Spring 2011 Archive
I RARELY AGREE WITH CONSERVATIVE POLITICIANS, but the Mayor of London's article in the Telegraph rings true. He says let Greece go bankrupt, get them out of the Eurozone, and free us from the tragicomendy of Greek politics. (June 20)
CLARENCE THOMAS HAS BEEN A DISGRACE to the Supreme Court and American jurisprudence, brooding and resentful, a slavish factotum to Scalia, an active member of an extremist family, and now shown to be corrupt. A good project for the left and moderate bloggers, MoveOn, etc., would be to embarrass him relentlessly. He'll probably never resign, but it will turn a spotlight on his misdeeds and possibly lead to some useful investigations. To those who say it doesn't matter who is president should take a long look at the Supreme Court today, and who nominated who. (June 19)
IF ROMNEY IS NOMINATED, as looks likely at this moment (the weak, bizarre GOP field is mainly the reason for this prospect), consider his credentials closely. One thing, of course, is his circuitous reasoning about why the Massachusetts health care plan he signed is different from Obama's. That's in keeping with the former governor's history of flip-flops on a range of issues from immigration to abortion. But what is not getting attention is his claim to have successfully run a business, and in hard economic times, this could resonate with voters. But Romney's success at Bain Capital, a private equity group, is based in part on shady if not immoral dealings. He used tax havens for investors, including himself, to simply avoid U.S. taxes. He was an acquisition pirate, too. In the words of one prominent economist, "Buy with borrowed money, load the borrowed money onto the balance sheet of the acquired firm, cut costs -- which usually means cutting labor costs -- and go back public in a few years thereafter and cash out there." There is nothing productive about this; no new jobs or products are created, you're just flipping companies.
In fact, the idea that Romney can "fix the economy" is absurd given his own record. It is exactly these types of businessmen that brought the economy to its knees in 2008-09, gaming the system through regulations (or lack thereof) which benefitted only these schemers. It was Obama who has brought the economy back, or part-way back, over the opposition of Romney's party every step of the way. A Romney election--note that he is raking in Wall Street cash--would set back financial reform and do nothing for ordinary Americans. That the news media portrays him as the business know-how guy in this field is a travesty, unless they mean he knows how to profit handsomely from a scam. (June 16)
TAKING ACTION IN LIBYA BUT NOT IN SYRIA might lead a suspicious person to think that the U.S. was interested only in oil--with which Libya is amply stocked--and not really with the fate of civilians. A suspicious person might also suspect that Israel's opinion might count for more than, say, human rights norms. But that would indeed be suspicious.
THE NUTTINESS IN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY never ceases to amaze me. Now Rick Perry, governor of Texas, is "testing the waters" for a White House bid. This is the same Rick Perry who talked about Texas seceding from the United States not long ago because of the health care plan Obama passed last year. Rick Santorum, who was trounced in a re-election bid for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania in 2006, made a speech the other day and mentioned the soldiers who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day, 1944, saying, "Those Americans risked everything so they could make [their own] decision on their health care plan." Huh? I had several uncles who fought in the Second World War, and as far as I know none of them objected to the Medicare benefits that Santorum now wants to strip away from, say, veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan and all other Americans. Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty is proposing a tax cut plan that would equal $11 trillion -- about the size of the national debt that the GOP is so hysterical about -- half of which would benefit only the richest 0.1 percent of Americans. He was supposed to be one of the reasonable people in the mix of Republican candidates. And, if perchance you have not seen the Sarah Palin answer to a question that most 6th graders could answer about Paul Revere's midnight ride, here is it. Breathtaking.
THINGS GOING HAYWIRE IN IRAN is an understatement, with reports of Ahmadinejad's first vice president saying that the Supreme Leader might not be around in two years, his deputies arrested for witchcraft, a funeral disrupted by regime thugs, causing the daughter of the human rights icon who was being buried to die on the spot, and who knows what else. In some ways, it's a mirror image of what we are seeing here, the squabbling--often hyperbolic and irrational--over the crumbs of a declining power. But it's really life-and-death over there. The legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has been corroded by their own repressive tactics following the fraudulent elections of 2009. Having jailed and excuted many reformists, the state is now turning on itself, much as happened in the USSR after Stalin's death. Violence begets violence, lying begets lying, ideological fervor seeks purity and scorns "deviation." Those who were optimistic about the Green Movement can see this as a consequence of their challenge or as theThermidor of their rebellion. Whatever it is--and it is very difficult to read from afar--it is momentous. Nothing like this open and ferocious leadership fight has taken place in the 30 years of the regime. It's an odd thing when Ahmadinejad looks like the one who could bring down the theocracy, intentionally or not, but that may be what is happening. (June 9)
IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWNS are becoming more and more popular in state legislatures, with the weekend bringing reports of harsh measures in Alabama and even a tea party-approved Senate bill passed in Massachusetts. The hysteria over illegal migrants -- and that's what it is, hysteria -- ratchets up as the economic anxiety deepens. Another sign of American decline, to be sure. The immigrants are always the scapegoats, even though the real culprits are still feasting in the financial industry. (June 6)
ON LIBYA: HERE ANOTHER EXCELLENT REPORT FROM ICG, the International Crisis Group, on Libya, which seems headed for a denouement. Meanwhile, Syria, Yemen, and Iran continue to gyrate wildly. (June 6).
IN THREE SEPARATE NEWS REPORTS over the last week or two--a Boston Globe report from Iraq, a New York Times Magazine piece, and a CNN report--the number of deaths in the Iraq War since 2003 was described as "in the tens of thousands." The appendage of "perhaps more" was, I think, on each. The reports weren't about casualties, and the statistic about deaths was an aside. Still, this now has become the rotely repeated number. Tens of thousands. If it were that, then, as several war supporters have said, the war and casualties were plausibly worthwhile to get rid of Saddam. (When someone like Moktada al-Sadr comes to power, let's ask them again.) But it was hundreds of thousands, maybe more than one million dead. Five million displaced. And the killing isn't over and the displaced have not, for the most part, returned. This is a crushing catastrophe for the Iraqis, Saddam or not, and we made it happen. To diminish their suffering is unconscionable and repellant. To diminish the costs of war may lead us foolishly to do it again somewhere else. (May 31)
HEARD A NICE PIECE ON NPR TODAY ABOUT HARPER LEE and her 1962 novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Someone's made a new film about her and the novel. The novel and movie both powerfully affected my adolescence, and may have accounted for my becoming a political activist. Its moral voice was so compelling, so human, so crystal clear. It may have been the anthem for the entire '60s generation. And without being too gooey about this, one might even say it was the most important American novel of the twentieth century.
RETURNING FROM A BRIEF TRIP TO PUERTO RICO, I'm reminded how little we pay attention to the Caribbean apart from its allure as a vacation spot. Some 36 million people live on the islands. It feeds into some of the most important countries with which we interact--Mexico, most obviously, but Colombia, Venezuela, and, not far away, Brazil. And now, with Cuba apparently opening up, we have the remarkable specter of a peaceful transition there. Like Central America, which also has a Caribbean coastline, the islands of Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Cuba, Jamaica, Grenada, and others were constantly in the news, clearly designated as vital interests of the United States. Its social and cultural mixture is among the most diverse and fascinating in the world. Yet, we ignore it as an economic and political concern, and we neglect our own Puerto Rico, a gem, which in some ways is a gateway for Americans to Latin America. Our obsession with the Middle East--to which I plead guilty--is diverting us from other places, and I wonder if this is one of the many costs of our obsession with terrorism, Islam, and the Israeli-Palestinian fiasco. (May 26)
OBAMA'S SPEECH ON THE MIDDLE EAST struck me as boilerplate on the key issue of Palestine. Nothing bold, which is disappointing, because now is the time to reshape the status quo. Two other things are noteworthy. One was his firm support for women's rights in the Arab spring. And, maybe most important, was this:
"The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.
"We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.
"And finally, we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.
"Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest– today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal."
Human rights has always been secondary in U.S. foreign policy. So let's see if this really translates. As of today's speech, I'd say it does not, because the first principle he articulated is being denied to Palestinians by Israel, with U.S. complicity. (May 19)
IMMIGRATION ISSUES ARE HEATING UP again, though I'm not sure why, and so I was interested to see on Rachel Maddow's show last night this remarkable little video from a site called Immigrants for Sale, which documents how private prisons, allied with right-wing xenophobes, are passing laws that criminalize immigration more than ever, laws which lead to detentions--highly profitable detentions for these corporations. As in $5 billion a year. Here's their site. In my persistent naivete, I always thought of the right-wing jihad against immigrants was merely racist. It turns out that it's a way to get rich, too. (May 18)
I TOLD A FRIEND WHEN BIN LADEN WAS WHACKED that it would be a one-week story, and that seems not far off. The kerfuffle over whether this was an illegal assassination is the most serious criticism thus far, and one worth discussing. Every other objection appears to be attempts of the right wing to distract from Obama's achievement. I don't see the kill as illegal. Bin Laden was operating outside the international system, quite intentionally so, and had declared war on the U.S. While much of the war on terrorism had been overhyped, it's reasonable to say OBL presented a serious, sustained, and lethal threat to Americans. As to Pakistan, the violation of their sovereignty is trumped by their willingness to allow Bin Laden to live in their country. He violated their sovereignty and they sacrificed it by whatever cozy arrangement had been reached. No sleep lost on this one. On another note, Noam Chomsky made the useful point that George W. Bush illegally killed many more innocent people than Bin Laden ever did, a provable fact, and still Chomsky provoked the usual "fanatic" charge from the usual suspects, in this case Andrew Sullivan. But we need to keep the crimes in some perspective. Bin Laden, nihilistic and possibly deranged; Bush, systematic and within the rules of the game. But the scorecard shows Bush way ahead in generating innocent deaths. (May 16)
REMEMBERING HOWARD ZINN. I first met Howard Zinn in September 1972 when I entered Boston University as a PhD student, drawn there, mainly, because of him. Howard immediately impressed me in two ways: his warmth and informality, and his ferocious intellect. He was my teacher, but like hundreds of students before and after me, he also became my friend, and we remained so for the ensuing 38 years. I got to know his wonderful wife, Roz, and we would see or write each other somewhat frequently - though not often enough - over the years. His influence on me was enormous. He was further to the left than I was, but his way of thinking and writing critically was formative of my own. Years after I left BU, whenever I published something, I would have in the back of my mind, "What would Howard think of this?" When he died, I recall writing to a friend, Nick Bromell, who had sent condolences, that it would be a stretch to call Howard a father figure, but it was something not far from that.
Among his remarkable qualities was his self-deprecating sense of humor and his capacity - somewhat rare in the period of Vietnam protest - to balance his tireless activism with fun. He taught me that you can be fully human and be a committed social change activist. He also demonstrated, time and again, that no matter how famous and popular he became, he always had time for every one of his thousands of friends. As I've come to know other famous people over the years, this quality of his is all the more remarkable.
I felt badly after he died in January last year that I was unable to attend, or unaware of, the memorial services for him. I recalled how moving Roz's memorial service was eighteen months earlier, to which Howard invited me -- the depth of feeling and love that so many felt for her, and how much he appreciated that. So, instead of speaking at a service, I wrote an essay regarding one aspect of him and his legacy that I think has been overlooked. A special man in every way. Read (May 6)
DAY TWO OF THE POST-OBL WORLD dawns with expected chat about whether Obama is going to depart Afghanistan, whether Al Qaeda is kaput, and so on. But if you were wondering how the right wing was going to spin this, here it is from the septic and hateful Michele Malkin, among others: the liberals and Obama wanted to shut down the secret detention centers from which some of the intelligence for this operation came; if they'd gotten their way, OBL would still be alive and well. Wrong. Shutting down Gitmo and other illegal prisons would not mean releasing the bad guys who had information (in this case, the name of bin Ladin's courier). It just meant putting them in legal, American prisons and charging them with the crimes they committed, not detaining them indefinitely and illegally. For a crowd that goes crazy over poor Mexicans crossing the border to seek work to feed their children, Malkin and her ilk are rather sanguine about the massive illegalities of the wars, renditions, torture, detentions, etc., that have characterized the "war on terrorism." And, of course, no word about letting OBL go in December 2001 because Bush didn't have the courage to order the strike. Obama did. (May 3)
WHITHER AQ is the question of the day after OBL's satisfying demise (nice touch to dump him in the Indian Ocean). Some social science research suggests that decapitation of a charistmatic leader does not hurt, and may help, the terrorist organization he founded. Al Qaeda is a bit different from most such organizations, however, so it's very difficult to predict. Obama's sharp focus on getting OBL is a credit, and politically he will benefit after so many screw-ups by the Bushies and the trivialization of politics by the Republicans generally. (One news item noted that Obama was managing this operation while trying to negotiate with Boehner and Cantor to keep the government - and the very security agencies that dealt the death blow to bin Laden - open in recent weeks.) Maybe this will lift the gripping paranoia this country has been suffering for ten years. One can hope. Lots of unanswered questions, like Pakistan's complicity. And the U.S. needs to clearly signal its intent to withdraw militarily from the region in order for this to be a turning point. But very good news overall. (May 2)
INTERESTING NOTE FROM EGYPT - We had two of the young organizers of the Egyptian revolution speak at MIT Friday afternoon, and one of them began by stating that their inspiration was Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
THE PALESTINIAN DEAL between Hamas and Fatah, the former in control of Gaza and the latter holding power in the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority, is another sign that the magnetic field of the Middle East has flipped and is a threat to Israel. Yes, as some point out, the alliance between Fatah and Hamas gives Netanyahu yet another excuse to drag his feet on negotiations as long as Hamas will not swaer to non-violence and the legitimacy of the Israeli state. (That may still come, depending on Israel's - and America's - actions in the coming weeks.) But this would always have been a problem, with or without a Palestinian agreement. What the deal signifies, more importantly, are two things: that the UN can now recognize it as a single state, and that the Arab spring is producing its first, powerful results in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt apparently brokered the deal. This is an indication of seriousness that should have Likud very worried, because Egypt has many pressure points. Israel faces, to the north, a Hizbollah-friendly Lebanon and goodness-knows-what in Syria; to the south, a newly independent and confident Egypt; and to the West, a unified Palestine, a shaky Jordan, and an increasingly autonmous Iraq. Like I said weeks ago, time to make a deal. The skeptics will say that Israel can't do so under these difficult circumstances. But many have been saying for years that the status quo was not stable forever, and it's now too late for ideal conditions for Israel. They had optimal conditions many times and spurned them. And it still could get worse. (April 28)
THE BIRTHER FLAP does not need more air time apart from two quick observations. First, the assault of Obama's integrity is racist to the core, from start to finish. Several observers have underscored the longstanding practices of challenging blacks' legitimacy in various ways - show us your papers! - and this is simply the latest version. Those who deny this is racist are fooling no one, and the more they insist, the more that tepid Obama supporters will rally to him. Second, the entire absurdity of this and so much similar, right-wing nuttiness is another clear sign of U.S. decline. This is the kind of self-punishment once-great civilizations engage in as they slip toward degradation. (April 27)
THE BOSTON MARATHON, A RED SOX MORNING START, AND THE RE-ENACTORS AT CONCORD BRIDGE all signal the unofficial start of Spring on this uniquely Massachusetts holiday - Patriot's Day - which celebrates the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which was the start of the Revolutionary War. It's a melancholy time for those of us who think it might have been better to stay with the Brits a bit longer.
Heretical words? After 235 years since Paul Revere might have taken his midnight ride, what kind of nation do we have? Behind Britain, and those two most-similar settler nations, Australia and Canada, in the most important indices of well-being, that’s what. How might it have been different if we had remained loyal to the English crown?
Contingent history is a dodgy sport, to say the least, but there are some fascinating insights to draw from this speculation. Had the American colonies remained in the British sphere and evolved like Australia and Canada, history might be starkly different.
Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, for example. Rebellion and the world’s bloodiest war may thereby have been avoided. (The southern slaveholding states more closely identified with imperial Britain, and hence defiance might have been less likely.) Settlers in Australia and Canada were not constrained to push indigenous peoples off their traditional lands, so our American holocaust may have occurred even if in the name of Britain. More of the southwest may have remained in Mexico’s hands.
The wars of the twentieth century might have gone differently with earlier involvement of populous and wealthy British America. The British imperium may have lasted longer, however, as the crown would have been enriched by its North American domains. The U.K. earned a lot of loot from its colonial holdings until the Second World War, when it became indebted to its own vassals—one persuasive reason why post-1945 decolonization proceeded so swiftly.
The truly seminal difference, however, would have been the peaceful ending of slavery. The influence of southern racism and its brutal brand of conservative politics might have been avoided altogether, or at least attenuated. The perfervid ideologies of the U.S. right wing are significantly rooted in the prelude to and consequences of the Civil War. In a society that did not feed or coddle the supremacist, self-idolatry of the Confederacy, the powerful forces of industrialization, global trade, and evolving British values (toward Fabian socialism) would have become firmly rooted here. British America would likely have proceeded, then, along the model of Canadian social democracy.
The Canadians and Australians certainly have political and social neuroses, including their own brands of bigotry. Both countries are now and then led by conservative governments (although conservative politics there are more akin to the Clintonian center of the Democratic Party—only more coherent). But the social contracts of these settler nations reflect, in important ways, the northern European commitment to actual equality in material well-being.
Canada and Australia both rank ahead of the United States in the Human Development Index, the most widely used comparative gauge of global well being. The UK ranks behind, but the U.S. ranking is skewed upward by average GDP, which itself is skewed upward by the very wealthy. Britian’s health care system ranks higher than the U.S., and it has more income equality among its citizens. Western Europe, to which most immigrant families here can trace their roots, generally outclasses America in all relevant measures of quality of life.
America has long been a beggar nation, outspending its income by vast sums, dependent on China and Japan to keep our treasury afloat. Our public school systems are deplorable. Our energy dependence on the Middle East monarchies—38 years after the first oil crisis—is a scandal. Income inequality rises rapidly as most Americans’ income stagnates. The health care system is near collapse and serves only a very few, and less well than a dozen other nations. On The Economist’s Global Peace Index—measuring crime and other violent indicators—the U.S. ranks 95th, not even hailing distance to Canada (8th), Australia (25th), or Britain (49th). We pump more carbon into the atmosphere than any other country, by far, and show no signs of taking responsibility for averting this looming catastrophe (or, one should say, the Republican party evinces no sense of responsibility for this and the debt).
We can argue over the fine points and speculations, but the plain fact is that other settler nations have done much better than we in providing for the most valuable things: economic well being, education, environmental sustainability, a cooperative foreign policy, caring for their sick. And this they do with some disadvantages (Canada’s climate, Australia’s remoteness), but without noticeable constraints on that American fetish, personal liberty. In fact, because religious extremism is so prevalent here (thanks again, Confederacy), but nearly absent from Australia and Canada, they enjoy greater liberty than the “land of the free.”
So this Patriot's Day, I’ll raise my glass of Pimm’s to the Union Jack, whistle a tune from “Abbey Road,” and dream of what might have been. (April 18)
QADDAFI'S CLUSTER BOMBS AND OURS. As it happens, I am informed, one of Qaddafi's major crimes against humanity in Libya is his use of indiscriminate shelling of civilians areas - hotly disputed by some - and his use of cluster bombs, which is a war crime. (Here's a little guide to these nasty little gems of technology, and an advocacy group against their use.) Fact is, the U.S. military used at least 11,000 bombs (with many, many more "bomblets" released) in Iraq, by Gen. Odierno's own admission. That means you can safely double that figure. Will anyone pay a price for that crime? (April 15)
THE NATIONAL DEBT was largely created by the Republican Party, given their predominant control of the presidency and Congress over the last 30 years. George W. Bush doubled the national debt from about $5.7 trillion. Reagan nearly tripled the national debt in his time. And Bush Sr. added 25 percent - one trillion then - in his four years. None were dealing with a national economic crisis of the type the Republicans left Obama in 2009, either.
Now they're crying wolf and demand to demolish the forest of social and environmental programs that have already been cut time and again. Medicare in particular is due to be privatized under the Ryan-GOP plan. Taxes on the wealthy and corporations go even lower, and military spending will rise. Obama is more circumspect - he will not abolish Medicare and he will end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, but he is still giving in far too much to these outrageous and ruinous demands.
Consider the actual 2011 budget cuts agreed to last Friday. Here is a set of tables listing the cuts. Notice that most of these reductions are in environmental protection, dealing with climate change--already paltry compared with the threat--HIV/AIDs education and treatment, scientific research, renewable energy R&D, community health care centers, foreign assitance, and high-speed rail. All of these are taking enormous hits, making some of them barely viable. And one might say that this is a list very much of the liberal bent, making me wonder who was doing the compromising last Friday. The recklessness of the right wing is breathtaking. The fecklessness of the liberals is disheartening. (April 13)
THREE MYTHS ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR. Our Civil War, that is, which is 150 years young tomorrow. It's worth looking at closely, because so much of it remains salient today. When Southerners continue to onsist on flying the Confederate flag, with African-Americans poorest in Southern states, with right-wing politics most virulent in the Old South, you can bet that the Civil War still lives. I was watching some of Ken Burns' remarkable PBS series on the Civil War, and I'm struck by how many misleading notions prevail even in such an intelligent and thorough presentation. Three of my own pet peeves about how we understand the war are worth mentioning.
1. The War had to be fought. The idea that Lincoln had no choice but to bring the Confederacy back into the Union is a standard of Civil War discourse. What if Lincoln had declined to fight the South's secession? Contingent history is perilous, but consider two or three possibilities. The continuation of slavery would be the one particularly noxious outcome. But there's a plausible argument that slavery was economically unsustainable. The United States was the last major nation to tolerate slavery, and it's worth pondering how long it might have lasted.......10 years? 20 years? That is still a lot of suffering for the slaves, of course. But the Union could have taken measures to make slavery more difficult to sustain, such as a blockade of slave ships and slave-produced commerce (export of cotton, for example). The South would have also sustained a system of apartheid even after slavery, but as Molly Ivins once retorted on this point, "Hell, it was apartheid anyway." If the war hadn't been fought, the Union would likely have approximated the social democracies of northern Europe, with their strong welfare states and less belligerent (by the mid 20th century) foreign policies. That would have happened because there would have been no Dixicrats to block progress. Such an outcome, with likely reunification on Northern terms, would have been a highly positive outcome, and 600,000 deaths and immense other destruction from the war would be been avoided.
2. Robert E. Lee and other Confederate elites were really gentlemen fighting for a noble cause. Even then, being a turncoat to defend slavery was not considered to be the height of virtue. But a resilient image of Lee in particular as an honorable man persists. That he was allowed his freedom and some rehabilitation after the war is something that would be inconceivable today. He would be (and should have been) put on trial - and convicted - for treason. But there's more to it. Lee participated in massacres of black soldiers. As I write in my new book, "If a certain gentlemanly attitude of the two warring armies obtained at times between them, no such rules applied to nonwhites. The Confederacy had as a policy the killing of black soldiers no matter what the circumstances. Blacks were killed as prisoners on countless occasions, at times in large-scale massacres. General Robert E. Lee was complicit in one such mass murder." Among the many massacres of black Union soldiers by the Conferates, which often included the murder of the white officers who commanded the black troops, was the Battle of the Crater, where wounded black soldiers were executed (in accordance with Confederate policy) while Lee stood by and watched.
3. The Civil War was a national tragedy. “The dead, the dead, the dead— our dead —or South or North, ours all (all, all, all, finally dear to me),” wrote the great New York poet Walt Whitman, who was a nurse on the battlefields, “the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw).”
Tragedy occurs when a fatal flaw leads to one's own demise - in Classical Greek drama, it was usually pride - and one could say that slavery was a national flaw. But in this context - by the mid-nineteenth century - it was only in the south; the northern states had abandoned or declined slavery long before, as had every civilized country. The notion that we all share the tragedy was a political concession Republicans made near the end of that century to ensure a steady supply of manpower for future wars. But make no mistake about it: the Civil War, with all its horrendous consequences, was ignited because Southern white men and women of wealth wanted to continue to enslave human beings for their own profit and enjoyment. It was not a national tragedy, it was a colossal crime. (April 11)
THE FUSS ABOUT THE GOLDSTONE REPORT is disheartening. Judge Richard Golstone, a highly respected South African jurist, had led a distinguished team of investigators on behalf of the U.N. Human Rights Council to explore the Israeli seige of Gaza in December-January 2008-09. It was a regrettable episode, and much confusion about who started what, and sorting out the human toll, ensued. Goldstone and his colleagues did a major service by looking at the damage and reporting to an otherwise clueless world. The Israeli state and pro-Israel lobbies condemned him, and have put enormous pressure on him and his family. Now, he is saying that he made a major mistake: his report attributed the ravaging of Gazan civilians to intentional policy of Israel, and he retracted that in a statement published in the Washington Post.
This retraction of one aspect of the report is now being flogged as "proving" that the report itself is a fraud. This is nonsense. As Amnesty International points out, the report as a whole--with that one retraction--remains valid. The tireless Philip Weiss has more about the controversy on his Web site, Mondoweiss. He cites a Los Angeles Times editorial this week that puts the matter sharply: "Acknowledging one's mistakes is generally considered a virtue. But is it really that easy? The original report contained 575 pages of damning details — attacks on mosques, hospitals, apartment buildings, refugee shelters. The fact-finding mission made three trips to the region over four months, conducted 188 interviews, reviewed 300 reports, solicited testimony and held public hearings. In case after case, the final report alleged that Palestinian civilians were targeted by Israel in violation of a host of international laws. But now the chairman of the panel says … never mind?"
The issue that led to the retraction is about "intentionality": did Israel intentionally target civilians in its long and bloody seige? I have just finished a lengthy book about civilians casualties in America's wars (Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq), and I can tell you that the matter of intentionality is very tricky. Something like 5 million or more civilians died in those three wars, so chalking them up to "collateral damage" is insufficient. But no government has a policy of intentionally killing civilians, or at least has a policy they will acknowledge. The strategic bombing during the Second World War intentionally targeted civilians, of course, and not just the atomic attacks on Japan, but the firebombing (with napalm) of dozens of German and Japanese cities over two years. Indeed, it was openly called "terror bombing." The same was true of Korea, where we basically leveled the north, destroyed dams to flood lowlands, and so on. The tales from Vietnam are legion: not only bombing, but on-the-ground search and destroy missions where whole villages would routinely be destroyed. The U.S. Government would not unambiguously admit that civilians were being targeted; they would say these strategic bombing runs were meant to cripple the enemy's industry, and, regrettably, civilians would occasionally be harmed. The same was true of the village destruction, the use of Agent Orange, the carpet bombing of Cambodia, and so on. The political leaders could say, as Rumsfeld said about Iraq, that we don't kill civilians. But we do, often, in these major wars.
Where "intentionality" enters the picture is through the rules of engagement, tactics, and broader strategy. Rules of engagement allow for promiscuous use of firepower if U.S. troops perceive they are threatened. Tactics like the ubiquitous roadblocks in Iraq or the search-and-destroy missions in Vietnam, or free fire zones or "harassment and interdiction" fire from long-range artillery were known to kill civilians indiscriminately, and yet were used relentlessly. Were specific civilians targeted? Rarely. But violence was practiced routinely--and knowingly--that would harm civilians. This is irrefutable. And this, I expect, is what happened in Gaza.
The Goldstone Report stands. The Israelis are guilty. Case closed. (April 6)
THE GREEN FUTURE is at hand, say some Stanford University researchers, and that is good news. Renewables and efficiency can power the world's economy within a generation or two. That is, if the oil and nuclear addicted politicians will get out of the way. Read.
THE REPUBLICAN "PLAN" FOR THE ECONOMY IS THE SAME OLD SAME OLD. Just as we get a reasonably good jobs growth report on Friday, and the equities markets continue to hold against some very bad news (earthquake, Libya, nasty winter weather), the right wing in the form of extremist congressman Paul Ryan comes forward with a scheme to strip away the protections in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, drain important programs for growth, and yet leave untouched the Pentagon, the wealthy, and corporate profits. Same old scam to benefit the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor. Yes, there is a deficit problem. Recall that at the end of the Clinton administration, we were running a balanced budget, even surpluses, while sustaining adequately high defense budgets and record economic growth. So, what happened under Bush and the Republicans? Taxes on the wealthy were cut dramatically, and wars escalated dramatically, leaving an enormous hole in the federal budget. (Oh, Mitch Daniels was director of the budget in those days, BTW.) Yes, the demographics of an aging America also takes its toll, but Medicare and Social Security are funded through taxes that can be adjusted for any shortfalls. The deficit problem is a consequences of tax cuts for the rich and promiscuous military interventions and consequent spending. There was a trillion dollar federal budget deficit when Obama came to office, on top of a near-total economic collapse. The GOP and their poster boy Ryan will never address these sources of indebtedness honestly. Plainly, this is all about enriching the few and the expense of the many. See it for what it is. (April 4)
IF A STALEMATE IN THE LIBYAN CIVIL WAR is the likely near-term outcome - and here is a report from the field - then the U.S. should recognize this and negotiate a ceasefire. That would reduce the "reputational costs" of NATO intervention, fulfill the UNSC mandate, and get us the hell out of there. Qaffaii reportedly wants to negotiate. The terms could include his departure, but even his removal now is not strictly necessary, since the ceasefire could be followed by strict sanctions that make his hold on power untenable. (April 4)
THREE MORE INSTALLMENTS OF ANNA BADKHEN'S REPORTING FROM AFGHANISTAN are here and here and here. This is what journalism could be. And, while we're at it, a link to her books and a video conversation she has last fall with Fotini Christia at MIT.
LIBYA AND THE "PROBLEM OF KNOWLEDGE." The war is sending us mixed messages. I have long been interested in what I call the problem of knowledge - how do we know what we think we know? How reliable and useful is that knowledge? It applies to everything, of course, but it's especially vexing in global affairs and situations of armed conflict. What we "know" about this skirmish in North Africa is brought to us by a small number of journalists who themselves have relatively scant understanding of Libya. The number of Libya specialists in universities and think tanks is threadbare. And this runs right to the top: how good was the White House's knowledge of Libya's military capabilities? What was the expectation about the likely survival of the regime after NATO started its action? What do we know now.....now that high level officials are defecting, but the militias apparently controlled by Qaddafi's sons are adeptly countering an inept rebel force? So much is unknown that one wonders what the advocates of intervention think they knew.
What this argues for, if anything, is modesty when it comes to the use of force, or vast economic reform (like deregulating the financial sector), or social tinkering like the charter school craze. The lack of respect for real knowledge is only too apparent in American politics. But one would have expected Obama to have a firmer grip on this than he seems to have.
But we'll never know, will we? (March 31)
WAR IS BAD FOR POLITICS AND OTHER LIVING THINGS: I found an interesting article while looking for something else, a nice bit of research that demonstrates something I always suspected about the social and political effects of war on the warrior nation. It nourishes feelings of power among ordinary people and reinforces conservative tendencies. In a similar way, it also is a built-in flaw of the U.S. Constitution: the president's main source of power is to wage war, and thus there's a "natural" inclination to exercise that power. Perhaps this explains in part why we've been at war the majority of the time since 1941. From the abstract of the article in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology (2008): "This study analyzed a dataset in which approximately one-half of the sample (all U.S. college students) participated just prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the remainder participated in the weeks following the initial invasion. Results indicated that wartime participants increasingly valued power and superiority, scoring significantly higher on social dominance orientation and self-enhancement values relative to pre-war participants. Wartime participants also highly valued social control and security, scoring significantly higher on right-wing authoritarianism and conservatism values compared to pre-war participants. These results demonstrate that psychological orientations (attitudes and values) vary as a function of unfolding historical events."
It shows that war is a main driver of politics and the psychology underlying politics. I've maintained, for example, that the brutal attitudes toward Latino immigrants, legal or not, has to do with contrived fears about terrorism (e.g., "unprotected" borders) and the displaced anxieties stemming from the bloody failures of U.S. wars in the Middle East. Obama, unfortunately, is sustaining this political drift toward the right by starting yet another war. (March 30)
OBAMA'S LIBYA SPEECH was competent, as his speeches almost always are, and made the best case that anyone could for the intervention. I like the emphasis on multilateralism, and I smell "doctrine" in this - the Obama Doctrine - which would narrow the conditions when America can or should intervene unilaterally. This is helpful. But everything about this action depends on the outcome. And that increasingly looks good for Obama - that is, Qaddafi is shaky and probably will soon be lured into early retirement. In this, the coalition action seems to be working. The longer term remains unknowable.
Make no mistake, though, the capacity of the United States to undertake yet another intervention in the Muslim country is braced by three things: the participation of the Arab League, the lead role of NATO, and Obama's largely positive image in the Middle East (sullied only by his obsequiousness toward Israel). These are no small things, and a lesson. (March 28)
THE "SOCIAL ISSUES" AGENDA NEEDS TO BE JOINED. A New York Times story this morning reported the "social agenda" Republicans are again in control in Iowa, the first site of important presidential state contests. Hence Huckabee's victory four years ago, and their grip is apparently tightening. The GOP hopefuls are bowing to this powerful constituency. The "agenda" is typically defined as anti-abortion, pro-school prayer, and anti-anything favoring homosexuals. Other right-wing issues that are anti-immigration, anti-gun control, anti-government generally (taxes, regulation, spending, public sector unions, and so on) tend to track pretty closely to the social agenda folks, but they are not 100% the same.
The left and liberals tend to shut down in the face of these forces. But the fact is that after years of focusing sharply on the social agenda, the right wing has failed to win anything close to majoritarian support. On abortion, two recent polls confirm this, as they have rather consistently. The Pew Research Center polled nationwide in late February, and the split is 54-42 in favor of legal abortions. The Quinnipiac poll in February found similar support for federal funding for Planned Parenthood, despite a furious (and scurrilous) Fox News campaign against PP.
School prayer polls have remained fairly consistent: the public favors a "moment of silence" during the school day, but an actual spoken prayer is not (the polling for this is from 2005).
On gay marriage, the trend is clearly toward approval, reflected in the most recent nationwide poll, ABC News/Washington Post in early March, showing a 53-44 margin. Enormous majorities support gays serving openly in the military. And by large margins, the American public supports employment benefits for same-sex couples equal to heterosexual couples. (See the very useful Polling Report for data.)
For thirty years, since Reagan's election, the social agenda has been embraced by the Republican estbalishment not least because it masks the steady impoverishment of the middle class that Reagan and his followers have engineered. This has succeeded in significant part - we now have more income inequality, fewer government services, lower taxes for the wealthy, less belief that government at any level can perform usefully - while the very people most victimized by these economic policies are subscribing to the notion that America is headed in the wrong direction because we've lost our moral compass. It's one of the oddities of American politics that this diversion has been deftly executed by the GOP, Fox, and many corporate leaders while the public has in fact become more liberal on many key social issues and sustains tolerant opinions on the others.
The list of nutty right-wing conspiracy theories and the opinions that brace them is so long that it's hard to differentiate what is working for them, what is red meat for the base, and what is smoke and mirrors. The anti-immigrant fervor illustrates this. As I've noted below (March 2), economic studies have unfailingly shown the contribution of immigrants - including illegals - to the U.S. economy. Yet the stew of anti-immigrant paranoia includes not only the hoary old refrain, "they're taking our jobs," but the increasingly strident assertions that Muslims of any kind pose a mortal threat to America, that terrorists are sneaking across the Mexican border, that Mexican-Americans are scheming the "reconquista" to take America's southwest for Mexico, and other hateful nonsense.
Add to this the belief among Republicans that Obama was actually born in Kenya and is a Muslim, and you have the perfect set-up for the social agenda. The Democratic president is not only weak on the social agenda's priorities - abortion, school prayer, and gays - but he actually is not an American and not a Christian. The oldest, most harrowing fear of paranoids - betrayal - fuels the urgency of their narrow priorities.
That the right wing is getting more extreme and the Republican Party is in step with that trend is scarcely in doubt. It would matter less if the social agenda earned an up-or-down vote on its own, because it would lose, but it is linked dynamically to the anti-government types that are virulently opposed to any public action to promote jobs growth, environmental sustainability, income equity, and other such matters of economic well being. In this sense, then, the social agenda of conservatives is a stalking horse for the wealthy taking more and more away from the middle class and America's future. (March 27)
RIGHT ON CUE, THE DANGEROUS--NOT MERELY LOONY--RIGHT WING ERUPTS. The op-ed I wrote for the Boston Globe a couple of weeks ago earned some plaudits and challenges, because I pointed out that most terrorism in America now is committed by the right wing. This is empirically verifiable, by the way. That same day was the arrest of the MLK Day would-be bomber in Seattle, a white supremicist who could have killed hundreds if he hadn't been nabbed in time. Then this: in Iowa, an emergency responders exercise to deal with things like school shootings earned so much hate mail, calls, and threats from the right wing that it had to be cancelled. (March 25)
THE PALIN-BACHMANN QUANDARY. The question is, will a White House bid by Sarah Palin and/or Michelle Bachmann enhance or diminish our democracy? No, seriously. Some people I know pray for Sarah Palin to get the nomination because it would guarantee Obama's reelection. It's probable, but I'd warn against catastrophic events that could propel Palin into the Oval Office. As to Bachmann's reported interest in that office, the same rules apply. What is more intriguing, however, is whether either of the women's entry into the GOP race would make others look reasonable and electorally attractive by comparison. As nutty and fraudulent as Gingrich is, he can talk what sounds intelligent until we're asleep. Huckabee is trending toward demented tea partyism. Bolton is obviously a psychopath and has no base. That would leave Pawlenty and Daniels, both bland but seemingly reasonable chaps who could be....hurt or helped?....by candidacies of the Brunette Bombshell Banshees of the Right. For the record, I predict Bachmann will flame out quickly, as she really is a loose cannon. Palin has more touch, but is too self-absorbed to succeed. Maybe. (March 24)
NEGOTIATING OUR WAY OUT OF AFGHANISTAN strikes me as a timely idea, one bandied about quite a bit in the last year or so, and now a major "task force" sponsored by the Cenurty Foundation recommends just that. Among their many sensible points is that the U.S. is militarily at its peak right now, something that cannot be maintained much longer, hence with some leverage. The report is chaired by two very savvy diplomats, Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas R. Pickering. See their short op-ed here for a quickie, and executive summary of the report here. They are realistic and the enormous challenges in a fractured society. But I've worked with Pickering on other things, and he is very impressive. This report and the thinking that went into it makes sense. (March 24)
THE LIBYA DEBATE. I admit to being torn on the Libyan intervention. I want to see it succeed, but what is success, and at what cost? Killing or removing Qaddafi will require a lot of firepower (unless his inner circle defects), and, as I noted two weeks ago, we don't know what would come next in Libya because we don't know who the rebels are, who might outmaneuver who, and what the long-term political contest would look like. Then there are the niggling questions: Obama should have done some congressional consultation; the end game needs to be explained, even if it falls short of "victory"; the post-conflict costs--who will pay for what and for whom--should be clarified. Too much is uncertain--not only the normal uncertainty of war, but the political dimensions that at least prospectively a U.S. president can control or address.
What has gotten under my skin about this more than anything, however, is the hypocrisy of the liberal hawks behind this attack - Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, apparently - when it comes to civilian casualties elsewhere. Not only is nothing significant being done about Yemen and Bahrain, in part because these are Saudi "spheres of influence," but look how the U.S. ignores the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Today, at least four and possible eight or more Palestinians were killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza, three of them boys. The U.S. has dissed the U.N. report on the Gaza seige of 2009 by Justice Goldstone, one which details the horrific consequences for Palestinian civilians of Israeli actions. And, needless to say, there is precious little stated concern for the colossal civilian losses of direct U.S. action in Iraq or Afghanistan.
U.S. policy in the region has been shaped by two concerns above all else - access to cheap oil and protection of Israel. The unraveling of the longstanding system of autocratic states in the Arab world that winked at these priorities now challenges American principles in the most fundamental ways. We (including France and Britain) sold military equipment to Saddam, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and most of the others when it suited our Oil+Israel objectives. We countenanced torture. We propped up - and continue to prop up - monarchies. So the fact that we would spend many millions of dollars to get involved in this very confusing affair is not only inconsistent - not that inconsistency ever made a U.S. poliycmaker pause - but counterproductive.
At a moment of great hope in the region (see this remarkable graphic on the events of these few weeks), we are introducing the old bogeyman of U.S. military intervention, this time in Libya, backing the monarchy in Bahrain, and keeping hushed up over Israeli intransigence and aggression. That is the hoary U.S. foreign policy of Reagan and Bush. It is not the politics of hope. (March 22)
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