Saturday, September 15, 2018

What's Happening?

The news, and what passes for news is an increasingly contentious subject in our divided country. Cries of “fake news” fly regularly from the white house and its sycophants like parrots in a panic. Though Obama had increased suppression of news and prosecuted whistle-blowers, he did so in support of a murderous global neocon agenda that has continued unabated across many administrations. Trump's attempts, including threats against major media companies, are more about defending his own megalomaniacal ego, his dictatorial fantasies, his never-ending campaign and his well-founded fears of the Mueller investigations.

It isn't just Trump that is attempting to limit and control what we see or to define what is authentic news. There are also attempts at censorship by big media because of the Russia-gate frenzy as we're seeing on Facebook and Google in their attempts to identify and shut down "fake news" and memes feared to be of Russian origin. Though the goal seems worthy, censorship is never unbiased and anything beyond the officially designated narrative is subject to being repressed. Beyond the outright libelous incitement of bigoted public hate-speech or graphic pornography, censorship of any kind is dangerous and an anathema to our freedom. Meanwhile, FOX and talk radio continue unabated in spreading blatant misinformation, often the opposite of truth. This continues the desired effect of tribalizing information and what is accepted as actual fact. As Hanna Arendt observed, when a fact cannot be denied outright, it can be converted to a mere opinion through the creation of false, ulterior “facts.” As she further wrote, “What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.” Uncompromising tribal division and the crippling passivity of citizen cynicism leave power unchecked, undermining any chance of a truly representative, much less functional democratic republic.

This is not to agree that our corporate mainstream media steadily lies to us or creates “fake news” though the CIA has been known to plant lies via news wire services and the “expert sources” they provide are hardly trustworthy. In the case of the corporate media, the problem is more of omission – the news we do not hear or read. Samples of things you probably haven't read about or seen on TV include the toll of civilians, including children, killed in Yemen or Gaza with US weaponry, the real numbers of those killed by our drones, the behind the scenes stacking of our courts with right-wing ideologues, the ongoing strike against slave labor in our prisons, our growing military presence in Africa, the massive violent repression happening in India or the torture and narrow escape to our own country for medical help of Ugandan politician and musician Bobbi Wine. As a group of scientists recently complained, the true extent and speed of our growing climate disaster is under-reported. I'll bet you haven't heard of the "U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This is a treaty to ban the use, possession or development of nuclear weapons. As of last July, 122 counties have voted to adopt the Treaty. Since then, 60 have signed it and 15 ratified it. When 50 ratify, it officially goes into effect. California recently approved it by resolution as well. Nuclear weapons can never be used without setting off a chain reaction that destroys life on earth. They are ridiculously expensive to maintain. Our government has begun a 30 year, $1.7 trillion overhaul of its entire nuclear weapons complex. Having and maintaining, much less upgrading such an arsenal only encourages proliferation by others in self defense, yet this gets no coverage in our mainstream media.

I recently attended a meeting with a representative from Tim Kaine's office, organized by the local Catholic Worker, at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Ghent, to encourage his support of the UN treaty and to his working toward nuclear disarmament. While his representative was friendly and seemed interested, she admitted that Sen. Kaine was more concerned with “deterrence” and in an election year may not be voicing support for such a treaty. At present I am reading The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg, one-time RAND employee involved in the inner circles of nuclear planning. Later, in partnership with Suffolk resident Tony Russo, he released the Pentagon Papers which exposed and helped end the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's Presidency. The book describes how “deterrence” was a hoax. The plan was to strike first. It details an insane, insecure system and the many flaws and close calls with annihilation we have already had with nuclear weapons. We are closer to a nuclear exchange today, due to short-sighted, dangerous and unnecessary tensions including regional NATO expansion, poor back-channel communication, an unstable leadership, nuclear proliferation and threats of hacking, than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. You won't read about that in the New York Times or hear it on CNN.

So do we have a free press? Yes, we do – not the embedded corporate mainstream media but the reality that we have alternatives and institutions that monitor, fact check and correct them. Those of us who want to be informed know that it takes a little digging but, because we have a free press, the truth is available to us. The shrinking of coverage and news is evident to us locally in the withering away of our local paper. A good article explaining the Tronc effect (they bought the Pilot) can be found at one of the better media monitoring sites called the Columbia Journalism Review. That article is called A Tale of Two Companies.

Other places to find news, and I like to look at differing opinions in the search for what is true, are: The Intercept, The Guardian, The American Conservative, Mint News, Reveal, Duetche Welle, Al Jezeera, Common Dreams, Truth Out, The Real News, DemocracyNow!, Project Censored, FAIR, Consortium News and The Institute for Public Accuracy, among others, including this humble local culture magazine.

Ultimately, responsible citizenship requires being informed, not just about our country but about the world around us. This means not getting our news from Facebook memes or relying on a few sources that confirm our beliefs. It means questioning and double checking everything rather than censoring opinion or news foreign or domestic. It means being willing to talk with and listen to people we disagree with about issues and events. A free society and the survival of a representative Republic depend on this. A poem by Cliff Fyman, recently published in the Blue Collar Review, regarding a partisan gathering reads, If your name isn't on the table, you're probably on the menu. Whatever “side” you think you are on, it is vital that we explore all legitimate perspectives in our search for what is true. Competing partisan narratives, feel-good cathartic memes and news limited to diversion and twisted to absurdity only deepens our crisis and feeds the worst possibilities. In the search for what actually is, beyond ideology and illusory partisan loyalties, we cannot help but find common ground.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Finding Hope in Hard Times

This has been a tough time for me. News of Anthony Bourdain's suicide hit me particularly hard. Here was a man I could relate to, both as a cook who loved to create and to taste great food, and as someone who understood that there is no “them.” Bourdain allowed us to know him and to better understand people and cultures around the world. He personalized issues in a way rarely seen. But Bourdain's suicide was just a tipping point in my own recent spiral of depression.

It's what is happening to our country; the cultivated anger and division, the attacks on public protections and rights, the anti-climate insanity, the blatant racism and sexism at the top and its support by so many. Most painful is the brutal savaging of immigrants and their families. These are subjects I've written about and warned of for years in this space. Articles, some still on the Veer website as well as posted her detail the history and rise of our ugly side, of right-wing extremism, of fascism and the rise of Trump. You can honestly say you read it here first, not because I'm any kind of genius or seer. I have no crystal ball but I do a lot of reading and research including history and comparative news sources not limited to our country or to corporate media. Like Bourdain, I like to look below the surface in hope of understanding.

Veer magazine has been generous and patient enough to publish deeper social and political analysis amid the lighter articles – though I have been asked to keep it local and to give the immigrant issue a rest, as there was little interest. But the immigration issue has continued to become more alarming with Trump's so-called Zero Tolerance policy and the forced separation of children from parents – even infants and toddlers – and the incarceration of immigrants, Dreamers and refugees in brutal private gulags where forced work, rape and cruelty proliferate. Americans are now showing an interest.

Hopefully I'm not grasping at straws but maybe this is has sparked an awakening, a turning point that can snap us out of our feelings of national despair amid the constant mudslide of federal deconstruction, attacks on civil liberties and the alienation of our country from the world stage.

I was proud to join with other locals, and with decent Americans all across our nation on June 30th to stand with immigrants, against the barbarism of Trump's policies and of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or, ICE. Even as thousands of us demand the abolition of this increasingly fearsome militarized goon-squad with people camping out and occupying ICE facilities around the country, some officers within the agency have now added their voices to the growing call to dissolve it. As reported in the New York Times, in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, ICE agents proposed replacing ICE with a stand-alone investigations unit and another agency to handle immigration detention and deportation. The request was sent as a growing number of Democrats and immigration-rights advocates have called for eliminating ICE. They wrote, “local law enforcement officials have questioned the independence of their agency, given the Trump administration’s aggressive policies against illegal immigration — including arresting undocumented workers for minor offenses, such as driving without a license.”

Simply shifting agency names is insufficient. In the past, I have written several articles on racist police violence as well as interviews with immigrants in an attempt to counter racist scape-goating and to humanize refugees – to show that most, if not all refugee immigrants are the direct result of our own national policies, from “regime change” to support for brutal dictatorships and forced economic austerity around the world. Yet immigrants in our country, like minorities, continue to be scapegoated for the failed economic and foreign polices that exacerbate poverty and export torture, mass murder and war.

In our own country, we have a long history of ripping children from the families of Native Americans, sent to government-run boarding schools designed to “Americanize” them. Our racist courts regularly rip parents from the children of poor and Black families, from public assistance rules to the filling of our prisons with largely non-violent offenders. The terror of police violence, ICE roundups, persecution, and shameful human rights abuses are a continuation of past racist pogroms leading ultimately to genocides. But as shamefully present as the past and support for such monstrosity is, recent massive protests demonstrate that this is not who most of us are. What has been awakened by the disgraceful reality of children in cages is empathy and the realization, as Bourdain reminded us, that there is no “them,” only us. We are all humans trying to survive on this small, increasingly interdependent world.

As immense, nation-wide protests make clear, we too have zero tolerance. We cannot and will not tolerate systemic bigotry and the nightmare theft of children. We should not accept a foreign policy that exports human rights abuses and that creates refugees – the foreign policy that has been consistent across administrations since the 1950s and, following the corporate coup that installed Trump, is being applied to us as well.

To better understand the global forces behind Trump's ascension, you can find an excellent piece of investigative journalism online by Adam Entous, a Pulitzer winning journalist covering intelligence, national security, and foreign affairs, entitled, Donald Trump's New World Order. This article, published in the New Yorker magazine is a long a read detailing the new axis of power in the alliance of the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Arab Emirates. It also exposes the undue influence of American billionaires, most notably Sheldon Adelson, on our elections and on our body politic.

And money is, as Frank Zappa would put it, the crux of the biscuit. When the curtain is drawn back on all the nationalist rhetoric prominent on the extreme-right, what is revealed are the inseparably knotted tentacles of insatiable global corporate power.

Our only hope – and what helps me rise above my own feelings of hopeless depression – are the many good people who take citizenship, beyond partisan loyalties, national borders and mypoic nationalism, seriously. The people willing to take personal responsibility to struggle for authentic civilization and a livable future. People who understand that there is no “them” and no enemy but the ecocidal, warmongering rule of money. It is this we must resist. It is this we must ultimately abolish if we are to survive this century. Understanding our common-ground, our class interests and the forces that divide us can bring us together. And together, we are an unstoppable force. Thanks again to the many who care. You give me hope.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Labor and Democracy – An Inseparable Struggle

“All that harms labor is treason to America. If any man
tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar.”

--Abraham Lincoln

Most, if not all of us spend much of our lives working for businesses. Most of us are all too familiar with the experience of working by the hour for wages, believing it has always been this way. Few are familiar with how we arrived at this way of living or of past struggles for things we take for granted at work like eight hour shifts, weekends or sick days. Our labor history as been erased from common knowledge. It has been censored from our schoolbooks and, like working class culture, all but banned from major media except for insulting caricatures.

How many reading this ever heard of William H. Sarvis, founder of the National Labor Union starting in the 1840s? Who remembers labor leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood or William Z. Foster? How many are familiar with the literary contributions of the Lowell Mill Girls or Ira Stewart who began the long and bloody struggle for the eight-hour day? Who remembers the National Railroad Strike of the 1877 which gave birth to the National Guard? Few remember the steel strikes, the bloody repressions and fightbacks in the coal fields of Appalachia, the St. Louis Commune, the Ludlow Massacre, the Flint sit-down strikes or the Longshoreman organizing battles on the 1930s.

The history of labor in our republic cannot be separated from the struggle for civil rights. From the first decades of our country, labor was intimately connected to the abolitionist struggle against chattel slavery. Working people understood that they could not compete with slave labor and that the fates of all who toil are bound together. This remains true today as American workers find ourselves competing for lower wages with workers in poor and oppressed countries and increasingly with prison labor. At the onset of the Civil War, early unions all but ceased to exist as members enlisted en masse in the Union Army. In the 20th century, labor unions and socialist political parties played a leading role in civil rights struggles.

Labor struggles continue today, like the long overdue teacher strikes around the country and as, ever, the forces of big money and corporate power are a formidable obstacle. The Supreme Court recently demonstrated this in ruling that employers can bar their employees from organizing to challenge workplace abuses including wage theft, abuse and harassment. In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “When workers charge their employers with unlawful conduct, in this case, violations of laws governing wages earned and hours worked, there is strength in numbers. As a result of the ruling, there will be huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers." This is a continuation of our common history of struggling against corporate power and its paid representatives for basic justice, dignity, livable wages and working conditions.

We are fortunate to have local writer, journalist and Hampton University professor Lynn Waltz preserving our local history of workplace organizing. Her newest book, Hog Wild: The Battle for Workers’ Rights at the World’s Largest Slaughterhouse published by University of Iowa Press is now available at Prince Books or online. As Wilson J. Warren, author of Tied to the Great Packing Machine: The Midwest and Meatpacking writes, “Lynn Waltz’s examination of Smithfield Foods’s campaigns against unionism in the modern meat industry is vivid and haunting. Her book offers compelling insight into the fate of the modern American labor movement and, crucially, evidence for why the United States is increasingly divided between rich and poor.” Lynn Waltz has agreed to be interviewed on her efforts in writing this book:
What drew you to the subject of this effort to organize the Tar Heel Smithfield plant?

LW. I was working on a profile of Smithfield Foods for Virginia Business magazine and found out they had been found guilty of repeatedly breaking federal labor law since they opened the world’s largest slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C.. I wrote about that for Portfolio Weekly. The case was on appeal at the time, so I followed it and continued to write about it as a graduate student at Old Dominion University. After graduation, I pitched the story idea and University of Iowa Press picked it up right away. Initially my story was about the key whistleblower, a high-ranking manager who agreed to testify for the government against Smithfield. My editor encouraged me to tell the whole story of the unionization, which spanned 16 years.

Why did you feel this union effort was worthy of a book?

LW. Initially it was the disparity between how Smithfield Foods, a Fortune 500 company, publicly presents itself and its private illegal behavior in both labor and the environment. Then, it was the ironic narrative of a manager who did not support the union, but wound up being the catalyst for the unionization of the world’s largest slaughterhouse. Finally, it was the realization that this union fight is a microcosm for all that is wrong with labor law today, which has disintegrated from what was intended during the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act was intended to even the playing field between powerful corporations and the worker, but today - between powerful union-busters - hired by companies every time there is a union fight - the long drawn-out appeals system, and the growing right-to-work movement, workers have very little power.

What is the relevance of this and what lessons can we, as working class Americans take from this labor struggle?

LW. What it seems few people understand is the link between the strength of unions and the strength of the middle class. Since 1971, the percentage of the population that is middle class has steadily declined from 61 percent to 50 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the percentage of upper middle and upper classes has risen from 14 to 21 percent. At the same time, union membership in the private sector dropped from 21 percent in 1980 to 6.7 percent in 2013. In North Carolina, where the slaughterhouse is, just 1.9 percent of workers were members of unions in 2015, down from 3 percent in 2013. North Carolina regularly is listed as having the lowest union membership in the country. Of states with lower than 5 percent membership, seven of the eleven are in the South, the most difficult place for unions to win. So, that is part of why this case stands out. First, it is remarkable that the union won. Second, the book provides a window into the enormous effort and cost it takes for a union win in today’s world.

I am thankful for Lynn Waltz's efforts in supporting the struggle and the consciousness needed for working people to organize for our mutual benefit and security. In the past, working people have had our own, independent political parties, from the 19th century Knights of Labor to the once popular American Socialist Party and later Socialist and Communist Parties – vilified in the “Red Scares” of the 1950's. The real purpose and effect of the McCarthy period was to break the power and influence of the American labor movement and to dis-empower working people. If you want to know more about the history of our American working class and of the inseparable struggle for a democracy which includes us, I strongly recommend reading Labor's Untold Story: The Adventure Story of the Battles, Betrayals and Victories of American Working Men and Women available via Amazon. This invaluable tome is an easy and gripping read which puts our American history and present in a clear perspective.

You have another great opportunity to learn some real American history. On Wednesday June 20th a truly great documentary called American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs will be showing at the Naro Cinema. Eugene V. Debs was an enormously popular leader who ran for president several times as a socialist – long before Bernie Sanders -- the last time from prison where he was incarcerated for opposing our entry into WWI. If you come to this documentary, you will also have an opportunity to meet and hear Lynn Waltz and to purchase her book, Hog Wild: The Battle for Workers’ Rights at the World’s Largest Slaughterhouse.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Film, 1945 -- The Importance of Confronting History

Refugees, fear, guilt and mistrust, heavily colored by bigotry and nationalism. This is what I see when I read about Hungary today, lead by virulent nationalist Victor Orban and the ugly blocking of refugees fleeing Syria. It's a story with deep roots that I can relate to personally. My grandparents, Aladár and Regina Reich fled Hungary in 1920 with the ascendance of Miklós Horthy and the rise of ultranationalist anti-Semitism. Horthy was an early fascist and allied with Germany in 1938. The few of my relatives that migrated here, though they were labeled “enemy aliens,” survived. Most of the rest of my family died in the Auschwitz death camp, with the exception of three individuals.

When the war ended and the Soviets liberated the camps, two of my relatives, a great aunt and a cousin, walked back from Auschwitz to their village in Hungary. There they were met with hatred and could find no refuge or home to return to. They subsequently married to preserve the lineage and migrated to Palestine.

I was reminded of this recently in watching a movie called 1945. This film by director Ferenc Török, shot in black and white, takes place in s rural Hungarian town in the summer of 1945. The war as ended and we see the presence of occupying Soviet soldiers, though not in a threatening way. Villagers seem to accept the inevitable and look forward to a different kind of less hierarchical life in a socialist system, “as long as you are Hungarian” says the towns dominant and bullying citizen, István (Péter Rudolf) upon the arrival of two orthodox Jews. These two, a father and son arrive at the local train station with a mysterious cargo. Their arrival sets off a chain of events rooted in guilt, fear of reprisal and anger.

As the film continues we see people living in a nice home, still decorated with Jewish décor including a menorah (candelabra) but angrily declaring that this now, along with a connected pharmacy business, legally belongs to them. We come to learn that the bullying “Istvan” pushed another of the townsfolk into publicly denouncing and turning over a local Jewish family to the nazis. We further learn of a web of complicity which includes much of the village, including the local priest. Only one character has any remorse – too much for him to bear even as his wife hides stolen valuables just in case her ownership is challenged by returning victims.

This is not a story about Jews and only incidentally about Hungary. It is a story about the psychology of living with complicity in crimes against humanity. It is a story of displacement. An irony is that the holocaust victims who, like my relatives, resettled in Palestine repeated the same crime of theft and displacement. Some have recalled feeling a sick deja vu entering the newly taken homes of Palestinians chased out, finding food still on the tables just as in the homes of displaced Jews in Europe. War is a big driver of brutal displacement and theft but not the only one. Corrupt economics like the housing bubble pre-2008 with “underwater” mortgages displaced many from their homes, in some cases to the streets while other claimed that property.

Nationalism is a virulent social mental disorder purposely driven by self-serving corrupt leaders. They use scapegoating, fear and hyper-patriotism to distract the public from their own crimes and to build their own power. This inevitably leads to sociopathic, often violent behavior, massive human rights abuses and genocide. We've seen this repeatedly in Europe, African countries like Rwanda and Sudan and in Asian countries like India, Indonesia and Burma. We are seeing the rise of this toxic phenomenon in our own country with the roundups and displacement of immigrants, the rise of hateful tribalized politics, racism, and the corrupt extremism embodied by Trump and his cabal of corporate thieves. As in other places where fascism has taken root, we have partisan media driving a bigoted, war-worshipping nationalist perspective with libelous hate speech and dangerous, paranoiac misinformation.

One thing that struck me in the film was that very few in the town ever felt any remorse for their participation in the horror of genocide. This remains true in places like Hungary, Croatia and elsewhere where such crimes are not confronted. Germany is a better society today for having faced and examined its history and for having brought some of the worst perpetrators to justice. Hungary is not. And then there is our own country. We Americans have failed to adequately confront and learn from our own history of massive violence, displacement and genocide of Native Americans. We have yet to adequately confront the history of slavery and continuing institutional racism toward African Americans. Few Americans even know about the brutal military coups, dictatorships, genocides and crimes our country has inflicted -- and continues to inflict on countries around the world. We cannot begin to change our behavior or the sick psychology of empire unless we face up our our crimes and our complicity. Like the Hungarian villagers, too few of us feel any remorse. Thus history repeats itself.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Stopping the Madness

The old question again settles like ash: how did it happen? The madness, that is.

Gradually, day by day, a tint, a taint, a delicious poison that seems perfect. Always, after the fact, historically, when the mass graves have become paperwork, scholars search for that place where the nightmare began to ride the dreamer. – Robert Edwards

Times in our country are moving from bleak to terrifying, especially if you are Black, Hispanic or a refugee immigrant. As I read the paper this morning, I see Trump announcing a cancellation of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The Imbecile-in-Chief demonstrates again that he doesn't even have the capacity to retain the knowledge that this program was limited in scope to people already here who arrived as children. It is not an ongoing or expanding program and does not cover new arrivals.

Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or “ICE” goons continue to round up decent, hard working, contributing people, tearing families and communities apart. We continue to build camps where violent abuse, racism, torture and forced labor are common. We continue to send refugees, some here legally, having been granted asylum, back to certain death in war-torn and crime-ridden countries. Some like Guled Muhumed who arrived as a child of refugees fleeing war in Somalia, don't have any knowledge of the countries they may be deported to. As reported in The Intercept, as a high school administrator and youth counselor, Muhumed spearheaded a program in his community to turn refugee children, particularly young Somalis, away from drugs, crime, and radicalism. He has spoken out publicly against the terrorist groups that wield considerable power in Somalia. That the U.S. government has treated him like a national security threat while working hard to deport him to the country where those groups operate is all the more ironic and terrifying.

Laila Jama, Muhumed’s wife, who also came to the U.S. as a refugee child from Somalia but eventually became a citizen, is pregnant with twins and due to give birth in the next two weeks. She described how, over the last six months, she has made herself an expert on immigration law. That education, she said, has led her to conclude that the U.S. system of detention and deportation, when applied without discretion, is unfathomably harsh, especially if you come from an African country like Somalia. The Muhumeds are not alone, nor is their plight unique.

Texas-based legal advocacy groups report that about 80 immigrant men from Somalia, Kenya, and Sudan were sent to a remote, for-profit detention center in West Texas to await deportation. In the week that followed, the men were pepper-sprayed, beaten, threatened, taunted with racial slurs, and subjected to sexual abuse. The treatment they endured amounted to multiple violations of federal law and grave human rights abuses. This is not an aberration. It is in fact increasingly the norm.

We are also seeing a continuation of racist police violence as oppressed minorities continue to be slaughtered by police with impunity. It remains “justifiable” in our country for police to shoot unarmed Black people.

In the past few years I have written several articles on racist police violence as well as interviews with immigrants in an attempt to counter racist scape-goating and to humanize refugees – to show that most, if not all refugee immigrants are the direct result of our own national policies around the world. Yet immigrants in our country, like minorities, continue to be scapegoated for failed economic and foreign polices that exacerbate poverty and export the mass murder of war. There are attempts to pit minorities against immigrants, but all oppressed people share the brunt of the crimes of racism and exploitation and all of our fates are interconnected and shared. The terror of police violence, ICE roundups, persecution, and shameful human rights abuses are a continuation of past racist pogroms leading ultimately to genocides. This is the reality our embedded corporate press chooses to not to cover.

Days of remembrance are upon us: Yom Ha Shoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as Israel’s Independence Day followed by Palestinian Nakba Day – remembering the terror of ethnic cleansing and a continuing violent persecution and apartheid suffered by Palestinian refugees. I write this a day after Israeli soldiers opened fire on peaceful protesters in Gaza killing 18 and wounding and around 1700. What we need to remember is not so much the details of abuse, torment and murder that mark holocausts and racist oppressions but how they happen – the step by step advance from civilization to barbarism and mass murder.

These days of remembrance are not days of mourning so much as they are a prescient warning. From the rise of racist “alt right” fascists to Trump's offensive rants and deadly roundups, we must be awake to the obvious. We as a nation are on an all too familiar path. These tracks lead to death camps – camps we already have and are building which can very easily cross that permeable line from abuse and “work makes you free” to a “final solution.” Many of us are alive now because decent people took much greater risks than you or I face to protect the persecuted. We do not have to let it go that far. We can and must stand against the hatred and the growth of barbarism, before it is too late.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Young Karl Marx: a Film Review

This review was first published in Counterpunch.

I've been waiting for this film since I first heard about it a year or so ago. Forget your preconceived notions, cold war paranoia or the USSR. This movie takes place in the 1840's, long before any of the later revolutions or rise of socialist governments. This film might better have been called “Young Marx & Engels.” I'm glad to see attention paid to Frederick Engels, a brilliant thinker and a clear writer. Where Marx was a historian, a philosopher, a number-crunching economist and systems analyst, Engels was possibly the first modern sociologist. Both researched and described in detail the inner workings, successes and basic problems with the then new economic system of capitalism. Both were also keenly aware of the oppression and the alienation from basic humanity of those driven off the land and into dangerous and monotonous factory work which impoverished workers spiritually as well as economically while enriching and empowering a rising class of manufacturers and later, paper shuffling, parasitic market gamblers.

This film was produced by Raoul Peck who also brilliantly produced. “I Am Not Your Negro” based on James Baldwin's unfinished manuscripts regarding the civil rights struggle. About “The Young Marx,” Peck states, “The project was initiated more than 10 years ago, at almost the same time as I started I Am Not Your Negro. For me, it was my responsibility as a filmmaker, with what I have seen happening around me, with the world today. This is a film about the evolution of ideas – not only of ideas, but of those specific ideas of Marx and Engels. And showing the contradictions of the socialist movement itself at its birth, explaining scientific socialism to a wider public, in contrast to populism, to mysticism, to utopianism. When I say that I wanted to stick to the reality, that means not to do the usual biopic, but rather to tell the story of what happened. We didn’t want to go to the books that summarize what Marxism is. We’re going to go to the correspondence, the same way I did for [James] Baldwin, using his words – in this case using the correspondence between Marx, Engels, Jenny and their friends. Eighty percent of the material is from that correspondence. It was very important to show the actual relationship, the partnership of Marx and Engels as it took shape”

I find Peck's efforts and goals admirable, though in seeing the film I felt there were some shortcomings. It seemed more of a drama-driven biopic than I would have liked, but then that is what theatergoers want. Given my own philosophical bent, I was hoping for more in-depth conversations between the characters regarding the meat of the concepts at hand. Though there were snippets, I found it inadequate, as most viewers have little or no familiarity with these concepts and are likely to miss them. There are attempts to show that Marx raised the socialist struggle beyond utopianism but they are insufficient, references to Engel's book “The Condition of the Working Class in England” aside, in showing the scientific basis related to the analysis of capitalism beyond the emotional reaction to conditions. In this regard, while this film is hardly a crash course in Marxism, it will hopefully inspire interest and further reading. I would suggest Marx's essays, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, The Civil War in France and of course, “Capital.”

Though Marx's interactions with and criticism of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon are important, there were not, in my opinion, sufficient descriptions of the concepts of the labor-basis of value and of profits derived from the surplus value created, or of the nature or private property as opposed to personal property. Private property in this context refers to factories, mines and mills where value is produced socially by many with profits hoarded by a few owners. I would also like to have seen more on the alienation and dehumanization of the industrial productive model under the near serfdom of this system.

I was glad to see the emphasis on Engels but the attempt to humanize and to dramatize, sadly took precedent over the meat of Marx & Engels' message & achievements. The film begins with the image of poor people scavenging for wood, being unmercifully attacked and slaughtered by land owners. This was based on historic reality in Germany at the time. It proceeds to Marx getting fired from the Rheinische Zeitung newspaper in Cologne, as it is getting raided by police. This is the run-up to the failed German revolution of 1848 from which many Germans emigrated to our own country. Marx moves to Brussels.

The film proceeds to the Ermen & Engels cotton mill in Manchester England, owned by the father of Frederick Engels. This is an accurate portrayal in which angry workers, some fingerless from injuries on the job, are cruelly confronted for daring to complain by his father. A beautiful rebellious woman played by Hannah Steele is fired. The younger Engels, witnessing the terrible conditions sympathizes with the employees. He goes to the slums were workers live to learn more and proceeds to write his famous aforementioned book. He marries the rebellions woman who continues to play an important role in the process of philosophical development, as does Jenny Marx. Another great book by Engels that I highly recommend, not mentioned in this film, is “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.”

There is a satisfying scene where Engels introduces Marx to a London industrialist and friend of his father. This becomes a critical conversation regarding the use of child labor in the mills and the nature of competition, labor costs and profits. The disapproval Engels gets from his industrialist father over his writing and association with Marx is an ongoing theme as are political and economic difficulties suffered by Marx and his wife Jenny as they are pushed from country to country with a growing family.

The threats Engels faces down and the exiles and arrests Marx and other socialist thinkers face reflects the fear of the moneyed ruling class even today. As the Paris Commune and the initial response and invasion of the early USSR demonstrate, nothing has the power to unite erstwhile enemies than the notion that they are not necessary – that people can govern ourselves without them. This has remained true of the corporate ruling class. We have continued to see anti-socialist demonization and the crushing of populist regimes ever since. As an old labor song says, “you ain't done nothin' if you ain't been called a red.”

Marx finally settles in London where he and Engels join a utopian socialist group called “The League of the Just” whose motto is “All Men are Brothers.” They take it over, changing it to the “Communist League” with the new motto “Workers of All Countries Unite.” Much of the rest of the film has to do with the writing of the famous Communist Manifesto. It is here is where more essential concepts come through.

The great achievement of Marx and Engels that doesn't come through adequately in this film is their contribution in moving socialism from utopian idealism and anarchist thought to scientific method, based on solid analysis of economics, history and social reality. This is applied philosophy in the public interest -- a tool never meant to be a dogma. It is about the nature of work, of property and of society with the goal of returning us to productive work that feeds our spiritual needs and of sharing in the gains of our common labor rather than being disposable serfs working for a pittance to further enrich a few billionaires. It is about our gaining democratic ownership of the workplace and of society. It has always been at root, about building participatory democracy – a humane society where everyone is able to fulfill their potential. This comes through to a degree, but it could have been clearer.

This film takes place in the 1840s and we live today in a very different world, but the beast that is capitalism has not changed its spots. Much of the description of capitalism in the original Manifesto remains accurate today. Capital indeed has knocked down national barriers, becoming in essence a country of its own without borders. The wealthiest today are connected inseparably in global knots of commerce and entangled offshore accounts while most of us continue to work our lives away with little if any real control or democratic voice. We are slaves to mortgages, rents, utilities, bosses and the debt we accrue just to survive – if we are lucky. The parliaments and congresses of capitalist countries can still be described as they were in the 19th century, acting as the unofficial board of directors of major industries.

The film ends by connecting to our time with flashes of modern struggles like Occupy, World Bank protests and others with the background of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." At first I thought the Communist anthem The International would have been more appropriate but in truth, without an understanding of the system in which we live, without a knowledge of the historic and continuing struggles of working people, without an understanding of class, of militant solidarity and organization – without the tool of Marxist analysis, we are all, each and every one of us, on our own, with no direction home, a complete unknown -- Like a rolling stone.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Derailing the Neocon Train to Armageddon

An Interview with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

The media war drums are again beating with demonization aimed at Iran, the DPRK and especially Russia. We can't blame this on Trump alone. Our government, under the heavy hand of corporate corruption, has embraced neoliberal economics, debt colonialism and military aggression since Reagan replaced the New Deal with the Raw Deal. Presidents of both parties, including both Bushes, Clinton, Obama, and now Trump have continued on this track which inevitable led to Bush's invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama's Libya disaster and a foreign policy based on regime change, drone terror, arms sales and permanent war – the final product of a marriage of neocon foreign policy and neoliberal economics. The Republic has been replaced by a corporate oligarchy heavily dependent on arms sales and war. It has been a driver of war, refugee creation, mass migration and climate destruction. This can be no other way because these policies are driven by and tied to profits to those empowered by, and dependent upon them.

The ramping up of aggression aimed at Russia over the last two decades and the rekindling of a cold war sans Soviet Union, has lead us to an impending disaster. The U.S. is on an accelerating, out of control train to nuclear war hijacked by myopic neocons trapped in delusional group-think and fundamentalist delusions. Even the fracking and gas pipeline projects which threaten and destabilize our environment and water are not for our benefit but, designed to export fracked gas in order to undercut and destabilize the Russian economy.

A book on our Russia policy by Gilbert Doctorow, historian, political analyst and expert in Russian affairs going back to 1965 recently caught my attention. The book is titled, Does the United States Have a Future?. In it, Doctorow, a conservative, business oriented analyst argues that our policies and sanctions have actually strengthened Russia domestically and hurt the U.S. He points out with good evidence that, due to sanctions, Russia has become economically self sufficient and that it has linked up with China in a strong alliance which threatens to undercut the U.S. dollar as a global currency. Our eastward expansion of NATO, in contradiction to previous agreements, along with our backing of a fascist coup in Ukraine, the increasing presence of weapons -- including nuclear weapons, and war games along their border combined with poor communication, has caused Russia to modernize its military. It should be noted that their military armaments have reached parity with our own on about 5% of their national budget. Though it has not been covered in our embedded corporate media, we came exceedingly close to nuclear conflagration several times in 2016 due to our aggressive maneuvers along their border and miscalculated moves in Syria.

Much of the increased aggression toward Russia, in spite of their efforts to work with us as an ally on issues of mutual concern, come from the neocon sector of our State Department and military, the same folks that brought us the Iraq invasion and who now want to attack Iran. Though accusations that Russia somehow stole our election are exaggerated, it is understandable that they would seek to influence them given Hillary Clinton's hawkish role in expanding NATO and weapons in the region, as well as her penchant for “regime change.” The US has done far more to interfere in elections in Russia and other countries.

Given my concerns, I thought I'd consult an expert on military affairs and foreign policy, someone truly informed on such issues. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005 and helped prepare Powell’s infamous speech to the United Nations claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which he has since renounced. He is now a professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary. I asked him the following questions:

Gilbert Doctorow has written on the US misreading of Russia & the drive for a new cold war. Given your experience, what do you see as the reasons for demonizing Russia rather than cooperation on issues of mutual interest over the last decade. Are there divisions on this narrative in official circles?

“It does not take anything but a little empathy (a commodity in extremely short supply if not entirely absent in the arrogance of Washington) and some knowledge of the days surrounding the end of the Cold War to understand why Russia’s policies since Putin became it's leader—and today—are often antagonistic to Washington’s interests. A browse through one of the latest acquisitions of the George Washington University’s National Security Archives (“Who Promised What to Whom on NATO Expansion?”) will afford the knowledge. In brief, US financiers, bankers, and corporate gurus raped, pillaged and plundered Russia after George Bush left office in 1992, and Bill Clinton decided to expand NATO directly into Moscow’s natural space. George W. Bush and Barak Obama continued the process. This US triumphalism and chest-beating flew directly in the face of prior promises to Russia, but led to more sales to more countries for the US military-industrial complex—particularly with respect to ballistic missile defense—and became intolerable to Moscow, as well they should have been expected to. We need only imagine Russia moving into Chihuahua, Mexico or British Columbia, Canada to get a rough idea of the provocation. In fact, when it looked to Putin as if Georgia would become a NATO member and that country’s president, feeling his new NATO 'oats', tried to consolidate Tibilisi’s control over a couple of provinces with lots of Russian speakers, he was pulled up short rather abruptly by Russian military forces, again as any strategist worth his or her salt one would have expected him to have been. With all this nasty, Washington’s-fault background, how else do these grievous US errors get rectified except by doubling down on strategic failure due to ineptitude by creating deeper strategic failure by blaming every misstep on Russia and commencing a new cold war? Hypocrisy, in other words, has become one of the central pillars of US foreign and security policy. Outright lying already was, so today we combine the two faults and are mendaciously hypocritical.

Even with such a pronounced predilection for bad foreign and security policy, there are holdouts, i.e., those who see a new cold war with Russia as stupid and counterproductive. For a time it seemed President Trump, for whatever reason, was one such holdout. There are a few others and with better credentials and more surety of purpose and motivation --- very few. The bandwagon of support for demonizing Russia begun and continued by supporters of Hillary Clinton—and Clinton herself—has not helped in that regard. I suspect that a substantial majority of the American people, just as they believed Saddam Hussein had WMD, believes Putin is the devil.”

What have been the actual effects of our electoral accusations (Russia-gate), economic sanctions, military posturing and aggression on Russia and on our own domestic politics, global relations and standing?

“First, in Putin we are up against a chess master. For proof, we need only look at the results of his moves in Georgia, the Crimea, Ukraine in general—and probably soon and specifically Odessa, which is more important to the Russian na--vy than Sebastopol, if the line of communication (LOC) along the Dnieper is threatened—brilliantly in Syria, and probably very soon in Mitrovica, the northernmost province in Kosovo, and perhaps the Baltic states. Putin looks for gaps and bad moves, flows into them so long as he can maintain interior lines to our exterior ones, widens and deepens until he’s got the pawn, or knight, or even bishop (Syria, for example), and simply backs up if he meets with significant resistance (as in part in Ukraine). Second, US electoral accusations—particularly by intelligence professionals-turned-politicians-and-TV commentators, such as James Clapper and John Brennan—and US economic sanctions are an attempt to convince the American people that Putin is a devil and that we are taking our own pieces on the chess board. Of course we are not, other than one or two pawns. Military posturing on such extensive exterior lines or, as in Syria, illegally, doesn’t take any important pieces either. As with most such ill-conceived and poorly played moves, the US suffers globally as its allies and friends tend to see through the mendacious hypocrisy and blame the US. That said, those allies who still cling to some idea of a US-provided security umbrella—like the UK at one end of the world and Japan at the other—are concerned that, if the US is right in the least about Putin, then it is dangerous for them if the US is losing so many pieces and so frequently. Meanwhile, the challenges both Moscow and Washington confront mutually go largely unaddressed, challenges such as climate change, global terrorism, the spread of nuclear weapons, and the urgent need to develop protocols, standards, and laws for new phenomena like cyber war. Without cooperation, such challenges will only grow in complexity and difficulty.

How is this connected to our economic dependence on defense spending, our drive for fossil fuel hegemony, and has it been as Doctorow and others suggest, a driving force in the new Russia-China BRICS alliance? What are the risks for our economy and to the standing of the international dollar?

“Last first. The Chinese are making a slow but inexorable run on the dollar. One of the primary methods they are using is trade in oil and gas. Offering alternatives to the dollar in this manner got Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi an early grave. But Washington and its allies can’t take on China directly; so eventually the Chinese efforts, increasingly successful, will draw real blood. Standing behind the more than twenty trillion dollars of US debt, billions of dollars in quantitative easing, and every single piece of currency is only the US military and oil traded in dollars (I am not even certain any longer how to evaluate the so-called US asset base because the infrastructure that is its foundation is largely an anachronism, falling apart, and at least twenty years behind countries such as Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and much of China.) Take away the military and oil—and both are fading faster than many in the national security elite realize—and one must at least become concerned. Military supremacy only exists as it is buttressed by a sound economy. Fossil fuel supremacy only makes sense if fossil fuels can continue to be burned, (they can’t if we want to survive) and, if such fuels are being replaced swiftly by renewables. Undergirding these realities is the market reality that fracking for oil and gas only makes economic sense if the price for these commodities remains fairly high; and OPEC and Russia will likely continue their efforts to keep the price below the point where fracking is profitable. This concentrated economic effort, combined with a shift into oil and gas marketed without the dollar, present a daunting picture for the US in future, if not right now.

As for the debilitating effect of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, that has surpassed I feel even his worst expectations. For example, we have members of Congress who are nothing more than wholly-owned subsidiaries of that complex, voting for every weapon system that comes down the pike. US support for the Saudi/UAE coalition waging the brutal war in Yemen is a current case in point. There is no congressional—and thus constitutional—approval for that military support and, in fact, it violates the provisions of Title 50, US Code, Chapter 33, Sections 1541-48, or the War Powers Act. So it is an illegal war. But the guided bombs and other munitions being expended in more than 15,000 airstrikes makes Raytheon and other military contractors a lot of money. Someone once said that when war is so profitable, we shall have more of it. That someone was right.”

How do our Pacific Pivot and aggression toward Russia relate to policies in the middle-east, ie Saudi-Arabia, Iran and Israel, and what are the implications for our real security regarding war -- including nuclear war?

“If we assess lining up the Indian Navy for maritime exercises and changing the USN’s focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, combined with putting a few troops in Australia, and an aircraft carrier added occasionally, a 'shift to the Pacific,' I have yet to see any substantial reciprocal moves by any Pacific power concerned about this shift. We can’t count Chinese moves in the South China Sea because they were ongoing before the pivot and proceed apace today. And PM Abe in Tokyo seems to be contemplating his own military moves, to include possible nuclear weapons for Japan, because he sees inadequate US attention to his region. The one positive aspect of President Trump’s otherwise inexplicable and unwise bellicosity toward the DPRK, is that it seems to have given PM Abe a shot in the arm. He is the one leader, regional or global, who seems to support fully President Trump’s posture toward the Korean Peninsula. As for the region which seems to have Washington fixated at the moment—Israel and southwest Asia/the Middle East—there is nothing there that threatens US national security, other than some elements of al-Qa’ida that, despite their danger, can be managed with a minimum of military power and a maximum of diplomatic and economic power. Yet Washington is transfixed. Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict no doubt added a degree or two to that fixation, though it shouldn’t have, Russia has been there for decades. Mohammad bin Salman’s meteoric rise to power in Saudi Arabia and Trump’s almost sycophantic 'sword dance' diplomacy, seems to have sealed the principal regional deal—that deal being the plan featuring Israel and Saudi Arabia defeating Iran, even if it takes 100,000 dead American soldiers and Marines to do so. As I’ve said, this war is not in the US interest and its implications for US security are potentially severe. We confront a country whose nuclear weapons program has been stopped by diplomacy, about to be the target for war nonetheless. We’ll just have to wait to see if we really are so utterly inept. We would be traveling the same road we traveled in 2003 to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, led basically by the same neocons—from John Hanna to John Bolton—with a few relatively new faces, on the national scene, such as the arch-neocon at the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Can a country be that blind? From the looks of things today, apparently it can.”

If one doubts the insanity of group-think among Pentagon and National security insiders, I would advise reading the revealing new book The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. In it, he describes in detail official plans to destroy nearly every major city in Europe and Asia and the hair-trigger reality and close calls that almost wiped us out. Ellsberg states that he is happy that Trump had shown a deferential stance toward Russia saying “Why is he that way? I don’t know. Probably, I think, because they’ve got blackmail on him.” This was before, as reported recently by AP, the Trump administration approved a plan to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, a move that deepens America's involvement in the military conflict, further straining relations with Russia. The continuing focus and mounting antagonism on Russia is harming us internationally and may well result not only in our isolation and economic ruin but in our obliteration. As those in the know confirm, it is more than unwise.

For lack of deeper analysis of how and why we got here, Democrats continue to push the shaky, blame everything on Russia meme further pushing our foreign policy in dangerous and self-defeating directions with a President willing to use Nuclear Weapons. It is likely, at this rate, given the insanity at the top of our government, the lack of an independent press or trust, much less communication with Russia – and their very real and justifiable fear and mistrust of us -- that we may not survive the coming year as a country or as a species. It is time for to seize our future from the maw of idiotic disaster and to demand sane economic priorities and a foreign policy based on peaceful cooperation and international law. The train to Armageddon is picking up speed. It is up to us to see beyond the warmongering propaganda, to challenge and derail it in the press and in the streets.