News for progressives

The “Lima Group” Pretense to be an International Body is Irresponsible and Dangerous

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:49

Sixty years ago Canada did not break diplomatic relations with Cuba while the OAS expelled Cuba from the organization after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Today the OAS remains firm with its mandate of no interference while Canada is leading an illegitimate splinter of OAS countries, self-anointed as Lima Group, to push for regime change in Venezuela. That is irresponsible and dangerous.

At this time sixty years ago Cuba had just won its revolution through a popular uprising that overthrew a dictator. Two years later in 1961 the US masterminded a false flag invasion of Cuba that failed. Later, in 1962 the Organization of American States (OAS) turned against Cuba and expelled it from the organization isolating the country until 2009 when the OAS invited Cuba to join again. Cuba declined. The US has maintained a progressively squeezing unilateral trade and financial blockade on the island since 1960.

Since that January 1, 1959 Canada has taken mostly an independent stance on Cuba and has maintained diplomatic and commercial relationships with the country. Even today when the US government places Cuba as a member of the “troika of tyranny” together with Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Canadian government is practicing a formal association with the Cuban government still overtly declared socialist. It may well be in order to protect the extensive interests built over time without the competition of US businesses. But that is a different topic.

Today in a different socialist revolution in Venezuela we have a reversed situation.

Hugo Chavez has won the presidency of Venezuela through democratic ballots in 1999, as current president Nicolas Maduro did in 2013. All 25 elections at different levels in the last twenty years have been democratic and constitutional with participation of opposition parties. This is an undeniable truth despite misinformation from the compromised media and governments.

Unlike its past position towards Cuba, the OAS has repeatedly refused to condemn Venezuela even under the strongest pressure from Washington. The organization has seen fit to abide by the OAS Charter of 1948 that in Article 19, Chapter IV states: “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. The foregoing principle prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference or attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its political, economic, and cultural elements.”

Breaking that explicit mandate and contrary to its independent position with respect to Cuba sixty years ago, Ottawa has been instrumental in the creation of the so-called Lima Group with the sole mission of regime change in Venezuela.

For the record it has to be emphasized that the “Lima Group” is not an international organization. It’s just an ad hoc group of governments with no other purpose than to promotes the overthrow of the legitimate Maduro government.

In that context its latest declaration that calls to not recognize Maduro’s presidency beginning with the inauguration ceremony on January 10, and to impose various other forms of “punishment”, cannot to be taken as a formal resolution issued by an established international body like the OAS or the UN. Unfortunately, the Venezuelan opposition conveniently chooses to take it that way. For example, the self appointed members of the “Supreme Court of Justice” in exile issued their own call to “recognize the Lima Group resolution.” That is extremely misleading, irresponsible and dangerous.

The “Lima Group” of 13 governments (out of 33 OAS member States), signatories of the declaration (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru y Saint Lucia), is totally illegitimate in its pretension to be an international body. The group wants to achieve outside the OAS what it could not achieve within the OAS. Ultimately, it will have to be held accountable as the foreign ideological instigator of any violence that might occur in Venezuela.

Despite the above necessary explanation of a clear international illegal act that tramples on the sovereignty of another country, it is important to broaden the perspective of the situation by highlighting two points. First of all, the Mexican government, although member of the “Lima Group”, has not endorsed its document. More sensibly, it justified its abstention by requesting that an open dialogue be established with the government of Venezuela instead of imposing isolation and threats. Mexico was another country that maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba 60 years ago. It seems to be more consistent than Canada.

Secondly, by a reported count, it appears that the majority of countries in the world will accept the legitimacy of Nicolas Maduro’s presidency and will recognize his government for the next six years. In fact, a few heads of State may even attend the inauguration ceremony on January 10 in Caracas.

In concluding however, not for one second anybody should expect that the elected president of Venezuela, or of any other country for that matter, must be declared legitimate by any foreign State. That privilege belongs only to the six million 244 thousand Venezuelans, representing 32% of the total number of people with the right to vote, with more than 4 million votes ahead of the candidate who came in second, and with a voter participation of 48%. By all accounts Venezuelans have chosen their president democratically for the next six years. That is the meaning of self-determination.

Categories: News for progressives

Technology And The Never-Ending Drive To “Progress”

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:49

In January 2010, I met with my dissertation director and mentor who, after our lunch, instructed me to see Tino Sehgal’s installation entitled “This is Progress” at the Guggenheim. I inquired about the show and he said, “I’m in it…” and then wouldn’t elaborate further not wanting to ruin my experience. This was a great decision on his part because I arrived at the Guggenheim and was taken on a journey I now compare to Alice in Wonderland jumping down the rabbit hole.

Just after checking in my coat, I entered the vast glass façade of the museum and was met by a girl of about nine years of age who introduces herself and then says, “What is progress?” as she encourages me to walk with up the ramp alongside her.  We began our ascent along the spiraling form of the museum’s nautilus design and as I was both bemused by the immersion in this performance and taken with her question. I responded stating that progress is a perspective towards a backward look to tradition and a refractive effect of how we envisage the future. She then introduced me to a teenager and she summarized with great precision to this young man what I had told her about my ideas on progress. Then he and I began our walk as the girl bid us farewell. He proceeded with the discussion on progress and we engaged for another whirl around the Guggenheim at which point he introduced me to a woman in her late twenties or so who then hijacked our discussion, the young man slipped away and there I was with a new guide. And so went this winter afternoon as I would look outside to Central Park, the reminder that this was a work on progress. Or was it?

This performance piece of sorts, in which I was thrust, coincided perfectly with my task in New York at the time. I was finishing up a draft of my first book which in part dealt with the conflicting notions of modernity from the period of the Enlightenment, Columbus’ conquest of the Americas, Cortes’ conquests in Mexico through the French’s colonization of Morocco. Indeed, what was “progress” for one part of each of these equations, was a disaster for those on the receiving end. “The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat,” so goes the infamous line from Sweeney Todd.

I have recently written about industrial designer Brooks Stevens who is credited with the notion and implementation of “planned obsolescence” which encourages incremental design updates in order to promote the continued consumption of consumer objects rendering them both necessary and updatable. Planned obsolescence has moved far outside the field of industrial design and pervades most every commodity within capitalism ranging from kitchenware to smartwatches to smart-home gadgets and while writing about this phenomenon and its ecological impact today, I kept asking myself what motivates us to buy into the upgrade culture. Where Windows 10 now automatically updates itself and where website builders do almost all the work of automating the process of creating an online presence, we are caught in a gyre of perpetually updating softwares which now act on their own, notifying us by email that updates were performed. It is as if our collective and slow march towards “progress” were happening irrespective of our acquiescence. Certainly, such innovations are the dream child of capitalism:  the need to upgrade is built into the system such that one must keep purchasing in order to use the product purchased x months before. It is capitalism as a metaphorical intravenous support system in which the customer is turned into a repeat client.

But are we truly obliged to purchase in the first place?  After all, we could entirely avoid the upgrade culture by simply going analogue.  I mean it’s not like we are powerless to completely opt out of this incessant culture of technological betterment and ostensible progress. How is it that planned obsolescence feeds on the notion of progress if we are slaves to this progress?

In fact, what is being created with each new tech update is the very same micro improvement (eg. better screen resolution, colors) described years ago by Stevens. But today these updates are accompanied by a tsunami of marketing of this micro-improvement such that the consumer is made to believe that she will receive a revolutionary new product when in reality, what is being purchased is nothing more than a promise to purchase again. It is the drip-drip of capitalist dependency which implicates the user in a never-ending—albeit unspoken—contract to remain forever a loyal consumer who partakes of the inevitability of a newer everything.

The reality about planned obsolescence is that we pretend that we are victims of a contemporary Hal who has taken over our lives, when in fact we do have options beginning with a swift retreat from the virtuality of automatization. Within the ideology of technological obsolescence, there are both hardware and software factors to be considered. Obsolescence operates on the notion that we must keep up with critical leaps in hardware, changing durability, and faster and better software all of which contribute to how technology is bought or upgraded. Aside from our computers, there are smartphone, home devices, and electric vehicles all part of the technological framework which necessitate persistent upgrades. Nowadays, we barely have to lift a finger for software updates and our devices either asks us if we would like to update or more common it just updates and informs us of this act. Even if we resist upgrading our hardware, the heavier software upgrades over time invariably necessitate the hardware upgrade and we are caught, one way or another, in participating in this persistence of obsolescence avoidance. That is, we are stuck only if we decide to remain within this system. In reality, we are free to jump out.

More than ever today, the constant upgrades to software mean that users must continually invest money into a product that they not only have bought once, but for which they are now hooked into supporting by virtue of the original purchase. Subscription models for software are replacing the old-style software licenses and even WordPress theme creators are offering their products on a purchase basis with separate fees for upgrades where years before these same creators allowed for free upgrades. But wait, doesn’t the fact I purchased a product give me the right to have unlimited upgrades for life? The short answer is no. And I do feel your pain. Six months ago I accidentally deleted my Adobe Acrobat Reader from my computer and still cannot certify the new download due to the fact that Adobe is not recognizing my license while pushing me towards their subscription model. I almost wept at the death of old world capitalism where you could purchase a product once and it was yours. New Capitalism means that we must purchase in perpetuity in order to get one nanosecond closer to the ideal of progress while having access to the commodity. The upgrade confers your product is simply never enough and this process of seeking the “up to date” has become the postmodern baptism of authenticity within a clear moral dimension where progress is measured in terms of the proximity to wealth and to technology and the ability to keep this technology alive through a constant economic investment. It could be said that “freedom” today is measured in terms of one’s ability to contribute to this technocratic model of “empowerment.”

Over thirty years ago, Indian scholar, Ashis Nandy, wrote on a scathing critique of the development model, noting how the centralized doxa of development policies strip the person down ideologically.  It is worth noting the parallels with what he observed then as today technology is quickly becoming another moralized core which atomizes individuals whereby their only “freedoms” are dictated to them by market forces and technology. He writes:

The only initiative the person is left with relates to choices from among available consumables offered by the global market. From health care to child rearing it is the same story. While the area of individual choice has shrunk, a false sense of freedom is created through the removal of the contextualizing role of the community from the choice situation. Indeed, atomized in the name of freedom, the person now stands alone against the forces of the global market and mega-technology.

Nandy points to the inverse relationship between actual human choices and the market “choices” offered instead where the market offers seemingly infinite supplies and where the human accession to freedom is more and more restricted.

With the rise of the subscription model, we are implicated to buy more (and more) and to partake in the upgrade function of consumerism such that the only way to resist is to get out completely. Yes, this is the Godfather III of tech moments—“Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In!” Still, the cold reality is that we are not obliged to buy into consumerism as progress any more than Michael Corleone had to have Fredo killed.

The greatest casualties of technological automatism has been our autonomy as thinking and sentient beings in addition to our communities. Perhaps there is no subtle irony in the fact that the more technologically advanced we become, the more we allow ourselves to be victims to the very technology that we claim liberates us.

Our task today must be to decipher that subtle line between need and want—and then to act in good faith.

Categories: News for progressives

Beware of a Holy Heist

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:49

A wholesale robbery is being planned.   In front of everyone.  Shockingly, the intended theft is of a Christian denomination’s identity and resources.  And the “authority of the Scripture” is being used to justify the thievery.  It is actually a holy heist, being strategized by so-called “Traditionalists” in The United Methodist Church.  They hope to use the 12-million member denomination’s long-divisive anti-homosexual doctrines to justify driving out non-conforming United Methodists and taking over the whole Church with its vast power and resources. They talk about requiring all ministers and members to conform to United Methodism’s traditional anti-gay biblical beliefs.  But their real aim is conquest and plunder, which is characteristic of those Christians who are fixated on authority and power.  Their resulting intolerance leads them to use biblical beliefs (and in this case The Church’s Book of Discipline also) to gain power over people, rather than authenticate and empower them.

Homosexuality has been haunting The United Methodist Church for decades.  In 1972, after four years of studying the “issue,” the denomination’s ruling General Conference delegates sought to make homosexuality go away.  First, they tried to deny what they were doing by passing a motion that declared: “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.”  They reinforced their denial with, “Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights insured, [then comes their bottom line] although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  (The United Methodist Church and Homosexuality,”

One could drive a truck through the denial, contradiction and paternalism used to camouflage such irrational fear, ignorance and blatant rejection of LGBTQ persons.  “Homosexuals . . . need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment.”  The Church’s ownrejection provides the greatest obstacle to homosexuals “in their struggles for human fulfillment.”

Further, The Church’s paternalism is seen in its assuming the divine-like role of enabling “reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self.”   The word “reconciling” implies that there is something wrong with homosexuals.  It presupposes that homosexuals are estranged from God and need the “spiritual and emotional care” of The Church to get in God’s good graces.  Here The Church sets itself up as the arbitrator of that which is right and good and acceptable to God.

This paternalism is in keeping with United Methodism’s stated mission, which is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Rather than transforming the world, The Church would better serve the world by transforming itselfinto the likeness of the world – that is, for example, by experiencing the world of homosexuals as it is, rather than interpreting it with judgmental and paternalistic biblical beliefs.  The need to “reconcile” homosexuals reveals woeful ignorance of human psychosexual development

LGBTQ United Methodists and their support groups have seen through and renounced such blatant ignorance, denial and hypocrisy. Refusing to be intimidated and forced underground, they increased in strength.

Succeeding General Conferences continued the denomination’s efforts to bury homosexuality and make LGBTQ Christians and their solidarity groups invisible.  In 1976, a majority of delegates voted to “terminate all funding of gay/lesbian support groups with church money.”  In 1984, the delegates ruled that, “Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” (Ibid)

Rather than staying in their place, LGBTQ United Methodists and their supporters grew even stronger, and continued to demand full acceptance at the denomination’s altar.

In 1988, the General Conference resorted to avoidance by employing the tried and true method of studying homosexuality, again, over the next four years.  And as reported, “only heterosexuals were allowed to join the committee.”  In 1996, the General Conference passed the following motion: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (Ibid)

At the 2012 General Conference, in the face of the growing movement for full inclusion in the life of the Church, a majority of some 1000 General Conference delegates voted once again to maintain the doctrinal belief that “homosexual acts are incompatible with Christian teaching.” (See “Methodists Maintain Homosexual Acts Are ‘Incompatible with Christian Teaching’ At General Conference,”By Daniel Burke, Religious News Service,, May 4, 2012)  This policy of rejection by a Church whose slogan is “Open Minds.  Open Doors.  Open Hearts.”

But when the 2016 General Conference arrived, the really open hearts, doors and minds of many United Methodist delegates would not be denied.  Obviously contributing to United Methodism’s movement for real inclusion was the US Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.  With such political affirmation spurring a spreading gay liberation movement within The Church, the 2016 General Conference faced a schism over its regressive beliefs about “human sexuality” — specifically “homosexuality.”

Confronted with 100 irreconcilable petitions, the 2016 General Conference delegates asked the Council of Bishops to resolve the endlessly haunting issue of homosexuality.  The bishops responded by creating the representative 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, with the stated aim: “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Disciplineregarding human sexuality,” and present a report with recommendations to a special General Conference [set for Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis].  (’AN OFFERING FOR A WAY FORWARD: COUNCIL OF BISHOPS’ STATEMENT/MAY 18,’, May 18, 2016)

The Commission on a Way Forward developed three primary plans to present to a special General Conference this February: The One Church Plan, The Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.

The focus here is on the clerical collar crimebeing plotted by those United Methodists pushing the Traditional Plan. It’s an inside job.  They are claiming to be “most faithful to Scripture,” which teaches “that sexual relationships are to be reserved for the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman,” according to Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a leader of the Traditional Plan. (“What’s in the Traditional Plan?,”Good News Magazine, July 19, 2018)

Like any repressive regime, the Traditionalists demand conformity — to their biblical views.  While they call for Church “unity,” they actually mean uniformity.  Their appeal for “faithfulness to Scripture” does not make it any less autocratic.  Biblical beliefs have been used to oppress and subdue non-believers – and so-called “heretical” Christians –throughout the centuries.

For Traditionalists, diversity almost appears to be a form of profanity.  The kind of “unity” they demand leads this writer to question how interfaith-and ecumenical-minded they are in working on common justice issues with people of different faiths.

The Traditionalists’ own authoritarian tendencies are seen in their attempted use of The Bible to dominate people and reject and marginalize those with differing views.  The Traditional Plan is the only Plan of the three that calls for the removal of United Methodists who don’t toe its biblical line. Traditionalists not only believe that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Tellingly, they also believe that those United Methodists who disagree with their particular biblical interpretations are incompatible – and should leave the denomination.

The real issue here is not assumed to be Biblical correctness.  Such demand for correctness is believed to be symptomatic of the insecure emotional makeup of many Traditionalists, whose identity depends on rightness of belief, which legitimizes their authority and control over others and punishment of those who do not conform.  A form of McCarthyism in the name of being “faithful to Scripture.”

Thus the Traditional Plan requires all bishops to sign a loyalty oath, that is, “submit a statement as to whether he or she is prepared to fully uphold and enforce the standards of the church around same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and to hold those under their supervision [ministers] accountable to those standards.” And, “the Council of Bishops would establish a disciplinary committee to respond to bishops who are unwilling to enforce the Discipline,” with non-conforming bishops “placed on involuntary leave or involuntary retirement.” (Ibid)

Also, “clergy found guilty by a trial court of performing a same-sex wedding would have a mandatory minimum penalty of one year suspension without pay for the first offense, and removal of clergy credentials for a second offense.”  Further, “Annual conferences that did not agree to enforce the Disciplineor who failed to do so, would as of January 1, 2021, no longer be able to use the United Methodist name or logo and would be unable to give or receive funds through the general church. (Ibid)

The traditionalists call for “enhance[d] accountability for bishops, clergy and annual conferences, to ensure those remaining in The United Methodist Church do indeed live by its standards.” (“What’s in the Traditional Plan?,” Ibid)  In fact, their leading spokesperson states that “enhanced accountability measures are an integral part of the Traditional Plan.” (“Is the Traditional Plan Punitive?,”By Thomas Lambrecht, Good News Magazine, Oct. 22, 2018)

Such “enhanced accountability” appears to be a spiritual form of “enhanced interrogation” – biblically sanitized torture.  Authoritarianism in the name of “being faithful to Scripture.”  This incompatibilityof Traditionalists with other United Methodists over one issue: homosexuality.

But the Traditionalists say their Plan is “gracious,” as they seek to take over The Church and close its doors to everyone else.  Their “graciousness” brings to mind Jesus’ reported warning: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7: 15) The Traditionalists say their Plan “provides a gracious way for annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and congregations to leave The United Methodist Church . . . and keep all their property, buildings, assets, and liabilities.” (“What’s in the Traditionalist Plan?,” Ibid)   The Plan even “provides a one-time grant of $200,000 to any annual conference that withdraws in order to assist with transitional expenses.” (“Is the Traditionalist Plan Punitive?,” Ibid)

Beware of such “graciousness.”  The Traditionalists get to keep The Church’s general store.  What’s at stake is put into perspective by the Rev. Dr. Donald Messer,  former United Methodist seminary president and author, who is known for combating world hunger and HIV/AIDS.   He points out: “As for money, imagine alone what the building that the United Methodist Women own across the street from the United Nations is worth.  Or what the Church and Society building beside the Supreme Court is valued.  These are rare properties of enormous worth,” Messer states, and continues, “Across the US and around the world there are properties of values – churches, parsonages, cemeteries, camps, retreat centers, hospitals, colleges.”   (personal communication)

Moreover, the Traditionalists’ attempted biblically-based coup would allow them to gain control of all the denomination’s general boards/agencies (Church and Society, Communications, Global Ministries, Finance and Administration, Higher Education & Ministry, Religion and Race, etc.), determine priorities and set policies.  Quite a theft!

The Traditionalists provide a misleading argument in placing their authority on the fact that their position is “the majority position of the church, reaffirmed by every General Conference since 1972” – and the position “most faithful to Scripture.”  (“What’s in the Traditional Plan,?” Ibid) In other words: “Once the church has set a standard for how we live our lives together in the Body of Christ, it is expected that everyone will live according to that standard, to the best of their ability.” (“Is the Traditional Plan Punitive,?” Ibid)

If the Traditionalists’ discrimination against homosexuals is based on “the authority of Scripture” and therefore a decades-old doctrine of The Church and unchangeable, how do they explain Christians’ finally renouncing their centuries-old, biblically followed, practice of slavery (“Slaves obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” Ephesians 6: 5)?  And Christians’ finally rejecting the ages-long, biblically-based, practice of patriarchy (“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” I Corinthians.13 : 34)?

Obviously, the Scripture on which Traditionalists place their authority is quite selective.  Evidently Jesus wasn’t in the church building when they developed their Plan.  Missing is his teaching about, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12: 31)Nor is there any reference to The Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12)  Nor words from his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5: 7)  Traditionalists talk about being “in the body of Christ,” but not about the love (Matthew 22: 34-40) and liberation (Luke 4: 16-18) Jesus proclaimed.

It appears that diversity poses an existential threat to Traditionalists. They cannot tolerate the advocates of the One Church Plan, who want to eliminate all the Book of Discipline’s discriminatory references to homosexuality, allow each annual conference to develop its own policies on the ordination of LGBTQ persons and the conducting of same-sex marriages, and permit ministers to move to churches or conferences that accommodate their beliefs. (See “United Methodists debate, lobby and worry in advance of LGBTQ decision,” My Mary Jacobs,, Aug 2, 2018)

The One Church Plans calls for “the principle of contextualization,” which is also an anathema to Traditionalists in its embrace of diversity.  In its wisdom, The Church’s Judicial Council has determined that Methodist connectionalism “permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographic, social and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage and human sexuality.”    (“Court: One Church Plan largely constitutional,” By Linda Bloom, Oct. 26, 2018)

United Methodist minister Rev. Jeremy Smith’s critique of the Traditionalist Plan addresses the holy heist being plotted.  Smith writes, “The Traditional Plan is less a Vision for United Methodism than it is a reaction to LGBTQ inclusion.  The rage-induced flailing,” he says, “combines Inquisition, coerced Loyalty Pledge to a discrimination regime, Enforcement, Purge, and an extra dose of Schism into a toxic proposal for United Methodism.”  Smith adds, “The purpose of the Traditionalist Plan isn’t to find a just solution to the tension over LGBTQ inclusion in The United Methodist Church,” but “to remove progressives and moderates and young evangelicals from leadership, gerrymandering the slim 55% Traditionalist majority into an unbreakable majority at every level of The United Methodist Church” (“Rage Against the UMC: The Traditionalist Plan,” United Methodist Insight, July 20, 2018)

Greatly lacking in the Traditional Plan (and in the Book of Discipline) is a scientific understanding of psychosexual development.  That understanding will shoot holes in the theology of free will and sin regarding LGBTQ persons, which theology is used to control and punish people. Psychological knowledge of “human sexuality” will immensely deepen and broaden The Church’s understanding of empathy and love – and “transformation.”  Love is love, whether born of biological affinity or free will.  A psychological understanding of personality and sexual development counters the paternalistic tendency to want to reconcile others to ourselves. Psychological insight enables self-understanding, which enables empathy, which enables practicing The Golden Rule of doing to others as you would want them to do to you, which enables “Open Hearts and Minds and Doors.”


Full disclosure: In 1973, I was forcible retired by the then Southern New England Conference of The United Methodist Church after performing the marriage of two male members of Boston’s Old West Church.  For an account of my forced retirement, see “A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret,” Counterpunch, July 19, 2018).

Categories: News for progressives

The Lost Path of Malcolm Turnbull

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:48

A federal election is due in Australia later this year. By all reasonable predictions the right wing, conservative Liberal-National coalition is due to lose after five years in power and two electoral victories under two different leaders. As some readers may be aware, this is the second half of a tumultuous twelve years in Australian politics, which has seen five prime ministers over six reigns – Rudd, Gillard, Rudd from the centre left, progressive Australian Labor Party followed by Abbot, Turnbull and now Scott Morrison, who deposed Turnbull in a back-room deal from within their party. This is compared to the years 1983 – 2007 when there were only three prime ministers.

The other recent development has been the fracturing of the upper house, which has seen the rise of micro-party representatives from across the political spectrum. Many are single-issue parliamentarians that have benefitted from complicated preference flows that come with the proportional representation method of election. This has been compounded by the boom and bust of Nick Xenophon’s team, which promised so much as a minor, centrist platform; and the ongoing trouble of the Greens, who are left of the ALP but currently mired in factional problems, growing pains, and a dearth of leadership. When coupled with recent developments like the digital culture, it is little wonder that many in Australia’s political class are somewhat bereft.

There are, of course, many ways to think through what comes next. Needless to say, that these benefit from thinking dialectically, and, involve attending to the historical possibilities before us. Part of that means recognising the policies and debates that the ALP has promised to bring to the table once elected. This includes bread and butter Labor issues like health, education, and industrial rights. Yet, it also includes unsettled debates about identity from the republic to our role as a global citizen, and, other big vision items that have not been on the table since Paul Keating’s departure as prime minister in 1996.

At present, the conversation around the republic is in a silo of its own making, and, publically is the province of aging angry white men that would simply want to reject the Queen. They have not envisioned what might come next and why this is a good thing for everyone living on the continent. All too often, the republican movement has failed to adequately reach out towards Indigenous representatives who are advocating for treaties and constitutional recognition; let alone diverse migrant communities that might seek a universal bill of human rights and the safeguarding of their needs in legal documents. And yet, all these divergent groups are seeking a new social contract between the government and its citizens. And, they all benefit from talking with each other. It is not up to a republic to assimilate people from outside its historical identity into its project; but rather, to start a new conversation that adequately responds to the trauma, mundanity and joy that new governmentality in this place can encourage. That is a task before many people here.

To my mind, one critical juncture where the Australian republic movement turned away from its historical possibility was when Malcom Turnbull gave up on it. Others have suggested the loss of the 1999 referendum as the key moment of setback, and yet, it seems to me that Turnbull’s departure signalled something similar. It mattered for republicans, which has only been confirmed by his absolute failure to put it on the agenda during his tenure as leader of the opposition and prime minister. More importantly, it represents the lost path of Turnbull himself. Like all former leaders, he cuts a dejected figure now, consoled only by a personal fortune of AUD$133m. When Turnbull walked away from the republican movement, he walked away from the opportunity to be a truly historic figure. He could have become the first president rather than yet another mediocre and forgettable prime minister. But to be a first president, you really must be a person of substance, prestige, importance, meaning, power. This is a person like Pat Dodson, Lee Lin Chin, or Rosie Batty. Malcolm Turnbull is not this person.

And, now at the age of 64, he could be coming into his own as someone with values, beliefs, and respect. Turnbull could have stayed involved in the republican movement and now that the tide is turning, he could have been in prime position to be a presidential candidate in a new system of government that truly mattered. That loss is his loss, and, if he looks adrift now, it cannot only be for how he was turfed aside. It is also because he must know, deep in his bones, that he lost the opportunity to be a meaningful person on the world stage rather than yet another sell-out with nothing to show but a mediocre oil painting and an apartment in New York.

Categories: News for progressives

Palestine: The History of a People

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:47

The world recently concluded a religious season when millions of people celebrate the birth of Palestine’s most famous son. It is also the season when the fact of Palestine is further denied; denied both by some of those who worship him and by some of those who deny his divinity. While it is not the intention of this review to discuss matters of religious belief, the truth is that the history of Palestine and its people is wrapped up in religious beliefs. Those beliefs are used by many factions to both prove and deny Palestine as a historical reality. Over time, the discussion regarding that history has been dominated by those who pretend that Palestine was a land without a people. It is these same forces that use this denial to justify the continuing expansion of their occupation of Palestinian lands.

Without an acknowledged history, whole nations and peoples can be erased from human memory. Most invaders understand this dynamic and all too often determine that the best way to keep lands they have taken is to erase the history of those who lived there when they invaded. All too often, this erasure of the indigenous history and culture is accompanied by mass murder. The most egregious examples of this latter manifestation most often involve Europeans committing genocide in the Americas and Africa. In the case of Palestine, the mass murder was on a lesser scale, but the wholesale removal of the inhabitants of Palestine by Zionist/European colonizers in what is known as the Nakba was nearly complete.

Recently, Pluto Press published what is perhaps the most comprehensive and complete history of the Palestinian people to date. Titled Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History, the text traces the Palestinian people and their culture from pre-biblical times to the modern day. Author Nur Masalha has composed a narrative befitting a people whose future is ultimately crucial to the world’s. Describing most historical narratives about nations as myths based on religions and folk tales, Masalha rejects this approach and takes the reader through a detailed examination of trade, governance, and various inhabitants’ personal documents. In doing so he describes a history of a people and a place that began long before more traditional histories of either Palestine or Israel start. The result is a history based in verifiable data and unadorned by romantic notions of nationalism and religious mythology.

Furthermore, Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History challenges and broadens most conventional narratives that primarily highlight the role of the elites in recent Palestinian history. In other words, the text brings the role of the villagers, farmers and everyday working folk into the discussion. In a general way, this means it is a people’s history.

The author begins his text with a discussion of the peoples in the region historically called Palestine. It is a description based on archaeological finds and interpretations that places different peoples coming together in what ultimate describes the historic beginnings of the Palestinians. Originally a polytheistic people, over time the Palestinians were (after the early polytheistic phase of prehistory), first predominantly Christian, then Muslim. Palestinian Christianity was part of the Byzantine rite and, like most churches under the eastern synod, fairly independent. It was during this predominantly Christian period that much of what we consider Palestine was politically organized and structured.

Naturally, the role of religion is important throughout the history delineated in this text. However, this is not unlike histories of much of the world. It is apparent from the reading that the wars waged over the lands that are Palestine have been sold to those invaders and occupiers as religious wars, even if they were primarily about land and conquest. This remains the case even as the text finally reaches the twentieth century and the actions of the Zionist movement to settle the land known as Palestine and remake it into Israel. When discussing this part of history, author Masalha portrays the role played by the Zionist movement not so much as a unique movement but as part of the ongoing European colonization of Palestine (and the world). In describing this, Masalha enumerates the multiple ways the Zionist occupation involved numerous British government and private endeavors –including cartographers, military members and diplomats—in their endeavor to erase Palestinian history and culture.

Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History is the most comprehensive English language history of Palestine to date. This book is a painstakingly researched and well-documented deconstruction of the myths too many Zionists and their western apologists have convinced the world to be factual history. In this careful reconstruction of Palestinian cultural and economic history on the land historically known as Palestine, Nur Masalha has provided a resounding renunciation of the modern Western understanding of Palestinian history. His work undertakes a tremendous and important task and succeeds—four thousand years of history cannot be denied. This book is an important work in its own right. In the politics of the times, it also becomes an important tool in the struggle of the Palestinian people.

Categories: News for progressives

Trump Can Relate, But Not to Us

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:47

No memory of having starred,
Atones for later disregard. . . .

– Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

It’s not all taxpayers he doesn’t care about.  Only the 800,000 federal employees who are not getting paid.  As far as the rest of us are concerned, he wants to limit the impact as much as he can.  As Russell Voigt, the acting director of the office of Management and Budget said: “The administration is trying to make the shutdown as painless as possible consistent with the law.”  The effort is not, however, directed at federal employees.  Just the rest of us.

In late December, IRS employees received an undated e mail entitled “IRS Employee Emergency News.”  It advised employees that “due to the lapse in appropriations most IRS operations are closed. An IRS-wide furlough began on December 22, 2018 for everyone except already identified excepted employees.  Non-excepted employees are furloughed and placed in a non-pay and non-duty status until further notice. . . .  Employees will be given four hours to close out work requirements and receive formal furlough notification.” That was followed by the good news that they would receive their December 31 pay checks.

The notice concludes saying that: “As an IRS employee affected by the government shutdown, there can be temporary hardships in meeting your financial obligations.  This may occur regardless of when pay resumes for you as a furloughed or excepted employee.”  The message provides information the employees may wish to share with creditors in trying to figure out how to deal with their inability to make payments.  It further provides two phone numbers the employee can call for updates. The recorded message on one of the numbers advises the caller that the shutdown began December 22 and advises the caller that the caller has been placed in “nonpaid and non-duty status.”  The other number rings with no response.

The 79,000 IRS employees are not, of course, the only federal employees who received the kind of messages IRS employees were given.  IRS employees were joined by some 720,000 other employees of the federal government who were told they would not be receiving pay checks during the shutdown.

When proudly saying he would take credit for the shutdown a few days before it actually occurred, the Trump was unaware of one effect the shutdown had on non-federal employees.  He did not realize that the shutdown did not merely impact federal employees and those with whom the unpaid employees had business dealings.  It affected hundreds of millions of people not employed by the federal government. Here’s one of the reasons.

At the beginning of every calendar year, millions of taxpayers file tax returns as quickly as possible in order to receive refunds for taxes they overpaid the preceding year. Those refunds are frequently in the thousands of dollars. Recipients count on those refunds to meet other obligations they have.  The funds come as delayed Christmas presents for the recipients.  How important the refunds are is demonstrated by the statistics.

Between the first of January and the second of March 2018, the IRS paid tax refunds to 48.5 million households.  Those refunds were in excess of $147 billion.  In 2019 it is estimated that the total amount to be refunded will be in excess of $140 billion.

During past shutdowns, processing and payment of refunds was held up until the shutdown was over.  Postponing the infusion of $140 billion into the economy has a profound impact not only on the taxpayer who does not receive the refund, but on those with whom the taxpayer has financial dealings such as merchants, creditors, landlords and the like. Here is one thing the Trump knew when he imposed the shutdown for which he was so pleased to take credit.  He knew that federal workers would go without pay so long as the shutdown was in place.  Here is something he did not know.

He did not know that during past shutdowns when the IRS employees were furloughed, tax refunds were not being processed and the $140 billion to which taxpayers were entitled were not processed.  When someone pointed out to him that that was a lot of money to withhold from the citizens entitled to it, he immediately ordered the IRS to immediately bring back on staff, a sufficient number of employees to begin processing claims for refunds even though that had never been done in earlier shutdowns. Ordering IRS workers to begin processing refund claims, albeit without being paid for their work, showed how much the Trump cares about taxpayers who need the refunds to take care of their obligations.

Ordering the IRS to begin processing claims was not the only way the Trump proved his concern for his subjects.  On January 6, 2019, while standing outside the White House, a reporter asked him if he could “relate to the pain of federal workers who can’t pay their bills?”  He responded: “I can relate.  And I’m sure that the people that are toward the receiving end will make adjustments, they always do.” He was probably thinking of his own experiences.  Companies he controlled went into bankruptcy six times before he became president. As he told the reporter, he made adjustments.  That’s how he got to where he is now. The rest of us are the poorer for it.

Categories: News for progressives

Combating Racism With Exposure

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:47

When I started volunteering at a youth detention center, whose incarcerated population was entirely African American and Latino, I was told by an Africana Studies professor I respected that I should focus on my own community — white people — instead. He said this after I asked whether my presence in the detention center was fostering cross-racial solidarity. Despite respecting his knowledge and experience, I took exception to his advice then and still do now.

My reason for taking exception is purely strategic: I am not sure that a white person can convince another white person to be less racist. This is, in effect, what it means to be a “white ally” in the grassroots left. White allies take their marching orders from people of color, and then reenter their own (presumably white) communities to conduct missionary work in reverse: instead of racist attempts to “civilize” darker-skinned peoples, white allies conduct anti-racist attempts to civilize their lighter-skinned neighbors. This is well intentioned but somewhat misguided in my opinion.

I am a believer in the mere-exposure effectbecause it worked for me. To give just one example, I studied abroad in China as an undergraduate student and grew so accustomed to seeing mostly Han Chinese people everywhere that, upon my return home, diverse crowds of Americans seemed strange to me. People were larger, louder, and more intimidating than ever before.

But Chinese people not only became more familiar, they became more attractive. A similar change occurred in my psyche when I lived and worked in areas with more African Americans than whites.

I am not arguing that racism can be eradicated solely by (positive or neutral) exposure or that racist white people never encounter people of color on the streets or at work — but I am positing that exposure is a necessary condition for abolishing racism. Racism cannot be resisted in the abstract: it must be addressed practically and contextually. If ‘Racist Rick’ were replaced in his job some time ago by a person of color, and this was his onlyexperience with an individual from said community of color, he would likely remain racist — especially if the media he consumes, the education he recalls, and the friends he keeps cast further suspicion on the black community. He would need a positive experience to shift his thinking.

I met a Palestinian man in the historic town of Beit Sahour a few years ago who allowed me to stay in his home for the night. He told me he opened his doors to just about anyone who wanted to visit — including Jewish settlers who laid claim to his land and denied his rights. When I asked him why, he recounted a story about an Israeli (Jewish) man: a stranger who had given him a ride when he was stranded and desperate. The man took him to his home, introduced him to his family, and served him dinner. My host said this experience changed him and that henceforth he was committed to exposing even the most reactionary Jews to Palestinians (himself and his family) by hosting them so that their minds would open the way his did. He bragged that he had even convinced a Jewish-American guest to reject an offer to settle in the West Bank out of respect for the Palestinians living there.

My Palestinian friend did not refuse the ride or his potential guests — he did not tell said Jewish guests to go home and lecture their (Jewish) friends about Palestinian rights. He made bold attempts at integration and (willingly) put himself in a vulnerable position in order to do so. The man who gave him a ride did likewise. The context may be different, but the power differential between Israelis and Palestinians is comparable to whites vs. (some) communities of color in the United States. The level of segregation is also comparable in some respects — and it will be more so if Trump gets his wall.

Exposure, however, is not as easy as it sounds given continued de-facto segregation in America. And this segregation is only one aspect of a larger system of racial oppression that most whites are loath to address. That system will have to be dismantled for racism to die, but in the meantime, we should allow ourselves to be exposed.

Categories: News for progressives

Shooting the Messengers: How Plants are Unfairly Blamed for Wasteful Human Water Practices in the U.S. West

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:46

Salt Cedar trees in southern California. Photo: Kollibri terre Sonnenblume.

Popular ideas are not always factual ideas.

When the subject is a particular “invasive” plant species, common assumptions about its undesirable impacts are not always scientifically documented or even true. Add to this an inherent bias in the field of invasion biology for interpreting nearly all effects of non-native plants as detrimental without considering the possibility of positive outcomes and you’re sure to get villains nearly every time.

Let’s look at two well-known examples of so-called “invasive” plants that are under the gun: Tamarisk, aka Saltcedar (Tamarix spp.) and Russian Olive, aka Oleaster (Elaeagnus angustifolia). In the western United States, these two trees are now the third and fourth most frequently occurring woody riparian plants, and the second and fifth most abundant species along rivers. To eradicate them would entail destroying a significant amount of healthy vegetation (with no little amount of collateral damage to other flora) and would incur a hefty cost. Congress authorized $80 million for Saltcedar removal between 2005 and 2009, which included herbicide, but that is pennies compared to what would be needed for everything.[1] So the case for removal needs to be strong.

But the case is not strong. The main claims made against both species are that they a) push out native flora, b) monopolize groundwater, and c) don’t provide for native fauna. Saltcedar is additionally accused of increasing the salinity of its immediate environment. Yet these claims have never been proven and plenty of evidence to the contrary has been produced.

Juliet Stromberg and Matthew Chew, who are faculty at the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, have been debunking these myths, and they say that scientists have been participating in “a rationalized scapegoating of Tamarix as an agent of change because of its ability to thrive in anthropogenic habitats.” Even less researched, Russian Olive has also been used as a scapegoat. For example, the USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) makes the contradictory claim that that Russian Olive “has been especially invasive in wet-saline riparian areas” even though the “wet-saline niche” it inhabits is inhospitable for many native woody species.

In the case of both these tree species, on-the-ground evidence shows they are not displacing native riparian trees, but are filling in after the native species decline due to changing environmental circumstances, namely, less water and saltier soils from irrigation and dams.

The Dominance Myth

First, on the assertion that Saltcedar and Russian Olive are pushing out native flora, namely Willow (Salix sp.) and Cottonwood (Populus sp.), numerous studies show that the newcomers have been filling in where the natives were already receding or gone and that “anthropogenic alteration of stream-flow regimes is a key driver of compositional shifts.” This includes the restriction of seasonal floods due to dams and associated water table changes.

The seeds of Saltcedar germinate far better in drier soils than those of Willow and Cottonwood, which require the wetter circumstances provided by seasonal flood events typical of free flowing rivers. Native tree seeds were found to germinate and grow right up through Saltcedar thickets after dam managers released more water into the Lower Colorado River, prompting ecologist Edward Glenn to investigate the claims against Saltcedar. When a manager at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge opened a floodgate with the timing of Cottonwood seeding, he discovered that the native seedlings emerged first, showing that the dominance of Saltcedar seedlings is “only a symptom of river systems that had been robbed of their seasonal rhythms.” Cottonwood seedling establishment requires both the moisture and the bare soil provided by floods, with their sediment churning actions. Russian Olive has been found to germinate well amidst thick herbaceous vegetation of undisturbed riparian areas that lack the disruptive action of seasonal floods. These are the very areas where Cottonwood and Willow find establishment difficult.

The problem of less water has not been caused by Saltcedar or Russian Olive (or any other tree for that matter). It is human greed for water beyond what is needed for survival which has created environments that are better suited to these non-native trees than the natives.

It is worth noting that the origins of Saltcedar’s reputation as a water-monopolizer lay with extraction industries who sought to claim more water rights for “beneficial” use—that is, for their operations—and who devised a scheme to wrangle it from vegetation, who were “non-beneficial users” with no legal rights to the water.

In the 1930s, the Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation (PDC) in Eastern Arizona was desperate for water. They had been gearing up to pursue open-pit mining at Morenci copper mine but lacked adequate water to do so. Safford valley water rights were already fully allocated to other users. In 1939, the PDC was “in prime position to supply copper demands for the looming war” after Pearl Harbor. They just needed the water. So the U.S. federal War Department Engineer Office and Bureau of Indian Affairs financed a water resource inventory along the upper Gila River. This was conducted by the USGS staff. The PDC mining moguls had already been conducting the removal of trees along the Gila River in order to claim appropriable rights to the water thereby “saved.”

“Phreatophytes” was the newly coined term assigned to Tamarisk and eighteen other valley dwelling trees who supposedly drew heavily on groundwater resources. This was deemed a non-beneficial use of water. But it was not until the wartime cultural climate that Tamarisk was singled out as a target.

In 1950, the inventory results were published in the USGS Water Supply Paper, Use of Water by Bottom-Land Vegetation in Lower Safford Valley Arizona. Tamarisk was declared to be a uniquely threatening alien, which “thrived and spread at the expense of nearly all the native plant life.” Accused of growing into “a dense jungle-like thicket that is difficult to penetrate,” the trees were assaulted by surveyors with a tool from the recent war: the flame-thrower, the iconic weapon of the ‘‘island-hopping’’ Pacific campaign. With no scientific backing, Saltcedar rose to the ranks of a national security threat by “standing in the way of mine expansion.”

The miners’ tall tale, despite its basis in “a reputation” not facts, grew legs and is still walking around today. “Conservationists” are among those who still endlessly repeat the spurious claim. And despite evidence to the contrary that has since emerged. For example: “After an extensive eradication of tamarisk along the Pecos River in Texas over five years from 1999, Charles Hart of Texas A&M University could find no evidence of any greater flow in the river.”[2]

The results of a decade long investigation along three rivers in the Southwestern U.S. put the lie to the Saltcedar water myth again. The study found that there was no significant difference in the water usage between three vegetation communities regardless of the native/non-native make-up of the areas. The study chose three sites: the Lower Colorado River, consisting of 90% Saltcedar vegetation cover; the Middle Rio Grande in New Mexico, with an even vegetation cover of Saltcedar and native trees; and the San Pedro River, considered the last undammed river of the Southwest, with only a few scattered stands of Saltcedar. Measurements of transpiration (the gaseous moisture mix that trees exhale) were taken using sensitive flux towers designed for climate change studies. All three vegetation covers were found to transpire an average of one meter of moisture per year into the atmosphere. Thus, the amount of water that Saltcedar drinks has been shown to be on par with her native comrades, and—in places where sufficient moisture remains for the native species to survive—one can find cohabitation among natives and newcomers alike.

Nevertheless, history regresses and repeats. During a more recent period of drought, the discredited idea of salvaging water from wasteful vegetation was back on the table. On October 11th, 2006, President George W. Bush signed HR 2720, the ‘‘Salt Cedar and Russian Olive Control Demonstration Act,’’ which this time around also leaned on the crutch of “invasive species” to appeal to modern sentiments, environmental ethics be damned.

The lack of quantitative evidence has yet to make much of a dent in the plant’s undeserved reputation, so we see things like this: “In summer 2001, an article about tamarisk in a major Colorado newspaper declared, ‘It’s a water-gulping, fire-feeding, habitat- ruining, salt-spreading monster.’” Wow. As the old adage goes: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And even farther, maybe, when motivated by money, be it mining profits or grant funding?

Removing the vegetation willing to grow in these conditions will not change the conditions themselves. The NRCS, while still advocating eradication, recognizes that “decline of native cottonwood gallery forests and invasion by Russian Olive invasion are frequently associated with a change of the natural disturbance regime of riparian areas, frequently as a result of river regulation.” So even when it is known to not be the cause of disturbance, removal is the still the best thing to do? How perverse.

Salty Soils Myth

Soils throughout the western USA have been getting saltier due to irrigation and dams. The high permeability of the soils in many parts of those areas (i.e, their sandiness or gravely-ness) makes them highly susceptible to salinization through improper irrigation, which describes most irrigation practiced there. The process is nothing new to agriculture, and the effect was observed in the Middle East long ago; writes Chellis Glendenning: “By 2000 BC, there were reports of ‘earth turned white,’ a clear reference to salinization.”[3]

Dams contribute to the salinity problem by concentrating salts. Evaporation from the large surface area concentrates salts and agricultural runoff flows bring more. Additionally, with lower stream flows and fewer flood events, salts also concentrate in riparian soils, negatively affecting vegetation. The water being released downstream is reduced in flow with an elevated salinity load. Further, the loss of seasonal floods removes the flushing effect that could reduce accumulated surface soil salinity caused by dry soils crusting over.

Improper irrigation water management can elevate the water table, which aggravates the accumulation of excess salts in the soil. This condition is not favorable for woody species that do not grow well in saturated (wet), saline soils (which, besides Cottonwood and most Willows, also includes Redosier Dogwood). However, higher water tables are common where Russian Olive is found. She both tolerates this condition and remedies it. Saltcedar begins to appear along intermittent rivers with deep alluvial groundwater. Increasing arid conditions and heavy water use upstream exacerbate this condition. Deeper taproots and a high salt tolerance lend adaptive benefits to this species.

At one time, the presence of saline soils where Saltcedar thrives was mistaken as an effect of the tree’s presence, rather than one of the factors contributing to her ability to grow in such soils, where other plants could not. Russian Olive has also been found to tolerate elevated soil salinity levels. The NCRS points out the relative salt tolerances of these two species, stating that “Russian Olive gives way to saltcedar (Tamarix) on soils with elevated sodium levels.” These are soil salinity levels above the toleration of native riparian species such as Cottonwood and Willow. So, these “salt-of-the-earth” volunteers are “passengers, not drivers” of this condition. We are reminded of Lupine, a cosmopolitan genus of plants named Lupinus—“wolf”—by the Romans because they falsely believed the plant robbed the soil of fertility since it grows in waste places. In actuality, like many species in the Legume Family, Lupine improves its habitat by capturing (“fixing”) nitrogen from the air and adding it to the soil.[4] Those who believe that contemporary people are so much smarter than ancient people might reflect on the lesson of Lupinus.

Intriguingly, data suggests that Saltcedar might be playing a similar role in overly salty places. Lower salinity levels have been measured where older stands of Saltcedar are established. If true, Saltcedar could ultimately be providing improved circumstances for native riparian species to re-vegetate. The NRCS described how Russian Olive loses its competitive edge on non-saline hydric soils, where Cottonwood and certain Willows shade the Russian Olive, pointing to a different niche adaptation, not competition. In fact, Russian Olive has been found to be effective in re-vegetating saline landscapes, reducing elevated groundwater tables and thus mitigating dryland salinization. It seems these two species may actual be partnering in a desalinizating guild of succession: a symbiotic offering to their native friends to join them again later.

Dams and diversions created new water flow regimes and increased salinity loads. As Candace Hughes summed it up in Smithsonian magazine: “The real invasive species are the dams diverting water for agriculture and saline water being put back in the rivers.” The increased evaporation from the surfaces of reservoirs concentrates the amount of salts in the water. Summertime floods no longer rinse the riverbanks, so salts accumulate in a pale crust. In contrast, natural floods still exist on the San Pedro, where saline soils—and Saltcedar trees—are rare.

The “bad neighbor” myth

The aspect of ecological function is too often neglected when the “invasive species” flag is waved. That is, it is not asked whether the new species is interacting with neighboring flora and fauna in any positive ways. Or that these species are a part of natural succession given the environmental changes that have occurred. Russian Olive can also be recognized as a community type. In Montana, at least, according to the “Classification and Management of Montana’s Riparian and Wetland Sites,” Russian Olive is considered to represent a seral stage of various habitat types, including: green ash/common chokecherry (Fraxinus pennsylvanica/Prunus virginiana), box-elder common chokecherry (Acer negundo/Prunus virginiana), Ponderosa pine/redosier dogwood (Pinus ponderosa/Cornus sericea) or Douglas fir/redosier dogwood (Pseudotsuga menziesii/Cornus sericea). A seral succession is a stage on the path towards a longer lived, relatively stable but still dynamic community structure. There are processes to get to that stage, and it starts where it is and develops through many different interactions along the way. Denying the reality of this process in favor of particular players defies both science and common sense. By providing food or shelter, especially if another species previously playing those roles is now absent, Russian Olive and others keep the process of resilient renewal going. Put another way, the “invasive” label tends to elevate human perspectives of how things ought to be above non-human reliance on the present functions of how things are. How would we respond to the sudden eradication of agricultural crops, if we were to view them in the same light of stalled succession, deemed to represent a degraded habitat? Crisis! We might find a more gradual transition to be more considerate, since we presently depend on it. Perhaps our first thought would be that of planting wild foods in abundance.

A strongly held tenet of invasion biology is that non-native plants provide fewer benefits to wildlife compared to their native counterparts. In the case of both Saltcedar and Russian Olive, the data speaks otherwise. For birds in general, the composition of plant species in their habitat may be less important than the structural features those plants provide, whether native or not. Some ornithologists have even found that a wide range of birds may prefer Saltcedar over native trees.[5]

The endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) numbers under 500 breeding pairs. Their main threat is habitat loss, which currently includes Saltcedar. In some areas, 75% of these birds found are nesting in Saltcedar. There is also no evidence that the Flycatcher is any less provided for using Saltcedar.[6] In Arizona, 49 different other bird species also nest in the salty boughs.

Bees are fond of Russian Olive flowers, and the trees were often planted for honey production. The blossoms are rich in B vitamins too. Over one third of the bird species in the Gila River valley in New Mexico were observed to use the thorny cover of Russian Olive as nesting sites. Since the 1950’s, it has been known that at least 44 different birds (as well as fox, rabbit, squirrel, skunk, raccoon, deer and elk) eat Russian Olive berries as a hardy winter food. Deer and livestock feast on the leaves. Beavers gnaw the branches. Shelter and warmth is provided by Russian Olive. Doves, mocking birds, roadrunners and other birds use the thick growth of branches as nesting sites.

Russian Olive as Soil Remediator and Superfood

Defying all claims of inferior forage value, the berries contain 19 detectable minerals and are rich in water and fat soluble vitamins (especially A, C and E), flavonoids, carbohydrates, alkaloids and biological active lipids. (see here, here, here and here). Theses lipids are high in essential fatty acids, which is unusual for a fruit. One study foundoleic acid and linoleic acid made up 92.8% of the fruit lipids. The nutritional and medicinal properties of Russian Olive are actually well studied, with indications for everything from muscle tension to malignant tumor reduction, “validated based on a scientific point of view.” This looks more like a wildlife super-food than an dangerous invader.

All of these services and benefits offered, and more, even after being acknowledged, are cast aside for an ideal that would take all the trees away. The USDA NRCS stated that, “although Russian Olive provides food and cover for many species, it negatively impacts cavity-nesting birds.” This is claimed even when the paper could offer no data that there is any competition with native species. In fact, all the papers we found could only point to Russian Olive replacing declining native trees due to various human-induced hydrological changes, and no conflict when conditions could still support natives. So the fact that these ecosystems cannot grow cavity-providing tree species is caused by environmental factors, not the new volunteers.

With remediation goals in mind, Russian Olive has repeatedly appeared in scientific literature with respect to bioabsorption, phytoremediation and degraded soil regeneration qualities. Indeed, the original motivation for planting was to re-vegetate land contaminated by paper mill wastewater, mine spoilings and as a bioindicator of heavy metal pollution (see here and here). The fruits have been found to remove chromium, cadmium and nickel from aqueous solution. Curiously, Russian Olive is deemed a promising species for engineered phytoremediation for herbicide manufacturing operations, and seedlings have displayed herbicide-resistance. So hopefully they will be there to remediate riparian soils after aerial spraying. Ironic.

The ability of Russian Olive to rehabilitate the effects of agriculture are stunning. Nutrient loss is a big factor in degraded soils, both in the field and downstream. In the field nutrients that in a natural process would be recycled back into the local soil are instead removed with the crop. Downstream from dams and the fields they irrigate, the nutrition offered by flood deposition decreases, while agricultural runoff increases salinity, affecting nutrient cycling. Endosymbiosis with soil bacteria help Russian Olive act as a nutrient pump, enabling the improvement of saline conditions by increasing “content of organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as the number of fungus, bacteria, salt-tolerant bacteria, actinomycetes and salt-tolerant actinomycetes.” Since there is no competition actually documented, and her presence remediates saline soils, it seems likely Russian Olive can pave the way for other vegetation to be able to thrive again. Russian Olive will grow in some of the most dismal conditions and has the ability to somewhat restore the historic quality of toxic sites. It seems she is here to help!

But too often, these many benefits are mentioned only as an aside in the scientific literature and the focus immediately returns to methods of control, with no pause to ponder the ramifications. This behavior displays a pathological mind, unwilling to recognize facts and change course.

The tenacity of ignorance

These two maligned species, entering the scene as others are exiting, are offering significant benefits to their new neighbors: food and shelter. As it currently stands, then, removal of Saltcedar and Russian Olive—as a stand-alone action—will make some wildlife homeless and take away their food. That’s a fact.

Yet somehow we still refuse to participate with the process and need to dominate. The Pecos River Native Riparian Restoration Organization, along with “weed specialist” Keith Duncan, raised $1 million to manually and aerially spray a mixture of herbicides including Arsenal, Rodeo and Roundup on Saltcedar groves on 5,000 acres along this New Mexico River. The project applied such poisons for three years, from above and below. Duncan seems to think that the dead skeletons of the trees provide a better nursery setting than a live shaded cover would, and that decimation is essential. However, Saltcedar provides a perfect nursery habitat for native vegetation to thrive when it is living. Studies have shown that planting native vegetation under Tamarisk is a viable way to increase avian abundance.

But agricultural weed scientist Duncan assumes that destruction is the best first stage of succession. As he claimsof the wasteland he created: “It won’t be like a parking lot tomorrow.” He goes on to intensify the crime, insisting that efforts “must include the entire courses of the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers as well as tributaries,” and has garnered funds to the tune of $5 million dollars. No environmental objections have been raised to the continued aerial herbicide application. The response has been support from Aububon, the Sierra Club and others, and the herbicide Arsenal is a big reason for the support. Wait, what? Oh, because the label states it is “habitat safe.”

Duncan and his corporate environmental sponsors are still acting on the scientifically false notion that Saltcedar is drying up the rivers. Meanwhile Duncan states that “if the region gets back to more normal rainfall and snow-pack patterns, eradication efforts will become evident.” Thats convenient. Only if these things improve will we be able to measure success. This statement also exposes Duncan as a climate change denier. The reliable rainfall and snow-pack patterns of yesteryear are gone and they ain’t coming back.

Similar aerial spray programs have been proposed (and demonstrated) for Russian Olive, again even though there have been no studies to establish competition or facilitation within communities.

When the starting point is demonization, there’s no room for appreciation. A blind insistence on ripping out species just for being newer, especially when they are well-established and integrated, runs the very real risk of making landscapes lifeless and barren. This is certainly the case for Saltcedar and Russian Olive, which have become so common, and especially with climate change threatening the ability of the original natives to survive, period. Different groups have been trying to eradicate Saltcedar for over 70 years, and control programs for Russian Olive were demonstrated in the 1960s. Even when the true factors behind changing landscapes have been established, biocontrol agents remain the first choice.

An ugly truth is glaringly exposed by the “debate” over Saltcedar and Russian Olive. Despite the fact that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows that neither species is guilty of the many sins they are accused of, neither one can become exonerated in people’s eyes. Saltcedar will still be seen as a sign of desolation, and remembered for that, not for the way she stepped in to provide and mitigate human error. Russian Olive will still be considered less than other trees, even when she gave in ways that no native could. People talking about “restoration” become hooked on a picture of the past as the only healthy community possible, and all efforts are aimed at returning there, no matter the cost. There is no respect given to the resilience of ecosystems under attack by us.

Humans will never be able to celebrate healing with the rest of the world while their ideals, all of them the products of unexamined ego, continue to reign on high from above, thinking they know better than what is being offered, always.

At this juncture, the problem is not a matter of a lack of information to guide beneficial engagement. The problem is the extreme resistance to giving up our perceived place of hierarchal dominion. As ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer recognizes: “the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It’s not just land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land.” This cycle of abuse is doomed to continue endlessly if we do not address our own embattled psyches.

This is part two of a three part series. Part one can be found here.

In Part 3, we will discuss the ramifications of climate change for invasion biology and the cultural issues highlighted by the field’s popularity.


[1] Pearce, Fred. The New Wild: Why Invasive Species will be Nature’s Salvation (Beacon Press: Boston, MA, 2015), E-pub pp.152.
[2] Pearce, pp. 54-58.
[3] Glendenning, Chellis. My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (Boston: Shambhala Press, 1994), p. 78.
[4] Sonnenblume, Kollibri terre. “Grape Soda Lupine (Lupinus excubitus var. excubitus)” entry in Wildflowers of Joshua Tree Country ebook (Macska Moksha Press, 2015).
[5] Pearce, pp. 54-58.
[6] Pearce, pp. 54-58.
[7] Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Editions: Canada, 2013), p. 38.

Nicole Patrice Hill holds a bachelors degree in Environmental Science with a minor in Botany. She is a former farmer who has been exploring the wildtending life in the US American west. Ms. Hill can be reached at wildwiskedjak (AT) riseup (DOT) net

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer, photographer, tree hugger, animal lover and dissident, whose work can be found at Macska Moksha Press. Kollibri can be reached at kollibri (AT) macskamoksha (DOT) com

Categories: News for progressives

Is There an End to the Tragic Fate of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon?

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:46

The influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon that started in 2011 following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has created a serious problem not only for Lebanon but the refugees themselves. Lebanon currently has the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, with one refugee per four Lebanese. The stress on Lebanon’s health and social services has been considerable and demands urgent and practical solutions.

Crowded conditions in the camps favor the spreading of respiratory and intestinal infections, particularly among children. Chronic conditions are common among older adults, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory infections. Essential medicines for chronic conditions are frequently lacking. A high prevalence of depression and cognitive disorders is frequent among the elder refugees.

Although both the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people have shown considerable understanding and willingness to help, the problems created by the influx of refugees has reached such a dimension that it has strained the relationships between the Syrians and the Lebanese and also between their governments.

The statistics are numbing. UNHCR, the UN Office for Refugees, estimates in 1 million the number of Syrian refugees who have been registered in Lebanon in 2016. However, this figure is probably an underestimate, since the UNHCR has stopped registering new refugees since May 2015, and doesn’t include individuals waiting for registration.

More recent estimates identify 1,500,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This number includes 31,502 Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria. Although the majority of Syrians now living in Lebanon are Arabs, various ethnic and religious minorities are included among them, such as Syrian Armenians, Syrian Turkmen and Syrian Kurds.

According to UNHCR, Lebanon never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. That convention establishes that a refugee who belongs “to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” should receive appropriate assistance.

If it had adhered to this convention, Lebanon would have been obligated not only to provide asylum to refugees but to allow them with the right to access courts, elementary education, and travel documents. Even if it wasn’t obligated to do so, however, the Lebanese government has tried to assist the Syrian refugees within the limits imposed by the magnitude of the problem. Now, however, they must begin to resume a normal life, hopefully back in their own country.

As Bashar al-Assad seems to be regaining control of the country, refugees have been returning to Syria, in some cases with aid from the government in Damascus. This move has been supported by the Lebanese government, which claims that it is unable to provide assistance to such a large number of refugees. UNHCR for its part disagrees, and advises against the return of Syrian refugees because of the dangerous conditions still prevailing in Syria.

In the meantime, several NGOs have been providing assistance to the Syrian refugees. Among those NGOs are Medair, a Swiss NGO, Anera, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Solidarités International, CARE Canada, the Syrian American Medical Society, Islamic Relief USA, and Caritas Lebanon. Although their work is invaluable, the need is overwhelming. In this regard, UNHCR is an agency with 68 years of experience in dealing with refugees needs and should have a pivotal role in any future assistance.

Given the multiplicity of organizations channeling aid to the Syrian refugees, what is needed is more coordination among them, and for the foreign governments that participated in this war to step up their aid and give the refugees a future of hope for regaining a decent way of life. The Syrian war is a foreign governments-fueled disaster that should have never happened.

Categories: News for progressives

Single Payer Not Single Payer

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:45

The corporate class answers — not single payer.

The people say — single payer — get rid of all the other payers. Get rid of the insurance companies. And while you’re at it, get rid of the health maintenance organizations and accountable care organizations and value based programs and for profit hospitals feeding at the public trough..

The corporate class says — keep those corporations at the trough.

The corporate class says — better yet, public option for all.

The people say — we want Canadian style health care.

The corporate class says — Medicare buy in.

The people say — everybody in, nobody out.

The corporate class says — Medicare Advantage for everyone.

The people say — single payer.

The corporate class throws up a smoke screen with — universal health care.

The corporate class wants anything but single payer.

Why? Because single payer threatens corporate power.

Under single payer, insurance companies gone. HMOs gone. ACOs gone. For profit hospitals — gone.

At least that’s the way it was for the past sixteen years under the gold standard for single payer — HR 676.

Now, on cue, with the Democrats in charge of the House, HR 676 is being rewritten and the Democrats even want to get rid of the number 676 — and start with a new number. Not 676.


Because the “progressive Democrats” in the House want to align the House bill with Bernie Sanders bill in the Senate (S 1804).

The Sanders bill is not the gold standard for single payer. It has a number of serious defects.

The Sanders bill allows for profit hospitals and accountable care organizations and health maintenance organizations and value based programs (ACO/HMO/VBP) — all corporate talk for corporate intricacy and distraction — to continue to exist and drive up costs within the so-called single payer.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) wants to be the new lead sponsor of the House single payer bill. Jayapal’s bill would also keep for-profit hospitals in the mix.

But Unions for Single Payer’s Kay Tillow says that for-profit hospitals have no place in a single payer system.

She points to studies showing that for-profit hospitals result in higher risks of death, higher costs, higher readmission rates, and for profit dialysis centers also have higher death rates.

Dr. Andrew Coates, former president of Physicians for a National Health Program said last year “there should be no profiteering in the delivery of healthcare.”

“Nursing homes in the U. S. are mostly owned by private-equity firms like Warburg Pincus, Bain Capital, GE Capital, the Carlyle Group, and others,” Dr. Coates said. “These corporate owners in turn hire myriad subcontractors to run every aspect of the home, from the kitchen to the janitorial service to the electronic health records to the laundry.  And at every step there is someone taking a profit out.”

In a recent article in Health Affairs, Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein called on Congress to adopt HR 676’s “payment strategies and commitment to non-profit ownership of health care providers.”

“Even some who would prefer to exclude investor-owned facilities from a single-payer system worry about the cost of a buyout,” they write. “In conversations with Congressional aides, some have suggested that these costs could amount to $1 trillion or more, although none could cite a source for that figure.”

Himmelstein and Woolhandler support HR 676’s approach that explicitly proscribes payments to investor-owned facilities, and calls for their conversion to non-profit status financed by issuing bonds.

The Sanders bill made headlines in November 2018 when University of Massachusetts at Amherst economist Robert Pollin and his colleagues released a study showing that Sanders bill would achieve universal coverage and reduce total US health care spending by 7.2 percent.

The 7.2-percent figure is the net of a 12.0 percent increase in spending due to better coverage and fewer uninsured, and a 19.2 percent reduction in spending due to improved efficiency, lower prices, and reduced fraud.

But now comes Kip Sullivan of Health Over Profit for Everyone (HOPE) — a coalition of single payer groups and activists.

Sullivan and HOPE are just out with a paper analyzing Pollin’s study.  

Sullivan finds that due to defects in Sanders bill — defects not found in the gold standard bill HR 676 – the Sanders bill will not save nearly as much as Pollin says.

“The total gross savings is closer to 9 percent — not 19 percent, which means the net effect of the bill will be an increase in total spending of roughly 3 percent,” Sullivan writes.

“The first and most important defect is Section 611(b),” Sullivan writes. “That section requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to impose on the entire population ‘accountable care organizations’ plus three or four dozen other complex ‘value-based payment’ programs currently imposed only on the fee-for-service Medicare program. Expanding the reach of these programs from the 40 million people currently enrolled in the Medicare fee for service program to 325 million Americans of all ages will add substantially to administrative costs. Estimating the impact of these value based payments programs on administrative costs is very difficult because Section 611(b) authorizes so many of them, because research on value based payment administrative costs is almost non-existent, and because it is not clear how far and wide – in terms of geography and people covered – these programs would spread.”

A second defect in the Sanders bill identified by Sullivan is “no hospital budgets.”

“The second defect that will reduce administrative savings below Pollin et al.’s projected 9.0 percent is that S 1804 does not authorize HHS to use hospital budgets, but instead authorizes HHS to use only the current method used by Medicare — the “diagnosis related group” method — which requires hospitals to keep track of expenses for each patient.”

“Despite these two defects, Pollin et al. relied, inexplicably, on research based on the Canadian system to derive their estimates of administrative savings under S 1804. This would have been appropriate if the object of Pollin et al.’s study had been HR 676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act.”

“HR 676 does not contain a section like Section 611(b), and it does authorize the use of budgets for hospitals. Nor does the Canadian system contain these two defects – the Canadian system does use hospital budgets, and it does not impose the value based  payments authorized by Section 611(b). Pollin et al. aggravate their misuse of research based on the Canadian system by failing to notify readers they did that.”

In response to the Sullivan critique, Pollin says that he and his co-authors are clear that while the study focused on the Sanders bill, it didn’t focus exclusively on the Sanders bill.

“My basic response to Sullivan’s critique is that he makes one huge mistake right from the get-go,” Pollin told Single Payer Action. “That is, he assumes that our 200-page study is only about the September 2017 Sanders bill, and that the sole purpose of the study is to assess in detail, up or down, the various components of the Sanders bill.  But we state multiple times that this is not the way we have chosen to focus the study.”

“This study provides an economic analysis of the Medicare for All Act of 2017, which was introduced before the United States Senate by Senator Bernie Sanders (S. 1804),” the authors write on page one of the 200 page study. “Our analysis also addresses, more broadly, a range of issues that need to be examined seriously in considering any specific proposals for a single-payer health care system for the United States.”

Pollin says that he is quite clear in the report that accountable care organizations “are not providing a viable model for achieving cost savings” and that the authors “make absolutely clear that we are opposed to Section 611.”

As for Sullivan’s statement that the authors “inexplicably use research on Canada’s system,” Pollin says that “our use of Canada (and other countries) as case studies is only inexplicable to Sullivan himself, since he seems to think that we have a right only to evaluate what is explicitly stated in the 9/17 Sanders bill and nothing else.”

“But that was never the approach of this study. To me at least, it actually makes no sense at all to bother to write a 200-page study on one draft of one bill, as opposed to analyze the main concepts and literature in depth,” Pollin said.  “Drafts of bills come and go. The 9/17 Sanders bill will be among the many drafts of Medicare for All that will come and go. Our aim in writing the study was to study the potential cost savings available through introducing a viable Medicare for All system that learns from the best examples of other countries as well as within the U.S.”

Sullivan said he agreed with Pollin the most fundamental issue is whether Sullivan made a “huge mistake” assuming his report was an “economic analysis” of S 1804.

“The obvious question then, is: If in fact his report was not an analysis of S 1804, what bill or proposal is he claiming would cut administrative costs by the equivalent of 9 percent of total spending, and cut total spending by 19 percent?” Sullivan asked.

“I disagree that I made a huge mistake,” Sullivan said. “The report is filled with claims that the proposal that will lead to a 19 percent gross savings is S 1804. Here is the opening sentence from his press release — “A team of economists from the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) has found that the Medicare for All Act of 2017, introduced to the United States Senate by Senator Bernie Sanders … could actually reduce health consumption expenditures by about 9.6 percent while also providing decent health care coverage for all Americans.”

“I could send along many other examples of statements by Pollin and his allies that his report was an analysis of S 1804.”

“But let me concede for the sake of argument that I completely misconstrued the constant references to S 1804. Could you ask Pollin to address this question: If S 1804 was not the version of Medicare for All mentioned in the title of this report and mentioned dozens of times in the report and recent statements to the media, what version did Pollin analyze that will lead to a 19 percent gross savings and a 9.6 percent net reduction in consumption expenditures?”

We did ask Pollin.

“As I wrote before, and as we say in the study, we used the Sanders bill as an initial jumping off point,” Pollin said. “But we also were analyzing the concept of a single-payer health care system — Medicare for All — more generally.  I can’t explain why that wasn’t clear to Sullivan. It wasn’t a problem with any of the twelve reviewers of the study, who went over multiple drafts of our work. This particular issue never once came up. This is so, even while many, many other issues did come up.  If you look at the final statements of the reviewers. some of them continued to have significant differences with us.”

“But nobody said ‘this study is about the Sanders bill and only about the Sanders bill, and I will therefore evaluate the work from that perspective.’”

“It seems to me that this should be clear when we explore in some detail alternative approaches to implement global budgeting and capitation — two proven techniques for cost containment.  As we say in the study, there are vague references in the Sanders bill to developing global budgeting. Nothing is fleshed out, clearly, so we tried to lay out some alternative approaches. Moreover, we talk about introducing utility-type regulations for hospitals — something that isn’t in the Sanders bill at all. We talk about the experience in Taiwan as providing valuable lessons for implementing single-payer in the U.S. There is obviously nothing in the Sanders bill about Taiwan per se, or Canada per se, or France, per se.”

“In the end, it seems to me that we are arguing about how we structured our study — which is substantially a critical review of the relevant literature. I never saw the study as just referring to one draft of one bill and that only.  Sullivan apparently is insisting that this is the way that one has to understand our study. But again, one more time, I personally wouldn’t see all that much value in focusing our study in that way.”

“The bill is, once again, pretty vague on critical issues that matter, such as how to implement global budgeting. So we tried to make a very broad concept more specific. In reality, if the issue moves forward in a serious way, either in California, some other states, or at the national level, we will inevitably need to flesh out the approach to global budgeting and capitation in far greater detail than can be put into a bill.”

But Sullivan wouldn’t let Pollin off the hook.

“Pollin cannot have it both ways,” Sullivan wrote. “He cannot claim in press releases and in numerous interviews, and he cannot stand by and watch others state in articles and interviews, that his study demonstrates that S 1804 will achieve universal health insurance and lower health care spending by a precise number (9.6 percent), then turn around and say his study did not examine S 1804 but instead examined ‘a jumping off point’ or a ‘concept.’”

“Here again is the opening sentence from the press release Pollin et al. published to announce their study of S 1804:

“A team of economists from the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) has found that the Medicare for All Act of 2017, introduced to the United States Senate by Senator Bernie Sanders, is not only economically viable, but could actually reduce health consumption expenditures by about 9.6 percent while also providing decent health care coverage for all Americans.”

“Where in the above excerpt do you see any warning that the PERI report analyzed a ‘jumping off point’ because ‘nothing is fleshed out,’ or a mere ‘concept’? Where in the entire press release or the entire report,for that matter, are readers warned the report is not an examination of S 1804, but is instead an examination of ‘the concept of a single-payer system,’ whatever that means? Where is ‘the concept of a single-payer system’ laid out in the report? It’s not there.”

“I could cite numerous other statements by Pollin and his supporters that state the report examined S 1804, not a ‘concept’ or a ‘jumping off point,’ whatever those phrases mean.”

“There is a simple solution. Pollin should issue a press release saying exactly what he is trying to communicate to me using the words he uses with me. The press release could say, ‘I want to clarify that our report on the Sanders bill, S 1804, did not estimate the economic impact of the Sanders bill, S 1804, as odd as that might sound. Instead, our report examined a ‘jumping off point’ and a ‘concept.’”

Why is this back and forth between Pollin and Sullivan important?

Because single payer activists are rightfully concerned that Jayapal is going to slice and dice HR 676 to align it with the defective Sanders bill.

They are concerned that Jayapal is showing her draft only to a few single payer activists — and only on condition that they not share it. (Last month, HOPE called on Jayapal to release her draft bill. She refused.)

That’s why Jayapal probably doesn’t want to keep the number HR 676.

(Nowhere in their 200 page study of single payer do Pollin and his co-authors mention HR 676.)

The Seattle newspaper The Stranger reported last week that Jayapal said that her bill will be so different from HR 676 “that they might not even use the same bill number.”

Also of concern to single payer activists is the role of the National Nurses Union, which paid for the Pollin study and funds a number of single payer groups, and which has signed neutrality agreements with for profit corporate hospital chains, including HCA.

In a 2011 Wall Street Journal article titled Union Enter Pacts to Boost Members, Kris Maher reports that “the Service Employees International Union and the California Nurses Association are signing so-called neutrality agreements with the chains, in which the hospitals don’t object to organizing and the unions don’t conduct negative campaigns against the employers or try to organize workers at certain hospitals.”

“Since April 2010, the SEIU and the CNA have organized roughly 10,000 nurses and other hospital workers at Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Inc., one of the nation’s biggest hospital chains.”

“HCA agreed to let the unions organize workers at 20 hospitals in Florida, Texas, Missouri and Nevada without employer interference, according to a summary of agreement reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.”

“Under terms of the year-long pact, which took effect April 1, 2010, HCA agreed to provide the unions lists of employees, to allow them on company property and to hold expedited elections. It also agreed not to support efforts by employees to decertify the unions at any hospitals.”

“In return, the unions agreed to refrain from broad negative campaigns against HCA or trying to organize workers at other HCA hospitals. Since April, the CNA has organized more than 5,000 nurses at 13 HCA hospitals in those four states and didn’t lose any elections. The SEIU has organized more than 4,500 HCA staff.”

One question is being raised by some single payer activists — did the nurses’ agreement to refrain from broad negative campaigns against HCA or other for profit hospitals impact single payer bills at the state and national levels, all of which, with the exception of HR 676, are riddled with loopholes to keep the for profits and ACOs and HMOs and and value based programs in the game?

Only a handful of single payer activists have seen the Jayapal legislation. But if it’s anything like the Sanders bill or the California single payer bill, it’s not single payer.

You can call it single trough, because the for profit corporations and multiple payers will still be feeding at the public trough. But it’s not single payer, the way HR 676 is single payer.

That’s why single payer activists aren’t waiting around. They are shopping HR 676 in the House, trying to find a “progressive Democrat” to sponsor single payer.

Categories: News for progressives

Stealing the Towb, Palestine’s Cultural Identity

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:45

For the record, “I don’t do Facebook.” Never had the desire to do so, and will likely not do so for a long while.

I’d rather spend my time in the garden, reading books and online blogs, wood pecking on my keyboard, shooting deer with my camera, and occasionally firing up my welder to make a sculpture.

CounterPunch, Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique, and TomDispatch are favorite staples. The Gangland emails, a rich daily fount of former Colleague Johnny Wink’s poems, comments on language, linguistics, grammar, Latin and a miscellany of copious quotations and suggested reading lists is a daily feast. Mondoweiss, Informed Comment, Electronic Intifada, and Ha’aretz are noted for having the backbone to take on Israel, AIPAC and their hangers-on with hard-hitting reporting. HuffPost is OK for quick news updates, and, except for an occasional decent BBC report on art/culture, I find the BBC brexiting into a sub-standard news outlet.

On January 4, 2019, La Belle Femme shared a Facebook photograph of M., a childhood friend from my days in Jerusalem, Palestine. M., her sisters, my twin brother, and I attended the Mawardieh convent school (Arabic for Sisters of Rosary) in Jerusalem, a Catholic convent adjacent to the U.S. West Jerusalem Consulate. All the sisters were of Palestinian descent; most were kind, loving, patient, and friendly. Two 8 foot mason hewn rock walls transected by a narrow cobbled alley served as the demarcation line that segregated the convent’s nuns and school children from the consulate staff and U.S. Marines guarding the consulate.

At age 12 an older classmate pointed out a plastic balloon shaped object no doubt thrown from one of the embassy windows. This was my first encounter with condoms, and one smart aleck tried to convince us that the Marines’ protective duties extended to protecting the nuns.

From the day I left Jerusalem in April of 1959 until April of 2013, M. and I lost contact. Destiny/ fortune/ providence (in all their pregnant connotations) led us down different paths. Thanks to (and albeit through) digital technology, Clotho, the Greek Goddess whose duty it was to spin fate, spun her threads to reconnect me – 54 years later – with M. And since that pleasant 2013 spring day, I’ve been addressing M. as the Dear Friend of My Childhood Days.

In so many ways M.’s and my life have had synchronized twists and turns. Lachesis and Atropos, Clotho’s Greek Fate sisters whose responsibilities it was to draw out and cut Clotho’s spun threads to shape one’s life, fashioned our two lives in a most unique manner.

And thanks to these Moirae sisters of Fate and Destiny, M.’s life and mine have been uncannily drawn out in concurrently parallel life-changing events. Both of us emigrated to the U.S., both of us married American citizens, both of us parented two children, and both of us dedicated our lives to that noble calling, better known as the teaching profession. While she lives with her family on the West Coast, I live with my family in the American heartland.

I’ve never met a person more dedicated and more passionate about Palestine and her children living under the daily whips’ spurs of a brutal Israeli occupation. And on an almost daily basis M. forwards articles, analyses, and commentary on all aspects affecting Palestinian lives under occupation and in diaspora.


Even though Newly elected Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was already in the crosshairs of Israeli lobbyists and the Zionist Canary Mission organization (an outfit that spies on pro-Palestinian professors and students), she wanted the world to know that the Thowb (a variation in spelling hereinafter is deliberate) she wore on the day she was sworn in was her mother’s thowb, that it was a treasured gift worn to celebrate not only her win, but also her right to celebrate everything that is American.

Worn by women, a Thowb (sometimes mistakenly called tunic, Kaftan, or robe) is an ankle-length garment with long sleeves that might flare out slightly above the wrists. While fellaheen women (village dwellers/farmers) wear Thowbs on a daily basis, town and city female dwellers wear their thowbs on special occasions, including weddings, feasts, and baptisms

Inspired by Tlaib’s bold statement, American women of Palestinian descent and their sisters around the world posted photographs of themselves in their Thobes. While most of the photographs depicted singular images, a plethora of all female family or group photos were posted. Photographs of mothers and daughters (dressed in heirloom Thowbs) of all ages evoked a sense of deep ethnic pride, and photographs of mothers and their young daughters seemed to tell the world that at long last Palestinian parents are not ashamed to tell their children, especially their daughters, that even though Palestine is living through one of the most brutal occupations it has experienced in her painful history, Palestinians have finally and begrudgingly been able to position their distinctive tesserae in the expansively rich pluralistic American mosaic.

For those enamored with statistics, as of January 1, 2019, 32 members of Congress identify as Jews, many of whom hold a dual American/Israeli citizenship. Rashida Tlaib is the very first and only member of Congress of Palestinian descent.


While The fellaheen villagers (synonymous to country folk) refer to these costumes as Thowb/s (ѲƆƄz/ ), we Palestinian city slickers call them towbe/s (tƆƄz).

The Arabic term for this cross-stitch art form is called tatreez.

What the Kimono is to Japan, the coat of arms to Medieval Europe, the African tribal markings and masks to Africans, the beads, handcrafted turquoise silver jewelry, ornate moccasins and leather tunics to native Americans, the Thowb is to Palestine and Palestinians a sacred archetypal cultural symbol of Palestinian identity. Author Susan Muaddi Darraj states the following: “Every Thobe is a dress embroidered with the stories, the loves, the tragedies of Palestinian women. The world will never be broken, because we will always stitch it back together and make it beautiful.”

In Palestinian culture the Thowb is both a collective and individual artistic expression par excellence. And each village has its distinctive tatreez motifs. The richly vibrant colors, especially the variant shades and tones of reds, greens, and browns in myriad geometric crisscross and interlacing cross-stitching tatreez defy description. And, while the statement “more is less” holds true for most artistic expressions, the abundant crisscrossing patterns are intended to be seen as an artistic fiber mosaic composition of singular and countless, richly woven independent, yet integrated shapes; while the singular shapes and patterns stand on their own, they are at the same time integrated into a larger pattern that renders the thowbs unified objets d’arte.

Perhaps the salient feature of Palestinian embroidery is its use of space, one of the most powerful elements of design. The black background serves as the negative/ground, and the embroidery is the positive. Think M.C. Escher or black and white photography.

In short, what the intricately designed ceilings of the Alhambra’s elaborate stucco expressions were to Moorish architecture, and what tessellation was to M.C. Escher, thowb embroidery is at the very heart of Palestinian cultural identity. Anyone entering a Palestinian home is likely to see embroidered sofa cushions, table cloths, serviettes, pillow cases, sheets, doilies, and wall decorations screaming Palestinian embroidery. Two such cherished embroidered sofa cushions were gifted to us by my sister.

While the making of thowbs is an individual effort, it is more often a collective, generational endeavor. Grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters (including other relatives and neighbors) spend hours embroidering their thowbes in living room or balcony settings, no doubt narrating stories of their personal lives and recounting memories; I have no doubt that the gossip of the day sneaks in during these intimate bonding events which strengthen familial bonds and anticipate/celebrate births, graduations, marriages, positive life-changing events, as well as memories of departed loved ones and the pathos of loss, diaspora, and hardships of life under Israeli occupation, in refugee camps, and in diaspora.

I distinctly remember Im Ahmad (Mother of Ahmad) riding her donkey from the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa three times a week to deliver goat milk to our Jerusalem suburban doorstep. Clad in her Thowb, she cut a dashing figure. The beautiful geometric designs along her collar and sleeves contrasted beautifully with the more subdued yet equally colorful designs on her upper torso. And the burnished, sparkly stainless steel milk canister, tucked in her makeshift burlap saddlebag, highlighted the blackness of her thowb, thus making the tatreez utter its joyful bold statement in visual delight. In short, our Ashkenazi Jewish neighbors (even though they never spoke to her or bought her non-kosher milk) marveled at the agility and colorful energy emanating from the petite sixty-five-plus-year-old woman they’d only seen in Orientalist paintings prior to setting foot on Palestinian soil.


La Belle Femme’s sharing M.’s stunningly beautiful Facebook photograph with me brought an approving smile to my face. Dressed in a beautifully embroidered ankle-length Towb, the perennially traditional Palestinian costume, I beamed with pride. On January 4, 2019, I penned the following email:

Dear [M.],

[R] shared your photo with me; dressed in your Towb, you look like a Palestinian Princess.

I’ve jotted down some ideas for a column on Rashida’s opening a political Pandora’s Box. I so wish she hadn’t made the expletive comment. The media had already set their sights on her even before her oblique Trump statement was made. My fear is that she will be defined by these words, especially since they were uttered in front of her kid.

In solidarity, Dear Friend of My Childhood Days. From way up in the skies the Palestinian sisters of The Rosary Convent School are pointing at you and ear-to-ear smiling and grinning at each other with pride and joy.

Salam, Raouf

M.’s prompt response was: “Thank you, dear Raouf! Always so positive. I very much appreciate your loyalty to our culture and our people. We must continue to educate and elucidate against such powerful detractors… Warm Salamat”


Instead of arguing for or against Congresswoman’s poor choice of using the twelve letter compound noun, I will refer the reader to two outstanding columns on the subject. “Impeach the motherf*****: Can the Subaltern curse?” by Columbia University’s Professor Hamid Dabashi, Al Jazeera, 1/7/2019, and “Rashida Tlaib and Working Class Authenticity v. Trump’s Plutocratic Pretense,” by University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, Editor, Informed Comment, 1/7/2019.


In concluding, there is a profound point to be made.

Israelis have already appropriated Palestinian Bedouin jewelry and they are hawking these rich Arabesque designs as Israeli inventions; Pita bread, Falafel, and Baba Ghannouj are pawned off as Israeli culinary inventions; Hummus, that basic food staple of Palestinians of all classes, is marketed as a favorite Israeli dish. Some Israelis have added a new twist to Hummus’ age-old Palestinian traditional meal that can be partaken for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or at any time in between. Some washed out bible scholars are claiming to have found proof, supporting it with Old Testament texts, that prove Hummus to be an ancient Israelite invention/food staple.

Yea, sure! And Trump is a genius, a devout Christian, a man of high moral standing, an exemplary role model, and a man of impeccable character.

And the Palestinian Towbs?

An Israeli fashion designer conned four Bedouin women into designing Palestinian embroidery with many an ambiguous bait and switch promise. Soon after these original artistic cultural creations were handed over to the Israeli shyster, he stole the designs (more like theft of intellectual property protected works), and mass produced these Palestinian embroidered traditional dresses. He’s been marketing/selling them as “being authentic Israeli dresses.” El Al, Israel’s national airline, is complicit in stealing and selling these iconic Palestinian cultural expressions on their flights.

While not as egregious, Philip Weiss’ “Israeli Design Eroticizes the Palestinian Keffieh” (Mondoweiss 2/2/2016) draws attention to the use of the Palestinian keffieh in commercials depicting suggestive scantily clad women in an admixture of almost nude skirts and top wear.

While the latter could be defended as artistic fashion appropriation (sex always sells), the former is nothing short of bold Cultural theft.

I consider this to be a form of cultural genocide in an ongoing land theft and a grotesque attempt to deny Palestinians the right to self-determination, statehood, freedom, and dignity.

May all women of the world consider wearing Palestinian Thowbs in solidarity with their Palestinian Sisters.

Categories: News for progressives

Is Anyone Really Offended by the “F-Word”?

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:43

I don’t think anyone in Washington is actually offended by Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s use of profanity.

If you haven’t heard, Rep. Tlaib, a freshman Democratic representative from Michigan, said of the president, “We’re going to go in there and impeach the motherf—er” to a group of progressive supporters in Detroit.

The remark could offend for two reasons: its intent or its salty language.

The first reason, the intent, is the more substantial of the two. Actually impeaching the president is more consequential for the nation than having a potty mouth. But a single member of Congress cannot impeach the president all by herself.

The leadership of the Democratic Party has always been cautious around the topic of impeaching Trump. Whether they want to or not, or think it would be justified, doesn’t matter much. Previously, they couldn’t do it. Republicans controlled the House, and Republicans would not vote to impeach.

Now that the Democrats control the House, they could impeach Trump. But since Republicans still have the Senate, the Democrats couldn’t remove Trump from office without considerable Republican support in the Senate.

(Remember, the House can impeach, but the Senate then has to convict a president for him or her to actually be removed from office. Bill Clinton was impeached but not convicted and remained president.)

In short, Trump isn’t going anywhere unless the nation becomes aware of such serious crimes that even Republicans in the Senate support his removal. For Democrats, calling for impeachment right now is mostly political, since they can’t actually do it.

Given that the comment was mostly symbolic — a signal to Tlaib’s supporters that she’s on their side and serious about opposing Trump — we can take her use of profanity in that light too. (And, as it turns out, the use of the “MF” word has a storied history in Detroit politics, so local reporters say it was fine for her audience.)

But Republicans just can’t stop being offended by it.

Here’s what I don’t believe: Republicans who continued to stand behind the president after he bragged about assaulting women, who have no problems with their colleague Rep. Duncan Hunter’s alleged stealing from his own campaign coffers for personal gain, who even supported Roy Moore after it came to light that as a grown man he romantically pursued and harassed teenage girls, really care about the use of a naughty word.

I think they’re willing to grab any reason to politically damage a Democrat and run with it.

“Scandalous” video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doing a goofy “Breakfast Club” dance in college? Try to use that. Rashida Tlaib uses profanity? Try to use that. Use anything that might lop off a point or two of a Democrat’s approval ratings, anything that might energize your own base.

In Washington, hypocrisy doesn’t matter, so long as it works.

Don’t fall for it. Don’t buy their fake outrage. Don’t be distracted.

There are two alternatives, neither of them good. Either they’re generating fake outrage to score cheap political points, or they’re expressing actual outrage because they care more about a single swear word than corruption, crimes, and assaults on women combined.
Whichever it is, they aren’t worth paying attention to.

We send Congress to Washington to do a job and govern our nation. It’s that job that matters, that keeps our country safe and our economy strong, and it’s foolish to be distracted from focusing on that because of a single word, appropriately used.

Categories: News for progressives

Peace Cannot Be Achieved by Force, It Can Only Be Achieved By Understanding

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:43

On Sunday I decided to push myself to step out of my comfort zone even more than I usually do. So I made the effort to go to Temple B’nai Israel in order to engage with the multireligious and mutilracial group of 22 Oklahomans who traveled to a tumultuous part of the world, Israel and the Palestinian territories to explore the intricacies and complexity of the seemingly unending conflict. The Israel-Palestine conflict has made people on both sides of the divide despondent, bitter, resentful, and suspicious of one another. But yesterday, all I heard from people of the three Abrahamic traditions, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, was the emphasis on humanity, restoration of dignity, human rights, and the revivification of democracy, which would enable the two sides to build bridges across religious, political, and ideological divides.

One of the first travelers I talked with was Michael Korenblit, President of the Respect Diversity Foundation. Instead of a casual conversation or debate, I asked Michael two specific questions to which he responded eloquently. The first question I posed was, Given the increasing polarization in today’s global world, Is it possible to stop demonizing the “other against whom the “self” is defined?

My interviewee observed,

“Yes, but it will take a lot of work and leaders willing to step out of their comfort zone.  One of the best ways is to go and meet with the ‘other.’ Go to a mosque for prayers, go to a Catholic mass, go to a black church and participate in the services. Go to a Temple or Synagogue on a Friday night and experience a Shabbat service. Go to a Hindu, Buddhist, or Baha’i service and experience an American Indian spiritual ceremony and after each encounter, talk to the people. Talk to an Agnostic and an Atheist and ask them questions and share your own feelings. Talk to a refugee and an undocumented person. Ask each about their hopes and dreams, especially for their children. You will find that their concerns are the same as yours. Once you get to know the ‘other’ as a human being, the less likely you will be to demonize an entire group of people.”

And then I asked him a question that I often ask myself in the context of the conflict in my homeland: Is Radical Forgiveness a possibility to mitigate the current conflict?

Michael thoughtfully responded,

“I don’t know about radical forgiveness, other than what happened in South Carolina.  This is where survivors and family members of those murdered in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church forgave the murderer for what he did.  I would consider this Radical Forgiveness.  Whether that forgiveness will stop other shootings is not clear.  This last year, another individual (who was stopped before it happened) was planning a copy-cat shooting.  This time, it was going to be Jewish people in a Synagogue.

In Israel, there are over 600 members of an organization called The Parents’ Circle.  They are all Jews and Muslims who have lost children in the conflict.  They have come together to speak out against the violence.  They speak at schools in both Israel and Palestine, as well as to adult groups.  They insist that this violence and killing must stop.  They believe in moving forward and to work for peace, so that no more children will die.  I don’t know if any have forgiven the perpetrators, but I do know that what they are doing is saying, ‘We must find a better way.’”

He went on to tell me about the “Conspiracy of Good,” which he considers a powerful example of the ability to heal and repair divides:

“There is a city in Southern France called Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon.  From 1940-1944, the village of 5000 Huguenot (Calvinist) Protestants, and the surrounding villages and towns, made a conscious decision to defy both the Vichy government of France, and the Nazis by refusing to turn over Jews.  Over 5,000 refugees escaped to the city.  Of which over 3,500 were Jews.  Working together, they helped over 5,000 people escape the Nazis, by moving them around in their own city and the surrounding villages and towns.  This meant that some 30,000 people were working together to defy the Nazis and save human life.  After the war, when the world heard about what had been done, some called it ‘The Conspiracy of Good.’”

I would observe that if the political evolution of a society is nipped in the bud by a belligerent military establishment, state policies always fall short of becoming coherent. The more the military establishment makes incursions into democratic spaces, the more shaky institutions of state remain and the more fragmented the polity becomes. Once a populace begins to question the validity of the choices it exercises in the electoral process because processes of electioneering and institutions of democratic governance lack transparency, the sociopolitical fabric is ripped to pieces.

Another traveler, William Gorden, whom I particularly enjoyed meeting, said that his main message in answering my question about the complexity of the resolvability of the Israel-Palestine conflict was that, “The one state solution is unworkable in that the demographics will not allow it to work. Palestinian population rates will soon exceed Israeli rates, and might render democracy to be untenable. The way this might work would be for the Israeli state to have the equivalent of the U.S. Bill of Rights, so that whoever is in the minority will be protected. This has made our democracy workable. The Israeli state has no document which does this, providing for Due Process. Consequently a Two State option has to be considered likely. That time, as well, may be passing or past.”

The Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee of Oklahoma Conference of Churches had a postcolonial reading of the conflict, which I, giving my training in Postcolonial Literature and theory, grasped the minute he brought it up. The Reverend was particularly passionate about much neglected issue of social justice in the Palestinian territories and Israel:

“Given the holocaust, everything that Jews have suffered during the past 2000 years, and the recent rise in antisemitism, a Jewish State is not only necessary but makes sense. Israel has the right to exist and to have international support. At the same time it is important for us to insist that Israel treat Palestinians (Christians as well as Muslims) equitably and with dignity.

Social justice for Israelis and Palestinians must apply in the fair distribution of natural and other resources both now and as part of whatever ‘solution’ is ultimately implemented to secure peace.

The issue of ‘democracy’ must also be resolved in a way which safeguards national security for Israel as a Jewish state and avoids Palestinians living as ‘second-class citizens.’ A first step toward this may well be a public form of ‘mutual forgiveness’ for the acts of violence which have been perpetrated by both sides and a binding pledge to work together to establish peaceful coexistence in the land which all three Abrahamic Traditions consider ‘Holy.’”

My conversations with these well-meaning individuals led me to conclude that instead of deterring the growth of democracy, the goal should be to empower the populace of both Israel and Palestine sufficiently to induce satisfaction with their role within current geopolitical realities such that a dis-empowered populace does not succumb to ministrations of destructive political ideologies. In addition to addressing the political aspect of democracy, it is important to take cognizance of its economic aspect as well.

The identity of a state or a nation cannot be built on unquenchable hate and certainly not on cashing in on the pain and grief of other people. It is or, at least, should be inconceivable, in the day and age of a global economy, to spurn the concepts of reason, rationality, and political and moral ethics.

How can we, as global citizens, develop the ability to organize and mobilize for social change, which requires the creation of awareness not just at the individual level but at the collective level as well?


Categories: News for progressives

Best and Worst

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:42

The immortal novel, A Tale of Two Cities, begins:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Actually, I think this yin-and-yang contradiction exists right now, today – and probably existed at every moment since the beginning of recorded history.

These are America’s worst times under a ludicrous president who has uttered 7,600 countable lies and shut down part of the federal government in a temper tantrum.  But life also is good, with full employment, booming prosperity and superb personal freedoms.

Writers like Chris Hedges are correct that right-wing greed is pulling America apart in ever-worse inequality, and that industrial pollution causes global warming that threatens the planet.  But writers like Steven Pinker are correct in claiming that our “better angels” cause life to improve constantly, with fewer wars, fewer murders, fewer rapes, fewer cruelties, fewer ethnic persecutions and relentless retreat of other evils.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times – and it always was.

The hero of Scaramouche was “born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.”  But that’s just half the story.  Laughter can be dampened by grief and suffering.  A better assessment of our ongoing carnival is the cliché: Life is a comedy to the person who thinks, and a tragedy to the person who feels.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that, despite daily horrors in the news, “2018 was the best year in human history.”  He cited:

Each day, about 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time.

Each day, about 305,000 got safe drinking water for the first time.

Each day, 620,000 more people acquired access to the Internet.

“Only about four percent of children worldwide now die by the age of five,” he wrote. “That’s still horrifying, but it’s down from 19 percent in 1960.”

Before the 1950s, more than half of humanity lived in extreme poverty, defined as less than $2 daily income.  Now the ratio is below ten percent.

When I was young in the 1950s, gay sex was a felony – and it was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath – and blacks were banned from white schools, restaurants, hotels, pools, neighborhoods and jobs – and it was a crime to buy a cocktail or look at something like a Playboy magazine – and a desperate girl who ended a pregnancy faced prison, along with her doctor.  Our mayor once sent police to raid bookstores selling “Peyton Place.” Now all those Puritanical strictures have vanished.  Human progress occurred.

A century ago, average life expectancy was 48 years.  Now it’s near 80, thanks mostly to medical science.

It’s true that the bizarre Trump era is the worst of times.  But I have blind faith (perhaps fueled by wishful thinking) that Trump will fade into the muck from whence he came, and intelligent statecraft will return.  I have hope that Democrats eventually will attain universal healthcare as a human right for everyone – and today’s ruinous college debts will cease – and other progressive goals will be achieved, one after another.

As we stumble toward that future, it will always be the best of times and the worst of times.

Categories: News for progressives

Give Children the Vote, Strengthen Democracy

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:40

In December 2018 David Runciman, Head of Politics at Cambridge University, made the radical proposal that children as young as six should be allowed to vote in elections to deal with the age bias in contemporary democracies. Allowing children to vote he said, would give a ‘jolt of energy’ to democracy. While the thought of six year olds voting sounds extreme and will no doubt be broadly dismissed, there is a strong democratic argument for lowering the eligible age from 18, which is the standard voting age in most countries and allowing children to vote.

In response to Professor Runciman’s suggestion The Guardian newspaper asked a group of children “aged 6-12 what [political] policies would get their vote.” Their intelligent, straightforward answers are inspiring and in accord with the views of many of us. Freed from ideology and party politics these children see the issues clearly and speak in an unencumbered way, direct from the heart.

Thomas Atkinson is 10 and lives in Belfast. “The other day I saw someone sitting on the pavement. He looked about 20. Why is that happening? He needs a job and a home – and there are so many jobs that need doing. Like, for example, the environmental problems. There is plastic on the beaches all around Bangor. We need people to clear that.” Petra Pekarik is 11 and lives in London. She is a Hungarian citizen – “it doesn’t make sense to me that Britain is putting up barriers. I feel the opposite should be happening, and we should be taking barriers away.” She says that in school they talk a lot about fairness, but in society “there are some people who are so special, and other people who don’t even have a home. Sometimes I see people living on the street and I think, why are they there? It’s important because we are all the same: these people aren’t different, they’re people. We are all people.” And Tom Ashworth, who is 9 and lives in Ambleside: “Climate change is the big issue politicians need to work on…. We can’t just let this happen and do nothing – it’s got to be stopped. We have to stop doing the things that cause climate change. It’s really important right now…. We need to stop wasting food and everything else we’re wasting.” The only six-year-old spoken to, Wilfie Tudor-Wills from London, said that, “there should be more houses in London. There are a lot of people in this city and they need places to live…. there should be less pollution, because it’s bad for your lungs.” And, given the chance to speak to the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, he would “tell her to get more people to have electric cars because they’re better for the world. And also I’d like there to be more parks.”

The other children who were questioned gave answers that are just as insightful, but the views of these children, like all children their age go largely unheard. Children under 18 are commonly, and as these children’s comments demonstrate, mistakenly, thought to lack the understanding to participate in current affairs and as a result are denied the most basic democratic right, that of voting in an election; be it local or national. But at 18, everything changes; it is apparently the age when adulthood begins and with it full citizenship. Previously it was 21.

The arguments for excluding children from voting echo those trotted out in the past to ban other groups – women and people of color e.g. They are usually based on the idea that children are intellectually incapable of understanding the issues, are politically apathetic, and that, lacking a mind of their own, they will simply vote for the same candidate/party as their parents. This facile point was used to justify denying women the vote, only in that particular statement of prejudice, it was husbands not parents who it was said would determine the woman’s choice, because, like children, women cannot, or could not, think for themselves! Even if a child does vote in the same way as their parents, as indeed many over 18s do, it does not invalidate the ‘one person one vote’ system and is not a reason to deny him or her the opportunity to participate.

In countries or cities where 16 year-olds have been allowed to vote these justifications of exclusion have proven to be hollow. Multiple studies show the younger first-time voters are, the greater their participation: The Washington Post related the example of Takoma Park, the first city in America to lower the voting age to 16 (in 2013), where “16 – 17 year olds voted at twice the rate of the voting population.” In the 2016 Scottish Independence referendum 16 year olds were given the vote; they were actively involved in debates and 75% of those eligible to vote actually did so, 20% higher than 18 – 24 year olds. Support for early enfranchisement among the population at large also increased after the referendum – from around a third to 60%. The voting age in Scotland has since been lowered to 16 for all elections.

Whether 16 year olds, or anyone else for that matter, who are given the right to vote actually do so or not, however, should not be regarded as a reason to grant or withhold that right. In most general elections in the UK for example, an average of only 65% of those on the electoral register actually vote, and this is broadly the case in other western democracies.

Young people overwhelmingly support progressive liberal parties; they reject nationalism, embrace people from other countries and are often in the forefront of the environmental movement and calls for social justice. I suggest it is this knowledge that motivates conservative leaning groups of all kinds to resist lowering the voting age.

If representative democracy is to become truly reflective the maximum level of participation by the largest number and broadest range of people needs to be facilitated and encouraged, and this not just in the political sphere, but in all areas of contemporary life. In countries where the voting age has been kept at 18, a huge percentage of the population has no voice of their own; in Britain, which has an ageing population that’s approximately 17 million young people. This is wholly un-democratic and needs to change.

The concerns and views of young people must be heard, acknowledged and acted upon and they should be granted that most rudimentary of democratic rights – the right to vote. The discussion should be focused on what level to lower the voting age to, not whether it should be reduced. The suggestion by Prof David Runciman that children as young as six should be allowed to vote does indeed seem extreme, particularly in a single step, the age most widely proposed is 16; a process of incremental changes, which can be reviewed, may be most fruitful and children themselves should be engaged in the debate.

Democracy is participation: not only should children be allowed to vote in elections of all kinds, they should have an active role in the management of schools and colleges and the composition of the educational curriculum. Facilitating such participation would not only encourage broader social responsibility amongst young people, it would enrich and strengthen democracy itself.

Categories: News for progressives

Not One Network Should Have Aired Trump’s Hate Speech

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:39

Way back in 2014 — a century ago, it feels like — President Barack Obama requested time on major networks for an Oval Office address on immigration reform.

Fearing the subject was too “political,” the broadcast networks declined, plying viewers instead with The Big Bang Theory and Bones. Few Americans saw the speech. Immigration reform withered on the vines, which were then burned to the ground in the next election.

Flash forward to January 8, 2019.

At 8:31 a.m., President Trump tweeted — again — that the “Fake News Media” was “truly the Enemy of the People.” Hours later, at 1:44 p.m., he announced that he was going to give a speech on the “National Security crisis on our Southern Border.”

By 9 p.m. the next night, all major networks, derided only the day before as “the real Opposition Party,” were carrying the speech.

How Obama’s address was “too political” for Big Bang Theory night but this one — in the middle of a government shutdown of the president’s own creation — wasn’t is beyond me.

Much worse than the inconsistency, however, is that networks aired the obviously political speech knowing perfectly well it would be chock full of lies. As of last October, The Washington Post counted, Trump was telling 30 lies a day, especially about immigrants.

And so it was. The first lie in Trump’s Oval Office address on the need for a border wall, The Post noted, “came in the first sentence,” and the lies continued “over the course of his nine-minute speech.”

The president complained about “a security crisis at the southern border,” even though undocumented crossings are at a 20-year low. He warned darkly that immigrants were shedding “American blood,” even though immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born Americans.

He seemed unaware that most drugs come through legal ports of entry, or that most unauthorized arrivals overstay their visas, rather than sneaking across the border. A wall would help… how, exactly?

The only crisis at the border is a humanitarian one of the administration’s making.

Fully 57 percent of people apprehended at the border are families and children, most fleeing violence and poverty and trying to (legally!) seek asylum. Trump has greeted them with tear gas, violence, and cages, and blamed desperate parents when their children die in his custody.

But facts are beside the point. The point is systematic disinformation, to the point that facts mean nothing. And besides state violence, The Nation’s George Zornick notes, this kind of climate encourages all manner of private violence.

The man who killed 11 Jews in Pittsburgh cited the congregation’s work settling refugees as a motive. Around the same time, three men in Kansas were arrested for plotting to murder Somali immigrants before the election.

Hate crimes have increased for three years straight, the FBI notes — continuously since the Trump campaign.

Mainstream media outlets can fact check false claims all they want — that’s their job. But if they’re giving a free platform to those lies in the first place — across every network! — then Trump may have a point that they’re not acting in the best interest of the people.

The president is going to demonize the media no matter what they do. So what do they have to lose by doing the right thing? That means not airing one second of lies calculated to misinform, spread hate, and justify violence against desperate families. For once, airing Big Bang Theory reruns would have been a public service.

Categories: News for progressives

Remedios Varo: A Cure for Magic Out of Chance

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:38

Secret leylines connect the mundane objects in a room; a slight ill-advised interruption in this powerful network will bring on unforeseen disasters. The mail service is a web of magical communication that abolishes Chance: letters addressed to strangers concerning fictitious events can influence the future. The earliest hominid life was a one-wheeled biped – Homo rodans; naturally, there has been a cover-up. These and other outré cosmologies can be found in a selection of fugitive texts by the great Spanish painter Remedios Varo, just published in a superbly-translated collection by Margaret Carson as Letters, Dreams & Other Writings. Here is a recipe from it (‘translated from the Arabic’), to be used ‘to dream you are the king of England’:

1 dozen rams’ legs

20 eggs

40 bricks

3 ½ meters of raw silk

A large soft-sable hairbrush

Alas, the ritual instructions fizzle out to gunshot ellipses and the fool that follows them this far is left covered in fat and sulking in a large vat. The induction of dreams fascinated Varo. She didn’t need rams’ legs, lizards’ legs and owlets’ wings to make owls and eggs appear in her own map of sleep. In her paintings, the leylines are gossamer strands and the eggs sit in mortal cups perhaps first seen by dreaming eyes.

But sleeping is hard when you’re the run from nightmares. Remedios Varo fled Franco first, then the Nazi Occupation in Paris. She ended up in Mexico City in 1941 (her friend Dali swore he’d never go back to Mexico because he couldn’t “stand to be in a country that is more surrealist than my paintings”), where she died at age 54. She was friends with Rivera and Chagall – and most notably, a collaborator and confidant of the great Leonora Carrington. Carrington crops up a lot, in simple anecdote and dreamside, which shows how deeply their palimpsest universes overlapped. This book also preserves a singular and suitably brief picture of the Mexico City milieu at the time, where the living and the dead and the dreamed-up passed along the length of magic circles.

Given her life, perhaps her paintings of witchcraft, cryptozoological entities, and sinister labyrinths reflect and contort the mechano-spiritual world the Nazis had stitched together from bankers’ briefs, hack folklore, and hairshirt suburban lugubriousness. Likewise, the paranoia of secret police and spy networks is parodied in Varo’s letters-game as a series of loopy coincidences and falsified accounts, dependent on reaction and absurdity. Most of these missives were sent to people chosen at random in the telephone book or to well-known people who might share her obsessions. The notes are are cryptic but not frightening; nonsensical but not implausible. If there were any replies from the mystified recipients, they haven’t come down to us.

Mail has long been a passion of people given to games, chance and the possibilities of remote influence. A year after the world upheaval in 1848, De Quincey wrote his great essay on the English Mail Coach. It was the “electric sensibility of the horse” which carried correspondence and news with such marvelous speed, a phrase which gives the strange impression of a half-horse half-lightbulb creature moving in the industrial Victorian void. But Remedios Varo might have imagined that the hideous Air Loom – an early mind-control device James Tilly Matthews described from Bedlam Asylum – was directing the mechanic centaurs and vultures in the late 1930s. Picasso painted Guernica in 1937, two months after Franco inspired it. That same year, Varo moved from Barcelona to Paris with Esteban Francés and Benjamin Péret. The lightning war continued, directed by an airy blast beasting from Berlin. Warfare is spiritual and physical, as the preachers say. Dream has a shadow like a steel coat.

The dream-diary section contains intimations of a genuine magic; that is, a suspicion of a truly alien influence beyond the need of proof. Much of the dialogue in her dreams refers to things that occur slightly off-stage or remain mysterious to the dreamer, while other dream-inhabitants understand them instantly. There is an extraordinary play on her name Varo, which begins in real life with her son and then travels through a dream, then to Borges, then to Ancient Rome and Spain via a series of three other Varos (one is the Emperor Varus) and wordplay coincidences. The famous Egg-shaped chair in Exploring the Sources of the Orinoco River shows up in a lovely dream which also includes the literal weaving of wooly fate, a favorite concept of hers. Some of these dream-elements appear in Leonora Carrington’s stories – before or after they were written, it is not clear (for example, the carnivorous rabbits in White Rabbits are meat-gorged cats in Varo’s dream). In the end, her dreams sound little different than her waking life. The same flights of occasional reality drift mildly over the more-than-real. Perhaps this is all best summed up in her description of Harmony, her ‘pedagogic’ painting of ’56:

“The figure peeling away from the wall… represents chance – but objectivechance. When I use the word ‘objective,’ I understand it to be something outside our world, or rather beyond it, and which finds itself connected to the world of causes and not phenomena, which is our own.”

It also serves as a good definition of Varovian Chance. Later in a mock-catalog for an exhibit, she hits on the chance-related idea of describing figures that she forgot to paint or rejected for various reasons. Why not? Who but a fool would describe something that is right before one’s eyes?

The problem with occult systems is that their philosophies are never anywhere near as beautiful as their images. The crude and thrilling art illustrating tedious books of alchemy still look ageless, vivid and utterly foreign. Their silly didactic allegories look like the work of honest muralists, detailers, and shop sign painters. This is because lurking behind the ‘illustrations’ of stodgy Neoplatonic metaphors, the best poetic elements of occultism are finally freed by the same anarchic images that must always serve them literally. The result is a totally ‘literal’ presentation of the hermetic that must be betrayed. Literalism is rightfully suspect, and suspected on everybody’s part. Literalism is surrealism. For Remedios Varo, when images are finally invested with those chaotic spirits toward whom they would call, the symbolic utility of an occult image is irrevocably shattered. This is how occult forms are able to retain their strikingpresence in the modern world, as autonomous images lightening over the visible outlines of concrete things. A true sorceress is given over to the image in deficit to the powers summoned, whether devil or angel (this is also partially true of Faust). Her vision is heretical, perhaps especially for the heretic who clings to his parables. A carnivalism of demons, sylphs, floating cities, and owl-headed scribes… Return of the solitary and the cultic, against the House rules. And the most terrible demand made on this kind of heretic is to remain amusing and playful even when, as if by accident, ill omens appear in real life from out of the tables of dreams.

Remedios Varo is far better known in Mexico than in the barbarian lands north of the border. This revelatory little missile will make at least a little hole in the infernal stupid wall, and perhaps even in the clouds of tear-gas. Until the partisans arrive, will outpouring creatures gnaw to pieces those border guards and camp guards, silly repetitions of the thugs Ms. Varo saw last from the dock of Alcudia? The constant theme of water in her art and letters can be attributed to the fact that her maternal name was Uranga, which means ‘someone who lives near water or a lake’ in Basque. It also sounds like ‘orange’.


Categories: News for progressives

Trump’s Deja Vu China Trade War

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:37

he past three days US and China negotiators have met in Beijing to try one last time before a true trade war erupts between them in March 2019. Higher level trade negotiators will follow up in Washington in coming weeks. What follows is the first of a 2-part history and analysis of Trump trade strategy, which addresses events from the initiation of Trump’s trade offensives in March 2018 to December 2018, with predictions for 2019. In part 1, US trade policy under Trump in 2018 is compared with similar US trade offensives under Nixon in the 1970s, targeting Europe, and Reagan in the 1980s targeting Japan. The historical parallels situate US trade policy as an important, often over-looked element in the evolution of US Neoliberalism.

“Trade War! Trade War! When Trump pre-announced on March 2 his plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the mainstream press immediately began hyping the line that trade war was looming on the horizon. Panicking, investors ran like lemmings over the stock market cliff after the steel tariff announcement; US allies huffed and puffed, promising tit-for-tat tariff responses on US agricultural goods or commercial aircraft; Trump’s traditional elite advisors, like Gary Cohn, former CEO of Goldman Sachs investment bank and head of Trump’s economic council, resigned later that week—no doubt in part due to frustration and disagreement over Trump’s unilaterally announced tariff.

The ‘Stalking Horse’: Steel-Aluminum Tariffs

At week’s end, on March 8, 2018, Trump proposed to implement steel and aluminum tariffs universally, across the board, affecting all importers to the US.: 25% tariffs on steel imports and 10% on Aluminum. The big 5 US steel importers are Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, and Germany—collectively responsible for $15 billion a year in steel imports. Canada, Russia and the United Arab Emirates are the major aluminum importers. (Worth noting, for 2017 steel imports China is well down the pack, tenth or eleventh on the list, contributing only 2.2% of US steel, importing in the millions of dollars annually—not billion—and mostly semi-finished steel goods used by US manufacturers for fabricating final goods produced in the US.) When announced on March 8, Trump argued there would be no countries exempted from the 25% tariffs on steel and 10% on aluminum.. That quickly changed.

By mid-March, Canada and Mexico were temporarily exempted from the tariffs, even though they were among the top four largest steel importers to the US, with Canada largest and Mexico fourth largest. Thereafter, Brazil (second largest steel importer), Germany, and others steel importers were exempted. And Canada, by far the largest aluminum importer to the US, accounting for 43% of US aluminum imports, was exempted as well.

South Korea, the third largest steel importer last year, was exempted from steel tariffs permanently, as it quickly renegotiated its 2012 free trade deal with the US. Moreover, no other significant tariffs were imposed on South Korea as part of the bilateral treaty revisions. What the US got in the quickly renegotiated US-South Korea free trade deal, was more access for US auto makers into Korea’s auto markets. And quotas on Korean truck imports into the US. Korean auto companies, Kia and Hyundai, had already made significant inroads to the US auto market. US auto makers have become dependent on US truck sales to stay afloat; they didn’t want Korean to challenge them in the truck market as well. Except for these auto agreements, there were no major tariffs or other obstructions to South Korea imports to the US. Not surprising, the South Koreans were ecstatic they got off so easily in the negotiations. Clearly, the US-South Korea deal had nothing to do with Steel or Aluminum. If anything, it was a token adjustment of US-Korea auto trade and little more.

So if the Korean deal was a ‘big nothing’ trade renegotiation, and if virtually all the US major steel and aluminum importers have been exempted worldwide, what’s Trump’s new trade policy aggression all about? US steel and aluminum imports combined make up only $47 billion—a fraction of total US imports of $2.36 trillion in 2017.

Was the steel-aluminum tariffs announcement just another example of Trump bombast, launched via tweets from the second story of the White House at 3am, to be followed by a quick retreat? Was the South Korean agreement a template and a big ‘softball’ for later negotiations with US trade allies—Mexico, Canada, Europe? Was it Trump shooting off his mouth and then retreating following pressure from his advisors and US business interests? Was the tariff announcement a ‘stalking horse’ for something bigger? Perhaps the tariffs were a cover for domestic political objectives—aimed either at agitating and mobilizing Trump’s political base in ‘red state’ America in preparation for midterm US elections in November 2018 or even a Trump decision to fire special investigator counsel Mueller in coming weeks? Playing the ‘economic nationalist’ card and mobilizing his base, by initiating new tariffs and talking of a ‘trade war’, would serve both Trump domestic political objectives.

For polls show Trump’s steel-aluminum tariffs announcement played well in the Midwest, the great plains states and the South; and especially in those steel and mining towns of Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota—i.e. those key swing states that gave him the narrow margin of victory in the 2016 elections! Even if he quickly shelved the tariffs, the media hype sent the message Trump wanted to his base: he was doing something about the decades-long loss of steel and mining jobs in those regions since the 1980s. In short, how much of the steel-aluminum tariffs were for domestic political consumption and how much not?

That question applies as well to the subsequent trade actions by the Trump administration. By the end of March, given all the exemptions, it became clear the real target of Trump’s trade offensive was China and not the rest of US allies.

A closer look at Trump administration statements since March 2018 reveals that Trump’s anti-China trade offensive has had less to do with China general imports to the US and more about US next generation technology transfer by US corporations to China. Next gen technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), G5 wireless networks, and similar cyber-security and militarily strategic tech now in development.

As Trump’s new chair of his Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, put it in March, “There’s no trade war. All we’re trying to do is protect US technology”. Kudlow added a month later, in early April, “Sometimes you have to use tariffs to bring countries to their senses”. Tariffs are the tactic, not the strategic policy objective. And if trade deficits are not the primiary issue, and tariffs are only the tactic, then what is the strategic objective? It’s technology transfer and domestic politics. Perhaps the US defense sector, in particular the NSA and Trump’s military generals-heavy administration, are playing a greater role in the US-China trade war in the background than is thus far noted by the media. And not enough attention is being given to the role of domestic political events as well.

Put another way, at the level of appearance, the US trade deficit and China imports to the US may be the target for purposes of public opinion. But behind the appearance, it’s more likely that US domestic politics plus US long term military planning are the two more important drivers behind Trump’s emerging trade war. All of Trump’s tariffs and subsequent trade measures are being invoked based on an obscure ‘national security’ clause in US trade legislation. And China is increasingly the target, as tariffs and other measures are suspended and reduced for US trading partners—with the exception of China—as the US pursues a soft trade ‘offensive’ against all its other trading partners. As Trump himself tweeted when the initial steel and aluminum tariffs were announced on March 8, “I have a feeling we’re going to make a deal on Nafta. If we do, there won’t be any tariffs on Canada and there won’t be any on Mexico”.

Even with China, it’s not so much China imports that the US is most concerned about. It’s China’s challenge to US technology development and leadership and the implications of that challenge for US security, defense armament, and US continued dominance in war making capabilities that’s behind even the US-China trade dispute. That technology objective, plus the convenient use of trade in general, and China trade in particular for Trump’s domestic political purposes, are together the real objectives of US trade policy.

The US Plan to Target China

The US focus on China and technology transfer issues as the primary objective was revealed months ago. The US anti-China trade offensive was initiated in 2017 and has been in development for at least a year. The opening of a trade war with China did not begin with some impulsive Trump tweets in March 2018. It has been in the works since at least last August 2017.

In August 2017 Trump formally gave the US Office of Trade (OUST) the task of identifying how China was transferring US technology, “undermining US companies’ control over their technology in China”, as well as seeking to do so by acquiring US companies in the US. On August 18, 2017, the OUST laid out in writing four charges in a formal investigation it was undertaking, accusing China of actions designed to “obtain cutting edge in IP (intellectual property) and generate technology transfer”. All four charges were intensely technology transfer related.

That August 2017 scope of investigation document was then reproduced verbatim on March 22, 2018, with the expected findings and recommendations, in the 58 page 2nd OUST report of March 22, 2018 that publicly launched Trump’s trade offensive against China. China was found ‘guilty’ of aggressively seeking technology transfer at the expense of US corporations, both in China and the US. All four charges of August 2017 were found to have been violated by China.

Based on the OUST report of March 22, 2018, and the report’s recommendations (and its list of 1300 target products),Trump announced plans to impose $50 billion in tariffs on 1300 China general imports, ranging from chemicals to jet parts, industrial equipment, machinery, communication satellites, aircraft parts, medical equipment, trucks, and even helicopters, nuclear equipment, rifles, guns and artillery.. Trump may have appeared in March 2018 to have shifted gears in his trade policy—from a general steel-aluminum tariffs focus to a focus targeting China trade— but China has been the planned primary target.

In other words, China and the specific 1300 tariffs were the target at least from August 2017, and likely in internal planning when Trump first took office in January 2017. Trump just set it all in motion on March 23, 2018. The China trade war was set in motion a year earlier. The prime objective for the US has always been stopping China technology transfer. The OUST list of 1300 tariffs was, and remains, a ‘bargaining chip’ to exchange for what Trump and the US really wants from China: reducing US technology transfer.

A somewhat curious event in the preparation for targeting China occurred only days before the March 23, 2018 OUST report release, when Trump himself tweeted he’d like to see 1$ billion in tariffs on China. How then did the official policy become $50 billion after March 23, 2018? Was Trump initially out of the loop of US elite China trade policy in development? Did the China-US trade war really originate with Trump? Was it being planned by others, with Trump brought on board after seeing the domestic political possibilities for himself? One can only speculate. Nevertheless, on March 23, 2018 the targeting of China-US trade became official Trump policy.

The Phony US Trade War

The Trump administration has been pursuing a ‘dual track’ trade offensive. The soft track targets US allies in Europe, Americas, and select Asian economies; the China hard track is rooted in US military-defense planning. Both serve Trump’s domestic political objectives. The China trade war is real; the trade war with US allies is phony, by which is meant it is only seeks token adjustments to trade relations which Trump intends to hype for domestic political consumption.

That China and technology are the primary objective in Trump’s true trade war does not mean that Trump will not continue to try to renegotiate bilaterally with other US allies to reduce the US’s growing trade deficits worldwide. China-USA total trade in 2017 amounted to $656 billion. But USA-Canada and USA-Mexico total trade was $568 billion and $588 billion, respectively; or $1.16 trillion. That means total NAFTA trade is nearly double total trade of US with China.

Nonetheless, NAFTA trade negotiations, as well as trade renegotiations with South Korea, Europe and Japan have, and will, result in minor adjustments and little reduction in the US overall trade deficit. The South Korea-US deal of 2018 is the template. As in the recent South Korean deal, Trump achieved only token concessions from NAFTA partners—mostly minor changes in auto quotas and agriculture. He then exaggerated and hyped the results to his domestic political base, describing it as some significant big achievement. Like the South Korea deal, however, the NAFTA 2.0 wasn’t.

This ‘dual’ track strategy seems to be working for Trump. Since announcements of tariffs and trade measures beginning in early March, his public opinion approval ratings have risen, according to a consensus of pollsters. And polls taken in his ‘red state’ heartland base show support for his tariff actions, and even if it has meant an initial loss of jobs and business revenues.

Trump’s DejaVu Trade War in Historical Perspective

Periodically, US corporate interests and policy makers launch a major restructuring of US trade relations. This is usually when they deem it necessary to rearrange the rules of the game with trade when US interests are being challenged or when the global economy is weakening and they consider it necessary to protect the US share of a slowing global trade pie.

In 1971 such a restructuring was undertaken by then President Richard Nixon. The US economy had been experiencing a rising rate of inflation in the late 1960s as a result of US excess spending on Vietnam war, the cold war arms race with the USSR, the race to the moon, and expanding social programs associated with the so-called Great Society. Nixon introduced what he called his ‘New Economic Program’ in August 1971.

At the center of Nixon’s NEP was the US abandonment of the 1944 global ‘Bretton Woods’ international monetary system that the US itself had set up at war’s end to ensure its dominance of the new world order in currency, trade flows, and US foreign direct investment worldwide. Under that system the US dollar was pegged to gold at $35 an ounce. Other countries could sell their accumulated dollars in exchange for US gold. Because US inflation was accelerating in the 1960s it was in effect making US goods less competitive. European economies did not want to hold devaluating dollars and were exchanging them for gold. Nixon decided he did not want to sell US gold any longer, even though required under the Bretton Woods systems to do so. So he simply abandoned the 1944 system the US had established. He unilaterally and arbitrarily changed the rules of the game to suit US interests. Immediately the dollar began to devalue, making US businesses more competitive with their European rivals. European currencies rose higher, making them less competitive. To supplement the move, Nixon also imposed tariffs on European imports to the US, while introducing subsidies and tax cuts for US businesses exporting US products. By 1973 the consequences were institutionalized in the so-called Smithsonian Agreement. The US would no longer sell gold. Currency exchange rates would henceforth be stabilized (poorly) by the US and other central banks in Europe buying and selling of currencies to keep them within a range of the dollar. But the 15%-20% dollar devaluation from 1971-73 would remain in place.

The problem of declining US trade competitiveness was the result of US policies. But Nixon’s solution was not to correct US policy errors. Rather it was to make the Europeans correct the problem at their expense by reducing their relative share of global trade. The end of Bretton Woods also meant that central banks would (theoretically) regulate currency exchange rates between countries. In effect this meant that the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, would function as the dominant central bank and the others would have to respond to its initiatives on global interest rate determination. In short, the global trading system was restructured by the US.

A similar development occurred in 1985 under Ronald Reagan. The US experienced double digit inflation in the early 1980s. It then raised domestic interest rates to 18% and began in addition to run $300 billion a year federal budget deficits. This resulted in US businesses raising prices in order to cover the extraordinary rise in rates and costs of borrowing. US products lost their competitiveness to Japanese businesses, which began to import goods to the US at a growing rate. US policies did not bring down rates or inflation significantly by 1985. So the US instead forced Japan to the negotiating table to revise the terms of trade. Japan was forced to inflate its own economy to generate more inflation, to raise the price of their goods and erase their export competitiveness. Once again, a problem caused in the US by US policy was ‘resolved’ by requiring the burden of the resolution to be carried by the trade partner, Japan. The agreement between the US and Japan on trade in 1985 was called the ‘Plaza Accords’. A similar, though less intense, renegotiation with Europe, reached in Paris (Louvre agreements) followed. Once again, when it suited US interests, when challenged by a significant capitalist competitor, the US simply changed the rules of the game.

It is worth also noting that both these trade offensives—Nixon’s and Reagan’s— were launched in the wake of significant expansionary tax cutting and government war spending fiscal policies that produced growing US budget deficits for the US. The subsequent trade offensives were thus designed to expand US exports to supplement domestic US fiscal over-stimulus policies at the time. Nixon’s initiative followed the recession of 1970-71 and his obsession to over-stimulate the US economy by every means to ensure his re-election in 1972. It did, but it simultaneously wrecked the US economy for the remainder of the decade, resulting in domestic stagflation, collapse of real investment, downward pressure on corporate profits and a call from business interests for a fundamental reorientation of US economic policy that would eventually be known as ‘neoliberalism’ and would last until the crisis of 2008-09.

Reagan’s trade offensive followed the recession of 1981-82 and the failure of US policy to address the US’s ballooning budget deficits after 1981 (from tax cuts and spending hikes) and the growing trade deficits as the US dollar rose steadily in the first half of the decade.

The Nixon policy resulted in financial instability in 1973 and failure of several large banks, followed by the worse recession to date in 1973-75 and stagnation for the rest of the decade. Reagan’s policy resulted in even more financial instability in the crash of stock and junk bond markets and housing markets in the latter half of the 1980s, followed by the recession of 1990-91. Europe and Japan fared no better after 1985, with general banking crises in northern Europe and Japan in the early 1990s that were at least in part due to the Plaza and Louvre trade agreements.

A similar pattern is once again emerging under Trump’s trade offensive targeting China. Trump’s current trade offensive follows massive multi-trillion dollar US business-investor tax cutting, which amounted, at minimum, to $4 trillion to businesses, investors, and wealthiest 1% households as result of legislation signed January 2018. Trump’s $4 trillion in tax cuts was quickly followed in March 2018 by a $300 billion two year, 2018-2020, increase in net additional US government spending, mostly defense oriented. By most estimates, trillion dollar a year annual US budget deficits are now on the horizon for another decade.

To pay for the deficits the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, is now having to raise interest rates rapidly and sell record more US Treasury bonds and securities to raise funds to cover the US trillion dollar deficits ahead. However, that central bank policy has had a dampening effect on US economic growth and has led to a significant financial market contraction by year end 2018 that could destabilize growth even further in 2019. The Trump administration is hoping that the fiscal stimulus, supplemented with the benefits of more exports as result of its trade renegotiations, will be able to offset the economic slowdown generated by rising US central bank interest rates.

But this rearranging of fiscal, monetary and trade policies will almost certainly not prove successful—just as similar policy trade offs under Reagan and Nixon ultimately failed as well. The Trump massive business-investor tax cuts have thus far barely ‘trickled’ into the real economy. Most of the tax cuts will be diverted by companies to buying back their stock, paying out dividends to shareholders, used for acquiring competitors (Mergers & Acquisitions), or for paying down corporate debt—just as were US corporate profits diverted and used, from 2009 through 2016 in the US. Trump’s $100 billion a year defense spending will also have less economic stimulus effect—compared to the 1980s and 1970s—since defense spending has become high cost/low job creation in content.

Finally, the trade offensive against China will prove far more difficult for Trump to pull off than Reagan’s trade policies targeting Japan or Nixon’s targeting Europe. The same relationship of forces and relative power simply does not exist for the US today, as it once did in the 1970s and 1980s.

The basis for Trump’s China trade offensive is the 1974 US Trade act, section 301. Invoking it worked against Japan. It forced Japan to reduce its auto exports and build auto plants in the US. It also encouraged Japan to shift from real goods production to financial asset speculation, which led to its crash in 1990-91. But it will prove less effective against China. Some of China’s likely counter-measures and responses have already begun to appear. Among the possibilities are politically targeted tariffs on US exports, devaluing its currency, slowing its purchases of US Treasury bonds, delaying the opening of its financial markets to US banks and investors, launching a nationwide ‘boycott America’ goods program, holding up its approval on global agreements on corporate mergers, and so on.

However, the clearly slowing global economy that became increasingly apparent in the closing months of 2018—including growth both in China and the US—have imposed pressure on both economies to come to a deal in 2019. China’s financial markets have begun contracting as well; its main Shanghai market down nearly 30%. Similarly, the major US markets experienced their worst decline in less than two months, November-December, since 1931. Both real economies, and markets, will slow and decline in 2019, although not without periods of ‘recovery’. Concurrently, Europe’s economy is slowing rapidly, including key economies like Germany, France, and Italy—with a UK Brexit shock also on the horizon. Japan and South Korea, and various emerging market economies also have begun their slide. So economic conditions in 2019 will likely force a China-US trade deal by mid-year 2019.

For what this tentative and likely deal will look like in terms and conditions, Part II of this article follows, addressing the real US-China ‘trade war’—over next generation technology like Artificial Intelligence, 5G wireless, and Cybersecurity. These are not only the next sources of new industries that will drive economic growth for the coming decades, but also the crux of which country dominates militarily in the period ahead. The US and China have been drifting toward a real trade war, are on the brink, but not there yet. That may change in 2019. Should negotiations break down, it will be over technology and not tariffs, trade deficit, or the US demand for more US banker and multinational corporation ‘access’ (read: 51% or more ownership) to China markets. Odds are in favor, however, of a settlement and agreement. Economic conditions are driving both to that conclusion. How the parties structure and publicize any agreement on technology, if they do, will be the key. Most likely, both will agree to generalities and future actions, declare themselves the winner, and move on–with US corporations, bankers, and agribusiness getting their sales and access to China markets. And China buying time to continue its technology policy and development.

Categories: News for progressives

Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher – One of a Kind!

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:34

When Herb Kelleher, the joyous, fun-loving Founder and retired CEO of Southwest Airlines soared past permissible flight levels for passenger aircraft on his way to heaven last week, the accolades in the exuberant obituaries were also sky-high.

Listen to former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall: “He was a man of great imagination. He was a man of diligence. He paid careful attention to the details. And he was a man of integrity. I think we will look back on Herb Kelleher as an example of the kind of people who ought to be our leaders.”

Herb (everyone called him Herb), was much more than a super-successful creator of a low-fare, no-frills, high-pay, unionized, constantly profitable airline (since 1973) that never laid off any workers, with consistently high customer-approval ratings, and the most solid financial stability in a boom-bust, managed industry. In overturning the stagnant, brusque ways of the industry, he challenged his industry, with four Boeing 737s in 1971 flying between Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston, and overcame a cartel-like industry. After beating back numerous lawsuits by other airlines trying to stop his fledging enterprise – he rewrote the book on management for a large company.

For starters, he put employees, not consumers, first. That seemed not effective to me at first. But then came his explanation. You treat employees well in all ways, occupationally and personally, they’ll treat airline passengers well and safely, which makes the airline prosper for the shareholders. He did all three, having fun along the way. More than a few of his pilots, attendants, and other staff became—as workers/shareholders— millionaires.

Making money was not his first personal priority – making work pleasurable and exciting and giving employees discretion to bring the best from themselves – not playing rigidly by rule books – save him the most professional gratification.

After a while it probably did not surprise him that his wealth grew and grew to an estimated $2.5 billion.

His way of doing business, motivating people, and relieving their anxieties should invite many diverse living memorials in his memory. It is easy to think of many ways to recognize business practices that could be established in his same joyously productive fashion.

I’ve made no secret that Southwest is my favorite domestic airline. There is no second. When I step from the jet way onto the plane, I invariably say to the flight attendants and pilots – “the best airline in America” often adding that it reflects the pioneering ways of Herb Kelleher.

Once I called him to say that he is such a critical asset to the airline that shareholders should pass a resolution demanding that he stop his five-pack-a day smoking habit.

His successor CEO Gary Kelly captured the full breadth of Kelleher’s life-long contributions. Kelly said: “His legacy extends far beyond our industry and far beyond the world of entrepreneurship. He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people – and he kept us laughing all the way.”

Born in Camden, New Jersey in 1931, young Herb worked in a soup factory where his father labored, later calling it his best education (including his time at Wesleyan and New York University Law School). Because it taught him how to interact with and understand all kinds of people and “how to produce results, not just paper.”

He attributed to his mother an outstanding influence. In one of his many writings, he described why: “She had a very democratic view of life. She had enormously wide interests in politics and business, so it was very educational in that respect, just talking with her. We’d sit up and talk to two, three, and four o’clock in the morning when I was quite young about how you should behave, the goals that you should have, the ethics you should follow, how business worked, how politics can join with business.”

When you fly Southwest and order refreshments, the flight attendant brings you the drink and a napkin emblazoned with the airline’s motto:

“In a world full of No
We’re a plane full of Yes.”

To make such an expectation a reality, Kelleher put in place a recruiting priority that placed “temperament” above talent and skill. He would say “we could change skill levels through training. We can’t change attitude.”

Southwest ate the lunches of their stodgy competitors by doing business differently: no first class seats, no seat assignment, leg room, lower fares, fast turnaround for its efficiently used aircraft (a record breaking 15 minutes), a great safety record, no fees for changing reservations or checking two bags, using less congested, near-to-cities airports (eg. Chicago, Dallas), flying only one class of airplane— the Boeing 737—to reduce maintenance and training costs and avoiding the “hub and spoke” inconvenience for travelers. Southwest engaged in fuel hedging that locked in prices and then won the bet saving hundreds of millions of dollars over their competitors, when fuel prices soared. It also, until recently, answered the phones immediately with a human being. Its global mileage-reward program rejects termination dates. It is now the nation’s largest domestic airlines conveying 120 million passengers last year to over 100 destinations.

“We market ourselves on the personality and spirit of ourselves,” he told an interviewer. Which is why some flight attendants love to tell jokes during the pre-take-off announcements which gets passengers to either chuckle or roll their eyes in mirth.

Kelleher was a many splendored human being. He and his wife, Joan Negley, raised a family of four children. He had a robust, quirky side to him, riding motorcycles, and engaging in amusing stunts that have become legendary in both family and company history.

With his 58,000 productive employees, Kelleher, in the words of Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst, “literally brought air travel to the masses on a scale that was unimaginable.” Small wonder that he immediately approved my suggestion that Southwest’s mantra should be – “We do not imitate!”

His self-deprecation was consistently funny. One sample: “Because I am unable to perform competently any meaningful function at Southwest, our employees [they were also shareholders] let me be C.E.O.”

No one has been able to imitate Kelleher’s super-successful management philosophy, his hands-on behavior and authenticity. They may install cut-rate fares, but unfortunately for the people, Kelleher stands as one of a kind.

Categories: News for progressives

Ice Matters: A Meditation on Snow

Counterpunch - Fri, 2019-01-11 15:34

Most speak of floods in the age of climate change, when the cooked and the roasted take precedence over the snowed in and the freezing, and the parliaments of lost islands shall be convened in the sea. Comparatively cruel fates should never be entertained, but the difference here is worth noting. Flooded islands lost to the rise of sea levels; submerged hopes done by the relentless pounding of storms and water; destroyed civilisations drowned by the supposed folly of the human species. These take a privileged if morbid position in the discussion on environmental catastrophe and climate change.

The more neglected aspect of modern discussion is the ice factor, and with that, its attendant literature. The chill produces its own mental states, a specific way of seeing. Away from the humidity and the heat, from the tropical sighs and the going-troppo sense of the heat lies another form of threat, beauty and appreciation. Call it ice, cold, the freeze.

History is replete with its minor and major ice ages, its cold snaps that do last beyond the minor calculations of a meteorologist. Cold, in short, makes history, altering the course of wars and civilisations. The Little Ice Age (sometime between the 16th to 19th centuries) features as political weaponry and historical debate, a period that managed to fill diaries and scripts with concern and speculation about glacial doom or imminent redemption for the human species.

Predictions and assessments become matters of concern and conjecture. Martin Mlynczak of NASA’s Langley Research Centre suggested last September that the sun’s inactivity could lead to the lowering of temperatures of the thermosphere (a layering of the earth’s atmosphere at some 300 miles above the surface). “High above the Earth’s surface, near the edge of space, our atmosphere is losing heat energy. If current trends continue, it could soon set a Space Age record for cold.” This led, erroneously, to the suggestion that a “grim ‘mini Ice Age’,” would make its presence felt. “The ‘imminent mini ice age’ myth,” writes environmental scientist Dana Nuccitelli with tired resignation for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “rears its ugly head in the conservative media like clockwork every year or two.”

From the solidity of ice, its image of hardened bodies, snow bitten parts and paralysis, comes that poetic, if overly sentimentalised spin-off: snow. Snow remains a source of poetic reflection, a linguistic and cultural house of richness. The Danish author, Peter Høeg, delved into the theme of snow as the backdrop to understanding a crime in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Snow acts as the illustrative vehicle and device. “I think more highly of snow and ice than love,” reflects the protagonist, Smilla Jaspersen. “I have a good relationship with ice.” Ice is a measure of existence: it comes in the form of field ice, frazil ice, pancake and porridge. Inuit terms for snow become a matter of interest: qanik covers large flakes; apuhiniq frozen drifts. To understand snow and its forms is to understand life.

Today, in the southern Balkans, a captured miniature of the Ottoman Empire past, the scene is replete with soft colours on the horizon, a glazed blue reminiscent of porcelain and pale eyed beauties, as the light gradually fails. The distant blue itself has layers: tenderly soft to the eye to heavy dark; the paleness fades to solemn colours on the lower horizon. The sun has been banished, but its rays remain stubborn reminders, coming through to play and tease out the last light of the day.

The snow has been caking, posting its presence on window sills, pavements, cars. Dirt and mud has been blissfully hidden, ugliness brushed and layered like a model’s makeup. Snow’s softness belies an utter terror; its crystal dimension hiding the fundamentally dangerous nature of its accumulation. Cars must be dug out of the clutch of the freeze. Ditches are hidden, drains covered. Public transport has been affected; the passengers await for buses that may arrive, at some point. (The emphasis here is on some, rather than point.) Time assertions are an irrelevance here, in the land where Romani, Serb and Albanian meet, and the domain of the freeze takes precedence over all.

The snow that falls today suggests, paradoxically, comfort and warmth. Provided the body has a suitable layering of warmth for the body, the flakes, falling vertically, is at a stalemate. It does not steal warmth, but nor does the body necessarily win out against it. It cannot get through to the skin; it acts as a soft cover, falling and sliding off effortlessly. There is none of the savage biting that comes with a skin searing blizzard, nor a deep, bone chill that comes with the brittle inducing conditions of a shock freeze. This is snow on the slow kill, a seductive crystallising blanketing that seduces the walker into grand exhibitions of dancing ritual, of gallivanting in feathery ice and attempting to puncture layers of immaculate, cream coverage.

Animals must cope, and so they do. Sparrows gather together in strings of feathers and flesh across branches iced and weighed down by snow. Chaffinches seem to bleed their colours into the bare vegetation now carpeted by white. Stray cats seek shelter; dogs, the same. These snow levels do not necessarily kill in the same way as certain freezing conditions do, and can create layers of protection for the more enterprising. Nature, being nature, deals a blow to the rest, and the retreating cold reveals the bodies of those failing to find suitable shelter.

Humans must also cope. Rounds are made to homes isolated, their occupants caged – in Bujanovac, favours are done, though these are self-serving. Bills must still be paid, even in the midst of catastrophe, and men make their rounds to gather payment. (How helpful.) The elderly must not be forgotten as units of payment for the state craving its pennies – the utilities providers shall have their pound of flesh. For some, reserves are running out, and humanitarian assistance is sought. Snow kisses the young who play in it but condemns the aged who would prefer a warmer fate. The craving for spring is palpable.

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