Subscribe to Counterpunch feed
Tells the Facts, Names the Names
Updated: 2 hours 14 min ago

Pacific Odyssey: To Papua New Guinea and Milne Bay

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:46

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

The welcoming committee on Normanby Island, D’Entrecasteaux Islands, off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

It took my mini-van about an hour to make the return trip from Capas to Angeles. I rode on the clogged long bench in the back, as if a recruit on a troop transport, but still managed to spot the street corner near the Hotel 999, from which I collected my backpack and headed, of all places, to the mall. It was a desperation move, as my Kindle was no longer charging and the battery on my wristwatch had failed.

Of the two crises, the Kindle was by far the worst, as I had loaded onto it all of my trip books, about nine in all. A clerk in the electronics section identified the problem as a faulty charging cable, and sold me a new one for $8, which ended my anxieties about spending a month without anything to read. Sadly, without books, much of American history in the Pacific grows dark, as the jungle and indifference have covered over so many once-famous battle sites.

To catch the Manila bus from Clark International Airport, I had to take a taxi to the airport and wait for almost two hours for the next shuttle bus to leave for Ninoy Aquino International Airport. I passed the time in a coffee shop, which had wifi and air conditioning, and then took a front seat on the bus, for the ride to Manila.

Leaving the airport, I got a good look at what was once Clark Air Base, a mainstay of the American military presence in the Pacific, and from which during the Vietnam War B-52 bombers had flown numerous missions over Indochina.

Since the Americans ceded the base to the Philippine government in 1991, the zone has been transformed into an industrial and residential park, a suburban enclave in the heart of Asia, with malls, factories, Little League teams, and housing subdivisions such as you might find on the edge of Indianapolis.

For a while the bus made good time on a divided highway toward Manila, and from my front seat I could admire the rolling landscape of central Luzon, which has more qualities of the English countryside than does Bataan’s gnarled jungles.

Once we reached the outskirts of the city, however, Manila was again an endless traffic jam of Carmageddon proportions. I had hoped that we might detour the worst of the downtown gridlock, but the driver had to make a stop in the city center, which meant hopscotching through Manila. The seventy mile drive between the two airports took four hours.

As my flight for Port Moresby did not leave until 11 p.m., I had time to browse around the shabby departure hall and eat dinner in the dreary corner of a convenience store. Ninoy Aquino International has few restaurants and only a handful of shops, as if in a time warp from the 1960s. I had expected an array of choices for dinner, but instead ate a cold sandwich next to a cashier selling lottery tickets.

* * *

The Philippine Airlines flight to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG), took five hours and landed at dawn. I was seated in an empty row but lacked the contortionist skills to get any sleep.

The plane approached the city from the northwest, descending toward the runway over a series of scrubby hills that separate Port Moresby from the surrounding jungle. Like Juneau, Alaska, it’s a port and capital, but with few roads to the interior, so more a city besieged by nature than an Asian hub.

On the approach, I remembered landing there in 1989, except Moresby then had the qualities of a colonial trading post huddled around a small downtown, while now it has numerous suburban neighborhoods with houses built up on stilts—outposts of civilization with two-car garages.

For months I had tried to plan my travels around Papua New Guinea, but most of my emails went unanswered. I tried government tourist offices, private tour operators, hotel front desks, and random travel people online. But rarely did I connect with anyone who could explain to me how I might travel to some of the World War II American battlefields, which are scattered about the island nation.

Keep in mind that PNG is an island nation with few roads or ferries. The only way to get around is by flying, but airports are few and far between in the areas where Americans went into battle. What should be American national parks is now inaccessible jungle.

My personal interest was to visit Cape Gloucester, on the western tip of New Britain (an offshore PNG island). My father (a Marine Corps company commander in the First Regiment) had fought there for four months in 1944. He arrived courtesy of a U.S. Navy landing craft, but in my travels I had no such conveniences. As best I could determine, the closest airport was more than 100 miles away in Hoskins. In between there was water and jungle, but few roads, and those were dirt tracks.

Arriving in Papua New Guinea I did have what many travelers don’t have, which was a near complete collection of books and maps about the American war in New Guinea. But having history on my side mattered little when it came to tracking the progress of the 1st Marine Division, which in late 1943 sailed from Melbourne, Australia, to Goodenough Island, in the Trobriand Islands (off the north coast of PNG), and then to Finschhafen(east of Lae, if that helps you), before landing on D-day near Cape Gloucester, New Britain, on December 26, 1943.

The campaign around Cape Gloucester, following earlier battles in the Solomons, was designed to isolate the Japanese fortress and anchorage at Rabaul, which is on the western tip of New Britain. Taking the airfield was a step in the direction of Rabaul, and fighters from that strip would help to attack the Japanese redoubt (its principal naval base in the South Pacific). Marines in the landing liked to joke with each other, asking: “Will you be on the roster after Cape Gloucester?”

From Europe, all I had managed to pre-arrange in PNG were two nights on a sailboat that had agreed to meet me in Milne Bay. After that time was up, I would be at the mercy of the local travel infrastructure, which, as I approached Port Moresby by air, I was pretty sure added up to almost nothing, except what are called banana boats—coastal skiffs that once hauled bananas.

A few days before flying from Manila to Port Moresby, I did, however, hear back from the proprietor of a company called Ecotourism Melanesia. The owner, Aaron Hayes, sounded knowledgeable in his emails and said that he might be able to help arrange my passage to Cape Gloucester, although personally he had never been to that part of New Britain.

Aaron worked from an office in Australia, but he volunteered to send his local representative to meet me at Jacksons InternationalAirport. Maybe in person I could explain to Glynn what I was looking to do and maybe he could help make some of the arrangements? It wasn’t much, but for the moment it was all that I had, except for my one-way ticket from Milne Bay to Goodenough Island (both of which are at the southeast extremity of the country, along the dragon’s trail, if that’s how you imagine PNG).

* * *

Before meeting up with Glynn in the coffee shop, I changed money, worked on a cash machine, and bought a local phone with a SIM card, figuring that as I would be traveling to far-flung places it might make sense to have a way of making local calls.

Those few transactions introduced me to the monetary world of Papua New Guinea, which, when you factor in its employment rates (80% of the population lives below the world poverty line) and the size of its economy (ranked 130th in world, between Chad and Tajikistan), must be the most expensive country in the world in which to travel.

I later discovered that even in far-flung places around the country, coffee and a sandwich cost ten U.S. dollars, and a bed in an ordinary lodge is $80, before any meals or SP beer.

Operations manager Glynn, the local representative for Ecotourism Melanesia, and his driver met me in the airport coffee shop, where the three of us had $20 worth of espresso.

Buzzed by my lack of sleep on the overnight flight and from the morning joe, I dove into my local map collection and explained that my goal was to travel from Lae to Cape Gloucester, about 80 miles across two treacherous straits.

By email Aaron Hayes had said that there might be a ferry going once or twice a week from Lae (PNG’s second city) to Gloucester. I was hoping that Glynn might have in his bag the fine print of a few ferry schedules or could help me navigate from either Goodenough or Milne Bay to Lae, about 200 miles apart along the PNG north coast. (It was also along that inhospitable shore that General MacArthur had fought his disastrous campaign for Buna and Gona, which cost the unprepared Americans thousands of casualties.)

During our meeting there was a lot of head nodding and agreement (Papuans hate to disappoint foreigners), but I left the coffee shop as I had come away from endless emails in the last six months: knowing that few people in PNG had ever been to Cape Gloucester and that no one in the travel business knew how to get there.

On my maps Glynn and I traced our fingers from Lae to Finschhafen (once a German trading port) and over the Vitiaz and Dampier straits to New Britain, just as many times, online, I had tried to figure out if there was a costal ferry that made the connection.

That internet exercise had never unearthed more than online articles about the sinking of the MV Rabaul Queen (owned by Star Shipping) in nearby waters in 2012, which killed more than 150 passengers. Now when I asked Glynn about the ferry service, he said he didn’t know, but would check with Aaron (who was, in turn, checking with Glynn).

In general what I found, when I wrote to tour operators and independent guides about my plans for Papua New Guinea, was that they responded by ignoring my request and writing at length about what they might have in their tour-package inventory.

Here is a response that was typical of many I received when canvassing the internet for travel options to either Goodenough or Cape Gloucester:

For Milne Bay a good guide option is Waiyaki and Max Nemani, two brothers who operate a small bird watching hut/lodge at Sewa Bay on Normanby Island and takes tourists hiking in the D-Entrecasteaux Islands looking for birds.

I have been to Goodenough Island and would like to advise that:

– the seas between Alotau and Goodenough and between Goodenough and Fergusson Island can be very rough (my most scary ever small boat crossing, huge waves, tiny boat, no life jacket)

– there MAY be a scheduled ferry from Alotau to Goodenough (the ferry business changes hands, comes and goes) but generally no service from Goodenough to Fergusson so you have to arrange private hire of a small boat or hang around at the jetty for a day or two waiting to catch a ride on somebody else’s little boat (4/5 metre dinghy)

– the walk right around Goodenough takes 3 days

– the island has been summited before and is a tough climb

– the only proper visitor accommodation is the guest house run by the Womens Association at the main town on the east coat

– the airstrip at Vivigani [Goodenough] is closed due to disuse

At least Glynn gave me his phone number, so now I had someone to call, in the event I found myself on a sinking ferry.

* * *

The flight from Port Moresby to Alotau, in a Dash-8 of Airlines PNG, took about an hour. For the most part we flew over the high spine of the Owen Stanley Mountains, which were encased in clouds and mist. Think of the miasma in an Edgar Allen Poe poem, as when he wrote of “that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife.”

Approaching the runway, the plane made a wide circle over Milne Bay, of fjord proportions, which during World War II was the scene of an early, bitter battle between Australian and Japanese forces. Now much of the land around the bay has been given over to a copra plantation.

On our final approach, I could see one boat anchored in Milne Bay, and knew that it had to be the sailboat “Chemistry,” which I would be joining the next day to sail toward Goodenough Island.

The airport—named after an Australian pilot, Robert Guerney, who was killed on a nearby mission—had several war memorials on the apron of the runway. Only a handful of passengers got off the plane, and we collected our bags inside the terminal, which was about the size of a small garage.

The airport manager told me that local buses, heading toward town, passed in front of the airport. As I was walking through the parking lot, a local businessman with a pickup truck offered to drop me at my hotel, the Napatana Lodge, which was on the main road. On the ride he said that his home province was the Morobe peninsula (around Lae), but even he did not know if any ferries to New Britain stopped at Cape Gloucester. (By this point, I was asking everyone for directions.)

* * *

For several months, I had been writing (without any response) to the Napatana Lodge to reserve a single room for the night. I had even tried calling. It had good online reviews, and the pictures showed an elegant guest house with both up-market bungalows and backpacker rooms.

Checking in, I said to the woman at the front desk I was surprised that none of my emails had come through. But then she said, of the lodge’s website: “Oh, we haven’t used that email for a long time. And the telephone isn’t working.” She might well have said, “Welcome to PNG.”

As the lodge had few guests that night, I was assigned to the expansive backpacker room (a screened porch with six beds and several sofas), which I had to myself. I was happy to unpack my clothes (it had been a while) and settle my papers and maps around the large desk, as if enrolling in a writer’s colony.

Because the flight from Moresby had been several hours late, it meant that I only arrived in Alotau in the mid-afternoon, and that I had few options of things to see before nightfall. Such is the crime rate in Papua New Guinea that everyone I met warned me that I needed to be somewhere safe when it grew dark.

My only choice for an afternoon visit was to a small war memorial at Turnbull, which had been an airstrip (number 3, in local parlance) during the war.

In August 1942, on their way to attack Port Moresby—and, after that, according to their plans, Australia—the Japanese landed a detachment of men near the village of Ahihoma, which is along the coast east of Alotau.

They marched west toward two air strips, with the idea that they would overrun the local garrison and seize both the port of Alotau (then called Rabi) and the adjacent landing strips. (Much of the Pacific War was fought to control what are now regional airports.)

Backed by American war planes, the Australians held the line in repeated jungle actions against the Japanese and won a small but critical battle at the start of the Pacific War.

By holding alongside Milne Bay, the Australians made it impossible for the Japanese army and navy to attack Port Moresby, and without that strategic port, the Japanese invasion of Australian was postponed.

In searching for reasons why Japan lost the Pacific War, Milne Bay is a good place to start.

* * *

I hitched a ride along the coast road to the war memorial, which had plaques, a small cannon, and a mounted propeller to commemorate the engagement at Turnbull. I took a picture of a brass plaque that showed the casualties sustained during the battle, which lasted less than a week but claimed the lives of 156 Australians and 14 Americans.

On its side, the Japanese army lost some 612 men in the battle, and another 535 men were wounded, which explains why the Japanese broke off the engagement around strip number 3 and melted back into the jungle, to await evacuation down the coast.

In the histories of World War II, Milne Bay gets very little attention, but along with the early American victories at Guadalcanal (also in August 1942) it was among the first defeats inflicted on the Japanese army, which had been advancing—almost without opposition—since its offensive campaigns began in Manchuria in 1931.

For almost ten years, the Imperial Japanese Armyhad been the master of Asia, and I am sure it came as a shock to encounter an Australian battalion (with American air cover) that with mortars and bayonets was willing to make a last stand at every jungle stream.

* * *

Before dinner at the hotel, I asked the woman at the front desk if I could swim in the bay. She shrugged and had one of the groundskeepers at the lodge unlock the rear gate (everything of value in PNG is locked up at night), and I picked my way along a rough path to the water’s edge.

In retrospect, I should have asked someone about the presence in local waters of crocodiles or sharks, but as I was new to PNG, I paddled around in the shallow, slightly murky, waters and went back to my screened porch, where I watched the sun set (in a matter of minutes), as if it had rolled off a flat earth.

My plan for the following morning was to meet “SV Chemistry” at the town dock in Alotau, and I was there, as planned, at 8 a.m. The hotel taxi had dropped me at the industrial wharf, however, not the town’s public dock, and it took a while for the guards on duty to point out the correct waterside landing.

Unable to explain where I should walk, one of the guards finally fetched his car and drove me around the dockyard to the town landing, where I could see the “Chemistry” drifting in the shallows. It was opposite another small war memorial, where there was a quote about the battle that reads: “The sweating jungle crowded in upon it and mist sat on the densely scrubbed mountains and the very air sweated.” I could take its point, as even at 8 a.m. the humidity was thick on the ground.

From the war memorial I shouted toward the boat, to make my presence known, but the only spirit that moved on deck was that of a small black dog (her name was Luna, and she was the ship’s dog).

I wandered around the war memorial, where I came across a quotation from Field Marshal Sir William Slim, theater commander in Burma, who said: “In August and September 1942 Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australians had done it…so could we.” The only other products being promoted in the small waterside park were loose joints.

After a while, my calls were answered and a small outboard boat was dispatched from the “Chemistry” to pick me up at the beach. (While I was boarding, Luna sniffed around the “salesmen” near the memorial.) On board I met the captain, Gavin Prescott (who is British), and his Brazilian wife, Luciana, and their close friends from Australia, Dave and Patsy Mitchell. All were on a sailing holiday in Papua New Guinea.

I had connected with Gavin through Airbnb, and in our exchanges he had kindly offered to meet me in Milne Bay and sail me to Goodenough Island, about sixty miles away.

At that point in my planning, I was more interested in Cape Gloucester than Goodenough Island (although my father had been camped there), but Gavin’s emails were so friendly and encouraging that I decided to begin my PNG travels in his company, hoping that I could learn more about how to get around these remote islands.

In all my advance planning, he was the only one who responded to my questions and came up with solutions to some of the problems that I was posing. I now regret that I didn’t stay on board his boat for another two weeks.

Sailing out of Milne Bay, Gavin steered the “Chemistry” so that I could inspect the jungle clearings (at villages known as KB Mission and Ahihoma) where the Japanese had first landed their forces in 1942 to attack the Australians. He brought the boat close to the shore, but all we could see were small clearings in the jungle.

One reason the Japanese had such a hard time in the battle of Milne Bay was that by the time they had hacked their way to what is now Alotau and the Turnbull air strip they were suffering from jungle fatigue—the response to a vile climate that mixes rain, humidity, heat, and disease, in equal proportions. (Tropical showers give off the cascades of broken plumbing.)

* * *

I spent much of that first day at sea, as we cruised out of Milne Bay, getting to know Dave and Patsy, an Australian couple who had been friends with Gavin for almost thirty years. They had met in the sailing community around Australia, as Dave and Patsy love nothing more than their time on the water.

I learned that after they were married and when their children (now in their twenties) were small, the Mitchells had sailed around the world, a circumnavigation that included the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and then a long run across the Pacific.

They were gone for about four years. (Occasionally, they would stop for a while and earn money at odd jobs.) Earlier in his life Dave had served on an aircraft carrier in the Australian navy and, from what he and Gavin said (always very modestly), Dave was one of those people who could do anything with his hands, and Patsy had managed to amuse two toddlers within the confines of a small yacht.

When I asked Gavin about the “Chemistry,” and where it had been built, he nodded in Dave’s direction and said: “Other than the hull, we built everything that you see.”

“Chemistry” is a luxury catamaran that is 60 feet long, with modern conveniences that I had never encountered on a sailboat (including a big refrigerator, freezer, working shower, and comfortable bunks).

As we sailed along the coast outside of Milne Bay, the conversation touched on islands in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans, and no matter what places I asked about (Christmas Island, Tahiti, Cyprus, etc.), Dave and Patsy had stopped there on their round-the-world cruise. How nice, in the age of Trump, to meet people so curious and fluent about the world.

Now that their children were grown, they had rented out their house near Brisbane, Australia, and were living full time on their sailboat, which they take to places such as New Caledonia or Vanuatu in the casual way that many Americans drive with their families to Florida.

For their vacation this year, they had flown to the Solomons and were joining Gavin and Luciana in getting to know a series of island groups outside Milne Bay, including the D’Entrecasteaux Islands and the Louisade Archipelago, which are close to what Americans would know as the Coral Sea, northeast of Australia.

I was lucky in booking myself onto “Chemistry,” as it turned out that the fathers of everyone on board had served in World War II. Gavin’s father (an Englishman) fought in Italy after the Anzio landings. As Gavin liked to joke: “He walked his way to Trieste.”

Dave’s father had been in the Australian army in New Guinea. He was stationed at Madang, a town on the north coast above Lae. He was there for much of the war, and his experience in New Guinea turned Dave into an avid reader of World War II histories, for many of the reasons that I was now on my way to New Britain.

When Dave learned that I had come to PNG in search of American battlefields, he went below and returned with several bulky histories that he insisted I read at some point.

One was a history of the Allied coast watchers who were posted around New Guinea and the Solomons—several saved the life of Lt. (jg.) John F. Kennedy when his PT-109 was sunk near Gizo Island.

The other book he pressed on me was Peter Brune’s Those Ragged Bloody Heroes: From the Kokoda Trail to Gona Beach 1942, about the experience of Australian forces in the desperate fighting across the Owen Stanley Mountains, which prevented the Japanese from taking Port Moresby.

Americans would like to think that single-handedly they won the war in the war in the Pacific, but without the Australian victories at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail, the Japanese might well have rained on the parade of the American century.

Once we realized that we shared tastes in historical literature, the rest of the sail took the form of an extended book club conversation, in which we were forever mentioning books and histories that the other should read.

I might have been unlucky with many of my plans for PNG, but at least for now I was lucky with the company that I was keeping.

* * *

Another subject of the floating seminar was the Australian campaign during World War I at Gallipoli, which is down the coast from what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Dave’s grandfather landed there in April 1915, in the first waves at Anzac Cove, and fought until September, when he was wounded and evacuated. On their world sail, Dave and Patsy had stopped in Turkey and had gone to see the battlefields around Gallipoli (it’s an Australian pilgrimage).

More than any other battle in Australian history, Gallipoli came to define the country as an independent nation. Too many men died or were wounded there for the country, after the war, to retain much affection for the British, who had landed them on those hostile shores. In the campaign some 8,141 Aussies were killed, and another 19,441 were wounded.

The fighting lasted almost a year but failed to dislodge the Turks from the high ground around the Dardanelles. It was all for nought, except that the suffering and dying gave Australia a national identity that earlier had been lacking.

The diggers (as the Australian troops were called) hung on tenaciously, against many odds, and developed a cocky swagger that saw them through one of the worst battles of World War I.

As I told Dave, a popular rejoinder, when an Aussie in a Gallipoli trench would start complaining, was to say: “The next thing you’ll want is flowers on your grave.”

* * *

In the middle of the afternoon, we rounded the East Cape of Milne Bay (through a narrow channel lined with reefs) and sailed into the broad expanse of Goodenough Bay, a stretch of open water between the PNG mainland and the D’Entrecasteaux Islands.

It was exactly the route that my father had sailed, in September 1942, when the First Marine Division shipped from Melbourne to Goodenough Island.

The Marines had gone to Brisbane after the long campaign on Guadalcanal, which lasted from August to December 1942, but the climate proved unsuitable for the many marines who were suffering from malaria. (With one such case my father was hospitalized, during which time, when he was riding in an elevator in his bathrobe, the doors opened and in walked Eleanor Roosevelt. In her distinctive upper-class voice, she said to him: “Hello, solider.”)

In no condition to fight again immediately, the division was moved to Melbourne (they camped in the main cricket ground), where it trained for future operations. The refitting took about eight months, and, then, as my father would often say: “We sailed in an old liberty ship for eighteen days along the Great Barrier Reef, going god knows where, but surely into combat.”

In our case, after rounding the East Cape, we began to look at the charts and on navigational computers for a suitable anchorage for the night. We had decided that we would not make it to Goodenough Island that day, and to spend the night somewhere along the coast of Normanby Island, which is part of the D’Entrecasteaux chain and as remote any island on the planet.

* * *

I never ceased to admire Gavin’s abilities as a skipper. As a younger man, he delivered sailing yachts around the world, and that had given him experience with ocean sailing, as did his childhood, which was spent in small sailboats in the North Sea, off the east coast of England.

For secondary school Gavin attended elite Winchester College, but then decided that neither Oxford nor Cambridge was for him. In effect, he then ran away to sea, and ever since has been a professional skipper. He said that he had lived in Australia the last twenty-five years, and that, of late, he had positioned the “Chemistry” in the Solomon Islands, where he received a steady stream of charter passengers, as well he should, given his professionalism and Luciana’s skills as a chef.

He and his wife could take up to six guests on the boat, and what he loved, in particular, was to sail around the central Solomons, from Choiseul to Munda and the points in between.

For me, the pleasure of Gavin’s company, besides watching his skills as a captain, was to pick his brain about places in the Solomons that I had only read about in my histories of those World War II campaigns: Kennedy Island, Rendova, Blackett Strait, Kolombangara, Ferguson Passage, and the Shortland Islands. It was a pleasure to have my books and maps come to life.

* * *

For that evening’s anchorage, Gavin and Luciana, whose iPad was connected to a global navigational and chart system, chose a harbor on Normanby’s southwest coast, into which we sailed as if on one of the voyages of Captain Cook.

I don’t think, before that afternoon, that I had known what to expect when mooring a sailboat near a remote Pacific island. But this secluded anchorage, in the lee of tall hills, might well have been a safe harbor of the eighteenth century.

As we dropped the sails and motored toward a remote cove, all sorts of small children, each of them paddling their own hand-hewn bark canoes, approached the “Chemistry” and—laughing and smiling—escorted us to our mooring. Some of the children said that they had come directly from school (at the far end of the harbor).

As word got around the expansive harbor that a sailboat was here for the night, entire families turned out on their canoes to assist in the fanfare of a yacht’s arrival. Some came with fruits and vegetables to trade. In exchange, many wanted rice and ball point pens. (If you are ever shipwrecked in the Pacific, take along some Bic pens.)

One of the men in the receiving party said that many boats used to come to Normanby. But since security (aka pirates) had become a serious issue in PNG, few yachts had stopped in the bay. We were the first in several months.

For all that Normanby was a paradise lost—think of an idyllic Pacific harbor, with a few grass huts on the shore and in the distance tall hills covered with palm trees and jungle—it did come with a few risks, all of which I heard about as I contemplated going for a swim.

For starters, the waters around PNG are full of sharks and, here and there, saltwater crocodiles. During the war years, when many boats were sunk, surviving the wreck often meant dying in a shark attack, which in some cases happened immediately. (Lt. John F. Kennedy can consider himself a lucky man for having survived both the sinking of PT-109 and his many subsequent swims in search of rescue craft.)

It’s true that there are more crocodiles inland where rivers meet the sea in brackish waters, but they could still be “out here,” and the annoying thing about sharks and crocs is that they do little to broadcast their presence.

As I was contemplating my evening swim, Patsy said the worst time of the day for shark attacks were dawn and dusk, when in the dark waters the sharks had a hard time identifying a human shape as anything more than breakfast or dinner. During the day, she said, they might be more wary of humans, although that was hard to predict.

When I asked the delegation of kids paddling their canoes off the aft deck of the “Chemistry,” if this particular cove had any sharks, they laughed and said “no.” They were persuasive enough for me to dive off the aft deck of the boat, but not to linger in the water, especially as the sun was setting.

* * *

The other problem in paradise is that of pirates, who have been known to board pleasure crafts and steal anything of value on board. And then sometimes to kill all the passengers. (As best as I could determine, cannibalismwas a by-product of tribal warfare and followed victories over enemies; it wasn’t part of some protein diet.)

Gavin told a few horror stories about yachts being boarded in the night, which is why he sails with his faithful dog, Luna, who is the perfect breed (a staffy cross) for such seaborne guard duty. She was affectionate with me and all the passengers; but she had marked off the confines of the boat deck as her territory, and whenever strangers on their canoes got too close to the gunwales, Luna would spring into a barking frenzy.

I did notice that when were at anchor not everyone inspecting the “Chemistry” was a cheerful school kid hoping to trade pineapples for a pad of paper.

Occasionally sullen men would paddle past us, wearing the same grim expressions, I am sure, that the sharks wore below the surface. In a country where most people don’t have a job, the presence of a foreign yacht in a secluded harbor must look, to some anyway, like an invitation to form an ad hoc cargo cult.

Another reason pirates are prevalent in PNG is because there are so few boats and ships in its waters. Nor is there much of a coast guard. On our sail from Milne Bay to Normanby, we passed at most three or four banana boats. I saw no other sailboats or large ships, even on the horizon. Nor did I see any large fishing craft.

Close to the shore, I did see single men trying to catch fish for that evening’s dinner, but wielding a single spear or one line with a hook. On the open seas, PNG waters are eerie in their emptiness.

* * *

As the sun set across the harbor, I wondered if Margaret Mead, in her research around New Guinea, had ever come to Normanby Island. She was no stranger to such remoteness. Later I figured out that she had been on Manus Island, which is to the north of New Britain and about six hundred miles (PNG is vast) from the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, when she did the research for her book Growing Up in New Guinea (1930).

The book was a sensation, as she had discovered Pacific islanders unaffected by modern society. Her goal had been to determine whether the children in such an Eden were growing up differently than their counterparts in, say, American suburbs. The book was written three years after her stay on Samoa, during which she learned to describe western civilization by observing Pacific natives. It helped in her travels, I am sure, that Mead had a sense of humor, as she later said: “My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.” She also once described how she worked, in these terms:

I used to say to my classes that the ways to get insight are: to study infants; to study animals; to study primitive people; to be psychoanalyzed; to have a religious conversion and get over it; to have a psychotic episode and get over it; or to have a love affair with an old Russian. And I stopped saying that when a little dancer in the front row put up her hand and said, ‘Does he have to be old?’

Next up: To Goodenough Island, D’Entrecasteaux Islands, off the coast of Papua New Guinea. To read other parts in this series, please click here.

Categories: News for progressives

New Hope for People Suffering from Depression

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:45

The FDA approval of the drug esketamine is a significant advance in the treatment of depression, a mood disorder. Esketamine is particularly effective for those that have been resistant to conventional treatment or who are at imminent risk of suicide. The drug is a nasal spray that could be self-administered by patients but under the supervision of health care professionals. Esketamine can bring relief to millions of patients all over the world.

Like ketamine, a related drug, esketamine, in addition to its anesthetic effects, is a rapid-acting antidepressant, whose medical use was started in 1997. On February 12, 2019, an independent panel of experts recommended that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve the use of esketamine, as long as it is administered in a clinical setting to ensure patient safety.

Depression has been called a “democratic disease” since it affects people of all social and economic strata. Abraham Lincoln suffered from prolonged periods of depression, which didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most admired presidents in U.S. history.

A study of the first 37 U.S. presidents (1776-1974) by Jonathan Davidson, of Duke University Medical Center and colleagues concluded that half of them had been afflicted by mental illness, and that 24 percent met the criteria for depression, including James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, and Calvin Coolidge, in addition to Lincoln.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, more than 300 million people were affected by depression worldwide in 2015, equivalent to 4.4 percent of the world’s population. Nearly 50 percent of all people diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Depression is also a major contributor to suicide, which numbers approximately 800,000 globally annually. In the U.S., 44,000 people die by suicide every year.

Depression is a state of low mood which can affect a person’s thoughts, behavior, feelings, and sense of well-being. Its symptoms include sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration, and altered appetite and sleep. Many depressed people have feelings of dejection and hopelessness that may drive them to suicide. According to a person’s condition, it may be a short-term or a long-term affliction.

At some point in their lifetime, 15 percent of the adult population will experience depression. At any given year, five percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression. Among women, one in seven experiences post-partum depression; about half of them start experiencing symptoms during pregnancy.

Depression can happen at all ages. It can begin during childhood or during the teenage years. As happens also among adults, girls are more likely to experience depression than boys. Although in the U.S. there has been an increase in teenage depression, there has not been a parallel increase in their treatment. Because symptoms of depression among teens are often missed by their parents and teachers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends regular depression screenings for all adolescents and youngsters ages 11 to 21.

Clinical depression among the elderly is also common, affecting 6 million Americans ages 65 and older. Among the elderly, depression is frequently confused with the effects of other illnesses, and the medicines used to treat them. Studies in nursing homes of elderly patients with physical illnesses show that depression substantially increases the risk of dying from those illnesses.

Aside from the effects on health and on people’s well-being, depression exacts a heavy economic toll on individuals, families and on society as a whole. The total economic cost of depression in the U.S. is estimated to be $210 billion annually. That includes decreased productivity, medical expenses, and indirect medical costs.

Although there are known, effective treatments for depression, fewer than half of those affected by it receive such treatments. As depression is on the rise globally, the approval of a drug to treat cases resistant to treatment is most welcome, and necessary, news.

Categories: News for progressives

The Last Best Chance to Save the Last Best Place

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:45

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act or NREPA was once again introduced into Congress by Rep. Carolyn Maloney from New York.

NREPA would protect all the remaining roadless lands in the Northern Rockies by designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Conservation scientists recognize Wilderness as the “Gold Standard” for land protection.

Iconic wild places that would receive permanent protection includes Scotchman’s Peak. Meadow Creek, and Lost River Range in Idaho, the Great Burn, Big Snowies, and the Gallatin Range in Montana, the Palisades and Wyoming Range in Wyoming, the Kettle Range in Washington and create a Hells Canyon National Park and Preserve in Oregon.

In addition to wilderness, it would designate and protect more than 1800 miles of rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

NREPA would protect the best of the best wildlands in the United States and help ensure that ecological integrity of our ecosystems is conserved. It would help recover and preserve the high-quality habitat for endangered species like bull trout, grizzly bear, and lynx as well as other iconic species like elk, moose and bighorn sheep.

It would help to battle climate heating by keeping carbon in our forests rather than logging them which has been shown to release tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

NREPA protects the quality of life attributes that depend on the three W/s–wildlife, watersheds, and wildlands that is foundational to the new creative and amenity economic base of the region.  And it saves taxpayers fund from being wasted on money-losing timber sales. Finally, it requires the ecological restoration of more than a million acres, providing jobs for rural communities.

Since these federal lands belong to all Americans, it is not surprising that in past iterations, more than 184 Congressional representatives were co-sponsors and recently the legislation has also enjoyed support in the Senate.

So, what’s not to like about NREPA?  If you are a member of many of the regional “wilderness” groups, you probably haven’t heard about what is the boldest, but also most ecologically defensible conservation legislation of the past decades. Surprisingly many of the region’s conservation organizations do not support NREPA even when they suggest their goal is to promote wilderness designation across the region.

Whenever I have queried these organizations why they fail to support and promote what is easily the most ecological, economic and ethical conservation legislation introduced into Congress, they always tell me it won’t pass Congress.

Well, that surely is a self-reinforcing loop. Yes, if few conservation groups promote or support NREPA, the legislation faces strong headwinds. The fact that NREPA gets as much backing as it does despite this lack of assistance from regional and national “wilderness” groups demonstrates how attractive the legislation is for many Americans.

Ironically, naysayers expressed the same doubts about past conservation efforts criticizing such efforts as too “ambitious” or too “radical.” What is radical about trying to preserve biodiversity and wildlife habitat?

If we had listened to these past negative views, we would not have a 2.3 million acre River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, the nearly 1 million acre Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in Montana, the 1.2 million acre North Cascades National Park/Glacier Peak Wilderness complex in Washington as well as the even more ambitious Alaska Lands Act that created more than a 104 million acres of new national parks, wilderness and refuges in Alaska.

Tragically many of today’s conservation groups lack vision and even an understanding of conservation science. Whether NREPA would never pass Congress is unknown unless you try. Unfortunately, most of the regional conservation groups are timid and afraid even to try, much less work hard to protect wildlands. Instead, they rely on collaboratives that give away prime wildlands to achieve partial, if any additional protection of our wildlands.

NREPA is like a puzzle. One can support NREPA while promoting wilderness for individual parts of NREPA, thus assembling the whole piece by piece as some groups do.

NREPA is legislation that recognizes that what the roadless lands in the Northern Rockies do best is provide exceptional wildlife habitat, clean water, and some of the best wildlands ecosystems left in the world. NREPA supporters recognize those superlative values and seek to ensure that what we have today will be here in the future.

I am reminded of another “radical” named Henry David Thoreau. Ralph Waldo Emerson who bailed Thoreau out of jail for protesting slavery and the Mexican War by refusing to pay a poll tax is reputed to have said: “Henry why are you in there?” Upon which Thoreau replied, “Ralph why are you not here?“

And so, I ask the reluctant conservation groups to rethink their stance on NREPA and start standing with wilderness, instead being an obstacle to wilderness designation.


Categories: News for progressives

Neoliberalism’s “Deep Orientalism” and the Refusal of the Sacred Other

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:45

Are we, in the unceasing change of all sublunary things, to imagine that the soul….is alone in the world, and without a sympathizing feeling throughout Nature? If self-knowledge prevent this unmeaning blank, is it not a delightful, desirable object? – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures

…there was a time, a long time, when [scientifically certified] knowledge was neither available nor wanted, but when many necessary things were nonetheless known.  Thomas Carlyle, writing…about the twelfth-century monk Jocelyn of Brakelond, had to confront this very question: ‘Does it never give the pause…that men then had a soul, not by hearsay alone, and as a figure of speech; but as a truth that they knew…'” – Wendell Berry, The Presence of Nature in the Natural World

In a recent CounterPunch article John Steppling pointed out that what is happening to the environment cannot be separated from America’s “deep colonial Orientalism” which allows left-leaners, without self-contradiction, to support “greener” more socialist candidates who will “sign off on the coup in Venezuela [which] cannot be separated from the occupation of Afghanistan or the slaughter in Yemen or mass incarceration and a violent militarized police.” Orientalism, which originated in the dualistic “occidental” European mind attempting to cope with the “Orient” as “other,” by now characterizes not only the dominant liberal attitude toward the ethnic, religious, or geographical “other,” but toward “the other” who looks like – and therefore ought to be like – oneself! Its counter-revolutionary thrust is felt in local communities; it works divisively against efforts by some of us to be self-defined and self-determined “at home,” to be decentralized, rooted in place, in family and community, to individuate against the banal totality, to defend that most vulnerable and most local being, the indigenous soul without which the project of returning to local identities, freed from colonialist, top-down identity, is doomed.

This deep Orientalism, still very much a consequence of western academia, and far from having been overcome by multiculturalism and minority studies on college campuses, is ever more entrenched and toxic. The difficulty in addressing it has intensified even since Said wrote Orientalism. The responsibility falls now upon individuals who, in answering the call to downscale, to restore relationships with the long-neglected and long-spurned “back home,” to commit to the circumstances of living in their own face-to-face communities, have moved into a social and economic environment that is now, in effect, (at least in my Utica case) the third world. Here they must face hydra-headed Orientalism not in terms of its influence on U.S. relations with the Arab world, etc., but as it resides in the minds of liberal friends who, mentally united in the neoliberal totality, do not and will not see the ruins – the third world reality – all around them and thus can maintain the illusion that they know what the real political struggle is (i.e., the lesser evilism one).

This struggle for individual identity in the face-to-face world has, as far as I know, no precedent. In the past, those who needed artistic or lifestyle freedom struck out from the local community and its demand for conformity to seek personal identity and fulfillment in the pluralistic, energizing City. Now, at least if we are to honor the fact there must be limits to growth, we need to consider if freedom might be realized at home, back among not only those “assigned” to remain local (mainly by school performance), but those whose professional career brought and/or keep them here. This latter educated group, in particular, while in many cases kindly, philanthropical, and more disposed to be objective towards their adopted community, is thoroughly acculturated in the kind of liberal orientalism I am talking about. In a real way, to seek one’s individual identity in the cramped space of the hometown is to find oneself in the position of antagonist and “other” to the liberal majority consensus.

Understand, and I say this without irony, that my liberal friends are almost awesomely good. For one thing, many of the local liberal professional population of Utica are sustaining patrons of our little coffeeshop business and enthusiastic supporters of our non-profit arts space. They are kind to us personally, and to our family; they are thoughtful and in countless ways demonstrate their caring for us. They are politically active, rather than apathetic, turning out especially during the Trump years to, for instance protest in front of the recently ousted congresswoman’s office every Friday afternoon for close to two years. They are positively “good” in a way that I, honestly, can never hope to be. And so, critical of “liberal bourgeois reality” as I am and, as writer, must be, it is impossible not to feel like a traitor to these excellent people, that is, to feel bad.

Because my creative process tunes me in to an alternative authority for my political perspective, I have no choice but to exist in this most uncomfortable – excruciating, actually – social space wherein my friends are in some sense equally my enemy. But as well, I reject the defensive reduction of “the other” to “wrong” or “bad.” This leaves me with a serious (religious) question: i.e., how can I trust that I – in my individual human embodiment – am good? I believe that the baffling context I describe (and am calling “orientalist”) is the totalitarian effect of liberal,white, bourgeois reality that includes everyone in its assumptions except those automatically marginalized by cultural, racial or class difference. For the rest of us, it being simply “what is,” the context can be experienced consciously if and only if one steps outside of the ever upward and onward liberal plan for progress and betterment, by, for example, making the backward “anti-move” to the local. Since liberal identity depends upon not taking that “non-step,” and as well lacks access to deeper, individual self-knowing by means of (religious) contemplation or art, the liberal must defensively assume, “we are all the same” and “sameness equals goodness.” Thus, I suggest, to be “good” because nature – or faith – made one so is not the same as being good compulsively such that one cannot bear any information that contradicts or disturbs the perilous persona of respectable goodness, or “rightness,” which is also called whiteness.

Such an intolerance for contradictory information makes self-policing fairly automatic, a behavioral tendency perhaps handed down from puritan/protestant ancestors to make ourselves guardians of the established order, i.e., to be impeccably, faultlessly good. The reflexive “compliance” of the liberal points to the toxified soul underneath, to the soul-sick suspicion of personal worthlessness, bequeathed in the enlightened rationalist order, that is too painful to face. The result, though long evident in our willingness as a society to condone genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, etc., and accelerated in our day by having been turned into consumers, and adjuncts of technology(i.e., robotization) reflects the devastating loss (for human beings) of metaphysical perspective. More than a spiritual deprivation, which can be addressed, for example by yoga, it is the loss of a spiritual authority that can appeal the verdict of personal worthlessness.

The fact that most people are ignorant of the deeper inward mythic/soul layer allows the toxification to be normalized. It gives over the authority of moral conviction, making way for the dominant nihilism, banality and dormant will that characterize neoliberalism. The Devil could not have come up with a neater trick. Unfortunately for the secular triumphants, there being no such thing as the Devil is no protection against the Evil One’s power, nor from the fact that the evil is unstoppable and cannot be removed except by supranatural means!

To every child born into this brave new world under the smiling, telegenic, liberal demeanor of One-World-Under-Capitalism is delivered the message of essential unworthiness or “wretchedness.” With no genuine, human-supporting culture to protect the child, to filter out the toxic message, it invades every child’s soul. Having by now, as a society, opened the doors wide to the consumerist, techno-worshipping, deeply insulting pseudo-culture, gone is any possibility of a mirror reflecting back an alternative message, i.e., of goodness, of destiny, of the great, if not-yet-known possibility each birth brings into the world. There being, as I’ve said, no countervailing (anarchist) authority, no child is safe.

Even well-meaning parents, themselves struggling under this burden of essential worthlessness, cannot counter the dominant message. This injury, imposed not by an abusive parent but by reality, the hegemonic reality of rationalist supremacism, inescapable and non-contradictable in the secular liberal context, is more insidious than the trauma of early abuse. Psychotherapy, which knows a lot about childhood abuse and spiritual deprivation, cannot apply words to this existential abuse because it cannot make a metaphysical critique. It cannot place itself outside the dominant neoliberal paradigm by standing up not only for the reality of the soul (psyche), but for its authority. To do so would be anarchism and career death. Perhaps the clergy, who are supposed to serve God over “Caesar.” although most of them serve a cautious God who never rocks the boat, are the “professionals” in the best position to stand up for the soul, if they would only take seriously the metaphysical reality they profess.

Thus the toxic culture is replicated in the society, each child-as-immigrant learning to despise her own essential being (i.e, her soul) as she represses her organic sense that something doesn’t “feel right.” She learns early that this is information no adult can bear, that she must, for their sake, be happy (or else be difficult, obstinate, neurotic, and/or in one way or another, “a Problem”) She must carry the information in herself, and protect them from it, i.e., from herself. Having no justification for her feeling, she buries the “toxic waste,” and learns to do what all the others are doing, i.e., to smile, be breezy and clever as much as possible, sarcastic, reflexively mean, ironic once she can manage abstract thought, be consummately good, etc. She learns to arm herself with these tools and to bury that other, contradictory, information coming from “the other.” Here, in fast-motion, is the origin of liberal bourgeois white reality. We are allowed, indeed encouraged, to be self-blaming, but never to be conscious of the deep conviction of toxicity, nor to attain knowledge of our genuine goodness. Most people will not go near the soul-wound because instinctively we know – a knowing deeper than the rejected Christian belief – that there is no savior, no saving grace, no salvation, nothing to hold us from falling into the abyss of the wound.

This deprived, depraved condition we now allow to be “good enough” for human beings. If one manages, through grace, I guess, to become inspired to do battle against this great wrong inflicted upon human beings in the shared neoliberal reality, the fundamental Evil that is the festering firmament out of which Trump and our entire fake political oppositional masquerade have sprung, one faces the strongest “silencing” effect ever devised. To speak on behalf of that which is good in oneself and in the other, to be this kind of “whistleblower,” is to speak religiously, and thus to bring the “religious conversation” out of its secularly imposed ghetto and into shared life. The one who contradicts the toxified sense of worthlessness pariahs herself within her own community, even in her own family, to a degree most of us properly socialized to be members of liberal society and sharing its default “goodness” (i.e., not to be antagonists to it) are unprepared to be. She/he must struggle mightily and creatively to identify herself as “good” against the impeccably seamless, defensive “good” of the liberal orientalist monoculture that is her society. But pariahhood in the cause of the human heart can be borne, and, I suggest, out to be sought by any who truly want to be part of the insurgency of the local and indigenous. The prophets now must return to be prophets in their own lands, and challenge Orientalism at its roots.

Categories: News for progressives

Trump Imitates Baldwin

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:44

It was a brilliant move.  He one upped Alec Baldwin of Saturday Night Live (SNL) who has become famous for his impersonations of Mr. Trump, impersonations that have repeatedly raised the ire of Mr. Trump.  In a moment that no one would have ever expected, Mr. Trump preempted SNL by his performance on Saturday March 2, 1919, in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CACI). But I get ahead of myself.

Fans of SNL remember with pleasure its pre-Christmas show modelled after “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  On SNL it was called “It’s a Wonderful Trump” and it raised the ire of Mr. Trump who took to his favorite medium, Twitter, in order to criticize SNL.  In his tweet, Mr. Trump said: “A REAL scandal is the one-sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. . . Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal?  Only defame & belittle! Collusion?”

Mr. Trump’s threats notwithstanding, SNL continued to make fun of Mr. Trump through, among other means,  media medium, Alec Baldwin, whose impersonations of Mr. Trump are so convincing that they are a source of endless amusement for viewers of SNL.

With unaccustomed prescience, Mr. Trump took the air out of any impersonation that might have been contemplated by Alec Baldwin, to mark the end of a week that was one of the least successful weeks of the Trump presidency, a no mean feat given some of its other weeks. The week of February 24th could easily be described as “The Week That Was.”

It was the week in which Mr. Trump’s torrid love affair with Mr. Kim of North Korea, came to a screeching halt.

It was the week in which his former very best friend and personal lawyer described Mr. Trump as a “racist, con-man and cheat” and, in an extensive public hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform gave what can only be described as an unflattering portrait of Mr. Trump.

It was the week in which the fake news New York Times reported that Jared Kushner’s top secret security clearance was given him because Mr. Trump ordered that he be given that clearance over the objections of top security officials in his administration.

And as if all that wasn’t enough to give Mr. Trump heartburn, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, the parents of Otto Warmbier, who were Mr. Trump’s guests at the State of the Union speech, publicly took issue with Mr. Trump’s comments on their son’s death following his meeting with Mr. Kim.  Mr. Trump said that Mr. Kim “felt badly about it. . . . He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”  Responding to that, the Warmbiers said Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”

All in all, the events of the week offered Alec Baldwin great opportunities to imitate Mr. Trump were he to be on SNL. Not wanting to be preempted, a few short hours before SNL was to air on March 2, 2019, Mr. Trump gave a speech to the CPAC that was held outside Washington.  Mr. Trump viewed the speech as an opportunity to upstage Mr.  Baldwin, in the event Mr. Baldwin intended to make fun of him on the SNL episode that was to air a few hours after Mr. Trump spoke The effort was a greater success than anyone could have imagined.

After Mr. Trump had been introduced by the master of ceremonies, Mr. Trump came on stage applauding himself (as is his custom whenever he makes an appearance.)  He stopped applauding himself for a moment and then, recalling how Alec Baldwin would stage this entry, he went to the stand on which an American flag was in place and in a consummate imitation of Alec Baldwin, put his arms around the flag and hugged it as if to make sure it could not get away.  Once it was firmly in his arms he gazed at the audience with the kind of goofy smile that only he and Mr. Baldwin are really good at.  When he was finished hugging the flag, he sauntered over to the podium and began his speech which was, for the first ten minutes, the scripted speech that had been prepared for him to read.  For the next 1 hour and 50 minutes he ad libbed random comments, delivering them in the way that Mr. Baldwin does when imitating him on SNL.  At one point during his speech, he displayed a bit of prescience by saying he was going to regret his speech. He may.  The rest of us can only regret the fact that Mr. Baldwin did not make an appearance on SNL that day so we could compare the performance of the two actors while Mr. Trump’s performance was fresh in our minds.  As a result, we have to content ourselves with recalling Mr. Trump’s brilliant, if lengthy, imitation of Mr. Baldwin. Who’d have thought he had it in him.

Categories: News for progressives

Glyphosate is Good for You and You are a POS for not Agreeing

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:43

While having an interesting discussion on the concerns of Monsanto’s widely used biocide glyphosate, better known as Round Up, I stumbled onto a corporate land mine. I received a torrent of vulgar insults, veiled threats and a blistering critique of my reputation as an environmental biology and marine science instructor of nearly 34 years. A simple conversation with a student I had in class nearly 20 years escalated into exposing the playbook of big tobacco and chemical company fierce defenders.

I replied to a post about roundup, Monsanto’s widely used herbicide. I questioned if this known biocide, Roundup, that is now being found in beer and wine is indeed safe?

Yes: I understand that the levels of Roundup in beer and wine, were found in incredibly low concentrations, in parts per billion, significantly lower than the 1-300 ppm allowed by the EPA in food crops. I was just following along in this discussion. And: I do have genuine concerns about the safely of Roundup. A study in Environmental Sciences Europe documents a staggering amount of this biocide, 1.8 million tons of glyphosate, has be used since its introduction in 1974. Worldwide, 9.4½million tons of the chemical have been sprayed onto fields. Now, homeowners can apply Glyphosate on their lawns, engineered to kill those weeks while our nation is literally awash in chemical poisons. Are we absolutely sure that Roundup does not cause cancer or disrupts crucial hormone messaging in our bodies? Having three grandchildren I worry. I worry a great deal. �Consider that Roundup use has exploded, with the onset of Roundup ready crops what are we putting into our soil and groundwater and foods? To put this into perspective, that 1.8 million tons is equivalent to the weight of water in over 2,300 Olympic-sized swimming pool or enough to spray half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world! I am old enough to remember the complicit nature of tobacco ads and other corporate backed science: now, I am told that Roundup in my grandchildren’s cereal is no problem?

Another gentleman, suggested a site to check out, written by a friend of his at the University of Washington, a well-respected microbiologist with a Ph. D. The site took me to an organization called the American Council on Health and Science ACHS). I was aware of this organization, having read a piece that suggested human population was not a huge ecological concern and seemingly suggested that exposure to mercury and secondhand smoke were exaggerated. I gave my concerns that ACHS was primarily in the business of advocating for products made by Monsanto and others.

Then: the floodgates of accusations and insults began. “John, you just played the industry card. Now you come off as more of a political hack than a scientist. I recall that you were a science teacher at my high school, but even a cursory look at your Facebook page shows that your intensely leftist political inclinations likely color your worldview more than any background you have in science.”

This young man is right in one aspect, that years of walking through clearcut forests and knowing families who have had to live in cancer clusters do shape your life’s narrative.

In the classroom, which he never stepped foot in, I took great pride in three facets of education: give the peer reviewed data, including “science” that may contradict the public view of science, let the students examine a multitude of literature and then: form their own conclusions. Again, he balked at my suggestion that ACHA had a sizable bias in regards to defending corporations and their products. To which he replied, “John, so you’re are suggesting my friend Alex Berezow-VP of Scientific Affairs at ACSH-is dishonest? Really? You don’t know anything about him.”

I was stunned. It seemed this young man was having a circular conversation with himself. No, I had no clue about Doctor Berezow, nor did I mention him: so, where did this claim of “dishonesty” arise? I chalked it up to the new world of discussions on Facebook were knee jerk reactions, misplaced anger and bold assumptions are made.

He again accused me of maligning his friend, who I never mentioned and referred to me as using, “corporations are bad, hippie bullshit.”

Then came the icing on the cake. Alex Berezow, the esteemed PhD microbiologist began a productive discussion by calling me a “POS” or a piece of shit. Then, he stated, “John Borowski if you’re going to rely on conspiracy websites to make your decisions about me, then you need psychiatric assistance.”

Now, mind you, I don’t know this person, never have commented on this person and simply referenced the ACHS. For this information: I didn’t go on Breitbart or Fox News or the Daily Caller: now, those are conspiracy websites.

Upon some research: I found he considers the NY Times and even Scientific America as unreliable sources.

He goes on to state: “What’s wrong with Scientific American? For a long while, Scientific American became the headquarters for left-wing social justice warriors and others who felt bashing conservatives was more important than reporting good science. (Previously, that dubious distinction went to ScienceBlogs, but nobody reads that anymore.) SciAm’s best content is generally stuff they reprint from other outlets.” Corporate tactic number one: attack the messenger? Only “corporate backed science” is reliable?

I mentioned that in the past, ACHS had even denied global warming, to which he replied, “John Borowski, We don’t deny global warming. You are a despicable liar. You were a science teacher? Good Heavens. Now wonder Americans are so scientifically illiterate.”

To be blunt: I was rude in return. I told him to “fuck off.” My Jersey attitude came out. So: I pushed back, suggesting that “you cannot run from your propaganda.”  By the way, Mr. Berezow, your organization did deny global warming, writing “there is no scientific consensus concerning global warming.” ACSH, 1998.

And, after reading a fine article, by the author, Gary Ruskin, I was made privy to other dubious scientific claims by ACHS:

+ Argued that fracking “doesn’ t pollute water or air.”  Daily Caller, 2013

+ Claimed that “There has never been a case of ill health linked to the regulated, approved use of pesticides in this country.”  Tobacco Documents Library, UCSF, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition document page 9, 1995 .

+ Declared that “There is no evidence that BPA [bisphenol A] in consumer products of any type, including cash register receipts, are harmful to health.” ACSH, 2012

+ Argued that the exposure to mercury, a potent neurotoxin, “in conventional seafood causes no harm in humans.” ACSH, 2010.

The conversation drew to close. “Hey John, my next article is going to be about you and how our education systems sucks because too many talentless losers like you go into teaching. We get more than 500k readers per month. I’m going to make you famous.”

Wow. The leadership at the American Council of Science and Health must take great pride in their eloquent spokesman? “Piece of shit, you need psychiatric assistance” and a veiled threat about “making me famous” and insulting my profession. So, now, there is a serious case of making a reasoned and rational case for your organization? This is why many fear taking on corporations. They play to win and apparently, believe corporate dollars can generate any outcomes they want? To publish “debunked” science that appeases their corporate cronies? The last question Mr. Berezow asked was if I had been fired from my last teaching job. Where did that come from?

I thought I was done: but, he continued today. “John, are you a 9/11 truther? This article seems to suggest you flirt with that conspiracy. Not many people I know use the term ‘the bogeyman of terrorism,’ considering that terrorism is an actual thing.” No, Mr. Berezow, I am aware of terrorism, I had two relatives at the trade towers during this horrific attack. You misstated a part of an article. We had now moved from insults to conspiracy accusations.

Not to be outdone by this foolish question, he followed up with, “By the way, this is what John once wrote about biotech scientists like me: We commit ‘crimes against nature and against humanity.’ And: ‘Like Big Tobacco these industries know they are doing grave harm to our living life-support system and to our people, even killing people but they do it anyway and lie about it.”

Apparently, Mr. Berezow went trolling today, looking up articles that I had written in the past, ranging from CounterPunch to the NY Times to Commondreams. Yes, Mr. Berezow, I did suggest and stand behind the truth that certain biotech interests commit crimes against nature. Do the compounds Agent Orange, PCBs and C8 ring a bell? All cases of compounds that were crafted by organizations like yours give cover and defend; even their creators acknowledged their dangers?

So: what am I take away from this? A man, I don’t know, who I never criticized goes on a profane and immature tirade against someone who never mentioned him?

Is this organization above constructive criticism? Is he threatening me with claims of “making you famous.” Is it a case of corporate thin skin or a more ominous act of being a corporate thug? Why would he feel the need to attack a retired ecologist who enjoyed a successful career as a teacher?

Yes, Mr. Berezow, your credentials are impressive and “some” of your articles seem convincing. However, as a “Doctor” of science, your bedside manner, in your words, “sucks”. Big money from huge corporations does invoke a sense of power and arrogance I imagine you relish: but, money cannot buy the Truth or scare off people who just want to know if corporations like Monsanto or Exxon have the best interests of my grandkids at heart?

Apparently, how dare a person question the motive of an industry front group that advocates for the tobacco, agrochemical, fossil fuel, cosmetics and pharmaceutical corporate giants? Apparently, to question those who defend the mighty industrial behemoths must tread lightly. How convenient is it to assassinate the character of person based on one simple statement on Facebook?


Categories: News for progressives

Re-Inhabiting Planet Earth

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:43

“I believe that for a moment I thought the explosion might set fire to the atmosphere and thus finish the Earth, even though I knew that this was not possible.”

These words of Manhattan Project physicist Emilio Segre, quoted by Richard Rhodes in his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, refer to the Trinity blast on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, N.M., the first atomic explosion in history and, so it appears, a turning point for all life on this planet.

The atmosphere didn’t catch fire at 5:30 that morning, but Segre’s words remain relevant, sort of like radioactive fallout. They encapsulate what may be history’s ultimate moment of human arrogance: the belief in a sense of separateness from and superiority to nature so thorough that we have, with our monstrous intelligence, the ability and therefore the right to play Bad God and make the whole planet go poof.

Turns out the Trinity test set into motion something even more profound than the nuclear era. The bomb didn’t just “defeat” Japan and define the Cold War, with its suicidal nuclear arms race. It is also, at least symbolically, marks the beginning of what has come to be known as the Anthropocene: an era of profound climate and “Earth system” destabilization caused by human activity and therefore, like it or not, establishing humans as co-equal participants in activity of the natural world.

There’s more to this “co-equal” status than nuclear weapons, of course. They may be the tip of our arrogance, but we’ve been exploiting and rearranging the planet for nearly 12,000 years, since the beginning of the era we are now leaving, the Holocene, an era of climate stability in which human civilization and all written history emerged. From the development of agriculture to the industrial revolution – the plundering of the Earth for oil and coal, the spewing of infinitesimal plastic nurdles across the planet, the creation of continent-sized trash mounds afloat in the oceans, the replacement of biodiversity with monoculture, the poisoning of the air and water and, yes, nuclear testing and the spread of radioactive fallout – humanity, or at least a small portion of it, has exercised an intelligence with a serious moral void.

And now the chickens are coming home to roost. Or as David Korten put it: “Humans might be the first species to knowingly choose self-extinction.”

What’s crucial about all this goes well beyond the dangers of climate change and the need for techno-fixes to our socioeconomic structures. History professor Julia Adeney Thomas puts it this way: “The Anthropocene’s interrelated systematicity presents not a problem, but a multidimensional predicament. A problem might be solved, often with a single technological tool produced by experts in a single field, but a predicament presents a challenging condition requiring resources and ideas of many kinds. We don’t solve predicaments; instead, we navigate through them.”

She adds: “. . . the hardest challenges will be about how to alter our political and economic systems.”

These aren’t just technical problems for “experts” to solve while the rest of look on (or go shopping). What’s emerging from all this for me is that humanity has to evolve for its own survival, and evolution is going to take all of us – or at least all of us who can think beyond the structures of thought in which we grew up, in which we came of age. The first premise for navigating the Anthropocene may be this: We’re all in it together.

Simple as this sounds, the implications of such a statement, if it is true, begin mushrooming into unfathomable complexity, especially when “all” refers not simply to all 7.4 billion human beings out there but all of life: the biosphere, the planet. We have to rethink who we are in a way that has, quite likely, never before happened.

“In the Anthropocene the old simplicities are gone,” writes Mark Garavan. “We are no longer human subjects acting upon an objective nature ‘outside’ us. Nature and human are now bound together. Free nature is over. Free humanity is over. They are relics of the Holocene. In our new age, Earth and Human are entangled irrevocably together. Welcome to the era of Earth-bound responsibility! The assumptions, the myths, the illusions of the Holocene no longer apply.”

And any institution founded on such myths and illusions – that the planet is ours to exploit, that some people matter more than others, that national borders are real, that dehumanizing and killing one another (a little activity called war) keeps us safe, that money equals God – cannot and will not survive the Anthropocene, and the “solutions” that emerge from such institutions, e.g., solving the climate crisis, are rooted in failure. “The challenge,” says Garavan, “is to re-think and re-inhabit our planet.”

That is to say, we have to start over.

And I think that’s what’s happening. New values are percolating. So are old values – the values human beings once embraced as they claimed the right to occupy Planet Earth. These values include interdependence and cooperation, and profound reverence for the planet. Rupert Ross, in his book Returning to the Teachings, points out, for instance: “The Lakotah had no language for insulting other orders of existence: “pest . . . waste . . . weed.”

Indigenous understanding is not “primitive.” It includes cooperation and compassion in its grasp of how things work, of what it means to live within the circle of life. The indigenous peoples of the planet have remained its protectors.

As Jade Begay and Ayşe Gürsöz point out at EcoWatch: “Even the seemingly groundbreaking Paris agreement neither includes human rights in its text nor acknowledges Indigenous rights — even though lands and waters stewarded by Indigenous communities make up 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. What we need is for climate policy and the overall climate movement to address problems of inequality, because climate change is just as much a social issue as it is an environmental issue.”

In other words, biodiversity and social diversity are both precious. Knowing this means re-inhabiting the planet, not setting it on fire.

Categories: News for progressives

Will Ethnocide in Western China Become Genocide?

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:43

At this moment, China has as many as one million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities held in concentration camps in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China. This has been ongoing for some time now and is beginning, finally, to be noticed.

This unfolding tragedy is well-known by the United Nations as well as influential governments such as the United States. Thus far, little is being done to prevent the Chinese from carrying out its concerted efforts in imprisoning and politically indoctrinating its Muslim populations.

It is so objectionable that Badger Sportswear of North Carolina announced it stopped purchasing imports from that region of China due to credible reports of mass forced labor.

The Chinese government is spending huge amounts of money in Xinjiang Province where these ethnocidal horrors are taking place. These so-called “re-education camps” have been analyzed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The ASPI examined 28 camps in Xinjiang but stated there may be as many as 1,200 across the entire region. Since 2016, the ASPI found an increase in growth of these camps to almost 470 percent.

In 1981 the Chinese signed onto and ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), but these camps clearly violate that law.

Chinese officials also heavily police the region, using surveillance cameras and security checkpoints, biometric data collection, voice recordings, and requiring identification cards of its mostly Uighur population in Xinjiang. According to the most recent estimates, there are most likely 11,000,000 Uighurs and 1.6 million Kazakhs living in the Western Chinese Province of Xinjiang.

Perhaps the best and most extensive report about the current situation in Xinjiang is by “Human Rights Watch” (September 2018). One Uighur refugee, Tohti, is quoted as saying: “What they want is to force us to assimilate, to identify with the country [China], such that, in the future, the idea of Uyghur will be in name only, but without its meaning.” From the Human Rights Watch Report we learn the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained its Muslim minority population, and not only this, these Turkic Chinese-Muslims have been abused, tortured, and deprived of fair trials. The Chinese want to eliminate basic freedoms of religion among this population for practicing Islam. The re-education of these Turkic Muslims is meant to Sino-assimilate or “Sinicize” them with Chinese identities, scrubbing them of their religious identity.

Two other refugees told Human Rights Watch: “[The guards] told us that Uyghurs and Kazakhs are the enemies of China, and that they want to kill us, and make us suffer, and that there’s nothing we can do about it.” Another stated: “[A detainee] showed me his scar from being hung from the ceiling. He didn’t have any religious materials, but after being hung for a night, he said he would agree to anything.” Others had died while in detention and their families were not allowed to bury the dead with Islamic blessings or ceremonies and were forced to bury their loved ones under military watch.

Aside from the political aspects of Chinese social control, how do we understand this type of discrimination in relation to modern world history?

Humans are highly complex and for the most part racism is entirely a social construct, usually involving essentializing entire populations and persecuting them en masse, virtually always with a veneer of rhetoric to make it all acceptable unless we actually look. The histories are shameful. Thus, we saw all non-Europeans referred to as, what Rudyard Kipling euphemistically called them, the “white man’s burden”; Jews and Gypsies sent by Germans to labor camps with sayings such as Work is Freedom; land stolen from Native tribes in the name of “progress”; Tutsis slaughtered by Hutus to “protect” themselves from a minority; Japanese-American families rounded up into compounds in the western US during World War II to secure the homeland; and millions of Armenian civilians killed by Turkey a century ago to punish traitors, and other horrific chapters in our human story. Almost all the terrible responses in the modern era that target innocent civilians are massive overreactions to violent attack. In China, those attacks from Islamic extremists were in 2013 and 2014 and have been the official justification for mass incarceration since then.

The magnitude of China’s efforts to incarcerate its Turkic Muslim minority populations is happening in an unprecedented way, which we have not seen since Nazi Germany and the imprisonment of Jews throughout Europe. As usual, there is an official rationale and a public relations effort, including the approval of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, which “proves” that China’s systematic persecution of Chinese Muslims for religion is not its sole rationale.

How many more Muslim Chinese minorities need to be imprisoned before we say no more? When should the UN Security Council act in concert against China? When should the United States begin imposing economic sanctions upon China for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang northwestern China?

We know from our human history that it almost always takes outside pressure to bring regimes back from the brink of genocide.

What can you do to change the situation?

· Write the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C.

· Email:

· Call the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. and complain: (202) 495-2266

· Write or call to your local US House of Representative and/or your two US Senators

Categories: News for progressives

Governor Appoints San Joaquin Valley Grower William Lyons to New ‘Agriculture Liaison’ Position

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:42

On February 12, California Governor Gavin Newson announced the appointment of William Lyons, 68, of Modesto, to serve in a new position — the Agriculture Liaison in the Office of the Governor.

Lyons, a San Joaquin Valley grower who has opposed increased San Joaquin River flows, has been chief executive officer of Lyons Investments Management, LLC since 1976. He previously served as Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture from 1999 to 2004.

According to the Governor’s Office, “Lyons was selected as the western regional finalist for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation 2010 Conservationist of the Year Award and received the United States Department of Agriculture National Environmentalist Award. He has an extensive background in agriculture and water policy.”

This position does not require Senate confirmation and the compensation is $175,008. Lyons is a Democrat.

’I’m grateful for this opportunity to serve Gov. Newsom and his Administration,” said Lyons in a news release from Mark Looker of the Looker Communications ConsultingCompany. “I’m committed to exploring balanced, common-sense and science-based solutions for the critically complex water and agricultural issues facing the state.”

“I understand the issues and concerns of California agriculture when it comes to production issues, as well as environmental and water policy issues,” said Lyons. “I look forward to reaching out to the California agriculture and water communities, and the community at large, to listen to their concerns and bring those issues forward to the Governor and his staff so agriculture has a strong voice in Sacramento.” Read more

The Governor’s Office’s press release didn’t mention that Bill Lyons owns Mapes Ranch, a3,500 acre “diversified farming and cattle operation” producing almonds, wheat, tomatoes, alfalfa, corn, grapes, oats, barley, beans, forage mix, and melons, adjacent to 3,000 acres of rangeland.

Nor did the Governor’s Office mention that Mapes Ranch gets water through the Modesto Irrigation District (MID), a water district that sued the State Water Resources Control Board over the Phase 1 Update to the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan on January 10.

Eye on Modesto, a blog by Emerson Blake about his “thoughts and observations about Modesto and Stanislaus County” noted that Bill Lyons has been CEO of Lyons investments (read Mapes ranch) since 1976, “and that is around the time Bill began treating the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) as his personal fiefdom.”

“Bill and or his family and business associates controlled three of the five votes on MID’s Board as long as most can remember (until Jim Mortensen bungled it),”  claimed Blake. “For years they funded any challenge to his votes/puppets by cutting a campaign donation check for $5,000 anytime they were opposed during an election (in most elections they ran unopposed due to lack of interest). For perspective a $5,000 check in past MID terms was more like a $50,000, check today.”

California Waterfowl applauded Newsom’s appointment of Lyons. “California Waterfowl works extensively with farmers, particularly rice growers, to provide habitat for migrating waterfowl in the fall, winter and spring, as well as nesting habitat for resident birds in the spring and summer. Bill Lyons understands conservation and water issues that California Waterfowl will be working on with the Governor’s office,” the group said in a statement.

Some independent policy analysts and environmentalists were critical of this appointment, pointing out that having an agribusiness leader with such a conflict of interest serving in the Governor’s Office is not good public policy — and just more of the regulatory capture that pervades California environmental politics from top to bottom.

”This gives special access for some of the largest water brokers and privately held agribusiness corporations in California,” said Deirdre Des Jardins of the independent policy group California Water Research. “They are seeking to push junk science that has been previously rejected by the state water board, outside of the water board’s adjudicatory and regulatory processes.”

In a blog post, she points out how this appointment calls into question whether Newsom will allow the Water Board to make its own independent decisions on the WQCP update and the “appropriate Delta flow criteria” for the WaterFix.

Lyons’ appointment, as well as the appointment of a new water board chair and board member, is the result of heavy pressure by agribusiness interests and Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Environmentalists are also concerned about the lack of balance in Newsom’s appointment. “It is discouraging that Newsom has appointed a representative that’s been on the side of larger corporate agricultural interests rather than small farmers,” said Lynn Plambeck, from the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment and a local water district board member. “Perhaps he should create a position for Delta farmers and the public as well if he is going to create a new position.”

On January 31, Cal Matters reported that Feinstein wrote a letter to the Governor “asking Newsom to appoint Bill Lyons, a Modesto farmer, to the post Marcus held.”

Newson decided to not reappoint Felicia Marcus, the Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, under heavy pressure by Lyons and other agribusiness interests. Marcus was under fire by San Joaquin Valley growers for supporting increased flows on the San Joaquin River in the Water Quality Plan Update required under state law.

Instead, Newsom appointed Joaquin Esquivel, 36, of Sacramento, as Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. Esquivel has served on the board since 2017. Esquivel was assistant secretary for federal water policy at the California Natural Resources Agency from 2015 to 2017.

“We have a big state with diverse water needs,” said Newson in his State of the State. “Cities that need clean water to drink, farms that need irrigation to keep feeding the world, fragile ecosystems that must be protected. We need a portfolio approach to building water infrastructure and meeting long-term demand. To help bring this balance, I’m appointing a new chair of the California water board, Joaquin Esquivel.”

In a similar vein to Newsom’s State of the State, Feinstein’s letter cited “Lyons’ knowledge of ‘environmental restoration and agriculture innovation” as the reason why he should be appointed as Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

“This unique background makes him perfectly qualified to guide the board through its present serious challenge of restoring California’s imperiled fisheries while maintaining the confidence of our world-leading agriculture industry,” wrote Feinstein.

As turned out, Newsom instead decided to create a special position to accommodate Lyons. Grassroots conservationists disagree that Lyons is seriously interested in “restoring California’s imperiled fisheries.” They argue instead that Lyons has strongly opposed the necessary flows to restore these collapsing fish populations.

For example, on February 16, 2017, Lyons and a group of Central Valley agribusiness interests called the California Allied Grower Group sent Felicia Marcus a letter opposing “unimpaired flows” from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers into the Bay Delta Estuary that the state’s own scientists say are necessary for fish restoration and proposing “an alternative approach.”

“The broad group of the undersigned farmers from throughout the Central Valley are writing to express our continuing concerns with the State Water Resources Control Board’s approach to the Bay-Delta— specifically the persistent reliance on “unimpaired flows” for both Phase I and Phase II of the water quality control plan— and to offer an alternative approach that we believe will work better for California,” Lyons and the other agricultural interests wrote.

“Upon review of the State Water Board’s Draft Revised Substitute Environmental Document supporting Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, it is evident that your staff and consultants continue to employ certain thematic approaches to water management that conflict with fundamental beliefs of the greater water user community. This approach if implemented would significantly impact our operations, the economies of Central Valley farming communities, the groundwater resources throughout the region and both the terrestrial and aquatic environment in the Central Valley,” they wrote.

The letter is available here.

Others who signed the letter include representatives of a virtual who’s who of Big Ag in California: Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s Wonderful Company; Wegis & Young, a full service farm management team; Nickel Family LLC, Bakersfield; Rio Bravo Ranch in Bakersfield; Booth Ranches, Orange Cove; Bowles Farming Company, Los Banos; and Hilmar Cheese Company, Hilmar. The signees also include two members of the Westlands Water District – Harris Ranch and John C. Harris and the Harris Feeding Company and Woolf Farming & Processing;

On the same day that the Governor announced the appointment of Lyons as Agriculture Liason to the Governor’s Office, Joaquin Esquivel as chair of the State Water Board and Laurel Firestone as a new member of the State Water Board, Newsom called for an end to Jerry Brown’s Twin Tunnels, but said he supports one tunnel.

“I do not support the Water Fix as currently configured,” said Newsom in his state of the state address. “Meaning, I do not support the twin tunnels. But we can build on the important work that’s already been done. That’s why I do support a single tunnel.”

In response, Bill Wells, the Executive Director of the California Delta Chambers & Visitor’s Bureau, said his organization continues to oppose diverting Sacramento River water around the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, regardless of the method of diversion:

“The California Delta Chambers & Visitor’s Bureau opposes diverting the Sacramento River around the Delta. We have never made a distinction over the method of diversion, whether it be canals, tunnels, or any other conveyance. Diverting the river will destroy what is left of the Delta. The water barons in the south will want as much water as they can get out of the system and they will not finance it unless they are assured of this. We do not trust them!”

The top agribusiness contributions to Gavin Newsom’s 2018 campaign for Governor are very revealing. Newsom received $58,400 from Beverly Hills agribusiness tycoon Stewart Resnick, $58,400 from Lynda Resnick and $58,400 from E.J. Gallo. His total contributions from agriculture were $637,398.

Could those contributions have influenced Newsom’s decision to not reappoint Felicia Marcus as Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, his decision to appoint Mike Lyons as the new “Agricultural Liaison” to the Governor’s Office or his decision to go ahead with a one tunnel plan?

For more information, go here.

Categories: News for progressives

Trump’s Bullshit Bullseye

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:38

Whatever one might think about Donald Trump’s claim to be a “stable genius,” his rambling and seemingly unfocused rant of a speech to an enthusiastic throng of CPAC attendees on Saturday demonstrated the kind of demagoguery at which he has become adept—and included a chilling shot across the bow of the smoldering political debate dividing this country. What Trump did was raise the ante in a very dangerous way, and in so doing reinforce the concern Michael Cohen expressed last Wednesday in public testimony before Congress, a concern that has been on my mind for a couple of years now but gets very limited attention in the mainstream media or on guardedly progressive cable networks like MSNBC.

Addressing the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 27, Cohen said in a closing statement, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Coming from a longtime Trump “enforcer,” lightly regarded for his political or intellectual gravitas, the warning was both surprising and sobering.

Trump had already raised the stakes last month when he declared a national emergency over border wall funding, ignoring the wishes of Congress and making an unprecedented grab for executive power that many thought threatened the checks and balances written into the Constitution by the founding fathers. But on Saturday his rhetoric seemed to launch a new phase of escalation and make Cohen’s concerns even more ominous.

Speaking about the Mueller investigation and the broadening inquiries in the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, Trump hurled words like “lunatic,” “sick” and “dirty,” and characterized Democrats’ efforts as a no-holds-barred assault on his presidency: “They’re trying to take you out with bullshit, OK? With bullshit.”

Unprecedented, unpresidential, debasing and vulgar are only some of the adjectives that would be appropriate to describe the president’s language. But looked at another way, the invective was unerringly on target—a bullshit bullseye, if you will. To an adoring base that has elevated Trump to the status of a cult leader (chosen by God, some say), he accomplished several things at once. Not only did he extend his defiance of politically correct behavior and language, he coined a new rallying cry, to be echoed when Mueller’s report is issued, or when Democrats reveal the findings of their investigations, or the Justice Department’s Southern District of New York builds criminal cases against him.

Trump or his inner circle was involved in collusion with Russia? Bullshit, they’ll shout. Trump obstructed justice, violated campaign finance laws, committed bank fraud, insurance fraud, witness tampering, violations of the emoluments clause? Bullshit, they’ll scream. Impeach the president? Bullshit.

But with Congress gridlocked and successful impeachment unlikely, the 2020 election still seems like the best shot we’ll have at derailing Trump’s authoritarian juggernaut, and that’s where my fear and Cohen’s warning converge: If he wins, it’s all over for democracy in this country, but even if he loses, who among us can really see Trump going quietly? Even in 2016, prepared to lose to Hillary, he was all ready to cry fraud and contest the election. Not only will he almost certainly do so after a loss in 2020, but he is steering his base toward mass violence to protest the “deep state” conspiracy, “voter fraud” from minorities and a diabolical “coup” to drive him from office. Should he get away with the trumped-up border emergency, an allegedly rigged election will surely be his next excuse for a national emergency. If it’s not just a witch-hunt but a “bullshit” assault designed to take out the greatest president ever, a Democratic victory at the polls may be nearly as dangerous as a loss.

This country never fully got over the Civil War (on a cultural level, if not a geographic one) and may be headed for another iteration. With his bullshit bull’s-eye, a narcissistic rich kid from Queens may just have fired the first round.

Categories: News for progressives

SWAT Politics: Law Enforcement and its New Critics

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:35

The Mueller investigation and its surrounding silly partisan atmosphere have at least created some new bedfellows. On one hand ostensible liberals stand firmly with the FBI while conservatives rant about draconian repression. In the aftermath of the January 25th pre-dawn raid on the home of Roger Stone, Trump political advisor and overall reptilian, an unlikely chorus raged about disproportionate force. Disgraced former governor and Trump’s luckless toady Chris Christie labeled the raid ‘overkill.’ Stone, despite his back tattoo of Nixon emerging without a scratch, was quick to shout ‘To storm my house with greater force than was used to take down bin Laden or El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, to terrorize my wife and my dogs is unconscionable.’ Bin Laden and Escobar were of course was shot in head.

Newt Gingrich, commenting on an earlier raid, that on the New York office of former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen in April 2018, the days before this same chorus tagged Cohen as a liar and a rat, righteously proclaimed ‘It ain’t the rule of law when they kick in your door at 3 o’clock in the morning and you’re faced with armed men. And you have no reason to be told you’re going to have that kind of treatment. That’s Stalin. That’s Gestapo in Germany. That shouldn’t be the American FBI.’ Former FBI man Rudy Giuliani, a man never shy on ‘law and order’, who back in 1992 stood in front of a drunken police riot against an independent Civilian Review Board and who later as mayor pettily unsealed Patrick Dorismond’s juvenile record, Dorismond was an unarmed security guard who was murdered by police, Giuliani gushed that Dorismond wasn’t ‘an altar-boy’ yet labeled the agents that hit Cohen’s office as ‘stormtroopers.’ World class blowhard Lindsay Graham called the Stone raid ‘inacceptable’ and questioned just how common such tactics are and whether usual procedures were followed.

As is seemingly always the case, the apparent principled outrage on the part of politicians mainly serves the purpose of proving the sheer depth of their reactionary brains. How likely is it that any of the above would reference the May 2014 SWAT team raid on a home in Georgia in the middle of the night that left a 19 year old baby critically injured after a stun grenade fired into the house landed in his playpen? The police had the wrong house and the family, though eventually receiving a settlement, was left with a $1 million medical bill. None of the officers, who that early morning were packing Colt submachine guns, light-mounted AR-15 rifles and Glock .40-caliber sidearm, along with a door-breaching shotgun, a battering ram, sledgehammers, Halligan bars for smashing windows, and a ballistic shield, would be charged.

Nor was there a conviction for Detroit police officer Joseph Weekly, part of the city police department’s Special Response Team, who shot and killed 7 year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones as she slept on a living room couch with her grandmother in May 2010. The police were apparently in pursuit of a murder suspect. Weekly had trouble seeing after another officer tossed a flash grenade into the house.

There are thousands of these ‘dynamic entry’ episodes a year. A New York Times investigation revealed that from 2010-2016 at least 81 civilian deaths resulted from these raids with scores more maimed or wounded. The Times found that the raids ‘led time and again to avoidable deaths, gruesome injuries, demolished property, enduring trauma, blackened reputations and multimillion-dollar legal settlements at taxpayer expense.’

This past July the city of Bloomington, Indiana put its first armored vehicle on public display. Mayor John Hamilton was quoted that day saying, as if to clear up any public anxiety, ‘We hoped it’s never used but it will be used in highly dangerous situations.’ Less than two weeks later the vehicle saw its first action during a home welfare check that ended with a man’s suicide.

Stephen Graham, in his important book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Humanism, shows boomerang effect of the War on Terror on policing in Western cities. Drones are now involved in crime patrol. Security Zones, based on efforts to build Green Zones in Baghdad, are prominent in big cities. Temporary Security Zones are set up around sports events and political conventions. Under 1033 Program, named for a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, allowing, according the to the Law Enforcement Support Office, ‘all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission’, over $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment has been transferred to police departments across the country.  During the Obama years, before limits were put in place, since rescinded by the Trump administration, police departments received tens of thousands of machine guns, thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment, along with hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft. SWAT teams were originally established to deal with hostage situations and heavily armed criminals. Yet the number of SWAT teams and their usage has skyrocketed since the 1980s, an epoch when crime has been consistently in decline. SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times a year, mainly for drug searches (well glamorized by the corny CBS show S.W.A.T.). In 2018 there were about 1000 fatal police shootings in America.

A few years ago when New York, with its crime rate falling to historical lows, needlessly hired 1000 more police officers then commissioner Bill Bratton caused a stir when he said a new counterterrorism unit would also be used to deal with protests. Bratton backed off before later saying that indeed the unit would receive bike and scooter training for lessons in crowd control. We saw the kind of confrontations this militarization could lead to in 2014 in Ferguson.

Meanwhile we wait in vain both for law enforcement’s newest allies and critics to stem the flow. One interesting place to begin would be the question of why Republicans and Democrats fight over who gives the military more funding if the military has all these weapons to freely transfer to police departments. The absurd logic of claiming to manufacture and possess weapons that are never meant to be used misses the obvious point that once possessed such weapons will inevitably be used. Equally inevitable is that poor and marginalized will bear the brunt of it, all with the full support of law enforcement’s latest critics.

Categories: News for progressives

10 Minutes with Superstar Drummer Sly Dunbar

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:30

Sly Dunbar at Studio City Sound, Los Angeles. Photo: Stephen Cooper.

Sly Dunbar is one of the most innovative and influential drummers of all time. Individually and together with his “riddim twin” bassist Robbie Shakespeare, Dunbar has played with the biggest names in reggae (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru . . . the list is endless), giant stars in other genres (Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones, to name but three), and produced a treasure trove of hit songs, songs everybody knows and loves that will stand the test of time.

On February 19, thanks to legendary sound engineer Scientist (also known as Hopeton Brown), I was introduced to Mr. Dunbar at Studio City Sound (in Studio City, California). Dunbar and Shakespeare were working on a project with Scientist, Odel Johnson (a versatile Jamaican-born, Canadian-based artist), guitarist Tony Chin, and keyboardists Franklyn “Bubbler” Waul and Michael Hyde.

Although Mr. Dunbar was extremely busy and under considerable time pressure, he graciously agreed to speak with me for a few minutes as the musicians finished their preparations for recording. We spoke about his memories of Bob Marley and Dennis Brown, how Bob Marley would feel about the “state of reggae music,” why Dunbar and Shakespeare left Peter Tosh to play for Black Uhuru, the Grammy Awards, the best recording studios, and finally, the Jamaican government’s failure to properly honor some of the country’s most talented and accomplished reggae musicians. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Q: Recently we celebrated the 74th earthstrong celebration for Bob Marley. Are there any memories you immediately think of when you think of Bob Marley?

Sly Dunbar: I think of Bob Marley as a great icon who was part of the movement of [making] reggae what it is today. And I remember Robbie and myself used to go and check him when he used to come out to New York. And we’d talk, and sometimes we’d buck up in the music store and he’d always say to me, “Sly, you should open up a music school in Jamaica. A music store.” And I’d laugh. And he’d always say to me he wanted me to come play a whole album for him. And because I used to play with Peter Tosh, he’d always run a joke and say, “you don’t want to come play with us?” And I’d say, “No, man.” And then one night when he come back out of exile – he’d been away from Jamaica for a while, when he got shot – and Lee Perry kept [a] session, [and I] went over to Lee Perry’s studio, and we did like three tracks with him and I did –

Q: Punky Reggae Party [was one]?

Sly Dunbar: Yeah, the recording of Punky Reggae Party. Yeah.

Q: Do you think if Bob were alive today he’d be happy with the “state of reggae music” in the world?

Sly Dunbar: He would change it. He would go and write some wicked songs. Because he was a part of the movement. He never really shun it, you know? And when he hear a movement’s coming, he always join it. Because he’d know it was an evolution, and you can’t hide [from] it. So he would be a part of it, yeah man.

Q: Would [Bob Marley] be happy with the direction the music has moved in?

Sly Dunbar: Yeah he would be happy because he would set the trend, and everyone would follow.

Q: You also worked closely with Dennis Brown. I know you [played] on [his] original “Money in My Pocket.”

Sly Dunbar: Yeah. And the re-cut.

Q: When you think of Dennis Brown, what are one or two of your memories [of him] that come to mind?

Sly Dunbar:  He [was] a great performer. Been playing with him [since] we were very young, [back when he was in] a band called the Falcons. And I did a tour with him. And I did a lot of recordings with him. He [was] a true artist. A great person. And a very loving person. A very kind person. A great icon.

Q: So much is written about Bob Marley. Is there anything about Bob Marley that you think is not emphasized as much as it should be?

Sly Dunbar: He was a great person. He was a nice person. I [was] around him quite a bit. The times I [was] around him [he was] a very cool person. He [was] into his music, you know? His music [came] first.

Q: You have said before that when you [played] with Peter Tosh, that [that] was one of the most experimental times in reggae [history], and that you guys were really experimenting with the music –

Sly Dunbar: Yeah, yeah. In that time, in the 70s there was a time when we started to experiment [with] reggae. Reggae started to open up into different areas, you know? And Bob seen it. He wanted to be a part of it, too. Which he did. He was a part of it. He came and he made a song called “Exodus.” In the kind of rhythm we were making at Channel One [recording studio]. So Bob is like a groove master. He would listen to what is happening. And if he was here today, he would make some wicked [music], because he was always [attune to] the next movements for reggae.     

Q: Why did you decide to move from playing with Peter Tosh to working with Black Uhuru?

Sly Dunbar: Because we [(Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare)] were producing all these artists while we were playing with Peter. [And] Black Uhuru music is like a different kind of groove from what we played for Peter. It was a hardcore cutting-edge thing [and] we felt we couldn’t play that style for Peter, because he wasn’t singing that kind of music. So we played Peter’s music just the way he sees it. And we play[ed] Black Uhuru music the way we [felt] it, and thought it [should be].

Q: What are your thoughts about Sting and Shaggy winning the Grammy this year for Best Reggae Album?

Sly Dunbar: It’s great. ‘Nuff respect and congratulations to them both, you know?

Q: The Grammys are often criticized for being biased against female reggae artists. Also they’re criticized for being biased in favor of the Marley family –

Sly Dunbar: I don’t know. I don’t know.

Q: Are the Grammy [awards] still meaningful for reggae fans to pay attention to?

Sly Dunbar: Well, it’s meaningful for reggae artists. Because you get that [award] in your hand [and] you always cherish it. Because you look at it and say this is the work I’ve done over the years.

Q: And it opens doors that might not otherwise be open?

Sly Dunbar: Yeah.

Q: Selecta Jerry, a DJ in New Jersey whose show I listen to called “Sounds of the Caribbean,” a show he inherited from [rocksteady icon] Keith Rowe, he played a song last week called “Jah Children Dub.” It’s a wicked song [and] it says on the .45 that you’re featured on it. And Selecta Jerry wanted to know if you were just featured in the dub on that? It’s a tune [produced] by Roberto Sanchez, and it says [on the label] that it features you.

Sly Dunbar: Well there are so many records I play on, sometimes I don’t remember [them]. (Laughing) But if it says that on the record, that’s it.

Q: (Laughing) It’s a great tune. A lot of [really] good [roots reggae, rocksteady, and dub] music is coming out of [producer] Roberto Sanchez’s studio in Spain.

Sly Dunbar: Yeah.

Q: He’s been working with Keith and Tex releasing new music, and he’s been working with you as well. Why is his [studio] able to produce such good, old school-vibes over there?

Sly Dunbar: Well this is what he’s focused on. And he probably [went] and researched the music [because] this is what he wants to do. And [he] realized how to put the music together. So he probably did it in that manner. And you stick with it. And perfect the thing.

Q: You’ve played in so many studios, Mr. Dunbar. What are the best recording studios in the world today?

Sly Dunbar: Today? (Laughing)

Q: Yeah, [or ever]. When you think of [studios] where you would most like to play, [which] are some of the best ones?

Sly Dunbar: Alright. Alright. Let me tell you some of the best recording studios. There are a couple of studios where I think my recordings came out very great: (Nassau) Compass Point [studio] with Grace Jones, Channel One studio, and Dynamic Sounds studio. We did Serge Gainsborough’s album at Dynamic Sound. We did all the Black Uhuru stuff and heavy stuff at Channel One. And some of the Taxi [Cab label] stuff. And the Grace Jones project at Nassau. Those three studios I think the recording was very great for me. They made the drum sound good.

Q: Do you have drum kits on all continents of the world?

Sly Dunbar: (Laughing) No, no, no. I live in Jamaica.

Q: One [last] question that I always ask reggae artists. Why is it that there seems to be such a lack of support even now with the Jamaican government in terms of both honoring the veterans –

Sly Dunbar: I don’t know, you know? ‘Cause I don’t care if they honor me or anything like that. I don’t know. But I think they should. Because there are a couple of people that have done some great work. Even this drummer by the name of Joe Isaacs. He did a lot of stuff. He played on Johnny Nash, not “I Can See Clearly,” [but] the first Johnny Nash song “Hold Me Tight.” And he played on a lot of Studio One [records]. He was the one who started playing rocksteady.

Q: And he hasn’t received any recognition [from the Jamaican government] for that?

Sly Dunbar: No, no. He hasn’t received anything. A lot of people don’t know the history of the work musicians have done in Jamaica. So we’re trying to organize to see if he could get an O.D. [(Order of Distinction)] or something for the work he has done. He put in a lot of work.

Q: It seems there are a lot of [very accomplished Jamaican] artists I’ve come across like Keith and Tex, Scientist, [many] who’ve never been [properly] recognized by the Jamaican government [for their tremendous musical achievements].

Sly Dunbar: Well like for Joe Isaacs, he has [played on] so many songs. The Jamaican government doesn’t keep track of what recording artists do. Somebody has to be assigned in the culture [ministry]. Somebody has to go and tell them because they don’t know. Because there’s no [serious] collection of anything [concerning reggae music history and artifacts] there. Remember [back] in those days, musicians’s names weren’t recorded. Nobody knew who played [on recordings when they were released]. It just kinda changed when [Robbie and I] started doing recording in the 70s. [Musicians’s] names started appearing on record jackets. People would see the musicians who were playing. But Joe Isaacs has played on all these songs, and nobody knows his name because he was never mentioned. Me, as a drummer, I could hear the sound and tell his style of playing.

Categories: News for progressives

The 2019 Socially Relevant Film Festival

Fri, 2019-03-08 15:07

Beginning next Friday on March 15th and lasting until March 21st, the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York will be offering a welcome respite from the violent, comic-book, escapist, and misogynist films appearing in your local cineplex. I have been covering the festival each year since it began in 2015 and am happy to report that this year’s offerings remain at the high level founder Nora Armani has maintained over the past four years.

SR’s mission statement states that it “focuses on socially relevant film content, and human interest stories that raise awareness to social problems and offer positive solutions through the powerful medium of cinema. SR believes that through raised awareness, expanded knowledge about diverse cultures, and the human condition as a whole, it is possible to create a better world free of violence, hate, and crime.”

For as long as I have been covering the festival, each year provides a bounty of films that are a welcome relief from the trash I have been forced to review as a member of NYFCO in December. Despite the hype, the films nominated for honors at the Academy Awards ten days ago can’t hold a candle to this year’s SR festival (with the possible exception of “First Reformed”, a film very much in the spirit of SR).

I strongly urge people in the greater New Yorker area to watch the festival trailer, bookmark the festival’s website and to make plans to attend screenings at the Cinema Village. The capsule reviews below should give you a good idea of what is in store.



The Piripkura are a nomadic tribe that lived in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil and like many such hunting-and-gathering societies fell victim to prospectors, ranchers, lumberjacks and other capitalist predators who viewed indigenous people as a nuisance standing in the way of “development”. Rita, a Piripkura woman who has left the forest to live in a settlement for indigenous peoples protected by FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation. Except for her, the only surviving Piripkuras are her brother Pakyî and her nephew Tamandua who have remained deep within the forest successfully avoiding the genocidal intruders who do not respect the government’s protection of tribal land just as India protected the Sentinelese islanders who killed the missionary who had entered the island illegally to preach the Gospel. On first blush, the Bible might not seem as inimical to indigenous people’s survival as a shotgun but colonialism tends to use them in tandem.

The first half of the film shows FUNAI official Jair Candor penetrating the forest in search of the two remaining Piripkura. If he can document their survival, their territory will remain protected. Suffice it to say that their discovery is a bittersweet experience. You smile because these diminutive and angelic men, naked as the day they were born, are still alive. You also shed a tear because, like Nishi in California, they are the sole survivors of a tribe that once numbered hundreds in their rainforest sanctuary.

This is a timely film because the new, fascist-like President of Brazil has declared his intention to turn the Amazon rainforest into toothpicks, lawn furniture, ethanol, sugar and the like even if it costs the lives of every indigenous person.


If you, like me, enjoyed “Billy Elliot”, the narrative film about the young son of a coal-miner who is determined to become a ballet dancer despite the opposition of his father and the prejudices of a small mining town, “Danseur” is an even greater pleasure since the male dancers featured in the film are real people with real-life experiences dealing with the same issues. In addition, it is an opportunity to see these dancers as they go about their daily exercises, which are as rigorous as those followed by football players, and in performance. But most importantly, it gives you insights into questions of male identity that in an age of transgender people fighting for their rights seems more timely than ever. The irony, of course, is that male ballet dancers are physically more adept than 99 percent of American men.

Like Billy Elliot, the interviewees were transfixed by the sight of ballet dancers at an early age. So committed were they to become professionals that they put up with more than the usual amount of bullying such boys have to put up with in middle and high school. If anything, the subtitle of the film should be “Portraits in Courage”.

In a Huffington Post article titled “The Greatest Obstacle For Boys Who Do Ballet Is Often Their Own Fathers” producer-director Scott Gormley, whose own son took up ballet at the age of 8, offered these thoughts:

True happiness, we’re so often told, comes from doing what you love. That’s the advice we get from buttons, T-shirts, memes and the self-help industry. But in my son’s case, that advice should come with a big disclaimer: doing what you love may cause you to be a social outcast, called a “faggot,” physically assaulted by your peers or generally ostracized by family and friends.

The boys who choose ballet really know what they love and want to do for the rest of their lives, and they have to fight to get it. It is inspiring to witness. We should all be so lucky.

Musa Dagh – The Road Home

In April 2017, I reviewed a narrative film for CounterPunch titled “The Promise” that featured Oscar Isaac in the role of an Armenian trying to save himself and other Armenians from the Ottoman genocide. The final half-hour of “The Promise” recreates a historic event, the standoff between lightly armed Armenians at the top of Musa Dagh, the Armenian words for Moses Mountain, and Ottoman troops advancing up the mountain. On the verge of being overrun and murdered, the Armenians were rescued by French sailors who rowed them to safety aboard the Guichen, a French cruiser.

“Musa Dagh—The Road Home” follows a small group of Armenians who make a yearly pilgrimage to the villages at the summit of Musa Dagh, where they visit the homes of their forefathers now occupied by Turks who greet them warmly. We see the churches that despite having been converted into mosques the Armenians are still happy to see standing.

In some ways, the film reminded me of one or more that I have seen about Palestinians making pilgrimages to the villages they were driven from in 1948. Although “Musa Dagh – The Road Home” is a modest film, almost a vacation home movie, its theme is profoundly universal and badly needed in a period when ethnic cleansing is openly backed by authoritarian governments everywhere.

A Dignified Death

This is a film that captures the final days of Eelco, a Dutch citizen who has received permission for assisted suicide. Unstinting in its candor, it shows the lethal cocktail being injected into his arm and his mother at his side as he drifts off into unconsciousness and then death.

Eelco appears to be in his thirties and not the typical euthanasia subject, which might be somebody of advanced years dealing with an incurable disease that makes each day a living hell. Instead, Eelco has had his own living hell as someone suffering from a deep depression that neither therapy nor drugs can overcome.

In the USA today, euthanasia is only permitted in a handful of states—a function of religious power over elected officials. They back capital punishment while restricting abortion rights and denying euthanasia in the name of respecting life. Typically, Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch published “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia” in 2006, which argues that “[H]uman life is fundamentally and inherently valuable, and that the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”

What hypocrisy.

Isaac Pope: The Spirit of an American Century

At the time of its filming, Isaac Pope was 99 years old, living in a nursing home in Kinston, North Carolina, but surprisingly mobile and intellectually capable of reminiscing about what can be described as the life of an African-American Everyman.

Grandson of slaves, and a child of Garveyite sharecropping parents, he joined the army in the 1930s like many men, including my father, for gainful employment. Pope ended up in the all-Black 969th Artillery Battalion, the first black battalion to fight in World War II and in the Battle of the Bulge. The battalion was commanded by a Jewish captain whose daughter produced the film. The 969thBattalion was critical for the survival of the American GIs under siege at Bastogne, where my father earned a Bronze Star delivering food and water to the men of the 101stAirborne.

Upon returning to a peacetime USA, Pope became a stalwart of his community and a civil rights activist. This is a touching film that captures the oral history of a generation that has mostly disappeared. Like “Musa Dagh”, it is a modest work but one that has a powerful message.


Doing Money

In 2011, a 21-year old Romanian woman named Anna, who was working as a cleaner in London, was abducted off the street and forced into prostitution by other Romanians. They brought her to Ireland and sold her as a sex slave for about $38,000. After 9 harrowing months, she escaped her captors and came forward to testify against the Romanians and their British and Irish partners.

Belfast author Jason Johnson wrote a book titled “Slave” about her ordeal and of how her bravery and persistence led to changes in the laws of Northern Ireland. In an article about Johnson’s book, we learn of her travails:

She says it did not seem to matter to these men how skinny and malnourished she looked, how many cuts and bruises she had from the daily beatings she endured, or how unkempt she looked. The more she fought and insulted her ‘customers’, the more they demanded to be with her, leading her pimps to refer to her as “the money-maker”.

All of this is depicted graphically in a BBC film written and directed by women. While the film was almost certainly chosen for the festival prior to the Robert Kraft arrest, it certainly will help you understand how the sex slavery business operates. According to the International Labor Organization, sex trafficking generates annual profits of nearly $100 billion, making it the most profitable form of slavery ever seen. It is not surprising that Robert Kraft, the owner of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots and a close friend of Donald Trump, went to a massage parlor where women from China were enslaved just like Anna. Both Kraft and Trump are trying to avoid paying for their crimes. If there was any justice in the world, they’d end up in adjoining cells at a federal penitentiary.

Coming Home

Made in Russia by Daria Shumakova, this is the story of a six-year-old Armenian boy named Saro whose father Vacho has just returned from a tour of duty in the Nagorno-Karabakh War of the 1990s that pitted Armenians against Azeris over control of an enclave in southwestern Azerbaijan.

While his father has been off fighting in this typically senseless war in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, Saro has taken on many of Vacho’s tasks on the modest farm where he lives with his mother and grandfather. Only six years old, he is proud of his ability to do a man’s work, like feeding their chickens and fetching water from a pump miles away. The life of these rural Armenians is austere. Their home is heated by a wood-burning stove and each penny is carefully watched.

When Vacho returns, there is a standoff between father and son over who is now the man of the house. Saro insists on his right to drive a car and when that right is denied, he runs away. Whether or not director Daria Shumakova had the 2003 Russian film “The Return” in mind, the parallels are striking. That film depicted the reunion of a Russian soldier and his young sons after he has been off fighting in Chechnya for 12 years. He takes them to a remote island on a lake that turns into a test of their manhood. Suffice it to say that the Armenian soldier depicted in “Coming Home” is far more willing to relinquish his patriarchal status in a gesture that makes the film so close to the heart of the values of the Socially Relevant Film Festival.

Categories: News for progressives

Keeping Virtuosity in Check: a Tribute to Johann Pachelbel

Fri, 2019-03-08 14:05

Tomorrow marks the 313th anniversary of Johann Pachelbel’s burial in his native city of Nuremburg, Germany.  That a three-digit, vaguely trinitarian prime number rather than the usual multiple of a hundred occasions this short tribute strikes me as a fitting way to run from the expected. Whatever the odometer reading, it’s high time to redirect attention away from the long-exhausted Canon in D and instead towards the diverse works of a composer who was perhaps the most celebrated musician in the Protestant Germany of his time, revered for his learning, artistry, dedication and virtue. In Pachelbel’s life that reputation extended across Europe. In his early forties, he was offered an organist job at Oxford, which he turned down, pursuing his career instead in a succession of German cities separated by hundreds of miles. There may have been an anglophone or at least anglophilic strain in the Pachelbel family. One of his sons, Carl Theodore emigrated to North America and became an influential composer and teacher in Charleston, South Carolina; another, Johann Michael, was an instrument maker in Nuremberg who ventured to Kingston, Jamaica.  Well-trained by their father, they brought his craft with them to the other side of the Atlantic.

Johann Pachelbel died at the age of fifty-two, and on his deathbed he had been surrounded by music. As was common in Lutheran Germany, family and friends gathered around the dying man and sang his favorite hymn.  One important eighteenth-century biographical source names this chorale as “Herr Jesus Christ, meines Lebens Licht” (Lord Jesus Christ, Light of My Life). Curiously, that text does not seem to appear in any of Pachelbel’s nearly 500 surviving works, most of them of sacred stamp. Perhaps the author of the account of his demise confused the hymn with Christus, der ist mein Leben (Christ, who is my life), which is the opening chorale of Pachelbel’s first publication, Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken  (Musical Thoughts on Death)of 1683. Here the melody is treated in a series of a dozen variations whose effervescent charm seems to belie the funereal title of the collection. Keyboard music was rarely printed at the time, but Pachelbel resolutely incurred the expense of bringing this volume out, probably as a memorial to his young wife and baby, who had recently been taken by a plague in Erfurt, the university city in central Germany where he had become the leading organist in 1678.

Pachelbel’s Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken are not so much about distracting one from grief, as they are concerned with elevating one’s thoughts to heaven—refreshing the soul through happy thoughts and nimble fingers. These pieces were to be played at home on the clavichord or harpsichord, or on the church organ, like the impressive instrument at the Predigerkirche (Preachers’ Church) in Erfurt. Given that Pachelbel spent several formative years as the assistant organist at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in catholic Vienna it is fitting that the best recording of this music (on the Amadeuslabel from 2006) journeys still farther to the south and finds Edoardo Bellotti and Maurizio Salerno playing the two Italian baroque instruments in Milan’s church of Santa Maria dell Passione. These musical reflections on mortality become a balm for the beset spirit.

As a teenager Pachelbel had left the parental home in Nuremberg first for Regensburg, then for Vienna, before journeying far to the north to Thuringia, heartland of the Bach clan, in 1677. His first position there was as court organist at Eisenach, where he met Johann Sebastian Bach’s father, a town musician Johann Ambrosius, and stood godfather to one of his children. Sebastian’s brother Johann Christoph, would later study with Pachelbel in Erfurt. This same older brother would give Sebastian his first keyboard lessons after the young boy was orphaned. Pachelbel’s music was an important part of that tuition; Johann Christoph was an assiduous scribe of keyboard music including that of his teacher. Several works by Pachelbel survive thanks to these efforts.

According to a famous Bach family vignette retailed in Sebastian’s obituary, the youngster even copied some of this brothers’ manuscripts by moonlight and without permission. Once caught, he was sternly punished.  That Sebastian learned well his musical lessons, even if not those of obedience to authority, is proved in those of his early chorale preludes that are indistinguishable from those of the older master. “Pachelbel” was often spelled with a B instead of a P and sometimes shortened to “Bach.” — thus adding to the potential confusion.

One can get a sense of the kind of music and instruments cultivated by Bachs and Bachelbels—along with a more permissive and endearing update of the domestic atmosphere that surrounded these pieces—from the recent efforts of Flemish keyboardist Wim Winters playing Pachelbel’s Ciacona in F Minor at home. This set of variations over a simple repeating pattern in the bass is imaginative and graceful, but never ostentatious. It delights rather than astounds, draws the listener in for intimate involvement rather than pushing her back in hopes of eliciting astonished admiration.

On the same central-German style clavichord of ample eighteenth-century (rather than more modest seventeenth-century) proportion, Winters has also recently released a sumptuous album (recorded in analog, as he proudly notes, and also issued on vinyl) of Pachelbel’s final publication, Hexachordum Apollinis. This perfectly proportioned collection appeared in 1699 some five years after Pachelbel had been called back to the Church of St. Sebald in Nuremberg where he lived out the remainder of his days. These are yet more variations, this time based on instrumental “arias”—tunes, some jaunty, some plaintive, of the composer’s own devising. One can watch Winters playing this repertoire as well thanks to his robust YouTube presence—this time minus the dancing and page-turning daughters.

For Pachelbel,  keyboard playing, especially the elaboration of chorales, was a restrained form of pious praise enlivened when deemed appropriate by decorous exuberance. It was not a means of self-aggrandizing display. Rarely, if ever, does the fantastical dominate.  Pachelbel’s contract for the Erfurt organist’s post that he held for a dozen years forbade him from improvising his introductory preludes to the chorales. Instead was required to work them out carefully on paper. The products of these labors were disseminated widely among his many students, including the likes of Johann Christoph Bach. This seemingly un-Baroque prohibition on winging it not only ensured quality, but also kept personal impulse and rampant virtuosity in check.

It is in the instrumental music that devotion gives way to what in church might be condemned as sensual excess. Un orage d’avril (An April Storm; issued by Harmonia Mundi, 2016) from Gli Incogniti with violinist Amandine Beyer at the helm includes all six suites of Pachelbel’s published suites. These appeared 1695 under the title Musicalische Ergötzung (Musical Delight), two years after Pachelbel’s return to Nuremberg. Depending on where the music sends her, Beyer’s playing, and that of the those around her, is fiery, poised, pleading, refined, introspective, exalted—climatic in its ever changing temperatures and temperaments.  The fabulous precision of ensemble never comes at the expense of spontaneity. Interspersed with these instrumental numbers are tenor arias sung by Hans Jörg Mammel; these depict that spring storm, hymn a town father, and summon life’s crosses. The quotidian comes alive. These offerings provide us the smallest sampling of Pachelbel’s highly-praised vocal music cultivated during his Nuremburg years. The warmth, purity, and disarming directness of Mammel’s voice lifts the soul above the climatic vicissitudes of earthly life, especially when buoyed by the string sonorities of Gli Incogniti. The disc closes with the (in)famous Canon,  heard here as nothing more than a lively coda—a top forty footnote to a rich and rewarding oeuvre still to be explored these 313 years since Pachelbel was laid to rest, but not silenced.

Categories: News for progressives

This Jew Tells Speaker Pelosi: “You May Well Prove Ilhan Omar Correct”

Thu, 2019-03-07 23:13

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly still considering a symbolic “show vote” in Congress on an anti-Semitism and “hate” resolution – which would offer all the authenticity and honesty of a Soviet show trial. If Pelosi proceeds, it will prove Rep. Ilhan Omar’s point about the inordinate influence wielded over Congress by the “Israel-right or-wrong”/AIPAC lobby and its power to stifle criticism of Israel.

The anti-Omar resolution, whether mentioning Omar or not, was originated by two Democrats who are among Congress’s most longstanding pro-Israel diehards: Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey. Both endorsed Bush’s Iraq invasion. Both opposed Obama’s Iran nuke deal. Both supported Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

I’m a proud Jew raised in a liberal family that supported civil rights and human rights. My experience growing up during the 1950s and 1960s was typical of many Jewish Americans. Like many Jews with this background, I’ve grown increasingly ashamed of Israel.

For 40 years, Israel has been ruled mostly by a series of right-wing governments – more and more openly racist and abusive of Palestinian rights. It’s not the land of tree-planting, kibbutzim and “a country treating its Arab minority nicely” that we were sold as youngsters.

That’s why a large number of proud Jewish Americans – raised to believe in civil liberties and open discussion – are appalled by the campaign to muzzle Rep. Ilhan Omar, as well as Speaker Pelosi’s role in it. We’re also appalled that human-rights-abusing Israel is virtually off-limits to debate.

Most Jews – the likes of Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner excepted – empathize with the refugee experience. Only a rare few cannot be impressed by the life story of Ilhan Omar, who fled civil-war-torn Somalia and came to the U.S. as a refugee at age 12, knowing only two English phrases: “hello” and “shut up.” Now a Muslim Congresswoman, she’s recently faced hateful bias and threats.

Rep. Omar has made a simple and undeniable point – that AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the funding it influences exert extraordinary power over Congress. Disputing that point is flat-earther terrain. The Capitol Hill farce of an “anti-hate” resolution would provide still more evidence on behalf of her argument.

Unfortunately, all the vague media references to Rep Omar’s “anti-Semitic remarks” obscure how truthful and non-hateful those comments were. You can see a series of her recent tweets here.

Progressive Jews are rushing to her defense because of tweets like this one that speak for us in a way few members of Congress ever have:  “Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same.”

In his Washington Post column “The dishonest smearing of Ilhan Omar,” Paul Waldman devastatingly countered the recent attack on Omar over her comment at a town hall: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

The initial media frenzy in February over two of Omar’s tweets was so huge that it obscured the fact that the uproar was sparked by a total of seven words – and six of those words are the refrain of a famous Puff Daddy song.

It began when Omar retweeted Glenn Greenwald’s comment about GOP congressional leader Kevin McCarthy’s “attacking the free speech rights” of Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib for criticizing Israel – to which Omar, a known critic of money in politics, simply added the Puff Daddy refrain:  “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” (Benjamins refer to $100 bills.) When a tweeter asked her who Omar thinks is funding politicians to defend Israel, Omar responded with a one-word tweet: “AIPAC!”

The feeding frenzy over these two flippant but truthful tweets forced Omar to apologize (something Trump has not been forced to do over hundreds of dishonest, racist and/or threatening ones).

Yet if you spend a day on Capitol Hill and talk (off-the-record) with a member of Congress about this topic, you’ll hear plenty about AIPAC’s awesome clout and its ability to unleash “Benjamins”  to bully Congress.  Books and articles have documented this truism.

According to the New York Times, AIPAC allies now want to oust Ilhan Omar from Congress and hope to “punish Ms. Omar . . . with a primary challenge in 2020.”

When the well-funded Israel-right-or-wrong lobby comes after her, we’ll likely see a massive counter-movement of progressive Jews and non-Jews “Standing with Omar” – and through the Internet, matching the other side Benjamin for Benjamin.

Categories: News for progressives

Big Capital, the Working Class, and US Imperialism: a Brief Look at Recent History

Thu, 2019-03-07 16:05

Today, the two looming “existential threats” are the possibility of nuclear war, and unprecedented human-caused climate change, yet neither of these seems to unduly concern our plutocrats. Capitalism thrives on war, and we forget this historical fact at our peril. Nor do they seem worried about the drastic consequences of global warming, which has been denied, ignored, or downplayed in the corporate media. In fact, it may appear that the big business oligarchs who run the US and dictate policy to a large part of the rest of the world fear very little, perhaps least of all the world’s working classes. These people suffer most from capitalism: they die in large numbers in imperialist wars and are chronically victimized by unemployment and economic crises. They are (and will continue to be) the main victims of capitalist-caused climate change.

The world’s workers have the greatest incentive, and also a long history, of fighting back against oppression. The potential (and, historically, the actual) organized power of workers is what rulers have feared and fear today; in spite of the enormous apparent difficulties in bringing this power to bear, it represents the only possibility of countering big capital. Organized workers cut into profits at home and abroad and at times have represented a revolutionary threat to corporate power. They can disrupt ruling class expansionary plans, up to and including imperialist wars. Thus, big capital fights wars on several fronts but always with the aim of keeping the world’s working classes in a state of atomization essential to the continued functioning of capitalism.

Workers’ labor creates the wealth and power that is then used against them. To be competitive, capitalists replace workers with machinery (today it is computers and robotics) and cut wages. These practices consistently reduce the rate of profit and undermine purchasing power (demand) by depriving workers of jobs and adequate wages. Declining profits spell economic crises and sharper international capitalist rivalries, including competitive wars aimed at preserving or expanding empires. Weaker capitalists go bankrupt; their businesses are absorbed by the stronger, and ownership is concentrated into fewer hands (the 1%, or even a fraction of this) while the world’s workers suffer most from these processes. Monopolistic industries collude to stop price-cutting; but they cannot escape cost cutting measures that target labor and lead to economic slumps. From these fewer but more powerful capitalist big businesses have emerged to dominate economies and governments, currently headed up by the United States whose duopoly party system ensures corporate rule.

In the US, workers’ organized ability to protect themselves from big capital has waxed and waned. Today, it seems to be at its lowest point since the post-Civil War period that culminated in a handful of monopolized industries, “the trusts,” in control of land, railroads, oil companies, factories, and banks. This has all now been “normalized,” but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries large numbers of people opposed this monopolization and swelled the ranks of the Populist and Progressive movements that influenced both political parties and produced presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Neither of them, despite their rhetoric about restoring competition, really aimed to halt capitalist consolidation, but both were highly successful at containing opposition to it. Today, an even tinier minority of the population owns all major means of production, distribution, finance and media; despite their small numbers and tremendous power, they have been unable to overcome the capitalist tendency to produce economic crises and wars.

Workers fought during this period to secure a living wage, greater leisure time, public education, health benefits, and on the job safety protections. Many were influenced by the emergence of socialist ideas that suggested they would never be anything but wage slaves as long as capitalism existed; that workers as a class, the “associated producers,” could run society for themselves. It was not until the Great Depression, however, that workers finally won industrial unions. They did this with militant leadership from the Communist Party of the US whose organizers were willing to struggle against everything that divided the workers, especially racism. Communists also undertook the difficult and dangerous task of organizing in the factories and fields, in the face of relentless attacks on them by corporate bosses, their hired goons, police, and political lackeys inside and outside the unions. After one hundred years of working class struggle, communist organizing helped workers win significant gains. But these have been temporary. Communists were driven out of the CIO in the post-war Truman- McCarthy period, and our post-Great Depression history has been marked by successful corporate efforts to roll back workers’ gains from then until now, when it appears that not much stands in the way of capitalism’s endless drive for accumulation that never seems to be enough.

Wars and economic crises have also taken their toll on the lives of multiple millions of the world’s people. Our corporate elite treats these slumps as “natural” events, but they are wholly man-made, indeed, capitalist-made. Business “panics” have punctuated the history of capitalism, and through the post-Civil War era they were regular occurrences in the world economy. By the early 20th century, the capitalist tendency to produce global “recessions” heightened the competition among the major capitalist powers for markets, resources, and outlets for the investment of surplus capital. This period of increased rivalry among the developed capitalist countries included the erection of tariff barriers against each other’s exports, and pitted them against one another in a struggle for empire that targeted those areas of the world where resources, cheap labor, and “investment opportunities” could be obtained. These included Africa on the periphery of the world economy. Britain and France had established colonies there, but by the early 20th century were being challenged by Germany and Italy for a share in the spoils of empire.

Prior to and during this period of emerging imperialist rivalries the US’s physical distance from Europe and its own unchallenged power in the Western Hemisphere removed it from Europe’s conflicts, as it exploited its own backyard. It’s early “settler colonialism” was based on exploiting Native Americans in the fur trade, as well as ruthlessly attacking them to seize their lands for farms and plantations operated by slave labor. This “Manifest Destiny” drove the US across the continent and cost Mexico half of its territory. It also, ironically, led to the Civil War as North and South confronted each other over what labor system (slave or free) would expand into these newly won lands. The US then staked claims in the Caribbean, seized the Philippines from Spain, annexed the Hawaiian Islands, and relentlessly pursued the economic penetration of Latin America while ensuring that compliant governments were installed and overthrowing those that were not. US moves to preserve its empire continue today in the Middle East and now in Venezuela.

Given its size and the power differential in the Western Hemisphere, the US could work its will with a relatively small military. Once it fully shifted its attention and aspirations to the economic penetration of Europe and Asia, this would change. The First World War was a harbinger. This war was a fully capitalist war, a life and death struggle for markets, resources, and labor. Germany and Japan were latecomers whose rise as dominant manufacturing powers forced them to look for markets and resources in areas that were already part of the British and French imperial spheres.

The world thus divided into competing alliances and the result was the First World War that began in 1914. Marx pointed out to the world’s working classes in the mid-19th century that their collective interest lay in uniting against the capitalists in all countries. Indeed, Europe’s socialist parties tried and failed to short-circuit the war by appealing to British, French, and German workers not to fight each other for the profits and aggrandizement of the big capitalists in “their” nations. In the US, the leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs, was jailed for his opposition to the war. But workers generally remained the captives of nationalism and the result was unprecedented carnage as workers and peasants from opposing nations slaughtered each other in the trenches.

In Russia, however, a small revolutionary communist party, the Bolsheviks, consistently urged the workers and peasants to fight their rulers at home rather than join them in an imperialist war. By 1917, the Russian Revolution took that country out of the war. Shortly after this the US entered the First World War on the side of Britain and France, its major trading partners, to whom US bankers had lent a great deal of money. A German victory threatened American investments as well as the balance of power in Europe. But the First World War did not “make the world safe for democracy.” Instead it and the Great Depression set the stage for further imperialist conflict as Germany, the big loser in the war, joined by Italy and Japan, looked again at a globe already divided between the established powers.

Victory in the Second World War was the culmination of US power. As in the First World War, the US emerged from this global conflict with none of its cities bombed (except Pearl Harbor). Compared to its allies (not to mention the Germans and Japanese), it had far fewer casualties. It was the Soviet Union that suffered most, with nearly 27 million deaths, both civilian and military. In fact, the Red Army fought the Nazis virtually alone, and broke the German war machine at Stalingrad and Kursk well before the D-day invasion in June of 1944. The US ended the war with Japan by dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first and only time (so far) in history that atomic weapons were used.

In the post-war world, the US was the leading imperial power, now also committed to waging an anti-communist “crusade” against those countries where revolutions were in progress (China) or had taken place (Russia), or might take place (in Italy and France which had large communist parties). US rulers feared the possibility that capitalism might be overthrown by revolutionary forces anywhere in the world, thus depriving American business of investment outlets, and, worst of all from the corporate elite’s point of view, providing an example for the world’s workers. The Soviet Union was the primary antagonist, while war and the growth of US military power became the life-blood of the now-leading capitalist nation. Our rulers portrayed their war making as “defensive” and the American people were generally acquiescent.

It took American military intervention in Vietnam against a peasant-based independence movement, coupled with a revived Civil Rights Movement here during the 1960s to alert millions of Americans to the fact that the US war against the Vietnamese people was imperialism in action. As in previous war, Americans doing the fighting were working-class whites, and people of color who were treated as second-class citizens at home. At the height of the war, the military drafted hundreds of thousands of young men; many were sent to Vietnam and returned home in body bags. A mass anti-war movement emerged at home and in the military against the established corporate political leadership and mass media. Large numbers of Americans understood that the US ruling class could not function without dominating other countries, preferably by its economic power and control of capital but with military power in the event that the people of those countries actually desired to control their own lives and economies independently of the US.

It was clear to more Americans than perhaps before or since, that our big business elite loved war and profited greatly from it. They especially thrived on attacking poor, weak countries trying to establish some independence from US corporate tentacles. A Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, rode roughshod over such efforts with the overthrow of democratic governments in Guatemala and Iran when these countries tried to take control of their own resources (land and oil). Yet with no small irony it was Ike who called attention to the systemic nature of US empire- building with his warning about the (still) unchecked power of “the Military Industrial Complex.” A Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, posing as the “peace” candidate in 1964, escalated the War in Vietnam as the US sought to replace the French empire in Southeast Asia. Not one of these countries posed a real threat to US power.

The 1960s were like a momentary parting of the Red Sea. Since then, the waters have flowed back over Americans, and our rulers have worked overtime to erase the lessons of our recent history from the minds of new generations who did not experience it for themselves (and no doubt many who did).

The imperialist smoke screen continues with the demonization of Putin and Russia, while the “War on Terror” remains as a default rationalization for US militarism. Both of these have served the interests of the billionaire class whose oil-grabbing interventions in the Middle East go back at least to World War II, if not earlier. There, the U.S has labored to undermine pan-Arab nationalism and encourage a turn to Islamic fundamentalism against the efforts at land reform and socialism made by leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. In the ‘80s, the US intervened in Afghanistan funneling money and weapons to the billionaire Saudi Osama bin Laden against the Russians, further enabling the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. After hijackers (the majority from Saudi Arabia; NONE from Afghanistan or Iraq) flew planes into the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, the US invaded both those countries, though there was NO evidence that either had anything to do with the attacks. American taxpayers provide billions to Israel as it seizes and builds settlements on Palestinian land. But the US has no problem with Israel possessing nuclear weapons, unlike the hysteria over a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. Far from wanting an end to terrorism, our corporate class incites and encourages it because, at no cost to them, it instills fear and obedience in the American populace. This has gone on under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Nor does our bought-and-paid-for media ever remind us of this history.

Those now in the streets over Trump’s open white supremacy and naked efforts to ensure unchecked corporate domination did little or nothing for years as that master of “progressive” rhetoric Barack Obama took over and expanded George W Bush’s War on Terror policies. He authorized air and drone strikes that killed women and children in the Middle East and Afghanistan (America’s longest war – so far), and deported record numbers of undocumented workers trying to find employment.

If anything underscores our corporate elite’s continuing imperialism, it is their current moves against Russia that began under Obama and included an American-engineered ouster of Ukraine’s elected president, supported by a neo-Nazi street movement in Kiev. The role played in this by agents and officials of the US government (and the long history of similar actions by the US, like those mentioned above) has been kept from the American public while the media demonizes Russia, and NATO is used to move American troops up to Russia’s border.

We have been treated on a daily basis to a drumbeat of anti-Putin rhetoric from US politicians like Hillary Clinton and the DNC that echoes throughout our corporate media. Trump’s inept efforts to place US relations with Russia on a more businesslike footing (no doubt, with concrete monetary rewards for him), have been blunted by his own bungling and the untoward power of those who see Russia (and China) standing in the way of their imperial ambitions to control the world’s resources, markets, and labor. US rulers seem unafraid, even eager, to provoke a war with one or both of the other major nuclear-armed powers, Russia and China.

In fact, the threat of a nuclear war ought to grab everyone’s attention, but it does not seem to have done so. What global climate change? At best it will flood the coasts, disrupt agriculture, and make large parts of the earth unlivable; at worst it will end in widespread extinctions, possibly including humans. Are US rulers afraid of the consequences of global warming? Apparently not, because almost nothing has been done to address it at its source by curbing and eliminating the burning of fossil fuels; instead, a major effort has been underway, led by Exxon-Mobil, to discredit the science behind it.

The two looming existential threats, nuclear war and global warming, do not appear to bother US rulers in the least. What, indeed, could frighten this very small, but inordinately powerful monopoly capitalist class? They currently have a death grip on our economic system, our politics and governing institutions, and the dominant media to ensure the continuing rightward movement of our public discourse. They have successfully checked the union movement, while endlessly featuring in the media the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who has give his imprimatur to the neo-fascist promoters of racism, sexism and homophobia. These ideas help to keep workers divided against one another instead of coming together against their common class enemy. The capitalists know from long experience how to successfully wage class warfare. Their police terrorize the large and often segregated population of black workers who are deprived not only of civil rights and educational opportunities, but the very right to live by their labor. Meanwhile, a pseudo-left element of the Democratic Party promotes the continuing divisiveness of “identity politics” instead of working class solidarity.

The Democrats lost the last election because they refused to stand up for working people, in spite of having a majority in both Houses of Congress at the beginning of Obama’s presidency. Instead, we got Donald Trump with a Republican majority in Congress set on destroying all the gains made by workers’ struggles since the Great Depression.

Will we see anything different out of this election cycle? Democrats have re-taken the House, and potential Democrat presidential candidates, led by Bernie Sanders, are talking a more working-class-oriented line. But we’ve been here before! The people turning out to support Bernie are a small step in the right direction, but if they end up being herded back into the clutches of the corporate-controlled Democratic Party, then we will still be in the grip of big capital. Play by the rules, we are told by our political leaders, though neither big business nor their bought politicians have any qualms about breaking any rules that stand in the way of their power and profits. We are bounced from one establishment party to another while the big banks loot the economy. We are fed illusions about constitutional guarantees like “free speech” without any reflection about who has the power to have their voices heard. Big capital suppresses pro-working class ideas while promoting fascism.

What, then, might pose real leverage against our big business elite? We have an answer in the recent history outlined above: the capitalist class fears a mass international revolutionary working-class movement with the potential to end their rule and replace it by a productive system based not on the exploitation of the many for the profit of a few, but on human need: from each according to his/her abilities to each according to her/his needs. Such a movement should include as many people as possible and be organized around the demand for equality and respect for the earth and its limits. The evidence that our rulers fear this is apparent in the one hundred plus years of their anticommunist efforts to discredit, distort, defame, and demonize such a movement.

Categories: News for progressives

Setting the Stage for an Encounter at the Colombia-Venezuela Border

Thu, 2019-03-07 15:58

Image Source F3rn4nd0

On February 23, The U.S. and Colombian governments together tried to push humanitarian supplies from the Colombian border city Cúcuta into Venezuela. The humanitarian aid was a Trojan horse that, in theory, would confront Venezuelan security forces with a dilemma. These would supposedly step aside or desert. A take-down of Venezuela’s socialist government would follow. But the soldiers, police, and people’s militia remained loyal to the emancipating legacy of President Hugo Chávez. They blocked the trucks and the façade shattered.

Fire consumed a truck heading for the border. The rubble contained aid material but also whistles, gas masks, steel cables, spikes, and wires. Anti-government rioters in Venezuelan streets would go without.   

Colombia is a U.S. proxy warrior. It’s a partnership prepared over the course of decades, one that is dangerous for the neighborhood and central to U.S. pretensions in the region. An understanding of why the alliance is strong and how it persists may shed light on the context of the Cúcuta incident and on what’s to come.

The flow of money is one aspect. According to a report, “The United States is Colombia’s largest trading partner” and “U.S. exports to Colombia in 2017 [were] valued at USD 13.3 billion.” U.S. direct investment of $2.2 billion exceeded that of all other countries in 2017. The U.S. ultra-rich have soul mates in Colombia. Millionaires there numbered 21,900 in 2007, 35,900 in 2012.  One percent of Colombians own 40.65 percent of the wealth there. Colombia’s income inequality is second in the world only to that of the United States.

Two big items cementing the alliance are: ideological solidarity manifesting as anti-communism and high marks earned by Colombia in Washington for reliability in advancing common goals. Its ruling-class is well-known for stopping at nothing to stay in power.

President Alfonso López Pumarejo governmentdid advance liberal reforms in the 1930s. Otherwise, big landowners have controlled Colombian politics with an assist recently from business moguls. The post World War II roll call featured a proto-fascist, President Laureano Gómez; a military dictator, Gustavo Rojas; an assortment of reactionary Conservative and Liberal Party presidents; and the extremist Alvaro Uribe. His protégée Iván Duqueis president now.

Colombia’s army murdered some 2000 striking banana workers in Ciénaga on December 5-6, 1928. JorgeEliécer Gaitán, hero to aroused Colombian masses, was murdered April 9, 1948 under strange circumstances. From 1986 on, dark forces murdered 5000 members of the Patriotic Union electoral coalition, mostly Communists.  Since 2016 assassins have taken 431 lives of activistsincluding labor leaders and community organizers.

The targeting of leftists has been standard fare in the United States, but without the blood. Resurrecting red-scare, President Trump recently in Miami delivered a diatribe hitting at Venezuela and socialism.

In a show of anti-communist collaboration, the United States brought 20 Latin American nations to Bogota in 1948 to set up the Organization of American States. They took the pledge to fight communism. The first OAS secretary-generalColombian was Alberto Lleras Camargo,a future president. Colombian troops joined U.S. forces in the Korean War, alone among their Latin American peers.

Colombia’s government battled the Marxist-oriented FARC insurgency from 1964 until 2016.The U.S. government supplied its partner with military equipment, personnel, and advice – and, between 2001 and 2016 with $10 billion. Civilians and combatants killed in the war totaled 220,000. But the United States remained aloof from peace initiatives of the last decades of the conflict. Its military settled into seven Colombian bases.

To receive U.S. military aid, the Colombian army had to demonstrate the good use it had been put to. For display purposes Colombian soldiers, eager to please, dressed the bodies of civilians they had killed in the uniforms of FARC rebels, minus the FARC rebels. They were showing the goods to their U.S. masters. The dreadful sham – 10,000 bodies have been found in all – lasted from 2002 until 2010.

The Colombian government has implemented only bits and pieces of the peace agreement ending the conflict. Prominent FARC peace negotiator Jesus Santrich, wrongly imprisoned, faces extradition to the United States. Fearing the same, head FARC negotiator Iván Márquezis on the lam. Over 500 former insurgents, captured as prisoners of war, remain imprisoned. The money faucet is still open:  “U.S. government agencies have poured nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars into Colombia since 2017,” reports Tracey Eaton.

In both countries abuse and neglect ravage the underclass, and campaigns for social justice frighten reactionaries imbued with anti-communism. Yet upper echelons in the United States may even take perverse reassurance from social ills in Colombia. To the extent that resistance there is ineffectual, they probably attribute such favorable results to suppression. And the suppressors gain credit as reliable allies because they are good at what they do.

Social distress is indeed overflowing. In La Guajira, a Colombian state bordering Venezuela, 5000 Wayúu Indian children died of starvation during the past 10 years.  Over 58 percent of the people live in poverty, 25 percent of them in extreme poverty. Buenaventura is a seaport on the Pacific coast and a profit center. People there are 90 percent African-descended and 80 percent poverty-stricken (41 percent live in extreme poverty). Some 71 percent have limited access to water; 40 percent, no access to sewage; and 65 percent, no jobs.

In Cúcuta, with 750,000 people,” as historian Renán Vega Cantor observes, “40 percent of the people can’t pay basic expenses; 70 percent work in the informal sector; 25.3 percent have no access to drinkable water. The poverty rate is 40 percent … and the income for one percent of the population derives from illegal sales of contraband goods from Venezuela.”

Ironies abound. On February 23 Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro broke diplomatic relations with Colombia. Simon Bolívar, inspiration for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, in 1819-1830 headed the nation called “Gran Colombia.” Today’s Colombia and Venezuela were part of it. It had a constitution, the “Constitution of Cúcuta.”

Almost 200 years ago, Bolívar proclaimed that the United States was “destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty.” Soon Karl Marx would identify capitalism as the true responsible party.


Categories: News for progressives

Flirting With Disaster: the Return of Offshore Drilling

Thu, 2019-03-07 15:58

Photograph by TheConduqtor

It’s been decades since a fisherman out of Montauk on Long Island told me about seeing a ship in the Atlantic Ocean east of Long Island similar to those he had seen searching for oil in the Gulf of Mexico when he was a shrimper there. I telephoned oil company after company and each gave a firm denial about having any interest in looking for petroleum off Long Island.

That was until a PR man from Gulf called back and said, yes, his company was looking for oil and gas off Long Island—and was involved in a consortium of 32 oil companies (many of which earlier issued denials).

It was my first experience in oil industry honesty—an oxymoron.

Then, after breaking the story as an investigative reporter for the daily Long Island Press about the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic, there were years of staying on the story. I traveled the Atlantic Coast including in 1971 getting onto the first off-shore drilling rig set up in the Atlantic, off Nova Scotia. The riskiness of offshore drilling was obvious on that rig. There were spherical capsules to eject workers in emergencies. And a rescue boat went round-and-round 24-hours-a-day. The man from Shell Canada said: “We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster.”

You might recall seeing movies from years ago about oil drilling in the west and the drill hitting a “gusher” and it raining oil on happy workers. But on an offshore rig that “gusher” would be raining oil on the sea and life in it and then the oil would move to shore.

The Shell Canada executive gestured to the Nova Scotia shore and said peat moss was being stockpiled to try to absorb spilled oil. On Long Island, he said, “you’d use straw.”

n the ‘70s there were the weeks of public hearings I covered at state houses in Boston, Massachusetts and Trenton, New Jersey, and also hearings on Long Island. I traveled down the coast to the Florida Keys, its turquoise waters on the agenda of the oil industry, too.

Congressional action and in recent years restrictions by the Obama administration blocked drilling in the Atlantic off the United States and elsewhere in U.S. waters. But now under the Trump administration the push is on again.

The New York State Legislature has just passed a bill prohibiting drilling in state coastal waters. That’s only three nautical miles out. However, the measures bars development of infrastructure such as pipelines to service oil and gas drilling.

A co-sponsor of the measure, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor says: “Tourism is a major economic driver for Long Island; we also have very viable commercial and recreational fishing industries. The proposal for offshore drilling threatens both our economy and our environment.”

Other Atlantic Coast states have enacted identical or similar measures and are otherwise seeking to prevent offshore drilling off their coasts. Senator Jeff Van Drew of Cape May in New Jersey stressed after the bill he co-sponsored—“The Shore Tourism and Ocean Protection from Offshore Oil and Gas Act”—replicated in the New York bill—said: “This is a back-door way of blocking the offshore drilling that would be allowed by the federal action.”

A lawsuit has been brought joined in by nine Atlantic Coast states. “We are suing to stop this reckless plan that allows the oil and gas industry to destroy fishing families, local businesses, and marine life,” declared Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

There is resistance, too, on the Pacific Coast, along the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Alaska waters all also opened by Trump for drilling.

A coalition of environmental organization have brought a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alaska. Declared Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters: “The permanent protections President Obama established for the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans were won with years of research, lobbying and organizing. Offshore drilling and the associated threat of devastating oil spills puts coastal economies and ways of life at risk while worsening the consequences of climate change. Now, President Trump is trying to erase all the environmental progress we’ve made, and we aren’t about to go down without a fight.” Other organizations in the lawsuit include Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Wilderness Society.

There are several bills in the U.S. Congress seeking to block the Trump administration’s drilling plans. Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts has vowed to pursue “all legislative tools” to block drilling.

What has changed since I got that tip from the Montauk fisherman in 1970?

The U.S. is now awash in oil—why gasoline is being sold for a little over $2 a gallon. And the U.S. has become the world’s leading producer of oil and gas. This is largely due to hydraulic fracturing or fracking, also an extremely polluting technology, contaminating water supplies with 600 chemicals used for breaking apart underground shale formations for oil and gas. Many of the 600 are cancer-causing. Further, fracking causes gas to migrate into water tables and then water with gas in it coming out of faucets and erupting in flames when lit with a match—as vividly shown in Josh Fox’s two brilliant documentaries, Gasland and Gasland 2.

Climate change is now a crisis. Cities, counties and states—and overseas many nations—are pushing for 100 percent renewable energy in a few short years, and this can be accomplished. Vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen, fuel cells and other clean sources are the future, not petroleum-powered vehicles. The burning of fossil fuel in cars, trucks and power plants is the leading cause of climate change, global warming.

Meanwhile, it still costs 10 times more to do offshore drilling than to drill for oil on-shore. Why spend billions for extracting oil and gas instead of further implementing clean, green, renewable sources? Renewables are worldwide the fastest-growing energy sources.

Moreover, the claim of the oil industry that it can safely drill for oil and gas offshore has been demonstrated to be baloney. It’s drill-baby-spill.

“What Have We Learned From 50 Years Of Offshore Oil Disasters?” is the title of an essay published last month on the Ocean Conservancy website ( Its sub-head: “As oil spills get bigger, Congress’ responses have gotten smaller.”The article by Michael LeVine focuses onthe Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 and the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig and the massive spill that followed in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst oil spill in history, so far. There have been an enormous number of smaller spills.

These three big “spills evidence a clear and troubling pattern—a major offshore oil disaster occurs in the United States every two decades,” states the piece. “Each spill is worse than the last, increasing from 3 million to 11 million to 210 million gallons spilled.”

Offshore oil drilling: regularly disastrous—and unnecessary.

Categories: News for progressives

Stop Weaponizing “Anti-Semitism” and “Racism”

Thu, 2019-03-07 15:58

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

What’s in a word?  Plenty, if those words are “racism” or “anti-Semitism.” Just ask Virginia Governor Ralph Northam or freshman Congresswoman Ilham Omar.  Last week both found themselves engulfed in political firestorms.  All because of those two barbed words.

Governor Northam faced charges of racism when someone discovered a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page That an 80’s yearbook photo could push a governor’s political career to the brink raises questions about how the word “racism” is being defined and how it is being weaponized in political debates.

Northam’s admitted blackface stunt three decades ago was clearly a racist act. But is the Governor a “racist” today, when as far as we know, he has never in his professional life expressed racist views?  It’s for Virginia voters to decide his fitness for public service.

Congresswoman Omar learned the hard way that the mere mention of money gifts to Members of Congress (the so-called “Benjamins”) facilitated by the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) would bring down upon her angry charges of anti-Semitism. She said nothing against Jews. She simply repeated a known fact: that money fuels pro-Israel lobbying on Capitol Hill. She later apologized for offending anyone who inferred from her remarks a derogatory reference to historical stereotypes.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “racism” as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” and “anti-Semitism” as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews.”

The tendency of political opponents to call someone “anti-Semitic” for criticizing Israel’s policies or AIPAC is a regrettable misuse of the words.  The unintended  personal slights that people of color receive every day from those under the influence of white privilege do not by themselves make someone a “racist.” Slights hurt, but should not condemn someone who always tries to express non-discrimination in his or her conduct and speech.

The recent split in the Women’s March leadership over allegations of “anti-Semitism” is an example of guilt by association. Another is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s rescinding of a civil rights award to Professor Angela Davis (later reinstated) apparently due to her solidarity with Palestinian rights organizations. Do those cases justify the charge of “anti-Semitism?”  Reasonable minds may differ.

Recall that when the “Me Too” movement began exposing wayward executives, sports figures and others, it often failed to distinguish between minor sexual harassment (inappropriate speech, for example) and physical abuse. Perpetrators at all points on the continuum were subjected to punishments that ranged from public humiliation to job loss to criminal prosecution.

A similar lack of discernment can be seen now in the undifferentiated charges of “racism” and “anti-Semitism.”

Over time “Me Too” moderated its condemnations of sexual wrongdoing to reflect the varying degrees of offense.  Those who are quick to shout “racism” and “anti-Semitism” might wish to follow the “Me Too” example.

In the social media, one still finds accusations by liberals that the President’s supporters are racist.  Over time we’ve learned that many of those who voted for Trump are neither “racist” nor “anti-Semitic,” but instead regular Americans who felt ignored by party politicians and urban elites.

Most of the proponents of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) are not anti-Semitic.  They simply believe that Americans should have the First Amendment right to criticize or protest (even by economic boycott) Israel policies that oppress Palestinians.

Many AIPAC critics would like to see Citizens United overturned (by the Supreme Court itself or by constitutional amendment).  That and related reforms would achieve the more ambitious goal of stamping money out of politics.  Israel and other interest group lobbying could continue, but without the money sweetener.

Political opponents in both parties need to stop pushing “racism” and “anti-Semitism” beyond their dictionary limits. The McCarthy era showed us how good citizens can be toppled, careers up-ended and livelihoods destroyed when barbed words such as “Communist” are spoken irresponsibly.

Dictionary-defined racism and anti-Semitism are demeaning and dangerous.  They deserve zero tolerance.  Hate speech, vandalism and physical violence in all their forms must be condemned and strictly punished in the courts. That’s when the barbed words racism and anti-Semitism are most apt.


Categories: News for progressives



Brian Robinson Public Relations
104 Hiawatha Road
Toronto M4L 2X8
(in Cambodia)

Contact 2.0

Skype: bbbrobin
Brian on Facebook
Follow Brian on Twitter

1,000 Apologies, but I had to remove my actual e-mail address from this page. I'm afraid I got pretty tired of the sock puppets offering me free sexual favours. (And NO! I don't know how many of them were Russian, and it won't change my vote, I promise!) So here's one of those crappy contact forms that I really hate. Did I mention I'm sorry?
Contact ME! (or don't)