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Updated: 3 hours 11 min ago

Let Prison Inmates Vote

Fri, 2019-05-17 15:39

Should Americans caught up in the justice system be stripped of their right to vote?

Senator Bernie Sanders catapulted the issue into the spotlight when he declared his unequivocal support for the voting rights of prison inmates at a recent town hall.

“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” he said. “Once you start chipping away and you say, that person committed a terrible crime, not gonna let him vote… you’re running down a slippery slope.”

Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren were more cautious, but didn’t explicitly disagree. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he was in favor of allowing “non-violent” offenders to vote while incarcerated.

South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, alone among Democrats, was a hard no on any inmate voting.

Republicans, by contrast, have raised the idea of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or white supremacist murderer Dylan Roof voting as a way of shooting down the entire discussion.

Of course, Tsarnaev and Roof are but two of the over 2.3 million prisoners locked up in “the land of the free.” Using one or two examples to justify condemning over 2 million people is always unsound. But it’s especially repulsive in this instance.

In all, 14 states and D.C. bar prisoners from voting. Twenty-two other states, to varying degrees, restrict voting during parole or probation.

Twelve more ban people with felonies from voting for a time even after their release — and in Kentucky and Iowa, permanently. (Virginia bans them permanently too, but the state’s governor has been automatically restoring voting rights to people who complete their sentences).

The impact of all this on our democracy is striking.

One in 10 Kentuckians can never vote again due to a felony conviction. For black Kentuckians, the rate of permanent felony disenfranchisement is even greater, at one in four.

It’s not hard to understand why Republicans want to keep it this way. Thanks to a racially biased justice system, black and Hispanic adults are much more likely to be convicted of felonies. They’re also much more likely to vote for Democrats.

Republicans know this. Just last November, a super-majority of Floridians voted to re-enfranchise 1.5 millionfolks with prior felony convictions — including 1 out of 5 black Floridians. Yet before the ink could even dry, Florida’s GOP-led House passed legislation restricting the measure and applying a poll tax on returning voters.

The gamesmanship gets even more perverse when you consider the Census, which counts prisoners as residents of the areas where they’re confined.

That inflates the populations of Republican-leaning small towns and rural areas where most state prisons are located. That means more federal money and more legislative seats, even though the inmates can’t vote for who holds them. Are you seeing the hypocrisy yet?

Forbidding inmate voting, disenfranchising them after release, and counting them as residents where they’re imprisoned are all components of a terrible practice known as prison gerrymandering.

It looks and smells a lot like the 3/5 compromise — an old constitutional practice allowing Southern states to count three-fifths of their enslaved population when apportioning House seats, Electoral College votes, and federal funding.

For too long, inmates have been an easy punching bag for politicians. Voting should be an inalienable right — even for inmates, and especially for those who’ve served their time. No amount of single-case scare tactics should ruin it for the lot.

Mass incarceration is now a bipartisan concern. Its effects on our democracy should be too. And if that’s a problem because it could swing a few elections, the problem isn’t prisoners — it’s the system that locks up an entire voting bloc.

CounterPunch Spring Fund Drive

Fri, 2019-05-17 15:09

Dear CounterPunchers: We are holding a short Spring fund drive because the price of running the site is growing fast. With our increased readership (which is a good thing!) our bandwidth and web costs have gone up substantially in the past few years. So, if you can spare a few extra dollars this month, we’d greatly appreciate the support.

Make a Tax-Deductible Donation Today!

A Novel We Can All Relate To

Fri, 2019-05-17 14:43

America is still discovering itself. The rise of Donald Trump alerted those citizens who thought they alone defined our culture and values to the existence of a significant population holding very different views– and the will to back a candidate who might speak for them. (Thus, the most unlikely candidate entered the White House.) Political pundits, sociologists and media analysts had been wrong. Liberalism was flawed; it meant little to too many Americans.

A bewildered media rushed to embrace that awakened alien America. Hillbilly Elegy was welcomed as a sobering portrait of people viewed as marginal. Strangers in Their Own Land was next. First published in 1995, then reissued with a new forward in 2016, its author, Berkeley sociologist Artie Russell Hochschild, emerged as the new interpreter of those forgotten and angry ‘others’.

With a new right wing administration installed in Washington, liberals and college educated who’d believed that they represented the nation and that they framed the debate dispatched reporters and camera crews to the hinterland to gather further testimonies from what is now identified as Trump’s base.

Laila Lalami’s novel The Other Americans is very unlike Vance’s memoir or Hochschild’s ethnography of Louisiana’s bayou country. As good creative writing often does, The Other Americans offers a more revelatory slice of contemporary America. Lalami invites us into a fragile, complex web of social and political relations in rural California. Here, everyone is worthy and decent, although all harbor grievances; everyone feels slighted or mistreated at some level, yet all need fulfillment; everyone quietly bears scars yet seeks outlets for frustrations and dreams.

If there were any doubts about Lalami’s remarkable storytelling skills, this, her fourth novel, settles the matter. (The Other Americans also affirms Lalami’s grasp of a range of literary genres, coming after her stunning historical novel The Moor’s Account, an imagined memoir of a 16th Century Moroccan slave– the first black explorer of America.)

The Other Americans on its surface is a crime investigation. But in Lalami’s hands it’s an absorbing exploration of daily social interactions underpinned by seemingly inconsequential yet persistent racial tensions.

The setting is Mojave, a desert town in California, where on a quiet summer night a man is struck and killed by a vehicle which then speeds away. The story moves through a number of short chapters, each one narrated in the first person by one of ten characters, all local residents. The protagonist is Nora, youngest and favorite daughter of Driss. She is determined to find the truth about her father’s death, believing it was no accident.

A community of characters is brought into play, while the search for the culprit moves slowly forward.

Driss, Nora’s mother Maryam and her sister Salma each play essential but small parts in the story. They help narrate the family’s move from Morocco to the U.S. thirty-five years earlier and how they’ve become an ordinary American family, their lives characterized not by hardship or fear but by modest ambitions, sibling tension and marital compromise. Maryam and Driss, an educated couple– Arabs in this case, left behind middleclass lives and became unassuming shopkeepers in small-townUSA, their dreams of success transferred to their children. (Nora aspires to be a musician and composer; Salma became a dentist.) There’s little sentiment for the missing culture of North Africa, no yearning for Moroccan dishes. Although, Arab/Muslim values seep into the story in barely perceptible allusions which only an immigrant writer like Lalami can so subtly articulate. Arab readers – perhaps any Asian or African immigrant too– may identify those fleeting references; but Lalami doesn’t allow us to dwell on them.

As for being immigrants, if Nora and her family had been objects of prejudice, they hardly recognize it. Whatever disrespect they might experience is matched by the five townspeople who fill out the plot: the Black detective Coleman trying to earn the love of her stepson; Efrain, a reticent Hispanic (possibly undocumented) resident who witnessed the death; Jeremy, a novice policeman who after combat in Iraq returns to the town, then falls in love with Nora; Anderson and his troubled son A.J. who are protective of parking space for their bowling alley next to Driss’ restaurant. Bullying, insecurity, racial slurs and financial worries are familiar to them all.

How this manifests in each character is skillfully arranged in the book’s structure, with each chapter narrated in the first person by one of these characters.

Lalami skillfully moves the story forward; one chapter and one voice continues in the subsequent chapter with another character. The entire story becomes a single dialog, with Lalami adopting a style of narration for each character that itself constructs their personality. Skillfully woven into this are images from the setting but also past memories. Flashbacks from each life show us everyone’s motives, pains, grievances.

The relationship Lalami most thoroughly explores is not that between the Driss and the man who killed him; it’s between Nora and Jeremy, her former classmate, around his experience as a marine in Iraq. After they become lovers, she’s aware of lingering violence from his war experience:– his love of guns, his casual attitude of what he did in combat, and the violence he unleashes towards his friend, a fellow veteran. In his narrative, Jeremy recalls some ugly, murderous encounters he was part of, the racial epithets he freely used. And although he bears physical scars and experiences sleeplessness, he does not exhibit undue melancholy or remorse. Indeed he fails to understand how being a marine troubles Nora, who in the end rejects him.

Lalami makes this uncomfortable dialog between Nora and Jeremy the core of the story and, I suspect, this is a dynamic she really wants to explore. Doubtless the author is aware over two million Americans, veterans from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, live among us today. We all have to deal with them in their new roles: as our policemen, classmates, neighbors and as our lovers.

Carmen’s Mother’s Day Lessons

Fri, 2019-05-17 14:07

Ginger Costa Jackson as Carmen at Seattle Opera.

Much talk, time and money are dedicated these days to the topic of how to excite the younger generation about classical music. In my teens, which began some four decades ago on Bainbridge Island off of Seattle, I frequented operas and organ recitals, as well as other musical offerings in the big city across the Puget Sound. Back then, I was often the youngest person at any given performance. The funny—not to say worrying—thing is, I still often am.

A big part of the problem is that high culture generally means high prices, though in Washington—proudly the first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana—“high culture” more likely means something quite different these days. Lateral thinking is called for. Following the lead of the princes and aristocrats of yore, who boozed and smoked in their opera houses and castle music rooms, why not put on a Verdi Vape-In? Getting lit up for the auto-da-fé in Don Carlossounds like a pleasant way to get through old Giuseppe V’s longest opera, while possibly filling the seats with a different, perhaps younger, clientele.

But there’s still the problem of the price tag.

Seattle Opera’s Mothers’ Day strategy took a different slant: even if it’s a sunny day, soak the parents but let the kids in for a song.  My sister footed the bill for mom, one of her siblings (me) and kids: she shelled out $250 for each for the adults, but a scant $10 for each of her four children. (I had bought a cheap seat up in the rafters, but my other sister cancelled at the last minute and I was upgraded). Our seats were eight rows back from the stage: ideal for sight and sound, though necks young and old had to be craned to take in the supertitles a few stories overhead.

My sister’s progeny—ranging in age from eleven to nineteen—put on their good clothes and joined in gamely. It was their first trip to the opera, my fifty-year-old sister’s, too. My brother-in-law was also along, but, a lawyer, he kept quiet about his opera-going record. Even the eleven-year-old has only a few inches to go to pass six feet: big and blond, our look was button-down Wagnerian rather than sultry southern like the denizens of Carmen-land—Spaniards who just happen to sing in French.

Called the Seattle Opera House during my above-mentioned youth, the building opened during the 1962 World’s Fair. The building’s functionalist bones are still discernible in spite of the early millennial makeover funded by a billionaire named Craig McCaw and his brothers. Birthplace of Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks and Costco (that is, of the modern world), Seattle is a showcase for ostentatious philanthropy. The McCaw boys had the place named in honor of their mother.  At 20 millions bucks that sprucing-up was quite a gift and also made it a fitting site for our Mother’s Day outing.

The McCaw makeover endowed the old place with a grand staircase curving up through a soaring glass-encased foyer with its postmodern chandelier made up of bits and bobs—ladders, extension cords, tape measures and all sorts of other found objects and Home Depot detritus. The sculpture-in-the-sky is exuberantly analog, anarchic and archaic: a fond folly recalling the pre-digital age that built modern Seattle and transformed its opera house.

From the exterior the building sings out for street-view attention with geometrically irregular steel cladding, showy backlit sheets of glass, and a cantilevered corner that might offer pedestrians protection from the frequent Seattle rains, the legions of homeless not included. The auditorium’s interior hushes entering ticket holders in tones of luminous red, green, and purplish pink. Aside from the modern amenities of better bathrooms, bars and gift shop, color and light are the biggest changes.

Returning home is always an exercise in nostalgia. Behind all the apparently tasteful glitz that only money can buy, I still see the more sober, rectilinear space where my younger self soldiered through Nibelungen sagas and less protracted epics. One can already imagine, even predict, a future re-rebuild that restores the house to its mid-century modern glory.

In the intermissions I scanned the foyer and hall for other families. I didn’t see many, though the next-gen numbers seemed to increase in the higher altitudes of the auditorium.

The opera for this Mother’s Day matinee was Bizet’s Carmen, by some measures an oddly appropriate—or blatantly inappropriate—entertainment for the occasion, since the unhappiest character in the whole opera is the unseen mother of tenor Don José (the brilliantly ardent and self-pitying Scott Quinn). Little Donnie is a big disappointment to mom, as we learn in act one from his fiancée, the Village Maiden, Micäela (the affecting Vannessa Goikoetexea). She comes to visit  her beau and cajole him into family-man mode. But Don J isn’t in the mood: he snubs Micäela, neglects his doting mum, whores around, thinks and sings only of himself. He makes a perfunctory off-stage deathbed visit to his mother, not out of filial devotion but in order to get himself temporarily out of the way so that Carmen (the excellently named dramatic and musical powerhouse, Ginger Costa-Jackson) and the Toreador (done by the agile-voiced Muscovite Rodion Pogossov as two parts Fonzie, one part Brando whether on his Harley or holding a big chrome microphone) can sing their duet without his pesky moping and menacing knife-play.

As in so much of opera, the example is a negative one from which all ages can, and probably should, benefit. In this case the lessons are provided demonstratively by kid-less Carmen and eternal baby-boy Don José. Plus they smoke. There’s lots of on-stage, odorless vaping in this production set in a vaguely rock ‘n roll fascist Spain. All you cheap-ticket kids: don’t grow up to be like this dysfunctional duo—she dynamic, he dismal, both doomed.

But there are other morals—and immorals—strutting and lurking around Bizet’s opera. The long-term effect of these on the wee’uns might be harder to judge and to channel. Carmen controls her sexuality, wields it, enjoys it—and is killed for it. Her music is chromatic, sultry: it calls from the wrong side of the border wall.

Her characterization and treatment by her male inventors (Bizet and his librettists) has come under attack over the last few decades, long before the fall of Harvey Weinstein. But the popularity of the opera’s tunes shields it from ban or bowdlerization. Stage director Paul Curran’s realization tries to skirt (of course, the one Carmen wore was bright red and tear-away) these issues by moving the events forward in time but still before the feminist movement. Don José’s added suicide (not in the original) doesn’t solve the problem or in any way redeem the piece’s woman-hating core. Instead this amendment only makes it worse: easy justice is just the final form of male self-indulgence.

That Craig McCaw made his money in cellphones might explain the lack of any reminder before the curtain rose to silence all devices. As if on cue, a ring tone chimed in with the girl group trio near the beginning of the third act. Having just told Don J to get lost yet again, our ill-fated heroine joins with her girlfriends in the outlaw band as they pass the time telling their own fortunes. Carmen’s cards keep coming up as death, but the portentousness of the scene was punctured by that grating electronic melody just a few rows behind us.

Near the outset of this shabby little shocker, when one of the soldiers makes a crack about the female laborers in the cigarette factory, the supertitle referring to all those “loose women” elicited rolling laughter from the audience. Perhaps there needs to be a patch not for nicotine but misogynistic cracks.

The tunes were what kept the kids interested. They recognized lots of Bizet’s hits. When Costa-Jackson started into her smoldering performance of the Habanera, done partly in Basic Instinct interrogation scene posture, my eldest nephew whispered to one of his brothers: “They’re doing this one already?”  They knew more than three hours of opera lay ahead, and perhaps thought it would all be downhill from there on out.

That nephew is a freshman at the University of Washington and was suffering from a bad case of love sickness. This opera was perhaps not the best medicine. Carmen instructs her on-stage male ogglers in the torments of the disease: “You think you have love. You don’t. You think you escaped love. You haven’t.” She begins her most famous song by likening love to a “rebellious bird.” She ends it with a mocking, fatalistic paradox: “If you don’t love me, I love you; if I love you, look out for yourself!”

The youngest nephew hummed along. At the intermission, his brother checked his cell phone. Perhaps there was a message from her.

Review: Ziya Tong’s “The Reality Bubble”

Fri, 2019-05-17 14:05

Our inability to act is sadly, once again, at the core of Ziya Tong’s The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World, an exhaustive account of what we do not see. Some of what Tong records in her powerful analysis of our collective blindness (climate change, for example) we choose not to see—or at least act upon—but others we literally cannot see because of their size. And Tong prepares us for the latter by repeatedly listing the minutia we have permitted to clutter our minds (“…the average American kid is able to recognize one thousands corporate logos but can’t name ten plants or animals native to the area in which they live.”)  That’s pretty scary for those of us who were not born with an iPhone connected to our bodies, who still read newspapers that are delivered to us and continue to get most of our information from traditional forms (printed books, for example).

For years, Tong “anchored Daily Planet, Discovery Channel’s flagship science program” and worked at other science channels, during which time she apparently read every scientific article and book she could lay her hands on.  Thus, some of what she writes about in The Reality Bubble we may already be familiar with; but with a President and a political party that have negated the value of scientific inquiry, her book takes on special urgency. This review cites some of those urgencies but also many of the absurdities that I think it’s fair to say sustain our lives—truth especially.

In the first section, “Biological Blind Spots,” Tong begins with hard facts, such as this one because of size and our sight: “95 percent of all animal species are smaller than the human thumb.” No problem understanding that but then we encounter this: “An average human body has thirty trillion human cells and about thirty-nine trillion bacteria cells,” both necessary for life and still something that probably doesn’t disturb us. But we also read, “Nestled in the beds of our pores and tucked into our eyelashes… nocturnal creatures [i.e., tiny mites], emerge each night, moving at a rate of eight to sixteen millimeters an hour, to feed and search for mates on our faces.” Reading what follows that sentence ought to make you want to scrub your face more thoroughly—perhaps in the middle of the night—but that’s not going to do much to change the cycle because “Fifty percent of life on earth is ‘invisible’ yet responsible for making the planet habitable.”

There’s a lovely passage in the book you may already be familiar with: chimpanzees greeting each other, joining hands, and then sitting down to watch a beautiful sunset. Tong’s take on this? “Indeed, we are not the only problem-solvers, not the only communicators, and not the only animals capable of love or the appreciation of beauty.” And then she continues, “But the other way of looking at the chimps’ behavior may be even more astonishing, because, though we can guess at the thoughts or emotions of our fellow primate on that hillside, the truth is their experience is completely unknowable to us. That is, even our closest evolutionary relative might see and perceive a world completely different from our own.”

Mostly, Tong wants us to stop seeing ourselves under the guise of “human exceptionalism.” That’s difficult, of course, for people who believe in “American exceptionalism.” We think we can see everything because “We have the technological lenses to see into vast distances of outer space, to see the tiniest microscopic organisms, to see right through the human body, to see the very atoms that make up the material world. But there is one fundamental thing that we do not see. When it comes to how our species survives, we are utterly blind.”

Part II, “Societal Blind Spots,” is loaded with equally startling commentary.

The beef and the pork we eat, for example, come from cows and pigs that are artificially inseminated. Hence, they have no idea what sex is. Water, as we all know, is needed in massive amounts for food production. Nestle “has calculated that if everyone on Earth ate like the average American, the planet would have run out of fresh water fifteen years ago.” Don’t even dare put pet food into the equation. Human beings are a “trash-making species,” but that’s no surprise. What might be more startling are Tong’s remarks about fish eating plastic and therefore human beings consuming plastic. Plastics, she reminds us, “can’t be digested, [but] they can’t be ingested.” And this revelation: “There is now so much plastic waste, it’s been estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than there will be fish.” Our water is filled with particles so small “to be undetectable to the human eye…. every day billions of people are eating and drinking plastic.” If we are what we drink, what does that mean?

Forget about things we don’t eat or drink, and consider appliances, for example. Home appliances (including computers and other electronic gear) total “close to 45 million metric tons of waste every year.” When we see an appliance carted off because it’s been replaced by a new one, the results are, again, largely meaningless. And “the world produces approximately three million tons of garbage every twenty-four hours. That number is expected to double by 2025. And if business continues as usual, by the end of the century it will be an unfathomable ten million metric tons of solid waste a day.” Yet no one seems to be much concerned about where we put this stuff.

Do you begin to get the picture? “Humans are no longer in touch with the basics of their own system of survival.”

That last remark takes us to “Civilizational Blind Spots,” the final section of Tong’s dystopian novel. Forget that; I wish it were a novel, but this is reality. Again, here we encounter distressing examples, strange juxtapositions, and crazy facts and figures. Poultry “workers urinate and defecate while standing on the [processing] line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort,” all so they can keep their low-paying jobs and we can purchase chicken in our supermarkets for a low price. And a page later, “In 2018, billionaire Jeff Bezos made $8.96 million an hour, even while he slept.” Far as I know, he doesn’t raise poultry. Yet.

Crazy, by any standards.

Or—just to nail home our societal inequities—Tong tells us, “In England, nearly half of the country is owned by just o.o6 percent of the population,” and then she quotes Simon Fairlie, “Most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.” Bringing it back to the USA: After the 2008 financial collapse, “for every homeless person there were five empty houses.” If that isn’t insanity, I don’t know what is.

Finally, Tong turns to surveillance, citing an IBM report, in 2012, that stated “each day, the average person leaves behind a five-hundred megabyte digital footprint.” That was six years ago, so what about today? Our lives, she claims, “have become open books,” mostly because of the invisible collection of everything we do. Thus—in this most extraordinary of books—she implies a number of simple questions: Do we intend to do anything about any of these problems? Do we just continue to accept, accept, and accept?  What will we leave for our children? Our grandchildren? Future generations? Can’t it be said that most of us—other than those, perhaps, at the bottom—are complicit in the robbery of the future?

“In the grand scheme of reality, you have arrived on Earth, at the right place, at the right time, only to appear exactlyon the eve of the planetary apocalypse.”

Do something.

The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions that Shape Our World.
By Ziya Tong 
Penguin Random House, 376 pp., $26

Pharaoh’s Dream

Fri, 2019-05-17 14:05

Pharaoh woke each night
As wet as a lung
Dreaming of children
Devouring ears
Of corn —
Corn on the cob — on a lawn
Like locusts
Extracting the kernels
Like teeth from a jaw
Yellow and white
And dreamt each night
of children eating ears
of men
And searching for,

and removing, kernels of corn
From excrement
Such was the famine’s extent
That enveloped them
And the road that led
In a line from the lawn
The very road he was still speeding along

 

Somewhere Beyond Corporate Media Yemenis Die

Fri, 2019-05-17 14:03

Somewhere Beyond Corporate Media Yemenis Die
(Parody of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg)
 

Somewhere beyond corporate media Yemenis die,
Folk rarely heard of, yet our weapons they’re killed by.
Somewhere beyond corporate media Al Qaeda of AP expands,
Saudi/US war crime crony, sanctity of human life be damned.

Yemenis wish the stripes and stars
Americans would end these wars.
Stop cluster bombs over chimney tops,
starvation, cholera holocausts.

No prob for U.S. politicians.
Put profits over lives of children.
Whether SA, NRA, capitalism rules.
Unmoved by violence in their own schools.

As Deep State spreads global trauma
special thanks Bush, Trump, Obama.
America’s conscience a pathetic mess.
Its heart deep-frozen by the mainstream press.

Don’t you, too, dread the return of karma?
Our country’s totally tanked its honor.
Somewhere beyond corporate media bluebirds flew.
Despite all that’s been ravaged, US is in no way through.

Control Bab-el-Mandeb Strait is neocons’ plan,
Plunder Yemen oil (entangling Iran),
Expanding the carnage to full Yemen genocide
As US joins Hitler on history’s other side!

What 50 Countries are Backing Guaidó? Who Knows? Who Cares? If the Media Say It Enough It Must Be True

Thu, 2019-05-16 16:00

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

American media still refer to Juan Guaidó, America’s hand-picked “legitimate leader” or “legitimate president” of Venezuela, as having an “administration.”

The truth is that his “administration” — consisting of advisors and other opposition leaders — are all either arrested and being held by the government, hiding, seeking asylum in various foreign embassies (Spanish, Italian, Brazilian and Argentinian) in the capital of Caracas, or have fled to other countries like Brazil and Colombia.

Guaidó, apparently a government of one, has so far avoided arrest probably because the elected Venezuelan President Maduro doesn’t want to give the US an excuse to try and rescue him, or to launch military actions of some kind against Venezuela as the White House keeps threatening to do.

Clearly, in calling for US military intervention, Guaidó has both demonstrated almost his total lack of backing among the masses of Venezuelan people, as well as his desperation, given most Latin Americans’ visceral resentment of US interventions in their country, all of which have been designed to put autocrats or even military juntas in power, and many of which have openly overthrown popularly elected governments, as in Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and elsewhere.

None of this gets reported in the US. Only recently has the New York Times, always a reliable backer of US imperial policy in Latin America, at least hinted at the possibility that the reason Maduro remains president and that Guaidó’s efforts to oust him are failing for abysmally could be that the Venezuelan people want him to stay president, and do not want a US-backed coup or a US military intervention to replace him.

At this point the huffing and puffing coming from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and especially from the White House National Security Advisor and chief militarist blowhard John Bolton, are looking pretty pathetic, with Bolton trying to sow dissension and distrust by hinting that Maduro “better not trust” his own generals’ loyalty, and by offering rewards to those generals willing to abandon Maduro.

It is an indication of the United States’ declining power and influence in Latin America that few outside the US with its insular mass media believe that the US would or even could successfully invade Venezuela and impose a government on that country of 32 million (a number that keeps declining as the upper middle class and rich flee).

If anything, US sabotage and threats and US backing for a government of the wealthy are probably galvanizing support for Maduro. While people in the US, if they are paying any attention at all to events in Venezuela, may believe that Maduro is a corrupt thug, people in Venezuela itself, and in most of Latin America know full well that the main problems in that oil-rich country have to do with the collapse in oil prices since the heady days of Hugo Chavez when it was going for $100 a barrel, to American efforts to block Venezuela from exporting its oil now, and to freeze or even seize Venezuelan assets and oil receipts from the oil it does manage to export, and to other forms of economic warfare engaged in by the United States. As in Cuba, this kind of strategy by the US only works to build support for the country’s existing government.

At some point Guaidó is going to go. He will either be written off by the US media — his main backer — or will be arrested. Probably the latter will follow the former since once he’s recognized as an impotent charlatan, his arrest will not make him a martyr for the opposition. Already he has lost what public support he had as Venezuela’s wealthy abandon the country for Florida. As well, the “50 countries” that we in the US keep hearing which supposedly back Guaidó as Venezuela’s “legitimate leader” are realizing that they were hoodwinked by the US, and are mostly calling for a calmer response to the crisis in Venezuela, refusing to buy into US military threats against the Maduro government. Nobody mentions that over 140 countries in the world support Maduro as the leader of Venezuela.

In truth it’s impossible to find that list of “more than 50 countries” backing a self-proclaimed and unelected Guaidó as Venezuela’s president. The closest I could find by working google searches was a map produced by Bloomberg News listing 13 countries besides the US as supporting Guaidó. These included Canada, the UK, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. That is 13 plus the United States. Listed as supporting Maduro as elected President are Russia, China, Turkey, Bolivia, and Cuba, though I believe Bloomberg neglected to mention Nicaragua, a strong Maduro backer, which would make it six.

For a time, most of the countries of Europe were lining up behind Guaidó, particularly after Germany announced that it was recognizing him as the new interim leader of Venezuela in late January, and ousted the country’s ambassador, but then by late March Germany was having second thoughts, and rejected the person sent there by Guaidó to assume the position of Venezuelan ambassador. At this point except for the UK, the countries of Europe, along with Mexico and Uruguay are simply calling for a dialogue and a negotiated solution to the Venezuela political crisis, and in addition to opposing any talk of military action or a coup, are seeking nothing more than a new election (which Maduro would probably win, given the alternative of the return of a government of the rich). They’re no longer really backing Guaidó.

The reporters who continue to refer to “more than 50 countries” calling for Maduro’s ouster all must be using the same wrong news clip or some dated State Department press release.  (I asked the State Department for an updated list today but so far none has been sent to me, though it would appear it shouldn’t take long to compile.)

China-US Trade War: Hiatus or Busted Deal?

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:57

Photograph Source: PAS China – Public Domain

This past week the US and China failed to reach agreement on a new trade deal, despite high level China representative Lie He meeting in Washington on Thursday-Friday, May 9-10.

In the wake of the meeting, Trump and his administration mouthpieces attempt to put a positive spin on the collapsed talks, while placing blame on China for the break up.  The ‘spin’ at first was that China had reneged on a prior agreement and changed its terms when they arrived in Washington.  China had caused the breakdown, not the US. The stock markets swooned. Trump quickly jumped in and said he got a nice letter from China president, Xi, and that it wasn’t all that bad.

But make no mistake, a trade negotiations ‘rubicon’ has been reached. The real trade war may be starting.  Or, it may all be theater to make it look like both sides are acting tough and that an agreement will be reached this summer. But that scenario may now be fading. Trade wars—like hot wars—have their own dynamic. Once launched, they drive their adversaries in directions they may not have initially sought.

So who’s actually responsible for last week’s trade breakdown?

To listen to Trump and his neocons running the US foreign (and trade) policy show now, it was the Chinese. They changed the agreement at the last minute. But who really did the changes? Who set off the process? And how?

If the Chinese backtracked on some terms of the deal, it was clearly in response to the Trump-Neocon trade team initiating the backtracking. Here’s what the Trump team did:

+ The US publicly declared the week before that the US would keep tariffs on even after an agreement. This violated the understanding that both sides would remove the new tariffs once an agreement was reached ($100 billion China on US; $250 billion US on China)

+ Trump threatened tariffs on the remaining $300 billion of China imports

+ The US signaled that China would have to not only stop technology transfer from US corporations doing business in China, but that China would have to share its tech development with the US if it wanted an agreement. That included the military-sensitive nextgen technologies like 5G, AI, and cybersecurity.

+ The US demanded that China stop subsidizing its state owned enterprises (SOEs) with low interest rate loans that put US multinational corporations in an uncompetitive position in China (even as the US continued to subsidize via tax cuts, trade credits, etc.)

+ The US indicated it would continue its global efforts to prevent US allies from doing business with China tech companies like Huawai, ZTE, China Mobile, etc. regardless if an agreement was reached.

If one wanted to scuttle negotiations at the last minute, this was certainly a way to do it.  And as this writer has been saying for the past year, scuttling is just what the neocon China hard-liners driving the US negotiations have wanted all along.  They don’t want a deal to reduce the US goods trade deficit with China, and they are willing to forego China’s significant concessions already made to the US in negotiations on US company access to China markets, if they can’t also stop China’s technology development—especially in the key nextgen technologies of AI, cybersecurity and 5G.

These are not only the new industries of the next decade, they are also the new technologies with major military implications. Should China reach parity or leapfrog the US in these areas, it could upset the US empire’s military dominance.

From the very beginning of negotiations with China, back in March 2018, the tech issue was central.  Neocon, China hard-liner and head of the US negotiation team, Robert Lighthizer, issued way back in August 2017 a warning report that China’s 2025 plan aimed at surpassing the US in these three tech areas. That report promised to show that China was in fact stealing US technology from US companies in those areas. Lighthizer’s March 2018 subsequent report than allegedly proved it. The US-China trade war was then launched that month.

At first it was led by Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin. He led a team to Beijing and came back indicating a deal was reached with China. As part of the deal, it was later revealed publicly, China had agreed to allow US banks and businesses a 51% or more ownership of joint venture companies in China. This was the US bankers’ main demand. China also indicated, revealed later, that it would purchase $1 trillion more of new farm, natural gas, and manufacturing goods from the US over the next five years. So much for the goods trade deficit imbalance and issue.  Both concessions were major wins for Mnuchin and the US.  But China refused apparently to budge on the major issue of nextgen tech. It suggested concessions, but, failing a final agreement, would not agree to US demands beforehand or up front.

Over the summer in 2018 the neocon faction reasserted control over the US trade negotiating team. Mnuchin’s firing of anti-China neocon, Peter Navarro, was reversed and Lighthizer put him back on the team. Over the summer Neocons deepened their influence and control of the Trump foreign policy, as Pompeo policy took charge at the State Dept., and as notorious neocon, John Bolton, took over as main Trump foreign policy adviser.  His buddies (Abrams, Miller, etc.) were given enhanced roles in the administration as well. These were the guys that gave us Iraq war in 2003 and after. And they’re on the same path again.

In the area of trade they have clearly convinced Trump that a more aggressive stance on trade negotiations will eventually produce a bigger ‘win’ for the US. They are the originators of the ‘use national security’ as an excuse to impose sanctions and use tariffs and sanctions to intimidate and force opponents (including allies) into major concessions.

We see this aggressive, high risk brinkmanship not only in trade negotiations with China. It’s behind the collapse of negotiations with North Korea on missiles and nukes. (The North Koreans offered to dismantle a number of sites if the US removed an equal number of sanctions. But the neocons refused, saying all the sites must be dismantled before the US would even consider lifting any sanctions at all.  That’s a non-starter in negotiations with anyone. If effect, it says: capitulate and then we’ll think about lifting sanctions).  It’s there in the imminent attack and invasion of Venezuela. The recent US failed coup there is only the beginning. It’s there in the refusal to stop supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It’s there in the escalation of military threats toward Iran. It’s even there in the current threat of sanctions on Germany if it doesn’t stop buying Russian gas and buy US gas instead. It’s everywhere in US foreign policy. And it’s there in the recent blowup of negotiations on trade with China.

The neocon, anti-China hardliners—Lighthizer, Navarro, and Bolton—don’t want an agreement with China. They want a capitulation on the tech issue. They are aligned with the US Pentagon, Military Industrial Complex, Congress right wing—faction on the US trade team.

There has been in fighting on the trade team from the beginning. The neocon faction has been contending with the US bankers-big business faction that want the 51% and the deeper control in China. China has already conceded that and in fact has begun implementing it. The farm-manufacturing-natural gas faction wants more purchases of their products. China has already agreed on that as well. But since last mid-2018 the neocon faction has Trump’s ear and they are driving the policy.

That’s why the US ‘moved the goalposts’ the week before the China delegation was to come to Washington last week to finalize a deal. They announced or leaked all the backtracking US terms well before the China team was to come: the retaining of US tariffs despite an agreement, the required sharing of tech regardless of limits on tech transfer in China, the demands that China stop subsidizing its SOEs (even as the US would continue subsidizing US corporations via massive tax cuts, export-import bank, and direct payments from the US government), and so on.

China’s reply was to send its vice-chairman and head of its negotiating team, Liu He, to Washington last week nevertheless. Their reply was they would respond in kind to US tariffs with more tariffs of their own and that China would not capitulate on matters of ‘principle’ (read technology development and its 2025 plan).

So where does it go from here? Is this a bona fide breakdown or just a hiatus, with both sides posturing to look tough?

Trump advisor, Larry Kudlow, trotted out on national syndicated talk shows on Sunday, May 12, and admitted that Trump and China president Xi would not meet until June at the next G20 meeting—maybe.  No doubt some discussions will continue next in Beijing in the interim. But it is now far less likely a deal will be made this year. But that’s what the US necons prefer, short of China capitulation.

The neocons have apparently convinced Trump a deeper trade war with China would be good politics domestically. The US economy is showing signs of slowing in key areas of business investment and household consumption.  The trade war with China has produced a sharp decline of imports from China. Lower imports translates into higher ‘net exports’, a category in US GDP calculations that raises GDP. So less imports from tariffs means higher GDP. That could offset some of the slowing US economy in 2019-20.

The neocons believe China’s economy is also slowing and that its stock market is fragile. China cannot conduct a deeper trade war over tariffs with the US. It will eventually capitulate and agree to US demands, including tech, they no doubt argue. And Trump buys it.

But there are potential economic consequences to wars, including trade wars, that the neocons and their obsession with US imperial power do not understand or else do not want to acknowledge. Maybe they think they’ll prevail before the economic negatives occur. The negatives mean a corresponding severe contraction of US stock values as well. This now appears emerging. The negatives include a sharp rise in US consumer inflation, as the higher tariffs on China imports get passed on in the US economy. That will reduce an already fragile US consumer spending and US business investing, as costs rise for both.  Both business and consumer confidence are poised for a major contraction, and the trade war may just be enough to tip the balance. And rising inflation may force a new conflict with the central bank, the Fed, as it raises interest rates again to fund an even larger US budget deficit and debt caused by the economic slowdown.

But if the worse economically happens, the neocons no doubt are whispering in Trump’s ear that he can then blame the US stock market collapse and economic recession coming on the Chinese—as well as on the Democrats.  He can resurrect his extreme ‘economic nationalism’ appeals of 2016 to his base, once again claiming it’s the ‘foreigners’ and the ‘socialists’ (e.g. everyone proposing a reversal of his war spending, tax cuts for the rich, cuts to education and social programs, etc.).

These are indeed dangerous times for the US, economically and politically.  As even Democrat Party leaders are now saying, a bona fide Constitutional Crisis is brewing in the US as Trump insists on governing for his 35% supporters and to hell with the rest of the country, and as he governs increasingly at the expense of Congress’ s constitutional rights.

It is also a dangerous time for the US economy, and the global economy as well.  We can thank the growing influence, and disastrous policies, of the neocons who are now again firmly in control of US policy as Trump is now aligned with them on almost every policy front.

Bolton in Wonderland

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:57

Photograph Source: White House – Public Domain

Only 70 days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan faced an assassination attempt. While he was in surgery and the vice president was mid-flight over Texas, Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously declared in front of the press, “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House.”

Haig’s statement was a surprise to everyone else in the Reagan administration — as well as to anyone with a passing familiarity with the line of succession outlined in the Constitution.

Haig’s presumption of power was the logical culmination of weeks of jockeying for influence within the young administration, with the secretary of state convinced that he should wield control over all aspects of foreign policy. Chief of Staff Jim Baker had this response to Haig’s early memo on the foreign policy process: “Why, what you propose here would give you control over all foreign policy matters; that does not work. The president has that authority.”

Haig’s impromptu press conference would make him the butt of many jokes (including this brilliant parody by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live). Reagan ultimately recovered, but Haig’s reputation never did. He ultimately resigned from his position a little over a year later.

John Bolton has a Haig-sized ego. He aspires to control the ebb and flow of foreign policy in the Trump administration. He is often at odds with his colleagues from the State Department and Pentagon. And he is dealing with a president who, if not asleep much of the time, is only intermittently focused on national security issues.

Recently, Bolton too seemed to have his “I’m in control here” moment. With the conflict intensifying in Venezuela, the national security advisor leaked the opposition plan for the army to defect en masse from the Maduro government in favor of challenger Juan Guiado. Bolton’s tweets reportedly angered President Trump, who felt “boxed into a corner,” particularly after the defections didn’t materialize and Nicolas Maduro did not flee the country.

The Trump administration is currently facing the consequences of its erratic foreign policy. Put a pin in the map of the world and you’ll either hit an example of U.S. foreign policy failure or, at best, another part of the globe that the administration is studiously ignoring. Conflicts are escalating with Iran and Venezuela. U.S. support of Saudi Arabia and Israel is producing enormous backlash in the region. The trade war with China is back on after the failure of the latest round of negotiations. Talks with North Korea have stalled, and Pyongyang is losing patience.

John Bolton has a rather consistent answer to all of these foreign policy challenges: maximum pressure. He’d like to see regime change in Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea. He’d risk war to achieve these ends.

But the riskiest war that Bolton is courting is the one with his boss. Will Bolton’s ambition overreach itself and produce the same kind of ignominious result that Alexander Haig experienced nearly 40 years ago?

Bolton in Wonderland

John Bolton is that most dangerous of political operators. He is bombastic on the outside and ruthless on the inside. He has the passion of an ideologue and the patience of a realist.

“Bolton has spent decades in federal bureaucracies, complaining often of hating every minute,” Dexter Filkins writes in a recent New Yorker profile. “He has established himself as a ferocious infighter — often working, either by design or by accident, against the grain of the place to which he’s assigned.” Bolton is not above making threats or throwing his weight around. He loves to make liberals, diplomats, and anyone who stands in his way squirm.

As national security advisor, Bolton has arrived after a number of so-called adults have fled the administration (or been tweeted out of office): H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, John Kelly. With these obstacles out of the way, Bolton has virtually unrestricted access to the president.

The former national-security officials that Filkins interviews are uniformly aghast at what Bolton has done in his position: reduce coordination, eliminate briefings, encourage chaos. Remember: he hates bureaucracy. But there is method in his madness: he wants to reduce the background chatter so that his own voice is loud and clear in Trump’s ear.

In this looking-glass world, Trump is the Queen of Hearts, who reacts with fury at the world around her. “The embodiment of ungovernable passion,” Lewis Carroll called the queen who rules over Alice in Wonderland. She threatens people left and right with decapitation. Bolton, meanwhile, is the Mad Hatter, presiding over an intimate foreign policy tea party where he is as crazy as a march hare. Once, when the Mad Hatter sang to his sovereign, he received a death sentence as well and only survived through the intercession of Time.

Bolton has been singing to Trump for more than a year and he hasn’t yet been excommunicated. But push might just be coming to shove.

Deal, No Deal

Of all the places where John Bolton would like to go to war, Iran is currently in the lead position.

The national security advisor was in office for less than two months before Trump announced that he was pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran, a key Bolton objective. Since then, Bolton has been part of the team that has put the squeeze not only on Iran (with additional economic sanctions) but any country with the temerity to continue any kind of economic engagement with Tehran (with the threat of secondary sanctions). Last year, Bolton also askedthe Pentagon to prepare a menu of military options for striking Iran, scaring even some seasoned administration officials.

But it was earlier this month that Bolton upped the ante considerably. On May 5, he assumed the prerogative of the commander-in-chief by issuing a direct threat to Iran.

In response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings, the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force. The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.

Bolton was apparently motivated by a tip from Israel that Iran was preparing an attack on U.S. interests in the region. But the national security advisor was not speaking only for himself. The May 5 statement came from the White House, so it had the full backing of the administration. Pentagon head Patrick Shanahan, CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford have all endorsed the deployments.

At the same time, Trump is presenting an entirely different face to Iran. Just as he turned on a dime in his policy toward North Korea — from “fire and fury” to lovey-dovey with Kim Jong Un — the president last week told reporters:

What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down; we can make a deal, a fair deal. … We’re not looking to hurt Iran. I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy. But they should call, and if they do, we’re open to talk to them.

The administration even reached out to the Swiss to provide Iran with the president’s phone number (as if Iran didn’t already know how to reach Trump).

This might seem like so much political theater designed to confuse, terrify, and ultimately cow the Iranians into signing a humiliating agreement with Washington — if not for what happened in the Strait of Hormuz over the weekend.

A Useful Pretext

John Bolton warned on May 5 that Iran should think twice about attacking U.S. interests or face retaliation. One week later, Saudi Arabia reported that an act of sabotage damaged two of its oil tankers, and the United Arab Emirates claimed that the attackers targeted four ships in total. Gulf officials didn’t speculate on who might have been behind the attacks.

The U.S. government has not been so reluctant to point fingers. A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment has identified Iran as the culprit. Trump, in his characteristic children’s book language, has said, “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens.” And now Saudi Arabia is reporting that the Houthis have conducted two drone strikes on its oil facilities. The Houthis are aligned with Iran.

Bolton has what he wants: a pretext for launching a retaliatory strike against Iran. The Strait of Hormuz incident is the equivalent of the yellowcake allegations that helped cement the case for war in Iraq (which turned out to be false) or the chemical weapons allegations that Bolton tried to use to drum up support for a war against Cuba (which also turned out to be false).

Iranians, and many others besides, would like to believe that Trump is being led toward war by Bolton, that the president ultimately wants to make a deal with Iran. Given Trump’s resemblance to the Queen of Hearts, however, it would not be a good idea to bet on his reasonableness.

On the other hand, Bolton might have stuck his neck out a little too far this time. This just might be his Haig moment. He is encroaching on the executive’s power. He is setting up the United States to intervene on the side of a country, Saudi Arabia, that is increasingly reviled around the world for its human rights record.

Like so many of his predecessors who dared to disagree with their boss, Bolton this time might lose his head.

Timidity and Palliatives While the Planet Burns

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:57

Photograph Source: Eric Fisk – Public Domain

The best conditions for genuine discussion, for me at least, is during a feast of good food and drink. Ancient Greeks called that symposium.

The wisdom behind the tradition of symposium – millennia ago and today — is simple. Friends and guests eating food and drinking wine feel good about themselves. Organic food well-cooked and excellent wine do that. They are medicines. In such euphoria, symposiasts are very likely to be honest, even eloquent, in their expression of their views or opinions.

This is the reason Plato chose the dialogue for the spreading of his ideas. The dialogue comes from intimate symposium discussions.

Today I often hear Americans speaking in radio or television saying this and that must be part of a “national conversation.” I wonder what they have in mind.

Invisible civil war

This is because in the second decade of the twenty-first century Americans are divided as never before. Republicans are embracing guns, perpetual wars, corporate plutocracy, America-first, and ecocide. Indeed, Trump and the Republicans are now moving the country for a possible war against Iran.

The Democrats advocate policies that may improve the well-being of Americans. Yet when the Democrats had the White House and Congress, those policies were timid in fixing the gross inequality among rich and poor in America. In addition, Democrats have yet to propose a coherent plan to diminish and end global warming.

Given this political instability, verging on soft civil war between the rich and poor, the cultural elites are covering up the schism by palliative measures, especially unpolitical but fashionable talk in the academy. Professors pontificate about sexuality, race (whites or blacks or lesbians for new appointments?) and other anthropological headings. However, our intellectuals leave alone the decimation of wildlife and global extinction of species from industrialization and the potentially catastrophic effects of nuclear bombs, pesticides, industrial robots and Artificial Intelligence.

President Trump adds flavor to the political silence on serious issues. His strange behavior and hazardous policies put him at the center of political life in America. Televisions keep repeating every word he utters, thus pushing urgent national conversations out of political attention.

Just one weed killer, glyphosate, became the king of poisons the world over because of careless regulation. The Trump EPA keeps saying the chemical does not cause cancer while thousands of Americans have been suing glyphosate’s owner, Monsanto, for coming down with cancer as a result of using glyphosate. A California jury awarded a couple $ 2 billion for their suffering from glyphosate cancer.

Political discourse

In the midst of this anxiety, our toleration of diversity in political discourse is fading. Large media will not publish critical opinions about controversial pesticides, industrialized farming or about taxing the rich or bringing to an end wars and the ecocide of corporate America.

Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has been branded “socialist” because he is proposing corporations and rich Americans pay modestly higher taxes; that young Americans deserve free public university education; that the country needs a minimum wage that boosts workers above poverty.

I have examples of being interrupted in conversations and called names. Some readers of my articles threaten me. Several times people have said to me: “Why don’t you go back to Greece?” This started in my undergraduate student days, decades ago.

I must be saying things that get people excited or angry. Or, as someone said, my talk is sometimes full of “negativity.” I do respond by saying that, for the most part, my persistent criticism is for things I love. The reason is simple. I want those things improved, not destroyed. That explains my criticism of the EPA. Besides, I tell my questioners, my name Evaggelos in Greek means the messenger of good news.

I am astonished at the amount of misinformation-superstition preoccupying people on radio and especially television. It’s as if the sayings of people or companies is packaged for sale. Then televisions mix up news and advertisements to the point where it’s difficult to learn what is happening in this country and the world.

I rarely watch commercial television. If I do, I always silence the advertisements. But for those who don’t, I feel sorry for their mental health. They become brainwashed.

Newspapers are not as bad as commercial television. You read their stories and either you become enlighten or confused or more secure about your superstitions or understanding of events.

My message

I remember an editor of the Washington Post telling me: “We will never publish you.” In 2004, the New York Times accepted an op-ed article for publication. But when, in 2007, I emailed the editor for some explanation for the delay, he sent me a $ 300 for the article, which he never published.

In 2014, I was in Seattle, Washington for a talk in Town Hall Seattle about my book: Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA. My publisher Bloomsbury Press had also made arrangements for an interview with the National Public Radio. I showed up at the office of NPR only to learn that the producer had stayed home because of illness. “But don’t you worry,” a woman radio associate producer said to me. “We will call you for a phone interview.” They never did.

The same thing happened with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. She cancelled a prearranged interview with me.

Clearly, there are people and institutions that have been trying to suppress my message. They don’t want Americans to know their conventional (non-organic) food is laced with neurotoxins and carcinogens – all for the profit of a handful of petrochemical conglomerates and the convenience of a few thousand large factory farmers.

And at a time of dramatic species extinction, and global warming threatening all life on Earth, they don’t want you to know that our “science-based” and pesticide-addicted agriculture is one of the largest sources for both of these two calamities: species extinction and steadily increasing world temperature.

So, where is the national conversation about these facts?

PBS: stay away from polluters

Yes, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) does educate with its series on Nature. In one of these documentaries, a biologist said something to the effect: “stop using pesticides because they threaten honeybees.”

I was delighted. Truth is powerful.

But PBS must do more: reveal the dirty politics behind pollution and the deadly environmental crisis undermining Nature itself. Stop, for instance, accepting money for the program NOVA from one of America’s chief polluters: the Koch brothers. These petroleum men care less about the natural world, much less honeybees. They are funding PBS to put lipstick on their dirty business.

Indeed, this PBS connection to polluters has restrained and subvert public television, including the Newshour, which I watched for decades. I always wondered why, for instance, this program, with some exceptions, rarely touched industrialized farming.

Eliminating the influence of polluters from public television and radio would probably spark a real national conversation.

Iran’s Man in Iraq: “America is Not the Old America. It is Weaker Than Ever.”

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:56

Photograph Source: Fars News Agency – CC BY 4.0

Mike Pompeo went to put the thumbscrews on the Iraqi government this week. No more electrical power from Iran, he told them, and make sure those pesky Iranians don’t attack our boys in that great American base in Iraq which Trump was boasting about. The New York Times numbingly told us that his trip was “shrouded in secrecy” – if only it had been. Then at least the US secretary of state could have paid a visit to Iran’s most important supporter in the Iraqi parliament.

I met Hadi al-Ameri in Baghdad a few days before Pompeo turned up in town. A tough, curmudgeonly, 64-year-old bearded ex-militia leader, fluent in Persian and in the Shia politics of Iraq, he is a personal friend of Qassem Suleimani – commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and America’s latest “super-terrorist” in the Middle East – and fought alongside Iran in its eight-year war with Saddam.

I can imagine what he might have told Pompeo, because this is what he told me over tea in his Baghdad office.

“Pity America, because of this crazy Trump! There were 180,000 American troops here with tanks and all their equipment and we did not surrender to their intentions or wishes. Today, we want to build an Iraq depending on itself, strong and sovereign in the region and we will make good relations with all the regional countries for the interests of the people of Iraq – not for America or for Saudi Arabia or for Iran. We will not allow America to use Iraq to watch regional countries. And we will not allow Iraq to become a battlefield for other countries to clear their debts.”

Mark those words: “Not … for Iran.” Because Ameri presents himself as an Iraqi nationalist first, a Shia second – his political enemies in Iraq will disagree. He prides himself on his leadership of the old Badr Brigade and he played a prominent role in the struggle against Isis in 2014.

At one point in the ferocious battles against the Sunni cult, his own Shia Iraqi “Popular Mobilisation Force” [al-Hashd al-Shaabi] was allied not only with Kurdish militiamen and the Iraqi army but – indirectly – with the US military, which was bombing Isis. I can see how Pompeo and he might have got on quite well – provided, of course, their meeting was “shrouded in secrecy”.

“America is not the old America,” Ameri says. “It is weaker than ever. They couldn’t do anything in Venezuela – or Cuba, their neighbour, when they were a great power. What can they do here? Let Trump settle his problems with congress first. Are you afraid of America’s power? If they [fight here], they will face the defeat that they faced in Vietnam.

“They don’t have the right to force their will on other nations. Let them try. Let them start in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine. Mohammed bin Salman [of Saudi Arabia] and Netanyahu could not hurt Gaza which is adjacent to them. The Israelis couldn’t do it in southern Lebanon or on Golan. I’m telling you – anybody who tries this in Iraq will lose.” I rather think Gaza is very badly hurt. Lebanon, too, from time to time.

Then Ameri slips back into his Iraqi mould. He is a former minister of transport and sits in the Baghdad parliament as a member of the United Iraqi Alliance – representing Shia religious parties – and quickly represents himself as a super-patriot.

“We are part of the state of Iraq. We are considered as part of the Iraqi government. Anyone who attacks us, the Iraqi people will fight back. We don’t need [Iran’s] help. We have the resources and the ability to do this ourselves. I had a meeting with General [George] Casey. I told him: ‘I am stronger than you. You are depending on the authority of occupation. But you will leave and we will stay’.”

General George William Casey, I should add, was the US commander in Iraq from 2004 till 2007 and largely opposed the American military “surge” in the country, preferring to reduce his forces and hand security powers to Iraq. He later became US army chief of staff. I have a suspicion that Ameri quite liked him because Casey was known as a realist, and mercifully retired long before the Age of Trump.

Ameri, however, prefers to base his military confidence on Iraq’s resistance to Isis – or Daesh, as he inevitably calls it in Arabic – and manages to do so without once mentioning the word “Shia”.

“In 2014, the whole of our [government] military organisation [trained by the Americans] began to fall down. Mosul, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Anbar, a big part of Diyala – Daesh took them and surrounded Baghdad. At this time, every historian was saying that Iraq is gone. I told them we will win. And I said this in the very first days. The army’s [sic] morale was below zero.

“And the Americans did not take part in the battle until they saw us advancing” – by “us” he means the Iraqi Shia militias, although Ameri does not say this. “And most of the operations we performed, they did not take part. We liberated Ramadi without their help and most of Salahuddin province without their help. We liberated Fallujah without their help. The Americans [even] opposed us going into Fallujah. They participated in [the battle for] the centre of Ramadi – that’s all. Mosul, they turned it into rubble.”

Ameri is famous – or infamous, depending on your point of view – for allegedly permitting Iranian military flights to pass over Iraq with weapons for the Syrian army when he was Iraqi minister of transport. He has several times denied this. But that wasn’t quite what he told me.

“The American ambassador [in Baghdad] came to see me when I was minister,” he recalls. “He said: ‘We have to prevent the Iranian flights going to Syria.’ I said: ‘You don’t have the right to give orders. There is a world organisation [the UN] which organises international flights. I don’t take orders from you. I am telling you, Daesh are terrorists that you collected around the world – and one day you will have to fight them and they will bring evil to Europe.’ And six months later…”

Ameri agrees that Iran helped Assad and Russia in Syria. “Iran supported Syria at a critical time and they stopped [the Islamist advance] and the Russians got involved. Hezbollah helped. The Syrian army fought, with help from Hezbollah. Our Popular Mobilisation Force played the same role in Iraq as the Hezbollah did in Syria.”

This is an intriguing parallel, although the Syrian army would surely say that the Russians rather than the Iranians were their most important military allies. But we are moving into familiar political countryside. “If America is against us [in the future], the Iraqi army will [now] be united against them. They tried to destroy Iraq and Syria at the same time … But Iraq is united. Sectarianism is dead. The Americans used to say ‘Ameri is sectarian’. But now Ameri is more popular among Sunnis than Shia. As for the Saudis, they have been very stupid and Mohammed bin Salman made a childish move in Yemen. The Americans – they told me that the Yemen war would end in two weeks, then 40 days, then four months and now it is five years. The Saudis are losing every day and sacrificing every day.”

And now it’s time, I guess, for what I might journalistically call “Red Alert”. Iran, Ameri says, “know their interests well. We can talk about our interests, our duties. If we are attacked, definitely Russia and China will not stay neutral. Tehran is going to be with us. What I know about the Iranian people is that the more pressure they receive, the more united they get.

“Iran was united when President [Hassan] Rouhani was opening to the west and there were a lot of internal problems. It was the sanctions which made Iran develop ballistic missiles and nuclear centrifuges. The more pressure they are under, the greater their scientific dependence will be.”

Ameri says he believes in the open market, a free economy. He reminds me that much of Iran’s economy is private sector, including the electricity which is provided to Iraq by Iran.

As for Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general the Americans would most like to obliterate – until, I suppose, another Iranian general comes along to annoy them – Ameri says “he helped us a lot in coordinating the opposition. And during the battle with Daesh, he helped the Iraqis a lot on behalf of the Iranian nation. He was a good adviser. Many of his advisers – in all, there were not more than a hundred advisers [in all Iraq] – were martyred [sic] on Iraqi land. They were on the front lines with him and some of the best ones died. This is why they had a big effect in the battle.”

Thus quoth Ameri. And much of what he said, of course, was what the Iranians say. His version of history is also an Iranian version. Ask him if he is Iran’s voice in Iraq and Ameri bursts into laughter at such a preposterous idea. Even so, I give him two of my business cards. One for him and one for Suleimani. I want an interview with this man, I said. Ameri put up his hands. “I don’t know when I shall next be seeing him,” he says. I bet.

The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:56

The following is an excerpt from The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (AK Press, 2019)

After centuries of colonial domination and a twentieth century riddled with dictatorships, indigenous peoples in Bolivia embarked upon a social and political struggle that would change the country forever. As part of that project activists took control of their own history, starting in the 1960s, by reaching back to oral traditions and then forward to new forms of print and broadcast media. This book tells the fascinating story of how indigenous Bolivians recovered and popularized histories of past rebellions, political models, and leaders, using them to build movements for rights, land, autonomy, and political power. Drawing from rich archival sources and the author’s lively interviews with indigenous leaders and activist-historians, The Five Hundred Year Rebellion describes how movements tapped into centuries-old veins of oral history and memory to produce manifestos, booklets, and radio programs on histories of resistance, wielding them as tools to expand their struggles and radically transform society.

***

A World Shaped by Colonization and Conquest

The Western conquest and colonization of what is now Latin America and the Caribbean is a story of blood. It is a story of genocide. It is a story of the colonizers’ attempt to completely destroy and enslave a continent of people and to crush cultures that were thousands of years old. After Columbus famously “discovered” the Americas, Hernán Cortés defeated the rulers of the Aztec empire in 1521. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured Incan emperor Atahualpa in 1532, brutally massacring his followers and looting Incan gold. At the time of the Spanish invasion, the Incan empire—and its Quechua language—spanned the Andes, and the Aztec capital had a larger population than Madrid.

The Spanish conquest was a turning point for the region. In the Andes, the Incan empire was destroyed, and the ayllus – centuries-old forms of community organization in the Andes – were broken up into smaller, centralized communities to facilitate the extraction of taxes, land, and labor. Thousands were sent to the mines in Potosí (in modern-day Bolivia) for the silver that empowered the Spanish empire. Though indigenous resistance continued, the great civilizations of the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and countless other indigenous communities spanning the hemisphere were all but vanquished under the boot and plunder of colonization; the Americas would never be the same.

We live in a world shaped by conquest. For much of modern history, Western powers conquered, colonized, and controlled the global south. Edward Said writes that by 1914, “Europe held a grand total of roughly 85 percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths. No other associated set of colonies in history was as large, none so totally dominated, none so unequal in power to the Western metropolis.” The overarching goal was the extraction of labor and profit from Africa to Asia, from Brazil to Cuba.

These centuries of exploitation have had their victims. But they have also had their rebels. For as long as Western powers have been occupying and colonizing the global south, people have been rebelling against this conquest, sometimes violently, sometimes peacefully. They have met guns with guns, slave labor with insurrections, plantation and factory exploitation with strikes and flight, as well as everyday forms of resistance in the streets, in the home, and in the government palace.

Over time, the colonized rose up against colonial powers, overthrew them in revolutions, and built independent and sovereign nations. This global political process of recovering sovereignty following colonial rule has been called “decolonization.” As a political process, decolonization has generally involved forming an independent nation-state, constitution, flag, set of laws, and political system based on the dreams and beliefs of that nation’s local people. The global road toward decolonization has been anything but simple. Indeed, it has been one of the most dramatic and consequential processes in modern history.

One of the first waves of decolonization took place between the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century in the Americas. During this time, the British were forced out of what is today the United States, and revolutionaries ousted the French from Haiti and abolished slavery in that new nation. In the early 1800s, independence wars against Spain raged throughout Latin America. Those conflicts led to the birth of new, independent nations, from Venezuela and Colombia to Argentina and Bolivia. The second wave of decolonization took place in Europe between 1917 and the 1920s, after the collapse of the Russian and Habsburg empires. Following World War II and into the late 1970s, freedom from European colonial rule was won among colonies throughout Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

“Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world,” the great decolonial thinker Frantz Fanon wrote. For many, decolonization was a process of self-determination, of leaving Europe behind rather than trying to build a society in its image. As Fanon wrote, “The Third World is today facing Europe as one colossal mass whose project must be to try and solve the problems this Europe was incapable of finding the answers to.”

Yet in many new nations, once the old oppressors were ousted from power, new ones filled their places. Elites in newly founded countries quickly seized power and used the vestiges of the colonial system to continue exploitation under a new flag. Meanwhile, foreign and national companies continued the colonization of the globe with their conquest of natural resources, cheap labor, land, mines, and oil reserves. Indigenous people were still sent to the mines; the poor were sent to the factories and sugar plantations—and often massacred or jailed when they refused to obey. In the Americas, Andean Oral History Workshop member and Aymara historian Carlos Mamani explains, “The colonies, now converted into republics, developed processes of ethnic cleansing through ‘Indian wars,’ which were no more than raids that cleared out certain territories for the settlement of colonists brought in from Europe. This was the crude, cruel, and bloody history up until the first decades of the 1900s.” Colonization continued for the dispossessed of the earth.

From the Maya of Mexico to the Mapuche of Chile, indigenous communities are still resisting. Today they are against mega-dams and soy plantations that displace their communities, the mines that poison their rivers and land, and the local and foreign military repression that riddles their communities and lives with bullets and violence. After facing a genocidal conflict from the 1960s to the 1990s that left two hundred thousand dead, the Maya of Guatemala continue to resist further displacement and violence. The Mapuche of Chile continue to organize against mega-dams and dispossession. The indigenous people of Brazil face down enormous deforestation and displacement as cattle ranchers, loggers, and soy farmers continue their conquest of the Amazon. The politics of extraction—linked to global capitalism and imperialism—requires the ongoing oppression of Latin America’s indigenous people.

Colonialism robbed indigenous people of their land, gold, culture, and political institutions, but also of their histories. “The indigenous have always been treated as ‘savages,’ as non-men, as people without history and without collective memory,” according to Bolivian sociologist Pablo Mamani. The colonization of the Americas was an erasure of indigenous historical narratives and worldviews, a silencing of indigenous voices, a forced amnesia. “Since the beginning of the European invasion until today, social groups affiliated by descent or by circumstance to Western civilization have sustained historical projects in which there is no room for local [indigenous] cultures to flourish,” theorist Javier Sanjinés explains. “The coloniality of power and the coloniality of knowledge, cognitive expressions inherited from the conquerer, do not permit one to see or to invent any other path.” In the eyes of the colonizer, the indigenous peoples’ inferiority was unquestionable; they were a people without a future or a past.

Today Bolivia is home to over thirty-eight different indigenous groups. The largest among them are the Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní. Indigenous people make up roughly half of the population; historically, roughly that same percentage lived under the poverty line. This disparity reflects the apartheid in the nation, where a small elite of European descent ruled over the majority of indigenous people, leading to the perception of “two Bolivias”—one oppressed indigenous nation and one made up of the elite holding political and economic power. “The official nation is the modern one that the mestizo-criollo elite endeavors to create,” Sanjinés writes. “It is the Western nation from which the world is described and known. The entire Bolivian educational system corresponds to this epistemological position. The other nation, the postponed nation, is the one upon which epistemological power is exercised.”

Such a system of racial oppression and control speaks to the legacy of colonialism in Bolivia. Following the Spanish conquest, colonized peoples were “condemned to orality” and could only express themselves “through the cultural patterns of the rulers,” explains theorist Aníbal Quijano. Literacy was wielded and monopolized by colonial elites as a tool to rule over the indigenous masses; to read and write in the language of the colonizers was to control the historical account. “The means used to legitimate and cover up crimes has primarily been through the monopoly of writing; whoever has the ability to write, print reports, newspapers, and books has the capacity to impose their own truth,” explains Carlos Mamani. “Colonial states require policies of cover-up and forgetting, not talking about their own crimes, genocide, just as the unjust Indian wars are conveniently hidden behind celebrations such as the bicentenaries of national independence.”

Combating such erasure and silencing, and recuperating knowledge of the precolonial past, has been a central part of the wider process of decolonization. As Fanon writes, the “passionate quest for a national culture prior to the colonial era can be justified by the colonized intellectuals’ shared interest in stepping back and taking a hard look at the Western culture in which they risk becoming ensnared. Fully aware they are in the process of losing themselves, and consequently of being lost to their people, these men work away with raging heart and furious mind to renew contact with their people’s oldest, inner essence, the farthest removed from colonial times.”

Decolonizing History, Mobilizing the Past

The decolonization of history has long been a fundamental part of indigenous people’s five hundred years of resistance in Latin America. This was a struggle against forgetting, against the silencing, maligning, and marginalization of indigenous histories of resistance, of histories begun long before the arrival of the Spanish. Decolonization meant recovering these histories, strengthening them, and using them as tools to fight the oppressor. For many indigenous Bolivians, remembering was resistance.

The decolonization of history in Bolivia has involved indigenous activists challenging the elites’ version of history and decentering historical authority from the university, professional historians, and political leaders so activists can build their own narratives of the Andean past. These indigenous scholars looked to oral history, myths, and collective memory as sources to fill in the gaps left by the official account. They decolonized history by looking to each other, to community elders and ancestors, for histories that had been passed down from generation to generation but were not accounted for in the libraries and archives of the nation.

History was decolonized by these indigenous protagonists through their transformation of historical discourses of indigenous inferiority and victimhood—narratives used to suppress indigenous identity, assimilate indigenous people, and silence their past—into stories of glorious preconquest civilizations, traditions, and political philosophies kept alive for centuries, and into histories of rebellion and defiance. In these stories, indigenous people were not victims without a past; they were heroes and the heirs of Andean utopias.

Indigenous activists took history out of the dry textbooks, the condescending political speeches, the ivory tower, and put it to use in the street, where it was made to be something alive and popular, for political uses, for indigenous liberation. It was produced by indigenous historians in Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní, and published in accessible pamphlets; histories of eighteenth-century indigenous leader Túpac Katari and other rebels were broadcast in indigenous languages over the radio. Historical knowledge was decolonized by recovering indigenous traditions and governance models in order to bring back the centuries-old networks and political organization of the ayllu. Indigenous histories of resistance were deployed by activists in street barricades, banners, protest symbols, speeches, and manifestos. Decolonized history was on the march.

Coming to know the past has been part of the critical pedagogy of decolonization,” Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Maori indigenous scholar, writes. “To hold alternative histories is to hold alternative knowledges. The pedagogical implication of this access to alternative knowledges is that they can form the basis of alternative ways of doing things.” In Bolivia, this process constituted, as one example, an alternative way of organizing political power through the ayllu and rotational leadership and an alternative set of social relations based on Aymara practices of reciprocity. The past provided raw materials to postconquest indigenous communities for imagining a different world, for developing new ways of thinking and talking about alternatives, and for creating a lens through which to critique and understand the present.

“Decolonization must offer a language of possibility, a way out of colonialism,” Smith writes. This language, which “allows us to make plans, to make strategic choices, to theorize solutions imagining a different world, or reimagining the world, is a way into theorizing the reasons why the world we experience is unjust, and posing alternatives to such a world from within our own world views.” A first step in Bolivia was recovering indigenous histories. The gathering of oral history provided powerful resources to Bolivian indigenous activists building such alternatives.

For the Andean Oral History Workshop (THOA), a grassroots indigenous-led research organization formed in La Paz, Bolivia in 1983, and other groups examined in The Five Hundred Year Rebellion, oral history offered a bridge between generations, a way to share stories of oppression and resistance and, as a result, move people to take action. It was an avenue for the recovery of indigenous voices and histories that were not accounted for in the existing written histories. The written record typically favors the elite, those with power, while oral history, writes oral historian Paul Thompson, “makes a much fairer trial possible: witnesses can now also be called from the under-classes, the unprivileged, and the defeated.”

As the THOA demonstrated through its oral history-based publications and radio programs on indigenous resistance, oral history’s strength is typically not in the facts it provides but in its window into the meanings, motives, and emotions behind historical experience and how it was lived. Indeed, oral historian Alessandro Portelli argues that oral history’s departure from fact may be one of its strengths, “as imagination, symbolism and desire emerge” from the oral testimony. For the THOA, this aspect of oral history provided a way to explore the relevance of myths within oral accounts of indigenous resistance. The organization’s embrace of oral history could be linked directly to oral traditions in rural Bolivia, Aymara conceptions of cyclical time, and the relevance of historical consciousness to the era’s indigenous movements.

The group’s methods filled in silences and gaps in the historical record in a process of decolonizing history. As Humberto Mamani, a THOA member, explained, their organization’s recovery of indigenous histories of resistance “was like gathering different parts of a letter torn into many pieces, and when it was put together, we could read all of them and say, ‘This is our history.’ This is the history that we did not know, that was divided in many parts.”

Cuba’s Earthy Traditions and Jean Vanier

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:55

Jean Vanier, dead last week, was philanthropist and Christian, founder of L’Arche, a remarkable organization for developmentally disabled.  Vanier was also a philosopher who left Academia for society’s vulnerable.  I used his Becoming Human, in class after philosophy class, to explain 20th century Marxist philosopher, Che Guevara.

The connection surprises some. They don’t know Cuba’s earthy traditions. “Earthy” is the word used by Cuban philosopher, Cintio Vitier, to link early 19th century Cuban priests – reformists – to the radical vision of independence leader, José Martí, and the eventual Cuban Revolution. [i]

It has to do with feelings. More specifically, it has to do with energy arising when we do the right thing, where “right thing” is not necessarily moral but useful. It’s creative mental energy, making imaginable what was not imaginable previously. Ancients called it “faith”.

It’s confidence, not intellectual but felt, explained by laws of nature, cause and effect, mind/body connection.

When you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, you gain, even if your actions fail. It’s a kind of dynamic reciprocity. Earthy. Che Guevara’s “hombre nuevo” is in this line. It’s not a new being, as critics claim.  It’s people aware – in a felt, experiential sense – of shared humanity.

It’s what Vanier explained. He left a life of privilege to live with disabled folk, saying it made him more human. It was about truth, not morality. He identified a paradox: We seek community to avoid loneliness. But loneliness is the natural state of reflective human beings, aware of vulnerability.

We escape our condition through community, but loneliness, being universally shared, provides grounds for humancommunity: between people as people. “Reality is the first principle of truth”, and the reality of human existence is insecurity. Loneliness “can only be covered over, it can never actually go away”.

His point is how to discovercommunity. It was Guevara’s point, but it goes back further in Cuba. It was raised by priests who wanted independence from Spain, the US, the UK and slavery. It was a time when ideas from Europe persuaded young people “it’s all good”, if it feels right.

José de la Luz y Caballero, who could have been a rich lawyer, taught Philosophy because of slavery, a social cancer. Privileged progressives criticized Spanish colonialism, resisted US annexation, and decried social vices, but could not imagine living without slaves.  Slavery was an expectation.

José Antonio Saco, who preceded Luz at the institute founded by Félix Varela (1811), could not imagine abolition. Precisely because slavery was so taken for granted, consistent with opposition to almost all other wrongs, Luz dedicated himself to educating privileged youth about how to know justice when injustice is part of who you are.

Luz was a Christian, of Vanier’s sort.  He cared about truth.  He was a scientist who knew how understanding works. It depends on expectations, rooted in habit patterns. We identify with them and they must be broken, occasionally. A remarkable national debate (1836-8), the Cuban Philosophical Polemic, was about thinking. It anticipates late 20thcentury philosophy of science, in North America.

But North American philosophers don’t accept “earthy” thinking.

It involves loss. Vanier wrote about “brokenness”.  It is how we know the invisible, the “discarded”: “Why are we unable to look Lazarus straight in the eye and listen to him? … [W]e will discover that he is a human being … That is why it is dangerous to enter into a relationship with the Lazaruses of the world”.

We risk being changed. Loss.

It’s also about gain. According to Vitier, the leaders of Cuba’s agonizingly long struggle for independence shared an idea: Freedom requires raising the most vulnerable. Piero Gleijeses says it’s why Cuba went to Africa in the 70s, defying the Soviets. The CIA knew it: Cuba sided with the poor and non-White. The USSR was rich and white. The division between North and South was the major fault line.[ii]

This is the “earthy” thinking that Vitier refers to: formation of people through bold, sacrificial resistance to deep-seated, dehumanizing lies.

Vanier’s brokenness defies a lie of that sort: part of the social fabric. A useful, compassionate new book on dementia, The Last Ocean, [iii] argues that the tragedy of dementia is loss of a coherent self. We spend entire lifetimes building a “vast rich palace of the self”, which falls away. US philosopher Ronald Dworkin says that without a senseof self – different from a self — suicide is rational.

Yet that “palace” is a myth. And seeking it – a sense of self as opposed to a self – is counterproductive. You seek to escape insecurity, fabricating an identity – a ‘narrative self” – and you deny in the process what is really shared: insecurity.

Guevara called it an “invisible cage” or the “bourgeois myth of the self-made man”. Patrick Modiano (Nobel Prize 2014) shows why. [iv] He tries “to impose some order on my memories. But many are missing, and most of them remain isolated.” He can’t do it, and yet the stories he wants to forget “rise to the surface like a drowned man”.

“Real encounters” are more interesting. They might “drag you in their wake when they disappear”. But they’re real, unlike the “coherent self” of memories, made of “bits of sentences spoken by anonymous voices”.

We don’t accept illness and we don’t admit death. We suffer for that. But in arguing that we are diminished by dismissing the vulnerable, The Last Ocean nonetheless maintains the myth that prevents seeing those vulnerable as people: a secure place that doesn’t exist, not just for those with dementia, but for anyone.

So argues Vanier, and Guevara, and earthy thinkers for millennia.

Some are Lazaruses. Looking them in the eye and hearing their story involves loss: of lies, unimaginable to give up, like liberalism and “development”. But there’s also gain. Vanier’s life was all about that.

Notes.

[i] Ese sol del mundo moral (Havana 1996) 14-15

[ii] Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa 1959-76 (2002) 377

[iii] Nicci Gerrard, Penquin Press (2019).

[iv] Sleep of Memory (Yale University Press, 2018)

Redacting Democracy

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:52

The Nobel Prize-winning Czech author Milan Kundera began his 1979 novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by describing two photographs. In the first, two men are standing side by side, a Czech nationalist later executed for his views and the country’s Communist ruler. In the second, the dissenter is gone, airbrushed out. Just the dictator remains. Today, if Kundera hadn’t written that opening to his book, only someone with a long memory or a penchant for research would know that the two men had ever shared a podium or that, on that long-gone day, the dissident had placed his fur hat on the dictator’s cold head. Today, in the world of Donald Trump and Robert Mueller, we might say that the dissident was redacted from the photo. For Kundera, embarking on a novel about memory and forgetting, that erasure in the historical record was tantamount to a crime against both the country and time itself.

In the Soviet Union, such photographic airbrushing became a political art form. Today, however, when it comes to repeated acts meant to erase reality’s record and memory, it wouldn’t be Eastern Europe or Russia that came to mind but the United States. With the release of the Mueller report, the word “redaction” is once again in the news, though for those of us who follow such things, it seems but an echo of so many other redactions, airbrushings, and disappearances from history that have become a way of life in Washington since the onset of the Global War on Terror.

In the 448 pages of the Mueller report, there are nearly 1,000 redactions. They appear on 40% of its pages, some adding up to only a few words (or possibly names), others blacking out whole pages. Attorney General William Barr warned House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler about the need to classify parts of the report and when Barr released it, the Wall Street Journal suggested that the thousand unreadable passages included “few major redactions.” On the other hand, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey was typical of congressional Democrats in suggesting that the speed — less than 48 hours — of Barr’s initial review of the document was “more suspicious than impressive.” Still, on the whole, while there was some fierce criticism of the redacted nature of the report, it proved less than might have been anticipated, perhaps because in this century Americans have grown used to living in an age of redactions.

Such complacency should be cause for concern. For while redactions can be necessary and classification is undoubtedly a part of modern government life, the aura of secrecy that invariably accompanies such acts inevitably redacts democracy as well.

Airbrushing Washington

Redaction, like its sibling deletion, is anything but an unprecedented phenomenon when it comes to making U.S. government documents public. My generation, after all, received the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with significant redactions in the very records on which it was based. And who among us could forget that infamous 18-and-a-half minute gap in the tapes President Richard Nixon secretly used to record Oval Office conversations? That particular deletionwould prove crucial when later testimony revealed that it had undoubtedly been done to hide evidence connecting the White House to the Watergate burglars.

Still, even given such examples, the post-9/11 period stands out in American history for its relentless reliance on redacting material in government reports. Consider, for instance, the 28 pages about Saudi Arabia that were totally blacked out of the 9/11 Commission Report, an investigation of how the United States failed to prevent al-Qaeda’s attacks that fateful day. Similarly, the 2005 Robb-Silberman Report on Weapons of Mass Destruction, classified — and therefore redacted — entire chapters, as well as parts of its chief takeaway, its 74 recommendations, six of which were completely excised.

Infamously enough, the numerous military reports on the well-photographed abuses that American military personnel committed at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison, came out with substantial redactions. So, too, have the reports and books on the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques on war on terror detainees held at its “black sites.” In FBI agent Ali Soufan’s book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, for example, large portions of a chapter on Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda figure who was brutally waterboarded 83 times, were redacted by the CIA. It mattered not at all that Soufan had already testified in a public hearing before Congress about his success in eliciting information from Zubaydah by building rapport with him and registered his protest over the CIA’s use of brutal techniques as well. And the nearly 400-page executive summary of the extensive Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report was partially redacted, too, even though it was already a carefully chosen version of a more than 6,700-page report that was not given a public airing.

It’s worth noting that such acts of redaction have taken place in an era in which information has been removed from the public domain and classified at unprecedented levels — and unacceptable ones for a democracy. In the first 19 years of this century, the number of government documents being classified has expanded exponentially, initially accelerating in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Between 2001 and 2005, for instance, the number of government documents classified per year doubled. Even former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission, pushed back against the growing urge of the national security state to excessively classify — that is, after a fashion, redact — almost any kind of information. “You’d just be amazed at the kind of information that’s classified — everyday information, things we all know from the newspaper,” he said. “We’re better off with openness. The best ally we have in protecting ourselves against terrorism is an informed public.”

Along the same lines, well-known judges in national security cases have repeatedly commented on the way in which information that, to their minds, did not constitute sensitive material was classified. For example, Judge T.S. Ellis III, who has overseen numerous high-profile national security cases, admitted his “firm suspicion that the executive branch over-classifies a great deal of material that does not warrant classification.” Ellis’s colleague, Judge Leonie Brinkema, underscored the obstacles classification imposed in the trial of now-convicted terrorism defendant Zacarias Moussaoui, expressing her frustration at the “shroud of secrecy that had hampered the prosecution of the defendant.” Other judges have echoed their sentiments.

In the first days of his presidency, Barack Obama declared his intention to reverse the trend towards over-classification. His administration then issued a memo, “Transparency and Open Government,” that promised “an unprecedented level of openness in government.” In April 2009, he also ordered the release of the 2002-2005 memos from the Office of Legal Counsel that had been written to justify the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that President George W. Bush’s top officials had put in place for use in the Global War on Terror. In 2010, Obama also signed into law the Reducing Over-Classification Act aimed at decreasing “over-classification and promot[ing] information sharing across the federal government and with state, local, tribal, and private sector entities.” And for a time, the rate of classification of new documents did indeed drop.

In the end, though, it proved impossible to stanch, no less reverse the urge to keep information from the public. As Obama explained, “While I believe strongly in transparency and accountability, I also believe that in a dangerous world, the United States must sometimes carry out intelligence operations and protect information that is classified for purposes of national security.”

Disappearing Democracy

Another government tactic that, as with former FBI agent Soufan’s book, has given redaction a place of pride in Washington is the ongoing strict pre-publication review process now in place. Former public servants who worked in intelligence and other positions requiring security clearances (including former contractors) and then wrote books about their time in office must undergo it. In April, the Knight First Amendment Institute and the ACLU focused on this very issue, jointly filing suit over the pre-publication review of such books, citing, among other things, the First Amendment issue of suppressing speech. In the words of Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith and Yale law professor Oona Hathaway:

“Clearly, the government has a legitimate interest in preventing disclosure of classified information. But the current prepublication review process is too expansive, slow, and susceptible to abuse… In an era characterized by endless war and a bloated secrecy bureaucracy, the restrictions on commentary and criticism about government policies and practices pose an intolerable cost to our democracy.”

And bad as the urge to redact has been, in recent times the Trump administration and the national security state have taken its spirit one step further by trying to prevent the actual reporting of information. In March, for instance, President Trump issued an executive order revoking the need for the Pentagon to make public its drone strikes in the war on terror or the civilian casualties they cause. In a similar fashion, the American military command in Afghanistan announced its decision to no longer report on the amount of territory under Taliban control, a metric that the previous U.S. commander there had called the “most telling in a counterinsurgency.” Similarly, President Trump has repeatedly displayed his aversion to any kind of basic note taking or record-keeping during White House meetings with aides and lawyers (as the Mueller report pointed out).

In this century, the American public has learned to live in an increasingly redacted world. Whether protest over the level of redactions in the Mueller report will in any way change that remains doubtful, at best.

Certainly, Congressman Nadler has been insistent that the Judiciary Committee should see the entire unredacted report. At the recent Judiciary Committee hearing that Attorney General Barr refused to attend, Nadler acknowledged the dangers to democracy that lay in an increasing lack of transparency and accountability. “I am certain,” he said, “there is no way forward for this country that does not include a reckoning of this clear and present danger to our constitutional order… History will judge us for how we face this challenge. We will all be held accountable in one way or another.”

As he suggested, democracy itself can, in the end, be redacted if the culture of blacking-out key information becomes Washington’s accepted paradigm. And with such redactions goes, of course, the redaction of the very idea of an informed citizenry, which lies at the heart of the democratic way of life. Under the circumstances, perhaps it’s not surprising that polls show trust in government in steady decline for decades (with a brief reversal right after 9/11).

In the end, blacking out the record of the grimmest aspects of our own recent history will leave American citizens unable to understand the country in which they live. Informed or not, we all share responsibility for the American future. As with that photograph in the Kundera novel, our children may one day see the consequences of our past acts without truly recognizing them, just as many Czechs who saw that photo Kundera described undoubtedly thought it represented reality.

The record of how democracy is being redacted — sentence by sentence, passage by passage, fact by fact, event by event — would surely have rung a bell with Milan Kundera. He summed his own time’s version of the process this way: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Today, Americans are forgetting.

This article first ran on TomDispatch.

The Dream in Retreat: Brown vs. Board of Education, 65 Years Later

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:50

This week marks the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous Supreme Court decision that outlawed apartheid in America, declaring segregated schools “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional.

Today, the common sense of the Brown decision is under attack. For nearly three decades, our schools have been re-segregating, reversing the progress made under Brown, reflecting the deep racial and economic segregation of our communities. Worse, several of Donald Trump’s nominees to the federal courts refuse even to endorse Brown as unassailable law.

As the United States grows more diverse, we run the risk of becoming more separate and more unequal.

The decision in Brown was and is compelling. Racially segregated schools were and are inherently separate and unequal. They also were and are unequal in resources. In affluent, largely white suburbs, public schools are new and modern, with advanced facilities and courses and good teachers. In low-income, minority neighborhoods, schools tend to be old and dilapidated, with less experienced teachers, fewer resources and fewer advanced courses.

Research shows that integration works. Segregation injures the chances for achievement, college success, long-term employment and income of students of color. Integration raises those chances with no detriment to white students. Indeed, the experience of going to a diverse school better prepares students of all races for the world they will enter.

With neighborhoods largely segregated — a legacy of racially restrictive laws and covenants, of bank and real estate red lining and more — integration of public schools inevitably required busing. Busing, of course, is routine across America, a service to parents. But opponents of integration used “forced busing” to rouse fears and hatred. The question was never about busing, it was about where the bus delivered the students.

When the federal courts, packed by judges appointed by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, retreated from desegregation orders, the schools began to re-segregate. Now, as Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor concludes: “After four decades without federal support for desegregation, we are right back where we started,” with schools that are increasingly separate and unequal.

A recent report, “Harming our Common Future, America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years After Brown,” by the UCLA Civil Rights Project and the Pennsylvania State University Center for Education and Civil Rights, detailed the bleak reality. As the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss summarizes, “Over the past three decades, black students have been increasingly segregated in intensely segregated schools (defined as 90 to 100 percent nonwhite).” By 2016, 40 percent of all black students were in segregated schools.

The worst states? The “blue” states of New York, California, Illinois and Maryland, with New York the most segregated for blacks and California the most segregated for Latinos.

This isn’t just an urban problem: our suburbs are increasingly divided by race, with African-American suburban students attending schools that are three-fourths nonwhite, and white students in the same suburbs going to schools that are, on average, two-thirds white. Charter schools — increasingly a profit-making venture rather than an educational one — are even more segregated than traditional public schools.

Schools are segregated because our neighborhoods are segregated. Without residential integration and without metropolitan-wide integration policies, segregation will intensify, even as the country grows more diverse. Yet requirements that communities pursue residential integration remain unenforced and programs to subsidize scattered affordable housing are weak at best.

Now 65 years later, we face a stark choice: the promise of Brown or a country torn apart by racial tensions. Sadly, as Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, reports, Donald Trump’s nominees to the federal bench increasingly refuse to endorse Brown v. Board as unassailable law. The Republican Senate is about to confirm three of these judges to lifetime appointments. Like the Voting Rights Act, gutted by five right-wing justices in the Shelby case, Brown v. Board of Education itself may be at risk.

Sixty-five years later, with our country more diverse than ever, we must once again decide if we will be one nation, with liberty and justice for all. That cannot be left to right-wing judges or timorous politicians. It is time once more for citizens of conscience to call this nation back to its better angels.

 

Trump Wants to Open Public Lands to Oil Drilling in California

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:50

Governor Jerry Brown expanded oil and gas drilling in California during his last two terms as governor, approving 21,000 new oil and gas drilling permits. Now the Trump administration wants to expand oil and gas drilling on federal lands in California.

On May 9, the Trump administration finalized a controversial plan, entitled “The Proposed Resource Management Plan Amendment and Final Environmental Impact Statement for Oil and Gas Leasing and Development,” to open 725,500 acres of public lands and mineral estate across California’s Central Coast and the Bay Area to new oil and gas drilling.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has selected “Alternative F” as its preferred alternative. This plan would increase by 327,000 acres the acreage in the draft proposal prepared under the Obama administration.

The public lands selected for leasing are found in the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Merced, Monterey, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Stanislaus.

“Alternative F was selected as the Preferred Alternative based on the Administration’s goal of strengthening energy independence and the BLM support of an all-of-the-above energy plan that includes oil and gas underlying America’s public lands,” according to the plan abstract.

“Under Alternative F [BLM’s Preferred Alternative], Federal mineral estate would be open to leasing; however; NSO (No Surface Occupancy) stipulations would apply to some lands open to leasing, including: (1) Joaquin Rocks ACEC; (2) ACECs within Ciervo-Panoche Natural Area; and (3) giant kangaroo rat core population areas. Under all alternatives, areas closed under the 2007 RMP would remain closed (Wilderness, Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), Clear Creek Serpentine Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), and Fort Ord National Monument).”

Environmental groups condemned the plan for further expanding fracking and other oil drilling in a state already suffering the devastating health and environmental impacts of increased oil and gas drilling under the Jerry Brown administration.

“Trump’s new plan aims to stab oil derricks and fracking rigs into some of California’s most beautiful landscapes,” said Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “From Monterey to the Bay Area, the president wants to let oil companies drill and spill their way across our beloved public lands and wildlife habitat. As we fight climate chaos, there’s no justification for any new drilling and fracking, let alone this outrageous assault on our pristine wild places.”

Lakewood noted that the move comes just weeks after the Trump administration released its draft plan to reopen more than a million acres of public land and federal mineral estate in the Central California region, including Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties, to fossil fuel extraction. Together the plans target a total of 1,736,970 acres across 19 California counties.

“The plans would end a five-year-old moratorium on leasing federal public land and mineral estate in the state to oil companies. The BLM has not held a single lease sale in California since 2013, when a judge ruled that the agency violated the law when it issued oil leases in Monterey and Fresno Counties without considering the risks of fracking. The ruling responded to a suit brought by the Center and the Sierra Club challenging a BLM decision to auction off about 2,500 acres of land in those counties to oil companies,” said Lakewood.

The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), headed by President Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the former Chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create so-called “marine protected areas” in Southern California, lauded the the BLM resource management plan.

WSPA spokesperson Kara Greene told the Natural Gas Intelligencer that the action “reaffirmed that hydraulic fracturing is a safe method of production in California.” She also said WSPA wants to be “part of the discussions to ensure we continue to safely produce affordable, reliable energy.”

However, opponents of the plan describe fracking as “an extreme oil-extraction process that blasts toxic chemicals mixed with water underground to crack rocks.” According to the BLM, about 90 percent of new oil and gas wells on public lands are fracked.

They also point to a 2015 report from the California Council on Science and Technology concluding that fracking in California happens at unusually shallow depths, dangerously close to underground drinking water supplies, with unusually high concentrations of toxic chemicals.

The BLM’s regulations provide a 60-day window for Gov. Gavin Newsom to review the plan for any inconsistencies with state and local plans and policies and provide recommendations. If the BLM rejects such recommendations, the governor can appeal that determination.

However, environmental groups and others may challenge the plan and file a lawsuit if the protest is denied.

“In California and across the country, the Trump administration is putting our communities and our climate at risk as they prioritize fossil fuel industry profits over the health and safety of our families,” said Monica Embrey, a Sierra Club senior campaign representative. “We will use every tool at our disposal to push back against this reckless proposal and protect our public lands from fracking.”

Under Trump, Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 was a record year for onshore oil and gas revenues on public lands due in large part to “more streamlined permitting timelines and abundant acreage for lease” as was revealed in statistics released by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on May 1, according to a press release from the Department of Interior.

“In FY 2018, the U.S. hit all-time highs for federal oil production on federal land, 214,144,945 barrels produced onshore, with the smallest footprint of acreage under lease (25,552,475 acres) since BLM started collecting comparable data in FY 1985 (120,686,611 acres),” according to Interior.

“Demonstrating the marvel of technology and innovation, our production numbers are unprecedented, even though we have the fewest acres under lease in almost four decades,” claimed U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former oil industry and Westlands Water District lobbyist. “President Trump has ensured that America’s great energy renaissance includes federal lands while delivering high paying jobs and low cost fuel.”

If not stopped, this expansion of oil and gas drilling on federal public lands in California, after a record year of oil production in the US, would come on top of the expansion of oil and gas drilling already initiated in California under Governor Jerry Brown.

For decades, California has been often portrayed as the nation’s “green leader.” This myth has been promulgated by the Governor’s Office, state leaders, regulatory agencies, compliant media and most importantly, by the powerful oil industry itself. In reality, Brown expanded both onshore and offshore drilling in California during his third and fourth terms as Governor.

A review of state permitting records in the report “The Sky’s The Limit: California,” shows that more than 21,000 drilling permits were issued during the Brown administration. These wells include over 200 new offshore wells approved between 2012 and 2016, according to Department of Conservation data analyzed by the Fractracker Alliance.

In addition, the CA Governor currently controls 4 times as many offshore wells as Trump. Brown last year called Trump’s plan to expand federal offshore oil drilling leases “short-sighted and reckless. However, a website – www.BrownvTrumpOilMap.com — shows Brown controls four times more oil wells in state waters than those Trump controls in federal waters, according to Consumer Watchdog.

Offshore wells in state waters controlled by the Brown Administration total 5460, versus 1429 offshore wells in federal waters controlled by the Trump administration. Federal waters are those three nautical miles or more off California’s coast.

Environmental justice, conservation and public interest groups responded positively to a key sentence in the “May Revision” of Governor Gavin Newsom’s California state budget regarding transitioning the state from fossil fuels.

“The May Revision also recognizes the need for careful study and planning to decrease demand and supply of fossil fuels, while managing the decline in a way that is economically responsible and sustainable,” the sentence states.

“The fossil fuel-based economy has come at the grave cost of the health and safety of communities next to oil and gas operations, and we appreciate Governor Newsom’s important first steps toward a fossil fuel phaseout in California,” said Gladys Limón, Executive Director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “We hope the Governor will prioritize relieving frontline communities of the unconscionable burdens they currently face by instituting a commonsense health and safety buffer, and continue to invest in transitioning impacted workers into high-wage jobs to ensure they can thrive in the new energy economy.”

Newsom has taken no specific actions to date regarding reversing the expansion of oil and gas drilling in California, although he did take a “No Oil Money” pledge at the beginning of his campaign for Governor.

Maximum Pressure in the Strait of Hormuz

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:48

Hegemons are never going to sound too sensible when they lock horns or joust in spats of childish anger.  Power corrupts, not merely in terms of perspective but language, and making sense about the next move, the next statement, is bound to be challenging.  Otherwise justified behaviour can be read as provocative; retaliatory moves duly rattle and disturb.

The Iran-US standoff is finding a surge of increments, provocations and howlers.  Since the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) last year, Tehran has gnawed and scratched at the arrangements.  Threats to close the Strait of Hormuz as a retaliation for frustrating Iranian oil sales have been made.  President Hassan Rouhani last week made it clear that the Islamic republic would scale back on certain JCPOA commitments. Limits on building up stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and heavy water would be abandoned.  A 60-day period has been stipulated in the hope that the E3 (Britain, France and Germany), China and Russia provide relief for the Iranian oil and banking sector.  More suspensions of compliance orders threaten to follow if the powers do not muck in.

Despite not being part of the JCPOA anymore, the Trump administration persists in sticking its oar in the matter.  In May 3, the State Department explicitly warned it would sanction individuals and entities involved in swapping permitted uranium (enriched or natural) with Iran.  Nor would excess heavy water limits be permitted.

With such moves to strangle Iran’s economic feelers, it is little wonder that Rouhani has called on “surgery” to be performed on the JCPOA, one far more effectual than “the painkiller pills of the last year”.  Such a process, he promised, was “for saving the deal, not destroying it.”

News this week that Saudi Arabian oil tankers had been sabotaged near the Strait of Hormuz had its effect, even if the Trump administration has yet to pin its colours to the claim that Iran is responsible. Give it time, and not much at that. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “The assessment, while not conclusive, was the first suggestion by any nation that Iran was responsible for the attack”.

To reporters in the Oval Office, Trump was keen to make his usual remarks about happiness, or its absence, if things turned out to be darker than he thought. “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens, I can tell you that.”  What, pressed reporters, did the president mean by a “bad problem”? “You can figure it out for yourself.  They know what I mean by it.”

Brian Hook, the US State Department’s special envoy on Iran, has been doing the circuit in Europe with Washington’s allies, hoping to stir some action against the meddling mullahs in a campaign of “maximum pressure”.  “Everything we are doing,” Hook tried to reason with the Sunday Times, “is defensive.”  Secretary of State Mark Pompeo also journeyed to Brussels to stir the matter.  According to Hook, “The secretary shared information and intelligence with allies and discussed the multiple plot vectors emerging from Iran.”  What a boon Iran is proving to be for the parched hawks, an endless well of threat, much of it imaginary, to draw upon in the hope of actual military engagement.

National Security Advisor John Bolton is making do with the situation, creating much mischief, turning the furniture and belongings of the entire diplomatic stable inside out like a brat in search of attention. He blames Iran, naturally, for “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings”.  As is the manner with all chicken hawks, he craves the blood of others and is not shy pushing it.  The problem with this attitude is that having a playmate such as Iran is bound to get you, and your fellow playmates, hurt on the way.  The school mistress should intervene, but her sense, and sensibility, is yet to be found.

Washington is certainly keen to make it a bad problem, a habit it has fallen into during stretches of its violent and imperial history. At Bolton’s instigation, an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers are being deployed to the Persian Gulf on the supposedly clear grounds that Iran and its proxies are readying themselves for a strike on US forces in the region, bringing to mind similar provocations sought to stoke a potential conflict.

The planning of Operation Prairie Fire was one such ignominious example, designed to provoke Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya into a military incident in 1986.  In what seemed to be a true overegging of the pudding, US Navy Task Force 60 involved three aircraft carriers operating in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. They were involved in exercises falling within that most stretched of terms: freedom-of-navigation.  Prairie Fire turned out to be a bellicose affair, with Task Force 60 put on essentially a wartime footing.  Military exercises were duly conducted to stir the beast; patrols along the coast were conducted.  The beast responded with some six surface-to-air missiles.  A Libyan patrol boat was duly obliterated with some satisfaction, along with two more naval vessels and a missile site in Sirte. “We now consider all approaching Libyan forces,” claimed the White House note with some smugness, “to have hostile intent.”

US-Iran encounters in the Strait of Hormuz are also not new: the Iran-Iraq War, one which saw the US throw in its lot with Saddam Hussein’s invading armies against the Iranian Republic, featured a fair share of attacks on merchant shipping.  The importance of the Strait to shipping and international traffic is again coming into play.

Trump has remained inflexible and obstinate regarding Iran. (In his wheeler-dealer world, every crook with a silver lining must be matched by a Lucifer who will be given no quarter.)  In these calculations, the silver lining of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un shines far brighter than any the Islamic Republic of Iran might have.  But by any referee’s estimate of recent conduct by Trump and company, Washington must be seen as responsible for the most aggravating fouls.

Baiting Iran

Thu, 2019-05-16 15:45

Ever since Donald Trump became president, regime change in Iran has been a prominent US aim. Trump began by backing out of the nuclear deal and imposing harsh sanctions, setting the stage for a confrontational policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton followed Trump’s lead, repeatedly denouncing Iran’s leadership, calling for Iranians to rise up against it, and issuing vague warnings of US punishment.

This US policy is absolutely inexcusable: It is aggressive and baseless, oblivious to diplomacy, and guaranteed to cause untold hardship and chaos for the people of the region.

I have argued a number of times that Iran, not North Korea, is Trump’s principal national security target. Trump’s extraordinary patience with Kim Jong-un, and willingness to go to two summits with him that have gotten nowhere, can be understood as having given him time to focus on “maximum pressure” on Iran. In his mind, the North Korea “threat” has been deterred; let South Korea deal with it. US interests in the Middle East are far more important anyway, and with Iran Trump has the firm backing of two “great friends”: Saudi Arabia’s criminal crown prince and Israel’s newly reelected prime minister, who is as much a militaristic far-right hawk as Bolton and Pompeo. If war broke out, the Saudis and Israelis would be expected to provide on-the-ground personnel, permitting the US to rely on air and naval power.

What Trump is now doing is baiting Iran with war talk and deployments of overwhelming military power. Bolton, well known for having wanted to attack Iran years ago, and defeated in his attempts to lure Trump into using force against Venezuela, is looking for a way to sucker Tehran into creating a “provocation” that would provide a pretext for a US “counterattack.” The public US position is not credible: “The president has been clear, the United States does not seek military conflict with Iran, and he is open to talks with Iranian leadership,” Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, said Monday in an email. “However, Iran’s default option for 40 years has been violence, and we are ready to defend U.S. personnel and interests in the region.”

Talks, really? Trump “open to talks” after tearing up a negotiated deal with Iran that took many years to conclude—a deal that is working? Defend US personnel from what? Defend what interests, other than those of the Saudis and the Israelis who have been itching to eliminate the rule of Iran’s Shia clergy for decades? If there is a “default option,” it is the US preference under Trump for resolving international disputes by threats rather than engagement. The US Congress, the European Union, Russia, and China must act fast to isolate Trump and insist that their interests lie in continued trade with Iran and respect for its sovereignty.

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