Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Defending Our City and Ourselves

I've been glad to see recent local media coverage of the controversy surrounding the Atlantic Coast Gas Pipeline. This pipeline would move natural gas, attained through hydraulic fracturing, from West Virginia though our state, south to power plants in North Carolina. “Natural gas,” or methane, is 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. This pipeline, along with the Mountain Valley Pipeline, cuts through private property, national parks and runs under waterways and reservoirs. Most pertinent to us is that a branch of the Atlantic Coast pipeline is planned to run under the Lake Prince and Western Branch reservoirs in Suffolk, from which our water comes.

Pipelines leak. Aside from the additional atmospheric methane from fracking which leaks at about 9% and has added greatly to the 60% increase in global atmospheric methane over past decade, the record for actual pipeline leaks is bad. Really bad. After promises to the contrary, the XL Keystone pipeline has already leaked about 210,000 gallons of oil. Last year witnessed one of the greatest releases of methane in modern history coming from the Aliso Canyon underground natural gas storage facility blowout in California. Since 1986, there have been over 7,940 incidents, 512 fatalities, 2,359 injuries and over $6.8 billion in property damages due to pipeline explosions, including recent explosions in Appomattox and Fauquier Counties, Virginia. But, we should trust Dominion Power and its subservient politicians with our drinking water, right?

Our climate-vulnerable sinking city will get no benefit from this pipeline but we will absorb the costs from clean-up to toxic flammable tap water.. By the time you are reading this, as Zack Jarjoura of the local Sierra Club informs me, the State Water Control Board may have already approved water permits for the pipelines which could potentially start construction in January.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, has been an enthusiastic supporter of both the Atlantic Coast and shorter Mountain Valley Pipeline. The Water Control Board members, all of whom were appointed by Governor McAuliffe, have independent authority to accept or not to accept an as yet unreleased recommendation from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Its Director, David K. Paylor, was, not coincidentally, also was appointed by McAuliffe.

Whatever decision is made behind closed doors, we will have to continue to oppose and resist this toxic project. Our city council has, due to mounting citizen objections, postponed its decision until Tuesday December 19 th. The weight of corporate money has always had more influence in our town than that of citizen demands but we should all turn out to this City Council meeting and sign up to speak. -- Since this article was published in Veer Magazine, our City Council as passed "An Ordinance to cancel the regular meeting of the Council of the City of Norfolk to be held on December 19, 2017 and to continue the matters scheduled on the council agenda to the next regularly scheduled council meeting to be held on January 9, 2018".

A related issue in our state and others is the power of the Dillon Rule. What is this? The Dillon Rule is a doctrine adopted by many states over the last century that limits local democracy and autonomy. The Dillon Rule narrowly defines the power of city and country governments, giving state governments ultimate authority over local issues. This can include things like raising minimum wages, being a sanctuary city, decriminalizing cannabis or ruling on a state project including offshore drilling, fracking, waste dumping or pipelines. Even if our City Council does the right thing in refusing to grant easements for this pipeline, it could be over-ruled in Richmond by politicians connected to Dominion Power. And most of them, including our Mayor, have been backed by Dominion.

Ultimately, if we want to effectively challenge polluting industries and their paid political representatives, we have to fight for real representative democracy and for more local autonomy. This again means supporting crowd-funded candidates and it means challenging the Dillon Rule. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is and organization that has done much to challenge the Dillon Rule in close to 200 municipalities in many states, working to pass laws that assert a right to local self-governance. We can learn from their efforts.

As the travesty of Bannon's “deconstruction of the administrative state” unfolds at the national level with Federal Departments, Agencies and public protections being cynically undermined, from Health and Human Services and Education to Consumer and Environmental Protection, we must work to increase our real representation and strengthen citizen power as much as possible. That begins locally. In a previous article, I emphasized that the long history of people's struggles and revolutions were really struggles for cooperative democracy. As the rise and consolidation of a cynical corporate mob undermining our rights and public safety makes all too evident, the struggle for real democracy cannot be separated from the defense of our own safety. As citizens, it is our water, our health, our lives and our future that are being placed at risk to enrich a few at our expense. We must come together to defend ourselves and our city from this looming danger.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Manson America

At long last
Manson is dead
that sly old creep
with the swastika on his head

Orchestrated murder
six or seven dead
got others to do it
His hands not clean of
the blood they shed

Just like our leaders
but on a much smaller scale
Just like our country
from where bullets hail

"I am you" he said and
preferred to stay in jail
We are him, it's true
Manson Amerika -- All hail

Like the vast majority of humanity, I didn't lose any sleep over the recent death of Charles Manson. He was a broken, hate-filled controlling creep. Though I don't know that he ever personally killed anyone, he got others in his cult to murder six or seven people in the twisted hope of instigating a “race war.” Fortunately it did not take long to end his reign of terror, though sadly he was mystified in the media.

For years I have used him as a model for my voting choices in what I referred to as the Manson test. The way this goes is that Manson, as a consummately evil phenomenon, is the last person any sane citizen would ever want to elect to a position of power. What made him so dangerous is that he could get others to murder people. OK, so he got his followers to kill half a dozen or so victims. How does George W. Bush compare? How about Bill Clinton? Barack Obama was the first president with his own weekly kill list. How about Trump? How many did they get other people to kill?

Maybe this seems like a test from a more innocent era, though I don't think it was in my lifetime. With the passing of the old fiend I have come to realize how much he was a symptom of our American culture and devolution. Manson chose his victims based on an insane, misguided agenda. He managed to convince others of the necessity of those targeted murders. The same is true for our country. We identify others around the world as guilty of or associated with crimes ranging from demanding national independence, land reform, or daring to pursue cooperative democracy to being associated with or likely (based on rumor or algorithms) to be “terrorists.” Then we get others to kill them. We do this through paying off foreign governments or private assassins or we do it at a distance through killer drones. We even do it on a more general level killing entire families, turning cities to rubble or feeding proxy wars and aggressions like the mass murder being committed in Yemen by Saudi Arabia with US weapons and a nod.

Here in the US, we pay police and private prisons to kill. States do it for us via the death penalty with some governors failing the Manson test by the numbers. In complicity, many cheer both the domestic and foreign murders committed in our names by others, in a real sense, making us all a bit like ol' Charlie.

Our entertainment has become, like the Manson cult, an exercise in justifying murder and vengeance. Generations have been weened on this mentality and our culture and language militarized and inundated with warrior worship. Our protests ranging from neo-nazis who, like Manson, want to initiate a “race war” to anti-fascist anarchists so immersed in our culture of violence that they respond in kind – though as of yet not to the point of murder.

The point of my pondering is that separate from a crazed individual who rightly spent his life locked away in prison, our nation has become Mansonized. We elect leaders who are even worse than Manson by the standard to which he was rightly condemned or we elect leaders who promise to be more vicious than the last. We inflict terror around the world and we suffer the cost not only of international resentment, blowback and isolation but of increasing violence at home, mass shooting after mass shooting. Even so, a recent poll showed that 18-29 year-olds, raised on video games and violence are the least likely to support banning assault weapons.

I'm glad Manson is no longer around to be a center of media attention but it saddens me how much the rest of the country has been remade in his image. By the time Manson's cult shocked America he was already beyond any hope of rehabilitation. I can only wonder about the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Bolshevik Centennial -- Lessons for Today

The Struggle for Emancipation

In our country poverty is less visible than in many places around the world due, in large part, to easy credit and cheaply mass-produced goods. The reality is that most of us are living barely above serfdom. Half of working Americans are at the official poverty level. We live in fear of bosses, landlords, banks and the debt that we accrue to get by on insufficient wages.

Some of us are actual slaves in an expanding prison-labor system used by industry to save money by omitting the cost of labor. Federal Prison Industries under the brand UNICORE operates approximately fifty two prison factories across the United States. Prisoners manufacture or assemble products for the US military and federal agencies. They produce furniture, eyeglass frames, clothing and circuit boards in addition to providing computer-aided design services and call center support for private companies. Increasingly, prison labor is being used by private industries. A recent exposé on the Reveal news site told the story of people remanded by courts to a chicken processing plant passing itself off as an addiction recovery program. “Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery” or CAAIR is a major supplier of chicken to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, supermarket chains and institutions. They rely on unpaid, slave labor. Required religious services aside, they offer no drug counseling or recovery services

The poor countries that productive jobs are exported to are not much better. Sweatshops and slave labor are enforced and countries are aggressively occupied to supply corporations with cheap resources and labor. The money made buys our politicians, who in turn serve those corporate interests.

We are living in a corrupt corporate oligarchy which perpetuates poverty and which is destroying the ecosystem on which all life depends. The modern nation-state exists to maintain the power and wealth of a few at the expense of the rest of us. The market system is an out of control juggernaut driven by competitive greed. Most of us feel trapped within it – trapped by bills, living expenses and the lack of practical alternatives. The present is a product of the progression of the past which includes efforts at human liberation and emancipation from oppressive tyrannies.

How we perceive the progression of history shapes our views and perceptions of the present. Rather than focusing on leaders and wars, it would be better to focus on the evolution and flow of people's movements toward freedom and equality. It is also vital to understand the historical and cultural contexts in which events occur in order to understand history, much less the present. Nothing happens in a vacuum, nor can anything be understood out of context.

This month marks the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution. Whatever you think of that event, colored by time, history and a century of defamation, it was an important, world shaking moment in history. It is not my intent to write about or defend the entire experience of the USSR but to look at the precedents, causes, ideas, and historical, continuing significance of the revolution itself.

To understand this event, it is important to know the context of the time and the ideas which influenced it. 1917 was the height of the First World War, a horrific and bloody period unlike any before. Russia was a poor, backward country pulled into the fray. In the late 19th and early 20th century, industrial concentration had developed in St. Petersburg, Moscow and the Donbass region of Ukraine. Most of Russia remained rural and barely out of serfdom. The rule of the Tzars was an oppressive and murderous autocracy with a heavy bureaucracy. It was a miserable country imprisoned by poverty and fear, as anyone reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Gogol would understand.

In Russia, there had been many peasant and later socialist rebellions. By 1897 the short-lived Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class was formed. It was soon broken up with its members, including V.I. Lenin, arrested and sent to Siberia. Lenin continued to write and be read, even from exile, by many in Russia. The first massive popular revolution occurred in 1905 but led only to narrow reforms. By February 1917, rising anger and the economic effects of the continuing war led to another revolution. This time the Tzarist autocracy was overthrown and replaced by a provisional government composed of leaders much like todays' centrist democrats and euro-socialists. The war continued and little changed. Lenin and the Bolsheviks envisioned a system of worker-citizen councils based on the experience of the Paris Commune. Worker committees, known as “soviets” were formed, as they had been in Paris.

Retracing the movement of working people attempting to overcome the corporate state, we have to start with Paris. In 1871, following the defeat of France by the Prussians, Parisians found themselves without a government. Paris had long been a hotbed of intellectuals and radicals as well as having a strong organized worker's movement. Parisians decided that they could rule themselves democratically without the oppressive rule of royalty and moneyed elites. They formed citizen committees and began to govern the city. At that point, the French government under Napoleon III sitting in Versailles allied with the Prussians who had recently defeated them and laid siege to Paris. After weeks of defensive fighting by the Parisian Communards, this first attempt at direct cooperative democracy was crushed. What united former enemies was the notion that they were not necessary. That people could govern ourselves without them. This has remained true of the corporate ruling class. We have seen continuing anti-socialist demonization and the crushing of populist regimes ever since. Much has been written on the Paris Commune as the first serious modern revolution. In particular, Marx's The Civil War in France and the later commentary by Lenin, The State and Revolution are key to understanding the ideas and intent of the Bolshevik Revolution of October/November 1917. Other books on this worth reading include 10 Days that Shook the World by American journalist John Reed and The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky. Unlike present writers, they were there.

As with the assault and bloody defeat of the Paris Commune, no sooner did the popular Bolsheviks, under Lenin's leadership, topple the provisional government than there was a new-found unity of capitalist countries in attempting to crush the new regime. The very idea of a state not run by and for the rich was seen as an existential threat. In 1918 Britain, France, Japan and the US invaded the newly formed USSR partly because the Bolshevik regime had pulled out of WWI, but primarily, to crush the worker rebellion and re-establish a government to their liking. They also armed and funded counter-revolutionary and pro-Tzarist forces leading to a long, bloody civil war. Unlike the Paris Commune experience, the Russian Revolution prevailed.

The devolution of the Russian Revolution over time is worthy of criticism but it cannot be separated from Russian culture and the reality of being under constant siege which, even after the failure of the “Expeditionary Force” invasion, never ceased. The rise of fascism was a ruling-class response to the threat of socialism. Even today, it remains a response to growing demands for social justice. What should be remembered and celebrated like Bastille Day, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune and the Cuban Revolution is the defeat of a brutal dictatorship and the popular victory of working people over the tyranny of money. If we are to survive the coming decades and ever be free, we must learn from these experiences

This is especially vital today in a world increasingly run by and for the rule of money, plagued by continual war, refugee migration, growing poverty and climate destruction. Today eight men own the same wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people amid desperate hunger and poverty. Capital has become a global power and the state its tool. Certainly, it is not 1917. The idea of armed rebellion and revolution is no longer practical given the brute power and global organization of multi-nationals for their own interests. That is what capitalism or “the market economy” really is. The rule of, by, and for marketeers; a system of self-serving corruption in practice.

Key in liberating ourselves from any tyranny and building a better world is our recognition that we are enslaved to a system that is not in our interest. As German poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

In the ensuing struggles for human dignity and freedom since 1917 new ways have been found to organize and empower common people. The principled non-violence enunciated and practiced by Mohandas Gandhi and later by our own civil rights movement is a powerful tool that turns violence on itself and builds the massive public support needed for successful change in the process. A friend recently made an offhand comment about “communism not working” while defending corporate centrism and condemning crowd-funded alternatives – and this is someone I met at our local Occupy encampment. I have often wondered why they were there, but more to the point, it depends on what one means by “communism.” If we mean a police-state dictatorship, they are right. But, if we mean the collective, democratic ownership of our workplaces and communities, it seems to be working well in the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.

The Mondragon cooperatives, widely considered the most successful worker-owned cooperative enterprise in the world, started in the 1950s as a Catholic Action project. The Mondragon group includes 257 financial, industrial, retail, and research and development concerns, employing approximately 74,000 people. The worker owned and run co-ops manufacture everything from commercial kitchen equipment to industrial robots. Cooperative members elect their managers and can replace them. The managers elect the town councils resulting in cooperative popular democracy. In hard economic times, people have voted to lower their wages and to move workers to other cooperative businesses. No one is layed off.

It is notable that this was started successfully under the oppressive fascist Franco regime. Sometimes, it is better to, as in the Nike ad slogan, just do it. Had they made a big deal out of achieving the communist ideal, waving banners and having marches, they would have been decimated like the Parisian Communards. Instead, they just proceeded to build democratic cooperatives and citizen governing bodies underneath the larger corporate state. This is true of the Zapatistas in Mexico as well. It is an important lesson for us in organizing cooperative democracy even under the unsustainable juggernaut of global capitalism. It's what Lenin saw as building dual power and what Grace Lee Boggs saw as building the beloved community.

There are cooperative businesses in the U.S. including bakeries, taxi companies, industrial engineering firms and laundry services. In fact, we have a long cooperative tradition. Most Americans prior to the 20th century considered wage slavery one step above indentured servitude. By the 1870's slightly over half the workforce worked for wages. Most Americans were farmers and crafts workers. Cooperatives were the dominant model of work in prior to the 1870's, from mutual aid associations to cooperatives formed by early strikers. Cooperative efforts included the Troy Foundries, the Baltimore Society, Associationist cooperatives, The Grange and many others. There were cooperative factories, warehouses farms and stores. Credit Unions are a vestige of this era. There are also housing and apartment co-ops.

The cooperative partnership is a less stressful and more empowering model in that everyone involved has true ownership and a voice in how things are done. This increases personal initiative and rewards the work ethic directly, far more than a dead end job in which one is a powerless disposable cog. In eliminating bosses and having a democratic workplace, it reduces stress and increases our freedom, including our freedom of speech, beyond the workplace.

Cooperative community is an important way to overcome our terror of bosses, banks, and landlords but unless we extend cooperative democracy to government, it doesn't address the larger issues of global corporate rule, threats of war, and the environmental destruction which threaten all of us. That requires a much larger national and global effort rooted in our awareness of the diseased system that threatens us. It demands that we face the inability of a market system based on fossil fuels and endless competitive growth in a finite world to effectively address the existential threat of climate change. It means realizing our common interests as a species beyond the artificial barriers of states and tribalisms. It means understanding class dynamics and the continuing progress of our struggle towards emancipation from the oppression of self-serving elites. It means coming together, standing against injustice and building alternative sustainable cooperative democracies in an interdependent world.

We can and should celebrate our historic victories as working people, including the Bolshevik revolution, learning from them so as to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of the past while pressing forward to a free and viable future.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

“Taking the Knee” and Beyond

The recent fervor over athletes “taking the knee” has brought important issues to the surface. One of the things that gets my goat is the reaction by many that these high-paid players are “employees” who, some think, have no right to protest or express political opinions “on the job.” This gets to the heart of a deep contradiction in our society. There is a widely held notion that employers are free to express opinions and that corporate heads can, should, and do run for and hold political office while those they employ – the vast majority of us – have no right to speak; that expressing opinions publicly, on or off the job, can reflect on the company you work for. This may result not just in your being fired but, in the computer age, with your inability to find other work, being in effect, blacklisted. This runs counter to the ideals of an open society and to our basic guaranteed constitutional rights.

This is why many who voice opinions online use aliases if they are not retired or business owners. I've experienced the very real results of this myself, having been fired for “speaking out against the war,” even using an alias. The poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “Everything you write will be used against you.” She was right, if we allow and support that.

The truth is that we cannot be both slave and free. That you cannot live in a dictatorship and a democracy simultaneously. Yet, that is what we have come to with devastating results as a country. If this had been true historically we would still be living in the conditions prevalent in the late 19th century working twelve hour days, six and a half days a week with no workplace protections, no minimum wages and no benefits. Women would still be less than citizens, Blacks locked in severe oppression and Gays still living fearfully in the closet.

The recent “taking of the knee” is a protest against rampant police violence against Blacks, too often acting with impunity. This is something we all should be protesting rather than focusing on the symbolic protest itself, especially with the rise of empowered racism, the further militarization of police and their encouragement to violent abuses by no less than the head businessman and Sociopath-in-Chief.

Aside from the misguided condemnation of athletes willing to put their careers on the line to make a statement against institutional racist violence, there have been numerous and growing efforts to reduce our freedom to speak out – and not starting with the Trump administration.

We need to remember the reason for the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. It isn't about cursing out loud or threatening people with bigotry. It is a guarantee that citizens can object to public policy, that we can criticize elected officials and the government without fear of persecution. Along with, and inseparable from the freedom of the press, it protects the dissemination of information, because a democratic representative republic requires informed citizens who are free to speak. Yet since around 1980, the embedded corporate press has increasingly become a propaganda tool for a CIA run “deep state,” complicit in pushing official narratives, agendas and lies even leading to war. We have seen laws written to limit press freedom and citizen protest. We have “ag-gag” laws against investigating and exposing corporate abuse. We have seen repression of “whistle blowers” and truth-telling journalists along with the growing citizen surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden.

There have also been recent attempts to falsely link alternative journalism critical of the corporate state and of official narratives to Russia. As Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and public intellectual Chris Hedges writes, “The ruling elites, who grasp that the reigning ideology of global corporate capitalism and imperial expansion no longer has moral or intellectual credibility, have mounted a campaign to shut down the platforms given to their critics. The attacks within this campaign include blacklisting, censorship and slandering dissidents as foreign agents for Russia and purveyors of 'fake news.' No dominant class can long retain control when the credibility of the ideas that justify its existence evaporate. It is forced, at that point, to resort to crude forms of coercion, intimidation and censorship. This ideological collapse in the United States has transformed those of us who attack the corporate state into a potent threat, not because we reach large numbers of people, and certainly not because we spread Russian propaganda, but because the elites no longer have a plausible counterargument. The accusation that left-wing sites collude with Russia has made them theoretically subject, along with those who write for them, to the Espionage Act and the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires Americans who work on behalf of a foreign party to register as foreign agents.”

“The latest salvo came last week. It is the most ominous. The Department of Justice called on RT America and its “associates”—which may mean people like me—to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. No doubt, the corporate state knows that most of us will not register as foreign agents, meaning we will be banished from the airwaves. This, I expect, is the intent. The government will not stop with RT. The FBI has been handed the authority to determine who is a “legitimate” journalist and who is not. It will use this authority to decimate the left. This is a war of ideas. The corporate state cannot compete honestly in this contest. It will do what all despotic regimes do—govern through wholesale surveillance, lies, blacklists, false accusations of treason, heavy-handed censorship and, eventually, violence.”

Voter suppression is also a limitation on freedom of speech -- maybe where it can count the most. Much voter suppression, from purging voter lists and limiting machines and poll access to the dumping of ballots happened in the last election. As the civil rights and economic justice activist Rev. William Barber points out, “We had 868 fewer voting sites in the black and brown community in 2016. Twenty-two states passed voter suppression laws since 2010. That’s where 44 senators were represented, over nearly 50 percent of the United States House of Representatives. And at least 16 or 17 seats in the Senate, probably would not be where they are if it was not for voter suppression. Today is 1,562 days—1,562 days since the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Now, Strom Thurmond only filibustered the Civil Rights Act of ’57 for one day. This Congress, under McConnell and Ryan, has filibustered fixing the Voting Rights Act for 1,562 days. We talk about Trump winning in Wisconsin by 20,000 or 30,000 votes. There were 250,000 votes suppressed in Wisconsin. In North Carolina, we had over 150 fewer sites doing early voting.

Denying the right to vote to ex-felons has long been a way to limit Blacks from voting and the driver of racist system of injustice resulting not just in disenfranchisement but massive incarceration, human rights abuses and entrapment in poverty – not limited to Blacks. The partisan gerrymandering of voting districts and the added requirements for the privilege of being able to vote violate our constitutional rights.

In my own past, I was active in the anti-Apartheid movement. One of the most powerful tactics in ending the system of racist Apartheid in South Africa and the freeing of Nelson Mandela was the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement aimed at that country. Nobody threatened us with prison at the time for supporting that boycott. There have been recent attempts to criminalize that same tactic in the case of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) effort aimed at ending Israeli apartheid and the brutal oppression of Palestinians.

As Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters stated in an interview on DemocracyNow!, “There is a bill before Congress, S 720, which seeks to criminalize support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, which is a nonviolent international protest movement to protest the occupation of Palestinian land that’s been going on for 50 years. And they want to make it a felony to support BDS, as far as I understand it, with criminal penalties that are, in my view, absurd. Somebody like me, for instance, if the bill was passed in its current drafting, would be subject to a fine of between $250,000 and $1 million and a term of imprisonment of up to 20 years—for peaceful, nonviolent political protest on behalf of basic human rights for a beleaguered people, which is absurd. . . . I mean, I’m somewhat critical of the current administration in a satirical and playful way, I like to think. But my show is all about the idea that if this—if this race, the human race, is to survive even the next 50 or 100 years, we need to start looking at the possibility of the transcendental nature of love, and we have to start looking after one another and recognizing our responsibility to others, which is what BDS is about, really.”

Waters gets to the heart of the matter when he states that we, as humans, have a duty to look out for each other and that the BDS movement is essentially free speech protected by the First Amendment. I also agree with him about the need for a transcendental love which I've referred to as “the big L,” if we are to move beyond barbarism and survive the coming decades.

What we buy and how we spend our money is a vote of support for the seller. There are legitimate reasons to support BDS as an effective pressure tactic to address brutal oppression – and not just in Israel. There is an ongoing genocide happening in Myanmar. Saudi Arabia brutally oppresses dissent, women, and anyone seen as a heretic. The Philippines is experiencing a bloody repression against suspected drug users with rampant death squads and mass murder. China is hardly a utopia of human rights. And then there is our own country. We have the largest number of citizens in prison, a system of “justice” heavily tainted by racism and classism. We also remain, as Dr. Martin Luther King observed, the greatest purveyor of violence on the planet, with bloody interventions, orchestrated coups and perpetual war. Given the threats voiced recently by Trump at the UN and our own poor human rights record, it is time for the civilized countries of the world to consider a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at pressuring us, the U.S. to honor international laws and civilized norms.

As for our power as citizens and our freedom of speech in this dangerous moment, activist and film maker Michael Moore, in a recent interview on Democracynow! put it this way, “ . . .you know, we’re told from the time we’re kids that we really – you can’t fight City Hall. You know, why knock your head against the wall? It’s not going to do anything. That’s the big lie, that we’re nobodies from nowhere and we can’t effect change. The truth is, that we’re all somebody. We’re all from somewhere. And the thing that the wealthy elite establishment is afraid of is that if we ever figure out that there’s more of us than there are of them, they’re in big trouble. They know that, because the thing they must hate about this country --the rich – is it’s still – at least on paper, in spite of the voter suppression, in spite of the gerrymandering, it’s still one person, one vote. That hasn’t been changed. And there’s only so many of them. There’s a hell of a lot more of us. And if we take that power in our hands, they’re in a boatload of trouble.”

He continues, “We all have to do everything. We are in the French resistance. Everybody has to have that attitude, that, you know, you’ve got to get the kids to soccer practice, but the kids can walk, for the next year, 'til we get rid of Trump. You know, you've got couples therapy at 4:00. You know, get along with your spouse for just one more year. We have to got to get rid of Trump. I mean it seriously. I hate to put it this way, but we – I just – you know, I have a fire lit under me, I guess. And I’m doing whatever I can do. And I think some people are doing what they can do. We just have to reach out and continue to get more and more people involved in this, 'til he's gone. We have to at least discombobulate him to the point where he’s so obsessed about all the things that are going to keep him from focusing on the really bad things that he’s going to do. He will take us to war. We will be in a war with this man. I need everybody to commit that we have to stand up immediately. Don’t even stop to think. If Trump is taking us to war, you have to automatically assume this is an insane idea from an insane man, it’s a lie we’re being told.”

Freedom of speech – and any kind of citizenship that matters – is our to lose or to keep. Like anything else, if you don't use it you'll lose it. I have at times wanted enforcement of laws against the dangerous incitement of public hate speech. Given the reality of the corporate state – that those with the power to limit abuse of free speech use that power to limit truth-telling and valid political speech, I have changed my mind. It is up to all of us to oppose hate speech en masse, whether it is by nazis or by the state department and their media machine, in demonizing others and supporting wars of false premise. In defending the right of professional athletes to express their opinions, we support our own freedom to speak and to act together in our own and each other's behalf.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cultural Activism & the Shaping of our Culture

inscribed thoughts
inspiring more thoughts
but limited by
letters arranged within
the cultural boundaries
of a particular language
formed by a particular culture
a particular history of
particular concepts
evolving within
set perspectives
and what can we create out of old concepts
but repetition?

We need a new language
a language that understands
only we
not I
and not limited
by species

A new language
able, like math
to describe the undescribable

A new language
of recognized interdependent inseparability --
of love

Culture is a powerful force we exist within but often underestimate. It shapes our perceptual reality. We are living in a time when our society is culturally riven by partisan politics and disparate subcultural tribalism. Corporate media has, with great success, promoted a commodity obsessed commercial culture of vengeance, violence and self absorption driven largely by fear. Facts are turned into opinion and conflated with partisan identification. Much of what we are seeing today, not only with the ascendance of cynical, sociopathic corporate politicians, but of armed, fascist militia groups and some of the violent reaction to them, is a product of manipulated culture symptomatic of a diseased, toxic and thoroughly corrupt system. Much of how we got here began in 1980 with the ascendance of Ronald Reagan and what we now refer to as the “deep state.” The intention was to undo what was called the “Vietnam syndrome,” a public aversion to war and militarism which conflicted with an agenda of proxy wars and global aggression. War coverage and the embedding of the mainstream media are major parts of this effort largely guided by the efforts of George H.W. Bush. Hollywood complied promoting militarism and nationalist machismo with movies like Rambo, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and Robocop; propaganda-heavy films that made bloodthirsty mercenaries into heroic icons to justify the terror we were inflicting on Central America at the time. Anger and the catharsis of vengeance became popular themes with films like Dirty Harry. It remains so today. Entertainment, from Hollywood to video games continue to be war and vengeance focused, feeding a militarized mindset and a culture of warrior worship.

The rise of jingo-laden talk radio and of FOX media led by master propagandist Roger Ailes was a related effort at cultural manipulation. People like Ailes and George H.W. Bush understood the power of culture in shaping our mindset. These efforts, combined with the silencing of dissent in the corporate media largely define how most of us understand the world around us and our place in it, how we react to things and what our expectations are. Culture defines our language and therefore our thought processes. It defines how we see and interact with each other. Most importantly, it defines our attitudes and our values.

The rise of right-wing media was not the first attempt to affect change within our culture. In response to the Civil rights movement, President Johnson initiated the Great Society programs to confront and undo the racism that has defined our country. The most important of these efforts were the integration of our public schools and laws pushing equal opportunity in hiring. In commercial media people like Norman Lear played an important role by integrating mass entertainment and showing positive images of Blacks and of assertive women. Black entertainers like Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory helped open our eyes to the reality of racism. These successful efforts to awaken and integrate our society allowed more of us to get to know people of different races and life experiences.

For every action there is a reaction. The changes sparked by the Civil Rights struggles and Johnson's efforts set for the stage for the recidivist racist reaction that has taken over the GOP.

Our much older culture, the culture of rural, pre-industrial times, the culture that carried us through the great depression and WWII, though plagued by racism and sexism, was more community centered. This was the culture that settled the continent, the culture of community harvests and roof-raisings, the culture of solidarity that stood up to the robber-barons and created labor unions which improved our lives. The socially productive and healthy cultural attitudes of those times and the values emerging from the experiences of the 1960's and the Civil Rights era remain with us today. We can see this in the majority that reject racist extremism. We can see it in times of disaster such as Houston where people have reached out to help one another.

Culture, the good and the bad, continues to define us. Those with agendas continue to do their best to influence it. Authentic culture, as opposed to the stuff foisted on us by ruling elites and cynical profiteers, comes from people like ourselves. It develops over time based on our way of life and our traditions, religious or otherwise. Colonialism and improved mobility have brought different traditions into direct contact, influencing and enriching our culture as well. We can choose to be passive consumers of culture, vulnerable to its currents and to its manipulation, drifting where it takes us without really thinking about it or we can be consciously active participants in shaping it.

A good example of taking personal responsibility to actively participate in and affect our culture can be seen here in Norfolk, VA in work of Tench Phillips through the NARO Cinema. Many of the films and documentaries he shows are not seen in corporate venues. These are often the subjects and perspectives those in power do not want us to be exposed to. They are shown at the NARO and followed by speakers with audience discussion, thus enlarging our cultural conversation.

I too do my best to influence our larger culture. In publishing the quarterly literary journal, The Blue Collar Review, Journal of Progressive Working Class Literature for over 20 years, I, along with my co-editor Mary Franke, have worked to nourish and revive our working class culture of community and solidarity. The antithesis of alienated corporate culture is working class culture. This is a culture that arises from our real conditions. It is rooted in our working class values of community, social cooperation for the common good, peace, economic security, sustainability and internationalism. Rather than self-absorbed, competitive individualism, working class culture sees us within the context of our common class experience. While acknowledging the richness of our differences, it stresses commonality and solidarity in the struggle for a better world. For anyone interested in exploring this further, I'll be teaching a class on working class literature at The Muse in November.

Located at 2200 Colonial Avenue next to the Plaza del Sol Mexican restaurant, The Muse is another vital venue for those who choose to be active participants in our culture. As Michael Khandelwal, Executive Director of The Muse Writer's Center describes, “The Muse is Hampton Roads’ only literary center. In the past 11 years, we have grown from a small organization that borrowed meeting space from other arts groups to one of the top-10 writers centers nationally. The Muse hosts introductory-to-advanced low-cost creative writing classes and seminars in fiction, poetry, nonfiction and memoir writing, scriptwriting, and songwriting. Independent from a college or university, we embrace people of every age, background, and level of experience. Our main educational aim is to embrace people who want to write but haven’t had the opportunity to be guided by great teachers. We are also offer tuition assistance to anyone who wants to take a class but cannot afford one. About 15 percent of our students are on tuition assistance (last year, we gave more than $12,000), and we also give three $500 college scholarships each year.”

Khandelwal adds, “This year, we also plan on hosting more than 200 literary events, which will attract nearly 6,000 people. Ongoing events include public readings for adults, teens, and kids, our open mic nights, our writers' happy hour and writers' coffee breaks, our jams and open houses, our Slover Library write-ins, public writing days, writers' support groups, book launch parties and readings, and many more.”

Too often, “culture” is placed on a pedestal that may intimidate some but The Muse is anything but stuffy. If you enjoy listening to live music or poetry readings or just want a quite place to read or write, it is there and open to the public on Tuesdays from 10 a.m to 7 p.m. and Wednesdays, 12:30 to5 p.m.. There is also a library which includes many local authors. More on what the Muse offers can be found on their website including the fall class schedule. Other events can be viewed on their site as well.

I am scheduled to read and have a launching of my new poetry collection entitled “BALK!” at The Muse on Sunday October 8th from 4 to 5:30. If you have enjoyed my articles you're likely to enjoy my poetry. The book will be for sale at the reading. I hope to see some of you there. “BALK!” is also available online through Partisan Press.

Together, it is up to us to actively participate in shaping, reclaiming and healing our culture. We can't all be writers, musicians, artists, publishers or media moguls but we can take responsibility in how we interact with people, what we communicate and what we pass along. We can be aware of how culture shapes our language and attitudes. We can question our own reactions, feelings and initial responses and not buy into the warrior culture that sees dehumanization and violence as the solutions. Anger and tribal animosity only weaken the community on which we all depend. If we are to confront and overcome the tribal division, bigotry and anger that has poisoned our national culture, we must recognize its sources, hear and reach out to others focusing on our common experiences and interests, and work actively to shape a culture based on our better shared values of community and mutual responsibility.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Though I write opinions and articles for Veer, I am first and foremost a poet. As with my articles, I tend to balk. I balk at corruption and injustice. I balk at hypocrisy and the destruction of mindless greed. Sometimes I try to work some humor into the process.

My poetry is not typical of the introverted abstraction pushed by academe. I am a working class writer, writing from the experience of a clock-punching hourly worker. Working class literature, as a genre has a long and suppressed history in our country. A recent article about this mentions the Blue Collar Review. I have been editing and publishing this journal of progressive working class literature for over 20 years. I have also taught on this genre at The Muse. The emphasis of the Blue Collar Review is poetry but it isn't the boring stuff you hated in high school or the fluff you avoid in other magazines. This is poetry you can relate to from your own experience -- stuff that will speak to you, strong poetry that may change your life.

If you like my articles in Veer, you will probably like the poems in my new book. Excerpts from the intro by poet Robert Edwards can be viewed here. This book can be purchased online from Partisan Press.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Declaration of Interdependence

The coming July fourth celebrations get me thinking that we need to follow it up with another, more pertinent holiday. For a long time, I've thought that we should declare the next day Interdependence Day because, in spite of efforts to sell us the idea that we are all rugged individuals, the truth is that we are dependent for our very survival on each other and on the biosphere that sustains us. Everything we eat, drink, wear, or otherwise use is the product of nature and the labor of many people. Sure, we work hard to earn a living but that too depends on others. For our labor, we receive a government created credit symbolic of a defined value with which to purchase what we need. All material wealth is socially produced even if distributed in anti-social ways. Debt and the collateral, often toxic costs of industry, on the other hand, are socially distributed.

Getting back to celebrating our independence from England and our revolutionary war, an article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker recently caught my attention. Gopnik writes, “And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence, disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries.”

This brings me to thinking about the “nation-state,” a relatively recent idea dating back little more than 250 years. This concept emerged with the rise of a wealthy merchant class. Nations at that time were ruled by the Divine Right of Kings. The absolute authority of royalty was increasingly challenged by the the wealthy not just here but in England with the rise of parliamentarianism. The rich wanted a place at the table of power and influence rather than being subject to the whims of royalty. Then, as now, the wealthy were divided in their opinions. As Gopnik writes, “On one side were what he calls ‘authoritarian reformers,' on the other, radical Whigs. This isn’t the familiarly rendered divide between Tories and Whigs; the authoritarian reformers were attached to old English institutions, committed to the Empire and to the reform of institutions that were seen as preventing the Empire from being maximally efficient. They wanted a strong monarch surrounded by a circle of aristocratic advisers; very limited democracy; reform in the Army and Navy; and a tax-heavy system of mercantile trade—all of it intended to make the Empire as profitable as it needed to be. They sincerely believed in 'taxation without representation,' because they saw citizenship not in terms of sovereignty and equality but in terms of tribute received and protection offered. The radical Whigs, though they too, were implanted within establishment circles—were sympathetic to Enlightenment ideas, out of both principle and self-protection, as analgesics to mollify 'the mob.' They represented, albeit episodically, the first stirrings of a party of the merchant class. They thought that colonists should be seen as potential consumers. Alexander Hamilton, back in New York, was a model radical Whig—trusting in bank credit and national debt as a prod toward prosperity, while the authoritarian reformers were convinced, as their successors are to this day, that debt was toxic (in part because they feared that it created chaos; in part because easy credit undermined hierarchy). The radical Whigs were for democratization, the authoritarian reformers firmly against it. The radical Whigs were for responsible authority, the authoritarian reformers for firm authority.”

Gopnik's thesis is that had the radical Whigs not prevailed, our country, like Canada and Australia, would have had a slower, more peaceful departure from British rule and been less on the track of conquest, colonization and nationalism. He gets to the nub of it in describing the nation-state as being all about the rule of the wealthiest in their own interests – that is – to maintain and increase their wealth and influence. Politicians in nation-states are backed by and loyal to corporate interests. I've often thought that they should display the logos of their backers on sports jackets when campaigning. When populists not loyal to those interests arise they are demonized and rejected by political parties and the media. The Trump administration is an extreme version of this, not even attempting to hide corporate rule and conflicts of interest behind democratic processes. Trump is more the ultimate result of this system than he is an aberration.

Regarding the development of the modern nation-state, Israeli journalist Uri Avney writes, “Modern nationalism like any great idea in history, was born out of a new set of circumstances: economic, military, spiritual and others, which made older forms obsolete. By the end of the 17th century, existing states could no longer cope with new demands. Small states were doomed. The economy demanded a safe domestic market large enough for the development of modern industries. New mass armies needed a base strong enough to provide soldiers and pay for modern arms.” The nation-state is a competitive venture vying against other states over control of resources for their most influential industries. This has lead to constant and increasing wars of escalating destruction, colonialism and all the horrific crimes these entail. Nation-states require nationalism and the creation of “enemies” to motivate us to fight for their interests and to divert our attention from more pressing domestic issues. Citizen resistance to injustice, crimes, and exploitation by the ruling elite are diverted and weakened with tribalism, racism and more recently, laws against protest and against exposing industrial abuses. We are more divided than ever against ourselves at this very moment by racism and tribal partisan identity even as it is more apparent by the day that our system is in chaotic collapse.

What should be apparent to all is that the nation-state has become an obsolete and destructive concept, though it was a historically important step toward democracy in breaking from the absolute rule of royalty. We advanced from a rigid class structure of serfdom and inherited power to a looser system of the rule of the wealth based on slavery and later, on wage slavery, colonialism and debt. The history of our country has been one of popular struggle in expanding full citizenship and democracy to the rest of us. It has also been one of brutal expansion. Old Glory is the only national flag designed to change with territorial conquest.

Beyond enjoying hot dogs, beer and family in celebration of Independence Day, we need to consider the dangerous and threatening obsolescence of the nation-state model in an increasingly interdependent world. Nationalism is not the same as patriotism, rather it is a toxic form of militarized, paranoid tribalism. The opposite is internationalism. We can and should be proud of who we are culturally and as a country but it doesn't have to be competitive. Internationalism is about recognizing common interests and the equality of others. It is about working together for our mutual benefit. Internationalism is the basis of the United Nations and the European Union. Even our United States reflect the idea of states working together under a larger umbrella without sacrificing a degree of sovereignty and identity. A new international effort is taking place as I write this.

China is currently constructing a new economic belt designed to boost inter-connectivity, infrastructure and economic cooperation between countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The “Silk Road” initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping is about international cooperation. Beijing hosted the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation from May 14-15, representing a significant boost to this project. This important event saw 28 heads of state and governments come together to reach a consensus regarding the development and implementation of the project, launched by China, but open to the whole world. Though this effort could improve the economic stability of the region, it is also about mutual cooperation in addressing climate change. Of course there are predictable obstacles.

Nationalism comes into play as the biggest obstacle to cooperation as it raises its ugly head in different places. In India, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had expressed support for the Silk Road project but with the ascension of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, an “India First” policy may stall or limit their participation. Sound familiar? Britain's exit from the EU came out of similar nationalist resentments. The rise of Trump's (and Bannon's) “America First” nationalism is harming our international relations and fomenting global instability. The drumbeat by our neocons, CIA and Democrats for war with Russia on a questionable basis to feed our military economic base employs nationalism against our interests as well. Had we cooperated with Russia on our common interests, we might not still be at war in Afghanistan and increasingly, Syria, and we would not have the resulting refugee crisis.

The nation-state is a dangerous and obsolete fiction in an interconnected world where power, vested in multi-national corporations and global organizations operates globally. Borders only exist for working and poor people, not for banks, multinational corporations and the wealthiest. The division of the world into random fragments locked in a state of perpetual mistrust and ever-shifting tensions toward one another is an obstacle to peace and progress in the 21st century. Nothing makes this more obvious than the climate issue.

From Trump's rejection of the Paris climate agreement my own state of Virginia where all our legislators get campaign support from Dominion Energy, fossil-fuel industry influence and the corporate ownership of politicians are the prime obstacles to addressing climate change. I'm glad that Governor McAuliffe recently placed new limits on carbon emissions, joining with other states in a carbon “cap and trade” system. But he still supports fracking, offshore drilling and he recently dropped water quality impact analysis for streams and wetlands near the proposed Atlantic Coast and the Mountain Valley gas pipelines. Mayors and state leaders are reacting to Trump's intransigent withdrawal from the Paris agreement but they too are largely limited by corporate influence. We must demand better, and we can.

Thanks to the efforts of Activate Virginia 57 candidates have taken a pledge not to take campaign support from Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power. Rejection of corporate backing and subsequent subservience is a growing political phenomenon as people recognize and reject the big money dominance of our political system. It's not just Bernie Sanders anymore, though he has set a strong example with candidate crowd-funding initiatives. As local journalist Steve Early wrote in Portside, “Last November, progressives gained an unprecedented “super-majority” of five on Richmond’s seven-member council—despite more than a decade of heavy spending against them by Chevron Corp. and other big business interests. For 12 years, Richmond Progressive Alliance candidates have distinguished themselves from local Democrats by their lonely, Bernie Sanders-like refusal to take corporate contributions.” Other candidates, including Ralph Northam should take a lesson from this.

If we are to seriously address the existential threat of climate change, the nation-state construct based on the rule of money must be abolished. Instead we need to move toward organizations of global cooperation based on internationalism, shared values and mutual interests. This doesn't require giving up our national and cultural identities. They are really more threatened by nationalism and virulent xenophobia. International and global cooperation are our only chance of effectively addressing climate change and ending the economic injustice of World Bank debt colonialism.

We must progress to a system based on authentic representative democracy, human rights, local autonomy, cooperation and equitable global distribution in the public interest. In the short term, we can stop needlessly antagonizing Russia and work with, instead of against, China. We can reduce our global military presence and our nuclear arsenal. We can set an example for human rights at home in order to have the moral authority to criticize others. We must initiate electoral reforms that get the money influence out of our national politics and break the control of our own elite oligarchy so we can elect people who actually represent us. Beyond corporate political parties, we need strong organizations of working class citizens committed to moving beyond nationalism, recognizing our interdependence, and working to create a more cooperative, socially just and livable future. One such effort, started by the Rev. William Barber who led the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina is the new Poor People's Campaign. This could be a catalyst which brings us together in the struggle for social and economic justice. In focusing on poverty, class and opposition to the corporate dominance of our country and of our lives, we can begin to liberate ourselves from what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism, shifting, as he stated, from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. Authentic, bottom-up working class democracy, like life on earth, is ours to have or to lose. The choice is ours.

So let's continue our holiday by celebrating July 5th as Interdependence Day. Let's leave our own partisan and cultural tribalisms behind and begin to work together, rejecting the rule of money and continuing the revolutionary tradition of our national origins by committing ourselves to replacing the failing paradigm that is impoverishing and killing us with a common-good focused internationalism.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Vital Necessity of Truth

I'm sick to death of hearing things from
Uptight short sided narrow minded hypocrites
All I want is the truth, just give me some truth.
– John Lennon

A quote arguably attributed to George Orwell states that “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” As history demonstrates, it is certainly considered a criminal act by the ruling elites of many countries and increasingly, our own.

Since my last article there have been growing threats by the Trump administration not only against the press in general but against truth-tellers, whistle-blowers and especially against Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The Trump administration reports preparing an arrest warrant for Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange on unverifiable charges of being, as CIA chief Mike Pompeo stated, “a nonstate, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”

Assange himself denies this accusation, stating “We have said clearly that our source is not a member of the Russian state and even the U.S. government is not suggesting that our source is a member of the Russian state.” When it comes to accusations of election tampering by Russia or anyone else via Wikilieaks, what was revealed was nothing more than the filthy tactics employed the DNC and the Clinton campaign to undermine Bernie Sanders. This didn't surprise anybody but, thanks to the DNC behavior, we have a broken and discredited Democratic party and Trump in the White House. Assange went further in his recent interview on DemocracyNow! pointing out that, “The United States government, since 1950, has intervened in 81 elections. That is not including coups, which have overthrown governments. So there’s a long history of the United States doing this to places around the world, in infamous ways and, most recently, alleged interference in the election in Israel. So, I think we should understand that the United States is in a glass house when it comes to allegations of attempting to interfere with or influence election results.”

Whatever your opinion of Wikileaks, the issue is much larger. As journalist Glenn Greenwald makes clear regarding the threat directed at Wikileaks, “The Justice Department under President Obama experimented with this idea for a long time. They impaneled a grand jury to criminally investigate WikiLeaks and Assange. They wanted to prosecute them for publishing the trove of documents back in 2011 relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as the U.S. State Department diplomatic cables. What the Obama Justice Department found was that it is impossible to prosecute WikiLeaks for publishing secret documents without also prosecuting media organizations that regularly do the same thing.  Many other news organizations also published huge troves of the documents provided by Manning. It was too much of a threat to press freedom, even for the Obama administration, to try and create a theory under which WikiLeaks could be prosecuted.”

This gets to the heart of the matter. It isn't that we even have an authentic free press. Our major newspapers and media are corporate entities with very few, too often overlapping owners connected to political parties and embedded in the state with ties to the CIA. This has been increasingly true for decades. You will not find accurate, unbiased reporting about electoral or domestic politics, our foreign adventures, our secret wars, or the 400 nuclear-armed military bases ringing China and Russia, from American mainstream corporate media.

None of us would be aware of the intrusive activities of our government or the tapping of all our communications if it weren’t for Edward Snowden. We would not know the extent of our human rights abuses or the direct targeting and killing of journalists in Iraq if it weren't for Chelsea Manning. Both of them went through, or were helped by Wikileaks, and both are imprisoned as a result – Manning at a military prison in Ft. Leavenworth Kansas and Assange in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Snowden remains exiled and hunted in Russia. We would not know about CIA abuses if not for Jeffrey Sterling or how activists are spied on for corporate interests by secret agencies like Stratfor if not for Barret Brown. We would not know about the torture and abuses by our government or about Abu Ghraib if not for John Kiriakou. All jailed for telling us. Without Robert Parry's efforts and those of ex-CIA people we might not know of NATO's actives in support of Ukrainian fascists and the efforts to push war with Russia. We would be far less knowledgeable about Obama's drone terror program, the brutal behavior of our Joint Special Operations Command or our “kill teams” without investigative journalists like Jeremy Scahill. We would not know the truth behind the assassination of Bin Laden without the in-depth coverage by Seymour Hersh, published by necessity outside the U.S.

Without truth-tellers who risk and often sacrifice their lives and freedoms to inform us, we would have no way of knowing these things. You won't find this kind of reporting in the New York Times, which in spite of its efforts to look like a valid and unbiased news outlet, has just hired Bret Stephens, a rabid Zionist and self professed climate change denier, as its opinion editor. The Times can be counted on to promote CIA narratives and official lies – the kind that lead us into wars like Iraq and now Syria and maybe China before long.

Truth-tellers come in different forms. Some, as mentioned, are journalists or whistle-blowers. Others are musicians or poets. Some are comedians like Stephen Colbert or, in brutally repressive places like Egypt, Bassem Youssef, a popular commentator in the style of John Stewart or Colbert who has been persecuted for his public statements.

The media will often play catch up in reporting what, thanks to truth-tellers, is already out. Even then, the embedded corporate media does its best to discredit such information, to spin it to its reverse, to create competing “facts” and to tribalize it into partisan opinion. The result is a lack of trust in anything the media tells us – for that matter – in anything anyone tells us. History is turned on its head and even verifiable, peer-reviewed science is not accepted by many. We are naturally sentient animals who strive to make sense of the world around us. In the absence of dependable media and trusted facts, we tend toward mysticism, conspiracy thinking or we just tune out all of it, becoming further alienated, powerless and crippled by cynicism. Maybe, keeping us ignorant and divided aside, that is exactly what the powerful want.

As Hannah Arendt wisely observed, “The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. 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. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

And here we are in a “post truth” increasingly authoritarian America where what you believe depends on your tribal identity: Democrat, Republican, Evangelical, liberal, libertarian, socialist, anarchist. We choose our bubbles, seek self-confirmation and tune out conflicting information. I do my best to challenge my own assumptions by looking at news and opinion presented with very different perspectives. I also try to verify information using different sources.

If we are to defeat authoritarian dictatorship and reclaim anything that resembles democracy, we must have inquiring minds willing to do a little digging to find truth. It is out there but we have to look beyond the partisan and cultural lenses we find most comfortable. We have access to more news sources than ever before but we need to put some effort into finding what is true. Think of this as comparative shopping. I prefer The Intercept, DemocracyNow! , The Real News, Revealnews, and Commondreams, but I also read The American Conservative and foreign press like Speigel as well as our own corporate media and its fact checkers like FAIR and The Columbia Journalism Review.

I find it also important to expand one's social group rather than surrounding ourselves only with people who share our opinions and world view. I'm glad to have friends I don't often agree with politically. Our discussions can be heated but they are a search for truth beyond our preconceived views. By social group, I don't mean online social media. I mean getting to know and listening to actual people, whether co-workers, neighbors, or people you meet in public places.

It is also imperative that we communicate regularly with the editors and staff of our corporate media, letting them know that we are aware of what is not being covered and challenging them with facts when they are feeding us biased nonsense. We must demand responsible journalism from big corporate media even while we support the authentic investigative journalism of independent media. It is up to all of us to demand real news, to search out truth and to share it with each other if we are to overcome our national divisions, the utter corruption of authoritarian oligarchy and to achieve authentic representative democracy.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Junkie Thinking -- From Addiction to Recovery

This article fist appeared in Veer Magazine in September 2015. It remains timely to the nature of our system and to the broken state of our country.

A recent letter in the Virginian-Pilot about the causes and nature of addiction got me thinking about the broader characteristics of addictive thinking and the psychology of the process. I have a familiarity with the subject having worked for years at Norfolk's detox center, long closed, as well as in local substance abuse treatment and psychiatric facilities.

David Allen Deans of California State University, Northridge in describing the classic 12 step recovery view of addiction writes, “Addicts are people who have lost all control of their lives, as well as their substance use and abuse. These people have tried many different times to stop using these substances, and yet they couldn't. Addiction is a progressive disease. Most addicts will not stop using until they hit bottom. Grateful alcoholics and addicts are those lucky enough to survive long enough to have a sudden, radical, change in orientation, a kind of spiritual awakening. Here the individual comes to believe that he can no longer trust his conscious ability to direct his own behavior. He finally does what he could never do before, he admits defeat asking god (or a higher power) for help, (even if he thought himself an atheist, or agnostic,) and finally turns to others."

This recovery process has saved countless lives. The support of a group acts as a power greater than the will of the individual which has already succumbed to addiction. People struggling with addiction must, as some report, “choose their own bottom,” or how much personal destruction and loss it will take to reach a realization of needed change. Sometimes a family or community intervention is needed.

Though I personally separate physical chemical addiction from behavioral obsession, there is much overlap and they involve similar mental constructs. A psychological relationship and identification with the substance or behavior develops, taking over one's thinking. This shapes and interferes with the life of the addicted individual.

A person can become addicted to something physical, like cigarettes, pharmaceutical medications, drugs, relationships, sex, food or any behavior. Addiction is marked by craving for the substance or behavior but craving is just that, not so much “got to have” as a feeling that can pass if not fulfilled. What marks the dark side of addiction is being stuck in a behavior that does one harm. Denial and justification play big roles in this. Even hardcore smokers or alcoholics will stick with what is killing them as long as it works for them in the short term. It often takes a crisis of disfunctionality to inspire a painful break from this behavior.

In many ways we all have a degree of addictive thinking, becoming stuck in a behavior that may not be good for us in the longer term because it serves our immediate needs. Many of us keep jobs that make us sick. I know I've done this and I continue to pay the price long after losing the benefits. Some of us have jobs that make others sick or that do damage to our environment. Many of us stay in bad or abusive relationships or continue poor eating habits in spite of illness. Hoarding is another addictive behavior. Some are hooked on the gratification of buying things and the attachment to items not really needed even as they fill up homes and cars.

Part of this reflects what Marx referred to as commodity fetishism where the actual object, say a cell phone or a piece of clothing or a house, changes from a simple object made of combined raw materials and human labor into a commodity. Use value is converted to market value but even more significantly, into something with which we identify our own personal value and characteristics. What we wear, our neighborhood, our possessions or our job become who we are -- what sub-cultural identity we assume. Our social position and possessions become what our actual value is; not so much what we've done but, how much we're worth.

A more dangerous form of hoarding, beyond things, is the hoarding of wealth and the concurrent illusions of power. The addiction to wealth and power can truly obscure one's vision and more dangerously, one's empathy for others. In inflating the ego and warping perceptions it becomes a destructive sociopathology that has resulted in crimes of historic proportions including dictatorships, slavery, war and genocides. This level of addiction requires a system that is supportive of such concepts and behavior.

On a larger level, our culture, society and political system can be seen as being stuck in destructive behaviors. We have become dependent on technology and conveniences that often originate with or exacerbate the destruction of our climate and health. We require electricity often produced in polluting ways. Plastic and toxic rare earth elements fill our smart-phones and computers and wind up discarded. Pesticides, toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors are everywhere in our food and environment. You probably drive a car. If you're economically stressed, it might be a real oil burner adding not only to traffic problems but to increased pollution. We are dependent on the need to get around, yet in our area, public transportation is poor and improvements face strong opposition. We as individuals are stuck within the system we have – at least for now. But there are industries and corporations that created this system and are driven by strong desires to maintain it blocking any efforts at healthier ways of living that conflict with profits.

Large corporate interests are also caught up in an addictive dependency, bound to a sick and destructive system. They are dependent on stock values, competitive profit and growth. It is a systemic cycle of dependency beyond the control of individual wills. Because wealth is power in our corrupt political system, those addictive agendas are supported by politicians hooked on corporate backing. Just as my city, Norfolk, Virginia prioritizes the interests of the coal, rail and real-estate industries over the health and welfare of its citizens, the federal government has prioritized the interests of the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, agricultural and military related industries over public safety.

As with any addiction, denial and justification play prominent roles. The climate denial industry funded largely by the Kochs and Exxon-Mobil through fronts like the Heartland Institute, and others has been well documented. The rationally undeniable reality of climate change has, through purposeful misinformation, been made into a partisan opinion. Being hooked in this way of life, many find comfort in denial.

Beyond denial, justifying our deadly addiction to wealth hoarding and climate destruction is accomplished through the promotion of right-wing corporate ideology via Libertarianism. Most of us realize that we are getting the short end of the stick in a system stacked against us. The invention and promotion of Libertarian ideology lets you feel rebellious and independent while promoting and supporting the diseased model itself. Let's take a closer look at this. Libertarianism started in the so-called Austrian school of economics, founded by Ludwig von Mises, Freidrich Von Hayek and Murray Rothbard who, as Stephan Metcalf wrote in Slate Magazine, never seem to have held a single academic appointment that didn't involve a corporate sponsor. The “Austrian school” in its aversion to fact, it's twisting and denial of history and its preference for a short-sighted but clever defense of individual and corporate greed is more a religion than a science. Like Fascism, it was initially created to counter the influence of socialism with corporatist authoritarianism. Libertarianism is a variety of anarchy preferring the power of business over that of the State. Its rejection of “collectivism” is in reality a rejection of our interdependence, our cooperative nature and the and basic social contract of mutual security and responsibility on which civilization is based.

In the U.S., Libertarianism was a project of the corporate world. It was launched as a big business “ideology” in 1946 by The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. They established a new lobbying front called the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) that focused on promoting a new pro-business ideology which it labeled Libertarianism. The FEE’s board included Robert Welch who, along with Fred Koch founded the John Birch Society, J. Reuben Clark, a racist, anti-Semite after whom Brigham Young University named its law school; and United Fruit president Herb Cornuelle.

The purpose of this front, and of Libertarianism as it was originally created, was to supplement big business lobbying with a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-economics rationale and to back legal attacks on labor and government regulations. It later became a way to confuse and mislead working class folks to support corporate agendas.

The author Ayn Rand is considered a central figure in modern Libertarian dogma for her self-centered vision of personal greed and social irresponsibility and her rejection of morality and the social contract. Though Rand herself rejected Libertarianism, her philosophy is very useful as a justification for the blind egotism and greed on which corporate authority and the addiction to exploitation and wealth-hoarding depend. As Gore Vidal stated, “Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society….To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.”

Libertarianism, sounds good – after all, who doesn't like liberty? The reality is that it is an anti-social, anti-business regulation ideology of greed leading to corporate dictatorship. It acts as a safety valve for built up public anger while strengthening the very things about which you might be justifiably mad. I could write much more on this but it would be a separate article probably too long for this magazine. For those interested in exploring the issue, I recommend reading “Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement” by Brian Doherty.

Beyond the process of maintaining and justifying addictions is the realization of the harmful death spiral of continued abusive behavior – the “Aha!” moment of realization that change is necessary for survival. This is the beginning of recovery.

As individuals, we can, though sheer determination, changes of attitude, or with the help of others make significant changes in our way of living to overcome harmful addictions. As a society, it is much more complicated and difficult. It requires a cultural paradigm shift and at very least, a movement. Those who are dependent on destructive behaviors for their economic positions inevitably see change as a threat to their security and will fight against it.

As the planet increasingly lets us know that our way of living is getting to a critical point of dysfunction, we might hope and work for this to be our moment of awakening. More likely, it's time for an intervention. Just as a community of awakened and recovering addicts can provide needed support to each other becoming a greater power than any individual, all of us together realizing our interdependent community need for recovery are more powerful than this diseased system and the wills of those forces driving us to destruction. If I have faith in anything, it is in the power of unity in making needed change.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Here's To Our Health!

We hear a lot about health care though what that means is debatable given the evolution of a corporate influenced disease management industry in our country. The debate has not actually been about health care but about access to it for most people. The recent focus has been on the insurance reform model first cooked up by the Heritage Institute, a conservative corporate think-tank. This later became the Massachusetts health care reform under then Governor Mitt Romney and was later adopted and made into national law by former President Obama.

Keep in mind that insurance is not health care. Insurance companies do not provide anything that qualifies as medicine. The insurance industry acts as a toll taking gatekeeper deciding who gets medical care and what that can be, based on what your policy will pay for. They, unlike your physician, if you are fortunate enough to have one, decide based on profit margins rather than science what your Doctor can do for you.

We spend for more for less than any other modern country for health care services. Given an aging population and many uninsured crowding E.R.s across the country, medical access remains a growing issue with major economic consequences for individuals as well as for our nation. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), or ”Obamacare” was controversial from its onset. Even though this was corporate-friendly legislation originating with Republicans, the GOP adamantly opposed it as part of their predetermined agenda of opposing and blocking anything Obama did. Progressives initially opposed it as well, advocating for the simpler, less costly and more effective universal coverage of a single payer plan – a nationwide, publicly run group plan. Public hearings were held led by the Senate Finance Committee headed by Sen. Max Baucus who had received more campaign money from health and insurance industry interests than any other member of Congress. When citizens, including medical professionals, spoke out for a single payer option, they were ejected from the hearing and charged with disorderly conduct.

ACA, written largely by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, was made law. For all its flaws, it was a significant reform package which reduced the numbers of uninsured. It also made it possible for many with pre-existing conditions to get affordable coverage. It still left many out but was initially designed to include a public option which didn't make the final cut, and to fund Medicaid as coverage for the poorest. Challenges by Republicans led to the Supreme Court ruling that states cannot be forced to participate in Medicaid expansion – that old “state's right to oppress” at play again.

This is still a big problem here in Virginia where at least 400,000 of us are denied access to basic medical care. I'm one of those people. Governor McAuliff continues to advocate and work to expand Medicaid over the objections of Republicans in our State Legislature – mostly from regions where most of their constituents lack medical coverage. Hopefully, with enough pressure from us, either he or our next Governor – Ralph Northram will succeed on our behalf – assuming it is still necessary.

Which brings us back to the national struggle for sane health care policy. Regarding ACA, I know people who have insurance who otherwise would not. Some of them are really sick and losing that coverage might well be fatal. I know others who had coverage but dropped it as insurance rates rose for some plans. I know people that have no coverage because, in our low income area, it was a choice between insurance or rent. They chose the latter. I personally have had no medical coverage since 2008 – a special thanks to those obstinate state Republicans who broke the economy and then quashed state Medicaid access.

During his campaign for president, Donald Trump, in pandering to the most ignorant and basest of bases, vowed repeatedly that he would repeal Obamacare in his first 100 days, falsely claiming that it is in a “death spiral.” Certainly there are problems with industry price-gouging but, as reported in the New York Times, “the newest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office contradict this long-held talking point. According to the budget office, Obamacare markets will remain stable over the long run, if there are no significant changes.” Sadly, after years of visceral opposition, the GOP had nothing to offer as a replacement but the same failed nonsense. This became evident when Trump relied on hollow ideologue and corporate toady Paul Ryan to come up with a replacement.

Ryan presented a disastrous collection of rehashed GOP talking points which would have done little to lower insurance premiums, would have further cut funding for Medicaid, would have replaced subsidies for insurance coverage with inadequate tax credits and would have severely impacted the elderly and those with preexisting conditions, denying many basic medical coverage.

We see how that went. Even Republicans rejected it outright. The Times called it "a humiliating defeat for President Trump on the first legislative showdown of his presidency." This failure was good in that it exposed and set back the agenda of Sen. Paul Ryan as well as allowing many in dire need to keep their insurance coverage. Still, they have not given up. As reported in The Hill, White House officials presented an offer to the conservative House Freedom Caucus as they seek to revive the failed ObamaCare replacement bill. Vice President Pence and other White House officials presented an idea at the Freedom Caucus meeting which would allow states to apply for waivers to repeal two ObamaCare regulations mandating which health services insurers must cover, and that prevents insurers from charging sick people higher premiums. Once again, the mean-spirited corporate lackeys want to deny the sickest of us basic coverage. This too will fail as many in Congress – including Republicans – have to answer to constituents.

Something else is happening that should inspire us to action. In the continuing wake of failed attempts to destroy the even modest advances in medical access provided by Obamacare, the calls for a single payer, “Medicare for all” replacement, are growing. This idea is popular even among Trump voters, many of whom are economically hard hit. The indefatigable Sen. Bernie Sanders is introducing a Medicare for All bill to Congress again. Rep. John Conyers is also planning to reintroduce a national, single-payer healthcare legislation, H.R. 676, “The Expanded & Improved Medicare For All Act,” which enjoyed the support of 77 co-sponsors in the 112th Congress, including our own Bobby Scott. Beyond getting more Congressional support in the present atmosphere, this legislation would give Trump, who is not tied to the Ayn Rand ideology of GOP extremists like Ryan and the so-call Freedom caucus, a chance for a much needed victory.

Though it sounds like a long shot to expect support for such progressive legislation, it is possible. It might be that we can actually get more done under Trump than we might have with Clinton – not because he is better but because when we are awake and active, we are a force to be reckoned with. The times may be 'achangin' but we have the wind in our sails and have to keep pushing forward beyond resistance on this and other issues. We certainly have our work cut out for us but our health is at risk if we do not demand better.