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In Praise of Budget Deficits

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:53

With the presentation of his 2020 budget, Donald Trump has been getting a ton of grief over the large current and projected future budget deficits. While his budget shows the deficit coming down, this is due to large cuts to programs that middle income and lower income people depend upon, like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. His projections for falling deficits also depend on assuming a faster growth rate than just about anyone thinks is possible. So realistically, we are looking at a story of large deficits for the indefinite future.

While this is supposed to be really bad, people who pay attention to economic data may think otherwise. If we look at the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) projections for the unemployment rates for 2018, 2019, and 2020, from 2017, before the tax cut was passed, they were respectively, 4.2 percent, 4.4 percent, and 4.7 percent. If we look at CBO’s latest projections for these three years, they are 3.9 percent (actual)  3.5 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively. The difference between the latest projections and the pre-tax cut projections imply a gain of more than 2 million in employment in each of these years.

These two million additional people being employed is a big deal not only for these workers and their families but for tens of millions of other workers who have more bargaining power as a result of a tighter labor market. And, we’re supposed to think this is a bad thing because of the deficit and debt? Tell the children of the people who are now working because of the larger deficit or whose parents have higher pay how the debt is a burden on them.

Of course, giving a big tax cut to corporations and rich people was just about the worst way imaginable to boost the economy. The promised investment boom is not happening. The boost is coming because rich people are spending a portion of their tax cuts and their increased share buybacks and dividends. But we could have also given the money to middle-income and lower-income people who would have been happy to spend it as well.

Even better, we could have used to money to promote clean energy, retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient, and subsidizing mass transit. Our children have much more to fear from a wrecked environment than government debt.

In any case, the debt/deficit whiners should acknowledge the substantial economic gains from stimulating the economy with a larger deficit. It is a really big deal for a large number of people at the middle and bottom of the income distribution.

This article originally appeared on Dean Baker’s blog.

Categories: News for progressives

Want Your Kids to Make it Big in the World of Elite Education in the U.S.?

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:53

Ever wonder how dangerous nincompoops like Donald Trump and George W. Bush were admitted to, and graduated from, so-called good schools? Forget the legacy shtick and pay close attention to the latest celebrity and wealthy individuals’ scheme that involved about 50 people (of whom 33 were parents of students)  who allegedly encouraged and facilitated the most nefarious and fraudulent means to get kids into schools like Stanford and Yale.

Some of the tactics supposedly cooked up by the business Edge College & Career Network involved bribes to college coaches, doctoring photos to make applicants look like college-bound athletes when the student in question never played a particular sport on a competitive basis, and having stand-ins take college entrance examinations. William “Rick” Singer, 58, was charged by federal prosecutors in Boston with running the racketeering scheme through his Edge College & Career Network, which served a roster of clients including chief executives and Hollywood actors,” (Guardian, March 12, 2019).

How I could have used that kind of help on the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude (not an aptitude test in any case) Test way back when! Although no colleges or universities have been implicated in this scam, one former soccer coach at Yale University, Rudy Meredith, is alleged to have taken a $400,000 bribe from the family of a “Yale applicant,” (Guardian, March 12, 2019). For a concise reading of this who’s who in the college-entrance scheme, peruse “How did the US college admissions scheme work and who was charged,” (Guardian, March 12, 2019).

It’s obvious what’s going on here in a society that has confused academic and professional accomplishment with money, status, and power. It’s common knowledge that a person’s pedigree often determines their earning power and earning power and status are generally determined by where a person attends college and the connections that one makes for life at these elite schools. There’s no Horatio Alger tale here; no rags to riches scheme, but rather, a riches to riches scheme. Since some participants in this cooked-up plot were known “celluloid” celebrities, ever wonder why the same faces and names appear in film after film in the movie industry? It’s all about name recognition and the stable of talent that repeatedly gets most of the work. Go to any summer stock theatre and it doesn’t take long to figure out that most with talent never make it to the level of those who walk the red carpet again and again and again, ad nauseam.

While Rome burns, the kids from wealthy families jump off the burning ship to an island of guaranteed wealth and comfort that will soon be consumed by rising waters.

At about the same time the pay to play elite college and university scam unfolded, a real heartbreaker came to light at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where students have been holding a sit-in in the school’s president’s office for over 40 days (“The Fight for Hampshire College: How One School’s Financial Calamity Exposes a Crisis in Higher Ed,” Democracy Now, March 12, 2019). Hampshire College is a well-respected liberal arts school in western Massachusetts situated among some of the best post-secondary schools in the U.S. It is known for its liberal curriculum, dedicated staff, and a place where some educators have found sanctuary for ideas that have not always played well in the larger society.

But declining enrollment and the decline in liberal arts education across the nation, caused the school’s administration to drastically cut faculty and student acceptance numbers for the 2019-2020 academic year. And the kicker here is that long-time, dedicated faculty were mostly kept in the dark about the school’s prospects for the future.

It’s not only Hampshire College that is suffering from the demographics and values that have moved away from the importance of the liberal arts, a course of study that exposes students to an education to better comprehend the history (and humanities) of the world where they find themselves and introduces students to the analytical tools to figure out where we are all going. Readers may ask who needs that kind of education when a fortune can be made in the fossil fuel industry, betting on a gambling fortune to enable political operatives to influence policy on an international scale, or simply being the dumb figurehead of a crumbling society?

Categories: News for progressives

Trump’s Foreign Policy is Based on Confrontation and Malevolence

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:53

There is a saying in the worlds of politics and business that most people who come to prominence are those who in defeat bear malice and in victory seek revenge. It is therefore unsurprising that President Donald Trump displays both characteristics in international as well as domestic affairs, although his targets vary erratically between friend and foe.  His near-psychotic concentration on achieving the destruction of Iran is understandably malicious and revengeful, given the nature of the man, but his latest exhibitions of would-be superiority involve allies, which even for Trump is dramatically misguided.

The Trumpian United States has few friends, mainly because in his two years in the White House Trump has gone out of his way to belittle, demean and insult long-standing partners and antagonise those who may have been considering seeking closer ties with Washington.

His announcement last December that “America is respected again” was wide of the mark, because, unfortunately, America has become a global joke — but a dangerous joke whose president may be a raving booby, but is still powerful and appears intent on upsetting what little tranquillity remains in this turmoil-stricken world.

One recent diatribe was unprecedented in length, vulgarity and volatility. When he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2 he set a new low for absurdity in what the commentator Stephen Colbert described as being an “epically weird” harangue which The Atlantic said was the longest presidential oration in history.  Moving on from this bizarre performance, Trump turned to international affairs and, as Politico reported on March 5, “kicked India and Turkey out of a decades-old US program that allows developing countries to export thousands of goods to the United States without paying duties,” in a scheme known as the Generalized System of Preferences or GSP.

The reasons given by the US Trade Representative for Trump’s orders were that India had failed “to provide the United States with assurances that it will provide equitable and reasonable access to its markets in numerous sectors” while “Turkey’s termination from the GSP follows a finding that it is sufficiently economically developed and should no longer benefit from preferential market access to the United States market.”

In the case of India, Washington has been trying for years to wean India away from its defence and trade association with Russia, concurrent with encouraging it to join the Pentagon in confronting China.  The US Defence Department stated in September 2018 that “A decade ago, US arms sales to India amounted to virtually nothing. Today, the United States is the second-largest arms supplier to India, and US officials say they hope to increase that business,” and the US focus on China has resulted in stronger military ties, with a joint statement last December indicating the intention “to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation as a key pillar of the strategic partnership between India and the US.”

Washington has been intensifying its confrontation with China in the South China sea, where in addition to overflights by nuclear-capable bombers it conducts what are absurdly called “freedom of navigation patrols” in waters where there has never been a single case of interference with any of the vast number of merchant ships that pass though every year.  The rationale is given as support for the Convention on the Law of the Sea which, most ironically, Washington refuses to ratify.  Nevertheless, the US has been trying hard to persuade the Indian government that it should contribute warships to join US patrols in the South China Sea, which, so far, India has refused to do. So it might be thought that the Trump Administration would do its best to encourage India to buy more US weapons and to cooperate in its anti-China antics (however unwise that would be) by keeping their relationship friction-free.  But this isn’t the way Trump works.

Washington’s unfortunate timing of the announcement that it will penalise India in trade arrangements extends to India’s domestic circumstances, because there are national elections due in April, and the party of Prime Minister Modi (an arch-nationalist and no mean war-drummer himself) was already having difficulties, and is looking shakier day-by-day. Indeed the whole bizarre affair was well summed-up by Professor Harsh Pant of King’s College London when he said “the discourse in this country has been that America needs India to balance China, and the question will be: Why is America doing this to India?”

But there doesn’t seem to be a sensible answer to that question.

The same holds for Washington’s treatment of NATO ally Turkey, whose President said on February 26 that Ankara might buy the US Patriot missile system “if you [the US] provide us good conditions.” But it’s blindingly obvious that the US declaration that Turkey “should no longer benefit from preferential market access to the United States market” is not going to make President Erdoğan keen on buying Patriot missiles — or anything else stamped “made in the USA.”

There is a Russia factor in the US-Turkey relationship, because Ankara has placed an order for world-beating S-400 surface-to-air missiles, which has riled Washington, as has India’s forthcoming acquisition of the same system. The Military-Industrial Establishment in Washington made its feelings known on March 8, when chief Pentagon spokesman Charlie Summers told reporters that “If Turkey takes the S-400, there would be grave consequences in terms of our relationship, military relationship with them.”  But this doesn’t seem to worry President Erdoğan, who had already made it clear that “The S-400 is a done deal, there can be no turning back. We have reached an agreement with the Russians. We will move toward a joint production. Perhaps after the S-400, we will go for the S-500.”

The signals are that Turkey is moving further away from the US and is possibly considering leaving NATO.  After all, the US has torn up favourable trade arrangements, and NATO has done nothing for Turkey which is working with Russia in many spheres. The most recent example of regional military cooperation was on March 6-8 when four Turkish and Russian vessels conducted a minor exercise in the Black Sea, aimed at demonstrating and sharing techniques involved in mine-avoidance.

Trust is fostered by cooperation based on preparedness to understand differing viewpoints. Even more importantly, it is stimulated by adopting pragmatic policies aimed at establishing confidence, rather than by ceaselessly confronting and confounding others.  For so long as Trump considers that “Make America Great Again” depends on confrontation and malevolence then his country will achieve neither trust nor cooperation world-wide.  And when he casts allies aside with sneering condescension, taking revenge for what he considers to be unwarranted favouritism in the past, he is destroying America’s path to Greatness.

A version of this piece appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on March 12. 



Categories: News for progressives

Pity the Nation: War Spending is Bankrupting America

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:53

“Pity the nation whose people are sheep

And whose shepherds mislead them

Pity the nation whose leaders are liars

Whose sages are silenced

And whose bigots haunt the airwaves

Pity the nation that raises not its voice

Except to praise conquerors

And acclaim the bully as hero

And aims to rule the world

By force and by torture…

Pity the nation oh pity the people

who allow their rights to erode

and their freedoms to be washed away…”

—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet

War spending is bankrupting America.

Our nation is being preyed upon by a military industrial complex that is propped up by war profiteers, corrupt politicians and foreign governments.

America has so much to offer—creativity, ingenuity, vast natural resources, a rich heritage, a beautifully diverse populace, a freedom foundation unrivaled anywhere in the world, and opportunities galore—and yet our birthright is being sold out from under us so that power-hungry politicians, greedy military contractors, and bloodthirsty war hawks can make a hefty profit at our expense.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your hard-earned tax dollars are being used for national security and urgent military needs.

It’s all a ruse.

You know what happens to tax dollars that are left over at the end of the government’s fiscal year? Government agencies—including the Department of Defense—go on a “use it or lose it” spending spree so they can justify asking for money in the next fiscal year.

We’re not talking chump change, either.

We’re talking $97 billion worth of wasteful spending.

According to an investigative report by Open the Government, among the items purchased during the last month of the fiscal year when government agencies go all out to get rid of these “use it or lose it” funds: Wexford Leather club chair ($9,241), china tableware ($53,004), alcohol ($308,994), golf carts ($673,471), musical equipment including pianos, tubas, and trombones ($1.7 million), lobster tail and crab ($4.6 million), iPhones and iPads ($7.7 million), and workout and recreation equipment ($9.8 million).

So much for draining the swamp.

Anyone who suggests that the military needs moremoney is either criminally clueless or equally corrupt, because the military isn’t suffering from lack of funding—it’s suffering from lack of proper oversight.

Where President Trump fits into that scenario, you decide.

Trump may turn out to be, as policy analyst Stan Collender warned, “the biggest deficit- and debt-increasing president of all time.”

Rest assured, however, that if Trump gets his way—to the tune of a $4.7 trillion budget that digs the nation deeper in debt to foreign creditors, adds $750 billion for the military budget, and doubles the debt growth that Trump once promised to erase—the war profiteers (and foreign banks who “own” our debt) will be raking in a fortune while America goes belly up.

This is basic math, and the numbers just don’t add up.

As it now stands, the U.S. government is operating in the negative on every front: it’s spending far more than what it makes (and takes from the American taxpayers) and it is borrowing heavily (from foreign governments and Social Security) to keep the government operating and keep funding its endless wars abroad.

Certainly, nothing about the way the government budgets its funds puts America’s needs first.

The nation’s educational system is pathetic (young people are learning nothing about their freedoms or their government). The infrastructure is antiquated and growing more outdated by the day. The health system is overpriced and inaccessible to those who need it most. The supposedly robust economy is belied by the daily reports of businesses shuttering storefrontsand declaring bankruptcy. And our so-called representative government is a sham.

If this is a formula for making America great again, it’s not working.

The White House wants taxpayers to accept that the only way to reduce the nation’s ballooning deficit is by cutting “entitlement” programs such as Social Security and Medicare, yet the glaring economic truth is that at the end of the day, it’s the military industrial complex—and not the sick, the elderly or the poor—that is pushing America towards bankruptcy.

We have become a debtor nation, and the government is sinking us deeper into debt with every passing day that it allows the military industrial complex to call the shots.

Simply put, the government cannot afford to maintain its over-extended military empire.

Money is the new 800-pound gorilla,” remarked a senior administration official involved in Afghanistan. “It shifts the debate from ‘Is the strategy working?’ to ‘Can we afford this?’ And when you view it that way, the scope of the mission that we have now is far, far less defensible.” Or as one commentator noted, “Foreclosing the future of our country should not be confused with defending it.”

To be clear, the U.S government’s defense spending is about one thing and one thing only: establishing and maintaining a global military empire.

Although the U.S. constitutes only 5% of the world’s population, America boasts almost 50% of the world’s total military expenditure, spending more on the military than the next 19 biggest spending nations combined.

In fact, the Pentagon spends more on war than all 50 states combinedspend on health, education, welfare, and safety.

The American military-industrial complex has erected an empire unsurpassed in history in its breadth and scope, one dedicated to conducting perpetual warfare throughout the earth.

Since 2001, the U.S. government has spent more than $4.7 trillion waging its endless wars.

Having been co-opted by greedy defense contractors, corrupt politicians and incompetent government officials, America’s expanding military empire is bleeding the country dry at a rate of more than $32 million per hour.

In fact, the U.S. government has spent more money every five seconds in Iraq than the average American earns in a year.

Then there’s the cost of maintaining and staffing the 1000-plus U.S. military bases spread around the world and policing the globe with 1.3 million U.S. troops stationed in 177 countries (over 70% of the countries worldwide).

Future wars and military exercises waged around the globe are expected to push the total bill upwards of $12 trillion by 2053.

The U.S. government is spending money it doesn’t have on a military empire it can’t afford.

As investigative journalist Uri Friedman puts it, for more than 15 years now, the United States has been fighting terrorism with a credit card, “essentially bankrolling the wars with debt, in the form of purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds by U.S.-based entities like pension funds and state and local governments, and by countries like China and Japan.”

War is not cheap, but it becomes outrageously costly when you factor in government incompetence, fraud, and greedy contractors.

As The Nation reports:

For decades, the DoD’s leaders and accountants have been perpetrating a gigantic, unconstitutional accounting fraud, deliberately cooking the books to mislead the Congress and drive the DoD’s budgets ever higher, regardless of military necessity. DoD has literally been making up numbers in its annual financial reports to Congress—representing trillions of dollars’ worth of seemingly nonexistent transactions—knowing that Congress would rely on those misleading reports when deciding how much money to give the DoD the following year.

For example, a leading accounting firm concluded that one of the Pentagon’s largest agencies “can’t account for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of spending.”

Unfortunately, the outlook isn’t much better for the spending that can be tracked.

A government audit found that defense contractor Boeing has been massively overcharging taxpayersfor mundane parts, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in overspending. As the report noted, the American taxpayer paid:

$71 for a metal pin that should cost just 4 cents; $644.75 for a small gear smaller than a dime that sells for $12.51: more than a 5,100 percent increase in price. $1,678.61 for another tiny part, also smaller than a dime, that could have been bought within DoD for $7.71: a 21,000 percent increase. $71.01 for a straight, thin metal pin that DoD had on hand, unused by the tens of thousands, for 4 cents: an increase of over 177,000 percent.

That price gouging has become an accepted form of corruption within the American military empire is a sad statement on how little control “we the people” have over our runaway government.

Mind you, this isn’t just corrupt behavior. It’s deadly, downright immoral behavior.

The U.S. government is not making the world any safer.It’s making the world more dangerous. It is estimated that the U.S. military drops a bomb somewhere in the world every 12 minutes. Since 9/11, the United States government has directly contributed to the deaths of around 500,000. Every one of those deaths was paid for with taxpayer funds.

The U.S. government is not making America any safer. It’s exposing American citizens to alarming levels of blowback, a CIA term referring to the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s international activities. Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant, repeatedly warned that America’s use of its military to gain power over the global economy would result in devastating blowback.

Those who call the shots in the government—those who push the military industrial complex’s agenda—those who make a killing by embroiling the U.S. in foreign wars—have not heeded Johnson’s warning.

The U.S. government is not making American citizens any safer. The repercussions of America’s military empire have been deadly, not only for those innocent men, women and children killed by drone strikes abroad but also those here in the United States.

The9/11 attacks were blowback. The Boston Marathon Bombing was blowback. The attempted Times Square bomber was blowback. The Fort Hood shooter, a major in the U.S. Army, was blowback.

The transformation of America into a battlefield is blowback.

All of this carnage is being carried out with the full support of the American people, or at least with the proxy that is our taxpayer dollars.

The government is destabilizing the economy, destroying the national infrastructure through neglect and a lack of resources, and turning taxpayer dollars into blood money with its endless wars, drone strikes and mounting death tolls.

As Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, under a military empire, war and its profiteering will always take precedence over the people’s basic human needs.

Similarly, President Dwight Eisenhower warned us not to let the profit-driven war machine endanger our liberties or democratic processes.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. […] Is there no other way the world may live?”

We failed to heed Eisenhower’s warning.

The illicit merger of the armaments industry and the government that Eisenhower warned against has come to represent perhaps the greatest threat to the nation today.

It’s not sustainable, of course.

Eventually, inevitably, military empires fall and fail by spreading themselves too thin and spending themselves to death.

It happened in Rome. It’s happening again.

The America empire is already breaking down.

We’re already witnessing a breakdown of society on virtually every front, and the government is ready.

For years now, the government has worked with the military to prepare for widespread civil unrest brought about by “economic collapse, loss of functioning political and legal order, purposeful domestic resistance or insurgency, pervasive public health emergencies, and catastrophic natural and human disasters.”

For years now, the government has been warning against the dangers of domestic terrorism, erecting surveillance systems to monitor its own citizens, creating classification systems to label any viewpoints that challenge the status quo as extremist, and training law enforcement agencies to equate anyone possessing anti-government views as a domestic terrorist.

We’re approaching critical mass.

As long as “we the people” continue to allow the government to wage its costly, meaningless, endless wars abroad, the American homeland will continue to suffer: our roads will crumble, our bridges will fail, our schools will fall into disrepair, our drinking water will become undrinkable, our communities will destabilize, our economy will tank, crime will rise, and our freedoms will suffer.

So who will save us?

As I make clear in my book, Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we’d better start saving ourselves: one by one, neighbor to neighbor, through grassroots endeavors, by pushing back against the police state where it most counts—in our communities first and foremost, and by holding fast to what binds us together and not allowing politics and other manufactured nonrealities to tear us apart.

Start today. Start now. Do your part.

Literally and figuratively, the buck starts and stops with “we the people.”


Categories: News for progressives

“Maria! Maria! It Was Maria That Destroyed Us!” The Human Story

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:53

Wilma’s house.

This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water

— Donald Trump, INDEPENDENT, September 29, 2017

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017. One and a half years later, many of the island’s more than 3 million U.S. citizens continue to be forgotten and ignored by the federal government.

Earlier this year, Stan Cox and I stayed in the Sierra Brava neighborhood of Salinas, Puerto Rico for three weeks. We spent part of that time documenting the post-Maria situation there.

Superpower Neglect: Casting Shadows, Still

Salinas is like an upside-down ghost town with signs of the destruction of the 2017 hurricane still casting shadows everywhere. On shuttered clinics; the empty streets; the now drought-ridden river Río Nigua, which during the hurricane was overflowing the banks…

…on a flowering mango tree, seemingly leaning to shelter a broken, abandoned home; on Wilma’s broken blue & grey home, leaning to one side, and a pretty blue & silver wind chime hanging on the front door; on the face of Wilma’s pensive 4-year-old grandson Xander Martinez, who regularly suffers from mold allergies…

…on a lifeless splash of brightly colored, abandoned toys; on Wilma Miranda Ramos’ broken ceiling and the patchwork of daylight shining through the blue plastic tarp that does not prevent rain from pouring in; on her wobbly floor with patched-up cracks and Xander’s yellow shoes; on a fading photo of Wilma’s son Juan Carlos, who lives in Hawaii and serves proudly in the United States Army, and daughter Jomarie…

…and on Wilma’s words:

I have a stitched-together roof, but as I have nowhere to go I’m still here by the grace of God… It was really incredible that I survived it, and also waiting for the arrival of the lights for months, enduring the mosquitoes, the heat, is unforgettable. I am one of those who did not obtain help to fix the house… Staying here in these conditions is not easy. But since I have my daughter and grandson of four years here with me, living here and not in the street is worth gold…

Superpower Neglect: A Theater of Injustice

The detritus of superpower neglect is something to behold. But no matter how much we residents of the mainland are trying to ignore it, the stillness of that detritus is screaming at us.

It screams at us through the teachers who lost jobs when nine area schools closed down, and the overwhelming desire of some of their students not to stay in Puerto Rico; the kids who saw all that rain start falling on September 20 and wanted to go out and play in it, not knowing what horrors would follow…

…through a small used-to-be clinic where one doctor used to show up once a week, and which now looks like a clinic out of a Dr. Seuss book with cactuses growing on the roof, and comején (termites) on the outside wall eating up whatever is left of the little structure…

Orlando Guzman Vasqez.

…through the larger-than-life figure of Orlando Guzman Vasquez who turned 74 last month, and who broke his knee when he fell from his roof while trying to fix it (when he got tired of waiting for help with restoration), and his words:

I born over here. This is my grandfather’s house. I have the papers for the house. My father is still alive. He’s 98 years old. He lives in Connecticut… I worked in the United States for 40 years, in New York City, in construction… I lost everything in the house, the furniture, television, everything. They don’t pay me nothing for nothing inside…. but [having a roof over his head is] better than nothing. I gonna try to finish this with the money I collect, It’s not enough money… [He points to his mango tree and says] when I’m hungry I eat the mango and drink some water, and that’s it.

Socoro Rolon.

And, through Socorro Rolon’s words:

Everything was destroyed by the hurricane and just stayed the same way… Lookat the house, it is destroyed… and everything was wet… nothing could be saved…What can I do? Just keep going until God knows when, what else can I do?… We were helped by FEMA for the rent, but FEMA didn’t help with the interior and the other things… The house is still like that… We have been paying what we’ve been able to, because FEMA doesn’t help anymore… and I have a sickness in my ears… The hurricane, it destroyed, destroyed half the world over here. It took the street, and didn’t spare anyoneMaria! Maria! nos destruyó Maria! (Maria! Maria! it was Maria that destroyed us!)

Superpower Neglect: There’s Something About a Neighbor

The United States government would rather have us remain silent about who we might meet with and talk to in Puerto Rico about Hurricane Maria, the destruction it caused, and how the mainland responded. Such as always-smiling Fela Suren who says she’s “80-something,” and doesn’t wish to see anything like another Maria ever again. She laughs and adds that she wants to go to the United States…

…or remain silent about Fela’s undrinkable green tap water that she says she only bathes with; or of her roofless, destroyed home that includes a makeshift bedroom in her kitchen with a boarded window…

Victoria Febás.

…or about Victoria Febás, who has a sticker next to the rippling wall-paint showing signs of water seepage in her house, that says ‘There’s something about a soldier.’ Victoria’s neighbor, who was living across the street, had to leave because he, like many, couldn’t find a job in Sierra Brava. She said that he did a lot for Victoria. But now she has to wait for her daughter to come from San Juan to even go to the supermarket. “There’s something about a soldier” works great in the U.S. mainland where cowards make the rules and young citizens like her son Ramón (who, like Juan Carlos is in the U.S. army) who fought in Afghanistan serve and die for them. But in the island territory of Puerto Rico, “There’s something about a neighbor” rings more true.

…or about Madeline’s grandmother, 78-year-old Milagros Colón, whose old family home in La Plena, along with her current home in Sierra Brava were destroyed by the hurricane.

Fela’s house.

Or the words of Madeline Flores Tenazoa, our short-term neighbor, guide and translator:

The tree fell [through the roof] and the water came inside from the river and [Milagros] lost everything. They [FEMA] came, but my grandmother she doesn’t speak English. How’s she gonna talk with him. How?”

Madeline says that the tree was on Milagros’ bedroom side of the house and when it fell, the bedroom window came crashing down on her grandmother’s bed.

Thank God she wasn’t here! [when it happened.] I was in the United States, but I called my grandmother [and told her] you please don’t stay in the house… You need to go [to her uncles apartment on the second floor]!

If you see what happened when Trump came, and, he laugh, everybody laugh, with the paper towel. Ah, you can get this [paper towels], like… this?! You can clean your nose with this, but how I’m gonna to repair my house?… A lot of people were like ‘ha! ha! ha! oh, this is funny!’ It’s not funny. You are bullying the people… When the hurricane passed, a lot of kids’ parents [couldn’t] buy clothes again. They can’t buy backpacks, notebooks… and a lot of kids go like, ‘oh, your mom can’t buy you this? I have this!’…We need to stop. But it’s the same when you see in the news the government behaved the same with us! You try to tell the kids, ‘you need to stop [bullying]’, but they see the news, they see stuff in Facebook and they want to repeat…”

Now that 18-month-old Hurricane Maria doesn’t make the news anymore — she, and others, believe that people “over there” (on the mainland) “say ah! maybe the people they got everything again. No! No! No! They need… five years more to come up. If everything continue like this? maybe 10!” finishes Madeline.

All photos by Priti Gulati Cox.

Categories: News for progressives

On Our Knees

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:50

I have been wrong at CounterPunch 26.5 times. One example: writing that Hillary Clinton would win in 2016. After the election of Donald Trump, plenty of you emailed, chastising me for the mistake. Occasionally, and for a split second only, I wish Clinton had won. More on this later.

Recall another Donald now: Rumsfeld. Then remember when this particular D famously said, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might wish to have or want.”

Well, you go to the voting booth with the candidate you have, not the candidate you might wish to have or want.

As business types and politicians announce their aspirations, I don’t see anyone… Wait, what’s that word so many used to describe Obama? Transformational. No, there is no one who would transform foreign and domestic policy enough to remove us from the brink of many precipices—the most urgent of which is extinction.

Did you believe in Obama? Did you think he’d address climate change in any meaningful way to heal our oceans, our soil, our atmosphere? Did you believe he’d hold George W Bush accountable for war crimes? Or like me, did you know as soon as he said he was opposed only to dumb and rash wars and when he tapped Joe Biden as his running mate, that same Joe Biden who said you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, that an Obama presidency would continue the craven Bush agenda?

That same Joe Biden who’s polling higher than anyone else who’s inflicted himself/herself on our consciousness and conscience. Dear God, I shake my head with no, no, no, no, and at the risk of being accused of ageism, I say, “Biden is too old.” So is Sanders, so is Trump, and so is Hillary Clinton—and yes, she has threatened to enter the field if the Democrats move too far to the left.

Too far to the left? Following even a few of Jesus Christ’s tenets is Leftist anarchy according to Republican Congressmen and women and most Dem Congressmen and women.

And old age: I have intimate knowledge of it. When I say that the above contenders are too old, trust that I know whereof I speak. If I have a sleepless night, I’m worthless the next day. My head buzzes, synapses backfire. No onward enthusiasm but instead a day of looking forward to bedtime while dreading a repeat of the night before. If sleep deprived when young, I could dance on tabletops. And did.

Up for consideration: One of my children says if Bernie Sanders isn’t nodding off or drooling, he’ll vote for him, because Sanders has moved the narrative to the left. The other son agrees—told me he’d vote for Sanders even if Sanders were 20 years older.

You go to bed with the thoughts you have, not the thoughts you might wish to have or want. For some time, my thoughts have settled on Earth’s poor health. I won’t be around to witness the bleak landscape my imagination conjures, but my children and grandchildren will. The children, all the little children of the world. This song I learned so many years ago in church loops in my mind, accompanied by foreground images of mass migrations, people moving from uninhabitable areas in search of locations with potable water, food, breathable air. Until these places, also, become unlivable.

I was thinking of wrapping this up until my brain sent a successful signal reminding that I said “more on this later” about occasionally wishing Clinton had won. I really don’t. If Clinton were Madam President, we wouldn’t see nearly as much outrage—the necessary degree required to move us from the immorality of capitalism to the morality of socialism. It’s shameful though that Trump’s naked racism and oozing disdain for anyone but the ultra-privileged are the requisites for an authentic resistance to inequality.

You go with what you have, not with what you might wish you have or want. Go with the knowledge that often you have to be brought to your knees before you are motivated to stand. At this moment in our history, we are on our knees.

Categories: News for progressives

A Landscape Lewis and Clark Would Recognize is Under Threat

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:50

The Northern Rockies are surely near the top of the list of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. Its ranges contain one of the last great expanses of biodiversity left in the continental United States, including most of the species that were there when Lewis and Clark first passed through in 1805 on their journey of discovery.

These attributes alone would be reason enough to protect this region. Instead, the Trump administration has been pushing oil, gas, mining, and logging projects, and removing legal protections from threatened species. To be fair, the Obama administration also pursued some of those actions. But the current administration’s zealotry threatens the region’s wild landscape and rich biodiversity. It’s up to all of us who care about the environment, science and preserving wild places for our children to resist such efforts.

Legislation recently introduced in the House would protect a vast swath of this region. But until that law is enacted, we’ll have to rely on the judiciary. Along with other organizations and Indian tribes in the Northern Rockies, our group, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, has been fighting threats to the region in court. Fortunately, this past year has brought some encouraging news. But the court system alone will not provide the protection this area needs and deserves.

In August, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit voted unanimously to halt a planned 125-square-mile logging and burning project in the Payette National Forest in western Idaho. The court concluded that parts of the project ran counter to the forest’s management plan.

Under that project, so many trees would have been cut that the forest would have no longer provided elk or deer with the cover they need. Forest streams would have been filled with sediment from bulldozers building miles of new logging roads — further damaging the native fisheries for which the Northern Rockies are internationally famous. According to the United States Forest Service’s own projections, taxpayers would have spent more than $12 million to subsidize the logging.

On the same day of the Ninth Circuit ruling against the Payette project, a Federal District Court judge in Montana, Dana Christensen, granted a request by Alliance for the Wild Rockies and two other groups for an injunction temporarily stopping a logging and road building project along the northwestern border of Yellowstone National Park. Nearly 16 miles of logging roads would have been bulldozed through grizzly bear habitat. The judge concluded that the Forest Service had failed to consider how the project would affect the Canada lynx, which has been listed since 2000 as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Now the court is weighing whether to permanently block the project.

Then, in September, Judge Christensen ordered the Yellowstone-area grizzly bears restored to full protection as a threatened species. When the federal government removed the bear’s protected status in June 2017, ignoring the concerns of scientists, environmentalists and tribal leaders, the State of Wyoming started gearing up for its first grizzly hunt in more than 40 years. But Judge Christensen ruled that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had erred in removing the bear’s threatened status, siding with us and opponents of the hunt. The Interior Department is appealing this decision.

This was a particularly important ruling because the loss of protected status could have opened the bears’ habitat to mining, logging, and development. But the fight to protect the landscape and its species is far from over. With the nation’s environmental laws under all-out attack by the Trump administration, victories in the judicial branch can get us only so far.

That’s why Congress must act to protect the Northern Rockies. Legislation introduced recently in the House by Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, and soon to be introduced in the Senate by Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, would designate 23 million acres of roadless public lands in Montana, Idaho, western Wyoming, and eastern Oregon and Washington as wilderness.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would also establish a system of vital biological corridors connecting smaller ecosystems within the Northern Rockies to protect native plants and animals. Restoring over one million acres of damaged habitat and watersheds would create jobs, and taxpayers would save millions of dollars that would otherwise be spent on road-building and logging projects in which private corporations cut down our public forests.

In 1872, when Congress designated Yellowstone as the world’s first national park, America was the world leader in conservation. That reputation is fast eroding. By passing this legislation, Congress can help reverse this trend.

Our group and others have been fighting for more than a quarter of a century to protect the ecosystems of the Northern Rockies that are the rightful heritage of all Americans and generations to come. With the support of an engaged public and insistence by an independent judiciary that this administration adhere to longstanding environmental laws, we will succeed.

On June 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis climbed a bluff in what is now Chouteau County, Mont. From this vantage, he was able to see wolves, antelope, mule deer and “immense herds of buffalo.” He added, “From this height we had a most beautiful and picturesque view of the Rocky Mountains, which were perfectly covered with snow.”

They were, Lewis wrote in his journal, “an august spectacle.”

Nearly 214 years later, parts of the Northern Rockies remain as they were when Lewis first saw its peaks. We must protect them so future generations can experience the grandeur that he beheld.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Carole King is a singer, songwriter, author and environmental advocate.

This column originally appeared in The New York Times.


Categories: News for progressives

The Media-Created Front Runners

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:50

This writer makes it a habit to review CNN daily. Not because he expects responsible news reporting there, but because that particular outlet seems to provide a good overview of what the corporate-owned, government-supporting media wants the general public to know and care about. This past week, he saw the news that former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are leading in public opinion polls in the (bizarrely) crucial state of Iowa, whose caucuses will actually occur in less than one year (February 3, 2020).

Has it really come to this? Are the Democrats in the Hawkeye state really excited about two, old (76 and 77, respectively), white men? With all the talk about Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and other progressive or pseudo-progressive candidates taking center stage, are Sanders and Biden really seen as dynamic agents of change?

There seems to be a belief within the Democratic hierarchy that as long as a living, breathing, sentient being is nominated, the current occupant of the White House, the clown-like but very dangerous Donald Trump, will be sent back to reality TV-land from whence he came. This is the same thinking that brought Hillary Clinton to the party’s nomination in 2016: a fairly popular (don’t get this writer started on that topic) Democratic president was leaving office, and a repugnant, ignorant, ill-informed, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic, racist, egotistical, narcissistic blowhard was to be the GOP standard-bearer. Surely, anyone could defeat him. Of course, that upstart Bernie Sanders had to be thwarted, along with millions of idealistic younger people who had piles of enthusiasm but not of cash, and in the world of electoral politics, the latter is all that matters. So, the party sabotaged him through the use of the ‘Super Delegates’ rule (there is little that is less democratic than that rule), and through Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s dishonest machinations.

And now we are, according to the pundits at CNN, faced with the prospect of Sanders or Biden. Sanders, for all his progressive rhetoric, has a long record of supporting U.S. military interference in other nations, most recently in Syria. He is ‘PEP’ (Progressive Except for Palestine), despite throwing pro-Palestinian activists a bone in 2016 by not speaking at the AIPAC convention. And if someone is ‘PEP,’ he or she is not progressive at all.

And what of the marble-mouthed Biden, who can barely speak two sentences without somehow inserting his foot into his mouth? Another politician who supports war whenever possible (and in the halls of U.S. Congress, it’s always possible), he also panders to whatever special interest is willing to invest in his various campaigns.

But, according to CNN, these are the front-runners, the two now in the lead to defeat the chaotic clown and introduce the nation and the world to a new Utopian society.

This writer begs the readers’ forbearance, but are these really the youthful, fresh-faced new leaders that people seem so desperate for? Both Messrs. Biden and Sanders have been around the U.S. political block for multiple decades; to say that they are more than a bit shopworn is not to exaggerate.

Well, CNN does not leave us without its own perverse version of hope; that august network is forever trying to force former Texas Representative Beta O’Rourke down the unwilling Democratic throat. And as of this writing, he has tossed his hat into the ring. He is youthful, we are told! Charismatic! The new face of the Democratic Party!

Ugh! O’Rourke was unsuccessful in his quest just last year to defeat Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who is often described as the most disliked member of Congress among his peers. Cruz’s ‘likability’ rating is buried in some sub-cellar somewhere. His policies are racist and reactionary, and despite his early criticism of the orange court-jester currently referred to as ‘president,’ he basically votes lock-step with Trump’s erratic demands. And now CNN wants us to believe that this O’Rourke creature, ‘PEP’ to the nth degree, would save us all from the Great Orange One and usher in a new era of change. We might all as well sit by our chimney on Christmas Eve, awaiting the arrival of an obese man dressed in red, landing in his reindeer-powered sled on our roof, and slip down said chimney with a bag full of goodies. Believe one; believe the other.

U.S. government officials would have us believe that if a nation has elections, it is democratic. Thus their continual nonsense about the great Israeli democracy (one wonders when they will realize that most people disregarded that farce long ago), and their holding up the U.S. ‘democracy’ (read: oligarchy; kakistocracy) as a model to which the world aspires (as long as we’re discussing farces…). And every four years, U.S. citizens of voting age, if they have registered, and if they have the required ID, and if their polling places are opened at reasonable hours, and if there are sufficient poll booths at those polling places, are able to cast their vote for the elitist, out-of-touch millionaire who they want to lead the country for the next four years. Then, depending on the programming of the voting machines, and the accuracy of the ballots (let’s not forget those hanging chads from 2000), and the application of the bizarre Electoral College, perhaps the candidate who received the most votes will be declared the winner; perhaps not.

In the two most recent elections in which the will of the small percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots had their will thwarted by the Electoral College, the outcome was not pretty (we will not discuss here how the outcomes haven’t been exactly stellar when the voice of that small number of voters is actually heard). In 2000, then Vice-President Al Gore defeated former Texas Governor George Bush by 500,000 votes, but Bush was installed as president. Bush launched the ‘war on terror,’ a trillion-dollar boondoggle that rivals the equally expensive and extremely harmful ‘war on drugs.’  A recent study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs indicates that this ‘war on terror’ has cost U.S. taxpayers at least $6 trillion, and has killed at least half a million people worldwide.

Since Trump lost the presidential election in 2016 by about 3 million votes, he has maintained the ‘war on terror,’ and ratcheted up aggression towards Iran, Syria and Venezuela. The damage he has done to the Supreme Court will reverberate on U.S. society for generations.

Let this writer hasten to say that he knows that neither Gore nor Clinton would have ushered in a generation of peace and prosperity. Gore would probably have waged one or two wars, just to keep the U.S. reputation as the world’s largest bully intact. Clinton would probably have bombed Iran by now, which would have plunged the entire Middle East into a conflagration of staggering proportions. But, one thinks, that perhaps there would have been a slight reduction in bloodletting than we have seen with Bush, Obama and Trump. Because by the time Bush decided to launch the ‘war on terror,’ it was too late for anyone to back down without the risk of being seen as ‘soft on terrorism,’ which is the current political generation’s phobia, having replaced being ‘soft on communism.’

So we are now told who the frontrunners are and, if we want to be in the winner’s circle, who we must embrace. This writer will pass, and will, next year, seek another third-party candidate to vote for.

Categories: News for progressives

Bloody Sunday and the Charging of Soldier F

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:50


Justice delayed is justice denied but there may yet be a sense, however flawed, that it can be done.The decision of the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland to charge just one former British soldier with murder, arising from the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972, which left 14 people dead has been met with disappointment and it must be stated, great dignity by the relatives of those killed. The decision on Thursday to prosecute Soldier F for two murders and four attempted murders has been met with a disappointment that is understandable. That massacre fueled a cycle of violence that blighted the lives of so many people.

On that bitterly cold Sunday night, like thousands of other families in Ireland, my family was sitting by the fire, watching the 9 o’clock news, waiting for the film, about the struggle for Indian independence, at 9.30. Some people in Dublin had erected ungainly TV aerials to catch the weak signal from Britain but in Limerick, 120 miles southwest of the capital, we got our signal from the single national TV station. There had been a march in Derry that afternoon and word was filtering in of casualties. The phone rang. Dad answered it and came back to the room 10 minutes later to say the news from Derry was bad, at least four marchers had been killed by the British army. Then the first of at least three newsflashes during the film as the confirmed death toll mounted.  Six, eight, ten. The film on India’s struggle for independence, and the interrupting newsflashes seemed to play into a narrative that history was inescapable and the past was firmly rooted in the here and now. When the tumult ceased a special news program, close to midnight, gave the toll as 13 dead. The British army’s parachute regiment had shot dead 13 innocent people protesting against the internment of people without trial introduced in August. Another injured marcher died some months later. January 30, 1972. Bloody Sunday. Three days after the shootings, the British embassy in Dublin was burnt to the ground.

A report by Lord Saville, published in June, 2010, into the events that day did not mince its words. Not one person shot by the soldiers “were posing any threat of causing death or serious injury”. That same month, British prime minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that “what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong’’.

A previous report, issued by Lord Widgery in April, 1972, seem to lay the blame for the deaths on the marchers and said …

“There was no general breakdown in discipline. For the most part the soldiers acted as they did because they thought their orders required it. No order and no training can ensure that a soldier will always act wisely, as well as bravely and with initiative. The individual soldier ought not to have to bear the burden of deciding whether to open fire in confusion such as prevailed on January 30th. In the conditions prevailing in Northern Ireland, however, this is often inescapable.”

This was met with the ridicule it deserved in Ireland. The British army were sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 to protect, and were initially welcomed by, Catholics, who were being driven out of their homes.

Then this month, the House of Commons was told by the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, that the deaths caused by the British security services during what are often described as Troubles were “not crimes” but people acting “under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.

She apologized but it is hardly surprising that the speaker of those words admitted in September that before becoming Northern Ireland secretary she was ignorant of the most basic political facts.

She said she was unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists.  It seems incredible for someone so ignorant of basic facts could have been selected for the post.

“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” Bradley told House magazine a weekly publication for the Houses of Parliament.

“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.’’

For too long, Westminster ignored Dublin and turned a deaf ear to pleas to adopt a more inclusive approach and not define the core problem of Northern Ireland solely as terrorism. There was terror, sickening atrocities were committed by followers of different political persuasions, but terrorism was the consequence.

Internment without trial, Bloody Sunday, the hunger strikes, the Birmingham Six and similar injustices prolonged the Troubles and led to the British state in the eyes of the nationalist community lacking moral authority.

Seventeen soldiers were involved in the Bloody Sunday killings.

Just four British soldiers have been convicted of murders relating to the Troubles and all ultimately received royal pardons and were permitted to rejoin their regiments.

This compared with an estimated 20,000-30,000 former republican and loyalist paramilitaries who served time in prison for a range of offences, including murder.

No doubt the latest finding will be dismissed in some quarters in Britain as the pesky Irish unable to escape history. But Brexit could yet see a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.  Getting rid of the hard border was a central component of the Good Friday Agreement. The past may be another country but it is not one that Britain should hark back to.

Categories: News for progressives

All the Livelong Day      

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:50

1894 was a wild year in the United States. Robber barons and the sycophantic politicians they controlled worked overtime to maintain and expand their empires of capital.  Their practices and greed had helped create a recession that left millions of working people struggling to keep shelter and food for their families.  The response of most of the capitalist class was to reduce workers’ wages.  Labor organizers were afraid to push back too hard for fear of losing the few gains they had achieved when the economy was more flush.

One industry stood above the rest.  One industry wielded more power than any of the others.  That industry was the railroads.  Congress passed legislation granting them land and right of way through territories already settled by the white man and territories still being stolen from the original inhabitants.  Laws were passed to facilitate the railroads’ profit margin and to lessen competition. Corruption, greed and blood defined the industry.  Capitalists in other associated and non-associated enterprises took cues from the captains of the rails.

One man in particular understood the nature of the business.  His name was George W. Pullman.  His business made sleeping cars. Luxurious to travel in, the cars were the standard to attain in passenger rail travel.  Extra springs assured a smoother ride and a comfortable sleep.  Porters were specially trained to serve the needs of passengers in these cars. Virtually every train line used Pullman’s cars.  His monopoly was almost complete.

He wasn’t all greed, though.  He hired African-American men as porters—a bold move for the time.  The workers who built his cars lived in a town built by Pullman that featured social activities and intellectual pursuits, but no bars or pool halls.  In short, Pullman’s views regarding working men were similar to many people involved in the nascent Progressive movement of the period. Improvement of the human through better health practices and intellectual stimulation were key elements of this philosophy.  Doing this not only improved the workforce, it improved the capitalists’ profits.

However, all was not well in Pullman’s paradise. As the recession deepened, his desire to maintain a high level of profit meant that he would reduce wages, raise rents in the company town and lay off workers.  As this scenario intensified, the workers began to consider some kind
of labor action.  Many of them had already joined a new and fast growing association of workers known as the American Railway Union (ARU).  A response to the abuse of labor by the bosses and a refusal by the craft unions to support this group of workers, the ARU was open to almost anyone who worked on the railroad; anyone, that is but the Black porters.  That racism would come back to haunt the union in the months ahead.  In the meantime, however, thanks in large part to the efforts of union organizer Eugene Debs, the ARU was quickly becoming one of the largest unions in the United States.  Indeed, as the situation in the Pullman factory simmered slowly to a boil, the ARU was riding high on a victory against the Great Northern Railroad.

So, when it became clear that the Pullman management was not going to bend on the demands put forth by the factory workers, the ARU rank and file was ready to support them.  Despite Debs’s concerns, the vote to strike was overwhelming. Given that the union was a democratic union run by its members, Debs jumped on board and began working to coordinate and build that labor action.

This is the setting of Jack Kelly’s recently published book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in AmericaA journalist and historian, Kelly has written a riveting tale of human strength and unity in the face of arrogance and greed.  In doing so, he examines the nature of monopoly capital and its undue power. He provides a history of an unholy bond between politicians and Wall Street.  It is a bond that continues to determine the future of the United States and the world.  Simultaneously, his text makes clear it is a bond that working men and women can and must challenge to make their lives worth living.  Even in defeat, the knowledge that one struggled for what is right makes their life worthwhile.

The Edge of Anarchy is both the history of a strike and biography of the an organizer.  Kelly does not turn Debs into a hero, but acknowledges in his telling that his role in the Pullman strike was heroic.  Furthermore, it gives the reader a biography of Debs before he became a socialist and provides some of the reasons why he did.  A page-turner that reads like a top notch novel, Kelly’s book is a significant tale of arrogance and privilege versus struggle and solidarity.

Categories: News for progressives

Banking, Wells Fargo-Style

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: News for progressives

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

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:49

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

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

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

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

Narrow approval in contract vote

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

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

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

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

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

Powerful teacher-parent mobilizations

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

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

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

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

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

Example of West Virginia teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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


Categories: News for progressives

Bring Back Eisenhower Socialism!

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:49

Beware of the specter of socialism!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of us know it as Medicare.

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

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

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

Categories: News for progressives

Grounding Boeing

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: News for progressives

Why Are We Still Sycophants?

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s not pretend.









[viii] One Dimensional Man (1964)

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

Categories: News for progressives

Politicians Are Finally Catching Up on Marijuana

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: News for progressives

Disasters Don’t Discriminate, But Disaster Recovery Does

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: News for progressives

Artifial Morality

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: News for progressives

Pacific Odyssey: Goodenough Island in MacArthur’s Wake

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:44

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Of the mission that night, Doyle writes:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: News for progressives

U.S. Iran Policy: What is Great?

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: News for progressives



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