Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Questions after Orlando

After the Orlando shootings, MERIP (Middle East Research and Information Project) asked a number of thoughtful observers for their thoughts about the shootings and the reactions to them in the mainstream media. (  These commentators seem to me to raise a number of difficult questions that all of us should think about.

Who is the Terrorist? Omar Mateen killed 49 persons at an Orlando nightclub. The US government stands accused of killing hundreds of civilians, including children, in drone strikes in Pakistan in the last few years. Similar accusations are raised in connection with drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia. These allegations are difficult to confirm beyond any doubt. The US government identifies all killed as ‘terrorists’ but there seems legitimate doubt as to the reliability of these identifications. 

These killings are not well known. They do not attract attention from media or the public. Should we not be much more vocal in condemning the killing of civilians abroad by our own government?

The victims of the Orlando shooting are being mourned in many vigils all around the country.
Do we not owe vigils to the victims of our drones in the Middle East?

How to identify Omar Mateen. The newspaper calls him the “Islamic terrorist.” But some of the comments in MERIP remind us no one one refers to Dylan Roof who killed 9 worshipers at a Charleston, SC church as a “Christian terrorist.” A terrorist who is a Christian is not a Christian terrorist. His terrorist acts are not to be connected with, let alone be blamed on his Christian religion. Did Omar Mateen kill in Orlando because he was a Muslim?

The question reminds us that “Muslim” has become more than a name for the follower of one of the world’s great religion, it has become the name of a derogative stereotype. It has become almost an insult much like the word “Jew” that does not only refer to the member of a religion but a stereotype of people who are said to be exclusively interested in making money. We must be very careful in using the term “muslim.” It serves too often as a racist stereotype.

Who was Omar Mateen ? He was born in New York City where he was an especially challenging student who was frequently suspended in the public schools. His parents, immigrants from Afghanistan, are represented as difficult persons. The question has been raised whether his troubled career in school was connected to serious conflict in his home. 

At any rate, he was an American, like Dylan Root, or the shooters at Newtowne School or Columbine and many other places. 

I am not aware of any case where the immigrant parents of any of the other American mass murderers played a role in the media accounts. Why is that different if the parents are immigrants from Afghanistan?

Why a gay nightclub? Some observers drew attention to the fact that many media stories contained references to the supposed opposition to homosexuals in Islam. Those comments were not accompanied by asides that reminded readers of passionate opposition to homosexuality on the part of many Christian denominations.

What is more, no one recognized the implications of there being gay nightclubs. What does that tell us about toleration of homosexuality in US society? Why is it more comfortable for gays to drink and dance among each other? Why are they less at ease in straight venue?

The narratives we encounter about this terrible event, shows that our media, the stories we consume and pass on to others, are everywhere infected with unthinking prejudices, derogatory stereotypes against people primarily from the Middle East whose countries and people we have ravaged mercilessly for twenty-five years and more.

Perhaps these questions will make us think about our role in the Middle East and the crude ways in which we defame its people who have been the victims of our terrorism.

Monday, June 13, 2016

What ails us?

When the police come to the wrong house, they are met by an old man with a shotgun aimed at them. A teenager coming home late is shot by his father who mistakes him for an intruder. A two year old reaches in his mother's purse and fires the gun that kills his mother. This is the stuff of the daily news. The guns that flood our society do not make us safer. They are not there for self protection.

Mass shootings reinforce that observation. Of the 300 people jammed into the Orlando nightclub apparently no one carried a weapon for self-defense. No one was able to protect himself as the gun advocates promise us again and again.

A population armed is not a safe population. The shotgun behind the front door more often kills loved ones than late night burglars. The population armed, again and again falls victim to mass shootings without being able to defend itself.

Why this fascination with personal armaments if they do great damage and do not make us more secure?

There are no doubt many answers to that question and none of them are very pretty. White Americans conquered this continent by making war on Native Americans. White Americans enslaved African-Americans and oppressed them with the whip and the gun. America has become "the most powerful nation on earth" by virtue of astronomical sums spent on sophisticated weaponry. We find violence wherever we turn in our own history.

Today that violence turns citizens against citizens. The latest mass shooting in Florida took place in a gay nightclub. On the same day police arrested a man, heavily armed, who was planning to disrupt a gay pride parade in California by shooting marchers. Violence against homosexuals has been encouraged in our country for a long time.

A significant number of voters are supporting Donald Trump whose message is largely a message of anger,  of the desire to hurt others, to injure them, to exclude them. Imagine what the country would be like if we were to deport 11 million of us, if 11 million were to be herded on buses, trains and airplanes. Imagine the families disrupted, the children and parents lost and in despair. Nevertheless many Americans resonate to the spirit of that plan. They too are very angry, they too want to hurt someone.
But they are very unclear about the sources of their anger and thus are willing to unload it on people they don't know--Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims.

Our nation is sick. Those of us who do not support Trump have nothing to offer the people who do, to ease their rage, to offer comfort or hope. Obama got elected eight years ago with the slogan of "Hope." He was unable to deliver on that if only because one person cannot give hope to an entire nation and only the nation as a whole can heal its own despair. And that despair takes many forms. One can support a very angry candidate for president. One can arm oneself and shoot people one loves. One can also buy guns and shoot a former girlfriend or wife, or kill one's children.

After the shooting in Orlando, some public officials exhorted citizens to love each other. But that is extremely difficult for those who feel  denigrated, exploited and, worst of all, ignored.

Making America great again would be to foster mutual trust that would not dream of arming oneself against one's neighbors. It would mean making us eager to work with each other to solve our problems rather than spending so much energy in obstructing each other. It would mean rekindling hope for a better future.

How can Americans learn to love each other again? That is the question to which we have no answer.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Plea for Common Sense

On his recent trip to Vietnam and Japan, Pres. Obama announced the founding of an American university, to be called "Fulbright University", in Vietnam. Bob Kerrey is  set to be its president.  Kerrey, was most recently the president of the New School in New York, previously a senator and governor of Nebraska. But as a young lieutenant during the Vietnam War he was involved in an incident in which he and the men under his command deliberately massacred more than 20 civilians, old people as well as children. Kerrey has admitted to being involved in this episode of murder of civilians. "I have been haunted by it for 32 years" he is quoted as saying by the newspaper.

Some Vietnamese have protested against his appointment on account of this episode of civilian murder. One can understand that. But during the 20 years of the Vietnam War, almost 600,000 Vietnamese civilians died. To this day there are hundred thousand Vietnamese seriously deformed by Agent Orange which we sprayed on the jungles in order to deny cover to the enemy. The United States has ravaged Vietnam in spectacular ways but it's government is willing to accept an American university.

It is genuinely puzzling to hear all the objections to Kerrey being the president but no one, apparently, objecting to the establishment of the university itself.

Kerrey's willingness to be the president is also not quite straightforward. The United States government put him in a position of murdering civilians, of killing innocents. But while he is "haunted" by that event he is perfectly happy to be the representative of the US government in Vietnam at the new University. We don't hear him complain about having been put in a position which compelled him to act really brutally.

Even more puzzling is the reaction of Pres. Obama to these controversies in Vietnam and, then, on his visit to Hiroshima in Japan where one small atomic bomb killed  140,000 civilians. Today there are close to 2000 survivors recognized by the Japanese government as suffering from radiation disease as a consequence of the atomic bomb attack.

Both wars claimed large numbers of victims but there is one important difference. The Japanese war was started by the Japanese, the Vietnam War was taken over by us from the French in 1955 and we fought it deliberately, doggedly for 20 years. One would have expected some recognition on the part of the President or of Bob Kerrey that the US was the aggressor in Vietnam.

The responsibility of the US for the injuries done to the Vietnamese and to their land are especially grave. Our leaders should finally acknowledge that in public. But the injuries we did to ourselves by involving ourselves in the war in Vietnam and, since then, in a series of other foreign wars also need to be acknowledged. Since World War II our foreign policy has been aggressive. We have not hesitated to use our military to attack and invade other countries. Without exceptions these adventures have ended badly.

In his speech in Hiroshima, Pres. Obama condemned war and especially war using atomic munitions. But we would have liked to hear him pledge that the US would end its history of aggressive war making. We attacked Vietnam and left it in a shambles from which the country still has not recovered. We attacked in Korea. We attacked in Afghanistan and Iraq. We sent Marines to Somalia. We are allies with aggressive war makers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that all these wars we started have become major debacles, that we failed in every case to reach all objectives--if we had any clear ones-- our president in Hiroshima was not willing to promise that we would no longer go to war unless clearly and unmistakably attacked from the outside, unless foreign troops in substantial numbers had invaded our country.

That would not only have been a morally admirable commitment. It would have been the sensible conclusion to be drawn from the last 60 years of American military adventures. Imagine only the American lives that would have been saved, imagine the money we would have saved that would have enabled us to provide educations for all, that would have made it unnecessary for any American to live in poverty, that would have enabled us to find good work for everyone. There would have been resources to see that no one was forced to be homeless. We could see to it that our bridges are safe

Seeing the terrible damage we have done abroad and the suffering we have inflicted on ourselves in the process, a declaration that we would not ever again wage aggressive war, that we would never start a war would only  be plain common sense.

We wish that Pres. Obama had displayed some of this plain common sense on his trip to Vietnam and Japan.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

                           Slavery and the Holocaust

Twenty-four states in the US have Holocaust museums. In many of these 24 states there is more than one Holocaust Memorial. A Museum of American slavery is just about to open in Louisiana. It is the first one.

It is tempting to respond to this fact by comparing the suffering of slaves and the death toll of slavery to the suffering and deaths of the victims of Nazi genocide. But it is inhumane to enter into a debate as to which  group has suffered more.

Instead we need to recognize why memorials to slavery are so rare and of recent origin even though the parallels between slavery, between genocide of Native Americans and the Holocaust have been a familiar trope for quite a while. Book titles such as  American Holocaust are familiar.

But Americans are understandably reluctant to explore the terrific suffering imposed on slaves because white Americans imposed those sufferings. Whites alive today often refuse to have anything to do with slavery. They complain about affirmative action programs by saying that they, after all, did not own slaves. Slavery has nothing to do with them and, by implication, the aftermath of slavery, which is still very much with us, has nothing to do with them either.

Others, a large majority, simply do not pay any attention to slavery and to the centuries-old struggle of African-Americans for recognition of their humanity--a struggle that is still very much ongoing.

Liberals often acknowledge that slavery did exist for 300 years (if we include, as we should, the regime of Jim Crow between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s, 100 years later.) and propose some wildly inappropriate remedy. Harvard University has placed a plaque on one of its buildings with the names of four slaves owned by a previous president of the University. Names or images referring to slavery and oppression are being changed.

But such acts have more to do with public relations than anything else. The incredible suffering imposed on slaves when they were sold away from their families, from wives,  from husbands and children, from fathers and mothers, the blatant brutality of enforcing quotas of pounds of cotton picked per day, the merciless flogging of those who did not meet their quotas, the rape of slave women by their owners or their families, the shame of being examined naked in the slave market, the denigration as savage when law prohibited teaching slaves to read and write--none of those are addressed by plaques and changed logos. Such public relation moves only trivialize the suffering of slaves.

This orgy of brutality produced immense wealth from the triangular trade to the cotton plantations in southern states. American wealth, the astonishing productivity of American capitalism owe their origin to the misery, to the ceaseless hard physical labor of generations of African-American slaves.

After centuries of repeated resistance in slave uprisings and in small acts of sabotage, in  national demonstrations and in quiet assertions of their dignity, some African Americans have gained good work and a middle-class incomes. But the majority is still struggling to get a decent education, to get decent work and to be accorded respect as human beings.
We probably need more museums of slavery. More importantly, we need a widespread recognition on the part of Whites in America that they are indebted for their high standard of living to the African-Americans who often do not share that standard of living. Whites in America owe a great debt. That debt is not paid by installing a plaque on a Harvard University building or by changing the logo of a university.

It is true that the present generation of white Americans does not own slaves. But it is also true that they are inheriting the wealth produced by slavery and are  for that reason under a heavy obligation to repay the descendants of slaves.

Reparations have been discussed for a long time. Obviously it involves money. One suggestion is that the gap in property ownership between whites and blacks--prominently the gap in home ownership-- be removed through payments to Blacks. There are many other proposals. For a number of years, Rep. Conyers has tried to introduce a bill in Congress to appoint a commission to study  reparations. Congress has never taken up that bill. The predominantly white Congress does not even want to think about reparations.

Congress does not want to consider reparations, even to study and debate, because they understand that “more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe . . .  [reparations involve] . . . a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history. (

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Corporate welfare

The term "corporate welfare" was coined by Ralph Nader in 1956 and has since become a standard criticism of government support for corporations and for the very rich.
Recently a new website has appeared called "Subsidy Tracker/Good Jobs First" that tracks in admirable detail what corporate entities receive by way of support from the federal and from state and local governments. At the same time the website shows that the idea of corporate welfare is more complicated than is often thought.

The website lists the corporations that receive the largest subsidies from the federal government. At the top of the list is a Spanish Corporation, Iberola, that owns many wind power installations in the United States. Since 2000 that company received 2.2 billion in subsidies. The Federal Government has adopted a policy of supporting alternative energy installations. So far, wind power is more expensive than electricity generated by fossil fuels. If we want to increase the proportion of electricity generated by wind power, the government needs to subsidize those installations. This is not an example of "corporate welfare."

This is an important point. Not every government subsidy to private industry should be condemned as corporate welfare. There are industries which we want to encourage and subsidizing them does not go against our national interest. Wind generated electricity is a fine example of that. 

The expression "corporate welfare" applies to government subsidies given to industries contrary to public policy. The government gives subsidies to oil companies at the same time as it is trying to move our power generation away from fossil fuels. Oil companies are reimbursed by the government for the oil they pump out of the ground. Since any oil company has limited oil available to it, they argue that they need to be reimbursed for reducing the total oil available to them. All of us, exhaust the total amount of energy available to us as we work. Over the years we loose strength, we tend to move more slowly, our memory becomes less reliable, and our competence is reduced in some areas. We loose the physical attractiveness of youth.  But older workers do not receive subsidies from the government for a exhausting their limited resources. Such payments are only given to oil companies. That is  not only an unfair subsidy but it is subsidizing an industry which we actually do not want to encourage.

Tax breaks are another form of corporate welfare  that are not given to ordinary citizens. Corporations do not have to pay taxes on profits they make outside the United States. If ordinary citizens are paid for work they do abroad, the taxman still wants his cut. Exempting foreign income of corporations from US taxation is clearly giving corporations an unfair boost.

Hedge fund managers are taxed at a 20% rate on their income which is considerably less than other people in the same income bracket have to pay. If there were some reason for encouraging hedge funds that sort of subsidy might not be problematic. But this much lower income tax rate for hedge fund managers is generally regarded as a completely unfair government subsidy for a specific financial industry. Hedge funds have contributed to financial instability. It is not clear that they are desirable and should receive special supported by the government. 

 Walmart and fast food enterprises like McDonald's pay their employees so poorly that they need to go on food stamps in order to be able to feed themselves and their children.  Programs like food stamps make it possible for employers like Walmart and McDonald's to pay extremely low wages to their employees. Food stamps are a subsidy to the very large companies who can raise their profit margins by underpaying their employees. Ordinary citizens who hire roofers or plumbers or someone to plow their driveway in the winter do not receive government subsidies to help them pay these contractors. Subsidies are only for very large and very profitable corporations.

The military is regularly being accused of wasting significant amounts of government money. A great deal of work in war zones is done by a civilian contractors such as Halliburton. These contractors increase their profit margin by hiring workers from Asia or Africa who are paid considerably less than the government allows the contractor for wages. The differential  goes into the contractor's pocket. Contractors often deliver shoddy work or no work at all but the Pentagon pays the contractor anyway.

In recent years there has been a major increase in the number of Americans incarcerated. Publicly owned and run prisons have not been able to house all these prisoners. Private prisons have become a new and rather profitable industry. Their lobbyists are found in state legislatures everywhere to encourage legislators to increase punishments for crimes, to impose mandatory sentences, to pass three strikes laws where someone convicted for three crimes is subject to many years in prison even if one or more of these three crimes is of minor importance. State legislatures subsidize the private prison industry in this way at the expense of people who run afoul of the law and of course at the expense of the taxpayer who has to pay for all these additional prisoners housed in private facilities.

A good deal of information is available about specific government programs, subsidies, reduced taxation for specific industries. Each accusation of corporate welfare is rebutted by the industry lobbyists who claim that the monies paid to specific industries are in the national interest. The accusation of corporate welfare is always open to argument although often those arguments are pretty threadbare.

Given that each individual example of corporate welfare is subject to  argument, it is very difficult to arrive at a rough figure of how much of the national budget is devoted to enriching corporations in ways that are not benefiting Americans at large but are only benefiting owners of companies or their stockholders. At the same time the examples cited here are only a small number of the corporations that are rendered profitable by favorite government action. Ours is indeed a welfare state which keeps the poor, the sick and the elderly on very short rations but is much more generous when it comes to welfare for corporations and the rich.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

You Gotta be Rich

An article in this morning's paper seems to be telling to unrelated stories, but the stories did have the same message: if you want a good life in these United States, you had better be rich.

The first story talks about the building boom for drug detox institutions. Two  are being built near where I live. Both will be functioning in the early fall of this year. In the last year more than 1500 people died in the state from drug overdoses. The epidemic continues and perhaps even increases. Investors are blissful: "Everybody is chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of the opioid issue. ” said one investor. “There is an epidemic of opioid abuse, so there is a tremendous demand.”  There is nothing like a building boom to make a good profit. Investors are thankful for the epidemic of overdoses.

The article also points out that the cost of staying in one of these detox institutions is considerably higher than what insurance will pay for detox services. If you  need to avail yourself of the services of these clinics you need to pay significant amounts out of pocket. Your health insurance will not pay enough for you to try and deal with your addiction. You have to be rich, or at least quite well to do, to attend these clinics. Your chance of beating your addiction, of leading an ordinary life, with a job, a family, children and happy retirement years, depends on how rich you are. If you are poor or lower middle class and have only your insurance payments, detox is not for you. Your chances of beating your addiction are considerably worse.

The second story seems quite unrelated. It appears that the US immigration service has a complex menu of different visa's. One of them, EB 5, makes it possible for foreigners, for instance foreign students, to remain in the United States after they finish their studies. They also receive a green card which allows them to work and have a regular job. After five years they can apply for citizenship and then become regular Americans.

All they need to do for receiving this EB 5 visa is to invest $1 million (you read that right: $1 MILLION) in such a way that it creates at least 10 permanent jobs. The article tells the story of a Chinese businesswoman whose daughter is a student in this country. The mother gives her daughter $1 million. The daughter invests it in a detox clinic and before you know it, after five years, she is an American citizen just like you and I. In the meantime the detox clinic brings a good return to the investors. She is not only an American citizen. She is a well-todo American citizen.

We need to rewrite the inscription on the statue of liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor,  your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free" and add something like "especially if they have at least $1 million to invest."

A short while ago someone asked the speaker of the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress , Paul Ryan, whether we should not accept more Syrian refugees. The speaker rejected that suggestion out of hand saying that it was too dangerous. Among those refugees there might be agents ISIS. You look in vain for worries about terrorism when we offer green cards to people investing $1 million.
We also need to rewrite the pledge of allegiance. The line that says "and liberty and justice for all" also need an added phrase, something like "if they are really rich."

It is difficult not to be thoroughly ashamed of our government.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

                            Democracy at home and abroad.

Together with untold destruction and suffering, we did bring democracy to Iraq. To be sure their elected parliament has not been able to legislate or to govern because they have been too busy yelling at each other, pelting each other with water bottles, or even getting into fist fights. They have democracy but it does not work.

But that is for us only too familiar a phenomenon. Members of our Congress have not gotten into fist fights but they also have been unable to legislate. They are too busy bickering. They have been unable to ascertain how the government is working. Congressional hearings  have become public relation events in which each party is trying to blacken the name of the other.

What is worse there are now two kinds of citizens: citizens with money and citizens without. The former have influence on the government. The latter are pretty much left out in the cold.

Citizens--the kind without money--have however rallied and during several days during the middle of April significant numbers of protesters sat in in front of the capital in Washington, DC. 400 citizens, practicing civil disobedience, were arrested on one day. Not only does  everyone know  of the blatant corruption of our democracy but there are many citizens who are not willing to put up with that. 

They are asserting their democratic rights by protesting, by committing civil disobedience, by getting arrested.

In a democracy the people rule. When the democratic system works smoothly, everyone has a say, everyone is heard, and all work together to govern themselves. When the democratic system does not work, as is the case in the US as well as in the Iraq, ordinary people need to come to the seat of government to claim their rights as autonomous citizens of the democracy.

This is what has been happening in the United States. Today's news reports that it is now also happening in Iraq. Ordinary folks in Baghdad invaded the Green zone and the parliament building and the elected legislators either ran away or hid in small rooms in the parliament building making a rather disgraceful spectacle of themselves.

That, of course, is excellent news. People in Iraq are learning the real lesson that democracy does not consist of having periodic elections, often paid for by rich citizens or corporations, but that when the government is not functioning, the people have a duty to take back their power and demand that their elected representatives either do their job with integrity, or leave town and go back to where they came from.

The Iraqi protests made the front page of the Sunday paper. The protests in Washington DC were barely mentioned in the media. The free press, which is an essential ingredient in any democratic system, is in the pay of billionaires and chooses what news is suitable for their readers to hear and what news is better hidden from them.

When, after living in the United States for five years as an immigrant, I became a citizen, the judge in the downtown Chicago courthouse insisted on reading the entire Declaration of Independence to all the new citizens before him. In his final comments he urged us to never forget that the United States was born in a revolution. It is not periodic elections that makes our republic remarkable. It is the revolutionary spirit in which citizens are willing to go to great lengths to assert their rights to govern themselves and not to be governed by corporate managers.

We are indebted to the protesters in Baghdad, in Washington DC, and many other US cities for remembering the revolutionary history of democracy and for remembering that that history has not yet come to an end. The revolutionary impulse remains the soul of democracy.