Friday, February 15, 2019

Confronting the Crisis of our Times

We are living in a time of crises. Many of them are self-made and a few are based on conspiracy theories with inadequate evidence reflecting ulterior agendas. Examples include the “border crisis” of illegal immigration. In reality, crossings of our southern border are lower than they have been in 18 years. Even then, those risking their lives to come here are refugees of the more verifiable crises that our policies have fostered in their home countries. Another crisis of our making and based in lies, is our escalating aggression toward Venezuela. It didn't start with Nicol├ís Maduro but with the election of President Hugo Chavez and his initiation of Bolivarian socialism which broke from US corporate dominance with the radical notion that funds from nationalized oil should be shared by all Venezuelans. President Bush attempted a coup to remove Chavez, which failed. Since then our government has worked to undermine their economy in a successful attempt to create desperation.

This is in no way a new tactic. The history of the U.S. in Latin America is a long and brutal one of orchestrated upheavals against popular governments which dared to defy US corporate hegemony followed by the installing of unelected brutal regimes to serve as reliable pawns. Victims of our aggression include Cuba, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador to name only a few – and always with the support of our corporate press.

The “Russiagate” crisis is also a questionable one on weak ground. In reality, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel meddled far more than Russia in the last election. They continue to dictate Trump's foreign policy, especially where Iran, Syria and Venezuela are concerned. The hypocrisy of our furor over the possibility that another country dared to influence our elections is all the more laughable with Trump deciding who the unelected president of Venezuela should be, as he strengthens and expands the embargo on that country, seizes assets and threatens military intervention.

Real crises that affect us include the disaster of neo-liberal economics pushed by Wall Street which results in record economic disparity and poverty, the mounting student debt that cripples futures, and the lack of access to medical coverage affecting about 44 million of us. A more complete list here.

The most important actual crisis of our making is the growing climate catastrophe. Even as oceans warm with glaciers and polar icecaps melting faster than predicted, recent peer-reviewed global measurements show that 2018 saw record increases of carbon emitted into our atmosphere. Researchers based in Potsdam, Germany report in the journal Nature Communications that they and colleagues in the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost monitored and measured soil temperatures in boreholes at 154 locations. The most dramatic warming was in the Arctic where soils that were more than 90% permafrost increased in temperature by 0.3°C or to just above freezing. In Siberia, temperatures rose by 0.9°C or more. Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that permafrost stores vast amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which is released as the soil thaws. Alaskan permafrost melt is now emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire state is storing in tundra and forest ecosystems, according to findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This wasn’t supposed to happen before the end of the century.

In the last year we witnessed firestorms in the west and catastrophic deluges and flooding on the Gulf and East Coasts. Record hurricanes and heat happened in the Pacific and elsewhere. As the climate disaster unfolds, our corporate leadership, under the misguidance of a stubborn climate denier, continues to erase even inadequate fossil-fuel regulations like the burning off of methane released via fracking. Trump has cynically nominated coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to head the EPA and oil lobbyist David Bernhardt to head the Interior Department.

I know some are thinking that this has been an especially cold winter. As the atmosphere and oceans warm, the effect is climate destabilization. The polar vortex, a large expanse of swirling, cold air, is usually limited to the polar regions. Now, more frequently due to human-caused climate disruption, the vortex expands and moves southward bringing arctic temperatures with it. The jet stream and oceanic currents that have driven and defined our weather for most of the last 10,000 years are being altered by the carbon our fossil fuel burning continues to emit.

Though politicians and parties beholden to fossil-fuel corporate interests do everything possible to sow confusion, cynicism and doubt about the peer-reviewed evidence and science regarding the growing climate catastrophe, the effects continue to mount. Military leaders understand the real costs of climate change in expanded wars, refugee migrations based on food and water shortages and temperature extremes, as well as the direct effects on military bases around the world. A Department of Defense report dated January 2019 “provides an assessment of the significant vulnerabilities from climate-related events in order to identify high risks to mission effectiveness on installations and to operations.” According to the report, “about two thirds of the 79 installations addressed are vulnerable to current or recurrent flooding and more than half are vulnerable to current or future drought. About half are vulnerable to wildfires and may then experience mudslides or erosion when rains follow fires.”

Of course the Norfolk Naval facilities are on that list. The report states, “The greater Hampton Roads area is very vulnerable to flooding caused by rising sea levels and land subsidence. Navy Region Mid-Atlantic is working with several academic, local community non-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies to increase understanding of current and future risks to inform discussions on possible adaptation strategies for communities and military bases. In addition, the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach are currently engaged in a Joint Land Use Study to identify specific conditions, including recurrent flooding, coastal storms, and erosion, outside of the military footprint that have the potential to impact Navy operations in the Hampton Roads area.” Our area is one of the most vulnerable to rising seas and extreme hurricanes. Studies by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science predict that water levels in our area will increase by more than a foot in the next 30 years. Some areas already experience regular flooding even when it doesn't rain.

The fossil record demonstrates the longevity of the geological time scale. The sinking of our region called “land subsidence” is due to the effect of the northern parts of our geological plate rising in recovery from being weighed down by glaciers during the Ice Age which ended 10,000 years ago. During that time, coastlines were miles out to what is now sea. The carbon we've put into the air, the poisons we are pumping into deep aquifers and the plastics and toxins we are leaving behind will be here for many thousands of years. We are already locked in, assuming we do nothing different, for a 3 to 7 degree rise in temperature averages in this century. But it doesn't stop there. This may not sound like much, but even 1.5 degrees have resulted in the disastrous effects of more deadly storms and climate disruption. These models, while accurate so far, fail in assuming a steady gradual temperature rise. The geological record demonstrates that this is not accurate and doesn't account for the added feedback accumulation coming from deforestation, methane release and die-offs. In fact, climate change is exponential which accounts for the more rapid than predicted increase in changes we are witnessing.

On the positive side, it isn't just the climate that is heating up. We are seeing massive protests around the world demanding policy changes to address the problem. These include non-violent direct action from a growing group called “Extinction Rebellion” and lawsuits by younger people like “Julia vs US,” a major lawsuit filed by young people against the US government for failing to limit the effects of climate change. This suit is headed for the Supreme Court. With the ascendance of younger social-democrats to Congress we are also seeing calls for a “Green New Deal.” This idea, originally pushed by the Green Party and picked up by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would boost the economy by converting power grids to sustainable energy, funding de-carbonized sustainable agriculture, and creating jobs through needed infrastructure adaptation. Younger people have much more at stake than older folks like myself. Committed as I am to the issue, I won't live long enough to experience the worst. Younger people will. Along with Medicare for All, a commitment to the Green New Deal will have to be a defining qualification for any democratic candidate running in the next election.

The frustrating part is that we are facing an actual threat greater than any we've ever confronted and more damaging than anything any other country can inflict short of nuclear war. We know what needs to be done to minimize the damage already locked in and prevent worse and yet we are crippled from doing what we know needs to be done. Only one thing is holding us back. It isn't the misinformation and denial or even partisan politics. Even the Green New Deal is being stymied by corporate Democrats. The crippling obstacle that threatens our survival as a nation and as a species is the rule of money -- the undue corporate influence on public policy which includes both our official political parties.

What can we do? Getting involved is a good cure for hopeless depression and cynicism. You can make a difference! Organizations working to address climate policy in the Tidewater, Virginia area include: The Sierra Club. The local branch can be found at the Sierra Club There is also CCAN, or the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Climate Hope Action Network and the Green Party of Virginia with a Facebook presence. If we are to survive this dangerous time, we need to focus on the real, dual crises of money in politics and the unfolding climate disaster.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Obituary for the Virginian Pilot and for Local Independent News

I was glad to be invited to participate in a local gathering of poets and writers sponsored by The Muse, our local writers center, as part of a larger effort to stand in defense of freedom of the press. I found myself in good company with many of our areas finest poets including Robert Arthur, Rene Olander, Luisa Igloria and others. The focus was primarily on the murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi and on the constant assault on the mainstream media by Donald Trump. Expecting some heated reaction, I read from an article of mine (“What's Happening”) published in this magazine a few months ago in which I wrote about the differences between our corporate, embedded mainstream media and the actual free press we have in media watchdog sites and in non-mainstream investigative journalism. I reminded listeners that our country too has targeted journalists and threatens truth tellers. Examples include the banishing of award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh from US media, our targeting and murder of journalists in Iraq and other parts of the world, the exile of Edward Snowden and the ongoing threats to Julian Assange. The problem of the free press, I noted, went far beyond Trump. As I have described in previous articles, posted here, the erosion of our mainstream media has been going on for decades, especially since the 1980s. Key players in this effort were George Bush Sr. and Roger Ailes. Obama prosecuted more journalists than any President before him. I was expecting some animosity and rejection for my reading but was surprised by how much agreement I found.

What wasn't mentioned was the shrinking and death throes of our once local paper. It hadn't been a great paper for some time. Though some good local investigative journalism did happen, there were issues of censorship by the owners in investigating the connections between Virginia Beach leaders and banks a few years back. Mostly, as a friend of mine humorously noted, what it offered was the best of yesterday's news today. This was before it was sold to “TRONC” or the Tribune Publishing Company, based in Chicago. Since then, tenured local journalists have been offered “buy outs” or retired. The Pilot has been joined to the Hampton newspaper, the Daily Press. Marisa Porto, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Daily Press has been named executive editor of The Virginian-Pilot as well.

One of the things I had enjoyed about the Pilot for many years is that articles, editorials and letters were open to public commentary. This served an important purpose as a local “village square” where issues of the day, related to articles, could be discussed. This has long been my morning ritual and brain boost. The moderating of the commentary section has been sadly lax for a few years and it had become rife with racists and partisan attack trolls using fake and even ridiculous names, but still, it was a community – even of those who regularly disagreed.

All of this ended abruptly on December 24th – our Christmas present from the new owners. The commentary option was ended with the stated intent of resuming on January 2nd under more restrictive limitations. Erica Smith, who has moderated the commentary and who “oversees digital strategy” stated that the owners have decided that they will limit commentary to editorials and letters. Where commenters were previously free to post informative links on issues being discussed, these would be limited to a list drawn up in advance by the editors as they decide what are a “legitimate sources.” The new posted rules also indicate that any comments which veer from the narrow confines of the editorial or letter being discussed may be removed. OSadky, even a month later, the libelous trolls have not been banished. Some of the commenters have begun another discussion forum at the Tidewater News and Opinion Forum But for any single press to decide what news or news sources are legitimate and what subjects can be discussed is an attack on freedom of the press and on legitimate freedom of speech.

These dictates are most certainly coming down from the owners in Chicago and are not limited to the Pilot. We are seeing similar censorship and imposed limitations across the media spectrum. As I wrote in a previous piece, 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 government and big media because of the Russia-gate frenzy as we're seeing on Facebook and Google in their attempts to identify and shut down what they decide constitutes "fake news." Power, whether here or anywhere, always strives to control information to protect itself from challenges. This was easier prior to the digital age. At best governments today can impose a cast iron colander on information. Our country is unique in now being owned and run by corporate interests but with lingering constitutional rights. Unlike some oppressive countries we can have private media but it has been so undermined and state-embedded that it has become the propaganda tool of power and its partisan factions in their struggles to shape and control narratives. What is most striking to me is what is omitted from the “news.” American military involvements and related power struggles, atrocities, popular uprisings and wars may be raging around the planet but turn on the news and you mostly get feel-good stories and a splash of sensational tabloid fodder mixed with partisan attacks and pentagon narratives promoting neocon agendas. What has changed recently was a an apparent decision to finally cover the growing climate catastrophe.

The slow and escalating demise of papers like the Pilot create a vacuum for local news. Magazines like this one may provide some news not covered in monopolized corporate venues but they focus more on culture than on issues. This has not stopped the owners of the Pilot from making a concerted effort to kill Veer by undermining advertising efforts. To quote Elizabeth Warren, still we persist. Together with a few other people, I had considered starting a non-commercial, cooperative alternative paper or magazine focusing on issues, with an emphasis on truth and on non-partisan thought-provoking writing but the obstacles to creating a printed product are daunting. We may yet need to work on this but it takes money, time and energy as well as a number journalists and writers. I remain open to ideas on how we can create and sustain a local paper not subservient to advertisers, government or controlling media monopolies.

Beyond our moribund local paper, the larger issue is the corporate consolidation of the press. A year ago the FCC voted to allow a single company to own a newspaper, television and radio stations in the same town, reversing a decades-old rule aimed at preventing any individual or company from having too much power over local coverage. This lead to increasing media mergers and consolidation. Six or so companies now own our major media. The corporations that own our local commercial TV stations are TRONC affiliate, Tribune Broadcasting - WTKR (channel 3), NEXTAR Media - WAVY, (channel 10), Tegna Inc - WVEC (channel 3) and Sinclair - WTVZ (channel 33). None are local with the exception of our public TV station, WHRO (channel 15) which is hooked into a national service increasingly embedded and dependent on corporate funding. The elimination of net neutrality is a part of the attempt to control what is available to us. If they cannot constitutionally eliminate alternatives to the official press, they can block or choke them off by letting the company you get your internet access from decide what sites are available to you – just like Google or the Pilot editors deciding what is “legitimate.” Thus Americans remain the least informed people on the planet, divided over partisan nonsense and largely ignorant about global events and issues that affect us.

As much as I was glad to participate with local poets in a national effort in defense of the ideal of a free press, the most profound exhortations make little difference by themselves. We get what we allow ourselves to get. If we actually want a free and independent press, if we actually want to know what is happening, we need to demand it rather than being passive consumers. We need to stand against the corruption of the FCC by major media corporations. We need to demand a press that is not embedded with the State Department and National Security State. We need to demand a return of the fairness doctrine and a break-up of media monopolies, and maybe we need to work together to recreate and support a truly independent locally owned newspaper.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Coming Together to Prevent Disaster

Our city council has dealt with many issues in the past, but few present more danger to us than the “Southside Connecter” gas pipeline project. For months this project has been publicly promoted as a distribution line supplying needed natural gas to our area with the promise of added jobs. Neither claim is true. This is a high-pressure transmission pipeline carrying methane, produced by geologically destructive and polluting fracking, through highly populated neighborhoods in Chesapeake and Norfolk. This gas is for export rather than for local use.

I learned a great deal about this project from experts at a public forum hosted by a large citizen's group calling itself the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition. Participating groups in this coalition are Collana's Shipyard and groups including, the Sunrise Hill Civic League, Mothers Out Front, Southside Taskforce, Chesapeake Pipeline Resistance and the Hampton Roads Green Party. I was particularly impressed by the detailed information provided by pipeline expert, Richard B. Kuprewicz. Mr. Kuprewicz's resume includes being an engineer with decades of experience on pipelines. He has worked for ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Co.), the Four Corners Pipeline Company, and has served on an executive committee advising Congress on a report culminating in new rules concerning pipeline safety. As President of Accufacts, Inc. he is a pipeline regulatory adviser, incident investigator, and expert witness on all matters related to gas and liquid pipeline design, operation, maintenance, risk analysis, and management. Given his expertise, I thought he was in a good position to clarify the issue for us. I asked him the following questions which he generously answered.

How did you hear about and become involved with the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition?
An attorney for Colonna Shipyard called me around mid-October of this year seeking specialized pipeline technical experience and expertise. I believe he got my name from the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nationally recognized pipeline safety organization, headquartered in Bellingham, WA. I usually am contacted via word of mouth as I don’t advertise and don’t need additional business, given the many pipeline failure investigations and other matters I have been involved with. I’m not part of the Pipeline Safety Trust but I have much respect for that organization. I take my obligations to remain neutral and objective in pipeline matters very seriously.

The Southside Connector Project is being sold to the public as a distribution pipeline which will augment local gas supplies, create jobs, and boost our local economy. What is the reality and what issues most concern you about this project?
The Southside Connector is being sold as a distribution pipeline and it wasn’t until representatives for VNG (Virginia Natural Gas) under oath testified to the real nature of the operation. It will be a high pressure natural gas transmission pipeline. The VNG presentations as a distribution pipeline are very deceiving and in all probability violate federal pipeline safety regulations in this important area. Transmission pipelines, unlike distribution pipelines, are easily capable of rupture resulting in large multi-explosion fireballs that can affect a very large area, especially in a high occupancy area like Norfolk. The continued deceptions, PR spin and failure to be straight and completely truthful on specific technical pipeline safety matters concerning the Southside Connector Project by VNG and its representatives raises serious red flags about this company and the project if rupture is to be avoided. Based on my extensive experience with gas transmission pipelines across the country, the need for this pipeline to meet consumer gas demands within Norfolk and Chesapeake are being gravely misrepresented and overstated. When I see such technical misstatements and inability to tell the truth and nothing but the truth about a transmission pipeline, it does not speak well about the future safe operation of this pipeline, and significantly raises the risk. I don’t make this statement lightly!

What are the dangers posed by this pipeline and its planned route through heavily populated areas of Chesapeake and Norfolk?
Transmission pipelines unlike lower pressure distribution pipelines can rupture with very large blast and heat impact zones. First Responders will not be able to enter such large rupture impact zones for quite some time. The impact of rupture in these highly populated cities will result in many billions of dollars of loss as well as much loss of life. The spin I keep hearing from VNG does not instill confidence with me that they really know what they are doing. The rush to finish a project should not justify doing such an effort recklessly.

What actions do you, and the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition, feel local city leaders should take to protect public safety?
Have a properly scheduled technical meeting of all parties with no lawyers or PR folks, and with people who can answer specific technical questions about this Project. Commit to possible technical changes that may be warranted to assure proper routing, placement, and operator control of this system if it goes into operation as a transmission pipeline. Otherwise, drop the proposed Project to distribution pipeline pressures (something well below 500 psi) though that needs to be confirmed with VNG given all the misleading information they have been putting out on this Project.

I'm thankful to Mr. Kuprewicz for helping us understand the facts. He is not the only expert wary of this dangerous pipeline. Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board with nearly 20 years experience as a safety consultant stated recently in the Virginian Pilot, “In the case of the Southside Connector, the high-pressure pipeline that Virginia Natural Gas wants to build right through the middle of the city of Norfolk, it's unusual that the pipeline and all its risks, will be introduced into a community that already exists. In fact, I have never seen a similar case. If allowed to be completed, the pipeline will transmit up to 1,250 pounds of pressure per square inch of natural gas right down Norfolk streets. I have driven the route of the pipeline, and I can see that it passes just a few feet in front of churches and schools.”

And pipelines like this do explode. Examples include Moundsville, W. Virginia, Heston, KS, San Bruno, CA, Madison WI, Paradis, LA, Midland County, TX and many, many others – just in the last year. And we are talking about major, devastating fireball explosions with multiple casualties.

The Southside Connector leaves much of our city and downtown within the blast zone. It runs close to schools, churches and homes. It is planned to run through Collana's shipyard at only 3 feet below ground, endangering Navy ships being worked on and presenting us with an imminent danger. It is no surprise that, like other dangerous and polluting projects, it runs primarily through Black and poor areas.

I was glad to see an overflow crowd at the City Council meeting on November 20th and to see so many concerned citizens coming together. Many Berkeley residents spoke of having been misinformed, having water and power cut off without warning and being concerned about the danger of inadvertent explosive pipeline breaches from sewer repairs or roadwork. At one point, former NTSP chairman Jim Hall stated that he did not believe the city council would have made the decision to proceed if they had the needed information. Councilman Riddick proposed that the project be put on hold before being cut off by City Attorney Bernard Pishko who stated that they had sought the advice of experts assuring the safety of the pipeline. Apparently, he was referring to the “independent expert” he personally hired who, as it turned out, had done work for Virginia Natural Gas. Mayor Alexander has since stated that “It’s clear he should not have done that. He wasn’t neutral and detached as he should have been so the council could get an unbiased opinion.”

As I said to our city leaders that evening, the presence of this pipeline and the imminent danger it presents will have a negative impact on the property values upon which city revenue depend and will harm efforts to attract business to our area. Responsible leadership requires that they put public safety first. In spite of denials, they have the power, as spelled out in the easement agreement they signed, to put a stop to this project for public safety reasons. What the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition is asking for is a 1 year stoppage pending independent studies on technical safety, routing issues and public safety. Given the concerns voiced by experts and the level of danger this pipeline presents, it would be gross irresponsibility to do less.

At the end of that council meeting, Mayor Alexander chastised VNG, stating that they need to be more forthcoming and honest about the nature of this pipeline. On November 27, the Pilot reported that due to the conflict of interests of the “independent expert” City Attorney Pishko hired, they will seek further analysis and advice. One hopes they listen to the actual, independent experts I've quoted.

You too can get involved by going to the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition website and signing the petition. You can also call Mayor Alexander at (757) 664-4679. Together, we can stop this dangerous, unneeded pipeline and protect ourselves and our city.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Divided and Conquered? Roger and Us

Beyond the midterms, we have reached a dangerous divide in our country. People live in fear of voicing opinions in public. Family ties are damaged by political differences and, as recent events demonstrate, violence and hate-based terror are on the rise. We are headed down a dangerous path that can devolve into the deadly chaos we've witnessed in places like Sarajevo or Syria. Much blame can be laid on the racist opportunism and hyper-nationalism of the Trump administration but the reality is that Trump is the product more than the cause.

So how did we, a nation whose citizens share common ground on many issues that effect us, get to this point? Much of this can be laid at the feet of a very few individuals. Individuals who understood the power of culture to shape our identity and our perceptions. Individuals who understand media. Individuals with an agenda. One such individual – and no doubt, the person most responsible for the divide rending our social fabric and national politics – is Roger Ailes. I've said many times, to the chagrin of like-minded friends, that Ailes, the most successful propagandist in our history, was a genius. Admittedly, as a writer who does my best to inspire critical thought, and, through my publishing efforts with the Blue Collar Review and my Veer column to influence our cultural perspective, I admire the talent, insight and success of Roger Ailes. At the same time, I realize what an evil monster he was and tremble at the damage he has wrought.

Roger Ailes was a master of propaganda who advised and helped elect, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Donald Trump and many Congressional Republicans. He was central in reshaping the GOP, moving it to the extreme right. But his biggest and most influential role came in linking up with Rupert Murdoch to found and expand FOX “news.” FOX is directly connected with corporate think tanks and lobbying groups like “The Franklin Center” funded by the Koch brothers and the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In consistently dispensing divisive partisan misinformation, Ailes managed to warp the minds of a significant number of Americans. His biggest triumph was the tribalization of politics beyond issues, based on fear, xenophobia and hate, echoing the racist, paranoiac John Birch Society of a previous era, (founded not coincidentally by Charles Koch, father of the Koch brothers). The steady stream of propaganda emanating from right-wing media diverts real resentments based in failed neoliberal economic policy, twisting righteous anger from solutions to the nurturing of xenophobic scapegoating and misplaced, self-defeating rage. The right-wing linkage with TV Evangelists and the partisan distortinng of fundamentalist Christianity have been central to the building of an extremist base as well. This hearkens back to the church-state unity of the old world which fostered bloody pogroms and internecine oppression and is inseparable from the anti-Semitism that is endemic to our country. This is an old ruse with a bloody historic trail which leads to sociopathic, often violent behavior, massive human rights abuses and eventually, genocide. We are witness to the growing results in recent events.

Trump, with the help of FOX, which had preened his rise, and the backing of a global billionaire cabal including the Saudis, the UAE, Israel, Russia and domestic extremists, tapped into the misinformed tribal base cultivated by Roger Ailes’ FOX project and related talk-radio. Trump is the inevitable product of this project to empower a neo-fascist, corporate-dominant autocracy. Long after he is gone from the political scene, the ugly division Ailes has empowered will still be with us and will have to be dealt with unless the broadcasting of blatant misinformation and the rise in violent racist terror isn't confronted soon.

The resulting rise in the popularity of FOX and the right-wing disinformation machine shaped mainstream corporate media as well. In response to partisan attacks, NPR moved to the center-right. CNN and especially MSNBC, while closer than FOX to facts, are the Democratic party equivalents, pushing neo-liberal policy and neo-con aggressions as well as attacks on Trump in a similar divisive and tribalizing manor. They too have fallen under the influence of Roger Ailes in technique. Even the hit ads in the recent midterm elections – from both parties – echo Ailes. For example, when Mitch McConnell was first running for office, Roger Ailes made a commercial for him in which he was fishing which helped get him elected. In the recent midterms a commercial showed Elaine Luria fishing in a remake of this Ailes piece. Though Democrats have somewhat better social priorities, both corporate parties serve big business interests. Keeping us divided disempowers us as citizens, protecting moneyed interests that would otherwise be challenged for doing things that would not be popular to an informed and more united majority.

Beyond the growing, essentially phony partisan divide cultivated at our mutual expense, there are the rest of us. As I have written before, we as citizens have far more common ground than we have disagreement. We all want basic security, economic opportunity, good schools, safe food and water, freedom and real representation. We all oppose corruption and public thievery at our expense. Beyond promoted fears, we need to accept that there is no “them,” just us. We are all dependent on each other, on a livable environment and a functional civilization. Those who seek to divide us do so for their own agendas which are never in our mutual interest.

Ultimately, responsible citizenship requires our being informed, not just about our country but about the world around us. It means not getting our news from Facebook memes, or partisan sources that confirm our beliefs. We have to accept that there are facts and that solutions to problems can be argued about rationally. It means being willing to talk with and listen to people we disagree with about issues and events without seeing them as our enemies. Civilization, freedom, and the survival of a representative Republic depend on it.

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.