Counterpunch Articles

The Problem of Localized Ethics

A Local Legal Hero: Meir Shamgar

On 19 October 2019 Meir Shamgar died. He was 94 years old. Shamgar is not exactly a household name here in the West, but he was renowned in Israel. He was given a state funeral that was attended by most of Israel’s top Zionist leaders. Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized Shamgar as the man responsible for “strengthening the foundational principles of justice and the law, and guaranteeing individual and national freedoms.” Others described him as a “great man of towering intellect and deeply held ethical values.”

Shamgar reached this status and accomplished these tasks in his roles as Israel’s military advocate general, attorney general, supreme court member and then finally as the president of Israel’s supreme court. He was obviously a capable legal mind with real administrative talents. Yet, as he went about shaping Israel’s liberal-for-Jews national legal environment, he simultaneously undermined international law and human rights for non-Jews. He therefore can be seen as threatening civilized legal standards both at home and in the international arena.

The Denier of Human Rights: Meir Shamgar

Here is how Michael Sfard, an Israeli attorney who specializes in international and human rights law, describes Shamgar’s legal treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories: “As a judge, he handed down rulings that legalized almost every draconian measure taken by the defense establishment to crush Palestinian political and military organizations, and to establish Israeli control over the occupied people and their land for generations. Demolition of suspects’ houses (rendering their families homeless); wholesale use of administrative detentions against Palestinian activists; expropriation of lands and the establishment of settlements; undemocratic appointments of mayors; and the imposition of curfews and taxes—Shamgar sanctioned them all.”

Sfard is accurate in this description. However, he also thinks that Shamgar personifies a “paradox” that lies at the heart of Zionism—Israel’s national ideology. He tells us that this is “the paradox of a movement that is based on the moral ideal that every nation has the right to political freedom. … And yet, has denied those same freedoms to millions of people who belong to another nation.”

I am afraid Sfard has this part wrong, at least as far as the Zionist belief in a “moral ideal” that every nation has a right to freedom. There is no historical evidence that the Zionist movement ever asserted such an ideal except as a brief bit of useful post-World War I propaganda. Quite the contrary, Zionist nationalism was pursued as an extension of European colonialism. Early on Zionist leaders hitched their national ambitions (via the Balfour Declaration) to British imperialism—which, under no circumstances, espoused the national rights of the peoples they ruled. Thus, the Zionists turned on the British when they no longer needed their patronage, in order to force them out of Palestine. Just so, according to the latest biography of David Ben Gurion (Tom Segev’s A State At Any Cost), modern Israel’s founding father always understood the movement of European Jews into Palestine as one of “conquest.”

Thus, it is much more accurate to say that Zionists reserved, and still reserve, the ideal of national freedom in Palestine solely to themselves. And they do so without the “dissonance” Sfard claims is engendered by a simultaneous belief in a universal right of national freedom. Indeed, any such ideal that might support rights of any kind for the Palestinians on an equal basis with Israeli Jews is anathema to most Zionists. It is within this context that Meir Shamgar could at once be the nation’s legal hero and simultaneously deny the application of universal human rights and international law in Israel’s “Occupied Territories.”

The Broader Lesson

We can understand this disparity more broadly once we realize that ethics, or value-systems generally, are locally generated. This means that, while in principle, each value-system might have concepts such as fairness, honesty, humaneness, that have universal character, they have traditionally, that is historically, been put into practice in a more narrow way for the benefit of particular in-groups. Over time these in-groups have gotten larger until today the largest of them is now the nation state. However, the nation state has also been a source of world wars and large scale atrocities. After World War II, and the experience of a number of genocides, efforts were made to establish a set of trans-national values laid out in international law and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was hoped that nation states could be persuaded (by the memory of the horrors of World War II, if nothing else) to adhere to humane international laws that transcended national in-groups.

Despite the historically proven fact that an in-group approach to ethics has encouraged racism and other forms of bigotry as well as horrific war, there still continues a struggle between those who would apply ethical standards universally and those who would hold to the traditional in-group exceptionalism. Meir Shamgard and the Zionists followed this latter approach.

The road they have chosen has certainly generated exclusive ethics and values reserved for just their in-group. Inevitably, this has resulted in a highly discriminatory Israeli environment which many (including some Israelis) see as creating an apartheid society. Apartheid is a form of racism recognized under international law as a crime against humanity.

The cost here is not just the injustice done to the Palestinians. There is also a serious undermining of both international law and the moral integrity of the Jewish people. One wonders if Meir Shamgard ever thought of his legal rulings and administrative reforms in this way? Or, for him, was there nothing beyond a narrow version of the ethnic nation state, where the rule of law was a sole possession of a sub-group of citizens. Of course, great men of “towering intellect and deeply held ethical values” should not think and act in such exclusionary ways. However, those who would readily sacrifice the well-being of millions do.


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Permanent War: the Drive to Emasculate

Trump announced to the world the gruesome death and terrorizing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “… He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.. They were led to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast…. The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.”

Trump continued: “…he died like a dog. He died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming and crying.”

The predominant responses to al-Baghdadi’s death focused on the competence of American intelligence (sic) and its military, on the ongoing structural problems in Arab states, and on possible repercussions of further Arab and/or right-wing terrorism. Missing were considerations of alternatives to assassination, including: the judiciary and rule of law, the potential of peacekeepers, the underlying causes including state terrorism, an immediate embargo on arms trading and transfers, and outright indignation about Trump’s terrorizing triumphalism.

Paraphrasing Tolstoy’s “…every unhappy family is unhappy in is own way”, so are the ways of violence. Is violence assumed to be the new normal, the tenor of everyday life as it was in previous waning periods?

There is ample research and understanding of violence and terrorism. Robert Pape, who meticulously researched suicide terrorism, and George McGovern and William Polk who proposed a plan for Iraqi-led construction of social welfare infrastructure, connected terrorism with occupation, citing evidence that terrorism ends when occupations end.

On violence itself, former Massachusetts psychiatric director of prisons, James Gilligan, offers a profound and deeply compassionate understanding of personal and political violence, based on his work with the most disturbed murderers and on his socio-political understanding of U.S. history. He writes that there is no such thing as “senseless” crime, and that even the most extreme kinds of violence are preventable. The structural changes he implemented in the Massachusetts prisons ended all violence during his tenure. His work informs understanding of violence from “below” and implies social changes that would prevent violence. In contrast, the predominant military, psychological, and neoliberal structures are a set-up for a terroristic reaction.

Gilligan writes that the emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence, that it is a necessary but not sufficient cause of violence. Violence can be stimulated, inhibited or redirected both by the presence or absence of other feelings such as guilt or innocence and by the specific social and psychological circumstances in which shame is experienced. The different forms of violence, whether toward individuals or entire populations, are motivated by the feeling of shame. The purpose of the violent act is to diminish the intensity of humiliation in the perpetrator and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, especially pride. In his work with the most violent and disturbed criminals, he found that the most carefully guarded secret held by violent men is their deep shame over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful. They may wear a defensive mask of bravado, arrogance, machismo. He writes that violent men’s “deepest fear is that they will go out not with a bang but a whimper; which is why they try so hard to create the biggest and loudest bang they can, in an effort to drown out their shame-induced whimper.”[1] …He writes that cultures can stimulate violence in every sphere, and that among the most potent causes of violence are class, caste, age stratification, and gender inequity.

Trump gloats as he repetitively speaks of al-Baghdadi’s whimpering. To gloat is to express “great or excessive, often smug or malicious, satisfaction,” and its etymology (Norse) — “to grin, smile scornfully and show the teeth.” Hilary Clinton infamously laughed about the grisly killing of Moammar Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died. …. This is America. We rise to the challenge, we persevere, and we get the job done.” Netanyahu, adding excruciating insult to lethal injury, accused Palestinians of selecting photogenic pictures of slaughtered child victims for propaganda. What are expectable and understandable reactions of people subjected to what can be termed gloating sadism?

`Triumphalist state violence is eroticized. Saddam Hussein is repeatedly displayed in his underwear. Moammar Gaddafi is sodomized, and bin Laden’s masculinity is a focus as he is demeaned by news about his dyed hair and allegations of pornography on his computer. The torments at Abu Ghraib cause men to whimper in fear of attack dogs. Lynndie England, the gloating face of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, was dubbed “Leash Girl” after she was photographed grinning as she held an Iraqi prisoner on a leash. In one photograph, “ Private England, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, is giving a jaunty thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi, who is naked except for a sandbag over his head.” There is pleasure in scaring children and adults to the point of urinating and defecating.

Nurit Peled-Elhanan, daughter of General Matti Peled and sister of Miko Peled, an Israeli mother who lost her own daughter to a suicide bombing, talks about the sexualized humiliation of Palestinian mothers: “I have never experienced the suffering Palestinian women undergo every day, every hour. I don’t know the kind of violence that turns a woman’s life into constant hell. This daily physical and mental torture of women who are deprived of their basic human rights and needs of privacy and dignity, women whose homes are broken into at any moment of day and night, who are ordered at a gun-point to strip naked in front of strangers and their own children….”

Avi Mograbi’s documentary film Avenge But One of My Two Eyes shows how Israeli adults incite and inculcate exciting and pleasurable acts of violence as they teach about the Samson and Masada suicide/terrorism myths, egging Israeli youth on to identify with the exciting, heroic aggressor. A father tells his pre-school children about Samson’s strength with relish and excitement: “The Lord’s spirit came upon him mightily…” When Samson the Hero went to Gaza, “the lion wanted to kill Samson the Hero but he tore him apart with his bare hands. When he returned from Gaza, Samson the Hero took the bounty of honey he’d found inside the lion….” A group of young men: “Samson the Hero was one hell of a Rastafari. He has seven dreadlocks on his head.” “…he killed 1000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone. The spirit of God must have been with him.” Another man says that if people called for help, “Samson comes: boom!” “Samson was like Popeye.” “The spirit of God took hold of him. Boom! Who will take me on? He comes, lifts the city gates, beats them up…. 10,000 Philistines.” Another man says “It’s not about strength, it’s about magnetism and courage. The courage of a man who has the strength to say: ‘I’m going and god is with me.’” Israel’s nocturnal sonic booms over Gaza were solely intended to terrify and led to an outbreak of bedwetting in children.

But we are confronted by a disconnect between human and non-human: victims are “collateral damage”, terrorists are “elements”, who are “taken out” like an object, persons are corporations, and so on.

There is a reversal of “civilized” and “savage” as if western liberal democracies, especially the “Cities on the Hill” are the victims of barbarism. In Totem and Taboo, Freud finds from 19th century anthropology that among so-called “savages” there is not a disconnect regarding people’s personhood: killing of a man is governed by a number of observances including the appeasement of the slain enemy, acts of expiation, sacrifices offered to appease the souls of the men whose heads have been taken. In Timor the slain man is lamented and his forgiveness is entreated: “Why were you our enemy? Would it not have been better that we should remain friends?” North American observers were struck by the “mourning over enemies who have been killed…. they will mourn for the foe just as if he was a friend”. Freud did not think that these rituals simply warded off fear of retribution, but that there were genuine manifestations of remorse, of admiration for the enemy, and of a bad conscience for having killed. In psychoanalytic terms, they had the capacity to bear ambivalent feelings rather than dehumanizing people altogether, or classifying people as all good or all bad. Being able to feel ambivalent allowed them to be concerned about others. [2]

But there is much knowledge, much insight, many paths to safe societies. John Berger is one of many who ask if the disconnect about human life “can be called madness when found in the minds of those who believe they can rule the planet?” Berger continues: “ …here the disconnections are systematic and crop up not only in their announcements but in their every strategic calculation” as rulers “vacillate constantly and abruptly between fear and confidence” [3]

Violence, from below and from above, has different and multiple causes and functions: a reaction to occupation; a reaction to shame and humiliation rooted in racism and classism; a last resort to life-threatening deprivation; identification with the aggressor; narcissistic entitlement; eroticized and gratifying cruelty. The Manhattan Project nuclear scientists themselves exemplified blind phallicism: After the Alamogordo atomic bomb test, “the overjoyed inhabitants of Los Alamos gathered in groups all over town to celebrate. ‘There were tears and laughter…. We beat each other on the back, our elation knew no bounds …–the gadget worked!’” “Feynman got his bongo drums out and led a snake dance through the whole Tech Area.”[4] The names “Little Boy” (Hiroshima bomb) and “Fatman” (Nagasaki bomb) are comical and gloat about extermination.

Daniel Ellsberg, in his history The Doomsday Machine, writes that the Manhattan Project scientists knew there was a chance that “the explosion of an atomic bomb [could] set off an explosion of the ocean itself…[that the[ nitrogen in the air is also unstable though in less degree. Might it not be set off by an atomic explosion in the atmosphere?” Hitler did not approve of an atomic bomb program; he “was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule be transformed into a glowing star.” (reported by Albert Speer). [5]

At this most dangerous time in human history, depraved, shameless, incorrigible, and violent leaders get away with murder. But the opposition rarely acknowledges and challenges the extent of danger and evil. This reticence, or evasion, or silence, is one crux. There’s a mad illogic: If it’s not as bad as Hitler, “what me worry?” Even when the stakes are human extinction and several regimes have caused far more death than Hitler?

[1] Gilligan. James. (1997). Violence: Reflections on a national Epidemic. Vintage.New York. p. 212-214

[2]. Sigmund Freud (1913). Totem and Taboo. Standard Edition Vol XIII. p. 51ff

[3] Berger, John (2007). Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. Verso. London. p. 110-111.

[4]Conant, Jennet (2005). 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the secret city of Los Alamos. Simon and Schuster: New York. P. 314-316.

[5] Ellsberg, Daniel . (2017). The Doomsday Machine. Bloomsbury. New York p.276-277.

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Europe’s Shameful Treatment of Refugees: Fire in Greek Camp Highlights Appalling Conditions

Last month a fire roared through the refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos, a few miles from the coast of Turkey. The immediate cause of the fire is unclear, but there were clashes between Afghan and Syrian refugees in the nearby town of Vathy earlier in the evening, which some witnesses said continued in the camp. There were chaotic scenes during the fire, and almost the entire camp was evacuated, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Field Coordinator Eirini Papanastasiou.

“The shelters are totally burnt down,” she told Newsweek. “They’re mainly made out of tents and plywood and plastic sheeting and all of this has burned down.”

The camp, originally constructed as an army base meant to house 650 individuals, now hosts close to 6,000 refugees. Roughly 3,000 reside in the camp itself, while the remainder scramble to find a spot to pitch their makeshift tents on an adjacent hillside, which is known as the Jungle. Because of the extreme overcrowding, the shelters are built close to each other, and it does not take much for a fire to spread. While no serious injuries were reported, the blaze did destroy the shelters of 700 people residing in the Jungle.

Samos is one of a handful of Greek islands where migrants arrive seeking refuge in Europe, fleeing war, hunger, torture and poverty. At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, over a million asylum seekers used this route to make their way to Germany and other countries. In March of 2016, however, the European Union and Turkey, in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees, signed an agreement that would allow the EU to transfer Syrian refugees on the Greek islands back to Turkey. The deal has been criticized on many points, including the fact that it is based on the premise that Turkey is a safe country for refugees. One of the provisions of the deal was that refugees would be detained on the Greek islands until their asylum cases were heard, after which those who were refused asylum would be deported. However, the Greek asylum service was overwhelmed by the number of asylum applicants, and refugees have been staying on the islands—sometimes for two or three years—waiting to have their future decided. As a consequence, the Aegean islands in practice have become detention centers.

The conditions on Samos—as well as the other islands—are deplorable.

“C’est l’enfer,” said Jean, a forty-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo told me a week after he arrived on Samos with his six-year-old daughter. It is hell.

Aref Kassem, his wife Fariba and three of their children, refugees from Afghanistan, are lucky because they live in the camp itself, rather than the Jungle. They stay in a container with fifteen other families. Their own space is two meters by two meters, separated from those of the others by curtains. The container has four toilets and one shower, used not only by the residents of the container, but by the refugees living in the Jungle, where there are no toilet facilities at all.

“It is not a place for human beings,” said Aref.

The food and water is a particular issue of contention for many of the refugees. Everyone gets 1.5 liters of water every day, which is not nearly sufficient for the hot days of summer. The food is generally of poor quality, and much of it is expired.

“We get potatoes, rice, beans and sometimes chicken for lunch. But no vegetables. I have been here one year and have never seen a vegetable,” said Farzaad, a twenty-two-year-old from Afghanistan.

To obtain breakfast, which consists of a small pastry and a juice box, residents must rise at 2 am and wait in line for six hours. This process is repeated for lunch and dinner. It is so arduous that many of the residents buy their own food in the town.

Violence is a consequence of the extreme overcrowding and the deplorable conditions. The fighting on the evening of the fire resulted in stab wounds. Clashes are especially common in the food line.

“There is always fighting in the line. Every day. Every breakfast. Every lunch. Every dinner. Women against women. I was in front of you. I was here first,” said Farzaad. “Every day. Sometimes with knifes. I saw one guy stab another.”

The camp and the Jungle are both filthy, and there are snakes, scorpions, rats and bedbugs.

“Some of the refugees bring stray cats to the camp in the hopes they will chase away the rats,” said Abdul, a refugee from Yemen. “But the rats are so big that the cats are afraid of them.”

The access to medical care in the camp is almost non-existent, as there is only one doctor for the 6,000 refugees. Residents often spend the night on the ground in front of the doctor’s office, hoping to be seen the next day. More often than not, they are turned away.

“The worst thing about being in the camp is the waiting,” said Farzaad. “All you do is wait. For food, for the doctor, for your interview.”

Farzaad is speaking about an interview with the Greek asylum office, where the fate of the refugees is decided. A survey recently administered by NGO’s on the island revealed that over 40% of the respondents have their first interview with the asylum office in 2021 or later.

The situation has become untenable for those affected directly by the fire. Sandrine Vollebregt, a doctor working for a medical NGO on Samos, described the situation.

“When you walk around town, you see many women and children lying on the street. The playgrounds are full of people,” she told CounterPunch. “Many people lost their medication. We saw babies that couldn’t stop crying after the fire. Some mothers couldn’t produce breast milk anymore.”

The Greek government has attempted to alleviate the situation by transferring 700 asylum seekers from Samos to the mainland, with plans to move another 300. While this will help in the immediate aftermath of the fire, a real solution will not be found until Europe changes its policies vis-à-vis the refugees and discontinues its practice of forcing those fleeing the horrors of war and torture to suffer in these camps in abominable conditions.

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Why War Deaths Increase After Wars

I don’t know if somebody dumped a bottle of sanity solution into Rhode Island Sound or what the reason is, but Brown University, which has military contracts just like everywhere else, is the headquarters of a group of dozens of scholars and experts working to educate the public about the various costs of wars (funders worth thanking are here). If every educational institution in the United States did even a teeny bit of what this group does, I think there’s a chance that “peace on earth” might become a phrase with actual meaning, understood as something that might actually be created.

One of the latest resources produced by people affiliated with the Costs of War Project is a book called War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Catherine Lutz and Andrea Mazzarino. Its focus is on “indirect” deaths caused, at least in large part, by wars.

Some tiny percentage of people in the United States have some familiarity with studies of deaths in Iraq directly caused by war violence beginning in 2003. As I noted in 2013, the Cost of War Project almost certainly radically understates those deaths. Even though the most respected studies put the count at over a million as of a decade or more back, the Cost of War Project to this day, puts it at 184,000 to 207,000 civilians, plus 35,000 to 40,000 fighters, and 48,000 to 52,000 Iraqi military and police.

Brown professor Neta Crawford explained years ago that she was choosing not to use the Johns Hopkins (a.k.a. Lancet) studies or the Opinion Research Bureau study because they had not been updated and had been criticized. She chose instead to use Iraq Body Count (IBC), even while quoting an MIT professor pointing out that IBC admits its tally is probably half the size of actual deaths. What IBC means is that it is aware it is missing huge numbers of deaths; it has no basis for knowing how many. But it hasn’t been criticized, except by serious scholars, presumably because those with the ability to criticize things in the U.S. corporate media do not want to criticize an estimate of deaths that’s 10 or 20 percent what serious studies estimate.

So, taking with a grain of salt, the estimates of local deaths used, it is still useful to look at the Cost of War Project’s total estimate for directly caused deaths of both local people and U.S. and allied military members in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen combined: 770,000 to 801,000. Wars that are supported by 16 percent of the U.S. public, that have increased global terrorism, that have proliferated deadly weapons, that have brutalized U.S. society, that have fueled racism and xenophobia, that have militarized police, that have drained resources from everything good and decent in the world with a military budget now at $1.25 trillion per year (tiny fractions of which could transform the world for the better), that have devastated the natural environment and climate of the earth, that have eroded civil liberties in the name of freedom, that have developed dangerous new technologies and habits like drone murders, that have normalized torture, that have contributed to putting an outright fascist in the White House — that these wars have directly and violently killed some 800,000 people, and probably dramatically more than that, ought to be known. How can anyone weigh the downsides of wars against the disastrous sides of wars, and decide whether they’re worth it, in the absence of basic facts?

But, here’s the key lesson from the new book edited by Lutz and Mazzarino: the direct deaths are small in comparison with the indirect. One chapter in the book, authored by Scott Harding and Kathryn Libal, does note some of the studies of direct deaths that place the count much higher than does Iraq Body Count, and also notes that, using World Health Organization statistics, life expectancy in Iraq has fallen significantly. Why? Well, Lutz and Mazzarino estimate that to 480,000 direct deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, one must add at lease 1 million deaths in those countries indirectly caused by the recent and ongoing wars. This is because the wars have caused illnesses, injuries, malnutrition, homelessness, poverty, lack of social support, lack of healthcare, trauma, depression, suicide, refugee crises, disease epidemics, the poisoning of the environment, and the spread of small-scale violence.

In the First Gulf War, the authors estimate that deaths caused by the U.S. and allies’ destruction of Baghdad’s electrical system caused 30 times the deaths caused directly by the war’s violence.

In a chapter on Pakistan, we learn how people being constantly threatened with U.S. drone attacks are not only traumatized but also come to distrust Western vaccination programs aimed at eradicating polio, and how the CIA’s phony vaccination program aimed at locating and murdering Osama Bin Laden exacerbated this problem. Interestingly, there is far more outside funding, including from Bill Gates and the Rotary Club, for ending polio than for other health needs, perhaps in part because polio has been ended on most of the planet, and ending it in Afghanistan and Pakistan would mean that Western countries could stop worrying about it altogether. But the lessons conveyed in this book make clear that if Bill Gates wanted to end polio he would start funding the peace movement, because the wars keep polio alive.

The authors of the chapter on polio, Svea Closser and Noah Coburn, note that “Widely publicized accounts of [the phony vaccination program aimed at finding Bin Laden] made fears that vaccination campaigns were actually in service to U.S. military surveillance seem more plausible.” I would add: and be more plausible, not just seem it.

Tragically, as Closser and Coburn recount, nearly everyone working to eradicate polio opposes drone strikes, but just those people have become prominent targets as representatives of the West responsible for the drone wars. Dozens of healthcare workers have been murdered in Pakistan for trying to do good where the governments of the nations they happened to be born in were doing so much evil.

The propaganda for the war on Afghanistan has often involved women’s rights, yet the principle victims of many of the deadly crises created by war have been women, who have been victimized by the lack of healthcare, fear of traveling to hospitals, at-home births, sexual violence, rape, HIV/AIDS, cervical cancer, and the use of heroin as a substitute for medicine. While some progress has been made in Afghanistan, it remains one of the worst and deadliest places on earth to become pregnant.

A woman in Afghanistan whose story is told in this book lost her son to a bomb blast that her husband survived. The husband turned to heroin until he died. Now the woman has herself begun using heroin. Is she a war victim? Many might not say so. But few would claim, at least without thousands of miles separation, that the war had brought her new rights and freedoms.

These wars have caused the flight and the murder of health professionals, and have made education difficult to impossible in various areas. The wars have poisoned air, land, and water, and spread chemical weapons, napalm, and depleted uranium. The results have included skyrocketing rates of cancer, and genetic damage. Cluster bombs have blown off limbs and will continue doing so long after official “endings” of wars or even any actual endings of them. Bases and their burn pits and deadly chemicals have spread death more quietly but just as disastrously as, if not far more so than, bombings.

Lutz and Mazzarino address the ways in which U.S. academics often write about these impacts of war: “When governments and military institutions rely upon and send human beings to engage in acts of war that are otherwise illegitimate and immoral, they treat the resulting problem as one of psychological maladjustment requiring health institutions’ intervention. . . . Is a condition like PTSD a disease, or is it simply a normal human reaction to the violence of war, as both observed and perpetrated?” To this I would add: when authors insert the word “otherwise” into a sentence that has no need of it, they can be understood to be suggesting that immoral behavior can become “legitimate” by being part of a war.

Lutz and Mazzarino also criticize the U.S. government’s failure to track or at least publish data on the full damage of its wars. But “what is to be done?” That’s a subheading in the book, and it’s followed by advice for healthcare professionals, and by the admonition to “question” “particular wars.” But are we in some sort of doubt about them that we must “question” them? And how are we to know which “particular wars”? Are we to imagine that, due to some unmentioned considerations, some of the wars should be “questioned” and not others, or can we “question” all of them?

One thing the book wants us to question is the $5.9 trillion supposedly spent on recent wars. I do question it. I think every such reduction of military spending to some fraction supposedly spent on wars elides the fact that the whole military budget of $1.25 trillion a year is spent on nothing other than wars and preparations for more wars, nothing else, nothing normal, nothing routine, nothing beyond mention or reproach.

But here’s why Lutz and Mazzarino want the indirect deadly impacts of wars to be understood. Read this carefully and spread the word: “[W]ars would be more difficult to prosecute if, from the outset, the thousands or even millions of dead or injured bodies were emphasized. . . . To examine war and its effects on human health, we need to first navigate around this tendency to ignore the bodies damaged by war, and the push by governments for publics to instead focus on the love between military ‘brothers,’ on the beautiful spectacle of war pyrotechnics, on the religious or secular sentiments of nationalist pride at the protecting army, or the fear and anger at the threat of harm from others.”

Later, Lutz and Mazzarino, use a rare and admirable phrase: “all wars,” in remarking: “[W]e hope to prompt readers to think further and more globally about the health consequences of all wars, and to take real steps to alleviate those consequences or, more pressingly, prevent new ones.”

The book is divided into sections examining the health effects of recent wars on Afghans, Iraqis, and members of the U.S. military. There is important information here on the spread of cancers in Iraq, and also on the increase in suicide that results from joining the U.S. military — something recently falsely denied by the New York Times, though immediately corrected by Matt Hoh.

I would love to see a widespread awareness of the devastating indirect consequences of war.

After that, I would long for some public understanding of the even larger lost opportunities and trade offs, the good that could have been done and the lives saved and the lives dramatically improved by redirecting a small fraction of military spending to good purposes.

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94 Well-Lived Years and the $27 Traffic Fine

On Friday, November 8, 2019, I delivered the following eulogy to honor the memory of a dear and trusted friend.

Sometime in the late fall of 1968 I had my first encounter with Jane Quick in front of Ed Flaig’s Mobil station – at the intersection of 10th and Pine – only a couple of blocks west of here.

That encounter cost me 27 dollars.

Allow me to explain: I was heading to the newly opened Snack Shack, a tiny, alpine-style structure across the street from where the Sonic would eventually move in and put the Shack out of business.  The Snack Shack was best known for its poor students’ budget-conscious menu of unhealthy, greasy meals. Where else could one get a 19 Cent hamburger, a miniscule 19 Cent packet of fries, and 10 Cent cokes?

From 3:30 p.m. until closing, usually around 11:30 p.m., I cooked, served meals at the seven seater eating bar and the takeout window to the side, cleaned, hauled trash, and stocked all the artery clogging lard for the next day’s opening.

Late for work and caught in traffic at the Pine and 10th St. traffic light, I was behind a brand new VW Beetle driven by an attractive petite woman. Perhaps taken by all the large, 1960s psychedelic flower power decals that covered the hub caps and  equally flamboyant yet smaller-sized decals across the side and rear window, I found myself bumper to bumper – directly behind the groovy set of 1960’s trend-setting wheels so popular during that counter culture epoch. Because of oncoming traffic, the hot woman stopped in the middle of the intersection, and turned left as the light changed from yellow to red.

When I pulled into the Snack Shack parking lot just a few minutes later, flashing red lights appeared from nowhere.

Needless to say, my appeal to Judge Luckadoo to waive the 27 dollar running-a-red-light fine found no sympathy. To quote Judy Duvall, that was a lot of 19 Cent burgers, especially, I might add, for someone making 90 Cents per hour. To be exact, this comes out to 142.5 burgers.

At the time I had no idea who that groovy chick was.

Five-and-a-half years after the costly traffic citation Johnny Wink and I would join Ouachita’s English faculty, and Jane Quick would become a lifelong trusted friend, a worthy colleague,  a confidante, a strong advocate for many good causes, and a teacher whose teaching and character were worthy of emulation.

When Jane started her employment at Ouachita back in the 1950’s, she joined an august group of women and, to borrow a phrase, one of Ouachita’s greatest generation of dedicated female faculty and staff. The list includes Evelyn Bowden, Helen Lyon, Virginia Queen,  Frances Elledge, Juanita Barnett, Neno Flaig, Lera Kelly, Francis Crawford, Faye Holliman, Miss Jones, Hazel Goff Carolyn Moffet, Mrs. Martha Black, and, of course, Jane Quick. Claudia Riley, wife of Political Science Chair Bob Riley, was one of Jane’s dearest friends, a friendship that lasted until Claudia passed away, only a few short years ago. After Bob’s death and at 8 a.m. of every single day till the day Claudia passed away, Jane would call Claudia to check on her and her disabled daughter Megan. I have no doubt that Jane’s caring-for-others list was always a long one.

It is fair to say that each of the aforementioned OBU female faculty members played a role not only in paving the way for more women faculty to join the OBU faculty ranks, but also in serving as role models for a bourgeoning number of female faculty across the disciplines.

As Randy, Jane, Connie, and Carol settled in the Phelps Circle community where The Roots, Lindseys, Holts, Nelsons, Coppengers, Esteses, Weatheringtons, Rileys, Wilsons, kings, and Tranthams sank roots in the welcoming neighborhood, strong communal relationships developed.

If the adage that one must be a good friend to have good friends is true, then Jane Quick, known to her grandchildren as G. J., to her many friends as J.Q., and to the Halabys as The Ray of Sunshine, fits this bill perfectly.

True Friendships are based on genuine, meaningful relationships.

Jane took her friendships and her relationships very seriously. I can attest to the following: Jane invested love, kindness, empathy, devotion, compassion, and kind-hearted tenderness in all of her relationships, and she cultivated her friendships as one would cultivate a magnificent prize-winning flower garden, always paying full attention to those with whom she conversed. Wit, humor, sharp quips, and nonverbal emotive facial expressions made for a delightful and rewarding conversation.  Colleague Joe Jeffers states the following: “Jane B. Nimble, as I called her, and I had excellent repartee. She was always upbeat and joyous. Jane brought delight to the world.”

Yesterday Johnny Wink shared the following:

“Jane Quick was my wife’s best friend.  Friday at noon was one of Susan’s favorite hours, for ‘twas the hour when she and Jane regularly ate lunch over a period of many years.I never knew a better person than Jane Quick.  She was sweetness and light.  Calling her colleague was an honor, calling her friend, the deepest of pleasures.”

Local professional photographer Barbara Gillam, a Jane Quick friend to the very end, confided the following:

“I used to tease Jane that she was teaching me how to be a better old lady by always having snacks for your guests, giving your visitor your undivided attention, as though they were the most important person in the world, laughing at everything, especially yourself. Truth be told, loving and being loved by Jane Quick has made me a better person.”

Indeed, Jane knew how to laugh at herself, always turning a faux pas into a humorous anecdote. Such as the time she severed the electric extension cord in half while trimming the bushes, tripping the breaker in the process. Or the time she and Randy were rushing off to St. Louis to be with Carol and Chuck as first grandchild Charley was about to make his debut into the world. In their excitement, that same VW bug, sans the floral patterns, was left, with the driver’s side door wide open and engine running, in the airport’s passenger drop-off area. Oblivious to their blooper, the bug was impounded. Charles Allbright, one of the Arkansas Gazette’s finest columnists, had a field day writing about this howler. Jane and Randy turned the slip-up into a delightfully comedic event and lived to tell it, over and over again.

During her many years of teaching at Ouachita, Jane garnered the distinction of earning a stellar reputation as one of Ouachita’s finest. Committed to making a classroom experience a meaningful and rewarding educational endeavor, Jane invested the same passion and meticulous attention to her students as she did with her countless friends. She knew how to inspire her students to write meaningful prose, how to read, interpret, appreciate and enjoy a piece of literature. For her Poetry, Drama, Short Stories, Novellas, and Novels were not merely required text, but they were also instruments to hone and cultivate one’s critical thinking and aesthetic skills. When learning is made meaningful and relevant, it becomes a resourcefully deep well from which one is able to draw truth and meaning to live an abundant and fulfilling life. Jane poured her love of learning, her love of family, her love for the Creator, her love of colleagues and friends, and, above all, her love for her students, into in that hallowed space, better known as a classroom.

As an example of Jane’s popularity and the respect students accorded her, two weeks ago Elena Skylyadveda Murphy, a former 1992 international student from Uzbekistan, flew from Houston, TX,  to spend the entire day with Jane. Suffice it to say that  seventeen years after having been enlightened by Jane’s wisdom, Elena, her former student, travelled the 450 miles to lavish her mentor with love during her final days.

Having once misplaced my textbook of a text Jane and I were using for a literature class, I borrowed Jane’s book and was astounded at the copious notes, comments, and questions neatly written in all the margins. And yes, elegant short hand, a lost art, was interspersed across the pages. Reading the plethora of comments affirmed what I had already suspected: Jane  paid astute attention to details, and it was very obvious that much planning went into classroom preps, a task she took very seriously and very professionally.

When I first ventured into the world of professional writing in a lingua that I learned as a third foreign language in sixth grade, I sought the help of trusted colleagues Johnny Wink and Jane Quick, whose many comments, meticulous critiquing, editing and encouragement where the anvil on which I learned to hammer out scholarly papers, personal vignettes, and opinion pieces. And after her retirement Jane would invite me to hand deliver printed copies of materials I’d published.

The setting for these visits was more courtly than social. Sometime in the early 70’s Randy and Jane converted their garage into a very cozy family room. A towering native stone fireplace, rough-hewn cedar planks for wall paneling,  a rustic loft, a thick rug, reclining chairs draped with  colorful knitted afghans, art works galore, and brick-bracks created a warm, inviting space into which one was submerged for an hour or two. Within minutes of entering this family sanctuary, one was invited to the kitchen to delight in the partaking of coffee, hot tea, cookies, cake, cheese, peanuts, chips and dips.

And as the family grew, Brick-bracks and art works gave way to family photos of every size and genre.

My fondest memories of Jane Quick can be traced to these visits of cherished moments that continue to sustain me even as I speak. Armed with fresh homegrown tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and a jar of Halabys Homemade Heavenly Honey harvested from my beehives, summer visits were a favorite pastime.

Traditionally hearths are associated with warmth and, as one etymologist observed, the Latin term focus and hearth are somewhat synonymous, thus connoting a point of convergence for the family unit, and, by extension, making the hearth the epicenter of a home, that intimate setting  where  family and friends congregate not only for physical warmth, but also for  communal interactions that help form and sustain familial bonds during celebratory occasions and throughout every single day of the year.

A raised stone hearth with comfortable space for 4 people was that inner sanctum where Randy, Jane, Connie, Carol, and eventually son-in-law Dr. Chuck Lane, grandchildren Charley and Catie, and great-grand-children Joshua, Nathan and Timothy would sit to warm themselves on cold days and, throughout the year, to laugh, and to occasionally cry.  Catherine Crawford’s observation that for Jane “every challenging situation was met with humor” attests to Jane’s poise, grace, stoicism, and resilience, that unique strength of exhibiting grace under fire.

Never, over a period of 48 years, did I hear Jane talk about the many challenges and concerns she and Randy encountered while tending to Connie’s needs. During Randy’s illness and confinement during the last three years of his life, Jane patiently and faithfully tended to his needs as he lay on a bed in that same sacred space; she’d cuddle him, read to him, crack jokes, sing to him, feed him, administer his medicine, all the time drawing on that strength of hers, a strength that knew no bounds.

I am told that over a period of time Randy spent hours writing love notes in Jane’s favorite books – on index cards or on the faded pages. These were tender love notes and aphorisms she’d discover after Randy’s death. Even death dare not sever the I Dos promised 63 years earlier. This was certainly a marriage made in heaven, a marriage that survived adversity, and a love story written for the ages.

One day not too long after Randy’s death Jane confided the following: “I hope the Good Lord grants me enough years to take care of Connie.” Her wish was granted; Jane Quick and her devoted daughter,  Carol, with loving support from Chuck, were the rock upon which Jane leaned to make the daily visits to Connie’s apartment, to doctor’s appointments, to the pharmacy, and so much more.

And earlier this year, plucked too soon from our midst, Jane, Chuck, Charley, Catie, Joshua, Nathan, and Timothy lost a loving daughter, a praiseworthy wife, an adoring mother, and an archetypal grandmother.

Last week I told Chuck the following:  “Chuck, you’ve been a first class son-in-law, first by loving Jane’s daughter, then by inviting her into your home to live with you and Carol, the, after losing her daughter, by honoring her during the last few months of her life, lavishing her with your genuine love and tender care. You have been a very good son to Jane.” To which Chuck answered: “Jane has been a very good mother to me.”

J.Q., while you’ve departed, you will continue to cast rays of sunshine, Far and Near.

Jane was the poster girl for the French phrase Joie de vivre, a locution that describes persons who derive exuberant enjoyment for life. And all who knew her will agree that she was the epitome of joyful zest, a true ambassador of the human spirit triumphant, a beacon of light, hope, and inspiration.

Dear Friend close to my heart: You will be sorely missed. May you rest in Peace sweet, gentle, and genteel Jane.


Dr. Chuck Lane opened his remarks about his mother-in-law, Jane Quick, by stating the following: “Raouf, I will pay you back the $27. The same VW car with the decals still on, is parked in my yard.  I will pay you the $27 to take it off the yard.”

Temptation has never been stronger.


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Coups-for-Green-Energy Added to Wars-For-Oil

The US-supported right-wing coup against Bolivian President Evo Morales on November 10th was a serious strike against that nation’s autonomy and its people (especially its indigenous, of whom Morales was one). Such meddling has defined US foreign policy in Latin America for nearly two centuries, since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

“Same song, different verse,” one could say, and that’s true, but each verse has different lyrics and this one features a new element (no pun intended): Lithium.

While Lithium is used as an ingredient in a wide variety of products such as pharmaceuticals, industrial lubricants, desiccants, lenses and even rocket propellants, the fastest growing application is for batteries for electric cars. According to Bloomberg, demand for lithium could “double by 2025.”

Bolivia’s lithium reserves are believed to be the largest in the world. A conservative estimate puts their share at nearly a quarter of the world’s total, though the government has claimed it to be as high as 70% [Lithium Today]. Regardless of the exact amount, Bolivia’s supply is globally recognized to be significant, enough to have attracted the attention of China and Germany, among other countries.

Obviously, US interests in Bolivia are not about democracy, freedom or the rule of law, as Trump disingenuously stated. They’re not solely about lithium either; the socialist politics of Morales are anathema to capitalist elites the world over. Similarly, Iraq was not solely about oil. But with lithium, we’re talking about a substance that could become “one of the most important commodities on earth” so yes, it has some bearing. [See: Bolivian Coup Comes Less Than a Week After Morales Stopped Multinational Firm’s Lithium Deal and Bolivia coup against Morales opens opportunity for multinational mining companies.]

The big dream of “green energy” is that society will just be able to switch from one source to another without changing anything fundamentally. How perverse, then, that US foreign policy would not have change fundamentally either. To wars for oil, we’ll just add coups for green energy. That’s not an improvement.

Here our attention is called to a big blind spot in US liberalism. “Defense” spending devours over half the discretionary budget; the Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional polluter; the military has approximately 800 bases around the world in over 80 countries; at The facts are plain: the US is a bloated empire, defiling the planet and retaining our ’60s era title of “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

But these facts go virtually unmentioned by Democrats, either the leadership or the rank-and-file. Here’s this monstrous institution that’s exceptionally expensive, ecocidal, and murderous, and it’s off the table. That’s obscene.

The text of the “Green New Deal” as proposed by AOC and others does not mention military spending or activities, though both must be drastically curtailed to address the multiple environmental crises inflicting the planet. With this omission, the whole program is a non-starter. Throw it out and start over.

As far as all of this is concerned, investigative journalist Cory Morningstar hits it in the bullseye:

“Without anti-imperialism as a foundational building block of every social movement, without a comprehensive understanding of history and the existing power structures at work, we not only fail our brothers and sisters in the Global South, we fail as a species. Not only will our social justice movements be fought in vain, all legitimate ecological movements undertaken to protect what remains of our natural world will also prove to be futile.”

Exactly. The stakes are high. This is no time to pussy-foot around, play dumb, or put our faith in half-measures. Yet we are ignoring this central truth of our world.

Further, we must take a close look at anything labeled “green.” That includes lithium mining, no matter who’s doing it.

The highest concentrations of lithium are found in the briny groundwater beneath salt flats. This water is pumped up and collected in shallow ponds where it is left to evaporate. The remaining precipitated solids are subjected to a chemical process to extract the lithium.

Such salt flats exist only in arid places in the world and the removal of the brine tends to lower surrounding water tables, affecting local wildlife and humans. Toxic chemicals are introduced into the water, soil and air. Heaps of sludge pile up. Plants and micro-organisms are killed and animals depart. In short, the sites subjected to this industry are irrevocably wrecked. That ain’t green at all.

These are not theoretical effects. They have been observed at places like Chile’s Atacama salt flats, where lithium extraction has been happening for years. [See here & here.]

In an article about the environmental issues of lithium mining, Bloomberg quoted a Chilean biologist, Cristina Dorador, who said: “We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining. The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem and local communities.”

In an piece entitled, “Lithium mining for ‘green’ electric cars is leaving a fetid stain on the planet,” which discussed lithium operations in South America, Raw Story concludes: “The idea that electric cars, or anything with lithium batteries, is ‘green’ might be a farce.”

Bolivia’s lithium is found on the Salar de Uyuni, a massive salt plain (at over 4000 square miles in size it is the world’s largest) high in the Andes Mountains (at close to 12,000 feet in elevation). It is a place of startling beauty and the second most popular tourist attraction in Bolivia. However, it has been negatively impacted by just the limited mining activity so far:

Previously, on travelling across the blinding white surface, one could expect to come across mirages, multi-coloured lakes and even flamingos or geysers. This time there are no flashes of light or oases on the world’s largest salt flat, just an inestimable number of artificial lakes, clunking machinery and workers. The new complex of laboratories, pilot plants, prospecting wells and pools covering 27 sq km of the southeastern part of the plain, situated 140km from the town of Uyuni, represents the dreams of more than a generation of politicians – a national lithium industry.

from “Bolivia’s lithium boom: dream or nightmare?

Morales was calling for much bigger operations, with the main beneficiary to be the state rather than foreign corporations. “We will develop a huge lithium industry,” he said.

Under this plan, the unique Salar de Uyuni would become a sacrifice zone, like Chile’s Atacama.

I abhor the fascists that ran Morales out of office, especially the ones in the US. We have no business messing with anyone’s right to self-determination. I hope that Morales is able to return to power, as he has pledged to do.

At the same time, I wish that Morales could support his revolution some other way, just as I wished that Chavez could’ve avoided oil extraction in the service of his. Just as I wish every day that we here in the belly of the beast could break our deadly habits.

In this era of ever more severe ecological disasters, our most important task as humans is to stop what we’re doing, in the interest of simple survival. In this context, I will venture to say that resource extraction like lithium mining is one of the master’s tools, unfit for dismantling the master’s house.

Even when it’s called “green.”

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What Breast Cancer Taught Me About Health Care

Every weekday for six weeks this fall, I had radiation treatment for early-stage breast cancer. This journey has been a lesson in our broken social and economic systems.

In May, I saw my obstetrician for pain in my right breast. I had already put off the visit for four months — I have a full-time job and three young children, and I kept thinking if I just waited a little longer the pain would go away.

But the hypochondriac in me had finally kicked into high gear. At an imagining appointment, I learned my right breast was healthy — the pain was nothing to be concerned about — but I had calcifications on the left breast. It was early stage cancer.

In the coming weeks, I had more mammograms, ultrasounds, breast MRIs, biopsies, and numerous consults. Each visit took many hours, so each time I had to adjust my work schedule. I had surgery in July.

The cancer was caught early, my surgery was straightforward, and recovery was relatively easy. I was lucky.

Still, the treatment process was intense. After surgery — and the extra weeks I had to take off to recover — I had more follow-up visits with a radiation oncology team. Then six weeks of radiation, five days a week.

Over the last six months, the same questions have been plaguing me.

My employer was very supportive. But what if I were an hourly or low-wage worker? My health condition could have cost me my job and the ability to financially support my family.

What if I my employer didn’t offer paid leave?

My state, New York, is a leader on paid family leave. Benefits for individuals who need to care for sick loved ones are better here than in most other states.

But benefits for sick people themselves are far from adequate. At a different company, my options would have been to use my vacation or sick days — if I had them — and receive a maximum of $170 a week for short term disability.

What if I lived in one of the many communities that lacks women’s health services? What if I relied on a Planned Parenthood clinic that closed because of politically motivated and medically unsound government restrictions? It would have almost certainly delayed my initial visit, diagnosis, and treatment.

White privilege was at work before, during, and after this process — in my doctors hearing my concerns, believing my pain, and treating me with respect. In having access to high quality care. In having insurance that was accepted by every specialist I saw.

While breast cancer rates have plateaued for white women, they continue to rise among Black women, who often experience delays in diagnosis and accessing treatment. They’re 42 percent more likely to die from the disease.

Lots of women across the United States will have the very same type of cancer I had. But because our health system is broken and unjust, many will not have the same experience I did.

Our ability to care for ourselves during a health crisis should not depend on our employers, zip code, or skin color. Each of us deserves access to quality, affordable health care and universal paid leave so we can care for ourselves without sacrificing our economic security.

And our national health conversations must center and include women. Not just women like me, but like the women whose stories won’t make it to a wider audience,

Instead, politicians are laser-focused on shuttering the health clinics that are a first line of defense, detection, care and support for so many women. That should infuriate all of us.

I’m done with radiation and done with breast cancer, but I’m not done with this fight.

Andrea Flynn is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where she researches race, gender. and economic inequality.

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Time for a Billionaire Ban

Bill Gates wants you to know he pays taxes.

“I’ve paid more than $10 billion in taxes. I’ve paid more than anyone in taxes,” Gates told journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. “But when you say I should pay $100 billion, OK, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over.”

Supposedly Gate was talking about a wealth tax 2020 candidates have supported. But no plan yet proposed would seize $100 billion from the philanthrocapitalist anytime soon. Even if it did, he’d still be one of the richest men in the world, with $7 billion left over.

Gates isn’t the only billionaire who’s worried. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon also has concerns about the rising resentment towards his fellow elites.

“I think you should vilify Nazis,” Dimon told Lesley Stahl, “but you shouldn’t vilify people who worked hard to accomplish things.” Billionaire investor Leon Cooperman, who’s become a fixture on CNBC, recently teared up while complaining about the “vilification of billionaires.”

Why do the feelings of the 600 Americans that constitute our billionaire class suck up so much media attention?

For one thing, billionaires literally own the news. Buying up media companies is a new rite of passage for the ultra wealthy, like the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon head Jeff Bezos, or TIME by tech CEO Marc Benioff.

They’ll say they’re all about editorial independence, but the truth is billionaire ownership can affect news output. When billionaire Joe Ricketts found out the staff of DNAinfo, a network of city-based news sites he owned, was unionizing, he promptly shut down the entire venture out of spite.

There are more subtle ways in which the rich buy media access. The Gates Foundation, for example, has poured millions in donations into the media over the last several years to raise awareness around the foundation’s philanthropic goals — including its controversial funding of charter schools.

Not all billionaire power is publicly broadcast, however.

In their book Billionaires and Stealth Politics, researchers Benjamin Page, Jason Seawright, and Matthew J. Lacombe documenthow economic elites have banded together to lobby for extremely conservative policies, like cutting estate taxes, opposing regulations on the environment and Wall Street, and gutting social programs.

Because these moves are highly unpopular, they’ve done this work in the background.

That means there’s a network of billionaires aligned with the Koch brothers, who’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars into anti-labor policies. And Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who changed the media landscape with Fox News. And casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who’s spending his billions shaping U.S. foreign policy.

Their enormous wealth offers them an outlandishly oversized role in our democracy. It’s poisoning both our politics and our media.

So how about a ban on billionaires? Let’s tax away their wealth, but let’s get them off our airwaves, too. Imagine what we’d learn if corporate media didn’t devote entire news cycles to the whims of the rich.

You may not have heard, but for the last several months, the sanitation workers at Republic Services have been fighting for higher wages. “I haven’t had a raise since 2004,” Demetrius Tart told The Guardian. Meanwhile, the company is making a killing from the 2017 tax cuts, and returned more than $1 billion to shareholders through stock buybacks.

The company’s largest shareholder? Bill Gates. Workers took their fight directly to the billionaire, protesting outside a Gates Foundation event in September with signs that read, “Bill Gates treats his workers like garbage.” He ignored them.

Maybe these sanitation workers could get the airtime instead.

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Business as Usual: Evo Morales and the Coup Condition

There is an inherent bestiality in the politics of the Americas that signals coup, assassination and disruption. No state is ever allowed to go through what is weakly called a transition, except over corpses, tortures and morgues. When a social experiment is conducted, rulers must ensure their wills are well inked ahead of time. Opponents, often funded and sponsored by external powers with an umbilical chord to Washington, lie in wait, hoping for an unequal status quo.

Evo Morales is no winged angel and much can be said about him getting drunk with power over the course of 14 years. He lost a February 2016 referendum on the subject of indefinite presidential re-elections by a slight majority. It took the October 20 election result, dismissed by his opponents as fraudulent, to galvanise the movement against him. The Organization of American States (OAS) decided to weigh in on the subject, claiming in its audit that the result could not be deemed accurate.

During his time in office, he did a certain bit of enlightening that cannot go past the economists and demographers. Even Time magazine had to concede that, as the country’s first indigenous head-of-state, “he oversaw an economic boom, a massive reduction in poverty and strides in social equality, earning him high approval ratings and three consecutive election wins.” But the social changers are always bound for the chop, their heads placed upon some platform for removal by those with deep pockets, corporate sponsorship and the tutored thugs from the School of the Americas.

The Morales exit would be described as a coup in most languages. Generals appearing on television demanding the removal of a civilian head of state would suggest as much. On Sunday, the calls were becoming particularly loud. In a short time, Morales was on a plane to Cochabamba, adding his name to the chocked bibliography of coups that South America is renown for. (The last was the military ousting in 2009 of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.)

But he who manufactures the press releases and opinion columns manufactures reality. As Alan Macleod in Jacobin points out, various US outlets had little interest, nor stomach, for the term. Morales had “resigned” according to the ABC. The New York Times drew attention to an “infuriated population” incensed by his efforts at “undermining democracy” while also noting the term resignation. Both Morales and his vice president, Álvaro García Linera “admitted no wrongdoing and instead insisted that they were victims of a coup.”

Any legitimacy on the part of Morales’s position in office was dismissed by the acceptance on the part of such networks as CNN that there were “accusations of election fraud”. CBS News accepted it as a point of record. This particular tendency repeats instances of coverage in other elections – take the re-election of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro in 2018 as a case in point. Former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez expressed little doubt about the credibility of that result as did dozens of foreign electoral observers. “It is an advanced automatic voting system.” But why bother about international observers when removing an irritating leftist leader is so much more fun?

Other states also showed various shades of enthusiasm for the removal. Brazil’s government, despite taking heart at the forced departure of the Bolivian leader, played the no coup card. Given that Brazil was to host the governments of Russia, India, China and South Africa, it paid to be a bit cautious. The foreign minister Ernesto Araújo wanted to get his opinions out of the way prior to the arrival of any Evo enthusiasts, suggesting that Morales had engaged in “massive electoral fraud”. It followed that, “There was no coup in Bolivia.”

Corporate America, soundly and boisterously perched at the Wall Street Journal, suggested a “democratic breakout in Bolivia”, a truly risible proposition given that corporations are distinctly anti-democratic by nature. But there was concern: “Eva Morales resigns but he’ll use the Cuba-Chávez playbook to return.” The key to ensure the country’s “immediate future” depended, in no small part, “on its ability to hold new elections and reinstate a legitimate government.”

US policy wonks and officials were merry. “These events,” went a statement from the White House, “send strong signals to the illegitimate regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua that democracy and the will of the people will always prevail.” Even, it would seem, at the end of a gun barrel sported by the officer class. As ever, the concept of “the people” lacks meaning in such pronouncements, given the innumerable attempts on the part of Washington to destroy that very will throughout Latin America.

A dark note is struck in the linking of both people and the military, with the uniformed gatekeepers praised for their calm in protecting that fetish long revered in US circles. “The United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution.” All efforts at social reform, improving literacy and uplifting programs become the stuff of a deluded maniac who, for 14 years, ignored the “will of the people” and usurped legal strictures.

The Bolivian order was always going to be vulnerable. But as with other states strangled by the policies of austerity imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the savage dogma of privatisation, the mania with the balanced budget at the expense of poverty eradication, and a distinct lack of interest in social improvement, Bolivia found, for a time, efforts to improve its lot. Across the Americas, a trend of reversal is in evidence, and the departure of Morales is its testament.

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Toward a Counterculture of Rebellion

Living In A World That Can’t Be Fixed is not a guidebook to terminal melancholy. Curtis White, the author of this book, also wrote The Spirit of Disobedience along with other social criticism, hardly advocates that course of inaction. On the contrary, White’s provocative title poses a challenge. He’s saying political reformism offers modest remedies, at best, to mitigate the catastrophe upon us. And he says it with a range of insights—from Wordsworth to Adorno by way of Agnes Varda. Curtis writes with assurance of his sources, but far removed from a pedantic style.

Let’s begin where White does in the year 1969—a pivotal year for him. A recent high school graduate, living in an East Bay suburb outside San Francisco, he encountered both the political left and hippies—the counterculture. He absorbed both milieux. That year, forever in the shadow of ’68, was noteworthy for several historic countercultural events: Woodstock, People’s Park, the Alcatraz Island occupation, and, ending in December, with the fateful Rolling Stone’s Altamont concert where one person was killed.

The political aspects of the Sixties counterculture have been relegated to limbo by the manipulative media to emphasize instead the hairy, bell-bottomed, dope-smoking, denizens of the music scene as epitomizing the counterculture. White corrects this. The counterculture had extreme poles: uptight politicos at one end and psychedelic mystics at the other. White, however, was in the majority who combined, to varying degrees, political awareness along with hedonistic and revelatory pursuits of mind and body. The rebellious nature of the counterculture, we need to recall, had antecedents. The Beats immediately preceded the hippies and in some instances merged with that culture. Before the Beats, the Dadaists and Surrealists combined revolutionary politics with literary and artistic disruptions, and they in turn drew upon a host of nineteen-century poets and artists who assaulted the bourgeois philistinism of their era. It is this rich vein of oppositional culture that White mines for his sharp analysis of our current predicament.

And what precisely is our predicament? Let’s be clear here that the world in turmoil affects us intimately by way of mass
media saturation. The 24/7 bullshit that comes our way precludes an informed and critical analysis. Cutting through the media—its “if–it-bleeds-it-leads” stories—is essential. In short, the neoliberal order, unable to remedy the shambles it has created, putters along like a jalopy chucked full of armed thugs. All the media shows us in its wake is the carnage.

In response to mass media the political left promotes a moral crusade, not a vision of a convivial future. White maintains that left politics lacks an appreciation of culture, specifically a “culture-as-politics.” As he says:

Properly understood, culture is concerned with the process of becoming. Culture is about movement more fundamental than this year’s political movements. As Sigmund Freud wrote, culture is the act of “replacing what is unconscious with what is conscious.” A cult is unconscious. It simply does what it has always done. It follows instructions. Culture, on the other hand, is the bringing to awareness of the damage—repression, irrationality, violence, ugliness, injustice, and tragedy—imposed by the cult. In this sense, culture is enlightenment. And in this sense the United States is a cult.

An investigation into the meaning of culture leads White to explore the significance of place and the thinking of Christopher Alexander, a British-American architect and theorist who should be better known. Influenced by, among others, the anarchist geographer Peter Kropotkin and British “plotlanders” who built their own homes, Alexander imagines communities as “mosaics of subcultures”—a radical social decentralization not for political ends as much as for relational needs. Applied to cities, these mosaics are similar to the diverse neighborhoods in Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach’s Seventies speculative novel of a future US where the Pacific Northwest secedes.

The unofficial capital of Ecotopia was San Francisco, where the hilly topography invited distinct and diverse neighborhoods. Today gentrification and homogenization has transformed San Francisco into a playground for salary-bloated software engineers. When Callenbach wrote the city was still a haven for cultural creation. Communes and collectives thrived. The picturesque large Victorians in the Haight that accommodated communal households of hundreds of freaks were splashed across front pages to perpetuate, at best, novelty and at worst, depravity. Ignored were the thousands who inhabited other neighborhoods throughout the city. In this way the media deliberately misconstrued the extensive culture creation for superficialities.

Artists, musicians, and actors appropriated more space by transforming abandoned warehouses into live/work studios. Soon the communes spawned economic collectives: food stores, bicycle and head shops, resale clothing stores, and even car repair garages and print shops. These ventures did business in a neighborly way—like a village. In the mid-Seventies many of them were networked through a group called The InterCollective. During its heyday their Directory listed 150 collectives in the San Francisco Bay Area and 350 on the West Coast.

The Sixties countercultural institutions, rooted in place, provided the space for collective pursuits that the traditional economy foreclosed. To disparage these collectives as failed projects, because many of them didn’t survive, is to forget that youth, not too distant from their childhood, hobbled them together. Notwithstanding their precarious origins, the legacy of that period continues today with up to 2,000 worker cooperative members and further thousands living in cooperative housing in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area.

To incubate institutions that incorporate the elements of a good life, White asserts, requires grounding in place as a site to cultivate our better selves. This notion may seem foreign to most people, so White successfully unwraps it with references to a broad range of cultural artifacts: films, books, plays, and music. From pop culture to more obscure literary references, he manages to convey complex ideas effortlessly.

If the Sixties was noted for communes, fifty years later we have our commons.

Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, methodically studied commons all over the world. Her book Governing the Commons, however, didn’t appear until 1990. The commons, as resource sharing and as an alternative to private property, didn’t gain popular recognition until the beginning of the current century.

An argument could be made that the notion of the commons eclipses the communes of the counterculture. If the hippies and fellow travelers had explicitly recognized that their various collectives had an historic commonality, maybe a stronger political force of solidarity would have taken shape. A force, that is, to sustain a concerted fight to keep rents low and funding high for countercultural subversions.

There was one struggle in White’s pivotal year of 1969, the year of People’s Park, which is exemplary as a reclamation of the commons. The commons-to-be was a parcel four times the size of People’s Park and two miles away in a working class neighborhood of Berkeley. It was a dirt field several hundred feet wide and one-half mile long that remained after Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) submerged tracks underground for its transit system.

Much of the energy from the People’s Park struggle got directed to creating a park on the barren land. They called it People’s Park Annex. This was the impetus that propelled the neighbors to develop the land. For ten years the community near the park overcame police harassment to plant trees and shrubs, create a vegetable garden, build children’s play structures, and party with huge potlucks. They resisted all attempts to divert the land for one stupid project after another until finally, with some clever legal tactics, the community wrenched the land from BART so that the City of Berkeley could acquire it. In 1979, Ohlone Park, named after the tribe that historically inhabited the SF Bay area, was officially proclaimed as a city park. The residents of Berkeley removed a significant piece of real estate from the market and created a commons—one of the largest reclaimed urban commons in America.

The continuing struggle with the campus-owned land, that is the original People’s Park, took on the tone of militant resistance—the park as a battlefield. The PPA participation, however, looked more like a carnival. There’s a lesson here. It’s the nature of a commons to facilitate democratic practices and cultivate a pragmatic egalitarianism—to live differently, as White asserts. Or as one guerilla gardener said of the PPA, “This is an adult adventure playground.

Obviously not all commons are carnivals. Historically the commons was a survival resource. It was the village grazing field, the wood supply, and a space for garden plots. In the nineteenth century, cooperatives were considered the urban form of the commons, as they remain today, though few refer to them as such. The commons was a work site, but we wouldn’t recognize the nature of the work done there. Sure, the specific tasks would be recognizable as those undertaken to provide sustenance for a family, but the context would not. Commoners practiced cooperation and reciprocity; the commons was maintained and improved collectively. Over decades, if not centuries, rules and regulations were established that provided guidance for managing the commons and governance was based on the egalitarian premise that decisions were decided to avoid divisiveness. It was the site for solidarity, which is why it had to be destroyed, enclosed.

White proposes that a new culture needs to arise from a solid foundation, a place to initiate significant revolt. One premised on “sustainable happiness.” He defines happiness with this quote from Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness:

A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor—such is my idea of happiness.

This idyll resembles the vision Marx had of life in a post-capitalist (communist) society where one would garden in the morning, have a leisurely lunch with one’s friends, play games afterwards and read or play music in the evening (or a similar mix of activities).

These nineteenth century musings may seem quaint to us. Seemingly, they depict individual refuges, though in context they were meant to be collective ventures. But we could ask what relevance do they have for a world where rural residents everywhere are draining away to urban slums?

Place without solidarity is a shrine. Nineteen century workers had Labor Temples.

The oppositional culture that White seeks must involve a strategy to build solidarity. Decades ago, solidarity streamed out of factories all over the land. Its attire was the work shirt and sturdy denim slacks. Its accouterment was the lunch pail. And strikes fortified it. Solidarity like that may appear in specific cases today, but it is no longer universal. It no longer terrorizes the bosses.

So where to find that solidarity today? If it can’t be found on the assembly line can it be found with jobs at all? By the way, working in an Amazon warehouse doesn’t approach the sense of dignity that was integral to manufacturing jobs; even though they may have been grueling and hazardous, those jobs supplied the psychological basis for resistance to the demands of the bosses.

There can be no oppositional culture if we are tethered to a meaningless job all day. What made the Sixties counterculture viable was, relatively speaking, an abundant economy compared to the austerity we suffer today. It was possible then to have a part-time job, live communally, and spend most of the day doing “what we will” as the old Eight Hour Movement slogan proclaimed.

To counter the austerity imposed on us by the bankers and their henchmen we might consider the obvious hidden in plain sight. The wealth of our society accumulated because of the efforts of previous generations. All the historic accomplishments along with all the natural resources are the commons and our inheritance. Each of us should be entitled to a portion of that inheritance. Guy Standing, the British economist, calls it a Commons Dividend. That’s just another name for a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

A UBI coupled with the implementation of basic human rights as outlined in the UN Charter on Human Rights could be the foundation for a life that is our wealth, to paraphrase John Rustin who White admires. But this is just the beginning. “Everything begins with the individual, but nothing ends there,” to quote Raoul Vaneigem, who I admire.

A guaranteed income in the context of the climate catastrophe we are enduring will hardly lead to the idyllic life Tolstoy or Marx imagined, at least not all the time. There is work to be done. Consider for example: to create a sustainable agricultural economy will entail droves of people moving to farms, to the new farms created to restore the soil, grow organic crops, and sequester carbon. This means thousands of smaller plots with millions of people working them maybe part-time and seasonally. With a UBI, jobs that force individuals to harm the planet to survive could be abandoned for socially useful tasks and absolutely necessary ones given the climate emergency. The possibility of solidarity arising amongst those reversing the damage to our planet cannot be dismissed. In fact, these are the tasks, collectively organized from the grassroots that can only function well with solidarity.

White calls for rebalancing our priorities. We can too easily get addicted to quotidian outrages—the media is a gateway drug—and waste too much time, as White maintains, trying to reform a world that can’t be fixed. Time spent creating a life with others should be the goal. This isn’t an abstraction. It means developing a playful and determined opposition—a counterculture of rebellion. We have antecedents. But instead of collectively reclaiming our lives, we work at jobs that suck our cooperative energies for stupid, if not destructive, ends. By developing solidarity with others for good ends, we will heal our abused selves while healing the abused world.

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The Benefits of Environmental Citizenship

It is not an unreasonable extension of reasoning to argue that the political and social tension wracking Canada today can be traced to orchestrated environmental disarray and a deliberate agenda, now decades in the making, to make sure citizens and scientific evidence and reasoning are kept separate from decision makers and decision making.

This designed divorce of people from the national environmental and energy regulatory processes has bred anger, distrust and suspicion about who is getting more than their share, who is paying more than their share, and who is being left out.

The reality is, and I paraphrase from a 1997 legal review about civil service ministry/agency decision making, that societies can, and I argue governments should (but will only if we force them to) actively engage in building citizenship.

The benefits are never ending;  participation in ministry and agency (like the National Energy Board) decision-making helps produce better citizens by inspiring a sense of civic responsibility.

Participation not only makes for better informed citizens, it also helps develop citizenship, a precondition to (what should be) contemporary agency / Ministry decision making.

Participation is important because it is an “affirmation of belonging”. It makes citizens feel as if they are a part of, and thus helps to encourage membership in, a political community.

Participation “educates individuals how to think publicly as citizens”, inducing us to listen to other people’s positions and, just as importantly, to justify our own”, and Citizenship presupposes that one is able to participate in the decisions that affect oneself and one’s community”

This would not be, or lead to, some miraculous healing or coalescing of citizens – not after decades of gross mismanagement and not without time, but tell me, since when is it too late to turn back from a path wrongly taken?

The root cause of discord in Canada and within provinces – and there is widespread dissatisfaction with public resource (mis)management – take Forest protection and the Forest industry in B.C. as just one example – is successive government failure to elevate environmental management and protection to scientifically sound written standards with legal status.

Lack of federal leadership and absence of dedicated (and legal) effort to harmonize provincial environmental protection standards and practices, including legal mandates for citizen participation in decision making, has not only degraded landscapes and created a biodiversity (fish and wildlife, forests, and range) conservation crisis, it has corrupted democracy and unity, creating extreme and divisive expectations where far too many people think only of their own wallet.

Highly fragmented and meddling approach to economic stimulation in the total absence of high and common environmental protection standards has led to special interests – like oil and gas in Alberta, the timber industry in B.C., and agriculture and livestock industries, along with industrial recreation businesses, across the west , demanding that their interests be granted privilege above the common good and way above landscape and ecosystem viability.

All citizens, from all provinces, both nationally and within a province, playing by the same rules, would set a standard that would “cut off at the knees” todays commonly practice of sneaking through the back door to political and regulatory “friends” in order to get special privilege.

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All That Gunsmoke

The television series Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1890s and began as a radio program that CBS aired from 1952 to 1961 . . . the program’s enduring success resulted largely from the psychological drama and tense situations that were resolved with moral ambiguity rather than with a showdown at high noon.

Encyclopedia Britannica

A gun is usually acknowledged to be a weapon from which a bullet is fired, and a ‘smoking gun’ is literally one from which a bullet has emerged, causing a puff of smoke to appear at the end of the barrel. On the other hand, a smoking gun is frequently defined as “a piece of incontrovertible incriminating evidence”, and there are countless smoking guns in the United States right now : some in politics, but many in literal circumstances in which people have been killed. We are told that “as of September 24, 2019, 334 mass shootings have occurred in 2019 . . .  In these shootings, 1,347 people were injured and 377 died.” In almost every other country in the world, this would be regarded as a massive domestic problem that required decisive action, such as that taken so swiftly by New Zealand after a horrific gun attack by a terrorist in March 2019.

But not in America, where concentration is on political smoking guns, and the attention given to mass killings is bizarrely dismissive.

One of the latest smoking gun reports concerns the ongoing Trump impeachment inquiry, in which there is compelling evidence that he tried to persuade the Ukrainian government to investigate his political rival, former vice-president Biden. The Economist reported that “On October 22 America’s top diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, testified to House investigators that President Donald Trump threatened to withhold $391 million in military aid unless Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, opened an investigation into the son of Joe Biden, one of Mr Trump’s potential rivals in next year’s election. It was the clearest and most detailed account to date — from a public servant whose career spans five decades and nine administrations — of Mr Trump leaning on a foreign leader to help his re-election effort.”  There have been similar statements from several other trustworthy individuals who even in the era of Trump were surprised at the squalid deceit they had witnessed. It’s been a particularly American series of gunsmoke fandangos.


Killing, however, was not confined to the US, and it was reported on October 10 that in Germany “A gunman in military outfit went on a rampage in the city of Halle, killing two people, with further bloodshed averted only because the attacker’s homemade firearms malfunctioned”  Footage on a livestreaming platform showed the gunman becoming increasingly frustrated as his weapons repeatedly malfunctioned. “In at least three instances the video shows the suspect pointing a gun directly at a victim only for the weapon to jam.”

At the end of his shooting frenzy he is heard saying “At least I’ve proved homemade weapons are useless” and later it was reported that the accused assailant was Stephan Balliet, aged 27, who “spent several hours giving evidence before a federal court judge.”

We are informed by German Culture that “The German system of gun control is among the most stringent in Europe. It restricts the acquisition, possession, and carrying of firearms to those with a creditable need for a weapon. It bans fully automatic weapons and severely restricts the acquisition of other types of weapons.”

On the other hand, in the United States of America any individual may own a personal weapon, as confirmed by the Supreme Court District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008, and soundly endorsed by President Trump in a speech to the National Rifle Association in 2017 when he declared “let me make a simple promise to every one of the freedom-loving Americans in the audience today: as your President, I will never, ever infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms — never, ever. Freedom is not a gift from government. Freedom is a gift from God.”  Like the votes of the NRA’s gun-loving fanatics.

But there would have been a very different outcome to the Halle shooting onslaught if all Germans had the right to keep and bear arms, and if there had been the gift of freedom for Stephan Balliet to go to a supermarket where they are for sale to all.

In a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, on August 3, 2019, 21 year-old Patrick Crusius shot dead 22 people with an assault rifle. Two of the 25 injured were still in hospital when he appeared in court on October 10.  A month after the shooting, as reported by CNN, Walmart “said it will stop selling handgun ammunition and ‘short-barrel rifle ammunition,’ such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber, that can also be used on assault-style weapons, after selling all of its current inventory [emphasis added]. Walmart will continue to sell long barrel deer rifles and shotguns and much of the ammunition for those guns. The company sells guns in about 3,900 stores.”

Walmart’s modest anti-slaughter actions after the El Paso killings prompted the National Rifle Association to berate the company and announce on September 3 that “The strongest defense of freedom has always been our free-market economy. It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites. Lines at Walmart will soon be replaced by lines at other retailers who are more supportive of America’s fundamental freedoms. The truth is Walmart’s actions today will not make us any safer. Rather than place the blame on the criminal, Walmart has chosen to victimize law-abiding Americans. Our leaders must be willing to approach the problems of crime, violence and mental health with sincerity and honesty.”

It is difficult to imagine the mental processes of whoever wrote that demented gibberish, and their lack of balance is placed in perspective by the New York Times’ report that it “examined all shootings between Memorial Day [May 27] and Labor Day [September 2] in which three or more people died, not including the gunman” and counted 26 mass gun attacks in which 126 people were killed.  The National Rifle Association cannot explain how these hideous atrocities could possibly demonstrate “fundamental freedoms” but it seems it doesn’t need to explain anything very much in order to maintain its influence over the American people, because it has the backing of countless politicians including Trump, who spoke with Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association (annual salary $985,000), for half-an-hour on August 20.

Then on September 27 Mr La Pierre visited the White House where he and Trump “discussed prospective gun legislation and whether the NRA could provide support for the president as he faces impeachment and a more difficult re-election campaign.”  It is notable that so far in the 2020 presidential election cycle the NRA has donated $16,800 to Trump and over a quarter of a million dollars to other politicians and political agencies.

The moral smoking gun in America is the repulsive behavior of the National Rifle Association, an organization whose reaction to the real smoking guns that kill US citizens in horrific and ever-increasing numbers is to denigrate those who seek to control and reduce the slaughter. They are the traitors to true American values, as was demonstrated by Trump’s tweet tirade about Beto O’Rourke, a politician supporting gun control who withdrew from the list of those seeking the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the 2020 election.  Mr O’Rourke’s home town is El Paso, scene of the August Walmart slaughter, and he had proposed the buyback of assault rifles, which prompted ferocious criticism from the gun fanatics.  He wants to “end the epidemic of gun violence” but Trump called him ‘pathetic’, ‘nasty’ and a ‘poor bastard’.

All that gunsmoke will continue in America, and we must all hope that the smoking guns involving President Trump will assist in his removal before there are even more mass murders of innocent people by assault weapons that he and the National Rifle Association are so happy to see in all the stores.  But as with the Gunsmoke TV series, it looks as if there will continue to be moral ambiguity rather than a showdown at high noon.

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Why is there so Much Wrong in Our Society?

As old certainties crumble and systems crystallize, social divisions grow and extremes harden, a friend asks: “Why is there so much wrong in our society?” It’s a good question. He was referring specifically to Britain where we both live, but, although the specific problems may vary, the question could be applied to any country, and by extension, to world society.

Politicians, lost in a fog of their own ambition and blinded by ideologies, argue and deceive; they have no answers to the pressing issues or my friend’s question and, addicted to the privilege, status and motorcades, are concerned only with gaining and retaining office. Corporations and undemocratic institutions exert increasing political power and sociological influence; religion, essential to some, is irrelevant to many, ‘the church’ east and west groans under the weight of its inhibiting doctrine, fails to provide guidance and succor, and ‘the people’ – most of whom live under a blanket of economic insecurity – feel increasingly anxious, angry and depressed.

We had been discussing the justice system and specifically prisons, retribution and the total absence of rehabilitation in the UK system, when my friend posed his rhetorical question. The areas of chaos and dysfunction are many and varied, from environmental carnage to armed conflict, slavery, economic injustice and homelessness. All, however, flow from the same polluted source, us – mankind; motive, often short-term ideologically rooted, conditions and corrupts action and the construction of socio-economic forms.

Society is not an abstraction, it is a reflection of the consciousness of the people who live within it, the seed of ‘what is wrong in our society’ lies within this consciousness, not simply in the forms and systems themselves. There will never be peace in the world, for example, until we ourselves are free of conflict: that we constitute society and that societal problems flow from us is clearly true, but, as with most things in life, the issue is more complex and nuanced.

Firstly, the relationship between the forces of society and the individual is a symbiotic one, and this is well known to those that most powerfully control the systems under which we all live; secondly, the vast majority of people have little or no influence over the mechanics of society. Depending on the nature of the society in which we live, we are all to a greater or lesser degree, structural victims, with little or no voice and even less influence – something that in recent years in particular, millions have been marching to change. Billions of people throughout the world, the overwhelming majority, feel themselves to be subjects within a Giant Game of Aggrandizement and Profit played by governments and powerful organizations, including the media in its many strands.

These interconnected and interdependent groups, which are of course made up of men and women, design and shape the way society functions, and do all they can to manipulate how the masses think and act. The ideology of choice for those functioning within the corporate political sphere is founded on and promotes the dogma of greed and profit. Selfishness, ambition, competition, nationalism all are found within its tenets and are promoted as natural human tendencies that are beneficial for an individual and so should be developed. Such ‘qualities’ they claim, bring success, usually understood as material comfort, career achievement or social position, and with success, the story goes, comes happiness. Within the Corrupt Construct happiness, which is rightly recognized as something that everyone longs for, has been replaced by pleasure, which is sought after day and night. Likewise, desire and the satiation of desire, itself an impossibility – this too is well known by the architects – has been substituted for love, which has been assimilated, commodified and neatly packaged.

The tendency towards greed and selfishness, hate and violence, no doubt exist within the human being, the negative lies within us all, so does the good. The Good is our inherent nature, hidden within the detritus of conditioning and fear. The negative, aggravated, rises, and, within the Corrupt Construct it is relentlessly prodded and stirred up. Desire is demanded, facilitating its bedmate fear, which manifests as anxiety/stress, to which an antidote is offered by the deeply concerned, eternally grateful, trillion dollar pharmaceutical companies, recreational drugs/alcohol and the world of entertainment. Common sense, restraint and The Wisdom of The Wise is trivialized, discarded; conflict and suffering, within and without goes on. Discontent leading to the pursuit of pleasure is the aim, desire, agitated, the means.

The two most pervasive and effective tools employed to condition the minds of all are education and the media. Conditioning into competition and nationalism, pleasure and individualism – not individuality, which is dangerous to the status quo and is therefore actively discouraged; conformity is insisted upon and forms a cornerstone of education and the stereotypes churned out by the media.

This is a transitional time, a time of collapse and expansion, of disintegration and rebuilding; underlying the present tensions and discord is the energy of change and the emergence of the new.

A battle is taking place, between those forces in the world that are wedded to the old ways, and a dynamic, global movement for social justice, environmental action, peace and freedom. Sapped of energy, the existing forms and modes of living are in a state of decay; propelled solely by the impetus of the past they persist in form only, hollow carcasses without vitality. Growing numbers of people around the world know this to be true, and while some react with fear and look for certainty behind a flag or ideology, the majority call for a fundamental shift, for justice and the inculcation of systems that allow unifying harmonious ways of living to evolve. As always, resistance is fierce, but change and the spirit of the time cannot be held at bay indefinitely.

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Black, Blue, Jazzy and Beat Down to His Bones: Being Bob Kaufman

It wasn’t ever easy to be Bob Kaufman, not even in San Francisco, a city hospitable to poetry and poets, and where Kaufman was a larger than life figure who attracted attention wherever he went, not unlike that San Francisco native, Jack London, who also attracted attention and stood out from his contemporaries. Like London, Kaufman was the real thing and no imitation writer.

The American literary critic, Alfred Kazin, once wrote famously that, “The greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.” Much the same might be said about the African-American, jazzy, beat poet, Bob Kaufman, who was born in 1925 in New Orleans to a father who was of German descent and an Orthodox Jew, and a mother who was Catholic and from Martinique.

From those origins, it’s no wonder he was a kind of misfit in a crowd of misfits.

Fans of Jack London’s writing have long disputed Kazin’s remark and have touted books like The Call of the Wild and Martin Eden and stories such as “To Build a Fire.” No doubt, fans of Kaufman’s poetry—which has just been published in its entirety by City Lights—would dispute the notion that his greatest story was his own life, though his eleven-year vow of silence following JFK’s assassination made him a legendary figure in San Francisco and beyond.

Other chapters in his life, including his years as a merchant marine are no less dramatic, and no less emblematic of his loneliness and his solitude as a black man in a white world. For most of the 1940s, he sailed from New Orleans to New York and Calcutta and back to the U.S. and learned the ways of men and women and different cultures.

No one seems to know what he did for the year, 1952. “Whereabouts unknown,” the chronology of his life reads.

The City Lights website calls Kaufman “One of the most important and most original—poets of the twentieth-century.” Poet and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, writes, “No one else talked like him. No one else wrote poetry like him.”

Maybe not in the U.S., but elsewhere in the world, poets did write like him. The French have long claimed him as a literary kinsman and dubbed him “the Black American Rimbaud.”

Readers can judge for themselves what to call Kaufman and where to place him now that all his poems are contained in a single volume titled Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (City Lights; $13.97 paperback), which is edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye and Tate Swindell, all of them fierce defenders of Kaufman’s reputation.

New Directions previously published two volumes of Kaufman’s poetry: Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness (1965) and The Ancient Rain (1981). City Lights published Golden Sardine, his first book of poetry in 1967, the same year that L’Herne in Paris published some of his work in French.

Former San Francisco poet laureate, devorah major, writes in a Foreword that Kaufman “will always be surrounded by myth and mystery,” that he was “a poet of the world,” and that his work is best appreciated while listening to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Béla Bartók.

The names of jazz musicians sparkle on the pages of his poems. If he was at home anywhere, it was with the likes of African-American saxophonists, pianists and blues singers, and Bartók thrown in for cultural diversity.

Major calls Kaufman a “Beat poet,” but she adds that he was not “’beat’ in the meaning attributed to Jack Kerouac.” Still, Kaufman sounds in part like Kerouac—who deified the down-and-out—in the poem titled “Celestial Hobo.” At the same time, Kaufman parts company from Kerouac when he writes in the same poem about “Zombie existences” and “Dada prodigies of black.”

Unlike Kaufman’s surrealistic, Dadaesque universe, Kerouac’s parallel universe isn’t populated by zombies. Nor is it infused by the surrealist aesthetic. Kerouac was closer to Joyce and Proust than to Rimbaud, Baudelaire and the French symbolists.

For many years, Kerouac proclaimed (and wrote in his journal) that he wanted to be a “Negro.” (“Negro” is the word he used.) In On the Road, Kerouac’s hero, Sal Paradise, echoes that sentiment.

While walking the streets of Denver, Colorado, Paradise says he wishes that he could exchange his disillusionment with the white world for the world of the “happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.”

Happy and ecstatic doesn’t sound like Kaufman, who was locked up in jails and mental institutions, beaten by the police and investigated by the FBI. For a time he apparently belonged to the Communist Party of the U.S.A.

He died of pulmonary emphysema in 1986 at the age of 60. It’s unlikely that Kerouac would have wanted to be a Negro in the precise way that Kaufman was a Negro. That would have been too painful.

Kaufman’s desire to be embraced by the white San Francisco literary world—bohemian, hipster and Beat—finds expression in “West Coast Sounds — 1956” in which he mentions Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth, the Chicago-born godfather of the Beats.

Like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, Kaufman often wrote in the first person, but he also seemed to subvert the first person when he wrote in “Ginsberg (for Allen),” “I am not not an I…I do nothing.”

A mimic who could adopt different voices, Kaufman could sound like Ginsberg in “Benediction,” a short, angry, ironical, surrealistic poem in which he writes, “America, I forgive you/Eating black children/… Burning Japanese babies.”

The poem ends rather predictably, “Every day your people get more and more/ Cars, television, sickness, death dreams.”

But perhaps it’s Ginsberg who sounds like Kaufman. Still, Ginsberg was rarely as enraged as Kaufman was. Ginsberg’s poem, “America,” ends, “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Kaufman was far more alienated from American life than Ginsberg or Kerouac. A century after the end of the American Civil War, it still rankled him.

Forgiveness didn’t come easily to Kaufman, though devorah major says he helped to build a Buddhist temple in San Francisco and had a Buddhist practice, which suggests the capacity to forgive. Major also allows that he was funny. If so, it’s often the humor of a man who couldn’t forget about war, genocide and famine, except perhaps when he listened to jazz.

He does look very happy in a photo (included in this volume), from 1962 that was taken in New York, where he smiles with his son Parker (named after Charlie Parker) and his wife Eileen.

Kaufman is most happy when he’s playing with words and challenging the linguistic expectations of readers, as when he accuses Ginsberg of “tossing lions to the martyrs,” and in his “Abomunist Manifesto” when he suggests that one way to end religious bigotry is to have a “protestant candidate for Pope.” (The word “abomunist,” which he coined, merges his abolutionist and communist sympathies.)

He’s fun to read when he writes about his Louisiana grandfather who plays “chess with an intellectual lobster,” burns down his house and sends the “intellectual off to jail.”

In his book Whitman’s Wild Children, Neeli Cherkovski tells a story about meeting the poet in San Francisco. “Bob Kaufman will disappear someday,” he told Cherkovski. “Nobody will even notice.” He was wrong. Cherkovski has never forgotten him, nor have Raymond Foye, Tate Swindell, devorah major and everyone at City Lights who have made sure that the work of Bob Kaufman is more visible now than when he was alive.

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Treason as a Lifestyle: I’ll Drink to That

Domestically, there was the Homeland Securitization of everything…the steady erosion of civil liberties, the very liberties we were allegedly fighting to protect. The cumulative damage—the malfeasance in aggregate—was staggering to contemplate and felt entirely irreversible, and yet we were still honking our horns and flashing our lights in jubilation.

– Edward Snowden, Permanent Record

At the end of his court martial for treason, the fictional character, Lieutenant Philip Nolan, was asked if he had anything to say to the court before sentencing. Rashly, he blurted out, “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” A stunned judge granted his wish and Nolan became the legendary ex-pat described in the short story, “The Man Without A Country,” by Edward Everett Hale. He was condemned to live at sea his remaining days (56 years) without ever again being vouchsafed a single word of his beloved country. The teary tale of patriotism was required reading back in the elementary days when it was also mandatory to stand-up (no knees) for a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, right hand across the heart.

I thought of Nolan’s plight as I read Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, Belén Fernández’s travelogue, beefed up with op-ed riffs on local and global politics. It’s not an easy comparison; there are many complicating factors to their respective exiles — beginning with the fact that Nolan’s is involuntary (he really didn’t mean what he shouted), while Fernández leaves thoughtfully rejecting America.

The other thing they have in common is that their views on American militarism are not welcome by the mainstream patriots of their times. Nolan’s “treason” was that he had spoken out for peace during the Civil War, at a time when the Union was having difficulty recruiting soldiers, while Fernández openly rejects the War on Terror and its rootedness in what she regards as a drive for world domination

It was a view her parents shared, too, ditching America for Spain, once they got past their “mercifully brief…patriotic sentiment” and came to realize that, after the bellicose presidency of G.W.Bush, “the ensuing reign of Obama—the king of drone strikes, deportations, and other damage” was just more of the same. There was no real difference in the policies of Republicans and Democrats. Fernández’s dad, once settled into Barcelona, spends time writing postcards to the warmongers of the Middle East — “Beelzebub” (Obama) and “Mephistopheles” (Netanyahu), which probably put him on at least a couple of watchlists.

Early in Exile, Fernández makes clear her disdain for American-style hypocrisy — its willingness to force its brand of Exceptionalism, an olio of neoconservative militarism married to debt-inducing neoliberalism, while allowing its own domestic policy-making to so erode confidence in the American Dream that the country entered social and economic crises, so catastrophic that citizens risked everything to elect a populist clown as president. As Fernández puts it,

Lest folks start to view the state itself as public enemy number one, however, more convenient menaces are regularly trotted out. In addition to the usual domestic suspects—blacks, poor people, immigrants, and so on—the wider world has proved fertile terrain for the manufacture of any number of freedom-imperiling demons.

They say, ‘America, love it or leave it’: She left.

But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love America — it’s just that, like Nolan, her voice goes against the grain of the times, her tone sounding treasonous (see Susan Sontag) in the ongoing narrative of vigilance against terrorism at any cost, even if the price is compromised freedom. Fernández grew up hearing her fair share of soldierly tales of foreign deployment in the service of setting people free. Her grandfather “facilitated patriotic assimilation by joining the armed forces, thanks to which he was able to participate in not only the D-Day landings at Normandy but also the Korean and Vietnam wars.” And she has a brother who was in Special Forces who discovered through tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that he liked to kill Arabs.

However, she really takes after her journalist father — she, too, writes op-eds (for Jacobin magazine) that question the motivations of various heads of state. She also seems to carry his romanticism. He reads and re-reads Don Quixote, resulting in a memoir that took 17 years to complete. One can see how Fernández’s travels seem quixotic, although, rather than chasing after windmills, she tends toward tracking down the nearest winebar, with her sidekick Polish-American friend, Amelia.

In her travels with Amelia through Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy, Fernández’s quirky humor is especially effective in painting a droll picture of her locale or situation. While hitchhiking she discovers “some damn fine people,” and “Relatively rare was the occasion on which we had to leap out of a moving vehicle to thwart molestation….” And when things did go bad that way, luckily they went comically bad, such as the time when hitchhiking near the Black Sea, they were picked up by a drunken Turkish doctor, who brought them to a remote locale, then got aggressive and chased them, “leaving us no choice but to hide dramatically beside a stream—facedown—until the coast was clear.”

She has a flair for describing scenes that can seem comically self-indulgent, such as when she writes of jogging, “clad in a hideous pileup of sweaters, scarves, and socks,” through the mortar-pocked streets of snowy Sarajevo which remind her of “the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s.” She ends up in an apartment “not far from the bridge where the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I,” being attended to by a girl who teaches her “essential Bosnian words like ‘wine,’ ‘spinach-and-cheese pie,’ and ‘catastrophe.’” It’s an attractive observational humor.

Similarly, when she writes “ …Italy may not always be the most helpful society on the planet—witness the boatloads of refugees left to drown in recent years by the Italian coast guard—the ubiquity of cheap wine made it a suitable spot to sit out the inaugural year of the War on Terror…,”one pictures a blogger sitting at a cafe table overlooking the sea, getting their post in for the day, while people drown — all recalling the tone of W. C. Wiliams’ Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (“a splash quite unnoticed”). Her arch, but jocular attitude seems like the right approach for a disgusted, opinionated feminist turning her back on America’s fatwa against the Shia world.

In Lebanon, Fernández’s passions are aroused by the politics of the region and her meeting up with a Palestinian-Lebanese character named Hassan. “Amelia and I first met Hassan,” she recalls, “while hitchhiking in Lebanon shortly after Israel’s 2006 assault—not to be confused with Israel’s 1978, 1982, 1993, or 1996 assaults, or its 22-year occupation of the southern part of the country.” She talks with Hassan and discovers that he’s a kind of jack-of-all-trades — a hustler after mysterious scams, a bus guide for refugees, a blackmailer, a poor man’s private eye, and a car rental agent in Tyre (“former stomping ground of Alexander the Great”). He needs a bride to obtain an American passport to visit relatives, he says, in Israel; she obliges, but eschews “the premarital virginity test.”

Fernández has significant animus for the seemingly unrepentant fascism of some Israeli policies, especially when it comes to Palestinians. She notes Israel’s bombing of roads and bridges, and discusses Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon; its management by the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA). And, no doubt, Hassan’s tales of loss amplify her empathetic rage: He has “lost three sisters, who had been killed by Israel, a sniper, and a car, respectively.” As Fernández and Amelia accompany Hassan, and his pal Mo, on “the high-speed running of unspecified errands in the rubble of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs,” you get the feeling he’s on a watchlist somewhere. And she could be playing Ilsa to Victor Laszlo’s resistance fighter — drones overhead be damned, she has her own sassy hellfire.

Fernández is generally unimpressed with Lebanon. She finds the government useless: “[T]he Lebanese state doesn’t do jack shit for the majority of its own population—some of whom have been known to contend with a mere two hours of government electricity per day, [and] the near-total lack of affordable health care options or other basic needs.” Syrian and Palestinian refugees are marginalized. Meanwhile, the elite bronze themselves at Zaitunay Bay, content to think of Lebanon as “the Paris of the Middle East,” and keen to keep the masses, and their needs, suppressed. It’s a theme she will find everywhere she goes.

Fernández arrived in Honduras a month before the ‘pajama coup’ of President Manuel Zelaya in the wee hours of June 28, 2009. Zelaya was flown to Costa Rica — illegally — and, effectively, exiled from Honduras. Zelaya had tried to introduce “a nonbinding public opinion survey” meant to gauge voter interest in future constitutional reform. The Supreme Court found the survey illegal and told Zelaya to cease. He refused and was ordered arrested for treason. But many outside observers, including the UN and the OAS, saw it as a coup — including Fernández:

…Zelaya had stepped on the toes of the entrenched Honduran oligarchy, whose members had long ago pledged allegiance to the predatory capitalism endorsed by their benefactors in the United States.

The elites at work again.

Months later she interviews Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the general who’d led the coup, a fatter, more fatuous version of Captain Renault. He gets all gleeful relating how he once “saw” Jennifer Lopez; they talk the zaniness of Honduran politics; and then:

“Vásquez warned,’there will always be people who want to attain power through ways other than the proper way of being elected’—although it was not clear that he had fully thought through the implications of this line of reasoning given that he himself had just perpetrated a coup.”

She listens to him liken Honduran security forces to “armed cherubs” and say that the real problem is there’s “too much freedom.” After the interview, he ‘sees’ her and says “he wouldn’t mind a second wife.”

In keeping with her family tradition, Fernández makes an effort to castigate the US response to the removal of Zelaya — their refusal to call it an official coup because, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time, a coup would require cutting off US aid to Honduras. Fernández regards this as merely protecting America’s elitist friends, the same friends, she says, who were so cooperative with the CIA during the drug-trafficking Contra years. Later, under pressure, the US does cut off some aid — to works projects — while continuing to gift the security forces millions of dollars.

And on and on it goes, everywhere she goes: the wretched of the earth providing her with reminders of the salving touch of abiding humanity, while male authoritiy figures fuck up — hungry-like-a-wolf male gazes, unassisted drowning refugees, machine-gunned Kurds, Monsanto-driven farmer suicides in India…. Fernández seems to cope with it all by drinking massive amounts of cheap wine and blogging about it for Jacobin. The turmoil she thought she left behind when she rejected America and went into “exile” follows her everywhere, as effect follows cause.

And if that weren’t dismaying enough, she’s got a hang-up about New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s “imperial lapdog” justifications of bad American foreign policy. Fernández had taken issue with his description of “bikini-clad Lebanese women leaving little to the imagination” as a vulgar deflection from the awful reality for most people there.

But when Friedman describes himself in a column as an “environmentalist,” that’s when Rolling Stones journalist Matt Taibbi is trotted in for a cameo take-down:

Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”?

For Fernández, as with Taibbi (and so many others), the NYT columnist represents all that’s wrong with the integrity of the Fourth Estate in America. Subservience in the suburbience. Never risk your comfort zone.

Belén Fernández quotes James Baldwin at the beginning of her travelogue — “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition” — but you wish she’d said more. Baldwin lived for years in Paris, and wrote a lot of his best work there, ‘unhappy in his skin’ back in America. Every Black man in America is an exile, the true legacy of slavery.

Fernández spends 15 years as an expat, leaving clothing markers everywhere (it comes across a bit like a Wind Song ad, frankly). Her conclusion is inconclusive, as is her idea of what ‘home’ has come to mean. She ends by talking about sciroccos in Puglia and “the desire to suspend one’s entire existence until the wind had blown its course,” making one wonder if that’s not what her exile amounts to.

She’s been described as a Martha Gellhorn, but I think ‘intrepid blogger’ is a better description. She does one thing that all Americans should be required to do: live in the moccasins of foreign cultures for awhile, before you remotely drone them. Exile is an excellent book to read on the plane before a slumming summer abroad.

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Heartrending Antiwar Songs

What makes for a heartrending antiwar song? Is it a doleful poetic and folkloric lament, or is it a driving martial beat with piercing raging lyrics of protest? Does it need a woman’s plaintive voice to make your heart ache with pain, or a man’s fierce growl to give you that gut-wrenching sinking feeling? I suppose it all depends on your kind of musical ear, and on your own situation with regard to the hazards of war.

I will offer a sequence of antiwar songs here, which for one reason or another have given me pause. Why do this?: because I like music, and because I think it important that none of us ever forget the proper attitude towards war and the prospect of war: rejection and rebellion. Peace is emotionally and politically turbulent when you are stubbornly antiwar, because war is the grease of imperialist capitalism.

The nuclei for this project are the first two songs listed, which both pull on my heartstrings. High Germany is a Celtic song where a Scottish lass laments the loss of her soldier lad to the First World War. This particular song really gets me because the lyrics are so poignant, and because the singer — my younger daughter — does such a good job of conveying the emotion that was very real 100 years ago in Scotland, and, sadly, remains just as real all over the world today.

High Germany

Soldier, We Love You is an original composition by Rita Martinson, who performed it so eloquently and memorably in the 1972 movie F.T.A. (officially “Free The Army,” and understood to be “Fuck The Army”). F.T.A. starred Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and a collection of performers and musicians banded together in a touring satirical revue performing at coffeehouses and parks near American army bases, for G.I.’s opposed to the war in Vietnam. Though I was never a soldier (by pure luck) I have been so touched by Rita Martinson’s performance, and I gratefully wish her a happy life and satisfying career, wherever she is.

Soldier, We Love You

As you will see below, I quote some of the commentary on these songs by people I found on the Internet, many of them veterans, who had offered their suggestions.

“The Robert Shaw Chorale sing Shenandoah, a heartrending soldier’s lament from the American Civil War. The very first, and among the very best of antiwar songs ever… We lost a lot of relatives and close family friends in WW1, WW2 and in Vietnam.” — Fred Wilson

Shenandoah – The Robert Shaw Chorale

Eva Cassidy was a gift to us from the universe, of pure soulful heart through song. She left us far, far too early. Her rendition of Danny Boy unfolds the sheer tragedy carried by the lyrics with a radiant vocal eloquence (self accompanied on guitar), and most admirably without any showy attention-seeking bombast. The lyrics present a dead soldier’s call for remembrance and love, from his grave, and Eva had the grace and the perception to honor that sentiment.

“As a full blooded Irish man who has heard this song sung hundreds of times by family and friends at weddings, funerals and every other occasion when Irish people gather together to sing, I can honestly say I have never heard it sung better and with more feeling than sung here by Eva.” — Belfastsoul

Eva Cassidy – Danny Boy

War rips apart families, and mothers, who are the hub of their family wheels, are heavily burdened with those painful losses. So it is natural for a woman’s voice to express that universal pain, and to this Joan Baez has lent her beautiful artistry and passion.

Joan Baez – Weary Mothers

If war is so bad why does it exist? Why does anyone allow themselves to become a soldier, a lethal tool and sacrificial victim in the war-schemes of the Big Money? Who, ultimately, is responsible for inflicting the scourge of war on humanity? Buffy Sainte-Marie plunges to the core of this question, and arrives at the painful truth (Pogo’s realization).

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Universal Soldier

Many of the antiwar songs here are from the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, “a time I remember oh so well” since I was nearly swallowed up in it. The songs of that time which I list either had a sound or some turn of phrase that imprinted on my mind either because I heard them so many times during those bright days of hopeful youth, and stoned drunk nights of dreams or despair, or because hearing them coincided with moments of incredible euphoria or tension. Basically, this song-listing exercise is neither a scholarly assemblage of the historically significant, nor a production based on logic. It’s about visceral memories and their reverberations in songs.

Barry McGuire and Buffalo Springfield gave us clues, in 1965 and 1967, of what we high school boys in those years were in for. I was not looking forward to facing the draft when I reached 18.

Barry McGuire – Eve Of Destruction

Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth

Country Joe McDonald spelled out rather explicitly why I did not like being 1A during 1969. The Doors punctuated that feeling of dread all too perfectly.

Country Joe McDonald – I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag

The Doors – The Unknown Soldier

“I remember the nightly ‘kill’ numbers on the news.” – Andre R. Newcomb. The evening television news broadcasts would give the awful weekly totals of U.S. soldiers killed. Totals of enemy dead issued by the U.S. military were complete fabrications, but the unknown quantities of Vietnamese dead were definitely very very high; America had the most superior firepower. Three Five Zero Zero, a song from the musical, Hair, takes off from its initial reference to a body count. Have you heard as scathing an antiwar song in recent years? And it no, why do you think that is?

Hair – Three Five Zero Zero

As we know from President “Bone Spurs” Trump, Dick “Too Busy Four Deferments” Cheney, George “AWOL” W. Bush, and others of our immune ‘privilatti’ class who breezed past the Vietnam War, “getting out of the draft” in a culture dedicated to materialism and the instinctive worship of power is more easily arranged the more elevated your association to the economic and political hierarchy. Creedence Clearwater Revival give a spirited expression of this class-war truth.

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Fortunate Son

For the callow petit bourgeois youth of the time, like me, who felt a continuous sinking feeling of “circling the drain” before ever really stepping into adulthood and savoring the sweet fruits of life, there arose an intense desire to find somebody to love and be loved by, at least for a while before “the end.”

Jefferson Airplane – Somebody to Love

Phil Ochs was a songwriter and political activist of sharp wit, sardonic humor and earnest humanism, whose songs were graced by insightful lyrics of literate elegance. He wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1976 at the age of 35 he succumbed to his own demons, and left us. Phil Ochs was a man of very keen perception, and immersed in the bubbling cauldron of intense antiwar activism during the Vietnam War, I think his psyche was eventually overwhelmed by that searing experience. I think the reason more of us “ordinary people” — those with reasonably decent moral character — don’t go completely mad over the poisonous nature of American politics and national character is because we are shielded by duller wits from perceiving the full reality of the kind of society we live in. There are hazards to being a seer.

Phil Ochs – Draft Dodger Rag

“Funny thing is I’m in the Army and I don’t know anyone in my unit over 30 years old who doesn’t know all the words to this song [I Ain’t Marching Anymore]” – ‘Joe Blow’

Phil Ochs – I Ain’t Marching Anymore

Phil Ochs – The War Is Over

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on 4 April 1968, and many large, deadly and terribly destructive urban riots broke out and continued for weeks. Federal troops were called out, and the television images of them patrolling the streets of burning cities was a hellacious realization of “bringing the war home.” Up to 1968 half of the American casualties in the war were made up of ethnic minorities, mainly Blacks and Latinos, despite their much lower proportions of the national population. This was a rather ugly manifestation of America’s formative — and apparently forever — race and class war. Edwin Starr gave voice to the deep resentments by Blacks over their exploitation as canon fodder, in his song War.

Edwin Starr – War

On 4 May 1970 the Ohio National Guard, called out to Kent State University during a mass protest by unarmed college students against the bombing and invasion of neutral Cambodia by United States military forces, fired approximately 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds at the demonstrators, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Ohio (1970, Kent State University)

The Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. The Vietnamese would then continue to sort out their politics without the overt highly destructive interference of the United States (the covert interference would continue). What did any of all this mean to a young American war widow? Was it worth her pain and sacrifices? Of course not, but this was always a knowable truth. So where was justice?

Steve Goodman – Penny Evans

It is important to realize that the most significant reason the American government withdrew from its Vietnam War effort was because of the widespread and persistent rebellion against it by active duty military personnel, and the ferocious activism of the antiwar veterans who had returned from that war. The civilian antiwar activism and public demonstrations helped to increase a public consciousness in sympathy with the military rebellions, most ad hoc and personal. Rank-and-file soldiers who had come face-to-face with the realities of that war, and who took their Soldier’s Oath seriously, realized that their duty to protect and defend the United States was actually at odds with the dictates from their military chains of command and from their country’s political leadership. Their duty was to the people of the United States, not to one of its transitory government administrations whose policies were clearly not in the interests of the American people, even though there were special interests who profited from them.

The British Soldier is a “song about the troubles in Northern Ireland. It was written and performed by folk singer Harvey Andrews, and banned when it was released. It is based on an actual event which occurred in the early ‘70s.” — SuperNutty23. “Remember Sgt Michael Willets GC of 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment whose sacrifice inspired this song.” — Archie Carter

Harvey Andrews – The British Soldier (1972)

Eric Bogle wrote and performed the song My Youngest Son Came Home Today. “When I played this during an interview on Cairns FM89.1, Eric asked me if I had heard Mary Black sing the song. When I said I hadn’t he said her version was far better, as a woman can put more emotion into a song.” — Johnson28316

Mary Black – My Youngest Son Came Home Today

99 Luftballons is a German protest song against nuclear war, written in 1983. “The premise was that 99 balloons crossing over the Berlin Wall would be mistaken by radar as an attack, causing jets to scramble, starting a war that would leave both sides in ruins. The singer, walking through the ruins, finds one balloon, is reminded of her lover and lets it slowly fly away.” – TheJenr8tr

This song, band and performance are from before the Berlin Wall fell (9 November 1989), when tactical nuclear-tipped U.S. missiles stationed in Western Europe, and similar Soviet Russian missiles poised in Eastern Europe, had Germany between them under the potential arcs of their flight paths, and also very obviously in the crosshairs of their targeting in the event of a boiling over of the Cold War.

An English translation of the German lyrics of 99 Luftballons is given immediately below; it was made by my wonderful daughter-in-law, Sabrina García, from the Black Forest.

Nena ‎- 99 Luftballons

99 Luftballons

(translation by Sabrina García)

Do you have some time for me?
Then I’ll sing a song for you
About 99 air balloons
On their way to the horizon

Do you perhaps think of me just now?
Then I’ll sing a song for you
About 99 air balloons
And how one thing comes from another

99 air balloons
On their way to the horizon
Mistaken for UFOs from space
Therefore a general sent
A squadron after them
To raise the alarm if they had to

Yet there on the horizon were
Just 99 air balloons
99 fighter pilots
Each one was a great warrior
Regarding themselves as Captain Kirk
There were great fireworks
The neighbors didn’t understand anything
And thought they were under attack
Yet there on the horizon they fired
At 99 air balloons
99 War Ministers
Matches and gasoline cans
Regarding themselves as smart people
Already smelling a big fat prey
Crying “War!” and wanting power
Man, who would have thought
That it would ever get this far?
Because of 99 air balloons
Because of 99 air balloons
99 air balloons
99 years of war
Left no room for winners
There are no more War Ministers
And no fighter pilots either
Today I’m doing my rounds
I see the world in ruins
I’ve found a balloon
I think of you and let it fly….

A classic antiwar song is Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, by Pete Seeger. Marlene Dietrich, who was deeply and very visibly committed to antifascist activity during World War II, included Seeger’s song in her one-woman musical show, which toured the world. Burt Bacharach had arranged many songs of interest to Marlene, to accommodate the limited vocal range of her contralto voice. This enabled Marlene to continue as a singer during her later years, and she was quite open about gratefully giving Bacharach credit for this.

“Marlene Dietrich performed a German language version of Where Have All the Flowers Gone? during her 1960s tour of Israel. She sang in German only after receiving the consent of the audience, thus breaking the unofficial taboo against the use of that language in Israel. Many in the audience were German expatriate Holocaust survivors.” — Hollie Willetts

Marlene Dietrich – Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind – with English Subtitles

Well, the political management class of the United States managed to survive the “Vietnam Syndrome” years of popular distaste for war and opposition to foreign adventures that might require the use of military forces, mainly from 1975 to 1979, during the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor from 1977 to 1981, was able to convince Jimmy Carter to initiate the first action of what would become our current Forever War in Central Asia: the covert arming of the mujahideen in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion there in January 1980. And so Osama Bin Laden got his start.

As the US and allied wars of the 1980s and 1990s metastasized into our Forever Wars, new antiwar songs sprouted from the dragon’s teeth of pain a death sown in the wake of those wars.

Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms (1985)

Scorpions – Wind Of Change (1990)

“The video of ‘Smile Empty Soul – This Is War’ hits me very hard. I am a combat veteran who now advocates for peace. I took part in the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War, Fallujah 2004. My heart broke in that place, though it took me years to realize it.” — Lucas B.

Smile Empty Soul – This Is War

And so it goes. There will certainly be antiwar songs from other times, from many cultures and in other languages, which I would not know about. I am sure that the fundamental sentiments of all such songs are universal, because they spring from the deepest and most fundamental aspirations and disappointments of the human experience.

The antiwar songs of the pop music supernovas Bob Dylan (Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, The Times They Are A-Changin’) and John Lennon (Give Peace a Chance, Imagine, Happy Christmas, I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier) are so well known that I feel no need to say more about them.

Every instance of war is a failure of political leadership. Good antiwar songs can help us all see this, and motivate us to find better leaders, to devise better politics, and to reawaken feelings in our hearts of genuine human connection to everyone.

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Poetry and Political Struggle: The Dialectics of Rhyme

Fist with pen illustration by CHema Skandal!

“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

from John F. Kennedy


Poetry is often associated with genteel people and laid-back lifestyles, yet over the decades since the Enlightenment many poets have been actively involved in the most radical of political and art movements. Setting up a solid foundation for such attitudes was the poet extraordinaire, Alexander Pope. In this essay I shall look at the connection between poetry and socio-political struggles over the centuries. From Pope to the Chartists, and from the Irish revolutionary poets to the postcolonial writers of Africa, poetry has played an important part in social change. The recent explosion of global demonstrations and rallies has also been connected with radical poetry as will be seen in Chile for example.

The New Augustans v Medievalism – ‘shall not Britain now reward his toils?’

Imagine being one of the generation of poets to follow Shakespeare. The Enlightenment poets response to Shakespeare was that they believed that Shakespeare was good but not perfect and so looked back to Roman times, to that of Augustus for a more political and satirical model for their poetry. Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was highly influenced by the poet Horace (65 BC–8 BC) whose work was created during a momentous time when Rome changed from a republic to an empire. Pope’s poem Epistle to Augustus (addressed to George II of Great Britain) initiated The New Augustans, as they were known, and they created new and bold political work in all genres as well as sharp and critical satires of contemporary events and people. Pope’s best known works The Rape of the LockThe Dunciad, and An Essay on Criticism made him famous in his own time for their biting criticism and wit. Equally satirical but with more emphasis on prose than poetry was his contemporary Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), the Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, pamphleteer, poet and cleric whose A Tale of a Tub (1704), An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1712), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729) led to the creation of the term ‘Swiftian’ for such sharp satire.

The Augustan era was also known by other names such as the age of neoclassicism and the Age of Reason. It was a time of increased availability of books and a dramatic decrease in their cost. This in turn meant that education was less confined to the upper classes and that writers could hope to make more money through the sale of their works and therefore be less dependent on patrons.

The greatest patron of the arts throughout the Middle Ages was the Church. Patronage was also used by nobles, rulers, and very wealthy people to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all looked for and received the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.

Alexander Pope, painting attributed to English painter Jonathan Richardson, c.?1736, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The sales from Pope’s works allowed him to live a life less determined by other people’s wealth, and this independence is reflected in his lines from Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot:

Oh let me live my own! and die so too!
(‘To live and die is all I have to do:’)
Maintain a poet’s dignity and ease,
And see what friends, and read what books, I please.

While Pope read a lot of philosophy, his concerns were mainly poetic. As David Cody writes:

Like many of his contemporaries, Pope believed in the existence of a God who had created, and who presided over, a physical Universe which functioned like a vast clockwork mechanism. Important scientific discoveries by men like Sir Isaac Newton, who explained, in his Principia, the nature of the laws of gravitation which helped to govern that universe, were seen as corroborating that view. “Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night,” Pope wrote, in a famous couplet intended as Newton’s epitaph, but “God said, Let Newton be ! and All was Light.” This view of the universe as an ordered, structured place was an aspect of the Neoclassical emphasis on order and structure which also manifested itself in the arts, including poetry.

Pope was famous for his biting criticism which spoofed the mores of society or mocked his literary rivals. His critical political savvy was also on show in lines like:

’T is George and Liberty that crowns the cup,
And zeal for that great House which eats him up.
The woods recede around the naked seat,
The sylvans groan—no matter—for the fleet;
Next goes his wool—to clothe our valiant bands;
Last, for his country’s love, he sells his lands.
To town he comes, completes the nation’s hope,
And heads the bold train-bands, and burns a pope.
And shall not Britain now reward his toils,
Britain, that pays her patriots with her spoils?
In vain at court the bankrupt pleads his cause;
His thankless country leaves him to her laws.

Pope’s poetry reflected the Enlightenment popularisation of science through scientific and literary journals, the development of the book industry, the promulgation of encyclopedias and dictionaries, and new ideas spread like wildfire through learned academies, universities, salons and coffeehouses. The Enlightenment period can be dated from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV (1715 ) until the turn of the 19th century but was soon followed by the Romantic period from about 1800 to 1860.

Chartism v Romanticism – ‘How comes it that ye toil and sweat?’

The Romantics preferred intuition and emotion to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and placed a high value on the achievements of “heroic” individualists and artists. They turned inwards, seeing art as an individual experience and emphasising such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe. Romanticism looked backwards to folk art, ancient customs and medievalism. As the bourgeoisie achieved their main aims of wresting control of land and power from the aristocracy, the responsibility for continuing the struggle for the principles of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ fell upon the organisations of the working classes.

In England, Chartism was a major working class movement called after the People’s Charter of 1838 and was a movement for political reform in Britain until 1857. The movement’s strategies were constitutional and they used petitions and mass meetings to put pressure on politicians to concede manhood suffrage. The Charter demanded: a vote for every man twenty-one years of age, secret ballots, payment of Members (so working people could attend without loss of income), equal constituencies, and annual Parliamentary elections. The Chartist movement was a reaction to the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property. The political leaders of the working class felt that the middle class had betrayed them.

In conjunction with Chartist demonstrations and strikes, the Chartist press as the voice of radicalism existed in the form of The Poor Man’s Guardian in the 1830s and was succeeded by the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser between 1837 and 1852. The press covered news, editorials, and reports on international developments while becoming the best-selling provincial newspaper in Britain with a circulation of 50,000 copies. It also became an organ for the publication of working class poets and poems.

Front page of The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 1837

With such a wide circulation, it was no wonder that so many sent their poems in for consideration. According to Mike Sanders:

“The Northern Star’s poetry column was not an attempt to impose ‘culture’ from above, rather it was a response to a popular demand that poetry could and should speak to working-class desires and needs. From the start, literally hundreds of Chartists sent in their poems and quite a few appear to have pestered the editor with enquiries as to when their work would appear.”

It is believed that up to 1,000 poems by up to 400 Chartist and working-class poets were published in the Northern Star between 1838 and 1852. Michael Sanders notes that:

“Most have names, but a high percentage are published either under initials, under a pseudonym or anonymously, presumably by writers who would fear reprisals, such as dismissal or blacklisting, if they were known to be writing for the Northern Star. By and large, we know nothing of these people. They are permanently lost to history. But these poems show us that poetry was once central to the way working-class communities expressed themselves both politically and otherwise.”

Ordinary people used poetry as a way of demonstrating their humanity in the face of grinding poverty and dehumanising industrial capitalism. By composing poetry they showed they could produce ‘beauty’ as well as surplus value.

An example of an anonymous poet’s endeavour is AW’s poem To The Sons Of Toil published in 1841:

How comes it that ye toil and sweat
And bear the oppressor’s rod
For cruel man who dare to change
The equal laws of God?
How come that man with tyrant heart
Is caused to rule another,
To rob, oppress and, leech-like, suck
The life’s blood of a brother?

We still don’t know anything about AW but he or she is an example of many men and women who turned to poetry to express their desires for social justice. However, several important poets did arise out of the Chartist movement such as Ernest Charles Jones (1819–1869) novelist and Chartist. In 1845, Jones ‘joined the Chartist agitation, quickly becoming its most prominent figure, and vigorously carrying on the party’s campaign on the platform and in the press. His speeches, in which he openly advocated physical force, led to his prosecution, and he was sentenced in 1848 to two years’ imprisonment for seditious speeches. While in prison he wrote, it is said in his own blood on leaves torn from a prayer-book, The Revolt of Hindostan, an epic poem.’; Thomas Cooper (1805–1892) poet, leading Chartist and known for his prison rhyme the Purgatory of Suicides (1845); Gerald Massey (1828–1907) was an English poet and only twenty-two when he published his first volume of poems, Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love (1850); George Binns (1815–1847) was a New Zealand Chartist leader and poet.

Photo of  Ernest Charles Jones (1819–1869).

There was Ebenezer Elliott (1781–1849) who was an English poet, known as the Corn Law rhymer for his leading the fight to repeal the Corn Laws which were causing hardship and starvation among the poor. Though a factory owner himself, his single-minded devotion to the welfare of the labouring classes won him a sympathetic reputation long after his poetry ceased to be read; and John Bedford Leno (1826–1894) was a Chartist, radical, poet, and printer who acted as a “bridge” between Chartism and early Labour movements, he was called the “Burns of Labour” and “the poet of the poor” for his political songs and poems, which were sold widely in penny publications, and recited and sung by workers in Britain, Europe and America.

The Poets’ Revolution v Modernism – ‘Viewing human conflict from a social perspective’

The connection between the radical poets and the working class continued into the twentieth century even as Romanticist modernism took hold. Modernism rejected the ideology of realism, while promoting a break with the immediate past, technical innovation, and a philosophy of ‘making it new’. As such:

Modernist poetry in English is generally considered to have emerged in the early years of the 20th century with the appearance of the Imagist poets. In common with many other modernists, these poets were writing in reaction to what they saw as the excesses of Victorian poetry, with its emphasis on traditional formalism and overly flowery poetic diction. […] Additionally, Modernist poetry disavowed the traditional aesthetic claims of Romantic poetry’s later phase and no longer sought “beauty” as the highest achievement of verse. With this abandonment of the sublime came a turn away from pastoral poetry and an attempt to focus poetry on urban, mechanical, and industrial settings.

Despite the modern context and simpler language, Modernist poets moved further away from Realism as they developed literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue, as well as the use of multiple points-of-view, undermining what is meant by realism. Thereby moving further away from the kind of narrative and descriptions of external reality that seekers of political change and social justice use as an art form to create and propagate awareness of their social conditions.

The Chartist tradition of radical politics associated with radical content in poetry was continued in Ireland whose revolutionary radicals perceived in the First World War an opportunity encapsulated in the slogan, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. The culmination of nationalist and radical politics of the previous centuries was demonstrated in the Easter Rising of 1916. Indeed it is often described as the The Poets’ Revolution as three of the men who signed the Proclamation in 1916, Pearse, MacDonagh, and Plunkett, were published poets, while many other participants were also writers of plays, songs and ballads. The leader of the Irish Citizens Army, James Connolly wrote:

Our masters all a godly crew,
Whose hearts throb for the poor,
Their sympathies assure us, too,
If our demands were fewer.
Most generous souls! But please observe,
What they enjoy from birth
Is all we ever had the nerve
To ask, that is, the earth.”

The leaders of the Irish revolution were generally a young, artistic group of revolutionaries and their executions by the British colonists sent shock waves throughout Ireland leading to the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Civil War (1922–1923).

Photo of James Connolly, c. 1900.

Later in the 1920s and 1930s a more politically conscious working class poetry developed. In the United States the combination of influences from the Soviet Union and the Great Depression led to the growth of many new leftist political and social discourses. Milton Cohen summarised the aesthetic, stylistic, and political concerns being debated at the time. He noted that poets were expected to:

(1) View human conflict from a social perspective (as opposed to personal, psychological, or universal) and see society in terms of economic classes.

(2) Portray these classes in conflict (as Marx described them): workers versus bosses, sharecroppers versus landowners, tenants versus landlords, have-nots versus haves.

(3) Develop a “working-class consciousness,” that is, identify with the oppressed class in these conflicts, rather than maintaining objective detachment.

(4) Present a hopeful outcome to encourage working-class readers. Other outcomes are defeatist, pessimistic, or “confused.”

(5) Write simply and straightforwardly, without the aesthetic complexities of formalism.

(6) Above all, politicize the reader. Revolutionary literature is a weapon in the class struggle and should consciously incite its readers if not to direct action then to a new attitude toward life, ‘to recognize his role in the class struggle.’

These ‘proscriptions’ ran straight in the face of every tenet of Modernist poetry which emphasised the personal imagination, culture, emotions, and memories of the poet. Major poets of the radical movement in the United States include Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Kenneth Fearing (1902–1961), Edwin Rolfe (1925-1954), Horace Gregory (1898–1982), and Mike Gold (1894–1967).

Post colonial poetry v postmodernism – ‘The bitter taste of liberty’

As the United States suffered under the heightened political repression of McCarthyism in the 1950s the mantle of radical culture moved to the countries who wrestled themselves out of British colonial stranglehold in the form of postcolonial literature. The English language was imposed in many colonised countries yet came to be the language of radical anti-colonial poets during the liberation struggles and afterwards in the independence era. African poets, for example, were able to use poetry to communicate to the world not only their “despairs and hopes, the enthusiasm and empathy, the thrill of joy and the stab of pain … but also a nation’s history as it moved from ‘freedom to slavery, from slavery to revolution, from revolution to independence and from independence to tasks of reconstruction which further involve situations of failure and disillusion’.”

David Diop’s poem Africa weighs up past and present political complexities:

Africa, my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs ….
Is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun…..
That is Africa your Africa
That grows again patiently obstinately
And its fruit gradually acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.

The development of the postcolonial in the South paralleled the development of the postmodern in the West. However, the philosophical bases of postmodernism would not sit easily with the practical contingencies of newly achieved nationhood. Postmodernism rejected the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, and like modernism, called into question Enlightenment rationality itself. The tendencies of postmodernism towards self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, and irreverence would make it an uncomfortable bedfellow with the socialist and revolutionary nationalist exigencies of the newly decolonised. As the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o notes:

Literature does not grow or develop in a vacuum; it is given impetus, shape, direction and even area of concern by the social, political and economic forces in a particular society. The relationship between creative literature and other forces cannot be ignored especially in Africa, where modern literature has grown against the gory background of European imperialism and its changing manifestations: slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Our culture over the last hundred years has developed against the same stunting, dwarfing background.

In a way the radical political changes wrought by anti-colonial struggles kept the culture tied down and anchored to the values and aspirations of the masses. Postcolonial ideology was relevant to society in a way that postmodernism was not. It could be argued that postmodernism actively sought to remove itself from political relevance by decrying grand narratives and elevating relativism.

Radical poetry today? – ‘only injustice and no resistance?’

Until relatively recently it seemed that the sentiments of Bertolt Brecht’s (1898-1956) poem To Posterity had become almost universally true in the 21st century:

For we went,changing our country more often than our shoes.
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.

However, there has been a sea change in attitude with people demonstrating on the streets in many cities globally in only one year: the Yellow Vests in France (October/November, 2018), Sudanese Revolution (19 December, 2018), Haiti Mass Protests (7 February, 2018), Algeria: Revolution of Smiles (6 February, 2019),  Gaza economic protests (since Mar, 2019), Iraq: Tishreen Revolution (1 October, 2019), Puerto Rico: Telegramgate (8 July 2019), Ecuador Protests (3 October, 2019), Bolivian protests (since Oct, 2019), Chile Protests (14 October, 2019), Lebanon Protests (7-18 October, 2019).

The eruption of protest and violence in Chile started with students demonstrating against the proposal to raise the subway fares. This was unexpected as Sofía del Valle noted:

Economists have long called Chile’s economy “the miracle” of Latin America, where GDP per capita has noticeably grown from $2,500 in 1990 to $15,346 in 2017. However, these numbers hide a fundamental problem: they do not account for inequality. Chile’s late poet Nicanor Parra said it best: “There are two pieces of bread. You eat two. I eat none. Average consumption: one bread per person.

She also states that the people themselves are starting to participate in political activity with the “proliferation of “cabildos ciudadanos,” or self-organized participatory meetings of citizens that have gathered to discuss problems and solutions for the country we dream to be.”

This has led to the connection between the masses and poetry, similar to Chartist times, being restored to Chile. According to Vera Polycarpou, the people on the streets are “singing the songs of Victor Jara, listening to symphonic music in the squares, making street theatre and reciting the poems of Pablo Neruda, declaring that it will not tolerate military rule, repression and injustice again.”

Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) was a Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet-diplomat who wrote in a variety of styles, including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and passionate love poems from a very young age. Neruda was living in Madrid at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) and with some friends had formed the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals bringing popular theater to the people, plays from Cervantes to Lorca. The assassination of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), a friend of his, a month into the war had a profound affect on Neruda. According to Mark Eisner:

Beyond the horror of a friend’s assassination, Lorca’s death represented something more: Lorca was the embodiment of poetry; it was as if the Fascists had assassinated poetry itself. Neruda had reached a moment from which there was no turning back. His poetry had to shift outwardly; it had to act. No more melancholic verse, love poems dotted with red poppies, or metaphysical writing, all of which ignored the realities of rising Fascism. Bold, repeated words and clear, vivid images now served his purpose: to convey his pounding heart and to communicate the realities he was experiencing in a way that could be understood immediately by a wide audience.

This shift away from Romanticism can be seen clearly in Neruda’s poem I Explain Some Things:

You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!

The demonstrations in Chile have also seen the return of the ‘cacerolazo’ or ‘casserole’ a form of popular protest used globally consisting of people making noise by banging pots, pans, and other utensils at demonstrations. The Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux brought out a song about this form of protest, called ‘Cacerolazo’ (on YouTube) where she raps about cacerolazos as a form of massive protest in defiance of police and military violence describing them as “[w]ooden spoons against your shooting”:

Vivita, guachita, Chile despierta
Cuchara de palo frente a tus balazos
Y al toque de queda, ¡cacerolazo!
No somos alienígenas ni extraterrestres
No cachai na’, es el pueblo rebelde
Sacamos las ollas y nos mataron
A los asesinos ¡cacerolazo!

(Vivita, guachita, Chile wake up
Wooden spoon in front of your bullets
And at the curfew, cacerolazo!
We are not aliens or extraterrestrials
Don’t shit, it’s the rebel people
We took out the pots and they killed us
To the killers cacerolazo!)”



The Chartists may not have had the access to the internet or video production of Ana Tijoux but their newspapers achieved large distributions and sales, spreading a similar culture of revolt and opposition. Since the time of Alexander Pope, poetry has played an important part in the struggle for change and social justice and the potential for poetry to consolidate people’s feelings, aspirations and desires has remained strong. The decision by poets themselves to participate and apply their art to the issues at hand has reinforced and inspired people the world over.

All images in this article are from Wikimedia Commons

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here


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The Rise of Silicon Valley

In recent years a plethora of books have been published about the rise of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. Some are filled with breathless cheerleading for the titans of cyber-capitalism, some are more critical investigations by a new generation of muckrakers.

Cary McClelland’s Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley aims toward the middle of that spectrum. The book goes out of its way to be inclusive, but ultimately comes down on the side of a feel-good message that embraces a slightly reformist take on the current endlessly expanding model of Big Tech. McClelland, whose book jacket blurb describes him as “a writer, filmmaker, lawyer, and rights advocate,” has put together a wide variety of voices of San Francisco Bay Area residents who speak for themselves, including a book publisher, a landscape architect, several advocates for underserved populations, and various tech workers.

One of the more radical voices in Silicon City is Richard Walker, geography professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and author of the excellent 2018 book Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area. Walker’s final comments to McClelland are worth quoting in their entirety: “The whole region is skating on very thin ice, despite its immense wealth. We are multiplying millionaires, billionaires, sure. But it is hard to regenerate your workforce under these conditions. If the working class can’t live within reach of their jobs. If young people cannot afford to put down roots. We are destroying the basis of our prosperity. We are eating our children.”

Well-known San Francisco “cultural sexologist” Carol Queen talks about conservative shifts she has seen in the city in recent years, and says of the well-to-do “straight kids” in the upscale Hayes Valley neighborhood, “they are kind of libertarian dicks.” Discussing changes in California in recent decades, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner says, “… we defunded the schools, and we funded the prisons.” She comments, “California, it feels like we’ve given up on big policy changes. We’ve given up on trying to do big solutions and ceded that ground to the business of tech.” Millner’s vision of the future of tech-dominated Northern California is sardonic: “We natives, those of us who grew up here, the question of our lives is When is the bust coming?” Paul Gillespie, a culturally-engaged forty year veteran of the cab industry who now drives a hybrid taxi, notes the number of young people who are well aware of global warming but take Uber and Lyft despite the significant fossil fuel consumption “ride share” luxury vehicles consume.

I would have liked much more from Matt Gonzalez, former President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a long-time public defender. Gonzalez addresses the difficulties of taxing tech companies, whose operations are effectively all over the Bay Area, and concludes, “The whole problem cries out for regional taxation,” but that “It’s going to take time to sort out the new rules. And that’s the thing about tech – they’ve benefited by the fact that government isn’t agile enough to keep up with their blurring of the lines.” The two page commentary from Gonzalez is the only part of the book where the question of increasing taxes on tech companies is addressed.

Silicon City’s tech industry respondents include some individuals who address glaring problems with their industry. The CEO of a tech-based dispute-resolution company admits that for young people recruited into Silicon Valley, “Really their whole life, their whole sense of identity becomes intertwined with the company.” The head of an experimental design team at Google reflects, “We’re saving the world mostly making useless products that solve problems that real people don’t have – it’s problems that rich twenty-year-olds have.” The same designer comments on his fellow tech employees, “You have an entire population of people who really haven’t done a lot of humanistic learning (…) You can feel that in the callousness, in the oversimplification of political problems.”

But overall the interviewees in Silicon City who have profited, or hope to profit, from the tech boom tend to be an upbeat, can-do lot that sees their overall mission as one of positive change involving much more than just making bucketloads of high denomination currency. These wealthy and would-be-wealthy participants in California’s modern-day gold rush are hard-core proponents of the power of positive thinking[1]. They generally view the disruption (a favorite industry buzzword in Northern California) that their companies engage in as a healthy phenomenon that shakes up moribund, antiquated sectors of the economy. There is a profound irony deficit among the tech types represented here, and not a lot of critical self-reflection. Their tone tends to be extremely earnest, as with the venture capitalist whose email signature reads “Be Excellent to Each Other.”

Many of the new Silicon Valley elites see themselves as saviors of humanity (e.g. Mark Zuckerberg’s self-described mission to connect ever-increasing numbers of people around the globe), and Silicon City’s pre-eminent example of that tendency is “angel investor” Ron Conway. Conway, an early backer of Google and Facebook, presents himself as a philanthropist who cares deeply about San Francisco and stresses that he promotes volunteerism at tech-related evens around the city. In McClelland’s introduction to one of the two passages he gives Conway, McClelland describes the fabulously wealthy investor as “(expressing) passionate support for various liberal causes – gun control, open immigration, gender parity in the tech industry.” But, continues McClelland, “Conway wrestles with the dissonance that plagues many of the area’s most influential executives: Why does he face so much criticism from people to his political left?”

One example of Ron Conway’s political track record that sheds light on why he encounters criticism from activists he calls “haters” is his dumping $275,000 in 2012 to help pass Prop. E, which lowered tax rates on Twitter and other tech companies Conway had invested in.[2] Another is the role that the inadequately regulated “sharing economy” stalwart Airbnb, another Conway investment, has played in taking rental units off the housing market. Conway’s approach to political debate doesn’t help either: He tells McClelland, “the progressives of San Francisco have too much of a voice (…) they want a bunch of people to leave and make room for low income people (…) so I actually think it’s really healthy if we shut them out.”

McClelland interjects his thoughts in brief passages between the various sections of the book and describes each of the interviewees with brief capsule biographies. He is impressed by the ingenuity of tech industry figures he speaks to but acknowledges negative aspects of the tech boom; his book includes the voices and activists and other tech skeptics who point out glaring problems in contemporary San Francisco associated with that boom, including skyrocketing numbers of evictions, unaffordable housing, jaw-dropping income disparities between the rich and the poor, and 20,000 homeless students in San Francisco Unified School District.

One of McClelland’s key themes, which he returns to repeatedly, is that all of the various sectors of San Francisco should work together to create a more positive future for everyone. He writes, “The challenge for the Bay Area is not whether it can choose one identity – libertarian tech supercity or state-sponsored liberal utopia – but whether it can find some harmony where the best of each can merge.” Though he vaguely alludes to some in tech as “villains,” others are “dreaming of connecting the world, of optimism, opportunity, and a new global harmony.” But given that as the tech giants accumulate ever more wealth and power they show few signs of wanting to do anything other than accumulate more wealth and power, McClelland’s Kumbaya yearnings seem like little more than centrist pipe dreams shaped by too much slick corporate PR and an aversion to excessive boat rocking.

Investigative journalist Yasha Levine has no such skittishness, as evidenced by his hard-hitting 2018 book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Levine digs into an area of Silicon Valley’s history ignored in McClelland’s book: the early, and ongoing, ties between the US military-industrial complex and the tech sector. Levine lays out how the internet grew out of Arpanet, an early computer network funded by an arm of the US Department of Defense called the Advanced Research Projects Agency. ARPA developed an early internet prototype during the Vietnam war to spy on people perceived as threats, both domestic and foreign. Today, Google, Facebook, and Amazon routinely spy on their customers for profit while at the same time maintaining profitable ties to the military. Levine argues that “the internet was developed as a weapon and remains a weapon today. American military interests continue to dominate all parts of the network, even those that supposedly stand in opposition.”

Reading Silicon City gave me a greater appreciation for tech critic Jason Silverman’s more skeptical take on Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires. In his 2015 book Terms of Service, Silverman wrote, “Internet giants don’t deserve our deference. As with government, our relationships with them should be adversarial, full of skepticism and critique. They show little loyalty to us, collecting, mining, and selling ever more of our data, and they should receive little in return.” [3] Silverman stresses, “We should be savvy enough, in this state of late capitalism, to be skeptical of any corporate power that claims to be our friend or acting in our best interests.” Amen to that.


[1] For further confirmation of this tendency, see freelance journalist Corey Pein’s hilarious investigation of Northern California start-up culture, Live Work Work Work Die. Pein reports, “the tone at the Startup Conference, at Ad:Tech, and at basically every public function I’d attended since setting foot in California was so relentlessly upbeat [because] (t)he system demands positivity. To speak of a chart that went down – to admit to so much as a glimmer of pessimism – was beyond comprehension. It was simply taken for granted that the tech industry itself was a kind of perpetual motion machine driving humanity to ever greater heights. And the unshakeable optimism extended to everyone who participated in the industry, even as a hanger on.” Corey Pein, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley. Metropolitan Books, 2017, page 119.


[3] Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection. Harper Books, 2015, page xiv.

[4] ibid, page 326.


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Performance Anxiety

How did I get into this? As a kid that was the inevitable question of concert day. I still ask it now and again. One of my colleagues, to be heard on violin with your Musical Patriot at the organ on All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London will often acknowledge his own anxiety before a gig by reminding himself that being nervous is better than being bored. But I’m not always so sure.

Growing up you practiced for weeks on the piece or program you had to play. Countless hours were spent building up fundamentals of technique. Your teacher assured you that your (or perhaps her) interpretations were finely tuned. You ran the repertoire countless times at performance tempo. You then slowed things down to glacial pace so that the fingers had time to doubt their next step. Wherever they faltered, you drilled the spot again ten times. You played the piece in sections out of order so that in case of momentary setback the forces could be regrouped quickly rather than routed.

These and many more training exercises helped one to resist the natural inclination to throw down the flag in the heat of battle and run for your life, leaving Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms face down in the mud behind you.

On concert day things were—and are—always worse before the performance than during it.

When I was a teenager my teacher enrolled me several times in an annual piano competition for a small scholarship sponsored by the leading Seattle piano dealer. The event was always held on a Saturday afternoon. My organ lessons happened on Saturday mornings, so that when the day of the piano contest rolled around I always had several hours to kill. I would wander around downtown Seattle for a what seemed like unbridgeable expanses of time, then at least seek refuge in the old public library where I would sit miserably in a carrel, imagining I was at a piano and running my pieces through in my mind. I don’t know if that mental exercise, which could as easily sew doubt as build up confidence, helped me in performance, though I can’t recall now any major crashes. Perhaps that rosy picture is itself a service that the brain provides, letting all, or at least most, of the botched bits, embarrassments, and disappointments slip from memory.

During the seemingly endless hours of waiting before the performance, time slowed down so much it seemed not to be moving forward at all. Aside from these agonizing stretches in the library, the nerve-racked me liked to keep moving. Even though I’ve stopped getting too nervous, if only because I’m usually too busy for it, I still prefer to walk to a concert that I’m playing. If the venue is too far to reach on foot, I always try to take the air just beforehand, rain or shine.

After accepting my fate and going ahead with the performance rather than taking to my heels, I usually experience a hugely heightened sense of awareness—stand and fight, rather than fright and flight. I seem to hover outside myself, watching and listening as the music unfolds as if in slow motion. It is exhilarating and dangerous to cling for too long to that feeling because you risk drifting too far from yourself. When that happens, things can go badly wrong very quickly. For me, it’s best to be slightly detached but still crisply engaged, focused in a way I’ve experienced only in musical performance.

As of yet I have not died in performance, either figuratively or literally. But waiting for, and playing in, my own concerts seems increasingly with the passing years ever more like a kind of rehearsal for death. After being mired in the thick, gooey, immovable time leading up to the program you suddenly find that you are making music. The event—the feared and yearned-for thing—is actually happening. You are both in the experience and outside of it. And then, almost miraculously, it is over.

The so-called responsibilities of adulthood have cut massively into the undisturbed hours of youthful practicing. It is that formative experience that now gets me through the still occasionally terrifying test of a concert.

A concert is nothing to die over. The world will go on even if you flounder and fail. But rational thought can never truly allay these elemental fears. Yet in some of the best moments of live music atavistic panic is coupled with intense concentration. There must be something chemically addictive about being in that state, otherwise why would one find oneself asking yet again just before taking the plunge into performance: How did I get into this?

Having been introduced to music by my parents, I told myself that my own children should have the same opportunities.  Lessons were begun. Practice was encouraged, then enforced until the kids seemed to enjoy it without too much cajoling.

You then make your children suffer the awful nervousness of concert day.  You visit the ordeal on them even though you know it is a form of torture. You watch them go pale, turn away their food. They wonder out loud why it has to be this way. Yet they accept their lot.

You convince yourself that it is good “life experience”—excellent training for the school presentation, public speaking, standardized tests. But in the end the only thing that keeps them from revolting from this bizarre ritual is that after the concert is over they claim to have enjoyed it. The memory tested in the performance has already forgotten the preceding agony, overwritten by the euphoria of riding the knife edge between disaster and what might be called a kind of momentary glory—and living to tell the tale.

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