Nearly seven years ago, 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was killed in Nogales, Mexico, by U.S. Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz, who fired his gun from the U.S. side of the border. The teenager — who was unarmed — died face-down on the sidewalk just a couple of blocks from his home. Border Patrol has for years been plagued with hundreds of allegations of abuse and unnecessary use of deadly force, including the cross-border killings of at least six people on Mexican soil. Most cases are not investigated, and border agents are rarely criminally charged for using violent force. After nearly five years of legal delays, José Antonio’s mother, Araceli Rodríguez, and his grandmother, Taide Elena, brought Lonnie Swartz to trial for second-degree murder in 2017. A Tucson jury acquitted him and were deadlocked on manslaughter charges. In a second trial in November 2018, Swartz was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. During Democracy Now!'s trip to the borderlands, we spoke with José Antonio's family, including both Araceli Rodríguez and Taide Elena, at the exact spot where he was gunned down by Swartz. Araceli Rodríguez says, “He was murdered, and there has been no justice. He was killed, and the world is the same. He was murdered, and Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz is still free.”
On Tuesday, the Trump administration reportedly ended its “medical deferred action” program, which allows immigrants with serious health problems to stay in the U.S. for up to two years beyond the terms of their visas to receive critical treatment. Just one day later, it announced that some children born to U.S. servicemembers and government employees stationed overseas will no longer automatically receive citizenship. The policy changes come days after the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to allow the Trump administration to implement its rule banning almost all migrants from seeking asylum in the United States. Amid these crackdowns, border wall construction began this week on federally protected lands in the remote Arizona desert, and many immigrant families remain separated due to Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which was supposed to have ended more than a year ago. We speak with Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.
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Michael T. KlareWashington is withdrawing from the INF treaty not because of Russian violations but because the Pentagon wants to deploy a dangerous new class of its own nukes.
The post The Pentagon’s New Missile Drive Is Bringing Armageddon Closer appeared first on The Nation.
John NicholsBe wary of a president who celebrates abuses of power abroad and who, at home, imagines that the Constitution “allows me to do whatever I want.”
The post Trump’s Support of Boris Johnson Should Remind Congress to Impeach appeared first on The Nation.
When I first met 11-year-old Baron, his nose was deep in an open package of Fruit Snacks. He was drawing long breaths, like a torturous meditation, in an attempt to generate enough drool to fill a pinky-sized vial. When it was clear the gummies weren’t doing the trick, he tried staring at laminated photos of yummy foods—fudgy brownies, juicy raspberries, gooey mozzarella sticks.
While he gazed and sniffed, a research assistant at a lab next door to Stanford University carefully trimmed a few hairs from the crown of his head. The hair would be tested for nicotine and other drug exposure; the saliva, once he generated it, would be sent to another lab for DNA analysis. The next few hours were a marathon of data collection: Baron worked on vocabulary tests and memory games on an iPad; submitted to an hourlong MRI scan to track his neural activity while he completed tasks involving impulsivity and rewards; and answered dozens of questions posed by friendly researchers about screen time, exercise, substance use, sexual activity, suicidal ideation, family conflicts, and more.
Baron is one of nearly 12,000 kids across the country participating in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, the largest-ever longitudinal study of the maturing brain in the United States. If all goes according to plan, Baron and his peers will undergo an annual battery of genetic and psychological tests and biannual MRI scans for a decade, from roughly age 10 to 20. Each young subject will be evaluated at one of 21 research sites funded by the National Institutes of Health, from Yale University to SRI International, where Baron participates. They’ll also check in over the phone with RAs every few months, and occasionally wear Fitbits to track sleep and activity. Some participants have even donated baby teeth, which can provide information about exposure to various toxins dating back to their time in the womb.
Baron accumulates drool while a research assistant snips his hair.
Researchers expect this massive endeavor, receiving $30 million in federal funding per year, will transform our understanding of brain development. Neuroscientists are positively giddy about ABCD, and for good reason: It is larger and more racially and socioeconomically diverse than any comparable study to date.“We’re going to be working with this dataset for decades,” said one scientist. “I think it’s going to be an absolute boon for sciences.”
“We’re going to be working with this dataset for decades,” said Jennifer Pfeifer, a University of Oregon developmental neuroscientist who is not involved with the study. “I think it’s going to be an absolute boon for sciences.”
The kids were recruited at a critical age: Most 10-year-olds are old enough to have the patience to sit through hours of tests, but young enough that they haven’t experienced the many critical neurological changes that come with the second decade of life. Over the course of the study, which is now in its second year, the cohort will have all sorts of experiences outside the lab that could affect their neurological development. They’ll be exposed to varying levels of pollution, screen time, sleep, and physical and emotional trauma. Some will become addicted to drugs. Some will suffer concussions. Some will develop the mental health issues that tend to emerge during adolescence, like depression and schizophrenia.
ABCD is practicing the increasingly popular “open science” philosophy: Its reams of data will not belong to the researchers but will be anonymized and released to the scientific community each year. “A lot of the other studies are only publicly released years and years after it’s done,” said Deanna Barch, chair of the brain science and psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis, an ABCD site. “The taxpayers are spending a ton of money to fund this study. Making it available is the only way to ensure as many different clever, creative minds can look at the data as possible.”
A number of studies have already come out based on the first year of ABCD data. Though it’s too early to draw any conclusions about cause and effect, researchers have made some striking observations. Barch’s team found that boys involved in sports tended to exhibit fewer symptoms of depression. (This didn’t hold for girls, however.) Another study found that living in poorer neighborhoods was associated with smaller amygdala and hippocampal volume, measures associated with slower cognitive processing. One paper looked at rates of suicidal ideation among kids who identify as gay or bisexual; another paper examined the prevalence of eating disorders.
The idea for ABCD originated in 2014, when researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), also part of the NIH, were being pressed by parents, pediatricians, and policymakers for information about the neurological effects of marijuana and e-cigarettes. There were lots of studies comparing brain scans of cannabis users to nonusers, but such studies run into a chicken and egg problem: Does something about certain kids’ brains predispose them to drug use, or does drug use lead to differences in their brains? To really understand the effect of marijuana, “what you need to do is recruit kids before they become addicted,” said Silvia Bunge, a University of California-Berkeley neuroscientist who is not part of the ABCD study. “Since such a small proportion of kids end up that way, you need to recruit a large sample.”
The chicken and egg problem plagues much of our understanding of brain development. When someone has a traumatic brain injury, doctors have no way of knowing if a brain scan is showing results of a concussion, or if the brain looked like that already. One of the aspirations of ABCD, said study director Gaya Dowling, is “to have something akin to height and weight growth charts that pediatricians use for the brain.”
As NIDA floated the idea of a large long-term study to examine the neurological effects of drug use, other NIH institutes became interested. “There’ll be a sub-group that drinks a lot of alcohol at, heaven forbid, 14 years old,” said George Koob, director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and an ABCD co-sponsor. “What does that subgroup look like? Is there any change in how the brain develops? Does it last, or does it recover?”“What is the normal trajectory of healthy human neurodevelopment—and is there even a single trajectory?”
By last fall, when recruitment of 9- and 10-year-olds was complete, the study had morphed to include 10 NIH institutes, 40 principal investigators, and hundreds of research staffers across the country. The focus is still substance use—NIDA covers more than half of the study cost—but the fundamental question the project sought to answer had broadened. As NIDA director Nora Volkow put it, “What is the normal trajectory of healthy human neurodevelopment—and is there even a single trajectory?”
Baron’s mom, Jean, first heard about ABCD in 2017 through a recruitment flier sent to the parents of third and fourth graders in San Jose, California. It piqued her interest: She liked the idea of contributing to science. She liked that the study was prioritizing diversity—and that her child, a Chinese American from a middle class family, could participate. The financial incentive—about $300 for each annual battery of tests—didn’t hurt, either.
While previous neuroimaging studies have been limited to mostly white, well-to-do participants, the makeup of ABCD’s 12,000 participants roughly mirrors the US population: Fifteen percent of participants are black and 21 percent are Hispanic. Forty percent come from families in which neither parent earned a bachelor’s degree—a lower proportion than the general population, but higher than seen in most studies. “We tried to get people to participate that normally are very difficult to recruit and are therefore often not recruited” in longitudinal studies, said Martin Paulus, scientific director of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research, an ABCD study site in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A 10-year study can be a hard sell to parents—particularly those who are aware of the thorny track record of government-funded studies involving minorities, such as the infamous Tuskegee experiment. “Many US communities have had very difficult intersections with research, with devastating cultural, physical, and health implications,” acknowledged ABCD researchers in a recent paper.
There’s also the question of how much privacy kids should have from parents. The study will keep all information collected confidential unless it poses an immediate health threat: Researchers won’t tell a parent if their kid admits to smoking weed or drinking, but they will notify a parent if a brain scan suggests the child has a tumor. An ABCD ethics group will provide guidance if and when the soon-to-be teenagers use more dangerous drugs like heroin and engage in other high-risk behavior.
Baron likes coming to SRI, where he gets to play games in between tests and picks out toys from a “treasure chest.” He leaves each visit with a printout of what his brain looks like in the MRI. It feels a bit like a daylong summer brain camp. But as Baron gets older, it will take a lot more than trinkets to make sure he keeps coming back. The study’s designers expect about 10 percent of the participants to quit over the coming years. Paradoxically, the kids who develop conditions that scientists are itching to understand—particularly substance use disorders or mental illnesses—can be the most likely to drop out of longitudinal studies. The trickiest participants to retain are those with severe depression who “don’t feel they want to do anything,” said Paulus. “We’re going to have to make sure we know where they live, knock on their doors, make sure we get them to come.”
The study’s success depends on a lot of big ifs: If the researchers can keep kids coming back through adolescence, if those teenagers engage in behaviors that fundamentally change their brains, if the scans pick up those changes, and if researchers across the country can keep collaborating for the next eight years—then, says Koob, the study will be a “gold mine.”
Listen up, assholes. Carrie Goldberg is coming for you.
Since founding her law firm in 2014, the defiant, trash-talking New York lawyer has built a reputation for going after sexual predators from Harvey Weinstein to anonymous trolls and purveyors of nonconsensual pornography. In her new book Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls, Goldberg and co-author Jeannine Amber tell war stories from Goldberg’s fight on behalf of clients who have been abused or had their privacy violated online. Interwoven with their stories is an inventory of Goldberg’s tools for taking down bad guys on the internet, from copyright law to brash cease-and-desist letters. (“I’ll be taking over negotiations from here. Negotiations just ended.”)
Nobody’s Victim is a battle cry not just against the various subgenres of abusive men (and they are mostly men) responsible for extorting, threatening, harassing, stalking, or assaulting Goldberg’s clients, but also their enablers—the victim-blaming cops and judges, “chickenshit” school officers, and the tech moguls and venture capitalists who fund and build “the idiot inventions that ruin our lives.” She’s aiming high: Her much-watched lawsuit against the gay dating app Grindr, which she has asked the Supreme Court to review, has the potential to transform the way courts interpret a bedrock internet regulation, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
But the book also revisits the story Goldberg has told about her own origins, that after being stalked by a “psycho ex,” she became the lawyer that she desperately needed. She reveals that she was vulnerable to her ex’s manipulations in the first place because of a devastating date rape that left her psychologically and physically scarred. Goldberg’s year of recovery from the attacks by both men, learning to protect herself but also rediscover a sense of hope and purpose, is the origin of her singleminded focus. “I stopped inventorying the men who had fucked me over. I quit admonishing myself for making stupid choices and bad mistakes,” she writes. “Nothing mattered but the fight.”
I called up Goldberg to talk about the decision to share her own story, her battles against little men and Big Tech, and the differences between living in fear and staying vigilant.
Madison Pauly: You write that the guys you go after are “as boring and predictable as they are dangerous.” So you use a shorthand to refer to them—they’re either assholes, psychos, pervs, or trolls. Besides the obvious satisfaction of calling an asshole an asshole, how are these categories useful?
Carrie Goldberg: Categorizing things is the first step in being able to understand and respond to them. The psychos are the relentless stalkers who have put everything in their own life aside in order to focus on destroying their victim. Usually there’s a lot of anonymizing software that the offenders use. They’re pretty hard to physically locate, because they often have fled the area and are hiding from the law. In those cases, a cease-and-desist letter, lawsuit, or family court order isn’t going to suffice. The only way that they can actually be stopped is law enforcement.
MP: But the cease-and-desist order that wouldn’t work with a psycho might be more useful for a troll?
CG: Especially if they have something at stake. If they have something to lose; if their job or their family would be horrified about their conduct. There are certainly psychos who troll, and trolls who are psychos—you know, it’s a Venn diagram. But if you’re just being trolled, it generally is not as dangerous. It’s just sort of their nighttime hobby.
MP: You write that assholes, psychos, pervs, and trolls are motivated by something similar—“the same impulses that trigger other offenders to drive cars into groups of protestors and fire assault rifles into churches, synagogues, and schools.” What, in your view, is that shared motivation?“When it does come to having offenders who can pay, I’m adamant that wealth distribution needs to happen.”
CG: A raging need for power and control. It all comes down to some person prioritizing their own right to be in this world—or online—over somebody else’s. We’re just talking about the choice of weapon. Some are going to be using an iPhone to send naked pictures and post them on a website. Others are going to be using a dating app to impersonate somebody and send men to their home expecting sex. And others will be grooming a 13-year-old they meet on a video game into sending sex pictures. There are communities now for people who hate women, are violent, and have access to guns [to] all come and—commune in.
MP: In the manosphere. Sorry, I can’t say that word without laughing.
CG: I’ve actually never said it out loud.
MP: Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend. As a lawyer, there are different ways you could have fought these people. You chose to focus on civil law and making somebody pay, literally, for the harm that your clients have suffered. Why that route?
CG: A lot of people think it’s crude to put a price on suffering. And, of course, it doesn’t undo the harm. But in this world we live in, money buys power. A client, even if she doesn’t want the money, can donate to an organization that fights for the things that she values, or she can donate it to a political candidate. A lot of people are sheepish when it comes to admitting, even when they’re in my office, that, yeah, I want to sue that motherfucker. I want all his money. And I’m like, good. Cause that’s what we’re going to do.
There are a lot of different kinds of work we do where the object is not money—cases where we’re just trying to get a restraining order for our clients, or we’re trying to get that motherfucker arrested, or we’re trying to get that content off the internet. But on the other hand, when it does come to having offenders who can pay, I’m adamant that wealth distribution needs to happen. That includes schools, religious institutions, online platforms, social media companies. If they can prevent it, or if they’re monetizing, in any way, the injuries my client has sustained, then I want them to pay for it.
MP: You’re unequivocal about wanting to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has prevented you from making tech companies pay for the way their platforms have been used by abusers. What’s your argument?
CG: It’s a 26-word law that went into effect in 1996, that says interactive computer services are not liable for “information content” provided by a third party. The problem is that over the following 23 years, courts have interpreted that law more and more broadly, so that internet companies cannot be held liable for the activities of their users—even when they know about their harassment, or sextortion or impersonation. It’s outrageous to me that the most omniscient and omnipotent industry in the history of the universe is basically outside the reach of our courts.
The broadest interpretation to date was our case, Herrick v. Grindr, where our client was impersonated by his ex-boyfriend on Grindr, the online gay dating app. He created profiles and then would use the geolocating functions to send strangers to our client’s home and job for sex. He was basically setting up our client to be raped. Grindr was in the exclusive position to be able to stop this, and they refused. They told us that they didn’t actually have the technology to identify and exclude users. So we sued them under product liability theory, saying that they’d released a dangerous product into the stream of commerce. Grindr didn’t even need to plead [that they were protected by Section 230]. The judge just decided that, and dismissed our complaint.
MP: You just asked the Supreme Court to overturn that judge’s decision. If they do decide to take your case, and rule in your favor, would Section 230 go away?
CG: Only our lawmakers could repeal it. But if [the Supreme Court] takes the case, hopefully the outcome would be that they’ve fixed it a little bit. We’re basically saying you can’t just throw these cases out at the earliest possible moment. And then the second thing [we’re asking for is] a bright-line rule about what “information content” means. We’re suing [Grindr] for Grindr’s own conduct, and their own decision making. If that is information content, then everything that a tech company does, basically, is information content.
MP: You have this public persona, as you put it in the beginning of the book, as a “ruthless motherfucker.” Like your fierce Twitter presence, and the swearing, and cease-and-desist letters like the one you put in the book: “I’ll be taking over negotiations from here. Negotiations just ended.”
CG: I know! I actually really used that line.
MP: How does that unusual decorum for a lawyer end up working to your advantage or disadvantage?“There are certainly psychos who troll, and trolls who are psychos—you know, it’s a Venn diagram.”
CG: I mean, I don’t go onto court and say fuck all the time. But many of our cases involve really, really graphic facts. Quotes from text messages or tweets of our clients being horribly threatened. I want all that stuff to be in front of the judge. I want them to see the gory details. I also feel that being underestimated is a superpower. Corporate lawyers who are defending a tech company are used to dealing with other corporate lawyers—and so I think it’s fun to throw them off.
MP: I can’t imagine the sheer panic if I were to find out if there were intimate photos of me on the internet. But if I did, what should I do next?
CG: Well, I’d say, take a deep breath. Call somebody. Then take screenshots. It’s going to be okay. You’re not the first person that it’s happened to. There’s a huge community of people who’ve been victims of nonconsensual porn. And there are lots of legal tools and advocacy tools that can be used—such as what’s called a DMCA, a takedown notice. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, they all have forms on their platforms to fill out, and bans on revenge porn. Google has a policy where they have the discretion to remove revenge porn from your search results.
MP: You’ve said that the guiding principle of your law firm is that every single one of us is moments away from crossing paths with someone hellbent on our destruction. And in your book, you recommend your clients read another book, The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker, which is about living in a state of vigilance. What does that book mean to you?
CG: The Gift of Fear is all about trusting your instincts, and your body’s physical perception to risky situations. As women, we tend to ignore our own physical responses to things, because we’re trying to accommodate somebody else, or we’re trying to go with the flow, or not cause waves. [When] I was reading that book, I was a few months into starting the firm. It was a revelation for me. I like how it organized the different fear responses that we have. Serial predators are looking for certain attributes and vulnerabilities. The more information that we can all have, the better we are.
MP: One thing I struggle with is the difference between advocating that level of preparation, and victim blaming. As women, we’re used to hearing, Well, why were you drinking so much? Why did you meet him alone? Why would you go out that late? What’s the line between being vigilant—knowing that psychos, stalkers, pervs, trolls are out there and could strike at any moment—and believing that if I’m not taking the precautions to avoid them, then it’s my fault if I’m targeted?
CG: I think it’s really simple. There’s only one party that’s ever going to be responsible for rape, or sexual assault, or stalking. It’s never the victim. I would love for a day to come where I’m put out of business because there aren’t predators and criminals and stalkers. But until that day comes, I want to tell everybody about the patterns, and who they are, and the forms that they take, and the weapons online and offline that they use. Because not only can it help us stay safer, we can pass on information on to our friends. But I know what you’re saying.
MP: So what are reasonable precautions that people should be taking online?
CG: Probably be careful about attributes of wealth. If your online profile talks about you being on the equestrian team and yachting and stuff, you’re going to be a bigger attraction, because you’re easier to blackmail. I think everyone needs to be really careful about sharing where they work, or the industry that they’re in. It’s also true that, when we physically are in somebody’s presence, we pick up on the vibe of the other person. If we’ve exchanged a lot of secrets with a date online, and we have already trusted them with all this intimate information, we’re going to be pressuring ourselves to really like the person when we actually meet. [We’ll] silence any red flags.“It’s so good for other people who’ve gone through trauma to know that you can turn that shit into gold.”
MP: You start off the book by telling the neat version of your own origin story that you’ve been telling for years—that you had this psycho ex who started stalking you, and you became the lawyer that you needed to fight him at the time. But then, at the end of the book, you disclose that there was more to the story—including a really traumatic sexual assault right before you met your psycho ex. Would you tell me about coming to the decision to reveal that part of your own experience?
CG: I had no intention of including that story in this book. I had an amazing co-author, Jeannine Amber, who would ask me questions. She kept asking more and more about what state of mind I was in when I met my ex. It didn’t fully make sense to her how I so quickly became controlled by another person. So I sent her this really long email. At the time that I met my ex, I was in a deep depression because of this horrible incident. I told him about it before our first date. It’s exactly what we were talking about—I shared with him all this intimate information about me.
[Jeannine was] like, Well, we have to put this in the book. I was like, Fuck you, no fucking way. This was always the thing that was mine. It’s my secret. And if people know this much about me, will they still want to hire my law firm? I answered my question by looking at all the stories that my clients had trusted me with—the graphic details of the worst things that have ever happened to them. We put that in complaints that are public, we talk about their most private information in courtrooms and sometimes in the media. If they can do that, then why am I not?
MP: I think about this when I write about stories a source, a survivor, has trusted me with. Part of me wants to just make other people stare at it—make them believe this happens, make them react. Because it’s not just an SVU plotline, it’s real.
CG: When you’re telling somebody else’s story you do want to hit somebody over the head with it. But it’s different being on the other side. You want somebody to learn the lessons, but you don’t want them to picture the gory details.
But it would be hypocritical of me to be telling everybody else’s stories, and telling the story of my law firm, without including the most traumatizing part of my story. I also think it’s so good for other people who’ve gone through trauma to know that you can turn that shit into gold. You can learn from it and be fueled by it. Trauma is a burden, but it can also be a gift, if that makes sense.
MP: How do you mean?
CG: I don’t think I would be who I am without the worst experiences that I’ve had. I was a different person entirely before. I was somebody who was content with a middle management job, and wasn’t a leader in my field. But because those incidents happened, they required a lot of affirmative decision making: Get a restraining order. Get protected. There were so many decisions that it’s like I became a new person, forced to trust myself. I stopped being afraid of the things that I had been afraid of my whole life—dumb things like worms, or phobias about speaking in public, or starting a business. I wasn’t afraid to fail. Because it couldn’t have been worse than living in physical fear.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
If you’re like me, you’ve looked at a paper coffee cup or an empty tube of toothpaste and thought, “Is this recyclable?” before tossing it in the recycling bin, hoping someone, somewhere, would sort it out. People in the waste management industry call this habit “wishcycling.” According to Marian Chertow, director of the Solid Waste Policy program at Yale University, “a wishcycler wants to do the right thing and feels that the more that he or she can recycle, the better.”
Well, I hate to break it to you, but this well-intentioned reflex is doing more harm than good. Not only that, but wishcycling is playing a big role in the current global recycling meltdown.This well-intentioned reflex is doing more harm than good.
First, a bit about the process. When my recycling is scooped up by a truck every week, it goes to a materials recovery facility (MRF) run by a company called Recology. After the goods travel through the facility’s jungle of conveyor belts and sorting machinery, they are shipped as bales to buyers in the United States and abroad, who turn that material into products like cereal boxes and aluminum cans.
But in an effort to get more people recycling, companies like Recology have become victims of their own success. In the early 2000s, many communities switched from a dual-stream system, where plastics and glass, and paper and cardboard, each had their own bins, to single-stream, in which all recyclables go into one bin and the sorting is done at the MRF. But when “we decided to put all the things together, we decided to create a contaminated system,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s almost impossible, for example, to put paper in a bin with beverage containers without the paper getting wet, which makes it unrecyclable.
And it doesn’t help that many of us are wildly confused about what we should recycle. A decade ago, according to one estimate, 7 percent of the objects Americans put into their bins weren’t supposed to be there. Today, it’s 25 percent. “For every ton of material we get in, there’s 500 pounds of trash that has to be taken out of it,” says Brent Bell, vice president of recycling operations at Waste Management, the country’s largest waste disposal company. This garbage ranges from recyclables that are too dirty to process—mayonnaise jars still coated in a thick layer of eggy goo, for example—to items that just shouldn’t be there in the first place, like plastic bags.Nearly a third of us have no idea what types of plastic our municipalities accept.
Nearly a third of us have no idea what types of plastic our municipalities accept, according to a 2014 survey. When I did a quick audit of my household’s bin in April, I found three plastic sandwich bags, a plastic freezer bag, and a disposable razor—none of which are recyclable. (Though places like San Francisco let you recycle plastic bags if you bundle them.) Our uncertainty leads to climbing costs and waning productivity at recycling facilities; contamination costs Waste Management about $100 million annually, or 20 percent of its total budget.
In July 2017, our recycling system faced an even bigger setback: China, which had been buying about half of US plastic, announced it would ban the import of 24 materials, including mixed plastics, largely because the goods we sent them were too contaminated. The policy, which took effect on January 1, 2018, sent shockwaves through the industry.
“It’s a global recycling crisis,” says Johnny Duong, director of international sales at California Waste Solutions, a collection company whose costs have risen by 200 percent since the ban. The situation isn’t likely to improve anytime soon: China’s policy could displace an estimated 111 million metric tons of the world’s plastic waste by 2030. Some of that is going to Turkey, Vietnam, and Indonesia, but according to National Waste and Recycling Association spokesperson Brandon Wright, those countries can’t handle the volume because they don’t have China’s recycling infrastructure.
The United States doesn’t either. Authorities in some cities have tried to change behavior through policy measures. Oakland, California, for example, fines residents $25 if they place “the wrong materials” in recycling containers three times within six months. Several states have banned single-use plastic bags. At the federal level, it would help to follow the European Union’s lead and establish a national policy that defines what is recyclable rather than leaving that up to municipalities, says Kate O’Neill, an associate environmental professor at University of California–Berkeley and author of the forthcoming book Waste. The Environmental Protection Agency is still in the early stages of developing a national framework, a spokesperson tells me. Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders proposes in his Green New Deal a national recycling program that’d require companies to pay to take back consumer scrap in order to build things like wind turbines, batteries, and other renewable energy equipment with as many recycled materials as possible.
For consumers, maybe the old mantra needs an update: Don’t just recycle—reduce and reuse. Zero-waste grocery stores offer shoppers house-cleaning products and bulk groceries without the plastic packaging. A new service called Loop, available in the mid-Atlantic since May, delivers items like ice cream and shampoo in reusable containers to people’s doors and collects the containers when they’re done. (It remains to be seen how many customers will be willing to pony up the deposit fees, which range from $1 to $15.75.)
When you do recycle, you should know what belongs in the bin: Rinsed plastic containers and glass bottles, cardboard, and beverage and food cans are almost always acceptable. Plastic bags, electronics, and paper covered with food generally are not. Neither are insulated coffee cups and toothpaste tubes, in most cases. And if you’ve checked your local guidelines to see if an item is recyclable and you still aren’t sure, it’s best to ignore your wishful instincts and throw it in the trash.
In the almost 12 hours of Democratic Party presidential primary debates on June 26-27 and July 30-31, the words “Pentagon budget” or “defense spending” were not uttered, except for a fleeting, unanswered comment from Senator Bernie Sanders. Nor did any of the cable news moderators ask a single question about the more than $1.25 trillion dollars spent in 2019 for national security.
This is sad but unsurprising. Despite the parade of scandals and the billions of dollars wasted on poorly performing, schedule busting, cost exploding weapons systems, the dismal failure of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) audit, the grossly overpriced spare parts, the ethically challenged senior leaders and the widely reported collapse in training and readiness, the issue of Pentagon spending and a decaying defense has been steadfastly shunned by both the candidates and the debate moderators.
Many people are quite happy about that. They wear star decorated uniforms in headquarters around the globe and expensive suits in corporate board rooms, congressional hangouts on Capitol Hill and wood-paneled offices on the E-ring of the Pentagon. The brass and the suits are well aware that candidate interest in their stewardship could get more than a little embarrassing.
Clearly, the Democratic candidates think they have good reasons for their silence on defense spending. Political gurus urge them to avoid serious, fundamental criticism of the military services. After all, such criticism can get costly–both in unkind media fault-finding and vanishing campaign donations. There’s a long history of Pentagon-critical politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, trashed by the warhawk media and the corporate shills for being “anti-defense” and not “supporting the troops.”
Being literally non-existent, this year’s defense debate is every bit as bankrupt as ever.
Obviously, real scrutiny is badly needed. Tinkering with defense budget cuts here and there won’t do. Instead, changes must be based on a deep understanding of why we are now spending more in inflation adjusted dollars than at any time in post-World War II history, excepting Obama’s 2010 spending peak—and why we now have the smallest, most problem-riddled forces as well.
We need to start with the simple fact that defense spending since the Korean war has never fallen below a long term 5% growth curve (in current dollars), quite independently of strategy, worldwide threats or changing alliances. As shown in the figure below from a new analysis tracking annual appropriations, the American political-military-industrial system has developed a safeguard system to perpetually increase the money flow.
In other words, for 65 years the military budget’s inexorable expansion has not been controlled by the dramatic changes in America’s actual national security needs but by political and independent cash flow demands from inside the Pentagon, Congress, industry, and think tanks.
Secondly, we need to recognize that this inexorable money growth has shrunk our forces and weakened their capabilities so dramatically that today we would be utterly unready for and incapable of supporting–much less winning–Korean or Vietnam war sized campaigns. War with Iran would be disastrous according to insightful current military assessments.
There are underlying pathologies that connect rising spending with decaying force effectiveness. This naturally leads to the idea that we can have a better defense for less money, but only if the proposed budget changes—along with other reforms—address those pathologies. Without doing so, the big spenders in the Department of Defense, the White House and the Congress as well as the campaign-donating greasers in defense corporations, Wall Street and K Street will happily cherry pick the line item changes they like and trash the rest. Business as usual in the Pentagon will march on; the soul-destroying American wars will continue, and trillions will be wasted on perpetuating the decay of our defenses.
Without bearing directly on these basic pathologies, how can any analysis be relevant?
Four recent national security studies by respected Washington think tanks and issue organizations address the current defense spending problem. They each cut DOD programs and change policies to save money. The 25 authors (some with decades of experience and for whom we have real appreciation) have written over 50 recommendations supported by considerable details. That the Democratic candidates have publically ignored them all does not speak to the studies’ quality. Instead, it speaks to the candidates’ unwillingness to pick a fight with the horde of big spending advocates in both parties who will sling Pentagon- and corporation-written slick rebuttals, but certainly not campaign contributions, at any proposed reduction. Nonetheless, the studies warrant close examination as they exemplify the character of today’s inside-the-beltway Pentagon criticism.
Taken together, the four studies have three common themes:
+ The US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere—initiated or perpetuated by Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump—have “failed” and “have made the world more dangerous,” and something should be done. The ‘something’ varies from study to study.
+ The massive nuclear programs initiated by President Obama and expanded by President Trump should be partially reduced or eliminated–again, the recommendations vary.
+ A long list of conventional weapons, basing infrastructure and Pentagon military and civilian personnel programs should be cancelled or reduced. The four cut lists have many common elements, several of them sourced from the Congressional Budget Office’s “Budget Options” book, an annual publication which in the past has generally been ignored except by a small pockets in Congress and a few think tanks and issue organizations. Each study differs, however, on details and how much money to save.
The four studies’ recommended cuts vary from $1.25 trillion to $3.5 trillion over ten years. Two of the studies state they want to spend the savings on domestic programs; the other two do not commit themselves.
Beware the Caveats
Inspected closely, many of the recommendations have caveats, not all of them stated clearly.
The most ambitious of the studies is the Center of International Policy’s “Sustainable Defense: More Security, Less Spending.” It credits 16 authors, some of them also involved in the other papers. It calls for an end to “endless wars” but also allows for “a small, short-lived train and assist role.” We have been training and assisting in Iraq, Afghanistan and many of the rest for decades, all costing scores of billions of dollars. The training and assist deployments are already smaller than before. What is to be achieved with a “small, short-lived” presence is unclear. Moreover, there is no mention of pulling back the thousands of very expensive US contractor personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere who are doing the same training and support, and more, and who in Afghanistan, for example, significantly outnumber US Armed Forces personnel. The study does separately recommend reducing overall DOD contract personnel, but it does not specify where, and it cites the reduction as only a cost saving measure, not a war-reduction measure. This is not a plan to end the US role in these wars but to continue it, pointlessly but at a reduced level that is to be “short-lived.” When was it not to be that?
A different study from the Institute for Policy Studies and allied organizations, the “Poor People’s Moral Budget,” has 10 authors. They clearly recommend “bring home the troops” without any “train and assist” caveat. However, they do not mention the thousands of US civilian contractors, their “train and assist” involvement in the wars nor their high cost.
“The Agenda” for the National Priorities Project study, “People Over Pentagon” does not list the author(s) of its “Agenda,” and it does not say what it wants to do about the troops and contractors deployed in the various wars. It does state, “The U.S. should never again go to war without congressional authorization, and Congress should not authorize military action without identifying revenue to pay for current and future costs, including taking care of injured veterans.” And further on — “Examples of illegal wars include the conflicts in Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria” — an assertion that lawyers for Presidents Obama and Trump have consistently ignored as they exploit Congress’ expansive mandate, the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force.
“The Agenda” cites a “Guide to Cuts.” This is the Project On Government Oversight’s (POGO) study, “Spending Smarter, Spending Less: Opportunities to Reduce Excessive Pentagon Spending,” which POGO also lists at its own website. The text is silent on Iraq; for Afghanistan the recommendation is to reduce the troop presence by half. In-theater contractors are not mentioned. Elsewhere, like the Sustainable Defense report, POGO urges a non-specific 15% cut in service contractors. Again, the stated reason is to save money rather than to address the wars.
In sum, the four studies appear to recommend continuing, at some level, the US troop and/or contractor role in these wars—with the possible exception of the “Poor People’s Moral Budget,” which may want to bring home the US contractors without actually saying so.
Each of the studies calls for “eliminating” the Pentagon’s special Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account (“slush fund”), an account that was deliberately exempted from statutory budget caps on the basis that it was just to pay for the various wars. Not quite: for more than a decade the Pentagon and the Congress have been stuffing in extra and ever growing non-war billions. Sadly, the studies have no advice on how to eliminate this slush fund. Exhort the Pentagon and the defense committees in Congress to stop abusing the account? Good luck with that. Effective action would be to simply repeal the provisions of the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act that permit money designated “emergency” by Congress and the President to be exempted from discretionary spending caps. In 1991 the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) tried to rein in the slush by releasing a directive restricting this spending to what was “necessary, sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and not permanent.” Congress and Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump (and subsequently OMB itself) have made an unholy mockery of that directive. It’s obviously time to just repeal the exemption and return to the traditional, pre-1990, budget supplemental process when emergencies arise. Otherwise, this cap-dodging charade will simply persist.
The four studies contain various recommendations that look like they should not be controversial: reduce contract personnel especially those that are outsourcing jobs DOD civilians can and should perform at lower cost, close excess DOD bases and DOE nuclear facilities, and eliminate at least some parts of the ten year, $494 billion nuclear weapons “modernization” program launched by President Obama and augmented by President Trump – a program whose stated costs are assuredly understated and whose lifetime burden will easily exceed $1 Trillion.
Again, however, there are caveats. The Sustainable Defense and POGO reports urge elimination or reduction of several of the nuclear programs. The former recommends the elimination of the nuclear triad’s land leg and cancelling the new Obama/Trump ICBM program — but indirectly supports going ahead, in reduced numbers, with the new Columbia ballistic missile submarine program (SSBN).
POGO also recommends cancellation of the new ICBM program, but retains the triad’s existing Minuteman ICBMs and the existing Trident SSBNs—both in reduced numbers. This triad advocacy overlooks the serious analyses—including one from GAO from as long ago as 1993 as well as a 2009 study in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists—both recommending a non-ICBM “dyad” because it made no economic, military or deterrent sense to retain the ICBM force. (GAO also found the nuclear strategists’ declaration of dangerous “ICBM vulnerability” to a “disarming” Soviet/Russian first strike to be unsupported by the data and wantonly overstated.)
As with the call to eliminate the OCO slush fund, all the base closing (BRAC) recommendations fail to specify any useful action. Presidents and the military services have recommended closings for years. A previously cooperative, even if reluctant, Congress has simply refused ever since Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld crafted a BRAC that actually raised costs—thereby presenting Congress with a handy excuse to reject all future base closing proposals. The four studies provide no hint of any practical step for overcoming Congress’ dedication to the pork that prevents the needed cooperation. Clearly, suggestions for creative new legislative (or executive) tactics are needed, not just high-minded recommendations.
Playing into Pentagon Pathologies?
From the perspective of doing something about ingrained DOD pathologies, the most problematic of the various study recommendations are those on weapon systems and force structure. We will cite just two examples, but there are many more.
The Sustainable Defense report makes recommendations to reduce active Army end strength by 13%–specifying explicit reductions in brigade combat teams, combat support and “infrastructure personnel,” but it doesn’t examine the Army’s and the other services’ massive bloat in field grade officers and headquarters personnel. It would also reduce the Navy from the current 297 to 264 ships, reducing carriers from 11 to nine–without specifying whether to stop buying failure-ridden $14 billion Ford class carriers to replace older, far more reliable carriers. Completely unmentioned is the extreme vulnerability of aircraft carriers to the world’s stockpiles of cheap carrier-sinking weapons: mines, diesel-electric submarines and sea-skimming anti-ship missiles. Even more fundamentally, the report leaves unaddressed the central naval question: can we or should we rely on carriers as the centerpiece of American intervention for the indefinite future?
For the rest of the surface fleet, the report recommends building 36 new frigates to be based not on the disastrously failed Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) design, but on “existing, reliable frigate designs.” Left unanalyzed is the $1 billion-or-more cost imposed on the frigate by out of control Navy requirements and the ship’s unsuitability for actual littoral control, just like its LCS predecessor. Also recommended is building 10 more nuclear-powered attack submarines, with new “payload modules” and larger launch tubes, without examination of the added cost or the utility of the add-on features.
The Sustainable Defense report would also reduce the active Air Force inventory from 1,200 fighters and attack aircraft to 1,050. Using somewhat vague language, it recommends “reducing demand” for F-35A purchases by eliminating six “squadron equivalents,” which the report calculates to be 170 aircraft in both combat and non-combat units: in other words, a token 10% reduction of the Air Force’s planned 1,763. This is without considering the F-35A’s extreme limitations in close support and in maneuvering air combat, among a host of additional problems. The study also mentions an unspecified reduction of the 260 planned Navy F-35Cs, but no cut in the 420 Marines’ F-35Bs despite this version’s even poorer close support capability, higher cost and complexity, lesser range and payload, higher vulnerability and abysmal reliability.
The Sustainable Defense study sums up saying, “Although smaller than today’s military, this armed force would remain the most powerful on earth, well equipped for current and emerging security challenges.” In fact, it says it would protect “the United States and its allies more effectively at a lower budgetary cost.” (Emphasis added.) Taken together, with the retirement of older systems and ‘modernizing’ with smaller numbers of more complex and much more expensive new systems, the Sustainable Defense authors are recommending a smaller, higher tech, supposedly cheaper force.
We have tried that before. As some of us have been pointing out for decades, this really means a smaller, older on average, more expensive, less effective force. Details abound and have for years. DOD’s version of the high tech route to modernization has been shrinking US forces for 65 years. That has proved more expensive, not cheaper. Combat capabilities have diminished, and we are forced to keep old weapons far longer than ever.
In 1968 the Air Force had 15,476 aircraft (all types); by 2010 that dwindled to 5,900, a force reduction of 62%. Similarly, the Navy shrank from 932 battlefleet ships to 288, a 69% reduction, in the same period. Army manpower went down 63% from 1,512,000 to 566,000. That was in the face of a budget that grew 34%–from $566 billion to $757 billion, adjusted for inflation—using DOD’s own cooked deflator numbers that overstate weapons cost inflation to reduce the appearance of steep spending increases. Since 2010 these same trends have continued, excepting a marginal Navy ship increase to 297 on the strength of massive spending add-ons. As always, the smaller “new” force is actually older; the average age of both the Air Force’s fighter and attack fleet and the Navy’s tactical fighters is steadily growing and is now over 25 years per aircraft. The same is happening to ships; the smaller fleet is today older per ship than ever before.
Sustainable Defense’s seemingly sensible, money saving recommendation to use existing hull designs, even if one from abroad is selected, for a new frigate is another case in point. Unfortunately, the study never considers that we may need hundreds of small fast boats for coastal control far more than we need a handful of larger-than-World War II-cruiser frigates, which the Navy is working toward. Moreover, the frigate recommendation omits how to ensure a successful, more-effective-and-cheaper-than-LCS product once the Navy and its contractors get their hands on the existing design, foreign or domestic. Without implementing specific barriers to our Navy’s cost-maximizing business-as-usual practices, nothing will prevent another LCS, DDG-1000 or Ford Carrier disaster. In fact, adding 36 of the billion-dollar-or-more frigates to the budget without insisting on the needed precautions guarantees exactly that outcome.
The inexorable pathology of Pentagon acquisition has been explained many times. In summary, without practical and fundamental reforms, the following outcomes are assured:
+ There will be either no competition between contending contractors or phony ones like the F-35’s—or both phony and ignored like the LCS’s.
+ Testing will be unrealistically rigged for success and scheduled to not finish until years after production is paid for and well underway, thus locking in both the Pentagon and Congress. Test failures may well remain uncorrected, even unreported, until some peacetime or combat disaster years later.
+ Unit cost of new hardware will be multiples of the initial promises—and even larger multiples of the cost of the weapons being replaced. The replacements will be so expensive that they can replace only a fraction of the previous force, thus necessitating repeated life extensions of the legacy systems. Inevitably, the inventory will shrink and its average age will increase.
+ New weapons will fail to live up to effectiveness promises and in all too many cases will underperform the system being replaced. The feckless effort to replace A-10s with F-35s for close support to troops in combat is a classic example. Remarkably, none of the four studies mention the A-10 nor the continuing attempts of the Air Force and the defense big spenders to get rid of it. Keeping combat-proven A-10s for close support instead of replacing them with hopelessly limited, $150 million F-35s is a perfect example of more defense for vastly less cost.
+ The new weapons will invariably be delivered years late – at ever growing cost for development and production. Costs will not be accurately tracked and will remain permanently un-auditable. Cost estimates for future buys will be cooked to look lower by playing with inflation numbers, promising production savings that never materialize, and other budget sleight-of-hand.
+ The new weapons will be so complex, unreliable and hard to fix that they frequently will fail to show up for combat—or for essential peacetime training—when needed. They will be saddled with unprecedented high operating costs, vastly more expensive than the unacceptably old, allegedly hard-to-maintain systems kept in the force. Promises for future operating costs will remain unaudited and questionable, even when they seem adequately high. Many new systems will be on hand for combat less than half as often as the seeming antiques they are supposed to replace. Consider the recent operational tests that showed F-35Bs could only fly in combat about once every three days, even with unrealistically high levels of support. In contrast, A-10s have flown three times a day from austere bases in actual combat.
+ Utterly crucial mission areas—invariably ones that involve cheap, unglamorous platforms or weapons—remain permanently neglected and underfunded, despite knowing their neglect has caused failed combat operations or tragic friendly casualties in wartime. Egregious examples include close support of troops, mine sweeping, coastal and shallow water patrol/combat craft and emergency forward area airlift. Not coincidentally, these neglected missions are precisely where cheaper weapons are notably more effective than expensive ones. $20 million dollar A-10s are vastly more capable in close support than $150 million F-35s; $180 million mine sweepers to counter mines are much more reliable than $650 million LCSs; $25 million missile patrol boats can control coastal waters in which $1 billion-plus frigates are hopelessly ineffective; and $40 million C-27Js can resupply forward troops inaccessible to $145 million C-130Js. Opting for the cheaper-and-better platform in each of these neglected missions will dramatically reverse the shrinking and aging forces problem.
These pathologies have been driving up the Pentagon’s procurement and operating budgets for 65 years while perpetually failing to replace on hand inventories or to keep fleets operating at anything near acceptable rates.
Still worse, the ever growing procurement and maintenance budgets squeeze what’s available for training: currently our pilots, sailors, and soldiers have lower training rates than ever recorded before, lower even than some banana republics. Congress makes it all worse by annually raiding O&M readiness accounts to pay for hundreds of earmarks (that is, pork)–which Congress pretends don’t exist–costing billions.
It’s easy to recommend buying reliable, affordable new frigates, but not insisting on the acquisition changes needed has a long, lurid history of achieving just the opposite.
A rather different problem arises in POGO’s “Spending Smarter, Spending Less.” Its recommendation #14 is to retire the F-22–a fine recommendation. The F-22 is highly disappointing, perpetually unready and outrageously expensive—with its endlessly ongoing fixes and “upgrades”, it is nearing half a billion dollars per fighter. But the rationale POGO offers is strange: “…designed for air-to-air fighting against a sophisticated enemy like China or Russia. The United States is unlikely, however, to ever engage in such an armed conflict.” (Emphasis added.) POGO references this recommendation and its cost savings to the Congressional Budget Office’s “Budget Options” report. The cost is indeed in the CBO report. The prognostication is not. The wording suggests someone at POGO imposing an attractively catchy but foolhardy phrase. It’s not that shutting down the F-22 is a bad idea—it’s the confident prediction that those wars are unlikely to happen again, “ever.” Good to know. We now can unload lots more heavy weaponry and save far bigger money.
Note the Silence on ….
There is no oversight of this broken system. For example, no one knows exactly what is done with the money DOD gets from Congress. Despite the Constitution’s requirement that “a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time,” DOD remains the only federal department that has never complied. In the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, Congress passed a requirement for all agencies to be audited. After decades of delay and repeatedly busted administrative deadlines, the Pentagon attempted to audit its spending in 2018. As reported by the DOD Inspector General, the exercise was a dismal failure. In boring auditor-ese on page 11, the IG report tells us the audit declared a “disclaimer of opinion” (I.E. un-auditable) for 56% of DOD agencies and 90% of the money. DOD literally does not know and can only estimate what happens to 90% of its money. Nor is it good news for the 10% they could audit, which was mostly a “Statement of Budgetary Resources,” in essence a balancing of the checkbook. For the 10% the auditors could track, they only know that the contractor, for example, got the contracted money—not whether the money was spent without fraud or abuse. Finding any of that would require audits of contractor overhead including political contributions and subcontract payments, or better yet of all budget expenditures for Major Defense Acquisition Programs. Don’t hold your breath for that to happen.
The Constitution charges Congress with overseeing the “Statement and Account” of expenditures and, indeed, of all Pentagon activities. Tune in to any House or Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on oversight. Watch as those Members who are present frequently look down at their papers as they ask a question, assuming it is a real question and not a speech. They are reading staff-prepared questions. The DOD witness will politely answer, often misleadingly. Then the Member will glance at the paper and read off the next question. A follow-up question to probe further would require a uniquely prescient staff memo or actual and thorough preparation for the hearing by the Member. Other Members will harangue the DOD witness, often in a very convincing manner—and after the hearing do nothing.
All of the above pathologies are facilitated by congressional staffers and Pentagon acquisition managers who come from or go to the same defense corporations that get the contracts the staffers and managers are supposed to oversee. Or, they rotate through the investment firms, lobbying shops and think tanks that profit by pressing for those same contracts. POGO has been reporting on this for decades and, in an excellent 2018 report, has documented hundreds of high ranking military and civilian passengers on this gravy train. They more or less run the Pentagon and are overseen by congressional staffers who ride the same non-stop express.
It is a system that is not just broken, but corrupt.
What to Do
None of the recommendations below are new; none of them are complicated, but they all require advocates with guts and informed insight to make them happen:
+ One More Time, Fix DOD Operational Testing: Against a mountain of resistance from DOD and its go-fers in Congress, in 1983 military reformers in Congress passed a law creating an independent Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) to oversee service testing with explicit authorities to end rigged testing and biased test reporting. The Pentagon promptly hobbled the reform by installing almost universally weak or industry-complicit Directors, until George Bush and then Barrack Obama happened to appoint two Directors who proved to be excellent, tough and uncompromising. The subsequent Trump appointee has returned to hasty, non-rigorous testing and incomplete reporting. When the new President is elected, interested parties should find and press upon him or her a new Bush-Obama-like DOT&E, possibly a reappointment of Dr. Michael Gilmore, the courageous Obama appointee or one of his more forthright assistants.
+ End Acquisition Malpractice: The basics of acquiring less expensive, more combat -effective weapons quickly is not as hard or complicated as DOD would have you believe. Following four simple rules will get you there: a) set design effectiveness requirements based on actual combat history and stringent cost limits; b) require competitive selection of combat-ready prototypes, effectiveness-tested in a combat-like “fly-off” overseen by DOT&E and cost-estimated by an independent group of “should cost” experts; c) require successful completion of stringent developmental testing before starting combat-realistic operational testing of production-representative samples; and d) require completion of operational tests before approving any money for full production. Specifically, this means not allowing the flim-flam of producing hundreds of units labelled “low-rate, initial production” long before testing is complete, as in the egregious example of the F-35. Make a negative of these four rules and you will understand the Pentagon’s process for buying the F-35, the Ford carrier, the V-22 Osprey and many more of our acquisition disasters.
+ Exterminate the Loopholes: Congress, helpfully advised by the Pentagon and the contractors, routinely writes gaping loopholes into acquisition laws. The Pentagon then makes sure these loopholes don’t gather cobwebs. As GAO recently noted, the much touted Weapon System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 made acquisition abuses worse rather than better by allowing DOD to waive each of the Act’s core reforms. The laws do not so much need to be changed as they need to be enforced without waivers by a secretary of defense and senior acquisition managers who put the needs of troops and taxpayers before corporations and careers.
+ Stop Revolving Door Corruption: To eliminate acquisition malpractice, Congress needs to legislate—without adding loopholes—the complete set of recommendations POGO has drafted to shut down the revolving door. As long as the executive branch selects and the Senate confirms as senior defense managers lobbyists, corporate marketeers, politicians and other industry shills, the troops and the taxpayers will continue to be ill-served. The Constitution was not commissioning elected rubber stamps when it empowered Senators to disapprove unqualified or tainted presidential appointees. But the Congress’ responsibilities go much further: once in office, high officials must be held accountable for unethical actions or decisions. The flip side of the coin is that acquisition managers of conscience will need strong support from reform-minded Members; the upright will find themselves under tremendous pressure from those who don’t want an honest system.
+ Get the DOD Audited, ASAP: Place the highest possible priority on auditing both the overall Pentagon budget and all major defense acquisition programs. Since it is clear that the Pentagon has been slow-rolling this process for 28 years, impose some pain on the un-auditable and the unwilling, to motivate speedier auditing success. To do that, re-enact the quite successful Renegotiation Board statute of the past to require an audit of all major contracts and a return to the Treasury of any excess corporate profits. In doing so, do not re-legislate the progressively weaker versions of the Renegotiation Board that Congress and industry passed, in increments, during the Cold War. Also, consider strengthening legislation such as the Audit the Pentagon Act that allows imposing percentage financial penalties on the Pentagon until it can pass an overall audit. Increase those current percentages and, most importantly, ensure the penalties are actually imposed (which so far has never happened).
+ Try a Little Oversight: Getting better oversight out of think tanks and Congress will not be easy. Revealing the source of all financing should be mandatory for any think tank or advocacy organization; it certainly should be a requirement for any donation to be tax deductible. POGO policy is a good model. Getting Congress to legislate reform of its own dearth of oversight will be tough. Nevertheless, an important step towards de-politicizing defense could be made by requiring all staff for any national security related committee or subcommittee to be hired and fired only by joint action of both the chairman and ranking member. Exactly that has been done in the past. As for committee members who want to politicize their defense agendas, including with earmarks, they can readily use their personal rather than committee staff for that. As an equally important step, no committee staff should be hired without a commitment to refuse work for any defense corporation for a period no less than two years, and preferably four. That commitment also must include not going to work in the Pentagon; the Constitution’s separation of powers needs to be real.
The status quo pundits will say none of this can be done. It is simply too extreme. Instead, we must try incremental steps, such as the loophole-riddled, history-denying, caveat-sprinkled program tinkerings that have been published time and time again in the past, and recommended all too frequently in the above studies.
The sponsors of the four studies surely want to see their recommendations implemented, but so far all the Democratic candidates have ignored them. Despite the Pentagon’s being a sinkhole of over-cost, under-performing, force effectiveness-decaying, ethically challenged, unaudited programs, none of the candidates have shown any serious interest, not even in the simple cut lists and media-friendly policy nostrums offered up. Moreover, should any of the candidates actually tout any of those cuts, predictably the Republican and “mainstream” Democratic more-money-is-good whores will pounce as they always do, blustering about being weak on defense and not supporting the troops. It will be, of course, nauseating hogwash—a debate of the brain-dead, equating stronger defense with more billions in the budget.
Should any of the Democratic candidates actually read and rely on any of the studies’ claims of better defense for less money, they will be helpless to present any examples of cheaper-and-better weapons. Nor will they be armed to explain why if a few F-35s are a good idea, then skies —or rather hangars full—of them isn’t an even better idea. If asked how to fix the Pentagon’s underlying problems, any candidate who’s read the studies can only respond with a brief deer-in-the-headlights stare before falling back on the old saw about “eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.” And if asked how to do that, a most unlikely follow-up, there will be an even longer pause before he or she comes up with a yet emptier sound-bite.
Even if the studies are embraced and every one of their recommendations adopted, today’s underlying problems will remain—thereby ensuring business as usual before, during and after implementation by the DOD bureaucracy.
Why? The studies don’t identify the Pentagon’s basic problems and the recommendations do nothing to solve them.
The nation badly needs a better national security debate than this.
Arguing over spending differences of just a few percentage points or contending cut lists has proven to be mere background noise to an ever increasing budget, shrinking forces, and a vast readiness crisis across the American armed forces.
Instead, the debate needs to be about ethics, knowing where the money goes, buying weapons that serve the troops well without abusing the taxpayer, testing those weapons honestly and, most importantly, appointing people to oversee all this who are not itching to cash in with corporations and Wall Street when they change jobs.
Let the money grubbers argue they are against any of that.
Altogether Sprey, Spinney and Wheeler have approximately 120 years of full time work experience in the Pentagon, military service, defense industry, Congress, think tanks and the Government Accountability Office. Additional writing and biographical material about each of them can be found here, here and here.
The post Bankrupt and Irrelevant: the Presidential Debates and Four Recent Studies on Pentagon Spending appeared first on CounterPunch.org.
Thieves of private property pass their lives in chains; thieves of public property in riches and luxury.
– Cato the Elder
Though I encounter students and other young people who have never heard the term I hope most Americans are aware of the “Military Industrial Complex.” In his final speech to the nation President Eisenhower, surprisingly since he oversaw much of its formation, warned citizens of the growing danger of the “permanent armaments industry” controlled by those who owned and profited greatly from this new scientific and technological establishment. Many of the giant arms industries, both industrial and high tech, that dominate the corporate landscape today came into existence as the result of war and would long ago have gone out of business in the absence of the guaranteed government profits flowing from the manufactured wars that sustain them today.
Few citizens have ever heard of Charles Wilson of the General Electric Corporation who served as the “czar” of arms production during World War II. In 1944 as victory loomed the nation awaited the return of 16 million veterans. Would unemployment and bread lines await them again? “What we need,” said Wilson, is a “permanent war economy,” neglecting to add that such a scheme would also require permanent enemies.
Undoubtedly you have observed that the United States has been involved in one war or intervention or another, since the end of World War II. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are only the most obvious. Our nation has overthrown numerous governments, many elected by means as democratic as we assert our own to be. The U.S. has more than 800 military installations dispersed across the globe. Though the U.S. emerged from WWII as the most powerful nation in human history the American public has been endlessly propagandized to believe that we are a lone island of democracy and human rights surrounded in a geo-political ocean by sharks bent on our destruction.
In fact the “permanent warfare state” has been erected on the backs of American taxpayers by fraudulent claims of threats to our national security. In the case of “terrorists” these adversaries were the result of our own interventions in Muslim countries. In truth, no nation is, or ever has been, or ever will be capable of invading the U.S. or otherwise subjecting us to its will. Should collapse be our fate we will have none but ourselves to blame for accepting a dysfunctional system sustained by the dishonesty of our government officials and the establishment media that consistently fail to fulfill their obligation to hold power to account.
What should more honestly be termed the Military Industrial Congressional Intelligence University Media Complex is a parasite that cannot exist without permanent war or the implied and constant threat to our “security.” Our taxes represent the symbolic value of the American peoples’ collective labor and this vampire has long drained social resources from essential domestic needs. And many of these corporations pay no taxes at all. So that means that hard-pressed Americans, facing increasing costs, pay the bulk of the expense to maintain this leech like superstructure.
In 2016, CEOs of the top five military contractors “earned” an average of $19.2 million each. Compare that with an average of $30,000 paid to military privates in combat. Every hour, taxpayers are paying $32.08 million for the total costs of wars since 2001.
After the falsehoods spread by the Bush II administration about Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” can anyone doubt that our invasion of Iraq actually fostered the rise of Islamic State? What a windfall that has turned out to be for the MIC and the careers of military “lifers” and their post retirement enrichment as VPs in the very corporations they helped to profit or as talking heads on all networks fostering outright deceptions and half-truths about those “threats” to our security. We in Veterans for Peace know only too well that the lies LBJ told about the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” were calculated to promote full scale war throughout Indochina. Nothing has changed. The real historical record reveals, as opposed to our national Disney fantasies, that numerous leaders have misled the nation into foreign wars time and again, going all the way back to the Mexican War of 1846. By far the heaviest cost in all of this carnage is the lives lost, and the social wealth stolen by war-makers. As the blood-stained history of the last two centuries proves, war resolves nothing but only sets the stage for yet more war. I always think of a statement by the sociologist C. Wright Mills, “World War III will be caused by preparing for it.”
Critics of what I have just said may point to the Military Industrial Complexes of the other superpowers. Let us focus on China for the moment. American and other imperial powers attempted to carve up China for their own benefit in the early 20th Century. Then, after the defeat of Japan in 1945 the Chinese won their independence under the leadership of the Communists. The U.S. did not wage war with Japan so that China or any other Asian nation might go its own way. So in 1950 the U.S., via the war in Korea, provoked war with China. At that time Chinese strength of arms barely exceeded rifles and foot soldiers. Nevertheless American military commanders, including then presidential candidate Eisenhower, threatened China with nuclear weapons. Are we really to be astonished that today China is a highly developed nuclear and military power itself? Our own policies and actions impelled Chinese choices over the next half century after World War II. If China ever does pose a potential military threat it will be because we have threatened them into a thoroughly predictable reaction. It is not too late to stand down on all the military fronts we have generated ourselves. But it is imperative that we initiate, in good faith if we can find the honest and principled leaders to do so, the first steps in a global withdrawal from the edge of the precipice.
Here in Boston an alliance of Veterans for Peace, Massachusetts Peace Action, American Friends Service Committee, Code Pink and many others is fighting an uphill battle to persuade citizens and the legislature to divest the Commonwealth’s retirement funds from Raytheon, a company soaked in the blood of innocents from its sales of Patriot Missiles and other armaments to Saudi Arabia and others waging a monstrously illegal, and catastrophic war in Yemen. Raytheon is the largest member of the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) doing business in the Massachusetts and more than a few legislators, both federal and local, are more than willing accept contributions from this giant. Of course they are expected to protect Raytheon’s, and its investors, access to profit and that means never questioning the authenticity of claims made by “national security” officials. The same pattern is repeated across the nation.
Proponents of the Green New Deal have argued that societies worldwide cannot avoid the looming catastrophes of global climate change unless the industrially developed countries convert to modes of life that disavow carbon fuel sources and transform to sustainable and “green” modes of energy. In the U.S. the American military is the single largest consumer of oil and therefore the greatest contributor to carbon emissions and global warming. At the same time the Pentagon is also ramping up its future reliance on nuclear weapons and thereby inducing our “adversaries” to do the same. As climate disasters intensify and mass migrations continue the risks of conflict and violence also worsen. The conflict between India and Pakistan is an example of this and both nations have their nukes at the ready. Is this really the way the world will end…or do we wake up and demand the changes critical to our collective future? Climate change, beyond its own certainty of initiating human extinction, has every potential to result in nuclear war.
So what is really needed is not mere divestment from companies on the stock market but a demand on the part of citizens for our government to withdraw from its alliance with parasitical corporations that rely on permanent production for permanent war. Anything else is suicidal. If we keep on our present course it is virtually certain that we will bring about our own annihilation. The means are fully known to exist to convert our energy requirements and the industrial and technological wherewithal toward a new system, call it what you will, that can reduce carbon emissions, eliminate the threat of nuclear war, and re-focus the energies of citizens toward new forms of occupation that can stop the march to destruction. Is it not obvious that we must do so? Evidently the ruling elites are far more worried about their own grasp on power and control of wealth to perceive the impending dystopian future they oversee so it is we the citizens of this country who must find a way to break their lock and accept nothing less than the radical changes that polls show the majority see as necessary. I personally have never voted for a Democrat or Republican since I long ago lost faith that either party represented or cared about the fate of the majority. Nevertheless new contenders for political transmutation have emerged with ideas for fundamental change. The old guard in both parties must be booted out if we are to take the necessary steps toward the obligatory transformations that must be implemented.
We know that our society is reeling from dire social and economic problems like unemployment, medical care, homelessness, gun violence, suicide, drug addiction and many others. Leaders of both parties tell us that there are limited resources to address these basic issues. Don’t we know better? Is our nation not the richest in human history? The U.S. can defend itself against any would-be enemy with a quarter or less than the sum now approaching one trillion dollars allocated to the wasteful and bloated military. No nation wishes to invade us but only to resist the planetary overreach of America Inc.
The only genuine solution is to halt the insane incentives to make a killing on killing. A movement by cities, towns, states and individuals to divest from the banks, hedge funds, brokerage houses, universities and state and private retirement funds that funnel the nation’s collective real wealth into what is truly a dead end would be a step in the right direction but what is really needed at this critical juncture in human evolution are giant steps. Our nation as a whole must stop our investment in this mass murder machine or continue to take the fateful strides toward our own failure as a species.
U.S. defense spending is out of control, severely undermining our ability to tackle climate change, infrastructure needs, health care, and other national challenges. The mainstream media, particularly the New York Times and Washington Post, contribute to the problem of defense spending by understating the cost of defense.
Journalists and pundits regularly refer to U.S. defense spending as greater than the next seven or eight countries. Nonsense! U.S. defense spending when correctly tabulated exceeds the defense spending of the rest of the global community. Current defense spending is greater than $1 trillion and the bipartisan support for U.S defense spending assures continued increases. Many of the largest spenders on defense, moreover, are our treaty allies.
Most estimates of U.S. defense spending cite only the budget figures for the Pentagon, which points toward $750 billion. However, much of the spending of many agencies, particularly in the intelligence community (more than $70 billion), is devoted to support of the military. The same can be said for the Department of Homeland Security (also around $70 billion) as well as the Department of Energy ($30 billion), which devotes huge sums to nuclear forces. The Veterans Administration (nearly $200 billion), moreover, must be considered part and parcel of U.S. defense spending. At the same time, the Trump administration is cutting the spending of U.S. cabinet agencies to support defense spending, excluding not only the Department of Defense, but the Department of Homeland Security and the Veterans Administration.
When these departments and agencies are taken into account, U.S. defense spending greatly exceeds $1 trillion, which finds very little criticism within the Congress or the various think tanks that address the issue of military spending. With the loss of Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), there has been no bipartisan scrutiny of defense spending. This is particularly troubling at this time because the various Democratic candidates for the presidency have little background in the field of national security, let alone the abstruse aspects of defense spending, and there is no attention given to the many obvious areas for cutting back allocations for defense.
The trillions of dollars allocated for defense in recent years received insufficient congressional monitoring and internal oversight. Until recently, the Pentagon budget was the only large federal budget that had never been audited, and last year’s audit, which cost nearly $400 million, produced a failing grade for the Pentagon. President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex nearly 60 years ago noted that military demands on U.S. spending would become a “cross of iron” that would limit domestic spending. Now, at a time when there are no serious challenges to U.S. security or military supremacy, more than 60 percent of U.S. discretionary spending goes to support defense.
There is no better example of the insidious nature of the military-industrial complex than the industry’s recruitment of retired generals to become executives at defense companies and the Pentagon’s use of these same retired generals to take part in exercises involving weapons systems that their companies are vying to build for the military. Retired generals and admirals are also working as military analysts for television and radio networks, often receiving classified briefings from the Pentagon before their on-air appearances. Nevertheless, a recent Inspector General study found no conflict of interest involving these officers.
Every aspect of the Pentagon’s budget needs to be scrutinized for savings, including procurement, operations and maintenance, and infrastructure. There are hundreds of U.S. military facilities overseas with hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel stationed there. By comparison, China has one overseas facility, a small one on the Horn of Africa, and Russia has only modest air and naval facilities in Syria outside the former Soviet space. Procurement boondoggles have robbed the U.S. treasury of hundreds of billions of dollars, particularly for national missile defense and the Army’s Future Combat System, which consists of interconnected vehicles, robots, and sensing devices. Hugely expensive U.S. aircraft carriers are vulnerable to inexpensive sophisticated cruise missiles in the Russian and Chinese inventories.
The excessive spending on the Air Force is the most wasteful of all military expenditures. The Air Force is obsessed with fighter superiority in an era without a threat. Pentagon briefings on Capitol Hill regularly exaggerate the capabilities of foreign air defense. Billions of dollars have been spent on advanced aircraft, such as the B-1 bomber and the F-22 fighter, which have never been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan or any other combat zone. The F-22 was designed in the mid-1980s to confront Soviet fighter planes that were never built. The F-22 program was eventually killed to make way for the more costly and contentious F-35 program.
Like the Air Force and its dominance of the skies, the Navy has had total dominance at sea for the past six decades. U.S naval ships are deployed in too many areas with too many missions. The Navy, moreover, has its own air force, its own army, and its own strategic weapons. It has greater lethality than all of the navies of the world combined and has a subordinate organization, the Coast Guard, which represents the world’s seventh largest fleet. The U.S. Marines, moreover, have more planes, ships, armored vehicles, and personnel in uniform than the entire British military. The very existence of the Marine Corps is questionable in view of the fact that its last amphibious landing was in the first year of the Korean War nearly 60 years ago.
One of the best kept secrets of the past sixty years has been the high cost of producing and maintaining nuclear weapons somewhere between $5 and $6 trillion, which represents one-fourth to one-third of overall defense spending. The total is roughly equivalent to the total amount of money spent on the Army or the Navy since World War Two. When the United States began to develop and deploy nuclear weapons, the military-industrial complex stressed that the huge investment in nuclear systems would allow a smaller army and navy. Meanwhile, our army and navy have gotten larger and costlier for taxpayers.
In sum, Republican Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump have created the worst of all possible strategic worlds. Bush abrogated the ABM Treaty, the cornerstone of deterrence and one of the pearls of arms control and disarmament policy, and paved the way for the murky world of national missile defense, which costs hundreds of billions of dollars. Trump abrogated the INF Treaty, one of the most successful disarmament treaties in history, and paved the way for a renewed arms race in Europe and Asia. These actions were guided by John Bolton who served as an arms control adviser to Bush and the national security adviser to Trump. As a result, incentives have been created for others to deploy intercontinental missiles, modernize strategic inventories, pursue weapons of mass destruction, and follow the folly of national missile defense. Once again, only the interests of the military-industrial complex are being served.
Cicero said that “endless money forms the sinews of war.” So it is not surprising that the United States has been in conflict for nearly all of the past three decades. At the same time, there has been a withdrawal from the world of diplomacy, which finds that there are fewer Foreign Service Officers than there are members of military service bands.
You can’t make shit like this up. Well, sometimes you can make shit like this up.
Three of the nine news items below are for the most part actually Fake News stories made up by yours truly, the present writer. The remaining six items are real news stories edited down and pasted-in from mainstream news sites. See if you can pick out the fake from the real news stories. (You probably can but the fact that you’ll have to think about it bit speaks volumes about the surreal madness of U.S. media-politics culture in the Age of Trump). I will identify the fake stories and give the full citations and URLs for the six real stories at my Website www.paulstreet.org
#1 Trump Suggested Nuking Hurricanes to Stop Them From Hitting U.S.
President Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States, according to sources who have heard the president’s private remarks and been briefed on a National Security Council memorandum that recorded those comments.
During one hurricane briefing at the White House, Trump said, “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” according to one source who was there. “They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they’re moving across the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane and it disrupts it. Why can’t we do that?” the source added, paraphrasing the president’s remarks.
Asked how the briefer reacted, the source recalled he said something to the effect of, “Sir, we’ll look into that.”
Trump replied by asking incredulously how many hurricanes the U.S. could handle and reiterating his suggestion that the government intervene before they make landfall.
The briefer “was knocked back on his heels,” the source in the room added. “You could hear a gnat fart in that meeting. People were astonished. After the meeting ended, we thought, ‘What the f—? What do we do with this?'”
Trump also raised the idea in another conversation with a senior administration official. A 2017 NSC memo describes that second conversation, in which Trump asked whether the administration should bomb hurricanes to stop them from hitting the homeland. A source briefed on the NSC memo said it does not contain the word “nuclear”; it just says the president talked about bombing hurricanes.
White House response: A senior administration official said, “We don’t comment on private discussions that the president may or may not have had with his national security team.”
A different senior administration official, who has been briefed on the president’s hurricane bombing suggestion, defended Trump’s idea and said it was no cause for alarm. “His goal — to keep a catastrophic hurricane from hitting the mainland — is not bad,” the official said. “His objective is not bad.”
Story #2: President Again Claims He Can End Birthright Citizenship
President Donald Trump said Wednesday he was looking “very seriously” at ending the right to citizenship for babies born to non-U.S. citizens on American soil.
Trump spoke to reporters as he departed the White House for a speech in Louisville, Kentucky. He said birthright citizenship was “frankly ridiculous.”
“We’re looking at it very, very seriously,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Trump has claimed he’d do away with it — he said something similar in October.
But the citizenship proposal would inevitably spark a longshot legal battle over whether the president can alter the long-accepted understanding that the 14th Amendment grants citizenship to any child born on U.S. soil, regardless of a parent’s immigration status.
James Ho, a conservative Trump-appointed federal appeals court judge, wrote in 2006, before his appointment, that birthright citizenship “is protected no less for children of undocumented persons than for descendants of Mayflower passengers.”
But Trump has said he was assured by his lawyers that the change could be made “just with an executive order.”
Story # 3: Trump Considering Executive Order to Remove Latinos and Muslims From Federal Bench
Unnamed White House sources report that President Trump has asked his top political advisor Stephen Miller to draft an executive order that would remove all persons of “Muslim and Mexican or other Hispanic ancestry” from the federal judiciary and federal prosecutor positions. Trump said privately that he “doesn’t have any problem with Muslims or Mexicans being judges or prosecutors, just not in this country. Let them be judges or prosecutors in Iran or Guatemala or someplace like that.”
The rationale for the proposed ban would “have nothing to do with race or ethnicity” according to one of Trump’s top conservative backers and associates speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s just about our culture, Western civilization,” says the Trump confidante. “The president has great respect for other cultures. He has even more respect for American culture, which comes from Europe. It’s hard to expect people from one culture to make fair decisions on legal matters involving people from another culture. The president, as you may know, has had some issues over the years with judges and prosecutors not from his culture, his civilization. If they want to prosecute or make rulings on Anglo-Saxons and other products of Western civilization, then let them go to where they came from and try to do that there. There’s lots of crime to take care of in their homelands.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on what would certainly be a controversial policy move.
Story #4: “They Won’t be Happy”: Trump Threatens to Nuke Anguilla
In a Tweet that took that surprised his own national security staff this morning, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened the tiny 90% Black Caribbean island of Anguilla, a British overseas territory, with “thermonuclear liquidation.”
“They won’t be happy, the Anguillans,” Trump wrote, adding that “It was a big mistake to go after Happy.’
The cause of Trump’s fury is an Anguillan court’s indictment of a Scott Hapgood, an affluent white banker from Connecticut, for manslaughter.
Last April 13th, Hapgood killed a Black Anguillan hotel worker, Kenny Mitchell, at an Anguillan resort. After he claimed to have felt threatened by Mitchell, Hapgood knocked the resort employee to the floor and pinned hm there for half an hour without proper breathing space. Mitchell died from asphyxiation
Eye-witness accounts of the murder do not fit Hapgood’s claim to have acted in legitimate self-defense.
Hapgood arrived in Anguilla last week to attend a preliminary hearing. Surrounded by armed security guards and donning a bullet-proof vest, the 44-year old financial consultant said he is eager for a trial that will prove his innocence. “Every court appearance means we’re one step closer to putting this nightmare behind us,” Hapgood said.
Trump said he doesn’t think “the Anguilians or whatever they call themselves” are “capable of holding fair trial for some rich guy they hate because he’s an American who worked hard.”
“Who are these people?” Trump asked reporters on the White House lawn this afternoon, “and what are they doing in the Caribbean? Rapists and killers who want to invade our golf courses from crime-infested places!”
“I asked somebody who knows Happy’s lawyer and he says that Happy denies killing that guy. I don’t see why he would have.”
“I don’t think there should be a trial,” Trump added. “Happy tried to have a nice vacation and bring some money to their island. Maybe he tried to give this guy some financial advice. These people could use some financial advice, trust me. And what does this guy do to thank him? Pulls a knife. Probably wanted to rape his wife and kids. That didn’t work out too good for him.”
“I doubt Happy can get a fair trial there. They probably hate him because he’s an American who worked hard for his money like me.”
“If Anguilla doesn’t drop this,” Trump warned, “a lot of people could die. What have they got on that island, 10,000 people or something like that? The real number is 17,400.
“I don’t want to wipe out 10,000 people, but I can do it and I will if I have to.”
“My client is not happy about this tragic incident,” Hapgood’s attorney says, “but he welcomes the president’s support.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s press secretary has expressed “full confidence in the capabilities of Anguilla’s courts.” Johnson has so far refused comment on Trump’s threat to incinerate a British overseas territory.
Story #5: Trump’s Push to Hold the G7 at a Resort He Still Owns and Profits From
President Donald Trump wants to host 2020’s G7 meeting of international leaders at Trump Doral in Florida, a private club he still owns and profits from — a move that would serve as perhaps the starkest illustration yet of how Trump is normalizing corruption.
Having the G7 at Doral would be tantamount to “a free, giant international promotion” for Trump’s business, said Jordan Libowitz, the communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), in an interview with Vox.
Trump first raised the idea of hosting next year’s meeting at his Doral, Florida-based golf resort during a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday, the last day of this year’s G7 in France, saying of Trump Doral that “we haven’t found anything that could even come close to competing with it, especially when you look at the location right next to the airport” in Miami.
Trump uses G7 to promote private Doral resort he still owns and profits from, which he says may host the G7 next year: “It’s a great place. It’s got tremendous acreage … people are really liking it … we haven’t found anything that could even come close to competing with it.”
Trump’s comments raised some eyebrows, and during his G7-ending press conference a few hours later, he was asked by NBC’s Hallie Jackson to respond to people who are concerned he’s profiting from the presidency. He responded by plugging Trump Doral.
“With Doral we have a series of magnificent buildings — we call the bungalows — they each hold from 50 to 70 luxurious rooms, with magnificent views. We have incredible conference rooms, incredible restaurants. It’s, like, such a natural,” Trump said, before adding, dubiously, that “in my opinion I’m not going to make any money.”
Shortly after the press conference ended, the White House Twitter account seemed to make the announcement official in a tweet featuring video of the comments Trump made promoting Doral.
Story # 6: Trump Says “The Radical Left Democrats” Spread a “Nasty” Bedbug Rumor
The news that President Donald Trump might hold the 2020 G7 summit at Trump National Doral sparked a worldwide Googling party that turned up stories on a 2016 lawsuit alleging bedbugs at the Northwest Miami-Dade resort.
And that, in turn, sparked a Twitter retort from the President of the United States:
“Donald J. Trump
No bedbugs at Doral. The Radical Left Democrats, upon hearing that the perfectly located (for the next G-7) Doral National MIAMI was under consideration for the next G-7, spread that false and nasty rumor. Not nice”
Story#7: Trump Says His Friends in the Military, Police, and a Biker Group Might Get “Tough” on Democrats
Breitbart published an interview with President Donald Trump in which he suggested that his supporters in the military and police would rally to his side in a way that would be “very bad, very bad” if things get “to a certain point.” Here’s the full quote in context, with the relevant portion highlighted in bold:
“So here’s the thing—it’s so terrible what’s happening, [Trump said when asked by Breitbart News Washington Political Editor Matthew Boyle about how the left is fighting hard.] You know, the left plays a tougher game, it’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad. But the left plays it cuter and tougher. Like with all the nonsense that they do in Congress … with all this invest[igations]—that’s all they want to do is –you know, they do things that are nasty. Republicans never played this.”
While it’s perhaps impossible to dissect the precise meaning of Trump’s words here, it appears to be a vague threat that “tough” supporters in the military and police—who are presumably armed and whose work can involve using physical violence—will do something that will result in a “very bad, very bad” outcome if pushed to a “certain point” by the president’s political opponents.
Perhaps the “very bad” thing that would happen as a result of “tough” Trump supporters in the military, police, and Bikers for Trump being pushed “to a certain point” would be taking part in a peaceful protest that gets out of hand due to factors beyond their control. Maybe he’s talking about a less violent form of aggression that’s nonetheless “very bad, very bad.” But the more obvious—and plausible—interpretation is that the president is suggesting these armed political supporters would respond violently if his presidency is imperiled.
Story # 8: Trump Considering Declaring China a “National Emergency”
U.S. President Donald Trump recently “ordered” American multinational corporations to look for alternatives to China as an investment location. When various media outlets and political leaders pointed out that he lacked the political authority to do that, Trump cited the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). The IEEPA, passed in response to the Iran hostage crisis, permits a POTUS to “regulate commerce” during a specific and declared “national emergency.”
Short of declaring Chinese trade “a national emergency,” Trump’s capacity to rule over United States companies’ economic relationship with China is restricted largely to tariffs. If he were to take the remarkable step of declaring trade coming from the giant Asian state with world history’s largest national pool of cheap labor a “national emergency,” however, Trump could block future U.S. funds from being transferred there and could otherwise create an atmosphere so hostile to U.S. business with China that multinationals would be compelled to relocate.
In recent discussions, White House sources report, Trump has told advisers that “it’s not just Chinese trade that is a national emergency. It’s China itself. No China, no Chinese trade. No China, no unfair Chinese trade practices.”
“I just looked at a map. It’s huge. More than a billion people. What if it wasn’t there? No China, no problem.”
Trump’s top economic advisors Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro have been asked by the president to draft a declaration identifying the existence of China – a civilization with a recorded history that dates back 5000 years – a national emergency for the United States.
It is unclear whether Kudlow and/or Navarro will act on the request. White House observers note that Trump often forgets assignments given to his staff.
Story # 9: Trump Claims Google “Manipulated” Millions of 2016 Votes
In a tweet on Monday, President Donald Trump made a sensational allegation about Google:
“Wow, Report Just Out! Google manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election! This was put out by a Clinton supporter, not a Trump Supporter! Google should be sued. My victory was even bigger than thought! @JudicialWatch,” Trump wrote.
He was referring to a study by psychologist Robert Epstein, which was discussed on Fox Business earlier on Monday.
But Trump did not describe the research correctly. And the research itself has been called into question.
Epstein himself says Trump was wrong about his findings. Epstein did find “bias” in Google search results, but he says there is no evidence Google “manipulated” the results to favor Clinton. Also, critics of the study note that there is no definitive link between search results and voting behavior in presidential elections.
Story # 6: World
You can’t make shit like this up…wait, maybe you can, sometimes. Real or Fake News? See www.paulstreet.org
In the U.S., Donald Trump remains among the least popular presidents in modern history. Given the buoyant state of the U.S. economy, at least relative to the widespread misery of the prior decade, this unpopularity reinforces the political disillusion reflected in the 2016 election results. Only Jimmy Carter, who engineered a vicious recession in the midst of a colonial rebellion in Iran, was less popular than Mr. Trump at this point in his tenure.
This makes ongoing assurances that the U.S. is in the midst of a fascist insurgency led by Mr. Trump perplexing. There seems little doubt that he (Trump) would be comfortable were such an insurgency to arise. But the available evidence only supports that conclusion when it is parsed using dubious methods. In fact, the establishment data supports conclusions decidedly inconvenient for the neoliberal left.
The other major players in the ‘rise of a global right’ storyline— Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Viktor Orban in Hungary, have mixed results in terms of their ongoing political support. Only Mr. Duterte has anything approaching majority popular approval for his policies. Left widely unconsidered is how this political consolidation by ‘strongmen’ mirrors economic consolidation in Western economies.
In the U.S., neoliberal framing of the rise of Mr. Trump— that his election represents a reactionary response to Barack Obama’s liberalism and race, follows a similar argument used to explain the rise of a reactionary right during Bill Clinton’s first term. As argued below, in both instances ideology was put forward by political reporters to describe events that more closely fit social responses to economic dispossession.
The recently merged worldviews of American liberals, the radical left, the establishment press and the CIA, NSA and FBI vis-à-vis the ideological roots of current political discontent, emerged from the neoliberal project launched shortly after WWII. A central goal then was to dissociate American capitalism and the Great Depression from the rise of European fascism. In fact, the rise of European fascism ties directly to American history, capitalism and the Great Depression.
In the U.S., the early-mid 1990s saw a rapid rise in the number of right-wing militia groups (graph below). This is claimed by political reporters to share cause with the rise in racist hate groups that began with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The movement in the 1990s culminated with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people and injured around 700 more.
The popular explanation for the rise in militias was of a reactionary response to then president Bill Clinton’s liberalism. In fact, Mr. Clinton won election on a liberal platform. But like Barack Obama, he governed from the neoliberal right from the day he entered office. Nevertheless, the ideological dividing line posed by political reporters was Mr. Clinton’s liberalism versus the conservatism of the Reagan / (George H.W.) Bush years.
The data only superficially supports the hypothesis of a reactionary response to presidential politics. In both cases the number of white supremacist and / or militia groups rose in the first term, and then followed economic recovery lower in the second. Were ideological opposition the motivating factor for the rise, there is no obvious reason why it would reverse in both men’s second terms. What did change was the state of the economy.
Although Mr. Clinton remained president until 2000, the militia groups experienced a rapid decline from 1995 forward. In fact, in 1995 the U.S. job market began to recover, with finance and finance-dependent companies boosting hiring for the first time since 1989. The dot-com bust of the early 2000s was brutal for stock issuing corporations, but it didn’t result in mass layoffs that persisted. The next recession that did, the so-called Great Recession, began in 2007.
To flog the proverbial dead horse here, the labor market recession that led to Mr. Clinton’s electoral victory in 1992 was caused by the S&L crisis— by bank looting and over-leverage. It was the first ‘modern’ recession in the sense that 1) it was caused by finance and 2) it led to a very long period of labor market weakness. The next recession of this type was the Great Recession.
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the number of militia groups once again began to rise. When Mr. Obama entered office, unemployment was increasing, and millions of people were losing their homes to foreclosure. Mr. Obama made his primary focus restoring banker bonuses and ‘smoothing the runway’ with foreclosure prevention programs whose purpose was to slow home foreclosures to manageable levels for the benefit of bankers.
Following a milquetoast stimulus bill loaded with Republican devices like tax cuts, Mr. Obama quickly shifted his political energy to cutting public spending. As unemployment reached a bit over 17%, Mr. Obama was working with Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare. The first hint of popular rebellion was the 2010 mid-term election when Republicans took control of the House and Senate away from Democrats.
During this back-and-forth the number of militia groups (graph above) grew rapidly. When economic decline slowed and then began to reverse, so did the number of militia groups. When economic growth slowed again in 2015 – 2016, the number of militia groups again rose. In fact, in the two modern labor market recessions caused by excessive growth in private debt—1989–1995 and 2007–2016, the growth and decline of militia and racist groups closely followed the state of the overall economy.
Enter Donald Trump, who launched his 2016 presidential as a caricature of the European fascist leaders of the early-mid twentieth century. His racist and xenophobic slanders combined with a populist critique of neoliberal economic policies 1) would have put Democrats on the defensive if they had knowledge of what he was talking about and 2) enticed liberals and an erstwhile political left to recreate neoliberal explanations of the rise of European fascism.
In fact, the logic of the rise of militias and racist groups in response to the Clinton and Obama presidencies seems weak. If true, why did they begin to dissipate during the second terms of both men— and coincident with economic recovery? In other words, why would reactionaries become less reactionary the longer that liberal governments are in office rather than more reactionary?
Next, and related, why weren’t these movements ascendant when being so was conducive to achieving political goals, rather than when it wasn’t? The NOW (New World Order) crowd of the early 1990s hated George H.W. Bush as much as they did Bill Clinton. Why did the militias wait until Mr. Clinton took office— in the midst of a vicious recession, to form?
This gets to the thesis of an ascendant right following Donald Trump’s election. According to establishment news sources and radical left rhetoric, neo-Nazis, racists and assorted and sundry hate mongers are ascendant. Never mind that the primary sources for this thesis are Democratic Party operatives and the CIA, FBI and NSA. Why did the reactionary right choose the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to amass in numbers?
Given Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, the thesis of white nationalist ascendance makes intuitive sense. But amongst the racist groups identified by the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) — the official source for establishment reporting on the matter, most of the growth has come from Black Nationalist groups, who now outnumber White Nationalist groups by about two to one. I detail problems with the official reports here.
Following WWII, the problem that neoliberals faced was explaining the rise of European fascism while avoiding mention of American slavery, genocide and the Great Depression. Neoliberal economists— Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig on Mises, already worked with psychic desires (‘utility’) to explain the human motivation behind their economics. The shift from lived history to psychic speculation helped shed the unpleasant details of history. Ideology, e.g. psychic conceptions of freedom and slavery, were put forward in support of capitalism.
As was at least partially understood at the time, the Nazis based their racial theories on American eugenics, Jim Crow laws and the systematic extermination of the indigenous population. And they studied the managed capitalism of the New Deal as a model for the Nazi economy. In contrast to modern perceptions, Jim Crow and the American genocide were still underway in the years immediately prior to, and during, the ascendance of the Nazis.
Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, at the very pit of the Great Depression. The Great Depression itself was the last of a seemingly interminable series of crises of capitalism that preceded the New Deal. The role of Wall Street lending to finance the expansion of American capitalism joined with war debts from WWI to exacerbate the economic tensions that were a subtext of WWII. See Charles Kindleberger’s The World in Depression.
As it relates to current circumstances, the idea that racist ideology was the motivating factor behind the rise of Nazism is a self-serving explanation developed after the fact by capitalist ideologues. Not only were American atrocities and ideology every bit as destructive and vile as those of the Nazis, but the Americans were several centuries into it when the Nazis were getting started.
As if to prove itself unbowed by moral considerations, the American leadership went on to commit new genocides after WWII in Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In the 1980s the Reagan administration committed atrocities across Central America and armed both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. In the first Gulf War, George H. W. Bush buried upwards of one hundred thousand Iraqi conscripts (troops) in the desert after they had surrendered — an atrocity by any standard.
The Clinton administration used economic sanctions to starve and deny medical supplies to ultimately kill half a million Iraqi women and children while spending the decade of the 1990s bombing civilian populations in Iraq on a daily and weekly basis. This was the run-up to George W. Bush’s illegal war of aggression against Iraq which led to the deaths of a million or more Iraqis— overwhelmingly civilians, as it lit the wider Middle East on fire with displaced Iraqi refugees.
The conceit that liberal practice is morally defensible— the position of liberals, much of the American left, the establishment press, the CIA, NSA and FBI— in other words, the alliance that formed following the election of Donald Trump, requires parsing internal from external history while ignoring the human consequences of both. Does this coalition not know American history? Or does it know the history and justify its conclusions by drawing careful distinctions between differing slaveries, genocides, atrocities and war crimes?
Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, herself the architect of policies that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, is currently warning that fascism is ascendant. Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State convinced Barack Obama to bomb Libya into oblivion, causing one hundred thousand plus civilian deaths and a revival of open-air slave markets, argues that white supremacy is the cause of racism, if not her and her husband’s racist policies.
The point here isn’t guilt by association— to link particular political views to atrocities. But it is that the greater monsters of liberal modernity see themselves as the answer to imagined atrocities. Elie Wiesel, the author of Night and lucid moral critic of the Third Reich, supported the American war against Iraq as a moral crusade led by moral people. At the time he did so, both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld has their names on every substantial mass grave in the Middle East.
Through what filter of the universe do those who have factually murdered, killed, caused the deaths of— choose your descriptor, hundreds of thousands of human beings, get to offer moral opprobrium? And by what filter is it granted? The history of the twentieth century suggests that the stakes are high indeed. But aren’t the stakes high because of these people, rather than in spite of them?
The great dangers of the moment— aggregating environmental crises, nuclear weapons that serve as an ever-present threat of extinction, militarism whose moral calculation is based on the profits to be earned, and the incapacity to recover government in the public interest, are consequences of liberalism, not the problems it exists to solve.
This is the second (and final) installment of Jeffrey St. Clair’s essay, Deep Time and the Green River, Floating. Click here to read Part One.
Dawn in the canyon.
The early morning light is liquid and orange, amniotic. Everyone is sleeping. Jennifer is zipped up tight under a spreading box elder. Craig and Chris have opted for a shimmering white tent from which you might envision the gap-toothed Omar Sharif emerging with wrinkle-free clothes and perfect hair. While Judy threw her bag down on a white stretch of beach and was lulled to sleep by the steady hiss of the river, John and Susette, old hands at desert camping, are serenely mummified in a pharaonic mound of quilts, pads and sleeping bags. Should I inform them that our beach seems to have been previously reserved for a convention of scorpions? No. Better to let sleeping innocents lie.
I fill the pots with water, light the burners and brew a riverside version of Turkish coffee. I grab a gray plastic mug with “Drain It!” stamped on the side, top it off with the grounds-flecked coffee and head up a trail in Cascade Canyon to watch the sun ease over the high parapets of Lodore.
On a ledge above our camp I am struck by an overwhelming odor of cat. More precisely, cat shit.
It doesn’t take long to find the source: a fresh mound of cougar feces, still warm to the touch, recently deposited near the plated trunk of a fat Ponderosa pine. I poke around in the steaming pile with a stick. The big cat appears to have recently sampled three of the four basic food groups: ground squirrel, jackrabbit, mule deer. No evidence of the remains of a Forest Service timber sale planner, though. Still, there are many hours left in the day for our felix concolor to fulfill her dietary regimen. After all, the Ashley National Forest, currently being blitzed by clearcuts, is only a few miles away. Up the canyon and take a right. Just follow the survey stakes.
I’ve spent many weeks in remote western wilderness areas and this is the closest I’ve come to a mountain lion-though I’m sure they’ve spied on me many times. Perhaps you know the sensation? Those eerie moments, alone in the outback, when you feel a cold prickling ripple across your skin, the hairs on your neck stiffen, the air electrifies and the world goes silent. Being scanned by a cougar is like walking in the presence of a ghost–your own.
As the suburbs continue to sprawl mercilessly into the mountains and deserts of the West, a new frenzy of mountain lion panic has broken out with calls to revive the old bounty campaigns to wipe out the big cats, once and for all. The cover of a recent book on mountain lion attacks depicts a cougar looming menacingly over the city of Boulder, Colorado, as if to suggest that a lion had snatched Jon Benet.
But the lions of the West are survivors. Only wolves and coyotes have suffered more grotesquely at the hands of the hired killers in the government’s war on predators. This grim history is recounted in harrowing detail by my friend Michael Robinson in his painfully researched book, Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West.
For the past 100 years, mountain lions have been trapped, poisoned, skinned alive, blown up by M-44 cyanide bomblets planted in bait, hunted with dogs, gunned down from helicopters and had their decapitated heads stacked into a grisly pyramid as a photo-op for western newspapers. Someday, someday soon, there will be a mighty reckoning. Even big empires can go defunct, have their equilibrium punctuated almost overnight-geologically speaking. Thank Bush for that. He didn’t open the fissures in the American behemoth, but his presidency has revealed how quickly the foundations of power can erode away when arrogance is genetically encoded with stupidity.
Still the big cats endure. And with the decimation of the grizzly, mountain lions are becoming the supreme predators of the American West. But perhaps they always were.
While the griz asserts its dominance through direct confrontation, which inevitably results, sooner or later, in the death of the bear (and nearly every other bear in the neighborhood), the lion settles on a different stratagem: stealth, speed, adaptation. It is the ninja of the quadrupeds: a cat that is capable of flying thirty feet across slot canyons, scaling vertical walls, killing in silence and savoring a secret revenge.
We see something of ourselves in wolves and bears. Perhaps that familiarity explains our cruelty toward those species and our small measure of guilt for the torments we’ve inflected upon them. But the cougar seems to be an alien presence, inscrutable and unknowable. Consider the Fremont people. Their rock art represents an amazingly complete catalogue of the flora and fauna of the Green River basin, from bison and bears to scorpions and rattlers. But you’ll search the sandstone walls in vain for an image of a cougar, even though the cats must have taken many Fremont lives. Some beings are too powerful to make engraven images of. And perhaps that fact, to this point at least, has made all the difference.
I amble back to camp, now alive with activity. The first face of the morning I see is Susette’s. It’s a pleasant face: bright, confident, inviting. She waves and smiles. Oddly, her smile turns to a frown, the frown to a paralyzing glare. She’s staring at my coffee mug. The one with Drain It! stamped on one side and SUSETTE on the other. Uh, oh. The hairs on my neck stiffen. A prickling sensation runs up my back. Busted.
Susette has handed down the two laws of the river. Don’t tangle the bowline and don’t– don’t ever–pour coffee into her mug. Like a good anarchist, I have violated both strictures on the second morning and am promptly placed on probation. One more transgression and she’ll boot me back to Pinedale with a note pinned to my shirt: “This is one of them Earth First!ers. He wants to raze your town and sow it with salt. Dispose of him in the customary manner.”
I pledge to behave-though I never get the knack of tying those insanely complicated knots. I take comfort only in the fact that Craig’s rope-knotting skills are even more chaotic than mine. In fact, I admire him for it.
* * *
As a folklorist, Craig spends his time unknotting more complex matters, such as the exquisite dances of Mormon farming communities (endemic variations on the old quadrilles), interpreting the techniques and symbolism in Ute weaving and pottery, tracing the lineage of cowboy songs and tall tales. It’s a race against time to get it all down before it dissipates into the white noise of sprawl culture, its remorseless homogeneity, the cold logic of the clone.
Utah remains a cultural refugia, for traditional Mormons, Utes and Paiutes, and desert loners of all kinds. As in Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s, the old ways still persist here-for awhile. Vast stretches of Utah remain cable free and serve as dead zones for cellphones. But even Utah is changing and the oil bonanza is exacerbating the worst manifestations of American techno-culture, as cell phone towers sprout along the red-rock ridges above the new oil fields.
Fresh out of Florida State, Craig came to the west back in the 1970s to work as a geographer and cartographer for the BLM and the Forest Service, working mainly out of Rangley, Colorado. One of his last assignments was to perform a survey in the Piceance Valley, where in one of the most unnerving and least known episodes in the modern history of the American outback, the federal government nuked western Colorado.
The idea sprang from the diseased brain of Edward Teller, architect of the hydrogen bomb. At the prodding of David Lilienthal, head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Teller developed a series of schemes to designed to display the utilitarian side of nuclear weapons. At first, Teller called his initiative Atoms for Peace. It later became known as Project Plowshares. First on Teller’s agenda was plan to explode three nuclear weapons off the coast of Alaska to excavate an instant harbor. At a public meeting in Point Hope, Alaska, where he was confronted by angry Inuits, Teller said, infamously, “Don’t worry about your fish. Most of that radiation dissipate in a matter of seconds. If your mountain is in the wrong place, just drop us a card.”
That was in 1960. And Teller suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Inuit and a nascent environmental movement. But the project lived on in new and more devious incarnations. In reality, Project Plowshares was a way for the H-bomb boys to continue nuclear testing under the guise of domestic works projects.
In all there were three big nuclear explosions in the Colorado Basin: Project Gas Buggy, Project Rio Blanco (in the Piceance where Craig did his survey work) and Project Rulison. Rulison was the last major episode in the Atoms for Peace program. The peace in question wasn’t a cooling of the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, but between two even more entrenched rivals: the nuclear industry and the oil companies, then locked in fierce combat over which sector would control America’s energy future. The AEC wanted to prove that a few well-placed nuclear bombs could strategically rearrange the geology of the Earth’s the crust in such a way as to release deeply buried and once untappable reservoirs of oil and gas.
At the Rulison site on Doghead Mountain, near Rifle, Colorado, there is a layer of gas trapped by a barrier of sandstone called the Williams Fork Formation. In the spring of 1969, the AEC’s nuclear team showed up, drilled an 8,500 foot bore hole into the ground, lowered a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb down the chute and blew it up. Teller pushed the button himself. The blast knocked several unsuspecting local residents to the ground and at least one rancher was blown off of his horse.
Gas began to percolate up. Not much, but some. There was a problem, though. An intractable one. The gas was dangerously radioactive.
The AEC and Department of Interior plugged the bore holes with cement and left. After all, this flank of Doghead Mountain wasn’t their land. It was a private ranch. In the grand tradition of western mining law, the nuclear excavators only owned the subsurface rights.
The radioactive waste remains. Lots of it, eternally mixed with shattered rock, ground water and natural gas. No one knows how to remove the radiation. Most people out here hope they never try.
Think again. They are trying to remove it. The gas that is. A Texas company called Presco, Inc. is intent on drilling 65 new gas wells in the blast zone, squeezing it out through an experimental process known as hydrofracturing. In other words, Presco wants to pulverize those subterranean sandstone reefs with blasts of pressurized water. Where will the water come from? Lake Powell? Will the water become radioactive when it hits the nuclear blast zone? Will the gas? Who knows.
Stiff-arming fears from local residents that the drilling will release those long-buried radioactive fumes, the BLM and the State of Colorado have already given Presco the greenlight.
Yes, it looks a lot like war out here on the Western front, where thousands of volunteers are enlisting as mercenaries for the oil industry, which seems intent on putting the boom back into bonanza.
* * *
The rocks of Dinosaur don’t need to be shattered. This is already a fractured landscape.
In the Grand Canyon, the stratigraphy of rock layers is laid down chronologically, with an inexorable precision that demolishes the creed of the Creationists. But the landscape of Dinosaur is different. As in a different planet. Here the canyons and mountains present themselves in contorted galleries of geological cubism. Here strata of rock stand on their head, bend over backwards, break of into space and then resume miles away. This is Jumbleland. Chaos theory in stone.
Here some of the oldest rocks in the West sit on top of much younger deposits, younger by a half billion years. And some strata of rock have gone missing altogether, giant gaps of time elided from the geologic record-and that’s before the coal companies started strip mining.
But perhaps no mystery is more opaque to the untutored mind than why the Green River, not a mighty stream by most measures, decided to drive south smack into the eastern flank of a nearly impregnable massif with 13,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Uinta Mountains, and, having made this fateful turn, how such a modest little river could have cleaved such a savage wound through this formidable range of billion-year old rocks, rising from the depths of the Pre-Cambrian zone.
The explanations for this phenomenon have changed over the decades. John Wesley Powell opted for the antecedent theory. He postulated that an early incarnation of the Green River flowed through this region before the Uinta mountains began their amazing uplift from the basement of the planet during what is known to geologists as the Laramide Orogeny and the rest of us as the Making of the Rocky Mountains. Under Powell’s scenario, which is laid out in his intriguing monograph The Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains, he contends that the Green River functioned as a saw, cutting through the quartzite of the Uintas as they began their dramatic uplift in the late Tertiary period, a mere five million years ago.
Having witnessed the vast void of the Grand Canyon, Powell believed in the omnipotence of erosive forces. He was right to concede such power to erosion. Consider the fact that the Uinta Mountains have risen nearly 45,000 feet, but have probably never been taller than they are today. In other words, aside from that first great thrust upward, erosion has essentially leveled the Uinta uplift, inch for inch. (By the way, the mountains remain in an aggressively tumescent phase.)
Still, Powell was almost certainly wrong and the first to contradict him was his brilliant student Grove K. Gilbert, who postulated what is now known as the superimposition theory. Under this scenario, the Uinta Mountains rose nearly five million years ago, then were flooded under a vast inland sea, which deposited layer upon layer of sediments. As the sea drained, the Green River formed on the eastern fringe of the range and began its steady excavations through the rock.
Gilbert’s theory held sway for many decades. Then in the 1960s an even stranger explanation was put forth by Wallace Hansen, a top research geologist at US Geological Survey. In his monograph, The Geologic Story of the Uinta Mountains, Hansen merges Powell and Gilbert. He demonstrates, fairly persuasively to blank slate minds like my own, that there was indeed an ur-Green River in the general vicinity of Dinosaur before the rise of the Uintas. But he also argues that the current course of the river was superimposed over the newly revealed mountains.
Then he throws a bomb. Hansen argues that the Upper Basin of the Green River used to flow not southwesterly to the confluence with the Grand River and to the Sea of Cortez, but easterly toward the North Platte to the Missouri and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, sometime in the last four million years, the Green River jumped the Continental Divide. Hansen calls this event “stream capture,” a kind of geomorphologic imperialism where through a complex gymnastics of faulting and uplift one drainage steals the water of another.
These geologic arcana take on a more tangible meaning here on the floor of Cascade Canyon, which less than a million years ago formed the main channel of the Green River. The old, abandoned riverbed can be found in a hanging valley, some 500 feet above where we made our camp. This is an object lesson about flux and dynamic change.
The Earth hasn’t stopped shaping itself. Not by a long shot.
The ground continues to shift. The restless river eats relentlessly into the rocks. Cliffs collapse. Valleys sink. Ridges buckle. Even human structures aren’t immune to Powell’s omnipotent forces. Last summer, only a few days after my son Nat and I spent an enjoyable afternoon inspecting the ancient bones laying in situ, the foundation of the great museum at the Dinosaur Quarry cracked, its footings detaching from the fossil-bearing slopes of the Morrison Formation. The building is now closed.
Flaming Gorge Dam take heed.
* * *
We glide onto the river late this morning. The sky is pallid and sickly, stained by smoke from distant fires.It will be a short day of big rapids and sharp rocks, in unbroken succession: Harp Falls, Triplet and, the monster of them all, Hell’s Half Mile.
Time seems to move, if not in circles, at least deeply entrenched meanders. Dawn, breakfast, loading, rapids, Tecate, lunch, rapids, unloading, dinner, gin, coyotes, sleep. And it’s not just time that is moving this way, but the river, too, as it loops, twists, and circles back on itself, presenting different angles on the same mountain peaks, passing through layers of geological strata and then witnessing the same formations of rock unfold in reverse order.
Sky, stone, river. Our stable trinity. All we really need.
At the entrance to Harp Falls, we are joined by five Mergansers. The birds will accompany us on and off for the next two days. The flashy red crests of the Mergansers are exquisitely coiffed in the style of the early Little Richard. The ducks sluice over the falls and ride the wave train in a fluid line of crimson. They wheel into the eddy below the rapids and wait patiently for us to complete the run.
In higher water, the overhanging cliff at Harp Falls could easily become Decapitation Rock, as the main current of the river drives into the sharply angled stone. This afternoon in such low water Harp Falls is simply a thrilling short chute that pulls us within a few inches of the imposing rock and then spits us downstream into the rough-and-tumble descent of Triplet Falls. The next ten minutes are a miasma of cold spray and jarring collisions with river-smoothed boulders. All in all, this is the most enjoyable stretch of rapids in Lodore.
We pause in an eddy below the last cascade and a debate breaks out over whether Mergus serrator is a dabbling duck or a diving duck. I reach for my Sibley’s Guide. But after our trauma at Lower Disaster, the soggy pages of the book have blurred into a gooey and unintelligible mess, like Bush’s sentences when the teleprompter blinks out.
It doesn’t matter. Subverting such rigid categorizations, the Mergansers settle the dispute for us with an empirical demonstration that they go both ways. They are both dabblers and divers and so much more. Try watching closely instead believing everything you read, they seem to say.
We tie the rafts to a cube of rock, freshly spalled from the cliff-face, and walk tenderly over sharp shards of chert to a view of Hell’s Half Mile, a boulder strewn reach of river that has earned a fearsome reputation for flipping rafts and mangling kayaks. The rapids are powered by two debris flows of spiny rocks spewed from large canyons on each side of the Green and by the Disaster Fault which strikes across the ramparts of Lodore near the beginning of the run.
From our perch above the falls, the rapids resemble the thrashing tail of a stegosaurus.
Weisheit leans toward me and whispers that he feels more anxious about this rapid than any he has run in the last decade. This confession comes from a man who has descended the raging torrents of Cataract Canyon more than 400 times, in all kinds of conditions.
Since no one brought along crash helmets, I size up the corridor of stone along the river. Not that hard of a walk, really. A small cliff to scramble up, some rubble, poison ivy, probably a snake or two. Piece of cake, once I change my shoes.
Then I notice the look in the eyes of the Riverkeeper. No sign of fear or trepidation. He’s actually grinning. It’s a look of glee and calculation. The thrill of the new, I guess. Oh, what the hell. If danger be fun, play on.
As it turns out, Weisheit executes a perfect run over the falls and through the dizzying maze of rocks. More or less perfect, anyway. We do go down backwards. And we knock and scrape rather rudely against a few rocks. But he alleges that those were premeditated collisions, demonstrating his refined technique of using boulders to make minute course corrections in mid-stream. Who am I to dispute him?
Judy comes next and, despite seeming to be slightly off line at the lip of the falls, makes a smooth descent, weaving gracefully through the prongs of stone. All eyes fix on Susette as her raft comes hard over the craggy drop, smacks the standing wave, buckles and snags on a spindle of rock, where the neoprene craft spins like an old vinyl record and hangs in the air, suspended at a gut-squeezing angle above the gnashing water. Then with a deft flick of an oar, the raft pivots and leaps off the rock into the spastic rhythms of the wave train. All ends well here in Hells Half Mile.
In the tailwaters of the next small rapids, we strain hard across the pulse of the current and haul out on a secluded white beach at the foot of Wild Mountain.
* * *
It’s birthday night at Wild Mountain. Craig and Jennifer are both looking hale and fit on the bright side of fifty. Steaks sizzle on the small grill. Someone mixes a container margaritas. A porcupine shuffles through the sagebrush near my sleeping bag. Did I zip up?
The night is cold, but our campsite is warmed by the walls of the canyon, which absorbed the heat of the day and now release it slowly back.
Susette reaches into a neon river bag and begins hauling out an assortment psychedelic clothes of such outrageous designs that even George Clinton and Bootsie Collins would be embarrassed to wear them on stage.
I seem to have been awarded a snugly fitting jacket and pant suit adorned with glowing cheetah spots and made of the cheapest velour. Velour with ruffles. I hold them before me like dead carp and shake my head.
“Put them on, Jeffrey,” Susette commands. “And lose that T-shirt.” These Moabites seem to have a particular fetish about my attire. I slide into the costume, which feels like it is made from the latest in skin-devouring lichens. Even Elvis never sank this low. Did he?
Someone has brought an I-Pod and battery-powered speakers, which have been strategically placed inside two aluminum pots to maximize the reverb. John, dressed discreetly in a leather top hat with purple polka dots, stokes the fire with branches of sweet-smelling juniper. The music begins. Christ, is that Donna Summer? Yes. Followed quickly by the BeeGees. Then Kool and the Gang. On and on in rapid succession (but not rapid enough). You get the drift. The coyotes sure did. They seem to have fled for another scene-perhaps the ornithologists camped up river are performing “Bye Bye, Birdie”?
People once familiar to me, some of them wearing illuminated devil’s horns (or are they the headresses of Fremont anthropomorphs?), initiate a kind of dancing around the leaping flames of the fire. Chris, an unrepentent Bay Area hippy, calls for the Dead. Susette begs for the Talking Heads. I yell: What about that Bill Monroe! Merle Haggard!! The Drive-By Truckers!!! Our requests go unheeded. Disco rules. The night descends into a blur of Bacchanalian rites. And, like Iago in his final scene, from this moment forth I shall speak no more about it.
Below Hell’s Half-Mile, the Green River relaxes into a series of undulating bends. The red rocks of Lodore slip away, replaced by the calming brown tones of the Weber sandstone. You might be in Glen Canyon. But, of course, you’re not.
On river left looms Jenny Lind Rock, named after the Swedish Nightingale, who captured the hearts of antebellum America during her 1846 tour with Gen. Tom Thumb under the direction of P.T. Barnum. In front of us, a peninsula of sandstone rises 760 sheer feet above the river. Someone lets loose a wolf howl. It bounces back, over and over again. We all join in, an oscillating chorus. Euphonies of stone.
We have entered one of the world’s great amphitheaters: Echo Park. The acoustics are clear, crisp, resonant. Even the softest sounds reverberate five or six times down the chambers of rock. Please don’t tell Paul Winter. There’s no need for him to unbundle his New Age band here to record another CD au naturale. Leave the music to the canyon wrens and coyotes.
Powell called the sinuous wall of sandstone Echo Rock. The was right to resist his natural inclination to dip into the classical namebag for some obscure minor deity out of the Greek Myths or the Bhagavad Gita. Echo Rock is concise, descriptive and right.
Of course, the Park Service inexplicably chooses to call this entrenched meander Steamboat Rock. What do steamboats have to do with it? Perhaps Park Service recreation planners were envisioning the day when they could offer steamboat tours of Narcissus Lake in the new improved Echo Aquatic Park, after their pals at the Bureau of Reclamation had flooded the canyon under 550 feet of dead water, turning the big rock into a small island illuminated by Klieg lights with a faux adobe hotel perched on the edge accesorized in Anasazi chic, with shuffleboard courts, Kiva-shaped hot tubs and fishing platforms. You chuckle. But they’ve done worse. Been to Yosemite lately? Bought gas at Grant Village in Yellowstone? Seen the big stumps at Olympic National Park?
As we glide around Echo Rock, our raft is buffeted by a rush of current coming from the East. I turn and gaze into a gaping canyon of streaked stone. This is the mouth of the Yampa River, concluding its wild course down from the Colorado Rockies.
The Yampa is one of the last free-flowing, undammed rivers in the West. Undammed, except for about 100 small, trout-killing irrigation impediments on the river’s high country tributaries. Yeah, except for them. But novelist Jim Harrison has scripted a solution for those obnoxious little plugs. Go read A Good Day to Die, if you are so inclined. It’s out of print, so check it out from a library. Don’t worry. The librarians won’t turn you in. Most of them.
(Advisory Note to Homeland Security. A Good Day to Die is fiction, that is fantasy. Please do not dispatch your goons to Livingstone, Montana for the rendition of Jim Harrison to Uzbekistan. Mr. Harrison is now a portly, Cabernet-swilling, sushi-eating, bone-fishing millionaire who has long since denounced the juvenile escapades detailed in his novel.)
We beach our rafts downstream from the confluence and prepare lunch under the lacy shade of two box elder trees. We are down to our last six-pack of Tecate, but they are still icy cold. I unwrap a special treat for the crew: smoked wild chinook salmon from Oregon, caught in dip-nets at Shearer’s Falls on the Deschutes River by young men of Warms Springs Nation. The thick filets are lightly salted and embedded with garlic. One gets hungry, lazing on the river. The salmon disappears. Same old story.
We drain our last beers, grab a fistful of brownies and trudge up into the golden meadows of Echo Park, once the home of the desert hermit Patrick Lynch, and long before him, the Fremont people, who inscribed on these walls some of the most fascinating and exquisite art to be found anywhere on the continent, including the National Gallery and the Guggenheim. All of which would have been destroyed by the Echo Park Dam. It would have been an act of desecration as extreme as Napoleon’s troops gouging out the eyes of the disciples on DaVinci’s Last Supper in the dining hall of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which the French had turned into an armory.
The Fremont people (named after the Fremont River in central Utah) are often lumped in with the Anasazi, who occupied the Four Corners region during approximately the same period. But these were strikingly distinct cultures. The Anasazi, for example, were almost exclusively agrarian, growing maze and melons, squash and beans. They were sedentary and built large multi-room structures out of stone and adobe. Later, they constructed vast defensive palaces on inaccessible cliffs. About a thousand years ago, Anasazi culture seems to have decayed into inter-tribal wars, paranoia, a priestly dictatorship, perhaps even cannibalism. (See the controversial but well-documented study Man Corn by Arizona State University anthropologist Christy Turner.) The famous roads radiating from the religious compound at Chaco Canyon may have been military highways for Anasazi militia and the secret police of Chaco’s high priests. At least, that’s the heterodoxical view of anthropologist David Wilcox. I tend to agree. There’s something creepy and oppressive about the later Anasazi sites. Many Navajo feel the same kind of trepidation near the haunted castles of Betatakin and Keet Seel.
By contrast, the Fremont, who occupied a territory spanning from central Utah to the Snake River plains of Idaho and from the Great Basin in Nevada to the Yampa Canyons of Colorado, were a more versatile and nomadic culture, less centralized and not nearly so death-obsessed. They practiced both agriculture and hunting and gathering. Often farming one year and gathering the next. They lived in pit houses and small settlements at the mouths of canyons, usually near mountains, such as the Wasatch or Uintas. Close to bighorns and elk, alpine herbs and berries, trout.
In rock-shelters across the region the Fremont left black trapezoidal figurines with deeply lidded eyes that are adorned with ornate necklaces, belts and earrings. The enlarged ghosts of those figures are painted, carved and pecked into the walls of Echo Park.
So what happened to the Fremont? No one really knows. Through radiocarbon testing of corn husks and other debris from the middens at Fremont sites, it seems that their culture began to fade away in Utah around 1250 AD, before petering out altogether around 1500. Some anthropologists contend that climatic changes in the thirteenth century wiped out Fremont crops. While this may hold for the religious slave-farmer society of the Anasazi, it doesn’t fit the Fremont, who never gave up their hunting and gathering lifestyle.
Others argue that the Fremont were gradually assimilated along with the new arrivals in the region, the Numic-speakers from down south in the doomed Owens Valley: the Utes, Paiutes, Comanche and Shoshone.
But there is another, more unsettling explanation for the demise of the Fremont that is convincingly sketched out in David B. Madsen’s excellent little monograph, Exploring the Fremont. Under this scenario, the Numic-speakers, relatives of the Aztec, weren’t interested in making a pact with the Fremont, but instead waged a war of imperial aggression against them, seizing their land, annihilating their culture. The best evidence behind this theory is that the last known Fremont sites, near Pocatello, Idaho and in the Yampa Canyons, are all on the remote northern and northeastern fringes of the Fremont territory, the last stretches of land to be occupied by the Numic invaders. So the concealed meadows and rock shelters here at Echo Park may well have been a last hold out of Fremont culture, a people under siege. I don’t have to tell you how it all ends.
Our walk ends before an overhang of sandstone that displays an astonishing panel of rock art, which for no good reason is known as the Poole Creek petroglyphs. The images soar above us, thirty to thirty-five feet above the creek bed.
I envision a Fremont artist clinging to a frail ladder of cottonwood branches held together by elk sinews as he pecks out his masterpiece, like Michelangelo painting the Judgment of Christ.
But Weisheit says no. This little canyon has been entrenched by a phenomenon known as arroyo cutting. Well, phenomenon may not be the right word since it almost certainly involved cows. Overgraze the meadow, trample the microbiotic crust, compact the soil to the texture of concrete and when a big rain comes along it plows the pleasant grassy little canyon into something resembling the badlands of South Dakota. Over night. Grazing in a national park, you say? Happens all the time. We even have a national park devoted to cattle grazing. It’s called Great Basin, pride of Nevada and Sierra Club-approved.
In Dinosaur National Monument, local ranchers were permitted to graze their cows and sheep in the park through the 1980s. The land shows the strain. Most of the hills and small buttes in Echo Park, Browns Park, Jones Hole and Island Park have been trampled under hoof into terraced ziggurat-like mounds. Bovine pyramids that will last for a thousand years or more.
The strange images scroll across about 500 feet of rock. Technically, they are called petroglyphs, meaning that the figures have been etched into the rock, rather than painted-although many petroglyphs also show signs of weathered paint. But not these. These images of flying headdresses, sun disks, shields, floating spirits, sheep and spirals have been drilled into the rock in intricate dot patterns. Using drills on rock, there is no margin for error and here at Echo Park there is no evidence of error. Pointillism on stone. This is the work of a master of technique and composition. Often, rock art on the Colorado Plateau has the feel of a graffiti tagging war, a collage of images inscribed by different artists across the centuries. But some sites, such as the Grand Gallery in Canyonlands National Park, vividly described in Doug Peacock’s book Walking It Off, are clearly the work of a single artist, perhaps working on commission. So too with the Echo Park panel. It tells a story as surely as Guernica does. And perhaps a similar one.
I’m sure there’s deeply religious and probably astronomical significance to these surreal images. But even the best interpreters, such as Polly Schaafsma, author of the indispensable Rock Art of Utah, agree that their readings of the petroglyphs are little more than informed guesswork. Ultimately, the images defy critical deconstruction-and are all the more powerful because of it. I’m struck by the fact that these flying necklaces and strange beasts scrolling across the sandstone are fundamentally different than most Fremont rock art: scarier, weirder and funnier, too. Perhaps the images functioned as a kind of drive-in movie screen to entertain Fremont kids, illuminated for night-time viewing by campfires along the creek bank.
A dust-devil scuffles down the dirt road into Echo Park that was secretly punched into Dinosaur in the 1940s by the Bureau of Reclamation. From the cloud, a hybrid SUV emerges with Colorado plates. The door opens. A man in yellow golf pants slides out, wielding a camera with a giant lens, a lens the size of the Hubble telescope-though still not powerful enough to locate the weapons of mass destruction.
In the passenger seat, a woman with meticulously maintained blond hair examines her nails as if they were retractable claws. She adopts a look of supreme indifference. She doesn’t once glance at the rock art. The man clicks three tightly zoomed photos of the cliff-face, re-enters his $50,000 climate-neutral truck, slams the door, turns the cumbersome machine around and hurtles up the road.
It’s 30 miles of dirt and gravel back to the gate and Highway 40. They were here for two minutes max. I flash to Anna Karina’s nine-minute race through the halls of the Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Band of Outsiders.” But Karina and her cohorts were having fun, breaking the rules, subverting convention, tweaking the art cops. This couple expresses the heavy dullness at the core of Bush’s America, a cancerous imperial ennui. Still, their snap-and-click moment counts as two more visitor days in the Park Service’s bureaucratic accounting system and they didn’t even harass the bighorns. If only Yellowstone was so lucky.
* * *
As the river unfurls around Echo Rock, the winds pick up and suddenly rowing the rafts becomes real work. On most rivers, the commercial guides would simply fire up the outboard engine and roar across the wind-whipped flatwater.
But not here. The canyons of Dinosaur are the only stretch of river in the entire Colorado system free of motorized boats. Even in the Grand Canyon, outfitters shred the holy silence of the chasm with the metallic shriek of motors. Dinosaur is unique and long may it be so. If only the river itself wasn’t motorized, controlled by engineers, valves, turbines and computers– the industrial waterworks of the big hydro-dams that trade the wild for the automaton.
The narrow slot of Whirlpool Canyon resurrects the red Cambrian rocks of the Uinta Mountain Group. Gothic spires of rock stab at the sky above us. The fissured walls of the canyon are the remnants of ancient sea stacks and reefs, interlaced with petrified dunes. A great blue heron is spooked by the approach of our raft, barks her annoyance and takes flight on giant wings.
As we pass the dark mouth of Wild Canyon our raft is swept into a brief but energetic rapids. On river left, a chuck of iron pipe protrudes from the wall of the canyon, like a stake driven into the heart of a zombie-and let no man or woman remove it. Here lies the site of Echo Park Dam, the wet dream of the Bureau of Reclamation that perished on July 8, 1955.
I want to stop and sketch the walls of the canyon, pock-marked to a height of 550 feet with the bore holes of the dam builders, but the river pulls us relentlessly on, through the footings of a dam that isn’t there, downstream another two miles, out of Colorado into Utah and our shady camp at Jones Hole.
* * *
I sit on my on bedroll and try to salvage pages from the ruined Sibley guide. I’m looking for paintings of my favorite birds: Vermillion Flycatcher, Swainson’s Hawk, Cerulean Warbler, Northern Spotted Owl, American Coot and, of course, the Red-Necked Stint. It’s a useless endeavor. The entries have blended into an abstraction resembling a Helen Frankenthaler lithograph, a swirling delta of greens, yellows and reds.
A cry from Weisheit interrupts my melancholy funk.
Then a pause.
“Wait a minute. Otter. River otter!”
I shake my head, despondently. All of a sudden this trip is going to hell. The Riverkeeper has snapped. The most rational man I know has finally lost his faculties of reason. John Freakin’ Weisheit can no longer distinguish a cliff-walking bovid from a riverine weasel with a bright innocent-looking face that bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Meg Ryan.
Perhaps someone brought along a few of those Liberty Caps, after all. Perhaps that same someone slipped a magic mushroom into the trail mix. Weisheit has been as straight as the All-American Canal for twenty years. He hasn’t even sipped a Tecate since before James Watt was indicted for perjury. This little prank has obviously hit him harder than the Big Drops at full throttle.
How will we ever explain the indiscretion to Bobby Kennedy, Jr.? Such a default in decorum might prompt the Green Czar to strip the Riverkeeper logo from Weisheit’s red raft. Then Kimberly would never meet Leonardo DiCaprio. No. We simply must keep it under wraps, bury it like Bush’s “pretzel” episode.
I amble through a bank of purple desert asters toward the river, thinking of how Burson-Marsteller would spin the incident.
It’s worse than I feared.
Caught in a moment of urinary tract overload, Weisheit is standing in the river with his pants bunched around his knees pointing urgently, like Sacajawea when the Corps of Discovery neared Beaverhead Rock. Across the river, a single bighorn ram nuzzles at grasses, indifferent to the man’s wild gesticulations.
Did anyone pack a taser?
Just as I am poised to pat the Riverkeeper on the back and gently usher him to camp, I spot a dark hump breaching the glassy surface of the water near the far bank, like one of those grainy stills of Nessie. Then another and another. A head pops up, radiant and glistening, stares our way, grunts, submerges. Two more repeat the same curious inspection, scanning us like living periscopes.
One otter bolts out of the river, scrambles across the bank and slides onto a boulder, where it smashes something on the rock, eats it, urinates, dives into a pool, resurfaces, chomping on a fish. The others follow, acting out the same frenetic routine, sleekly working their way down river, pool by pool, feasting on fish, diving for crustaceans, dining on the rocks, spraying their foul musk to ward us off.
What looks like play or clowning is actually hard work. River otters, perhaps the most active of all mammals, must eat upwards of twelve percent of their total body weight each day just to refuel.
In total, we spot five river otters, all adults. A rare sighting, indeed. River otter generally travel in pairs and, except during mating season, adult males are loners. Perhaps they have been drawn to this spot because of the clear, spring-nourished waters of Jones Hole Creek, just a few hundred yards upstream from our camp.
Otters are piscavores, mainly, tracking down the movements of young trout and carp with their motion-detecting whiskers, before catching and crushing the fish in their powerful, unforgiving jaws. Far from being cuddly, otters are the premier predator of the river, as aggressive and nasty-tempered as the badger, to which they are closely related. Their grunting and barking indicates a fierce resentment at our intrusion into their territory.
This stretch of the Green River used to be prime otter habitat. But the fish-eaters were nearly extirpated from the basin by the 1920s, largely at the hands of one of Weisheit’s heroes, the early river guide Nathaniel Galloway, who floated the Green River all the way down to the confluence with the Colorado and through Cataract Canyon six times. Galloway is revered by river runners because he invented a new style of whitewater rowing, which allowed the oarsman to face downstream, ferrying his boat at an angle toward the rocks and rapids.
Galloway, who lived in a cabin outside of Vernal around the turn of the last century, made his money, such as it was, selling furs. Each month he set out his traplines along the Green, the Yampa and the Colorado rivers, killing beaver, muskrat, otter, lynx, coyote, kit fox, long-tailed weasel, raccoon, ringtail cat. On one trip alone in 1912, Galloway boasted of trapping ninety-five beavers, at a time when beavers were themselves heading beyond the zero of extinction in Utah. A Park Service brochure on Dinosaur flaunts a photo of Galloway proudly gripping six dead otters by their tails, each snared in his merciless traps.
As the apex predator on the Green River, the otter population was never very robust. One estimate by the biologists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that at its maximum density, the Green River probably supported one breeding pair of otter for every ten river miles. So, in that single trapping blitz, Nathaniel Galloway may have wiped out a third of the adult otters in what is now Dinosaur National Monument. But, then again, he did perfect the proper angle for the downstream ferry!
Our otters are almost certainly recent transplants from southeast Alaska, which may be another reason they have opted to forage in a pack: protection in numbers. Over the past decade, more than forty river otters have been released on the Green in or near Dinosaur National Monument, most of them kidnapped in Alaska, flown to Salt Lake, trucked to Vernal and unceremoniously dumped in Browns Park, Little Hole and Sand Wash.
No one really knows how well river otters raised in a temperate rainforest will thrive in a murky desert river which offers a fare of carp and catfish instead of salmon and steelhead. Indeed, the Alaskan otter (Lontra c. pacifica) is an entirely separate subspecies from the one which originally ruled the Green River (Lontra c. nexa). Are there still Nexa otters in Dinosaur? Will they breed with the Alaskans? If so, will they lose their genetic identity? Or will the newcomers simply drive them out altogether, finishing the job Galloway started? None of these questions were answered before the reintroduction program began. Likely, they weren’t even asked.
But these northern otters certainly are smart and crafty. They’ve already zeroed in on the easiest pickings in the neighborhood: the Jones Hole Fish Hatchery, where otters have been making nightly raids on the genetic mutants in the rearing tanks for the past five years. If the environmentalists can’t shut down the disease-spreading hatchery with a lawsuit, perhaps the otters in a concentrated attack can wipe it out by other means.
Why is the State of Utah engaged in a river otter recolonization program, any way? Is this a rare act of predator altruism from a state which once, not that long ago, rewarded ranchers who gassed coyote pups as they slept in their dens? No. The ultimate goal of the program is to artificially propagate the otter population to a level where the state can begin selling licenses for so-called annual otter “harvests,” as if the “liquaceous creatures,” in Edward Abbey’s poetic phrase, were organic vegetables. Grown in Alaska, Harvested in Utah.
Yes. Otter fur is back in demand, at least according to the fashionistas at Vogue magazine, which has repeatedly featured the emaciated bodies of supermodels draped in otter pelts. Is the wearing of a scalped otter an erotic or necrotic fetish?
A recent fur trade publication takes note of the upswing in the dead otter market, propelled in part by the rise of the Chinese middle class: “May auction sales established record levels for Otter with a $104.00 average and a top of $195.00 per pelt. These new price levels show that promotional efforts in China and elsewhere in the world, continues to pay huge dividends. There should be excellent demand for Otter again next season, with the paler types bringing the most money.”
Swim for your lives, swift Lontras of the Green, and be sure to muck up your coats along the way!
* * *
After otter hour, Susette orchestrates a meal of startling complexity, headlined by tilapia in south Indian curry sauce with eggplant, red peppers and rice. As we devour the meal, the sky blackens prematurely, the winds stiffen and shards of lightning splinter the sky. The bats retreat and even the coyotes scatter as power-chords of thunder crash down the canyons.
With the storm bearing down on us, I reluctantly set up my tent for the first time. I dislike sleeping in tents. They are claustrophobic, steamy structures that occlude the nightsky. Yet, sometimes the elements compel your submission.
In an interior pocket of the little nylon shelter, I find a chapbook of poems that I’d accidentally left behind from my last outing, a weekend in the wind-sculpted Sweetgrass Hills of northwestern Montana. The verses are by Wang Wei, a Taoist painter, naturalist and political prisoner during the T’ang Dynasty in Eight Century China, who wrote his best poems during his long exile on the Wheel-Rim River deep in the Whole South Mountains.
As the tent shivers in the wind, I recite Wang’s poem “Golden-Rain Rapids” over and over, a mantra for dreams.
Wind buffets and blows autumn rain,
Water cascading thin across rocks,
Waves lash at each other. An egret
Startles up, white, then settles back.
I am awakened abruptly in the pitch dark. There’s something tip-toeing across my chest. Something much heavier than a canyon mouse. Christ, surely it’s not a porcupine?
I wiggle back and forth in my bag gently encouraging the animal to continue its explorations elsewhere. The invitation is refused. Instead, it feels as if the creature has taken up residence on my sternum. A bouncing kind of residence.
I slide my hand out of the sleeping bag, grapple for my headlamp, and flash on the light. I am confronted by eyes the size of billiard balls, glassy and neurotic. A ringtail cat, the nocturnal clown of the desert, caught in the act. Gripping in its right paw what appears to be a tortilla chip left behind from last night’s feast, the ringtail bounces one more time, then levitates into the night. Gone. Just like that.
Ringtails aren’t cats. No one seems to be precisely sure what they are. The creatures are a quirk of mammalian evolution, apparently related to the raccoon, with whom they share a passion for thievery and mischief. The naturalists call them Bassariscus astutus. The accent here is on astutus. Ravens with fur.
I don’t know if we are communing with nature, but nature seems to be communing with us. Last night, Weisheit found a scorpion in his bedroll. This morning Jennifer awoke to find that a beaver had homed in on her sleeping bag and had deposited an oily and pungent pile of beaver stool a few inches from her head. Only otter shit exudes a more disagreeable odor. Perhaps, the animal kingdom is sending us an eviction notice: Time to go.
* * *
The mood is solemn as we dismantle our last camp, rig the rafts, sweep away the traces of our stay. Call it a pre-partum depression. It happens on the final day of nearly every river trip.
Naturally, we all vow to remain friends and to run this river together again. Soon. We talk about tackling others: the frenzied Bruneau, the croc-laden Zambezi, the mysterious Tsang-Po and, of course, Glen Canyon Dam Falls.
But who can predict the future? We only know this is our final day on this manifestation of the Green River, a river that has consecrated us as a group, bound us together, a river that will flow through our dreams.
Jennifer tries to snap us out of our gloomy reverie. “How do you get down off an elephant?” she asks. “You don’t! You get down off a duck.” Her jokes are getting progressively worse and our response to them more demented. Perhaps it’s time to wrap this excursion up after all.
A few hundred yards downstream from Red Wash, the Green River loops through the small, white cliffs of Island Park. On river left, Weisheit points out the image of a bison etched onto the canyon wall. The carving is large, perhaps eight feet wide and four feet tall, and it has narrowly escaped destruction after a huge chunk of the rock wall next to the petroglyph exfoliated into a mound of rubble and dust.
The bison carving was made by a Ute shaman, probably in the Eighteenth Century, after the arrival of the horse in the Rockies. The image refutes the notion, perpetrated by many environmentalists and government bureaucrats, that the canyons of Dinosaur had been essentially vacant of human habitation from the demise of the Fremont to the arrival of white fur-trappers.
It’s the same old story floated about most lands whites wanted to grab from Native people. In Yosemite, the Mewuk were prodded out of the Merced Valley first by infectious disease, then by gold miners followed by the notorious butchers in the Mariposa Battalion and finally by the Park Service, which tried to wipe them out of history. Until recently, Park Service literature on Yosemite postulated that the Mewuk had abandoned the Yosemite Valley in the late 1700s, claiming the tribe considered it the valley of “black death”. And that was before Hetch Hetchy dam went up. Of course, they could have simply asked Chief Tenana his opinion.
In Yellowstone, the Sheepeater Shoshone were discounted as mere transients and were disparaged by early Park Service historians as a “lazy” and “primitive” people who were not worthy of the landscape. The mountain men knew better. In his journals, the fur-trapper Osbourne Russell described the Sheepeater Shoshone tribe living in the Lamar Valley as “neatly clothed in dressed deer and sheepskins of the best quality, well-armed with bows and arrows pointed with obsidian and seemed to be perfectly happy.”
These are the myths that sanctify our brittle and self-serving concept of the wild, as a landscape devoid of any trace of previous human occupation. It is a perverted fantasy indeed that finds a way to sanction Grant Village and Ahwahnee Lodge into national parks, but excludes the presence of native people who co-existed with grizzlies and bison for 10,000 years.
The canyons of Dinosaur are scattered with historical evidence of recent Ute occupation: campsites, fire pits, middens, the remains of wickiups and petroglyphs of horses and bison. Yet, in most of the literature about Dinosaur National Monument the Utes are inexplicably elided from history in favor of extended passages about the long-vanished Fremont. Of course, the Fremont come guilt-free. They disappeared long ago, before the white conquest. No mention is made of the fact that the Green and Yampa basins were once, very recently, Ute land, from which hundreds of families were forcibly evicted and confined to small reservations under treaties that were later declared to be manifestly unjust. Steal their land, then claim they were never there.
* * *
As we struggle against the stiff winds of Island Park, Weisheit and I talk about our late friend and mentor Dave Brower, the man who saved both Dinosaur and Grand Canyon National Park from being inundated behind big dams.
Like Dinosaur, Brower had his own faults. But he had the rare talent of turning them to his advantage. That’s how he got Weisheit to forsake his river-guiding career and devote himself to becoming the Colorado/Green river’s most forceful advocate. Weisheit confronted Brower at a meeting over the old man’s role in the political-dealmaking that led to the construction of Glen Canyon Dam (and Flaming Gorge, too, which often escapes mention). Brower didn’t flinch under the assault. He was used to it by now. Hell, Katie Lee had been carping at him for nearly forty years about the dam-and her criticism was not always good-natured in tone. “Yes, I’ve made mistakes,” Brower confessed to the river guide. “Now, what are you going do to fix them?”
Weisheit was stumped. But not for long. He soon joined forces with Owen Lammers, the brilliant anti-dam campaigner from the Bay Area, and my old pal David Orr, the most militant environmentalist ever incubated in swamps of Arkansas, to establish Living Rivers, a group dedicated to draining Lake Powell and restoring ecological rhythms of the Colorado/Green River system. In tandem with their allies at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, they have grow into one of the most powerful and innovative force in American environmentalism. Living Rivers is a testament to how much you can accomplish with a little bit of money, a lot smarts and a bright-line mission that defies political compromise.
I had a similar encounter with Brower twenty years earlier than Weisheit. Fresh out of college and 200 pages into a sprawling and inchoate novel about a doomed expedition in the snowy wilderness of Manitoba, I ran into Brower at a rally in Baltimore against the nuclear power industry, which had nearly burned a hole through the earth at Three Mile Island a few dozen miles up the Susquehanna. We both spoke at the protest (I got the mic for 30 seconds, Brower for 30 minutes) and went out for drinks afterwards. Drinks with Brower meant martinis –often just Tangueray gin, straight up. One after the other.
I was inebriated after four rounds. Brower showed not the slightest tic of impairment. We drained two more martinis and then he asked me to explain what I was doing with my time now that Kimberly had given birth to our daughter, Zen.
“Changing diapers and writing a novel,” I said. “Changing diapers, mostly.”
He laughed. Then swooped in for the kill.
“There’s plenty of time for novels in your dotage, Jeffrey,” Brower said, zeroing in with his impish eyes. “Not so much time left for those Chesapeake blue crabs out there in the Bay or the grizzlies that you love and which frighten me. Why don’t you write about them?”
So I mulched the novel and went to work for Brower at Friends of the Earth for a few months. It wasn’t always a smooth relationship. He often felt I was too critical of the big environmental groups and lacked an ultimate faith in the political system to deal with acute environmental problems. Of course, on any given day of the week, Brower adopted both of these opinions as articles of faith. He was a complex and contradictory man. Some might call it character.
We hadn’t spoken in about five years when I ran into Dave at the Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, where we were both featured speakers. Jim Ridgeway and I had just written a vicious little book called A Guide to Environmental Bad Guys, which we had dedicated to the fall of Glen Canyon Dam. I handed a copy to Brower. He flipped through the pages absently, tossed it to his wife Ann and resumed a conversation with his latest recruit to the Sierra Club, Adam Werbach, now hustling as a frontman for Wal-Mart.
If Dave and I endured a fractious relationship, Ann and I had always shared fundamental values and a warm and unwavering friendship. Through many fraught hours, Ann Brower served as Dave’s spine and his conscience-not to mention editing his sometimes tangled prose into clear and potent sentences. As I turned to walk away, miffed at Brower’s snub, Ann grabbed my wrist. “I’ll make sure he reads it.” She winked. And so she did. I received beautiful notes from both of them a few weeks later.
I last saw Brower at Glen Canyon Dam, during the protest that served as the coming out party for Living Rivers. He was in a wheelchair, fiercely battling the illness that would soon claim his life. As the speeches rambled on, I rolled Dave across the parking lot to the Glen Canyon Bridge with a view down into the last seventeen undammed miles of the canyon.
“Right the wrong,” he demanded.
More than a decade after his death, the only real commemoration of the life of America’s greatest environmentalist is on a building in Berkeley, now under green construction, that will house Earth Island Institute and other environmental and social justice organizations. Supposedly Dave gave his enthusiastic assent to the project in the waning weeks of his life. But I think Dave was probably just happy that Earth Island, his last organizational progeny, would have a permanent base of operations from which to cause global trouble in the name of sea turtles and killer whales.
Dave Brower wasn’t about buildings, even earth-friendly ones. His legacy resides in what Howie Wolke calls the Big Outside. Brower deserves to have his name immortalized on a Sierran peak, an ancient forest grove in Oregon, a wild run of rapids in Grand Canyon and a living canyon in Dinosaur-Lodore, perhaps?
* * *
Dozens of trout rise before us, puckering the smooth surface of the river as it squeezes through the brooding walls of Split Mountain Canyon. A fat rainbow finally makes a twisting leap out of the water, snatching an unwary damselfly.
These rainbows aren’t native to the Green River, whose warm and silty waters never produced many trout and then only the brightly marked and sleek Colorado Cutthroat, now endangered, largely as a consequence of the government’s stocking the river basin with non-native competitors, such as the ubiquitous rainbow.
Most of these fish found their way into the Green River from the Jones Hole Hatchery a few miles upstream, which is why the facility must be closed immediately. All hatcheries should be shuttered eventually, but this one deserves to be first in line. It is polluting the Green River with alien beings, android trout, generated in cloning tanks that sacrifice identity for the identical. The phony fish are eating away at Dinosaur’s aquatic ecosystem, still more ecological blowback from Flaming Gorge Dam. Among other serious problems, the hatchery is a vector for infection, especially a fatal disorder called whirling disease, known to ichthyophiles as “trout AIDS.”
The Jones Hole Hatchery was constructed a few yards outside the Dinosaur National Monument boundary by the Fish and Wildlife Service with money provided by the Bureau of Reclamation. The hatchery was meant to mitigate the damage done by Flaming Gorge dam. Mitigation can be succinctly defined as making amends for one bad act by doing something worse.
Here the federal government deliberately eradicated the native species (which the Bureau men dubbed “trash” fish) of the Green River above and below the dam by saturating the waters with poison, an act that gives new meaning to liquidation. Then the waters of the reservoir and the stretch of river below the dam through Browns Park and into Dinosaur were seeded with non-native lake trout, brown trout and rainbows. The Bureau of Reclamation now touts Flaming Gorge and Browns Park as “a world class trout fishery.” Yet, you’ll cast in vain for a Colorado Cutthroat, considered by many to be the most beautiful trout in the world. That’s a strange kind of progress.
This begs another question. Should sport-fishing even be permitted in national parks? There’s an easy and emphatic answer for that. No. No more than digging for fossils, gathering potsherds, gunning down bison, recreational operation of bulldozers, torturing grizzlies or building big resorts. Leave the fishing in the parks to eagles, osprey, bears and otters. Where else are they going to eat?
Yellowstone shut down its hatcheries in 1960. Why is the FrankenFish factory at Dinosaur National Monument still pumping out drones forty-seven years later? Because the hydro-potentates at the Bureau of Reclamation desperately need to maintain a recreational constituency to defend their dam-and the houseboaters keep killing themselves off. To Congress, a trout fishing lobby sounds authentic-even when the trout are not.
The rainbows, brown trout and channel cats are also edging out the native desert fish, the Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub, in particular. These fish are now endangered. None of these species were considered commercial fish, so, naturally, they were boxed in by the dams–Hoover, Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge-before biologists even knew much about their life histories.
This much we now know. They like warm, murky water and the turbulent pools below mighty rapids. Though not anadromous, these big predators are migratory, sometimes moving dozens of miles between spawning grounds, rearing spots and feeding zones. They breed in the submerged limbs of cottonwoods and willows during the spring floods. They eat other fish, including their own young.
But in the post-dam system the water runs clear and cold, released from the icy belly of the reservoir at 54 degrees in the heat of August. The rapids are diminished or inundated entirely. The spring floods are regulated. The prey species, including most critically (and ironically) their own young, are disappearing, year by year. The endemic fishes of the Green/Colorado River are now mere flashing shadows in a closed system. As the humpback chub goes, so goes the river ecosystem. And once they are gone, they can’t come back. They exist nowhere else in the world.
So let us resolve to unplug that hatchery, dry it out and leave behind the empty buildings, vats and tanks as another memorial of science gone wrong. Call it the Dachau of the Cutthroats.
* * *
And so the afternoon passes, down the halls of red rock on the dark river. There’s much to say, but no reason to speak. Not now. No reason at all to violate the wild silence.
It’s only early afternoon, but already the sun has melted on the high rim, igniting the walls in slanted light, canyon glow.
The gorge narrows, the river accelerates, the current grips the raft, flexes its hidden strength. Rapids aren’t the only testimonial to its power.
But rapids are coming. Vicious ones that will shoot us through the center of Split Mountain in a five-mile long conspiracy of rocks and water: Moonshine, Schoolboy, SOB. We rocket over them one after another, cutting through standing waves, twirling on mossy table rocks, bouncing off boulders that do not yield. We are attuned to the rhythms of the river now. For a moment, at least, we are at one with the current of the water. A Zen thing.
So it flows.
We break for lunch one last time on a thin crescent of beach at the mouth of SOB rapids. I unwrap four smoked brook trout, caught on dry flies in the Warm Springs River on the eastern flank of Mt. Hood–our last treat. The beer is gone; so is the Tequila. We settle for water, cool and delicious.
Suddenly, the wind picks up. Powered by the tightening walls of the canyon, the wind scalps the surface of the river, lifting up peels of water and driving the spray upstream against the rapids. The sky darkens, thunder pounds the mountains, lightning stabs the rim of the canyon. Close, very close. This is no mere light show. The hair rises on my arms, prickling with electricity.
Rain pelts us, lightly at first, then in a furious torrent that soaks our clothes and food. There’s nowhere to hide. We huddle together as the rain morphs into hail, pecking at us like buckshot. Newly formed waterfalls erupt from the rim, pouring in wispy tails over the face of the canyon. The water runs red.
The storm rages for thirty minutes, then dissipates, leaving behind a disc of lemon sun and a fat rainbow arching across the canyon in an unmarred sky.
Back on the rafts, we float the final mile through the belly of Split Mountain in silence, down an eerie corridor of violently eroded limestone to the stark gate of the canyon and the slab of bland concrete at the takeout point.
As we empty the rafts and heave them onto the boat trailer, a Park Ranger pulls up in a grumbling SUV. He slides out and slams the door, leaving the monster truck idling, a blue smudge of hydrocarbons belching from the tailpipe. He saunters toward us, walking with that calculated limp made iconic in Sergio Leone movies and crudely adopted as the war-strut of George W. Bush. The ranger is a little man with a big gun strapped to his thigh, which he fingers obsessively. The shadow of a Kevlar vest sprouts from beneath his starched Park Service uniform. From his military-style belt dangle plasti-cuffs, a taser and pepper-spray–all the toys of a post-modern cop.
With his eyes shaded behind the obligatory Ray-Bans, the tiny ranger begins to question Susette about our trip. In his puff-adder voice, he demands to see our permits and interrogates her about where we camped last night. He says he is “in receipt of information” that we didn’t stay at Big Island. Apparently, the frat boys have filed their snitch report.
Susette handles the tedious interview as coolly as she navigates rapids. She explains that thanks to the incompetence of Park Service recreation staffers, who had assigned us a landlocked campsite, and the engineers at Flaming Gorge Dam who had shrunk the river, we had no choice but to beach our boats at Red Wash.
I don’t have Susette’s capacity for patient explanation. Or her subtle sense of irony. But I suddenly realize that I am wearing my verboten t-shirt. Inside-out, natch. I flip the park cop the Curse of the Slain Bison, turn my back to him and watch the flowing and living river one last time before heading back to Oregon and eight months of moss, fog and rain.
The storm has flushed a juniper stump into the current, bobbing its way down stream to lodge like a small bone in the throat of Glen Canyon Dam.
Roll on, little juniper, roll on.
We Used to Only Worry About Them After Dark
What I’m reading this week…
Arturo’s Island: a Novel
Donald Nicholson-Smith (Translator)
The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning
Long Litt Woon
Barbara Haveland (Translator)
(Spiegel & Grau)
What I’m listening to this week…
Songs From the Deluge
(Free Dirt Records)
Karl Marx is widely regarded as one of the most sophisticated theorists of human history. Marx was above all a scientist. He used the term historical materialism to explain that it was the material state of society that produced human relations. Today, perhaps especially in the United States, the mainstream tends to tell us it is the other way around. The American Dream argues that material gains comes from hard work, discipline and innovation.
Karl Marx is a thinker who should be read, and read often. This is precisely because he is able to take this blame away from the individual and place it on the society. Capitalist propaganda will not only tell us what to want—it will tell us why we don’t have it. Anyone paying attention to capitalist discourse will come to the conclusion that they are a failure if they haven’t achieved the goals of capitalism. At least this is the intention of said propaganda.
Reading Karl Marx can then be a liberating experience. He inverts these dynamics when talking about religion: “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society.”
Clearly, Mr. Marx is coming from a state of compassion with these words. He does not want people to be fooled by religion. He wants us to see the structures that create it. Furthermore, he wants to expand our imagination of the possible. Once we are able to see that the world we constructed is arbitrary we can create an entirely new world that is fairer for everybody.
From a philosophical standpoint, one has to wonder what is the basis of the claim that society creates man. Surely one can look at the diversity of individuals in our world and point to society having a vastly different effect on each one. Historical materialism fails to account for the alternative: human creates society. On what basis should this alternative be discounted? It feels exactly like a chicken and egg scenario. Marx chooses to look at individuals and concludes that society is the larger influence. However, if one were to study society they would surely find individuals to be the larger influence.
Individuals make society, and society makes individuals. This is a rather base point but also an irrefutable one. It seems clear that as Marx tried to free the individual consciousness, he pointed out the contradictions in society. But seeing that simply one is merely the collection of the other, it should be impossible to separate them in any way more meaningful than a material one. To continue with a material analogy, Marx could be sympathetic towards the individual bricks of a house. He told each brick that the house was a construct that determined their reality. A very freeing idea for these poor bricks who have been stuck in the same place their whole lives. But how would one explain the house’s existence to the house? Why you could tell the house you are merely a construction of bricks and you are no more real than that. One can simply not be more true than the other.
Why make such an equation? Clearly there was some truth, and more importantly, inherent value, in Karl Marx telling the individual that they were a construct of society. When we are told that society is a construct of the individual it is often used to keep us in our place and not question the larger system of capitalism that is oppressing us. This may be true but it only gives Marx the moral high ground, it does not necessarily make him any more correct than the capitalists of today.
Marx continues: “his state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.” While surely such a statement is made for altruistic reasons, Mr. Marx has no proof of this dynamic, because there is none. In fact he contradicts himself when he writes this about religion: “Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man [Unmensch], where he seeks and must seek his true reality.” Here humanity seems to find themselves in religion. The inverted state that Marx focuses on now works the other way around. Marx seems to think he resolves this contradiction in the next line by claiming that the appearance of man in religion is false and completely a construct of society.
Karl Marx maintains that religion is not real: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” On the one hand, Marx acknowledges a sincere expression of agency of humans when he calls it an expression of real suffering. However, soon after Marx points to religion as a protest against what is actually “real”—therefore implying that society is merely replacing human’s reality with a religious reality. Here Marx is confirming the theory stated above that the humans and society cannot be separated or inverted and that they exist together as a cause-and-effect dilemma.
Marx maintains the same contradiction of himself here: “The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun.” Note that in an earlier passage Marx saw religion as man’s construction of himself as superman—admittedly a false construction. But now Marx argues for us to revolve around ourselves even though he saw religion as a construct of self. Marx may mean that we should revolve around ourselves either way. He may mean that religion creates a false self, while disavowing religion can lead to a true self.
Marx wants us to be critical of the structure that creates religion: “Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” Here his own contradictions seem to be more flushed out. Marx then goes on to level criticism against German society precisely because it is merely a construct of itself, society, etc.
Of course in a way Marx is right. And while capitalism’s impact may be an obvious point, it is a point often forgotten. Marx calls religion the opium of the people. Like many of Marx’s theories it seems prophetic as many people have turned to drugs today to deal with the painful reality we call life. Look at how many people blame themselves. And look too to how harmful it is to blame others—whether that be immigrants, Muslims or any other scapegoated group. If we were to find out that our society was simply a construct and a myth—why that might make us treat everyone better.
Three cheers for Marx then, and three cheers for anyone spreading his ideas which are in their own way quite optimistic. But let’s maybe critique Marx more broadly than his religious criticisms, for while they have been much reflected on by the “masses”, they seemed to be merely a passing criticism for him—which is indeed part of his problem.
Much of Marx can be boiled down to this: the individual is alienated from himself (herself). This is a frustrating position because by definition it is impossible. It is specifically problematic when one begins to see that Marxism itself has more or less taken the same societal structure and illusions as a religion when it is organized. This led Karl Marx to wildly claim he was not a Marxist. This, however, is not only a ridiculous thing to say, but also severely underestimates the impact of Marx himself. Marx then saw Marxism as not only a negation of what the world is, but as a negation of how the world structures itself. All of this was somehow a construct to Marx, even when similar structures arose under the umbrella of Marx’s ideas.
This remains an underestimate of Marx and the communal and spiritual uplift his ideas have provided the masses. These ideas are like religion. Not because they are false, but because they give the individual a truth greater than what society is currently providing. If Marx was scared of this type of influence it was because he saw this influence as naturally misleading. What he misses is not only the inevitability of such influence but the realness of it. There is nothing false about a Marxist who believes in Marx. Just as there is nothing false about a religious person who believes in God. On earth, God’s realness is not shown by God appearing on earth, but by faith in God appearing on earth. This faith changes the world and it is in this way that God has an effect. What Marx may have recognized in his own uneasiness about Marxism is that there is simply nothing more real about him than about religion itself.
This is not an original point but religion is no more of a material construct than science is. Take the basic debate about whether evolution existed. One can point to a fossil of a dinosaur to prove science correct. But believing that this means anything relies upon putting faith in the institutions of science that have supposedly discovered these artifacts—largely through methods unseen and hard to comprehend. Strip away the social context and the idea that a human could walk on water is much more plausible than the concept that we literally transformed into a different species.
In the present day science can make the claim that it knows almost everything through observation of the material world. The relationship we have with science is not so different from the one we have with religion. Socially speaking, it is top-down. We must have a faith both in history and authority to believe it and we must suspend our direct knowledge of the material world seeing as both systems prove themselves mostly through the institutional constructs described above. An individual, whether that be mad scientist or heretic, has very little authority precisely for the reasons Marx describes: the individual is seen to be constructing their own reality—not necessarily on truth, but simply based on their biased and sheltered world view.
When Marx claims the individual is alienated from himself he implies that the system, while completely dishonest, is the only place authority can come from. This is another one of those contradictions. The individual under capitalism is supposedly incapable of making “true” decisions, whether that be devotion to religion, a job, etc. This ironically strips the individual of any of the supposedly very limited power they do have. That is unless they pull off the veil and begin to see the world “as is”.
But why is the individual wrong? Because their acceptance of capitalism’s truths guarantees their suffering under capitalism? This seems to be the only explanation and is undoubtedly true. But that by no means makes a religion or any other viewpoint “false”. It simply is the reality of life under capitalism, or to take a step back, the reality of life in a historical moment where capitalism has a large influence. This argument applies Marx’s historical materialism, albeit for the exact opposite conclusion of Marx himself.
Dr. Cornel West said this about Marxism: “Marxism is both indispensable, but inadequate, insufficient. And it certainly doesn’t help us understand death, dread, despair, disillusionment, demoralization. On all these fundamental features of the human condition, Marxism has nothing to say. ”
The fundamental critique of Marxism must be this: in an attempt to explain capitalism as the umbrella under which human relations function, it inverts the relationship between humanity and capitalism. Rather than capitalism is a function of human relations, human relations become a function of capitalism. Therefore these human relations become a construct for Marxism.
The omission of religion as a whole is more telling than the few words Karl Marx did say about religion. For Marx, religious beliefs could be read within the context of capitalism, but there was nothing fundamental about it to the human condition.
So what would happen if one were to recognize that everything about their lives was merely a construct of their material condition under capitalism? It seems like both an unrealistic and miserable expectation. Rather than dismissing our believes as constructs why not use them as the means to free the oppressed from capitalism? This is exactly the sort of connection that our dear brother Cornel West makes in his essay “Black Theology and Marxist Thought”.
Marxism simply goes too far when it attempts to free the individual from themselves. It seems to ignore historical materialism exactly when it is defining it. If historical materialism does exist, then the individual can only be a product of it and cannot be freed from it. The goal should be to channel the individual’s desires which can only a product of their material reality.
And yet even this alternative does not do anything to address the reality of what it means to be a living being. A belief in historical materialism suspends all belief in a living moment that exists as something greater than a biological reality. Such a reality is grim precisely for the same reason capitalism is grim. Marxism, like capitalism, only functions on a material production of reality, rather that be for-profit, justice, or intellectual reality.
This reality, while potentially possible, cannot be fathomed. It marks existence as purposeless beyond material accomplishments and existence. This reality soon becomes alienating for the individual for precisely the same reason Marx recognized capitalism to be alienating. It takes away the individual’s ability to exist as more than an object. Historical materialism states that the individual is simply a product of history and biology. Better to be a free object than a useful object. But why be an object at all?
Marx’s only error is underestimating his own potential for human liberation. By identifying the forces that oppress us, Marx is able to shed light on what exactly we must overcome. His words were so powerful that they have propelled humanity towards the direction of liberation for centuries. Marxism charts a path for liberation from materialism.
Marx traces history accurately because he successfully detaches himself rom many of the biases other historians have. These historians let their own material condition cloud their vision of what really happened in human history. Often the history tellers are so-called “winners” of history who only tell the stories of other so-called winners. By distancing himself from materialism, Marx successfully made himself an almost neutral observer. He could call out historical materialism as the force that determined the way all humans acted, and therefore was almost immune to the effects it had on him. Furthermore, once Marx pointed this out all of the alternatives to Marx were exposed.
What makes Marxism inadequate is the way it pulls the individual away from their own historical moment. The individual must become something they are not in order to see the world in its materially constructed way. Marx made such a grand contribution to his historical moment and to the immaterial urges of the human soul that his influence has transcended his own theory and perhaps has proven it false.
Marxism no longer just explains human history, it has inspired it. Across the world groups are moved by Marx’s ideas. Not just because of the precarious material condition of people but because of an immaterial connection to Marx’s ideas. These ideas liberate people not only because their reality is proven as a construct of capitalism. Marxism goes a step further. Marxism becomes the construct. It becomes an alternative structure in which to organize human life.
On the one hand, there is a clear material advantage for the masses when Marx is understood and applied. On the other hand, the fact that Marx could turn the tables in the way he did makes one wonder if the world can be explained in a strictly material sense.
For argument’s sake let’s try concluding that Marx is right. We can say that at least Marx cannot be proven wrong. That has always been the contradiction of God. You cannot prove Him to exist in the material world, and therefore you cannot prove that he does not exist precisely because He is immaterial. On seemingly contradictory but actually parallel grounds, God can never be proven to be true and if one has no faith materialism is by definition the only way of the universe.
If the goal of Karl Marx was to liberate the individual in a material sense then it seems that by limiting his own definition of liberation to a materialist one that he greatly limited the possibilities of his argument. If the individual is actually alienated from themselves because of their materialist constructs, wouldn’t the only way out of this materialist construct to enter into a state of immateriality?
If one were to simply view Marxism materially then it would be nothing more than changing the constructs around which the individual is alienated from themselves. In short, while Marxism could free the individual from oppression within materialism, a close reading seemed to do little to address the question of alienation from one’s self if that self was only material. If the self is material then it must be as alienating as any other material. Liberating that material then seems like merely an object of utility. The revolution appears mechanical and lifeless. And even the goal of that revolution remains property of a material good (one’s self).
Marx himself identifies materialism as the overarching reality. But his lasting legacy comes from his ability to show us the way out of this reality. There is little purpose in breaking free of the chains of capital if even this liberation remains only material, and therefore purposeless beyond its utility. The reason happiness can never be bought is that no material gains, even liberation from capital, will guarantee any form of happiness beyond a material control of a reality that ultimately still relies on the very state of materialism it has conquered. Karl Marx made the mistake of underestimating Karl Marx. To achieve an existence higher than our material one, we would be wise not to make the same mistake.
If the argument for religion seems unconvincing, then let’s encourage the skeptic to take the reverse. Marxism has no utility besides liberating the individual from materialism oppression. Religion, while bringing many organizational oppressions, has the effect of liberating the individual from strictly material existence. Therefore, even if Marxism seems to be more real than God, their utilities and goals share much in common. Of course this is merely a material argument for religion, and if such an argument is needed, then it is unlikely religion will have the liberating effect it is capable of.
One of the lasting highlights of my teaching at the University of New Orleans in 1991-1992 was my travel to Brazil in January 1992 for a conference on climate change. This was a rehearsal for the June 1992 Earth Summit on Climate Change in Rio.
My conference took place in Fortaleza, a beautiful town in the state of Ceara in the northeast of Brazil. The conference passed quickly with meaningless speeches while the conference was besieged by indigenous people pleading unsuccessfully for a hearing.
However, I enjoyed a tour of the semi-arid countryside of Ceara. I sensed more than dryness and desert. I saw fragments of the Brazilian Atlantic forest. These moist woodlands are full of golden tall trees, marshes teeming with life, bleeding streams carrying away the red soil. Yet perpetual danger follows the trees, plants and animals. The loggers who devastated the Atlantic forest for more than 500 years keep coming, leaving a trail of plunder after them.
The asphalt road of our tour sliced through a flat region of small trees, bushes, goats and cattle grazing ranchland, and immense cashew plantations, producing Ceara’s number one cash crop.
We stopped in Caninde, a rural town celebrating St Francis, the ecology saint of the Catholic Church. Once in the St. Francis Cathedral, my eyes were immediately glued to banners.
The message in these colorful cloth banners was not what one would see in a church in North America. Here the burning issue was not hell or paradise or the ten commandments but liberation—the liberation of peasants from oppression. One banner said that the organization of the workers was terribly important for their emancipation; and another proclaimed that the concentration of wealth was the root of evil.
Clearly, the priest, a bespectacled, dark-skinned heavy-set man of medium height, was preaching a theology of liberation, trying to defend the poor by raising their consciousness. That understanding made the liturgy, in Portuguese, exceedingly important.
For a change, I said to myself, this part of our guided tour was appropriate to the spirit of sustainable development, the struggle of a few people of good will to help the rest understand that the Earth needs healing, not more ecocidal development. The theology of liberation had a soothing effect on my soul.
Later on we also went to a Cowboy Mass. It was the equivalent of an African-American spiritual / festival with all the passion, anger, and love of oppressed people recovering their freedom. Thousands of people enjoyed the passionate performance. You had the impression the entire crowd was becoming a single, huge person dancing and breathing the sounds of that emancipating music.
When the concert was over, they drove us to the Praca dos Romeiros (the Amphitheater of the Pilgrims), built during the drought of 1987. Just before we got into our buses for a return to Fortaleza, I read a message on the wall praising agrarian reform.
My field trip could not have had a better ending: Canindé was a city of liberation—or, at least, this was a place where liberation might have a chance.
In the Amazon
I took a late flight to Manaus, capital of Amazonas. I was determined to get an intimate view of the rain forest of Amazonia: a dream, a burning forest, the world’s largest, the “lungs” of the Earth, the laboratory of narrow-minded scientists, a huge wild frontier for the extraction of gold, timber, rubber and other “resources,” the home of feared Indians and despised Brazilians.
Amazonia is primarily untamed nature for countless species of plants, fish and terrestrial animals. But the Amazon rain forest is also a prize for Brazilians and international environmental politics, nationalism, and violence. It’s everything to all people, an unknown place for conquest, love, hate—and passion.
I found two biologists from the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, in Manaus, who invited me to go with them in their research trip into the fabled natural treasure of their country. They spoke very little English and I spoke no Portuguese, but the language difficulties were trivial to our common affection for the rain forest.
Spending a few days in the forest made a difference: Walking with the two biologists for hours in the solitude of the rain forest, swimming in the crystal clear waters of Acará, a small tributary of Rio Negro, sleeping in the deep darkness of the tall trees, brought me closer to thinking like those trees, those beautiful rivers, Amazonia.
The green, overwhelmingly green, nature of the Amazon—the trees reaching for the heavens and light — was burning in my mind. I climbed to the top of an observation point that brought me at the same level with the tallest trees in the reserve and the view of that most fertile part of the forest—usually the home of monkeys and other animals—was awesome.
A breeze lighted my sweat and fright from that height. The canopy of the trees, loaded with fruit and nuts, gives the impression of a fecund world covering a quiet but dense green interior between a brown leaf-covered land and the straight tall trunks of those trees, which have captured a space in the Sun. But even the quiet green first meters of the forest are a universe of complex biology and exquisite beauty.
There are trees that go straight up—nothing spectacular about that, you might say. Other trees send roots all over the land, the air, over and into other trees. In fact the land of the Amazonia I visited is but a complex web of roots and a couple of inches of decomposing leaves. Dead trees become the home for other trees, a variety of plants and animals. Nothing of that immense area in the rain forest is empty of life.
Rivers of creation
The rivers of Amazonia may be the answer to both the mystery and the fecundity of this part of the Earth, its overwhelming life, its beauty and taste of fruits, its flowers and, especially, its people and culture.
Manaus, for instance, sits on the mouth of the immense Rio Negro whose waters rise every June and July and give another chance to nature. Manaus is 1000 miles from the ocean and only twelve miles from the mighty Amazon River. I saw the coming together of the Rio Negro and Solimoes outside of Manaus. The two rivers meet but because their waters have different speeds (the Rio Negro moves at three kilometers an hour and Solimoes at seven kilometers an hour) and temperatures and density, the two rivers don’t mix for eighteen kilometers.
The Rio Negro’s dark waters are full of algae and Solimoes is full of silt that makes its water yellowish like mud. Solimoes, by the way, is a nickname for the Amazon River. But my first impression of the coming together of these two huge bodies of water—from the Verde Paradiso, a tour boat, in the background of the sprawl of industrial Manaus—is nearly metaphysical. Here nature, in all its perfection and in its utter contempt for humans trying to control it, is unsettling, though regulating the global environment. The sheer volume of the water of the Amazon River gives life to Amazonia. The fish and wildlife of the entire region, its climate and biodiversity, would probably wither and die without the Amazon River.
We ate pirarucu, a boneless fish caught in the Amazon River. This fish can grow up to 240 pounds. We visited two islands in the Rio Negro River, Teha Novaand Xiborena. They are sparsely populated by people who looked to me like converted Indians or caboclos, a mixture of Indians and Portuguese. These people fish and eat corn, casava and tropical fruit. In Xiborenathere are remnants of rubber and cacao plantations, so we can assume this island’s dark-skinned residents must have been, not too long ago, the slaves of white plantation owners.
Both islands are now Potemkin villages, places for a constant stream of tourists from Manaus. Their people live like European peasants of the nineteenth century but without any obvious signs of social unrest. Their homes sit on wooden poles to avoid drowning by the rising waters of Rio Negro. Each house has chickens, ducks, and dogs sheltered underneath its raised foundation. A number of these dark people sell trinkets to tourists. In Xiborenawe saw a beautiful patch of Victoria Regia water lilies.
The Subversion of Ecology
After my memorable trip to the meeting of the river gods in front of Manaus, I met an American biologist working for the National Institute for Research in the Amazon. He is tall, thin, wiry with a huge mustache. His name is Phillip Fearnside. He showed me a book he wrote in 1986 about the “human carrying capacity” of Amazonia.. He said he is the main opponent of the governor of the state of Amazonas who wants to repeal all environmental protection in Amazonia. He said he keeps his American passport but he is a permanent resident in Brazil.
Yet behind this man’s outward timidity and academic caution, there is a courageous defender of the Amazon rain forest. Being on the scene of ecological devastation, Fearnside has persistently criticized the obscene and Pharaonic development projects throughout Amazonia. He was a friend of the rubber tapper, Chico Mendes, who was murdered in December 1988 for slowing down the destructive work of the ranchers and other exploiters of the rain forest.
The careful ecological research of Fearnside has made a difference in the international struggle urging Brazil to consider that the Amazon is much more than a forest for charcoal, pig iron, silver, gold, timber, and cattle ranching. Of course that is not what Brazil wants to hear about the Amazon. In fact, even Fabio Feldmann, one of Brazil’s most ecologically conscious Congressmen, whom I met in Fortaleza, is not willing to hear what foreigners say about the global value of the Amazon.
“Sustainable” development, yes, agrarian reform, no. Theory sounds sweet, even paradoxical to the new converts of the very model of industrialism that is unsettling the Earth. Meanwhile, ecology and green thinking, like the idea of sustainable development for the tropics, make for good dinner conversation.
Yet what happens in the Amazon and the other tropical regions of the planet reverberates throughout the world. According to the US Global Change Research Program, half of the Earth’s surface and three-quarters of the world’s population are in the tropics.
The tropics are part of a world of gigantic class inequalities between countries and within countries.
But, like my modest proposal for agrarian reform, my suggestion that the Europeans and North Americans ought to lift their debt sentence of death over Brazil and the rest of the Third World did not go very far. Violence has remained the order of the day.
Death without weeping
“I have seen death without weeping,” says the Brazilian writer Geraldo Vandre. “The destiny of the [Brazilian] Northeast is death. Cattle they kill, but to people they do something worse.” But death without weeping? Is that possible?
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley, spent several years studying the Brazilian Northeast and concluded that Geraldo Vandre was right.
The Brazilian Northeast, “land of sugar and hunger, thirst and penance, messianism and madness,” made death routine—particularly for “the children of poor families.”
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is unusual. She cares. But not many scientists do. They have shown an uncanny propensity in siding with power and doing its bidding.
Anthropologists and economists behind the genocide of indigenous people
In the case of the Amazon, scientists (mostly anthropologists and economists) have been the protagonists in the destruction of the fantastic ecosystems and indigenous societies of that immense forest region of Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. The scientists’ destruction follows the model of centuries’ of experience from the European conquest of the Americas.
The Yanomami are one of the very few indigenous societies in the Amazon that survived the initial holocaust European explorers and Christian missionaries brought to the Americas’ non-European people in the fifteenth century.
Patrick Tierney, an American researcher, spent several years in the Amazon documenting the brutal fate of the Yanomami at the hands of Western experts and gold miners in late twentieth century. He paints an ugly picture of ruthless conquistadors parading under the garb of science and economic development for brutal personal ambition and unethical goals.
These academic crusaders, American and French anthropologists above all, came across the Yanomami hiding in the inaccessible forest and water wilderness of the Upper Orinoco River in the frontier between Brazil and Venezuela. That fateful encounter in the 1960s triggered another “conversion” against the Yanomami who have been portrayed as fierce people fighting ceaselessly over women.
Anthropologists and journalists and economists expanded on that lie and created a fictional Yanomami world so that they could subdue the gentle forest people with guns, diseases, development projects, and civil wars.
The Yanomami had also to deal with the diseases, bullets, and violence of thousands of gold miners and development agents of Brazil, Venezuela and the World Bank who invaded their land.
The indigenous solution
All the Amazonian indigenous people are, to some degree, Yanomami. Give them enough land, no more land grabbers, no more anthropologists, no more miners, no more World Bank economists and no more missionaries, and they can put together sustainability—in both nature (the rain forest) and their society. They are best qualified to heal the wounds of the Amazon and, in all likelihood, prevent the fearsome destruction of the rain forest. I smile at this thought.
But that may be a real “solution” to the inferno consuming Brazil and, in time, the rest of the world.
Indigenous people know the rain forest intimately. It’s their home country. Their wisdom is about the complex relationships of plants, trees, soil, animals, and rain. They grasp the small and gigantic ecological and political changes accompanying deforestation.
Alexander Zaitchik, an American reporter who investigated the burning Amazon, admires Brazil’s indigenous people, their knowledge of the land, courage and tenacity. He says that, “Before anyone was talking about climate change, they [the indigenous people of the Amazon] were trying to warn us.”
Indigenous people kept seeing the land grabbers leveling and burning their forests – for centuries. In just the last fifty years, fires and chainsaws destroyed a fifth of the rain forest, something like 300,000 square miles.
The fear, of course, is that this “epochal deforestation” could continue, in which case it would devour another fifth of the Amazon rain forest. Were such a calamity to take place, scientists warn, kiss life and Mother Earth goodbye.
A phenomenon known as “dieback” revenges human hubris and stupidity. It triggers an auto fire destruction of the remaining forest, with the result sending high to heavens a colossal amount of carbon. This carbon very likely will raise the temperature of the planet to levels inhospitable to life.
The prospects for such ecumenical holocaust are locked in existing policies. Forces in Brazil and elsewhere are adding daily fuel to the fires of a terrestrial inferno capable of eating the heart and the lungs of the entire planet Earth.
The new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is another Donald Trump. He is a mouthpiece of Brazilian landlords. He hates the natural world, indigenous people, and environmentalists. He is pushing through deregulation, giving a lift to land grabbers and killers of the indigenous people and the rain forest.
The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said the fires engulfing the rain forest of Brazil constitute an international crisis. The Amazon needs international protection. In early 2019, some 73,000 fires were raging in the rain forest of Brazil.
I already said Brazilian government officials and politicians – long before the election of Bolsonaro in 2018 — resent any international discussion of the global ecological implications of the rapid despoliation of their fantastic Amazon rain forest. They say something like this:
“What we do with our ‘resources’ is our business. You, North Americans and Europeans, what right do you have to defend Amazonia from development? First of all, you chainsawed and clearcut your own forests, which themselves were substantial lungs of the Earth and sources of biodiversity at one time. Second, you taught us all we know about development. So, how are we to develop if we stop mining and burning the Amazon? And, furthermore, how are we to pay back all the money we borrowed from you without continuing to do the very things you now find objectionable?”
These questions could not be raised in the Fortaleza conference of 1992 or any other international climate conference – to this day in 2019.
My quest for putting agrarian reform on Fortaleza’s agenda troubled North Americans and Europeans to no end. But some of the Brazilians who listened to my talk said that without agrarian reform sustainable development would not have a chance. Besides, they insisted, Brazil should pull the rug from under the menacing plantation owners. These Brazilians knew that dividing up the huge farms of Brazil to modest sized-farms would save the Amazon from additional destruction.
Agrarian reform must become an integral part of avoiding a final dieback of the rain forest. With Trump and Bolsonaro in power, talks and policy changes in the US and Brazil are unlikely.
The real hope is now in the hands of Europeans and the UN. They need to create a World Environment Organization to protect the natural world from pollution and destruction. The decisions of such an agency could not be challenged by the corporate World Trade Organization.
Give the global Environment agency science, funds, and enough power to intervene decisively in cases like the fires of the Amazon. These fires are threatening the world. Second, change conventional economics boosting plutocracies to ecological economics boosting the perpetuation of a healthy society, environment and life.
The G-groupof countries led by Macron (France, UK, Canada, US, Germany, Italy and Japan) already pledged funding to Bolsonaro to the tune of $ 22 million for fire-fighting aircraft. This is a tiny by vital step in facing the Brazilian inferno for what it is.
Third, the indigenous people should also be given an opportunity to protect and safeguard the rain forest of the Amazon. They have the philosophical and ecological ways and means for doing that. They practice ecological civilization.
In 2018, they proposed to the UN the establishment of a corridor of indigenous lands from the Andes to the Atlantic. They assured the UN they would love to take care of this land.
Without a doubt, indigenous people have the knowledge, experience and love to protect that precious territory of Mother Earth – for all of us.
Do we really need three-ring circus “debates” to figure out that the only two candidates in the running for president who should be taken seriously are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
Perhaps with Joe Biden still leading the pack; the sooner he is put back out to pasture, the better.
Perhaps with Kamala Harris running for president instead of an office that suits her better — like Commander of the Secret Police.
Perhaps to give national exposure to persons who might make decent running mates or be useful in a Sanders or Warren administration.
But that is about it, and there are better ways to do all that; ways that don’t involve quite so much ratings-driven corporate media “horse race” silliness or so much inane brouhaha.
Tulsi Gabbard never had a chance to be nominated for either the presidency of vice-presidency, but, unlike nearly all the others, she has something useful to add to the national conversation. The country would therefore be better off if she had a national platform, such as she would get if she were allowed into the debates. But she was excluded by the Democratic National Committee, and so the debates will likely not touch at all on the follies and iniquities of American imperialism and militarism.
Gabbard’s views must have been too far out of the Clintonite, liberal imperialist mainstream for the party’s stewards to allow her into the Magic Kingdom. Or was her support for Bernie, not Hillary, in 2016 the decisive factor, or the way in the last debate that she wiped the floor with Harris, the obvious DNC favorite? We may never know.
Andrew Yang, whose chances are no better than Gabbard’s, made the arbitrarily imposed cut-off at the very last minute; he also has something useful to say. Of the entire field, he is the only candidate talking about unconditional basic income. Evidently, DNC Chair Tom Perez and the people around him find Yang less threatening than Gabbard – barely.
But the time for the venerable and sound idea he promotes to trickle down into the mainstream or even to be taken seriously by corporate media is – not yet. It will be different when Artificial Intelligence and other technological advances make paid employment a lot scarcer and less necessary than it already is, but that is still some years off.
The others will just be saying what they have to while showing off their faces, forms, and figures. Watching them will be about as edifying as watching reruns of “Law and Order,” and a lot less entertaining.
The question therefore all but asks itself: what are those debates good for?
Surprisingly, this time around, there is a good answer, an unexpected one: they can be good for exacting pledges from Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to bring Trump to justice, no matter how his presidency ends; and for doing the same for the sycophantic miscreants, past and present, who govern in his behalf.
Republicans, after all, are not the only Trump enablers; Democrats who are shy of holding him to account, Pelosi Democrats and Democrats even worse than that, have been nearly as culpable. They blow air, but, in the end, they let Trump do pretty much what he wants.
Thus no amount of pressure on Democrats to do the right thing is too much. Making their candidates pledge not to let Trump off is the least we should demand.
That is not all.
The fall debates can be useful too for inquiring into the thinking of the major contenders about how they would counter whatever Trump might try to do to hold onto power – whether by the use or threat of force or by negotiating one of his infamous “deals.”
Being corrupt and unscrupulous, and lacking all respect for the office he holds, there is no telling what he might attempt when staring the hoosegow, and perhaps also financial ruin, straight in the eye.
Former Trump buddy Jeffrey Epstein could only harm himself; Trump has the most over-bloated military in the history of the world at his disposal.
This is therefore a matter of the utmost urgency.
Nancy Pelosi’s case for running out the clock on impeachment, translated into plain English and reduced to its core, rests on the claim that the constituents of many newly elected House members would bolt were Democrats to stray from their party’s inveterate moderation and pusillanimity.
This assumes — falsely– that only a “moderate” can defeat Trump. If anything, just the opposite is the case; the only way Trump can win is if Democrats nominate a terminally boring, rightwing Democrat – like, say, Joe Biden. Even then, losing would take some doing, as anyone reflecting back on the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton debacle, ought to realize.
Whatever Pelosi might say or think, Democratic voters do not yearn to turn the clock back to the Barack Obama days. That is Biden’s argument and “Dr. Jill’s.” It is the only one they have for making him, an old school retrograde geriatric goofball, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer next year.
Nevertheless, leading Democrats and their mind-numbing MSNBC and CNN pundits have a lot invested in the idea that except for the wild and crazy fans of the “squad,” the four brown, black, and female thorns in Pelosi’s side that Trump wants to ship back to “where they came from,” potential Democratic voters think like Joe and Jill.
Not only are they dead wrong about that, as time will soon tell; their thinking is insulting – especially, but by no means only, to voters of color, and to persons of all hues still too young to be drawing Social Security old age pensions.
Evidently, it is not enough for unreconstructed, Obamaphile Democrats to disparage white workers displaced by the neoliberal trade policies their party championed, and by their party’s malign neglect of the labor movement. By identifying electability with what they call “moderation,” they have now taken it upon themselves to impugn the intelligence and basic decency of white, college-educated suburban women too.
Has their cluelessness no limit?
A better argument than Pelosi’s for going easy on Trump has a name: Mike Pence.
Notwithstanding his insipid demeanor and the adoring, Nancy Reagan-like gazes he casts Trump’s way, the plain fact is that, by virtue of the office he holds, he is nowadays the most prominent rightwing Christian militant in national politics. His squad, call it “the God squad,” is the very antithesis of the one that could be the Democratic Party’s salvation, the “squad” comprised of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashid Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley.
To be sure, with Pence in the White House, Americans would gain a deeper understanding of what life is like for persons living under the boot of the Taliban or the Islamic State. That would be all to the good. The problem, though, is that, before long, people would find themselves thinking that “making America great again” wasn’t so bad after all.
Pelosi’s claim is that, adding up seats gained and lost, it would be too costly to go after Trump before the next election; that it might even lead to the Democrats losing control of the House. In her view, as with asbestos abatement in old buildings, it is sometimes better just to let the menace be.
She is wrong about that, of course. The way to lose the House is the way that Rahm Emanuel helped Obama lose it in 2010 – by going all out for the rightwing Democrats of the Blue Dog Caucus, and letting the left, what little there was of it, fend for itself.
Pelosi is not completely off base, however. There is a certain danger in going after Trump aggressively. But it isn’t that she and her fellow “centrists” might lose their power.
It is that, if the object of their affection goads them on, the Trump-besotted creatures that crawled out from under the rocks he overturned might run amok, unleashing mayhem and even, as they did in Charlottesville, murder.
Not long ago, only the extremely paranoid worried about such things; a deplorables-apocalypse seemed about as likely as a vampire apocalypse. No longer. After more than two and a half years of Trumpian rule, that concern is becoming more reasonable day by day.
We are not there yet, but should “deep state” operatives, “fake news” purveyors, and effete, latte-sipping, metropolitan, bicoastal snobs rattle their cages the wrong way, the still sizeable hard core Trump base could end up giving new meaning to the old saw about being careful what you wish for, just as surely as a Mike Pence presidency would.
With Trump mentally decomposing in plain view, anything is possible. Nevertheless, it is still more likely than not that Trump will hold it together to some extent, notwithstanding the warnings of his former Director of Communications (for ten days), the peerless Anthony Scaramucci.
It is more likely still that, in the end, even should Trump go entirely over to the dark side, that a good chunk of his remaining base would finally wise up and back off. Getting them back under the rocks from which they came will require protracted struggle, but keeping them in check should not be too hard to do.
Assuming, then, that there is still enough sanity left in the body politic to counter Trump and Trumpism by more or less normal political means, now is a time to start thinking about how de-Trumpification should proceed, and about how the debates to come can play a positive role in the process.
We would be slightly better off now had there been a serious attempt at de-Bushification a decade ago. That never happened, of course. Add that to the long list of reasons not to yearn for the Second Coming of Barack Obama.
Anyone paying attention ten years ago knew that America’s corporate and financial elites had vetted Obama well; and that, with him in the White House, nothing fundamental would change.
Even so, people of good will could hardly not root for America’s first African American president. For that reason alone, the expectations his candidacy raised were contagious. Even those of us who knew better hoped to be pleasantly surprised.
I lost what little hope I had when he chose Biden for a running mate. Everyone who ran against Obama for the nomination in 2008 ran to his left – except Biden and Clinton, the two he empowered. That says a lot about Biden and Clinton, and even more about Obama himself.
Then, as news of his cabinet and cabinet level appointments began to trickle in, it became increasingly obvious that, with his “team of rivals,” what he was offering was the same old, same old.
Timothy Geithner was a big tell; so, of course, were Bob Gates and Clinton, most of all. By the time Obama made Larry Summers Director of his National Economic Council, the kindest thing one could honestly say about him was that he was better than Bush.
Nevertheless, well into the first year of his tenure, willful blindness remained endemic and honesty was in short supply. Obama was like a Rorschach inkblot upon which those who should have known better projected their hopes.
It was obvious, though, from even before Day One, that the “hopey, changey thing” Sarah Palin would go on to mock was not going to work out well. It took some doing, but Obama managed to disappoint even those of us who never expected much of anything worthwhile from him in the first place.
In fairness, he was up against enormous odds. More Americans wanted him to succeed than wanted him to fail, but those who wanted to keep him and others with similar complexions down were unyielding.
The GOP was chock full of people like that. Once it became clear how much they could get away with, their feckless leaders did everything in their power to undermine Obama’s every move.
That they would try to do precisely that was predictable, though the lengths to which they went exceeded anything anyone even as late Inauguration Day would have imagined.
Their obduracy was so extreme that it almost rose to the level of the “sublime.” In Kantian and post-Kantian aesthetic theory, the sublime is that which elicits awe in virtue of its sheer size and overall massiveness.
That “No Drama Obama” would be thoughtful and cautious to a fault, and would therefore be easy prey for the profoundly odious, was predictable too. Even so, the extent to which Mitch McConnell and the likeminded malefactors around him would take advantage of Obama’s feet of clay was astonishing; their partisan viciousness was unprecedented.
But these are not the main reasons why the Obama presidency went as wrong as it did — why, on refugee and asylum issues, for example, Obama’s policies were essentially precursors of policies Trump would later make his own, or why he left Clinton and her liberal imperialist and neoconservative advisors free to undermine global stability in Honduras, Libya, and throughout the Greater Middle East.
For his role in helping Hillary et. al. create the refugee crises that have given rise to so many problems worldwide and caused so much misery, Obama has much to answer for.
His role in igniting rightwing populist social and political movements around the world was considerable. As much as anyone, he helped make Trump and Trumpism possible and even inevitable.
How did he do it? There is no simple answer to that question, but I have little doubt that the main cause was his and his Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to “look forward,” to let bygones be bygones — by not holding upper-level Bush-Cheney war criminals, or Bush and Cheney themselves, to account.
Obama did this in part because he had too superficial an understanding of the nature of the world that neoliberalism and liberal imperialism had created, and he did it because he realized that he was not about to change course himself.
The main reason, though, is that, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, he was morally weak and insufficiently steadfast. Thus he let world historical criminals off scot-free. This was his and his administration’s Original Sin.
It would be only a little unfair to say that, our political system, in its current incarnation, reduces mainstream politics to electoral politics, and that our electoral politics is about nothing more than selling candidates to voters.
In product marketing campaigns, the idea is to get shoppers to buy one brand over another. In much the same way, Democrats and Republicans compete for votes.
Thus “deliberative democracy,” the idea that collective choices emerge out of reasoned debates about the public good – something that political philosophers have been talking and writing about, in one way or another, since the eighteenth century – has almost nothing to do with the way decisions actually are made in so-called democracies.
It is a normative idea only, almost but not entirely, without real world effects. “Not entirely” because the idea lingers on, in the back of voters’ minds. Thus our “debates” do, in a way, pay homage to the idea.
It is, however, a hypocritical way because those debates have everything to do with hucksterism, and nothing to do with discovering or implementing anything like the public good. Thinking otherwise is like believing in Santa Claus.
Nevertheless, in recent years, within the political mainstream, whenever races for office are seriously contested, candidate debates have come to play a central role – before intra-party primaries and caucuses and before the general elections where Democrats and Republicans compete.
Though ideologically likeminded, especially in their dedication to capitalism and to maintaining the existing class structure, Democrats and Republicans are increasingly at each other’s throats.
Party polarization has become so extreme that, by now, Democrats and Republicans might as well be distinct tribes. Notwithstanding the praise they lavish upon “bipartisanship,” their leaders encourage and build upon this mutual animosity.
Disgust and embarrassment with Trump has by now caused nearly all sensible Republicans to defect, though apparently there are parts of the country where regional loyalties still keep a few on board.
But even with all the saner heads gone, Republican ranks would not be nearly as depleted as one might think. There are a lot of sad, desperate, people in the Land of the Free, and Trump seems to have hit upon the mother lode.
But no matter how polarized and pathetic the political scene may be, the joint press appearances that we call debates remain as central to “American democracy” as ever. This is entirely understandable. For making sales pitches before vast audiences, they are ideal.
With or without them, though, there would be little democracy in our democracy. The demos, the people as distinct from social and economic elites, do not rule; neither does the general citizenry, undifferentiated by class. Plutocrats rule, and Capital is Lord over them.
Abraham Lincoln praised government “of, by, and for the people.” Could anyone nowadays say that about the American government without the words sticking in the craw?
Ours is not even a full-fledged procedural democracy. In principle, and usually also in fact, when we vote, voters vote only once, every vote is counted the same, and the side that gets the most votes wins. But by Constitutional design and subsequent legislation, we do not accord citizens even a pale approximation of equal political influence.
The problem is not Russians or other foreign meddlers doing unto us what we do unto them many times worse. To the extent that meddling happens, its consequences are trivial – especially compared to Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression.
And even when outright cheating and finagling are kept down to more or less acceptable levels, states with comparatively tiny populations, and states that are many times more populous, each get two and only two Senators, making a mockery of the core democratic principle of equal political influence.
In presidential elections, our institutions are also compatible with, and even conducive to, minority rule – not just in subtle or recondite ways, but in the plain sense that the candidate with fewer votes sometimes wins.
Twice already in this century, we have seen what could come of that. We got George W Bush, a darling of the commentariat nowadays on “liberal” cable networks, but nevertheless, until three years ago, the worst president in modern times. And then we got Donald Trump, far and away the worst president ever. The two twenty-first century presidential elections in which the majority did rule brought us Obama-Biden administrations. Hallelujah.
In both theory and practice, even a minority rule democracy, as ours is in many respects, can still be a liberal democracy. It can still respect civil and human rights; it can still assure, as per FDR’s four freedoms, free expression, freedom of religion (and irreligion), and a decent semblance of freedom from want and freedom from fear.
We had a poor but not awful semblance of that before the Bush-Cheney and later Obama War on Terror; and, even as their assaults on traditional freedoms got underway, the situation remained in the acceptable range.
Trump has not yet (and may never) try to make our electoral system worse than it already is, but he is certainly no friend of liberal protections, especially, but not only, when persons he does not consider white, or white enough, are involved.
For him, “making America great again” means turning it into more of a Herrenvolk democracy, a democracy for the master race, than it had been in the period between the civil rights victories of the mid sixties and the onset of the Trumpian menace two and a half years ago. No wonder that, like other white supremacists, Trump holds the state of Israel in such high regard!
That this best friend ever of the self-described “nation state of the Jews” has actually brought classical anti-Semitism back to life, something that seemed impossible just a few years ago – is not likely to be discussed in this fall’s debates, though it is a matter of considerable pertinence. Among other things, it bears witness to the urgency of de-Trumpification, and therefore of the need to get discussion about how to deal with the problem going.
Trump makes everything worse; America’s ways of constraining tyranny and dealing with systemic racism are no exception. But much of the harm that Trump has done and would otherwise go on to do can be turned back if the 2020 election deepens and extends the advances registered in the midterm elections of 2018.
Between now and then, holding the line, is crucial. It is also doable. Our democracy may be ersatz, but our liberal institutions are sufficiently robust to withstand at least another year and a half of Trump and Trumpism.
Then, if all goes well, and if the participants in this fall’s debates go all out demonstrating how deep and broad respect for basic rights and liberties still are, democratization and liberalization can at very long last come back onto the agenda. The debates can be good for that.
The squad and its allies in Congress are good for that too, but our system is crazy enough that the pseudo-debate debates ahead may actually matter more — more even than the best our democracy, as presently constituted, is able to deliver.
And so, we can say with some assurance that the coming debates can be made good for something, indeed, for two things now urgently needed: for assuring that Obama and Holder’s Original Sin not be repeated – in other words, that Trump and Trumpians be brought to justice — and for defanging them along with the sordid, vile and potentially violent creatures they have let loose upon the world.
If the debates make it more likely that Trump is hobbled and perhaps even removed from office before his time is up, that could be good too. But the important thing is the easiest to secure: gaining assurances from any and all Democrats vying to replace him in the Oval Office that, so far as it is within their power, he will not get away with any of it – not his “high crimes and misdemeanors” and not his multiple violations of ordinary criminal law.
In 2016, together with former colleague Assistant Federal Public Defender Donnie W. Bethel, I wrote, “[p]eople of all persuasions, political parties, and philosophies have awakened to the terrible toll the crises of overcriminalization and mass incarceration have wrought on America.”
Then, a year later, highlighting the “criminalization of addiction,” I wrote about Benny King – one of Bethel’s clients – a gregarious, good-hearted, God-fearing 53-year-old black man incarcerated for 14 months at the federal correctional institution in Jesup, Georgia, for violating conditions of his supervised release; reprinting Bethel’s arguments I demonstrated (just as Bethel had) how King’s conduct in a nonviolent, low-level federal criminal case bore no relation to his incarceration other than the fact that, it too, like the entirety of King’s nonviolent criminal history, was a byproduct of decades-long untreated drug addiction.
Now, in 2019, as if time were standing still despite the “awakening” Bethel and I (perhaps too naively and optimistically) announced, what seems like ages ago in our twenty-four-hour news cycle, the stories of injustice coming out of the Middle District of Alabama are no better; they’re still replete with nonviolent, disproportionately black defendants with longstanding drug problems – ones who commit victimless crimes tied to unsuccessfully or untreated addictions – receiving draconian sentences.
These overly harsh outcomes come recommended by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines – a cold, unfeeling, mathematical rubric – that reduces crimes committed, and the men and women who commit them, to a range of prison time to be imposed. These “advisory guidelines” which far too many federal judges follow lockstep are not only devastating to defendants and their chances of rehabilitation and redemption (instead of recidivism), they cause immeasurable pain and problems for the families of these defendants, their community, and ultimately our nation, which for far, far too long has been blighted by a racist mass incarceration problem.
Take the case of Willie Blackshire. On April 21, 2017, Blackshire’s house was raided by police who found two guns (one belonging to Mr. Blackshire’s wife), some ammunition, slightly over half a gram (0.603) of cocaine, baggies, and three digital scales. Because at the time, Mr. Blackshire was on probation for being convicted in 2012 of selling ten pain pills (opioids) to a confidential informant, he was charged and eventually pled guilty to “Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon.”
Urging Judge Marks for a downward variance of Mr. Blackshire’s federal sentencing “guidelines range” of 92 to 115 months in prison to 24 months, Assistant Federal Defender Bethel urged:
[Mr. Blackshire] talked about how he had his pelvis crushed in a car accident and he put the cocaine between his cheek and gum like you would chewing tobacco, for instance, and used it essentially to self-medicate. There was no large sum of cash found. We often see a logbook, a list of clients, people that still owe money to someone who sells drugs. There was nothing like that. How much cocaine was found? 0.6 grams. [A] package of Sweet ‘N Low or Splenda is a one-gram package. [Mr. Blackshire had] a little more than half a package of Sweet ‘N Low. What we often see, too, is a lot of individual baggies of drugs that have been bagged up and are ready for sale. That wasn’t present in this case. Mr. Blackshire would take – he did have some of those little baggies. And what he would do is when he traveled[,] [h]e would simply take those along and use it when he was in pain. [And] lately, every client that I have – that’s whether it’s drug possession or drug distribution – they all have digital scales, because they’re cheap. No drug user wants to be ripped off by a drug dealer. And because scales are so cheap, every drug user out there brings his own scales – it’s just that simple. I looked online this morning. I could get a set of digital scales at Walmart for $3.29. Your Honor, I know that the Court is going to get tired of me beating this drum if it hasn’t already – and we’ve only been working together for six months – but it bears repeating in every single case that involves a felon in possession of a firearm, there are no victims in this offense. The advisory guidelines are just that; they’re advisory. And if we’re going to impose a guideline sentence in every case . . . regardless of what the other mitigating factors might be, well then I’m not sure why we go through the whole point of a sentencing hearing. Ninety-two months, almost eight years, for a regulatory offense that doesn’t have any victims is insane. It makes no sense. There’s some variance that must be imposed . . . because to do otherwise simply puts the Court’s imprimatur on what is a patently unreasonable guidelines range.
Next Mr. Blackshire addressed the court in a heart-wrenching plea before assembled family, friends, and supporters, concluding: “Prison rehabilitation isn’t for everybody. I’m over there with a guy now who said, man, you’re crying about one Christmas, and I’ve not seen 13 Christmases. I’m 37[,] I have one felony that brought me in front of you[.] So I’m begging you, please[.]”
Given her turn to opine the federal prosecutor maintained Mr. Blackshire wasn’t entitled to any variance from his “guideline range,” and, as federal defenders in Alabama have begrudgingly become accustomed to, Judge Marks agreed, imposing a 96-month (8 years) prison sentence. Mr. Blackshire’s sentence is on appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But, if there’s anyone out there who thinks a man with minor criminal history shouldn’t go to jail for 8 years in a case with no victims, a miniscule amount of cocaine, and an addiction tied to physical suffering, there’s 0 reason for hope. Because as Bethel bitterly observed at Blackshire’s sentencing: “The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has never found a guidelines sentence to be substantively unreasonable. Never found an upward variance of any amount to be substantively unreasonable. I find it a little curious that the only time the Eleventh Circuit has found a sentence to be substantively unreasonable is when it’s a below-guideline sentence.”
And mass incarceration continues.
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