Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

 It's Memorial Day again and we are remembering men and women who died in American wars.
It is clearly fitting to remember them, but it is curious that there are many other heroic Americans who do not have their day of remembrance. Think of the many Americans – the majority African Americans – who died in the struggle for racial equality. Martin Luther King got his day but there are no days for Malcolm X. or Medgar Evers and the many less well known victims of racial violence.
While we are remembering heroic lives, why are we not talking about the parents who for many years worked two or even three jobs to provide a better life for their children, essentially giving up their own. Why do we not think of grandparents, barely finished raising their children, only to start all over raising their grandchildren because their children were unable or unwilling to do so.
When are we remembering the men and women who faithfully went off to work one day, as they had gotten so many days before, and died in a workplace accident?
Heroism takes many forms. Why only remember heroes killed in wars?
What makes Memorial Day different is the nationalist mythology that is regularly rehearsed on that day. Inevitably speakers will say that the soldiers who died were all heroes. They died, the speakers will add, to preserve American freedoms.
Let's look at the reality of that.
The period between World War I and World War II, approximately 25 years, was the longest period the United States was at peace. The average time between wars in our history was more like 10 years. The war that claimed most casualties by far was the Civil War in which, according to different estimates, between 600,000 and 750,000 soldiers died. That war clearly contributed to the agonizingly slow liberation of slaves. It is not clear that it preserved anything for whites, or Hispanics, or Native Americans, or various other groups.
The largest number of our wars were fought against Native Americans. The free institutions we boast of owed a great deal to the political practices of some of the Native American tribes. Yet, ironically, these wars clearly did not contribute to their freedom. It cleared space for the rest of us to live however we chose to live.
The soldiers who died in World War II may have protected us against authoritarian regimes. But that is by no means self-evident. It would be difficult to argue that. It is definitely not true of any of the wars we fought since then. The Asian wars were clearly defeats but our institutions remain the same. It is not obvious how the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan preserved American institutions.
The attacks of 9/11 have clearly resulted in restrictions of American freedoms but those were not imposed by Osama bin Laden or by Al Qaeda, but were made in Washington with the approval of the majority of American citizens. To the extent that our institutions are less free than they once were – and that is a plausible claim – we deprived ourselves of those freedoms.
The transition from a popular democracy to an oligarchy of the very rich was not imposed on us by any foreign nation. The very rich and those they bought managed to do that all by themselves.
All wars, whether domestic or foreign, where only peripherally related to the maintenance of American freedoms. The foreign wars were all efforts to maintain our imperial power, to become, to be and to remain the most powerful nation on earth. We are still involved in that project. Congress just appropriated more than $600 billion for the military.
Memorial Day is part of the propaganda that is used to justify this brute striving for power. It tells us that we are not trying to dominate the globe. We are just trying to preserve our freedom.
But that is a blatant lie. It dishonors the men and women who died in all of foreign wars. The least we can do is not to turn they are deaths into a another propaganda tool.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The State of our Democracy

After the President and the Board of Trustees of Rutgers University in New Jersey invited Condoleezza Rice to give the commencement address at this year's graduation festivities, students and faculty demonstrated against that choice. The President of Rutgers tried to make it look like a simple free speech issue. So did the editorial writers of the Boston Globe. But the protesters made it very clear that they were protesting Rice's complicity in seriously damaging our democracy.
(Much to her credit, the former Secretary of State withdrew gracefully.)
When President Bush was considering sending troops into Iraq, our government invented so-called "weapons of mass destruction" which the government of Saddam Hussein was supposed to possess. Respected members of the administration showed photos on national television which, they said, were images of those weapons of mass destruction.
But all this turned out to be a pack of lies. A cabal of psychopaths – VP Cheney, Secretary of Defense Ashcroft and others-- had conceived the plan of invading Iraq and were prepared to circumvent popular opposition by simply lying to the people.
Quite obviously a democracy cannot function if the government misleads the people. President Bush and his crew not only expressed profound contempt for American citizens and for the democratic process, but they also did considerable damage to that process.
In a democratic system, citizens play an important role in formulating government policy and legislation. For that to be possible citizens must know what the facts are in any given case. Citizen participation in the government cannot function when they are lied to.
But misinformation, misleading voters, misrepresenting issues and policies has unfortunately become standard practice. Speaker of the House of Representatives Boehner was recently reported to have spent $7 million on his primary campaign. That much money is needed for advertisements for 30 second spots appealing to the voters' emotions but not giving them either information or reasonable arguments for voting for the speaker. You can't do that in 30 seconds.
If our democracy functioned as it should, the speaker and his campaign staff would encourage discussions all over his electoral district in which voters could consider different issues calmly and with as much relevant information as is available. But that is not how we run electoral campaigns. Citizens are fed slogans, their emotions are aroused, candidates appeal to citizens fears and prejudices. What emerges from that is not a reasonable choice but a knee-jerk reaction.
If the speaker's ads convey any information, it is as likely to be one-sided, slanted or altogether fictitious. The speaker wants to get elected. If it takes destroying our democracy by lying to his constituents and misleading them, he is perfectly willing to do that.
It needs to be said, of course, that democracy was always in danger of degenerating into the sort of demagoguery it has become in our country today. 2500 years ago the Athenians experimented with democracy and found that it was liable to turn into a fight for jobs in which candidates would use any means whatsoever to win election. Thoughtful observers have always known of this potential threat to democracy.
Today this is not a topic for discussion because our political class is unwilling to talk about this most obvious fact that elections are no longer what they should be, occasions for calm reflection about the issues facing us. Instead they have become orgies of misrepresentation, emotional appeals and deception.
The students and faculty who protested having Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker are to be congratulated for seeing clearly the threat to democracy posed by the Bush administration's manipulation of the entry into the Iraq war. It is hoped that others will protest this sham that our elections have become.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Speechifying diplomacy

I must confess, I never liked John Kerry much after he returned from military service in Vietnam and put himself at the head of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Literally millions had built that movement by attending meetings, organizing and attending demonstrations and other actions, designing, printing, and distributing leaflets. They had done this for several years until more than 1 million people showed up in antiwar demonstrations in Washington DC. John Kerry had not worked on that. He had been in the military.
But he has always been a very entitled person. He believes that what he says must be taken very seriously by everybody, much more so than what other, ordinary people say. So he declared himself to be a leader of the peace movement and that was that.
As Secretary of State he follows the same practice: he talks a lot. He also vastly overestimates the power of his words. Where others had failed to create a more peaceful Israel and Palestine, Kerry waded in – and made more speeches.
But, as Andrew Bacevich, a very perspicacious commentator at Boston University, whom I have mentioned before in these pages, pointed out, the Israelis have no interest in making peace with the Palestinians. The Israelis are enormously powerful. The Palestinians are not. Allowing them to have their own state, at best a successful state, would have enhanced Palestinian power and, relatively speaking, reduced that of the Israelis. Why would Israel do that?
The US does not have much leverage in this situation. But it could put some pressure by threatening to cut back its $3+ billion in weapons it gives to Israel every year. But such a policy change would have to pass by conservative and domestically powerful Jewish organizations such as AIPAC. To accomplish that Kerry should have done a lot of lobbying, conversation, arm twisting. Public speechifying predictably did not accomplish anything.
So Kerry's mission in the Mideast failed. It only worsened our own situation because it made it even clearer to all the Arab nations that the US is on the side of Israel without any qualification. That may well make trouble for us in the future.
But Kerry is undeterred. He now shifts his speechifying to Africa and in the last few days we have heard several eloquent orations addressed to African leaders. Being unable to address people without giving them advice, Kerry tells Africans to strengthen democracy. He tells them to combat corruption in politics and business. And, most importantly, he tells them to allow American capital to invest in Africa.
Here is clearly the nub of this new campaign: Africa is rich in natural resources. Africa is developing a small middle class that has some disposable income for consumer goods. Africa has a whole lot of what we would like.
Not so many years ago there was a bit of excitement about a Chinese campaign to find suppliers of oil and other energy sources in Africa. The Chinese went about it very quietly. They offered advantageous contracts to various oil rich countries and they tried to make themselves indispensable to different African governments. All of this was done without eloquent rhetoric. The Chinese sent different officials to do the hard work of establishing concrete relationships & contracts. They then sent more officials to develop those relations.
What makes China a particularly attractive partner is the fact that Beijing works with the African states, unlike the West, without demanding political and economic reforms, and tends to accommodate their interests as well. For example, Chinese aid and investment in Africa is rendered with no strings attached and usually spent on infrastructure projects that raise grassroots living standards. The most frequently cited example is Sinopec, China’s state oil company, which has acquired oil concessions in Angola and is rebuilding the country’s transport infrastructure, hospitals, and state buildings.
That’s why China is now being regarded by the majority of the African states as a more attractive partner than the U.S. or any other Western country.” (“China's geopolitical penetration of Africa” accessed 5/5/2014 at
Maybe John Kerry should stop talking for once and see how other countries, like China, proceed. More importantly he might listen to African countries to hear what they think they need from us. Mutuality makes better friends.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Live Free or Die?

The obituary for Gabriel Garcia Marquez mentioned in passing that until the 1990s and the presidency of Bill Clinton, the State Department refused visas to the Mexican author because he had at one time been associated with a Communist organization. Our government believed that one way of defending ourselves against a Soviet takeover of the world was to refuse visas for visiting the US to people associated with Communist organizations. The defense against authoritarianism required limiting freedoms.

Since 9/11 we have, once again, sacrificed liberties for the sake of protecting ourselves against the threat of terrorism. The USA Patriot Act limited some legal protections against government surveillance. Our government has collected massive amounts of data about the phone calls of ordinary citizens and others facts about them. It has kidnapped terrorism suspects and tortured them in hidden prisons in such places as Romania. In more recent years, the Drone War has killed persons, including American citizens, who had not been tried and convicted of serious crimes. The NYC police department instituted systematic surveillance of Muslims and their institutions, at the same time that it began to stop and frisk African-Americans for no other reason than that they were black.

According to the Pew Trust surveys,  a large majority of Americans preferred increased government surveillance and reduction of civil liberties to greater susceptibility to terrorist attacks.

Whatever we may put on our license plates—those of the state of New Hampshire carry the legend “Live Free or Die”--the majority of Americans would rather live than die protecting their freedoms.

In the face of greater danger of lethal assaults, we are willing to compromise our liberties. “Live Free or Die” is for license plates only.

The horror of 9/11 was not only that thousands died but that most of them had no choice whether to live or die. Even those who did make that choice—the fire fighters and others who came to help—did not choose to die for our liberties and traditional institutions.

That choice however does confront the government officials from legislators to intelligence officials engaging systematically in illegal surveillance. They all choose life over freedom. So do most of the rest of us.

Not all Americans agree. The mostly Black young men and women of the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee who began in the late 1950s into the 1960s to integrate lunch counters and who tried to register Black citizens as voters were not deterred when some of their number were murdered.

They were genuine heroes who, unlike the rest of us, were willing to pay the ultimate price of freedom. Most of us are not that brave.