Friday, August 11, 2017

Balking

Though I write opinions and article 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 also teach classes on this genre at The Muse and may be doing so again this fall. 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. I am presently scheduled to do a reading at The Muse on Sunday October 8th at 4:00. Hope to see some of you there.

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.

Standing With Immigrants

This article, like most others, first appeared in Veer Magazine.

I am, like many, shaken by the recent demonization and deportation of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. I was please recently to see a local restaurant, Jessy’s Taco Bistro in Ghent and Jessy’s Tienda y Taqueria in Ocean View participating in a national Day Without Immigrants protest by closing for the day. I was also gratified that his business increased significantly in the days following that effort. I was one of those patrons expressing support. I'd held off going there previously because I'm plagued with food allergies but they were more than accommodating. The cuisine offered was delicious and fresh with entrees and salsas made in-house. I'll certainly be a regular.

I also went in search of personal stories. The owner, Jorge Romero, was welcoming and helpful in providing contacts with immigrants living in our area – all legal now but not always so. Frank Chavez came here with his family at the age of eight and lived here undocumented for years. He became a citizen as an adult and now manages a wholesale food distribution business, contributing to our local economy. Frank told me from his own experience, the fears, difficulties and insecurity that people have who live here undocumented. How difficult it is to even get a driver's license or make a living. He voiced real fears people have over the break-up of families due to deportations – even deportations of people who came here as young children, “Dreamers” who have taken advantage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This program, begun by Obama, allows renewable two year deferments and work permits for those who grew up here as children of undocumented parents. As Frank said, there are more productive and humane ways to deal with immigration by streamlining the process and making it easier for people to get work permits.

Vianey Bueno-Becknell came here from Mexico. She explains: Back in 2001 in Mexico City I was working as assistant to a famous Mexican painter, and I was a student of the EDA (Escuela de Artesanias) of the National Institute of Fine Arts. In that time I didn’t have a choice or much time to get out of an abusive relationship and Mexico didn’t have a protective order or protection that would help me be in a safe place. At the same time my sister was visiting her daughters so my escape, by coming to the United States, was a decision that I made to save my life.

My life in Virginia was not easy in the beginning. I started cleaning rooms in a hotel in Ocean View. I remember when my friends back in Mexico use to asked me 'Where do you work now?' I was kind of ashamed telling them that I was cleaning rooms. Back in Mexico I used to work in a University or I was the publicity assistant for the International Cervantino Festival, so it was a big change. Now my work consisted of cleaning cars or being a housekeeper in a big hotel in Downtown Norfolk. Back in 2001 I was only planning to stay here for 6 months and then go back to Mexico, however that changed when I met the father of my daughter. He was my first husband and he was an American Indian. We got married and try to legalize my situation, but at that time the only hope was for me to go back to Mexico, ask for forgiveness and see if the United States would let me back in. I talked to several lawyers and they advised me not to leave the country so I lived in hiding for a very long time. It’s like living in the shadows with many people not knowing what you have gone through. Working in the United States I paid my taxes every year. Even when you are illegal the IRS gives you a “ITN” number, so that you could pay your taxes. It just goes to show you that even if you are an illegal immigrant the United States still finds a way to collect taxes.

Ms Bueno-Becknell described the difficulty of daily living as an undocumented immigrant, trying to get a drivers license. I didn’t have a drivers license. One day I took it upon myself to start driving and I got stopped by the police for a traffic violation. The Judge told me that if the police stop me again without a drivers license I would be put in jail, so I had to do what I had to do to get a drivers license. I decided to go to Washington State and get a Drivers License because at that time Washington State allowed illegal immigrants to get drivers licenses.

Vianey has since become a legal resident but she told me, I consider myself a very blessed person, and I know how hard it is to live in the U.S. and live in fear of what could happen tomorrow. I have heard so many racist comments and I confront people all the time because they don’t understand what is it like to live in the United States as an illegal immigrant. When I used to work in a car insurance agency I saw every month how Hispanic people would come and make their car insurance payment on time. Hispanic people here contribute by paying fines and doing legal business here just the same as American citizens. Hispanic people here are the most responsible people because they don’t want to get in trouble. All they want to do is be given the chance to become American citizens or at least have some kind of legal residence.

My job now is to work with Hispanics. Mostly all the time I hear first hand their concern: they are worried and they are afraid of what could happen tomorrow. This hatred that our current president is showing is just unbelievable. Every day we as immigrants have to watch the news just to see how bad it is now. Since the election, all kinds of hope have disappeared and the uncertainty grows every day. For me as a Hispanic person its common sense. Just by going to Florida and seeing the fields in Ave Maria and Immokalee you can see how immigrants live and work there or by going to Washington State and seeing the onion fields with only Hispanic hands. This country’s infrastructure was built by immigrant hands. Immigrants play a vital role in our country. Our country will not survive without immigrants.

The fears these two people express are not unfounded as Trump's policy of aggressive deportation escalates to include those here legally. On February 8, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos went to her yearly check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Phoenix, Arizona, something she has done every year since 2008. This time, instead of being sent home to her family, she was loaded into a van and deported to Mexico, despite a group of her friends, family and supporters placing their bodies in the way of the van. Her 14-year-old daughter had to pack her things for her; she, along with her brother and father, would be staying behind. Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23-year-old father was detained by ICE in Des Moines, Washington, even though he has permission to live and work in the United States under the DACA program. His lawyers have called his detention "unprecedented and unjustified." There are many, many other cases around the country. Imagine yourself suddenly arrested, ripped from your family, your children, and deported to a country where you face imminent danger, or if you grew up in the U.S., that you know little about -- a place where you don't speak the language or know anyone.

As reported in the New York Times, “President Trump has directed his administration to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively, unleashing the full force of the federal government to find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes. Documents released by the Department of Homeland Security revealed the broad scope of the president’s ambitions: to publicize crimes by undocumented immigrants; strip such immigrants of privacy protections; enlist local police officers as enforcers; erect new detention facilities; discourage asylum seekers; and, ultimately, speed up deportations. The new enforcement policies put into practice language that Mr. Trump used on the campaign trail, vastly expanding the definition of “criminal aliens” and warning that such unauthorized immigrants 'routinely victimize Americans,' disregard the rule of law and pose a threat to people in communities across the United States.”

Despite the scapegoating we hear from right-wing media and the Trump junta the reality is that undocumented immigrants are far more law abiding than native-born Americans. According to an analysis of data from the 2010 American Community Survey roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 are incarcerated compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born. The 2010 Census data reveals that incarceration rates among the young, less-educated Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan men who make up the bulk of the unauthorized population are significantly lower than the incarceration rate among native-born young men without a high-school diploma.

The constant accusations of immigrant criminality and threats to list such crimes weekly by this administration smack of the kind of scapegoating by other regimes which have lead to genocide. The scapegoating of Muslims and of Hispanics; the blaming of a minority for the woes of the majority and the libeling of an ethnicity as a national threat are classic fascist tactics to strengthen support for an authoritarian regime using hate and fear. We should remember that even the nazi holocaust started with such libel and efforts to “cleanse” Germany by deporting Jews. Decent people must reject and stand against dangerous racist scapegoating.

I believe we have to place the issue of undocumented immigration in context before we can even begin to understand and discuss it. Trump has presented this issue as a crisis but the reality is that there are one million fewer Mexicans living in the United States today than in 2007. Many of the undocumented people coming here now are coming from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. You may wonder why that is so.

Much of the answer lies in the history of the region directly related to US policy. A full and detailed account of our involvement in Central America would take much more space than this article allows. Beginning with the overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala in 1956 we have installed, trained and armed brutal, bloody dictatorships in the region. The CIA coup in Guatemala, a reaction to land reform efforts, was to secure U.S. control and to serve the interests of the United Fruit corporation. The result has been a continuing brutal rule which culminated in a genocidal bloodbath under Reagan-backed dictator Rios Montt. President Reagan increased U.S. support of bloody, death squad dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. This included the training and arming of murderous military police and later, of the “contras” in Nicaragua – even in defiance of Congress. Some will recall not only the horrific tales of violence but the purchase of weapons from Iran with money raised from drug-smuggling by the CIA to arm “contra” terrorists. These are facts which have been well documented by journalists like Alexander Cockburn and Gary Webb.

Inflicted dictatorships, human rights violations, the drug trade and war aside, there are devastating economic policies forcefully imposed on the region. For Mexico, NAFTA and the privatization of their oil began the economic slide leading to immigration. Our foreign policy in support of corporations and World Bank debt colonialism is non-partisan. Every president over the last 50 years has toppled elected governments, trained and armed terrorists, installed brutal dictators and defied international law with military aggressions in Central America and around the world. Every recent president has pushed policies of debt and privatization which have broken the economies of other countries and has affected our own country as well. This includes Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes and Obama. These policies, like borders themselves, serve corporate interests but leave a devastating wake of poverty, violence and refugees.

The latest example of this was the 2009 coup in Honduras ousting poplar President Zelaya. This was supported by Obama and Clinton. The “reforms” demanded of the newly installed junta in Honduras included rollbacks in social programs, education and healthcare as well as privatization of the public sector. The result is that economic inequality in Honduras has increased dramatically, foreign mining and logging corporations have been empowered, and resisters and human rights activists killed. Since 2010 poverty has worsened, unemployment has increased and underemployment has risen sharply with many more workers receiving less than the minimum wage. The story is the same in neighboring countries, though the details vary. Social turmoil, extreme poverty and the legacy of war have left Central America plagued by lack of opportunity, by crime, and record violence. In short, the people that risk everything, often in fear for their lives, to leave and migrate here undocumented, are refugees of our own making. The victims in this unfortunate reality are not the criminals.

Another question I've heard repeated, often indignantly, is why immigrants don't just come here legally? If only it was that easy! As explained by the American Immigration Council, immigration to the United States on a temporary or permanent basis is generally limited to three different routes: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection. Many refugees do not have family here. Very real fears of imminent danger are often difficult to prove and politically uncomfortable to acknowledge, especially to judges who are skeptical at best. Coming here for employment requires one to have a job lined up and an eligible sponsoring employer. Each year the United States sets a numerical limit on how many refugees will be admitted for humanitarian reasons. To be admitted as refugees, individuals must be screened by multiple international and U.S. agencies and prove that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, or national origin.” There are also significant backlogs based on our quotas for immigration. Even if one can qualify it can take 10 to 25 years to get a visa. Most if not all of the people coming here from Central America cannot wait that long and they are hardly the only refugees desperate for a safe haven.

As Trump's racist scapegoating, roundups and deportations escalate I have to wonder what can I do? What can and must we do? No simple or easy solution seem clear. It is frightening and frustrating. As a witness, a person of conscience, and as a Jew always cognizant of the not-so-distant past, I feel a sense of urgency and commitment.

I've called our state representatives to urge defeat of HB2000, a bill sponsored by Charles Poindexter to prohibit cities from sponsoring ordinances that restrict enforcement of federal immigration laws – prohibiting sanctuary cities. This has passed the State Senate and will hopefully be defeated by Governor McAuliff. The ACLU has sent a letter to our Governor urging a veto of legislation, HB 1468 which would force Sheriffs to detain undocumented residents and report them to federal Immigration Enforcement. Governor McAuliff needs to hear from us on these issues.

I was proud to read that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney signed a Mayoral directive in response to a citizen petition reaffirming his commitment to protect and promote the safety of all members of the community regardless of their immigration or refugee status. I called our own Mayor and heard similar, but vague, intentions from a city representative that they will continue to treat all Norfolk residents with dignity and respect. No official statement was made regarding cooperation with immigration. Time will tell what this means. As in Richmond, public pressure can make a difference.

Local churches and interfaith communities are beginning to come together on this issue, however the details are sensitive for obvious reasons. There is an effort to have churches post signs saying,”All Welcome Here.” This is something more of us should consider doing and maybe in Spanish; Bienvenidos AquĆ­. The more of us who do this, the more of us who publicly object and actively resist this nightmare, the safer we will all be.