Counterpunch Articles

New Mexico Postcard: The Call of the Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes in flight, Gila River valley, NM

I arrived in the Gila River valley in New Mexico in mid-September to stay at a friend’s property for a few months. Shortly afterwards, migrating Sandhill Cranes began showing up too. I heard them before I saw them, and my first reaction was, “What the heck is that?”

If you haven’t heard the calls of a Sandhill Crane before, you might not immediately identify them as coming from birds. They have been variously described as “loud, rattling bugle calls,” a “deep chesty squawk” and “kar-r-r-r- o-o-o.” I’ll take a stab at the challenge and offer: “a moody trilling trumpet.”

You can listen to recordings online herehere, and here, among other places.

These helped jog my memory as I was writing this piece (since the cranes here don’t vocalize on command) but they all seriously lack compared to the real thing. They might capture the sound but not the spirit.

The first time a group of them flew overhead, I couldn’t help but to stop and stare in awe. Their silhouettes were certainly striking—with necks extended forward and legs stretched out behind—but it was their voices that really took my breath away. I will offer the words “haunting,” “otherworldly” and “preternatural,” though they all fall short. I felt like I was hearing the echoes of dinosaurs (and given birds’ evolutionary heritage, I guess I literally was).

But of course there is nothing alien about these creatures or their noises. It is I, raised in cities by a dominator culture, who doesn’t belong here, or rather, who doesn’t know my place, or how to find it. Such is the tragic estrangement of Western Civ.

Sandhill Cranes are one of the oldest species of bird in the world. Fossil records go back at least 2.5 million years as such things are conservatively considered. Suggestive but indeterminate are other fossils aged 10 million years. At a mere 200-250,000 years, our species is at most a tenth as old. As I gazed skyward at them, I was truly beholding elders.

Known scientifically as Grus canadensis or Antigone canadensis, the Sandhill Crane is up to 4 1/2 feet tall with a wingspan between 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 feet. Adults are grey to tawny with darker wingtips and a characteristic red marking on the top of their head. They typically live 20-30 years, though the oldest recorded was over 36.

Courtship between adults famously includes dancing [see video], which I was fortunate to witness as a young lad one year in Nebraska, where huge flocks pass through the Sandhills in the Spring. Mating couples pair up for life and raise their young together. After 9-10 months, juveniles leave their parents and live in groups of other single birds until they reach sexual maturity after their second year.

The natural habitat of Sandhills Cranes—whether in the north in summer for breeding or the south for overwintering—are wetlands, including marshes, lakesides and riparian areas. Unfortunately for the Sandhill Crane—and for countless other species, avian, amphibian, arthropodic, etc.—these zones are also prime farmland. Conversion to agriculture entails draining, diking and damming, all of which damage or destroy these ecosystems. So of course, Sandhill Cranes and their neighbors are fewer in number now than before the European invasion of this hemisphere.

Indeed, due to habitat loss and widespread hunting, Sandhill Cranes were in danger of extinction in the early 20th Century. The Migratory Bird Act of 1916 is credited with saving them and others. (And yes, like so much other conservation legislation, it is under attack from the Trump administration. It’s hard to keep up with all his assaults on the environment.)

The area where I am staying is an example of historic habitat impacted by agriculture.

From where I sit, the Gila River’s network of tributaries all start less than 50 miles away as the crow (or the crane) flies, up in the Black Range. As is the case across the continent, the colonial names for this range—”Devil’s Mountains” and “Sierra Diablo”—refer to their original habitation by Native American tribes, including the Chiricahua Apache. (Places designated with the offensive term “squaw” were often sites where traditional food and medicines were gathered by indigenous women.) Other people lived in the area in still older times, as evidenced by the Gila Cliff Dwellings, by which the Western Fork of the Gila River flows.

In the valley here, irrigation canals run roughly parallel to the river proper at distances of a few hundred yards, up to half a mile. The area between is pasture for cows, where the land was long since turned under and planted with non-native forage. Originally, the watercourse would have snaked and meandered across these lowlands, but now much of it is channelized. It’s true that the Sandhill Cranes and other birds still travel to this area every year, but their lives are certainly not the same.

Ranching activities are common throughout the western United States, but it turns out there’s a twist to the story in this part of the Gila River valley. According to a University of Arizona professor who used to live in the area, the cattle operations here are owned by a mining company in nearby Silver City in order to retain the water rights. The mining operation itself produces only a trickle and would have shuttered years ago except that once they close, they are responsible under federal law for clean-up, which would incur significant expenses they want to avoid for as long as possible.

That is, the Sandhill Crane habitat out my window is kept in a constantly impacted state so that capitalists thirty miles away—on the other side of the Continental Divide—can avoid paying for their mess. How many stories like this are there across the nation? Far more than we know or even suspect, I’m sure.

As a side note, this is what a “grass-fed” beef operation looks like. That label enjoys a far more positive rep than it deserves and this valley is not by any means the only place where the cost is habitat destruction, pollution and water wastage. If we were serious about protecting wildlife and conserving resources in areas not naturally suited to cows and sheep, we would cease all ranching west of the Mississippi. A good first step would be ending the federal subsidies that prop up the industry.

Hunting Sandhill Cranes is legal in New Mexico, with permits and limits. (If you’re curious, you can read an account of a hunt here.) However, this is a minor threat to the species compared to the persistence of agriculture.

Climate change is expected to affect Sandhill Cranes far more. The Audubon Society’s page for the bird features an interactive map of the bird’s range (both summer and winter) that illustrates the estimated effects of climate change for temperature rises of 1.5, 2.0 and 3.0 °C. Nobody should be surprised if the actual affects turn out to be more drastic or sooner than expected, though.

As Autumn has settled in here, I’ve shut the windows and doors more often, which has sadly cut off the sounds of the wildlife. But when I step outside, more often than not I hear the call of the cranes from the direction of the river, where towering Cottonwoods are now turning yellow.

Every time, I experience a thrill somewhere inside. Their ancient voice speaks from a perspective beyond my comprehension and I can hear that I, human, am young; ultimately, no less a part of the Great Mystery than everything else, but undoubtedly in need of the reminder.

Recommended reading (and listening): The Language of Sandhill Cranes and The Primeval Grace of Sandhill Cranes, both by by Christine Hass

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Progressives Care More About Taking the Democratic Party Than Getting Rid of Trump

Nothing, leading Democrats say, matters more than beating Donald Trump. 2020, they argue, is the most important election of our lifetimes (OK, they always say that).

It’s not true. If you’re a progressive voter, taking back control of the Democratic Party from the DLC-Clinton-Biden centrist cabal is more important than defeating the incumbent.

For four long decades progressives—Americans who put people before profits—have been living in the political wilderness. Progressives account for 72% of Democratic voters. Figuring lefties had nowhere else to go, party leadership took them for granted, ignoring their desire for a stronger social safety net and fewer military adventures in favor of a pro-corporate agenda. What other choice did they have, vote Republican?

People who often didn’t vote turned out for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign, proving that many non-voters weren’t apathetic. They were disgusted. After the DNC got caught pulling their usual dirty tricks, however, sabotaging Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton, enough Bernie-or-Busters boycotted the November general election or cast protest votes for Trump to cost her the election.

Look at what happened! Progressives scored their first major win since the War on Poverty of the 1960s.

Yes, Trump has been a disaster. He is a terrible president, an international embarrassment, insane, brazenly corrupt, overtly racist, with over-the-top authoritarian tendencies.

But consider the alternative.

If Hillary Clinton were running for reelection, progressivism would still be on the outs. Like Obama, Hillary wouldn’t have appointed a single liberal, much less progressive, to her cabinet. She’s so far to the right of Trump on foreign policy that she might have gone to war against Iran. Russian national security analysts concluded that Clinton was crazy enough to start World War III. She’s equally awful on domestic stuff. Hillary is against any increase in the minimum wage. She opposes Medicare For All. She hates the Green New Deal. Her bankster backers would be running wild.

Because progressives withheld their votes in 2016, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the Democratic frontrunners, enjoying the combined support of 50% of primary voters. Both support a $15 minimum wage, Medicare For All, free college tuition and the Green New Deal. There is no way, no how, that those policy positions would be part of a Clinton 2020 campaign.

Progressives are so close to seizing control of the Democratic Party that they can taste it. Why, at mile 25 of this political marathon, should they let up on the pressure? They’re about to win!

If Bernie Sanders is the nominee, supporting him is a no-brainer for progressives. He’s been one of them forever. He’s trustworthy. (It’s a different calculus for leftists like me. Among other things, he needs to swear off militarism.) Progressives will vote for him.

Warren’s bonafides are squishy. She used to be a Republicanendorses capitalism and keeps Hillary on her speed dial. Is she a prog-come-lately or another fauxgressive who would sell out to Goldman Sachs? She would have to come up some way to reassure voters that she’s more Sanders than Clinton.

But what if the DNC shoves Joe Biden or another centrist/moderate/corporatist down our throats again? As usual they’ll say that we have to pull together behind some turd in order to defeat the dastardly Donald Trump. But why?

History is clear. Lame-duck presidents don’t get big laws, new wars or much in the way of policy accomplished during their second terms. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan was hobbled by dementia and Iran Contra, Clinton was impeached because of Monica and the second Bush spent his last four years in the quagmires of Iraq and then the bursting of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Obama avoided scandal but an intransigent Republican Congress left him with little to show for years five through eight.

By 2021 Trump will almost certainly have already been impeached. Congress will probably still be Democratic. I ask my fellow Trump-haters: what exactly are you so afraid of a second term? What do you think the president can do in a second term that he hasn’t already done? Does he strike you as the kind of person who has been plotting some big right-wing surprise to unleash in case he wins reelection?

Forget the Supreme Court-is-everything argument. As Obama proved when he refused to push for Merrick Garland, Democrats don’t move the needle. Anyway, it’s a right-wing court now. Write that sucker off.

There is a nightmare scenario: Trump dies early on. Mike Pence has three years to establish himself before running in 2024. That would really and truly suck. That is a real risk. But is fear of a Pence planet powerful enough to go back to letting the centrist scum take progressives’ votes for granted?

If the DNC robs Warren or Sanders in favor of Biden or whomever or Hillary again, Democratic progressives have little to lose by boycotting the general election again. It may be that the corporatists need to be taught the same bitter lesson a second time: without progressives there is no Democratic Party.

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Just Another Whitewash: the Federal Investigation of the Firestone Fracking Fire in Colorado 

After more than two and one half years of delays and excuses the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report this week on the Firestone gas explosion that killed Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin, seriously burned Erin Martinez, and traumatized their children.   Mark was Erin’s husband, Joey her brother.  The two men were changing out a hot water heater in the basement of the Martinez home.

If the expectation was a detailed litany of all the terrible public policy decisions made leading up to this disaster, get over it.  Money is king in this state, and the report pays homage to the king.  It is seven pages long with pictures, and produced no information that wasn’t known within days of the explosion caused by a gas leak into the Martinez home from a leaking one inch pipe carrying gas from a well 170 feet from the home.

Erin Martinez, who has undergone a reported 27 surgeries for burns she suffered from the explosion, summed it up in a written statement:

“After all this time, it’s shocking to me that the NTSB gives neither me nor the public anything that we didn’t know prior to the investigation…Whoever authored this document could have released it a short time after my home exploded. It’s difficult to understand why it took two and a half years to write seven pages that provide no concrete recommendations to prevent another tragedy.”

So if we did not learn anything new concerning these murders caused by negligence and greed, what did we learn?

First of all, we learned of the casual indifference with which the official world views these events.  Indeed, we learned first and foremost that in Colorado living unknowingly on top of gas fields is ok.  It is ok with the feds, it is ok with the state, and it is ok with local governments.

Below is a 2015 overhead photo of the explosion site.  It is one of several the state made in its rush to convince people living in the community that the state knew what the hell was going on and that they were on top of it after the April 2017 explosion.  Neither of which is correct.

Photo: COGCC.

+ The overhead photo shows that the entire housing development is surrounded by wells, 6 of them in the immediate area.  (There are many other nearby wells, but they are outside the borders of this photo or have been omitted.)

+ The photo shows that an abandoned flow line runs under the entire development.  This is the same line that was severed near the Martinez home causing the gas buildup in their basement that resulted in its destruction.

+ From earlier photos the well shown as 4 at the top right in this photo was operational in 1999, meaning its flow line was also operational.  The line runs under Founders Park, one of the early community features of the development.

+ The photo shows a home in the upper left with an abandoned well as metal ornament smack dab in the middle of the back yard where all wells should be.

+ The new flow line shown in blue at the bottom of the photo raises several questions.  Why build it right behind a row of 13 homes?  Why not build it farther from the homes along the abandoned flow lines shown in yellow?  The only reasonable answer is that is was cheaper for the industry. Using the old right of way was complicated. An apartment house was being built over it, with another apartment already built near by.  As any fool knows, it is cheaper to build on open land behind homes than fuss with parking lots and large buildings.  Plus the old lines were leaking.  Better to leave them alone.

The overhead photo is also immensely incomplete in its inventory of on the ground fracking facilities.

+ It does not show the flow lines from well 5 and 6, which in 2015 were still operational, and may be to this day.

+ Neither does it show the larger gathering lines that commence at the separator stations, termed “production facilities” on the map.  These lines carry the collected product from the various individual wells to market or re-storage at old abandoned wells.  These lines are much larger, traditionally up to 24 inches, but perhaps even larger today given the development of fracking “mega-pads” with up to 40 wells on a pad.  And yes the industry does pump methane out of the ground to sometimes inject it right back into the ground for storage.

+  The COGCC’s chief of staff, Julie Murphy, claims the COGCC does not have the authority to monitor or regulate gathering lines, even though the SB 181 gives them specific instructions to do so.

+ The overhead does not show the two other leak sites along the yellow, abandoned flow lines at the bottom of the picture.  Both leak areas were near the production facility.  One of the leaks was considerably larger than the leak that caused the explosion.  But it was not contained underground and therefore caused no explosion or deaths.  But Anadarko, the owner of this patchwork of wells and pipelines, did put in an extensive gallery of vents to air the soil of the leaked methane.  It showed no concern that methane’s normal hitchhikers such as benzene may have posed a health problem.

+ The other leak closer to the production facility has simply vanished from the conversation, as has the old open pit evaporation pond that used to lie to the left of the facility until diminished air quality along the northern Front Range forced closure of all open air evaporation ponds because of their significant contribution to the continuing air quality problem.

If the entire witches brew of industry offences to land and people were portrayed on the GOGCC’s overhead map it might start to resemble some sort of nightmarish Boschian allegory on greed and corruption.

Perhaps that is why the NTSB’s site map is so devoid of detail.  It is clearly not designed to help people understand what happened in Firestone.  For example the abandoned line that runs underground for the entire length of the development and caused the deaths of Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin is not even shown.  Inexplicably, it simply stops at the Martinez home. The NTSB’s mandate is not simply to examine pipelines explosions but to promote pipelines safety through detailed analyzes of pipeline events.  Thus, one can reasonably conclude this report represents either breathtaking incompetence or some sort of cover-up.

The depth and breadth of the health and safety problems that urban oil and gas development represent probably can’t be overestimated.   The COGCC map of the Firestone neighborhood is only a microscopic slice of the fossil fuel infrastructure that underlays the oil fields of Colorado.  Multiply this scene thousands of times, for there are at least 100,000 wells, half of them active, populating the state—only then may you begin to understand.

The exact number of wells in the state is difficult to ascertain since wells were first drilled in Colorado in 1860, well before Colorado became a state; yet, well site record keeping didn’t begin until 1925.  That the house Erin Martinez bought after her Firestone home was destroyed turned out to have an old abandoned well right next to her property line underscores the problem.  She was assured by the industry, by the state, and by local governments that the replacement house was safely removed from oil and gas infrastructure.  It wasn’t.  She has been forced to move again for the sake of her family’s sense of well being in what must be considered the cruelest of jokes bred of bumbling bureaucratic incompetency.

The pipeline inventory poses even a greater problem.  After the Firestone explosion, the state required the industry to report their flow line inventories.  Anadarko, the company responsible for the explosion rallied to the proposal, saying it too was adopting a policy it described as an “abundance of caution.”  This hideous public relations effort was undercut by company employees reporting that Anadarko had all along been cutting safety and maintenance oversight to save money in a down market.

The preliminary results of the inventory indicate at least 6,500 miles of flow lines, active and inactive, exist in the state.  That’s enough pipe to crisscross the state 17 times.  Still, the accuracy of this estimate should be regarded with great circumspection.  The former chair of the COGCC, John Benton, himself an executive in a pipeline company, once remarked that it was common to regularly abandon old flow lines and set down new lines depending on production considerations.  He also said it was unnecessary to remove the old ones.  It was too costly to do so and served no necessary purpose.  Well, the Firestone explosion gives the lie to the notion that they posed no problem. Your mother’s warning that if you make a mess, you clean it up answers the second.  Unbelievably the COGCC under its new rulemaking to map all flow lines proposes to leave many lines in the ground.   Of course it’s dealt not at all with the less numerous but larger and therefore more dangerous gathering lines.

Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow that “if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”  What the Firestone tragedy really exposes is that we’ve been asking a question that is only half a question, and getting an answer that is only half an answer.

We have been focused on can fracking be made safe with better setbacks, and what might those setbacks be?   The answer is a clear no, it can’t be made safe particularly in an age of climate chaos where we all are being asked to carry our own weight.  Colorado as one of the leading oil and gas producers in the country has a heavy wagon to pull, and much to atone for.

But there is a companion question that is rarely asked and would remain valid even if the ruling class were to shed its corporate blindfolds and take on the adult job of banning fracking to save those to come from a Hobbesian world that climate collapse will inevitably bring.

The question is, should homes and schools be built over oil fields?  The Firestone tragedy provides the answer.  And no amount of political babble can change it.

Thus, any serious law making in this state must condemn the common practice of allowing developers to come in right after the frackers and build homes and communities on top of or next door to oil and gas development.

Here is the text of an advertisement for the Oak Meadows development in which the Martinez family staked its future.

Century Communities’ Oak Meadows community in Firestone is an established neighborhood known for its strong sense of community. Close-proximity to popular local amenities such as Saddleback Golf Club, St. Vrain State Park, the Regional Sports Complex, and beautiful Settlers’ Park, located within the Oak Meadows neighborhood, make it highly desirable…. CNN Money magazine rated Firestone, Colorado in the top 25 of best small towns to live in the U.S., stating, “low taxes, commitment to open spaces, ample recreation and an easy commute to Broomfield, Boulder and Fort Collins”.

There is no mention that Oak Meadows development is built over an oil field.  There is no mention of the violence, slow or sudden, fracking brings.

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The Problems with the “Swiss Model”

The New York Times had a column by “global investor” Ruchir Sharma this weekend in which he touted the Swiss model as being preferable to the Scandinavian model promoted by Bernie Sanders and other progressives. He notes that Switzerland is considerably richer, has a smaller government role in its economy, and still manages to provide health insurance to everyone.

There are a few points worth making about Sharma’s piece. First, one of the big factors that contributed to Switzerland’s wealth is that it shielded the wealth of rich criminals from around the world. Not only did it hide this wealth from tax authorities, it is also allowed drug dealers, gun runners, and corrupt dictators to park their money in a safe haven for themselves and their families. Not every country would want to follow this path to prosperity and in any case there is a limit to the amount of illicit funds to be deposited in such havens.

One of the reasons Sharma is impressed with Switzerland is that, rather than having the government provide health care for its population, it requires its citizens to purchase private insurance. This does lead to universal coverage, although it seems to come at a substantial price. According to the OECD, Switzerland’s health care costs of $7,300 per person are considerably less than the U.S per person cost of $10,600, but 17 percent more than #3 Norway’s costs and almost 40 percent higher than Denmark’s. It’s not clear that our model for reform should be the second most costly system in the world.

The next point is that this treatment of health care is a big factor in the difference between the 50 percent government share of GDP in the Scandinavian countries compared to the one third in Switzerland. Perhaps it makes a big difference to people whether they are mandated to pay premiums to an insurance company as opposed to taxes to the government, but it is not obvious why that would be the case.

This treatment of health care is also relevant to Sharma’s point on relative wealth:

“The typical Swiss family has a net worth around $540,000, twice its Scandinavian peer.”

Middle income families have greater need for wealth in Switzerland, where they have to pay for their health insurance, than in the Scandinavian countries where it is paid for by the government. How much additional wealth is needed would depend on the timing of health care payments over people’s lifetimes.

There is an area where progressives Democrats are looking to Switzerland as a model. The country has a wealth tax on its richest people. Both Senators Warren and Sanders have proposed a comparable tax for the United States.

This article first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

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A Long Overdue Debate on Medicare-for-All

Affordable health care for all is now at the center of the presidential debate. Two of the top three contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination — Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — support Medicare for All. The third — Joe Biden — and those hoping to take his place as the leading centrist in the race — Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — have attacked the plan to contrast their candidacies from Sanders and Warren.

Donald Trump, who wants to eliminate the Affordable Care Act itself, and has already added some 10 million people to the ranks of the uninsured, scorns it as “socialism,” just as earlier Republicans libeled Social Security and Medicare itself when they were under consideration.

In 1984 and 1988, I made a single-payer Medicare for All plan central to my presidential campaign. As a policy, it has always made the most sense. The question has always been whether the politicians had the nerve to weather the fierce attack that insurance and pharmaceutical drug companies will unleash against the proposal and any candidate who supports it, and whether voters would be scared off by the attacks.

Sanders brought Medicare for All back into the national political debate in his remarkable run for the Democratic nomination in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. The National Nurses Association and others have helped build a movement out of that momentum. Sanders has “written the bill,” and in the House, Rep. Pramila Jayapal has introduced a detailed complement to the Sanders bill. Elizabeth Warren, who signed onto the Sanders bill, now has produced a clear plan on what Medicare for All would cover, and how it would be paid for.

The basic principles and values are clear and widely popular. Health care should be a right, not a privilege. No one should go without the care they need because they cannot afford it. No one should go bankrupt simply because they get sick.

Yet our current health care system offends each of those principles. We spend almost two times per capita on health care as other advanced nations. If you have a lot of money or a strong union, you can get excellent health care. For the rest, care is rationed by money. Twenty-four million go without insurance, up 10 million under Trump. Another 65 million are underinsured, one serious illness away from bankruptcy. Health care costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy.

Medicare for All is popular at first look. Then the insurance and drug companies and the opponents unleash their arguments: government will mess it up, it will raise your taxes, it will take away your current insurance. Presented with that information, people’s doubts grow.

So most of the opponents fly under a false flag: they lay on the arguments against Medicare for All, but claim they support health care as a human right and support some version of a public option, giving people the illusion of choice. The reality is that those plans will still leave millions without coverage and many millions more underinsured.

Warren came under particular attack in the debates and the media for not detailing how she would pay for her plan (Sanders has been clear on his plan). Now Warren has answered her critics. Her plan covers the cost of Medicare for All by raising taxes on the very wealthy — largely a 3 percent surcharge on the wealth of billionaires — and by requiring big companies to pay almost what they now pay for providing health care to their workers.

Her plan would save some $7 trillion of the $59 trillion it costs to provide health care to all over a decade, according to the Urban Institute, by reducing overhead, eliminating insurance company profits, reducing monopoly and negotiating bulk discounts for drugs like every other advanced nation does. She would eliminate co-pays and premiums, returning $11 trillion to the pockets of working people, what she hails as the largest middle-class tax cut in history.

Once voters learn that under Medicare for All they can always keep their doctor, they won’t be faced with co-pays or premiums, and they will be guaranteed comprehensive health care, support begins to build back up.

Now Sanders and Warren have doubled down on their argument. Warren now puts it to Biden and the other critics: “Every candidate who opposes my long-term goal of Medicare for All should put forward their own plan to cover everyone, without costing the country anything more in health care spending, and while putting $11 trillion back in the pockets of the American people,” she writes. “If they are unwilling to do that, they should concede that they think it’s more important to protect the eye-popping profits of private insurers and drug companies and the immense fortunes of the top 1 percent and giant corporations.”

It’s over three decades since I sounded the call for Medicare for All. Since then, health care costs have soared faster than wages, more companies have found ways to avoid covering more workers and more people have died or gone bankrupt because they couldn’t pay for the care they needed.

Now with Sanders and Warren, the debate is joined again. The naysayers say that Medicare for All isn’t popular, that voters love their insurance companies. Sanders and Warren say voters love their doctors but are getting savaged by the drug and insurance companies. In the coming primaries, voters will have the opportunity to sort out what makes sense and what does not, and to show what is popular and what is not. This is a debate that is long overdue.

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30 Years Ago, American Nun Dianna Ortiz Was Kidnapped and Tortured in Guatemala, She’s Still Waiting for Truth & Justice

Dianna Ortiz wanted to be a nun since she was 6 years old. To some people, that seemed a rather peculiar calling for a girl growing up during the seismic cultural shifts of the 1960s and ’70s, a time when many women were leaving religious orders. But Ortiz, the daughter of a homemaker and a uranium miner growing up in Grants, New Mexico, remained steadfastly committed to her goal through middle and high school and in her late teens she traveled across America to Maple Mount, Kentucky to join the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph, part of a 400-year-old Roman Catholic order dedicated to the education of girls and the care of the sick and needy.

Dangerous Calling 

In keeping with the Ursuline mission, Ortiz taught kindergarten for a decade. She then felt called to follow Jesus’ path and work helping the poor. In September 1987 at the age of 28 she moved to Guatemala to join several other nuns serving indigenous residents of San Miguel Acatan and other small villages in Huehuetenango in the western highlands. Years later Ortiz explained that she wanted “to teach young indigenous children to read and write in Spanish and in their native language and to understand the Bible in their culture.”

It was dangerous work at a dangerous time. The country was ravaged by decades of civil war resulting from a 1954 CIA coup that deposed Jacobo Arbenz, the popular, democratically-elected progressive president, and replaced him with a series of right-wing military dictatorships, some of which perpetrated genocidal violence against indigenous peoples. The 36-year civil war left over 200,000 Guatemalans dead, more than 600 villages destroyed and countless people, mostly Mayan peasants, displaced.

“Every family in San Miguel had people who had been tortured, disappeared or killed,” Mary Elizabeth Ballard, an Ursuline sister who had arrived in Guatemala a year before Ortiz, told the literary magazine Agni in a 1998 interview. “No family was untouched.” Through it all, successive US administrations backed the perpetrators with arms, training, funding and diplomatic support.

Around a year after Ortiz’s arrival in San Miguel, the local bishop received an anonymous letter accusing her and the other nuns of planning a meeting with “subversives.” By early 1989, Ortiz was receiving threatening letters imploring her to leave the country. That summer she traveled to the capital, Guatemala City, to study Spanish. While she was there she was accosted by an unknown man on the street who told her, “we know who you are, you’re working in Huehuetenango,” before telling her to leave Guatemala.

She did leave, returning to the Ursuline motherhouse in Kentucky, where some of the sisters implored her to stay. But those who knew her best knew that wasn’t an option. “She had a great love for the Guatemalans,” Luisa Bickett, an Ursuline sister who also worked in San Miguel, told Agni. Ortiz returned to Guatemala to continue her work in September 1989. While staying in Guatemala City on October 13, Ortiz received the following death threat in the form of a letter pasted together from words cut from magazines and newspapers:

ELIMINATE DIANA. RAPED. DISAPPEARED. ASSASSINATED. DECAPITATED. LEAVE THE COUNTRY.

‘Hello, My Love’

Ortiz returned to San Miguel and on October 17 received yet another menacing letter telling her to leave the country. She decided to seek refuge at Posada de Belén, a convent and religious retreat 170 miles (270 km) away in Antigua. On November 2 Ortiz was reading in the convent’s garden when her life was forever changed. In an interview with Kerry Kennedy of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization, she recalled that:

“I heard a man’s deep voice behind me: ‘Hello, my love,’ he said in Spanish. ‘We have some things to discuss.’ I turned to see the morning sunlight glinting off a gun held by a man who had threatened me once before on the street. He and his partner forced me onto a bus, then into a police car where they blindfolded me. We came to a building and they led me down some stairs. They left me in a dark cell, where I listened to the cries of a man and woman being tortured. When the men returned, they accused me of being a guerrilla and began interrogating me. For every answer I gave them, they burned my back or my chest with cigarettes. Afterwards, they gang-raped me repeatedly.”

They raped her until she passed out. This was just the beginning of her nightmare. Ortiz was then moved to another room with another woman prisoner. “We exchanged names, cried, and held onto each other,” Ortiz said. “‘Dianna,’ she said in Spanish, ‘they will try to break you. Be strong.’” Some men returned with a video camera and a machete, which Ortiz thought would be used to torture her. Instead, she says she was forced to kill the other woman.

“What I remember is blood gushing, spurting like a water fountain… and my cries lost in the cries of the woman,” she recalled. Her captors then threatened to release video of her attacking the woman if she refused to cooperate. She was raped again. Then, the unimaginable:

“I was lowered into a pit full of bodies — bodies of children, men and women, some decapitated, all caked with blood. A few were still alive. I could hear them moaning… A stench of decay rose from the pits. Rats swarmed over the bodies… I passed out and when I came to I was lying on the ground beside the pit, rats all over me.”

More brutal interrogation followed. At one point, her captors held her down and began assaulting her again. One of them said, “Alejandro, come and have some fun.” Alejandro, who was tall and had fair skin, cursed in English and told the men that Ortiz was an American nun whose disappearance had already made news headlines. She says he then ordered them out of the room before helping her get dressed and leave the building in a sport utility vehicle parked outside.

“He kept telling me he was sorry, [that] the torturers had made a mistake,” Ortiz told Kennedy. “He said he was… working to liberate [Guatemala] from communism.” As they drove into Guatemala City, Alejandro blamed Ortiz for her ordeal, saying she should have heeded the death threats that preceded her kidnapping. He threatened her again and, fearing for her life, Ortiz jumped out of the SUV at a red light and ran.

State of Shock 

Darleen Chmielewski, a Franciscan nun who was one of the first people to see Ortiz after her escape, described her friend as in “a state of shock.”

“She was a shell of a woman; her eyes were blank and I presumed she had been tortured,” Chmielewski told Agni. The two women went the home of the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican representative in Guatemala City, who had offered Ortiz refuge. “Diana wanted to take a bath,” Chmielewski recalled. “I helped her wash and saw all the cigarette burns… she just cried and took baths.”

Two days later, Ortiz was back in the United States. “After escaping from my torturers, I returned home to New Mexico so traumatized that I recognized no one, not even my parents,” she told Kennedy. “I had virtually no memory of my life before my abduction; the only piece of my identity that remained was that I was a woman who was raped and forced to torture and murder another human being.”

She also felt forced to do something unimaginable for many nuns. “I got pregnant as a result of the multiple gang rapes,” she explained to Kennedy. “Unable to carry within me… what I could only view as a monster, I turned to someone for assistance and I destroyed that life.”

“Am I proud of that decision? No. But if I had to make [it] again, I believe I would decide as I did then,” Ortiz added. “I felt I had no choice. If I had had to grow within me what the torturers left me I would have died.”

Several months after her return stateside, Ortiz traveled to Chicago, where she lived for a time at the Su Casa Catholic Worker House for torture survivors. Sister JoAnn Persch said Ortiz arrived with “incredible fear” in her eyes and seemed “so fragile and traumatized.” She sat up all night with music and lights on so she wouldn’t succumb to the nightmares that came with sleep. “When she did fall asleep, she’d awaken with fists bruised from pounding the walls,” Persch told Agni.

Justice Denied 

Ortiz’s torment continued as she sought — and was denied — justice. Thomas Stroock, the US ambassador under President George H.W. Bush, accused her of staging her abduction in a bid to thwart US military aid to Guatemala. Cigarette burns — 111 of them, according to a US doctor who examined her — told a different story. In a bizarre twist, Guatemalan officials claimed Ortiz faked her kidnapping to cover up a violent lesbian affair, a rumor subsequently spread by US officials. Previously, the Reagan administration had undertaken a similar effort to discredit another Ursuline nun, Dorothy Kazel of Cleveland, Ohio, who along with three other American churchwomen was kidnapped, raped and executed in El Salvador by US-backed troops.

The prospect of Ortiz testifying about her ordeal terrified Stroock, a Wyoming oilman appointed by Bush, a Yale classmate who had no prior diplomatic experience. In a letter urging the State Department to not meet with her, he warned that “pressure… will build… to act on the information she provides.” Stroock worried that “we’re going to get cooked on this one.”

But it was Ortiz who continued to suffer. She received menacing phone calls and anonymous packages, one of them containing a dead mouse wrapped in a Guatemalan flag. Ortiz, however, remained undaunted. She made three trips to Guatemala to testify against the government, and tasted victory, albeit of a largely symbolic nature, when a federal judge in Boston ordered Gen. Héctor Gramajo, the Guatemalan defense minister who had tried to discredit Ortiz — in part by claiming her cigarette burns were the result of sadomasochistic sex — to pay her and eight Guatemalan victims a combined $47.5 million. “Forty-seven million dollars?” Gramajo scoffed. “I don’t have 47 million centavos!” He told the New York Times that he did nothing wrong; he was simply defending his country.

Demanding Truth 

In 1996 Ortiz held a five-week fasting vigil in front of the White House, where she broke down in tears while demanding that the US government declassify all documents about human rights abuses in Guatemala since the 1954 coup. Hillary Clinton, then first lady, invited Ortiz to her office. “I knew I needed to try to get Mrs. Clinton not only to understand my plight but also that of the Guatemalan people,” she told the Chicago Tribune at the time. During the half-hour meeting, Clinton told Ortiz it was possible that Alejandro was “a past or present employee of a US agency.”

Still, the hard truth was that many people, including government officials, doubted Ortiz’s story. She started to think that her torturers, who warned her that no one would believe her if she ever talked about her ordeal, might have been right. It was the same sadly familiar scenario faced by so many women who muster the courage to step forward to report sexual violence only to be called liars, or worse.

Ortiz’s relentless pursuit of justice eventually compelled the United States to declassify long-secret documents revealing details of US cooperation with Guatemalan security forces before, during and after the time of her abduction, including an admission by Stroock that the US embassy was in contact with members of a death squad. The documents also show that Gen. Gramajo had been trained in counterinsurgency tactics at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), where military and police officials from Latin American allies — many of them dictatorships — were instructed in counterinsurgency and democracy suppression using course manuals that advocated the torture and execution of civilians.

“The US government funded, trained and equipped the Guatemalan army’s death squads — my torturers themselves,” Ortiz later wrote. “The United States was the Guatemalan army’s partner in a covert war against a small opposition force, a war the United Nations would later declare genocidal.”

In 1997 the Organization of American States (OAS) finished a four-year investigation that concluded Ortiz was kidnaped, tortured and very likely raped by Guatemalan security forces. The investigatory commission called on the Guatemalan government to hold the perpetrators accountable and to compensate Ortiz for the gross violation of her human rights. However, the case languished in the Guatemalan court system and no suspects were ever identified.

Healing Mind, Body and Soul 

Ortiz’s suffering has left her with an acute awareness of human rights issues and a desire to work in service of those rights. In 1998 she founded Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), and in 2002 published The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth. Understandably, she is reluctant to discuss the horrific events of November 1989. “Those of us who have survived torture must relive all our torture every time we speak of it, and that’s one of the reasons why few of us do speak publicly,” she explained in a 2005 Democracy Now! interview. “I want to be free of these memories,” she told Kennedy. “I want to be as trusting, confident, adventurous, and carefree as I was in 1987.”

As for her recovery, Ortiz confessed in The Blindfold’s Eye that “no one ever fully recovers” from torture. “Not the one who is tortured, and not the one who tortures.” Her faith, which also suffered after her ordeal, has recovered —  and evolved. “Today, my spirituality is an attempt to live a Gospel-centered life that is formed, inspired and transformed and guides me in my ministry,” she told Global Sisters Report in 2016. “Prayer centers my heart and ministry on what is most important.”

Through it all, Sister Dianna Ortiz has not stopped searching for the whole truth of what happened to her 30 years ago. “I stand with the Guatemalan people,” she told Kennedy:

I demand the right to a future built on truth and justice. My torturers were never brought to justice. It is possible that, individually, they will never be identified or apprehended. But I cannot resign myself to this fact and move on. I have a responsibility to the people of Guatemala and to the people of the world to insist on accountability where it is possible.

“I know what it is to wait in the dark for torture, and what it is to wait in the dark for the truth,” said Ortiz. “I am still waiting.”

The post 30 Years Ago, American Nun Dianna Ortiz Was Kidnapped and Tortured in Guatemala, She’s Still Waiting for Truth & Justice appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

From President to Autocrat

An Autocrat Like All Others

A recent special issue of Foreign Affairs is devoted to profiling some of the world’s most prominent autocrats: Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orban. Strangely, Donald Trump is not included. He should be upset, since he admires every one of them. Trump’s performance in office reveals a man who not only aspires to greatness as an unchallenged leader in the mold of other autocrats, but is clearly dedicated to outdoing them. He is dismantling the Constitution, taking actions that expand the powers of the president at the expense of other branches of government, and abusing his power.

Have you ever heard Donald Trump talk about democracy, here or anywhere? He hasn’t the slightest interest in it. Governing so as to firm up accountability, transparency, and the rule of law is alien to him. What does drive him is finding ways to expand his personal power and make a profit at the same time. And he’s been pretty good at that. Here’s the short list:

• His corruption is in-your-face and boundless, yet critics have failed to rein him in or get the documentation they need to expose corruption’s full extent.

• He has acted the bully whenever things go badly—denigrating judges and courts, demanding absolute loyalty of subordinates (and attacked anyone who turned against him), and insisting that Article 2 of the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president” (July 23, 2019).

• He has directly interfered with the work of independent agencies—the department of justice, the FBI, and the Federal Reserve—as though they were his personal instruments that could be used to further his political agenda.

• His attacks on the liberal media are legendary, as is his constant lying: over 13,000 documented lies so far.

• He has essentially dismantled the state department and intelligence community by ignoring their findings, forcing career officers to either resign or be silenced, and carrying out a private foreign policy.

• He has twice sought to get foreign countries to become involved in US elections, with quid pro quos that undermine US national security.

• He has violated international and domestic law, undermined humane practices, and rejected science-based findings, notably in his stances on immigration and climate change.

• He has catered to the “swamp” of energy executives and lobbyists with a destructive environmental agenda that will take years to undo.

Autocrats, however, cannot achieve and maintain their power without help from enablers, and Trump has them: Giuliani, Barr, Pompeo, Pence, Mulvaney and assorted hangers-on with “acting” before their title. They inhabit a world in which lying and dissembling on behalf of their lord and master are essential. They have no principles; maintaining their own power requires enhancing Trump’s. Thus Barr lies about the Mueller report’s findings, Pompeo pretends he was never asked to defend Ambassador Vokanovitch (he lied too), Giuliani disseminates conspiracy theories about Ukraine, Pence lauds Trump’s every move without blinking, and Mulvaney goes around diplomatic and intelligence officials. His cabinet is dominated by self-interested, inept sycophants who know only one thing: Feed the greed.

Can We Win?

In a word, this president is a first-class autocrat—an outlier in a constitutional democracy. Yet, to my constant amazement, he may once again lose the popular vote and still win in the electoral college. As is being widely reported, Trump trails Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren nationwide by several percentage points, and—thanks to independent voters—that margin is widening. So far the impeachment inquiry is working against Trump. Yet Trump is just a few percentage points behind or in front of the top Democratic candidates in all the battleground states. Are voters in those states really so blind as to reelect the most corrupt, indecent, and incompetent president in American history?

As I write, Andy Beshear has defeated Matt Bevin for the Kentucky governorship, overcoming last minute visits to this very red state by Trump and Pence. And in Virginia, Democrats flipped the senate and house, putting them in complete control of state government. There’s a lesson here for Democrats that was learned in 2018 but must not be overlooked in 2020: health care, the environment, education, and other social wellbeing issues are central to a winning message, and progressive groups are essential to carrying it. Impeaching Trump is necessary but will not be sufficient to claim victory.

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One Way to Honor Vets? Protect the Postal Service

If you’re looking for a way to honor veterans, here’s one: protect the U.S. Postal Service.

I’m a veteran from a family of veterans. After serving in the Marine Corps, I got a good-paying postal job that put me on a solid path to financial security. Now I lead the Detroit Area Local for the American Postal Workers Union. Our 1,500 members include many veterans, some of whom I served with myself.

Across the country, nearly 113,000 veterans now serve as postal workers. With former military members accounting for over 18percent of our workforce, the Postal Service employs vets at three times their share of the national workforce.

Why? For one thing, military values like hard work, showing up on time, and taking pride in your work set you up perfectly for postal jobs.

For another, USPS gives veterans like myself preferential hiring treatment. Disabled vets, like many I work with in Detroit, get special consideration too. And once they get here, they get generous medical leave and benefits, including wounded warriors leave, among other hard-earned benefits won by our union.

Unfortunately, these secure jobs for veterans are now under attack.

A White House report has called for selling off the public mail service to private, for-profit corporations. And a Trump administration task force has called for slashing postal jobs and services for customers.

In particular, they want to eliminate our collective bargaining rights, which would jeopardize all those benefits we’ve won for veterans and other employees. They also want to cut delivery days, close local post offices, and raise prices, which would hurt customers.

This cost-cutting could also threaten another valuable benefit for service members: deeply discounted shipping rates on packages they get overseas. Currently, shipping to U.S. military bases in other countries costs the same as a domestic shipment, and USPS offers cost-free packing supplies to the folks who send these care packages.

Instead of slashing and burning the USPS, we need to be expanding and strengthening it.

One idea is to let post offices expand into low-cost financial services. Veterans are four times more likely than the national average to use payday lenders for short-term loans, which typically charge exorbitant interest rates.

But if post offices could offer affordable and reliable check cashing, ATM, bill payment, and money transfer services, we could generate all kinds of new revenue — while protecting vets and their communities from predatory lenders.

From discounting care packages to employing disabled veterans, our Postal Service plays an important part in the lives of our service members. USPS does good by Americans who’ve dedicated a portion of their lives to armed service, and by the millions of Americans who rely on them.

I hope you’ll join me in applauding these veterans — and the postal service. Let’s build the USPS up, not tear it down.

Keith Combs is a 30-year postal worker and president of the Detroit District Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union.

The post One Way to Honor Vets? Protect the Postal Service appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Watching My Students Turn Into Soldiers of Empire

Patches, pins, medals, and badges are the visible signs of an exclusive military culture, a silent language by which soldiers and officers judge each other’s experiences, accomplishments, and general worth. In July 2001, when I first walked through the gate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the ripe young age of 17, the “combat patch” on one’s right shoulder — evidence of a deployment with a specific unit — had more resonance than colorful medals like Ranger badges reflecting specific skills. Back then, before the 9/11 attacks ushered in a series of revenge wars “on terror,” the vast majority of officers stationed at West Point didn’t boast a right shoulder patch. Those who did were mostly veterans of modest combat in the first Gulf War of 1990-1991. Nonetheless, even those officers were regarded by the likes of me as gods. After all, they’d seen “the elephant.”

We young cadets arrived then with far different expectations about Army life and our futures, ones that would prove incompatible with the realities of military service in a post-9/11 world. When my mother — as was mandatory for a 17-year-old — put her signature on my future Army career, I imagined a life of fancy uniforms; tough masculine training; and maybe, at worst, some photo opportunities during a safe, “peace-keeping” deployment in a place like Kosovo.

Sure, the U.S. was then quietly starving hundreds of thousands of children with a crippling sanctions regime against autocrat Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, occasionally lobbing cruise missiles at “terrorist” encampments here or there, and garrisoning much of the globe. Still, the life of a conventional Army officer in the late 1990s did fit pretty closely with my high-school fantasies.

You won’t be surprised to learn, however, that the world of future officers at the Academy irreparably changed when those towers collapsed in my home town of New York. By the following May, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear senior cadets on the phone with girlfriends or fiancées explaining that they were heading for war upon graduation.

As a plebe (freshman), I still had years ahead in my West Point journey during which our world changed even more. Older cadets I’d known would soon be part of the invasion of Afghanistan. Drinking excessively at a New York Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day in 2003, I watched in wonder as, on TV, U.S. bombs and missiles rained down on Iraq as part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s promised “shock-and-awe” campaign.

Soon enough, the names of former cadets I knew well were being announced over the mess hall loudspeaker at breakfast. They’d been killed in Afghanistan or, more commonly, in Iraq.

My greatest fear then, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that I’d miss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t long after my May 28, 2005, graduation that I’d serve in Baghdad. Later, I would be sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan. I buried eight young men under my direct command. Five died in combat; three took their own lives. After surviving the worst of it with my body (though not my mind) intact, I was offered a teaching position back at my alma mater. During my few years in the history department at West Point, I taught some 300 or more cadets. It was the best job I ever had.

I think about them often, the ones I’m still in touch with and the majority whom I’ll never hear from or of again. Many graduated last year and are already out there carrying water for empire. The last batch will enter the regular Army next May. Recently, my mother asked me what I thought my former students were now doing or would be doing after graduation. I was taken aback and didn’t quite know how to answer.

Wasting their time and their lives was, I suppose, what I wanted to say. But a more serious analysis, based on a survey of U.S. Army missions in 2019 and bolstered by my communications with peers still in the service, leaves me with an even more disturbing answer. A new generation of West Point educated officers, graduating a decade and a half after me, faces potential tours of duty in… hmm, Afghanistan, Iraq, or other countries involved in the never-ending American war on terror, missions that will not make this country any safer or lead to “victory” of any sort, no matter how defined.

A New Generation of Cadets Serving the Empire Abroad

West Point seniors (“first-class cadets”) choose their military specialties and their first duty-station locations in a manner reminiscent of the National Football League draft. This is unique to Academy grads and differs markedly from the more limited choices and options available to the 80% of officers commissioned through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) or Officer Candidate School (OCS).

Throughout the 47-month academy experience, West Pointers are ranked based on a combination of academic grades, physical fitness scores, and military-training evaluations. Then, on a booze-fueled, epic night, the cadets choose jobs in their assigned order of merit. Highly ranked seniors get to pick what are considered the most desirable jobs and duty locations (helicopter pilot, Hawaii). Bottom-feeding cadets choose from the remaining scraps (field artillery, Fort Sill, Oklahoma).

In truth, though, it matters remarkably little which stateside or overseas base one first reports to. Within a year or two, most young lieutenants in today’s Army will serve in any number of diverse “contingency” deployments overseas. Some will indeed be in America’s mostly unsanctioned wars abroad, while others will straddle the line between combat and training in, say, “advise-and-assist” missions in Africa.

Now, here’s the rub: given the range of missions that my former students are sure to participate in, I can’t help but feel frustration. After all, it should be clear 18 years after the 9/11 attacks that almost none of those missions have a chance in hell of succeeding. Worse yet, the killing my beloved students might take part in (and the possibility of them being maimed or dying) won’t make America any safer or better. They are, in other words, doomed to repeat my own unfulfilling, damaging journey — in some cases, on the very same ground in Iraq and Afghanistan where I fought.

Consider just a quick survey of some of the possible missions that await them. Some will head for Iraq — my first and formative war — though it’s unclear just what they’ll be expected to do there. ISIS has been attritted to a point where indigenous security forces could assumedly handle the ongoing low-intensity fight, though they will undoubtedly assist in that effort. What they can’t do is reform a corrupt, oppressive Shia-chauvinist sectarian government in Baghdad that guns down its own protesting people, repeating the very mistakes that fueled the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. Oh, and the Iraqi government, and a huge chunk of Iraqis as well, don’t wantany more American troops in their country. But when has national sovereignty or popular demand stopped Washington before?

Others are sure to join the thousands of servicemen still in Afghanistan in the 19th year of America’s longest ever war — and that’s even if you don’t count our first Afghan War (1979-1989) in the mix. And keep in mind that most of the cadets-turned-officers I taught were born in 1998 or thereafter and so were all of three years old or younger when the Twin Towers crumbled.

The first of our wars to come from that nightmare has always been unwinnable. All the Afghan metrics — the U.S. military’s own “measures for success” — continue to trend badly, worse than ever in fact. The futility of the entire endeavor borders on the absurd. It makes me sad to think that my former officemate and fellow West Point history instructor, Mark, is once again over there. Along with just about every serving officer I’ve known, he would laugh if asked whether he could foresee — or even define — “victory” in that country. Take my word for it, after 18-plus years, whatever idealism might once have been in the Army has almost completely evaporated. Resignation is what remains among most of the officer corps. As for me, I’ll be left hoping against hope that someone I know or taught isn’t the last to die in that never-ending war from hell.

My former cadets who ended up in armor (tanks and reconnaissance) or ventured into the Special Forces might now find themselves in Syria — the war President Trump “ended” by withdrawing American troops from that country, until, of course, almost as many of them were more or less instantly sent back in. Some of the armor officers among my students might even have the pleasure of indefinitely guarding that country’s oil fields, which — if the U.S. takes some of that liquid gold for itself — might just violate international law. But hey, what else is new?

Still more — mostly intelligence officers, logisticians, and special operators — can expect to deploy to any one of the dozen or so West African or Horn of Africa countries that the U.S. military now calls home. In the name of “advising and assisting” the local security forces of often autocratic African regimes, American troops still occasionally, if quietly, die in “non-combat” missions in places like Niger or Somalia.

None of these combat operations have been approved, or even meaningfully debated, by Congress. But in the America of 2019 that doesn’t qualify as a problem. There are, however, problems of a more strategic variety. After all, it’s demonstrably clear that, since the founding of the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, violence on the continent has only increased, while Islamist terror and insurgent groups have proliferated in an exponential fashion. To be fair, though, such counterproductivity has been the name of the game in the “war on terror” since it began.

Another group of new academy graduates will spend up to a year in Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states of Eastern Europe. There, they’ll ostensibly train the paltry armies of those relatively new NATO countries — added to the alliance in foolish violation of repeated American promises not to expand eastward as the Cold War ended. In reality, though, they’ll be serving as provocative “signals” to a supposedly expansionist Russia. With the Russian threat wildly exaggerated, just as it was in the Cold War era, the very presence of my Baltic-based former cadets will only heighten tensions between the two over-armed nuclear heavyweights. Such military missions are too big not to be provocative, but too small to survive a real (if essentially unimaginable) war.

The intelligence officers among my cadets might, on the other hand, get the “honor” of helping the Saudi Air Force through intelligence-sharing to doom some Yemeni targets — often civilian — to oblivion thanks to U.S. manufactured munitions. In other words, these young officers could be made complicit in what’s already the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.

Other recent cadets of mine might even have the ignominious distinction of being part of military convoys driving along interstate highways to America’s southern border to emplace what President Trump has termed “beautiful” barbed wire there, while helping detain refugees of wars and disorder that Washington often helped to fuel.

Yet other graduates may already have found themselves in the barren deserts of Saudi Arabia, since Trump has dispatched 3,000 U.S. troops to that country in recent months. There, those young officers can expect to go full mercenary, since the president defended his deployment of those troops (plus two jet fighter squadrons and two batteries of Patriot missiles) by noting that the Saudis would “pay” for “our help.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that basing American troops near the Islamic holy cities of the Arabian Peninsula didn’t exactly end well the last time around — you undoubtedly remember a guy named bin Laden who protested that deployment so violently — the latest troop buildup in Saudi Arabia portends a disastrous future war with Iran.

None of these potential tasks awaiting my former students is even remotely linked to the oath (to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”) that newly commissioned officers swear on day one. They are instead all unconstitutional, ill-advised distractions that benefit mainly an entrenched national security state and the arms-makers that go with them. The tragedy is that a few of my beloved cadets with whom I once played touch football, who babysat my children, who shed tears of anxiety and fear during private lunches in my office might well sustain injuries that will last a lifetime or die in one of this country’s endless hegemonic wars.

A Nightmare Come True

This May, the last of the freshman cadets I once taught will graduate from the Academy. Commissioned that same afternoon as second lieutenants in the Army, they will head off to “serve” their country (and its imperial ambitions) across the wide expanse of the continental United States and a broader world peppered with American military bases. Given my own tortured path of dissent while in that military (and my relief on leaving it), knowing where they’re heading leaves me with a feeling of melancholy. In a sense, it represents the severing of my last tenuous connection with the institutions to which I dedicated my adult life.

Though I was already skeptical and antiwar, I still imagined that teaching those cadets an alternative, more progressive version of our history would represent a last service to an Army I once unconditionally loved. My romantic hope was that I’d help develop future officers imbued with critical thinking and with the integrity to oppose unjust wars. It was a fantasy that helped me get up each morning, don a uniform, and do my job with competence and enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, as my last semester as an assistant professor of history wound down, I felt a growing sense of dread. Partly it was the realization that I’d soon return to the decidedly unstimulating “real Army,” but it was more than that, too. I loved academia and “my” students, yet I also knew that I couldn’t save them. I knew that they were indeed doomed to take the same path I did.

My last day in front of a class, I skipped the planned lesson and leveled with the young men and women seated before me. We discussed my own once bright, now troubled career and my struggles with my emotional health. We talked about the complexities, horror, and macabre humor of combat and they asked me blunt questions about what they could expect in their future as graduates. Then, in my last few minutes as a teacher, I broke down. I hadn’t planned this, nor could I control it.

My greatest fear, I said, was that their budding young lives might closely track my own journey of disillusionment, emotional trauma, divorce, and moral injury. The thought that they would soon serve in the same pointless, horrifying wars, I told them, made me “want to puke in a trash bin.” The clock struck 1600 (4:00 pm), class time was up, yet not a single one of those stunned cadets — unsure undoubtedly of what to make of a superior officer’s streaming tears — moved for the door. I assured them that it was okay to leave, hugged each of them as they finally exited, and soon found myself disconcertingly alone. So I erased my chalkboards and also left.

Three years have passed. About 130 students of mine graduated in May. My last group will pin on the gold bars of brand new army officers in late May 2020. I’m still in touch with several former cadets and, long after I did so, students of mine are now driving down the dusty lanes of Iraq or tramping the narrow footpaths of Afghanistan.

My nightmare has come true.

This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.

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If Money is Tight, Climate Change is Your Issue

If you’re poor in America, climate change is your issue.

We’ve already seen why. In 2004, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, leaving many thousands displaced and unemployed. In 2017, Hurricane Maria fell upon Puerto Rico, destroying homes and disabling the power grid for more than two years.

Katrina left families trapped on roofs and wading through floodwater. Thousands were trapped in the Superdome stadium for days, under National Guard surveillance and subject to dismal conditions. In Puerto Rico after Maria, neighborhoods were flattened and roads were destroyed, while patients died preventable deaths in hospitals without power.

Why do these storms hit the poor hardest?

For one thing, poor households tend to be concentrated in vulnerable places. We see this in cities, where rich neighborhoods are segregated from poor neighborhoods. Low-income neighborhoods on high ground in Miami, for example, are being forced outby rising real estate prices. This forces poor communities to relocate to lower, more vulnerable land.

But we see it in rural areas too, which experience higher average levels of poverty than suburban or urban areas. These places are more likely to have land-dependent agricultural economies, which can be devastated by flooding — like large swaths of the Midwest were this summer.

Another problem? Old infrastructure systems, from coastal riprap and levees to the public transit systems poor people are more likely to use, are falling apart. This leaves poorer areas more likely to experience disaster — and less able to continue their daily lives after it strikes.

Making matters worse, the systemic bias of government disaster recovery programs can be as bad as the storms themselves.

Despite repeated warnings, FEMA failed to adequately prepare for a Category 5 hurricane in Louisiana before Katrina, leaving thousands without shelter or direct assistance after the storm.

Somehow the agency was no better prepared for Maria over a decade later.

The racial dynamics at play are unmistakable. Predominantly black neighborhoods received less assistance than white neighborhoods in the aftermath of Katrina. Given the agency’s history, it’s no stretch to assume that Puerto Rico’s predominantly Latinx demographics were relevant to its neglect, too.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that poor people are made vulnerable by their very poverty.

If you’re poor, you’re more likely to have more debt than savings, less likely to own real estate or investments, and more likely to have bad credit. So when climate disasters occur, you’re less likely to receive insurance and less likely to have a safety net or the ability to borrow money. All this makes disasters more disastrous.

If you think this couldn’t affect you, think again. Nearly half of Americans can’t afford even a $400 emergency. And as climate change causes more hurricanes and other disasters, we’re going to see a lot more of those emergencies.

What can we do?

For one thing, we must reinvest in protective infrastructure and reform government agencies that show bias against poor communities. Additionally, the government could provide disaster insurance to the poor so that the savings gap is less destructive.

We should put the voices of poor people first in developing these reforms. We must give organizations like the Maria Fund, which seeks to address the effects of hurricanes on vulnerable people through community organizing, a place at the head of the table.

Most importantly, we need less poverty to begin with. Hotly debated programs like tax reform, reparations, and a universal basic income would diversify and expand capital ownership by poor households.

They say a rising tide lifts all boats. But in reality, a rising tide drowns dinghies before it drowns yachts. If we’re going to survive the climate crisis together, we need to recognize — and combat — its effects on poor American communities.

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The Feds are Paying Big Oil to Pollute

The one thing you never want to hear your dentist say is “oops!” It’s also alarming to hear from a former U.S. senator — 25 years after he passed a temporary oil subsidy for Big Oil.

With world petroleum prices low at the time, Senator J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) pushed through a special break in 1995, temporarily exempting the giants from paying federal royalty fees for the publicly owned crude they take from the Gulf of Mexico. The idea was to give a brief reprieve on royalties to encourage oil corporations to drill here.

But — oops! — our lawmakers made a costly slip up: They forgot to specify that the exemption was temporary. Once market prices recovered, the corporations were supposed to resume payments to us taxpayers. “It was never the intent that everybody would get a free ride forever,” says one official.

Sure enough, market prices recovered by 2006. Yet the oil barons simply thumbed their nose at the public saying, “Tough luck, suckers!” Since there’s no limit written into the law, they’ve kept sucking up all the public oil they can — without paying a dime in royalties.

This is no petty thievery. Chevron, Shell, Exxon, BP, and even China’s state-run oil corporation are among the giants that have taken at least $18 billion from our nation’s treasury so far. Their haul increases every day that they’re allowed to pump up profits — and continue polluting the planet — through this unintended loophole.

The only thing bigger than Big Oil’s avarice is its arrogance. The industry recently warned Congress not to even try plugging the loophole, claiming such an attempt would be “engaging in a dangerous game of bait and switch.”

What’s the one force bigger than Big Oil? An infuriated public. To help spread the fury and stop this thievery, go to www.SierraClub.org/topics/oil.

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The Epstein Story Continues to Unravel

Every generation is distinguished by a troubling incident, one that transcends its historical context.  John Brown’s raid against the federal armory at Harpers Ferry instigated the Civil War, defining an era; a century later, Pres. Truman’s decision (following Pres. Roosevelt’s lead) to drop atomic bombs on two residential Japanese cities culminated in U.S. control over much of the post-WW-II world, thus defining a very different era.

Two relatively recent events illustrate how this tendency has played out over the last half-century.  The first involves the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy in 1963; the second, the destruction of World Trade Center Building 7 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.  For this generation, it might turn out to be the death of Jeffrey Epstein.

JFK was assassinated in November ’63 and since then there have been innumerable news reports, popular articles, scholarly studies and even a Congressional committee speculating as to who killed Kennedy.  The long-held official theory assumed that a single communist-sympathizer, Lee Harvey Oswald, assassinated Kennedy.  In 1976, the House Select Committee on Assassinations was established to investigate the killings of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.  It reported: “The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee is unable to identify the other gunman or the extent of the conspiracy.”  The killer – killers – of the popular president remains unaddressed.

Similarly, there is a growing chorus of skeptics who see the collapse of 7 World Trade Center as separate and different from the 9/11 attacks on the WTC.  WTC-7 was a 47-story skyscraper located on Vesey Street, north of the WTC center.  More disturbing, WTC-7 was not hit by a plane like the rest of the complex but was bombed!  The bombing let to WTC-7 being destroyed from a fire that burned for 7 hours — until the building collapsed at 5:20 p.m. The unanswered question remains: why did WTC-7 collapse?

A similar “troubling incident” seems to be developing around Epstein’s death on August 10, 2019, at New York’s Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC), a federal prison for individuals held for pending cases before the Southern District of New York.  He was a notorious sexual predator, a convicted pedophile, who not only systematically exploiting under-age-of-consent girls but – due to his enormous wealth – socialized with the powerful and influential, including Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Allen Dershowitz and the Prince of Wales. More than 80 girls and young women have come forward to attest to his – and many of his associates – particular sexual predilection.

Epstein’s wealth and influence led to one of the many recent travesties of justice, his trial, conviction and slap-on-the-risk sentence for engaging in commercial sex with underage girl in Florida.  The federal prosecutor in the case, Alexander Acosta,was honored for his miscarriage of justice by being appointed by Pres. Trump – a notorious sexual predator – to Sec. of Labor for his handling of Epstein’s case.

Two recent developments in the ongoing unraveling of the Epstein case raise questions not only about his death but about corporate media coverage of celebrity sex abusers.

Amy Robach, a co-anchor of ABC News’ 20/20, recently revealed in a leaked video released by the right-wing group, Project Veritas, that the network killed her story about Epstein.  In the video, she states:  “I’ve had this story for three years. I’ve had this interview with [Epstein accuser] Virginia Roberts. We would not put it on the air. First of all I was told, ‘Who is Jeffrey Epstein? No one knows who that is. This is a stupid story.'”  Going further, she details how Roberts claimed in a 2015 court filing that Epstein trafficked her, at 17 years of age, to Prince Andrew.  “Then the [British] palace found out we had her whole allegations about Prince Andrew and threatened us in a million different ways,” Robach stated.  And the story was killed.

Corporate media jumps when those in power shout.  A similar situation to Robach’s revelations involves Ronan Farrow who formally worked at NBC News.  He resigned in protest when NBC News executives killed his 2017 investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual abuses.  He details his experiences in a New Yorker story and in his recently published book, Catch and Kill.

Robach’s revelations came out at the same time that doubts about Epstein’s alleged suicide have be seriously challenged.  Epstein’s brother, Mark Epstein, questioned the legitimacy of federal authorities’ claim that he committed suicide and retained Dr. Michael Baden, a leading forensic pathologist, to assess Epstein’s autopsy results. Baden reported that Epstein had three fractures on the left and right sides of his larynx.  “Those fractures are extremely unusual in suicidal hangings and could occur much more commonly in homicidal strangulation,” Baden noted.  In addition, he reported that there were hemorrhages in Epstein’s eyes that are also more common in strangulation than in hangings. “Hanging does not cause these broken bones, and homicide does. Usually two bones, even three, is a huge amount of pressure [that] was applied,” he said on Fox & Friends.

Baden’s report comes after the failure of the MCC to safeguard Epstein following an alleged suicide attempt on July 23rd.  Questions have been raised as to why he was removed from suicide watch on July 29th and returned to the MCC’s special housing unit. Under operational rules, Epstein was supposed to be assigned a cell mate and monitored by prison guards every 30 minutes, but this was not done.

Further revelations about Epstein’s life and death are likely to squeak out.  News reports note that hundreds of third parties are involved in a civil case relating to Epstein and the Justice Dept is conducting an investigation into his death to emerge.  Still more worrisome is reports concerning Epstein’s involvement with Mossad, the Israel spy agency, and other secret agencies.

Whether these developments will reveal the whole story about Epstein is open to question. More than likely, his case will be another troubling incident, one that transcends its historical context, like JFK’s assassination or the collapse of WTC-7.

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A Tight Grip on Our Nuclear Toys

“Everyone wants to play with the big boys, and the only way to become one of the big boys is to have nuclear toys.”

Attention Planet Earth! Attention Planet Earth! It is time to grow up.

The words are those of Mohamed ElBaradei, then director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, from a 2005 interview, several months before he and the agency were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. They remain eerily relevant in 2019, summing up as they do the puerile recklessness that is in the process of regaining its grip on geopolitics. Nuclear weapons treaties are withering on the vine and proliferation threatens a triumphant return.

Hello, omnicide. We may not be as lucky as we were in the Cold War era, when the consequences of nuclear accidents and political brinkmanship were relatively contained and the victims of nuclear development were limited to the people who lived near test areas like the Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan or the Nevada Test Site in the western United States. Nuclear stockpiles have shrunk, not grown, and nuclear-armed nations number nine.

This is still insane, of course. That number should — must — find its way to zero, as declared by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was passed by a United Nations vote of 122-1 in 2017 but still awaits actual ratification by 50 countries (32 have ratified it so far). Hope-inspiring as that treaty is, the big boys — who boycotted the U.N. vote two years ago — still control the game, and led by the USA, they are pulling out of the treaties that constrain them.

“After the recent death of the treaty covering intermediate-range missiles, a new arms race appears to be taking shape, drawing in more players, more money and more weapons at a time of increased global instability and anxiety about nuclear proliferation,” Steven Erlanger wrote recently in the New York Times, referring to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, which the Trump administration pulled out of.

Since then. Trumpica has also indicated it wants to dump the New START Treaty, brokered by Barack Obama with the Russians in 2011, which expires in February 2021, shortly after the inauguration of whoever is the next president. New START limits the two countries’ “strategic arsenals” (not their “tactical arsenals”) to 1,550 weapons each — still enough to, uh, destroy the world and all, but . . .at least they bring the concept of limits into the nuclear discussion, putting, you might say, a parental check on the big boys and their nukes.

Thus, writes Erlanger: “The dismantling of ‘arms control,’ a Cold War mantra, is now heightening the risks of a new era when nuclear powers like India and Pakistan are clashing over Kashmir, and when nuclear Israel feels threatened by Iran, North Korea is testing new missiles, and other countries like Saudi Arabia are thought to have access to nuclear weapons or to be capable of building them.

“The consequence, experts say, is likely to be a more dangerous and unstable environment, even in the near term. . . .”

He then quotes Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear analyst and president of the Ploughshares Fund: “If there’s not nuclear disarmament, there will be proliferation. If big powers race to build up their arsenals, smaller powers will follow.”

In other words, global leadership is adolescent in nature. Big boys rule and lust for power takes control of the brain, especially power in a competitive context. If you represent the interests of a nation-state, you could easily become consumed by the hostile environment in which those interests are trying to establish themselves. And the interests of the planet as a whole (e.g., survival, a future) could easily disappear as anything but idealistic, ignorable abstractions. Disarmament? Give me a break. Not when regional powers, as Erlanger also writes, are “challenging American hegemony.”

Add to this the transnational, corporate interest in militarism. There’s no money in peace, which is seen mostly as a black hole, the lull between wars. Money doesn’t start to flow until the bullets and the bombs start to fly. If you’re opposed to war, the real enemy isn’t Russia or China’ it’s the military-industrial complex (which can smell, for instance, the trillion-plus-dollars earmarked for an upgraded nuclear arsenal).

So what we have right now is a world in which the public’s natural desire for peace is diverted to the status of impossible, at least until we destroy our enemies and secure our hegemony; and the growing global peace movement remains utterly marginalized. How much time do you think will be devoted to the issue of denuclearization, let us say, in the looming presidential race?

All of which leads me back to the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the seven courageous peace activists who were arrested last year after they cut through the fencing around the Kings Bay Naval Base, in St. Mary’s, Ga., the Atlantic home port of the country’s Trident nuclear missile-carrying submarines, and entered the base without permission. There, they poured out vials of blood (their own) on the grounds, hung up signs and issued an indictment of the U.S. military for violating the 1968 U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Their trial, during which they were not allowed to present their case on the global danger of nuclear weapons, recently ended. To no one’s surprise, they were found guilty and await sentencing.

“. . . and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

And Isaiah 2:4, the 3,000-year-old cry for peace, remains irrelevant.

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Curfew Panda

It seems a tall, ambitious and very authoritarian order: imposing bans on persons under the age of 18 from playing online games between 22:00 and 08:00; rationing gaming on weekdays to 90 minutes and three hours on holidays and weekends. This is the response of the People’s Republic of China to fears that video game addiction must be combated, less with modest treatment regimes than the curfew method. Perhaps more importantly, the aim here, as with other systems of state surveillance, is to create a system of verification matching a user’s identity with government data.

The guidelines also seek to restrict the money minors can spend on online games – those between 8 and 16 are permitted additions of $29 in digital gaming outlay each month. Those between 16 and 18 can add $57. Teachers, parents and the good authorities are also encouraged to influence the gaming habits of the young. Onward principled instructors.

Video gaming, with its virtual communities, has created worlds of isolation. As John Lanchester would observe in 2009, “There is no other medium that produces so pure a cultural segregation as video games, so clean-cut a division between the audience and the non-audience.” When the video-gamer has made an appearance in cultural discourses, it has usually been as a spectacular horror story, violence on screen begetting violence off screen. This nexus remains forced but no less convincing for the morally concerned.

The concern now is less that minors will rush off and gun down their peers than dissipate themselves in cerebral sludge and apathy. In November 1982, the US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared his personal war on video games, which offered “nothing constructive” and consumed the “body and soul” of their users. While having no evidence at the time about the effect of such games on children, he, according to the New York Times, “predicted statistical evidence would be forthcoming soon from the health care fields.”

The current literature is peppered with warnings that the Internet has ceased being the rosy frontier of freedom and very much the hostage taker of controls and desires. Freedom has become vegetate and dulled; users have become narcotised. In 2012, Daria J. Kuss and Mark D. Griffiths in Brain Sciences observed that, over “the past decade, research has accumulated suggesting that excessive Internet use can lead to the development of a behavioural addiction.” Such an addiction “had been considered a serious threat to mental health and the excessive use of the Internet has been linked to a variety of negative psychosocial consequences.”

The review of 18 studies by Kuss and Griffiths makes for despairing reading. Neural circuitry is adjusted via internet and gaming addiction (“neuroadaptation and structural changes”); behaviourally, gaming addicts suggest constriction “with regards to their cognitive functioning in various domains.” But as with everything else such studies on claimed influence and corruption face the usual sceptical rebukes; research is criticised, if not ignored altogether, for being heavy with biases and distortions.

We are left with such non-committal observations as those of Pete Etchells, who makes the rather dull point in Lost in a Good Game that, “There are as yet no universal or conclusive truths about what researches do or do not know about the effects that video games have on us.” Etchells certainly does his best in underscoring the good effects, claiming that “video game play is one of the most fundamentally important activities we can take part in”. Consider, for instance, escapism when facing the death of a parent.

Such views have not impressed the World Health Organisation, which has come down firmly on the side of the anti-gaming puritans. The body has added its voice to the debate, describing such addiction rather discouragingly as “gaming disorder”. It is “defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a pattern of gaming behaviour (‘digital-gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’) characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Such a view was bound to cause a flutter of irritation in the gaming industry. As Ferris Jabr noted last month in The New York Times Magazine, the word addiction is an uncomfortable combine involving religious scolding, scientific disapproval, and colloquial use describing “almost any fixation.”

With such opinions circulating, state regulators have decided to come out swinging. In 2018, a game-obsessed China, with the then world’s largest market, unearthed a new gaming regulator: the State Administration of Press and Publications, operating under the auspices of the publicity department of the Chinese Communist Party. The GAPP, as outlined in a document published on the website of the education ministry, would “implement controls on the total number of online video games, control the number of new video games operated online, explore an age-appropriate reminder system in line with China’s national conditions, and take measures to limit the amount of time minors [spend on games].”

But the rationale for having such a body is not exactly one of enlightenment. Fine to wean the young off their addictive devices and platforms, encouraging healthier living, but supplanting it with the guidance of the all-powerful President Xi Jinping? Much equivalent is this to the idea of replacing a symptom with a cult, a questionable solution at best.

Video game companies have made modest efforts to rein in times of use for those of certain age. The world’s largest gaming company, Tencent, took the plunge by limiting game time to one hour a day for those under the age of 12, and two for those between 12 and 18. Such moves seem ineffectual given the sheer variety of games users can expect to sample.

Having such regulators, whatever the noble purpose, is an incitement to capriciousness. Times of use can be adjusted in accordance with whim. The genres of games can be pulled from the market at any given moment for stretched political and social reasons. The Chinese case is rich with examples, including the designation that mah-jong and poker be removed the approval list over concerns regarding illegal gambling.

The effort to restrict those of a certain age from immersing themselves in virtual reality for fear of contaminating the world of flesh and feeling remains current and, in many circles, popular. The Chinese experiment is bound to be catching, but going behind the regulations, weaknesses are evident. The PRC gaming restrictions do not, for instance, cover offline experiences or single-player forms. The addict need merely modify the habit. The true purpose of such moves remain conventional and oppressive: the assertion of state power and surveillance over individual choice.

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The Politics of Denial, The Brazilian President, and The Fate of Amazonia

With the murder of the Amerindian, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, on November 1st by Brazilian illegal-loggers, was clear evidence of genocidal practices against Brazil’s indigenous population continuing today. Paulino’s people, O Povo Guajajara, are some of the most numerous native peoples in Brazil, numbering nearly 30,000 and living in the Amazonian state of Maranhão in northeast Brazil. Paulo Paulino was also a member of the self-designated group, “Guardians of the Forest” (Guardiões da Floresta), who patrol their enormous indigenous reserve, Araribóia, some 1,595 square miles (4,130 square kilometers), almost twice the size of Rhode Island, in order to protect the forest against illegal loggers and illegal poachers.

According to CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionario, Catholic Indigenist Missionary Council) in 2018, the murder of indigenous peoples grew by 20% from the previous year to 135 cases and in the previous thirty-years there have been 1,119 homicides of Brazilian Native peoples. Most of these murders occurred in the Brazilian states of Roraima and secondarily in Mato Grosso do Sul. Such incidents in their majority are driven by soy farmers (fazendeiros) and cattle ranchers (rancheiros) and should be alarming to everyone around the globe. Fazendeiros and rancheiros do not want “Indians” (Índios) on their lands, or near their lands, and land-grabbers want to take indigenous lands for themselves, as illegal-loggers and goldminers wish to exploit Native lands. Moreover, invasions on indigenous reservations in Brazil have doubled from the year prior with as many as 153 documented cases by CIMI from illegal-goldminers (garimpeiros), illegal-loggers, land grabbers, and poachers. Even worse, the crimes against Brazilian indigenous peoples are rarely prosecuted. As the indigenous kinswoman to the murdered Indian, and leader, Sonia Guajajara, remarked: “The indigenous genocide of Brazil is legitimized by the discourse of the president [Bolsonaro]”.

As such, the genocide happening now against indigenous peoples in Brazil has received relatively little attention outside the country. Anthropologists, like myself, fear this genocide happening against Brazilian indigenous peoples will likely endure in the long-term because of the rhetoric of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his economic development policies for Amazonia.

Furthermore, adding to these tragedies we know that the Brazilian Patanal (wetlands) is currently burning. These conflagrations are similarly colossal as the record-breaking fires in the Brazilian Amazon in the recent past months. In the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul the fires are said have consumed an area of at least 50,000 hectares (193 square miles) or about the size of the Island of Guam already. While at present, there is allegedly a 31-mile (50 kilometer) fire advancing across the Brazilian wetlands (patanal). According to reports these fires began on October 25th and have increased because of dry conditions and high-winds. 

And aside from these man-made environmental disasters in Brazil, there have been others still. On the 25th of January, the Brumadinho Dam in Minas Gerais state collapsed, killing at least 250 people with a giant mud-slide releasing tons of toxic waste from an iron-ore mine nearby. It was Brazil’s worst industrial accident to date, proving how Brazilian business regulations are severely lacking. Ironically, a similar dam disaster occurred in Minas Gerais years earlier in November of 2015, when the Mariana Dam collapsed, which also released toxic-sludge from an iron-ore mine, killing nineteen people, but completely contaminating the Rio Doce, causing an unprecedented environmental disaster at the time.

Equally, there are the planned and ongoing hydro-electric dam constructions in the Brazilian Amazon, such as the Belo Monte Dam along the Xingu River which would flood thousands of kilometers of indigenous lands and adversely affect the livelihoods and well-being of numerous indigenous peoples inclusive of the Arara, Araweté, Asurini, Juruna, Kayapó, Parakanã, and Xikrin, as well as negatively affecting the immense biodiversity in the region. In addition, dam constructions are planned for the Upper Madeira River, the Jirau and San Antônio dams. Like the Belo Monte Dam, the ones along the Madeira River will disastrously affect Apurinã, Cassupá, Jiahui, Karipuna, Karitiana, Katawixi, Mura, Oro Ari, Oro Bom, Parintintin, Pirahã, Salamãi, Tenharim, Torá, and Urueu Wau Wau indigenous peoples and the biodiversity of this lower region of the Amazon.

In July of this year, the Yanomami territories in the northern Brazilian Amazon, bordering and including those lands in Venezuela, were invaded by an estimated 20,000 illegal goldminers (garimpeiros), polluting the Rio Branco with mercury, and spreading disease to the Yanomami people. In 1992 Yanomami land reserves in Brazil were designated as a protected park covering some 37,000 square miles (nearly 100,000 square kilometers), an area a bit bigger than the state of Indiana. Such recent invasions are reminiscent of the garimpeiro incursions of the 1980s, causing mass-deaths among the Yanomami from the garimpeiro spread of “white” diseases such as measles, which indigenous peoples living in remote areas have little immunity.

Organizations such as the “Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America” (SALSA) have sent open-letters about the unprecedented fires in Brazilian Amazonia, stating: “Since taking office earlier this year, President Jair Bolsonaro and the ‘ruralist’ parliamentary block have sought to open indigenous lands up to mining and logging operations; have slashed the budgets and oversight potential of environmental agencies; have backed an ‘economic liberty’ suite of policies for agribusiness; have vowed that the government will not demarcate ‘one more centimeter’ of indigenous land in Brazil, and have taken steps to try to decertify (rob) existing indigenous reserves. The parliamentary assault on indigenous peoples and on Amazonian ecosystems is vast, coordinated, and has been decades in the making…As anthropologists who have the privilege of working with the originary peoples of Amazonia, we also have the obligation to condemn the racist rhetoric and genocidal policies pursued by the current Brazilian government (dated August 25th, 2019).”

When Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, recently addressed the United Nations Assembly on the 24th of September, he unfortunately disseminated a dangerous propaganda message about the Yanomami living on rich mineral reserves by declaring: “In these reserves, there is plenty of gold, diamond, uranium, niobium, and rare earths, among others.” Thereby, encouraging the types of egregious invasions by the thousands of garimpeiros illegally invading Yanomami territories and underlining how such few Indians live on such immense reserves of land. Such treacherous rhetoric gives a “green light” to land-grabbers, illegal-loggers, illegal-miners, and poachers to invade Native Brazilian lands with impunity. What is more, Bolsonaro’s political oratory has provided greater impetus for soy farmers and cattle ranchers to burn more land for their crops and livestock.

In sum, President Bolsonaro practices a politics of “denial”, by denying that man-made catastrophes such as the fires in Amazonia, or now in the Patanal (wetlands), or the genocide against indigenous peoples are anything but real. In the mind of Bolsonaro and many of his supporters, the man-made environmental disasters occurring in Brazil are concocted by the fake media, by communists, by NGOs, and by foreign conspirators—all supposedly willing to undermine Brazil’s sovereignty and its national authority to deal with such issues alone.

In fact, in his UN speech, Bolsonaro also remarked: “The Amazon is not being destroyed nor consumed by fire, as the media is falsely portraying.” He also avowed: “Brazil reaffirms its unwavering commitment to the highest human rights standards, with the promotion of democracy and freedom—of expression, of religion, and of press.”

It is with a heavy heart that I state this but Brazil’s human rights record points to the contrary of President Bolsonaro’s hyperbolic pronouncements. Aside from the increased violence against indigenous people and a notable increase in man-made environmental disasters, as I mentioned above, Brazil has a horrendous record in “freedom of expression” of its press and in “human rights standards” in general as recounted by organizations as Amnesty International and  Human Rights Watch. As their separate reports have detailed, there are presently in Brazil excessive and notorious examples of assaults on the media, police abuses, domestic violence, gender discrimination, harassment of educators, and violence against environmental activists.

As the indigenous leader, Executive Coordinator of APIB (Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples Articulation, Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil), and kinswoman of murdered Paulo Paulino, Sonia Guajajara, exclaimed recently: “We no longer want to be statistics; we want measures from the government, the bodies that are increasingly being scrapped [like the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, Fundação Nacional do Índio], and thereby precisely not able to protect the very people who are paying with their lives for doing the work that is the responsibility of the state. We demand urgent justice!”

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Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life” in the Age of Trump and Modi

Forever known by his phrase ‘reverence for life’, Albert Schweitzer was a theologian, moral philosopher, physician and missionary. He was born in Alsace when it was German, and became a French citizen when it reverted back to France after the First World War.

To him this reverence implied regard for and a duty to all human beings, not “confined to blood relations or tribe” (The Teaching of Reverence for Life, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, p. 9). It is an inspiring thought for it leads naturally to peace and the end of wars. He did not claim originality for the idea, noting that Lao-Tse and Confucius among others had already preceded him in espousing it (pp. 9-10). He merely promoted it.

In this he was also of like mind with the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who reminded us of conscience and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. We are strings, he said, “that vibrate in sympathy with others”, endowed with a natural good that propels us to help our neighbors or the distressed (p. 20). I am reminded of my father who always said, “You don’t treat a disease; you treat a patient.”

And then one wonders if these instincts have been consciously suppressed in some human beings. One can think of two current leaders in particular: Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. Trump’s assertion, “he died like a dog” grates even if one violently disagrees with al-Baghdadi’s methods, wrenched as he was from the normal course of his life by a US invasion predicated on false charges.

Then there is Modi and his drumbeat of upper caste Hindu supremacy. As US Representative Ro Khanna noted forcefully in a tweet, “It is the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians.”

It was only a few days ago in India that a 27-year old Dalit man was beaten mercilessly and tossed in the river to die. He had been fishing. His crime: a refusal to give his catch to a nearby Brahmin who wanted an equal share. If it needs reminding, a Brahmin belongs to the highest caste, a Dalit or Untouchable to the lowest — someone who is frequently not allowed to use the village well. The Dalit man killed was the sole support of his family.

For the people of Kashmir there is little respite. A beautiful valley that could attract tourist dollars, instead is invaded by Indian troops. When the Kashmiris protest their humiliation through demonstrations, even children are blinded by pellet guns. Photos show decaying towns where empty streets are patrolled by sullen soldiers.

In Chile, protesters show no let-up and the country can no longer host the COP 25 climate change meeting. Spain has offered to step in, despite its own Catalan independence movement problems.

Examples of human strife do not end here. Yet in the present era there is a common goal for humanity for it faces the existential threat of climate change. Surely then we can form a common bond, extend Schweitzer’s reverence to include all life, and strive to save our one and only home. As Schweitzer observes (p. 31), “Reverence for life, arising when intelligence operates upon the will to live, contains within itself affirmation of the universe and of life.”

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Remove the Cows Not the Conifers

There is much debate in the scientific community about whether conifer “encroachment” is unnatural or due to ordinary ecological succession after massive wildfires.

Conifer removal is being promoted in the name of sage grouse recovery, though the real reason is to encourage higher forage production for livestock.

One of the myths perpetuated by the livestock industry is the notion that frequent low-severity fires occurred every 10-25 years in sagebrush ecosystems. So, the logic goes if fires were that frequent, conifers like juniper would be killed except for those growing in rocky areas where fires were limited.

There is debate about the accuracy of fire scar studies that are used to justify conifer removal. Some scientists feel the methodology of fire scar studies portray fire to be more frequent than may have occurred.

Recent research has found that wildfire in sagebrush ecosystems is far less frequent than previously assumed. Depending on the species of sagebrush, the fire rotation varies from 50-400 years.

Mountain big sage, the most common sagebrush on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, typically burns on several-hundred-year rotations.

As a result, there are extended periods in the absence of fire when juniper or other conifers can readily colonize an area.

Furthermore, juniper burns during severe droughts on a fire rotation of 400-600 years in stand replacement blazes of high severity. Then it takes centuries for them to repopulate an area.

Many of the areas where juniper and other conifers are said to be invading are merely recolonization after massive fires that occurred during periodic warm spells and drought that happened in the past.

The justification for conifer removal is to enhance the recovery of sage grouse. However, there are worse things that can impede sage grouse recovery than conifer spread.

Indeed, one of the negative consequences of the disturbance that accompanies conifer removal is the establishment and spread of cheatgrass. Cheatgrass, an annual grass, is highly flammable. In many parts of the West, cheatgrass and the wildfire they sustain is the biggest threat to sagebrush ecosystems and sage grouse.

An inconvenient truth that the land management agencies, often fail to acknowledge is that the presence of livestock facilitates the invasion of cheatgrass. Livestock trample the biocrusts that are common in arid land grass and shrub ecosystems. These biocrusts inhibit the establishment of cheatgrass.

While it’s true that sage grouse avoid areas of dense conifers, the idea that avian predators use juniper trees for perches is also bogus. The primary bird of prey that is a threat to sage grouse is golden eagles. In all my years, I’ve never seen a golden eagle in a juniper tree. To the degree that eagles may utilize juniper for perches, it is exceedingly rare and that is also the conclusion of five sage grouse and hawk experts I consulted.

However, what is well established is avian predators use that fence posts. And why do we have fences everywhere? You guessed it. Due to livestock grazing.

Furthermore, some studies show up to 30% of sage grouse mortality is due to collisions with fences. Why are there fences all over the public land? Again livestock grazing.

The grazing of grasslands reduces the abundance and height of grass and other plants exposing sage grouse nests and birds to predators.

There is a ton of research showing that cattle compaction of soils and damage to riparian areas has damaged watersheds and is responsible for decline in stream flows. These wetlands and riparian areas are critical habitat to sage grouse chicks early in life when they feed on insects and forbs. Livestock is responsible for the degradation of the majority of all riparian areas across the West.

What is abundantly clear if you review the science on sage grouse is that livestock production poses a far greater threat to sage grouse survival than conifer “invasion.” If one wants to really help sage grouse (and other sagebrush dependent species), land management agencies would be advocating for the removal of livestock, not conifers, from our public lands.

 

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Statement of Solidarity with the People of Haiti

November 6, 2019

The Haitian Studies Association is an interdisciplinary scholarly organization created in 1987. Our mission is to promote the production, exchange, and dissemination of ideas and knowledge about Haiti and its Diaspora in a global context in order to inform pedagogy, practice, and policy.

International media often portray Haiti as being in continuous crisis since the successful revolution against slavery for independence and the birth of the Republic of Haiti in 1804. This representation of Haiti’s national history concurrently silences real concerns in the country and paints an incomplete picture of the current situation and its transnational roots and global connections. Throughout the world, people are protesting against neoliberal austerity, state corruption, the shift to authoritarianism, and unbridled repression. In exceptionalizing Haiti, Western critics fail to consider how Haitians fight valiantly for their freedom and sovereignty.

Mass outcries began in July 2018 after the International Monetary Fund directed the Haitian government to increase gas prices. Food prices rise as gas prices rise, since Haiti imports more than 50% of its food. These initial protests led some to question, “Where are the PetroCaribe funds?” Noting a number of incomplete infrastructure and sanitation projects throughout the country, activists demanded an inquiry into the dilapidation of more than $2 billion of PetroCaribe money earmarked for development. Haiti’s Supreme Court of Accounts and Administrative Litigation (CSCCA) found evidence of official corruption in which President Jovenel Moïse is implicated.

Since July 2018, protests have been met with repression. To date, the National Haitian Police (PHN) has killed too many protestors. The signatories of the two CSCCA reports have been threatened and many have gone into exile. Gangs for hire terrorize the population at large, especially neighborhoods known for dissent.

The massacre and dismemberment of approximately 60 people, including six children, in La Saline, in November 2018 still looms in the collective memory of protestors. Moreover, at least three journalists who critique state violence have been targets of extra-judicial killings. The Haitian state has been complicit in its inaction. People are dying: schools and healthcare facilities are closed.

Following the 31st Annual Conference in Gainesville from October 17 to October 19, 2019, while noting the absence of many HSA members living and working in Haiti, professors and students alike, wherein there was a strong show of support by more than a majority of attendees to take a position on the current situation in Haiti, the Haitian Studies Association issues this statement of solidarity with Haitians of all social categories, who demand change, government accountability, justice, security and a more dignified life.

HSA members are citizens and residents of many countries including Haiti, the United States, and Canada. We belong to and identify with diverse racial and ethnic communities with distinct political ideologies and religious beliefs.

As a collective of scholars of and on Haiti, it is our ethical imperative to add our voice in solidarity to demand:

+ Government accountability, beginning with an investigation and trial of the officials who embezzled the PetroCaribe funds;

+ The current Haitian President Jovenel Moïse to respect the rule of law;

+ The protection of the freedom of speech and assembly without fear of reprisal;

+ The protection of all Haitians from all forms of violence;

+ The protection and support for researchers in official investigations;

+ The non-intervention of foreign governments and agencies in the internal affairs of Haiti.

Ak tèt ansanm (In solidarity)!

The Haitian Studies Association

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Republicans, Not Russians, Threaten Our Elections

Republicans are less likely to win elections when voter turnout is high.

It’s true: Four of the five states with the highest voter turnout voted blue in the last presidential and midterm elections. All are crucial swing states.

In 2016, the one that didn’t — Wisconsin — instituted a strict voter ID law that suppressed around 200,000 voters. Trump won the state by only 22,000 ballots.

Even Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell agrees. He called the notion of making Election Day a federal holiday, which would make it easier for working people to vote, a “power grab” by Democrats.

Unfortunately for Trump, McConnell, and the Republican Party, 2020 voter turnout is expected to reach record levels.

This leaves the party with two options. They can broaden their message to appeal to an increasingly diverse electorate… or suppress the voters that don’t share their values.

Sadly, their attacks on voting rights across the country make it clear which path they chose. Republican-led state legislatures have been rolling back voting rights in virtually every state they control in recent years.

The flood gates opened a few years ago, when the Supreme Court gutted the “pre-clearance rule” of the Voting Rights Act, a capstone achievement of the civil rights movement. That rule required states with histories of racist voter suppression to seek federal approval prior to altering their electoral rules.

The results have been ghastly.

Texas ended temporary voting locations, reducing access for rural voters and college students. Arizona restricted the use ofemergency voting centers and passed a more rigid voter ID law targeting Native Americans.

Less than two years ago, Georgia removed over half a million voters from its rolls. Right now it’s in the process of purging an additional 330,000 voters, mostly in Democratic-leaning districts.

In recent years, nine Republican-controlled states have closed 1,688 polling places. All nine were previously beholden to the pre-clearance rule, and all nine have significant minority populations.

Plainly, these rollbacks and closures disproportionately harm voters of color.

And it may get worse. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will soon determine whether districts that dilute minority votes through racial gerrymandering can be compelled to redraw their maps to ensure that minorities have an equal opportunity to choose their representatives.

The issue at hand is a section of the Voting Rights Act called the “results test,” which forbids any law that has the purpose or effect of curtailing the minority vote. It’s just a matter of time before the results test makes its way to the GOP-controlled Supreme Court, which could well strike it down.

Ever since the 2016 elections, politicians have agonized over foreign interference in our elections. But the truth is, it’s vote-suppressing Republicans, not Russians, who are the greatest threat to American democracy.

But hope is not lost.

Communities are taking things into their own hands, advocating for and winning automatic voter registration and same-day registration, upending proposed voter roll purges, and requesting absentee ballots.

Then there’s the For the People Act, which promises to restore the Voting Rights Act to full strength. It easily passed the House and is now sitting on McConnell’s desk itching for a chance to be taken up for a vote in the Senate.

It should get one. I’m not asking for much — just for my right, and the rights of other people of color, to have our votes counted. Political parties aside, our fundamental right to vote must be respected.

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On Coffee, Cantatas, and Unwed Daughters Crossing the Threshold

Your Musical Patriot has returned from the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, held this year in Boston—if you have the nerve to call the “redeveloped” harbor district where the meeting was held “Boston.” This desert of overpriced glass and steel could be detached from the peninsula of the old city and dragged across oceans to any global hub, from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, without anyone being able to divine its provenance. Having flown in from around the country and the world, the musicologists didn’t pay much heed to their pre-apocalyptic surroundings. Instead, they busied themselves with scholarly inquiries that ranged across the centuries and the globe, from “A Genealogy of the Recital Encore” to “Rethinking the Vibrational Politics of Solidarity in the Anthropocene.”

There was business to be done, too: books to be pitched and launched—including my own! Surfing the wave of enthusiasm that surged through the carpeted corridors and faux-colonial ball rooms of the convention hotel, I offer this excerpt from one of the later chapters of my recently published volume Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks.

Bitter Bean and Loose Ließgen — On Coffee, Cantatas, and Unwed Daughters Crossing the Threshold

Anna Magdalena’s musical albums were precious personal belongings to be used alone as well as shared with other members of the family. The owner filled in many of the pages with dances and songs, while her husband contributed ambitious keyboard works, and her children and stepchildren their early compositional efforts. This fare was infused with music and ideas from beyond the home. Amongst the Notebooks’ fashionably cosmopolitan minuets and polonaises there were grand connoisseurs’ suites whose nationally-inflected movements made for a veritable travelogue through Europe. Along these imagined journeys, the traveler could fortify herself with pious chorales and devotional melodies, and also indulge in diverting reflections on the joys of tobacco, and by implication, other bourgeois pleasures enjoyed in the home and in public places like Leipzig’s many coffee houses. Galant songs of love and sadness charmed and consoled, gracing the private realm, but suitable, too, for informal gatherings in semi-public salons.

This musical mélange expressed refinement at the keyboard and away from it. The Notebooks reveal that the Bach family (with its Wilcke addition) was changing: the contents belong to a world different from that of their forbears, those countless musicians who had so long lived and worked in Thuringia and Saxony: galant culture molded the conception of music and the good life embodied in the albums. Notebooks like Anna Magdalena’s were an expression of elevated bourgeois living, like the coffee service and other fashionable accessories that graced the Bach home. The Notebooks were—and are— emblems of feminine accomplishment and improvement, both musical and social.

If, as so many enthusiasts and scholars have maintained, the Notebooks offer an intimate glimpse into the marriage of Anna Magdalena Wilcke and Johann Sebastian Bach, these collections also reveal much about relationships among the generations and, more generally, between the sexes. The Bach daughters must have used their mother’s Notebooks, too, even if, in contrast to the boys, no girl’s hand has yet been identified in their pages. All the children were musically talented and trained, though the quality and scope of their tuition was certainly determined by gender. The males were being prepared for professional careers in the family trade, but the females, too, learned to sing and play. The Notebooks would have helped the girls to develop their musical skills and in so doing to increase their attractiveness to prospective spouses. In this chapter I want to examine a constellation of concerns involving sex, love, marriage, consumer culture, and upward mobility, and follow these themes out across the threshold of the Cantor’s apartments into urban, Enlightened Leipzig. There we can learn much about the hopes and fears Anna Magdalena and her husband harbored for their female children. Contemporary debates about daughters and fathers, mothers and marriage, pleasure and obedience throw light back on to the uses and meanings of the music of the Notebooks and the woman they belonged to.

Fashionable female enjoyment of coffee, clothing, and song was both encouraged and contested by authors and composers in books, conversations, and music—words printed, spoken, and sung. Contributions to, and awareness of, these debates was both a sign of cultural currency and itself a form of galant delectation. The refinements of dress, deportment, and singing were practiced at home, but they were also performed in public, perhaps even by the musical Bach daughters. Four of these girls survived to adulthood: did they enjoy more than simply singing about, or listening to, songs like the Aria di Giovannini (BWV 518) inscribed in Anna Magdalena’s 1725 Notebook and devoted to the promise and perils of hidden love? Did its message speak to their own expectations and desires? Did the Bach girls delight in coffee, conversation, and courting, as well as in vocal and keyboard performance? All these questions were encompassed by the most important one of all: Would the Bach daughters be married?

Public Consumption

As the Bachs’ library reminded them, finding a husband for a family’s young women and sending them safely out into the world was a basic duty of fathers—and sometimes mothers, especially when they were widowed. This parental worry is at the center of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) and demands attention, literally so when, at its very start, a tenor springs up from the midst of a noisy coffee house or somewhat less boisterous salon, to command the assembled company to:

Quiet down, stop jabbering,
And listen to what happens now:
Schweigt still, plaudert nicht
Und höret, was itzund geschicht:

The announced entertainment is not only to be watched by those gathered, but also to be participated in. The lines are delivered as recitative, direct musical speech in the present tense addressed to the audience, interrupting the din and inviting all to eavesdrop on a spat between the cantata’s two characters: the hapless father, Schlendrian, and his impudent daughter Ließgen. The text once again is by Johann Sebastian Bach’s main literary collaborator in Leipzig, Picander, who also wrote the libretto for the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), but this coffeehouse tenor does not stick around like the persistent Evangelist does on Good Friday. After making his public-service announcement, the pop-up narrator withdraws as quickly as he had appeared to let the father-daughter pair spar and pout without him: their conflict over coffee is a family matter aired in public. There is no instrumental prelude or introductory snippet to clear the air. Instead this opening plunges the action into its social surroundings, reveling in performance in a vibrant Leipzig nightspot. It is a comedy not just staged in the public sphere but proudly, even obstreperously, part of it.

The Coffee Cantata was composed sometime in the first half of the 1730s during Johann Sebastian Bach’s tenure as director of one of Leipzig’s two Collegia musica. The ensemble he led presented its programs in Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffeehouse or, in the summer, in the owner’s pleasant garden near the city’s Grimma Gate. Given the subject matter, Zimmermann’s establishment has seemed to most historians the likely performance venue for the piece. More recently, however, Katherine Goodman has proposed that the piece could have been performed at sometime Bach collaborator Christiane Mariane von Ziegler’s salon, held in her grand house just down the Catharinenstraße from Zimmermann’s. The cantata could well have been presented at both venues: the piece has all the traits of a favorite that, like the beverage at its center, was ready for reheating wherever coffee was drunk—which was pretty much everywhere in Leipzig during the Bachs time there.

A 1725 guide to Leipzig by the Dresden auctioneer Johann Christian Crell writing under the pen name of Iccander—a moniker not coincidentally close to that of Picander since both belonged to a literary society called the Blumen– und Elbschwanorden whose members favored such Greekified pseudonyms—gives a vivid impression of the lively milieu into which the cantata’s opening lines were tossed:

The entertainment of both locals and outsiders of high and low standing belonging to both the masculine and feminine sexes is increased by the eight officially-sanctioned public coffee houses, which are rightly famous both on account of their lovely settings, view, and pleasant accommodations, as well as by virtue of the grand assemblies that appear there, since the people who gather find pleasant diversion partly in the reading of all kinds of newspapers and historical books, and partly in society games (Academie de Jeux)—ingenious and permissible amusements such as chess, ladies’ games, and billiards.

Not mentioned here is music, though along with the pastimes listed by Crell, we see this being pursued in the famous frontispiece to Sperontes’ Singende Muse, that defining image of galant Leipzig, and a publication contemporary with the Coffee Cantata.

Leipzig’s other Collegium Musicum also held its musical evenings variously in the town hall’s wine cellar (Ratskellar) and another of the city’s famed locales, Helwig’s Coffee House. To be heard at all these venues was cosmopolitan music well-suited to the galant set. That the lady closest to the viewer in the Sperontes’s image plays the clavichord conveys how porous the border was between private and public spheres when it came to feminine music-making. She appears to be reading from an unseen book, perhaps, one is encouraged to imagine, a must-have publication like the Singende Muse itself. Or maybe she has brought along her own notebook. A well-dressed man at her table is listening intently: is he a suitor, the woman’s music master, or both? As the satyr hiding beneath the pair indicates, the gentleman’s focused attention could well be motivated by romantic interest, but it also seems to demonstrate the importance of women’s music-making as something that participated in, and contributed to, fashionable topics and tastes.

Sperontes, Singende Muse an der Pleiße (Leipzig, 1736)

The opening exhortation of BWV 211 seeks not only to quell the hub-bub as if from amidst its source, but also to frame the proceedings as a play within the drama occurring every night in a coffee house—a place of argument and gossip, games and flirtation, looking and being seen. From the start of the cantata the “grand assembly” described by Crell is directly involved, activated as auditors and viewers, and afterward (or perhaps even during the music) as commentators. They are not safely insulated from the action: the tenor makes them complicit in the entertainment because the story has to do with them, their foibles and follies, desires and fears. This is social comment camouflaged as comedy.

As was often the case in the repartee of coffee house conversationalists and gamers, the digs and swipes of the Bach/Picander intermezzo found their animating hilarity in contentious current topics. The potential divisiveness of these themes gives the humor its bite; the social implications of what was being laughed at impinged directly on the Bachs themselves, especially on the women of the family. In just a few printed pages, Picander’s libretto, along with the concluding reversal of the last two numbers added to the cantata by an unknown author, rattles off a veritable wish-list of galant accessories; these goods in turn signified other larger issues confronting a society ruled by a stern theocracy, yet increasingly being pried loose from religious control by the consumerist pull of modernity and the Enlightened ethics of personal pleasure. Coffee was then, as now, more than a trendy drink. For urban dwellers in the German states of the eighteenth century it was a steaming symbol not just of luxury and leisure, but also of women’s entry into the public sphere. Iccander’s account of Leipzig locales mentions both men and women seemingly on equal footing; alongside smoking, coffee-drinking, and making conversation, women might well have sung there, too, none more expertly than the one-time Cöthen Sängerin, Anna Magdalena Bach after her arrival in the city in 1723.

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