News for progressives

Banking, Wells Fargo-Style

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:50

Herewith an update on the arcane world of banking as practiced by Wells Fargo, the fourth largest bank in the United States.

The update is prompted by a story about the bank in the New York Times on March 9, 2019, and by an appearance by Timothy Sloan, the bank’s president, before the House Financial Services Committee, on March 12, 2019.

The unfavorable publicity is not new, nor are the bank practices that are, to its critics, like honey to flies.  Its previous bad practices have been widely reported. Their continued practices, although transmogrified, continue to be bad practices.

In 2016, we learned that the bank had opened more than 3.4 million fake accounts for customers, in order to meet sales goals. We learned that individuals who received car loans from the bank, were sold car insurance when the loans were made, whether or not it was needed by the borrower. The Wall Street Journal reported that the bank’s employees had overcharged customers for foreign exchange fees transactions.

The bad practices did not go unrewarded, although the bad practices were on a two-way street. On the positive side, from the bank’s perspective, the bank and the complicit employees, generated lots of revenue from the fraudulent practices.  On the negative side the bank paid  state and federal fines and penalties of $1.5 billion.   In addition, it paid $620 million to settle the claims made against it by defrauded customers. It also apologized for the fact that it had charged 570,000 customers who took out auto loans with the bank, for auto insurance they didn’t need.

Some hoped that the light of day that had shined on the bank’s practices might cause the fourth largest bank in the United States to mend its ways.  According to some employees, as reported in the New York Times story, bad practices persist. According to Mr. Sloan’s testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, on the other hand, things have greatly improved. Readers can decide for themselves who is right.

According to the Times report, bank employees are no longer opening fake accounts or selling unsuspecting customers unneeded car insurance.   However, employees who spoke to the NYT report that in many branches employees are under great pressure to bend the rules to meet performance goals.  In one branch that has a large debt collection practice, employees are expected to make 30 calls an hour and recoup $34,000 in overdue debts during that 60-minute period.  It would be interesting to listen in on a 120 second telephone call between a creditor and a debtor in which the creditor not only explains to the debtor the reason for the call, but shows the debtor how to make the past due payment during the call.  If nothing else, the practice gives new meaning to the term “fast talker.”

Six days after the New York Times’ report was published, Wells Fargo’s president, Timothy Sloan was in Washington testifying before the House Financial Services Committee.  He had been summoned by the Committee in order to satisfy the members’ curiosity as to how the bank had reformed itself following the earlier scandals.  The NYT report was no help to him.

Throughout the hearing the report was referred to by members of the Committee.  In responding to questions about the bank’s practices and whether the bank could improve, Mr. Sloan said: “I can’t promise you perfection, but what I can promise you is that the changes we’ve implemented since I’ve become C.E.O. will prevent harm the best we can.”  In response to a question of why it had taken a long time for the bank to refund money to customers to whom it had sold car insurance they didn’t need, he suggested there had been “give and take” with the comptroller as to how much to refund.  (Had I been the purchaser of such insurance I would have not had any difficulty letting the bank know how much I should get back, with interest, without needing the assistance of the comptroller.)

During his testimony, Mr. Sloan said the bank “had examined 160 million accounts and contacted more than 50 million customers to make sure we’ve made things right, and I believe we have.”  Mr. Sloan was telling the Committee that the bank had examined accounts numbering almost one-half of the total population of the United State That sounds as plausible as the idea that a bank debt collector can make 30 successful debt collection calls in one hour. It all goes to show why this writer is not in the banking business.  Or perhaps it goes to show that Wells Fargo continues to have unrealistic expectations of its employees, and an exalted view of its operations as expressed by its president.

Categories: News for progressives

After Week-Long Strike, Oakland Teachers’ Contract Falls Short

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:49

Facing a pro-charter school board intent on closing or consolidating 24 schools in the next five years, presumably to replace some with private for-profit charters, 3000 teachers represented by the Oakland Education Association (OEA) began a district-wide strike on Feb. 21. On the seventh day of the strike, March 1, a tentative agreement was reached, which teachers ratified at a March 3 meeting.

Poor-mouthing Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) officials insisted during the months of futile negotiations and fact-finding before the strike that their proposed one percent pay increase over four years was all that the district could afford.

Soon after the strike began, however, the board upped its offer to 8.5 percent over four years. OEA negotiators still said, “No!”

Teachers won an 11 percent across-the-board salary raise over four years plus an additional three percent one-time bonus upon ratification. But the 11 percent is to be staggered in annual and semi-annual increments over the course of the contract—3 percent the first year, followed by 2 percent the second, and 2.5 and 3.5 percent added to the salary schedule in the middle of and at the end of the final year.

Narrow approval in contract vote

“We forced OUSD to invest in keeping teachers in Oakland—which will give our kids experienced teachers in their classrooms. Dramatic increases were won for subs, tying sub pay to the wage scale,” said a March 1 OEA strike bulletin. Clearly, many Oakland teachers did not agree. The union’s school site representative Delegate Assembly on March 2 narrowly approved the tentative agreement by a vote of 53-50, with many delegates arguing that the modest salary gains and the lack of progress on other key issues, including class size, school closings, and consolidations did not match the massive support the union had generated from the community on these issues.

With more than 70 percent of the union’s general membership casting ballots the following day, 64 percent voted yes for the 2017-18 retroactive contract and 58 percent for the 2019-21 contract.

Always starved for school funding, Oakland, with a large Black and Latino student population, stands at or near the bottom of the Alameda County list regarding teacher salaries and overall per pupil school expenditures. Indeed, as I walked the picket lines, several teachers explained that they lived “paycheck to paycheck” in this high-rent city.

Oakland teachers won modest class-size reductions of one student in high-need schools and an additional one-student reduction across all schools, but the latter is to be implemented only at the third and final year of the contract, in 2021-2022. Their original contract proposal demanded an immediate class reduction of two students in all schools. Prior to the strike, secondary school class-size maximums were 35, and elementary school sizes were capped at 25.

The agreement included the hiring of additional counselors and school psychologists, but little or no progress was made in regard to adding more nurses and special-education teachers to the district’s roster. Worse still, because OEA negotiators acceded to a district budget cut, 150 non-teaching classified workers represented by SEIU 1021, which respected OEA picket lines, will lose their jobs to pay for the settlement—a disaster for future union solidarity.

Powerful teacher-parent mobilizations

An estimated 97 percent of the city’s 34,000 students and 95 percent of its teachers respected union picket lines, an expression of teacher-community power that bolstered the unfulfilled expectations of a breakthrough victory.

Oakland teachers are no newcomers to militant strikes to advance teacher rights and public education. Since the mid-1970s they’ve taken strike action seven times, the most numerous teacher strikes in the nation.

So massive was a teacher-community protest at the scheduled Feb. 27 OUSD school board meeting that district officials were compelled to cancel the meeting, where additional school cuts were scheduled for the chopping block. The new contract included a school board commitment to a five-month moratorium on school closures and consolidations, to which the OEA leaders stated, “The power of our strike will help us organize against future closures!” But five months hence, many dissident teachers pointed out, would arrive in mid-summer, when schools are not in session and teachers are scattered to the four winds.

Some 30 percent of Oakland schools have been privatized. As is the norm with all for-profit schools, they are relatively free from state regulation and are free to “cherry pick” students, essentially returning them to a more racially segregated status—that is, with fewer Black and Latino students.

Oakland charters are non-union and impose arbitrary salaries on teachers as compared to the specific salary schedules that are standard in public schools. These inequities, among others, gave rise to charter schoolteachers’ at 10 schools joining OEA teachers with a one-day wildcat strike action. The tentative agreement vaguely commits the school board to commit to lobbying the state legislature for a cap of charter schools, a “contract provision” considered token or useless by many.

Example of West Virginia teachers

West Virginia teachers dramatically demonstrated last year, when their strike shut down the entire state school system, that major gains could be won. In late February, they closed down the state’s school system once again to demand that pending pro-charter school legislation be shelved. After two days on the picket lines, the proposed legislation was withdrawn—a militant and inspiring lesson to teachers, parents, and working people everywhere.

It is more than noteworthy that the proposed West Virginia charter expanding legislation included a major salary increase for the state’s teachers, estimated at $2000 to $3000 per teacher. West Virginia lawmakers were taken aback when their gambit that teachers would “take the money and run,” while turning a blind eye to increased charters, was rejected.

West Virginia teachers’ statewide mass action strategy undoubtedly surpasses the OEA leadership perspective on charters and school closures expressed in the OEA contract summary slogan, “On to Sacramento,” with which they expect that lobbying Democratic Party state legislators will bring significant results.

During the Oakland contract negotiations, school district officials argued that the inclusion of contract provisions restricting school closures was “out of scope,” that is, barred by state law as a subject of bargaining. OEA negotiators acceded to this argument, although California Teachers Association attorneys have stated that anything that substantially affects teachers’ working conditions is negotiable.

Dissident teachers presented this view during the Delegate Assembly debate, arguing that teacher power, allied with massive community support, was the final determining factor as to what was negotiable. For now, OEA leaders appear reluctant to fully exercise this power, and thus they felt compelled to settle for less than what the great majority of teachers and parents had set their sights on.

As with West Virginia’s and last year’s “red-state” strikes, Oakland teachers and their leadership are mainly women, a key factor in their union’s decisive orientation toward forging critical alliances with other low-paid public employees and especially with working-class communities that rely on public schools to provide quality education as well as daily child care. In this regard, Oakland teachers went to great lengths to provide not only food and safe alternative spaces for children, whose parents respected their picket lines, but also to foster powerful ties to working-class communities that aim at binding the future success of teacher unionism to the well-being and security of all workers.


Categories: News for progressives

Bring Back Eisenhower Socialism!

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:49

Beware of the specter of socialism!

Anytime a politician proposes a wildly popular idea that helps ordinary people, a few grumpy conservatives will call them “socialists.” Propose to reduce college debt, help sick families, or ensure the super-rich pay their fair share of taxes — suddenly you’re a walking red nightmare.

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart is so alarmed he’s convened an “Anti-Socialism Caucus” to ward off “the primitive appeal of socialism” that will “infect our institutions.” Democrats’ talk of restoring higher income tax rates on the wealthiest or helping families with childcare was enough to trigger Treasury Secretary Steve Munchin to quip, “We’re not going back to socialism.”

These same politicians consistently vote for tax cuts for the rich and to gut taxes and regulations on corporations so they can exercise their full freedom and liberty — to mistreat workers, pollute the environment, and rip off their customers.

The “shrink government” fear-mongers want you to believe there are only two flavors of economic ice cream. Choose strawberry and you get liberty-choking gulag communism. From this vantage, any proposal to rein in the unchecked power of global corporations and the rule-rigging rich is creeping socialism.

Choice number two, blueberry, is plutocracy, a society where the super-rich lord over the rest of us. It’s an economically polarized dystopia with stagnant wages and a declining standard of living for the majority.

Conservative demagogues aim to scare you into embracing their pro-plutocrat agenda as the only tolerable choice.

The good news is there many flavors to choose from. A number of presidential candidates have proposed or endorsed policies such as low cost or free college, a higher minimum wage, taxing the super-rich, and investing in infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions.

These ideas are tremendously popular with voters, winning majority support among Republicans, independents, and Democrats. As Fox News sheepishly reported from their own polling, over 70 percent of voters support tax hikes on households with over $10 million in income — including 54 percent of Republicans.

What would today’s hysterical Republicans say about the “socialist” presidency of Dwight Eisenhower? Most likely they would call him “Red Ike.” After all, during Eisenhower’s two terms between 1953 and 1960, the wealthy paid a top tax rate of 91 percent on incomes over the equivalent of $1.7 million for an individual and $3.4 million for a couple.

That crafty pinko Eisenhower also presided over government-subsidized mortgages that helped millions of Americans purchase their first home and attend college for free. He presided over the construction of public housing and state-owned infrastructure (like highways).

In the early 1960s, the specter of socialism stalked the land again, this time in the form of a proposal to create a national health insurance program to cover senior citizens. Conservatives mounted a full-throated resistance movement to what George H.W. Bush at the time called “socialized medicine.”

The rest of us know it as Medicare.

Prior to the passage of Medicare in 1965, half of the country’s seniors didn’t have hospital insurance, and one in four went without medical care due to cost concerns.  One in three seniors were in poverty. Half a century later, nearly all seniors have access to affordable health care, and the elderly poverty rate has fallen to 14 percent.

Now a majority of Americans support some form of “Medicare for All,” expanding universal coverage beyond seniors and disabled people to include children and adults.

Stay tuned for more fear mongering. Universal health care, the red baiters will say, will zap our national initiative and hurl us toward Soviet-style tyranny. Instead, maybe it will mean not having to choose between paying rent or for medicine.

Categories: News for progressives

Grounding Boeing

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:49

Lobbies, powerful interests and financial matters are usually the first things that come to mind when the aircraft industry is considered.  Safety, while deemed of foremost importance, is a superficial formality, sometimes observed in the breach.  To see the camera footage of the wreckage from the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 was to be shocked by a certain irony: cameras was found lingering over an inflight safety cards on what to do in the event of an emergency.  For those on board that doomed flight, it was irrelevant.

The deaths of all 157 individuals on board the flight en route to Nairobi from Addis Ababa on Sunday might have caused a flurry of panicked responses.  There had been a similar disaster in Indonesia last year when Lion Air’s flight JT610 crashed killing 189 people.  Two is too many, but the response to the disasters was initially lethargic.

Concern seemed to centre on the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), deemed vital to prevent the aircraft from stalling.  Sensors within the MCAS might, according to accident investigator Geoffrey Dell, have sent “spurious signals to the flight management computers and resulting in the autopilot automatically pushing the nose of the aircraft down”. If so, then the ability to manually counter those actions, a safety design feature of previous aircraft autopilots, would have to be questioned.  Troubling Dell was another question: why did the pilots fail to disconnect the autopilot when it played up?  Ditto the auto throttle system itself.

When it comes to safety in the aviation industry, powerful players tend to monetise rather than humanise their passengers.  A company like Boeing is seen as much as a patriot of the US defence industry as a producer of passenger aircraft. The company’s presence in Washington is multiple and vast, characterised by the buzzing activity of some two dozen in-house lobbyists and twenty lobbying firms. Lobbyists such as John Keast, a former principal at Cornerstone Government Affairs, have links with lawmakers such as Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi nurtured since the days he was chief of staff.  Wicker spokeswoman Brianna Manzelli was, however, keen to narrow that influence supposedly wielded by Keast in a statement made to CNN.  “While at Cornerstone Government Affairs, John Keast lobbied for a variety of clients including Boeing on defence issues only.”

Such combined lobbying efforts cost $15 million last year alone, which makes Boeing’s contribution relatively small to trade groups, but significant in terms of outdoing such competitors as Lockheed Martin.  Added to the fact that CEO Dennis Muilenburg has an open channel to the White House, the campaign favouring the Max 8’s continued, and unmolested operation, was hitting gear.  A Tuesday call made by the executive to Trump after the president’s tweet on the dangers posed by complex systems suggested some serious pull.

For a time, it seemed that the lobby was doing its customary black magic, and winning, attempting to douse fires being made by the likes of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Union calling for a temporary grounding of the Max 8.  Certain pilots had noticed control issues while operating the Max 8 over US airspace.

Boeing initially convinced the Federal Aviation Administration, which failed to note in a surly statement from Acting FAA administrator Daniel K. Elwell any “systematic performance issues” worthy of grounding the model.  “Nor have other civil aviation authorities provided data to us that would warrant action. In the course of our urgent review of data on the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash, if any issues affecting the continued airworthiness of the aircraft are identified, the FAA will take immediate and appropriate action.”

This statement stood in stark contrast to that of the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand. “Currently, there is no clear indication for the actual cause of accidents in Indonesia & Ethiopia, and no evident risk management measures or any mechanism to ensure the safety of 737 Max 9 aircraft from the aircraft manufacturer.”

The lobby’s traction has gradually slowed on the Hill, and its tittering has, at least for the moment, started to lose conviction.  Calls started to come from lawmakers that the 737 model needed to be looked at.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested grounding the aircraft as a “prudent” measure. “Further investigation may reveal that mechanical issues were not the cause, but until that time, our first priority must be the safety of the flying public.”  Democratic senators Edward Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) were also itching to convince the FAA to ground the Max 8 “until the agency can conclusively determine that the aircraft be operated safely.”

Other lawmakers, ever mindful of Boeing’s influence in their states, preferred to leave the regulators to their task.  Till then, the planes would be permitted to continue taking to the skies.  “Right now,” cautioned Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chair of the subcommittee overseeing aviation and a political voice for a state hosting an important Boeing facility, “the important thing is that relevant agencies are allowed to conduct a thorough and careful investigation.”

It was President Donald Trump who ultimately decided to reverse the earlier decision by regulators permitting the aircraft to continue flying.  The emergency order put the US in step with safety regulators in 42 other countries. “I didn’t want to take any chances,” explainedTrump.  But ever mindful of Boeing’s shadowy hold, the president added a qualifying note. “We could have delayed it.  We maybe didn’t have to make it at all.  But I felt it was important both psychologically and in a lot of other ways.”

The FAA’s continued “data gathering”, previously deemed insufficient to warrant a grounding despite the quick response in other countries, had led to the opposite conclusion.  This included “newly refined satellite data available to the FAA”.  But Elwell was unwilling to eat anything resembling humble pie. “Since this accident occurred we were resolute that we would not take action until we had data.  That data coalesced today.”  A coalescence demonstrating, in more concrete terms, how safety, while important, tends to lag in the broader considerations of profit and operation in the aviation industry.

Categories: News for progressives

Why Are We Still Sycophants?

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:48

Bill Hicks had a joke. He said he hates how bosses tell him to look busy. -You make more than I do, why can’t you pretend I’m working?

Mind, it’s an old joke, and work has changed in the 30-odd years since he wrote it. An additional 10% of us hold college degrees. Thanks to W’s tweaks in nomenclature (albeit to skirt over-time pay) between 1 and 3 million are now managers. We’ve begun to at least talk about closing the gender and racial pay gaps.

And ‘associate’ and ‘team-member’-speak has helped us all look and sound more on par. Most importantly, we’ve breached the prospect of UBI, either a savior or its opposite, depending on who pays (-which I’ll discuss toward the end).

Still, the joke rails against how we accept the owner>worker view, and rightly, since our ‘gains’ may be all for naught. Despite our diplomas, we’re spending almost double what we did then with only 6% more income.i That puts us 30% deeper in household debt, while public debt -the go-to excuse for austerity- increased 5-fold.ii If you are injured at work, your compensation (in most states) is 1/3 what it was then.iii

Trump brags we have the lowest unemployment rate in history. I presume that means more people pretending to look busy. But either way, his tax cuts are outmoding us. While last year corporations did spend an added 20% on equipment, and R&D was up almost 35%, only a fraction of that meant hiring or raises. And they spent more on corporate buybacks than on all those combined.iv

Ergo, the bosses are making los, lots more. Record profits more. Enough to build life-like replacements that won’t rest their elbows on the counter, nor file a claim if they get broken.

-So why are we still a crew of sycophants? After all, looking busy digs at America’s core. Our (alleged) Protestant work ethic, not to mention our (alleged) High-Noon autonomy, wouldn’t abide us standing around. But that’s likely what we’re doing. A new studyv -one of many with like results- says added work doesn’t add productivity, and in fact reduce it by wearing holes in our physical and mental fabric. So, our spirit might just be their pretend.

It makes sense, ‘pretending’ is basic to capitalism. Marx explains it within the first pages of Kapital, and I’ve yet to hear a disproof. Pretend and you have a commodity. Pretend enough and you have a regime. But as with all regimes, coalescing power and retaining it beg very different legitimizations.

Thus, all manner of bosses, from enlightened billionaires to ‘resistance’ Democrats still demand the same submissive leap of faith as Hick’s front-desk manager. But now, instead of us miming away the hours, we’re to pretend they and it are working.

Think, China lends to us with the tacit condition that we’ll waste it on non-durable goods, instead of repaying our debt. Towns bear their throat to Amazon and Walmart, to create a few hundred jobs, knowing full-well it will cost more than it nets. Industries are consumed by mergers and acquisitions that reduce jobs, output, and typically cost more than they earn. There are reasons, you need a minimum 3% growth per year for a stable economy, so say economists. And I suppose pretending is one way to get it. But it’s just for the sake of -more capitalism.

More for what? Ironically, it’s not the big spenders that have laid waste to their world, but the big savers. Upper-capitalists have made astounding progress securing their fortunes, what with the tax cuts, money that appreciates -rather than depreciates- with time, and a government remiss to close tax havens. (We can seize Venezuela’s assets but not the Cayman’s?) Their stability is our instability.

Hence, Capitalism is getting harder to pretend, even for many bonified capitalists. Indeed, we hear rumors about the .001%, after stealing the 99%’s dinner, making desert of the remaining 1. Yet, somehow, we still call potlatches vanity, whilst hording the basics for our common survival in your offshore mattress is temperance, thrift, humility, even common sense. But the first rule of capitalism is the need -whether needed or not- for constant mobility, and seated regimes tend to be not very mobile.

-Are we looking at a future without Capitalism, but still run by the worst crop of capitalists?

Supply-side competition is effacing (it may have been a myth in the first place). Enormous firms with a hand in everything can expand and contract rapidly, and painlessly (for them); leaving what we call the gig economy. The World Bank 2019 annual report, which I wrote on previouslyvi, finds this the most pressing matter, and no surprise, hints at a resolution that protects the owners. In their words:

Even in advanced economies, the payroll-based insurance model is increasingly challenged by working arrangements outside standard employment contracts. …This Report …calls for a universal, guaranteed minimum level of social protection. It can be done with the right reforms, such as ending unhelpful subsidies; improving labor market regulations; and, globally, overhauling taxation policies.

-In other words, disinvestment in current social services, dismantling labor protections, and Trump’s tax cuts, already in effect. Replaced by:
What are some new ways of protecting people? A societal minimum that provides support independent of employment is one option. This model, which would include mandated and voluntary social insurance, could reach many more people.vii

-That is to say, Obamacare-like social security, no single-payer option.

The .001% will look grand endorsing UBI, knowing they won’t be taxed on off-shore and otherwise sheltered income. (2 of their roughly 4,000 members are already running as Democrats for president.) But, even after liquidating all the aid now requisitioned for the poor (and distributing it upward), the low end of the upper quintile, will still have to kick in the bulk of taxes, followed by the 2nd-highest quintile, etc.
But why do we keep falling for the same bait and switch?

Herbert Marcuse wrote in 1964 that the most singular achievement of capitalism was its ability to absorb its opposition, because ‘our efforts to prevent catastrophy overshadow our search for its causes’viii. Certainly, Naomi Klein added some useful insights in Disaster Capitalism. However, UBI, for example, isn’t getting rammed-through in a crisis, but whittled down -as did health care- with the support of those of us most-passionately committed to it. So what absorbs us in a non-crisis? I suspect, the opposite: ‘progress’.

First let’s backtrack. A century ago, Thorstein Veblenix suggested capitalism had less to do with wealth or accumulation, than redefining ‘class’ in a post-class society. It seems far too reductive for then, but perhaps gaining in truth now. During capitalism’s manifestation, professionalism meant the ability to shape power, and in-turn, it awarded mobility. Today, a lot of us sink more into college than we can expect to be paid, once we can at least say we hold a professional degree, and even the job, itself is not certain. Hence, our educations don’t guarantee us mobility, but something quite opposite; class identification.
It rings odd, since, from a Marxist point of view, if you are not owners you are workers, and those other so-called classes like ‘professionals’ fall away under capitalism. -But perhaps in substance only. Untethered, floating in the gig economy, we can still show our crest.

No doubt, forking over our future salaries to top-heavy, often slum-lord college administrations has something to do with how they, the bosses package ‘progress’. One example is the scramble to redress earlier bourgeois notions of race, gender, control of the environment, etc.; a just and needed task we pursue in earnest. However, so long as sitting governments, large corporations, and major news outlets steer the conversation (-sitting, large, and major thanks to the terms they claim to redress), it severs who, exactly holds power from the discourse of who, abstractly (white-males, etc.) holds it.

Once you’re in that discourse, supporting minority rights, or some (small) amount of economic redistribution sends the correct personal, intra-personal, and even ‘class’ message. The same is true of (at least lip-service to) green energy, fair-trade, and so on. Correct, not because they’d upend our current, despairingly-unjust system, but rather are the minimal steps we all must take to preserve it.

Of course, most of us don’t altogether buy the rich’s egality, but we do believe our’ own. America’s professional class -perhaps by misunderstanding cues about ‘culture’, and by correctly taking cues from American-style capitalism, holds undue willingness to pay. That is, to pay individually, for items they believe should be available to all, evidenced by the fraternal (or guilty) tone of the purchases; low-emissions, fair-trade, etc. But it’s exactly that willingness that prevents everyone getting them. And fact is, reducing our footprint, buying fair-trade, or driving a zero-emission car, today are a privilege, not a sacrifice.

Lazlo Zizek calls it the Ideological Fantasy; the mystical belief that our ideals inform our actions, even if we’ve worldly proof that we’re acting against them – ultimately, scrambling to save the world by saving the capitalist Left from the capitalist Right, hoping they’ll sink -on average- 10% more into social welfares, or apply a bit of moral suasion to induce twice the philanthropism.

But it’s a game of pretend. Because finding acceptable levels of inequality or returning 2 or 3% of their haul through development isn’t going to secure our’ future.

Like our ecosystem, the ‘progress through growth’ narrative is in tatters. We need universal equality not for raising the poor half as much as we need it for bringing the top down. No such village ever invented Round-Up or the bomb.

Let’s not pretend, most of the poorer world, and that includes the discarded population here, isn’t underserved, it’s abused. The biggest problems they face, violence, pollution, over-crowding, homelessness, landlessness, cancer, addiction, rising temperatures, war emanate from the northern-hemispheric death-star we call progress. Mostly from a few top-floor offices. And we, despite our goals, just look busy.

On the other hand, no one tells them to. Nor to pretend it’s working. -No need. For the poor, surviving is a full-time job.

Let’s not pretend.









[viii] One Dimensional Man (1964)

[ix] The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899)

Categories: News for progressives

Politicians Are Finally Catching Up on Marijuana

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:47

Hashtoria, Astoria, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Usually I don’t look to sitcoms for wisdom, but the new season of One Day at a Time has a real gem (or many, actually, but here is one). The family lives in California, where marijuana is legal, both recreationally and medicinally. The mother catches the teenage son vaping, and he complains that she’s being too harsh on him because it’s legal now.

Her response? So is alcohol and so are cigarettes, and none of them are legal for you. And all three are bad for a teenager’s developing brain.

Our longstanding national policy of criminalizing marijuana at a federal level and in many states is often justified by calling marijuana a “gateway drug.”

But the other two so-called gateway drugs — tobacco and alcohol — were already legal. And none were legal for minors. So why is marijuana so uniquely bad it must be criminalized for adults?

You should not drive a car while high, but you also should not drive while drunk. Somehow we’ve managed to allow alcohol while restricting people from using it in ways that endanger others.

That much was true before. Here’s what is new: The field of Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 race virtually all agree on this point. Legalize pot.

It’s not a bold position to take. The majority of Americans — even the majority of Republicans —  agree.

Several candidates support their views with justifications about criminal justice, noting that prohibition has filled America’s prisons with people often guilty of nothing worse than possession of cannabis.

Imagine spending time in prison for growing or owning a little bit of a plant. Other people are in there for murder, rape, and burglary, and you’re there for owning a few flower tops. That’s the reality for many in this country.

Think about the implications of that. We’re all paying to lock people up for a bit of weed. Their entire families suffer by having a loved one in prison. Children grow up without parents who are incarcerated because of pot. Meanwhile, we’ve actually enriched more dangerous drug cartels by providing a price support and eliminating competition.

It is a game changer to have almost the entire field of presidential candidates supporting legalizing marijuana.

Politicians are cowards. It’s now no longer brave or risky to advocate legalization. If you do, most of your voters will be on your side. And those who don’t? Well, who else are they going to vote for? Among Democratic primary voters virtually all of their choices are pro-legalization, so nobody will lose votes by taking this stance.

Even if Trump came around, it would be politically safe. He already knows his Democratic opponent will be for legalization, and the majority of Republicans are for it. What is there to lose?

It’s time to legalize marijuana. Americans have been far more harmed by arrests and imprisonments for pot than they ever have been by using pot itself.

Once it’s legal, we should look into next steps: conducting more research on medicinal uses of cannabis, expanding the industrial hemp industry, and commuting sentences of people who are behind bars for nothing more than non-violent marijuana possession.

Categories: News for progressives

Disasters Don’t Discriminate, But Disaster Recovery Does

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:47

Recently, I was driving home up highway 169 in Lee County, Alabama. Ten minutes after we passed a roadside business, it was destroyed by 170 mile-per-hour winds. Trees turned into missiles, and 23 lives were lost.

This monster storm tracked through Beauregard and Smith’s Station, destroying nearly every home along a 24-mile path. Victims included three small children, 10 members of one African-American family, and Maggie Robinson, a nurse at the East Alabama Medical Center for 40 years.

As the climate changes, deadly storms like the one that killed Maggie are more frequent. Rural areas suffer the most. When a storm hits a community like Beauregard, where many people live in mobile homes and at or below the poverty line, dozens can die in seconds.

I’ve helped rural communities recover from natural disasters for two decades, and spent two years on the Gulf Coast helping rebuild from Hurricane Katrina.

Once news cameras leave, rural people are left on their own. Drug abuse goes up, and so does domestic violence. We lost many people to suicide after Katrina. In Florida and Georgia, where Hurricane Michael did even more inland damage, people are still living in tents.

Natural disasters don’t discriminate: they kill everyone. But disaster recovery, sadly, does discriminate: poor and rural communities quickly get forgotten.

Big relief groups come in and take donations after disasters, leaving grassroots groups to do the hard work of recovery after they’re gone. In Hackleburg, Alabama, where an EF-5 tornado destroyed most of the town in 2011, a local youth ranch stepped up to the task.

I helped them network with volunteers at a community center in the mountains of Northeast Alabama, all the way across the state, to meet the needs of poor and elderly people who had lost everything.

Both areas had been hit with monster storms. But their combined resources made the recovery easier.

This is a huge gap in rural disaster recovery: local groups do the hard work, but often don’t have what they need to help people recover. That’s why I’ve set up the Rural Disaster Recovery Network, to help local nonprofits like Hometown Action connect with skilled volunteers and resources in places like Lee County.

That’s what we did in Tuscaloosa in 2011 after tornadoes killed 41 people. Twenty small nonprofits in small towns throughout Alabama came together, shared resources, and we supported each other.

I’ve seen the best of humanity come out in rural communities after disasters. Class and race, all of that goes out the window. Everybody comes together, because we’re all human beings — and that’s all that matters in the aftermath of a storm.

If we could find a way to bottle that spirit, it would solve all of our problems. There’s an opportunity in disaster relief to go into rural communities and to learn about them, learn from them, and understand them.

That is one of the hardest things we have to do — we’re so divided right now as a country. And yes, the South definitely deserves some of the flak we get for this. But disasters don’t discriminate, and we shouldn’t either.

I was going through rural Jackson County, Alabama after the tornadoes in 2011, and there was a guy whose house was blown down. He was living in a tent in his front yard. We stopped to see if he needed any help, and he just smiled and said, “I’m fine. Go down the road and check on someone else.”

That’s the best of the rural spirit. I’ve witnessed overt racism and bigotry in Alabama, but I’ve also seen Blacks and whites cry together, holding each other, after big storms. There’s a lot more nuance to the South, and a growing movement of people who want change.

In disaster recovery, there’s an opportunity to bring people together, sow seeds of kindness, and start enacting real change here.

Warren Alan Tidwell has worked on disaster relief efforts in the South for 20 years. He’s a member of Hometown Action, part of the People’s Action network.

Categories: News for progressives

Artifial Morality

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:44

Artificial Intelligence is one thing. Artificial morality is another. It may sound something like this:

“First, we believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft.”

The words are those of Microsoft president Brad Smith, writing on a corporate blogsite last fall in defense of the company’s new contract with the U.S. Army, worth $479 million, to make augmented reality headsets for use in combat. The headsets, known as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS, are a way to “increase lethality” when the military engages the enemy, according to a Defense Department official. Microsoft’s involvement in this program set off a wave of outrage among the company’s employees, with more than a hundred of them signing a letter to the company’s top executives demanding that the contract be canceled.

“We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers, and we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression. We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the U.S. Military, helping one country’s government ‘increase lethality’ using tools we built. We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”

Wow, words of conscience and hope. The deeper story in all this is ordinary people exercising their power to shape the future and refusing to increase its lethality.

With this contract, the letter goes on, Microsoft has “crossed the line into weapons development. . . . The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated ‘video game,’ further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.”

This revolt was what Smith was responding to when he said he believed in a “strong defense,” implying that moral clichés rather than money are what drive the decisions of large corporations, or at least this particular large corporation. Somehow his words, which he attempted to convey as reflective and deeply considered, are not convincing — not when juxtaposed with a defense contract worth nearly half a billion dollars.

Smith goes on, acknowledging that no institution, including the military, is perfect, but pointing out that “one thing is clear. Millions of Americans have served and fought in important and just wars,” cherry-picking such lauded oldies as the Civil War and World War II, where America’s enhanced lethality freed slaves and liberated Europe.

Fascinatingly, the tone of his blog post is not arrogant toward the employees — do what you’re told or you’re fired — but, rather, softly placating, seeming to indicate that the power here isn’t concentrated at the upper levels of management. Microsoft is flexible: “As is always the case, if our employees want to work on a different project or team — for whatever reason — we want them to know we support talent mobility.”

The employees who signed the letter demanded cancellation of the Defense contract. Smith offered their personal consciences an out: Come on, join another team if you don’t want to cross the line and work on weapons development. Microsoft honors employees of multiple moral persuasions!

Artificial Intelligence is a high-tech phenomenon that requires highly complex thinking. Artificial morality hides behind the nearest cliché in servitude to money.

What I see here is moral awakening scrambling for sociopolitical traction: Employees are standing for something larger than sheer personal interests, in the process pushing the Big Tech brass to think beyond their need for an endless flow of capital, consequences be damned.

This is happening across the country. A movement is percolating: Tech won’t build it!

“Across the technology industry,” the New York Times reported in October, “rank-and-file employees are demanding greater insight into how their companies are deploying the technology that they built. At Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce, as well as at tech start-ups, engineers and technologists are increasingly asking whether the products they are working on are being used for surveillance in places like China or for military projects in the United States or elsewhere.

“That’s a change from the past, when Silicon Valley workers typically developed products with little questioning about the social costs.”

What if moral thinking — not in books and philosophical tracts, but in the real world, both corporate and political — were as large and complex as technical thinking? It could no longer hide behind the cliché of the just war (and surely the next one we’re preparing for will be just), but would have to evaluate war itself — all wars, including the ones of the past 70 years or so, in the fullness of their costs and consequences — as well as look ahead to the kind of future we could create, depending on what decisions we make today. Complex moral thinking doesn’t ignore the need to survive, financially and otherwise, in the present moment, but it stays calm in the face of that need and sees survival as a collective, not a competitive, enterprise.

Moral complexity is called peace. There is no such thing as simplistic peace.

Categories: News for progressives

Pacific Odyssey: Goodenough Island in MacArthur’s Wake

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:44

This article is Part VI of a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.

Off Wagifa Island, Goodenough Island, D’Entrecasteaux Islands, Papua New Guinea. In autumn, 1943, the First Marine Division (including the author’s father) staged its forces on Goodenough for the assault on New Britain. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

The rhythm of my days on board the “SV Chemistry” was unchanging. In the mornings, with the sun up at 5:30 a.m., I came on deck at 6:00 a.m. for coffee and to read on my Kindle. With the others I ate breakfast, which was a procession of lovely local fruits, including a near endless supply of mangoes (of which I could never get enough). I showered and then, over hot coffee (another pleasure of the “Chemistry”, as Luciana is Brazilian), I typed letters and notes on my computer.

Some mornings, if we were in clear shallow waters, I swam after breakfast. Other days, when the seas were cloudy (they were never dirty, except in Milne Bay), I decided against tempting either fate or sharks. During mid-day, when we were under sail, I stood at the rail and admired the tropical landscape, or talked to Gavin as he stood on the bridge with the wheel.

Lunch, as with all the other meals, was delicious, and I never grew tired of sitting in the shade, during the later afternoons, and reading. I am sure that in my four days on the “Chemistry” I read four books, as an awning on the back deck made an ideal nook in which to idle in a deck chair. Conversations with whomever was passing on deck also took up much of every day, and the topics skipped effortlessly from Gallipoli and sharks to pirates and the Kokoda Trail.

* * *

It was the middle of the afternoon when we dropped anchor off the south coast of Goodenough Island, in a beautiful inlet between several small communities and the island of Wagifa. The Marines, in 1943, had their staging area about five to eight miles north along the east coast, and I had thought we might moor for the night closer to the main town of Bolubolu.

Gavin preferred to anchor in this broad cove, which was the right choice, as almost immediately we made friends with many of the islanders who paddled out to the boat, either to trade goods or have a conversation. These canoe welcoming committees were scenes that Margaret Mead, Captain James Cook, or Herman Melville would have recognized as part of their own experiences in the Pacific.

Almost instantly I made a local friend, Thomas Frank, who paddled out to the “Chemistry” with his small children. I was at the rail of the boat when he arrived, and I asked him if there were any boats going the next morning to the PNG mainland, about twenty miles away across the wide bay. I had heard that banana boats connected with a shuttle bus that could, in turn, drop me at the airport in Alotau, from which I would be on my way to Cape Gloucester.

A man of compassion and integrity, Thomas immediately said that it would be possible for me to make the crossing the next morning. And all through the afternoon and early evening, before it got too dark, he paddled by the “Chemistry” to say that he was working on my connection to the mainland. He mentioned that he and his brother had a banana boat, but that I would go over with one of his friends, as their boat “lacked petrol.”

During our talks, Thomas introduced me to his friends and to his children, who were often in the throng of kids floating off our transom, watching life unfold on the catamaran. They howled with laughter when Luna (the ship’s dog) barked at them, and some of the braver boys paddled with their canoes through the gap under the catamaran.

At our last meeting that evening, Thomas said I should be ready to go at 7:00 a.m. I gave him $30 for the fare, figuring he might need front money to convince one of the ferrymen to pick me up.

* * * *

That night, the five of us on the “Chemistry,” with Luna patrolling the decks, ate dinner in the darkness on the aft deck. The meals on board were always varied and delicious, and when Dave was lucky with his fishing lines (not always the case, as we liked to tease him), we had a grilled local fish to go with the cold beer.

I fussed with my backpack, to have it ready the next morning, and slept with the alarm set for 5:30 a.m., so that I would have time to shower before the banana boat left for the mainland. I preferred leaving Goodenough in the morning as I thought the water in the straits would be calmer. I had taken to heart the email message from Aaron Hayes that read: “The seas between Alotau and Goodenough and between Goodenough and Fergusson Island can be very rough (my most scary ever small boat crossing, huge waves, tiny boat, no life jacket).” And just in case, I was traveling with an old lifejacket that I had purchased for $10 the summer before while visiting my sisters in New York.

That night I did wonder if I would ever see Thomas or my $30 again, but, true to his word, he was there alongside the sailboat at 7:00 a.m. saying that the banana boat would arrive any minute. He gave me his home address so that we could write letters to each other once I was home. He said: “You can write to me at the primary school or at the church, and I will get it.”

Later he remembered that he had not given me his phone number, and he came back to give it to me, and I gave him mine. He also said that the boat crossings were in a flux because the head teacher at the school was “on the mainland”—although I never made the connection between teaching and ferry services.

Figuring that my banana boat would come in a moment, I could not do much of anything except sit on the deck beside my backpack and wait, as if for a departing plane. I had said my thanks to Gavin, Luciana, Dave, and Patsy, and they, in turn, had wished me well with the rest of my travels. So I was in a form of travel purgatory, neither here nor there.

By 10:00 a.m. there was still no banana boat in sight, and I could tell that Thomas was worried. He had promised me a crossing, and now he was not delivering. I am not sure that local islanders in Papua New Guinea have the equivalent of “saving face” (as is true in Japan), but I could tell that he still felt badly not to have delivered on the boat to the mainland.

At 1:00 p.m. Thomas came to the boat to explain that he would be returning my $30. He said that there we no boats going today (a Friday) to the mainland. Maybe, he suggested, on Monday or Tuesday? The problem was that no one on Goodenough who had a boat had any fuel. He said that the boats that did have fuel were elsewhere. He said that fuel was a huge problem in the islands around PNG. When there was fuel, generally no one had money to buy it. And when people had money, there tended not to be any fuel for sale. Thomas did not say, “Well, it’s complicated,” but he implied it.

* * *

For the rest of the afternoon, I kept thinking that, out of the blue, a boat heading from Bolubolu to the mainland would appear on the horizon and off I would go to Alotau.

The day before the harbor had been alive with banana boats, although I confess that a few of them did look like pirate ships. But as this afternoon receded, I no longer was keen for a boat to show up and offer me passage, as the rule I had set for myself was to sail early in the morning over calm seas. Nor did I want to set off with non-Thomas-approved strangers, as darkness was approaching, even if I had a red whistle and a flashing light to go along with my lifejacket.

By 4:00 p.m. I had in my mind called it quits on the passage. After talking it over with Gavin, who was generous and accommodating in all of our dealings, I decided to stay with the “Chemistry” for two more nights and to sail with it to the island of Kiriwina, in the Trobriands, where a guide book on the boat said there was an airport with service three times a week to the mainland.

The downside of such a decision was that the schedule for the rest of my travels would be compromised. But at least I would get to see Kiriwina, where the father of a college friend, Judy Rader, was posted during the war with his PT-boat squadron. And then I would fly to the mainland and resume my trek toward Cape Gloucester. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t a fatal blow to my dreams; and I didn’t need a whistle to set it in motion.

I returned by backpack to my bunk and unpacked some of my things, including my toothbrush and bathing suit. And then I rejoined the conversation on the “Chemistry,” although I felt like a guest who has said his goodbyes at a cocktail party, only to return an hour later and mumble something about “car trouble.”

* * *

While waiting for my banana boat to come in, I had finished reading James P. Duffy’s War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945, which proved an excellent companion to William Manchester’s MacArthur biography and is set across Papua New Guinea, including in the islands through which we were sailing.

In it, for example, I was pleased to find a long account of the battle for Milne Bay in which Duffy writes:

The Japanese invasion of Milne Bay was to be a pincer movement. The main landing was to take place inside the bay at a place called Rabi, some three miles east of Gili Gili along the north coast. From there the invaders were to attack along the coast directly into the Allied base. This force was composed of 612 members of the Kure 5th Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF), 197 men from the Sasebo 5th SNLF, and 362 men from the 16th Naval Pioneer Unit. The second force, which was coming down along the northern coast from Buna, was made up of 353 men from the Sasebo 5th SNLF. This group would move in barges during nighttime hours; its orders were to land at Taupota in Goodenough Bay, directly north of Milne Bay, and march overland less than ten miles to attack the Allies from the rear. In all, 1,524 Japanese would strike what they believed were a few Australian militia companies. In reality, they faced ten thousand men, over half of whom were combat veterans….

Australian newspapers hailed the victory as a “turning point.” Virtually everyone cheered the performance of the militia members who stood their ground against experienced combat veterans. Strategically, it essentially put an end to Japanese efforts to capture Port Moresby, and allowed MacArthur to focus his mind and his forces on driving the enemy completely out of New Guinea.

With the others on board, I tried to put on a brave face and said that I could make up for the time lost by doing other things, but truth be told, I am an impatient traveler and love nothing more than when my plans run to the perfection of a Swiss railway clock (the model for the watch that I wear on my wrist, a gift from my son Henry).

I knew that by sailing toward the Trobriands I might no longer be able to detour to Cape Gloucester, which I was now beginning to think would require almost a week to get there, as none of those advertised ferries were actually running to a schedule. There might be the equivalent of Thomas’s banana boat—someone’s idea of the good news that a foreign tourist wished to hear. But I was beginning to suspect than there was neither the boat nor the “petrol” to get me to Cape Gloucester.

* * *

At least by staying on the “Chemistry” I was not cosigned to the hands of local pirates and, after we left at dawn the next morning, I also got close to the shore where the Marines had their forward base in autumn 1943.

My father never talked about Goodenough Island in great detail. It had been a pause (for training and combat ship-loading) between two epic battles, those at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. He had never said anything, good or bad, about the weather on Goodenough, and whenever his stories touched on the D’Entrecasteux Islands, he would accelerate the discussion and then describe the fighting on New Britain, where his C Company, First Marine Regiment, was in the first wave to capture the airfield, much as they were the first to overrun the Japanese runway on Guadalcanal. (He would say: “Colonel Cresswell [the battalion commander] thought a lot of C Company. I would have taken it as a compliment except that he was forever sending us on difficult missions, and there is nothing combat troops hate more than to leave their familiar lines.”)

One thing that I know about his time on Goodenough Island is that, while there, and in the lee of the large volcano that dominates the center of the island, he did a lot reading about France in World War I. While he was stationed at the cricket ground in Melbourne, he must have discovered a well-supplied bookseller and loaded his sea bag with histories of the earlier war.

Because he wrote his name and the place where he finished reading a book on the inside of the front cover, I know that while on Goodenough he finished reading Arnold Zweig’s Education Before Verdun, Jules Romains’s novel Verdun, and other French histories and novels of the Great War in the trenches. Clearly he formed a bond with those French soldiers who liked to say: “I was there; I did Verdun” (“J’ai fait Verdun”).

Although he did not explain the connection at the time, on our first family trip to Europe in spring 1970, he rented a car in Luxembourg and drove the family across the French border to Verdun, where on a windy springtime day we wandered among what remains of Fort Douaumontand its nearby trenches.

While we were thinking about World War I, I am sure his mind was on Goodenough and the books that he had read in the shade of the palm trees that encircled the forlorn Marine outpost in tropical seas.

* * *

It was also on Goodenough Island that Marine Corps battle planners butted heads with those of General MacArthur, who at his headquarters in Port Moresby had the idea to attack the airfield at Cape Gloucester by using paratroops.

Looking over MacArthur’s plans, the Marines made the point—learned the hard way in over five months on Guadalcanal—that the jungle might not be forgiving to men arriving from the sky, and that the way to ensure victory was to overwhelm the Japanese garrison on West New Britain through a surprise landing and by deploying sufficient troops (“well armed men” as they were sometimes called) to overrun and hold the airstrip.

To be fair to MacArthur, he revised his battle plans and let the Marines have their way. He also said to the troops, after they had left Goodenough and were approaching New Britain: “I know what the Marines think of me, but I also know that when they go into a fight they can be counted on to do an outstanding job. Good luck.” And compared to other amphibious landings in the Pacific, New Britain saw relatively few casualties among the assaulting forces.

Overall, Marine Corps officers in the First Marine Division did not, as he suspected, much care for MacArthur personally, but I am not sure many dug deep enough into his record to come to the conclusion, which Manchester does in his biography, that MacArthur’s men generally took fewer casualties in combat than did Eisenhower’s forces in Europe.

What did my father think about MacArthur? He was not a figure that we often discussed, although I can recall him being dismissive of the general’s histrionics and nurturing the prejudice that MacArthur, especially on Guadalcanal, left the Marines in the front lines longer than he ever would have deployed an army division. That said, as an officer who served in the occupation of Japan from 1945-46, my father was grateful that MacArthur managed the peaceful transition of power.

To the Marines in New Guinea, MacArthur was a figure as remote as some of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, and of little concern to men on the sharp end with the Japanese Imperial Army. As my father said late in his life: “Keep in mind, those of us on the front line practically considered anyone back at regiment [regimental headquarters, usually about 400 meters from the front lines] a conscientious objector.”

* * *

MacArthur was also part of the most celebrated summit to take place on Goodenough Island, in December, 1943, just before the Marines went ashore at Cape Gloucester (which is about 250 miles northwest of the D’Entrecasteaux chain of islands).

The meeting was between General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and his sometimes obstreperous Far East commander, Douglas MacArthur. According to James Duffy, the purpose of the meeting between the two four-star generals was not to agree strategy in the Pacific but to send a message to President Franklin Roosevelt that neither military man would brook his political meddling in their operations, and Roosevelt was a known meddler.

Just prior to his meeting with MacArthur on Goodenough, Marshall had been with Roosevelt at the Cairo Conference, with Winston Churchill and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China. Immediately afterwards, Roosevelt and Churchill flew to Tehran and met with the Soviet general secretary, Joseph Stalin. Fearing plots, Stalin did not travel very far.

It was in Cairo that Roosevelt agreed with Churchill that General Dwight Eisenhower, not George Marshall, would be the supreme allied commander of the Normandy invasion. Marshall had craved the allied command in Europe, but Roosevelt felt that he was too important in Washington, where he was the public face in Congress of the Roosevelt administration (that would run for reelection in 1944).

Upon getting the news from Roosevelt that he was to remain “chairborne” in Washington, Marshall decided to decamp, unannounced, from Cairo and fly halfway around the world to Goodenough Island, where he and MacArthur (who also had contempt for Roosevelt) conferred for parts of two days and then departed. What they said hardly mattered. What mattered was the symbolism of the meeting—that two generals were tired of Roosevelt’s ways.

Duffy writes: “It is unfortunate that minutes were not kept of this one and only meeting between MacArthur and Marshall during the entire war. All we know about what transpired comes from memoirs of various participants.” But in Manchester’s book I did come across this exchange between the two generals:

At one point during their Goodenough lunch, his host began a sentence, “My staff—” and Marshall cut him short, saying, “You don’t have a staff, General. You have a court.” It was true, but it was equally true that the Chief of Staff had been off horseback riding when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and tactful officers never reminded him of it.

As the “Chemistry” cruised past the flatlands that once were home to the Marine Corps base and an airfield, I thought of what a triumph it was for the United States to win the Second World War, despite the political maneuvering between its allies, not to mention that between its generals and politicians.

* * *

After sailing past Bolubolu—the sad, Paradise lost, main town of Goodenough—and along airfield (mostly it was hidden behind a phalanx of palm trees), we set a course through the reefs to Fergusson and Kiriwina islands.

Until I made this sail in the D’Entrecasteux Islands, I had no idea that reefs and shoals were such a navigational hazard in the Pacific. From the deck of the yacht, the sea had the azure calm of a Pacific paradise. But it took all of Gavin’s skills as a captain (with his eyes shifting between the water and GPS charts) to steer a safe course from Goodenough to Kiriwina, as in between there were literally hundreds of rocks and coral outcrops just below the water’s surface.

In addition to the lurking reefs, there were many tiny, deserted islands, of the kind that often appear in New Yorkercartoons. (Possible caption: “At least I don’t have watch Wolf Blitzer…”) They had a palm tree or two and were no bigger than a tennis court, and I saw dozens as Gavin kept the “Chemistry” fixed to a channel that he had gleaned on one of his electronic charts.

I wondered how large warships had managed to navigate at night during World War II, as it was in waters such as these that the battle of Coral Sea was fought in May, 1942, as a prelude to Midway. In terms of numbers, the Japanese were the winners in the Coral Sea, but, even that early in the war, Japan was the loser in any battle that depleted its capital ships. Only the United States could win a war of attrition. Some of the battleships sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor were back in service in less than six months, while Japan never got over its losses at Midway.

It took us most of the day to sail to Kiriwina, and in the late afternoon, before it got dark, we dropped anchor next to a small uninhabited island called Muwo, which was astride the channel into Losuia, the principal town of Kiriwina.

During much of the day, we had tried to lock onto a cell phone tower on Fergusson Island, so that our family and friends would know where we were. Mostly the reception was one bar, and I did worry that my wife might think that I had vanished in the manner of Michael Rockefeller, the governor’s son, who in 1961 disappeared off of the south coast of Papua New Guinea, perhaps into the pot of cannibals.

* * *

In between reading several books about the WW II land campaigns in New Guinea, I went back to the (near-endless) William Manchester biography of Douglas MacArthur, which makes the point that one of the greatest offensives of the war was that along the north coast of New Guinea, where the army (fighting alongside the Australians who did much of the heavy lifting) drove the Japanese out of a number of coastal towns, including Buna, Lae, and Madang.

Manchester describes the general’s attention to detail in planning the landings. He writes, in the gushing style of the biography:

By the late spring of 1943, the General probably knew more about the geography of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands than any other man before or since. He had familiarized himself with the area’s coral reefs, its tidal tables, its coves and inlets, its mountain passes, and its rainy seasons; he could pinpoint existing airstrips and land shelves where new strips could be hacked out of the kunai grass; he could identify targets within the range of P-38s (which could fly 2,260 miles on a tank of gas), P-40s (2,800 miles), and B-17s (1,850 miles carrying a 3,000-pound bomb load). In addition, MacArthur understood the enemy: the strength and disposition of his forces, his supply lines, his capacity for reinforcement, the quality of his equipment (high), his morale (higher), and his courage (highest of all)…

In the last days of June, MacArthur unleashed three blows: Halsey’s invasion of New Georgia by marines, Krueger’s occupation of Kiriwina and Woodlark islands northeast of Papua by GIs, and a landing at New Guinea’s Nassau Bay, just south of Salamaua, by Australians under their own commander, Edmund F. Herring.

Actually, it was the Australians who reclaimed the offensive on New Guinea, first at Milne Bay, but more decisively along the Kokoda Trail, which is one of the epic encounters of the war. The series of battles began with the Japanese landing men around Buna and Popondetta (north coastal stations) and pushing inland, across the Owen Stanley range, toward Port Moresby.

Their hope was to surprise the garrison there by attacking from the mountains, through which there were only a handful of jungle tracks, all of which went up and down the ravines and gorges of the nearly impassable terrain (made worse by the abysmal climate of rain and heat).

The Japanese got close to Moresby, near a place called Imita Ridge, where the Australian resistance stiffened. Then the Australians managed—it required feats of endurance and courage—to push the Japanese all the way back to Buna.

Duffy describes the Japanese mindset at Kokoda when they set out with tanks and trucks on what they thought was a road through the mountains to Port Moresby:

Meanwhile, the Japanese, convinced of the existence of a route from Buna to Port Moresby, decided that the theoretical road could accommodate motor vehicles. The basis for this was an account penned by an English explorer, discovered by Japanese officers in occupied Manila, of his time spent on the northern coast of New Guinea. The explorer reported learning of a road from the coast across the mountains to Port Moresby. Though he failed to describe the road in any detail—in part because he had not seen it and was only recording something told to him—the Japanese military planners took the story as completely accurate and planned their assault based on its misinformation….

Commenting on these reports after the war, the U.S. Army noted, “Actually, the Buna-Moresby road was nothing but a native trail which alternately ran through jungle swamps and over precipitous mountains. Throughout the entire campaign the use of vehicular transport was out of the question.”

The reason that it was called the Kokoda Trail (sometimes the word Track is used, and the correct term can be argued about for hours among Australians) is that there was a small airstrip near the mountain town. Duffy writes: “According to Australian military historian Peter Williams, the Kokoda airfield was central New Guinea’s ‘most important feature. Whichever army held the [air]strip could fly in reinforcements and supplies while denying the same to the enemy. In the long run the army that held the Kokoda strip was best placed to win the mountain campaign.’”

The estimates of the casualties around Kokoda are frightful. By some accounts, the Japanese landed 13,500 men in Buna to march overland and take Moresby. In the fighting, some 6,500 were lost, but another estimate says that only about 1,000 men were eventually evacuated from Buna. Disease and starvation claimed the balance of the men. Duffey writes: “Japanese survivors later referred to the Kokoda Track as ‘the path of infinite sorrow.’”

Less successful for MacArthur and the Allies were the American and Australian attacks against the fortified positions around Buna, the coastal town.

The fighting took place in late 1942 into early 1943, and it is the biggest disaster of World War II that you have never heard about. MacArthur designated the army’s 32nd division to make the attack, but then landed the men without sufficient training or weaponry (notably tanks or amphibious armor that could get through swampland).

In the first phases of the drawn out battle, the Allies lost more than 2,000 men, resulting in MacArthur relieving the commander of the 32nd and sending in his place his deputy, General Robert L. Eichelberger, with the grim instructions: “Bob, I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive; and that goes for your chief of staff too. Do you understand?”

Personally I have a hard time believing that even MacArthur could issue such suicidal orders, but if he did, I am sure they were catnip in the hands of his public relations department. It made for better press than the more obvious conclusion that MacArthur was beaten badly in the early days around Buna.

In making my own plans for the north coast, I had searched both in Alotau and on Goodenough Island for a coastal boat or ferry that might take me from Milne Bay along the coast to Buna, so that I could see what remains of the battlefields. (I am sure the jungle has blotted out most of the Japanese trenches around Buna, those that caused so many Allied casualties.)

In Alotau, when I asked in town, people said that there were no boats that made the connection. On Goodenough, when I spoke to my friend Thomas, he said that he could arrange to take me to Buna, but that the trip, in a banana boat, would take five days, and that the cost “for petrol” would be $1500.

Neither option sounded appealing, just to inspect malarial jungle similar to what I had seen at Milne Bay and in the D’Entrecasteaux.

* * *

Early on Sunday morning, just after dawn, Gavin weighed anchor (his powered windlass impressed me, as in all my sailing I have struggled with pulling anchor chains up by hand), and we motored in the direction of Losuia, again as if navigating through a mine field.

In places the channel to the port was only several meters deep and wide, which made no sense to me, as in my planning I had read about cruise ships calling at Kiriwina. Gavin explained that they would have anchored off the island’s west coast in deep water, and ferried to shore any passengers interested in exploring the island.

Although I wasn’t traveling with a particular guide book, I did have with me stacks of papers, which I had copied from histories, war diaries, travel books, guides, and the internet. Some of the papers that I had clipped spoke of Kiriwina as a tourist destination.

One description said that the hotels and lodges on the island were popular, and that Australians, in particular, liked to come to relax by the sea. Those passages gave me hope that I would find a flight connection to Port Moresby, or least a pleasant place to stay overnight. But the slow, methodical approach to Losuia and the rusting hulls in the harbor made me think more of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (“I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life…”) than that I was putting ashore in a Caribbean resort.

Yet again I said goodbye to Gavin and Luciana, Dave and Patsy. In the small skiff Gavin dropped me at the wharf in Losuia, where there was a crowd of travelers hauling bags of goods in the direction of a small ferry headed to Alotau. When I asked them how long it would take, one of the men on deck said cheerfully, “Two days, maybe three.” The boat already had the look of a craft, top heavy with passengers and goods, that was primed to roll in a swelling sea.

The moment I began walking down the Losuia wharf with my backpack, a man approached me and said he could arrange a ride to a guest house. We walked up the main street (garbage was everywhere) to a house with a gate and several cars parked around the garden. I was introduced to the cars’ owner, who said something about working for the municipality or the water company, and he gave keys to my minder, who drove me to the Losuia Lodge, which is about a mile from the town center.

The road was little more than a widened dirt trail, and on either side of the street there were traditional wooden huts and children playing by the roadside. The village scene was not that of a Pacific paradise but of third world poverty on a remote, forgotten island.

* * *

At the lodge’s small front desk I asked the indifferent clerk on duty about a room for the night, and with a deadpan expression she showed me several. As I could not tell the difference between the ones costing $70 and those costing $100, I chose the cheaper option, which was a room with two single beds and several fans, none of which worked.

When I asked about the power supply in the hotel, the clerk said it would come on that night. Nor, she said, did the hotel (or the island for that matter) have a working cell or internet connection. She did say that there was a flight tomorrow morning to the mainland.

Most of the other guests at the hotel looked like longer-term tenants, perhaps using the lodge while working at jobs on the island. Most seemed to be Japanese or Chinese, and several were engrossed in lengthy, sometimes argumentative, discussions in the lobby, as if a drug deal was going bad.

As my room, without a working light, was gloomy, I took my computer and books to a verandah near the sea and worked there for much of the afternoon. I organized my receipts, typed my notes, sorted highlights on my Kindle, and started another book, this one a history of PT-boats in World War II—Robert J. Bulkley’s At Close Quarters.

It seemed like the place to be reading it, as Kiriwina’s main contribution to the war effort had been the presence of its airstrip (now the island’s airport) and its PT base, which was located on the north end of the island (away from the reefs around Losuia). It was from a base on Kiriwina that my friend’s father, Lt. Commander Joseph Ellicott, commanded PT-131. He won a Silver Star for shooting down a Japanese plane off the south coast of New Britain, which is about 150 miles to the north.

I had bought the Bulkley book as it is mentioned in William Doyle’s PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy, an excellent account of the familiar story, published in 2015. Doyle does not add a lot of new facts to the story of PT-109’s sinking (off the shore of Gizo Island in the Blackett Strait), but he’s a good writer and he has unearthed new material from the Japanese side, including the revelation (to me anyway) that as a member of Congress, and later as president, John F. Kennedy made repeated efforts to get in touch with the commander of the Amagiri, the Japanese destroyer that rammed and sank the PT-109.

In 1951, Kennedy had the opportunity to meet with Captain Kohei Hanami, who was living on “a family farm at Shiokawa, a remote hamlet in Fukushima Prefecture more than two hundred miles northeast of Tokyo.” But on that trip Kennedy became ill (in fact he almost died), and he never did meet Captain Hanami.

As president, Kennedy dreamed of a trip to Japan and a reunion of the two crews from PT-109 and the Amagiri, but the only time he thought he could go there was after his re-election in 1964. Fate yet again intervened, and he never did meet his opposite number on the Amagiri, but the two men did exchange several heartfelt letters.

* * *

Bulkley was a naval officer who served with distinction around islands such as Kiriwina. At Close Quarters is a labor of love, extolling the patrol torpedo boats that captured public imagination (at least after Cliff Robertson starred as Lt. (jg.) John F. Kennedy in the Hollywood version of PT-109).

Kennedy himself wrote the introduction to Bulkley’s book, making the point that a dynamic navy needs ships of varying sizes and capabilities, and that the idea of a high-speed, maneuverable boat, armed with torpedoes, made a lot of sense. In practice, however, PT boats were vulnerable to attacks from heavier armed ships and from fighter planes, which limited their war efforts to nighttime patrols, even though many of the boats lacked radar. No wonder casualty rates were so high in their ranks.

Doyle’s book is better than Bulkley’s in explaining how it was that PT boats were not a more successful weapon in the fight against the Japanese. Ideally, they should have been able to hide among the small islands and reefs in places such as New Guinea and the Solomons, and from those lairs strike at the Tokyo Express, which brought men and supplies down the Slot from Rabaul to battlefields like Guadalcanal.

The problem for PT boats in action was that they lacked the firepower and armor plating to engage anything much larger or faster than a coastal barge. And on the night when PT-109 was sunk, the mission assigned to the squadron of PT boats operating from Rendova was foolhardy—conceived by career officers from Annapolis who understood little about the patrol boats’ strengths and weaknesses.

No wonder that, as president, John F. Kennedy had contempt for many senior officers in the Pentagon. When he said in the 1960s, “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing, but it never works out,” he might well have been recalling the orders that sent him into the Blackett Strait on August 2, 1943.

Of the mission that night, Doyle writes:

PT 105 skipper Richard Keresey summarized the dismal results of the skirmish: “Fifteen PT boats ventured out into Blackett Strait to attack four Japanese destroyers, the best odds PT boats ever had. We fired thirty-two torpedoes, including four from my 105. We hit nothing! The destroyers kept right on going straight down Blackett Strait and then straight back a couple of hours later.” He added, “when the 109 got in the way, they ran over it.” Similarly, naval historian Commander Robert J. Bulkley, Jr. noted: “This was perhaps the most confused and least effectively executed action the PTs had been in.” Years later, John F. Kennedy dismissed the night’s events as a “fucked up” series of events.

By most accounts, the problem that night with Kennedy’s squadron (he was not its leader) was that the lead boat withdrew to Rendova early in the action, and that left the rest of the boats (between Gizo and Kolombangara) on their own, with little guidance and no radar.

Bulkley writes: “Eight PT’s fired 30 torpedoes. The only confirmed results are the loss of PT 109 and damage to the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. The Amagiriwas not hit by a torpedo, but vibrated so badly after ramming the 109 that she was unable to proceed at high speed. The chief fault of the PT’s was that they didn’t pass the word. Each boat attacked independently, leaving the others to discover the enemy for themselves.”

On Kiriwina I thought how much I would have loved to have a lunch with my friend’s father, Joseph Ellicott, or some other PT skippers, and to hear their stories of missions across the nearby waters. But at the Losuia Lodge my only link to the American past was through my Kindle and my imagination, both of which were running low on power as I wondered, through the long afternoon, how I would get off godforsaken Kiriwina Island.

* * *

Aside from reading, during my afternoon at the Losuia Lodge I swam in a pool that was carved from the coral at the water’s edge (think of a swimming hole with razor-sharp coral around the edges). At one point I went for a walk in the neighborhood but after a while turned back, as I felt out of place wandering past women washing clothes in ditches and children kicking soccer balls in dusty front yards.

Kiriwina might have a tourist trade, but I did not find it—paradise as a clothes line. At least I knew that the flight the next morning departed around 11:00 a.m. and that a car would be leaving from the hotel to the airport just after breakfast. But no one knew how I could buy a ticket, and without an internet or phone connection I could not log into the reservation system of Airlines PNG. Apparently the cell tower had been out for a week, and some of the men who I had seen arguing in the hotel had come to the island to fix it.

I slept fine in my dreary room. At one point, all the lights and the fans switched on with a blaze, as the promised power was restored during the night (as if part of some nightmare).

Breakfast was lukewarm tea and white-bread toast. While sipping tea in the lobby, I asked another traveler in the breakfast area about the flight and where I might buy a ticket, and she told me that the agent for Airlines PNG worked at the hotel.

I hustled outside to track down Rebecca, who was very nice but said: “We have a problem. The flight is full.” Then she said the next flight wasn’t until Friday. My heart sank. I could not stand the idea of idling without the internet in a dreary lodge for another four days, as the rest of my trip slipped away.

I chatted up Rebecca as best I could, but in the end she had no answer. She suggested that I come to the airport in the second car. She was going out earlier and, by the time I arrived, would know better the headcount for the flight.

My ride to the airport was a shared taxi, and we were about five in a mini-van. By chance, the driver went through the main part of town, and even stopped at the wharf, where I could see the “Chemistry” at the same mooring where it had been the day before, when we arrived. I had thought that Gavin would have sailed to a nicer harbor, but there in front of me was the catamaran.

I waved and shouted, as I had in Alotau, and in a few minutes Gavin showed up on the skiff to say that they were using the stop in Losuia to shop for supplies and to clean the boat. I explained about the possibility of a full flight and said—if no place was found for me—rather than wait another four days for a flight that I would prefer to return to the “Chemistry” and head in whatever direction they were sailing.

Gavin was fine with my improvisation and said that they had no plans in particular, except to sail toward the Amphlett Islands, which we had seen on the horizon when we cruised from Goodenough to Kiriwina.

* * *

Gurney Airport, along Milne Bay in Alotau, had been trim and proper, with its several war memorials by the runway and a waiting room. But the Kiriwina airport, on the outskirts of the town, was a mob scene.

Opposite the small airport there was a large public market, and beside the fence around the terminal there were dozens of men and women milling around, awaiting the arrival of the flight from Moresby and Alotau or perhaps just there for planespotting.

I was reminded of news dispatches from some troubled spot in the world, from which the only way out was on an evacuation flight. But this was a scheduled flight on a Monday morning, although panic seemed to be in the air.

A guard admitted me through the locked gate, and inside the airport terminal I found Rebecca and her cohorts seated at plastic tables in the middle of the waiting room, as if preparing to sell lemonade. Her deal to me was this: If I could pay two hundred American dollars in cash for a ticket, I could have a seat to Alotau, where there were daily flights to Moresby.

I went through my wallet to the place where I had hidden dollars for just such an emergency, and I paid over the money (to the airline, not Rebecca). I would have preferred a ticket to Port Moresby, but didn’t feel I was in any position to bargain (or for that matter to ask for a window seat or frequent flyer miles).

With my boarding pass in hand and my backpack (and lifejacket) checked to Alotau, I headed to the market to do some shopping, and I came away with several straw baskets that (I hoped) would later fit into my backpack.

* * *

The flight was about an hour late. While sitting outsideon the ground,in the shade of a palm tree, I heard from some fellow travelers that domestic political violence was the reason why Kiriwina Island was down to only two flights a week.

Apparently, some months before, a rebel had planted a small bomb on the runway (think of patchy blacktop rolled into the coral and jungle), and after that explosion, the airline had cut back its service to Kiriwina. And until repairs were done to the runway,the airlinecould only land smaller Dash-8 planes, which limited passengers to twenty-eight.

There was some talk, at least among those seated near to me in the shade, of a third weekly flight, onethat wouldflydirectly to Port Moresby. But no one sounded hopeful,either about the proposed schedule change or, in general, aboutPNG politics.

The country has two airlines (and feeder service, sometimes called level-three airlines). But the country’s politics are hostage to a variety of colonial and corporate interests, which can get by without roads, ferries, and infrastructure for the rest of the population.

When the arriving flight landed, everyone rushed the runway fence, as if they were not quite sure that there would seats for everyone with a boarding pass. Before boarding we had to wait until the luggage was removed from the arriving flight, which included in its hold a large coffin (wrapped in garbage bags) that several men (without saying anything to the airline staff) hoisted on their shoulders and carried to the roof of a nearby car.

The flight to Alotau took less than forty minutes (sailing had taken us four days), and I was not able to see much of the Amphlett or D’Entrecasteaux islands, as clouds were covering most of the route.

Obligingly, the plane did fly right over the “Chemistry,” and later Gavin wrote to say that they had waved at the plane, hoping I was on it. I was heading back to Alotau where I should have been, according to my schedule, on Thursday afternoon or Friday. Now it was mid-day on Monday, and I had no idea how or when I would get to Moresby. My dreams about Buna, Kokoda, and Cape Gloucester were slipping over the horizon. But then Melville writes inMoby-Dick: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

Next up: Back to Port Moresby and then to Rabaul on the eastern end of New Britain. To read other parts in this series, please click here.

Categories: News for progressives

U.S. Iran Policy: What is Great?

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:44

I returned last week from Iran as part of a 28-person peace delegation organized by Code Pink, a women-led peace and human rights organization. We went to Iran to learn of the impact of the U.S. sanctions on the Iranian people and to let them know that there are Americans who support the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) signed by the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, European Union, and Iran—the agreement that is working, according to all parties except Donald Trump, who has broken the US government’s word and unilaterally left the treaty and imposed harsh sanctions on Iran instead. Our delegation met with a variety of people, from people in the street to dignitaries, including the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif.

News sources reported Friday that Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater and brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, had participated in an Aug. 3, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower regarding Iran policy. The New York Times reported on May 19, 2018 that the meeting set up by Prince included princes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as an Israeli; Saudi Arabia and Israel being two of the most hostile countries toward Iran. These attendees were offering to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election. Did Trump supporters like Prince promise that Trump would abandon the nuclear deal?

Our trip and the news of Erik Prince’s meeting made me think of the word ‘Great’. On our trip we learned of Cyrus the Great, credited for human rights and freeing the Jews in Babylon. Cyrus’s vast empire respected the religions and customs of the peoples over which he ruled. He even had inscriptions on his palace in three languages. The gardens of his palace at Pasargadae were called ‘paradaiza’, from which we get the word ‘paradise’. He ruled in such a way that he did not need walls around his palace.

But what made me think about the word ‘great’ was how Iranians object to the name Alexander the Great. They call him Alexander the Macedonian. Alexander came through in 330 BCE, looted Persepolis’s treasures and burned the beautiful palace and nearby city to the ground. Is that great?

I am reminded of the German generals in Paris disobeying Hitler’s commands to destroy Paris; in that case they thought greatness was more than the forceful destruction and submission of others. We need to decide what we want ‘Great’ to mean for America.

Does ‘Great’ mean “Shock and Awe” as we pummeled Iraq? Is the resulting hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees and internally displaced people ‘Great’?

Or does Great mean that we honor our word including agreements which we negotiate and sign? Does Great mean we honor others as we would want to be respected or do we try to beat them into submission until they follow our directives?

In Iran, a number of people told us that they could not get cancer drugs because of the sanctions. Another told us that a relative could not afford to get married because the money they have, previously enough to buy a car, can no longer buy a refrigerator. We had to take cash because no foreign credit cards work there. A girl with a full scholarship to go to university in England could not go because with the currency devaluation they could not afford the plane ticket. A German tourist told me he now needs to go through extra steps to visit the U.S. because he has visited Iran. Do these sanctions make us Great? No Iranian official is suffering from these sanctions, but the people are. Great?

Although the Iranian government has its problems, I saw greatness in its people. The people overwhelmingly were warm and welcoming. They repeatedly told us they love Americans but don’t like our government. I never heard anyone raise his voice. We visited a school of disadvantaged children and the love and respect that teachers showed their kids was heart-warming. And half of the kids were Afghan refugees. I want America to be that humane and great.

Let’s stand up against corruption in our government, like the influence of hostile forces trying to buy our politicians and use our military power. Let’s oppose governments rather than their people. Let’s use our American strengths for good, or even better, for Greatness.

Categories: News for progressives

Stop Making Women Apologize

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:44

I was getting on a bus with grocery bags in hand, apologizing profusely to the driver as I scrambled to find my bus pass.

He curiously looked my way; I thought he was judging me as I convincingly portrayed the damsel in distress. To my relief, however, he actually smiled and said, “It’s ok, ma’am. There is no need to apologize.”

I reflected on the driver’s kindness as his words began to sink in: “There is no need to apologize.” He was right. I wasn’t holding anyone up or causing any problems, yet I still felt the need to say, “I’m sorry.”

For many women, offering an apology is second nature. In a country where women have been traditionally cast in the role of “appeaser,” asking forgiveness has been ingrained into our DNA.

It’s something we’re taught at an early age — to be nice and polite as all young girls should be, reinforcing gender norms that began at this country’s inception.

Our culture is one that silences women in order to uphold patriarchy. “I’m sorry” has become a fillerin the English language. Whether asking for what we need, or stating our opinion, women often begin with an apology for having the audacity to speak at all.

A study done in 2010 confirmed that women apologize more than men. The research speculated that women were “more concerned with the emotional experiences of others” — no doubt a symptom of our socialization.

In 2014, Pantene put out an ad campaign entitled “Not Sorry,” which highlighted the various ways women issue apologies almost immediately in most settings — at work, at home, even with strangers.

It seems no matter how far we’ve come in the era of #MeToo, women are expected to deflect, give excuse, and provide explanation with just two simple words: “I’m sorry.”

Holding oneself accountable for genuine wrongdoing should be the norm. For women, however, our “wrongdoing” is often simply our attempts to take up space and have a seat at the table.

To remain “collegial,” for example, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was apologetic throughout her entire testimony against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. She was testifying about a sexual assault against her, yet she was the one apologizing.

More recently, Rep. Rashida Tlaib was cornered into an apology after accusing Rep. Mark Meadows of tokenizing a Black staffer by calling her out to stand next to him, as though this meant Republicans weren’t racist. Tlaib was right, but she was the one expected to apologize.

The role of “appeaser” has always been imposed upon us, especially women of color who navigate a society stacked against both our race and our gender. God help us if we break this unspoken protocol; we’re often punished for it.

Remember Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open?

Serena was penalized, fined, and attacked in the media for “inappropriate behavior” after arguing with an umpire during the match (behavior longtime tennis fans considered quite mild when compared to hotheaded male players like John McEnroe).

But more egregious than these male displays, apparently, was that this talented Black woman demanded an apology from the umpire for unfair treatment. (What’s more, Serena’s opponent, Naomi Osaka, apologized herself after the match — “I am so sorry it ended like this,” she said. She couldn’t even celebrate her victory.)

It was a classic example of how women are expected to carry emotional weight. I say no more.

For Women’s History Month, stop making us apologize. We are not here to appease. Our contributions to society prove our equal standing in society. We will no longer apologize for demanding equal liberties — it’s 2019, and we’re not sorry.

Categories: News for progressives

To Clean Up the Planet, Clean Up DC First

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:43

Raw log export docks, Astoria, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

For decades, majorities of Americans have favored swift, meaningful action on climate change. They understand that we must transition away from dirty fuels and toward clean, renewable energy. Yet despite this overwhelming support, Congress has repeatedly failed to act.

This jarring disconnect between what the public wants to see and what Washington is prepared to deliver doesn’t just threaten the health and safety of everyone in our country — it undermines the very principle of representative democracy.

The reason that Congress hasn’t acted is an open secret.

Follow the trail of the millions of dollars in campaign contributions from corporate polluters over the years, and you’ll find countless lawmakers who’ve worked to block action on climate change. The special interests that are hostile to our environment have designed a sophisticated toolkit for furthering their narrow agenda, while avoiding accountability.

This assault on our democracy must end.

That’s why the new House majority passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act — a bold suite of reforms that will transform our government and our political system for the better.

Every provision of the bill is guided by one overarching imperative: restore the power and the voice of Americans who for too long have felt locked out of their own democracy.

First, H.R. 1 will push back hard against the influence of big money in our politics. That means bringing more transparency to the world of campaign finance so that polluters can no longer use shadowy organizations to hide their political spending.

In addition, by building a new system of citizen-owned elections that amplifies the power of small donors, H.R. 1 will reduce the financial influence of PACs and big corporations. The result will be environmental policy made for the public interest, not the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

Second, H.R. 1 will make sure that public officials serve the public, not themselves or some hidden group of industry patrons.

The bill extends conflict of interest rules to presidents and vice presidents and requires the release of their tax returns. It will prohibit members of Congress from serving on corporate boards and establish a code of ethics for the justices of the Supreme Court. And it will end the practice of corporations giving giant bonuses to employees who join the regulatory agencies overseeing them.

With strong disclosure rules and accountability provisions, it will prevent ethical corruption of the kind that defined Scott Pruitt and undermined the mission of the EPA

Third, H.R. 1 will protect every citizen’s right to vote and tear down barriers to the ballot box. That will help Americans send lawmakers to Washington who will act on climate, protect our environment, and make our air safe to breathe and our water safe to drink.

That means promoting national automatic voter registration, expanding early and absentee voting, ending voter roll purging, and providing relief from discriminatory voter ID laws.

H.R. 1 also ensures the integrity of our elections by committing Congress to build a record of voter suppression that demonstrates the need to restore the Voting Rights Act, ending partisan gerrymandering, and safeguarding our election infrastructure from interference.

With H.R. 1, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to clean up Washington, make our democratic process more fair and inclusive, and insist that Congress respond to the will of the many, not the money. Doing so will remove long standing barriers that have slowed and blunted climate action.

John Sarbanes is a member of congress from Maryland.

Michael Brune serves as executive director of the Sierra Club. 

Categories: News for progressives

India’s Agrarian Crisis: Dismantling ‘Development’

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:43

In his 1978 book ‘India Mortgaged’, T.N. Reddy predicted the country would one day open all sectors to foreign direct investment and surrender economic sovereignty to imperialist powers.

Today, the US and Europe cling to a moribund form of capitalism and have used various mechanisms to bolster the system in the face of economic stagnation and massive inequalities: the raiding of public budgets, the expansion of credit to consumers and governments to sustain spending and consumption, financial speculation and increased militarism. Via ‘globalisation’, Western powers have also been on an unrelenting drive to plunder what they regard as ‘untapped markets’ in other areas of the globe.

Agricapital has been moving in on Indian food and agriculture for some time. But India is an agrarian-based country underpinned by smallholder agriculture and decentralised food processing. Foreign capital therefore first needs to displace the current model before bringing India’s food and agriculture sector under its control. And this is precisely what is happening.

Western agribusiness is shaping the ‘development’ agenda in India. Over 300,000 farmers have taken their lives since 1997 and many more are experiencing economic distress or have left farming as a result of debt, a shift to (GMO) cash crops and economic liberalisation.

Other sectors have not been immune to this bogus notion of development. Millions of people have been displaced to facilitate the needs of resource extraction industries, land grabs for Special Economic Zones, nuclear plants and other large-scale projects. And the full military backing of the state has been on hand to forcibly evict people, place them in camps and inflict human rights abuses on them.

To help open the nation to foreign capital, proponents of economic neoliberalism are fond of stating that ‘regulatory blockages’ must be removed. If particular ‘blockages’ stemming from legitimate protest, rights to land and dissent cannot be dealt with by peaceful means, other methods are used. And when increasing mass surveillance or widespread ideological attempts to discredit and smear does not secure compliance or dilute the power of protest, brute force is on hand.

India’s agrarian crisis

India is currently witnessing a headlong rush to facilitate (foreign) agricapital and the running down of the existing system of agriculture. Millions of small-scale and marginal farmers are suffering economic distress as the sector is deliberately made financially non-viable for them.

At the same time, the country’s spurt of GDP growth – the holy grail of ‘development’ – has largely been fuelled on the back of cheap food and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers. The gap between their income and the rest of the population has widened enormously to the point where rural India consumes less calories per head of population than it did 40 years ago. Meanwhile, unlike farmers, corporations receive massive handouts and interest-free loans but have failed to spur job creation.

The plan is to displace the existing system of livelihood-sustaining smallholder agriculture with one dominated from seed to plate by transnational agribusiness and retail concerns. To facilitate this, independent cultivators are being bankrupted, land is to be amalgamated to facilitate large-scale industrial cultivation and remaining farmers will be absorbed into corporate supply chains and squeezed as they work on contracts, the terms of which will be dictated by large agribusiness and chain retailers.

US agribusiness corporations are spearheading the process, the very companies that fuel and thrive on a five-year US taxpayer-funded farm bill subsidy of around $500 billion. Their industrial model in the US is based on the overproduction of certain commodities often sold at prices below the cost of production and dumped on the rest of the world, thereby undermining farmers’ livelihoods and agriculture in other countries.

It is a model designed to facilitate the needs and profits of these corporations which belong to the agritech, agrichemicals, commodity trading, food processing and retail sectors. A model that can only survive thanks to taxpayer handouts and by subsidising the farmer who is squeezed at one end by seed and agrochemical manufacturers and at the other, by powerful retail interests. A model that can only function by externalising its massive health, environmental and social costs. And a model that only leads to the destruction of rural communities and jobs, degraded soil, less diverse and nutrient-deficient diets, polluted water, water shortages and poor health.

If we look at the US model, it serves the needs of agribusiness corporations and large-scale retailers, not farmers, the public nor the environment. So by bowing to their needs via World Bank directives and the US-Indo Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, what is the future to be for India?

A mainly urbanised country reliant on an industrial agriculture and all it entails, including denutrified food, increasingly monolithic diets, the massive use of agrochemicals and food contaminated by hormones, steroids, antibiotics and a range of chemical additives. A country with spiralling rates of ill health, degraded soil, a collapse in the insect population, contaminated and depleted water supplies and a cartel of seed, chemical and food processing companies with ever-greater control over the global food production and supply chain.

But we don’t need a crystal ball to look into the future. Much of the above is already taking place, not least the destruction of rural communities, the impoverishment of the countryside and continuing urbanisation, which is itself causing problems for India’s crowded cities and eating up valuable agricultural land.

So why would India want to let the foxes guard the hen house? Why mimic the model of intensive, chemical-dependent agriculture of the US and be further incorporated into a corrupt US-dominated global food regime that undermines food security and food sovereignty? After all, numerous high-level reports have concluded that policies need to support more resilient, diverse, sustainable (smallholder) agroecological methods of farming and develop decentralised, locally-based food economies.

Yet the trend in India continues to move in the opposite direction towards industrial-scale agriculture and centralised chains for the benefit of Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational players.

The plan is to shift hundreds of millions from the countryside into the cities to serve as a cheap army of labour for offshored foreign companies, mirroring what China has become: a US colonial outpost for manufacturing that has boosted corporate profits at the expense of US jobs. In India, rural migrants are to become the new ‘serfs’ of the informal services and construction sectors or to be trained for low-level industrial jobs. Even here, however, India might have missed the boat as jobless ‘growth’ seems to have arrived as the effects of automation and artificial intelligence are eradicating the need for human labour across many sectors.

If we look at the various Western powers, to whom many of India’s top politicians look to in order to ‘modernise’ the country’s food and agriculture, their paths to economic prosperity occurred on the back of colonialism and imperialism. Do India’s politicians think this mindset has disappeared?

Fuelled by capitalism’s compulsion to overproduce and then seek out new markets, the same mentality now lurks behind the neoliberal globalisation agenda: terms and policies like ‘foreign direct investment’, ‘ease of doing business’, making India ‘business friendly’ or ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ embody little more than the tenets of neoliberal fundamentalism wrapped in benign-sounding words. It boils down to one thing: Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational corporations will decide on what is to be eaten and how it is to be produced and processed.

Alternatives to development

Current policies seek to tie agriculture to an environmentally destructive, moribund system of capitalism. Practical solutions to the agrarian crisis must be based on sustainable agriculture which places the small farmer at the centre of policies: far-sighted and sustained policy initiatives centred on self-sufficiency, localisation, food sovereignty, regenerative agriculture and agroecology.

The scaling up of agroecological approaches should be a lynchpin of genuine rural development. Other measures involve implementing land reforms, correcting rigged trade, delinking from capitalist globalisation (capital controls) and managing foreign trade to suit smallholder farmers’ interests not those of foreign agricapital.

More generally, there is the need to recognise that genuine sustainable agriculture can only be achieved by challenging power relations, especially resisting the industrial model of agriculture being rolled out by powerful agribusiness corporations and the neoliberal policies that serve their interests.

What is required is an ‘alternative to development’ as post-development theorist Arturo Escobar explains:

“Because seven decades after World War II, certain fundamentals have not changed. Global inequality remains severe, both between and within nations. Environmental devastation and human dislocation, driven by political as well as ecological factors, continues to worsen. These are symptoms of the failure of “development,” indicators that the intellectual and political post-development project remains an urgent task.”

Looking at the situation in Latin America, Escobar says development strategies have centred on large-scale interventions, such as the expansion of oil palm plantations, mining, and large port development.

And it is similar in India: commodity monocropping; immiseration in the countryside; the appropriation of biodiversity, the means of subsistence for millions of rural dwellers; unnecessary and inappropriate environment-destroying, people-displacing infrastructure projects; and state-backed violence against the poorest and most marginalised sections of society.

These problems, says Escobar, are not the result of a lack of development but of ‘excessive development’. Escobar looks towards the worldviews of indigenous peoples and the inseparability and interdependence of humans and nature for solutions.

He is not alone. Writers Felix Padel and Malvika Gupta argue that adivasi (India’s indigenous peoples) economics may be the only hope for the future because India’s tribal cultures remain the antithesis of capitalism and industrialisation. Their age-old knowledge and value systems promote long-term sustainability through restraint in what is taken from nature. Their societies also emphasise equality and sharing rather than hierarchy and competition.

These principles must guide our actions regardless of where we live on the planet because what’s the alternative? A system driven by narcissism, domination, ego, anthropocentrism, speciesism and plunder. A system that is using up oil, water and other resources much faster than they can ever be regenerated. We have poisoned the rivers and oceans, destroyed natural habitats, driven wildlife species to (the edge of) extinction and have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere to the point that runaway climate change seems more and more likely.

And, as we see all around us, the outcome is endless conflicts over fewer and fewer resources, while nuclear missiles hand over humanity’s head like a sword of Damocles.

Categories: News for progressives

Uniting the Fringe Against the Center

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:42

Watching the news lately, you get the impression that the world is being ripped in two by the scourge of the far-right and the far-left. Populism they call it. Warring tribes in a binary war for the soul of the free world. In the US, Our dear orange Pericles is scheming mightily to manipulate the already unconstitutional powers of executive privilege to follow through with his promise to militarize the commons at the boarder. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is in virtual upheaval over how to contain a 5-foot-2 congresswoman for making the “antisemitic” observation that perhaps Israel has too much influence over Washington while the rest of the party keep McCarthyism alive with their own Russophobic “tropes”.

Across Europe and many other parts of the world, you here a similar tale of the populist left and/or the populist right going too far in one direction or the other, many times both simultaneously in an act of sociopolitical fission. You also hear a great collective wail from the established order who still maintain control over the press and the permanent government, lamenting the untimely demise of globalism and an ill-defined sense of pragmatism among the holy Neos, both liberal and conservative. These heavily microphoned scions of the status quo would have you believe that the world was in perfect harmony before the 2008 financial crash that they and their order precipitated with the bipartisan pillage of the world’s financial resources. In times like these the Ivy League appointed intellectual hierarchy of corporate thinktankland like to blow the dust off that old time honored canard of Jean-Pierre Faye’s Horseshoe Theory. The idea that, when push comes to shove, the far-right and the far-left are like two ends of a horseshoe, nearly meeting each other ideologically in the middle.

Being a militant contrarian panarchist, I have some very mixed feelings about this philosophy. On the one hand, there is a part of me that wants to embrace this radical panic. I’ve long contended that dismantling the police-warfare state is an effort best left to a collaboration between the radical left and the libertarian right that today’s wave of populists pretend to represent. On the other hand, the entire left-right spectrum strikes me as inherently reductionist and almost childishly over simplistic. Just like gender and sexuality, politics and philosophy are far too complex to be reduced to such bipolar classifications. I prefer to think of this sociopolitical zeitgeist as a circle, rather than the brutish horseshoe.

It’s hard for any well studied student of history to deny that certain elements of the far-right and far-left have a great deal of under-explored common ground. As a post-Marxist social anarchist who prizes anti-imperialism and freedom of speech above all else, I find myself in agreement with paleolibertarians like Ron Paul far more often than I do milquetoast progressives like Elizabeth Warren. This isn’t because Ron and me have near identical values, far from it. It’s because we both exist on the outer ring of the sociopolitical circle, with the established order at the center. We exist on what is commonly referred to as the fringe of society, a renegade outback populated by misfits as far-flung as Christian patriots and genderfuck evangelists. Considering the current state of society; endless foreign interventions, two-party gang warfare, economic cannibalism, this maligned outsider status no longer feels like a pejorative. Anarchists, socialists, paleos and libertarians stand far enough from ground zero of the mainstream political circle to recognize the source of these problems and it isn’t us.

With all the dewy eyed hymns being sung by the aging patriarchs of the Fourth Estate, you would be forgiven for forgetting that the most grotesque foibles of the West have almost exclusively been the byproducts of the triumph of bipartisan centrism. Vietnam, Iraq, NAFTA, CAFTA, the War on Drugs, the Prison Industrial Complex, all the poisoned fruits of cooperation among neoliberals and neoconservatives on the center-left and center-right, respectively. The chaos of our current era is the result of the rule of the very system Time Magazine and CNN propose as a solution. Barking populist demagogues like Bernie and Trump aren’t solutions either. With the desperate top-bottom statist overreach of border walls and corporatist green new deals, these are the bastard children of a system that they’re using extreme measures to preserve. These men are opportunistic pied pipers leading well intentioned fringeists back into the never-never-land of centrist purgatory. Their siren songs should be ignored at all cost by anyone thirsty for truly substantial change.

The only real change that swamp creatures like Trump and Bernie truly represent is a division within their circle on how to best preserve it. These populist squabbles may be the contractions of this systems long overdue miscarriage. But they could use a little help from the abortion clinics of the fringe. If the malignant center could achieve such heights of mass destruction working together than why not the disparate forces who reject its hegemony? Why are we wasting perfectly good Molotov cocktails on each other when the cop cars are wide open between us? We need to take note of our priorities. If you are determined to reign in the police state and snuff out the fires of eternal warfare, then I say that you’re my ally, regardless of what you think of my gender identity or how to provide people with adequate healthcare. I honestly believe that there are good kids both in Antifa and MAGA hats who would agree with this sentiment if they weren’t so damn distracted by their preferred cults of personality and the scapegoats they conjure. We need to get these kids woke enough to look across the center and realize that a true revolution can never be waged from within it.

The center had their turn, dearest motherfuckers. They shit the bed and I for one have no intention of cleaning it alone. Fuck the center and unite the fringe.

Categories: News for progressives

Displacement and Ethnic Conflict in New Ethiopia

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:40

Fundamental political reforms are underway in Ethiopia, but as the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed and his government work to bring about change in the country, historic ethnic divisions have erupted. Dozens of people have been killed, many more injured and over a million people displaced since April 2018 due to rising ethnic violence. The total number of internally displaced persons, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) exceeds two million, this is a major test for the government, and to date little has been done for people driven from their homes.

While other groups have been involved in the clashes, much of the violence has been attributed to men from Oromia. Young men who, Al Jazeera report, have also been accused of looting and destroying property, as well as taking new homes in the capital which had been allocated to other citizens by dint of a ballot

Ethnic identity

With around 80 tribal groups and a population of 105 million people (growing at an alarming rate of 2.5% per annum), 70% of who are under 30, the demographic make up of Ethiopia is diverse and complex.

The Oromo, who are mainly Muslim, constitute the largest ethnic group with 35% of the population spread over a large region of the country; followed by the Amhara (Orthodox Christian) with 27%, and against who the Oromo have fought numerous wars. Many Ethiopians identify themselves more strongly with their tribal group than their nationality; ethnic clans have their own dialect and traditions, and are deeply attached to specific areas of the country. Tribal identities die hard and, together with stories of past conflicts and injustices, are passed down the centuries from parent to child.

In the early 19th Century Oromo monarchies ruled over large parts of central and southern Ethiopia, however for generations since the Oromo have complained of economic, cultural and political marginalization at the hands of governments led by politicians from other ethnic groups; most recently a brutal gang from the Tigray region who formed The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the ruling EPRDF coalition that ruled from 1991 until April 2018.

Under the TPLF regime the Oromo people, like other ethnic groups, including the Amhara and ethnic Somali, were persecuted, falsely arrested, tortured and murdered, women raped. Amnesty International published a report in 2014 entitled, ‘Because I Am Oromo: Sweeping Repression in the Oromia Region of Ethiopia’, in which they stated “that thousands of Oromo people were “being ruthlessly targeted by the state based solely on their perceived opposition to the government…dozens of actual or suspected dissenters have been killed.”  There is no question that the Oromo were persecuted by the TPLF, but with the exception of people from Tigray, they suppressed the whole country. The danger now is that some Oromo may have revenge in their minds and feel protected by an Oromo Prime minister.

Long held Anger

One of the first actions undertaken by PM Ahmed was to dismiss all TPLF ministers, and, as Foreign Policy states, to arrest “a number of top military and intelligence officials – many from the ethnic Tigrayan community on charges of corruption and human rights abuses.” A new (gender equal) cabinet was agreed, predominantly populated by men and women from the same ethnic group as the new PM – Oromia.

Oromo people, particularly young Oromo men played a key part in the protest movement that swept across the country from 2015, culminating in the collapse of the previous regime. Now, for the first time, they have an Oromo government. The election of PM Ahmed was met with cries of ‘we won’ from Oromo people; the reaction revealed their feeling that the movement to bring about a change of government was an ethnically centered political uprising, something the rest of the population, many of who were involved in the protest actions would not agree with.

The change of government – the Oromo ‘victory’, seems to have allowed years of anger and resentment to come to the surface, and as Felix Horne of Human Rights Watch makes clear, since the new PM took office, “the ethno-nationalist narrative is much more dominant than it used to be … a lot of the young Oromo’s are not willing to take ‘second place.”

This sense of entitlement is extremely dangerous, it is part of an ‘Oromo First’ approach being promoted by certain influential Oromo’s and is a key factor in the recent ethnic clashes. Expectations of what the new government should do for the Oromo community is high: A group of young Oromo men told Reuters what they want: That the rights (including land rights as they see them) of Oromo’s are respected, support for poor Oromo families, an end to corruption and unfair land deals, dignity, and more generally, “freedom and justice, economic opportunity, jobs, democracy and free and fair elections.” In addition the Oromo stake a claim to the capital, Addis Ababa, which occupies an administrative island of autonomy within Oromia land. People from various ethnic groups populate the city, with the largest number, around half being Amhara. It is the capital for the whole country, and should not be associated with any one particular ethnic group.

Social unity

Under the previous regime a policy of Ethnic Federalism was introduced, the 1994 Constitution divided the country into nine ethnic regions together with two federally administered states: rights to land, employment and higher education was determined by ethnic identity; schools taught in ethnic dialects, tribal loyalties were strengthened, divisions aggravated and national unity, which was already fragile, weakened. Economic disparities between the regions caused ethnic competition and resentment, calls for succession were made by groups in the Ogaden/Somali region and Oromia and hardline ethnic political parties strengthened.

The new government and leaders of the main opposition parties – all of which are ethnically rooted, are spouting the rhetoric of unity and reconciliation, this is encouraging but by itself is not enough. The PM needs to take a lead in bringing about a shift in thinking, one that acknowledges differences, celebrates tribal culture and heritage, but also inculcates a sense of national identity, community tolerance and broad social responsibility.

Strong support networks exist within extended families in Ethiopia, but there is a lack of wider social engagement and civic responsibility. The cultivation of and investment in a vibrant civil society to support those in need, whatever their ethnicity, would help to break down ethnic divisions and foster an environment of compassion and tolerance; a collective atmosphere in which neighbors, workmates, students etc. are no longer seen through a prism of ethnicity, but simply as fellow human beings, Ethiopians all.

Tribal nationalism is on the rise throughout the world; an ethnically rooted country like Ethiopia is fertile ground for such extremism and all efforts must be made to build unity. Ethnic tensions and the huge number of internally displaced people is the first real test of PM Ahmed’s government; those that have been forced from their homes need to be supported and re-settled as a matter of urgency and measures taken to ensure that ethnic violence is dealt with as a criminal act, whilst introducing methods that encourage social cohesion. Building a united, tolerant country is essential if the new government is to succeed in introducing democracy to Ethiopia and creating peaceful integrated communities.

Categories: News for progressives

The Democratrepublican’s Carnivorial Tent

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 15:37

Two parties, my ass!

There is one political party which is allowed to operate in the ever-moving, privately owned, carnivorial tent known as the “republic” of the United States of America. This operation has no allegiance to any geographic or spiritual location. Any and all locations are seen primarily as possible sources of monetary income and incoming money is the justifier (sic) and instigator of any deception which is deemed necessary at any given time. Yes, the chief method employed has always involved getting the suckers to fall for the pretense that there is something especially “exceptional” about each and every physical location or supposed spiritual intent where the numerous barkers in the carnivorial tent position themselves to distract the suckers from the fact that the predatory drive for pilfering private profits will leave every location more debased and more toxic when the barkers and their enthused crowds “move on.”

The chief barker within the tent today is Donald Trump. It is widely and wildly insisted that he is the most “exceptional” example of every trait of barkerisms. To a large portion of the population, he is the personification of everything “exceptional”ly bad and to another massive number of the population he is the personification of “exceptional” human possibilities under the shared democratrepublican capitalist carnivorial tent.

The tent which covers operations is maintained through mandatory fees which are imposed globally. It is the desire to get under the cover of the tent which unites the crowds. Everyone pays extra to be within the tent. The tent provide a restrictive cover for the intense feelings of insecurity and is designed to keep everyone’s attention focussed of the possibility of making a private monetary killing. Making a killing is believed to be the highest form of liberty. Whoops of joy at winning and accusations of fraudulent scheming in a rigged game erupt consistently from within the tent as the tent shifts and swaggers over the rotting bodies of the inevitable victims who fall under the manipulated movements of the crowded suckers who are desperately maneuvering to be in close proximity to the manipulative power of the barkers. Optimism is mandatory while doubts and suspicions are grounds for removal.

Two-faced clowns with megaphones on corporately labelled stilts manipulate the attention of the suckers with snide mumbles, sweetly-laced “identity” pandering, and distracting patriotic singing which eventually lead to proudly celebratory chanting of “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom!”

Professional pickpockets are abundant and their patting on backs leaves a temporary feeling of recognition and wellbeing – unless your wallet is too heavy to lift. Then, the warming arms and armaments are used to maintain an extended embrace of your possibility as a benefactor of the carnivorial tent and you are guided into closer proximity to the barkers.

Occasionally, (or is it Ocasio-ly?) voices arise temporarily which seem to try to get the crowd to move within the tent in a more egalitarian manner. These voices tend to be restricted to the periphery and they regularly fade away in futility. Study the clean parallel between Kucinich and Sanders. It is clear that their message is in opposition to the chief purpose of the tent. They have also paid the extra costs to gain access to the operations within the tent. They insist that being anywhere outside is a waste of time and they work to steer the crowd toward their preferred predatory barkers, even, or especially, after they get a stab in the back. They prefer the barkers with sweeter voices because they know how the crowd desires the “hope and change” of losing more with sweeter delusions. They confidently remind the crowd that if you are not trying to participate in the increasingly mandated gambling within the tent then you are not capable of being perceived as authentic and you will not be trusted by those they reinforce as being the necessary authorities.

Perception by others is one of the biggest thrills to the participants in the carnivorial tent. To insiders, nothing you do will ever matter as much as your ability to manipulate how you are perceived by other suckers within the tent and how you are perceived doesn’t matter as much as does your proximity to the barkers who manipulate the crowd. This is the aura of the shell game. It is theatrically lit with disingenuousness. Words and life are of variable value and money talks with real value. This is the central belief of democrats and republicans and their global allies and this may be why they both misguidedly, arrogantly, and stupidly worked so hard to put Trump in his current position. Few people represent the influence of money upon the brain better than does a vain, crude vacancy like Trump. Of course it is reasoned that something like a Clinton or Biden crudity would also be a delight to huge numbers of the suckers.

In this supposed 21st Century of christian delusions, the swaggering global movements of the carnivorial tent has reached a degree of swaying wherein the use of the pretense of opposition has become a great unifier for the most dominant of nationalistic religiosities around the planet. Moneymaking militarism abounds and unifies the lack of integrity – which is widely cherished by the various devotedly “pragmatist” mentalities – with the movements and operations of the restricting tent and its shell game of/for private profits. The Pelosifying platitudes of smug complacency are insidiously putrefying the suckers. So delicate, so vapid, so invidious.

The seemingly rampant belief in the accumulation of money as the chief manifestation of some god’s grace has led to the repeated torturous and torturing infliction of destruction under the delusion of righteousness in more and more locations.

Today, the intoxicated swaggering is on the verge of destroying its deliberately hamstrung Venezuela (the owners of the tent believe that they should own all) and there are glaringly unified attempts across the lack of a supposed spectrum which are offering hints of justification for the carnivorial agenda. The barkers want us to ignore the history of their own devious manipulations to isolate and sabotage Venezuela and that they prefer to focus blame on Maduro. Here AGAIN we have a singular bad guy presented to us who, the barkers tell us, is forcing them to savage and destroy millions of people’s lives. This is the barkers’ shared idea of humanitarianism.

The are no mirrors allowed within the tent. Reflecting is believed to be a devious behavior within the tent, but echoing and chanting previously used word-sounds is a highly regarded method of gaining more attention. The array of would-be chief barkers under the democrat guise will, no doubt, work like a charm to keep their democratrepublican tent in a robust swagger from deceit to delusion.

If you identify as a democrat or a republican (including libertarian), you are part of the problem and you are not helping people leave the carnivorial status quo. You are probably not being deliberately sadistic, but you are helping to keep the now global tent on its ever-expanding hellish journey.

Sure, I am a damned fool, who isn’t? I cannot allow myself to, or encourage anyone else to, participate in the blood-drenched shell game which you, either blindly or cynically, seem to think is a proof of your agency. Look in a mirror. if you do not see over 500,000 dead babies in Iraq (and many more beyond that) as part of your democratrepublican reflection, then I can only assume that you think such horrors are “worth it” for you to have access to the barkers’ rigged gambling schemes and power plays. Roosevelt’s aphorism that, “All we have to fear is fear itself ” is clearly now dated and misleading. No – unwarranted confidence can and has proven to be equally dangerous and anyone who confidently promotes the religiosity of capitalism without demanding socialistic restrictions is a delusional manipulator at best.

I am ashamed of my previous participation within your bloody tent and there is nothing your barkers can say which has credibility and can distract me from the facts of what you support in your misrepresentations of yourselves. There is only one way to begin to be opposed to the horror show which insiders are currently enabling. Restricting pressure must be applied from outside. Asking for the weakest statement of “No confidence” seems to be asking for too much from those infected by the fearful dread of integrity which is central to both democrats and republicans.

The democratrepublican tent is laced with desperate toxicity, The longer you stay inside and try to make it look more appealing, the farther you will remove yourself from integrity and the more harm you will impose on those who are more vulnerable.

Categories: News for progressives

Bach in Chico

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 14:39

Ruins of the Salvation Army store in Paradise. Photo: David Yearsley.

From Stanford University in Palo Alto, California northwest to the State University of California at Chico it’s a neat 200 miles—the kind of distance the young Bach would have covered on foot. He certainly wouldn’t have done it in a late model Subaru cadged from a friend with FastTrak for the tolls, feet-freeing cruise control, and a pretty decent sound system.  When the young Bach wasn’t using his feet at the organ, he was walking distances both long and short—a topic I’ll have to more say about next week in a review of a recent book that follows in the footsteps of his 1705 hike from Arnstadt in central Germany to Lübeck on the Baltic Set.

Bach, I like to think, preferred to make a journey himself rather than be transported as quickly as possible, though as a poor orphan and young organist committed more to self-improvement than professional advance (though the desires weren’t exclusive of one another), he didn’t have much choice. Like most young men of his lowly social station, he probably owned just one pair of shoes for organ playing and for slogging through the mud. He was a journeyman, literally and figuratively.

Of the two institutions of higher learning mentioned above—the one vastly rich and getting vastly richer every minute, the other reliant on state funds—is Chico State that does far more to stoke the Bach legacy. For nearly forty years the university has hosted a vibrant Bach Festival. It lasts but a few days, its events vigorously attended by enthusiasts, amateurs, musicians, and the generally interested. This year there were many kids in attendance, and their grandparents, too.

The Chico Bach Festival is not a huge, overly extravagant affair of passion concerts and other massed masterworks, aided and abetted (and sometimes hindered) by gaggles of scholars expounding on the intricacies of their own research and the cosmic consequences of Bach’s genius. In this edition of the festival there were three excellent concerts, though I’ll have to recuse myself from rating the last of them—an organ concert in which I was joined by Annette Richards. Programmed around Bach family duets, some erudite and some merely entertaining, we played our own solos: there were pieces by the Bach’s sons, complemented by the father’s beloved settings of some of his favorite cantata movements known as Schübler Chorales. The recital (and the festival) concluded with Annette presenting the vaulting, francophone, never-resolving-and-seemingly-endless chains of harmonies of his Pièce d’Orgue.That frenchfied title is coupled with the composer styled as the Italian Giov[anni] Sebast[iano] Bach in contemporary manuscript copies of the piece. As these polyglot title pages suggest, this Bach had cosmopolitan ambitions, indeed he produced the most internationally-minded music of the European baroque and did so without ever leaving his native Germany. He spent his life in a band of territory and towns of the German hills and forests about one hundred miles long—roughly the distance from Chico to the state capital in Sacramento. Bach made a couple of sojourns north, about as far, say, as the Oregon border. He learned these European musical languages without ever leaving home, creating things in these tongues that native speakers could never have imagined. Bach’s music spans a continent, and now a world.

Bach’s universality explodes preconceptions about parochialism. In that same spirit, the Chico Bach Festival is small town music in the best sense of the concept, admittedly an elastic one since the city’s population is nearly 90,000, three times larger than that of the commercial and university center that was Leipzig when Bach lived there for almost three decades in the first half of the eighteenth century.

This time around there were three Chico concerts. The intermezzo known as the Coffee Cantata was sponsored by a local coffeehouse, which offered the attendees their brew laced with fine cocoa, German style. Leipzig was a city full of such establishments, and so is Chico.

In a division of labor that Bach and his spouse would have recognized, indeed practiced, Dara Scholz, multi-talented wife of the festival director, sang the part of Liesgen with baritone Ryan Downey in the role of the bumbling father, Schlendrian. I missed the performance, but the reactions of attendees I spoke with were ecstatic.

Liesgen is a caffeine addict. Schlendrian forbids the wanton consumerism this addiction represents. She purports to give up the bitter bean when her father makes it a condition of him finding her a husband. But in the end Liesgen connives, unbeknownst to Schlendrian, to have her right to coffee written into the marriage contract.

The original plan had been to stage this fizzing comic entertainment done outside, just as Bach might well have done in the Leipzig coffeehouse’s summer garden where he led many musical performances. But the California spring has been wet and rainy, the Sacramento River swollen so much that our GPS-chosen route to Chico ran into much confusion because of flooding.

The almond trees were in blossom, the weeds between the mono-culture rows and the hills beyond as vibrantly green as they’ve rarely been in recent years. The camellias were out, but for the Coffee Cantata the performers and audience were inside with their cocoa-spiked coffee.

On Saturday morning there were classes for local singers, string players, and organists, and an afternoon lecture called “Bach Laughs” delivered by your correspondent, the Musical Patriot. On Saturday night Sacramento’s Sinfonia Spirtuoso—as spirited as its name suggests—was led from the harpsichord by director Lorna Peters in a program of instrumental music by Georg Philipp Telemann and his godson Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.  Supported by this buoyant and precise period instrument band, baroque flutist Cathie Apple sallied through a Telemann concerto with poise and panache, and baroque bassoonist David Wells delivered his conversational lines in a C. P. E. Bach trio with understated humor and tasteful verve. Interleaved with these instrumental works were a trio of tenor arias sung by Derek Chester. Lifted from their original context in the church service, this music of suffering and salvation took on a pastoral lightness, though there were lacerating thorns in the meadows, the pain and beauty of the wounds and worries portrayed with earnest assuredness and pathos by this talented, intelligent singer and his sympathetic accompanists.

The small modern hall was well filled, but not as packed as Chico itself. The city’s population has swelled by as much as 20,000 since the Camp Fire of last fall. We were put up in the Marriott Residence Inn on the edge of town—also an elastic concept in America since there are hardly such edges anymore, just vaguely demilitarized, deindustrialized sprawl zones.  From the Residence Inn you could easily walk a few minutes to both a Lowe’s and a Home Depot—if you dared to brave the four-plus lanes of State Highway 99 and other hazards life-threatening to pedestrians.

There was hardly room left in the Residence Inn for Bach tourists like us. The motel remains provisional home to scores of refugees from Paradise a dozen miles to the west. Long-term residents since last November’s fire walk their dogs out front in the parking lot crammed with cars. Families divided between rooms shuttle down long corridors with their funky geometric carpeting to say good night.  Eight-year-old kids really know their way around the breakfast buffet.

Late on Friday, we signed into the motel at the front desk. The receptionist had been evicted from her rental apartment because it had to be taken back by the owners, their house in Paradise having been destroyed. She had found another room in town on the internet, but the owner had several cats and she was very allergic to them.  The receptionist said she was thankful for what she had and eager to help those with nothing left.

Sunday morning before our afternoon concert we drove up the Skyway to Paradise. The road runs ruthlessly down the middle of a magnificent ridge with deep canyons on either side carved by Butte Creek to the north and the West Branch of the Feather River to the south. The Skyway represents the classic American way of interacting with the landscape: ram a four-lane road down the middle of a geological marvel.  It’s not the place to be in a motorized exodus from catastrophe.

In this wet spring all is green is on the Skyway until just past an enclave called Spanish Gardens  eight miles up the grade. Its palm trees were untouched by the blaze. Just beyond this point whole developments are gone, the carnage removed and paved over.  The Alliance Church (“Hope is Rising” proclaim the bill boards along the roadside) and the realtors haven’t given up, nor the lawyers advertising their eagerness to represent victims of the fire.  Spring’s hope is eternal—until the fires start coming this side of the vernal equinox.

Ignoring the apocalyptic message of last fall, the realtors are open for business even on the sabbath. It would be a miracle if the boom that swelled Paradise’s population in the years leading up to the fire can be conjured again.

The biggest architectural irony is that the smoke shop—Paradise Smokes—appears to have been spared. The Adventists hospital has been rebuilt.  There are a couple of cafés, the realtors offices, but otherwise all is charred debris: cars, appliances, glass, tires, houses, solitary chimneys, stoic redwoods, and carbonized pine and oak.

We encounter only a couple of other cars. As they pass I feel guilty about taking pictures: the beginnings of eco-collapse-tourism.

The devastation is astonishing, impossible to get your mind around. A camera can’t take it in.

The downtown strip brings to mind Dresden, perhaps because our concert downin Chico is to be played on an instrument based on that most beautiful baroque city’s organs, all but one of them destroyed in the firestorm of February 1945.

In Dresden it was stone from the fallen, burned-out buildings that took decades to clear. The stucco and wood went up almost immediately. In Paradise the materials are lighter, but the clean-up will be an unfathomably enormous job.

Near the center of town the Salvation Army is gone but its banner promises return. In Paradise, salvage and salvation are more than simply cognates.


Categories: News for progressives

Jonas Mekas: In Conversation

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 14:15

Joans Mekas. Photo: Julian Vigo.

Mid December 2012, I was lucky enough to meet up with Jonas Mekas at the Serpentine Gallery in London. We sat down for a talk that I have never managed to transcribe or work on until now. And this fact has has niggled at me for many years. To be fair, I was heavily pregnant when we undertook this interview and the world was as tumultuous as my new residence in the UK as a scholar-filmmaker making inroads within a country whose class system was only faintly inscribed upon me through PBS and Dickens. The New York where I first met Mekas over twenty years earlier when I was barely an adult seemed a much more hospitable environment for a struggling filmmaker. Yet, it was here in London’s Hyde Park where I would finally sit down with the very person whose work as a filmmaker I long admired and whose pioneering of the Anthology Film Archives in New York’s East Village helped to buttress my film education. For me, the entire meeting seemed upside-down relative time given that I had seen Jonas over the years as a graduate student in New York City from the late 1980s and then later teaching at NYU and CUNY. In fact, along with NYU’s Avery Fisher Center for Music and Media, Theater 80 St. Marks, the Thalia and Thalia Soho, Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre, the Film Forum, and the MoMA’s Film Library, the Anthology Film Archives was a standard locus of my film education.

So, when I think of Mekas’ amazing film center, I can’t help but remember all the amazing films that hit my soul: Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) and the amazing works of Shirley Clarke, Joseph Cornell, Maya Deren, among many other independent artists whose work would otherwise have fallen into obscurity. The Anthology Film Archives was this place for me to see cinema which represented the production of film that I was making—film made on a shoestring and far from Hollywood budgets and whose subjects tended towards class conflict, economic struggle, and political justice, themes far from the interest of most commercial productions.

Realized in 1970 by filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage, Anthology Film Archives was conceived to be a showcase for the “Essential Cinema Repertory collection” within its larger manifesto of film as art. The Archives’ Essential Cinema collection was “intended to encourage the study of the medium’s masterworks as works of art rather than disposable entertainment, making Anthology the first museum devoted to film as an art form.” Although the Essential Cinema project was never completed, it still serves as an excellent overview of cinema history with the Anthology Film Archives continuing its mission to screen cinema and offer avenues for new filmmakers to highlight their creations.

So when Jonas Mekas and I sat down to discuss the 2012-2013 Serpentine exhibition of his work, “Jonas Mekas: Survey of a Cinematic Lyricist,” we started in real life. Again, I was massively pregnant and just before meeting with Mekas, someone from the Serpentine had given me a plate of food which I was more than happy to devour.

Mekas: Don’t just sit and talk you know—you have something to eat. That’s the French part of friendship and spending time together.

Vigo: Do you think that we’re losing that part of our culture today?

Mekas: Yes, absolutely.

Vigo: Why do you think that is?

Mekas: Our civilization is not promoting human relationships and the conditions are not there anymore for not our being together. Our mechanical-industrial civilization is not the same as rural or older society when there was no television, no computers. Now, all that new technology takes our attention all the time, everywhere. Well, I mean human relationships which are still the most important thing that there is on this planet.

Vigo: True, but many people perceive cinema as a form of media as they would perceive, let’s say Facebook and Twitter. Yet, I view Facebook as a way of removing us from the social, creating a “false social” where people can talk with their thumbs superficially, but people don’t get together anymore. They talk about getting together, they talk about eating together, but they don’t really do it, as our society moves towards, I don’t know what end. Given this paradox of media today, how do you view new media in light of the the kind of media you create? Do you think there’s any kind of interplay between these two spaces of the real and the representational?

Mekas: Well, technology is still moving. I think we are both caught in civilization and within a technology of which we have lost control. Like we want to perfect more and more and more and more, which creates more technology, more dependence on technology. And then to continue to develop it, we must destroy the planet more and more. So I think at this point I think we are going towards a dead end, the way I see it. It’s strange that, we had an election in states and you know, nobody discussed these issues. Everybody think that everything is the economy, the economy. What will happen to that economy? They are talking about plans for 20 years, 30 years ahead. You know, all the crisis 10 years ahead, but that, they forget that in 10 years we may run out of water, we may run out of water and that the oceans will be higher and there will be completely different problems and different needs. The economy may become a secondary matter. Nobody discussed this during the election. It’s strange.

Vigo: Well was the secondary candidates, the independent candidates did, but they were sidelined by the media. In fact, neither main candidates discussed the people protesting, the Wall Street, you know, protestors who’ve been there for a year, which I found very interesting. Did you make it down to the protests this past year?

Mekas: Yes, you can see some pictures on my, website. I don’t know if you can look up on my website.

Vigo: Thank you. I will check that out then. I was very impressed by the pieces I saw downstairs, especially beginning with the photos of you as a young man. Sitting in front of the train with a hat with other people. It was very beautiful. And here we are, that was 1947?

Mekas: Yes. Interestingly from ‘46, ‘47 and ‘45.

Vigo: And how, how did you make your way over to New York?

Mekas: I was brought here by United Nations refugee organization and then dropped into New York. Yes. From just five years being in a displaced person camp after the war. I did not go to America by my own choice. I would have gone somewhere else probably. I was just dropped here luckily. I was to dropped to NewYork at a very good time just the beginning of huge changes in all of the arts and the excitement moving into the beat generation and then John Cage and then all the art happenings, theater and music and everything began changing by ‘55. And I was there in the middle of it. So I’m very happy that I was dropped in New York.

Vigo: As well as John Cage’s music and Merce Cunningham’s new dance company. So, how did you discover making cinema? Or rather, how did you find yourself amidst this culture of so many different artistic expressions?

Mekas: The cinema was also going through changes. And so, I found that many young people are ready where we’re trying to develop different kind of forms of cinema. They were not happy, not satisfied with the narrative, commercial simple-minded productions that they were going into different directions. So, they were influenced by other movements in the literature and arts like the trees, the more abstract expression is more “action painting.” These changes also affected the cinema. All art moved forward like into different and more open areas in all of the arts you want. In dance, you had Rainer. I arrived when a certain kind of classic period had ended and the dance of Martha Graham and Balanchine. It was great, but this was like a final statement on all of those developments in all of those arts, and then new ones were coming in. So that chapter was closed. I came at the end of one and the beginning of another. I came to New York.

Vigo: From Lithuania to New York—by boat?

Mekas: Yes, by the Army with 3,000 others.

Vigo: And you had brothers there as well? Did they stay back in Lithuania?

Mekas: I had five brothers: one brother came over and he ended up at Bard College. And he stayed there for twenty-five years where he created a film department and he ran it until he retired.

Vigo: So when I see your early images of the streets of Brooklyn from when you first arrived, what prompted you to film this? What brought you to the cinema?

Mekas: No clear answer can be given why one does in any of the arts, why one begins to dance or sing or do whatever. One gesture moves slowly—it’s not suddenly, slowly. At some point, you discover you are in the middle of it and you don’t even know how it all started. Especially in my case because I saw my first movies only when I was 15. There were no cinemas, no radio, no television, in my childhood. There were only songs. We sang our songs, that’s all.

Vigo: What are the films that you first saw that impressed you?

Mekas: Uh, nothing really impressed me until I came to New York. I did not see anything really that was any. I saw some movies that the American army brought over—just cheap, second rate, westerns. No masterpieces of cinema, no classics.

Vigo: And, when you got to New York?

Mekas: Well New York it was every day and every night classic film programs in the Museum of Modern Art. There were several film societies showing non-commercial, avant-garde cinema, classic cinema from the 20s, 30s and the new avant-garde that was emerging. New York was very alive.

Vigo: Your films seem to be influenced by, not a formalized documentary style, but there is an essence of a post-cinéma vérité in much of what you are filming at this time.

Mekas: Of course, the cinema back then. There were the documentaries which scripted cinema in the ’30s to the ’40s. Then cinéma vérité tried to avoid scripts but it was still guided by preconceived ideas even if there was no script—they went in to real life, but with certain ideas and what they want from it to pick up to show on television usually. And that is continuing today. Cinema techniques are used on television, uh, life drama and docu-dramas. It is a little bit scripted but some of is that much scripted. [laughing] And I began like this That’s all I knew, that’s all I had seen. But I had seen it in Hollywood, I had seen it right on a documentary like a British documentary was classic cinema for me until I came to New York and realized that are other possibilities—that cinema is a big tree with many other branches. Some of them are tiny and I met people, young people with cameras trying to develop those branches. Many windows suddenly opened with this thing called cinema. And that’s where I left the documentary and I transcended cinéma vérité and went into my own kind of dualistic personnel cinema.

Vigo: Well, the “Dumpling Party” installation, which I watched last week. You notice that’s the Andy Warhol, obviously John and Yoko. Were you documenting a moment?

Mekas: No, it was my camera was part of the moment. John had just bought his Polaroid camera. He was taking Polaroids and I was as always, you know, I was snapping and then some other people took my camera and they took pictures of me. It was part of life. That’s what life today consists of—not only of us but we told the things around us and cameras are an inseparable part of life. Today, it’s now telephones. Yes. And whatever is on the table, you can drink and eat and take pictures. It’s part of this style of life.

Vigo: So the modern day still life has to include the camera next to the fruit?

Mekas: Almost, yes. It’s part of it too. Yes, it’s very much.

Vigo: I notice also in many of the films I saw downstairs, I could pick out who is your family because I could see your child and the many images from the late seventies. When I went finally to see this latest project of yours, Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, I was struck by how these are outtakes, but they are also condensed parts of your life that became on their own a new work.

Mekas: They somehow did not fit into other finished films, or similar takes or shorts that I did not want to have much of the same. So I put it on the shelf. But now I decided for this occasion to do something to stream them all together.

Vigo: And it’s more than just a stream, I mean..

Mekas: Well, I put that stream together. Of course, you work for a year…

Vigo: But it’s a very beautiful collection because you get a sense of not you so much as what you have seen. I mean, yes, one could say that we see pieces of you through the film, but you have seen, many years and we are shared this vision.

Mekas: Also, it’s not just myself because the film in itself is reality and fiction at the same time. You make film and you then share it with others.

Vigo: Well it’s quite a beautiful piece. I was very impressed by the nuances and there’s a certain sweetness that comes out as well as in the outtakes from Allen Ginsberg’s death that you filmed. And I was curious about that because also, I’ve taught this film to my students at NYU and many of the students didn’t even know who Allen Ginsberg is, of course. So you’re teaching them well, giving them a piece of history. But what was really beautiful about that film was just the way you utilize the camera to be a presence and to be an observer in this very sacred moment.

Mekas: Yes, one moment could be sort of invisible camera initially. Again, it’s invisible becomes invisible, but itself invisible but sees everything.

Vigo: And has that experience from filming, let’s say Allen Ginsberg’s death experience, did that also change the way you perceive filmmaking in any sense?

Mekas: No. Well, I mean, I applied what I knew, to that occasion.

Vigo: Have there been any moments in your career that have radically changed the way you think about film making?

Mekas: No. There were important works, but they only confirmed my direction of filmmaking. So people like Marie Menken and her casual kind of filming is just one example.

Vigo: I moved to New York in 1988, and one of the first places I went to see the cinema was Anthology. Also, the then Saint Mark’s movie house, and the Thalia Soho. These were the three places I would go to sort have my own “university of cinema” and create knowledge for myself. And one thing that struck me always about the Anthology Film Archives was, of course, the fact that it challenged the limits on commercial cinema, that commercial cinema necessarily imposes. I spent one Christmas back in ‘88 watching Butterfield eight at the Saint Mark’s theater and I got to see Pasolini on your screens and it was very rare to be able to see Pasolini screened anywhere. So, I looked towards anthology is a place to be able to go in and discover a different nuance in cinema. But today, is that possible outside of these kinds of constructions such as Anthology Film Archives?

Mekas: There are very rarely a few places. Lincoln Center is beginning to open more and more. It was very narrow and very restricted until like a couple of years ago, but now the new generation is taking over. The New York Film Festival and the Film Society as well. And then they are opening it to some today younger cinema from around the world that would have been impossible 10 to 15 years ago. The presentation of Peter Kubelka’s work this Fall is a unique example.

Vigo: Where do you see cinema going with changing technologies?

Mekas: It will continue. They have not settled down on any one technology—they keep changing every two to three years. So we are in transition, and I have no idea where it will end. All I know is that the video cassettes that I want to use some of the footage from the 1990s, I have great difficulty in transferring them to new formats without distorting, destroying it. Then the video art of the seventies of which collections from several of all the video artists we had at anthology, it cost us a lot to try to preserve and to transfer to contemporary and current formats so that they could be seen. And it keeps changing, it’s going to keep changing.

Vigo: Right. I noticed your camera, in fact. It’s a cassette—

Mekas: Yes, they are not making this camera anymore. I got it on eBay. And when this one goes, I will have to switch to a different camera. Because one can get a camera on eBay.

Vigo: When I walked into the gallery last week, you were there with the camera filming around. I seem to always see you with cameras in your hands. Yet, there is an aspect of your work that has always appealed to me as much as your images—that of your connection to music in your films. How did this evolve?

Mekas: Some of my involvement with music is just by chance, circumstance. Some are big project just like the music like I mentioned before. Where I come from, we always have the fields, so whatever we did, we always had music. Back in New York it actually began with Sandra when I met Sandra in Chicago and when he wanted to give a performance in New York. I was running Charles Theater on Avenue B on 12th Street. I gave him midnight performances at the Charles Theater which were Sandra’s first performances in New York. Then later, when I had space and a filmmakers’ cinematheque, many of these events took place on Wooster Street in Soho, then on 41st Street in Times Square with the likes of George Maciunas and the Fluxus. Even Phil Glass when he came back from India gave his first performance in these spaces. Then Lou Reed and his gang needed space to practice in the cinematheque and the same with Ornette Coleman. With all of these musicians we had a working relationship.

Vigo: So you were able to use the venues in multiple ways. Of course, there’s the growing industry now of music and image. I mean both in mainstream cinema and then also in more avant-garde approaches to cinema. In the recent years we have seen how cinema departments have exploded, with departments adding specialities such as “writing music for cinema” programs. So, on the one hand, cinema within academia became very business oriented with the professionalization of this field, and on the other hand—

Mekas: —the cinema itself exploded.

Vigo: Exactly.

Mekas: In ‘65 I could say that I know absolutely every filmmaker in the United States and even though in England and France. Five years later I really think that would be absurd. It was impossible to talk to about American avant-garde film—we had to talk about black cinema, native American cinema, Asian-American cinema, gays cinema, lesbians cinema, etc. [laughing] And it branched out. And then the new technologies video and all. Now it’s like the dream of Cocteau came true and you know. So cinema you will be able to write poems and camera still becomes like a pencil.

Vigo: Exactly. When I was watching To London with Love (2012), I was standing next to a couple, they were in their late sixties, early seventies, and they said, “Oh, there we are.” And they are pointing to themselves in your video and they knew you when you came here to London back in the early seventies to make this film. And they were the ones that organize the film festival that you were at. And I was thinking about this, because years ago there were very few specialized film festivals and now we have so many—Asian-American film festivals, Gay and Lesbian, etc. But aren’t all of these facets of identity somehow over slides, overworked in the sense? Like when I see your film or should I say like going back to Allen Ginsburg’s funeral, there we have a wonderful cinema—it’s gay, lesbian, it’s straight it’s the village, it’s, you know, the nineties. It’s a bit of everything and we don’t, maybe we’re too affixed to these names, these identities, you know? And when does, when do you stop to become a Lithuanian filmmaker or New York filmmaker or both? And then, you know, these identities that we’ve sewn ourselves into seem to mean very little…

Mekas: I think it’s disappearing. I think now it’s more like just a filmmaker or an international or just a movie maker, video maker. That’s it. It is disappearing, it’s at a point where those divisions, why nationality within the sort of family of artists, filmmakers, dancers–it’s still those who are writing but then it is more difficult because of their language barriers. But otherwise, these divisions are disappearing. The same as everything else have legalized what we eat, how we dressed, how we this, how we that. The reaction, like for now we have in Japan, the reaction against the westernization of of Japan. But I think it’s too late that you cannot go back because the problems become universal. The problems will be of food, of water, of air, of ocean. They are no more local, all the disasters, all of their problems, tsunamis, are no more just Japan or Philippines or somewhere, we have a tsunami here in New York practically in the East Coast. So everything and nothing can be just local anymore.

Vigo: It’s true. I mean we are living in maybe cinemas that are an equalizer of all language, you know, that transgresses ethnic and linguistic boundaries.

Mekas: I think that’s what brought me partially I think into cinema because nobody, I could not communicate in Lithuanian. If I wrote my poetry in Lithuania and nobody would, I wrote it because I was still in Lithuania, but I could not communicate with anybody else while with my images could.

Vigo: Right. Tell me about your jacket. When I look at your jacket, it looks like a factory.

Mekas: It’s a French workers Provence jacket.

Vigo: Exactly. I was thinking of a Renault factory worker jacket.

Mekas: Yes, yes. French workers. I’m a worker.

Vigo: Okay. So is this a statement on the proletariat then?

Mekas: I guess like it. But I am against the deal or concept of a “worker.” I do work, I make films. When I was on a farm, what we did in this spring had to be done that spring and what had to be done in the summer was done in the summer. But we were not workers. Workers is a modern invention and I detested because they do only for money, they work for money and they will do anything for money. You know I always give examples, they told us that the torture instruments that were used in the Soviet Union by KGB were made by workers. See, so again, I’m against it. Once, I wrote an Anti-Workers Manifesto. I think you can see it maybe on my website. And I was very much attacked for it. I’m still against workers.

Vigo: So if we’re not workers then, what are we?

Mekas: One has to do what has to be done and has to love. Same as…you know that’s why we have also this system of retiring. “You know you haven’t retired yet?” If you do something that you don’t like, of course, you are anxious to get tired. If you do make what you love, you don’t worry, you cannot retire.

Vigo: Yes. [laughing]

Mekas: So all these workers and they have systems of what happens, you know when you retire at the age of 65, 63.

Vigo: I hear you. I agree. I think retirement is cruel. It puts people in the category of an old racehorse that needs to be taken out. In the West, we do live in a very categorical way. Many people believe that you do this at this age, you should have this done by that age and you don’t have your 401k plan? Oh, no! The obsession with savings accounts and preparing for the future. Worrying about the future has is the new war mentality.

Mekas: Exactly. I got married when I was 52 or 53 when many of my contemporaries were retiring.  And you know, my concept of living is different—I got measured by this civilization.

Categories: News for progressives

Hollywood on Drugs

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 14:10

Still from “Ben is Back.”

Given the enormity of the drug crisis in the USA, particularly centered on opioid overdoses that are the largest cause of death of people under the age of 50, it was inevitable that Hollywood would begin to produce “problem” movies such as “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”. It also just as inevitable that such films would be based on the suffering of well-to-do families and suffused with clichés.

“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the matriarch of a generally happy family eagerly awaiting Christmas day, the happiest time of the year, especially if you live in the suburbs and have lots of money to lavish on presents. Pulling into her driveway with a carload of gifts to place under the Christmas tree, she sees the ghost of Christmas past, namely her college-aged son Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has cut short his stay in a drug rehabilitation facility to return home from the holidays.

The entire family treats Ben as if he was the scariest ghost showing up in Scrooge’s bedroom. He is there not to remind them of their lifetime of sins but the pain he has visited on them in the past as an opioid addict. Hoping to enjoy a happy time with the family, he is put on the defensive by his mom’s insistence that he take a drug test in the upstairs bathroom right off the bat. As he pees into a bottle, she stands behind him with her arms folded to make sure he is not turning in a fake sample.

While the family holds him at arm’s length, a mother’s love naturally makes Holly susceptible to her son’s charms. Bit by bit, she tries to convince her other kids and her husband that maybe his AWOL trip back home was a sign that he was trying to return to a normal life. As it happens, everything conspires to make them wish he would just go away. When they are in church, someone busts into the house and not only steals all the Christmas presents but their beloved pet dog Ponce.

The remainder of the film consists of Holly and Ben trying to regain the stolen goods, especially Ponce, in a series of fraught confrontations with the town’s drug dealers who all have it in for Ben for one transgression or another. Since their voyage takes place at night, the film aspires to a noir quality that is in sharp distinction to the film’s true calling, which is to make the kind of film the Lifetime Cable channel specializes in, the “problem” drama that generally has a female lead.

“Ben is Back” was written and directed by Peter Hedges, whose son Lucas plays Ben. This is the second film in a row featuring Lucas Hedges as a tormented youth. In “Boy Erased”, he was much more convincing as a gay teen forced to undergo conversion therapy. Of course, it helped that the script for “Boy Erased” was devoid of the maudlin and faux noirelements of the more recent one.

Like “Ben is Back”, “Beautiful Boy” is about a teenage drug addict, in this instance a real boy named Nick Sheff who is the son of David Sheff, a highly successful journalist who has written for the NY Times, Rolling Stone and other prestigious magazines.

The plot of “Beautiful Boy” is practically identical to “Ben is Back” but based this time on addiction to crystal meth. Playing the doting father, Steve Carrell is as off-putting as ever using his characteristic acting mannerisms, which consist mainly of putting a “rest” between each word. Instead of “Nick, I am your father”, we hear “Nick….I….am….your….father”, always with the beagle-like expression on his face that is another mannerism.

Like all films dealing with addiction going back to “A Hatful of Rain” and “The Man with a Golden Arm” of my youth, the narrative arc is predictable. A loving husband, wife, father or mother sacrifices everything to save a child or mate. It is not worth a spoiler alert but the two films under consideration here have a conventionally happy ending.

What makes the films so annoying in the final analysis is their cloistered location in middle-class family life in which addiction enters as a deus ex machina. In Ben’s case, everything was fine until a doctor overprescribed painkillers for a sports injury. For Chris, it is a bit more interesting since he got into drugs like many young people from affluent families do today as an escape from the suffocation of middle-class life. That Chris’s favorite writer from an early age was Charles Bukowski (he recites “Let if Enfold You” to a college literature class) speaks volumes. Except for the final line of the poem, it is the best part of the film:

I changed jobs and
cities, I hated holidays,
babies, history,
newspapers, museums,
marriage, movies,
spiders, garbagemen,
english accents, spain,
france, italy, walnuts and
the color
algebra angered me,
opera sickened me,
charlie chaplin was a
and flowers were for

In reality, the average drug addict in the USA has little in common with Ben Burns or Nick Sheff, especially when it comes to opioids and crystal meth. These are the drugs of choice for the chronically unemployed or underemployed people of places like West Virginia, New Hampshire and even the once prosperous Borscht Belt of upstate New York. A few years ago, I was startled to discover that the house just a few blocks from mine on a pleasant country road was dealing heroin. And more recently, I read in the local newspaper that the kid who I hired as a handyman to get my mother’s house ready for sale was jailed for his latest drug violation.

The dirty little secret is that most people take drugs not because they were overprescribed for a Lacrosse injury but because it helps relieve the boredom and misery of unemployment. Furthermore, if you want to relieve the suffering if you live in such an area, your best bet is to deal heroin, opioids, or crystal meth. These are booming industries, after all, unlike coal-mining.

In a paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Macroeconomic Conditions and Opioid Abuse” (a correlation between unemployment, poverty and opioid abuse is made. “As the county unemployment rate increases by one percentage point, the opioid death rate per 100,000 rises by 0.19 (3.6%) and the opioid overdose ED visit rate per 100,000 increases by 0.95 (7.0%).”

Would Hollywood make a film about a West Virginia family suffering the consequences of opioid addiction? Judging by the junk that was honored by the latest Academy Awards event, it is highly doubtful. About the closest it came was Gus Van Sant’s 1989 “Drugstore Cowboy” that was based on a novel by James Fogle, a career criminal with a sixth grade education. In a bit part, William S. Burroughs plays a junkie priest, something that makes this terrific film worth its $2.99 price on Youtube.

If heroin, opioids and crystal meth have helped to foster a cottage industry of small proprietors, the much bigger impact has been on capitalist enterprises operating within the law. An eye-opening documentary titled “American Relapse” that opens at the Cinema Village in NY and at the Monica Film Center in LA on March 29th, with VOD to follow on April 2nd, reveals the “rehabilitation” industry at work in Delray Beach, Florida, the epicenter of the nation’s heroin addiction/treatment center. You learn from the film that there is megabucks to be made for detox and rehabilitation clinics that are to the heroin addiction world that nursing homes are to the elderly—nothing but warehouses. Making up to $10,000 per month per resident taking care of junkies and dementia patients is big business, after all. Stephen Schwarzman’s Blackstone made a bundle cornering the nursing home business in England so it would not be surprising to see him dive headlong into the detox/rehabilitation business.

The film depicts a couple of “junkie hunters” at work in Delray Beach, both ex-addicts themselves. Frankie is a heavily tattooed man in his thirties who has been using heroin since he was 14 years old. Now, supposedly clean, he drives around Delray Beach looking for addicts to get into treatment. So does Allie, another ex-junkie, who is his female counterpart.

We learn from them that they are not in it just for the money (they get a bounty in effect for bringing an addict in for treatment). They also look after people without any insurance, not even Obamacare, because they know what it is like to live life on the margins. Frankie is seen looking after a man named Conor who looks like death warmed over. Without insurance, and just as importantly without any real chance at true rehabilitation, Conor is not the ideal prospect for a “junkie hunter”. We feel for him and feel for Frankie who understands what it means to be a loser. The film ends with the Conor’s funeral and the discovery that Frankie has been using heroin during the filming of “American Relapse”, something he kept secret from the directors.

Everybody wins in the drug business except people like Conor. The prison industry makes big bucks from housing inmates, 45 percent of whom are behind bars for drug offenses. The “treatment” industry makes out because junkies come in and out of their facilities like through a revolving door. The cost of keeping prisons and treatment centers is footed by the taxpayers and like any other such capitalist scam benefits those at the top.

The answer to the drug problem is the same as it was for the alcohol problem, a substance as deadly as any opioid. If marijuana is soon to become legal in the USA, it will join beer and whiskey as an acceptable “recreational” drug. It would take a massive shift in values in the USA for cocaine and opiates to get the same status but it is not hard to imagine that becoming possible if we become like European social democracies that have always had a more enlightened policy. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that outcome giving our lurching backward into the Dark Ages at breakneck speed.

Categories: News for progressives

Daffodil, the Great

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-03-15 14:05

Foolish day
To think that I would fall for such a cheap trick!
And to think that you would

Draw on my heart
For your gullible audience,
Pulling a robin out of your hat

Waving your wand
To make the snow vanish,
Making the sunlight seem to brighten

Just as I look up.
How can I trust you now?
Even the man who just brought my coffee

Is conspiring with another waiter
To bring the tables outside.
How cruel.

They glance over to make sure that I am listening.
How much did you have to bribe them?
And the mud on our road,

One inch shy of axel deep!
I know as well as you
That you have no intention

Of thawing the road for keeps.
Soon those foot-deep ruts will be ridges
As hard as concrete.

You want us to think that we made it,
That the deck is in our favor.
“Pick any card”, you say

With a vulpine smile.
But I know you better.
You may fool the newcomers

Into thinking they will draw the black lotus,
But I know fake magic when I see it.
The greatest magician of all

Is no illusionist!
And no matter how many times she does it
It never gets old.

She finds her way out of a frozen bulb
And a million locks spring open.
Including the one on my heart.

Categories: News for progressives


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