2. Reasons for Despair

Dec-20-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: Sam Beckett said it best, “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” Some people look at America and see a crumbling empire headed for ruin; some see a country that has still great potential. The next two sections offer some of the more eloquent visions of each.

* A Metaphor for America Chris Hedges The Walrus (Thanks, Terry)

The country’s 716 overseas military bases, some the size of small cities, will eventually become too costly. Many will close. But, unlike the British, who methodically dismantled an empire, we will not retreat in time to save ourselves. We will go down like ancient Rome. Our traditional allies in the Middle East and Asia, smelling blood, will look elsewhere for alliances and protection. The US dollar will no longer be the reserve currency, meaning we will be unable to pay for the huge deficits that fund military adventurism by selling depressed Treasury notes to China and other foreign investors. Climate change, with its droughts, heat waves, freak storms, and flooding, will hammer crop yields and tax emergency services. The US, like the city of Scranton, will teeter back and forth with insolvency. I do not know when the collapse will come. A year. Two years. A few years. But America has about it the smell of mortality.

…And the contagion will spread. Destabilized by the collapse of the American dollar, rising prices, and declining exports, Canada will also suffer, although yours will be a less virulent strain than the one that infects us. But what is happening to us will happen to you, because there is no way out. The corporate forces that doomed us will doom you, too. Canada will become to a disintegrating America what Hungary was to Nazi Germany. But for us, the fall will be swifter, harder, more terrifying, and far more violent, because we retain the capacity, like a wounded animal, to lash out irrationally, to use our bloated military in reckless endeavours. We are not psychologically, emotionally, or intellectually prepared. We lack the self-reflective mechanisms to understand. Our national identity and sense of omnipotence will be inexplicably taken from us. The tragedy, however, is not that the American empire is dying. It is that we will bring so many people like you down with us.

* Some Personal Thoughts   Ian Welsh

Recently I had a day where I burned out on anger.  Oh  yes, when it comes to public affairs I’ve been angry for years, though I think rage is the more applicable word.  I don’t think this rage was misplaced, and I still get spasms of it.

The reason for the rage is simple enough: we’re killing and making a lot of people suffer who don’t need to with our political policies, economic policies just being a subset of politics.  The financial collapse was foreseen by many, myself included and we told the powers that be what to do to avoid it.  The rise of economic inequality, which is correlated with pretty much every bad thing you can imagine, from heart attacks to infant mortality to bad performance in school and crime (read the Spirit Level if you need this proved in tedious detail), has been going on since the mid 70s at the latest, and was clearly visible by the mid eighties.  It was, and is a clear policy choice.  It was chosen in response to a real problem, the end of cheap oil and the rise of the oligarchy rich, but it was a choice, there were other ways of dealing with the problem available.  First the Brits, then the Americans, then the Canadians and then various other nations chose the policy option which would lead to increased inequality.  This was combined with a concerted assault on civil liberties, in this case I believe starting in America with the War on Drugs.  Society became more totalitarian, whatever the trappings, and less free, not just in government, but in every part of our lives.  I find the way we treat our children today, with virtually no freedom, particularly odious (no your precious children are not in more danger than children in the 60s and 70s who were allowed to run free).  Police in schools are routine now, we imprison people in stunningly cruel prisons for minor crimes and so on.  Visiting Britain was like visiting a starter project for Orwell’s 1984, with CCTV cameras everywhere.

Our response to the financial crisis, a totally optional crisis which was based almost entirely on fraud, was to make the poor and the middle class pay through austerity, while bailing out the rich with trillions and trillions of dollars. 

 * A Failed Experiment Nicholas Kristof  New York Times

Time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.

Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!

Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.

Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!

Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!

Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!

I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country. The disregard for public goods was epitomized by Mitt Romney’s call to end financing of public broadcasting.

A wealthy friend of mine notes that we all pay for poverty in the end. The upfront way is to finance early childhood education for at-risk kids. The back-end way is to pay for prisons and private security guards. In cities with high economic inequality, such as New York and Los Angeles, more than 1 percent of all employees work as private security guards, according to census data.

3. Reasons for Hope

Dec-20-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: Howard Zinn said it beautifully (thanks to Gabe for the quote), “Human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.  What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.  If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.  If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.” 

* Default to Kindness   Ian Welsh

In policy terms, the kind thing to do is usually the right thing to do.  I’d go so far as to say, almost always.

Treating prisoners with kindness nets Finland half the recidivism rate the US, with its punitive prisons gets.  That is, only half as many prisoners, once released, commit a crime in Finland.

Single payer or comprehensive universal healthcare has costs about a third less than the US system, and produces better results.

Not committing war crimes makes people much less interested in killing you.  Not torturing enemies means they are far less likely to torture your people.

* The Real Winners and Losers of Globalization The Global List

From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the global financial crisis, global income distribution has changed in some remarkable ways in just two decades. We have probably witnessed the most profound global reshuffling of people’s economic positions since the Industrial Revolution.

Broadly speaking, the most significant consequences of this reshuffling are:

The bottom third, with the exception of the very poorest, became significantly better-off, and many people there escaped absolute poverty.

The middle third (or more) became much richer, seeing its incomes rise, in real terms, by approximately 3% per capita annually.

The most interesting development, though, happened among the top quartile. While the top 1%, and somewhat less so the top 5%, gained significantly, the next 20% in the global income distribution either gained very little or faced stagnant real incomes.The question of who has won and who has lost because of globalization has preoccupied economists for two decades. Now, with the help of a new data set compiled by the World Bank, we can begin to answer this vital question. Branko Milanovic explains how globalization has changed global income dynamics.

* George Lucas to donate $4.05B from Lucasfilm sale to Education Huffington Post

George Lucas is ensuring that the force may be with young Jedis everywhere. The “Star Wars” director will donate the $4.05 billion he will receive from the sale of Lucasfilm Ltd. to Disney to a foundation focused on education, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

* Marching in Solidarity: A Guest Post by Hallie Rosen Shalom Rav

Like almost every Jew, I too have a complicated relationship with Israel.

…I expected to see protest posters and I braced myself for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments.  From my ADL days, I knew that these kinds of protests can easily become an opportunity for fringe elements to chant anti-Semitic slogans.  But that didn’t happen.  All of the messages were strong, but on target. As the group of about 700 people walked peaceably through the Loop during rush hour, there was chanting  but also simple non-political conversations among the marches – about shopping, uncomfortable shoes, upcoming holidays, etc. …We gathered once again after the walk to listen to speakers. Everyone was on message, asking for sanctions from the US, end of violence and settlement building, requesting a just peace, etc. When Brant spoke, he received a strong enthusiastic reception from the crowd – particularly when he was introduced as a rabbi.

…I also became aware of how important it is to step outside of one’s own comfort zone and find common cause with those whom you’ve previously assumed to be your enemy. In the end, marching for justice was for me an affirmation of our common humanity.

4. Newtown Perspectives

Dec-20-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: Again, some people see how we can use the horror of this tragedy to inspire us to work for a better world, while others see in it the harbingers of a worse one. “Depends what you look at, obviously, but even more it depends on the way that you see.” Bruce Cockburn

* Oriah Mountain Dreamer on Newtown Facebook

I want to let my grief over tragic losses & senseless violence fuel my efforts to work for peace & safety for all, without creating more separation- even with those who disagree with how to do this. When I use violent language- when I dismiss those who disagree with me by calling them names- I diminish the effectiveness of my actions for change, I lose energy for building something new & divide the world into endless groupings of “them” and “us.” 

There is no “them” & “us”- it’s all us. Yesterday “we” lost children, loved-ones. Yesterday “one of us” shot children in a senseless act of violence. Today “we” must find ways to stop the violence, the loss of life.

I am not neutral- I have strong feelings, beliefs and thoughts about the ownership & use of firearms, about services for the mentally ill, about how we live together and protect our children. 

I don’t want to disengage out of fear of not participating perfectly, or because I do not have a clear & complete solutions. I have faith that real community conversation & action will continue to inform & shape how I pursue my passion for co-creating a place of safety for us all. 

So, let us take our heart-break & our sorrow into our actions. Let’s allow our sorrow to fuel our participation. But let our means (how we act, how we talk & listen to each other, how we build together) be consistent with our desired non-violent ends. Let contemplation & prayer be one way we fuel our spirits & honestly consider where we are are separating ourselves in our hearts and our language from those with whom we share this planet. It is possible (not easy, but possible) to work for peace, to take action for change, without losing sight of the humanity in all others- even those with whom we disagree. 

* On Killing Sprees   Ian Welsh

The two most important things to understand are that gun control would reduce harm significantly, and that gun control is a palliative for a sick culture…. The first point first, China has people who go on sprees with knives.  In fact there was one just recently in a school, 23 students were injured.  That’s sad, but not one of them died. Not one.  Guns make violence far, far more deadly.  Reducing gun availability won’t stop attacks.  It will reduce how deadly they are.

….The second point is that America has far more of these attacks than anyone else.  This is because America:

… 3) has a startling rise in diagnosed mental illness, and a startling rise in the use of psychoactive medications whose effects we don’t really understand. In particular, there has been a massive increase in the drugging of young children (males are who we care about in this context) with amphetamines and dextro-Amphetamines, officially starting as young as 3 years old, and unofficially, earlier.  Long term use of amphetamines is associated with psychotic breaks and violence, this is not in question, we have a TON of historical evidence.  You can’t keep people constantly on amphetamines and not expect these sort of eruptions.

4) The increase in mental illness and medication is in large part because life in America is extraordinarily unpleasant.  You live in a militarized surveillance society with no guaranteed health care and with a job market that doesn’t provide enough jobs for those who need it, allowing bosses to treat those who do have jobs like shit, and executives to take virtually all productivity gains for themselves.  The economic model is to pile debt on consumers to create rental streams, but constant debt payments put people under major psychological pressure, all the time.

You cannot have a pressure cooker society which is also militarized and swimming in guns.  You simply cannot.

* Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?  Nicholas Kristoff  New York Times

As with guns, some auto deaths are caused by people who break laws or behave irresponsibly. But we don’t shrug and say, “Cars don’t kill people, drunks do.”

Instead, we have required seat belts, air bags, child seats and crash safety standards. We have introduced limited licenses for young drivers and tried to curb the use of mobile phones while driving. All this has reduced America’s traffic fatality rate per mile driven by nearly 90 percent since the 1950s.

Some of you are alive today because of those auto safety regulations. And if we don’t treat guns in the same serious way, some of you and some of your children will die because of our failure.

5. Middle East Followups

Dec-20-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: A quick last look around the Middle East. In Egypt, we’ve heard all sorts of rhetoric about Morsi being bad, with surprisingly little discussion of the actual proposals he’s made for the constitution. Harron Siddiqui has a fine piece (with a stupid and racist title from the Toronto Star), while the Guardian follows up with a major change. Juan Cole looks at the increasingly inevitable fall of Assad, while War Tard both analyzes brilliantly the forces that push Assad towards chemical weapons, and the forces against. He is also very good on what will happen after Assad goes. The Bloat and Flail  looks at the positive reasons for hope in the UN recognition of Palestine as a state, while three different commentators look at the utter failure of the West’s invasion of Afghanistan.

* Haroon Siddiqui on the Egyptian ConstitutionToronto Star

The constitution is problematic, though it’s not all that different from Anwar Sadat’s 1971 constitution.

His said that “Islam is the religion of the state and the principles of sharia are the main source of legislation.” Sharia already governs family and property matters. But the new draft ties sharia doctrine to “Sunni Islam,” as interpreted by “the majority of Muslim scholars,” raising fears that it could be interpreted any which way.

The draft restricts freedom of religion to “monotheistic religions.” Thus Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, etc., get no rights. The old constitution had no such exclusion.

On women’s rights, the draft has as much gobbledygook as the old constitution. It says the state should “guarantee co-ordination between the duties of the woman and her public work,” vs. the old formulation that women are equal “without violating the rules of Islamic jurisprudence.” Many hijabi women oppose this new draft.

The draft concedes too much power to the military — perhaps as quid pro quo to the army staying out of politics or helping the Muslim Brotherhood.

Societies in transition need Nelson Mandelas. Morsi has failed to be a conciliator. In fact, he has polarized Egyptians, notwithstanding the undemocratic machinations of the opposition.

 * Egypt: Mohamed Morsi cancels decree that gave him sweeping powers The Observer

The Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, has scrapped a decree that had generated widespread unrest by awarding him near-absolute powers. But he insisted a referendum on a new constitution would go ahead as planned this week.

The announcement, which is unlikely to placate Morsi’s opponents, came after Egypt’s military warned that failure to resolve a crisis over the drafting of the constitution would result in “disastrous consequences” that could drag the country into a “dark tunnel”.

* Obama Recognizes Syrian Opposition as Government Juan Cole Informed Comment

President Obama announced on Tuesday that the US now formally recognizes the Syrian opposition as the legitimate government of Syria:

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Tuesday that there were no further indications of the Syrian regime priming itself to deploy chemical weapons. (My own suspicion is that Israeli intelligence planted that story in the first place, because it wants the US to militarily secure the chemical weapons lest they are transferred to Hizbullah. The Obama administration dealt with Netanyahu by saying deployment of chemical weapons would be a red line for the regime, and then declaring that the warning worked.)

Obama’s recognition comes as the momentum is turning slowly against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party. Alarabiya reports on how the Free Syria Army has reorganized itself, assigning each sector of the country to a rebel general. 

* Syria: Will Assad go full chemical? War Tard

Anyone who’s ever played a hand of poker knows that you double down on the bluff when your credit line just got cut off. Maybe someone will believe that crazy look in your eye. So you push all your chips into the middle of the table. That’s Assad right now. Chemical weaponry is a way of breaking the bank.

Personally, I can’t believe Assad is serious here.

It’s certain death multiplied by the destruction of your country.

But you know what?

Wounded animals are more dangerous. Dictators are prone to shitty decision making when confined to a bunker. When you know you’re about to die and you’ve got nothing else to lose, sometimes it’s fun to just sit back and set the ignition fuse on the firework.

* Three Good Things That Came From The Palestinian Statehood Vote  The Globe and Mail

One of the Israeli government’s key ambitions is to join the European Union, which is its main and crucial trading partner. By ending complacent acceptance of Israel’s lassitude, the Middle East analyst Juan Cole notes , Europe now has “the opportunity to play the kind of honest broker between the two sides that the U.S. pretended to be but almost never did.”

In other words, writes Sharon Pardo of Ben-Gurion University, “Europe could offer Israelis and Palestinians the sweetest carrot in its arsenal in the form of a European vision, including perhaps eventual EU membership. Europe would have to condition such a vision on a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.”

Even some conservatives who sometimes support Mr. Netanyahu saw the declaration as a minor breakthrough. “It was striking to me,” David Frumwrote , that Mr. Abbas’s speech to the UN “was conciliatory, not provocative… it is a much more explicit statement of co-existence than was ever offered from a UN rostrum by Abbas’s predecessor… Abbas spoke for legality and democracy in a future Palestinian state.”

This, Mr. Frum noted, puts Israel in a corner, one that is best escaped by reciprocating the gesture: “Israel, too, has reason to show a friendly face to the word. If Abbas talks peace, let Israel talk peace. If Abbas expresses a wish for a two-state agreement, let Israel do the same.”

* Dereliction of Duty: The Sequel  Stephen M. Walt

According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has just issued a gloomy new report suggesting that we’ve made far less progress in the war than is often claimed. Money quotation:

“A bleak new Pentagon report has found that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners.”

The Times continues: “The report, released Monday, also found that violence in Afghanistan is higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago, although it is down from a high in the summer of 2010

 * Insurgency Encroaching On Central Afghanistan   The Long War Journal

The increasing danger associated with traversing the once-dependable road system linking Bamyan with Kabul has prompted provincial officials to demand additional resources from the Karzai regime for safer modes of transportation.

“We have asked the central government to provide us with helicopters,” Ahmad Alia, a spokesman for the Bamyan police chief explained to the New York Times in late October. “Local government officials are not traveling by ground anymore, and they want to have helicopters so they can go to Kabul or other provinces.”

* Doonesbury on Afghanistan

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