Friday, September 23, 2011

Who are we?

At the end of the recent orgy of self pity that was the long drawn out commemoration of 9/11, the Boston Globe published a story of a CIA agent ordered to torture a member of Al Qaeda. The agent refused both because the thought torture did not produce reliable evidence, and because he thought that we – Americans – do not torture. We are above that sort of thing. The CIA agent is noted as saying: "when we torture people we are not… what we believe we are."

This story clearly rests on the belief shared by many of us that we, Americans are somehow different from the rest of the world, that we are better. We are better because we we don't torture, we are better because we live in a democracy, and we are better because we are morally superior to the rest of the world.

The weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 would have been a good time for all of us to ask ourselves: who are we really? Clearly different people give different answers to that question. It would have been very healthy for us as a nation to reflect together about who we are. It would have been good for us to consider our history, to look at what we have done, and what we have not done. Had we engaged in that sort of self examination we might have come up with a more careful and detailed account of who we are than the common one that we are better than everyone else.

What we have done is not a secret. It is there for all to see. We kept slaves until 1864; black people were not allowed to vote until 100 years later. Today poor people are overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color. We took the country away from the Indians. According to one historian "the United States made 373 treaties with Indians and broke them all."

We attacked and devastated Vietnam on the basis of a cockeyed theory about dominoes. We attacked and devastated Iraq on the basis of false information. We attacked and devastated Afghanistan because Osama bin Laden lived in Pakistan.

Our governments have been careless of American lives and utterly unconcerned about the suffering of people abroad.

These facts that are obvious; everybody knows that. But our journalists and academics keep perpetuating the myth that we are different from other people and better. There is absolutely no evidence for that.

Other nations have acted no better. Nations who built empires have always believed themselves to be superior. First the Greeks called all the people who did not speak Greek "babblers" – barbarians. The Romans too thought that they were better than everybody else. The British believed they brought civilization and enlightenment to benighted, primitive peoples in Asia and Africa--not to mention our continent. ( Of course, they became rich doing that.) If you are going to conquer the world by force of arms and dominate the countries conquered, you need to believe that you are entitled to do so or even have an obligation to do so. Hence we talk about "manifest destiny."

But that is, of course, a monumental self-deception. Its effect is that we, like the other empires before us, are in fact more warlike, more oppressive, more brutal than many other nations.

Instead of using the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to reaffirm our our supposed superiority, our leaders should have encouraged us to look into our own face, and into our own hearts to recognize who we all are really are – a part of the human race, superior to none.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Remembering 9/11

Ten years ago, we were all terribly frightened and we were mourning the unbearable losses of our own families or those of others. The question "why do they hate us?" was raised frequently but few were in a position to think about an answer.

But now it is ten years later and the newspapers are engaged in an orgy of remembering 9/11. Not a day passes without several articles in the paper and programs on the radio remembering, telling stories about the individual experiences connected with 9/11. But as far as I can tell, still no one raises the question "why do they hate us?" That important question has still not been confronted. Instead the pain and fear of 10 years ago is being rehearsed over and over again. We are, frankly, encouraged to feel sorry for ourselves.

Ten years ago, many people thought that we were innocent victims. We had done nothing to earn the enmity of the people in the Middle East, or of Muslims. The current wave of self-pity tends to encourage that sense of innocent victimhood and thereby discourages any inclination to think seriously about our role in that terrible day.

It is common wisdom that conflicts between individuals or nations result from both parties and their actions. It should be common wisdom for us to ask ourselves whether our very unpopularity around the world is not in part the result of what we have done, of the positions we have taken, of the way we have to talked to, and talked about other people on earth.

It is my sense, that we owe our unpopularity, in part, to our own actions and that we bear part of the responsibility for 9/11. Let's just take some clear examples.

            To put it in plain English, Americans consider themselves superior to the rest of the world. The members of the State Department may not drive around with a license plate saying "America -- Number 1" but our Secretary of State regularly goes around the world lecturing people, telling them what to do and letting them know whether we approve of them or not. That is not only arrogant, but it does not make us popular. It you don't believe me, listen carefully the next time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes it into the newspaper or on the evening news. Is she being respectful of other nations?

We don't need to go far back into history to discover why people don't like us a whole lot: we are not only rude but also often dishonest and hypocritical. We participated in bombing Libya in order, we said, to protect civilians. The Libyan government threatened civilians. The government of Syria has killed more than 2000 people and we have done nothing to speak of. What's the difference? The White House and the State Department have not really said. But there is a widespread perception that control of Libyan oil is of great interest to us; oil in Syria is not. Moreover oil is more important than people and their liberty. But our government would never admit that. We present ourselves to the world as terribly high-minded. We only care about freedom and democracy. We poses as champions of freedom and democracy. 
But when the people in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Bahrain and Yemen, as in Libya and Syria, revolted, the US hung back, overly anxious not to offend the autocratic rulers of countries that sell their oil to us or who were, for other reasons our allies. It took many weeks before we dared to say publicly that we supported and welcomed the rebellions. We proved ourselves to be excessively timid and lukewarm champions of freedom and democracy.

No wonder we are unpopular.

Terrorism is not only the result of poverty and desperation. It arises sometimes, at least, from righteous anger. It we managed to to treat people more respectfully and were less dishonest, we might well be a lot safer in this world.

That should be one of the lessons of 9/11.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A flood of conservatism

Italy and France have long had conservative governments. Recently Spain and Britain have voted for conservative governments. The Netherlands, long a bastion of liberalism, has turned to the right in recent years; Canada has a very conservative Prime Minister. In the Iowa caucuses, Michele Bachmann won the most votes.

Everywhere we look, conservatism appears to be in the ascendant. In times of tremendous suffering for people without jobs, for those who are underemployed or only earn minimum wage, large layers of the population seem to be most concerned about the taxes of multimillionaires. Many people worry most about the tax rate of corporations who, in fact, manage to get away with paying no taxes at all.

How can we understand that? One assumption underlying our advocacy of democracy is that most people are the best judge of what they need and what is in their best interest. But now large numbers of people who are not particularly living in the lap of luxury are supporting governments determined to cut services for the poor and taxes for the rich. The conservative advocates of small government are eager to scale back services to low and middle income Americans but no one has so far mentioned the possibility of cutting the tax write offs for oil companies or the price support for large agricultural corporations.

Are we wrong about democracy? Are most people too uninformed or too irrational recognize their own self-interest, let alone the good for all?

The worldwide wave of conservatism appears to challenge our confidence in democracy.

One kind of response to this worry about the soundness of democracy as a political system is to assert, in effect, that we do not have a democracy. People give different reasons for that. One of them points to the overwhelming power of money in our political system. Rich people who can pay for advertisements and lobbyists on a grand scale are effectively in power. The rest of us with limited incomes have no real say. Ours is not a democracy but an oligarchy – the rule of the few with lots of money.

A different response blames our political problems on mass media and that, once again, leads us back to the overwhelming power of money in politics but also in mass communications.

There is some justification for both of the these complaints, but both are incomplete.

The advocates of democracy tend to believe that most people are able to figure out what is best for them. But that is not true. Our world is very complicated. None of us can see into the future and predict with confidence what will happen. We can therefore rarely be sure about the consequences of actions we are thinking of taking. Even the smartest of us, even the most intelligent and well-informed constantly make mistakes. Just think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lehman Brothers. Democracy is justified not because all of us have infallible crystal balls, but, on the contrary, because when it comes to foreseeing the future none of us are much better off than the least informed.

Ascendancy of the political left and ascendancy of the political right therefore come and go in sequence. An existing government may have successes but it always also has problems and the electorate tends to move away from prevailing orthodoxies to the opposite in the hope that the parties, currently out of power, will find solutions to the problems which the ruling parties have been unable to solve. If, in the US, the Republicans end up with serious difficulties, the Democrats gain power. If they don't solve the problems they inherited and/or created, the electorate will give a chance to the opposite party. 
In a situation where the doctrinal differences between the major parties are very small, popular discontent may well move to the fringes of the political spectrum. Hence the popularity of Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman. They testify to widespread disillusionment with the standard, middle-of-the-road politicians – Republican or Democrat.

The worldwide wave of conservatism is not proof that we should surrender our dedication to democracy. But it does suggest that we should rethink the reasons for valuing democracy. Democracy is not good because we are all experts but because even the so-called experts are fallible. Democracy is good because we should be allowed to make our own mistakes instead of – as we are doing at present – suffering the damages done by the mistakes of experts.

Friday, September 2, 2011

What price energy?

Not too long ago some Pennsylvania geologist discovered very large deposits of oil or natural gas deep down in shale deposits. This oil will not come up to the Earth's surface by itself. It needs to be forced out by injections of very large amounts of water mixed with various chemicals through a process called “fracking.”

These new deposits and new extraction techniques have inflamed a passionate debate about the wisdom of trying to extract these energy sources. The energy companies, true to form, are telling us that this is a totally benign process. We have nothing to lose and a great deal of energy to gain. They promise gas to make us less dependent on foreign producers. They add that all this new drilling, building of pipelines, storing and distributing domestic gas supplies will create several hundred thousand new jobs. It will also provide us with cheaper energy.

The new gas and oil exploration is a complete and unmitigated bonanza for all of us, not just for the energy companies.

But not everyone believes this.

As the energy companies tell it, fracking has not polluted a single drinking water well or produced any other environmental problems. Against that, environmentally concerned organizations have produced maps of every documented occurrence of some environmental problem where natural gas has been produced by drilling wells and extracting the gas through fracking. Those maps show many problems.

Is someone telling us lies – once again?

Well, not quite. The energy companies use the word “fracking” to refer only to the process of forcing out the gas through pumping liquids and chemicals down the well. The gas is located at at about 8000 feet and, the energy company's spokespeople say, the liquids pumped to that depth will not get back into our water supplies. Well no, perhaps not. But there are plenty of documented cases where of the drilling had negative effects on drinking water supplies. It may not have been, strictly speaking, the fracking that did it but rather the drilling but that is cold comfort to the people whose water is no longer drinkable.

Fracking uses millions of barrels of clean water, that will no longer be available for drinking water or agricultural irrigation after it has been pumped into the deep shale deposits. What we know of the chemicals used in fracking is all bad news: a number of them are known carcinogens. “A 2011 investigation by the New York Times based on various leaked EPA documents found that hydraulic fracturing had resulted in significant increases of radioactive material including radium and carcinogens including benzene in major rivers and watersheds. At one site the amount of benzene discharged into the Allegheny River after treatment was 28 times accepted levels for drinking water.[40]” (http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing) The energy companies tell us not to worry about those chemicals but no one knows what illnesses and birth defects fracking will produce in the long run.

We do know that drinking water wells in the vicinity of natural gas wells have been polluted. We know that some of the wells went up in flames. When wells have blown up, large amounts of fracking chemicals were released into the air. Scientific studies suggest that the environmental damage caused by burning natural gas is very serious.

The energy companies may be making a killing—and we and our children will be the victims.

Would you not rather put a windmill in your backyard or solar panels on your roof?