterized all developed industrialized countries from capitalist Europe and America to statist systems like the Soviet Union, its East European allies, and China. Wherever you look, genuine economic and political democracy has not proven compatible with the industrial mode of production, despite the dedicated efforts of free-market libertarians, anarchists, populists, radical democrats, communists, and socialist revolutionaries to redistribute wealth and power.  Instead, some configuration of industrial rulers have always emerged and prevailed.

Thus, genuine socialism has never become a reality despite the best intentions of those who struggled to bring it about.  Instead, their best intentions and noble aspirations were eroded and warped to fit the structural imperatives of modern industrial society.  The result became the various versions of statist industrialism that passed for “socialism” during the 20th century. With few exceptions, all of these statist systems had re-integrated themselves into the global capitalist system to one degree or another by the end of the 20th century.[7]  Marxists have been hard pressed to explain why.

This was especially perplexing for old school Marxists and communists who wanted to believe that these statist societies were genuine socialist systems at the vanguard of history, leading humanity down the evolutionary road to communism.  After all, why would a socialist nation, supposedly run by and for working people, ever choose to reverse the course of history and rejoin the capitalist system?  However, once you remove the ideological blinders, the answer to this question is much less perplexing: the working class was never in power in any of these so-called “socialist” governments.

Some Marxists claim these statist systems were actually socialist because, unlike capitalist countries, state-planned enterprises were not required to maximize profit and were not allowed to turn labor or means of production into commodities.  The government was the only owner of the means of production and thus the only employer of the working class.  It guaranteed workers a job and didn’t restrict basic social needs like education, housing, transportation, and health care to only those who could afford to buy them.

However, the working class did not have any effective control over these “socialist” governments.  These statist systems were not democratic; and the inefficient, unaccountable bureaucracies that managed every walk of life were self-serving, impassive, insensitive, and generally unresponsive to public criticism.  Even at its best, the quality of the jobs, goods, and services provided by these state planned economies was highly unsatisfactory for everyone except a politically privileged elite.

Thus, like capitalism, alienation pervaded every aspect of life under statist societies.  While the profit motive is the primary directive for corporate elites, “communist” officials were motivated to please their superiors in the chain of command by perfunctorily fulfilling the directives of the central plan.  This situation left most working people completely alienated from, and disillusioned with, the grand ideals of “socialism.” So when these centrally planned systems began to implode under the burden of their own bureaucratic weight, corruption, and inefficiency, those who imagined they could do better under industrial capitalism were not sorry to see them go.

As the Age of Fossil Fuels draws to a close, there is an important lesson to be learned from our brief, petroleum powered, roller coaster ride through industrial civilization.  Energy sources, and the technologies used to harness them, are not socially or politically neutral.  They have a powerful influence over how society can be organized.  They promote some types of economic relations and discourage others.  While hydrocarbon powered industrial societies have proven incompatible with genuine economic democracy, future societies will have to live without this enormously rich, ecologically devastating energy source.  The decentralized technologies needed to harness alternative energy sources may be much more conducive to democratic governance at the community and workplace level.  However, there is absolutely no guarantee that post carbon societies will be more just or democratic.  After all, feudal and slave societies were based on renewable energy.  Those who hope to build a less alienating, more democratic future will have to pay careful attention to the social and political consequences of the technologies they adopt to harness renewable energy.

Notes.

[1] One of the first materialist analyses of this process was: Rizzi, Bruno. THE BUREAUCRATIZATION OF THE WORLD (Free Press, 1939); see also: Bahro, Rudolf. SOCIALISM & SURVIVAL. (Heretic Books, 1982) and Bahro’s FROM RED TO GREEN. (VERSO, 1981).

[2] Engels, Friedrich. LUDWIG FEUERBACH (1888): 47-51.

[3] The notion of “capitalist encirclement” was popularized by Joseph Stalin.  In his words, “Capitalist encirclement—that is no empty phrase; that is a very real and unpleasant feature.  Capitalist encirclement means that here is one country, the Soviet Union, which has established the socialist order on its own territory and besides this there are many countries, bourgeois countries, which continue to carry on a capitalist mode of life and which surround the Soviet Union, waiting for an opportunity to attack it, break it, or at any rate to undermine its power and weaken it.” https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/cccp-forrel-stalin.htm

[4] Fagen, Richard R. “The Politics of Transition,”Monthly Review. (Nov., 1986).

[5] As popularized by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, cultural hegemonyis the domination of capitalist society by a ruling elite that imposes its beliefs and values upon the entire culture.  Through its influence over all the venues of cultural indoctrination, education, and discourse capitalist ideology becomes the universally accepted ideology. It justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as an artificial social construct that benefits only the ruling class.  See: Hoare, Quentin and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds. SELECTIONS FROM THE PRISON NOTEBOOKS of ANTONIO GRAMSCI (1971).

[6] The law of parsimony, often referred to as Occam’s razor, is the problem-solving principle that the simplest viable solution tends to be the right one.  Thus, when presented with competing explanations, one should select the simplest, most comprehensive, hypothesis with the fewest assumptions and compatible with the evidence at hand.

[7] Since 1960, Cuban “socialism” has remained a relatively self-reliant, partially state planned society by default in many respects.  The collapse of the USSR and the stiff embargo enforced by the US imposed a level of self-sufficiency on the island that largely removed the potential for greater reintegration into the world capitalist system.  If the embargo is lifted, these new conditions will alter Cuba’s domestic and global economic relations.  This externally and internally reinforced isolation is similar to the situation of North Korea, although these two systems differ dramatically in many ways.

Categories: News for progressives

First Step Post-Election – Open Up the Closed, Secretive Congress

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:53

Photo Source Mike Norton | CC BY 2.0

Following the mid-term elections, progressive citizen groups have to advance an agenda that makes Congress work for all Americans. The first step, however, is to acknowledge that Capitol Hill has walled itself off from the people, on behalf of corporate autocrats.

Currently, Congress is open for avaricious business, not for productive democracy. Congress itself is a concentrated tyranny of self-privilege, secrecy, repressiveness, and exclusive rules and practices. Congress fails to hold public hearings on many important matters and too often abandons oversight of the executive branch, and shuts out citizens who aren’t campaign donors. (See my new book, How the Rats Re-Formed the Congress at ratsreformcongress.org.)

Having sponsored in the nineteen-seventies the bestselling book ever on Congress – Who Runs Congress, I have a frame of reference for the present, staggering institutional narcissism of the Congress as the most powerful, though smallest, branch of our federal government.

It would have been rare in the sixties and seventies for major legislation to have moved to the floor of the House and the Senate without thorough public hearings with witnesses from a diverse array of citizen groups being given a chance to come and testify.

In the past two years, the Republicans sent the tax escape and health care restriction legislations to the floor, without any public hearings at the Committee level. The “tax bonanza for the corporate and wealthy” passed into law, while the “take away health care for millions of people” bill fortunately lost by one vote in the Senate.

Cong. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee sent five bills to the House floor, without public hearings, that were meant to usurp the state courts’ traditional jurisdiction and weaken your rights to have your day in court before a trial by jury were you wrongfully injured. This vicious attack by Goodlatte’s corporatists on vulnerable victims was blocked by the Senate Democrats.

U.S. Supreme Court nominees before the Senate used to face days of public hearings with many valuable witnesses. For three decades, the Senate Judiciary Committee, under both Democratic and Republican control have shortened the hearings and markedly cut back on witnesses permitted to testify. Knowledgeable people with adverse information about the nominees were kept from testifying – their requests often not even acknowledged.

The signs of Congressional closeouts are everywhere. Years ago, Congress excluded itself from the great Freedom of Information Act. This arrogance fostered a breeding ground for abusive secrecy, covered up were such conflicts as members of Congress speculating in stocks with their inside information, corruption inquests before House and senate Ethics Committee. Even using taxpayer money to settle credible accusations of sexual assault against sitting lawmakers were all covered up.

The orgy of self-privilege knows few boundaries – being wined and dined and journeyed on fundraising junkets by lobbyists who donate dollars to their campaigns in return for legislated bonanzas or immunities is normal business practice. The Senators and Representatives give themselves generous pensions, health insurance, life insurance, and other goodies while denying or failing to provide tens of millions of people those protective benefits and coverages.

Members of Congress get special favors from an airline industry that gives you the back of its omnipresent, fee imposing hand (except for Southwest Airlines). Our survey of every member of Congress which aimed to publicize the details of these commercially provided privileges was ignored by every member of Congress. (See my “Letter to Congress re: Airline industry influence”). Also, nobody knows what favors the banks give them, while these subsidized firms gouge their customers with outlandish fess, penalties and ludicrously low interest rates on savings.

If you’ve ever wondered why the nearly $5 billion you pay annually to support 535 offices in Congress does not produce supervision of the sprawling wasteful executive branch Departments such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and State, the FDA and others, it might just be that the corporate donors are in effect paying their recipient solons to look the other way and let their passive Committee staff slumber.

An increasing number of the staff assigned to each member and their well-budgeted Committees are coming from the so-called K Street lobbying business. A little on-the-job experience helps them deliver the goodies to their former corporate employers, before rejoining them for lucrative salaries.

This corruption of the professional Congressional staff motivated Michael Pertschuk, the great chief of staff for Senator Warren Magnuson’s powerful Senate Commerce Committee, to write the recent book titled When the Senate Worked for Us. He chronicled the days in the sixties and seventies, when professional staffers played critical roles in passing consumer, environmental, worker, and other life-saving legislation.

The heavy concentration of power in the top two rulers of the Senate and the House has stripped Committee chairpersons of much of their power to address urgent necessities and diversify and decentralize internal Congressional power and activities.

Then there are the daily irritations. Regular people trying to call members of Congress or Committees find their switchboard increasingly on voice mail during working hours. Substantive letters from constituents are not even acknowledged much less given the respect of a reply. Calls to Senators or Representatives or their top staff are often ignored if you are not a campaign contributor.

These increasing plunges into dictatorial misuses of the sovereign power we have delegated to members of Congress are not universal. There are minorities of good-faith lawmakers objecting, but their power is too little to overcome the Congressional Corporate complex that has seized our Capitol.

As I’ve written many times before, it is not as hard as we think to break the corporate grip on our Congress. Creating a people-driven Congress starts with organizing Congressional Watchdog Groups that represent the broad left/right voter support for long overdue changes and reforms, in every one of the 435 Districts. See my book, Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think (especially pp. 144-145), where the civic summons to your Congressional lawmakers is presented for powerful face-to-face series of citizen controlled meetings back home.

Categories: News for progressives

Yes, You Have the Right to Talk Back to the Government, But It Could Get You Killed

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:53

“The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”

— Justice William J. Brennan, City of Houston v. Hill

What the architects of the police state want are submissive, compliant, cooperative, obedient, meek citizens who don’t talk back, don’t challenge government authority, don’t speak out against government misconduct, and don’t step out of line.

What the First Amendment protects—and a healthy constitutional republic requires—are citizens who routinely exercise their right to speak truth to power.

It’s not an easy undertaking.

Weaponized by police, prosecutors, courts and legislatures, “disorderly conduct” charges have become a convenient means by which to punish those individuals who refuse to be muzzled.

Cases like these have become all too common, typical of the bipolar nature of life in the American police state today: you may have distinct, protected rights on paper, but dare to exercise those rights and you put yourself at risk for fines, arrests, injuries and even death.

This is the unfortunate price of freedom.

Yet these are not new developments.

We have been circling this particular drain hole for some time now.

Almost 50 years ago, in fact, Lewis Colten was arrested outside Lexington, Kentucky, for questioning police and offering advice to his friend during a traffic stop.

Colten was one of 20 or so college students who had driven to the Blue Grass Airport to demonstrate against then-First Lady Pat Nixon. Upon leaving the airport, police stopped one of the cars in Colten’s motorcade because it bore an expired, out-of-state license plate. Colten and the other drivers also pulled over to the side of the road.

Fearing violence on the part of the police, Colten exited his vehicle and stood nearby while police issued his friend, Mendez, a ticket and arranged to tow his car. Police repeatedly asked Colten to leave. At one point, a state trooper declared, “This is none of your affair . . . get back in your car and please move on and clear the road.”

Insisting that he wanted to make a transportation arrangement for his friend Mendez and the occupants of the Mendez car, Colten failed to move away and was arrested for violating Kentucky’s disorderly conduct statute.

Colten subsequently challenged his arrest as a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the police.

Although the Court acknowledged that Colten was not trespassing or disobeying any traffic regulation himself, the majority affirmed that Colten “had no constitutional right to observe the issuance of a traffic ticket or to engage the issuing officer in conversation at that time.”

The Supreme Court’s bottom line: protecting police from inconvenience, annoyance or alarm is more important than protecting speech that, in the government’s estimation, has “no social value.”

While the ruling itself was unsurprising for a judiciary that tends to march in lockstep with the police, the dissent by Justice William O. Douglas is a powerful reminder that the government exists to serve the people and not the other way around.

Stressing that Colten’s speech was quiet, not boisterous, devoid of “fighting words,” and involved no overt acts, fisticuffs, or disorderly conduct in the normal meaning of the words, Douglas took issue with the idea that merely by speaking to a government representative, in this case the police—a right enshrined in the First Amendment, by the way—Colten was perceived as inconveniencing and annoying the police.

In a passionate defense of free speech, Douglas declared:

Since when have we Americans been expected to bow submissively to authority and speak with awe and reverence to those who represent us? The constitutional theory is that we the people are the sovereigns, the state and federal officials only our agents. We who have the final word can speak softly or angrily. We can seek to challenge and annoy, as we need not stay docile and quiet. The situation might have indicated that Colten’s techniques were ill-suited to the mission he was on, that diplomacy would have been more effective. But at the constitutional level speech need not be a sedative; it can be disruptive.

It’s a power-packed paragraph full of important truths that the powers-that-be would prefer we quickly forget: We the people are the sovereigns. We have the final word. We can speak softly or angrily. We can seek to challenge and annoy. We need not stay docile and quiet. Our speech can be disruptive. It can invite dispute. It can be provocative and challenging. We do not have to bow submissively to authority or speak with reverence to government officials.

Now in theory, “we the people” have a constitutional right to talk back to the government.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded as much in City of Houston v. Hill when it struck down a city ordinance prohibiting verbal abuse of police officers as unconstitutionally overbroad and a criminalization of protected speech.

In practice, however, talking back—especially when the police are involved—can get you killed.

The danger is real.

We live in an age in which “we the people” are at the mercy of militarized, weaponized, immunized cops who have almost absolute discretion to decide who is a threat, what constitutes resistance, and how harshly they can deal with the citizens they were appointed to “serve and protect.”

While violent crime in America remains at an all-time low, the death toll as a result of police-sponsored violence continues to rise. In fact, more than 1,000 people are killed every year by police in America, more than any other country in the world.

What we are dealing with is a nationwide epidemic of court-sanctioned police violence carried out against individuals posing little or no real threat.

I’m not talking about the number of individuals—especially young people—who are being shot and killed by police for having a look-alike gun in their possession, such as a BB gun. I’m not even talking about people who have been shot for brandishing weapons at police, such as scissors.

I’m talking about the growing numbers of unarmed people are who being shot and killed for just standing a certain way, or looking a certain way, or moving a certain way, or not moving fast enough, or asking a question, or not answering a question, or holding something—anything—that police could misinterpret to be a gun, or igniting some trigger-centric fear in a police officer’s mind that has nothing to do with an actual threat to their safety.

This is not what life should be like in a so-called “free” country.

Police encounters have deteriorated so far that anything short of compliance—including behavior the police perceive as disrespectful or “insufficiently deferential to their authority,” “threatening” or resistant—could get you arrested, jailed or killed.

The problem, of course, is that compliance is rarely enough to guarantee one’s safety.

Case in point: Miami-Dade police slammed a 14-year-old boy to the ground, putting him in a chokehold and handcuffing him after he allegedly gave them “dehumanizing stares” and walked away from them, which the officers found unacceptable.

According to Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, “His body language was that he was stiffening up and pulling away… When you have somebody resistant to them and pulling away and somebody clenching their fists and flailing their arms, that’s a threat. Of course we have to neutralize the threat.

This mindset that any challenge to police authority is a threat that needs to be “neutralized” is a dangerous one that is part of a greater nationwide trend that sets the police beyond the reach of the First and Fourth Amendments.

When police officers are allowed to operate under the assumption that their word is law and that there is no room for any form of disagreement or even question, that serves to destroy the First Amendment’s assurances of free speech, free assembly and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Then again, this is what happens when you take a police recruit, hype him (or her) up on the power of the gun in his holster and the superiority of his uniform, render him woefully ignorant of how to handle a situation without resorting to violence, drill him in military tactics but keep him in the dark about the Constitution, and never stress to him that he is to be a peacemaker and a peacekeeper, respectful of and subservient to the taxpayers, who are in fact his masters and employers.

The problem, as one reporter rightly concluded, is “not that life has gotten that much more dangerous, it’s that authorities have chosen to respond to even innocent situations as if they were in a warzone.”

What we’re dealing with today is a skewed shoot-to-kill mindset in which police, trained to view themselves as warriors or soldiers in a war, whether against drugs, or terror, or crime, must “get” the bad guys—i.e., anyone who is a potential target—before the bad guys get them.

Never mind that the fatality rate of on-duty police officers is reportedly far lower than many other professions, including construction, logging, fishing, truck driving, and even trash collection.

The result of this battlefield approach to domestic peacekeeping is a society in which police shoot first and ask questions later.

The message being drummed into our heads with every police shooting of an unarmed citizen is this: if you don’t want to get probed, poked, pinched, tasered, tackled, searched, seized, stripped, manhandled, arrested, shot, or killed, don’t say, do or even suggest anything that even hints of noncompliance.

This is the “thin blue line” over which you must not cross in interactions with police if you want to walk away with your life and freedoms intact.

If ever there were a time to scale back on the mindset adopted by cops that they are the law and should be revered, feared and obeyed, it’s now.

It doesn’t matter where you live—big city or small town—it’s the same scenario being played out over and over again in which government agents, hyped up on their own authority and the power of their uniform, ride roughshod over the rights of the citizenry.

Americans as young as 4 years old are being leg shackled, handcuffed, tasered and held at gun point for not being quiet, not being orderly and just being childlike—i.e., not being compliant enough.

Americans as old as 95 are being beaten, shot and killed for questioning an order, hesitating in the face of a directive, and mistaking a policeman crashing through their door for a criminal breaking into their home—i.e., not being submissive enough.

And Americans of every age and skin color are being taught the painful lesson that the only truly compliant, submissive and obedient citizen in a police state is a dead one.

As a result, Americans are being brainwashed into believing that anyone who wears a government uniform—soldier, police officer, prison guard—must be obeyed without question.

Of course, the Constitution takes a far different position, but does anyone in the government even read, let alone abide by, the Constitution anymore?

If we just cower before government agents and meekly obey, we may find ourselves following in the footsteps of those nations that eventually fell to tyranny.

The alternative involves standing up and speaking truth to power. Jesus Christ walked that road. So did Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless other freedom fighters whose actions changed the course of history.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the American dream was built on the idea that no one is above the law, that our rights are inalienable and cannot be taken away, and that our government and its appointed agents exist to serve us.

It may be that things are too far gone to save, but still we must try.

Categories: News for progressives

The Prospective Gassing of Human Beings in Alabama is an Abomination 

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:53

When, in October 2016, I wrote “[d]eath row inmates in Alabama are human guinea pigs” because the state’s capital punishment regime — specifically its barbaric, often bungled lethal injection protocol — is already so dark, so depraved, so outrageously cloaked in lies and officious secrecy, I never could have predicted the situation could get worse. But it has.

In glaring contrast to the heavily circulated, smiling picture of exonerated former Alabama death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton, ebullient after voting for the first time in a midterm election since being freed in 2015, after a hellacious 30 years on Alabama’s death row, it’s important to understand: the death penalty in Alabama has gotten far worse since Mr. Hinton’s release — not better.

First, because of the cynically named “Fair Justice Act,” convoluted legislation hacksawing fundamental constitutional rights of (overwhelmingly indigent) death-sentenced defendants, signed into law last year — over the varied, vociferous, published objections of the ACLU, a highly respected Harvard Law School professordefense attorneys in the state, myself, and even Mr. Hinton — it is far easier under current Alabama law, for an innocent person like Mr. Hinton, to be convicted and sentenced to death.

Second, despite a fairly recent slew of patently botched lethal injections, including that of Ronald Bert SmithTorrey McNabb, and Christopher Brooks — as well as the bloody, horrific, and failed execution attempt of Doyle Hamm, during which, among other atrocities, state executioners repeatedly (and futilely) jabbed multiple needles into Hamm’s groin and pelvis — Alabama has coldly, inhumanely, and, as I wrote elsewhere in June, steadfastly continued “its odious tradition of ducking and dodging transparency and accountability in how the state puts its prisoners to death.” I’d presaged this discomfiting conclusion several months earlier, in October 2017, in a piece for USA Today, after McNabb’s shameful, gruesome torture; in it, I dubbed the Commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) “‘Baghdad Bob’ of Alabama’s death row.”

Pouring accelerant on this already demoralizing and distasteful dumpster fire, a just-released report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), “Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States,” observes: “Alabama has one of the most restrictive secrecy policies in the nation, consistently maintaining that all documents associated with an execution are confidential.” (While he wasn’t focusing on the modern death penalty, in reviewing W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s new book “Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition” for the L.A. Times, author Colin Dickey recently and insightfully wrote: “The work of American torture has always been twofold: not just the violence itself, but the complex legal and rhetorical strategies that obfuscate it away to maintain a myth of America as a civilized place without cruel and unusual punishment.”)

And now, as if this wasn’t all ghastly enough — this undeniable fact Alabama has been torturing poor people for a long time, and that it shows no sign of stopping — the Montgomery Advertiser’s Bryan Lyman wrote on November 23rd that the state is planning to augment the barbarism involved in its executions to even greater and more unseemly dimensions; Lyman reports that plans are now underway for Alabama to develop a protocol to execute death row prisoners with nitrogen gas.

But, Lyman notes, because “[n]itrogen asphyxiation has never been used in capital punishment before,” Alabama “finds itself inventing a method of execution.” Soberly and pointedly, Lyman observes: “The American Medical Association authorizes the use of the method in animal euthanasia, though only for birds and small animals.” Relatedly, in March, Robert Dunham, Executive Director of DPIC, tweeted: “The World Society for the Protection of Animals lists nitrogen inhalation as ‘not acceptable’ for animal euthanasia because loss of consciousness is not instantaneous, and dogs euthanized by nitrogen gas have been observed convulsing and yelping after ‘falling unconscious.’”

Also in March, following Alabama’s vengeful killing of an 83-year-old man, I urged that during such dreary, desolate days for death penalty abolitionists, unusually sage insight, and perhaps also, the solace of understanding, can be gleaned from the words of writer James Baldwin. The same is true today as more and more developments emerge about the prospective state-sanctioned killing of human beings with nitrogen gas in Alabama — and even more depressingly, in other states like Oklahoma and Mississippi (which have approved the procedure), too.

In his essay “What Price Freedom,” Baldwin postulated: “I still believe when a country has lost all human feeling, you can do anything to anybody and justify it, and we do know in this country we have done just that.” Borrowing from Baldwin further, and speaking directly to Alabama’s Attorney General’s Office and the ADOC, Baldwin concluded, in yet another one of his piercing essays “The Uses of the Blues,” that “[i]n evading [death row prisoners’s] humanity, you have done something to your own humanity.”

But, last time when I wrote how James Baldwin’s writing helps us to understand the continued dastardly use of the death penalty, I also wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, I let Baldwin get the last word; this time, it’s with the power of Dr. King that I’ll close. Because it was Dr. King who, from his humble pulpit on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, began a nonviolent movement in this country — a movement for justice, for equality, for humanity, a movement for the betterment of all mankind — a movement that continues to this day.

In his book “Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. King wrote these hallowed words, words that all Alabamians, and indeed all Americans, still have not fully internalized, accepted, and allowed to become part of our baseline morality: “Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached a day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.”

With the prolonged picking and poking of condemned prisoners with needles, the “choice” of electrocution, and now, perhaps, also nitrogen gassing, we’re not there yet. Not even close.

 

Categories: News for progressives

Netanyahu’s Predicament: The Era of Easy Wars is over

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:52

When Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ordered his army to carry out a limited operation in the besieged Gaza Strip on November 12, he certainly did not anticipate that his military adventure would destabilize his government and threaten the very survival of his right-wing coalition.

But it did, far more than the multiple police investigations into various corruption cases involving Netanyahu’s family and closest aides.

Thanks to the botched operation in Gaza which led to the killing of seven Palestinians and an Israeli army commander, Netanyahu’s coalition has begun to disintegrate, merely needing a final push for it to collapse completely.

It all began with the resignation of the country’s extremist Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whoquit his post, two days after the Gaza attack, in protest of the country’s ‘surrender’ to Palestinian Resistance.

The even more extreme, far-right leader, Naftali Bennett, was expected to pounce on the opportunity and follow suit. He did not, in a calculated move aimed at capitalizing on the fact that he had suddenly become the government’s ultimate kingmaker.

Now, Netanyahu’s once stable coalition is hanging by a thread, with the support of only 61 members in the Knesset.

This means that the coalition’s once comfortable majority is now dependent on a single MK. One wrong move and Netanyahu could find himself forced into snap elections, a choice that, at least for now, he dreads.

Netanyahu’s options are growing limited. It seems that the age of striking Gaza with impunity in order to score political points with Israeli voters, is, perhaps, over.

While much political commentary is being dedicated to Netanyahu’s future and the dirty politicking of his right-wing coalition, Israel’s burgeoning problem is bigger than any single individual.

Israel’s ability to win wars and translate its victories to political concessions from Palestinians and Arabs have been greatly hampered, and this fact has little to do with Netanyahu’s supposed ‘weakness’, as his Israeli detractors often claim.

Some Israeli politicians, however, still refuse to accept that the violence paradigm is changing.

Almost every time that Israel has attacked Gaza in the past, Israel’s own politics factored greatly in that decision.

Gaza has been used as a stage where Israel flexed its muscles and displayed the latest of its war technology.

The 2014 war – dubbed ‘Operation Protective Edge’ – was, however, a wakeup call for the over-confident Israeli leaders.

More than 2,300 Palestinians were killed in that war and over 17,000 were wounded, the vast majority of them being civilians.

While that is quite consistent with the Israeli war trajectory, the number of Israeli casualties indicated a changing trend. 66 Israeli soldiers were killed in that war, and only a few civilians, indicating that the Palestinian Resistance has abandoned the randomness of its past tactics and grown bolder and more sophisticated.

Four years since that war, coupled with a particularly harsh stage of the siege – which has been imposed on Gaza since 2007 – did not change the equation. In fact, the fighting that was instigated by the latest Israeli attack further accentuated the fact.

As Israel pounded Gaza with a massive bombing campaign, Gaza fighters filmed a rare attack using anti-tank missiles that targeted an Israeli military bus on the Israeli side of the fence.

Hours later, a truce, facilitated by Egypt, was announced, to the relief of Netanyahu and the jubilation of Palestinians, who marched in their thousands celebrating the end of fighting.

Considering the disproportionate military power and desperate humanitarian situation in Gaza, it makes perfect sense why Palestinians perceived the outcome as a ‘victory’.

Israeli leaders, not only on the Right but the Left as well, attacked Netanyahu, who understood that continued fighting would lead to another major war, with most unpredictable outcomes.

Unlike Lieberman, Bennett, and others, Netanyahu’s political strategy is not only driven by attempting to pacify Israel’s angry public – many of whom protested the Gaza truce in various parts of the country.

The Israeli Prime Minister has a twofold political outlook: laboring to politically divide Gaza from the West Bank, and maintaining a degree of ‘stability’ that would give time and space for American political maneuvering in preparation for Donald Trump’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century.’

Moreover, Israel’s growing challenge in Syria and Lebanon makes a prolonged military operation in Gaza quite dangerous and unsustainable.

But the pressure on the home-front is relentless.

74 percent of the Israeli public is ‘dissatisfied’ with Netanyahu’s performance in the latest round of fighting in Gaza, according to an Israel Television News Company poll released soon after the truce was announced.

Yet Netanyahu has no other option but to commit to the truce in Gaza, which, as per Israeli political logic, means that he must stir trouble elsewhere to send a message of strength and prowess to the disquieted public.

This is precisely why Netanyahu renewed his threats of ethnically cleansing the population of Khan al-Ahmar in the Occupied West Bank.

“It will be demolished very soon,” he declared, in an attempt to move the conversation from Gaza to elsewhere and to regain the confidence of his right-wing constituency.

While Gazans are getting a badly needed respite, however fleeting, Khan al-Ahmar residents will now become the main target for Israel’s political violence and chauvinism.

The question is how long will Israel be able to sustain this violent paradigm and what will it take for the international community to hold Tel Aviv accountable?

As for Palestinians, Gaza has demonstrated that only Resistance, popular or otherwise, works. It is the only language that registers with Israel, who must understand that the age of easy wars is long gone.

Categories: News for progressives

Hightower Up Against the Corporate Wall

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:52

For ten years, Jim Hightower’s weekly column – Little Puffs of Populism – has been distributed week in and week out by Creators’ Syndicate to newspapers around the country.

Not one problem.

Until this week’s column titled Free The Free Press from Wall Street Plunderers.

Earlier this week, Creators’s Syndicate informed Hightower they were not going to distribute this one.

Why not?

“The big, hedge-fund owned newspaper chains that Hightower calls out in his column are big customers of theirs, and as such, they don’t want to risk offending them,” said Hightower assistant Melody Byrd.  “But while Creators’ reluctance to anger these powerful interests is somewhat understandable, the implications are frightening. It’s one more example of this dangerous time for America’s decreasingly-free press that, ironically, Jim lays out in this very column.”

In a note to newspapers urging them to run the column anyway, Byrd wrote – “the American people deserve to know more about the entities that are squeezing so many of our community newspapers for cash and, in the process, choking our democracy.”

Byrd said that Creators’ Syndicate told her that while the hedge funds that Hightower fingered in his column don’t own the syndicate, they do own many of the newspapers that the syndicate distributes to.

“The demise of the real news reporting by our city and regional papers is a product of their profiteering owners,” Hightower wrote in the column. “Not the families and companies that built and nurtured true journalism, but the new breed of fast-buck hucksters who’ve scooped up hundreds of America’s newspapers from the bargain bins of media sell-offs.”

“The buyers are hedge-fund scavengers with names like Digital First and GateHouse,” Hightower wrote.

“They know nothing about journalism and care less, for they’re ruthless Wall Street profiteers out to grab big bucks fast by slashing the journalistic and production staffs of each paper, voiding all employee benefits (from pensions to free coffee in the breakroom), shriveling the paper’s size and news content, selling the presses and other assets, tripling the price of their inferior product – then declaring bankruptcy, shutting down the paper, and auctioning off the bones before moving on to plunder another town’s paper.”

“By 2014, America’s two largest media chains were not venerable publishers who believe that a newspaper’s mission includes a commitment to truth and a civic responsibility, but GateHouse and Digital First, whose managers believe that good journalism is measured by the personal profit they can squeeze from it.”

“As revealed last year in an American Prospect article, GateHouse executives had demanded that its papers cut $27 million from their operating expenses. Thousands of newspaper employees suffered that $27 million cut in large part because one employee – the hedge fund’s CEO – had extracted $54 million in personal pay from the conglomerate, including an $11 million bonus.”

“To these absentee owners and operators, our newspapers are just mines, entitling them to extract enormous financial wealth and social well-being from our communities.”

Categories: News for progressives

The Missing Piece in the Gun Violence Discourse: The Porous Border Between Republic and Empire

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:51

There are multiple archives which record gun violence in America diligently and report that every day ninety-six Americans die of gunshot wounds.While mourning and praying and even seething over our impotence at bringing about any change in our gun control laws, we focus on tangible factors such as the power of the NRA in politics, or the dominance of the Second Amendment as ideology; rarely do we examine the foundation of these ideologies which are the bedrock of the American nation.

On February 22, 2018, eight days after the horrendous Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, The Washington Post published an article on Israel, commending the lack of school shootings there in the midst of a gun-infested and violence-prone culture.The article focused on the internal security system (how difficult it is for an outsider to walk into a school) and gun control laws (private gun ownership has a number of restrictions), while completely ignoring Israel’s record of killing Palestinian children.

The blind spot regarding Palestine—the approach of disentangling domestic and security issues—is prevalent among the American media and the American public not only when it comes to Israel. This mindset dominates also when we discuss the tragedy of school shootings by looking at such factors as the ease of gun ownership, the pervasiveness of gun culture, and the power of the NRA, while being oblivious to the existence of American empire, the basic structure that promotes militarization and romanticizes guns as a tool for the greater good rather than as an option chosen by an aggressor.

Gun culture and the power of the NRA do illuminate to some extent the plethora of firearms that are so easy to obtain that a person on the terrorist watch list can easily purchase one. This line of causality, however, ignores the broader question of why gun culture thrives and why the message of the NRA resonates in the midst of children being violently murdered in America.

The answer lies in recognizing that the logic and benefits of empire, built on militarization, have been internalized by most Americans. This is the missing piece of the puzzle that ties our external policy of attack, control, and conquest with the internal philosophy of the fear of being attacked and gun worship as our salvation.

While we lament the lives unnecessarily and brutally cut short because of the whims of some deranged person, we fail to look at parallel scenarios where many children and innocent people are being murdered with our current weapon of choice, drones, which are removed from sight and not so messy for public relations, so that we can easily label the resulting deaths as collateral damage.

We live in a culture obsessed with war, where the military is worshiped as a heroic entity, regardless of its actual role in executing the policies that spur wars. When the truth about the profit-making or self-serving nature of war policy becomes too obvious to ignore, such as in the Vietnam War or to some extent in the Iraq War, we label the war as a tragedy or a mistake, never as a criminal endeavor, in order to protect the image of both soldiers and statesmen.

At most, the participants in war can be projected as aggrieved or perplexed or even foolish, but they remain our heroes. Their very existence is built on the militarization of our culture and our obsession with retaining power through violent might. This distinct characteristic manifests in internal culture in the form of redefining liberty as gun ownership.

When we bring forth examples of comparable cultures like Britain, Canada, or Australia, where they have sensible gun laws or are able to quickly change their gun laws into rational ones, one of the key aspects missing from such discussions is that none of these countries are beholden to empire and therefore do not need to elevate guns or violence or militarization as something noble and sacrosanct.

In all of the heated discussions about school killings, this is the one feature that cannot honestly be addressed because there exists a boundary in our perception between what is acceptable for us and our people and what is allowed for others whom we regard as less than human.

But if there is a conscious boundary where we separate the domestic and foreign manifestations of violence, such a boundary is easily permeable in reality, to say the least. As soon as we accept torture, drone killings, and other atrocities as our weapons of choice, we normalize violence and power everywhere. It may not be a coincidence that the rise in the killings of unarmed civilians thrives at a time when America remains engaged in a multitude of wars, some visible, some not so visible. It becomes far too easy to redeploy the same mindset of dehumanizing the enemy toward unintended groups of people, whether they are minorities or schoolchildren.

American citizenship has always been sustained by multiple paradoxes, which allow us to prefer limited government while maintaining a powerful military presence all over the world, to claim being a nation of immigrants while adopting and enforcing racially and politically motivated policies of immigration, and to assert our faith in privacy while consenting to government scrutiny over all aspects of life.

The paradox of being an empire while professing to be in the vanguard of democratic values has always posed a conflict, but we have established this paradox as part of American exceptionalism. The financial benefits of the empire for the health of the domestic economy can hardly be denied. But perhaps it is time to consider whether there are momentous impacts on our culture and psyche when we continuously accept and prioritize violence as a mode of life.

While rising up and demanding gun control laws or challenging the power of the NRA are praiseworthy steps in active citizenship, so is the recognition of the connection between the republic and the empire, and the long overdue acknowledgment that the vice of gun worship is not limited to our schools, churches, movie theaters, and traffic stops, but is a reality dominating the entire human landscape of poor and helpless people living in countries which we control and dominate.

Mehnaaz Momen is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Texas A&M International University. Her book The Paradox of Citizenship in the American Polity: Ideals and Reality was published in 2017, and her next book, Political Satire, Postmodern Reality, and the Trump Presidency: Who Are We Laughing At?, will appear in December 2018.

 

Categories: News for progressives

Race Regimes

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:51

In Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, James Q. Whitman compares the two nations’ jurisprudence and politics in the birth of the infamous anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws (Princeton University Press, 2017). In sum, German fascism took inspiration from stateside policies and practices.

In it, the author unpacks similar features of German laws to identify and exclude Jews in the first half of the 1930s with Jim Crow laws restricting African Americans from white society in the US. Ruling class divide and rule is not the half of this “unpleasant truth.”

The American example of maltreating nonwhites, from blacks to Natives, immigrant Chinese, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans, played a central role in the Germany of the mid-1930s, not part of the US narrative in and of the school system. Whitman aims to change that oversight, a slow slog, to be sure.

“My purpose is to chronicle this neglected history of Nazi efforts to mine American race law for inspiration during the making of the Nuremberg Laws,” he writes “and to ask what it tells us about Nazi Germany, about the modern history of racism, and especially about America.” The racialized presidency of Donald Trump, who claims America’s brown people such as Mexicans and Muslims are those whom whites must fear and fight is proof of that.

His subtext is that the capitalist system is fine. What is un-fine are the dangerous folks with darker skin. That resonates in the deafening silence of anti-capitalist critiques on the public’s radar screen.

In two chapters, Whitman sheds light on the connective tissue between the two nations and what that all means for the current moment. A comparative law professor at Yale, he makes clear that the operative concept is the US influence, not perfect congruence, with the Nazi drafting of the Nuremberg Laws that codified racist prosecution of Jews in the 1930s. The binational concept of race as a comparative concept in law and social policy is complex.

In American history, skin color was a visual marker undergirding a social order based on a system of chattel and free labor. Thus, blacks could not assimilate into the US mainstream as Jews did in Germany.

Under the Nazis, persecuting Jews via skin color was not an option. Still, as Whitman shows, German lawyers studied American race law for insights despite the fact that it did not marginalize Jews.

In some cases, in fact, German lawyers found the American example of race law too extreme. Think about that! For example, the Nazis steered clear of classifying who was Jewish via a “one-drop” rule whereby a single drop of African blood made a person black in the US.

Jews, as Roland Freisler, a German jurist wrote in 1935, “are not reckoned among the coloreds” as they were under US law. Yet America in the late 1920s and 1930s offered a striking example of “race consciousness” that influenced Nazi lawyers and Hitler, who in Mein Kampf wrote admiringly of America’s second-class treatment of blacks, Chinese and Filipinos as a model to emulate in shifting Jews to the status of outsider.

Whitman further clarifies two strands in German jurisprudence. One is conservative and the other radical. The latter were the Nazi ideologues who triumphed over conservatives who believed in the law retaining its juristic traditions. How each strand accepted and rejected American race law around immigration, miscegenation, naturalization and segregation makes for a sobering read.

As far-right law and politics loom large in the US, Whitman’s book elucidates the antecedents for today’s resurgent white nationalism and its handmaiden of fear and hate. His comparative narrative of Jim Crow law and the Nazi Nuremberg Laws is thus an antidote to the fact and fiction of race as a socially constructed reality.

Categories: News for progressives

Capitalism, Empire, and the Infernal Gloom Machine

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:50

Depression is built into this machine and the evidence is plastered on the morose faces of people caught in the clutches of its business as usual activities. Depression is found in the insurmountable debts we owe for spending a lifetime of preparation and labor to serve the machine. In addition to debt, the machine awards us for our servitude with trinkets, gadgets, doodads and gizmos that provide a moment of hollow amusement and then sit on shelves in garages and decay. They represent the planned obsolescence of the human heart. The sacrifice paid for our fetish with materialism is the actual quality of our lives.

The gloom machine tells us the quality of our lives is defined by the machine in the driveway, and the machine that flushes away our excrement, and the machine that chills the tortured slaughtered animal flesh for later consumption, and the machine that flashes pornographic images and supplies numbers detailing how much we are liked by our so called friends. But to us humans it seems that quality of life is more appropriately measured in the amount of disposable time we have to pursue that which what we want, and the quality of the community around us, and living without being chronically stressed with threats of being displaced from the land upon which we live for not working hard enough for the machine.

Depression is waking up at 6 in the morning in darkness to sit in traffic for an hour to arrive at a job that we don’t want to be at, only to serve the machinations of people with nothing but greed in their overstuffed bellies. And we go to these jobs so that we can pay rents that are unaffordable, and to service debt we’ll never escape, and we go home in darkness to our lonely lives in places where community is absent with a view of an equally lonely tree or a manmade retention pond which is an upgrade over the view of staring directly at your neighbor’s domicile. Depression is the realization there is no vacation on the horizon, no respite, just more of the same. Depression is knowing that such a life is better than many others have it.

Depression is recognizing the cynics were right about this society, that Cohen spoke truth when he sullenly moaned:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Depression is watching art die. The surrealist, the bohemian, the rock ’n roll, and the anti-authoritarian soul has lain down and pledged fealty to the dollar. For money, they’re now all willing to become ready made predictable cubes to be packaged and sold in plastic wrap placed in cleverly designed boxes which deliver to the depressed public what they want, more of something that’s pretty on the outside and vacant within. We are left with monthly subscriptions of more tales of self aggrandizement for the throngs of temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Depression is watching the worst of us rise to legitimacy and awarded iniquitous riches for it. The popular is depressive, musical hack Cardi B sings about her money money money and she is loved. Jordan Peterson sells cheap self help stolen from better written material decades ago amalgamated with misogyny and dictates of hierarchal subjugation and becomes wildly popular. Trump purveys hatred of people of color and a love of authoritarianism and the depressive people, oh do they eat it up. This is sickness, depressive sickness.

Depression is acceptance of the violent now. The grossly unhappy men with their armaments spread their gloom and horror across the planet and claim righteousness for doing so. Depression is watching society applaud murderous hearts for their crimes who don badges and camouflage and have holidays to celebrate their violent history, while villains are made of those who simply don’t want to stand up for songs of oppression. Thank you for your service to the machine.

Depression is watching notions of resistance and revolution take form in slightly altered subservience. The great reformation desired now is for a “green new deal” that doesn’t come close mitigating the impending culling of humanity from soon to be ecological catastrophes. Their plans offer only more endless work at the behest of the gloom machine while promising healthcare that will never happen, less debt it will also never deliver, and affordable housing that still won’t solve homelessness. They don’t want to break the machine, just tweak it, and they lack the ability to do that even. Never have I borne witness to such eager slaves and such depressive aspirations. The people seem to adore their cubicle lives, their environmental destruction, their corporations, their debts, their corrupt leaders, their prisons, their banks, and their taxes.

They want to continue to be put to work under the thumb of the status quo western civilization authoritarian mind and this is all the depressed mentally dominated masses can think of as a possible improvement. Instead of wanting to taste real liberty and be actual equals, their dreams are limited to being better treated servants. The gloom machine chugs along fueled with dimwitted ideas sold by boxed in thinkers without any possibility of escaping the darkness, rather simply offering a more cushy seat for viewing the end of everything.

The machine bellows out demanding more, more, you owe me more, and somehow those wearing red, white, and blue agree and celebrate the demands of the machine. These debts we owe are servitude. The numbers held in digital machines are immoral which demand one must wake up to a dreary existence to do more of what is killing our souls along with the flora and fauna around us.

Depression is the downtrodden plebs who celebrate their corrupt democracy, which is in reality a thinly veiled oligarchy that should be obvious to all. They prop up a system of voting that allows the election of the presidency, a position that shouldn’t exist in the first place in an egalitarian society, to be awarded to candidates who don’t not capture the most votes. What little democracy there is in a representative system is lost in totality when the winner of elections need not win the majority of votes. The gloom machine is straight up tyranny.

A non-depressed society would reject being served faux democracy. They’d reject a system absent of reason or compassion and disdain would be for ideas of continuing to support such a destructive way of being. But instead, within the gloom machine shame is reserved for those who don’t want to take part in the busted system, and it venerates those who cast votes for imperialist conquerers and planet destroyers, and those voters are lauded as doing their civic duty for taking part in open public corruption.

Depression is the insincere know it all crowd who are incapable of honest debate and have rarely endeavored to open a book of substance or engage in critical thought, but they know trivialities which they mistake as facts and wisdom. They know arrogance well and emanate it with aplomb. They know how to believe all they see in the corporatized media, but thinking without boundaries or limitations is beyond their capacity. This is not even depression, this is tragedy.

Depression is watching the trees be plowed down for more tract housing, a portion of which will sit empty for years because no one can afford to move there, and even if they could it’s a heinous boring life that awaits which is only significantly better compared to being homeless. Depression is knowing this is the reason why we are rapidly destroying our habitable environment and commencing a 6th mass extinction event which is now accelerating.

Depression is to know there nothing we can do to stop the country we live in from mercilessly killing innocent people all over the world for no reason other than more economic expansion and our sadistic ideas of exceptionalism that entail spreading pain and hardship so a few elites can have more of what they already have more than enough of.

Depression is the powerlessness to change anything of significance. There is no other way they say other than the desolate gloom machine, they say this is how it must be. And so we remain here waiting for the horror that is soon to approach us all as the gloom descends in ever quickening waves.

A zombified indoctrinated populace can see no other way than capitalism and beating each other over the heads to satiate egos in needless competition that is unnecessary for survival and deleterious to the common good. Capitalism is the primary tool of empire, and a word that should be  synonymous with depression. It’s the accumulation of resources in an effort to gain more power in manmade markets to leverage that power over other people and get them to do what the person with the most power desires. Capitalism’s depressing ideology is defined by the lecherous desire for more for the sake of it so the winner can pound their simian chest in victorious celebration of the devastation they’ve created.

Capitalism is inherently unsustainable due the way it allows power to coalesce via the leveraging abilities given to money to buy land, the means of production, elections, and advertising. It allows the whims of the few to overrun the needs of the many where those with the worst intentions aspire to gain more than others because they will attempt to fill the void in their hearts with self importance expressed via power over others. This is why it cannot be used.

If there is no central currency or advantage to collecting huge amounts of resources then the motivation to hoard would evaporate, as those resources would simply rot or become a burden to maintain, there’s no fun in that kind of hoarding. The “fun” comes to the simpleton power seeker when they acquire power to make others do what they want and thus gain the ephemeral validation they so desperately seek.

If one runs the math on players competing for money at different rates of gain over a certain amount of time there will be a doubling effect which becomes exponential. And this effect will accelerate as it plunders along due to gains in leverage which allows for ever greater amounts of money to be made at faster rates. Eventually it always ends the way a game of monopoly ends, someone has all the power and everyone else is subservient to that entity/person.

These dour thoughts manifest from the recognition of the stranglehold empire has over our lives. The depression is the result of the myriad of expectations I can’t let go of that wants to see a kinder more egalitarian and sustainable world emerge while knowing how unlikely it is. Our collective depression is rooted in the foundations of social hierarchy and its economic tools of control, and understanding what a perfect trap it is, and so it goes, and everyone doesn’t know, but they feel it though.

 

Categories: News for progressives

China Policy: Disappointment Is No Excuse

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:50

Greg Sargent writes in the Washington Post (November 30):

For years after Deng Xiaoping’s decisive turn toward modernization in the late 1970s, U.S. business executives and diplomats supported not only opening the U.S. market to Chinese goods, but also a range of academic, cultural and even military contacts, on the theory that including China in a U.S.-led global system would induce Beijing’s Communist rulers to open their economy and, over time, political system as well. By now, it is abundantly clear to people across the political spectrum that this bet has not paid off. Where there was once a bipartisan consensus in favor of broad engagement with China, now there is almost equally widely shared disappointment with China’s failure to reciprocate as expected.

I think the writer correctly cites America’s disappointment with China. We can go back three or four administrations and find presidents and other top US officials expressing the same sentiment: the more deeply engaged China is in the global economic system, the more cosmopolitan its leaders will become and the more likely it is to succumb to liberal political change. But that all-too-easy formula hasn’t worked. Nor should there have been such widespread expectations that it would work. It rested on an inflated notion of capitalism’s magic, and on a misunderstanding of China’s political history.

For Chinese leaders during and since Mao’s time, the chief purpose of economic strength has been to promote social stability and elevate China’s standing in the world. Political liberalization, far from being the goal of a more powerful economy, has been the outcome to be avoided. “A fortress can be most easily captured from within,” China’s leaders have said, and “bourgeois capitalism” is the kind of force that, if not properly managed, can undermine the one-party state. Under Xi Jinping, China’s extraordinary economic rise has been coupled with stark social controls and emphasis on communist party discipline, precisely in order to prevent certain dangerous features of Western politics from infecting China. Chinese Communist Party Document No. 9 in 2013 cited seven threats to party control, including “Western constitutional democracy,” human rights, pro-market “neoliberalism,” and Western-inspired ideas of media independence and civic participation. That view, reminiscent of Mao’s concerns, should have been taken into account long ago by US leaders.

The two most fundamental problems today in US-China relations are their utterly different political-economic trajectories and the structural dilemma of a (lonely) superpower facing a rapidly rising challenger. America’s disappointment with China is no basis for dealing with these problems—no more so than Chinese disappointment with America’s failure to acknowledge China’s new status in world affairs. China’s rise is irreversible, and the model of economic growth without political liberalization is going to have its appeal—and failures—regardless of American criticisms or insistence on forever being Number One. The proper US response is to compete with China—in trade, development assistance, accountable governance, respect for human rights, and protection of the environment, for example—rather than punish it for deflating American dreams.

Categories: News for progressives

Sentinelese Islanders Reject Jesus, Shoot Missionary Dead on Beach

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:49

I write to memorialize John Allen Chau, the young man from Vancouver, Washington who after multiple trips to the Andaman Islands, preparing to land on the shore of the forbidden North Sentinel Island, did just that on Nov. 15 and 17, getting himself almost immediately skewered by a hail of primitive but highly effective arrows. (A reminder that Stone Age technology can kill as effectively as a 7.62 caliber AK-47 bullet.)

Chau’s tragic death is perhaps a small matter, a footnote to our troubled times when we need to be focusing on preparations for war on Iran based on lies, or war in Syria or Ukraine based on lies, or the descent of fascism on the west, or the melting of polar ice and rise of ocean levels, or other overriding historical issues. But just as another footnote—the murder of a journalist in a consulate in Turkey—causes us to linger a moment thinking about the banality of evil, so this episode causes one to reflect on the banality of stupidity.

Let us be honest about it. We’re talking about religious stupidity. This with patriotism is a final refuge of fools.

Chau was a devout Christian, a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He was 27. He had shared his dream of preaching the Gospel to the Sentinel Islanders as early as 2015. That’s when he confided his unusual aspiration to a classmate, while in Israel on a “Covenant Journey” trip. (This is a sort of Christians-only alternative to the “Birthright Israel” program for Jewish students only, which despite its obviously racist character is warmly endorsed by many U.S. universities including my own. It’s based on the myth that Jews are descended from a legendary figure named Abraham, supposed to have lived about 4000 years ago dying at age 175, who’d been promised the Holy Land would be held in perpetuity by the “Chosen People.” Hence any Jew anywhere can visit Israel and claim a “birthright” to settle down. Oral Roberts University preaches that God has a “covenant” with the Jewish people, that Christians too must recognize; hence the title of Chau’s trip. There are many Christians totally comfortable with this narrative that blinds their moral selves from any compassionate perception of the Palestinian problem. )

Chau had visited the Andamans in 2015 and 2016, surveying the site, no doubt planning his operation. Then this month he paid some Indian fishermen the equivalent of $ 350 to smuggle him onto the island for his sacred purpose.

Chau’s journal, now in the hands of his mother, includes a prayerful query to God: “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”

The journal records that on November 15 Chau having been dropped off on the beach saw some islanders and called out (as though there were any likelihood that his sounds might make some sense to them): “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!”

This cheerful, uninvited and unwelcome greeting produced a response in the form of an arrow which, Chau recorded that night, pierced his waterproof Bible, presumably protecting him. A miracle!

Chau swam back to the Indian fishermen’s boat to record the encounter, intending to leave his journal in their keeping. “I have been so nice to them [the tribesman],” he wrote puzzledly. “Why are they so angry and so aggressive?” Why indeed when all he wants to do is save their souls?

He also declared in his diary that night, addressing his family and friends: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” “I’m doing this,” he announced, “to establish the kingdom of Jesus on the island … Do not blame the natives if I am killed.”

This was followed curiously by “God, I don’t want to die.” (But don’t his actions have “death wish” painted all over them?) I hear an echo of Mark 14:36 here, or Matthew 26:39, or Luke 22:42. This is John Chau in Gethsemene.
The next day Brother John took scissors, safety pins and a football as gifts on his second mission t the benighted. The event ended badly, although it was mercifully quick. According to the fishermen, Sentinelese tribesman attacked Chau immediately with arrows. (Catholics, think St. Sebastian.) They tied a rope around his neck and dragged him around the beach. The fisherman saw the body on the shore the next day but did not retrieve it. (They’re in big legal trouble now for abetting Chau’s illegal action. The Sentinels cannot be prosecuted by Indian law.)

*****

Okay, it is a sad, sad thing. A young man gave his life for a very stupid cause—the conversion of a Paleolithic culture whose religion is unknown to a two-thousand-year old belief system, Christianity, based on premises like like the creation of everything by a Supreme Being with a human-like mind, capable of creation and destruction, anger and love;, the existence of “sin” as an integral human trait damning us all to a fiery hell lest we “accept” Jesus—1/3 of God—as our savior; and the promise of an afterlife that the modern world increasingly rejects as unscientific and which would in any case do these healthy people absolutely no good.

It’s sad when when religious ignorance, wedded with passion and perhaps a martyrdom complex, causes someone to behave so foolishly. But I do not want to err on the side of mourning for this sadly foolish martyr. No; one must be critical.

Because this young man did more than just get himself killed. Part of the Sentinelese hostility to outsiders seems to have resulted from disease introduced by outsiders since 1880. The Indian state believes it highly risky for indigenous people in the islands to have contacts with outsiders, to preserve their evidently excellent health. Not only do the mercilessly isolated Sentinelese not need a primitive Semitic monotheistic belief system, but none of us need the arrogance that pits a wannabe hero against a mythical Satan, imagining he’s delivering grace to fellow humans, experiencing a warm smug glow in the process, meeting death happily on the beach just before his brain functions cease and all goes dark, for no good reason ever at all. The most egotistical, meaningless form of death.

How dare this misguided person, inflated by an idiotic confidence that he possessed a Truth that others lacked, that others needed, that others in their heart of hearts wanted even if they didn’t know it, defy these people’s stated will—to others for decades, and to him personally on the day before his stupid death—to stay away! How dare he defy the Indian government’s law about avoiding the island; how dare he ignore the requirements of public health likely—through his very being, the body of his pompous holy self—exposing deathly pathogens to the Sentinels.

To any future fool, so misguided: It’s about science, dummy! You realize that the depopulation of North America from the fifteenth century mainly resulted from disease? And the tragic decline of the Hawaiian people in the nineteenth century, even as they abandoned their pagan ways and began to worship the Christian god, also stemmed from the missionaries’ sicknesses?

The Chau episode reminds us that the worst sickness is the arrogance of belief that insists on imposing it without respect for people as they are. There’s nothing good about bringing the islanders into our world against their will. Rather, the effort to breach their isolation and intimidate them with idiocy strikes me as the cardinal sin. To be clear on this unfortunate young man: He combined abject ignorance with the kind of extraordinary arrogance only possible by people deluded into the belief that a non-existent GOD figure fills their being and directs their oh-so-holy and justifiable actions. He did something so stupid it can only be understood as otherwise if it was deliberately suicidal. Maybe he achieved what he wanted and felt warm and fuzzy as his brain died.

But whatever his expectations of success, Chau did something unforgivably harmful. On the plus side, he gave us a vivid negative example of religious stupidity yielding the wages of death.

*****

In the early decades of the Christian movement, frequent persecutions fed a cult of martyrdom. Those thought to have died for the faith were revered as special beings and accorded special treatment after death. Thus arose the cult of saints. This dovetailed with the cult of lifelong chastity (a likely Buddhist import via the Silk Road into the nascent Christian church) and the high valuation of virgins who died protecting their “virtue” from pagan men (St. Agnes, St. Cecilia, St. Agatha, St. Lucy etc.). Stories of martyrs’ heroic confrontations with all manner of foes of Christ, savior of the world—foes rallied by the mythical Satan (whom deluded John Chau imagined to haunt North Sentinel Island-)–fired the imaginations of early Christians who went willingly to their deaths confident that they would wake up in Heaven.

We can admire these people their courage. But we can admire Muslim jihadists too, who give their lives all too willingly, often for stupid or evil causes—but sure, they display a type of courage (as Bill Maher noted after 9/11, only to be savaged by the “free press” in this country for his honesty.). We can imagine Chau calling out to the Sentinelese, knowing the arrows were inevitable and would kill him, nonetheless enacting his self-aggrandizing script. Religions can grow on such suicidal material.

But missionary religions are not the global norm, you know. There are thousands of religions content to entertain the minds of communities all over the world but feel no need t reach out to convert others. There have been only a handful of aggressively missionary religions in the history of the world. These have been, in sequence: Zoroastrianism (long since waned as a force in the world); Buddhism (that spread from northern India throughout Eurasia); Christianity (that spread from Roman Judea throughout Europe and much of Asia and Northern Africa before subsidized by western imperialism colonized much of Africa, Asia and Latin America); Manichanenism (that after its birth in Persia also spread throughout Eurasia and Northern Africa before it was crushed); and Islam which spread through conquest and more normally trade from Morocco to Malaysia.

Since Islam spread out from the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth century, the tide of missionary religions has receded on the planet. There are still people who think they have received or inherited a “truth” that the very Creator of the World wants them to share with their fellow beings. Protestant Christians and Sunni Muslims are the most vigorous, especially in Africa and Latin America. But for the most part the world wearies of this nonsense, these people with nothing to say broadcasting it loudly here and there. Any Boston-area taxi cab passenger hears Haitian Creole sermons on the radio. And sure, surfing the cable stations you will find round-the-clock religious material raging from traditional liturgical (and often highly beautiful) rites to boring antics and ridiculous ignorant ravings by people who may or may not wave the Bible or cite it, but invoke some sort of spiritual authority to justify their subterfuge. There are still missionaries out there, good and bad I suppose.

Historically the Buddhist, Christian and Muslim movements spread all kinds of culture from place to place; missionary movements have been great vans of cultural dissemination. Monks from the Himalayan foothills brought not Buddhist teachings into Central Asia, China and beyond; they brought the Pali and Sanskrit written languages, Indian mathematics, sugar and tea production, new techniques of architecture and bridge-building. Similarly, northward-wandering Christian monks brought more than Jesus to the Celtic, Germanic and Slavic tribes of Europe; they brought the Roman script, law, roads, aqueducts, Aristotle. There are many admirable missionary figures; a favorite of mine is Ganjin (Jianzhen, 688-763), a monk from Yangzhou who from 743 to 753 made five attempts to visit Japan by invitation of a Japanese temple. Each failed due to weather or government intervention; finally, having gone blind, Ganjin arrived in Kyushu in 753 and set about his mission: instructing and enforcing the vinaya, or monastic rules, which had been neglected in Japan up to this time. He wanted to elevate the status of the Buddhist clergy by insuring they observe appropriate monastic discipline. His mission was arguably benign.

But I’m sure he had his enemies. The Buddhist religion, officially embraced by the Japanese court in 587 (after the pro-Buddhist faction won a battle ensuring the succession of a pro-Buddhist ruler) had had its enemies. There were several anti-Buddhist uprisings in the eighth century, including one in 754, reflecting envy at the monasteries’ wealth and political power. In later centuries, the promotion of Neo-Confucianism, with its emphasis on filial piety and family values, conflicted with the Buddhists’ promotion of celibacy. A mounting critique of Buddhism resulted in a brief period of persecution (the haibutsu-kishaku, “abolish Buddhism, smash Shakamuni” movement) at the outset of Japan’s modern period. From 1868 to 1872 thousands of temples were destroyed in Japan, and clerics defrocked as the new regime attempted to establish State Shinto as the national religion. (The Buddhist establishment weathered the storm, and through a variety of strategies, including cooperation with the state’s evolving militarism and support for the Emperor-cult, regained legitimacy and sustained parishioners’ support.)

Christianity’s most beloved missionary is perhaps St. Patrick, the monk of part-British, part-Roman background who in the fifth century supposedly converted the Irish to the Roman Catholic faith, establishing a church that, cut off from western Christianity as a result of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain, evolved independently for several centuries. We know little about him; he may well be two men conflated in the lore. He is supposed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, and his walking stick grew into a real tree. Seventh century writings state that he communicated with his ancient ancestors. Probably not a real historic figure, but not unattractive, as a myth.

Modern Christian missionary movements are something else. (I exclude those that are primarily medical and humanitarian.) The movements rooted in the firm conviction that the Bible is the Word of God—and positively mandates that Christian believers “go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world”—are another matter. Chau’s fate shows how this is so. He was not concerned with the health and happiness of his targeted audience, scissors gesture notwithstanding. He wanted to colonize their benighted, Satan-plagued minds to make them understand what’s true: that God loves them and wants them to worship him and Jesus (which are One, in a way, although that requires advanced training). The arrogance accompanying his ignorance was astounding. He ended the only way he could, in a shallow grave beneath impenetrable sands, on a beach he chose. A sad buried monument to religious futility.

Categories: News for progressives

The Green New Deal

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:48

Now that the Democrats have made a comeback by capturing the House of Representatives, they are faced with how to use their new power. Up to now, they have been obsessed with Trump, and split on how to address the problems of the day.

We’ll get to Trump in a moment. But first, let’s look at what the Democrats have to say about the big issues of the day. These boil down to two super-problems: runaway climate change for all and increasing economic insecurity for many. It’s hard to think of any major issue which isn’t entangled in one or both of these, or that wouldn’t be greatly alleviated by progress on either of them.

Status quo Democrats (the Clinton-Obama tradition) have become the party’s conservatives. They’ve been running the show for a generation, and have failed to rein in either climate change or economic insecurity. There’s less and less reason to think they can deal with these mounting problems.

Progressive Democrats, by contrast, are largely defined by the Bernie Sanders movement, which, revealingly, calls itself Our Revolution. They are also influenced by the Green party, particularly by its call for a Green New Deal, recently endorsed by Bill McKibben.

The Green New Deal is remarkable in its focus on the twin problems of climate change and economic justice. So far it’s the only alternative this writer has seen to business as usual (just Google “Green New Deal”).

The Green New Deal calls for closing overseas military bases and using the savings to help finance domestic renewal. It demands an end to subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuel related industries. It insists on an immediate transition to 100% renewables.

It identifies the financial system, led by too-big-to-fail private banks, as the main obstacle to economic restructuring. It proposes an alternative public banking system to fund infrastructure, guarantee employment, transition to renewables, offer free education through college, and provide single-payer, comprehensive medicare for all.

Revolutions are risky business. Can revolutionary excesses be avoided? Climate change and economic insecurity are increasingly catastrophic. Is a Green New Deal what we need to cope? Is it practical? Can it gain broad support? Can it hope to overcome its formidable opponents? Can its goals be achieved without chaos and abuse of power?

A lot will depend on the answers to these questions. But, like it or not, the Green New Deal takes seriously our most intractable problems, and gives us a sense of what it will take to deal with them. If we’re going to have a revolution, this is the one the left envisions.

Progress on big issues is unlikely, however, unless Democrats (and Republicans) learn to deal with Trump. We all know his faults. He has also become the voice of social grievances his critics have mostly, to their peril, ignored. Perhaps most important, he denies climate change and takes extremes of wealth for granted.

Whatever collusions and financial ripoffs might be pinned on Trump, even if illegal, blend all too easily with what many corporations and governments do routinely these days. In these ways, he’s as American as apple pie.

He should be impeached if impeachable offenses can be established. But for impeachment to stick, to avoid the appearance of political vengeance, it has to be part of a larger sense of renewed justice that speaks to the revolutionary changes which seem to be increasingly in the air. That means getting serious about climate change and economic insecurity–two items not on Trump’s agenda.

 

Categories: News for progressives

Shut the Fuck Up, Missy

Counterpunch - Fri, 2018-11-30 15:48

A couple of hours after reading the Trump administration’s devastating climate report, I was assaulted by Tangerine Nightmare’s ignorance, his tweet: “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?”

Later, I lay in bed, angst-ing about the children, mine as well as yours. I’m visual, evoking a landscape not unlike images from The Walking Dead. Sometimes, when I can’t relax, I count backward from 10, focusing on each number. Yet numbers can bring additional anxiety. How many years? How many years before ecocide, omni-cide?

Seems the experts’ consensus is a bit conservative though, erring on the edge of hope. Hope? As if some genius will discover a medical therapy for Earth’s disease. Like using chemicals to block the sun.

Anyway, finally, finally, I slept. And then…… wham, waking from a dream with a cortisol jolt and pounding heart. In this dream, I was with my sister Laura and our mother in the house where my siblings and I grew up. I stood, looking out the living room window and saw a flash, what I imagined was an attack. Flames rose across the horizon, almost hovering as sheets of ice and snow exploded to the ground. I ran outside to search for my children. No more flames and the blizzard had ended. I trudged through snow, snowdrifts, and silence. Suddenly, the snow opened beneath my feet. I fell. And I fell. And I continued to fall. And I knew, knew no one had seen me, knew I couldn’t climb the soft snow, knew no one could hear my calls for help. Knew I would die there when my children needed me. Knew I would be unable to save them.

When I ran the following morning, Sunday, the dream ran with me. I thought of the flash of light and flames that I’d perceived as an attack. They were and are. These latest fires that have ravaged California. Hell came to Paradise. Paradise lost. Like being in a war zone, according to a rescue worker.

Just ask the Other. Just ask the Other about warzones. Warzones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Gaza, and, oh, god, Yemen. The starving children of Yemen, their begging eyes, begging for food, begging for water, their ribs exposed, their faces haunting us, haunting my sleep. I want them both out of my dreams yet grasp the necessity that they remain, although I don’t need more reminders of what it means here and there, what Empire and this diabolical capitalist system exact, the suffering and barbarism.

As I ran, I obsessed on the burning of fossil fuels, conjuring acridity. Then this: the amount of energy required to kill men, women, and children in the countries where US troops stomp their blood-drenched boots. Powering titanic planes to carry servicemen and women thousands of miles away to lay waste to their own lives as well as the lives and the environment of mostly brown people. The enormity of transporting military personnel, contractors, and war weaponry.

Next: thoughts of my mother, my engaging, entertaining mother who became unbearably pessimistic when she was in her 80s. “I think the world should end,” she’d announce. Fine, I’d respond, but please avoid saying this in the presence of my children.

I’ve become my mother. It’s not because I think, as she did, that the world should end. I just believe that it is ending. That we are witness to its death, and for a reason she never acknowledged: global climate change.

My mother wouldn’t allow us to say “shut up.” She thought it was crude. I say it, not to defy her but because it’s expressive, tweaking it slightly. And I’ve told my children to say, when I’m annoyingly cynical, “Mom, I love you, but shut the fuck up.”

“Why would anyone bring children into this world?”

“Mom, I love you, but shut the fuck up.”

Shut the fuck up, Missy.

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