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Friday, December 24, 2010

Imagine

Writing commentaries has turned me into a sort of semi-professional curmudgeon. It's pretty easy too, since the world does indeed appear to be going to hell in a handbasket. Nonetheless, it's getting to be a drag. So, I'm going to try something new today. I'm going to try imagining a better future for America, and, by extension, the world.

True, in imagining what could be, I will once more be underscoring how far we are from such lovely dreams. Envisioning a better future can't help but evoke a certain amount of dismay about the present. But I'm going to try anyway, because you cannot get a better future without dreaming of it. The dream, the visualization, is what engenders change. We've seen this over and over again, from Gandhi to Mandela.

So:

Imagine if the two billion dollars a week America is spending on the war in Afghanistan were being spent to build hospitals here at home. Or schools. Or high speed rail, light rail, bridges, tunnels.

Imagine if 10 percent of what America spends on the military was spent on the arts, and another 10 percent on the sciences - what kind of cultural renaissance would we be experiencing right now?

Imagine if no one went to sleep hungry in America, or the world. We have enough wealth on this planet right now to give everyone clean food and water.

Imagine if there were hundreds of thousands of newly employed workers installing federally subsidized solar panels, wind turbines, insulation, and efficient heating and lighting in your house and mine.

Imagine if all American military bases outside the US were shut down; How much fuel we'd be saving; How much money.

Imagine if America categorically refused to provide any material aid whatsoever to any brutal regime, regardless of ideology.

Imagine if children were taught empathy, comparative religion and literature, critical thinking and non-violent conflict resolution, and real science not creationist claptrap, the world over. No more madrassas of mindless rote memorization, no more ideologically-driven curricula - whether Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or Jewish. No one ever to be taught again that their way of life, their skin color, their tribe, country, ethnic group or religion was superior to any other.

Imagine if nothing was ever allowed to become 'too big to fail', again, and every single Wall Street gambler and corporate banking hotshot paid their fair share of their losses.

Imagine if corporate CEOs still made on average only 10 times what their workers made in salary. Compared to today's lopsided ratios, that would almost feel egalitarian.

Imagine if people thought that paying taxes was patriotic because instead of funding endless wars that bloated the coffers of mega-corporations and politicians, our tax dollars were spent on the best educational and health systems in the world, and on an Apollo-style full-bore attack on the intertwined challenges of energy independence and carbon neutrality.

Imagine if carping bullies like Rush Limbaugh, histrionic febrile charlatans like Glenn Beck, sub-intelligent corporate mouthpieces like Sean Hannity and vituperative racist homophobes like Anne Coulter were laughed at whenever they spouted their slanders, absurdities and lies.

Imagine if we could all be part of a civil dialogue, one big reality-based conversation among grown ups, with the congenital liars, bullies, and misanthropes all dropped by the wayside, dead ends on our evolutionary tree.

Imagine if all racism - black, white, yellow and brown, had withered away and you and I were always judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.

Imagine if America had some of the lowest teen pregnancy and infant mortality rates in the developed world, and some of the highest literacy rates, instead of the other way around.

Imagine if sexuality was seen as a gift from god, instead of something dirty and shameful.

Imagine if there were no welfare, because if you were fit to work, society had a job waiting for you, and if you were disabled, your needs were taken care of so you could live comfortably and with dignity.

Imagine if America didn't incarcerate almost 25% of all of the prisoners on earth.

Imagine that instead of one woman in four on our planet being subjected to sexual or domestic violence, that number was none in 4 billion.

Imagine if parents never struck their children, but met their needs and tolerated their inevitable misdeeds with patient, unconditional love.

Imagine if it was OK that you believed in one god and I in another, or none at all, that I were straight and you gay.

Just Imagine!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunlight

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It’s a cliché, because it’s true.

The massive trove of hidden data about American foreign policy that has been coming out in bunches from WikiLeaks over the last year is one huge application of disinfectant, a vast searing beam spotlighting American cynicism, malfeasance, murder, manipulation and mayhem, once again demolishing our self-righteous stand as a beacon the world over for justice, liberty, and democracy.

America has sold itself so thoroughly on its fictional status as world liberator, both at home and abroad, that it wasn’t really until Vietnam, that an appreciable number of Americans and others alike began to really understand that, far from being a force for liberation and the full flowering of human potential, America has more often than not merely been another empire, coldly, calculatingly intent on extracting as much natural and human capital as possible. But despite the pernicious reality, the fantasy America has created in order to inspire young men to be cannon fodder in unjust wars, and in order to justify wholesale theft and murder, is surprisingly robust. One can only hope that these revelations can do damage to the durable fictions we maintain about our country, because maybe then we can truly start to become what we say we are.

Since at least the 19th century, we’ve expanded our sphere of influence, often undermining democratic institutions by means of covert destabilization and outright invasion and attack.

Some people believe that this is the natural order of things. Like citizens of empires before them, they believe that their empire is preordained, blessed by God, to practice its cruel hegemony. Others are in denial; they swallow the treacle that is most American history whole, believing that all of our wars have been about freedom and democracy. They refuse to acknowledge that America has taught jihadists how to build bombs and shoot down civilian airliners, and itself assassinated democratically elected leaders, practiced torture and wholesale slaughter. Their rejection of the facts is absolute: By definition, America can do no wrong.

And then there are those of us in the middle. Like the former, we see America for what she is – an often brutal, aggressive empire, but we reject the characterization of this behavior as anything other than evil. Like the latter, we’re still inspired by the founding documents of America, the fiery speeches of Tom Paine, the witty, hypocrisy-piercing acumen of Ben Franklin, Jefferson’s stirring aspirations – but we no longer believe them.

As I’m writing this, the US government is in full damage control mode as the unprecedented diplomatic meltdown created by the WikiLeaks revelations metastasizes and reverberates around the world. While I am neither distressed nor particularly pleased about these embarrassments, I do think that their release into the light of day does more good than harm because I think that hypocrisy revealed is almost always a good thing.

However, it’s the things in the cracks that I find so deeply painful. For example, if these cables are to be believed, our Pentagon specifically and purposely targeted refugee camps in Yemen for missile attacks. This revelation harkens back to the earlier release from WikiLeaks a few months ago that revealed our conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to be replete with the same kind of cynical callous brutality.

I want to believe that America is a force for good in the world, but when we purposely rain bombs down on innocent men, women and children to fulfill some arcane geopolitical goal, or merely to maintain a huge empire that gorges on the world’s bounty, I can’t. My dream of America spirals off of the gritty surface of the reality of our foreign policy like sunlit frost sublimes into vapor. One minute it’s there, an apparently hard truth, the next, it’s gone, rising skyward like a vagrant dream, and once again I am left with the sad fact that my country is not the soaring force of Justice, democracy and decency I was taught it was.

My only hope is that if enough sunlight is poured onto America’s behavior, and motives, she will finally recoil in horror at what she has become, stanch the infection of empire, and grow toward the dream of herself that she holds so dear.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Drill, Obama, Drill!

Obama just gets worse and worse.

It’s hard for me to believe, but now our president is apparently coming out in support of fracking, the natural gas extraction technology that pollutes the air with volatile organic compounds, and ground water and aquifers with neurotoxins and carcinogens, wastes prodigious amounts of fresh water, and produces noise pollution so violent, it has caused broken eardrums among those living near fracking drill sites.

This is a palpably ironic state of affairs. First, much to my incredulous dismay, our president came out for expanding off-shore drilling, right before the BP gulf oil disaster. Then he reversed course and imposed a moratorium on all deep-water drilling, saying we needed to know the causes of the accident to assure ourselves it wouldn’t be repeated.

Subsequent political pressure and judicial rulings forced him to drop the moratorium, which made little sense anyway: Deep water isn’t the issue, drilling is; The largest oil spill in the Gulf prior to the BP spill, the Ixtoc spill of 30 years ago, occurred in less than 200 feet of water and was equally unstoppable. You might think that 30 years of technological advances would make such shallow-water spills easy to cap, but an examination of the BP incident shows that the oil industry hasn’t advanced accident prevention or mediation at all in the ensuing decades. They tried the same combination of ‘top hats’, ‘top kills’, and ‘junk shots’ in 2010 that they tried in 1979, to the same negligible effect.

Given President Obama’s stated rationale for the moratorium, the lack of proven safety devices, the unknown causes of the accident, the palpable failure to stop the spill and mediate its effects, you’d think he’d apply the same logic to fracking.

As the movie ‘Gasland’ so ably demonstrates, fracking has been proven to cause water, air and noise pollution. It has caused groundwater spills, irreversible aquifer damage, and physical damage to wildlife and humans alike, from ingested pollutants, and high-intensity low frequency sound waves.

Homeowners in Pennsylvania, who were more than delighted to lease their land and sell their gas rights in the modern gold rush of the Marcellus Shale fracking bonanza, have found their livestock dead, and their water irretrievably polluted with Benzene, Methane, Toluene and other toxic chemicals. The value of their homes has plummeted. For a quick infusion of 5 to 100 thousand dollars, they’ve lost their way of life, their family farms and homes, and their investment in the future. While some New Yorkers salivate at the prospect of a quick buck for their gas rights, lawsuits against the gas companies are sprouting like toadstools in neighboring Pennsylvania. They’ve lived the dream, only to see it turn into a nightmare. Their rose colored glasses are now coated in carcinogenic slime.

Meanwhile, our president continues to give the impression that he’s a pro-business, centrist technocrat, hardly an agent of seismic change. He supports big oil and gas, and even Wall Street, effete slaps on the wrist notwithstanding. He continues to kill more civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan through the use of immoral drone strikes than George W Bush did during his entire eight year tenure as president. He continues to abrade our basic freedoms and respect for the rule of law by upholding Bush policies on rendition and detention without trial.

But my god! I thought he’d at the very least be a decent environmental president! Yet here he is, supporting the oxymoronic concept of ‘clean coal’ – such a thing does not exist, fracking, and even Canadian-style oil-shale-sand extraction, one of the worst environmental nightmares in existence! Oh, and he’s also providing more loan guarantees and market support for nuclear power than for alternative energy.

Where is our change president? I am so sick and tired of liberals blaming the Republicans alone for our predicament! Obama’s policies, and his personnel choices to run the departments of treasury, interior, transportation and energy, speak volumes about his true allegiances.

We need a viable third party. Or at the very least, we need some truth out there, not a president who lies to us, as Obama manifestly has, about the severity of the oil spill in the Gulf, the quagmire and human rights horror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and about these environmentally ruinous technologies.


Monday, November 22, 2010

The Training of Sheep

When I travel by air, I politely endure the TSA security checks. But I’m not willing to give up my civil rights because of fear of terrorism. As Ben Franklin said, those who would sacrifice liberty for security, deserve neither.

What’s going on at airports around the country is starting a groundswell of outrage.

Consider the following:
An eight year old boy is partially strip-searched in public.

A man with bladder cancer, who went out of his way to tell TSA officers that his urine bag and hoses might look suspicious, is strip-searched anyway, so roughly that despite his pleas that they take care, the TSA personnel rupture the seal on his apparatus and leave him drenched in urine and humiliated. The agents not only fail to apologize, but refuse to offer him help in any way.

A man carrying $4700.00 in cash is abusively and coercively questioned by TSA personnel who are apparently infuriated that he is asserting his right to due process.

If you refuse to enter a full-body scanner, and you might because the radiation risk is real, you’re subjected to a pretty invasive enhanced pat down. The person groping you need not even be of the same gender. If you go on YouTube you can find examples of quite invasive searches being performed right out in the open. And why are those invasive pat downs happening in public? To train you. You watch the other guy being humiliated, and you say, what the hell, I’ll get scanned. Yet our stringent security rules are, as the TV program 60 Minutes noted, largely theater. One has only to note that the notoriously security-conscious Israelis have check in procedures that are far less invasive.

And if the TSA agent is still suspicious, or just doesn’t like you, and calls for an even more invasive cavity search, they’re not even required to change the rubber gloves they’ve been using unless you demand it.

Imagine you’re traveling with your 12-year-old daughter. For some reason unbeknownst to you, perhaps because you’re of Arab descent, or because you merely annoyed a TSA agent, or simply because he’d like to fondle her, your daughter is taken away from you and cavity searched by a man, wearing rubber gloves he’s used to search 5 other people. How would you feel? How would your daughter feel? Would you really put up with this? Well, increasingly, people are. The boogieman of terrorism, so deftly employed by Hermann Goebbels and Dick Cheney alike, has once again coerced a population into unthinking passivity.

You may think they have the right the right to do these things to you, but they don’t. If you don’t care if you miss your flight and you’re willing to stand your ground, you can demand the presence of a real law enforcement officer. By and large, police officers are much more cognizant of the law, and your rights. Moreover, your average cop will look at you, size you up, profile you, if you will, based on his instincts, training and experience, and decline to take your clothes off. And even if he does search you, chances are 99 out of 100 that it’ll be more professional and less invasive.

TSA officers are NOT law enforcement officers. They do not have the right to search you against your will, yet they have. They do not have the right to detain and restrain you, harass and coerce you, yet they have. And if you decide that you don’t want to be scanned, and you don’t want your child subjected to groping, and you merely try to leave, you can be liable for an $11,000 fine. Just for refusing to be humiliated or irradiated. Land of the free? I don’t think so.

The behavior we’re being subjected to is progressively desensitizing us to our rights, and will progressively increase our passivity if we don’t fight back.

This is how sheep are trained. This is how you eventually end up with a nation of easily coerced, passive citizens who have forgotten how to stand up for their individual and collective rights. And in the end, this is how you can end up with boxcars to Auschwitz, the killing fields, and the Cultural Revolution.

Remember, many of those people walking into boxcars weren’t facing machine guns; they were merely following the orders of people in uniform.

If one airline passenger refuses these humiliations, nothing will change. But if 20 or 30 passengers per flight refuse, and demand to be searched by a real cop, not a rent-a-cop with a chip on his shoulder and a 3rd grade education, things will change.

Thursday is the busiest travel day of the year. If on that day, ten percent of all travelers refuse to go through carcinogenic scanning, and refuse to let TSA personnel fondle them, and request a law enforcement officer instead, this policy will reverse course quickly.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Big Government: Boogieman

Big government is the new boogieman. Or should I say the old one. Ronald Reagan famously said that government is the problem, and this simplistic statement has found resonance with generations of conservatives, from the greedy elites, who adore the fallacies of trickle-down economics, to the angry populists of the tea party movement.

When it comes to the tea partiers, their new-found hysteria over deficits underscores how well they’ve been manipulated by the likes of Beck and Hannity, because during Bush’s 8 years, while deficit spending soared, not least because of unprecedented tax breaks for the super rich that yielded little for the middle class, the tea partiers, the pundits, and the Republican congressmen and senators who now loudly decry Obama’s deficit spending were all curiously silent. In fact, those elected officials were actually complicit, voting for drug bills, increased privatization, boondoggle arms procurements, no bid contracts, tax breaks, and, of course, ill-fated military adventures, all of which cost every tax payer dearly. Now they shed crocodile tears and have become born-again fiscal conservatives.

And the average Joe on the street has likewise once again caught the fever of fiscal conservatism; Except when it comes to his tax breaks; Or our obscene and ultimately untenable military budget; Or the two wars that are costing more than all of the fiscal stimulus plans put together.

What’s more, that same man on the street, who somehow feels that taxes are an unnecessary burden, expects the National Guard to save his house from floods, the forest service to protect his home from wildfires, the military to protect him from foreign aggression and domestic insurrection; Somehow.

Even more of a disconnect becomes apparent when you study the demographics of these fiscal conservatives. They dominate the red states that voted for Bush Cheney, and also for McCain Palin. But most of the red states are fiscal leaches, net beneficiaries of federal funding to states. In fact, some 76% of the states that voted for Bush in 2000 are pigs at the federal trough, taking far more than their fair share. Some of the worst offenders include that fiercely independent state, North Dakota, which gets over 2 dollars back from evil big government for every dollar it puts in. Mississippi, which nets $1.84, and of course, when you include their unshared oil revenues, America’s biggest socialist experiment and welfare state, Alaska.

And the biggest losers? Places like New York, Massachusetts, and California. Those miserable liberals who want to waste people’s hard-earned tax dollars are wasting them on… subsidizing born-again populists who keep whining about the bloated federal government while they feast on its largesse. It’s so ironic as to be laughable, but I’m not laughing. At a tea party meetup the other day, a speaker accused the federal government of ‘stealing our hard-earned tax dollars to send to those liberals back east’ – an almost complete inversion of the facts.

But let’s not confuse these folks with the truth. The fact is that almost all of the Bush tax cut money went to the super-rich. A stunning 1.8 trillion dollars, a sum that exceeds even the health care bill. That, plus his reckless war in Iraq has cost the American taxpayer far, far more than any Democratic president in modern history, but that’s another inconvenient truth.

Ironically, what damaged Bush’s reputation the most was not his profligate spending and mad cowboy disease warmongering. What really turned the American people against him was the failure of big government after Katrina. People were rightly incensed that the most powerful country in the world seemed completely helpless and useless. Some even blamed big government for this, pointing out that Wal Mart and other non-governmental organizations provided speedier, more efficient aid. But they missed the larger point: the capable James Lee Witt, director of FEMA during the Clinton administration, was sacked by Bush and replaced with the clueless, do nothing, fiddle-while-Rome-burns ,‘Brownie’, Michael Brown. Under Bush, FEMA’s budget was slashed, and it once again became a dumping ground for political appointees, hacks like Brown who were owed favors. It wasn’t big government by its nature that failed the residents of the Gulf coast, but rather the hollowing out of big government, which has been destroyed by privatization, budget cuts, and cronyism.

If the tea partiers really want to put their money where their mouth is, they should start sending our government the money they’re stealing from the liberals back East.