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We are the Losers: Played Again by King Donald

Wed, 2019-07-10 15:50

I spent last weekend considering the latest word salad plated by our Accidental President and enjoying some of the endless satirical memes about Revolutionary air forces and such, until they became tiresome and predictable—which was in about five minutes. (Still to come: John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and a thousand other talk show hosts taking their shots.)

You know what I concluded? We are being trolled by the Trump. Somewhere in the bowels of the White House, he is sitting on his t-rump and laughing his head off at us gullible fools. More than that, I would place my bet on his speech being scripted. You heard me. This is comic gold:

“In June of 1775, the Continental Congress created a unified Army out of the Revolutionary Forces encamped around Boston and New York, and named after the great George Washington, commander in chief … Our Army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do, and at Fort McHenry, under the rocket’s red glare it had nothing but victory. And when dawn came, their star-spangled banner waved defiant.”

My vote for the most likely S.O.B. with the delightful job of penning those words—court jester to King Donald—is Dennis Miller. Just a hunch. Whoever it is, there’s an Outrage Machine at work in close proximity to the Oval Office.

A second explanation is that, while not scripted, the off-script, cockeyed rants are planned events. They remind me a little of improv comedy (I took lessons last year). You say the first words that come to mind and go with them. Pretty soon they become the funniest part of the scene, especially the “mistakes.”

Admittedly, I can’t prove my theory, but I believe there is strong evidence to support it. And I think I know what it is not.

It is not dementia. We are not hearing any reports of the President falling asleep at meetings, like Reagan. When he wants to, such as at rallies, King Donald can be perfectly on-message, however noxious that message is.

It is not, as this article in the Washington Post suggested, an inability to admit mistakes, which he then covers by plowing on, often compounding the mistakes. I say that partly because he plays with the mistakes like that improv amateur—consider “covfefe,” which is cited in the article and with which the President made great sport; and because phrases such as “rammed the ramparts” are too clever by half to be mistakes—it’s a clear (if silly) attempt at alliteration.

And—although this is where most will disagree—it is not because he is a moron. Morally, yes, he is. Cognitively, no. He was shrewd enough to get to where he is in life, a (sort of) millionaire and President, even if he did it all by deceit, grift, and con art.

The time has come to admit that the braggadocious “author” of “The Art of the Deal” is a manipulative master of “The Art of Distraction.” As evidence, I offer the following:

+ It happens virtually every day: A new outrage, a new “faux pas,” a new head-scratching statement of seeming ignorance, all keeping the focus squarely on the Orange Menace. Is this just Donald going through his daily paces? Or is it deliberate trolling? To me, it is too regular not to be coming from the Outrage Machine in the White House.

+ The real work of the current administration is implementing a scorched earth policy—literally—and dismantling the government and its regulatory apparatus, piece by piece. Taking our minds off this very systematic program, whose objective appears to be the enrichment of Trump’s friends, family, and fellow fat cats and the dispossession of everyone else, with fresh buffoonery is one effective way to defang the opposition.

+ Manufactured foolishness is just the flipside of manufactured crises. We all know this President is steeped in cheap entertainment and reality TV, and these methods are the stock in trade of the business.

American “democracy” looks more and more like medieval feudalism every day. The wealthy and their handmaidens in government, with Trump at the helm, are building figurative castles for themselves that may one day, with the full explosion of the climate catastrophe, may become literal castles, with moats separating them from the drowning masses without. Meanwhile, the king and his jesters continue to make fools of us all.

NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano Speaks Volumes

Wed, 2019-07-10 15:41

“Passing Prop 64 in California was just the beginning. We’ll go on tinkering with cannabis rules and regulations for a long time and we’ll also have to address life style issues. In many part of the country marijuana is still associated by and large with hippies. The culture wars will go on.”

– Paul Armentano, Summer 2019

The National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)—which was founded in 1970 by Keith Stroup and that now has 135 chapters nation-wide and 550 lawyers ready to serve—is still going strong as the bulwark of the marijuana cause. There’s much more to do, though a great deal has been accomplished already this year. In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation expanding the state medical cannabis access program. And in New Mexico, personal possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer classified as a criminal offense. NORML hailed the new law and pointed out that for years “a disproportionate number of black and brown New Mexicans faced arbitrary discrimination and stigmatization.” In 2016, New Mexico police made over 3,600 arrests for possession of marijuana.

Paul Armentano, 47, NORML’s Deputy Director, lives in Vallejo, California, where he keeps an eye on the local scene and on the big national picture, which varies state-by-state and often county-by-county. Every week, Armentano writes articles that are posted on the Website, norml.com, and keeps readers up-to-date on the latest legal changes in the world of weed. His stories tell the truth and nothing but the truth, though they do not tell all the truths, all at once.

His books, including Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?which are packed with valuable facts and information—speak truth to power in powerful ways. Still, there’s nothing like a sit down, leisurely face-to face conversation with Armentano, especially when he means to clear the smoke from the room, and doesn’t aim to rally the faithful or let anyone off the big cannabis hook.

By turns sad, funny, frustrated and impassioned, he says that after 25 years of political work on the national and the state level, he still “finds the issue fascinating,” though he can feel frustrated by the lack of accurate information about cannabis, and the inability of many citizens and politicians to carry on sophisticated conversations. “We make marijuana far more interesting than is warranted,” he says. “My goal is to make it boring.” If so, he has a long way to go.

Armentano cares intensely about cannabis consumers, many of whom, he says, are tricked into buying cannabis products that don’t have the beneficial ingredients they claim to have, and don’t deliver the healing affects that are promoted. He’s especially critical about many CBD products, especially those that are marketed online and in stores like Safeway, though he admits that some CBDs can reduce anxiety levels and act as anti-inflammatory agents. “The advertising is brilliant,” he says. “Salesmen tell you, ‘you won’t feel anything when you use CBD,’ and sure enough much of the time you don’t feel a thing.” It’s the old snake oil in a new bottle.

While Armentano looks out for vulnerable, gullible consumers, he’s often frustrated by California cannabis farmers, who have wanted, he insists, to continue their “mom and pop operations,” as though laws haven’t changed, and who refuse to buy into state licensing and regulation. “I have never looked at cannabis other than a commodity,” he says. “Marijuana players are no more ethical than players in other industries.” Still, he frets about the growing power of large-scale cannabis corporations that are taking hold of the market and setting prices. He worries that growers attach labels like “Train Wreck” and “In the Pines” to their products that have little if any correspondence to actual genetic strains.

“NORML has always recommended home cultivation, “ he adds and urges citizens—this is the kicker—“to have faith that the people who are making the rules are not the enemy.” On the subject of cannabis and driving, he has a vast array of information that might make heads spin. Driving under the influence of THC can increase the likelihood of automobile accidents, he argues, in part because peripheral vision is often impaired, though he also points out that statistics show that two or more people in a car also make driving riskier and that eating and driving at the same time can be a recipe for disaster.

Smoke weed and drink alcohol and the chances of an accident will jump 400% to 600%, depending on body weight, dosage and the degree to which individuals have grown accustomed to smoking and driving. “Habitual marijuana users are more careful when they drive stoned than when they’re not stoned,” he says. “They adopt compensatory behaviors.”

Armentano is proud of the fact that Prop 64 brought with it automatic expungement of the legal records of cannabis arrests. He’s especially vexed by the fact that many citizens ignore the vast body of information about cannabis and insist: “We don’t know,” and mean the society as a whole. He replies, “Maybe you don’t know but at NORML and elsewhere we do know.”

Armentano and his colleagues also know that in California today the black market is as big as ever, that much of the cannabis cultivated in the Emerald Triangle and in Salinas is exported to other states, that prices at dispensaries are often too high for consumers to purchase, and that in many towns and cities there’s a lack of access to pot. “Passing Prop 64 was just the beginning,” he says. “We will go on tinkering with the cannabis rules and regulations for a long time and we’ll also have to address life style issues. In many part of the country marijuana is still associated by and large with hippies. The culture wars will go on.”

 

Elections in the Era of Charismatic Politics

Wed, 2019-07-10 15:19

Elections are often regarded as the quintessential expression of democracy. Yet elections can have undemocratic outcomes.

The carefully choreographed election designed to give a fig leaf to an authoritarian regime is something everyone is familiar with. But there is also the paradoxical case where a relatively free and fair election ends up bringing the winner closer to absolute power.

The recent elections in Thailand, the Philippines, and India provide interesting contrasts in the ways elections can be used to derail democracy.

Choreographed Elections in Thailand

For many observers, the March 24 elections in Thailand provide a classic case of the usual manner authoritarian regimes use the electoral process to achieve anti-democratic outcomes —  that is, to rig it in plain sight.

First, to neutralize the results of the elections even before they took place, the military authorities — who deposed the elected government aligned with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2014 — scripted a constitution that set up a 250-member Senate whose members would be appointed by the regime and empowered to negate an elected 500-member House of Representatives.

Second, shortly before the elections, the Constitutional Court dissolved a pro-Thaksin political party that had been expected to gather a sizable number of votes on questionable legal grounds.

Third, the ruling National Council on Peace and Order unleashed a legal assault on the head of a party, Future Forward, that had caught the imagination of the country’s young people owing to its agenda to confine the military to the barracks, resulting in his being eventually barred from assuming his duties as an elected MP.

Despite all these handicaps, the opposition won nearly half of all parliamentary seats in contention. Ironically, the Thai military’s manipulation of the elections, by eliciting widespread resentment at what is widely regarded as procedural disenfranchisement, has created an outcome that contradicts the goal it had tried to achieve by calling for the elections in the first place — that is, to gain legitimacy for a system of authoritarian rule with democratic trappings.

Not Politics-as-Usual in the Philippines

Contrast this to the Philippines and India, which also had elections this year. In both countries, there were the usual instances of irregularities and violence in some localities, but overall the elections were relatively free and fair, as even the opposition and international observers conceded, albeit grudgingly.

Yet in both countries, the results are likely to provide momentum towards the concentration of power in the hands of authoritarian personalities.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte was not running for office, but everyone knew that the election was a referendum on his three years in office. If it were politics- as-usual in the Philippines, the president’s record could have done him and his favored candidates for the Senate much damage: the worst inflation in nearly a decade, kowtowing to China, credible charges of hidden wealth, a penchant for misogynistic comments, a provocative anti-clerical attitude in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, intimidating the press, imprisoning or ousting from office vocal opponents, and, perhaps, most seriously, over 20,000 deaths, a large number owing to extra-judicial executions, in his war on drugs.

But it is not politics-as-usual in the Philippines. At the time of the elections, Duterte had an astonishing 81 percent approval rating, and the results of the polls drove this home: his favored candidates and allies captured all 12 of the senatorial seats at stake. Not since the late 1980s had the opposition been completely shut out in a Senate race. As the results poured in on election night, May 13, it became clear that Duterte, warts and all, had been given an overwhelming mandate by the electorate, making him the most powerful person to occupy the presidency since Ferdinand Marcos.

Since electoral fraud wasn’t a credible explanation for the results, some political commentators elected to blame the voters. “We have most of the voters to blame for it,” wrote one prominent journalist critical of Duterte. “They’re the millions who approve of mass killings, who’re indifferent to the violations of human rights, who despise intelligence and who’ve never read a book. They disparage democracy without knowing what it is and approve of tyranny because they can’t tell the difference.”

“A Moment of Dread for Indian Democracy”?

In contrast to Duterte’s prospects, things did not seem as auspicious for Narendra Modi and the ruing Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) at the beginning of the six-week long elections in India in April.

The annual growth rate was down to 5.8 per cent; the economic crisis triggered by “demonetization” — the sudden withdrawal from circulation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, which represented 86 percent of the value of circulating currency — was not over. Farmers’ marches reminded the country of the crisis of agriculture, and violence spawned by an aggressive Hindu nationalism had become commonplace.

Yet after the votes were counted, the whole country was stupefied. The BJP had expanded its majority to 303 seats, 20 more than its 2014 tally.

Congress, the main opposition party, was badly beaten, emerging with only 52 seats, with its leader Rahul Gandhi losing in his family’s traditional constituency, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh. Modi came out much stronger from an election where he had been expected to emerge much weaker. The desperate mood that engulfed those critical of Modi was captured by the words of one academic, who claimed that his victory was “a moment of dread for Indian democracy” because it had resulted in “the greatest concentration of power in modern Indian history.”

Suddenly, BJP boss Amit Shah’s boast that the BJP would rule India “for the next 50 years” no longer seemed incredible.

As in the Philippines, despairing liberals in India wondered what on earth made their compatriots “outsource their destiny” to a strongman, as one of them put it. Just as the Philippine intelligentsia expressed wonderment at how serious charges would simply bounce off Duterte, Indian liberals could not figure out what it was that made voters across the board readily absolve Modi for the very real problems being faced by the country, whether this was rising unemployment, farmers’ suicides owing to economic distress, lynchings of Muslims accused of trading cattle, or the unsolved murders of prominent intellectuals.

Even his party’s endorsement of a known terrorist who had praised the assassin of Gandhi did not hurt Modi, leading one analyst to attribute his success to “smart political communication” that consistently projected him as being “above the fray.”

Controlling the narrative was certainly part of the explanation for Modi’s success, as it was for Duterte’s. Modi’s discourse placed him and the BJP as the agents of India’s economic development and the restoration of Hindu civilization’s ancient greatness. Duterte combined an earthy discourse that many saw as refreshingly free of the usual liberal democratic froth with a stern message of cleansing the country of the drug menace that was “destroying the youth of my country.”

This analysis, however, assumes the relationship between the voters and the strongman is a one-way street, whereas anyone who has lived through the tumultuous politics of both countries in the last few years would not have failed to note the very real synergy or mutually constructive relationship between the strongmen and their people.

For other analysts, Duterte and Modi had tangible achievements that overrode the problems pointed out by their opponents. In the case of Modi, for instance, voters were said to appreciate his campaign to build a toilet for every household, his free LNG connections for poor families, and a program of giving 6000 rupees a year to subsistence farmers.

These material benefits do not, however, add up to a viable explanation for the massive mandate. Politics in India and the Philippines today is not arithmetic, to use a famous Filipino politician’s inimitable description of democracy. Promising and providing goods and services is the stuff of patronage politics, of democratic politics-as-usual, but what is happening in both countries today is a political earthquake, a massive transformative change, a fundamental reconfiguration of politics.

The Era of Charismatic Politics

At the epicenter of this earthquake is a discontented citizenry, and it is as much an agent of change as the unorthodox personalities that have found a way to unlock its swirling passions.

The focus of citizens’ discontent is a system of liberal democracy that has simply not delivered on its promises. “India is a grotesquely unequal society,” writes Pankaj Mishra. “A great majority of Indians, forced to inhabit the vast gap between a glossy democratic ideal and a squalid undemocratic reality, have long stored up deep feelings of injury, weakness, inferiority, degradation, inadequacy, and envy; these stem from defeats or humiliation suffered at the hands of those of higher status than themselves in a rigid hierarchy.” This could be a description of 21st century Philippines as well.

It is the explosive synergy between a deeply disaffected citizenry and a political personality who has captured their imagination — and on whom they have rested their dreams and aspirations for the future — that today drives politics in both countries. It is perhaps easier to understand this dynamic in the case of Modi, who unites a dynamic personality to an aggressive ideology of wounded but assertive nationalism that has tapped into a country’s feelings of pride and shame, deep disappointment, and persistent hope.

Yet Duterte is, in his own way, a magnetic personality, bringing together a tough law and order stance, a discourse that is deliberately politically incorrect, and the image of the “punisher” who has what it takes to tame exploitative elites and discipline a people that famously regard themselves as rowdy and undisciplined. The very qualities that liberals despise in Duterte is what enables him to “connect” with the masses, especially with the volatile middle classes that feel most sharply the yawning gap between aspirations and the possibilities of fulfilling them in the “really existing” democratic dispensation.

The “connection” that has been forged between strong personalities and their people has ushered in a period that may best be described as one where charismatic politics has displaced democracy-as-usual. Here we might take a leaf from the great sociologist Max Weber, who saw “charismatic” authority or legitimacy as a dynamic transformative process that overwhelms both “traditional” and “rational-legal” authority and structures co-existing in society.

Charismatic politics exploits the contradiction between traditional authority structures that legitimize inequality and injustice and a rational-legal order based on the principles of democracy, justice, and equality. Charismatic politics is not politics as usual and is a fluid process that moves in uncharted waters until the charisma of the leader is “routinized” into a set of rules, procedures, and processes which become the new source of authority and legitimacy.

Charismatic legitimacy is hardly benign. Indeed, it almost invariably ends up with a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the charismatic individual. And, equally alarming, its emergence has been accompanied by the imaginative creation of an “Other” or “Others” upon whom the ills, contradictions, and disharmony of society are projected. The achievement of social harmony is dependent on the excision or neutralization of the Other or Others — in the case of the Philippines, drug users, liberal politicians (“dilawan” or “yellows”), and communists; in the case of India, Muslims, Christians, westernized intellectuals, and Marxists. It does not take much for the leader and his disciples to set the mob on these “enemies of the people,” as persecuted communities in India would readily testify.

A key feature of the dynamics of charismatic politics is that it is both authoritarian and intensely “democratic.”

One the one hand, followers are willing to hold their critical faculties in abeyance, ready to give the leader the benefit of the doubt even when they may not agree with everything that he stands for or promotes. On the other hand, it is through the mediation of the electoral process, through direct contact with the masses during the campaign and through their act of willingly voting for him or his anointed ones, that the leader renews his legitimacy.

Managed elections like Thailand’s are fatal for charismatic authority. Indeed, the less controlled and more spontaneous the expression of approval, the greater the legitimacy that can be turned into even greater power.

Context then spells the difference for the outcomes of recent elections in Asia. Thailand remains in a state of polarization, one that has been aggravated by a choreographed electoral exercise. India and the Philippines, on the other hand, have gone through relatively free elections that, by bestowing greater legitimacy on them, is, paradoxically, leading to the concentration of even greater power in the hands of charismatic authoritarian personalities who are intent on doing away with the post-World War II liberal democratic dispensation and leading their consenting citizens to a brave new world.

This article first appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.

Speaking Truth to Power

Wed, 2019-07-10 14:54

Last week Rep. Justin Amash, formerly a very conservative Republican member of Congress and the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, declared he’s no longer a member of either the party or the caucus. He is also the only Republican member of Congress to call for the impeachment of president Trump after he actually read the entire Mueller Report in May. Amash’s reasons for his actions — and his motivation for speaking truth to power — are that the two political parties and the partisan loyalties they demand are eclipsing the real and necessary responsibilities of elected officials in a representative democracy.

As Amash put it: “True to [George] Washington’s fears, Americans have allowed government officials, under assertions of expediency and party unity, to ignore the most basic tenets of our constitutional order: separation of powers, federalism and the rule of law. The result has been the consolidation of political power and the near disintegration of representative democracy.”

There’s certainly no better or more obvious example of what Amash is referring to than the blind partisan loyalty his former Republican Party and its congressional members have used to ignore the excesses, illegalities and unconstitutional abuses of President Trump. The problem is, when public officials take their oaths of office, they swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Nowhere does it say “unless they’re from my political party.”

Of course Amash is going to pay heavily for telling the truth by dumping party loyalty in favor of the oversight duties which the Constitution assigns to Congress. Being true to his fiscal conservative beliefs already cost Amash his seat on the Budget Committee in 2012. Now he may lose his seat on the Oversight and Reform Committee and not be allowed to caucus with Republicans.

It would be great to say Amash is right about Republicans but wrong about Democrats doing the same thing. But that’s simply not the way it is.

Take the 2016 Demo primary in Montana, for instance. In fact, Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton. Simply put, his platform and vision resonated and was supported at the polls by Montanans and by all rights Montana’s delegates to the national nominating convention should have represented the wishes of the voters — as should have the Montana Democratic Party.

Instead, almost all of Montana’s delegates, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, cast their votes for Clinton and the party shifted funds that should have gone to Bernie to Hillary’s campaign. In other words, they told the voters “sorry, you don’t know what you’re doing and the party does and requires that we vote for Hillary.” The result was the overwhelming defeat of Clinton in Montana and the near sweep of all statewide offices by the Republicans. Not coincidentally, the reprehensible fund-shifting resulted in the ouster of Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Bernie Sanders’ popular platform also embraced single-payer health care. But Montana’s top Democrats, like Jon Tester, refuse to support what his own party’s base endorsed. Why? Might want to check the big bucks with which the pharmaceutical and insurance industry steers the loyalty of the Democratic Party operatives away from its own members.

One need not embrace Amash’s conservative ideology to acknowledge that his warning “if we continue to take America for granted, we will lose it” rings true. That is, unless we, the people, demand real representative democracy from our elected officials, not marching in lock-step with the dictates of the two dominant political parties.

High Cost of Nukes Even Higher If Medical Expenses Included

Tue, 2019-07-09 16:05

Nuclear reactor. Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Nuclear reactors are shutting in the U.S, and across the world. Reactors have always been dangerous, but over time they have also become more expensive than ever. A 2017 report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates U.S. reactors lose $2.9 billion per year in operations overall. Eight American reactors have closed permanently since 2013, and most of the remaining 97 units are very old and costly.

Plans have already been made to shut more reactors in the next few years. Only two new reactors are under construction, and due to enormous delays and soaring costs, these may never open.

Natural gas, now the most common U.S. electricity source, is cheaper than nuclear – as are solar and wind power, now the fastest-growing sources of electricity. But nuclear power operators are not giving up just yet. Touting nuclear power as “emission-free” energy, they have used this lie to convince four state legislatures to include nuclear in laws that otherwise attempt to reduce carbon emissions. In these states, nuclear operators are allowed to raise electric bills (totals are in the billions), and more states may follow.

But the true costs of nuclear vs. other sources are not simply a matter of cost per kilowatt hour. Medical costs are a huge factor and must be added to the public discussion.

Nuclear reactors emit a mix of over 100 chemicals, each radioactive and cancer-causing. These chemicals do not exist in nature but are only found in operating reactors and exploded atom bombs. They can be stored as toxic waste – which must be kept from human contact for thousands of years. Some escapes from reactors and enters human bodies through breathing and the food chain.

Studies of local disease and death rates from cancer and other diseases have been ignored and hotly contested by government officials. One such study was published in the April 14 issue of the Journal of Environmental Protection, which focused on Salem/Hope Creek, a plant in Salem County, New Jersey with three reactors that began operating in 1976, 1980, and 1986.

Using data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the article showed that Salem County’s cancer death rate was consistently just below the state rate for decades. But beginning in the mid-1980s, soon after the reactors began operating, the county rate exceeded the state, with the gap growing over time. By 2015-2017, the county rate was 33% greater than the state – the highest of the state’s 21 counties, high for all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, and common cancer types.

The article calculated that in the 31-year period 1987-2017, the gap between the actual county cancer deaths and an estimate of the number if the county had remained just below the state was 1018 deaths – a large number for a county of just 62,000 people. To date, no other potential cause is known, other than exposures to radioactive releases from Salem/Hope Creek.

Researchers have attempted to calculate costs of cancer deaths. Two of them, one who now work for the American Cancer Society and the University of Colorado School of Public Health, have published studies making estimates for 1) direct medical costs, and 2) costs of lost productivity to society and non-medical costs of assisting persons who die of cancer. A ballpark figure of this total cost is $700,000 for each person who dies of cancer (in 2020 dollars).

So in little Salem County, the 1018 “excess” cancer deaths cost over $700 million up to 2017, a number that will continue rising unless future cancer death rates suddenly plunge back to where they were in the 1980s – a highly unlikely scenario. A number like this needs to be added to the costs of generating electricity if a true comparison between energy sources can be made. And this just includes cancer; in Salem County, rates jumped in the past 30 years for other causes (not as rapidly as cancer), which likely moves medical costs from $700 million to $1 – $2 billion.

Over 70 nuclear plants dot the U.S. map. Similar studies are needed to understand the extent of the problem.

Nuclear power is expensive. It is expensive because it is dangerous. Public discussion needs to include a full accounting of costs as decisions are made to shift America’s energy future to a much greater reliance on truly safe and renewable sources.

 

The Seizure of an Iranian Tanker and the Lethal Toll of Sanctions

Tue, 2019-07-09 16:00

Photograph Source: US Navy – Public Domain

The seizure of an Iranian oil tanker allegedly bound for Syria by British Royal Marine commandos off Gibraltar is the latest episode in the long and disastrous history of economic sanctions in the Middle East. The UK claims that it is implementing EU sanctions on Syria, but the act will be seen by Tehran – and most other states – as the British enforcing US sanctions on Iran that the EU said it opposes. An Iranian official said a British tanker should be seized in retaliation.

Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary and aspirant prime minister, eager to show himself walking tall on the international stage, tweeted: “Swift action has denied valuable resources to Assad’s murderous regime.”

But that is exactly what has not happened. Economic sanctions in the Middle East and elsewhere have invariably been a collective punishment of an entire people while leaders and their security forces come through unscathed. UN sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003 did not stop Saddam Hussein building luxurious palaces and giant mosques while ordinary Iraqis were reduced to selling their furniture and crockery in the streets.

I visited a village called Penjwin in mountainous northeast Iraq in 1996 which was in the Kurdish-controlled area, but still subject to UN sanctions. I wondered why so many people in the main streets had lost an arm or a foot. The explanation given to me by the villagers lives in my mind as a grisly example of the straits to which people can be reduced by the impact of sanctions on top of their many other burdens.

People in Penjwin said they were very poor and lived in the middle of vast minefields laid during the Iran-Iraq war. The one way they could make money was by defusing one particular mine, the Italian Valmara, and selling the aluminium wrapped around the explosives.

The Valmara is a lethal device with five khaki-coloured prongs at the top that looked like dried grass. If any prong is disturbed a small charge was detonated making the mine jump into the air to waist height and the main charge explodes, spraying 1,200 metal balls over a range of 100 yards.

“I defuse the mine with a piece of wire,” Sabir Majid, a middle-aged man who had formerly been a farmer, told me. “Then I unscrew the top of it and take out the aluminium around the explosives. When I have taken apart six mines, I have enough aluminium to sell for 30 dinars (about 75 pence) to a shop in Penjwin.”

He said this was just enough to feed but not to clothe his family. Few of those who made a mistake in defusing a Valmara survived, but it was surrounded by small, difficult-to-spot anti-personnel mines which looked like large mushrooms and could easily take off a foot or a hand.

At that time, the UN estimated that between six and seven thousand Iraqi children were dying every month because of sanctions. The education and health services had collapsed: visiting foreign doctors “witnessed a surgeon trying to operate with scissors that were too blunt to cut the patient’s skin”.

I wrote many articles about the devastating effect of sanctions on millions of Iraqis, but nobody appeared to pay much attention. Foreign governments, such as the US and UK, blamed the continuation of sanctions, whose ill effects on the mass of the population they downplayed, on Saddam Hussein for not coming clean about his Weapons of Mass Destruction (that turned out not to exist) and not giving up power.

Two UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq resigned in succession in protest against sanctions, but it did no good. It is worth recalling the prophetic words of one of them, Dennis Halliday, as he left his post in 1998, keeping in mind that this was five years before al-Qaeda took root in Iraq. “What should be of concern is the possibility of more fundamentalist Islamic thinking developing,” he said. “It is not well understood as a spin-off of the sanctions regime. We are pushing people to take extreme positions.”

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Fast forward 20 years and compare Syria now to Iraq then. Three million people are trapped in Idlib province under Russian and Syrian government bombardment. There is a festering guerrilla war in the Kurdish-controlled but half-Arab area east of the Euphrates river.

All of Syria is subjected to economic sanctions by the EU and US, which a leaked UN internal report in 2016 said were causing extreme suffering among ordinary Syrians. Basic medicines and medical equipment could not be purchased and imported into Syria by foreign aid agencies. The report, entitled “Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures” – in other words sanctions –and leaked to the investigative publication The Intercept, quotes a European doctor working in Syria as saying: “the indirect effect of sanctions … makes the import of medical instruments and other medical supplies immensely difficult, nearly impossible”.

The UN sanctions against Iraq used to target “dual use” items, such as pencils and tyres for ambulance because they could have a military as well as civilian application. Much the same thing happens with sanctions in Syria today with bans on drilling equipment and pipes for water supply and sanitation according to the report.

A more recent survey by a UN body coordinating humanitarian affairs in Syria published this May is ominously similar to the ones I used to read about Iraq 20 years ago. It says that at least 83 per cent of Syrians were living below the poverty line: “a monthly food ration with staple items costs at least 80 per cent of an unskilled labourer’s monthly salary and 50-80 per cent of a public service employee’s monthly salary”. It describes people trying to cope by eating less, avoiding medical treatment because there is no money to pay for it, child labour and child marriage, and being recruited as fighters to pay off debts.

In other words, a whole society is in meltdown. Part of this is the result of eight years of civil war, but sanctions exacerbate the suffering and prevent recovery. Least affected are those, both government and opposition, who command the armed forces to make sure they never lack for anything. The economic blockade of Iraq did not get rid of Saddam Hussein and the same is true of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The political equivalents of Jeremy Hunt in the 1990s claimed that the aid agencies’ accounts of the misery inflicted on the civilian population by sanctions were phoney or exaggerated. Well-informed officials like Dennis Halliday, who protested about what was happening, could always be smeared as being soft on Saddam. Critics of sanctions in Syria can be similarly ignored or discredited as sympathisers with Assad, though rigorous sanctions have demonstrably failed to stop him tightening his grip on power.

Why are those who impose sanctions able to get their way despite past failures? To governments they are a soft option that avoids the risks of war. To many they may seem more humane because, unlike bombing and shooting, the process of destruction is slow. The casualties – the young, the old, the sick – die invisibly in their homes and there is seldom proof that sanctions had anything to do with their passing.

America First and Diverse

Tue, 2019-07-09 16:00

Photograph Source: Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde – Public Domain

A solution to the border crisis is impossible without a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system. Thomas Friedman suggested what one might look like after his onsite inspection of the San Ysidro border with Tijuana recently. Arguing against the random and chaotic system we have now, he pledged support for a “high wall” but also a “big gate,” insisting we must find a way to efficiently absorb those who will bring the skills and knowhow to strengthen our nation. Perhaps realizing this will constitute a sizable pool, he endorses aid to the countries where the bulk of migrants are coming from to stabilize their societies, as well as a revamped court system that can fairly process deserving asylum seekers (Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 4/23/19).

Getting tough on entry, like most other nations, while continuing the legacy of welcoming immigrants began soon after the country’s inception, is a kinder and gentler approach to exclusion than Trump’s “America First” vision, which translates to a quite brutal practice, and a rebuke to the America Diverse vision from many Democrats that invites virtually all comers, whether applicants for citizenship or escapees from unstable environments. Given Trump’s views on abortion he would perhaps be best served by going along with these Democrats and let large families of pro-life billboards spread through the hinterlands.

Friedman offers a passable general outline of a “solution.” Unfortunately, there’s no political will in Congress to act. The last major piece of legislation was passed in the Reagan administration. President Obama urged Congress to act early in his first term but was forced to settle for DACA, his 2012 executive action. Trump’s efforts to cancel this initiative through executive actions have spearheaded his aggressive campaign which is ironically not all that different than Obama’s in terms of the numbers of people deported, but the issue of treatment and family separation is another matter.

What alliance of political voices will decide who the deserving are and what skills are needed? Should this task be left to the private sector, specific profit-driven companies that serve their own constituents first, to make it happen? Enlightened wonks sustained by the clout of peer-driven, but far-from-neutral research? How will the formula be constructed for determining how many should be processed? What’s too little; too many?

One thing for sure, the elites who decide these issues and whose employment is secured will not be impacted by the consequences of their choices.

A familiar refrain is that there are many labor jobs to be filled that existing citizens can’t or won’t do, and therefore we should keep these paths open. The value these workers put into the economy will benefit the larger society. This logic is at odds with Trump’s nominal position—as opposed to his scattershot policy directives that support exclusion—that those here deserve priority, and a restricted labor force can deliver value to them in the form of higher wages. So as migrants swell a labor market these citizens can experience real threats—some jobs are definitely taken in certain situations—and a glut of new arrivals can suppress wage levels.

The perennial problem with American capitalism is that its logic of differential rewards dispensed to different sub-classes and ethnicities in different regions over time is an irrational practice that pits people and groups against each other instead of the system that’s responsible. This is hardly conducive to a welcoming synergy. And since wages are relatively low for labor the influx of new workers into the economy has a tendency to make current residents uneasy, especially since new arrivals can be willing to work for less and this can lead to real job losses. But even if citizens never actually lose jobs to new arrivals they might constantly feel the existential threat of loss and be susceptible to politicians that stir up xenophobic sentiments. The facts about where the labor shortages actually are for migrants to fill might therefore be of little concern to workers at the lowest levels caught in this vortex. And inequality is so deep and pervasive now that few can imagine what a fair economy might look like. Reason can easily be replaced by the absurdity of resentments.

Barack Obama stated in a celebrated 2008 speech on race and class that if America is ever to become a free and equal country where all ethnicities exist in harmony to identify with one nation (the many in the one, e pluribus unum), we must get rid of the resentments that individuals and groups harbor against each other because they feel someone else’s gain comes at their expense. To extirpate this bad dialectic is a formidable task since the capitalist system is structured through a language of trade-offs. Capital is generated and executed through differentials, especially the gap between acceptable—defined of course by those who own it—profit levels and wages. Wages that are too high threaten to dry up capital and investment. If resentments are to be modulated and we approach Obama’s win-win vision the extreme inequality that now exists must be corrected. Arguably, this will mean the end of capitalism as we know it and at least the beginning of one that forces capital and communal values to coexist. This isn’t going to change in time to transform ICE or cancel the family separation policy at the border. But if a comprehensive overhaul is to succeed in the long term the imbalance of excessive profiteering which fuels resentment has to be managed.

Not to mention imbalanced policies. The spectacle unfolding at the detention centers is worth noting. The horrific, prison-like conditions the detainees are being subjected to have been well documented. Calls to improve these conditions and give the detainees good healthcare ring eminently humane and rational. But how ironic is it that millions of American citizens at this moment are suffering the same deficiencies. How do we expect these victims to react to the implementation of improvements for those who are not citizens? Without attention to the gaps and insufficiencies in our current system that are pasted over by the “great economy” rhetoric, the win-lose dynamic will persist in spawning resentment.

The sectors of the labor markets that need workers have to be accurately identified. Letting the markets (owned by interests and hardly free and equal arbiters) dictate movements can produce chaotic reversals for citizens who lack the means to fight back. They can experience these events as virtual acts of war against them. They can become the vehicles of a kind of blowback, venting and spreading their frustrations as victims through groups and communities, weakening rational resolve and seeding suspicion and the sense of imminent threat like a contagion. Like in war, when the reciprocating deaths accumulate to the point where revenge explodes into a self-feeding frenzy and the issues that led to conflict are no longer known or of interest.

Evidence that President Trump is not simply anti-immigrant would seem to come from his statements about northern Europe. He welcomes those from the countries that are successful, “good” countries that send us credentialed professionals to, echoing Friedman, help us strengthen our nation. These homogenous countries are successful to a great extent of course because they’ve managed to—relatively—solve the inequality problem, though some certainly come here for the lower taxes. But this position would seem inconsistent with “America 1st.”

Do we have a shortage of people to fill the grad schools for educating the professional workforce? The competition for these slots and the positions sought with the education is fierce, as is simply getting into college. This might help explain the degree to which parents are now going to get their children admitted, especially into the elite colleges and universities. The difficulty of getting into college for many is amplified by the practice of state-funded institutions to recruit students from overseas due to austere, budget-cutting policies dependent on higher out-of-state tuition. What does this do to the hard-working student from an extended family where no one has gone to college before who is denied admission?

Friedman’s globalization endorses the seemingly rational notion that all countries benefit when “the best” can cross borders to fill needs one country can’t, justifying the selection of sports figures, for example, and even medical doctors in demand because their pool is kept artificially low here by the AMA (not to mention the admission of students from elsewhere who often return to their home country, making it more difficult for those here to get in). This system has little space for “the worst” who lack the equal ability to move across borders.

A byproduct of this fierce competition is underemployment. While few deny the value of bringing professionals who possess the skills and training needed here, the stark reality is that many with advanced degrees are forced to work at jobs well below their qualifications. This is an especially serious issue among millennials who have to live with their parents while scraping together a living, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics this experience isn’t unique to today’s college grads. The rate for all college grads ages 22-65 has held steady at around 33% for the past three decades. And for the grads ages 22-27, the numbers rise to 44% (Jessica Lutz, Forbes, 7/21/18). The situation is even worse for people of color.

These numbers are not a prominent part of the official stats which unfortunately become the final word on the state of the economy, sending proof-positive signals to all readers of the mainstream media that we need and can absorb more workers. But as Jack Rasmus shows in his evaluation of the Bureau’s recent numbers, the underemployed and other less-than-full-time employed persons are counted as employed (CounterPunch, 5/8/19, “How Accurate Are the US Jobs Numbers?”).

The markets for labor jobs and professional jobs are obviously different, but as college grads take jobs from those below them these workers in turn can put pressure on those below them, etc. Obviously this will reach a limit and few will do jobs that far below their level of competence. Many caught in this situation simply drop out of the work picture and remain hidden in the official unemployment rate.

But the larger issue is the build-up of resentment by those unable to fulfill their potential in the workplace and be fully absorbed into mainstream, everyday life. Whether college grads or the rural working class living in once thriving zones now de-industrialized and de-unionized as a result of companies rushing to capture cheaper wages in the overseas sweatshops, their experience of this structural flaw in the American Dream can only be amplified by witnessing others streaming into the country—compounded by the presence of millions of illegals—who may not even be directly responsible for taking someone’s position. This can clearly breed scapegoating, which perhaps explains the recent Harvard-Harris poll. This showed that 81% of registered voters want annual immigration reduced by nearly a third to check the “chain-migration mess,” and 70% want the random and liberal issuing of visas to cease (Eddie Scarry, “Thomas Friedman Joins America,” Washington Examiner, 4/25/19).

The country is not the same as it was during the golden days of capitalism, the American Century, when progressive tax policies, strong unions, and Keynesian innovations in the public sector allied to increase productivity, and the value from that was distributed much more evenly and fairly. Aggregate upward mobility has been one of the casualties, particularly in the rural areas, despite the celebration of specific instances of entrepreneurial mobility in the media. We’ve become a sort of unmelting pot with a diversity of segments that can’t be easily absorbed into the mainstream, and like many of those forgotten citizens that spearheaded Brexit, they’re not happy with the status quo (Huffpost, “Unmelting Pot,” 5/25/2011).

Friedman is a celebrator of globalization, believing there is virtually no alternative to this mostly benevolent march of progress, but this world system itself, in the current form shaped by American hegemony, is the cause of many problems. The export of neoliberal principles creates failed states from these developing countries that send bodies to the “stable” ones for refuge. The extension of economic influence in these countries is girded with policies sanctioned by the IMF that keep them dependent on loans to survive, assistance that forces adherence to an austerity regime skewed in the favor of the elite. They starve the public sector and dismantle unions to maintain a low-wage, business-friendly culture that artificially represses growth, requiring ever more assistance. These effects have been evident for generations now, thrust in our faces by the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, but much of the developing globe has still yet to recover from the 2008 downturn, enhancing the difficulty of absorbing its people.

Climate change adds to these problems for the warm, low-altitude border countries bearing the burdens brought by first-world polluters.

The expanding military presence where these policies are imposed or near needed resources like oil deepens the displacement and flow of bodies to our borders, supplementing covert war with the force and disruption that will demand perpetual assistance.

Friedman’s suggestion that foreign aid would help stop the flow of migrants is welcome. This would require huge transfers of funds along with a reversal of IMF policies. Since the bulk of this aid is now in the form of military aid, this would also require a reset of our foreign policy in the direction of diplomacy and infrastructural investment—but what would happen if we funded this investment before doing it here?—to stabilize these countries.

Perhaps, as Suketu Mehta suggests, we should add up the toll for all the ruination imposed on these countries and construct reparations quotas for their entry (New York Times, 6/7/19, “Why Should Immigrants ‘Respect Our Borders’?”). Opening up spaces for the ruined could be sold if we change priorities, starting with a massive infusion of infrastructural investment along the lines of the proposed Green New Deal, paid for with funds from the bloated military budgets. That would correct the problem of underemployment by creating good jobs, and above all reverse the ever-greater reliance on temporary jobs with no benefits begun some forty years ago. Bringing more citizens permanently into the system with higher wages will give them a greater sense of belonging and increase productivity, expand the economy, and open up spaces for more people. The absorption of migrants into these openings should be guided through a partnership between a strengthened labor movement, business and government that jettisons the reliance on un-free markets. Nothing short of this will begin to reduce the blowback from the win-lose logic.

America can lead in the creation of an international order shorn of toxic me-first nationalism.

 

Deconstructing Elliott Abrams on Venezuela

Tue, 2019-07-09 15:57

Photograph Source: U.S. Department of State – Public Domain

On June 26, the Trump administration’s so-called “Special Representative for Venezuela,” Elliott Abrams gave a five-minute update to reporters about the development of the coup attempt against the government of Nicolas Maduro, followed by a brief Q&A session. The event, held at the US State Department in Washington, was textbook Abrams: full of lies, loaded language, double standards and breathtaking hypocrisy. Below, I deconstruct each of his points by providing rebuttals, context and regional comparison.

Visit from Michelle Bachelet

The first thing that Abrams mentioned was the visit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet. From his remarks, one would think that the visit was entirely focused on condemning what Abrams repeatedly referred to as the Maduro “regime” – a classic of Washington’s Goebbelian dictionary used to delegitimize unfriendly governments. “We hope that her report, which is due out July 5th, will reveal the brutal truths that victims of the regime suffer every day,” he said. By using this kind of language, Abrams is sending a number of implicit messages to his audience. First is that the Maduro government is an authoritarian egregious human rights violator while so-called ‘interim president’ Juan Guaido and his hardline opposition faction are whiter than white and, indeed, the sole hope of saving the country from this tyranny. The reality, however, is that Bachelet was there to hear allegations of human rights abuses from both pro- and anti-government actors, including the numerous credible reports of opposition violence such as setting perceived government supporters on fire.

Abrams added that he hopes “that the high commissioner’s representatives, who are currently in Venezuela, who stayed there when she left, will visit the country’s most notorious prisons and visit political prisoners.” Here, he is insinuating that the Maduro government gave her the cold shoulder and was uncooperative with her investigation. But far from being a one-sided affair in which only opposition leaders were willing to meeting with her, extensive talks were held with both sides. In addition to meeting Guaido and other opposition leaders, she also met with President Maduro, members of his cabinet, the national ombudsman, the leader of the constituent assembly and the attorney-general along with a whole host of human rights advocates, trade unionists, academics, religious figures and representatives of the business community.

And far from being uncooperative, the Maduro government actually signed a number of agreements with her delegation. This includes an accord to set up an office for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which will monitor the situation on the ground and provide technical assistance. As for Abrams implication that Maduro’s government didn’t grant Bachelet access to the country’s prisons, it was widely reported days before his brief that the new OHCHR office in Venezuela will “full access to detention centres to be able to monitor conditions and speak to detainees.”

Political prisoners

Abrams furthermore claimed that “there are over 715 political prisoners and military prisoners being held arbitrarily in Venezuela.” To be sure, one political prisoner would be one too many. But the status of these individuals is highly contested. The government disputes their status as political prisoners, but there’s more than just that to cast doubt on this claim. For one thing, many opposition figures have been involved in inciting or even themselves committing acts of violence. This includes Guaido himself who was a leader of the Guarimba protesters notorious for setting up barricades, starting fires and attacking public property. His political mentor Leopoldo Lopez is often categorized as a political prisoner. But one has to ask oneself whether he would have gotten away with what he did – incitement to a violent overthrow of the government – had he done it in, say, the United States.

Even government critics themselves disagree on the correct figure for political prisoners. But even assuming that Abrams’ own number of 715 is accurate, his outrage over the matter is highly selective when compared across the world and even just the Latin America region. Neighboring Colombia has over 5,000 political prisoners according to some estimates. Of course, we never hear about this from Washington or the corporate-owned media because Colombia is a close US ally and recipient of generous US funding.

“Humanitarian” intervention

Next up in Abrams’ brief was the now clichéd humanitarian argument. According to this narrative, US intervention is predicated on a humanitarian concern for the Venezuelan people. This has become so oft repeated in the corporate owned press that it no longer has to be spelled out; rather, all it takes is a repetition of how terrible the situation to get the message across. To say that doing so is hypocritical would be an understatement bordering on the absurd. For one thing, US policy itself has been a major exacerbating factor and even partial cause of the current humanitarian crisis. According to a recent report, the Trump administration’s economic sanctions have led to the deaths of around 40,000 people. But US culpability stretches back much further than this latest round of sanctions. US support for and even orchestration of the economic war has been a major cause in sparking the humanitarian crisis. The 2002-3 PDVSA oil lock-out, for instance, led to a massive recession and 29% drop in GDP. Since then Washington has been engaging in isolation tactics to discourage investment and shut Venezuela out of the global economy.

Like with political prisoners, a comparison with Colombia is also apt when it comes to humanitarian crisis. For decades Colombia had the largest internal refugee population in the world (with the possible exception of Syria) as a result of the armed conflict. One of the major drivers of this displacement has been forcible removals by right-wing paramilitary organizations such as the AUC. But far from intervening in Colombia to resolve this humanitarian catastrophe, Washington provided successive administrations in Bogota with generous funding. This is in spite of the fact that at least one of these governments – that of President Alvaro Uribe (2002 – 2010) – had well-established ties to these paramilitary groups, which was exposed by the 2006 “Parapolitics” scandal in which 32 members of Colombia’s parliament including Uribe’s cousin were convicted of colluding with them.

Abrams added his own new twist to the humanitarian narrative at the brief by castigating the Maduro government for spending money on military expenditures that could have gone to helping the population. “A word on the humanitarian situation: Instead of caring for or worrying about the millions of poor, sick, or hungry citizens, the Maduro regime is spending millions of dollars on military purchases,” he said, citing in particular an “air defense contract” with Russia. Coming from a representative of a US government, this line of argument takes hypocrisy to new heights of audacity given his the US’s own record on military spending. One could just as easily ask why the US spends more than the next seven countries combined on its military when it has overseen criminally inept responses to humanitarian crises in Flint, Michigan, following the water poisoning scandal, and in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, there have been multiple humanitarian crises – for decades, if not centuries – on the US’s Indian reservations such as Pine Ridge in South Dakota, where life expectancy and social indicators would embarrass a nation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Alleged Cuban intervention

Another added twist to the standard humanitarian narrative was Abrams’ claim that the “regime also continues giving foreign aid to Cuba.” Indeed, so-called “Cuban intervention” into Venezuelan affairs is another of Abrams’ and the other coup leaders’ favorite conspiracy theories. The idea is that US is perfectly justified in intervening in Venezuela affairs because the intervention has already been happened – but by Cuba. He added that the Maduro “regime” is “providing oil without payment in exchange,” unless, that is, “the payment is the repressive intelligence apparatus, manned by about 2,500 Cuban agents that Cuba maintains in Venezuela to help keep the regime in power.”

Here we have several false and misleading claims packed into just one sentence. First of all, even if Venezuela were giving foreign aid to Cuba, one can only ask why this is the business of the United States or indeed even a bad thing if it were true. The US gives foreign aid to plenty of countries, some of them with much worse human rights records than Cuba. Not least of these is Israel, which is the largest net recipient of US military aid in the post-World War II era.

But, moreover, many of these 2,500 “agents” are, in fact, doctors. And the “foreign aid” is, in fact, nothing of the kind. Venezuela and Cuba have a barter system in which Cuba exchanges medical services for oil. This is crucial for Cuba given that it has been largely isolated from the global economy via the decades long US economic blockade that has cost the island nation over $100 billion, according to some estimates.

Democracy, human rights and corruption

Inevitably, Abrams also brought up the issues of democracy, human rights and corruption. “Inside Venezuela, the Maduro regime continues to undermine democratic institutions, to carry out human rights abuses, and to engage in rampant and extremely widespread corruption,” he said about a minute into his speech. As with humanitarianism, a comparison with other countries around the world, or even just confining the analysis to the Latin America region, exposes jaw-dropping hypocrisy and double standards. Washington seems to care nothing, for instance, for democracy in Honduras, where even the pro-US Organization of American states declared the last election to be fraudulent and called for a fresh vote. Washington, however, ignored these calls and recognized the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez without question.

Human rights in Honduras don’t seem to be of concern to Washington either. Since a US-supported coup in 2009 that toppled the government of the democratically-elected government of Manuel Zelaya, the country has degenerated into a human rights nightmare in which state security forces routinely commit human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and torture with near complete impunity. But you won’t hear anything about that from Washington, because all post-coup governments have been staunch US allies, dutifully following orders including keeping open the US ‘Soto Cano’ Air Base. They have been rewarded for this obedience with generous funding from Washington – some of which is spent on its security forces, thereby making the US complicit with the very types of human rights violations it accuses Venezuela of.

In terms of corruption, there is no better comparison in the region than that of Honduras’ northern neighbor, Mexico, during the presidencies of Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderon and Enrique Peña Nieto. According to a December 2018 report by the Baker Institute for Public Policy, Mexico is “the most corrupt country in both the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the G-20.” Much of the country’s corruption stems from the drug war, which has led to widespread collusion with the drug cartels by various sections of the police, the military and even elected officials. According to investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez, the cartel’s state capture goes all the way to the top, including the presidency itself. In spite of this, Washington has been providing successive Mexican administrations with generous funding through the Merida Initiative. Ostensibly to combat drug trafficking, the funds nonetheless go to a highly corrupt state security force apparatus that has been implicated in extensive human rights violations and collusion with narco-trafficking organizations.

The National Assembly

Abrams then turned to a common talking point amongst Venezuela coup plotters that “the last remaining democratic institution in Venezuela is the National Assembly.” This claim is a humdinger on several levels. First of all, US recognition of the 2015 National Assembly election is indicative of Washington’s brazenly partisan stance toward the opposition. Practically every election victory of the governing Chavistas was automatically rejected and put down to fraud by the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. But the opposition has one major landslide victory and suddenly accusations that “Venezuela’s electoral system is rigged” are forgotten – conveniently enough, just in this one instance.

But there is something even more hypocritical about Abrams’ heralding of the National Assembly and the constitutional order generally. Because the hardline opposition that Guaido represents has not been generally supportive of the current Venezuelan constitution or the institutions that it created. His faction boycotted the election to the constituent assembly that drafted this constitution in 1999 and have hardly been enthusiastic about it since. During the last coup attempt in 2002, the first thing that then-‘interim president’ Pedro Carmona did was to declare the constitution null and void and disband the National Assembly and Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TNJ). Needless to say, Guaido and his mentor Leopoldo Lopez and the heirs to this wing of the Venezuelan opposition.

Abrams also made the claim that “the regime is methodically working to destroy Venezuela’s democratically elected parliament.” This is also highly misleading. The National Assembly did have its authority suspended, but not by the government. It was the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), the highest body in Venezuela’s judicial branch, that did so – and for good reason. In the aftermath of the 2015 National Assembly election, four candidates from the Amazonas state had their election victories disputed by the National Electoral Council (CNE) due to allegations of vote buying. Of course, the natural assumption of Washington was that this was because the CNE is brazenly biased toward the governing Chavistas. But this cannot be the case since, while two of them were opposition candidates, one was an independent and the other was actually a Chavista. The opposition refused to cooperate with CNE’s review procedure for their candidates and, as a result, was rightly held in contempt by the TNJ in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. Maduro’s subsequent decision to convene a Constituent Assembly was also perfectly legal under Venezuelan constitutional law. But all of this is conveniently brushed under the carpet by Washington and its minions in the corporate-owned in order to pass it all off as a “power grab.”

Democratic credibility

Next Abrams said: “The notion that Maduro might remain president to preside over free elections and a transition to democracy is laughable. These attacks on the only remaining democratic institution in Venezuela are yet another proof that the Maduro regime cannot be trusted to organize free and fair elections.” Here we have another misrepresentation of how the Venezuelan Constitution and electoral system works. It is not the government that conducts or presides over elections, it is the CNE. Of course, the standard Washington/corporate-owned press line is that the CNE is not neutral since it has been “packed with Maduro loyalists.” But this is obviously false since the opposition itself uses the CNE to preside over its own primary contests.

But there is a deeper layer of hypocrisy and irony to what Abrams is implying. Does anyone seriously think that elections presided over by the US or a US-backed political faction in Latin America are going to be clean? Abrams is a spokesperson for a country that has meddled in far more foreign elections than any other since the Second World War. In the post-war era, the US has interfered in over 80 elections in 47 different countries, including several in Latin America. This figure, by the way, does not include the many other cases of US intervention such as invasion or orchestrating coup d’états such as those in Chile and Guatemala. So, the reality is the opposite of what Abrams claims: it is the very idea that Abrams and his proxies in the Venezuelan opposition – who have willingly sided a foreign state with this history of intervention and inference – represent the best guarantors of a fair election that is truly laughable.

Guaido the savior

Abrams then spoke glowingly about Guaido, almost to the point of presenting him as some kind of messianic figure. He said: “Interim President Juan Guaido continues to travel throughout the country distributing humanitarian assistance, organizing health clinics, and spreading an important message: that he seeks a peaceful, democratic transition.”

In terms of humanitarian assistance, Abrams is referring exclusively to US-delivered humanitarian assistance, which has been deemed to be politicized even by the United Nations and mainstream humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross – both of whom refused to participate in Washington’s delivery of this aid. The Red Cross even condemned “people not affiliated” with the organization for using its emblems. The politicization of Washington’s “aid” is nothing new, especially for Elliott Abrams. He orchestrated the shipment of arms to the right-wing Contra terrorists in Nicaragua under the guise of “humanitarian aid” during the 1980s.

The idea that Guaido “seeks a peaceful, democratic transition” is equally laughable. Not only has he sided with the most reactionary US administrations in recent memory, but one that openly talks of the possibility of direct military intervention to topple the government. As previously mentioned, Guaido’s far-right faction of the Venezuelan opposition has itself been involved in violence. And ironically, a frequent target of this violence has been government-founded health clinics due to their association with the Chavistas’ partnership with Cuba. So much for Guaido being at the forefront of “organizing health clinics,” as Abrams claims.

Abrams next said: “Maduro’s security forces oppress Venezuelans who demand a better future and they censor communications involving Guaido.” This is in spite of the fact that Guaido had been able to move around the country unhindered even though he is leading a violent coup with the support of a country with a record of violent intervention and electoral interference all over the region and wider world. Would someone doing something similar in the United States be allowed to do so? Surely not, given that treason is a capital crime under US federal law.

Q&A

The question and answer session, which followed Abrams’ speech, was also illustrative, but more for the questions that Abrams’ predictable responses. A BBC reporter, for example, pointed out that the Trump administration’s plan was a “very sophisticated coup plot” that nonetheless “didn’t end up ousting Maduro,” and subsequently asked: “Do you think that it is over or do you see it lying low for a while?” Abrams offered a desperate answer about how Maduro had canceled this year’s celebration of the Battle of Carabobo, purportedly because of a lack of loyalty in the military. This is, of course, ridiculous since the coup’s failure stems in large part from the overwhelmingly majority of the military refusing to defect to Guaido’s side.

Toward the end, another question from BBC seemed to ruffle Abrams’ feathers. Referring to a Washington Post article published days earlier that quoted anonymous Trump administration officials, the reporter asked: “Has the President lost interest in this?” After Abrams made a desperate attempt to play down the significance of the story, the reporter asked for a follow up, which the moderator granted. He asked: “the effort to grow the campaign and the allies that side with you seems to have stalled from where we’re sitting on this side. Is there any kind of consideration to try to change your strategy, maybe include the – Maduro in some kind of unity government, any kind of strategy to make this work?” Abrams again made a pitiful attempt of an answer, saying that the 54 countries – which, keep in mind, is a minority of the world’s nations – will increase going forward.

The significance of these kinds of question from mainstream outlets is revealing. Clearly, there is a growing sense that the coup attempt has failed. It’s time that both the Trump administration and the Guaido faction within Venezuela come to terms with this reality. They must not only cease their destabilization campaign and go the negotiating table, but also seriously downgrade what they are asking for. Having caused such damage and involved the US in their coup attempt, they have essentially committed treason. Rather than asking for Maduro to step down, a more reasonable request would be for amnesty from prosecution for having launched this disgraceful and bumbling attempt to seize power in the first place.

 

Why Aren’t the Democrats Talking About Ending Patent Financed Drug Research?

Tue, 2019-07-09 15:54

Photograph Source: Sponge – CC BY-SA 3.0

Many of the leading Democratic candidates, especially Sanders and Warren, have been putting forward bold progressive plans in a wide variety of areas. Sanders and Warren have both supported a quick transition to a universal Medicare program, with no premiums, co-pays, or deductibles. Several candidates have supported a Green New Deal, which in some versions would guarantee every worker in the country a decent paying job.

Such policies are really big deals. They would both have a huge impact on people’s lives and also pose serious problems of implementation. The willingness of Democrats to think big in other areas makes their determination to think small on prescription drugs surprising. Replacing government-granted patent monopoly financing of research is both a huge deal and one that can be implemented gradually without threatening massive disruptions in a transition process.

Free Market Drugs Are a Really Big Deal

First, it is necessary to realize that having drugs available at free market prices, without patent monopolies or other forms of exclusivity, would have an enormous impact on the economy and the health care system. On the first point, we will spend more than $460 billion on prescription drugs in 2019. Without patent protection, these drugs would almost certainly sell for less than $80 billion, implying a savings of more than $380 billion.[1]

To put this $380 billion figure in context, it is more than five times the annual food stamp budget. It is more than twice the size of the Trump tax cut. If we project out the savings over the course of a decade, they would come to more than $5 trillion. That is more than three times the amount that is projected to be needed to cover the cost of full forgiveness for outstanding student loan debt. This is more than $30,000 per household. In short, there is huge money at stake by any measure.

Of course this goes well beyond a dollar and cents calculation. Millions of people facing debilitating conditions or potentially fatal diseases, struggle to come up with the money needed to pay for their drugs. This often requires patients and/or their families to battle with insurance companies. The need to raise money for drugs is also now a major use of Go Fund Me pages.

If the research was paid in advance, so drugs could be sold as generics, it would not be a struggle to pay for even the newest and most innovative drugs. The price of generics is often less than 1.0 percent of the cost of high priced drugs in the United States. For example, when the Hepatitis C drug Sovaldi was selling for $50,000 in the United States, a high quality generic version was available in India for just over $300 for a twelve week course of treatment.

There would be comparable stories for breakthrough drugs and treatments in other areas, many of which now sell for more than $100,000 a year in the United States. The most expensive now cost more than $1 million. Without government-granted patent monopolies, the prices would almost certainly be less than 1.0 percent as high, and possibly closer to 0.1 percent of the current U.S. price.

The basic story is drugs are cheap. It is rare that the manufacturing and distribution process involves major costs. Prices are a problem because of government-granted monopolies.

The patent problem goes beyond prescription drugs. It applies to medical equipment and medical tests as well. An MRI or other scan would just be a couple of hundred dollars if it was a question of covering the wear and tear on the equipment and the pay for a skilled technician to conduct the scan and a doctor to read and assess the findings. It is patent monopolies that make these scans expensive. The savings from ending reliance on patent monopolies in these other areas would probably add $100 to $150 billion annually to the total, another 1.5-2.0 multiples of the annual food stamp budget.

National Public Radio recently did a piece about a woman who had a surprise bill of $94,000 for neuromonitoring services during a surgery on her spine. The reason this process could be billed for $94,000, as opposed to perhaps one-twentieth of this amount, is that the process is patented. If the neuromonitoring system had been developed with public funds, there would be no huge bill with which to surprise patients.

In short, the main reason that so many aspects of medical care are tremendously expensive is that we give companies patent monopolies. Since they are selling items that are essential for people’s health or their life, these monopolies allow them to charge outlandish prices. This is the same story as if firefighters set prices based on what it is worth to have family members rescued from burning houses. Needless to say, we would all be willing to pay lots of money in such situations, especially if we could get a third party (e.g. our insurance company or the government) to foot the bill.

Direct Public Funding: The Alternative to Patent Monopolies

The pharmaceutical industry and its supporters in Congress try to pretend that we couldn’t possibly develop new drugs without the incentive of patent monopolies. For some reason we are supposed to believe that, even though in all sorts of jobs people work for money, they can only develop drugs with the prospect of getting a patent. I suppose you have to be on the pharmaceutical industry’s payroll to understand this logic.

The industry’s argument gets even more bizarre when we consider that it is the biggest advocate of increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH and other agencies get more than $40 billion a year to do biomedical research. This money is primarily spent on basic research.

Somehow we are supposed to believe that this money is well spent, but if the government were to spend more to replace the industry’s patent supported research and clinical testing it would be the same thing as throwing the money in the toilet. The industry’s argument is especially bizarre since many important drugs have actually been developed with government funding. In addition, the NIH has supported thousands of clinical trials.

One interesting comparison is the $2.6 billion that the industry claims it costs it to develop a single drug through patent monopoly financing, with the dozens of drugs and treatments that have been developed by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiativewith a cumulative 15-year budget that is less than half of this amount. While there are differences that make the two efforts not strictly comparable, the comparison shows why it is difficult to take seriously the pharmaceutical industry’s claims that we have the best possible system for financing research.

There is a good argument for not having all research done directly by the government, but there is no reason that it could not be contracted out to private companies who would operate under long-term contracts. The condition of getting a contract would be that all findings are posted on the Internet as soon as practical and that all patentable inventions would be placed in the public domain.[2]

The incentives for a company operating on a long-term contract would be to try to make a case for having a contract renewed and expanded. This would mean doing as much as possible to improve public health in the areas for which they have contracted research. This includes not just developing useful drugs, but also scientific breakthroughs that could lead others to develop useful drugs or other treatments.

In this way, the incentives are directly at odds with the patent system. Under the patent system, companies have incentive to keep their findings secret (apart from having to disclose information to get the patent) in order to be best positioned to be able to profit from them. Under this public funding system, they would have incentive to publicize their findings as widely as possible so that they could get credit if they eventually lead to the development of a product or process with important public health benefits.

Another huge advantage of this system is that it would take away the corruption that is endemic to the system of patent supported drug research. Patent monopolies give drug companies an enormous incentive to push their drugs as widely as possible, even when they may not be the most effective drug or have harmful side effects. Purdue Pharma would not have been pushing OxyContin so vigorously if it were selling at generic prices. While the opioid epidemic is an extreme case, drug companies exaggerate the benefits of their drugs and conceal negative side effects all the time.

Going from Patent Monopolies to Free Market Drugs

There is one other important aspect to the switch away from patent monopoly supported research to direct public funding; it can be done piecemeal. There is no reason to deny companies the opportunity to go ahead and do research with the expectation that they will recover the costs with their patent monopolies. They just would have to worry that they will be competing with a new drug that is every bit as good, or possibly even better, selling at generic prices.

We don’t even have to try to displace patent supported research all at once. There is no reason the government can’t add $4 or $5 billion to its annual spending on NIH to support the development and testing of drugs in specific areas, such as cancer or heart disease. This can allow us to both see how the effectiveness of direct funding compares to patent supported research and also to uncover whatever problems exist with this mechanism.

Given this simple story, it is difficult to see why none of the more progressive Democratic presidential candidates have taken up the cause of ending patent-monopoly financing of prescription drug research. This failure is especially peculiar, since both Sanders and Warren (along with Senators Booker, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar) were sponsors of a bill that would provide some public funding for research that would lead to new drugs being introduced as generics.

It’s great to see the candidates proposing plans that would bring down the cost of prescription drugs. It would be even better to see them propose plans that would stop the government from making them expensive in the first place.

Notes.

[1] I go through this calculation here.

[2] As a practical matter, it would probably be desirable to “copyleft” the patents. This system, which comes from the Free Software Movement, involves having a patent that is in the public domain for anyone who intends to use it in a process/product which will also be in the public domain. If someone wishes to use the patent for profit, then they have to negotiate terms of its use. This would be helpful in arranging a system of reciprocal research support with other countries. (This is discussed in somewhat more detail in chapter 5 of Rigged.)

This article originally appeared on Dean Baker’s Patreon page.

The D.O.A. Peace Movement Ain’t Marching Much Anymore, But We Did

Tue, 2019-07-09 15:53

Photograph Source: Frank Wolfe – Public Domain

We won’t be erased or airbrushed out of history. Even though there appears to be no life in anything resembling a vibrant antiwar movement, especially on college campuses, the endless wars the U.S. now fights go on with lives lost and trillions of dollars of so-called national treasure thrown away.

In 2018, I received an email from the group Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee. The group is gearing up for marking two of the most memorable and effective mass protests in the U.S. against the Vietnam War that were part of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam on October 15, 1969 and on November 15, 1969. On October 15, 1969, millions of people against the war, from shopkeepers to workers to accountants to students across the U.S. marched and demonstrated in places big and small to bring the reality of the Vietnam War home to ordinary people and to stop the madness of the slaughter of ordinary people in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and the loss of those who fought the war on the side of the U.S. The Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee plans to mark those two notable demonstrations for peace (the November demonstration took place in Washington, D.C.). Five hundred thousand people showed up in D.C., while just the Boston protest alone in October drew about 100,000 to hear, among others, Senator George McGovern. Hundreds of other protests and marches also took place across the nation and world on October 15th. Bill Clinton organized one in London. The homepage of The Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee is an up to date compilation of the planned October and November 2019 anniversary events.

The October 15, 1969 demonstration was extraordinarily memorable. I marched from the college green at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island down College Hill to the state house. We had heard the late Congressman Allard Lowenstein deliver a powerful speech at Brown on the tenor of the antiwar movement in the U.S. He said (and I paraphrase here) that if those in power do not heed the peaceful actions of those on the streets, then the movement had the potential for turning violent, as a small fraction of the movement did.

The candlelight procession of hundreds down College Hill to the state house was remarkable as the evening lengthened. At the state house we were met by thousands of others (a guess is between 6,000-7,000) and heard the keynote speaker Mitchell Goodman, under indictment for allegedly counseling young men (along with others such as the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock) to avoid the draft, give yet another powerful speech against the war.

What made all of this very personal rather than abstract for me was the fact that I had left my teaching job on the afternoon of the day of the demonstration and would head to South Carolina and then Georgia on October 16th, the next morning, for basic and advanced training in the military. The enormity of all of this was almost more than I could bear. Having skin in the “game,” so to speak, made all of life charged as if by lightning.

Where to go with these beliefs and feelings so many years later in the time of endless wars and endless mayhem? Can a person and movements be as viable 50 years later in such a right-wing environment? Faced with more war and rumors of wars in places like Iran, Venezuela, and with the near-constant threat of force that can be called upon from about 800 military bases around the world, we have a valid claim on the history of antiwar activism and protest from the moratorium.

The movement for peace was largely ended from the low-intensity warfare of Ronald Reagan in a reboot of the military-industrial complex to the endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. With the Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C. rapidly heading toward a military parade  (“Tanks Roll into D.C. to Celebrate Independence Day,” Real News Network, July 3, 2019) (recall the military parades with missiles, tanks, and troops in Moscow during the Cold War Soviet Union era), the prospects for peace look dimmer than ever. Nuclear arsenals are being “modernized” for full-spectrum control of the entire planet’s agenda. Even the millions who marched during the movement for a nuclear freeze in the 1980s have largely been silenced.

The actual spectacle of Trump turning the Fourth of July into a military exercise is documented in “With Flyovers and Flags, Trump Plays M.C. for the Fourth,” (New York Times, July 4, 2019).

Marianne Williamson is Right About American Elections

Tue, 2019-07-09 15:50

Photograph Source: Marc Nozell – CC BY 2.0

Self-help guru Marianne Williamson isn’t likely to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, despite having probably served the American public more ably than any of her opponents (among other things, her Project Angel Food delivers millions of meals to the seriously ill).  Good works aside, she’s a little too “New Age,”  spiritual, and individualist/voluntarist-oriented for a population  increasingly viewing coercive government as its living and unquestionable God.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to her, though, especially when she points out major flaws in the system. At a July 3 campaign event in New  Hampshire, Williamson discussed the “illusion of choice” in American elections, comparing them to Iran’s, where “you can vote for whoever you want, among the people that they tell you it’s OK to vote for.”

Afterward, Williamson backed off just a hair, calling her remarks “a cautionary tale, not a direct analogy.” She shouldn’t have.

Iran’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, includes 290 representatives. Of those seats, 216 are split between three political parties, 66 are held by independents, and five are reserved for religious minorities.

Of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives, 434 are split between two political parties, with a lone independent holding the 435th. The US Senate is slightly more diverse — 98 of its seats are split between the two “major” parties, with a whopping two independents.

Yes, “separation of church and state” is preferable to theocracy,  but our two “major” parties, the Democrats and Republicans, exemplify an iron grip on rule by party establishments that even Iran can’t match.

How do they do it? Why aren’t there any current members of Congress from the Libertarian, Green, or other “third parties?” And why are independent and “third party” members of Congress a rarity since early in the 20th century? Two reasons.

One is that unlike the world’s parliamentary democracies, which use “proportional representation” measures to accord smaller parties at least token representation, the US uses single-member districts and first-past-the-post voting. In each district there’s one winner and everyone else loses.

The second is that, since the late 1800s, US states have used government-printed ballots and “ballot access” laws to make it increasingly expensive (and sometimes completely impossible) for “third party” candidates to even appear on voters’ ballots.

According to Nicholas J. Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian National Committee, the Libertarian Party spent more than half a million dollars just getting on ballots for 2016 (not including state party and candidate spending) .

Not campaigning. Just getting their names in front of voters on election day. In some states, no amount of money is enough to get past Republican and Democratic election officials (or, in court, Republican and Democratic judges). Campaigning gets done with what’s left over.

That’s how every election cycle goes. The “major” parties don’t want a fair fight, and they’ve structured American elections to ensure they never face one.

The only way to force a fair fight is for “third party” candidates to start winning the UN-fair fights. Your votes (and donations and party participation) can make that happen.

 

Dogs of War Howl for Blood in Iran While Americans Cheer US Bombers on July 4

Tue, 2019-07-09 15:44

President Trump’s order to the Pentagon to have an aerial parade of military aircraft over Washington, DC on July 4 provided a history lesson of America’s war mongering in the past two decades, and a terrifying view of what might appear in the skies of Iran if John Bolton gets his way.

The combat aircraft that were cheered by Trump’s supporters as they flew low over the monuments in the nation’s capital have not been cheered by people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Palestine as the same type of planes fly over their homes–terrifying and killing their children and wreaking havoc on their lives.

Over those countries, Air Force B-2 Spirit, Air Force F-22 Raptor, Navy F-35C Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18 Hornet stealth fighters and bombers fly so high they are not seen or heard—until the massive explosions from their 500- to 2,000-pound bombs hit and obliterate everything and everyone in their radius. The blast radius of a 2,000-pound bomb is 82 feet, but the lethal fragmentation reaches 1,200 feet. In 2017, the Trump administration dropped the most massive non-nuclear bomb in its inventory, the 21,000 pound “mother of all bombs, ” on a cave tunnel complex in Afghanistan.

While most Americans have probably forgotten we are still at war in Afghanistan, the Trump administration “eased” the rules of engagement, allowing the military to drop more bombs in 2018 than in any other year since the war began in 2001. The 7,632 bombs dropped by American aircraft in 2018 made U.S. weapons makers rich, but hit 1,015 Afghan civilians.

The Boeing-made combat attack Apache helicopters, a crowd pleaser on July 4, have been used by the US Army to blow up homes and cars filled with civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Israeli military uses them to kill Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the Saudi military has killed children in Yemen with these death machines.

Billions of dollars worth of US planes and bombs sold to Saudi Arabia raked in record profits for weapons manufacturers such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. But they pummeled Yemeni civilians since the air war started in 2015, killing people in marketplaces, weddings, funerals, and 40 children on a summer outing in a school bus. Radhya al-Mutawakel, chairwoman of the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana, says the US has legal and moral responsibility for selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition. “Yemeni civilians are dying every day because of this war and you (America) are fueling this war. It is a shame that financial interests are worth more than the blood of innocent people.”

One notorious vehicle of death that was not flown above Washington was America’s assassin drone. Perhaps it was too dangerous for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to be flown close to the President of the United States and a crowd of American citizens with its history of numerous inexplicable crashes and intelligence failures that have caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq.

John Bolton, who has the ear of the president every day, wrote in an op-ed in 2015 saying that in order to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the U.S. should bomb Iran. Now that he has goaded Iran into stepping up its enrichment of uranium as a result of the U.S. reneging on the nuclear deal and European signatories bailing out on their responsibilities in the agreement, Bolton is itching to start the bombing. So are Bibi Netanyahu and Mohammad Bin Salman. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been trying for years to drag the US into a war with Iran. Colleagues in the humanitarian and refugee arenas in the Middle East tell us a war is coming and are preparing for its nightmarish consequences throughout the region.

With the U.S. political and media dogs of war howling again for blood in Iran, Trump’s decision to showcase America’s aerial firepower must have been cheered by the war hawks in the administration and Congress, and their friends in the weapons industry. But to those of us who want peaceful resolutions to international disputes, the Fourth of July display was a chilling reminder of the horrific deaths caused by successive Administrations’ propensity for war and the terror that might soon be raining down on the people of Iran if John Bolton gets his way.

The US Imperium Comes Out

Tue, 2019-07-09 15:38

The United States of Amnesia has occasionally found expression amongst those despairing at the state of historical consciousness in Freedom’s Land. Gore Vidal remains something of its high priest, his writings a pertinent scolding about what went wrong in the creation of a New Rome in the Americas. From Pilgrim’s Progress to the National Security State, the US became an empire with certain resemblances those of past: territorial acquisitiveness, a code of behaviour to observe and impose, a bore’s insistence on its exceptional qualities.

The word “empire” never really caught on, sealed fast from the cognitive capacities of the US academic and policy establishment. The US was meant to be different, and celebrating the Fourth of July was not intended as a boastful affair of chained slaves on parade, rumbling armaments and purpled victory. Besides, any course Washington had to power was, as Geir Lundestad, former director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, famously observed, invited, not imposed. (Such fine dissembling!)

This point is insisted upon by historians and international theorists alike who avoid the implications of US thuggery and predation: the US merely exerted a sort of hegemony by consensus and encouraged its citizens to spend, spend, spend; it was also, by definition, the only true hegemon (on this, see John Lewis Gaddis) in a world without genuine rivals, which was not the same as calling it imperial. Any urgings that the US empire come out of the closet were met with alarm by such figures as Robert Kagan, who insist that calling it such “would not only be factually wrong but strategically catastrophic.” The US enriched rather than pillaged.

For much of the Obama administration, the imperium adopted what might be called a form of cross-dress or at least a form of fancy dress. No one could be under any illusion what the Chicago lawyer was really up to: the lingering power of Empire required a less than subtle reorientation, or pivot, eastwards to stay the rise of Cathay. It also saw an expansion of such interventions by stealth, with a spike in the use of drone warfare.

Then came President Donald J. Trump, who has nursed dreams of tanks rolling and jets roaring during an official celebration since 2017, when he witnessed the spectacular of a Bastille Day parade. If the French President Emmanuel Macron could bask in such ecstatic celebration of civilisation, why not the US? But even the empire has its logistical limits: a ballooning budget to run such a show, for instance and the prospect of damage to roads. (US infrastructure continues to ail.)

Trump’s Fourth of July “Salute to America” was a chance to right the ledger. The US Navy’s Blue Angels impressed; the crowds took their snaps. The New York Times penned its own observation, and not an approving one at that. “Flanked by Bradley armoured vehicles and M1A2 tanks in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Mr Trump payed homage to the five branches of the military as a chorus sang each service hymn and he cued the arrival of fighter jets, helicopters and other military aircraft as they roared overhead.”

Had Trump the militarist come out? Retired Marine Col. David Lapan of the Bipartisan Policy Center caught eye of the tanks but considered them less than impressive “props”. Prior to the celebration, the issue of Trump unleashing tanks in display was seen with mixtures of orgiastic delight and an infantile terror.

The American Empire was gasping to come out of the closet, and dressed for the occasion, but Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, himself a West Point graduate who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, would have none of it. “Tanks aren’t props. They are weapons of war.”

As with all beacon-on-the-hill messages, Trump spoke of an idea rather than an entity, a heart welled up. “We are one people, chasing one dream, and one magnificent destiny.” Then came the dreaming – and so much dreaming it was. “We all share the same heroes, the same home, the same heart, and we are all made by the same Almighty God.” The US was a narrative of, and in, progress. “Together, we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told – the story of America.”

While such notes have a historical rhyming with the speech fare of other presidents, this one was different in backdrop and occasion. Previous stewards of the imperium have preferred to avoid the abject reality of the US as empire, preferring the quiet retreat, the humble commemoration. Doing so assists amnesia, reassuring the US citizenry that Washington remains against wars of conquest, toppling governments and preserving its power.

On this occasion, there was no return to the home state, no low key gathering. George W. Bush preferred West Virginia for four years running; visible, military filled bluster was put to one side. As Time Magazine noted, the bicentennial parade of 1976 saw hundreds of thousands in attendance, but President Gerald Ford preferred a golfing stint in Bethesda.

While Fox News tends to be an annexe of laboured unreality, its commentators were out to celebrate the admission about US military power, taking issue with the naysayers. Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network, in the true sentiment of the imperial sissy, was feeling particularly bullish. “No wonder these Snowflake General haven’t won a war since 1991: Military chiefs concerned about @realDonaldTrump’s July Fourth celebration”. Dobbs’ was on shaky ground in his enthusiastic reliance upon a source: a piece in the UK Daily Mail – hardly a paper of record – noting claims by an “insider” that “members of the military’s top brass have been hesitant about accepting Trump’s invitation to the event at the National Mall on Thursday”.

Admittedly, the military high-ups were in short supply, being on leave, travelling or simply not in attendance. The same could not be said for military families given invitations by Trump to attend the VIP section.

Trump was heartily warmed by the occasion, and duly said so. “A great crowd of tremendous Patriots this evening, all the way back to the Washington Monument!” This came with its usual theatrical alterations – or so it was alleged: no show is quite complete without a cosmetic touch-up to Trump’s images, though the accusers were suggesting a mauling of the original. Allegations of authenticity battled those of the inauthentic, and Trump merely garnered more publicity for the occasion. The one entity, undoctored and decked out in the whole war costume of celebration, finally let out into the open with frank vulgarity, was the US imperium.

Thinking About Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Tue, 2019-07-09 15:30

Another world is possible and it is coherently presented in Aaron Bastani’s new book entitled Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a Manifesto (Verso).

The revolution is here and its main protagonist is technology.

Bastani writes with almost messianic verve on how capital is about to transform itself into labor.

It’s all about humanity accelerating the possible practices and uses of the information age which will/is revolutionizing everything from energy production to food consumption.

And he has a point. After all, humanity has been changing itself and its environment through technology for well over a million years.

As Bastani describes it, we have gone through three Great Disruptions: the first was Agriculture, the second the Industrial Revolution and the third which is just getting started is the Age of Information.

The third age will be one where supply vastly overwhelms demand. A world where energy, material resources, and information of all kinds will be cheap and abundant. In short, a world where communism, as Marx intended it, will be possible.

As Bastani says, if it isn’t luxurious it can’t be communism.

Here, Bastani develops the thesis that technology is a necessary but not sufficient catalyst for ushering in the necessary material conditions for communism. The other condition is a fundamental change of social system which replaces capitalism’s ideological focus on scarcity and a society motivated and structured by the profit motive.

In short, without revolutionary technological advance there cannot be satisfactory and sustainable material abundance which is the prerequisite for communism. A world where work is akin to play and man’s fundamental physical needs are met. In this case through a combination of robotic automation, AI, genetic engineering, and, yes, even asteroid mining.

While some of Bastani’s futurist visions may seem over the top, much of it is well within the realm of possibility within a few decades time if not earlier. Even if prophecy is often a doomed and dismal business, Bastani’s central premise that man is able to utilize the laws of physics to extend, deepen, and enrich his quality of life has been proven time and again since at least the Age of Enlightenment.

At a moment in time where negativity seems to be all around us, it is refreshing that someone young and from the left (Bastani is an ardent supporter and media spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn) has the courage to bring forth a political manifesto that is vibrantly optimistic. And as he often reminds us, links himself securely to communism’s founder in his understanding of the importance of technology for revolutionary societal change

 

When Nature’s Feedback Loops Fail

Tue, 2019-07-09 14:30

Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature and the Future
by Darrin Qualman
(Fernwood Publishing. Halifax, Winnipeg 2019)

The title of Darrin Qualman’s book, Civilization Critical, can easily be mistaken for an apocalyptic climate change tract. Given the weekly deluge of this grim genre in our bookstores, it is understandable. Regrettably, I believe, publishers in an effort to inform the public induce psychic numbness with their screaming titles. And while Qualman doesn’t ignore the greater horrors awaiting us if we don’t stop the hell-bound escalator we are on, his intention is not to frighten, but to inform.

Behind all the warnings of climate catastrophe, there are earth science systems that have gone awry. The mass media flits through the politics of climate change in sound-bite seconds, ignoring in-depth analyses of the natural systems that are disrupted. Not that political and economic decisions are irrelevant, it’s just that they are secondary to knowledge of Nature’s Operating Manual.

Qualman’s credentials as an author of a book on the destruction of natural systems are unique. In his youth he farmed; later he spent much of his life as a researcher for Canada’s National Farmers Union. It is a rare author who brings both a deep passion and practical experience to an astute sense of the larger forces at work creating societies worldwide. His intimate knowledge, as a farmer, of cycles and patterns in nature, from the specific—plants, to the general—crops, is evident in the very first pages.

The obvious pattern in nature is circular. Nature knows no garbage. Given this fundamental understanding, Qualman introduces the aberrant system we suffer under as linearity. Linearity co-existed with the dominant trait of circularity in human societies, as archeologists who pick through sites well know. Linearity slowly emerged over many centuries to supersede the circular system. The rise of powerful, war-like kingdoms, non-local trade, and large urban populations all saw the old system displaced. The decisive break came when industrialism, birthed by colonialism, spawned the consumer society.

Natural systems are webs of sustainability and resilience. Human systems fray these webs in pursuit of efficiency to save time and make a profit; often this drive creates elaborate new ones. The monoculture of industrial agriculture that plows over traditional farms destroys a complex web of circularity, to introduce its own complexity exemplified by globalization accelerated by computerization.

On a less spectacular level, consider the web of relationships, with suppliers, trades-people and clients, not to mention the years of apprenticeship, of the craftsperson compared to the factory worker stuck lodged within a hierarchy and taught a simple operation in days, if not hours to be performed endlessly. Yet, that factory might be a minor player in a complex web of subcontracting that spans continents.

Qualman maintains that these webs of modern society are alien to Nature, which mainly seeks equilibrium. And integral to equilibrium is feedback, both negative and positive. We are all familiar with negative feedback since our thermostats work on that principle: low temperature switches on the heat and when the desired warming occurs, the thermostat turns it off. Nature usually works on that basis to establish equilibrium.

Positive feedback, to use Qualman’s trenchant example, is like a run on the stock market that boosts stock value. And when it collapses, positive feedback kicks in again as all scurry to cut their losses. In other words, it’s the herd instinct. Positive feedback seems more familiar to us than negative feedback since we see it all around us: consumer fads, online viral videos, and compounded interest. Our economy is one big positive feedback loop. It’s called growth.

Qualman asks if we can’t sustain positive feedback forever, then how do we implement negative feedback loops? Do we self-impose them on ourselves by purchasing solar roof panels and an electric vehicle? To me that seems the route most conducive to a conspicuous consumerist mentality. I could call this the Veblenist approach, or the class-based one. No matter how much wealth is spread around, personal life-style choices ultimately have little effect on reversing the course of positive feedback

Or alternatively, Qualman suggests, do we opt for the state to impose negative feedback? The French oligarchy, following this course, received a decisive response by the yellow vests. That popular uprising reversed a “green” fuel tax that mainly affected those with the least amount of disposal income. State-imposed change will cost billions, and if it can’t be squeezed from the poor, the wealthy that benefit most from the status quo will not meekly accept their financial responsibilities.

I think we can argue, though Qualman doesn’t suggest this, that there is a third alternative—austerity. In this case, the impersonal forces of the market manipulated by politicians to hide their imbecilic policies to grow the wealth of the rich, impoverishes the populace and, as an unintended consequence stunts economic growth. This isn’t the most cogent approach to instituting negative feedback, unfortunately however it affects the most people. Hopefully, not for much longer!

Qualman comes down on the side of a humanistic top down approach, however I’m not certain he would endorse a Green New Deal (GND). To counter opposition to the GND program by climate skeptics and fiscal conservatives, its advocates fall over themselves proclaiming how it would encourage economic growth. I can’t see how this squares with Qualman’s proposal to decelerate and depower.

While Qualman has written a superb overview of ecological systems with an appropriate amount of detail to create a coherent presentation of the catastrophe upon us, he avoids any discussion of labor. The foundations of an ecologically aware civilization as he sees it encompasses a circular economy, solar power and localization. Of the three only solar power has been incorporated into capitalism at a minimal level, but one that might expand employment.

The circular economy that Qualman advocates must mean more than recycling straws. To achieve it in manufacturing requires a major redirection of capital and the transformation of the global workforce. A workforce that now consists of the poorest of the poor living on garbage heaps to search and reclaim valuable items to resell. This isn’t the future sustainable society Qualman envisions.

And localization, let’s say in agriculture, where it is essential for a circular economy, will require millions of farmers, maybe more than at the end of the nineteenth century. Will capitalism evolve to accomplish these tasks? Or will it fail and face extinction? Qualman avoids these questions, but he manages to provide a substantial earth systems foundation for the reader to ponder them.

When We See Him: Trump and the Central Park Five

Mon, 2019-07-08 16:04

Image Source: Daily News – Public Domain

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

–James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

“What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution by the courts., society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.”

–Donald Trump, Central Park Five death penalty ad

In 1989, the New York Times and other newspapers reported the rape of a white jogger in Central Park. Some thirty years later, on the eve of the airing of Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” the Times looked back on the incident in an article entitled “The True Story of How a City in Fear Brutalized the Central Park Five,” conveniently ignoring the role the paper itself – like most of the media at the time – played in their brutalization. After all, this was the same newspaper that ran Donald Trump’s ad calling for the execution the so-called Central Park Five and that ran an editorial wondering “how could apparently well-adjusted youngsters turn into so savage a wolf pack?”

How indeed? Perhaps if the Times had probed deeper it would have found an answer but one that did not confirm the one implicit in its question: it could happen because these youngsters were black and brown and – thirty years ago as it is today – to be black and brown in America is to be considered pathological, a menace to society. As former educational secretary and wannabe shock jock William Benedict opined on his radio show in 2005, “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could – if that were your sole purpose – you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down.”

Exonerated some twenty-three years later, these men were robbed of years of their lives as a consequence of a corrupt legal system that was more eager to falsely convict them than to seek truth. Ostensibly, they were punished for the rape, but their real offense was insisting on their innocence, something our legal system and the carceral state that sustains it could not accept. Coerced, they confessed. We punish liars, particularly when their lies conceal truths we do not want to face.

The New York Times, as it now repeatedly reminds us in the wake of Trumped-up “fake news” charges, is sworn to seek Truth. In 1989 that Truth – or what stood in lieu of it – was the false narrative off these boys as fabricated by corrupt cops and iniquitous prosecutors. But Truth, an “enlightened” Times recognized in its 2017 ad campaign, “is hard to find,” particularly when it is obscured by one’s own implicit bias.

The Times’ search for Truth is made even more difficult when it buries it deep within its own pages or ignores it. “All the news that’s fit to print” aside, the paper’s reportorial Darwinism does not seem to apply when the alleged rapist is the president of the United States. How else to explain why it chose to run columnist E. Jean Carroll’s rape allegation against Donald Trump not on its front page but in its book review section? Ironically, the June 28th international edition of the Times (distributed with the Japan Times) carries a front-page story on the alleged rape of a beauty queen by Gambia’s former president.

In 1989, the Central Park rape was front-page news, galvanizing a fearful and racially divided nation. But while the mass media rushed to judge the Central Park Five, it now tempers its judgment about another alleged rape, with most Sunday morning talk shows initially failing to discuss the issue. Instead, in the echo chamber of corporate media, it has been its own lack of coverage rather than the allegation itself that prompts commentary, some pundits blaming the omission on desensitization brought on by Trump’s constant assaults on decency rather than on a deficit of journalistic due diligence. In this view, nothing surprises us anymore, not even allegations of presidential rape, or at least not against our own.

For those keeping count, Carroll’s is the 24th allegation of sexual misconduct against Trump, the first, excluding Ivana Trump’s (who later rescinded hers), to allege actual rape. Predictably, Trump has denied the charge, stating he has never met Carroll, adding despicably that she is “not my type.”

Consider: five boys of color are accused of raping a white jogger in 1989 – coincidentally the same year, according to Harry Hurt’s Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, that Ivana alleges in a sworn divorce deposition that Trump raped her furious over a painful scalp surgery performed by her plastic surgeon to remove a bald spot. None of the boys have prior criminal records or have previously been accused of sex offenses. But they are black and Latino and were in the park at the time of the incident. It is assumed they are the perpetrators because the police have their confessions. The incident becomes major news – the “Crime of the Century.” Assuming them to be a pack of savages, we punish them accordingly, caging these black and brown boys – who could have been and were any black and brown boys – for from six to thirteen years and offering them up as scapegoats for prosecutorial slaughter because they embodied the fears of a racist republic.

Consider: Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by two dozen women. He has boasted of grabbing women by their genitalia and getting away with it because he is a “star.” He has a history of alleged sexual abuses far more extensive than any of the Central Park Five. And yet, there are no front-page headlines, no narratives purporting to explain “The True Story of How a Country in Denial is Debased by Its President,” no editorials inquiring how an ostensibly well-adjusted orange former real estate mogul /reality tv host turns into a serial sex offender. One wonders: Will the president place an ad in newspapers renewing his call for the death penalty? Would the Times run it if he did?

Our selectively carceral state forces the innocent to confess to things they have not done; yet it grants the guilty the privilege of presumed innocence. Whether we believe them or not, they face no consequences, as our transgressive president ceaselessly reminds us. For Trump, we split legal hairs, parsing innocence with Clintonian precision, though here the alleged abuses, sexual and otherwise, should trouble us more if not only for their sheer number but also the clear and present danger they pose to the rule of law.

Certainly, political elites on both sides of the aisle know that Trump is cognizant of his lies; otherwise they would have to assume him delusional, and a delusional president would warrant removal from office through the 25th Amendment. Instead, they pretend there is a method to his madness, that his pathological inability to utter a single truthful statement and to acknowledge any reality that exists beyond the narrow singularity of his narcissism is strategic, the product not of an unstable dolt but of a self-avowed “stable genius.”

In fact, the more Trump lies, the more we normalize his behavior, transforming it into a tolerated if discomforting feature of the national landscape like extreme weather, police brutality, and mass shootings. We expect Trump not only to lie, but to lie “bigly” in the face of undeniable (yet repeatedly denied) proof of his mendacity: the gas-lighter-in-chief who is buoyed by the fact that unlike in the courtroom lying in the court of public opinion is legal. Our concern is less with eliminating the cause of our discomfort than managing the extent of the collateral damage left in its wake.

Two years and an exhaustive 448-page Mueller Report later, when asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos if in retrospect he should have reported to the FBI Russian meddling in the 2016 election by providing his campaign with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, Trump still equivocates. One would think after Mueller essentially cleared him of conspiracy that, lesson learned and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, our brazen flag-humper would clean up his act, rush to the nation’s defense, and in stalwartly patriotic tones declare that he would immediately report such overtures to the FBI. Instead, with the 2020 election approaching, Trump telegraphs to foreign governments everywhere (including his beloved Norway) that if you’ve got dirt on his political enemies, he’d be delighted to hear from you, though “maybe,” just maybe, he would report it to the FBI – but only after reviewing it first.

This is Trump – the omniscience child-man who has “seen a lot of things over my life” but has never reported them to the FBI – speaking. This is the man-god of braggadocio who boasts of knowing everything about everything but whose putative lack of knowledge saved him from conspiracy charges because his nemesis concluded that he could not prove Trump had “knowingly” or “willingly” broken the law.

Which begs the question where is “ignorantia legis neneminem excusat (or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it”) when you need it? While a lack of knowledge of campaign laws seems to have gotten Trump off the hook for actions committed in 2016, three years later he has apparently learned nothing from the experience, and sadly neither have we. For if, as am unequivocal Federal Election Commission chair Ellen L. Weintraub recently tweeted, “it is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything [my emphasis] of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” why then should these officials’ participation in such matters knowingly or not carry no legal consequence? The fact that it has not and that he flaunts the law even now, even after he is presumably aware of it, speaks volumes about the precarious state of the rule of law and the spinelessness of those who charged with defending it.

Time and again Trump reveals his true colors, yet his enablers continue to make excuses for him and for their own complicitous inaction. His Republican colleagues court his base, hemming and hawing when not actually encouraging his flagrant law-breaking. Despite his lies, a cowardice of Republicans (90%) and a tartuffe of white evangelicals (69%) staunchly support him. A murmuration of establishment Democrats, while occasionally tepidly demonstrative, has nonetheless done little to hold him accountable. In the case in question, according to the Huffington Post, Nancy Pelosi believes the Democratic caucus has no responsibility to do anything about the rape allegation, passing the buck to her Republican co-conspirators. Forget hypothetical shootings on Fifth Avenue, Trump’s policies have killed at least six brown migrant children in detention centers along our southern border, yet he remains the Teflon Don. (However, he is in good company; his predecessors have killed hundreds of thousands without consequence, though if Trump has his way on Iran and Venezuela he may outdo them.) Despite all this, according to a recent CNN poll, 54% of Americans oppose his impeachment.

Trump’s ascendancy and endurance tell us about ourselves. Long after he is gone, we will have to struggle with his legacy, including a conservative Supreme Court and federal judges who will dominate the judiciary for decades, and emboldened white nationalists. We will also have to deal with yet another shameful chapter added to the American narrative, one in which innocent children and their parents are also caged or die on its border and in its deserts, drown in its rivers. To paraphrase a question from Trump’s Central Park ad, how can a society tolerate the continued brutalization of others by a crazed misfit?

When we saw at the Central Park Five we saw monsters.

When we see Trump, we see what by our silence and inaction we have become.

 

The International Spy Museum in DC: Lies, Spies, and Paranoia

Mon, 2019-07-08 16:00

Photograph Source: Farragutful – CC BY-SA 4.0

The mainstream media have given rave notices to the new International Spy Museum, a striking edifice that is close by the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The New York Times finds the museum “remarkable,” and the Washington Post credits the museum with taking an objective look at both intelligence analysis and clandestine operations.  However, there are serious shortcomings in a curation that has given the entire intelligence community a remarkable and stunning recruitment tool.

The most loathsome aspect of the museum is the exhibit on torture and abuse, a section that is euphemistically referred to as “Interrogations.”  The museum offers filmed interviews with both Jose Rodriguez and James Mitchell to justify and even praise what the Central Intelligence Agency refers to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Mitchell designed the program for the CIA, and Rodriguez managed the program.

Mitchell formed a company that received $81million in contracts to develop and conduct techniques to instill fear and apprehension in captives.  Mitchell developed at least 20 of these techniques, and personally oversaw and participated in the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.  In his interviews, Mitchell denied that this was his program, maintaining that it was “America’s program.”  He also contends that the program was vetted by “well-intended people,” and that, as a psychologist, he had a “moral obligation” to use his expertise regarding the program.

Rodriguez is best known for ordering the destruction of the 92 torture tapes, which amounted to obstruction of justice.  Cases had been filed in federal court to gain access to the tapes, and the White House had ordered the CIA to safeguard them.  The CIA director, Porter Goss, called for safeguarding the tapes, and several CIA lawyers echoed his remarks.  There was no accountability, let alone punishment, for Rodriguez’s actions, and he received full support from the CIA’s Publication Review Board for his book that essentially denied that the agency ever conducted torture and abuse.

Rodriguez defends the sadistic torture and abuse program for gathering intelligence, arguing that it prevented future acts of terrorism.  He concludes that historians will corroborate his arguments in the future when the documentation is declassified.  Fortunately, we already have an authoritative document that exposes Rodriguez’s unconscionable support for torture and abuse as well as the fact that there was no acquisition of intelligence that provided warning of terrorist acts.

What is missing from the exhibit is any reference to the comprehensive 6,300-page study prepared by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that documented the torture of many innocent individuals held in CIA’s secret prisons.  Then CIA director John Brennan went to unusual lengths to block the release of the report, including his lies to the chairwoman of the intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and his order to hack Senate computers and staffer emails to withdraw documents from the committee’s purview.

As soon as Republicans regained control of the Senate in the election of 2014, the new committee chairman, Richard Burr (R-NC), recalled all copies of the report and even blocked the confirmation of a leading staffer of the Senate intelligence committee, Alissa Stark, as general counsel of the United States Army.  President Barack Obama never sought accountability for the crimes associated with torture and abuse, and now we have a president and a secretary of state who believe in it.  Moreover, we have a CIA director, Gina Haspel, who wrote the cable that ordered the destruction of the tapes.

Both Mitchell and Rodriguez claim that the torture and abuse program had the full support of the Department of Justice, a reference to the torture memoranda that were prepared by John Yoo, who is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California in Berkeley, and Jay Bybee, who was rewarded with a federal judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  What Mitchell and Rodriguez don’t say is that the CIA began the program of torture and abuse before the memoranda were promulgated, and that their techniques went far beyond what even Yoo and Bybee found acceptable.

And then to make matters even worse, the museum allows patrons to vote on whether they would endorse torture and abuse as part of the global war on terror.  Sadly, more than 60% of those participating in the survey endorse the use of torture, which reflects the one-sided nature of the so-called debatge. The museum had an opportunity to examine the moral and legal failings of a program of torture and abuse.  Instead, it is holding a plebiscite that is endorsing its renewal.

The museum’s discussion of CIA’s covert action program is similarly flawed.  It curates the success of the exfiltration of U.S. officials from Iran in the wake of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979.  But it offers no discussion of the overwhelming number of strategic failures involving assassination plots and regime change that led to the installation of tyrants in Iraq, Guatemala, the Congo, and Chile from 1953 to 1973.  There is still much to learn about the CIA’s role in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where the United States funded and trained resistance groups that became venomously anti-American.

Former President Harry Truman was talking about covert action when he said that, “if he knew then what I know now” about the CIA, he would not have created the agency.  Nevertheless, the American public needs to understand that CIA’s covert blunders were directed by U.S. presidents.  They weren’t the acts of a “rogue” agency, which Senator Frank Church opined in the 1970s when he opened his investigation in the wake of CIA domestic crimes during the Vietnam War.

The presentation on intelligence failures is also inadequate with the discussion largely limited to the failures that surround Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington.  Former secretary of state Colin Powell is allowed to conclude that “ambiguous information” was responsible for the enormous failure that dominated the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it was obvious that the politicization of intelligence as well as the circulation of serious disinformation to the American public highlighted the false assessment of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

There is much to be learned from intelligence failures that accompanied the October War of 1973, the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but there is no information to be found in the museum.  The CIA contributed to a phony crisis in 1979 with its warnings of a nonexistent Soviet combat brigade in Cuba, which embarrassed the Carter administration and led to serious setbacks in the arms control dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Conversely, the agency’s failures regarding the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 caught the Eisenhower and Johnson administrations by surprise.  The high rate of failure on tactical intelligence issues points to the need for greater outside review of intelligence assessments.

In view of the increased cost of the intelligence community and the limits of congressional oversight, the American public is sorely in need of some institutional rendering of the real pros and cons of the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies.  The existence of secret intelligence organizations in a democratic government will always be problematic, and calls for objective handling of the difficult issues that accompany intelligence and operational successes and failure. The International Spy Museum is a splendid recruitment tool for the intelligence community, but it doesn’t provide enough information on the huge appropriations that support secret and often illegal activities conducted in the name of the American people.

Their Deplorables and Ours

Mon, 2019-07-08 16:00

Photograph Source: TwinsofSedona – CC0

Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech at a September 2016 fundraiser probably did her campaign more harm than she claims her favorite scapegoats, “the Russians” and James Comey, could ever have hoped to do.

But what she said wasn’t wrong; many a Trump supporter back then was deplorable by any and all reasonable standards. Many of them were racists or nativists or twenty-first century fascists; many approached the election in thrall to barely suppressed inner demons yearning to breathe free.

But this was not the whole story.

Many, maybe most, Trump supporters were victims of economic dislocation. Clintonite (neoliberal) economic policies had a lot to do with that.

And then there is the role that identity politics played. It would be too easy to believe, as many do, that white identity politics, the Southern variety especially, just is white supremacism. In fact, white identity politics comes in many flavors.

Many non- or only minimally deplorable Trump voters were moved more by benign family or regional values than by racist attitudes or convictions.

And many just wanted to give the new guy a try. Trump supporters, especially ones who had supported Barack Obama four and eight years earlier, were disillusioned by his dismal performance in office, but as interested as ever in “hope” and “change.”

Trying the Donald out would have almost been a reasonable thing to do if, as in more democratic liberal democracies, there were comparatively easy ways to correct for voters’ mistakes. We don’t have anything like that; we have impeachment.

How onerous and difficult to implement that process can be seems not quite to have registered in the minds of desperate Trump voters, many of whom probably did suspect that they were being conned, but who were nevertheless willing to give the conman a chance.

The comparatively undemocratic institutions our “founders” stuck us with are a large part of the problem; Southern planters and well-off northern merchants dependent on the slave trade had little love for government of, by, and for the people.

Democrats were a large part of the problem too. Like liberals generally according to Robert Frost, many of them were too reasonable to take their own side in an argument.

Their cowardice and insipidity did not cause Trump to win the popular vote. Quite to the contrary, Clinton won that handily. But Trump did win enough votes in the right places for the Electoral College to hand the victory to him.

Now, though, after two and a half years of him, only the terminally obtuse could fail to see how unfit he is for the office he holds, and how dangerous it is that he is there.

But Democrats will be Democrats; and so, even to this day, the party’s leaders and most of its base seem as passive and pusillanimous as ever.

And, as if that weren’t bad enough, now, as in 2006, when Democrats bent on impeachment might have been able to stop or at least impede the Bush-Cheney wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their leader in the House of Representatives is Nancy Pelosi, the impeachment-is-off-the-table queen.

Not to see Trump for what he is, or to see and not care that his emotional immaturity and rank ignorance pose a clear and present danger to life on earth “as we know it” is the very essence of deplorability.

Excuses could be made for being conned two and a half years ago. All but the willfully blind knew back then that Trump was a vulgarian, an ignoramus, and a buffoon, but whether to vote for him or Clinton was, or could seem to be, complicated even so.

Not anymore. By now, it is absolutely and unequivocally clear: anyone of sound mind and body who is still for Trump is deplorable – full stop.

There are however two mitigating factors that should be taken into account.

The first is Fox News and other rightwing media. They have given Trump a formidable propaganda system – dumbing down and misinforming millions of Americans. Abraham Lincoln was right — you can fool some of the people all of the time. Fox and the others are doing it.

It is not that their powers are especially extraordinary. It is just that wherever there are people aching to be fooled, they will find others eager to fool them or, failing that, they will find ways to fool themselves.

To be sure, reality generally prevails in the end. But lives are lived and politics is done day by day, where Fox and the others are often able to call the shots, especially in benighted quarters where it hardly matters that inconvenient facts are absolutely and unequivocally clear.

The other mitigating factor is that Trump is often more right than his Democratic rivals – not for good and principled reasons, but because of the utter deplorability of the other side.

Trump likes to look and talk tough, but when it comes down to it, he, like other bullies, is a coward. Fortunately for the world, this character flaw has so far made him more likely to shy away from potentially catastrophic military engagements than, say, the Clintons, both of them, or even the comparatively peace-loving Barack Obama.

Trump surely is the worst president in this century or the last and maybe ever by almost any measure. But, when it comes to killing and setting murder and mayhem in motion, so far at least, he has been better than Obama and many orders of magnitude better than Bush 43.

He deserves an F for coherence, a D- for implementation, and a zero for conduct befitting a head of state and Commander-in-Chief of a military equipped with enough nuclear weapons to blow the earth to smithereens many times over. He commands bases on every continent, and the most over-the-top military juggernaut, in the history of the world. And yet he governs through semi-literate tweets, seemingly oblivious to the real world consequences of his flip flops, twists and turns.

What he does have are relatively fixed instincts that bear on questions of war and peace. These lead him sometimes to say what any sensible, realist in his position would: that the United States should seek détente with actual and potential enemies; diffuse, not exacerbate, tensions that could lead to war, especially nuclear war; and steer clear of efforts at “regime change,” not out of lofty commitments to international law and order, but because regime change policies are unsettling and almost always go poorly and end badly.

Too bad that he is so easily dissuaded by whatever he hears on Fox News and so ready to sign on to the machinations of the neoconservative kakistocrats (“kakistocracy” means rule of the worst) he has appointed to positions of authority.

Also his comparatively sane attitudes go missing where Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies are concerned. It is probably not so much that his instincts fail him in that part of the world as that they are swamped by his ties to the peerless Ivanka’s in-laws and other nefarious real estate cronies, and to the pull of the “benjamins” being thrown about by the likes of Sheldon Adelson and his co-thinkers.

Trump evidently missed the day in business school, and before that at the military academy where his parents sent young Donald to straighten out, when they dealt with all the stuff that educated people, including presidents, are supposed to know.

For “knowing that” and “knowing how” Trump gets failing grades across the entire curriculum; and is proud of it. Bush was aware of his similarly obvious limitations, and was never too proud to reject the ministrations of his family’s friends and fixers. Obama was smarter and wiser than either his predecessor or his successor, but he too approached his tasks with appropriate humility.

Trump, on the other hand, thinks that to become the greatest leader ever all he needs to do is follow his gut. Too bad that, thanks to cheeseburgers and junk food, his gut is wrecked beyond repair!

Thus the respects in which Democrats are even worse than Trump do not do much to diffuse the charge of Trumpian deplorability. He is more right than his Democratic Party rivals only in very circumscribed areas and, even then, the differences are usually more aspirational than real.

But pointing them out does help clarify what might otherwise pass unnoticed to most people– that the Democratic Party establishment and the corporate media that serve it are deplorable too. As for the rank-and-file, it all depends on whether and to what extent they tow the line.

Deplorability is a fluid concept, but we know it when we see it. Trump put his administration in deplorable territory from Day One with his Muslim ban; it has been downhill from there ever since.

It is widely believed that Trump’s execrability comes at least in part from his determination “to throw red meat” to his base. No doubt sadism and racism are part of the explanation too.

The base he placates and nurtures is a piece of work. It is huge too. According to nearly all the polls, some 40% of voters support Trump still. Nobody does that casually or out of curiosity any more.

Needless to say, the alternative is a lot bigger and presumably a whole lot better. But what consolation is there in that with so many Trumpians around?

A lot, one might think. Trump’s opponents are good people. And if they sometimes think or act stupidly – say, by entertaining the idea of running Joe Biden or some other unreconstructed Clintonite “centrist” – why not just let it pass when the important thing is defeating Trump?

I would say that the sentiment behind this position is plausible and understandable but ultimately wrong-headed. There is much that could be said in its defense, however – not so much because focusing only on Trump is unwise and perhaps even self-defeating, but also because there are mitigating factors that affect Democratic deplorables too, which we ignore at our peril.

How, after all could common sense and right reason not sometimes fail when the alternatives to the Fox propaganda systems are corporate media outlets populated by Clintonites, along with superannuated military officers, retired intelligence agents, and anti-Trump Republicans who have gone over to the side of the angels, but whose political consciousness has barely evolved since the days when they were working for the unindicted war criminal who, thanks to Trump, is now only the second worst American president in modern times.

By the way, we have Obama and Eric Holder to thank for letting all but a few low level Bush era war criminals off scot-free. With that thought in mind, this would be an appropriate time to marvel at what an ingrate Liz Cheney is for bad mouthing those two every chance she gets.

In the Pantheon of miscreant political offspring, she ranks right up there with Meghan McCain, daughter of one of America’s foremost Vietnam War enthusiasts, a sentiment that he managed to carry over to every subsequent war of choice the United States undertook.

But because Trump hated Mr. Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran, inveterate Cold Warriors, especially ones who do Netanyahu’s bidding and who want to blame Trump’s victory on anything but Hillary, love him to pieces. Talk about deplorables! What else can you call born and bred Russophobes and who need to take potential nuclear confrontations right up to the brink in order to be truly happy.

Deplorables of the Trumpian type agitate for proxy wars and economic wars and other reckless nonsense, but this is not their main passion. That would be wanting to make America white and patriarchal and homophobic again – as if it still wasn’t those things and worse already.

Kinder gentler Democratic deplorables avoid all that, but even as they promote their cult of niceness — Trumpians call it “political correctness” — they make nuclear war more likely. Maybe that is better. But if it isn’t deplorable too, nothing is.

***

Nowadays, those who disdain the usual euphemisms when talking or writing about, say, the concentration camps that the United States maintains for Central Americans and others seeking relief from situations in their home countries for which the United States bears major responsibility – like those who would dare mention Israeli war crimes, crimes against the peace, and crimes against humanity in Gaza and the Occupied Territories – are all but required to say at some point that of course the Nazis were worse.

No doubt, they were in most instances, though, as news comes out of the sadistic cruelty and depraved indifference of Border Patrol and ICE agents, and of Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, one has to wonder.

In the same way, whoever would speak of anything deplorable that mainstream Democrats do is all but obliged to make it abundantly clear that Trump and his deplorables are worse.

This profession of faith in Trump’s consummate wickedness would seem unnecessary. Nevertheless let it be so stipulated, as lawyers would say: Trump is worse; Trumpians are more deplorable than Democrats.

He and they are so awful that this assessment ought just to be taken for granted. Nevertheless is worth saying a little more about it because it is important to be clear on what the lesser, subtler kind of deplorability involves.

Deplorables in the orbit of the MSNBC-CNN propaganda system don’t lust for

nuclear showdowns in the way that Trump supporters with minds glued to Fox and other like-minded propaganda outfits delight in the misfortunes of Muslims and Hispanic immigrants and asylum seekers.

Unlike the Trump deplorables, they don’t like it when Trump’s minions separate babies, toddlers, and school age children from their mothers; and they take no joy in the construction of concentration camps.

Bill Clinton’s last Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, famously declared that is was “worth it” for half a million Iraqis to have died sooner than they otherwise would thanks to U.S. sanctions. But even Mad Maddy was generally free of bloodlust. So are most Clintonites and the Clintons themselves.

They do follow their party’s general line, however; no matter how preposterous its twists and turns.

Therefore if, for whatever reason, the call goes out to dump on Iran and its non-state allies, but not Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf, or to turn the keys to the Magic Kingdom over to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, then that is what the deplorable mainstream Democratic Party will advocate doing.

If our military and their corporate friends decide that, to have adversaries worthy of themselves, Russian and Chinese adversaries – real armies, not ragtag bands of religious fanatics — then they need to revive ways of thinking and acting that the end of the Cold War had almost entirely obliterated. To that end, Democrats will support them a thousand percent –“unencumbered,” as the Car Talk guys used to say, “by the thought process.”

If they want to castigate the Russians and the Chinese for imperiling freedom of the press and, they claim, for putting journalists’ lives in mortal jeopardy, even as they shamelessly give an all but confirmed murderer, Mohammad bin Salman, son-in-law Jared’s best buddy, a pass, so be it.

And if they want to condone the unconscionable punishments meted out to Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning – for publishing truthful material of great importance to the general public – then they will back them on that too. After all, Assange and Manning embarrassed Obama and Clinton by revealing some of their shenanigans and exposing their incompetence. They therefore deserve whatever they get.

If the stakes were lower, this would merely be funny; extreme hypocrisy often is. We could savor the spectacle of the leaders of the biggest serial meddler in history making a federal case, as it were, out of the piddling meddling of others into its own affairs.

And we could marvel at the reverence expressed for America’s democratic institutions in our corporate media. Those vaunted institutions are actually among the least democratic of all the institutions in all the liberal democracies in the entire so-called Free World.

Much like the Republican obduracy so much in evidence in the Obama years, the level of hypocrisy within Russia-gate circles rises almost to the level of the sublime.

But the stakes are high as can be; so this is risky business – risky enough to count as deplorable, if not quite by Trumpian standards, then the next best (i.e. worst) thing.

Faulty by Design: the UN Report on Human Rights in Venezuela

Mon, 2019-07-08 15:58

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

Following Michelle Bachelet visit to Venezuela last June the official report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR ) on the situation of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was released on July 4, a day before initially scheduled. Judging by the quick review I made, the mainstream media is gloating on the uncritical details of reported violations. It appears to be the perfect gift for the US Fourth of July celebration. But one that will not stop Venezuela to celebrate the 208th anniversary of its independence from Spain on July 5th and its 20th from US domination.

The headline of the New York Times said, “Venezuela Forces Killed Thousands, Then Covered It Up, U.N. Says.” Reuters said, “UN details Venezuela torture, killings to neutralize opposition.” The Washington Post said, “UN: 5,287 killings in Venezuela security operations in 2018.”

The reaction of a typically unsympathetic media towards Venezuela is all too predictable, which makes all wonder if there was a second motive for the release of the report on this date and with this content.

To be clear, the UNHCHR is an independent entity and its report [1] is not short on details of violations committed by the government of Venezuela. However, we must question the UNHCHR undiplomatic disclosure with uncorroborated facts. Not to imply that the UNHCHR should have hidden the facts it believed to be true, albeit alleged, but also balance those with many other facts that the government of Venezuela claims to have provided but were omitted in the report.

If the overall intention of the UNHCHR with this report was to use the opportunity of the visit to Venezuela in order to strike a rapprochement between the two contending parties, it totally missed the chance. It could have achieved that goal by telling the full truth instead of lying by omission. I recently wrote about the Washington Post lying by omission precisely in reference to the upcoming visit by Michelle Bachelet to Venezuela. [2] That is not too surprising, but we would expect better from the UNHCHR.

The UNHCHR had the “courtesy” to publish simultaneously on its website what the government of Venezuela titled “Comentarios Sobre Errores de Hecho del Informe de la Alta Comisionada de Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos sobre la Situación de Derechos Humanos de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela.” (Comments on Errors in Facts of the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.) [3]

The document contains 70 paragraphs. It begins with the statement “The [UNHCHR] report presents a selective and openly biased view of the true human rights situation of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Eight paragraphs question the methodology used in the collection of the “evidence” on human rights violations in Venezuela, and 59 paragraphs state “Errors in facts of the [UNHCHR] report.”

The Venezuelan report details the omissions by the UNHCHR one by one. We refer to the document in Spanish for details [3]. What makes the omissions problematic is the fact that most of the information omitted was apparently provided by the Venezuelan government to the UNHCHR in a written form as requested, or was available in official public documents. One such example is the UNHCHR report allusion to the violation of the right to food in Venezuela.

The Venezuelan report questions the gross omission of seven different public programs – aside from the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP) – destined to responsibly guarantee food to the population, from school meals for 4 million children, to special meals for 750,000 vulnerable individuals. It further says “As evidence of the above, it is necessary to emphasize that the Venezuelan Government invests 3,906 million dollars annually in the purchase of food to be distributed to the population. This amount includes 2,826 million dollars for the acquisition of CLAP products and 1,080 million dollars for the importation of various food items not produced in the country. All these data were delivered to the UNHCHR mission during their stay in Venezuela.”

Similar objections were raised by the Venezuelan government about the misrepresentation by omission of relevant information about the “violence exerted by the demonstrators, especially during the years 2013, 2014 and 2017,” being responsible for many deaths including police officers. Also missing is the acknowledgment that all cases of abuses by the police are being investigated and there is no “cover up”.

We find the lack of due emphasis in the UNHCHR report on the unilateral coercive measures and the link with the economic crisis in Venezuela striking. This is clearly of the competence of the UNHCHR given its Resolution A/HRC/40/L.5 of this year where the Human Rights Council “Urges all States to stop adopting, maintaining or implementing unilateral coercive measures not in accordance with international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States, in particular those of a coercive nature with extraterritorial effects, which create obstacles to trade relations among States, thus impeding the full realization of the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments, in particular the right of individuals and peoples to development.” [4] Not even a reference to that document is provided.

But even more importantly we share the Venezuelan government legitimate concern that the UNHCHR report on human rights in Venezuela is faulty from design with a questionable methodology where 82% of the interviews used by the UNHCHR were conducted with people located outside Venezuela. Was Bachelet’s trip to Venezuela necessary?

In fact, the UNHCHR report itself states that it “conducted 558 interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources, including lawyers, health and media professionals, human rights defenders, and former military and security officers.” Then in a footnote it specifies, “460 interviews were conducted in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico, and Peru, and 98 remotely.”

Further, the report states, “between September 2018 and April 2019, UNHCHR conducted nine visits to interview Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico and Peru.”

What makes the UNHCHR report questionable is the simple observation that if you want to make sure that you get the most anti-government comments all you have to do is ask the Venezuelan “refugees and migrants“ or any of the government actors in those countries declaredly opposed (Mexico being the exception) to the Maduro government. None of the thousands of migrants who returned to Venezuela were interviewed. I would like to know what made them return to a country with such “poor” human rights record.

Notes

[1] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session41/Documents/A_HRC_41_18_SP.docx

[2] https://www.globalresearch.ca/lying-omission-still-lying/5681538

[3]https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session41/Documents/A_HRC_41_18_Add.1.docx

[4] http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/E/HRC/d_res_dec/A_HRC_40_L5.docx

 

Reparations for Millennials

Mon, 2019-07-08 15:56

Photograph Source: Matt Johnson and Elizabeth Warren – CC BY 2.0

Let’s begin by wishing everyone a wry, not sardonic, 4th of July!

I’ve been waiting for Elizabeth Warren to collapse. When will people see she is an opportunist? Seriously. A Republican through the first Clinton term and a Clinton supporter just two years prior. Warren is running on Bernie Sanders’ coattails from two years prior. Let’s face it: there’s a large portion of the country hungry for left-wing politics. I am not normally one to get offended by identity politics but her claim to be Native American while sitting on her hands during Standing Rock fit with the larger picture: Warren is an opportunist. On her politics. On her race. On her life story.

This was the strength of Sanders in 2016 and one of the many reasons he is losing his luster now. Sanders never brought a personal narrative with him in 2016. He was all about the country. And it was very appealing. Warren brands herself as a working class warrior with sob stories and race-baiting but really one has to ask: where has she been? She is picking up on a few progressive issues but only widely popular ones.

She cherry picks plans on specific issues and everyone is blown away. But no one is a threat with this approach. Sanders at least says he is a socialist. He at least has the claim that he wants to turn this entire thing on its head, via a revolution, or whatever. Sanders, while measly when it counts, is out of Warren’s league, way out. The left feels betrayed by Sanders kissing Hillary’s ring but that is no reason to spite him and go to Warren—who is just another Hillary who Sanders will be chivalrous to when she hasn’t earned it.

Elizabeth Warren—a woman of below-average intelligence, above-average enthusiasm and charisma below the Sanders line. Frankly I find the amazement with her to be a little bit offensive to any serious person’s sensibilities. A woman can walk, chew gum and say Wall St. has made mistakes at the same time. It shouldn’t be that impressive.

Warren wouldn’t go near single payer, now like others, she’s in with a cheeky grin. Warren switched from being a Republican because Republicans were restricting the market in her opinion. Hence her anti-trust stuff which seems to be her only real platform. Warren’s tax plan is middle of the road. It remains incomprehensible how she is gaining momentum and even more so how the left is falling into line with someone who will not address the climate crisis and does not have a word to say about the military-industrial complex. What does that free market mentality mean for environmental regulations? What does it mean for austerity politics in Africa and elsewhere? Silence.

Rather than anoint Warren the new progressive choice over the few things she has said, why not look at what she hasn’t said? Or just believe Warren when she says she is a capitalist to her bones. Her anxiety about the future remains chiefly about the competitiveness of markets. For Warren, one can tweak a few big companies and things are fair for the little guy again. Warren dazzles with her depth but has no breadth.

The hard-core Bernie people, who may have their limits, but are at least convicted, see why Warren has been planted. It’s fairly obvious. Reading this field was fascinating. At first I thought Bernie would win because the many centrists would split the vote. Of course Bernie would have been sabotaged later on, but he at least would have clearly been the victor and fraud would have been apparent. As the field settled down to heavy hitters I then speculated more cynically it would be Kamala Harris who would split the difference between right of center Biden and left of center Sanders.

Now both predictions are looking too optimistic. Warren has been the perfect foil. What was once a three horse race between left, center and right (Sanders, Harris, Biden) now is a four horse race between left, (pandering) left, center, and right. It goes without saying that everyone in the Democratic Party, Sanders included, is on the right, but we are talking relativism here.

Planting Warren has effectively neutered the Sanders coalition and takes a few nibbles at Harris, leaving it to your favorite Uncle, Joe. Ralph Nader and Jill Stein get blamed for vote splitting but at least that wasn’t the only purpose of those respective campaigns. Both educated the American public on radicalism. Warren on the other hand is simply riding the wave of pseudo-leftism.

The mainstream media, who is normally quite hostile to politicians with vaginas let alone ones who hate billionaires, adore the hell out of Warren. Why? Yes, she says she loves capitalism. Yes she is basically a Republican in that she only talks about the rights of the consumer, never the rights of the human being. And yes she doesn’t seem to care a lick about war and peace, the environment or the poor. And yes, she does not have even the soul of a nominally inspiring candidate like Sanders. And yes, she is very trendy in the causes she picks up and their popular appeal. But the real reason why Warren gets so much love? She is eating away at the Sanders base.

One of the policies in the air right now is free college, or even the cancellation of college debt. When Barack Obama bailed out Wall St. we were supposed to believe in trickle-down economics. There needs to be no such selling point for the college relief plan. Simply because no one wants these economics to trickle down from the middle class bailout plan. The middle class is far down enough for the bases of Sanders and most hideously, Warren.

Elizabeth Warren very well could be the most dangerous figure in American politics. And that’s saying something. But this statement, while perhaps true in terms of her function, greatly overestimates the college slave generation. Why call this generation college slaves? Because while reparations for the descendants of real slaves once had some momentum we now seem more interested in providing reparations for well-to-do cultural Marxists who believe in the class and race hierarchy built into the education system.

Now this hostility to my own generation is not overblown. This generation is just as bad as the ones before it, and will be just as bad as the ones after it. I find it to be bigoted to hate any generation, at any time. Therefore I say every generation is awful, there is no reason to compete. I just think millennials are overrated. From knowing many of them I could certainly say there are just as many loathsome people now as there ever has been.

Millennials get heaped with praise such as “the most diverse” generation. Which seems odd. What is this based on? Does anyone know? Is it things like the fascist idea that one day America will be one race because the races are breeding now so we just wait until everyone is a golden shade of brown and then there will be no more fighting? Seriously, the eugenics behind diversity narratives are frightening. Everyone is beautiful. Now this diverse generation could be a gender reference too. Which there always has been people on the gender spectrum. And I would argue that in some ways the modern gender movement is actually a conservative reaction against feminism, but that remains a controversial opinion.

Also millennials. Everyone seems very impressed that millennials are for socialism. Again, overhyped. Politics are a natural consequence of class and class warfare. A rich person is for capitalism, whether they know it or not. A poor person is for socialism, whether they know it or not. If you want your material condition bettered, you choose the ideology that helps you. Hence, millennial socialism is college debt relief and rent control (good things, but you get the point).

The allegiance to Marx here is cultural, not material. And that can be applied generally, and specifically to ideology too. And Marx is not at his best culturally, he is at his best in terms of the material. Dr. Cornel West, one of the last preachers of love as a material condition, has called Marx a romantic thinker, which is true, but seems to be forgotten in many of the elitist interpretations of Marx that has been used for right-wing momentum by the likes of Jordan Peterson, among others.

Marx is read by every class, whether to explain their own world or someone else’s. The issue here is the shift from Marx’s pure definition of class relations which was very crude in the original text. Now there is an academic reading that seems to gain its momentum much in the same way modern art does. When discussing Marx, or art these days, we do not ask about the fundamental human condition that originally the artist may have been speaking to, but rather to the intellectual weight of such an argument, which is always culturally biased, and quite ironically, culturally discriminatory precisely because of its emphasis on cultural displacement of things that are fundamentally human, even when fundamentally conflicting within the human race. Now that conflict was the central thesis of Marx: class warfare.

Which is actually the opposite of what is going on in academia now, which is why I would rather give the reparations to child care, or black families, or some other group that is not bankrupt in its thinking. Warren’s childcare policy is her strongest card and just for that, I’d support her over someone like Beto. Without it, she’s not much.

What is happening in academia? Actually, it’s all about qualifying. Which is the bankruptcy of the post-modernity movement. Intentionally planted, mind you. To sabotage Marxism. And it actually has nothing in common with Marxism except for its intended descendants who would likely qualify Marx before even modifying him. Now this may in some ways have some intellectual value, it certainly is not close to Trump’s reductive fascism argument. But it doesn’t have much utility. It is toothless because it always has to apologize for itself. This is the point of such an argument. To remain aloof and irrelevant at the same time. Which actually makes some sense as joint goals but doesn’t have much to do with Marx.

Academia is collapsing on itself. It is becoming increasingly expensive and utopian while society is becoming the opposite. It is more and more distant from what is real and one has to wonder if we really need to save it before we save society. The curriculum is turning to pseudoscience and abandoning hard material realities. In times of serious consequence, academia becomes increasingly trivial.

Take this reality of highly expensive utopian theorizing with the war on public schools. Public schools are going the opposite way. The poor and brown are not allowed to have an imagination. And that is from a young age. Teach to the standard test. Or you lose funding. And these tests are more a test for the parents: 1. are you rich enough for a tutor. 2. are you under the propaganda spell of academia enough to be feeding your kid this bullshit before they can decide for themselves. I mean a good parent who does all they can and have not corrupted their lives with capital can’t afford any of this nor do they have the time to think of it. Nor are they such a weirdo about their kids. Just let them live. That’s before we get into the criminalization and militarization of schools that have made these places highly combative environments for both teachers and students.

I am thinking of the contrast between safe spaces in college and the public schools with police for 5-year-olds. So you have two different things going on here. On the one hand, you make education more and more expensive to keep some people out. On the other hand, you make education more and more expensive to keep rich people believing in it. And now that it has clearly ballooned past its worth, we’re going to bail it out?

A good school is great. Teachers are wonderful people. Especially daycare and pre-k. On a technical level, they do so much more for our society than any other profession. But how do these things function, with teachers are underpaid as they are? Mostly as societal and class control. For rich kids, school is supposed to be interesting and soul-enriching, exactly so we believe in it and never question our class condition precisely because it is beneficial to us. And not just financially beneficial. School really does provide an opportunity for soul enrichment, when done right. But that’s the point. Learn enough so you can think about anything other than class.

And public school is nothing to take for granted. Look at the world. Look at world history. Public school, in any form, is a blessing. However, it does hold a purpose for the poor too. And as the rich gain power, the purpose is actualized. The point really is to break up the family, community and culture of the underclass through making school a place where one goes to get tested for society, only to be humiliated, told you don’t belong, which makes the path away from the expensive and alienating cultural apparatus known as college seem natural, rather than pre-determined.

Gender is a factor here, worth considering. As women have gained more rights in the United States it is now we see affirmative action for men going to college. And this is predictable (well the affirmative action for men is, but I more mean that women have overtaken men the minute they were given a chance). And this works into the theory that men, despite many other claims of superiority, have always relied solely on the difference in physical strength to control women, with all over “civilized” forms holding no weight. And in this system, where men use violence instead of brains to succeed in society. Well, it can’t be overcome overnight. So absolutely men are going to be more stupid than women until women get equal rights.

So to dismiss college is a little bit silly in this way. It is a better test of human worth than war, which seems to be the alternative. Yet one has to wonder if the nature of education where the educators are underpaid and the students are overcharged while the administrators rip off the top is actually just an extension of the home structure with child as student, woman as teacher, and man as administrator. So does this mean we should value our schools more, both for the sake of civilization and primarily female labor?

Yes, of course. But this may be a very different thing from valuing college more. By all means, more money for inner city schools. But college feels like it exasperates, and even worse, obscures class difference. The wage difference before and after college is a slight gaslighting technique used to shame the uneducated. Still, it is a factor. The grander success of academia may be that it fills up one’s head with theories about life that are not about class. Which is fine, good actually. What we all should have. Yet that is sort of the point. That if there is any worth in the college degree then it should be abolished immediately precisely because it is so inaccessible.

This is a point I have thinking a lot about lately with all the population talks. If something is only valuable to one person, how valuable is it? Something for the masses, even if not to the highest heights, is far more worthwhile. The liberal arts experience, while certainly enriching for the individual learner, is really a cleansing experience, like the suburbs, or the private fitness class, or what have you.

One still may give one up for this infamous generation because hey, it’s poorer than the one before. Though here one has to wonder if anyone who went to college and now is broke is necessarily advocating for socialism or more if it is what is called cultural Marxism, a movement that has intellectual and emotional weight but lacks spiritual and material weight.

The term cultural Marxist may be met with some contempt but please take no offense. It’s a celebration of Marx to criticize cultural Marxism. It’s like hating Televangelists, as a religious person. Keeping the substance and history alive in the face of mass appropriation.

The point is that if one has to choose between reparations for black Americans or reparations for millennials the choice is obvious Black people deserve reparations more. It’s not even a conversation. Now Wall St. has enough money to do both but perhaps neither is as radical as it appears. Rather we should shift the control over the means of production in order to change not only the material conditions of class but the role of class relations in production of capital. It is here though that we find even Marx to not even be radical enough. For isn’t it true that anyone who owns the means of production will turn corrupt and begin to value material possessions over people?

Marx—the greatest critic of materialism has seen so-called Marxist governments fall into this trap simply because their societies were still organized around capital and who controls it. We now have such a surplus in work that programs like a universal basic income and a 20 hour work week would be realistic in a different political system.

In this way the idealized utopias of college and educational spaces in general shine as a stark contrast to the capital centered spaces that millennials now find ourselves in. Regardless, when one looks at the cost of colleges how could one say that they aren’t spaces centered in capital? The contradictions of cultural Marxism, explained. So, one would think, making these spaces free would switch this dynamic.

Actually, it’s exactly the opposite. It would be another example of the American political system siding with its cultural elite and leaving the underclass in segregated disarray. Primed to be incarcerated for many generations to come.

So in short. Sanders and his group of millennial cast-offs may be leading an avocado toast revolution but I am sad to see it crumble to a biophobiac like Elizabeth Warren. On the bright side, something more robust may rise in its place. Hopefully, lessons about playing nice with the “progressive” establishment have been learned. The most we can ask from older generations is that they teach us something that we can use in order to make our lives more worthwhile. In that regard, Bernie has taught us enough, not just for a day, but a lifetime.

Bernie’s lessons in good, bad and ugly form. The good: socialism is a beautiful word and when we place it at the center we unite a broad range of people in community and action. The bad: trusting one’s capitalist and imperialist colleagues will only undermine your more idealistic goals. The ugly: perhaps the demise of such ideals is predictable unless the center of one’s compass is, in fact, the very underclass whose interests will not be ideological or intellectual socialism, but necessary and material socialism.

This last point is why Trump still has a very good chance to win. The intellectual movement for socialism right now remains very much on the Scandinavian model of winning over the cookie cutter middle class. Chomsky calls this class the educated 20% who need to believe propaganda in order for society to function as it does. It not only lacks the vibrancy of America’s working class, its aims are in fact to silence the legitimate rumblings of an abused populace by taking care of its intellectual class.

On its own merits, this movement has a limited moral high ground. But it also remains deeply flawed in defeating Trump who has channeled much of the resentment aimed at the culturally Marxist but materially capitalist upper class. One has to wonder with the rapid expansion of technology and the hollowing out of education by the ruling class if there can be a populist intellectual movement that fails to cut to the gut. Just kidding, I have come to see the terror around technology as more paranoia about the raw honesty and desperation of the abused and downtrodden. There never has been a mass movement that does not come to the gut. And that is not because people are stupid. And no, people aren’t stupid now because of Facebook or whatever, either. People are always smart, generations are always flawed, and there is no need to generalize so much about everybody in search of some grand master narrative about this downfall of civilization.

Note that for both the left and the right that this supposed 21st century stupidity revolution comes from the poor. The left has some specific causal damages to explain this (mostly technology, some economics). But it’s all the same bullshit. One can look at any point in time and claim that everyone was stupid. No, the truth is that everyone is struggling and life is hard and there is no time and people are smart enough to figure out that if a political movement isn’t real then it’s not worth the time because frankly for people living close to the edge love will always be first, in the myriad, sometimes cruel, ways it is expressed.

When one’s life is immediate and defined by immediate material needs the reactions to certain stimuli will naturally be more extreme. Trump works so well because he does stimulate a response that matches the urgency of the time. If Bernie somehow beats the establishment triad of Biden-Harris-Warren then we should do all we can to help him defeat Trump. Bernie is a fundamentally honest figure, and worthy of some admiration. He does lack the proper desperation of a revolutionary struggle precisely because of his identification with middle class ideals and values.

This, however, will not get it done. Like Trump, we must cut to the gut. Rather than access our darkest and most fearful tendencies, we must turn to our light and loving tendencies. I don’t see light as natural or inevitable, nor do I see dark that way. Both are responses to material conditions of the time, and humans are certainly capable of both. It does seem clear though that both are base and if someone can deliver one, they will likely seize the hour.

Trump then is like Martin Luther King Jr. (don’t quote me). MLK captured the spirit of the country with his message of love. It cut to the gut and is still remembered. It infected the American psyche, or perhaps the other way around. Seriously, has any figure been more prominent culturally since MLK besides Trump? Ronald Reagan (Warren’s guru) still may be the worst President ever but Trump is MLK-like in his cultural capital. MLK did not prove that humans love. Nor does Trump prove that humans hate. As King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Similarly, appeals to middle class nostalgia and norms only gets one so far in the fight against hate. Rather we must engage in the soulful tradition of love in its most material and absolute form. Being like the phantom Ms.Warren and finding single issues to drive home can only capture a moment, and maybe push forward a career. Bernie was closer in his principled stands against the billionaire class precisely because he centered his response on moral and, at his best emotive grounds. Now everyone seems to be distracted by Trump the signifier (orange man) rather than Trump the sign (hate, anxiety and humiliation).

None have been quite close enough to that truly spiritual game Mr. Trump is playing. It is no coincidence he has captured the souls of the religious right in his convictions of doom and destiny in times of strife and chaos. Let us truly get to the heart of Mr. Trump’s message and offer an alternative response. The 1% have only given us two options as they squeeze the world to its last drop: respond with love that is desperately radical or hate that is desperately regressive. The Democrats’ lack of desperation, in the face of Trump’s caravan of terror stories, is a tad bit of relief. It remains, quite sadly, deeply out of touch with the horrors their donors inflict on this country.

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