Thursday, June 4, 2020

Surviving the Storms Together

This article was written, like most of the others here, for Veer Magazine but will not appear in it. Due to the crippling economic difficulties affecting that local paper, editorials like this are not welcome for now but may again be used in the indefinite future, should they or I survive.

These are certainly the darkest and most ominous of times I've lived through. Like many, I have been locked down, living on tinned fish, rice and beans and noodles and drinking more than usual. When I go out, I am masked, gloved and wary of others, It seems everything has changed. As a close friend pointed out, this is as much a plague of the spirit as it is of the body. At the same time, we are seeing an outpouring of generosity as people check on each other, sew masks and give away food. There are tables set up in places like Graydon Avenue, near Colley where neighbors put out cans of food for those that need it. Some even share rolls of that now rare and valuable commodity -- toilet paper!

We understand why we as a nation are less able to deal with this crisis than any other modern country on earth. We do not have a public healthcare system. Many of us lack health care coverage. Even if we have it, deductibles and copays aside, our corporatized medical approach treats symptoms rather than causes and relies on over-priced, often toxic medicines and expensive procedures. It is a commodified disease maintenance model designed to rake in profits. And now so many more of us are without basic coverage.

This viral pandemic is only one of the deadly plagues that has infected our country. We continue to suffer the plague of cultivated partisan division. We suffer from a much longer-term disease of racism and the violent suppression of minorities; especially Black people.

I have written many essays in Veer on racism, on racist police violence and on the dangerous rise of armed proto-terrorist hate groups. The attention brought has helped push reforms in local policing policy though much more needs to be done. We still lack a community-based civilian police review board. It is still more likely for Black people to be shot by police than it is for wild animals who would be subdued with drug darts.

The racism and divisions that are tearing our country apart were here long before Trump was appointed president but he has, through steady provocations and ineptitude made our situation far, far worse. From his stubborn resistance to science in handling the spread of COVID 19 to his rolling back of public safety protections and of the CDC defenses against pandemics, to his constant incitement, support and promotion of neo-faschist hate groups, he has been and continues to be a toxic danger and the number one threat to our national security. And I'm no loyal democrat! This is all a trial run for worse disasters to come, from the horrific destruction made inevitable by the expanding climate catastrophe and the storms we will experience locally to other waves of disease and of possible societal breakdown and civil war.

Given the reality of this moment, we are either witnessing the economic and social collapse of civilization and the rise of brutal fascism inherent in disaster capitalism or the beginning of a new era of progressive fightback as so many find ourselves with no other realistic choice.

So how do we get through this? The protests we are seeing are a beginning. The rising up and standing together of citizens, even amid the dangers of the pandemic and increasingly violent acts of suppression by militarized police at the direct instruction of the president and his attorney general, demonstrate our solidarity against racist violence and against Trump's destructive actions.

With the exceptions of Richmond and aggressive police in Virginia Beach, our local area has avoided violence and riots. We have, so far also avoided massive deaths by COVID seen elsewhere, though the numbers of sick continue to grow locally. We have responsible state leadership and that saves lives.

I expect the numbers to rise as we "open up" and due to the number of people in the streets protesting police violence and institutional racism.

As I wrote in the editorial of a recent Blue Collar Review, it is increasingly obvious that we are now in undeniable need of Medicare for All, a minimum income and the job-creation and climate sanity of a Green New Deal. The time for the Jonestown rule of corporations and billionaires has been unmasked by the multiple pandemics we face and must be swept away by united citizen action to restore the Republic.

Only the committed solidarity of love and community can save us as a nation from rising dictatorship and destruction. The protests around the country and in our area are examples of that. Hate and well earned mistrust can be overcome. Together, as history repeatedly demonstrates, even brutal dictatorships can be overcome when we as citizens stand together in opposition.

Though the situation is too dynamic to make any predictions, this promises to be a long, hot and bloody summer. Let's do everything we can to be safe, to avoid the worst, to take care of each other and, more importantly, to demand leadership with integrity that puts people first.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Instant Karma

As the corona virus tears across the globe leaving medical systems overwhelmed, in civilized countries that have them, and mass death in its wake, our country continues its economic terrorism against affected countries including Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, denying them food and medical equipment. In fact, there is hardly a country on earth we have not done filthy murderous things to from instigating civil wars and violent coups to orchestrating genocides.

In our own country there are calls from politicians and the corporate media for bailouts of the usual suspects; banks, big oil, finance, airlines, ect. along with emergency crumbs in the way of checks to “taxpaying' citizens. Even that appreciated but inadequate assistance – coming from the corrupt and inept G.O.P leadership – is being stymied by Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Cuomo with calls for stringent means testing. Layoffs and unemployment are skyrocketing by the day with evictions likely soon to follow.

Meanwhile, the only platform and leadership that could limit the damage and save the country, and I refer of course to Bernie Sanders's calls for universal medical coverage via Medicare for All, relief from student dept, a job-creating Green New Deal focused on adaptive infrastructure renewal, green agriculture and moving away from fossil fuels from the power grid to transportation has been soundly defeated by corporate media efforts and voters driven by fear and misinformation. A majority of said voters stated in exit polls that they support these things but were informed that Joe Biden, a senile conservative democrat was more electable in spite of polls showing the very opposite.

So here we are, sheltering in place with the most inept and crooked government in the history of our republic in charge even as we continue raining death and destruction in every part of the world. This includes the deadly embargo on Cuba which has been successful in assisting China with the development of Interferon Alpha 2b which has proven effective for viruses with characteristics similar to those of COVID-19. But hey, let's not let common sense or the curbing of unnecessary deaths get in the way of our renewed cold-war fervor!

Music, the tunes that rise out of the inky bitumen of our subconscious can sometimes be an oracle trying to tell us something or helping us see situations in perspective. The other day the voice of Doris Day rose from my inner swamp singing Que Sera Sera. As I consider the larger reality the tune that has been playing in my head is Instant Karma.

Monday, February 17, 2020

An Opportunity for 2020 Foresight

There are many issues that should motivate us to public action as responsible citizens. Issues like human rights abuses, access to needed healthcare, confronting ongoing efforts by the Trump administration to roll back regulations on environmental safety, deregulating the dumping of industrial toxins into our lakes and rivers, threats to cut back healthcare access, vital support for disabled recipients of Social Security, the spread of nuclear weapons, war, and support for oppressive regimes. Such actions can take many forms from visiting or writing letters to our elected representatives, writing editorial letters to the local paper or participating in public demonstrations.

In the last month we witnessed a day of protest by people who do not seem to object to or protest any of these things. Instead, in response to long overdue and very moderate legislation seeking mandatory background checks and monthly caps on gun purchases, militias and gun-right activists spouting unfounded fears and misinformation gathered in Richmond. None of the legislation proposed or thus passed in any way prevents anyone from purchasing a firearm.

Demonstrations around issues serve not only as a way of pressuring elected leaders but as education and outreach around things we feel are important. The Richmond gun rally succeeded in illustrating a real problem.

Photos of heavily armed zealots with over-sized military-grade weapons should concern us all. Do you really want your unstable neighbor to be that heavily armed? The other big issue made evident was the presence of highly armed extremist militia groups. As reported in the Virginia Mercury, six men were arrested in Georgia, Maryland and Delaware, all allegedly involved with a neo-fascist white supremacist group known as The Base. Authorities reported that the men were suspected of planning an attack against counter protesters at the rally. While thankfully there was no violence reported in Richmond, unlike the Charlottesville rally, there were only a few overt signs of racist nationalism or Nazi propaganda. Racist groups attending were more subtle, waving flags and wearing patches with the symbols of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and various white nationalist militias such as the III Percenters and Oath Keepers. Coincidentally, the Richmond Rally was being covered at the same time as another public shooting incident – the kind we have become too used to seeing on the news.

Recently some of the same fearful gun activists have attempted to pressure our city councils to endorse “Second Amendment cities” which Chesapeake City Council supported. As a long-time activist myself, I think many need to realize the empty symbolism of this and to read up on the “Dillon Law” which in Virginia states that “local governments are limited to the powers expressly granted to them by their state” meaning the State Legislature makes the rules and cities cannot choose to defy them or to do otherwise. The Dillon Law is problematic for local democracy on many issues. Virginia is one of 39 states in which it applies.

Four years ago at the close of the last electoral debacle I wrote of my deep concern about the ugly rise and empowerment of hate-groups and the neo-fascist right. It remains obvious that we as a nation still have a serious problem. It was on display in Richmond and has more to do with the danger, beyond partisan division, of proto-terrorist groups than it does with our continuing right to buy reasonable firearms for hunting or self defense. Public access to high-capacity military grade weaponry and armed hate-groups continue to pose a grave threat to public safety.

Another key issue, made evident by the growing Coronavirus epidemic, is the necessity of universal access to health care. Without everyone being covered, the poverty of some poses a health risk to all. The most important issue of the day remains the rapidly expanding climate catastrophe which threatens our future – especially in our low-lying, increasingly flood-prone, hurricane-vulnerable Tidewater area.

Voting is among the most important things we can do as citizens. Next, we need to keep pressure on those we manage to elect to act on the issues we care about. Our Virginia mid-terms demonstrated the effectiveness of this. We have seen action to expand Medicaid access and to enact sensible fire-arm regulations. Progress is also being made to protect our state environment. Though fracking and gas pipeline projects remain an issue, we have seen a ban on fracking in the eastern part of the state to protect the Potomac Aquifer, enacting of carbon cap-and-trade legislation, expanding offshore wind energy plans, and addressing flooding in areas of the Eastern Shore and in our own area including parts of Virginia Beach. A proposal to make the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice a permanent body, put forward by Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, is making its way through committee. This would create a standing advisory council which would offer recommendations to the governor to protect historically vulnerable poor and minority communities from disproportionate impacts of pollution. Given the rapid warming of our seas and the increasing rate of their rise, there is much more that needs to be done to mitigate carbon emissions and to strengthen and adapt infrastructure here and throughout our country.

A vitally important opportunity for citizen action is upon us. The Virginia Democratic Presidential Primary is on March 3 with voting scheduled from 6AM – 7PM. Primaries are very different from elections. Come the election, we will likely have to vote against, rather than for a candidate, playing the old “lesser evil” game. Settling for lesser evils in questionably legitimate elections has not served our country well. Given record levels of corruption, media manipulation, voter suppression and reliance on shady technology it remains questionable whether legitimate federal elections are even possible anymore. This may be our last opportunity to make a real difference. Unlike elections, primaries are where we can and should vote our hopes by choosing the candidate we think is best on the issues. Capitulating in advance based on what corporate media tells us is possible is to surrender any chance of making a difference.

Whichever party affiliation or candidate you choose, I think what most of us have in common is a revulsion to corruption and to the continuation of resulting bad economic policies which poison our communities and impoverish us for the benefit of the well-connected. That is why many voted as they did in the last presidential election for someone perceived as an outsider who promised to “drain the swamp” but sadly continues to do just the opposite. As I've said in the past, the best criteria for judging a candidate are their actual record and who is backing them because that is who they will serve.

Given that criteria, I think Bernie Sanders remains the best and strongest candidate. Maybe it is his integrity. Beyond that rare characteristic in politicians, the vast majority support his agenda of universal access to medical care, climate action and people-first economic policies reflective of FDR's New Deal. He, unlike others, can be counted on to protect programs like public education and Social Security. His record shows him to be incorruptible. Most important is that Sanders is the only candidate who can be trusted to stand up to the enormous power wielded by corporations and to do what we must to address public health and the climate catastrophe. Sanders represents the best of our country. He will protect the civil rights and hard won gains of working people and minorities.

Beyond cultivated partisan division, the Representative Republic is on its deathbed. Citizens like those of us who are not billionaires have little if any real representation. Corporate influence has come to define public policy. Sanders and the broad citizen movement behind him are the last chance we have to revive and protect the Republic and to insure that we address the climate issue in a way that really matters. He can be counted on to actually drain the swamp of corporate lobbyists and self-serving moneyed interests. I hope we will approach this opportunity with 2020 foresight and not rue a lost chance with 2020 hindsight. We will all have to live with the consequences.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Standing For Peace at Ground Zero

Your flag decal won't get you into Heaven anymore
They're already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don't like killin', no matter what the reason's for
And your flag decal won't get you into Heaven anymore
– John Prine

The new year finds our military area and families facing new dangers after the recent assassination of Iran's Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a leading political figure close to the Iranian leadership. Some will opine that Trump did us a favor in eliminating a dangerous enemy and “terrorist.” The record does not corroborate this. A brief look at the history of our relations with Iran tells a very different story.

It was our country that decided to forcefully remove Iran's elected president in 1956 and to install one of the world's most brutal dictatorships in its place. That was the “Shah” whose bloody, torturous grip on Iran lasted over 20 years. It wasn't Iran that applied a punishing economic stranglehold on our country because it was displeased with our leadership choices or energy policies – again, the other way around. It wasn't Iran that instigated and supplied an invasion against us including chemical weapons attacks. Yep, again that was our government supplying Iraq with the deadly weapons and pushing them to attack Iran. So next time you hear about Persians calling us the “great Satan” and being our enemy, consider the real history, as well as the source.

Our use of a previous Iraqi regime to attack Iran with chemical weapons is something Iranians have not forgotten, They have a Museum of Peace dedicated to remembering this and many Iranians still bear the scars and injuries of that war. They have good reason to be involved in Iraq to prevent a recurrence and to protect their own national security. They have also been active in fighting and defeating ISIL terrorism.

The reality is that General Suleimani's stop in Iraq on his way home from Lebanon to pressure the Iraqi congress to demand removal of US troops was known in advance. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi stated that he was due to meet the General Suleimani for talks that had been agreed to at Trump’s request. Trump's arrogant, criminal blunder has achieved Suleimani's agenda and further isolated the U.S. in the region and world.

Though it would have been shocking to past presidents as it should shock us today, the power to assassinate people around the world is not new to the Presidency. The power of the Executive has expanded enormously since the 1980's often working in league with the CIA. There have been many US interventions over the past half century which have attempted and succeeded in removing leaders our country deemed unfavorable through highly dubious legal or ethical means, from electoral meddling and punishing economic sanctions to orchestrated coups and invasions.

Ronald Reagan launched bombing raids in 1986 targeting Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Obama finished the job leaving Libya a chaotic, war torn disaster. We have seen the removal and imprisonment of Panama's president Noriega for refusing to join our “contra” efforts to destabilize and reconquer Nicaragua. The military coup in Honduras, overseen by Obama, continues to include the killing of dissidents and the creation of refugees. The recent ascension of extreme-right leadership in Chile, Brazil and Peru (with our assistance) and the bloody coup in Bolivia are continuations of this pattern of meddling and regime change around the world – often with terrible consequences such as the burning of the Amazon Rainforest. Obama incorporated and ensconced the presidential power to kill with a regular weekly “kill list' and drone assassinations. He even targeted US citizens overseas. Many, if not most drone killings included innocent families and children.

Trump is continuing a policy of assassination set in place by previous administrations but he differs in carrying out an agenda devised, not by the CIA but by the Saudis, Israel and the UAE. Trump has been moving troops and weapons to the region in large number over the last few months and just sent another 3,000 military personnel to Kuwait. Though Trump has apparently been reeled in by his advisors and has backed off from an all out attack on Iran, the danger remains. Trump's march to war has been assisted by Congress (including a majority of Democrats) who recently handed an additional record $700 billion to the Pentagon. I remain disappointed that my representative, Bobby Scott, voted for this. The assassination of a high-level political operative is a way of pushing us into a disastrous new war in the mid-east in which there are no “good guys” and from which there can be no winners. The predictable media cheer-leading for war has already begun with the neocons of the last illegal and disastrous war based on lies being cited as “experts.” Most of them have deep ties to military industries that stand to profit by this even at the expense of thousands of lives including our loved ones in the military. This again makes our military-centric area a target.

I'm glad that Senators Kaine and Sanders have submitted bills demanding Congressional oversight and a stop to this disastrous and ill-thought aggression. We the People must also speak out against another devastating criminal war. The planet cannot afford another war and we who bear the costs have better priorities like addressing the expanding climate catastrophe, adapting our infrastructure to inevitable changes, funding access to healthcare and education. The push for war remains a welfare program to underwrite the weapons and military industry at an expense beyond rational comprehension or moral justification. The truth is that preventing climate change from inflicting cataclysmic damage to our ecosystem, threatening much of life on earth and civilization as we know it, cannot be accomplished unless we also demilitarize our foreign policy, end interventionist wars and break the grip that both the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex have on our federal budget, foreign policy, economy and government.

I recently attended the founding meeting of a local “Coalition for Peace and Planet” which recognizes the inseparability of war and climate destruction. Their Principles of Unity state: The Hampton Roads Coalition for Peace and Planet is an alliance of peace and environmental groups in the Hampton Roads region whose mission is to educate, organize and mobilize our supporters in nonviolent opposition to war and environmental destruction.“ This is a non-partisan group whose alliance members so far include the Tidewater Democratic Socialists of America, the Norfolk Catholic Worker, the Green Party of Hampton Roads and non-affiliated citizens. We hope you join in this important effort. The Coalition for Peace and Planet can be found on facebook.

A lesson president Trump makes obvious is the need to roll back the power of the presidency, to return the power to declare war to Congress, and to re-establish a balance of power between the constitutional branches of our government. Before we begin massive bombings of cities, oilfields and nuclear reactors, can we get an ecological impact statement? We must support the cooler heads and consider actual impacts of our actions on the region and world. One has to ask -- especially of the media -- if anything at all been learned from the last 20 years, or for that matter, the last 60?

We all have a stake in this not only for the safety of our loved ones who may be sent to kill and be killed unjustifiably but as a city and region. As a major military center, we are ground zero. We bear the danger of presidential war-mongering. We need to be heard and to stop this tragedy before the already volatile middle-east explodes on all of us. Writing letters to the paper and to your congressional representatives can help, as can pubic protests and unified citizen demands for peace and ecological sanity.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Looking Back at 2019 and Hopes for Next Year

As I write this, the holiday season with all its emphasis on frenzied gift buying is again upon us, along with the first trickle of election season ads by billionaires seeking to buy the election, as if everything, including the presidency, were a Black Friday commodity. And maybe it has come to that. What I like about the Christmas season is the old value, not heard about as much in these times of “Peace on Earth and Goodwill.” It used to bother me that this ideal was so seasonal and short-lived. As I look around today it seems so retro – at least officially. This has been an eventful year in our area, our state, our country and around the world. This is a good time for us to look back at some of the highlights of the last year and to look forward to our hopes for the next.

The values of peace and goodwill have taken quite a battering over the last year. The vicious treatment of refugees seeking asylum in our country has included attacks on families, the separation, imprisonment and brutal treatment of children, and attempts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program which would result in deporting many people who know no other home. At the same time, our government has continued devastating economic embargoes against Venezuela, Iran and Cuba and fostered and backed an increasingly bloody military coup in Bolivia. The present administration continues to support vicious and brutal human rights abuses in Brazil, Chile, Israel, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere – all of which exacerbate the creation of desperate refugees.

On a positive note, citizen resistance has seen some success. Here in Norfolk some of us actively welcome and assist arriving immigrants. In response to local pressure, Sheriff Joe Barron ended a contract he had made with ICE to hold undocumented immigrants in our city jail.

Last year also saw resistance to the placing of a dangerous high pressure natural gas transmission pipeline, capable of explosive rupture, through populous communities in our area and through our downtown. This pipeline, The Southside Connector, was installed against the will of local citizens. It can still be shut off if it does not blow up first. The water has continued to rise in our area over the last year with “sunny day flooding” becoming the norm. As the latest climate assessment, issued by the United Nations Environment Program warns, we are on track for much worse. Its authors tell us that deeper and faster cuts to fossil fuel burning and carbon output are now required. Meanwhile our carbon emissions continue to grow by the year and the Trump administration continues to deny the problem, rolling back limits on pollutants and carbon emissions.

This year has also seen massive and increasing citizen activism. People are in streets around the world protesting economic injustice, corruption, and demanding action on the climate issue. We witnessed the growth of climate strikes started by teenager Greta Thurnberg and the expansion of Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience as young people fight for a livable future.

In our own state, in response to citizen pressure, Dominion Energy agreed to let regulators remove a Southwest Virginia power plant that relies almost entirely on coal from a renewable energy portfolio being promoted as a “100 percent renewable energy.” A State Corporation Commission (SCC) report found Dominion collected $277 million more from its Virginia customers last year that it should have, overcharging us for the second year in a row. Recently the SCC rejected a request from Dominion Energy that would have raised the utility's profit margin even more through increases in user rates. This year also saw the electoral victory and consolidation of our state legislature by Democrats which included a record number of women elected. As reported in Virginia Mercury, “a record 30 women (six newly elected) will hold seats in the House of Delegates when the 2020 session convenes. For the first time in 400 years, a woman will preside as speaker over the oldest continuously-meeting legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.” In Portsmouth, Stephanie Morales, one of only a handful of prosecutors who has prosecuted and won a conviction in the case of a white police officer who killed a black person, won her re-election campaign. This is an indication of public support for a strong response to police violence.

The control of our state legislature by Democrats, and more importantly, the defeat of Republicans who aligned themselves with Trump, gives us some hope for the coming year. Without the blockage created by Republicans in the past, we may at long last see the expansion of Medicaid in our state. We have been paying for this expansion, begun under the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans have blocked increased access to about 400,000 low-income adults in our state. This expansion of access is long overdue.

Dr. Anna Jeng, a local member of the Virginia State Board of Health, tells me that she hopes to see not only the expansion of Medicaid but of mental health services, noting that at present Virginia is ranked 38th in the country and has been in the top 10 of states with the greatest rates of need for metal health services. She also hopes to see an expansion of funding for women's reproductive rights and health services as well. She states that “Over 92% of Virginia cities or counties have no abortion provider and the remaining facilities are clustered in five urban areas. Evidenced-based laws should be proposed to expand the number of women's health clinics to replace those closed since the “pro-life” movement gained the upper hand in 2011.”

We may, at long last, become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, outlawing gender-based discrimination and making it the law of the land nationally. We may also see limits finally placed on public access to military style semi-automatic high capacity weapons.

With Democrats in control we may see an end to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and attacks on voter rights in our state. Though it remains an uphill struggle against corporate Democrats, we cold see the “right to work” (for less) law finally overturned. In the General Assembly, Delegate Lee Carter says that he is again introducing repeal legislation as he did in the 2019 session, while Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and other progressive legislators are lining up to support the effort.. We are also more likely to see cannabis finally decriminalized or even made legal for public consumption as it is in other states.

Hopefully, we will also see an end to our state's cooperation with the immigration abuses by ICE, including the imprisoning and abuse of migrant children in our state in places like the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center and to the defense and expansion of civil rights in our commonwealth. We might also hope for an overdue crackdown on the hate groups which have metastasized in recent years, fertilized by the extreme-right hyper-nationalism pushed by the divisive disinformation media of talk-radio, FOX “news,” connected Evangelic leaders, and by Trump. We can also hope for and demand the removal of people connected to hate groups from positions of power in our government, military, and law enforcement.

As this year gives way to the maddening circus of the electoral season, we can hope for an end to the blatant criminality and short-sighted attacks on public safety and our environment by this corrupt administration and to its replacement by leadership willing to stand up to the undue influence of big money interests in addressing the growing existential threat of the climate catastrophe. We should know by their records and their campaign backing who that is and who it is not. It isn't corporate funded centrists or billionaires like Michael Bloomberg who recently kicked off his campaign here in Norfolk after dumping $30 billion into TV ads.

Returning to the Christmas theme of Peace on Earth and Goodwill, let us be proud of our efforts as Virginians in rolling back reaction and hate in our state. Let's keep the pressure on to make sure this momentum continues here and beyond our state borders. Let's keep those values in mind over the coming year even in the cultivated partisan division of election campaigns, realizing that our neighbors and co-workers are not our enemy even if we disagree with them. Let us continue to work for peace, an end to nuclear madness and to international meddling and aggressions. Let us welcome the strangers among us and work to end policies that impoverish and that punish the poor even as they enrich a few at the expense of a livable future. Here's to a happy holiday season, a better year and a future we can believe in.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Exorcising the Ghost of Roy Cohn

Not for the first time, I am proud of my congressional Representative, Bobby Scott. Last May he introduced the “Protecting the Right to Organize Act” to do away with the stultifying “Right to Work” laws which smother our rights to organize on the job. Like many laws, the name implies the opposite of the reality. It has more accurately been called the “right to work for less.” Virginia has long been a “right to work” state along with the added indignity of “At Will” laws. This is why pay is lower in our state and in other, mostly southern and rural states. “At will” means you can be fired anytime for any reason or none, with no right to challenge the decision, rendering the workplace a dictatorship of fear and mistrust. This is made worse in our state because our rules for unemployment compensation require being let go for no reason of your own. Companies pay into that compensation and thus have an incentive to fire rather than to lay off workers.

Laws like “Right to Work” are the same, word for word, in many states because they are written by corporate consortia like the National Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who also fund political campaigns. The purpose is to keep the costs of the most variable business expense down – and that expense is you. The lower the cost and the greater the disposability of workers, the greater the take at the top. Dumping workers raises the value of stocks rewarding investors which makes the business climate look great. Thus “business is booming” when more of us are struggling to make ends meet. This is nothing new and goes back to the rise of industry in the 17th century. It is essential to understanding the founding of our own country.

Let us not forget that our nation was established by a wealthy merchant and slave holding class to free itself from British dominance and to protect and maintain its wealth. In order to get the support of the population, most of whom were poor farmers and former indentured slaves who mistrusted the landed gentry as much as they did the British, they ensconced the new Constitution with the Bill of Rights. Though initially only men with land or wealth were citizens able to vote, the promise of equality and guaranteed rights were there. As Madison noted in the first decades of the 19th century, the door to popular democracy had been opened. He feared that the rabble would eventually demand entry and real equality. The entire history of our country since that time has been a struggle for inclusion and basic rights for the rest of us. This includes the struggles for emancipation, for women's equality, and for civil rights which continues to this day.

The struggle against institutional bigotry and fair wages, workplace safety and basic economic security is inseparable from the history of our country. I would advise anyone interested in this history, our history, to read “Labors' Untold Story” written, not by cloistered academics but by working class historians Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais. There has always been lucrative work for those defending business interests in keeping us poor and powerless. Trump's appointees and partners, from Wlliam Barr and Rudi Giuliani to Bret Kavanaugh and Trump's newest judicial appointee Steven J. Menashi are a prime examples. As a continuation of his agenda to demolish every public protection in sight and cozy up to corporations, Trump has chosen Eugene Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to run the Department of Labor. He is a longtime corporate lawyer whose client roster has included Goldman Sachs, Facebook and Walmart. Scalia now leads the federal agency tasked with overseeing employee rights and labor laws.

Though Trump is more extreme, the direction is nothing new. An example of this dating back to the 1950's was Roy Cohn, a vicious opportunist and aggressive agent of corporate interests who joined with Senator Joseph McCarthy in a successful effort to cripple and break the considerable power of the labor movement at that time. Cohn partnered with the infamous Sen. McCarthy in his campaign to tar progressives, destroy lives and most importantly, break the labor movement. Notably, like many closeted Gays in politics, Cohn publicly railed against and targeted Gays in the army and those employed in federal jobs. This is how he and those like him cover and distance themselves from their own homosexuality. Cohn eventually died of complications from AIDS. Even today, you can count on the most viciously outspoken anti-Gay clergy and politicians likely being closeted Gays. A truth-telling documentary by filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer on Roy Cohn will be showing at the Naro Cinema on Wednesday, Dec 4 with discussion to follow. This documentary is titled “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” because Trump reportedly shouted this line in frustration when his attorney general Jeff Sessions dared to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He had to settle for the addlepated and deeply conflicted Rudi Giulliani for legal council even as he threatens armed insurrection should he be impeached. Ironically, the ghost he wished to summon built his career prosecuting many on the false charges of threatening to overthrow our democracy by force and violence and for promoting sedition.

As Peter Travers writes in a Rolling Stone review of the film, “Tyrnauer’s flashes of compassion for this self-hating Jew and homosexual — taught from childhood to feel ashamed of what he was and who he was — remind us that his subject’s toxic, insidious amorality did not go to the grave with him. It’s all around us, among opportunists still looking for their own Roy Cohn — just one of several reasons why Tyrnauer’s doc hits you like a punch in the gut.“

The “Red Scare” that McCarthy, Cohn and Richard Nixon made their names with was never about Russians or even about communists. It was about dis-empowering organize labor. The strongest labor leaders have always been socialists like John L. Lewis, William Z. Foster and Harry Bridges. This resulted in the highest standard of living working Americans ever had. As union leadership was replaced by corporate players and shady opportunists our wages and conditions diminished. They continue to do so as we are pitted against low-wage foreign sweatshop workers in a race to the bottom. The lasting legacy of that period include laws designed to cripple our ability as employees to organize in our own defense; laws like the Smith Act, Taft-Hartley and that ole' “Right to Work” which still plague us today.

As for Trump and the ghost of Cohn, a famous political thinker once noted that everything in history happens twice; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This is not the 1930's or the 1950s no matter how strongly some wish for their return. We are not the same society nor are most of us willing to return to the dark days of political and gender repression, lynching or segregation. We are not helpless nor can we afford to be passive players. As I wrote in the editorial of the recent issue of the Blue Collar Review: we often feel helpless and afraid for our own futures. We struggle to survive, to hold on to our jobs and to what little security we have from day to day. But that isn't enough. We must continue to struggle together against an ecocidal corporate dictatorship. Fortunately we are not alone in doing so.

In our area and state there are experienced citizen groups working to defend and expand our hard-won legislative gains in the halls of power and to curb and resist the efforts of corporate fronts to limit our rights, exploit the desperate, and undermine our public safety. One such grassroots group with a strong record of success is Virginia Organizing. The local chapter has won protections for residents of a mobile home park, passed zoning restrictions on predatory lenders, lobbied for lower prescription drug prices and organized monthly vigils for immigration reform. They are currently working to address the problem of flooding caused by climate change in Norfolk, immigration reform, voting rights, problems in local public schools, and statewide and national issues of health care including expanding medicaid access. If you are interested in joining with them or learning more, you can contact local organizer Megan McNamara at, or you can go to their website. As the season of gift giving is upon us, donations to support these important efforts on our behalf can be sent to Virginia Organizing, 703 Concord Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22903.

It is vital to remember that we are all in this together, that we must have each other's backs and that we are not alone in standing up to ugly hatreds and the venal, self-serving power of corporate greed.

Greta and Us

I was recently heartened and impressed by the massive protests against government inaction on climate which occurred around the world. This included a local protest organized by Mothers Out Front in Virginia Beach. This massive event was inspired by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who began a weekly strike from her school classes to protest the disregarding and sacrifice of her future. These strikes have caught on, grown and spread culminating in global action. There has also been a growing movement of radicalized youth demanding real climate action in Europe, and now in our own country, calling itself "Extinction Rebellion.” Though their actions involving civil disobedience by shutting down business as usual are important, young Greta Thunberg has become the catalyst of a larger generational uprising.

While there has been a range of coverage on Ms. Thunberg in the corporate media, from respect to vicious slurs and condemnation, her words to the leaders at the United Nations speak for themselves:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. . . For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit), and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us – we who have to live with the consequences.”

Ms. Thunberg makes a strong point regarding what we have known for decades. As reported in Scientific American, “Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977. In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program which empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. Exxon's senior scientist James Black stated that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels. A year later he warned Exxon that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees – a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today. He continued to warn that “present thinking holds that mankind has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical." That was nearly 40 years ago, but what Exxon did in response was to lie to Congress and to spend tens of millions funding climate denial.

We in Tidewater are among the most threatened. We have the second highest rate of sea level rise after New Orleans, and as some are experiencing, increased sunny-day flooding in some areas at high tide.

I asked local scientist, Anna Jeng, Sc.D., member of the Virginia Board of Health and a professor in the School of Community and Environmental Health at O.D.U. about the health impacts of climate change in our area. She was kind enough to respond, stating, “Current data on heat waves and extreme heat show that climate change has posed increased health risks for Virginia residents and that we have already felt climate-related health impacts. Recent Virginia Department of Health data shows that the number of days in Virginia with temperatures above 90° Fahrenheit has doubled over the last 10 years.”

“Heat and humidity already pose a range of threats to Virginia residents, from minor illnesses like heat cramps to deadly conditions like heatstroke or heat-related heart attacks. From 1975 to 2010, the Virginia Beach metropolitan area experienced an average of approximately 20 excess deaths per year on dangerously hot summer days. “Excess deaths” are the number of deaths above the daily standardized summertime average for a given area. Increased emergency room and hospital visits coincide with the zip codes of communities with higher temperatures, low-incomes and few shade trees. Anyone faces the risks of getting sick from extreme heat, but impoverished disadvantaged populations with pre-existing respiratory and/or cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, young children, and older adults are particularly vulnerable.”

Dr. Jeng also emphasized that, “The Trump administration has imposed an immense threat to the existing U.S. environmental health policy. It launched an overt attack on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, undermined science-based policy and launched a policy of deregulating hazardous pollutants. Recent examples include that the EPA defies climate warnings and has rolled back emissions requirements and standards for coal-fired plants to revitalize America’s sagging coal industry. More specifically, a proposal has been made to roll back mercury emission regulations put in place during the Obama administration.”

Temperature rise is not the only factor affecting our local health, though as temperatures rise, tropical insects and diseases move north as well. We still host the largest coal export facility and are daily exposed to toxic coal dust. Other ubiquitous industrial pollutants in our environs affect our health as well. Results of testing by the Virginia Department of Health – Office of Drinking Water, as well as information from the U.S. EPA Enforcement and Compliance History database, show nine carcinogenic and thyroid contaminants detected above health guidelines in Norfolk tap water. These include: Bromodichloromethane, Chlorate, Chloroform, Chromium (hexavalent), Dibromochloromethane, Dichloroacetic acid, Trichloroacetic acid, trihalomethanes and Radium 226 & 228. These are carcinogenic contaminants that permeate us locally. As in the past, it may be that beer is safer than water – depending on the water used to make it.

It is easy to feel hopeless, angry and depressed about the overwhelming extent of pollution we are exposed to and the looming existential threat of the growing climate catastrophe. The best way to counter this is to be active on the issue or at least to support those who are.

In our area, the Sierra Club is active on important issues like supporting a state climate plan with a target of reducing carbon pollution 40% by 2030. This includes creating the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Our local chapter's focus is on encouraging solar panel use on homes and businesses, adaptation and mitigation to flooding, opposing offshore drilling and methane (natural gas) pipeline projects, limiting coal dust and moving to clean energy. You can support, or join them, online.

Other local groups active on climate issues are Mothers Out Front and The Chesapeake Climate Action Network which actively works to promote good climate policy.

How we live has an impact on our environment but we have to live with the real options we have where things like transportation and work are concerned. The greatest impact on climate comes from polluting industries limited or not, by public policy and by those who make it. Thus, our taxes fund fossil fuel industry efforts from fracking and oil drilling to gas pipelines as well as efforts to expand wind energy off of our coast. Beyond how we live day to day, getting involved with or supporting climate activism is vital to countering corporate influence on our elected representatives. Voting for candidates not underwritten by polluting industries who will stand up to corporations and, as Greta says, “listen to the scientists” is vital as well. It is past time for us to take responsibility for our actions, to understand that a system based on endless growth in a finite reality is an untenable recipe for disaster. It is past time for us to live responsibly within our actual, physical means rather than borrowing from the future.

A new generation is rising up to defend itself and we must join with them to insure a livable future. As Greta Thunberg stated to world leaders at the UN,“We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up and change is coming, whether you like it or not.”