Counterpunch Articles

The US Media War Machine Kicks In Against Iran

Photograph Source: Creator-bz – CC BY-SA 3.0

Yes, Iran is increasing the number of centrifuges it is using to refine nuclear fuel, and yes, it is refining that fuel to a higher percentage of U-235, the isotope that allows the uranium to begin a chain reaction necessary for both fueling a nuclear reactor and for creating an atomic bomb.

But in taking these steps, Iran is not, and indeed cannot be “in violation” of the agreement on its nuclear program that was negotiated by the Obama administration and the Iranian government in 2015, with the backing of 5 other nations (France, the UK, China, Russia and Germany).

That’s because the Trump administration, acting on its own, foolishly pulled out unilaterally from that agreement, and has been imposing sanctions on Iran, all of which has been in  violation of the agreement, and which, by violating its terms, effectively terminates the agreement.

One can debate the merits of such an agreement, and whether the Trump administration was right or wrong in pulling out of it (I think it was either a deliberately provocative act intended to steer the country into what would be a disastrous war with Iran, or a stupid decision designed to pressure Iran into reaching a much more restrictive deal with the US), but  that doesn’t mean that the mainstream media should be falsely reporting that Iran is “violating” the terms of the agreement, as for example, NPR did in its Saturday “Morning Edition” program.

The New York Times, in its latest report on Iran’s decision to expand its refining of Uranium fuel, did marginally better. In a Saturday article headlined “Iran Breaks With More Limits in Nuclear Deal as It Pushes for European Aid,” the paper makes the point that while Iran, four months ago, had been “continuing to comply” with the limits on nuclear fuel refining imposed under the deal that the US had violated by reimposing sanctions lifted under that agreement, but that the Tehran was now saying it would “no longer abide by” an agreement that the US was violating.

But Politico, that same day, ran an AP article using a headline saying “Iran now using advanced centrifuges, violating nuclear deal.”   The article, no doubt picked up by dozens or more US news organizations, states in its lead paragraph, ” Iran has begun using arrays of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium in violation of its 2015 nuclear deal, a spokesman said Saturday, warning that Europe has little time left to offer new terms to save the accord.”

The Washington Post wasn’t any better, screaming that Iran had “breached” the agreement and was pursuing more intensive refining of uranium fuel. How can one breach an agreement that the other key party, the US, had already pronounced dead, pulling out and reimposing sanctions whose lifting had been part of the deal, despite outside inspectors and other nations party to the agreement insisting that Iran has been adhering to the agreement?

A poorly informed US reader of or listener to such slanted coverage could be forgiven for assuming that Iran was aggressively in breach of an agreement between the itself and the US and the group of other UN Security Council permanent members as well as Germany, when in fact it is the US that has crashed out of the accord and reimposed stiff economic sanctions on Iran.

This kind of slanted coverage of a critical international story is worse than just poor journalism. It is rank propaganda in support of increased tension between Washington and Tehran — tension that could easily erupt into a military conflict.

Speaking in terms of the people of the world, it is clearly in nobody’s interest for the US and Iran, a sovereign nation of 70 million, to be at war.  We know how poorly US wars have gone against much smaller and less developed nations like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have gone. And Iran is a country with a powerful historical sense of national pride and identity, not a stitched-together collection of feuding tribes and religions that is twice as big as any of those other countries — one that, as well, is one of the largest oil producers in the world.

What US journalists should be doing, instead of mindlessly backing an administration that appears to be stoking hostility and war against Iran and its people, is to be analyzing and questioning why the US is so unwilling to continue with a diplomatic agreement that, by all accounts, was working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. They should also be asking why the US, which reportedly is today producing more oil and gas than it uses domestically, even cares about what nations in the Middle East are doing with their oil and gas.

And Americans should be asking why their country’s news media organizations are being so conspicuously pro-war in their reporting on the US-Iran dispute.  It is clearly the Trump administration that has been sabotaging the Obama administration’s successfully reached nuclear agreement with Iran.

 

The post The US Media War Machine Kicks In Against Iran appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Spikes of Violence: Protest in West Papua

Photograph Source: Government of Sarmi Regency – Public Domain

Like Timor-Leste, West Papua, commonly subsuming both Papua and West Papua, remains a separate ethnic entity, acknowledged as such by previous colonial powers. Its Dutch colonial masters, in preparing to leave the region in the 1950s, left the ground fertile for a declaration of independence in 1961. Such a move did not sit well with the Indonesian desire to claim control over all Dutch Asia Pacific colonies on departure. There were resources to be had, economic gains to be made. The military duly moved in.

The New York Agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, brokered in 1962 with the assistance of the United States, saw West Papua fall under United Nations control for the duration of one year. Once passing into Indonesian control, Jakarta would govern the territory “consistent with the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the inhabitants under the terms of the present agreement.” Education would be a priority; illiteracy would be targeted, and efforts made “to accelerate participation of the people in local government through periodic elections.”

One article stood out: “Indonesia will make arrangements, with the assistance and participation of the United Nation Representative and his staff, to give the people of the territory the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice.” In 1969, a ballot was conducted in line with the provision, though hardly in any true, representative sense. In the rich traditions of doctored representation and selective enfranchisement, 1,026 individuals were selected by Indonesian authorities to participate. Indonesia’s military kept an intimidating watch: the vote could not be left to chance. The result for Indonesian control was unanimous; the UN signed off.

Unlike Timor-Leste, the historically Melanesian territories of Papua and West Papua remains under thumb and screw, an entity that continues to exist under periodic acts of violence and habitual repression from the Indonesian central authorities. A policy of transmigration has been practiced, a point argued by scholars to be tantamount to genocide. This has entailed moving residents from Java and Sulawesi to West Papua, assisted by Jakarta’s hearty sponsorship.

The Indonesian argument here has been ethnic and political: to confect a national identity through assimilation. Under President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”)), one keen to push the idea of “Indonesia Maju” (“Advanced Indonesia”), renewed stress is being placed on infrastructure investment, economic growth and natural resources, of which Papua features heavily.

The indigenous populace has had to, in turn, surrender land to those transmigrants and appropriating authorities. “The rights of traditional law communities,” notes Clause 17 of Indonesia’s Basic Forestry Act of 1967, “may not be allowed to stand in the way of transmigration sites.”

Appropriations of land, the relocation of residents, and the odd massacre by Indonesian security forces, tend to fly low on the international radar of human rights abuses. West Papua lacks the cinematic appeal or political heft that would encourage around the clock coverage from media networks. Bureaucratic plodders in the various foreign ministries of the world prefer to render such matters benign and of little interest. Geopolitics and natural resources tend to do most of the talking.

In late 2015, for instance, Scott Busby, US deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and James Carouso, acting deputy assistant secretary for Maritime and Mainland Southeast Asian affairs, ducked and evaded anything too compromising in their testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy. The consequences of demographic policies directed by Jakarta were assiduously ignored. Massacres and institutional accountability in the territory were bypassed, as were Indonesian efforts to prevent scrutiny on the part of human rights monitors, the UN Special rapporteur and journalists.

This year, more instances of violence have managed to leach out and gurgle in media circles. It took a few ugly incidents in the Javanese city of Surabaya to engender a new wave of protests which have had a rattling effect on the security forces. Last month, pro-Indonesian nationalist groups, with reported encouragement from security forces, taunted Papuan students with an array of crude insults in East Java. (“Dogs”, “monkeys” and “pigs” were part of the bitter mix.) The fuse was lit, notably as arrests were made of the Papuans themselves. “Papuans are not monkeys”, proclaimed banners being held at a rally in Central Jakarta on August 22.

Government buildings have been torched in Jayapura. Additional forces have been deployed, and internet access cut. There are claims that white phosphorous has been used on civilians; prisons are being filled. There have even been protests in Indonesia’s capital, with the banned Morning Star flag being flown defiantly in front of the state palace. (Doing so is no mild matter: activist Filep Karma spent over a decade of his life in prison for doing so.)

The struggle for independence, at least in the international eye, has been left to such figures as Benny Wenda, who lobbies governments and groups to back the “Free Papua” campaign. He is particularly keen to take the matter of the Free Choice vote of 1969, that nasty instrument that formalised Indonesian control, to the United Nations General Assembly. Last month, he had to settle for taking the matter to the Pacific Islands Forum as a representative of Vanuatu’s delegation. In January, he gifted the UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet a petition with 1.8 million signatures seeking a new referendum for the territory.

The response from an Indonesian government spokesman was emphatic, curt, and conventional. “Developments in Papua and West Papua province are purely Indonesia’s internal affairs. No other country, organisation or individual has the right to interfere in them. We firmly oppose the intervention of Indonesia’s internal affairs in whatever form.”

The hope for Jokowi and the Indonesian authorities will be simple: ride out the storm, conduct a low-level suppression of protests, and place any talks of secession on the backburner. In this, they can count on regional, if hypocritical support. In the words of a spokesman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Australia recognises Indonesia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over the Papua provinces. Our position is clearly defined by the Lombok Treaty between Indonesia and Australia.”

The post Spikes of Violence: Protest in West Papua appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Confuse, Then Blame the Public: Facebook Dodges Regulation With Wall Street’s Tactics

Facebook fulfilled an old promise last month in the most Facebook way possible: by sounding nice on paper and glossing over the details. Their new privacy tools are a laughably inefficient and insufficient set of measures, because fundamentally, they’re not trying to actually solve the stated problem: Facebook’s surveillance-based business model. It’s more proof that forcing individuals to protect themselves from the abuses of giant corporations is a cruel fantasy. This collective problem will require a collective solution. It’s about time regulators stepped in to do something about it.

This week the social media titan began rolling out a new slate of features to let users manage their “Off-Facebook Activity,” an awkward euphemism for all of the ways the company tracks its users’ browsing habits when they’re not actually on Facebook. Despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s promise that the new feature would let you “flush your history whenever you want,” “Off-Facebook Activity” offers no tools for deleting the data Facebook has gathered about you. Nor will it let users fully opt out of having their browsing activity tracked. No matter what, if you have a Facebook account, the company is watching what you do online.

So what does “Off-Facebook Activity” do? It lets users see much more of what Facebook knows about them. Even if users cannot take meaningful action to stop it collecting the information. Instead users can “anonymize” their data — but the anonymous data will still be reported to advertisers and, as a former Federal Trade Commission official noted, it’s pretty easy to re-identify an individual.

Oh, and lest we forget merely because it is laughably impractical, Facebook now allows users to sift laboriously through every website which sends data back to Facebook (nearly a third of the web) and request one by one that these websites not use any of their obvious or subtle tools to send information to Menlo Park.

What few protections the system offers are very complicated and ultimately unrewarding for privacy-minded Facebook users. Essentially, anyone who wants to keep prying eyes off of their sensitive information needs to first spend hours figuring out the technicalities of how online advertising programs even work. If users can parse out the information they need, the tools at their disposal only (slightly) protect them. Meanwhile, everyone with less patience or sophistication is left open to corporate espionage.

If, as a society, we want to prevent Facebook users from feeling spied on, there is a much simpler and more efficient way to do that: force Facebook to stop spying on them. Of course, doing so challenges the company’s business model. Thus, the mere suggestion that regulators might move in that direction has inspired Facebook to begin a counterattack, one that deploys a tactic first pioneered by Wall Street and predatory lenders: shift responsibility to consumers while furiously resisting the structural changes that could actually help them.

Rachel Cohen documented this tactic’s history for The American Prospect in June: as bankruptcy rates skyrocketed in the 1990s, Ford Motor Credit CEO Robert Odom fretted about young people failing to learn “financial literacy,” or the ability to recognize exploitative terms in auto loans. Never mind that Odom’s fellow auto-lenders were the ones offering these exploitative terms in the first place. Over the next two decades, states and the federal government rolled out a slew of educational counter-measures, in hopes of teaching students how to navigate the financial marketplace. Teach young people how to be smarter customers, the thinking went, and this whole predatory lending problem will sort itself out.

Except, as anyone who’s tried to read their mortgage or credit card paperwork knows, it’s not that simple. Financial contracts have mountains of legal jargon, and bury crucial details in  subsections of subsections. All of the information one needs for an informed decision is technically there, but in practice, it’s almost impossible for the average person to parse out what matters — and often, they’re under heavy emotional pressure to sign immediately. In other words, unless financial literacy workshops are training almost everyone as a consumer protection attorney, they are woefully insufficient for the problem at hand.

Luckily, financial literacy or universal law degrees are not the only two options available to lawmakers who wanted to fight predatory lending. Indeed they could choose the far more straightforward path of simply banning predatory loans. As Lauren Willis, an academic and leading critic of financial literacy, told Cohen, “People aren’t dumb, they’re just busy, and we should regulate around those things, with the assumption that there are certain things a consumer can do and other things they can’t, and that it would be silly to ask them to do.”

Congress did eventually move toward ending the “financial literacy” regime by establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a powerful watchdog designed to spot and stop bad behavior in consumer finance markets. Here was a bureau of actual consumer protection attorneys working in the public interest who had the rule-making power to box out any new, exploitative weapons which predatory lenders might develop.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration reversed many of these gains. Since taking power, Trump officials have systematically defanged the agency. In a twist of tragic irony, its new director announced in April that one of her major focuses would be promoting financial literacy.

Substituting consumer choice for active regulation is tremendously profitable. That is why predatory lenders and technology companies alike want to rig the rules of their respective markets such that consumers must try to avoid getting ripped off, instead of the companies accepting rules that would stop them from ripping people off in the first place.

Indeed, fellow tech titan Google seems to be signalling that it’s taking a similar approach to quelling its own privacy concerns among users. Last Thursday, the company said it would create a “Privacy Sandbox” for its Chrome browser, which would set new standards in order to “build a more private web.” It’s unclear right now what that means in concrete terms, but it definitely doesn’t mean that Google will change any part of its core website — and Facebook’s shift from promising to “flush your history whenever you want” to the meager Off-Facebook Activity options should leave onlookers skeptical about other tech giants taking the high road.

Plus, avoiding exploitation is getting much harder thanks to market consolidation. “Consumer choice” regimes presume that markets are competitive, which simply isn’t true for much of the modern American economy. Take Facebook. Even if a consumer does all of the leg-work, and isn’t satisfied with their privacy options, they’re still almost forced to use a product owned by this social media titan. As Rep. Joe Neguse pointed out at a Congressional hearing last month, the company owns four of the top six social networks. Flee to Twitter or the Google-owned YouTube, and one finds the same, gross business model. There’s no escape from the surveillance.

Critics might respond that social media is a non-essential product, and if one doesn’t like corporate surveillance, they should just delete their accounts. Try telling that to a journalist, musician, entrepreneur, or activist — anyone who needs others’ attention. These forums are just too powerful, and the companies holding the keys are just too big and unaccountable, for market-based fairy dust to work.

Given these big, structural obstacles, the solution cannot rest on individual action. We don’t prevent pandemics just by teaching people to avoid rats. The government convenes the forces necessary for creating vaccines and medicines to eradicate diseases in the first place. Preventative treatments work. Likewise, if an industry is preying on the public, it’s insufficient to simply inform and educate its would-be targets.

In this case, our “vaccines” must come from specialized regulators like the CFPB, Federal Communications Commission, and Food and Drug Administration. Society recognizes that it’s unfair and dangerous to expect every individual to be their own, and only, advocate in every transaction with complex and powerful industries. The staff at these agencies are (or could and should be) trained experts who follow these fields for a living, and they can set rules in order to stop new forms of exploitation that profit-hungry bad actors invent.

The agencies need to rediscover the powers they already have. They need to push back against the failed market-driven policies of the last four decades. But as the CFPB example demonstrates, that can only happen with strong leadership from the top. Unless agency heads actually understand and believe in the missions of their agencies, nothing is going to change. Properly staffing and leading the executive branch agencies will be one of the most important ways any new president can actually improve Americans’ lives.

Yet Democratic leadership has continued to neglect these appointments, and the opportunities to wield power that they represent. Until that changes, we can all expect a lot more scoldings from billionaires over their own deceptions and theft. In a world of “Buyer Beware,” it’s always the little guy who suffers.

Max Moran writes for Center for Economic and Political Research, where this article first appeared.

The post Confuse, Then Blame the Public: Facebook Dodges Regulation With Wall Street’s Tactics appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

NFL’s Depression-Era Ban on Black Players Lingers On in the Owners Box

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. (NFL Network.)

The National Football League season opened last week with a full slate of games.

On the field, extraordinary athletes of all races and backgrounds competed with the same set of rules.

Yet, it is worth noting that this has not always been the case — and that the legacy of discrimination has yet to be redressed.

In June, when the Chicago Bears announced that their “throwback jersey” for their 100th anniversary this year would come from 1936, they were honoring a jersey that was worn in the third season of the NFL’s 12-year ban on black players.

In an extraordinary article for Windy City Gridiron, Chicago Sports historian Jack Silverstein detailed the story and background of the ban.

Unlike baseball, the NFL allowed black players to play in its early years. Black players like All Pro halfback Fritz Pollard and tackle Duke Slater were among the most honored players of the day.

“What makes the NFL so unique is that it’s a full-fledged league and it starts off integrated,” says professor, author and historian Louis Moore, whose work includes the podcast The Black Athlete.

Yet, when the Great Depression deepened, black players were suddenly banned from the league. The owners — led by George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins and, Silverstein postulates, likely George Halas, famed owner of the Chicago Bears — clearly enforced a ban on black players that lasted from 1933 to 1945.

The argument apparently was that with the Depression, black players would be resented — the football version of last hired, first fired.

The Washington owner, Marshall, writes Silverstein, was an “avowed, gleeful racist,” who generally bears the onus of pushing the ban. He hoped to market the Washington team as the team of the South.

But other owners, including legends in the sport, were complicit or worse, including Chicago’s Halas, Curly Lambeau of the Packers, Tim Mara of the Giants and Art Rooney of the Steelers.

Mara’s Giants didn’t have a black player until 1948, Halas’ Bears not until 1952, Lambeau’s Packers not until 1950. Marshall’s Redskins were the last to integrate, doing so only in 1962 when the federal government threatened to revoke the lease on the team’s stadium.

Today, NFL rosters are integrated.

But there’s still a dearth of blacks in the elite club of owners. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, only two principal owners are people of color — Shahid Khan of the Jaguars and Kim Pegula of the Buffalo Bills. (Of the 92 teams in baseball, basketball and football combined, there are only six majority owners that are people of color.)

Ownership is a small club, and the club owners still tend to admit only people that look like them. The exclusion is also a legacy of the discrimination.

When black players — and black owners — were banned, teams were affordable. As the league built up, many teams were inherited, gaining in value along the way. By being excluded at the start, black owners have a far harder time getting in now.

Today’s integrated teams on the field serve as positive examples.

Fans cheer for favorites by the color of their jerseys, not the color of their skin. That players of all races and backgrounds play by the same set of rules exemplifies the equal justice under the law that we strive for.

But equality on the field should parallel equality in management and ownership.

The NFL should start by acknowledging the racial ban it enforced, recognizing black players and moving more of them into the Hall of Fame and taking concrete steps to ensure that the ownership, management and coaching of NFL teams reflect the diversity of the players on the field and the fans in the stands.

 

The post NFL’s Depression-Era Ban on Black Players Lingers On in the Owners Box appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Tax Dodging 101: the Aircastle Model

Aircastle Ltd. is not a household name, but if you’ve flown on South African Airways, KLM, or any of more than 80 other airlines, you’ve probably traveled on an airplane the Connecticut-based company owns and manages.

The company´s business model is based on buying, selling, and leasing aircraft worldwide. Its corporate structure minimizes the payment of taxes by using a complex arrangement of subsidiaries, all managed from Connecticut, Ireland, or Singapore.

These arrangements, recently highlighted in the #MauritiusLeaks investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), are legal. But they have allowed the company to pay minimal taxes, including no corporate taxes in the United States on income from their aircraft leases.

Aircastle, of course, isn’t alone among large American companies in lowering their taxes through creative accounting. Well-known giants such as Amazon and Apple do so as well.

But the recent revelations on Aircastle’s use of Mauritius as a tax haven provide a helpful window into how such tax dodges can use offshore companies set up primarily for that purpose. Getting to zero with tax avoidance became even easier with the new Republican tax cuts in 2017, but Aircastle was already well on the way to that objective.

For example, when Aircastle decided to do business in South Africa in 2010, as the ICIJ and Quartz Africa revealed in July 2019, it turned to a Bermuda-based law firm to help it set up six subsidiaries in Mauritius: Thunderbird 1 Leasing Ltd. along with five other companies named Thunderbird 2 through 6. As was Aircastle´s common practice, each company was to own a specific aircraft. South African Airways made their lease payments to the subsidiaries in Mauritius, each of which was owned in turn by an Aircastle subsidiary in Bermuda or Delaware.

Since South Africa and Mauritius have a tax treaty allowing this, Aircastle paid Mauritius at the low Mauritius rates on the income from the leases ($772,735 a month for the first A300-200 leased by South African Airways from Thunderbird 1 beginning in 2011). From 2011 through 2014, according to documents leaked to ICIJ, Thunderbird 1 paid  a total of $382,600 in Mauritius taxes, a 1.59 percent tax rate on $24 million in operating profits.

Aircastle paid no taxes on these profits either in South Africa or in the United States.

According to ICIJ, “Had Aircastle’s Thunderbird 1 company alone reported the profits it made in Mauritius over four years in the U.S., it could have paid more than $5 million. Those taxes would just about cover the state of Connecticut’s current budget for domestic violence shelters.”

Including other Thunderbird companies as well, Quartz calculated, Aircastle paid $1.5 million in Mauritius taxes on profits of $53 million, at an effective rate of 2.87 percent — thus avoiding $14.8 million in taxes it would have owed if taxes had been paid to South Africa. This is equivalent to more than half the annual social housing budget of Johannesburg.

Aircastle did not respond to queries from ICIJ or Quartz, and data for a more comprehensive analysis of its tax strategy are therefore not available. However, since the company is registered on the New York Stock Exchange and also traded on NASDAQ, its reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are public. Its annual report to investors for 2018, for example, incorporates the 10-K report to the SEC.

There we learn that Aircastle Ltd is actually incorporated in Bermuda and thus pays no U.S. corporate income tax, except on the management services supplied by its U.S. subsidiary to the aircraft-owning companies. Bermuda has no corporate income tax. Thus the company notes in its 10-K report, under the heading “risks related to taxation”:

“If Aircastle were treated as engaged in a trade or business in the United States, it would be subject to U.S. federal income taxation on a net income basis, which would adversely affect our business and result in decreased cash available for distribution to our shareholders.”

Given the lack of transparency in corporate reporting, it is hard to tell how Aircastle’s strategies compare to those used by other companies. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) reported in April, based on 10-Ks submitted to the SEC, that 60 of the Fortune 500 had zero or negative federal income tax payments in 2018. But more detailed analysis or estimates of tax revenue lost, in the United States and other countries, require much more data than almost all such reports provide.

The fundamental step needed to make accountability feasible is public country-by-country reporting, whereby corporations would be required to provide for investors and the public a breakdown by country of revenues, profits, employees, and taxes paid for  every country in which they do business. Governments, investors, and even some businesses are increasingly accepting the need for such reports.

According to an April 2019 report from the U.S.-based Financial Accountability and Corporate  Transparency (FACT) Coalition, however, the trend is in the right direction. “The evidence suggests we are quickly reaching a turning point,” said Christian Freymeyer, researcher and author of the report. “Investors see the value, policymakers see the benefits, and businesses see the inevitability of greater transparency. It’s only a matter of time before tax transparency is accepted and expected of financial disclosure.”

Freymeyer´s analysis may well err on the side of optimism, given the continued opposition from those with vested interests in tax avoidance. But it is certainly true that the argument is now finding new supporters far beyond the circle of tax justice activists who have been the leaders in demanding these reforms.

The post Tax Dodging 101: the Aircastle Model appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Treadmill of Magic Seeds and Broken Promises: Dismantling the Myth of Bt Cotton Success in India

Political posturing aligned with commercial interests means that truth is becoming a casualty in the debate about genetically modified (GM) crops in India. The industry narrative surrounding Bt cotton is that it has been a great success. The current Modi-led administration is parroting this claim and argues its success must be replicated by adopting a range of GM food crops, amounting to what would be a full-scale entry of GM technology into Indian agriculture. Currently, Bt cotton is India’s only officially approved commercially cultivated GM crop.

With the aim of putting the record straight, a media event took place on Friday, 6 September in New Delhi at the Constitution Club of India during which it was declared that Bt cotton has been a costly and damaging failure. Speakers included prominent environmentalists Aruna Rodrigues and Vandana Shiva who presented a good deal of information based on official reports, research papers and documents submitted as evidence to the Supreme Court on Bt cotton.

It was argued that even the government’s own data contradicts its tale of Bt cotton success and that the consequences of irresponsibly rolling out various GM crops based on a false narrative would be disastrous for the country.

PR and broken promises

In the early 2000s, Bt cotton was being heavily promoted in India on the basis it would cut pesticide use dramatically, boost yields and contribute to the financial well-being of farmers. However, pesticide use is back to pre-Bt levels and yields have stagnated or are falling. Moreover, some 31 countries rank above India in terms of cotton yield and of these only 10 grow GM cotton.

As will be shown, farmers now find themselves on a chemical-biotech treadmill and have to deal with an increasing number of Bt/insecticide resistant pests and rising costs of production. For many small-scale cotton farmers, this has resulted in greater levels of indebtedness and financial distress.

Failure to yield

Over 90% of cotton sown in India is now Bt. Although initially introduced to the country in 2002, its adoption was only about 12 and 38% respectively in 2005 and 2006. A good deal of data was contained in the media briefing that accompanied the event in Delhi. In it, Aruna Rodrigues and Vandana Shiva show that, even then (2005-2006), average yields had already reached the current plateau of about 450-500 kg/ha. Average all-India Bt cotton yields hovered around or below 500 kg/ha during the period 2005-2018.

What is particularly revealing is that cotton production for 2018-2019 will be the lowest in a decade, down to an estimated 420.72 kg/ha, according to a press release issued in July by the Cotton Association of India.

Furthermore, the argument is that increases in yields that may have occurred were in any case due to various factors, such as increased fertiliser use and high-yielding hybrid seeds, and not Bt technology.

The data presented by Rodrigues and Shiva shows that cotton yield in the pre-Bt era increased significantly from its 191 kg/ha low in 2002 to 318 kg/ha in 2004-2005, registering an increase of 66% in just three years (the baseline for Bt cotton is 2005-2006 as prior to this adoption rates were not significant). The two environmentalists say this was a result of increased acreage under hybrids and a new class of insecticides.

They note that the momentum of this upward swing carried into the Bt era and had nothing to do with that technology. Their argument is that Bt cotton has failed but is being trumpeted as a success under the cover of increased fertiliser use, hybrid seed trait yield (not attributable to Bt technology), better irrigation and insecticide seed coating.

Biotech treadmill and ecological disruption

Bt technology was used in conjunction with high-yielding hybrids (as opposed to pure line varieties) and has no trait for intrinsic yield. This, Rodrigues and Shiva argue, conveniently allowed a smudging of the yield data (isolating the precise impact of hybrid yield would prove to be difficult) and also provided a ‘value-capture’ mechanism for Monsanto: the introduction of these hybrids disallows seed saving, forcing farmers to buy new expensive hybrid Bt cotton seed each year (hybridisation gives one-time vigour).

Prior to Bt cotton, the extensive use of insecticides to cope with the Pink Bollworm (PBW), which is native to India, had become a problem. Spraying for PBW caused outbreaks of the American Bollworm (ABW). The ABW is a secondary pest that was induced by extensive insecticide use and became the target for Bt cotton.

Although Bt cotton was supposed to control both species of bollworm, PBW resistance to Bt toxin has now occurred and the ABW is also developing resistance. Moreover, post 2002, new pests have appeared, such as whitefly, jassids and mealybugs.

However, Rodrigues and Shiva note that resistance in PBW now occurs to both Monsanto’s Bollgard I and Bollgard II Bt cotton (BGI and BG II). BGI was replaced by BG II as early as 2007-8, just six years after its introduction because the PBW had developed resistance. The ABW is also now developing resistance to stacked Bt toxins in BG II.

Irresponsible roll out

Hybrids are input intensive and are sown at suboptimal wide spacing. Unlike in other countries that grow Bt cotton, they are long season cottons and are thus more susceptible to pest build-up. With this in mind, Rodrigues and Shiva refer to Dr K R Kranthi, former director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, who says:

“Insecticide usage is increasing each year because of resistance development in sucking pests to imidacloprid and other neonicotinoid insecticides—by 2012 insecticide usage was at 2002 levels and will continue to increase inducing further outbreaks of insecticide and Bt resistant pests.”

Bt cotton hybrids also require more human labour and perform better under irrigation. However, 66% of cotton in India is cultivated in rain fed areas, where yields depend on the timing and quantity of highly variable monsoon rains. Unreliable rains, the high costs of Bt hybrid seed, continued insecticide use and debt have placed many poor (marginal) smallholder farmers in a situation of severe financial hardship.

In fact, Professor A P Gutierrez argues that Bt cotton has effectively put these farmers in a corporate noose: his research has noted a link between Bt cotton, weather, yields, financial distress and farmer suicides.

Monsanto’s profiteering

Rodrigues and Shiva note that Monsanto was allowed a ‘royalty’ on Bollgard I seed without having a patent on it. Drawing on conservative estimates (by K R Kranthi), on average, the additional expenditure on seeds (compared to non-Bt seeds) was at least Rs 1,179 per hectare and the Indian farmer may have spent a total extra amount of Rs 14,000 crores (140 billion) on Bt cotton seeds during the period 2002-2018. The trait value charged (2002-2018) is around Rs 7,000 crores. This excludes royalties accruing to Mahyco-Monsanto, which were illegal on Bollgard I (first generation Bt cotton) and yet allowed by the regulators.

Overall net profit for cotton farmers was Rs 5,971/ha in 2003 (pre-Bt) but plummeted to average net losses of Rs 6,286 in 2015, while fertiliser use kg/ha exhibited a 2.2-fold increase. As Bt technology was being rolled out, costs of production were thus increasing. And these costs were increasing in the face of stagnant yields.

Why GM anyway?

At this point, it is worth broadening the scope of this article by noting that in 2010, an indefinite moratorium was placed on Bt brinjal, which would have been India’s first GM food crop. Despite the current push for a full-scale entry of GM into Indian agriculture, the moratorium is still in place: the conflicts of interest, secrecy, negligence and lack of competence inherent in the GM regulatory process that were acknowledged at that time remain unaddressed.

It would therefore be grossly irresponsible to roll out GM. If the experience of Bt cotton tells us anything, it would also be extremely unwise to proceed without carrying out independent health, environmental and socio-economic risk assessments.

Of course, establishing the need for GM – crops that outperform current non-GM options currently available – is paramount but totally absent. With this in mind, Rodrigues and Shiva cite evidence that traditional plant breeding and newer methods outperform GM agriculture at much less cost, release fewer carbon emissions and earn much greater profits for farmers.

Given this situation (the fraud of GM and its dubious track record aside), anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the plan to get GM into Indian agriculture is solely driven by ideology and commercial interest. Instead of drawing on proven traditional knowledge and practices to ensure food security, the strategy seems to be to place farmers on biotech-chemical treadmills for the benefit of corporate interests.

Green Revolution to ‘gene revolution’

If we look at the Green Revolution, it too was also sold under the guise of ‘feeding the world’. But in India, according to Professor Glenn Stone, it merely led to more wheat in the diet, while food productivity per capita showed no increase or actually decreased. Nevertheless, there have been dire consequences for the Indian diet, the environment, farmers, rural communities and public health.

More generally, the Green Revolution dovetailed with an international system of chemical-dependent, agro-export mono-cropping and big infrastructure projects (dams) linked to loans, sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF directives, the outcomes of which included a displacement of the peasantry, the consolidation of global agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries into food deficit regions.

Often regarded as Green Revolution 2.0, the ‘gene revolution’ is integral to the plan to ‘modernise’ Indian agriculture. This means the displacement of peasant farmers, further corporate consolidation and commercialisation based on industrial-scale monocrop farms incorporated into global supply chains dominated by transnational agribusiness and retail giants. It would also mean the undermining of national food security.

GM-based agriculture is key to what would amount to a wholesale corporate capture of the agri-food sector: a sure-fire money spinner that would dwarf the amount drained from India courtesy of Monsanto’s ‘royalties’ on Bt cotton.

Agroecological solutions

This wholesale shift to industrial agriculture would have devastating impacts on the environment, rural communities, public health, local and regional food security, seed sovereignty, nutritional yield per acre, water tables and soil quality, etc. Industrial agriculture has massive health, social and environmental costs which are borne by the public and taxpayers, certainly not by the (subsidised) corporations that rake in the massive profits.

It is no surprise, therefore, that an increasing international consensus is emerging on the role of agroecology. In this respect, smallholder farmers are not to be regarded as residues from the past but as being crucial to the future.

And this is not lost on Rodrigues and Shiva who note the vital importance and productivity of small farms (which outperform industrial-scale enterprises and feed most of the global population) and the advantages of agroecological farming. They refer to the recent UN FAO High Level Panel of Experts which concludes that agroecology provides greatly improved food security and nutritional, gender, environmental and yield benefits compared to industrial agriculture.

Furthermore, according to Rodrigues and Shiva, regenerative organic farming can draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere and put it in the soil, thereby reversing climate change and making agriculture climate resilient. They argue that organic systems are competitive with conventional yields and leach no toxic chemicals. As for cotton, they state that ‘desi’ species of cotton varieties are highly amenable to low-cost organic farming, providing an excellent opportunity for India to emerge as a global leader in organic cotton.

The take-home message is that if GM food crops are to be rolled out – based on a narrative about Bt cotton that relies more on industry spin than actual facts – it would be disastrous for India. Given the evidence, it’s a warning that should not be taken lightly.

An eight-page briefing was issued to coincide with the media event and contains relevant references, additional data and numerous informative charts. It can be accessed here 

The post Treadmill of Magic Seeds and Broken Promises: Dismantling the Myth of Bt Cotton Success in India appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

BDS in Canada

A recent ruling by the Federal Court of Canada declaring ‘Product of Israel’ labels on West Bank settlement wines to be “false, misleading and deceptive” has thrown Canada’s pro-Israel community into a tizzy. In full court press-mode, Canadian Zionist groups are arguing that the ruling bolsters the “anti-Semitic” Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and are demanding that Canada’s Attorney General file an appeal. He has until the end of September to do so.

“Refusing to buy goods made by Jews is patent discrimination,” fumed David Matas (“undoubtedly one of the leading human rights scholars and advocates in the world”),in a letter to government lawyers. Matas represented B’Nai Brith Canada as intervenor in the wine labeling case, that I initiated [link to one of my previous CounterPunch pieces]. “Refusing to buy goods by Israeli Jews is also discrimination,” Matas continued. “Refusing to buy goods by Israeli Jews working out of a particular location is yet another form of discrimination against Jews.”

In a letter to Ottawa’s Hill Times, Honest Reporting Canada researcher Noah Lewis wrote: “The Federal Court’s decision on the labeling of “West Bank” wines was discriminatory, and it was marred by lending support to the anti-Semitic BDS movement.”

Truly over the top, in a full-page New York Times ad citing Madam Justice Anne Mactavish by name, Zionist zealot Shmuley Boteach lambasted the “Canadian judiciary” for “prejudice” in “singling out the Jewish State,” and – in extra large font and caps – for its “Jew-shaming double-standards.”

These cries of outrage are disingenuous.

The only reason why someone would avoid a wine product labeled as being produced in a West Bank settlement, as opposed to a truly Israeli wine, is because Israel’s settlements are flagrantly illegal. To be precise, they violate Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention (a ‘grave breach’ under article 85(4) of the Convention’s 1977 Additional Protocol), and are also a presumptive war crime under Article 8(2)(b)(viii) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Nuanced BDSers – those inclined to cut Israel some slack, including Jewish people of conscience – would avoid settlement wines, but buy truly Israeli products.

Strict adherents of BDS (a fundamentally anti-racist, pro-human rights movement) would avoid both. So would real racists, including people who hate Jews, Jewish people and Judaism.

Christian Zionists, among the most rabid Jew-haters, would likely be overjoyed to buy settlement wines, knowing that ‘Judea’ and ‘Samaria’ are being reclaimed by the Jewish people, true to prophesy, prior to their incineration.

Let’s get real. What infuriates Israel and its Canadian agents the most about Justice Mactavish’s July 29 ruling is her proposition that the West Bank does not belong to Israel. All parties to the case (including David Matas) agree on this point, Justice Mactavish pointed out. Ergo, West Bank settlement wines cannot truthfully be labeled ‘Product of Israel’. Plain and simple.

Trouble is, Canadian Zionists believe that all lands from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean were gifted to the Jewish people by God. Palestinians don’t exist, they argue. ‘Arabs’ who happen to find themselves in the Land of Israel may reside in whatever enclave the State of Israel provides them, at Israel’s pleasure. Like Benjamin Netanyahu, his Likud followers and a broad swath of Israeli society, Canadian Zionists who oppose the Federal Court of Canada’s wine labeling decision – folks like B’Nai Brith, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (Canada’s AIPAC), the Jewish Defense League (of course) and neocons like Linda Frum – oppose the creation of a truly sovereign Palestinian state. They may say they support a ‘Two-State Solution’, but they really don’t. The Land of Israel belongs to the Jews, and only the Jews, they firmly believe.

So, denying settlement wine producers the right to label their vino ‘Product of Israel’ is an affront of the deepest sort. Not because it’s discriminatory (it isn’t; all food and beverage products sold in Canada must be truthfully labeled, Canadian ones included), or because it deprives them of a lucrative market, at preferential tariff rates (truthfully labeled settlement wines can still be sold in Canada), or because settlement labels would expose Canadian Jews to attack (an absurd notion), but because this would deny Israel the right to stake sovereign claim over settlements, over all of “Judea” and “Samaria,” on Canadian store shelves.

How sharply this affront sticks in Zionist craws is most honestly articulated by settlement wine producers themselves – the ones named in my wine labeling case. “Canada, a country founded and expanded as it conquered and destroyed the homeland of another people, a country with no roots or historical validity of its existence there, questions the right of Jews to live and grow vineyards in the land of our forefathers,” Psagot Winery owner Yaakov Berg told the CBC in the summer of 2017, following the launch of my court case.

“I will not take out the words ‘Made in Israel’, under no circumstances,” said Amichai Lourie, owner of Shilo Winery, located in the heart of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Even if I lose the market, I’ll lose the market. No big deal … Making wine in Israel, it’s not just about money. You’re connecting to the land. There are things that we won’t compromise.”

If only Canadian Zionists were as honest in their condemnation of the Federal Court of Canada’s July 29 ruling. What counts for them, more than anything else, is Israel’s right to do as it pleases, free of censure. They believe, as do Benjamin Netanyahu and a wide swath of Israeli society, that all the ‘Land of Israel’ belongs to the Jews, and that Canadian consumers should have no say in the matter.

If the Canadian government opts to appeal the Federal Court’s July 29 ruling, it will be endorsing these notions, in breach of its obligation to uphold international law and Canadian consumer rights. Not something the Trudeau government – outspoken defender of the “rule of law” – wants to fess up to. Certainly not before this coming October’s federal elections.

The post BDS in Canada appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Bojo Johnson’s Magic Carpet Ride Wearing Nigel Farage’s Clothes

Photograph Source: Annie Mole – CC BY 2.0

Boris Johnson (“BoJo”) has been a chancer all his adult life.

A privileged upbringing has given him a sense of entitlement and an accompanying carapace of invulnerability– a combination which allows him to take risks without forethought as to their likely outcomes. After all, as his nanny did when he was very young, there will always be someone around him to pick-up the pieces.

For BoJo, life as it is might therefore be hard to differentiate from a long magic carpet ride.

Being prime minister? Of course he was born to the job! Hadn’t he been to Eton (he was the 22nd of the UK’s 55 prime ministers to attend that bastion of privilege)? Wasn’t he accepted into the Bullingdon Club at Oxford (“Buller! Buller! Buller!”)? And can’t he buff-up his speeches with Latin expressions beyond the ken of the plebs who vote for him?

But what if it looks as though the magic carpet is about to crash down to earth? Well, you just lie through your teeth, and say that it is “in fact” ascending. There is a high probability that the liar on the magic carpet may even believe his own lies.

Toffs in Ukania come in 3 varieties: (i) those poshly over-mannered with an ostentation bordering on self-parody, the exemplar here being Jacob Rees-Mogg; (ii) upper-class hooligans, who believe their privilege entitles them to a breezy loutishness denied the rest of the population, the exemplar here being BoJo; and (iii) a more routine version, which confines itself largely to the brandishing of the appropriate tribal badges– braying voices, wearing green wellington boots, the parading of a stock vocabulary in Bertie Woosterish clipped cadences (“oh I say”, “rather jolly, what?”, “well-played sir!”, “my dear boy”, and so on)– Brits use the term “Hooray Henry” to depict this particular manifestation of the toff. There are of course overlaps between (ii) and (iii).

These personae did not serve their Tory bearers well in the recent parliamentary debates on Brexit.

Rees-Mogg, now Leader of the House of Commons, opened the first day’s debate on a motion challenging BoJo’s request for the suspension of parliament, with opening remarks full of pompous sneers and taunts, and with clear insinuations that his opponents were only qualified, if at all, to be footmen in his household (or a maid in the case of women who tempered opposition to Brexit with exquisite manners and decorum).

When the vote came, 21 of these Brexit opponents were from R-M’s own party. One Tory rebel said afterwards that R-M had been the “best recruiting sergeant” for those opposed to Brexit!

Rees-Mogg then compounded his haughtiness by pretending to fall asleep, languorously, on the front bench while the televised debate was going on. The self-parodying R-M has always been fodder for the political cartoonists, but on this occasion he handed it to them on a plate, and was duly skewered (or “kebabbed”, as some multicultural Brits would say).

R-M had performed so disastrously that his scheduled place as the debate’s closer was taken over by BoJo, who did no better, albeit in his very different way.

With flailing arms BoJo launched into an incoherent tirade on this and that, and when he turned to his own frontbench during his rant to gauge their reaction, they refused to meet his eye and stared at the floor in front of them. Losers face a solitary existence in this cruel Tory world, as the soon to be wiped-out BoJo was discovering.

There were 2 votes the following day— one on extending the Brexit deadline beyond 31st October, the other prohibiting a No Deal Brexit— BoJo opposed both and lost both.

Again, the Brexiter cause was not helped by more disjointed bluster from a clearly rattled BoJo.

BoJo had requested the suspension of parliament so a general election could be called before the 31st October Brexit deadline.

BoJo then tabled a motion for an early general election, which was duly rejected. Labour insisted it would not back a snap election until a No Deal Brexit was set in law, so many of the party’s MPs, joined by the Scottish Nationalists, abstained from the vote, denying the BoJo the 434 votes he needed to get his motion through.

BoJo’s failure in the Commons can put down two factors.

Firstly, he showed in his two previous jobs (Mayor of London, foreign secretary) that attending to details is a task for minions. A top dog like him is simply there for photo ops and to make crummy jokes.

When speaking BoJo relies on pure extemporization, and his default mode is stream of consciousness.

Secondly, as implied, BoJo is not a good speaker. His standard setting is that of the two characters he invented for himself, that is, the clown or buffoon, or the ersatz Churchill, both of which may work in friendly settings where nothing he says will be probed deeply. But this won’t happen in a parliament where the opposition benches are crowded with capable people who want today to be your last day on the job.

One of BoJo’s major sources of income is after-dinner speaking– he charges £25,000/$30,000 to address wealthy Tory supporters who are three-sheets-to-the-wind from the fine vintages served, even as their mock-heroic clown rises to tickle their plump underbellies.

BoJo gets his energy from inhaling the fumy adoration of such audiences, where his feeble jokes and schoolboy insults are greeted with uproarious laughter, a state of affairs quite different from parliament, where the almost the guaranteed response will be groans and boos from the opposition, and silence from those on the Tory benches wondering if they will be reelected in the next general election with the jester BoJo as their party leader.

BoJo resumes action on Monday, where he is expected to resubmit his motion for an early election. Like the one before, this won’t have the requisite votes.

What the clown prince of Ukania does next is anybody’s guess.

Kenneth Surin is emeritus at Duke University, North Carolina. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The post Bojo Johnson’s Magic Carpet Ride Wearing Nigel Farage’s Clothes appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Is Killing Peasants Protecting America’s Interests?

Photograph Source: Fibonacci Blue – CC BY 2.0

The war drags on. There is no end in sight. Peace negotiations are thwarted again. Republicans and Democrats alike appear in the press decrying the possibility of the enemy coming to talk peace and staying at Camp David. Personally, I was surprised by the Camp David aspect of the story only because I figured Trump might try and get the Taliban negotiators a floor or two in one of his hotels or resorts. Why go to Camp David if the family Trump can make a few bucks? If Trump properties are good enough for the Chinese and the US Air Force, why not the Taliban, too?

Perhaps the real reason for the most recent failure of the peace negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan client regime and the US can be found in Secretary Pompeo’s remarks on CNN’s State of the Union show this past weekend.

“You should know in the last 10 days we’ve killed over a thousand Taliban.” Pompeo told the audience. “And while this is not a war of attrition, I want the American people to know that President Trump is taking it to the Taliban in an effort to make sure that we protect America’s interests.”

Sarcastically speaking, there’s nothing bloodthirsty in that statement. Sounds like a man seeking peace to me. As for the veracity of the quote, let’s take a look. To begin with, if the US and its client forces really did kill one thousand Afghans in the preceding ten days, how can they be certain the dead were Taliban? A more likely scenario is that the dead, whether it’s a few hundred or a thousand, included many Afghan civilians who happened to live in areas controlled by the Taliban who are, after all, Afghans too. Indeed, since the Trump administration took control of the White House and Washington’s wars in 2017, the number of civilians killed by so-called US-led forces has increased each year. This is largely due to the US change in strategy from counterinsurgency to a war primarily fought from the air. In other words, the US is bombing and otherwise attacking anti-occupation forces and the places that shelter them with less intimate targeting than previously. As any observer of modern warfare can tell you, this means that more civilians die—what warmakers call collateral damage.

As for the idea that the US occupation and war in Afghanistan is not a war of attrition. If this statement means that the US hopes to wear down the Afghan resistance to the occupation, then Pompeo’s statement could not be truer. In fact, most reports indicate the Taliban and other resistance groups are actually more aggressive now than they were before Trump’s inauguration. Truth to tell, the only war of attrition that is being won regarding the US and Afghanistan is the war to wear down the opposition of US military adventurism among the United States’ population. The warmakers and their media have clearly won that battle. Barely a peep emanates from any quarter regarding Washington’s war on much of the world anymore.

I remember the disbelief so many US residents felt on September 11, 2001 after the bloodshed blamed on Al Qaeda. I also remember the anger and calls for revenge. It was this combination of factors that made it very easy for the US war machine to begin its global war on terror. Those events were the excuse the war machine was waiting for. Eighteen years later, the world is not safer, not freer, and not peaceful. Instead, millions of people are refugees from countries affected directly and indirectly by the US-led wars on people and places in Washington’s way. The military and homeland security establishment sucks the homeland dry while building a police and surveillance state that locks up innocents and kills them in their homes. Its stretch is broader and deeper than at any point in human history. There is no apparent end to any of this. Local wars like that in Afghanistan go on forever. The strategy for these wars is unclear to almost everyone, including those fighting it. The desire to end them—like this most recent round of peace negotiations that almost reached Camp David—cycles in and out of favor with the rulers in the White House. The grotesque amounts of money and human hours wasted in these endeavors would be better spent by giving every Afghan and resident of other nations under fire from the US a million dollars each. This would be cheaper and more likely to end the killing than any military undertaking.

So, let’s go back to Pompeo’s statement and that part about protecting America’s interests. This is where the lies told by successive administrations becomes apparent. What exactly are America’s interests? How does occupying and continuing the war on the Afghan people further American interests? The only logical conclusion to draw is that nobody in power really wants the war to end. Its continuation—and the continuation of US wars and subversion around the world—serves the interests of some Americans. They are not the majority but they are the wealthiest and most powerful. The fact that so many of the rest of those living in the US accept this definition of American interests bodes ill for us all.

9-11 occurred eighteen years ago. The state terrorism of the war on terror continues. Its justification, if it ever had one, is long past.

The post Is Killing Peasants Protecting America’s Interests? appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Imperative to Restore Congressional Powers

Photograph Source: Jeremy Buckingham – CC BY 2.0

You have to give President Trump credit for one thing — he has so abused executive authority that even the most conservative members of Congress are now clamoring to restore our vital constitutionally-established checks and balances.

It would hard to find a more conservative member of Congress than Utah’s Republican Sen. Mike Lee. This is the guy who convinced Trump to slash the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument so oil, gas, coal, off-road “wreckreationists” and fossil hunters could ravage the canyons and their fragile ruins of the ancient Anasazi cliff-dwellers.

He’s also the guy leading the charge on trashing the Endangered Species Act and opening more federal lands to resource extraction while supporting even more deregulation of extractive industries.

In other words, Lee should be a hand-in-glove fit for the president’s unconscionable desecration of what’s left of the nation’s natural legacy to boost the wobbly economy and Trump’s dimming re-election chances. But apparently even Lee can only countenance so much abuse, so many misuses of presidential power and, in the end, the radical shifting of billions of already appropriated dollars to build Trump’s wall to circumvent the approval which Congress remains unwilling to provide.

As Lee bluntly put it: “If Congress is troubled by recent emergency declarations made pursuant to the National Emergencies Act, they only have themselves to blame. Congress gave these legislative powers away in 1976 and it is far past time that we as an institution took them back. If we don’t want our president acting like a king we need to start taking back the legislative powers that allow him to do so. The Article One Act will go a long way to restoring the balance of powers in our republic.” According to Lee’s press release, “the bill would automatically end all future emergency declarations made pursuant to the NEA after 30 days unless Congress voted affirmatively to extend the emergency.”

Trump’s abuses of the National Emergencies Act — such as moving troops to the border that would otherwise violate the Posse Comitatus Act prohibiting the use federal military personnel to enforce domestic policies — have opened the eyes of those who previously couldn’t imagine such lawlessness and authoritarianism in an American president. No doubt Lee was provided additional impetus when Trump ripped off more than $100 million in already appropriated funds for military bases in Lee’s home state of Utah.

Trump brought this retaliation against executive abuse on himself and fully deserves the congressional blowback. But it’s also fair to say Congress had best decide whether it wants to continue its budget-busting military spending spree if those dollars wind up going elsewhere based on presidential whim with little regard for the Constitution or law. It’s one thing that senators and representatives regularly line up at the military feeding trough — it’s another to have their pork pulled away by an out-of-control president.

Regardless of what happens with Lee’s bill, the imperative to restore constitutional checks and balances could not be more evident. Currently Lee has 14 co-sponsors in the Senate and they’re all Republicans. Given the total lack of regard Trump has shown Congress, the Constitution and the law, it’s long past time for Democrats and Republicans to stand up together and fight back against this blatant abuse of executive power.

Our founding fathers fought the Revolutionary War to free the “colonies” from the heavy hand of King George and the perils of monarchies. It is imperative that we don’t cede that hard-won victory for democracy to the crazed authoritarian now living in the White House.

The post The Imperative to Restore Congressional Powers appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Bill of Rights Turns 230: What Do We Have to Show for It? Nothing Good

The Bill of Rights – Public Domain

“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”

—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

It’s been 230 years since James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—as a means of protecting the people against government tyranny, and what do we have to show for it?

Nothing good.

In America today, the government does whatever it wants, freedom be damned.

We can pretend that the Constitution, which was written to hold the government accountable, is still our governing document, but the reality of life in the American police state tells a different story.

“We the people” have been terrorized, traumatized, and tricked into a semi-permanent state of compliance by a government that cares nothing for our lives or our liberties.

The bogeyman’s names and faces have changed over time (terrorism, the war on drugs, illegal immigration, etc.), but the end result remains the same: in the so-called named of national security, the Constitution has been steadily chipped away at, undermined, eroded, whittled down, and generally discarded to such an extent that what we are left with today is but a shadow of the robust document adopted more than two centuries ago.

Most of the damage has been inflicted upon the Bill of Rights.

A recitation of the Bill of Rights—set against a backdrop of government surveillance, militarized police, SWAT team raids, asset forfeiture, eminent domain, overcriminalization, armed surveillance drones, whole body scanners, stop and frisk searches (all sanctioned by Congress, the White House, the courts and the like)—would understandably sound more like a eulogy to freedoms lost than an affirmation of rights we truly possess.

Here is what it means to live under the Constitution today.

The First Amendment is supposed to protect the freedom to speak your mind, assemble and protest nonviolently without being bridled by the government. It also protects the freedom of the media, as well as the right to worship and pray without interference. In other words, Americans should not be silenced by the government. To the founders, all of America was a free speech zone.

Despite the clear protections found in the First Amendment, the freedoms described therein are under constant assault. Increasingly, Americans are being arrested and charged with bogus “contempt of cop” charges such as “disrupting the peace” or “resisting arrest” for daring to film police officers engaged in harassment or abusive practices. Journalists are being prosecuted for reporting on whistleblowers. States are passing legislation to muzzle reporting on cruel and abusive corporate practices. Religious ministries are being fined for attempting to feed and house the homeless. Protesters are being tear-gassed, beaten, arrested and forced into “free speech zones.” And under the guise of “government speech,” the courts have reasoned that the government can discriminate freely against any First Amendment activity that takes place within a government forum.

The Second Amendment was intended to guarantee “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” Essentially, this amendment was intended to give the citizenry the means to resist tyrannical government. Yet while gun ownership has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as an individual citizen right, Americans remain powerless to defend themselves against SWAT team raids and government agents armed to the teeth with military weapons better suited for the battlefield. As such, this amendment has been rendered null and void.

The Third Amendment reinforces the principle that civilian-elected officials are superior to the military by prohibiting the military from entering any citizen’s home without “the consent of the owner.” With the police increasingly training like the military, acting like the military, and posing as military forces—complete with heavily armed SWAT teams, military weapons, assault vehicles, etc.—it is clear that we now have what the founders feared most—a standing army on American soil.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits government agents from conducting surveillance on you or touching you or invading you, unless they have some evidence that you’re up to something criminal. In other words, the Fourth Amendment ensures privacy and bodily integrity. Unfortunately, the Fourth Amendment has suffered the greatest damage in recent years and has been all but eviscerated by an unwarranted expansion of police powers that include strip searches and even anal and vaginal searches of citizens, surveillance (corporate and otherwise) and intrusions justified in the name of fighting terrorism, as well as the outsourcing of otherwise illegal activities to private contractors.

The Fifth Amendment and the Sixth Amendment work in tandem. These amendments supposedly ensure that you are innocent until proven guilty, and government authorities cannot deprive you of your life, your liberty or your property without the right to an attorney and a fair trial before a civilian judge. However, in the new suspect society in which we live, where surveillance is the norm, these fundamental principles have been upended. Certainly, if the government can arbitrarily freeze, seize or lay claim to your property (money, land or possessions) under government asset forfeiture schemes, you have no true rights.

The Seventh Amendment guarantees citizens the right to a jury trial. Yet when the populace has no idea of what’s in the Constitution—civic education has virtually disappeared from most school curriculums—that inevitably translates to an ignorant jury incapable of distinguishing justice and the law from their own preconceived notions and fears. However, as a growing number of citizens are coming to realize, the power of the jury to nullify the government’s actions—and thereby help balance the scales of justice—is not to be underestimated. Jury nullification reminds the government that “we the people” retain the power to ultimately determine what laws are just.

The Eighth Amendment is similar to the Sixth in that it is supposed to protect the rights of the accused and forbid the use of cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Supreme Court’s determination that what constitutes “cruel and unusual” should be dependent on the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” leaves us with little protection in the face of a society lacking in morals altogether.

The Ninth Amendment provides that other rights not enumerated in the Constitution are nonetheless retained by the people. Popular sovereignty—the belief that the power to govern flows upward from the people rather than downward from the rulers—is clearly evident in this amendment. However, it has since been turned on its head by a centralized federal government that sees itself as supreme and which continues to pass more and more laws that restrict our freedoms under the pretext that it has an “important government interest” in doing so.

As for the Tenth Amendment’s reminder that the people and the states retain every authority that is not otherwise mentioned in the Constitution, that assurance of a system of government in which power is divided among local, state and national entities has long since been rendered moot by the centralized Washington, DC, power elite—the president, Congress and the courts. Indeed, the federal governmental bureaucracy has grown so large that it has made local and state legislatures relatively irrelevant. Through its many agencies and regulations, the federal government has stripped states of the right to regulate countless issues that were originally governed at the local level.

If there is any sense to be made from this recitation of freedoms lost, it is simply this: our individual freedoms have been eviscerated so that the government’s powers could be expanded.

Yet those who gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights believed that the government exists at the behest of its citizens. It is there to protect, defend and even enhance our freedoms, not violate them.

It was no idle happenstance that the Constitution opens with these three powerful words: “We the people.” As the Preamble proclaims:

We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.

In other words, we have the power to make and break the government. We are the masters and they are the servants. We the American people—the citizenry—are the arbiters and ultimate guardians of America’s welfare, defense, liberty, laws and prosperity.

Still, it’s hard to be a good citizen if you don’t know anything about your rights or how the government is supposed to operate.

As the National Review rightly asks, “How can Americans possibly make intelligent and informed political choices if they don’t understand the fundamental structure of their government? American citizens have the right to self-government, but it seems that we increasingly lack the capacity for it.”

Americans are constitutionally illiterate.
Most citizens have little, if any, knowledge about their basic rights. And our educational system does a poor job of teaching the basic freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For instance, when Newsweek asked 1,000 adult U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights.

A survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that a little more than one-third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, while another one-third (35 percent) could not name a single one. Only a quarter of Americans (27 percent) know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto. One in five Americans (21 percent) incorrectly thinks that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration. And more than half of Americans do not know which party controls the House and Senate.

A survey by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that only one out of a thousand adults could identify the five rights protected by the First Amendment. On the other hand, more than half (52%) of the respondents could name at least two of the characters in the animated Simpsons television family, and 20% could name all five. And although half could name none of the freedoms in the First Amendment, a majority (54%) could name at least one of the three judges on the TV program American Idol, 41% could name two and one-fourth could name all three.
It gets worse.

Many who responded to the survey had a strange conception of what was in the First Amendment. For example, 21% said the “right to own a pet” was listed someplace between “Congress shall make no law” and “redress of grievances.” Some 17% said that the First Amendment contained the “right to drive a car,” and 38% believed that “taking the Fifth” was part of the First Amendment.

Teachers and school administrators do not fare much better. A study conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis found that one educator in five was unable to name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment.

In fact, while some educators want students to learn about freedom, they do not necessarily want them to exercise their freedoms in school. As the researchers conclude, “Most educators think that students already have enough freedom, and that restrictions on freedom in the school are necessary. Many support filtering the Internet, censoring T-shirts, disallowing student distribution of political or religious material, and conducting prior review of school newspapers.”

Government leaders and politicians are also ill-informed. Although they take an oath to uphold, support and defend the Constitution against “enemies foreign and domestic,” their lack of education about our fundamental rights often causes them to be enemies of the Bill of Rights.

So what’s the solution?
Thomas Jefferson recognized that a citizenry educated on “their rights, interests, and duties”  is the only real assurance that freedom will survive.

As Jefferson wrote in 1820: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of our society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

From the President on down, anyone taking public office should have a working knowledge of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and should be held accountable for upholding their precepts. One way to ensure this would be to require government leaders to take a course on the Constitution and pass a thorough examination thereof before being allowed to take office.

Some critics are advocating that students pass the United States citizenship exam in order to graduate from high school. Others recommend that it must be a prerequisite for attending college. I’d go so far as to argue that students should have to pass the citizenship exam before graduating from grade school.

Here’s an idea to get educated and take a stand for freedom: anyone who signs up to become a member of The Rutherford Institute gets a wallet-sized Bill of Rights card and a Know Your Rights card. Use this card to teach your children the freedoms found in the Bill of Rights.

If this constitutional illiteracy is not remedied and soon, freedom in America will be doomed.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we have managed to keep the wolf at bay so far. Barely.

Our national priorities need to be re-prioritized. For instance, some argue that we need to make America great again. I, for one, would prefer to make America free again.

As actor-turned-activist Richard Dreyfuss warned:

Unless we teach the ideas that make America a miracle of government, it will go away in your kids’ lifetimes, and we will be a fable. You have to find the time and creativity to teach it in schools, and if you don’t, you will lose it. You will lose it to the darkness, and what this country represents is a tiny twinkle of light in a history of oppression and darkness and cruelty. If it lasts for more than our lifetime, for more than our kids’ lifetime, it is only because we put some effort into teaching what it is, the ideas of America: the idea of opportunity, mobility, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly.”

The post The Bill of Rights Turns 230: What Do We Have to Show for It? Nothing Good appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Oliver Sacks, the “Neurological Philosopher”

Photograph Source: Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 3.0

Oliver Sacks, the “neurological philosopher”

Oliver Sacks, the “neurological philosopher”, did a “different sort of medicine on behalf of chronic often warehoused and largely abandoned patients.” It combined art and science. Lawrence Weschler, in How Are You, Dr. Sacks?, says Sacks was from “the period before the science and the humanities split apart”.[1]

But they didn’t just “split apart”. They were torn apart. Weschler doesn’t name the ideology responsible.

It didn’t convince everyone. Some saw through it, especially in the global South. Like Sacks, they wanted to know persons. Sacks had the “audacity to imagine that there might in fact be ongoing life persisting deep within those long-extinguished cores.” A nun at Little Sisters in the Bronx said: “Everyone who reads his [clinical] notes sees the patients differently …. Most consultants’ notes are cut and dried, aimed at the problem with no sense of the person …. With him the whole person becomes visible.”

European philosophers separated science and the humanities. They invented the “fact/value” distinction, between what is and what ought to be. They said knowledge of the latter doesn’t exist, or might not exist. Cuban scholar Armando Hart says anyone who cares about global justice in the 21st century should notice the damage done to the world by European philosophy. He meant liberalism. It denied truth – or at least put it in doubt – about humanness.

It made sense for those who defined humanness.

Sacks called himself a “clinical ontologist”. His science was about being, but not in the abstract. He meant the being of people, the “living statues” who were the subject of his masterpiece, Awakenings, later a film and a one-act play. He saw their stillness as active. Being as doing. Sacks responded to “philosophical emergencies”. It was part of his science.

There is an expectation in the North that Philosophy is useless, that it is at best a luxury for elite academics who live in universities and speak in complicated ways, only to each other. But Gramsci said that if you don’t understand the ideas explaining ideas, making them plausible, new ideas are ineffective because they are understood in terms of the old, mitigating their effect.

Weschler presents Sacks (affectionately) as odd without naming the ideology that makes him odd. Yet Sacks’ view was not odd.

Tolstoy knew it. Lenin commented that Tolstoy’s ideas were bourgeois but his writing revolutionary. It’s because artists, unlike philosophers, articulate the human condition. And human emancipation is impossible without knowing the human condition.

Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov (War and Peace) reverses the popular myth of instrumental rationality. Pierre “did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them”.

Tolstoy calls it “insanity”. Pierre feels love, and as a result, has reasons. He doesn’t have purpose and from that get reasons. Indeed, he has no purpose. He has feeling, which Tolstoy describes as love. Pierre’s feelings explain what matters to him; it is not what matters to him – purpose – that explains his feelings: of energy, for instance, or importance.

In theory, Pierre’s approach is suspect. The 20th century philosopher, Che Guevara, said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”. The risk is real because love is not rational. Feelings are not rational. Love cannot guide because it is a feeling.

But this is ideology. And Guevara rejected it. He argued against the splitting of mind and body, feeling and intellect, art and science, faith and proof. Moreover, he followed a whole tradition of thinkers, not all revolutionaries, who also so argued. They wanted human, not just political, liberation, and they needed to know what “human” meant. They rejected liberalism because it didn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense, and this is known. But it persists because liberal intellectuals like Weschler don’t bother with philosophy. He admires Sacks, and names repeatedly the philosophers Sacks cared about. But he doesn’t do the work Gramsci said is essential to criticism: explaining the ideas that make other ideas plausible, even when they’re not, and it’s known.

It is significant that Pierre comes to his “insanity” after confronting death. He is a prisoner of Napoleon and is lined up to be executed. He watches the young man before him as he is shot dead. He notices how he crosses his leg as he stands, waiting to die. It is an ordinary gesture, but striking in the face of death, precisely for being ordinary.

Pierre expects to die. There’s no storytelling, no generating of meaning “from within” aimed at some abstraction called “self” or “purpose”. Herein lie what Tolstoy calls “unshakeable foundations”.

It’s mental silence: experience of the here and now, without expectations. A quiet mind is the exercise of one’s faculties – to see, hear, touch, smell, remember – without jarring, uncontrollable, mostly illogical mental conversation. Quietness fascinated Sacks.

He didn’t like Sartre’s “uncalmness”, his “chargedness”. Weschler mentions this but doesn’t explain. But we know Sacks didn’t like his own 1960s theory of behaviour because it didn’t account for “peacefulness, enoughness, satiety, repletion.” Sacks wouldn’t have liked Sartre because Sartre’s existentialism can’t handle stillness.

Liberal philosophy generally can’t handle it. It doesn’t fit with the liberal, capitalist “man of action”, the unrealistic individual with “power to seize their destiny”. Philosophers invented the “fact/value” distinction, suggesting knowledge about existence – what is – but not about what it means to be human.

It doesn’t respect science because it doesn’t respect cause and effect. But this is known, intellectually. It’s been argued for more than half a century in analytic philosophy of science. In practise, though, philosophy of science has no effect beyond its narrow specialization.

Sacks did have effect. His effect could be made more useful, though, if its real target were named and fully denounced.

Notes.

1. And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? A Biographical Memoire of Oliver Sacks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). See review https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/and-how-are-you

 

The post Oliver Sacks, the “Neurological Philosopher” appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Reflections on “Peace” in Afghanistan

Photograph Source: Fibonacci Blue – CC BY 2.0

When the conflict that the Vietnamese refer to as the American War ended in April 1975, I was a U.S. Army captain attending a course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. In those days, the student body at any of our Army’s myriad schools typically included officers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Since ARVN’s founding two decades earlier, the United States had assigned itself the task of professionalizing that fledgling military establishment. Based on a conviction that the standards, methods, and ethos of our armed forces were universally applicable and readily exportable, the attendance of ARVN personnel at such Army schools was believed to contribute to the professionalizing of the South Vietnamese military.

Evidence that the U.S. military’s own professional standards had recently taken a hit — memories of the My Lai massacre were then still fresh — elicited no second thoughts on our part. Association with American officers like me was sure to rub off on our South Vietnamese counterparts in ways that would make them better soldiers. So we professed to believe, even while subjecting that claim to no more scrutiny than we did the question of why most of us had spent a year or more of our lives participating in an obviously misbegotten and misguided war in Indochina.

For serving officers at that time one question in particular remained off-limits (though it had been posed incessantly for years by antiwar protestors in the streets of America): Why Vietnam? Prizing compliance as a precondition for upward mobility, military service rarely encourages critical thinking.

On the day that Saigon, the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, fell and that country ceased to exist, I approached one of my ARVN classmates, also a captain, wanting at least to acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster that had occurred. “I’m sorry about what happened to your country,” I told him.

I did not know that officer well and no longer recall his name. Let’s call him Captain Nguyen. In my dim recollection, he didn’t even bother to reply. He simply looked at me with an expression both distressed and mournful. Our encounter lasted no more than a handful of seconds. I then went on with my life and Captain Nguyen presumably with his. Although I have no inkling of his fate, I like to think that he is now retired in Southern California after a successful career in real estate. But who knows?

All I do know is that today I recall our exchange with a profound sense of embarrassment and even shame. My pathetic effort to console Captain Nguyen had been both presumptuous and inadequate. Far worse was my failure — inability? refusal? — to acknowledge the context within which that catastrophe was occurring: the United States and its armed forces had, over years, inflicted horrendous harm on the people of South Vietnam.

In reality, their defeat was our defeat. Yet while we had decided that we were done paying, they were going to pay and pay for a long time to come.

Rather than offering a fatuous expression of regret for the collapse of his country, I ought to have apologized for having played even a miniscule role in what was, by any measure, a catastrophe of epic proportions. It’s a wonder Captain Nguyen didn’t spit in my eye.

I genuinely empathized with Captain Nguyen. Yet the truth is that, along with most other Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, I was only too happy to be done with South Vietnam and all its troubles. Dating back to the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States and its armed forces had made a gargantuan effort to impart legitimacy to the Republic of Vietnam and to coerce the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to its north into giving up its determination to exercise sovereignty over the entirety of the country. In that, we had failed spectacularly and at a staggering cost.

“Our” war in Indochina — the conflict we chose to call the Vietnam War — officially ended in January 1973 with the signing in Paris of an “Agreement Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.” Under the terms of that fraudulent pact, American prisoners of war were freed from captivity in North Vietnam and the last U.S. combat troops in the south left for home, completing a withdrawal begun several years earlier. Primary responsibility for securing the Republic of Vietnam thereby fell to ARVN, long deemed by U.S. commanders incapable of accomplishing that mission.

Meanwhile, despite a nominal cessation of hostilities, approximately 150,000 North Vietnamese regulars still occupied a large swathe of South Vietnamese territory — more or less the equivalent to agreeing to end World War II when there were still several German panzer tank divisions lurking in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest. In effect, our message to our enemy and our ally was this: We’re outta here; you guys sort this out. In a bit more than two years, that sorting-out process would extinguish the Republic of Vietnam.

Been There, Done That

The course Captain Nguyen and I were attending in the spring of 1975 paid little attention to fighting wars like the one that, for years, had occupied the attention of my army and his. Our Army, in fact, was already moving on. Having had their fill of triple-canopy jungles in Indochina, America’s officer corps now turned to defending the Fulda Gap, the region in West Germany deemed most hospitable to a future Soviet invasion. As if by fiat, gearing up to fight those Soviet forces and their Warsaw Pact allies, should they (however improbably) decide to take on NATO and lunge toward the English Channel, suddenly emerged as priority number one. At Fort Knox and throughout the Army’s ranks, we were suddenly focused on “high-intensity combined arms operations” — essentially, a replay of World War II-style combat with fancier weaponry. In short, the armed forces of the United States had reverted to “real soldiering.”

And so it is again today. At the end of the 17th year of what Americans commonly call the Afghanistan War — one wonders what name Afghans will eventually assign it — U.S. military forces are moving on. Pentagon planners are shifting their attention back to Russia and China. Great power competition has become the name of the game. However we might define Washington’s evolving purposes in its Afghanistan War — “nation building,” “democratization,” “pacification” — the likelihood of mission accomplishment is nil. As in the early 1970s, so in 2019, rather than admitting failure, the Pentagon has chosen to change the subject and is once again turning its attention to “real soldiering.”

Remember the infatuation with counterinsurgency (commonly known by its acronym COIN) that gripped the national security establishment around 2007 when the Iraq “surge” overseen by General David Petraeus briefly ranked alongside Gettysburg as a historic victory? Well, these days promoting COIN as the new American way of war has become, to put it mildly, a tough sell. Given that few in Washington will openly acknowledge the magnitude of the military failure in Afghanistan, the incentive for identifying new enemies in settings deemed more congenial becomes all but irresistible.

Only one thing is required to validate this reshuffling of military priorities. Washington needs to create the appearance, as in 1973, that it’s exiting Afghanistan on its own terms. What’s needed, in short, is an updated equivalent of that “Agreement Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.”

Until last weekend, the signing of such an agreement seemed imminent. Donald Trump and his envoy, former ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, appeared poised to repeat the trick that President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger pulled off in 1973 in Paris: pause the war and call it peace. Should fighting subsequently resume after a “decent interval,” it would no longer be America’s problem.  Now, however, to judge by the president’s twitter account — currently the authoritative record of U.S. diplomacy — the proposed deal has been postponed, or perhaps shelved, or even abandoned altogether.  If National Security Advisor John Bolton has his way, U.S. forces might just withdraw in any case, without an agreement of any sort being signed.

Based on what we can divine from press reports, the terms of that prospective Afghan deal would mirror those of the 1973 Paris Accords in one important respect. It would, in effect, serve as a ticket home for the remaining U.S. and NATO troops still in that country (though for the present only the first 5,000of them would immediately depart). Beyond that, the Taliban was to promise not to provide sanctuary to anti-American terrorist groups, even though the Afghan branch of ISIS is already firmly lodged there. Still, this proviso would allow the Trump administration to claim that it had averted any possible recurrence of the 9/11 terror attacks that were, of course, planned by Osama bin Laden while residing in Afghanistan in 2001 as a guest of the Taliban-controlled government. Mission accomplished, as it were.

Back in 1973, North Vietnamese forces occupying parts of South Vietnam neither disarmed nor withdrew. Should this new agreement be finalized, Taliban forces currently controlling or influencing significant swaths of Afghan territory will neither disarm nor withdraw. Indeed, their declared intention is to continue fighting.

In 1973, policymakers in Washington were counting on ARVN to hold off Communist forces. In 2019, almost no one expects Afghan security forces to hold off a threat consisting of both the Taliban and ISIS. In a final insult, just as the Saigon government was excluded from U.S. negotiations with the North Vietnamese, so, too, has the Western-installed government in Kabul been excluded from U.S. negotiations with its sworn enemy, the Taliban.

A host of uncertainties remain.  As with the olive branches that President Trump has ostentatiously offered to Russia, China, and North Koea, this particular peace initiative may come to naught — or, given the approach of the 2020 elections, he may decide that Afghanistan offers his last best hope of claiming at least one foreign policy success. One way or another, in all likelihood, the deathwatch for the U.S.-backed Afghan government has now begun. One thing only is for sure. Having had their fill of Afghanistan, when the Americans finally leave, they won’t look back. In that sense, it will be Vietnam all over again.

What Price Peace?

However great my distaste for President Trump, I support his administration’s efforts to extricate the United States from Afghanistan. I do so for the same reason I supported the Paris Peace Accords of 1973. Prolonging this folly any longer does not serve U.S. interests. Rule number one of statecraft ought to be: when you’re doing something really stupid, stop. To my mind, this rule seems especially applicable when the lives of American soldiers are at stake.

In Vietnam, Washington wasted 58,000 of those lives for nothing. In Afghanistan, we have lost more than 2,300 troops, with another 20,000 wounded, again for next to nothing. Last month, two American Special Forces soldiers were killed in a firefight in Faryab Province. For what?

That said, I’m painfully aware of the fact that, on the long-ago day when I offered Captain Nguyen my feeble condolences, I lacked the imagination to conceive of the trials about to befall his countrymen. In the aftermath of the American War, something on the order of 800,000 Vietnamese took to open and unseaworthy boats to flee their country. According to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea. Most of those who survived were destined to spend years in squalid refugee camps scattered throughout Southeast Asia. Back in Vietnam itself, some 300,000 former ARVN officers and South Vietnamese officials were imprisoned in so-called reeducation camps for up to 18 years. Reconciliation did not rank high on the postwar agenda of the unified country’s new leaders.

Meanwhile, for the Vietnamese, north and south, the American War has in certain ways only continued. Mines and unexploded ordnance left from that war have inflicted more than 100,000 casualties since the last American troops departed. Even today, the toll caused by Agent Orange and other herbicides that the U.S. Air Force sprayed with abandon over vast stretches of territory continues to mount. The Red Cross calculates that more than one million Vietnamese have suffered health problems, including serious birth defects and cancers as a direct consequence of the promiscuous use of those poisons as weapons of war.

For anyone caring to calculate the moral responsibility of the United States for its actions in Vietnam, all of those would have to find a place on the final balance sheet. The 1.3 million Vietnamese admitted to the United States as immigrants since the American War formally concluded can hardly be said to make up for the immense damage suffered by the people of Vietnam as a direct or indirect result of U.S. policy.

As to what will follow if Washington does succeed in cutting a deal with the Taliban, well, don’t count on President Trump (or his successor for that matter) welcoming anything like 1.3 million Afghan refugees to the United States once a “decent interval” has passed. Yet again, our position will be: we’re outta here; you guys sort this out.

Near the end of his famed novel, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald described two of his privileged characters, Tom and Daisy, as “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures” and then “retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness” to “let other people clean up the mess they had made.” That description applies to the United States as a whole, especially when Americans tire of a misguided war. We are a careless people. In Vietnam, we smashed up things and human beings with abandon, only to retreat into our money, leaving others to clean up the mess in a distinctly bloody fashion.

Count on us, probably sooner rather than later, doing precisely the same thing in Afghanistan.

This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.

The post Reflections on “Peace” in Afghanistan appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Tracks to Nowhere

Reporting on the failed Camp David plan to sign an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, on 8 September, 2019, a CNN reporter stated that Trump’s plan for talks on an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, and, by extension, Trump’s foreign policy, “went off tracks.”

Really?

Tracks or no tracks, the reality is that Trump’s never had a foreign policy. Much like the recent fires, hurricanes, floods, and tornados that have ravaged every continent, Trump’s erratic, fitful, unpredictable, inconsistent, and incoherent foreign policy exposes him for what he is: Trump is a pompously egotistical charlatan who fancies the U.S. and the world as his private casino in which he is willing to gamble, even when the odds are not in his favor.

For the last two years I’ve taken to asking La Belle Femme the following question: “What’s he up to, today?” The man-child never disappoints.

On Sunday last it was the termination of U.S./Taliban talks; on the campaign trail yesterday Trump admonished North Carolinians that they “don’t have any choice. You have to vote for me,” the chosen one; and today it was the firing of John Bolton.

And on Sunday last Pompeo spent some 15 minutes on Face the Nation and other programs presenting disjointed arguments about the cancellation of the talks. For some reason Pompeo’s speech was slurred and incoherent; he was either befuddled or uncertain about the fallout from the day’s big news story, a bombshell of a story that no doubt precipitated today’s other Bolton bombshell. Or, he was speaking from both sides of his mouth and was incapable of keeping up with fabricated facts. Or, he was afraid of being summarily fired. Pompeo is as much a flawed character as the man he works for.

In arguing for the new “Trust but Verify” policy vis a vis Afghanistan, Pompeo criticized the Obama Afghan policy and then bragged about the recent killing of over a thousand Afghani citizens (65% Taliban fighters, and 35% innocent civilians, including women, and children – to which TrumPeo will never admit). Like their predecessors, their flawed logic can be summarized thusly: killing large numbers of Afghani citizens will force the Taliban to come to the table so as to facilitate a cosmetic withdrawal timed with next year’s elections.

Trump’s hasbara claims that unlike his predecessor, Trump is portrayed as a decisive leader, a leader who makes bold moves when and if the opportunity arises.

Truth be told, Trump’s putting all the stakes on the table for an agreement to coincide with the 9/11 date blew up in his face big time. To wit Trump’s two meetings with Kim Jung-un, his Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen scurvy debacles.

As admirable as it was, Trump’s campaign pledge to pull out U.S. forces from Afghanistan at any cost exposes his splenetic, petulant, and snappish decision-making processes in every area of governance.

Sometime last year I observed to a Pakistani professor (a Muslim) that it was going to take 50 years for the Muslim world to catch up with the 21st century. “Fifty years?” Responded he, adding: “No, more like 350 years.”

Reporting from Afghanistan for CNN on Sunday last, during the initial segment of the interview, Clarissa Ward was told by a Taliban leader she was interviewing that CNN should have sent a man, instead of a woman. And, while she was modestly dressed according to Afghan standards (completely covered with only her face exposed), during the second part of the report Ward drew the veil to cover her face – with only her eyes and nose exposed. While walking in a dusty alley, the last segment of the interview depicts Ward lagging behind the Taliban elders; she’d been instructed to walk some twenty feet behind the all-male group.

All this to say the following: The Carter Administration should never have supported the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in their fight against Russia (thus helping spawn the Al Qaeda/Taliban hydra; Bush should never have invaded Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires; Obama should not have followed the Bush playbook; Trump should never have made a promise he can’t keep.

At some point the U.S. should make the decision to pull out of Afghanistan. Betting on the rewards of exploiting Afghanistan’s immensely rich natural resources (trillions of dollars’ worth gold, zinc, copper, barite,, iron ore, salt, sulfur, lead, natural gas, petroleum chromite) post a U.S. pullout is a big gamble. The U.S. will have to stand in line behind China, Russia, and India. While the U.S. has been waging wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and at least half a dozen places, China, Russia, and India have been cultivating friendships and seeking markets in Afghanistan and Africa. And, as long as Afghani society adheres to ancient ossified tribalism, including the distortion of Koranic teachings that are based on respect for all members of its society, especially women and children, then Afghanistan is doomed for the next 350 years.

The virulent religious fanaticism, whether it be Judaism in Occupied Palestine, Islam across North and Central Africa, the Near and Far East, Hinduism in the Asian subcontinent, or Christianity in various locales, is the grist that feeds zealotry and bigotry and jolts humanity onto the tracks of primordial behavior.

The post Tracks to Nowhere appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Need for Non-Violence in Hong Kong

The gloves are off in Hong Kong. Judging from the pictures on today’s BBC News the police no longer have any compunction about beating protestors.

Ironically, they don’t appear to get close to the fringe of protestors who are using violent tactics. Rather they are swinging their batons left right and centre at any young person they meet, even chasing them on to the metro trains where commuters get thwacked too.

It reminds me vividly of the tough sheriffs of Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960s who used dogs against the civil rights protestors and cracked heads.

It reminds me too of 1968 when the Soviet Union sent its tanks into Prague to overthrow a reforming (but still communist) government only to meet defiance from large sections of the population.

On both occasions the brutality was met not with petrol-bombs and stones but with non-violence and passive obstruction. It worked. Stones and fire-bombs would have been counterproductive.

The combined strength of the troops of the Soviet Union and its allies was 500,000. For six days the Czech people met their invaders as fellow communists face to face, sometimes arguing with them, sometimes scorning them, always resisting them and refusing too obey their orders. The reaction was totally spontaneous. The improvised radio broadcasts during the first hours of the invasion simply told the populace not to use force and to keep calm.

Slogans were painted on the walls and tanks, and the removal of street signs must have made it clear to many Soviet soldiers that things were not quite as they had been told. When the tanks tried to cross railways lines the barriers came down. When the Soviets turned up at local Communist Party meetings the last business was read out and the meeting closed.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the resistance was the part played by radio and television. Not only were they a vital link to the outside world that made the Russians realize they were playing to a world theatre, but they became almost the guiding hand of the Czech people.

Perhaps the most dramatic directive the Czech radio gave to the passive resistance campaign was an appeal to delay the Russian train that was bringing in radio jamming equipment. As a result the train was first held up in a station, then stopped on a main line because of a “failure” in the overhead electricity supply. Finally, it was routed onto a branch line with immobile locomotives blocking its way at each end.

So effective were the non-violent activities that the occupiers began rotating their troops- a clear sign that they were worried about the demoralizing effect that the resistance was having on their men. Indeed, some Russian soldiers who were known to be alive were declared dead to their families: they had seen or said too much and were sent to far end of the Soviet Union.

Although non-violent resistance had never before occurred on such a scale and with such effectiveness in a country under military occupation, it was not enough.* The backbone of the resistance did eventually collapse.

Nonetheless, much was achieved that would have been considered impossible on the morning of the invasion. Some of the liberal reforms remained intact. More important, the workers continued for a long time to refuse to help the regime imposed by Russia out of its economic difficulties. Not overtly but, for instance, by making a virtue out of absenteeism, turning up for a week’s work on Monday lunchtime and knocking off on Friday lunchtime.

The political price the Kremlin had to pay was exorbitant – a breaking of the ranks by many of the world’s Communist Parties, including the important Italian, British and Spanish ones. There was disillusionment among most of Europe’s left-inclined intellectuals. Not that everybody in the Soviet orbit was happy with the invasion in the first place but what forced even some of the Kremlin’s friends into public disagreement was the widespread popular non-violent resistance.

Perhaps the most important result was that the Czechs found a new confidence in each other. Later the Czechs were instrumental in ending Soviet power in Eastern Europe.

Martin Luther King’s marches, boycotts, rallies, confrontations with thuggish police forces and King’s powerful oratory pushed the government and Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The path they laid led later to the election of Barack Obama as president.

The protestors in Hong Kong should learn from all this. They must isolate the violent protestors and explain to them why their methods will lead to more police violence and probable invasion by Chinese police and even troops. If necessary they must organize to disarm them. King did this with his violent fringe.

In the end, non-violent persistence might make China concede a timetable for attaining democracy.

Note.

*) It may be discussed whether other cases before, such as the Gandhi-led movement to liberate India from British colonialism, wasn’t bigger and whether or not India was occupied. Books by Gene Sharp here both offer cases as well as the techniques, the strong and weak sides of nonviolent struggle against oppressors.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.

The post The Need for Non-Violence in Hong Kong appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Courage of Saying No: Children, Rebellion and Greta Thunberg

There is something to be said of wariness when it comes to revolutionary voices. As Albert Camus argued in that beautiful tract of illumination and contradiction, The Rebel, “All modern revolutions have ended in the reinforcement of the power of the state.” But he also argued that humankind were the only creatures refusing to be what they are, a permanent self-deluding bunch bound to cause various neuroses. The true rebel, then, is the one who says no, and can maintain credibility even as he risks becoming an ideologue, another dogmatist.

When children find themselves in the saddle, things get a bit more complicated. Hypocrisy and power are seemingly adult games: the supposedly innocent child is discouraged from expressing views and opinions. When they do, the accusation of hijacking, innocence gone wrong, and manipulation, is bound to be made: behind the child lies an adult Svengali, or at least something approximating to him.

The seventeen-year old Greta Thunberg has found herself plonked into the saddle of historical protest, making the case that any response undertaken thus far to deal with climate change has been woefully inadequate. It began in Sweden last year when, as a schoolgirl, she began protesting outside the parliament in Stockholm, claiming that her country’s climate change laws hardly amounted to “a green paradise”. This spawned a global children’s protest movement.

Her dissatisfaction struck a high note in her address to those gathered at the COP24 gathering at Katowice in December 2018. “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is to pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.” The maturity of saying no; the maturity of admitting to an environmental degradation so profound as to be existential.

The response to Thunberg has, in some quarters, been regrettably dreamy and praiseworthy, ignoring the more strident feature of the message. Radical, even species defying alterations are needed; the brake to be applied with conviction. Fine to protest; fine to make waves; but structural change of an unprecedented order is required. For Camus’s rebel, the danger here is that a theorem, or idea, may end up needing the police to enforce it. To date, the authoritarian element is lacking in the enforcement mechanisms in the climate change structure: states have been left to their own devices in cutting emissions.

Then comes the argument, one straight out of the Cold War manual, that the young Swede is a front and a product of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, manufactured on the assembly line of engineered protest. For the Japanese-born sculptor Hiroyuki Hamada, the NPIC targets “those who were not given skills and knowledge to truly think for themselves which are designed to serve the ruling class.” Hamada is suggesting a vicious circle: the children are caged by the system that demands its own set of rules to be abided by; they are rendered ignorant, lobotomised. Can we, then, trust them, and by implication such movements as Thunberg’s Friday for Future?

Hamada’s bleak circularity is similarly found in such views as Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at The Weekly Standard and contributor to such market friendly outlets as the Financial Times. Her approach, suggested Caldwell, was distinctly “at odds with democracy.” Those of Thunberg’s age “have not seen much of life. Her world view might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance.” The shabby tactic here is typical: leave it to the experienced ones who made the mess to begin with. They know better.

The political reactions have also varied in temper, veering between praise and scorn. On a visit to France in July to address the French National Assembly, Thunberg bore the brunt of various, less than sympathetic viewpoints of National Rally (RN) MPs and various Republicans (LR). MEP Jordan Bardella of RN was scolding of Thunberg’s gloominess, effectively denying her any necessary agency. Children were not be used to “exhibit a fatalism to try to explain to all people that the world is finished, that everything is going to catch fire and that nothing is possible.”

Republicans MP Guillaume Larrivé demanded a boycott of Thunberg’s speech, claiming that an intelligent battle was needed against global warming, one helped by scientific progress and political courage, not “apocalyptic gurus”. Colleague Julien Aubert also chipped in. “Don’t count on me to applaud a prophetess in shorts, a Nobel Prize for Fear.” The planet, yes; green business, no.

Thunberg’s response? “This is just hilarious. I have never once met a climate activist who was in this for money.” Playing on the matter of youth in her address, she managed a few keen blows of her own. “Some people have chosen not to come here today, some have chosen not to listen to us. And that is fine. We are, after all, just children.”

In Canada, similarly bilious reactions have followed. People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier gave Thunberg the warmest of greetings with mighty claims that she was “mentally unstable”, “autistic”, “obsessive-compulsive”, suffering eating disorders, depression and lethargy. The fuming protests that followed encouraged him to qualify his remarks, calling Thunberg a “brave young woman who has been able to overcome her problems and deserves our admiration for that.” Look, instead, to the people behind Thunberg. “I wanted to show that the choice of influential groups and the media to make her a spokesperson for climate alarmism is not innocent.”

Very little is ever mentioned that Thunberg is perfectly entitled to express her views, however they might grate with the sages, technocrats and the elected. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was a document that went some way to lifting children out of legal oblivion. Behold, then, such sections as Article 13, which grants the child “the right to freedom of expression” which covers the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information an ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of the child’s choice.” The usual caveats are tagged on the end, limiting the right in instances of reputation, protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.

The danger for Thunberg is that for any figure of mass appeal: the fatal nature of trendiness and the brief spell of a fashion. For all her self-commanding purity, she risks becoming the decent face of an establishment keen to assimilate her, giving her an ecological sexing up.

Temptations are being thrown her way. This month, it was announced that she was a winner at the GQ awards in London, sharing top billing with David Beckham, Iggy Pop, Nicole Kidman and Kylie Minogue. The award for Thunberg was given the title appropriate to such events: the Game Changer Award. Becoming the decent face of environmental protest is the last thing she should want; best be obscene and heard.

While it is all fine for preachy politicians or mainstream newspaper contributors to hector students who walk out of class for being unconscientious, take issue with times of protest (by all means protest, but do so outside school hours), and lecture them for lacking experience, it is also not a fitting statement about the state of affairs that led to such angst. The world may be entering its penultimate phase, at least in a climatic sense, but that hardly bothers the short-term parliament where the vested, constipated interest precedes the universal, bleak message. By all means be critical of Thunberg and appreciate the limitations of the rebel. She, at least, has the courage to say no.

The post The Courage of Saying No: Children, Rebellion and Greta Thunberg appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Power and Tragedy

Starting with the Trojan Wat in the thirteenth century BCE, the Greeks embarked on a gigantic Grexit that lasted for centuries. They migrated to other more prosperous lands.

The Greeks of Euboea were pioneers in this political movement: searching and finding better life outside of Greece. In the eighth century BCE, some of them abandoned the island of Euboea for another island in Italy. This was Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. They gave their new polis a strange name: Pithekousa. This is a name derived from the Greek word for monkey: Pithekos.

Three hundred years after the Euboeans established their prosperous monkey kingdom in Italy, by the fifth century BCE, the Greeks had made southern Italy into Great Greece (Megale Hellada, Magna Graecia) and converted the Mediterranean into a Greek lake dotted with hundreds of poleis.

This cultural and imperial expansion of Greece slowed down considerably in late fifth century BCE. War broke out between Athens and Sparta, threatening Greek society and institutions, including Greek society outside of mainland Greece.

The Peloponnesian War

We call this war the Peloponnesian War. Sparta started it. And Sparta was at the heart of Peloponnesos.

The Peloponnesian War wrecked Greek dreams and triumphs at home and abroad. Centuries of efforts in building a free, prosperous, mostly democratic, and civilized country, the first in the world, never reached completion. Most went up in the smoke of war.

The Peloponnesian War stripped the Greeks naked. It revealed an intensely agonistic and often antagonistic culture. Thucydides, the fifth century BCE Athenian general turned the world’s greatest historian, wrote in his story of The Peloponnesian War (6.80.3) that the Spartans and the Athenians, like good Dorians and Ionians, were eternal enemies. The two highly contested words are αἰεὶπολεμίων(aiei polemion) – being in perpetual war or enemies forever.

Now, why should Athens and Sparta be such bitter enemies? Could Thucydides be exaggerating?

Ionians and Dorians

Both Ionians and Dorians were Hellenes (Greeks). The Ionians were primarily from Athens and Attica and the Dorians were primarily from the northern region of Hellas known as Epirus. Dorians settled in Peloponnesos. The Spartans were their chief champions.

Unlike modern scholars’ pet theory of a Dorian invasion of Greece from somewhere in northern Europe or Asia, the Dorians did not “invade” Greece from outside or inside Greece. The Dorians were Greek people who migrated from Epirus to  Peloponnesos.

In addition, it was the mingling of the traditions of the Dorians with those of the Ionians that gave birth to Hellenic freedom, science, architecture, art, philosophy, literature and religion.

Ionians and Dorians invented and designed the Olympics and other Panhellenic athletic and religious festivals primarily as patriotic and anti-war institutions. Hostile acts or war ceased during those sacred games. The heroes reputed to have invented the Olympics, Herakles and Pelops, were Panhellenic heroes.

The Dorians and Ionians were children of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilization that reached its climax in the second millennium BCE.

In late thirteenth century BCE, the Dorians and Ionians, fought and won the Trojan War. The protagonists of that  conflict included the Dorian Helen, daughter of Zeus and wife of the Spartan King Menelaos. Sparta sent sixty ships to Troy; King Agamemnon of Argos was commander-in-chief of the Greek troops in Troy and brother of Menelaos; and the Ionian king of Ithaca, Odysseus, was decisive in the execution of the war. Menelaus, Agamemnon and Odysseus worked very closely together.

Athens sent fifty ships to Troy under the leadership of Menestheus.

The Homeric epics don’t sing any struggle between Athens and Sparta. On the contrary, the epics nourished the Ionian Thucydides as much as the Dorian Spartan King Brasidas. Thucydides was the Athenian general responsible for the protection of the Athenian polis of Amphipolis in Macedonia. Yet Brasidas outwitted Thucydides and captured Amphipolis. Athens retaliated against Thucydides. It exiled him for 20 years.

The Peloponnesian Wart became a killing ground that engulfed the entire Greek world for twenty-seven years in the last three decades of the fifth century BCE.

There are about 2,500 years between the fifth century BCE and us living in the twenty-first century.

The fifth century BCE

The fifth century BCE was the first epoch of Greek Enlightenment that gave birth and nourished some of the most original and lasting inventions and creations of Greek culture: natural philosophy, scientific medicine, political theory, democracy, classical architecture and art, and dramatic theater.

In the fifth century BCE, Athens and Sparta were at the height of their material prosperity and power. Together, in the beginning of the fifth century, Athenians and Spartans defeated the Persians and, perhaps, without exaggeration, they started thinking themselves to be the Greek superpowers that had a right to rule the rest of the Greek people.

It’s quite possible Athens was planning of uniting all the Greek poleis into a Hellenic republic. Sparta might have had a similar ambition.

The Peloponnesian War shattered the dreams of both Athens and Sparta. It was an unforeseen catastrophe. Thucydides recorded the history of the  war. He was certain his story would be “of permanent value ” (1.22). He was right.

Thucydides

It is fitting I praise Thucydides. His story of The  Peloponnesian War is a work of everlasting importance. I find it wrenching, dramatic, violent, and yet beautiful.

In his book, Greece (1963, 156). M. Rostovtzeff, one of the greatest twentieth-century scholars on Greek and Roman history, described Thucydides’ work  as “one of the noblest monuments of the Greek genius in literature and art — a masterpiece both in detail and in its general survey of a period of primary importance.”

The narrative stuns me, revealing hatred, atrocities, and raw power. How could this happen, I keep asking myself, among people who spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods, and lived in the land of their ancestors.

The lament of Thucydides is about the ferocious killing among the Hellenes.

Yet that story of killing and tragedy also includes political power, Eros, philosophy, and beauty of what the Greeks were creating, doing, and saying in the fifth century and after.

The Greeks were surrounded by people who plundered for living and slept armed to the teeth. The Greeks contemptuously called their neighbors barbarians. The Greeks thought they were not far removed from being gods. They knew they were at least relatives of the gods.

Greek mythology

The Greeks drew their early history from myths. Modern scholars, sometimes in error but more often in ignorance and malice, describe Greek myths as unbelievable childish legents. However, the Greeks looked at their myths differently. They saw the myths bringing them closer to the gods, particularly Prometheus,  Zeus, Demeter, Dionysos, Athena, Hephaistos, and Apollo — divine powerhouses of knowledge, rain, thunder and the heavens, hospitality, agrarian civilization, science, technology, culture and the arts.

The Greeks thought the gods were mostly on their side. They loved the stories they inherited about their gods — and had no doubt these stories, myths, were true. Plato (Republic 621b8-c1) and Aristotle (Poetics 1450a3-5) thought so.

The elimination of the Persian danger gave the Greeks confidence and pride, even hubris, in their mission: each polis becoming the best in Greece, and each citizen striving to be the best in his polis.

Hubris

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides — probably more than any other Greek dramatists — understood the rising insolence among their contemporary Greeks. They pleaded with them to preserve their freedom by being moderate towards each other and by following their sacred religious traditions.

That’s why they gave birth to tragedy. That’s why they gave such a powerful and beautiful expression of the Greek Eros for freedom. They read Homer and created a thousand tragedies out of his immortal epics.

If and when men stepped beyond the bounds allowed by their ancient customs and the gods, tragedy was inevitable. The dramatic poets captured tragedy’s passion: tears, anguish, and suffering that brought the catharsis of the drama.

The Peloponnesian War was the ultimate tragedy, to which Thucydides gave the greatest stage of all — the entire Greek world. Thucydides condensed the historic drama of the Greek people, with the result his story explains not merely the destructive fight of Athens and Sparta but throws light on nearly all subsequent Greek history.

The defeat of Athens by Sparta led to the corrupt excesses of democracy in Athens, including the state execution of Socrates – teacher of Plato and moral philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle

These political events made Plato. He grew up during the Peloponnesian War. His dialogues are linked to Athens, Greek history, and the heavens. His anger fertilized his imagination and obsession about things extraterrestrial: the ideal and heavenly models of everything, including the irreconcilable struggle between body and soul.

Plato painted this dramatic ideal in an unforgettable canvass in the dialogue Phaedo. We see Socrates in prison spending the last hours of his life with a few dedicated followers discussing matters of life and death.

Socrates zeros in on the body (tempted and influenced by food, desires, pain, pleasures, corruption and sex) and the soul (invisible, divine,  master of consciousness and knowledge and truth). Every piece of tasty food, pleasure and pain, Socrates says, nail the soul to the body, polluting and drugging it to the point of uselessness.

The soul is infected by the evils of the body, wrecking its mission of searching and discovering the truth. In such a state, the soul is out of touch with the pure and the divine. This reality, Plato says, undermines philosophy and the true lovers of learning and wisdom, philosophers. The body becomes an impediment to their search for truth. This means searching for wisdom and  pure knowledge becomes a death wish. True philosophers are always busy practicing death. Would it not be better for those philosophers  dying rather than staying alive?

Plato is a great philosopher and profound thinker. Yet I always felt uncomfortable with his abstract thinking – about the soul and the body. We don’t know what soul is. We have no evidence such a thing exists. But even if we associate the soul with our inner world of thought and intelligence, dreams and ambition and affection and passion, we cannot separate it from the body. They are one.

I think Plato invented  abstractions out of desperation. The Greeks of his time failed him miserably. He could not explain the violence of the Peloponnesian War, the collapse of Athens, and the death of Socrates. Plato witnessed things falling apart.

Violence and tyranny also gave birth to Christianity, Islam, theology, monasticism, the dark ages, the Cold War and nuclear bombs. Not that Plato had anything to do with those later developments, but his struggle to explain the unexplainable was not unique.

Tragedy

The Christians borrowed Plato’s views on flesh, pleasures and the soul, only to make them monstrous in their theology and politics of total control of the faithful human sheep.

Aristotle studied with Plato for twenty years. Plato influenced Aristotle. But the Peloponnesian War was history to Aristotle. He grew up in the royal house of the Macedonian kings. His  father  was the physician to those kings. Aristotle breathed curiosity and politics. His feet were solidly planted on Greek soil and the Earth.

He tutored Alexander the Great who conquered the world and made Greek thought universal. The successors of Alexander built their kingdoms around the ideas of Aristotle.

Despite the magnificent works of Aristotle in natural philosophy, metaphysics, politics, ethics, rhetoric, and poetry, including his invention of zoology and science, and his influence in the civilization of the Greek kingdoms in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Hellas was doomed.

Antagonisms and wars among the political successors of Alexander took off after the death of Alexander. These Hellenic conflicts made it easier for Rome stepping into a divided Greece. The inevitable result was decline and the eclipse of Greek political independence and freedom.

The final humiliation and gigantic tragedy came with the Christianization of Greece and Europe in the fourth century. Christians uprooted Hellenic civilization. Yet fragments of that controversial but original culture survived, fueling the Renaissance and our world.

The post Power and Tragedy appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Revive the True Spirit of Constitutionality and Federalism in India: Article 370

The process of nationalist self-imagining in India is likely to remain in a nebulous state so long as the destiny of regional politicians is etched by the calligrapher in New Delhi and determined by maneuvers in the murky den of centralized federalism.

Will the BJP and Congress quit stalling the revival of the true spirit of parliamentary democracy and constitutionality in India, or will that remain a pipe dream?

While the arbitrary revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir is being celebrated by the BJP and it cohort as the fruition of a promise made by its precursor, the Praja Parishad, I would argue that the federal structure and constitutional integrity of India have been seriously undermined.

In the current scenario, India is bereft of a cohesive and vibrant opposition and is ruled by a party that enjoys a brute majority in the Parliament. A coherent opposition and vigorous civil society groups in the country can call for the restoration of the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India.

The communication and information blackout, and incarceration of a large number of people, including elected politicians, in Kashmir have relegated every stakeholder in the former state to the background. In effect, dissenting voices, even those of legislators and parliamentarians of opposition parties, have been stifled. In doing so, the federal government has ignored the statute of limitations and constitutional checks and balances that ought to have prevented the over centralization of powers in Jammu and Kashmir.

Several communities/ families in Kashmir have been impacted by historical and politicocultural trauma, making it difficult for the younger generation to break through the seemingly impregnable wall of silence with which their elders protect themselves. The younger generation walks on egg shells around their elders who have repressed traumatic memories, and might find itself complicit in maintaining a stoic silence about the sturm und drang and unredressed agonies of the past. We, as a people, have been mourning the loss of lives, erosion of democratic institutions and aspirations, destruction of our socio-cultural fabric, and deliberate marginalization of our people—all of which have occurred over the past three decades with an unparalleled intensity.

The conflation of religion and politics by the ruling party of a “democratic” and “secular” country gnaws at those of us who are invested in pluralism and the accommodation of diverse religious identities within a secular framework.

Article 28 of the Constitution of India states, “no religious education shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.” In 2002, the petition filed by a group of activists alleged that the deification of religion in the curriculum was in violation of Article 28 of the Constitution and the pluralism of India. The response of one of the judges of the three-judge panel of the Supreme Court of India left much to be desired. Justice Shah, formerly a judge of the Gujarat High Court, ambiguously observed:

“None can dispute that [the] past five decades have witnessed constant erosion of the essential social, moral and spiritual values and increase in cynicism at all levels. We are heading for a materialistic society disregarding the entire value based social system. None can also dispute that in secular society, moral values are of utmost importance . . . for controlling wild animal instinct in human beings and for having civilized cultural society, it appears that religions have come into existence. Religion is the foundation for value base survival of human beings in a civilized society . . . Value based education is likely to help the nation to fight against all kinds of prevailing fanaticism, ill-will, violence, dishonesty, corruption, exploitation, and drug abuse.”

In countering Justice Shah’s opinion, Martha Craven Nussbaum, an American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, discerningly observes, “What he [Justice Shah] recommended was teaching specific norms as good norms. (He mentioned the Hindu teaching of dharma as one good example.) How could mere “education about religions” counter the list of modern ills that he recognized? . . . It would be acceptable to recommend values if the values in question were the basic ethical values underlying the democracy and its Constitution. It is not acceptable, in India’s pluralistic democracy, to recommend religious values of any kind, however apparently vague or innocuous” (278).

The rhetoric of the BJP, which reinforces fanatical national pride, redemption of an exclusionary Hindu identity, and militant masculinity is being challenged by several secularists.

I am encouraged by the petition filed by a diverse group of retired bureaucrats, officers from Armed forces and others in the Supreme Court of India challenging the constitutional validity of the August 5 Presidential order revoking the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir by a constitutional arrangement. The petition underscored, “The action of the Union of India, without ascertaining the will of the people either through its elected government or legislature or through public means such as referenda, has undermined the basic principle of democracy.” That is the argument that those of us who subscribe to the ideals of democracy and decentralization would make.

Given the sleight of hand with which the BJP has divested Jammu and Kashmir of statehood, people in the former state have been depoliticized and relegated to the position of bystanders in the resolution of issues that they are invested in. With the suspension of the Legislative Assembly of J & K and now detention of representatives/ legislators/ decision-makers, young people in Kashmir lack the space to reflect on their strategies, challenges, processes of negotiation, dialogue, and accommodation required to reach some kind of fruition, which would bring every stakeholder to the table. Indian civil society and press needs to come forward and preserve the heterogeneity and federal structure of India. Secularism means that all people have equal right irrespective of their faith and religious persuasions, and that everybody should respect the other’s feelings.

Notes.

Nussbaum, Martha C. The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future.        Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2007.

 

 

 

The post Revive the True Spirit of Constitutionality and Federalism in India: Article 370 appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Revival of Non-Self

The 21st century is witnessing the revival of Non-Self, such as Herrenvolk and Hindutva, which assert a binary division of “Self” and “Non-Self.” Selfism advocates the exclusion of Non-Self, variously defined as immigrants, refugees, gypsies, indigenous people, minorities, or “others.” Nationalism, majoritarianism, and exceptionalism are its noxious crops. Ethnic cleansing, apartheid, segregation, settler colonialism, denial of citizenship, incarceration, and deportation are its blunt tools. Selfism has no tolerance for plurality or heterogeneity.

V.D. Savarkar, the 19th-century founder of Hindutva, explains the significance of Non-Self. “Self is known to itself immutable and without a name or even without a form. But when it comes in contact or conflict with a non-self,” it becomes self-cognizant. The presence of Muslims and Christians in India, says Savarkar, clarifies the uniqueness of Hindus, broadly defined as all those who belong to local racial stocks and whose gods and beliefs are indigenous. Accordingly, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs are “Hindus,” but Christians and Muslims are not.

Pierre Berghe coined the term Herrenvolk to explain the power of the “master race” be it the Nazis in Germany or apartheid in South Africa. White Nationalism surging in Europe and North America is Herrenvolk. Much like Hindutva, the presence of blacks distinguishes whites, and the presence of immigrants deepens nativism. American Herrenvolk unites the progeny of Europeans, including the Irish and the Italians who were previously excluded from whiteness. While what is included in White Nationalism is fluid, Asians, Arabs, Jews, African Americans, and Hispanics are certainly Non-Self.

Selfism draws its identity, vitality, and ideology from Non-Self. Selfism is not selfishness. Selfishness is obsessed with the self, whereas Selfism is obsessed with Non-Self. Selfism lacks ontology without Non-Self. Self is empty without Non-Self. For example, colonizers mean little without colonies. Slave masters perish without slaves. Ironically, however, Selfism would make every effort to abuse Non-Self, fantasizing annihilation, although Self cannot exist without Non-Self. This is the manufacturing defect of Selfism.

Despite inherent defectiveness, the dread of Non-Self is ingrained in the human phenomenon, found in almost all cultures and nations. The Uighurs viewed as Non-Chinese have been incarcerated en masse for posing a “threat” to the integrity of China. Rohingyas have been expelled to purify Buddhist Myanmar. Israel sees Non-Jews as an existential threat and is making extensive laws to fortify its Jewishness. Pakistan has declared that the native-born Ahmadis claiming to be Muslims are Non-Muslims.

Self-walling is a prime feature of Selfism, designed to safeguard the nation, race, religion, culture, identity, and continuity of identity from Non-Self. The walls are built around procreation, religion, and borders. Miscegenation laws, apostasy laws, and immigration laws are formulated to keep out Non-Self. The race will wither away if Self commingles with Non-Self to produce multiracial children. Hindutva will lose verve if Hindus and Non-Hindus are fused into a single “Indianness.” Likewise, the Gulf States will lose Arabness if citizenship is granted to Non-Arab immigrants. Selfism dreads Non-Self.

Selfism is the opposite of egalitarianism, a struggling notion of justice. If egalitarianism is inclusive, Selfism is exclusive. Egalitarianism safeguards the rights of Non-Self, uplifts the oppressed. Selfism suppresses Non-Self seen as a burden on state resources. Egalitarianism expands the reach of democracy. Selfism reserves power for Self whether a minority or majority. Under the lessons of Selfism, Non-Self is dirty, lazy, parasitic, disloyal, incompetent, indeed a paragon of negativity.

Selfism is not harmless psychology or sociology. It is prone to serious crimes. It inspires to enslave, degrade, segregate, expel, and exterminate Non-Self. Consider a few examples. The 16th-century slave trade initiates a worldwide degradation of the people of African descent. The 17th-century colonization racializes the human species. In the 18th century, Adam Smith publishes The Wealth of Nations, sowing the seeds of Self-interest. The 19th century Ottoman Empire massacres the Armenians. The 20th century Imperial Japanese Army disarms, rapes, and murders hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and soldiers. The more recent Rwanda Genocide involving Hutus and Tutsis reaffirms the terrors of Non-Self.

Selfism crimes are now trickling down to individuals haunted with Non-Self. A white supremacist kills nine parishioners in a Charleston Black church. An Australian xenophobe opens fire in a Christchurch mosque, killing more than fifty worshippers. Cow vigilantes roam around Mumbai and elsewhere to murder meat-eaters. Egyptian zealots attack buses carrying Christian pilgrims. Hundreds of olive trees belonging to Palestinians are uprooted, burnt, or otherwise vandalized by settlers.

The Trumpists are highlighting Non-Self as a political strategy, glorifying “Old America” that massacred Native Americans, enslaved Africans, conquered territories from Mexicans, and detained Japanese, all the avatars of Non-Self. The Trumpists lay into Non-White female members of the House of Representatives because these women do not love “our country.” The herds chant “send her back.” For them, Ilhan Omar (Black, immigrant, Muslim) is an absolute Non-Self.

When Trumpists liquify Selfism, slogans flow: Mexicans bring in gangs and drugs. Baltimore is rodent-infested, but “the Border is clean, efficient & well run.” Muslims are conspiring to enforce Shariah law. Jews are disloyal. Illegals vote in millions. By singling out Non-Self, piece by piece, the Trumpists covet to unify the scattered fragments of Self.

Globally, Selfism seeks alliances with likeminded Selfism. The French Marie Le Pen flocks with the Italian Mateo Salvini, the Dutch Geert Wilders, and the Hungarian Viktor Orban to resurrect “Old Europe” free of Non-Self, meaning Arabs and Africans. Modi woos Netanyahu who woos Trump by naming a new Golan Heights settlement as “Trump Heights.” Paleoconservatives congregate to co-equate Western civilization with white identity. Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram wage a common war against “Western colonists.”

For sure, Selfism is wired in human neurology, but so is the opposition to it. Selfism rises in waves and fades out. Its present revival is spreading, and its demise is unforeseeable. Fractures are deepening. Fences are being built. Refugees are being refouled. Hindutva is levitating. Herrenvolk is stoking ethnonationalism. Old America and Old Europe are powerful dreams. Fortunately, the human spirit lives through but does not surrender to Selfism.

The post The Revival of Non-Self appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Why a DNC Vice Chair Bawled Me Out

The man quickly identified himself as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. He didn’t need to tell me that he was hopping mad.

Ken Martin was angry that my colleagues and I were handing out a flier — providing some inconvenient facts about Joe Biden — to delegates and activists as they entered the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention on Saturday. The headline, next to Biden’s picture, quoted a statement he made last year: “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason why we’re in trouble.”

While not flattering to the current frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, the carefully documented RootsAction flier offered information that news coverage has rarely mentioned — and that party activists as well as voters overall should know.

But Martin had a very different perspective. He heatedly told me that distributing such a flier was divisive and would harm the cause of defeating Donald Trump.

I tried to assure Martin that I’m as eager to defeat Trump as anyone. At the same time, we need primaries for good reasons — including fact-based scrutiny of candidates’ records before they’re nominated. However, I found it difficult to get words in edgewise, as Martin continued to denounce the leafleting.

After a few minutes, I asked: “Do you want to have a conversation, or do you want to lecture me?” Martin’s reply came in a split-second: “I want to lecture you.” Give him credit for honesty.

A few hours later, Martin addressed thousands from the convention podium and — in more restrained tones — focused on blaming nonresponsive voters for the failures of Democratic candidates to inspire them. “In 2016 we had 10 percent of Democrats who voted for Donald Trump,” he said. “We had 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump. We had a tripling of the third-party vote throughout our country. And probably most discouraging to me: as consistent Democratic base voters, people who always show up in elections, many of them didn’t show up to vote at all.”

A logical question would be: Why did many of them not show up to vote at all? But Martin wasn’t going there. Instead, he went on: “You see, Democrats, we’ve got great candidates on full display today and I can guarantee you one of them is going to be the next president of the United States. But we have to come together, we have to come together. Let’s not confuse unanimity with unity, we’re Democrats, we don’t agree on everything. But I will tell you, if we’re not unified we will not win this election. We have to come out and support whoever the Democratic candidate is.”

Martin is in major positions of power within the Democratic Party, not only at the DNC but also as chair of the party in Minnesota (the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) and as president of the Association of State Democratic Committees. For the bulk of the party leadership, in sync with frontrunner Biden, self-critical assessments are essentially off-limits. The boilerplate calls for “unity” serve to distract from tough-minded examination of the reasons for widespread distrust and low vote rates.

Refusals to examine the patterns of the past render many party leaders unable to recognize or acknowledge what a disaster a Biden campaign against Trump would so likely be. It’s of little use to plead for strong turnout from “Democratic base voters” after nominating a weak and uninspiring candidate.

“A core challenge for the Democratic Party will be to raise the voter participation rate while drawing presently apathetic and uninvolved nonvoters and occasional voters into the process — largely younger people and African Americans,” the report “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis” said two years ago. The report (which I co-authored as part of a task force) pointed out that “a party doesn’t grow by simply tallying up members and scolding them into showing up.”

The specter of Joe Biden as the party’s nominee runs directly counter to what the Autopsy called for: “To flourish, the Democratic Party needs an emphatic mission and a clear moral message that excites and provides a purpose that is distinct from the otherwise cynical spectacle of politics. Inspiring programs for truly universal health care, racial justice, free public college tuition, economic security, new infrastructure, green jobs and tackling the climate crisis can do this. This is about more than just increasing voter turnout. It is about energizing as well as expanding the base of the party.”

As presidential candidates crisscross the country, only two are showing how to energize activism on a large scale while inspiring voters. That was apparent again inside the arena in New Hampshire, where Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren delivered high-voltage progressive speeches that left others in the dust.

Biden’s mediocre speech at the New Hampshire convention on September 7 is already a historic record of a dismal candidate for president whose nomination promises to be a disaster. To pretend otherwise is hardly a service to the crucial task of defeating Donald Trump.

The post Why a DNC Vice Chair Bawled Me Out appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Pages