Friday, February 25, 2011

Murder and Rape in the Congo

I am writing this blog on my computer. It’s electronics contain Coltan a rare mineral found mainly in Australia and in the Congo in Africa. The Congo has been devastated by civil wars between militias that finance their weapons by selling Coltan, gold and diamonds. These wars have taken the life of 7 million people. Many, many women have been gang raped by different gangs of soldiers.

Clearly the producers and consumers -- you and I -- bear some responsibility for the incredible brutality of these militia wars and the unspeakable pain and suffering they produce day in day out.

Manufacturers of cell phones and computers protest their innocence by demanding of their suppliers a certification that the Coltan they sell is not tainted by civil war and mass rape. But that is, of course, the easy way out. Apple may buy Australian Coltan but as long as the mineral is used in electronic devices there will be enough demand for someone to buy it from the militias who extorted it from the African miners.

At the moment there do not appear to be any cell phones or computers that do not use this mineral.

As if that were not bad enough, we are, all of us,involve in many other wars for other natural resources. The reasons for going to war in Iraq are still hazy but oil seems to play an important part in it. So does oil play an important part in our support for authoritarian governments in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt.

The massacre in the Congo is a stark reminder of the extent to which the affluent West stokes the fire of oppression, of the brutalization of women, of the premature deaths of children.

In the end, the affluent West is you and me. But it is not you and me as single individuals but as participants in a global capitalist system that is enormously productive in consumer goods and conveniences, and equally productive in rape and murder in other countries.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Let's Give Texas Back to Mexico!
We have it on no less an authority than Barbara Bush that students in Texas currently rank 47th in the nation in literacy, 49th in verbal SAT scores, and 46th in math scores.
More than half of the Texas legislature—products of that prodigious educational system-- signed on to a bill to fix education in their state: The proposed law will allow students and faculty at Texas State Colleges and Universities to carry firearms.
A wretched primary and secondary education will no longer stand in the students' way. They can now extort A's from their teachers with their handguns. Teachers, in their turn, can punish plagiarists by shooting them, or can wake up students by shooting a few rounds into the classroom ceiling.
No doubt, before long, some enterprising digital entrepreneur will produce a smart phone that can shoot real bullets.
Gun violence is big in Mexico. I think the Texans would be more comfortable as part of that country. Let's give Texas back. The Mexican-American war was a big mistake.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When the people speak …

First Tunisia and Egypt, now Bharain and Yemen and… the Catholic Church.

No there have not yet been hundreds of thousands of altar boys in St. Peter's Square demanding that the Pope be replaced by a popularly elected leader. But as Tunisia and Egypt tried to organize elections and a government more responsive to popular opinions and demands, the Vatican has ordered several dioceses in Massachusetts to reopen churches which the local hierarchy had closed. The parishioners had occupied these churches or otherwise protested their closing for several years. And – will wonders never cease – the Vatican responded to popular demands.

It appears that we are entering once again a period where those in power need to listen to the opinions of the populace.

At the same time, what happens in Tunisia and Egypt and in the Catholic Church illustrates the limitations of this kind of responsiveness to popular opinion. Egyptian democracy is being organized by the military. It is not being organized by the people themselves. The same is true in Tunisia. Nor has the Catholic Church become any less hierarchical and top-down. The God of the Catholics still only speaks to the Pope not to ordinary parishioners. 
However welcome this new responsiveness to popular turmoil is, it is not yet popular democracy when the people do not just protest against a given government, but organize themselves to run their own affairs.

The protests show the formidable organizing power of ordinary people. Not only were massive protests organized in different cities, but everywhere institutions sprang up as needed. In Tahrir Square in Cairo, the protesters put together a first aid post that provided emergency medical care for protesters hurt by police or Mubarak's thugs. In Bahrain, the protesters set up a number of services including one to take care of lost children and finding their caretakers.

People are able to organize what they need. But the heritage of thirty or more years of authoritarian government that ruthlessly persecuted any attempt at popular self-organization is a scarcity of popular organizations and political networks. It will take considerable time to reconstitute those if the military and its new government will allow it.

In the mean time, the army and the powerful in Egypt are rebuilding the government of, for and by the people with money and power. It remains to be seen how much of a peoples' democracy will emerge.

Politics are not all that different in the US. To be sure, it is a rare day when popular organizing efforts are stopped by the police and the members hauled off to jail to be tortured and, perhaps, killed. Instead we have made political access into a commodity. In American politics you have to pay if you want to play. In order to influence government decision makers you need the service of lobbyists --who are very expensive.

Yes, ordinary people in North America can organize themselves. But they have difficulties making themselves heard because they don't have the millions of dollars lobbyists charge to make those opinions heard in the halls of Congress or in the offices of the government bureaucracy.

There is not much room for popular democracy in the US. In that way it is not that different from Egypt.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Have you Heard? The Cold war is Over.

Our foreign policy has followed a very simple principle: the enemies of our enemies are our friends. Osama bin Laden is a horrible example of that. We set him up as a military leader when he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now he is our enemy number one and we are helping anybody who is promising to help us fight terrorism.
But fighting terrorism is very different from fighting hostile governments. It may have made some sense to give weapons to all kinds of countries who were opposing communist overtures. But today we are following the same rule in the so-called “war on terrorism.” And what happens? We give weapons and billions of dollars in aid to all kinds of authoritarian, dictatorial police states. We keep replenishing our stable of petty tyrants supported by secret police and torture.

But this posture is bound to strengthen terrorism. The terrorism we are fighting is not organized by governments but by more or less anonymous people, some of them religious leaders. All of them recruit their troops from the young, the disenfranchised, often the economically suffering. These people see the US government talking big as the champion of freedom and democracy and supporting a whole string of violent authoritarian regimes who prey on their subjects and use police and torture to suppress uprisings. That's enough to make anyone want to support terrorist attacks.

The first principle of the “war on terrorism” must be that we practice what we preach. We must withdraw support from any country that does not protect individual liberties, that does not keep a tight rein on its rogue police, that does not try to establish a functioning court system to protect citizens against the government. Anything short of that will show us as the hypocrites we--unfortunately--are and will gain supporters for terrorism.

The State Department and our foreign policy experts must wake up. The cold war is really over even if folks like Dick Cheney and his friends still do not believe that. As the current uprisings in the Middle East and the continued terrorist attempts show, ordinary people are becoming restless. Since we have consistently taken the side of their oppressors, we too have become targets of the anger. That anger express this in itself in a variety of forms. One of those is terrorism.

When terrorists target us we cannot claim to be innocent.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why are we afraid of Muslims?

The American government has been visibly hesitant to support the uprisings in Arab countries. After complaining for many years about the absence of democracy in that part of the world, when the opportunity presented itself to support democratic movements, our government could only talk about nonviolence and stability. All they could say was “Now be nice.”

Many people have wondered about that. Many different considerations are at play here, but one of them clearly is the role played in the popular uprising by an organization called “the Muslim Brotherhood.” Once an organization describes itself as Muslim or Islamist, warning lights go on and sirens scream in the brains of American officials. Were the terrorists of 9/11 not Muslims and acting -- they thought -- in defense of Islam? Is the authoritarian government in Iran not run by Muslim clerics? 

Let’s think about that.

It is important to notice that the authoritarian government in Egypt is not Islamic. On the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood long persecuted by the Mubarak government, has joined the revolution. The kings of Saudi Arabia are authoritarian rulers, but not because they are Muslims. The same applied to the president of Tunisia who was recently forced to flee by a Democratic uprising. The same is still true of Mohamed Quaddafi of Lybia, of the King of Jordan or the dictator ruling Syria.

On the other hand, Turkey has had an Islamist government for several years now. That government has respected democratic processes and rights as much as any other democratic government.

In Israel a small but vociferous group of Orthodox Jews regularly attacks Palestinians in Hebron and elsewhere. Some Orthodox Jews are fanatics, they are racists, and they persecute Palestinians. No one would therefore shudder every time Israel and Israel’s interests are mentioned or are said to play a role in decisions made in Washington. 

Because some Muslims are fanatics, all of them have come under suspicion. Why don’t we apply the same rules to Jews? Why don’t we apply the same rule to Christians? After all there are enough fanatic Christians. A few months ago, three American Christians, violently opposed to male homosexuality, gave talks in Uganda. They made such a big impression that the Ugandan government was considering making homosexual acts a capital crime. Only international pressure prevented that.

No one in their right mind would condemn all Christians as wild eyed fanatics as a result of that foray of fanatical anti-gay activists into Uganda. Few people believed that all Israelis are as violent and as racist as some of the Orthodox settlers in Hebron. Why should the fanaticism of some Muslims make all others suspect?

Why indeed.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Oh, please, no Revolution !!

Some 60 odd years ago I appeared in Federal Court in Chicago before Judge Igoe to be sworn in as an American citizen. The judge spoke to us at some length. He wanted to make very sure that we would remember that the United States was born in revolution. In order to emphasize that important lesson he read to us the entire Declaration of Independence. It is a long document and reading it took a long time. Lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants, witnesses and the public were crowding the hall waiting for this citizenship ceremony to end. The judge did not care; the lesson he was trying to impress on us was more important than keeping some people waiting.

The President and the Secretary of State and other leaders of the United States should have been in that courtroom. They too have forgotten our revolutionary antecedents. When they see the upheavals in the Arab world, they react fearfully, urging that stability be maintained, that the masses in revolt be calm and nonviolent. Little attention is being paid to the fact that the Egyptian government has ruled under a State of Emergency for 30 years and that the police has wreaked exemplary violence on ordinary Egyptians for all this time. Much of the looting so prominently displayed in our news reports is actually done by police -- some apparently even in uniform.

Americans pose in the world at large as the protectors of freedom and democracy. But when freedom and democracy mean the self-determination of ordinary Egyptians and their impassioned protests against poverty and very high unemployment, we retreat. We prefer stability -- a government whose actions are predictable. Crowds are notoriously unpredictable. The turbulence of freedom and democracy do not always produce a stable investment climate.

Most of the $2 billion, Mubarak received from the US annually in foreign aid returned to the US in the pockets of US weapons manufacturers, reports Ami Goodman: “ Where has the money gone? Mostly to U.S. corporations. I asked William Hartung of the New America Foundation to explain: 'It’s a form of corporate welfare for companies like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, because it goes to Egypt, then it comes back for F-16 aircraft, for M-1 tanks, for aircraft engines, for all kinds of missiles, for guns, for tear-gas canisters [from] a company called Combined Systems International, which actually has its name on the side of the canisters that have been found on the streets there.' “ The money strengthened the Egyptian military and police. It provided no help to the vast number of ordinary Egyptians who live in poverty without any work.

Egypt is important to us because US corporations make money there by selling the country arms. Ordinary Egyptians do not count for much in the halls of US power. (How much do ordinary Americans count?) A good and stable investment climate has become the prime concern of our government. Freedom no longer means the freedom of ordinary people to run their lives as they think best. Freedom means the ability of multinational corporations to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else.

We too need to take Judge Igoe’s reminder very seriously: our country was born in revolution. When revolutions occur, we need to be firmly on the side of the people.