Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Don't Pick on the Underdog

Don’t Pick on the Underdog.

The assault on illegal immigrants continues unabated. After the passage of the anti-illegal immigration law in Arizona, almost 20 other states are considering similar legislation. Other states, for instance Massachusetts, are considering other ways of responding to anti-illegal immigration sentiments among the voters. They want to make sure that illegal immigrants do not receive any social services or health care.  The voters in Fremont Nebraska (population 20,000) voted to adopt an anti-illegal immigration ordinance that forbids landlords to rent to illegal immigrants and employers to employ them. Similar measures were passed in Hazleton, PA and Farmers Branch, TX and elsewhere.

One prominent explanation for this wave of anti-illegal immigration legislation is widespread anger over the economic conditions in the country. Unemployment continues to hover above 9% and all of the federal stimulus expenditures don’t seem to make much of a dent. According to some reports, one quarter of all homeowners owe more money on their house than the house is worth today. A variety of efforts are failing to help people hit by foreclosure. The rate of foreclosures is not going down.

No wonder people are scared and angry. But who should they be angry at? The illegal immigrants?
Richard Trumka, head of the AFL -- CIO has a good answer to that question. He writes in a blog on Huffington Post: “An immigrant worker did not move your plant overseas. An immigrant did not take away your pension. A Mexican or Salvadorean or Guatemalean worker did not cut off your health-care. His wife did not foreclose your home. Her children did not crash our financial system.”

That is an important reminder. It was Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Citibank and the Bank of America, AIG and others that crashed the financial system. It was the large mortgage lenders that knowingly sold mortgages to people who could not afford them. It was the banks that gambled their money and that of their depositors on financial instruments so complicated  that hardly anyone understands them.

More importantly even, it is the Congress of the United States that still supports large business while it  is unwilling to spend money to keep the unemployed from going hungry. Our country has been sold to the highest bidder.

Yes, undocumented workers did break the law entering the United States. But the real culprits for the present crisis are the large companies whose lobbyists write the laws and pay Congress to pass them. In this way, they can make sure that what they do is not illegal even if it ruins the lives of literally millions of American citizens.

It is convenient for these large companies and their representatives in various legislatures to get everybody really riled up about illegal immigrants. In that way we can detract attention from what is really the matter in the United States today: that the large banks, the large brokerage houses, the large mortgage companies can do whatever they want and have  it legitimated by the legislators who are in their pay.

But the citizens who angrily focus on illegal immigrants are not angry at the institutions and individuals who deserve our anger. By allowing themselves to be distracted, they surrender any possibility we might have to pass financial regulation laws with teeth. Democracy will not work when citizens blame the victim, and allow themselves to be deceived by the victimizers.

Let’s stop being so upset about poor people coming across the border to make some sort of living and look at the extremely rich people who have sunk our economy.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What was he Thinking?

What was he thinking?

General Stanley McChrystal got himself fired for badmouthing most of the civilians involved in the Afghan war in an extended interview to Rolling Stone. He stopped short of saying anything about the President; he likes Secretary of State Clinton. For the rest--Vice President Biden, Ambassadors Holbrooke and Eikenberry, Senators Kerry and McCain and others--he has nothing but contempt.

But why did he have to publicize that in Rolling Stone ?

The article paints McChrystal as a fearless man with enormous self-discipline. More than once he came close to ruining his career. On the other hand, where necessary he was the loyal servant: he concocted the cover-up when Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire; he condoned and covered up torture he witnessed. He supported Pres. Bush in his “Mission Accomplished” gaffe. He will do what he regards as necessary to do his duty. He appears, above all, very deliberate.

Why would such a man publicly insult the civilians he works with? Under what conditions would he sacrifice his military career to state bluntly what he believes to be happening in Afghanistan? Perhaps Gen. McChrystal is making the ultimate sacrifice to hasten the end of a war that he no longer believes can be won.

McChrystal’s military strategy was threefold: defeat the Taliban militarily, win over the Afghan population to our side by living among them, helping out, building schools and clinics, and, especially, reducing civilian casualties in this war. The third prong of the strategy is to build up a viable state.

But the military campaign is not succeeding. The attack on Marja did not manage to chase out the Taliban; the promised campaign against the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar keeps being postponed. These military campaigns indiscriminately kill civilians and earn us the enmity of the population. The existing government of Hamid Karzai is by all accounts hopeless and hopelessly corrupt.

Nothing is working.

Has Gen. McChrystal tried to persuade his superiors, or the President of that and failed? Is this a desperate sacrifice to encourage Americans to refuse to support continuing the war in Afghanistan?

What other explanation is there? We should honor this soldier, widely described as “brilliant,” and end this war as soon a possible.

Friday, June 25, 2010

America's Backyard

America’s Backyard

Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, and a self-proclaimed conservative is one of the most reasonable and thought-provoking observers of American foreign policy. He has written a number of  important books, he writes Op-Ed pieces for newspapers and is a frequent guest on radio talk shows. In his latest contribution, he raises the question why we are fighting in the Mideast and neglecting problems close to home such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the bloody drug war in Mexico.

He recommends that we return to the foreign policy perspective of 19th century American leaders who focus their attention primarily on what they called the “near abroad,” what--in the years since Ronald Reagan--we refer to as “our backyard.”

It is, indeed, important to redirect the main focus of our government to problems close to home. But such a recommendation remains seriously incomplete unless accompanied by a clear recognition that the US has paid very different kinds of attention to our hemisphere at different times.

In 1823, Pres. Monroe promulgated the so-called “Monroe doctrine” which denies any European nation the right to interfere with nations in our hemisphere. This doctrine supported the emerging new nations in Latin America who were emancipating themselves from Spanish colonization. Pres. Monroe promised to help these nations protect their newly won independence. Since the United States had no navy or army to speak of at the time, the Monroe doctrine was more a gesture of goodwill than a genuine offer of military protection.

But the original Monroe doctrine displayed a spirit of neighborliness and mutuality in our relations to Latin America. By the end of the century, the Monroe doctrine had mutated into a justification for US interference in the countries in Latin America. The history of US Latin American relations in the 20th century is an extended history of US meddling in the internal affairs of various countries. All of these interventions where designed to benefit the US regardless of the damage they did to the Latin countries when they destroyed Latin American economies and replaced democratic governments by dictatorships.

Especially since World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, our government has steadfastly supported military regimes and brutal dictatorships in Latin America as long as countries promised to be anti-Communist and to open their economies to US investment. From being good neighbors in the early 19th century, sharing the hemisphere as well as the history of liberating themselves from colonial masters, Latin America has mutated into “our backyard,” a space where we can do pretty much as we please.

Here are some of the US actions in Latin American countries since World War II:

In the early 1950s, Bolivia experienced two military coups from left-leaning generals. The US responded by selling its very large reserves of tin, left over from World War II, thereby depressing world prices of tin. This metal was then one of the chief exports of the desperately poor country of Bolivia. The US action created huge economic problems and increasing poverty in Bolivia and de-stabilized their government.

In 1964, the Guatemalan people elected a president suspected of left sympathies. The CIA engineered a coup deposing him and inaugurating 20 years or more of bloodletting by military regimes. The will of the Guatemalan people was thwarted and their very life endangered.

  In 1965,  20,000 US troops landed in the Dominican republic to obstruct a National Liberation Movement. This intervention had been preceded by the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, longtime dictator supported by the US. There followed a serious political conflict bordering on civil war pitting anti-Communist military officers against the left-leaning opposition. When the anti-Communist military seemed to be losing the war, Pres. Lyndon Johnson sent in 20,000 Marines.

In 1970, Chilean voters elected Salvador Allende, an avowed socialist, president of Chile. The CIA managed to undermine the Chilean economy and to foment a military coup led by Gen. Pinochet. Many Chileans were forced into exile or killed in the aftermath of this military takeover

Nicaragua had long been the fiefdom of the Somozas, father and son, bloody dictators both; both generously supported by the US. When in 1979 a left-leaning Sandinista movement managed to drive out the dictators, the US government under Pres. Ronald Reagan instigated a civil war against the Sandinistas, even though such actions were forbidden by Congress at the time.

In the 1980s El Salvador was torn apart by civil war. The US generously supported the conservative troops, once again interfering in the internal affairs of a Latin American country.

In 1983, President Reagan invaded Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island -- which most US citizens would have difficulties finding on the map -- in order to unseat a left-leaning government.

These are just some of the high points of US interference in Latin America. Our government has consistently undermined governments that seemed to threaten US investments and profits in Latin American countries. That many of these governments were elected by majorities did not matter to our government at all.
Any recommendation that our government pay more attention to our neighbors and their difficulties must immediately be qualified by saying that they should be conducted in a way that respects the sovereignty of other countries and the wishes of their citizens.

 In our dealing with Latin America we must, at last, show ourselves to be the freedom loving nation and champion of democracy that we think we are. We must no longer support dictators or bloody coups against democratically elected government for the sake of protecting the investments of US or global companies.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Our Energy Future--Part II

Our Energy Future -- II

In order to avoid future environmental disasters like the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we need to reduce the use of oil by the military, and by agriculture. We also need to return political power to the people and take it away from the large companies, energy companies included.

But every citizen, you and I, also need to use less energy. We need to move into smaller houses, we need to drive and travel less and drive smaller cars. We need to be more hardy in the summer’s heat and in the cold of winter. How will we accomplish that?

A frequent suggestion is: “raise the price of energy.” The price of oil and gas today does not include the cost of environmental degradation or of global warming brought about by our continued excessive use of oil and gas. If we included that in the price of gas, sticker shock at the gas pump would be impressive. “Make people pay for the damage they do by driving and heating their house, and you’ll soon see a reduction in energy use.”

The problem with that suggestion is that it affects poor people disproportionately. If you already barely get by, doubling the price of gasoline and home heating will push you over the financial edge. You have to give up your car, but how will you get to work?

Just raising the price of energy will not be enough. We need to rethink how our cities are laid out, how to make it easier to walk to work or to the store. We need to rethink public transportation.

Alternative energy sources are becoming more accessible. If your house  gets good sunlight during eight hours of the day, install solar panels. If there is wind where you live, install a small wind turbine to provide some of the electricity you use.

Oil companies receive between $15-$30 billion a year in government subsidies. We need to take that money and put it into developing small scale alternative energy technologies, alternative transportation technologies, into rearranging our cities to make them manageable without current energy demands.

But none of it will happen without a concerted push from you and me.

Let’s get serious.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Out Energy Future - Part I

Our Energy Future

As the public becomes accustomed to the horrifying facts of massive environmental destruction still continuing in the Gulf of Mexico, questions are beginning to arise about the future. What must we do to prevent such disasters in the future?

Many people are thinking of punishing British Petroleum. A few voices have been heard suggesting that British Petroleum be shut down as a clear warning to other energy companies that oil spills of this magnitude are unacceptable. But the truth is that accidents will happen and that the profits of oil companies are so enormous that even draconian punishments will not deter the profit seekers.

After a series of deadly mining accidents in the past year, we know that coal is no more acceptable than oil as a source of energy. One might be tempted to think that we should reduce consumption of oil by relying on  atomic energy. But atomic power plants have as their by-product radioactive waste that is intensely dangerous to humans for another 200,000 years. No one knows what to do with that waste.

Nothing less than a drastic reduction of our energy consumption will save us from an environmental degradation due to major accidents as well as to the continuing and accelerating threat of global warming.

Here is what we need to do: live in small houses, drive smaller cars, walk more, wear more sweaters in the winter. We need to travel less, give up plastic bags.

But that’s just the beginning. Think of all the oil and gas used by our military driving Hummers and tanks. Reduced energy use will require a reduction in the military. Think of all the artificial fertilizer producing corn and soybeans all over the world. The implications of reducing energy use in the production of food are inevitable but are not at all clear at present.

The oil companies and, more generally the energy industry -- the drilling companies, the oil and gas transport companies, the fertilizer companies, etc. -- are going to resist any efforts along these lines with their accustomed tenacity. 20 years ago Exxon spilled enormous amounts of oil from the Exxon Valdiz. A jury assessed punitive damages of $5 billion. Very recently -- 20 years later -- the company has reduced that $5 billion damage to 1 billion. (No one is telling how much they spent on their lawyers in this fight.) Any choices we make will be resisted fiercely by the energy sector. At present, large companies have disproportionate political power. (The Supreme Court has just expanded that power.) We will not be able to become less energy dependent if we do not take back political power from the large corporations.

In the end, nothing short of a serious reduction of our military, a serious transformation of how we grow food, and, most importantly, the restoration of the power of the people over the power of big companies will save us from the future energy disasters and global warming.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

An Interesting Question

An interesting question.

Hamas was elected by the people of Gaza to run its government. Israel believes that Hamas is a threat to its continued existence. It no doubt has good reasons for believing that. In light of this perceived threat, Israel waged a brief but very bloody war against Gaza last year, killing 1400 Palestinian civilians. Since Hamas won the election in 2005, Israel has blockaded Gaza and has controlled what sorts of goods will be allowed in. Israel believes itself to be justified by the threat Hamas constitutes and, all in all, the United States government -- whether under Bush or Obama -- agrees.

But now consider this analogy. Presidents Bush and Obama have been elected by the American people. Osama bin Laden believes that the US is a real threat to the Mideast, to Arab countries, their ways of running their lives, their values and their religion. There are good reasons to think that Osama bin Laden is right about the threat we constitute to his, conservative, views about Islamic culture and the role of the US in the Mideast. Israel believing that Hamas is a threat uses massive violence to try to unseat Hamas. Osama bin Laden, believing that the US is a threat, uses spectacular violence to try to undermine American power.

If those two actions are roughly parallel, why is Osama bin Laden a terrorist and the object of a seven-year manhunt while we support Israel with $3 billion a year of military aid?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Violence and Forgiveness

Violence and forgiveness.

Violence has been a frequent topic in my recent blogs. Not only the street violence that kills 14-year-old boys for no reason whatsoever, or the violence of war, but the violence that permeates every day life. In case after case we rush to punish and inflict pain instead of looking for and trying to remove the causes of problems. No one asks why there are illegal immigrants. Instead we rush to punish them. When children bully each other in schools, parents do not ask where they went wrong in their parenting. They can't wait to punish school administrators and members of the school board. Instead of looking for the origins of conflicts and removing them, we try to get our way by threatening our opponents.

I have recently encountered several thoughtful people who suggest that we respond to and overcome this everyday violence by practicing forgiveness. Instead of looking for the guilty party and imposing a penalty on them, we should forgive them.

This forgiveness is not just shaking-hands-and-making-up or saying “I forgive you” but is a major effort to rid oneself of anger, of the desire to hurt others. Forgiveness requires working on oneself, attempting to transform oneself from one seething with resentment to a person at peace with himself and his neighbors.
I have no doubt that this is good advice. The effort required to overcome one's anger will make one a better citizen and ease life in a society.

But while I can forgive those who injure me, I cannot forgive those who injure others. I can try to forgive the Nazis for the pain they inflicted on me by killing most of my childhood friends. But I cannot forgive them for the lives of my friends cut short early and horribly. It is not up to me to forgive the injuries done to others.

If my work and my pay are not being threatened by illegal immigrants, I may have nothing to forgive them for. Nevertheless the problem of undocumented workers concerns me as a citizen and I still need to face the choice between imposing punishment on undocumented workers and on their employers, or trying to devise a solution that will end the problem. (I have suggested raising the minimum wage as one attempt to reduce the problem of undocumented immigration.)

Even if someone treats me badly,  forgiving may not be the best response. Take the everyday example of your child acting out, being disobedient and shouting insults at you. Yes, you can just forgive the child. But it would be much better to try to find out what she is trying to tell you, what she needs from you, where, perhaps, you have injured her. Forgiving in the sense of trying to overcome your anger is difficult. But it is often still too easy. It's too easy to try to forgive the disobedient, the angry child and much more difficult to discover the sources of that anger and disobedience and to try to mend the relationship.

Yes, by all means forgive. But you also need to know that forgiveness is just the beginning of trying to repair a broken relationship. I need to be aware of the needs of those who injure me, whose injury is trying to tell me something. Forgiveness is important but is not enough. We need not only rid ourselves of anger but also find solutions to problems that anger may blind us to. We must try to repair injustices that are done to others where we have nothing to forgive. We need to address the injustices done to others which we have no business forgiving.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Persecuting Immigrants. Give Peace a chance!

Persecuting Immigrants. Give peace a Chance.

Undocumented immigration creates real problems.

There are millions upon million desperately poor people in Latin America. Will they all come to the US sooner or later?

Undocumented workers make very little money. If US employers can get the work done by workers paid  a lot less than minimum wage, that will have a negative effect of on the wages of American low wage workers and reduce their employment possibilities.

Workers, whether undocumented or legal, pay taxes. But the people who earn desperately little pay very low taxes. Iif their children, especially the American born children, go to school, get free lunches or other services, that tends to cost more than these parents put in when they pay taxes.

Undocumented workers are in the country illegally. We need to enforce the laws we have.

But a lot of the heated discussion about immigration does not stem from an attempt to face and resolve these and other problems. It originates instead in hysterical xenophobia. This is proved by the following hair raising quotes:

Consider the great increase in hepatitis A and B, drug resistant tuberculosis, and leprosy. Think about this the next time you go out to eat at a restaurant that hires illegals that sweat into your soup!”

State Rep. John Kavanagh [An Arizona legislator ], a co-sponsor of the [Arizona anti-immigrant] law, said of illegal immigrants, "They bring a lot of crime with them."

One of the clinching arguments for Arizona’s tough new law aimed at illegal immigration has been the perception in that state that crime has been rising, and that undocumented workers are largely to blame. Yet the Journal reports that the incidence of violent crime in Phoenix last year plunged 16.6 percent compared to 2008, a rate of decline that was three times the national average.”

People who fear immigrants believe that undocumented immigrants are diseased and will pass their diseases on to US citizens. They are criminals, a threat to all citizens. Folks believe that even though the Arizona crime rate has gone down more than the national average.

This is crazy, right? The actual differences between us and the people perceived as different is not as important as what differences people “see”--that is, actually, imagine.

We need to notice that this is a world-wide phenomenon. Anti-immigrant parties have gained in several European Countries. The President of France, Sarkozy, has been in a big sweat for several years about women wearing head scarves. It is “un-French” he thinks.

Let us also remember what white Americans used to believe about all African-Americans. Or how during World War II we interned all Japanese-Americans, even if their sons were serving in the US Army, because we did not trust their loyalty to the US.

There are currently 30,000 non citizens in the US military. Some of them after fighting bravely in Vietnam, the Gulf War, or Iraq, come back to the US and get into trouble, as happens to a significant number of combat veterans. Non-citizen vets are deported to the country of origin while their friends and family are all in the US..

These are some cases of xenophobia. All nations, all historical periods, seem to be affected by it. It clearly plays a role in the current immigration debate.

For those of us who are hoping and working for a more peaceful world, this should be a matter of grave concern. As long as nations will again and again succumb to fear of the perceived stranger, there is no hope for world peace. There is not even hope for peace at home.

Think about that the next time you hold hands with a stranger singing “Give Peace a Chance.” The first step towards world-peace is to overcome this blind fear of people whom we regard as different and whom we believe without any evidence to be a threat to our security.

Many people think that xenophobia will always be with us. “Its human nature, “ they say. But it is of course not human nature because not all of us are xenophobic. One can overcome the tendency to fear that shadowy stranger.

But how will humanity rid itself of this scourge? We would be better served by leaders who devoted resources to studying this question instead of pandering to these fear as our politicians are doing today.